He would be remembered long after his death, one of those rare men recognized as great even by those who hated him.He was a king at twenty-one, wed to a woman as legendary as Helen of Troy, ruler of an empire that stretched from the Scots border to the Mediterranean Sea, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Wales, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, liege lord of Brittany. But in God’s Year 1171, Henry Fitz Empress, second of that name to rule England since the Conquest, was more concerned with the judgment of the Church than History’s verdict.
When the Archbishop of Canterbury was slain in his own cathedral by men who believed they were acting on the king’s behalf, their bloodied swords might well have dealt Henry a mortal blow, too. All of Christendom was enraged by Thomas Becket’s murder and few were willing to heed Henry’s impassioned denials of blame. His continental lands were laid under Interdict and his multitude of enemies were emboldened, like wolves on the trail of wounded prey. The beleaguered king chose to make a strategic retreat, and in October, he sailed for Ireland. There he soon established his lordship over the feuding Irish kings and secured oaths of fealty from the Irish bishops. The winter was so stormy that Ireland truly seemed to be at the western edge of the world, the turbulent Irish Sea insulating Henry from the continuing outcry over the archbishop’s death.
But in the spring, the winds abated and contact was established once more with the outside world. Henry learned that papal legates had arrived in Normandy. And he was warned that his restless eldest son was once more chafing at the bit. In accordance with continental custom, he had been crowned in his father’s lifetime. But the young king was dissatisfied with his lot in life, having the trappings of shared kingship but none of the power, and Henry’s agents were reporting that Hal was brooding about his plight, listening to the wrong men. Henry Fitz Empress decided it was time to go home.
Dyved, South Wales
Soon after leaving haverford, they were ambushed by the fog. Ranulf had long ago learned that Welsh weather gave no fair warning, honored no flags of truce, and scorned all rules of warfare. But even he was taken aback by the suddenness of the assault. Rounding a bend in the road, they found themselves riding into oblivion. The sky was blotted out, the earth disappearing under their horses’ hooves, all sound muffled in this opaque, smothering mist, as blinding as wood-smoke and pungent with the raw, salt-tang of the sea. Drawing rein, Ranulf’s brother Rainald hastily called for a halt.“Mother of God, it is the Devil’s doing!”
Ranulf had a healthy respect for Lucifer’s malevolence, but he was far more familiar than Rainald with the vagaries of the Welsh climate. “It is just an early-morning fog, Rainald,” he said soothingly.
“I can smell the brimstone on his breath,” Rainald insisted, “can hear his cackling on the wind. Listen and you’ll hear it, too.”
Ranulf cocked his head, hearing only the slapping of waves against the rocks below them. Rainald was already shifting in the saddle, telling their men that they were turning back. Before Ranulf could protest, he discovered he had an ally in Gerald de Barri, the young clerk and scholar who’d joined their party after a stopover at Llawhaden Castle.Kicking his mule forward, Gerald assured Rainald that such sudden patches of fog were quite common along the coast. They’d soon be out of it, he promised, and offered to lead them, for this was a road he well knew.
Pressed, too, by Ranulf, Rainald reluctantly agreed and they ventured on, slowly and very warily. “Now I know what it’s like for your wife,” Rainald grumbled, glancing over his shoulder at his brother. “Poor lass, cursed to live all her days bat-blind and helpless as a newborn babe.”
Ranulf’s wife, Rhiannon, was indeed blind, but far from helpless. Ranulf took no offense, though; Rainald’s tactlessness was legendary in their family. Slowing his mount, he dropped back to ride beside Rainald’s young son. The boy’s dark coloring had earned him his nickname, Rico, for upon viewing him for the first time, Rainald had joked that he was more an Enrico than a Henry, swarthy as a Sicilian. Rico’s olive skin was now a ghostly shade of grey, and Ranulf reached over to pat him reassuringly upon the arm. “Horses do not fancy going over cliffs any more than men do, and Welsh ponies are as sure-footed as mountain goats.”
Rico did not seem comforted. “Yes, but Whirlwind is Cornish, not Welsh!”
Ranulf camouflaged a smile, for the placid hackney hardly merited such a spirited name. “They breed sure-footed horses in Cornwall, too, lad.” To take his nephew’s mind off their precarious path, he began to tell Rico of some mischief-making by his youngest son,Morgan, and soon had Rico laughing.
He missed Morgan, missed his elder son, Bleddyn, and daughter,Mallt, above all missed Rhiannon. But he’d agreed to accompany Rainald to the holy well of St Non, even knowing that he’d be away for weeks, for he knew the real reason for Rainald’s pilgrimage. Rainald had claimed he wanted to pray for his wife’s soul. But Beatrice had been ailing for many years, hers a malady of the mind that only death had healed. Rainald’s true concern was for his other son,Nicholas, who had not been blessed with Rico’s robust good health. Frail and sickly, Nicholas was not likely to live long enough to succeed to his father’s earldom, as evidenced by Rainald’s desperate decision to seek aid from saints, not doctors.
Rainald’s pain was all the greater because Nicholas was his only male heir. Rico was born out of wedlock, and thus barred by Church law from inheriting any of his father’s estates–even though Rainald himself was bastard-born. The irony of that was lost upon Rainald, who was the least introspective of men. It was not lost upon Ranulf, who shared Rainald’s tainted birth, both of them natural sons of the old King Henry. Neither of them had suffered from the stigma of illegitimacy, though. As a king’s son, Rainald had been judged worthy to wed the heiress of the earldom of Cornwall, and Ranulf had long been the favorite uncle of the current king, Henry Fitz Empress.
Henry would gladly have bestowed an earldom upon him, too, but Ranulf, who was half-Welsh, had chosen to settle in Wales where he’d wed his Welsh cousin and raised his family–until forced into English exile by a Welsh prince’s enmity.
His Welsh lands were forfeit and his English manors were meager in comparison to Rainald’s vast holdings in Cornwell, but Ranulf had no regrets about turning down a title. He was at peace with his yesterdays, and he’d lived long enough to understand how few men could say that. For certes, Rainald could not. Nor could the king, his nephew, absent these many months in Ireland, where he’d gone to evade Holy Church’s fury over the slaying of Thomas Becket.
Gerald de Barri’s voice floated back upon the damp morning air. A natural-born talker, he was not going to let a bit of fog muzzle him, and he continued to engage Rainald in conversation, not at all discouraged by the earl’s taciturn, distracted responses. Ranulf listened, amused, for Gerald was an entertaining traveling companion, if somewhat self-serving. The nephew of the Bishop of St David’s, he was returning to England after years of study in Paris, and he reminded Ranulf of Thomas Becket, another worldly clerk blessed with great talents and even greater ambitions. Becket had been a superb chancellor, wielding enormous influence because of his close friendship with the king. What a pity it was, Ranulf thought, that Harry had taken it into his head to elevate Becket to the archbishopric. But who could ever have expected the man to undergo such a dramatic transformation? He wasn’t even a priest, had hastily to take holy vows just days before his investiture. But once he was Canterbury’s archbishop, he’d devoted himself to God with all of the zeal he’d once shown on behalf of England’s king. Henry hadn’t been the only one discomfited by Becket’s newfound fervor.His fellow bishops had often been exasperated by his provocations, his refusal to compromise, his self-righteous piety. Even His Holiness the Pope had been confounded at times by Becket’s intransigence.
All that had changed, of course, as he bled to death on the floor of his own cathedral, and when the monks had discovered their slain archbishop’s vermin-infested hair-shirt under his blood-soaked garments, none had doubted they were in the presence of sainthood. Acclaimed as a holy martyr in death, even by those who’d considered him to be a vexation and an enigma in life, Thomas Becket was sure to be anointed as the Church’s next saint. Already people flocked to his tomb at Canterbury, seeking healing cures and buying little vials of his blood as precious relics.More than fifteen months after Becket’s death, Ranulf still marveled at it all. Was Becket truly a saint?
He smiled wryly, then, remembering his last meeting with his nephew the king, just before Henry’s departure for Ireland. Over a late-night flagon of wine,Henry had challenged him, wanting to know if he believed Becket was a saint.He still recalled his reply. “I cannot answer your question, Harry, doubt that anyone can. I do know, though, that saints are not judged like ordinary men. That is, after all, what makes them saints.” Henry had reflected upon that in silence, then said, sounding both skeptical and regretful, “Saint or not, Thomas got the last word for certes.”
Menevia was the name given to the small settlement that had sprung up around the cathedral of St David. Its houses were outnumbered by shabby inns, stables, taverns, and a few cook-shops, for the shrine of the Welsh saint was a popular choice for pilgrimages. Because of its remoteness and the difficulty of travel in Wales, the Holy See had decreed that two pilgrimages to St David’s were the equivalent of one to St Peter’s in Rome. The cathedral itself was situated just west of the village in a secluded hollow, out of sight of the sea raiders and Norsemen who had pillaged the coast in bygone times.
The men expected to be accosted by villagers proclaiming the comforts of their inns, the superiority of their wines and mead, the bargain prices of their pilgrim badges. To their surprise, the streets appeared deserted. Advancing uneasily, they finally encountered an elderly man in a doorway, leaning heavily upon a wooden crutch.
“Where have all the folk gone?” Rainald called out, and when he got only a blank stare in response, Ranulf repeated the question in Welsh, to better effect.
“To the harbor,” the ancient replied, hobbling forward a few steps. “Sails were spied and when word spread, people went to see.Most pilgrims come on foot, but we do get some who sail from Normandy and Flanders, even a few Frenchmen who lack the ballocks to brave Welsh roads.” He grinned, showing a surprising mouthful of teeth for one so old, but Ranulf knew the Welsh were particular about tooth care, cleaning them with green hazel shoots and polishing them with woolen cloth. Flipping him a coin for his trouble, Ranulf interpreted for the others, translating the old man’s “Frenchmen” into “English” to avoid confusion. It was not always easy to live in lands with so many spoken tongues. To many of the Welsh, the invaders from England were French, for that was the language they spoke. To the French, those who dwelled on the rain-swept island were English. But those descendants of the men who’d followed William the Bastard to victory in God’s Year 1066 thought of themselves as Norman, and his nephew Henry was Angevin to the core.
Having no interest in incoming ships, they continued on toward the cathedral, where they received the welcome worthy of an earl, although Gerald de Barri was disappointed to learn that the bishop, his uncle, was away. They were escorted to the guest hall and were washing off the grime of the road when they heard shouting out in the close. Ranulf and Rainald hastened to the window, looking down at a man sprinting toward the bishop’s palace. As several canons hurried to meet him, he sank to his knees, chest heaving.
“The king . . .”He gasped, struggling for breath. “The king is coming! His ships have dropped anchor in the harbor!”