The Song of Wessex
"Not but with three matters no man should attend:
Of France, and of Britain, and of Rome the grand."
- Jean Bodel
Of France, and of Britain, and of Rome the grand."
- Jean Bodel
* * *
Battle of Cassel – Ypres, Flanders – August 1294
The Duke of Bourbon stood at the crest of the hill and spied down at the soldiers of Leon below as they positioned along the Lys river. Amedee was forty two and a wizened warrior, but for over a year now they had gone toe to toe with these armies of the Holy Roman Emperor and he had never fought in a war so large and across such a wide swath of Europe. From Iberia all the way to Flanders and well into the interior of the Empire, the largest forces ever assembled in Western Europe had fought for supremacy, and though the might of England was strong, this Emperor Werner held vast resources and had surprised them more than once.
He offered a curt nod and a slight grin when he began to mentally calculate the foe setting up across from them. Surely not ten thousand. He was certain of it. He himself held near to six thousand of his own in the center and the vanguard under Duke Thomas of Normandy was almost their number completely. In truth, he could only spy one mere knight upon the field. Many archers and men at arms, and perhaps even more horse than the English, but well over a hundred knights marched under his banner and the standard of the English lion. It was sure to be a rout.
As he gave the call for the longbows to set their weapons firmly, he was taken from his orders by one of these English lions, “Tis a fine morrow, my Lord. I think to spy no mist and thus I shall find a front row seat for this, do you not think?”
The Duke turned and flashed a grin, “It had better be as witness and no thing other, my Prince. Your Lord father I am certain would see no harm come to you this day.”
“Ahh!” the Prince showed his famous smile, “Yet His Grace is well to Hainaut, my Lord Amedee. How might he even know?”
“For I would be sure and tell him, my Prince,” Lord Amedee clasped an arm around the tall young man and led him from the crest of the hill, “You are to be here as witness only at the now. King Ælfstan has naught the time to find worry over you with all else that he considers, and this you well know.”
The Prince crossed his arms with a slight laugh, “I believe him to worry too much, my Lord. He may be known to all as ‘The Wise’ but in this methinks he frets more than he should. We have bested all comers...and many thanks to you, I might add...yet between your army and our mercenary friends, I think to see this one won with little trouble.”
Amedee was by now used to the bravado of this Prince and laughed himself, “You are brave, my fine young Duke of Lancaster, but allow me to remind you that I am twice your age and have seen much and more in my time. I should not like to see you in great peril and I know well the feelings of your Lord Father.”
“Oh, come now...” the Prince teased, “...just a little bit of peril.”
“Not even a jot of it, monsieur,” the Duke grinned as a horn blew, “And there comes our alarm so do not think to sneak past me once it begins. You know that I do see all.”
The Prince grinned, “Eyes to the front and back and all sides...yes, my Lord Amedee. I am well aware. Bon chance to you!”
“And to you, my Prince,” Lord Amedee gave a brief bow before turning to bark orders.
After watching him walk away with purpose, the Prince tipped back to the crest of the hill and watched as the longbows began their work. He got down to his belly and smiled as he watched the enemy begin an advance. It never got old watching this fine force do their work. The English manner of war had changed after so many years fighting in France and against other continental foes. When once a shield wall was the Saxon way, now it was done with the longbow and knights and brave men at arms. How he longed to be a part of it. His father had fought in many a battle and was known as brave as much as he was known as wise. Yet the Prince himself was no slouch in the tilt yard nor in tourneys and yet the King treated him as if he were made of nothing more impenetrable than an eggshell. It would be infuriating if he did not understand why.
As he watched the Battle of Cassel begin, he considered that very reason…
* * *
Blois, France – January 1280
The Lord Bishop Geoffrey of Lincoln shuffled down the halls within the castle at Blois as fast as his robes allowed. He did not look forward to this meet with his nephew, but it had to be said and done. He had taken the fastest ship from England that he could find for the news was too grave and too hurtful to allow time and some other messenger bring it to him. Upon reaching the solar, he was surprised not to find a sentry. Had not England been at war with France these last two years? He was aware that a peace was on the table, but did not know if it had yet been signed. As he entered, he found only young Prince Arthur reading by the firelight. This was passing strange, but he enjoyed the young man and begged him welcome.
“My good uncle...” Arthur stood and showed his already considerable height at almost ten years of age, “...I did not think to see you here.”
“I did not think to be here, Arturus,” Geoffrey answered using a playful nickname gained from their studies together, “Yet I fear to come with poor news for your father and needs must seek him out.”
Arthur moved to pour his great uncle a goblet of wine, “Father is with Lord Ralph and Lord Stephen, uncle. They be deep in conversation about I know not what. I would tell you to seek out Arn, but he has not been well since St. Aignan and keeps to his bed.”
The Bishop allowed a grimace as he considered Prince Arnold for the news concerned him as well, “Is your father here to the castle?”
“He is,” Arthur gestured for a chair and then handed his great uncle the wine, “Did you seek out the great hall?”
Geoffrey seemed hesitant to sit but did so and gave nod for the drink, “It has been a challenging passage, I do not mind saying. Foul winds and all that. Yet I did go to the hall and he was not there.”
“Hmm,” Arthur puzzled only briefly, “Then to his chambers? I hear there is to be a presentation. Mayhap on the morrow.”
“A presentation?” Geoffrey asked.
Arthur smiled, “Have you not heard? My grandfather has made peace and Blois is ours, well and truly. I am certain that your namesake cousin Geoff will be pleased though it will surely sadden him that it will not be his. I understand it will go to the Lord Ralph of Orleans.”
“I am certain that Geoff will understand,” the Bishop offered only a brief smile as he considered his younger brother Henry’s son, “Yet what awesome news. Your Lord father must be well proud of his efforts...and your brother.”
Arthur gave nod, “Pleased enough, uncle. Though I thought him to be with Lord Stephen as I understand that he is not impressed with the match made for my sister Joan.”
“Do you not mean Jeanne?” Geoffrey suggested with a grin.
“You mean her French name?” the young Prince returned the grin, “My mother’s influence. Whatever she wishes to call herself, she has been betrothed to the young Emperor and heads now to Luxembourg to take up her place.”
With a shake of the head, Geoffrey took some of his wine and then looked to the fire with disdain, “This Viktor...too much time have we spent to these French lands. We grow too much influenced by these continental politics and leave England adrift.”
The young Arthur sat back in his seat and smiled, “You forget, uncle...my mother is a Princess of France. There is reason that father does what he does. Let us not forget also that he did take Clydesdale in Scotland and found my brother his bride in that place.”
“You are too smart for your age, young sir,” Geoffrey wished to answer with a grin but he could not, “And to speak of your mother...is she to the castle? I would have need to speak with her as well.”
“Yes...” Arthur gave nod, “...yet I fear that she has already retired. Shall I wake her?”
Bishop Geoffrey stood and bent by the hearth, “Indeed...I think that you should. This would need to be in her hearing as well.”
The young Prince stood and moved to the solar door. He hollered some few words and then returned to his great uncle placing a gentle hand to his shoulder, “You are troubled.”
Without standing or looking up, he answered, “More than I have ever wished to be, Arturus. I have seen much sadness and despair in my day, but few may challenge this.”
“What is it?” Arthur asked with sincerity.
Geoffrey looked up with a kind eye, “I must needs wait for your mother.”
They did not have long to wait as Queen Alearde moved into the solar with grace as she held her robes around her. She had not lost her French customs but spoke English well by this date. Giving the Bishop a kiss on both cheeks as welcome, she looked to him with some worry, “You travel far, my Lord Bishop. We are well met, but what is the cause?”
“Where be your husband, Your Grace?” Geoffrey stood and bowed his head before looking to her with a stern eye, “I must speak with him as well.”
The Queen showed a sadness, “He is where I come from at the now. Our son is not well.”
“Prince Arnold?” Geoffrey asked with even more worry.
Arthur chimed in, “Yes, uncle...I told you. Arn has taken to bed.”
“Arthur!” the Queen chided her son, “Let us speak!”
“Yes, maman,” the young Prince stood back.
The Bishop looked to the Queen with even sadder eyes, “Oh, my Lady...it is then even worse then I thought.”
Queen Alearde was made of sterner stuff than most but the visage before her spoke of great tragedy, “You must tell me at the now, Geoffrey. What brings you here?!”
“The boy, Your Grace...” Geoffrey tried to answer as he held gently to her hand, “...you have all been to Melun during this struggle while the Lady Helen was caused to stay in chamber after the birth. Naught but sixth months did he live...this Fulk...your grandson.”
With all of her strength, the Queen stood a bit taller and kept a sure eye upon her husband’s uncle, “You tell to me that my Arnold’s son has died?”
Geoffrey lowered his head at first but then looked back to her just as surely, “I am sad to say it, my Lady...yes.”
Queen Alearde backed away and moved to a window without saying a word. She was quiet for a time and did not turn back when she finally answered, “He will be...devastated.”
“Lady Helen most assuredly is and begs her husband’s return,” Bishop Geoffrey suggested as politely as he might.
The Queen turned finally and looked upon her husband’s uncle with a steely gaze, “She will have to wait. Arnold will not travel in the state that he is in...we will not allow it.”
“My Lady...” the Bishop took a step towards her with a plea in his eye, “...Your Grace...she is grief stricken and does need her Lord husband at this time.”
Alearde moved towards the solar door, “The King requires him, my Lord Bishop. There will surely be others. We must not jeopardize his health.”
“Yet I needs must speak with my nephew...His Grace!” Geoffrey moved to follow.
The Queen turned back coldly and looked to her son, “Arthur! See your uncle a fine room. He has traveled far. We will speak with your father and he will know the truth of it.”
She was about to leave as Bishop Geoffrey took another step towards her but as she opened the door to the solar, the white face of King Ælfstan stood before them all. He was silent for a time and only held a hand up to brush at his wife’s cheek before he softly said, “My dove...he is gone.”
Losing all of her steely reserves, Alearde crumbled into his arms and began to weep great sobs, “No!! No!!! I told you!!! It was not his time!!!”
“We could not have known,” the King tried to help his wife, “He was strong...brave. A chance arrow...a wound. It...”
Alearde responded by beating at his chest, “You did this to him! You had to have him by your side! Take him from his comfort and place him here beside you while you grasp at your past!”
“He served!” Ælfstan stood strong against his wife’s rage, “He knew what he was getting into and wished it in all ways. A King will serve and he was ready!”
“At what cost?!” she answered him between sobs, “You have told me of your fears...your family...do they not lose all in their moment of great triumph and glory?! My father was right! You will be the curse of France and you will be the curse of me!!!”
The Queen rushed past her husband leaving him to spy his uncle with great question in his eye, “Though I love you uncle...and am glad to see you here at this time...my son is dead. Why do I see you at the now?”
It was young Arthur that went to his father’s side and whispered into his ear. He said his words and then looked up to the King with great worry in his eyes, “Is Arn truly gone?”
King Ælfstan was now forty five years old and had already seen much in his time. He was the second of his name after his father and many had begun calling him ‘The Wise’ due to his so far great rule. Until now, there was never a trouble that he could not solve. Never a threat that he could not soften. A powerful diplomat like his father, he was able to make Lords crumble before him with every deference just by using his words. But this? This was something beyond his ken. He put a hand to his young son’s head and looked to him with a most pitiable face, “I know I need not tell you this...but you shall need to grow up quickly. Your time...is now.”
“Nephew!” Bishop Geoffrey called out, “Come and speak with me. You need the good word.”
King Ælfstan backed away and shifted to leave the room as he answered, “No, uncle. I must be to my son at the now. You should come. Yet not before you talk to this one. He needs it more than I at this time.”
The Bishop was made speechless as his nephew left the solar and while Arthur was a preternaturally intelligent child, he too had few words. It was left for just the two of them to figure out what this meant. Geoffrey slowly turned and saw the confusion on the boy’s face and took a gentle step towards him, “In all of our learning, I dare say that this is one lesson that we have not yet reached.”
“I...” Arthur hesitated in his words for a moment as he watched after the closed door, “...I worry about father...and maman.”
“Yet what of you?” Geoffrey pressed.
Arthur turned to his great uncle with a puzzled look, “Me? What may I say? I am pained about Arn, yet he did know what he was getting into when he joined with father in his campaigns. It is doubly sad to hear of his first born’s early passing at the same time. Yet surely this is the work of the other and not our great God. It is only the cruel one that might take such as these and I cannot imagine that our Lord and Savior could be so terrible as that.”
“Arturus, that is your mother’s religion speaking,” Geoffrey moved closer, “One that she has renounced before God and the King. You should not look to Catharism to find your explanation, for not only is it heretical, it is poorly crafted theology. There is but one God and mysterious are His ways, but there is always a reason for it.”
The Prince moved to the fire, “I do not think that maman has renounced it as fully as you believe, uncle.”
“That’s as may be,” the Bishop answered, “Yet it is no path for you to follow. Your own father was taken with her words when your grandfather died but did declare himself away from it when he became King. Now...more than ever...you must do the same.”
“Because now I am to become King?” Arthur turned and asked quite honestly.
Geoffrey moved to sit and patted the chair next to him, “That is the way of it. Come to here and I will tell you a story that I never get tired of telling for he must be remembered.”
The Prince did as requested but gave a nod of his head, “I know the tale that you are about to tell. You speak of your brother Ralph.”
“Of course you do,” the Bishop offered a smile, “I imagine your father has heard it many times over from his own father by now.”
“I can see why you might find it instructive,” Arthur sat forward, “For if the Prince Ralph does not die at such a young age, then the none of us might be in our positions at the now.”
Geoffrey lowered his head at the slim memory, “I fear that he would have passed at any rate...and I was young...but when it happened, my brother was in no ways prepared. He was the second of we five boys and was not expected to take the throne even after the accident. Yet when Ralph died, my mother and father thrust it upon him and he took to it with alacrity. You must now do the same.”
“Yet I am not even at ten years, uncle,” Arthur sat back and looked into the fire, “I hold no memory of your brother Ælfstan the King for I was but a babe when he passed. In truth, you are the only one of your siblings that I know at all.”
“And why your father had the great intelligence to seek me out for your learning,” Geoffrey replied, “As I did for Arnold.”
Arthur was silent for a time before turning back, “And now he is gone.”
“Yes, Arturus...” Geoffrey crossed himself as he answered plainly, “...he is.”
With consideration, Arthur was silent again for a time before giving his reply, “Then we must double my studies, uncle. I should not like to disappoint father. And you must now go to him. I believe him to need you greatly.”
“Are you sure that you understand?” Bishop Geoffrey looked deep into Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur stood and placed a calm hand to his great uncle’s shoulder, “I am young, uncle. I am not foolish. You have made a proper teacher in our time together and I must now use that. We must. All of us.”