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Edward, by the grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, to Our faithful clerk, Edmund Beche, health and greetings. We command you to meet Us at Windsor on the first Sunday after the Assumption to discuss a matter touching Our Crown. It is Our royal pleasure and your duty to attend. Under no circumstances will We excuse your absence.
Written at Westminster and despatched under the secret seal, 10 August, 1345.
Edmund Beche to his faithful friend, Richard Bliton, Prior of Croyland Abbey, health and blessing. It is a long time Richard, since we studied together at Oxford, yet our friendship seems to have stood the test of time and changing personal fortune. You are the prior of a great abbey but I, now 35, continue to scratch away as a clerk in the royal Chancery. True, I have no great desire to change. My fees suffice to provide robes, food, a sound horse, a house in Bread Street and a pert young woman in Cheapside. Should the latter offend your "holiness" then I apologize but, unlike you, I have no vocation to remain celibate or, like so many, worsen my state by matrimony.
The writ I enclose from our king, Edward III, now threatens my humdrum existence. A royal messenger delivered it with all the arrogance he could muster on the morning of 12 August, and small and terse though it is, the writ caused me great concern. As far as I knew, I had done nothing wrong, but you can never be sure. Some of my work in the writing office of the Chancery deals with royal correspondence of varying degrees of secrecy. If ale had made me loquacious in some Holborn tavern, then perhaps my comfortable existence was going to end rather abruptly. So, from the moment I received the summons, my agitation grew and the actual journey to Windsor did little to curb my anxiety.
The bells of St. Paul's were clanging for Sunday Prime when a mailed clatter outside my lodgings rattled me awake. I pushed open a casement to find a courtier whom I knew by sight, Sir John Chandos, and a group of sergeants wearing the blue and gold of the royal livery staring up at me. Sir John, tall, grey-haired, with a face like a hunting falcon, was courteous but firm. The king, he shouted, wanted me at Windsor and I was to accompany him there immediately. I dressed swiftly in my best robes and hurried down to join him. I was grateful that the problem of how I was to meet the king had now solved itself, but worried sick over why a military escort had been sent to take me. We marched down to Queenshithe wharf where a barge, flying the golden leopards of England and the silver fleur-de-lis of France, lay waiting. We clambered in, the order was given to cast off and soon we were in mid-stream, rowing north through the swirling morning mist.
Apart from the splash of the dipping oars, the journey was a quiet one. I did not question Chandos and he confined himself to a few conventional remarks about my work in the Chancery and my brief military service against the French. His presence did little to comfort me. Sir John Chandos has a reputation as a ferocious fighter, totally devoted to a king who had elevated him from relative obscurity to be a member of his council. A mysterious figure always in the shadows, he acted as bodyguard and confidant to the king. He had been a member of that select group of retainers who had aided the king in the famous coup of 1330, which destroyed the rule of his mother and her lover Mortimer. Sir John had led the party which actually arrested Mortimer, killing in hand-to-hand combat two of the latter's bodyguards. Since then court chatter had Sir John Chandos as the paramount figure in a number of secret and dangerous assignments. Some called him a spy but others dismissed him as the king's secret and most professional assassin.
By the time we docked at Windsor, the sun was beginning to lift the morning mist but the fear twisting in the pit of my stomach kept me cold and clammy. We left the barge and headed towards the huge donjon of the great grey castle, the armour of the sergeants echoing along the rutted streets like the tambour-beat of a death march. We crossed the great yawning moat and entered the main gate. The portcullis fell with a crash. The escort was dismissed and I followed Chandos across the castle yard into the recently renovated chapel. We walked up the main aisle, genuflected before a winking sanctuary lamp and, turning left, entered a small, cool chamber which must also serve as the vestry. At the far end, two figures sat hunched over a trestle table. They looked up as we entered. Chandos ordered me to kneel and an age seemed to pass before a resonant voice told me to sit on the stool Chandos had pushed alongside me. I slumped on to it and, raising my eyes, found myself staring straight into the king's face. My first thought was that the golden boy we students cheered so wildly as he passed through Oxford to his palace at Woodstock had disappeared. The blond hair had turned a dull grey, a mottled hue of criss-crossed veins now patterned the tawny face and his belly's so big that it seems our king has lost his youth, not on the battlefield, but at the board of countless banquets. Yet his eyes, though puffy and ringed with shadows, were keen and alert enough to force me to shift my gaze to the person sitting on his left. There, I recognized the red-haired, foxy features of our father in Christ, John Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury.
For a few moments, both Edward and his archbishop studied me. The king then leaned forward and asked if I knew my history. I replied that I had studied Polybius, Tacitus and the other ancients, which only brought neighs of laughter from Stratford.
"No, Master Beche," the king said with a half-smile, "a little more recent than that. Such as the events of my late father's reign?"
Anyone at court from porter to Earl Marshal would have sensed the danger in such a question, so I muttered a few phrases about my low station, scholarly seclusion and comparative youth when the late Edward II had been deposed and brutally murdered.
The king stirred restlessly and quickly silenced me. "Master Beche," he snapped, "if you cannot recall the events of my lamented father's reign then let me refresh your memory. My sire came to the throne in July 1307. The following January, he married Princess Isabella of France. In March 1312 I was born, then in the next eight years came my brother John of Eltham and my two good sisters, Joanna and Eleanor. My father, however, never spent much time with us. He was too involved in a constant struggle with his cousin, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, over who would govern the realm. Despite your protests, Master Clerk," he added drily, "you probably know the outcome. In the spring of 1322, Lancaster aided by the Earl of Hereford, Roger Mortimer and other miscreants, rose in rebellion against my father. Mortimer burnt Bridgenorth but was forced to surrender at Shrewsbury and was imprisoned in the Tower. Lancaster and Hereford fared even worse. They were trapped at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire on the river Ure. In the ensuing skirmish, Hereford died with a spear up his arse whilst Lancaster was captured and decapitated."
The king paused to drink from a pewter goblet. "My father's victory," he continued, "marked the rise of two court favourites, Hugh Despenser the Elder who became the Earl of Winchester, and his son, Hugh the Younger, also known as the Lord of Glamorgan. This precious pair virtually owned Wales, ruled my father and ruined his kingdom. My mother," the king continued as if reciting a lesson, "the Queen Dowager Isabella, opposed them, but to little avail. The Despensers humiliated her and she was eventually stripped of her lands and possessions."
The king leaned back, nodding at Stratford, who continued the recital in that unctuous tone reserved by leading ecclesiastics for addressing the lowly and less intelligent amongst their flock.
"In 1325 Lady Isabella and His Grace," Stratford nodded towards the king, "then only a boy of 13 summers, managed to escape to France on the pretext of being involved in certain peace negotiations. Once there, Lady Isabella refused to return and allied herself with Roger Mortimer, who had previously escaped from the Tower. To cut a long tale short, Master Clerk, the Queen received help from me and many others and invaded England. Edward II and the Despensers, being deserted by all, fled to South Wales where they were later captured."
Stratford fell silent as the king touched his arm before resuming the narrative himself. "Look, Master Clerk. You were 20, a student at Merton College, Oxford, when all this happened. So let us be brief. The Despensers were executed and my father deposed and imprisoned. For the next four years, Mortimer ruled the kingdom."
The king cleared his throat and fairly rushed the rest of his evidently carefully prepared speech. "Mortimer proved to be a worse tyrant than the Despensers. He had my father murdered at Berkeley Castle. He executed my uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, on a fictitious charge of treason and he brought my mother into disrepute. In November 1330 matters reached such a climax that I," the king paused, "that I intervened. Mortimer was arrested at Nottingham and hanged for his crimes at Tyburn. My sweet mother decided to relinquish affairs of state in order to dedicate herself to good works on her country estates."
The king stopped abruptly and ordered Chandos, who was standing at the back of the room, to serve me with wine and sweetmeats whilst he and Stratford conferred quietly together. As I ate, I realized the king had told me nothing new and omitted the more scandalous items of the story. His father was a well-known sodomite who died with a red-hot poker thrust up his arse. Isabella, the king's "sweet mother," was little better. Her ferocity had earned her the nickname of the "She-Wolf." She had, by all accounts, been Mortimer's whore, his partner in tyranny, as well as his accomplice in the murder of her husband. If it had not been for the intervention of her son, she would have certainly joined Mortimer on the scaffold. The truth is all-important, Richard, but you never tell it to princes. Especially when you sit with them and drink their wine.
Eventually, the king ceased his whispering and, turning to me, came bluntly to the point. "Master Edmund," he began, "are you wondering how events which happened so long ago affect you?" He shrugged, not waiting for an answer. "It's quite simple. I want you to investigate the circumstances surrounding my father's death. You will draw on the Exchequer, the royal treasury, to meet any expenses and receive a warrant permitting you to question anyone, as well as the right to search any records. However," the king waved an admonitory finger at me, "you must not flaunt your commission at court nor can you work amongst any records covered by the secret seal. There is nothing there touching this matter and a great deal which concerns the security of our realm in the present war against France. Finally," the king looked hard at me, "your task is to research the background of my father's death. Not, I repeat, not to hunt down his murderers. That is the task of others."
The king gulped a little more wine, raising his hand to fend off my questions, so he could continue. "I know, I know, Master Beche. Why do I want such an investigation and why do I choose you and not a group of royal commissioners? The answers are quite simple. I was only 15 when my father died. I was king in nothing but name. Mortimer controlled the realm as if it was one of his own Welsh shires. I knew nothing at the time but," the king extended his hands, "now I want to know. The dust has settled and a discreet inquiry will satisfy my curiosity. I chose you because you will observe discretion. You are a royal clerk, skilled in research and proficient in dealing with records. You have other qualities and assets which recommend you." He picked up a leaf of parchment from the table. "You are the only son of Jocelyn and Ann Beche, farmers who held land in Yorkshire. They died some time ago, but not before they saw their only son enter Merton College and emerge well qualified in the study of law. For a while, you served as a clerk in the retinue of the Earl of Montague in two campaigns against the French. On his recommendation, you were accepted into the royal Chancery where you have distinguished yourself as a competent, industrious and, above all, discreet clerk. You have many acquaintances but no friends unless, of course," the king added wryly, "we include your mistress in Cheapside." He let the manuscript fall back on the table.
"Well," he added abruptly, "is there anything you wish to ask?"
The king's speech had surprised me but I managed to conceal my astonishment behind an obvious question. "Your Grace," I blurted out, "most of the people connected with Mortimer's regime are dead, although a few are still alive." I looked as meaningfully as I could at Stratford.
"True," that old fox replied caustically, "I was in the service of Queen Isabella when Edward II died but I know nothing of the old king's death. If I did," he added firmly, "His Grace would surely know of it."
I knew that Stratford was lying. He had an innate genius for survival and promotion. A friend of Lancaster, Minister under Edward II and adviser to Isabella. He had attained the pinnacle of success under Edward II, who had made him Archbishop of Canterbury. I knew he would evade any question I would ask.
So, tired of platitudes, I asked if I could question the queen dowager, but the king wearily informed me that his mother could tell me very little for she knew nothing more than she had told him already. I remembered to smile understandingly and let the matter drop, as far too dangerous to pursue.
The king pushed a small scroll towards me. "Here is your letter of commission. It does not specify your task. You will keep that secret under the pretence of writing a history of my late father's reign." As he rasped out his last order to me, Stratford's gnarled hands pushed a book of the gospels towards me. No sooner had I risen to swear myself to secrecy than Stratford gripped my wrist, forcing me to gaze into his narrow, yellow-flecked eyes. "Master Clerk," he lisped, "you will send your reports direct to the king. Your task is important, a matter of state. Divulge it and you are an attainted traitor. You do understand?"
I nodded dumbly. Stratford relaxed his grip and handed me my commission which I thrust into my belt-pouch. The king seemed a little disconcerted by his archbishop's actions and tried to cheer me with assurances and promises of support. He then deftly dismissed me and the ever-taciturn Sir John Chandos took me back to the waiting barge. He and his company took me back to Queenshithe Wharf. The journey back was sluggish against the changing tide. I hardly noticed. I sat and stared anywhere except into Chandos's cold, steel-blue eyes.
I was back in Bread Street late in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day analysing what had happened at Windsor. Why, I kept asking myself, was the king so interested in his father's death sixteen years after the event? Why the great secrecy and, above all, why had the king chosen me? True, I am a skilled civil servant with some military service but I am also a commoner, bereft of kin, few in friends and lacking any powerful patron. Facts, the king had so readily emphasised. My parents are dead, I have no kin or friends except Kate, a sweet little piece in the service of a London mercer. She swears she loves me, and probably does, but her feather brain cannot understand the simplest problem, never mind the complexities of political intrigue. In fact, I reflected bitterly, I was the type of person who quietly disappears should he anger the high and mighty. I got up from my pallet and looked into the polished metal mirror. A tired lined face stared back, sallow with large dark-ringed eyes, long thin nose and short, dark hair. I looked at myself and thought about my loneliness, the chances missed and the opportunities lost. Was I to ruin this one? Ambition and a restless excitement have persuaded me to grasp it.
Nevertheless, I am writing to you, Richard, in defiance of my lord archbishop and my forced oath of secrecy. I am not seeking advice (I beg you never to reply) but simply to entrust you with what I find. I shall tell you all, describe events and report conversations, to serve as my bond, my security against the king in the event of my disappearance or trial for treason on some trumped-up charge. All my letters, like this one, will be sent north to you by any trustworthy messenger I can find. God keep you Richard. Written at Bread Street, 16 August, 1345.
Excerpted from The Death of a King by P. C. Doherty Copyright © 1985 by P. C. Doherty. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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