Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2015
Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Cover by Design for Writers
Thanks to Simon Walpole for the Artwork.
Although it had been a benign winter with few deaths, no wolves and almost no snow, I had been both distracted and unhappy through the dark nights. I am sure that my knights and my people put it down to the deaths, the previous year, of my wife and my daughter. While it was true that I missed them more than I could have possibly imagined another great weight was upon me. The Empress Matilda, wife of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and heir to the English throne, was expecting a baby in the spring. The whole country was rejoicing. I had mixed feelings for I believed that I was the father of the unborn child. I had committed a great sin. I had spent the night in the Empress’ bed. We had lain together. The problem was that I did not know for certain and so long as the doubt remained in my head I could not settle.
I was a knight; more than that I was an Earl and ruled the whole of the Tees Valley. I had great responsibility. The security of the northern frontier lay in my hands. Until the King appointed a new Prince Bishop I was the most powerful lord in the disputed borderlands of England. To have done what I had done was to make a mockery of my knightly vows and the way I had been brought up. It was a sin and not a sin easily forgiven. I found it hard to look my knights and my son in the eyes. I felt as though I had let them down. More than that I had let down the King for I had sworn an oath to him. I was putting his plans for a peaceful handover to his daughter once he died, in jeopardy. I was endangering the country! I, who had fought all of England’s enemies, could turn out to be a bigger enemy than even the Scots or King Louis the Fat of France!
I even thought about travelling to the Holy Land and joining a military order of knights. If I dedicated myself to the protection of pilgrims I might attain forgiveness. Then I thought of my son and my people. I thought of England and the danger it was in and I thought of the Empress whom I had sworn to protect. I had her to protect and the future king of England, my son. I would have to stay where I could do the most good. I resolved to become a better knight and earn my position.
To take my mind off the dire thoughts which haunted my every waking and sleeping moment I had thrown myself into making my three squires into the best knights that they could be. That became my purpose in life. If I could be a better knight then I might be able to make those around me into better knights. They would be my legacy. I would protect England with every bone in my body!
I decided that I would make that pledge alone in the church I had had built in my town of Stockton. The old priest, Father Matthew, had died with my wife and child when the plague struck. Their ashes lay in the church. It would be the place I could be close to my wife once more. I waited until the new priest, Father Henry, was visiting the parish of Norton before I entered alone with my candle held aloft and, after closing and barring the door prostrated myself before the altar.
“Adela, my wife, I beg forgiveness for the sins I have committed. I know that you are in heaven and I pray that you intercede with God on my behalf. I swear that I will be a better knight than I ever was before. I will control my carnal thoughts and dedicate myself to protecting this land of England.” I rose and held my sword before me. It was the sword which contained the pommel stone from King Harold Godwinson’s sword. “This I swear before Almighty God.”
I waited for a sign; a bolt of lightning, a crash of thunder, a candlestick falling to the floor, anything but the candlelit church remained silent. I was not given an answer. As I left the church I reflected that, perhaps, that was to be expected. An oath and words were meaningless. It was actions which would prove my resolve. I would live up to my oath; if only for the sake of my dead wife, Adela.
John was the strongest, by a considerable margin, of my three squires. He was going to be the size of Wulfric when he stopped growing. He would never be a courtly knight. He would be a warrior; he would be the rock upon which an enemy broke. My training with him concentrated on making him use his head. He always tried to win every combat in the first few strokes. But as the squire who carried my standard there was no one else who I would have wanted as the rallying point for my conroi.
Leofric was slight compared with John but he was a thinker and a planner. He would win combat because he would out think his opponent. The two of them would have made the perfect knight. Leofric would win combats he should lose because he was clever. Also he could read, for my clerk and steward, John, had taught him that skill. It would be useful when he became a lord of the manor. More than that, he was patient. He had schooled my third squire, my son William, and helped him immeasurably.
William was the youngest of my squires and had the most to learn. His mother had protected him and it was not until she had died that his training could begin in earnest. However he also had the most potential. He was my son and had the blood of warriors coursing through his veins. He had two good teachers in John and Leofric and Wulfric had also given him skills which were invaluable. William’s problem was that he wanted to run before he could walk. He did not seem to understand that my other two squires had years more experience than he did. He would become upset if he was not allowed to do what they did. I had had to chastise him on a number of occasions. It was part of the ritual of becoming a knight. The process would last for years. I might even die before he was ready to gain his spurs.
Our training and practice over the winter had been conducted in my bailey within my curtain wall. I had made sure that we spent four hours each day with sword, axe and lance. It built up muscles and honed the hand and eye to work in perfect harmony. When we came indoors I spent two hours talking military tactics with them. This was where John struggled while Leofric was in his element. Accounts of Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar seemed to inspire him. In the bailey William looked to John for inspiration. In the warmth of the hall it was Leofric. However they all got on well with each other. My son had no airs and graces; he did not look down on the two lowly born squires.
When we a spell of warmer weather we went hawking with Aiden. They needed to know how to hunt and to hunt you needed to scout. There was no better teacher than Aiden. He was part animal. He was also a good rider and he helped me to make better riders of my three squires. They rode palfreys but one day they would need to ride a warhorse like Star. All three of them needed more skill before they could be risked on the back of such a powerful beast. All my time and energy was spent in teaching and training my squires to become knights. It emptied my head of dark thoughts. The result of all my work was that by February they had all shown distinct improvement.
The weather gradually improved and so I decided to visit with the knights who lived along the valley. Not only would it help to bond my knights closer together it would give my mind focus. I took Wulfric and six of my men at arms. I left Dick as he was busy training my new archers. We could never have enough bowmen. The war bow was a powerful and decisive weapon. It had saved us on many an occasion. I didn’t cross the river to speak with Edward of Thornaby; he was busy building a new church. William the mason was over the other side of the river now helping him. There was another reason I did not go. Edward knew of my feelings for the Empress. He might even suspect the unthinkable. I could not look him in the face just yet.
Instead, I rode west to Hartburn visiting Sir Harold, my former squire, and then Sir Tristan at Elton. Both were young and neither was yet rich but their manors were growing and the people prospered. Already their farmers were ploughing in the fields preparing them for the spring sowing. The manors had a comforting cycle of life. I had grown up in the East, Constantinople, and there the climate was such that crops and animals could grow and prosper all year. I preferred England. The land made you feel as though you had earned the food you ate. No one had given it to you.
I ended my journey at Gainford. It was where young Sir Hugh lived. Another of my former squires, despite his family had all been killed some years earlier he was still like Tristan and Harold, a young knight with zeal and passion. However the main reason I visited him for longer than my other knights was to discover more about Barnard de Balliol, the Lord of Barnard Castle. The King and I suspected him of treachery. There had been raids by the Scots the previous year and that lord who should have protected the western end of the valley was absent each time they did so. It seemed more than a coincidence to me. Had we a Prince Bishop then he would have dealt with him. The King had given me the power to do so. Before I visited with him I would speak with Sir Hugh. He was quick witted. He would give me his impression before I spoke with the would be rebel.
“My lord, it is good to see you.”
“And you, Sir Hugh. Could we impose upon your hospitality this night?”
My request was, of course, a formality. Sir Hugh served me and I was his lord. In just the same way as the Prince Bishop, or the King could arrive unannounced at my castle and expect rooms so Sir Hugh and my other knights were expected to do the same.
“Of course.” He smiled when he saw William. “Your son grows taller each time I see him.”
“He eats well and John and Leofric ensure that he works hard.”
Sir Hugh turned to his steward. “Take the Earl’s squires to the keep and his men to the warrior hall.”
He led me towards his hall. Not as large as some it was, nonetheless, comfortable. He dismissed those who were working in the hall. “You wish to speak with me in private?”
“I was your squire my lord and I know the way you like to work. I have news of Sir Barnard.”
“Good for I would visit with him on the morrow.”
He shook his head. “It would be a wasted journey. He is not there. I will tell you all when we are alone.”
After his servant had served us wine and been dismissed Sir Hugh elaborated. “The Baron has spent much of the winter north of the border in Scotland. He is very close to the Comyn family. On the odd occasions when he has been home I have visited and there are always Scottish knights in his hall. They are pleasant enough but they have the kind of smile which suggests falsehood. I trust them not.”
“And you are wise to do so for I know the type of knight that you mean.” I sipped the wine. It was not as good as my own but for a poor knight he had provided a decent jug. “Is the Baron friendly towards you?”
“He is. In fact he is more than friendly. He is generous. The wine you drink was a gift from his cellar.” Suddenly the wine tasted sour in my mouth and I laid down my goblet. “That is another reason that I do not trust him. His friendship seems to be something he turns on and off. It is like a visor on a helmet. And you say he is not here at present?”
“No he is visiting Stirling and the Comyn family.”
“And your land, it has been safe over the winter? No brigands? No wolves?”
“It has been peaceful and my people have prospered but we are ever vigilant. I have my men at arms and archers riding through my wild places to discourage those who live outside the law.”
I smiled, “And you prosper?”
“I do and soon I may ask your permission to marry.”
“Good! Do I know the lady?”
“She is Sir Richard of Yarm’s daughter, Anne. I got to know her through Tristan, her brother. We like each other and her father favours me. If you give your permission then we would have an Easter wedding.”
“You have it and I am delighted.” It was not a platitude. I wished for happiness for the young man who had lost all. And I liked Anne. She was a vivacious and joyful girl. They would make a good couple. It also bonded my knights closer together.
When we rode home the next day I felt more at ease. Sir Barnard still worried me but Sir Hugh’s marriage to the daughter of one of my most loyal of knights would tie them together even more. Tristan and Hugh would become brothers. That was the day when my thoughts became less dark; I began to see light where once all was black.
In the absence of a Prince Bishop I had many duties I would rather not have had. I was asked to attend the consecration of a new Bishop in Carlisle. Æthelwold was not Norman but English and came from York. He had founded an Augustinian monastery at St. Mary’s in Carlisle. The King had managed to get him appointed as Bishop to the See of Carlisle. It was political for until that moment it had been under the rule of the Bishop of Glasgow. It put the land of Cumbria under the influence of the Archbishop of York. It was a brilliant move for Æthelwold was English rather than being a Norman appointee. His appointment would offend less people. However I would have to visit with him and show that the King supported him with the most powerful knight in the north.
I had another motive for visiting. Gilbert de Bois was the castellan at the castle. Although he had fought alongside me against the Viking raiders who had plagued our western coast and I did not doubt his bravery I did doubt his politics. He was the cousin of Stephen of Blois. If de Balliol could not be trusted then I needed to test the waters further west.
After I had visited Sir Hugh I had but two days at home before I left for Cumbria. This time I took servants with sumpters. I had a position to uphold. I was the King’s representative and I would need my finest clothes, mail and weapons. I also took my twelve best men at arms and my banner. I was making a statement as I made the three day journey west.
It was not such an unpleasant journey although the weather had worsened over recent days. There were now comfortable castles guarding the road. None were huge but we were accommodated at all of them. That was one of the benefits of being an Earl. The responsibilities far outweighed the benefits but my father had drilled into me the duty I owed England. I had sworn I would never let it down.
When I reached Carlisle I was pleased to see that Gilbert de Bois had finished most of the work on the castle. A castle was never truly completed. There were always ways to improve existing defences but this one could hold off all but the most serious of attacks. This part of the country was tenuously held. Even the Welsh Marches had a stronger grip. The Earl of Chester, who was its earl, was far away and had enough trouble with the Welsh in the north of Wales. I had helped him out twice in the last year when his forces had been stretched. He had a far larger land to protect than I did. His responsibility went from the Scottish border to the Welsh border.
I was greeted warmly by Gilbert de Bois but I took that welcome with a pinch of salt. Too many men had two faces. However he seemed to be doing all that he could to hold the land for the King. At his gates were the heads of four men. I had glanced at them as I entered. The young knight who had escorted me had said, “Outlaws, my lord. They were terrorising the land to the south of us. There are many places there where men can hide. Sir Gilbert sends regular patrols to weed them out.”
While my squires unpacked I spoke with Sir Gilbert. “What do you make to this Æthelwold? I have yet to meet him.”
“He seems an earnest enough fellow. They are very austere. Most monks keep a good table but not those at St. Mary’s. Still he is here to show the influence of the Archbishop and not dine with the likes of me eh?”
“You are right. I shall go and meet him. I do not want to spend too long over here for I have much to do in the valley of the Tees.”
“There is peace at the moment. You saw the outlaws’ heads over the gates? They are our biggest threat. The Scots are quiet and the raiders from across the sea are still licking their wounds from their last foray.” He rubbed his hands, “At least the hunting is good here! It makes up for the lack of wine and wheat!”
“You know that they say about the Scots: they are either fighting you or preparing to fight you. They see this land you occupy as theirs.”
“Then they will have to fight me for it.”
At least I knew that any treachery from Gilbert would be support for Stephen of Blois rather than the Scots.
When I met him I discovered that Æthelwold was a very serious man. I knew that he had served King Henry as a confessor not long after I had arrived in England. That was all that I knew.
“It is good that you took the trouble to come all the way across the country to visit a humble churchman.”
“I came to tell you that you have my support. Sir Gilbert is a good man and I doubt not that you will be well protected here but call upon me any time for whatever help you might need.”
He smiled, “I have heard that you have a reputation. The Scots fear and hate you in equal measure.”
I nodded, “As do the Irish and the Welsh. I fight for England; plain and simple.”
“And you are honest. I can tell that.” He looked at me askance. “And I can see that you are troubled within. Is there aught you wish to confess?” He held his hand up to the cathedral roof. “This is a good place to ask for God’s forgiveness.”
I suddenly felt uncomfortable, “I lost my wife and child last year. It was difficult. I made a pilgrimage to Caen to ask for forgiveness.”
He nodded, “Then take a word of advice from a man of God, Earl, forgive yourself!”