The Boy Kings Tale: as Told by Geoffrey Chaucer
25th Day of June 1377
Somber bells rang from the great tower of the Abbey of Westminster as the gray clouded sky suddenly filled with fluttering doves. The doors of the cathedral fairly bulged with London's citizens. Peasants, merchants and tradesmen alike, all dewy-eyed, if not weeping outright, pressed in lines into the church, made open for all on this sad day.
A man of middle age in noble's cloak pushed himself through the crowd from inside the church doors. He limped on a gouty foot and leaned for support on a crooked walking staff. He had raised himself from a lowly station to the court of kings by his skill with words, but on this day, he felt as if all his words had left his mind for the pain of loss. He was soon recognized and quickly surrounded by a small crowd. He knew few of them had skill of letters but his days had been filled with recounting his stories at court to those far above their station. His likeness they recognized from the displays of his work in market printing stalls. Finally, a merchant’s son, a boy of fourteen, ventured forward timidly.
“Good Sir, will you—speak to us,” the boy asked, overcoming his awe at the famous old man. “Tell us, please, one of your tales. A cheerful story would lighten our hearts.”
A wheelwright in his leather apron spoke up from the back of the group, “Yes, good Sir Chaucer, give us one of your Tales of Canterbury. Tell us the Innkeeper's Tale.”
The merchant’s son argued for another, “No, kind Sir, please spin the Miller's Tale, for I have heard it is merry.”
Geoffrey Chaucer, no noble title to his name but Royal Court Poet, so anointed by his sovereign king, looked into the waiting faces. He was warmed by the eager eyes of the youngest of them. He searched his mind for the words to one of his popular stories, but what came to him instead was the present mood of the day. He glanced to the tower of the great church from which he had come and where even now his patron lay among a bed of flowers. He spoke to the son of the merchant, reminded by his young age of the subject upon his mind.
“You do prevail upon me. I will indeed tell a tale,” said Chaucer. “Yet, this solemn day is not occasion for the mirth of a whimsical parable. Nay, I will tell thee a true tale. It is a story of bloody deeds and villainous intrigues.” He tousled the head of the youngest of them, with a smile. “Yet, fear not for unsettled sleep, for it may also be a story of great joys.”
The poet eased himself to sit on the steps. The crowd gathered around him, to better hear as he began to bind his story spell.
“This shall be the Boy King's Tale,” intoned the teller of stories, “for 'tis indeed the story of a boy who was made king, at an age not much junior to your years, young Master.” He rested a kind hand, cramped and wounded by the long holding of quills on the shoulder of the son of the merchant. “Yet, listen near, for though a crown may make a king, a man must truly make himself.”
“I will begin,” he spoke with a cadence to draw in his listeners, “with that fateful night whence all our lives would be decided.”
“When we would be free or slave?” asked the Merchant’s son, eagerly, knowing the legend. Chaucer smiled with a weighty nod, “Free by the rule of law and not enslaved to capricious overlord, which indeed was the choice on balance. It was a damp November in the Year of our Lord, Thirteen Hundred and Thirty, when a Parliament of Lords and Commons had been summoned to Nottingham, their numbers from far-spread shires of the land gathered in the fields outside the city walls.”
18th Day of November 1330
The impregnable walls of Nottingham Castle stood on a rocky promontory above the encampment, pushing up from the surrounding thick forests like a cancerous mole. Below the fortress cliffs, in the shadowed meadows surrounding the hamlet of Nottingham, tents emblazoned with the colors and coats-of-arms of gathered English Lords crowded the field. Most of the tents were darkened as brooding night crept across the field, but a few fires were burning late as a drizzling mist fell upon them.
The quiet was broken with a shout of men in one of the tents. A messenger emerged from it to leap on a waiting horse, galloping through the tents soaked with the morning dew toward the castle road. He urged his horse up the steep, rain-splattered road to the castle, the animal snorting with the effort, hooves slipping in the mud and clattering across the drawbridge. The messenger ducked under the points of the raised portcullis, thrilled with an inner sense of his part in destiny.
“Missive for the king! News for the king!” he shouted as he reined his horse to a halt. The beast’s hooves clattered on the cobblestones, echoing among the battlements, enough to awake any who might have fallen into slumber on this fateful morn.
The bull-like shape of a knight stepped from the shadows to greet the eager messenger, waiting for the news he possessed. Sir John Monmouth, with eyes of stone, snared the reins of the nervous horse in his gauntleted fist, fully encased in his armor as if ready for urgent action, when in the pre-dawn darkness all else would be abed.
“What is your news?” Monmouth asked with somber expectation.
The messenger dismounted his animal with excited agitation, sure the news he held would bring gladness to the castle.
“I have tidings for his Grace from the Lords gathered in Parliament,” he said breathlessly, expecting to be taken directly to the give his report.
“Does the decision fall in the king's favor?” asked Monmouth.
The messenger held his secret for a moment, unsure whether he might give it to any of the household beyond the king himself. But his joy was too much, “Aye! In his favor!” he exclaimed, thrusting the soaked parchment with signatures of the great lords upon it so that the king’s knight might see.
Monmouth ripped the parchment from his hand and held it out toward a darkened archway, where a figure was concealed in the shadows. The messenger squinted uncertainly from the knight to the man in the shadow, but who it was, he could not make out.
“Is it not happy news?!” the eager herald asked with a bright expectation of agreement.
The figure in the shadows only nodded to Monmouth and the knight smiled darkly.
“Aye. happy news it is, then,” said the knight with a mirthless grunt, then suddenly wrapped the horse's rein around the messenger's throat and yanked him off the ground in his powerful fist. His feet kicked in futile struggle for life’s breath as he was lifted from the ground. The young herald’s eyes bulged as he struggled for breath, remembering for a moment his joy at being appointed to court to serve his king, before the light vanished forever. Finally, he was still and Monmouth dropped the limp body to the cobblestones.
“What now, my Lord Earl?” Monmouth inquired of his master in the darkness. The moonlight cut across the glistening eyes of the man in the shadows, one orb of darker reflection than the other.
”Seal the gates,” he ordered in a voice of calm certainty, deep and sonorous, yet a slight recognizable west country lilt, then turned and strode away across the courtyard.
Monmouth signaled to the keeper of the gatehouse above. Following the command, the gatekeeper released the locking lever and the heavy oak spikes of the portcullis dropped in rattling march down the opening maw. Heavy chains clanked as the drawbridge was raised, with moss-covered planks rising above the chasm until the bridge slammed with a heavy thud against its stops.
A handsome and fair young man, just eighteen, sat up in bed with a start at the distant sound. He threw back the fur blanket and padded, naked and lean, to a narrow lead-paned window in the thick stone wall. He thrust it open and peered out into the cold night. The waning moon shone over the forests, with no hint yet of the sun, as if no other days may come. Below, in the meadow, all seemed quiet, save for a few torches still glowing among the tents. He wondered if they were awake at all, or had they drifted into a sleep of wine and mead with no answer for him.
A young page boy scrambled from his straw mat in the corner at his master's stirring. He quickly gathered the thick ermine-lined suede robe and held it out. Edward, for that was the fair young man’s name, wrapped it loosely about himself, and his first notice of the chill was when the fur enfolded him, still yet to warm.
The page scurried to a side table and picked up a wooden box, carved with the symbol of three lions on the hinged top. He brought it to his master as if he might want it as well, for surely this day was the occasion for it. Edward looked at the box, feeling almost as if it was an alien thing, not belonging to him and even now doubtful of his worthiness. He ignored it and strode with decision to the chamber door, throwing open the solid wooden plank with a disdainful thud against the stone wall.
Left alone with the box, the page decided to risk a peek. He had looked upon the object it held before but was never allowed to touch it. With wondrous awe, he gingerly opened the latch and carefully raised the lid, revealing inside the gleaming gold circle set with jewels, the crown of the King of England. The round, smooth, deeply colored gemstones glistened even in the dark, catching the light of the slash of moon through the window arch. The page wondered if he might dare to touch it. He longed to feel the smooth hardness of the gold. If his master could have been anointed king as a boy not much older than himself, could he not also dream? He thought of putting it on his own head, but quickly the temptation faded, for he knew from close observation of his master the weight of wearing such a thing.
Edward hurried down a cramped spiral stone stair, around and around from his living chamber apartments to the great hall. He strode across the length of the hall to the closed doors at the far end. He pulled at them, but they were held fast, locked. Still, he banged his fist on the wood and rattled them, but to no use. An old man scuffled in, still in bedclothes, aroused by the noise. Edward watched him shuffle unsteadily across the wooden parquet and wondered to himself if he might have to find a new Chamberlain soon.
“By whose command have these doors been sealed, Chamberlain?” Edward demanded.
“The Earl of March, Your Grace,” was the answer, the old Chamberlain hesitant as if he might be scolded. “Your mother holds the keys.” He bent close to the boy king’s ear in a hushed whisper as if he might be included in the gossip, “'Tis rumored there is a plot by some of the barons below—”
He trailed off under Edward's searing glare. “I know of only one plot here about, Chamberlain—it hatches above in my mother's bedchamber.”
The Chamberlain was shocked by his master’s boldness but thought it best to say nothing more, not wishing to ignite the young king’s ready temper.
“Has there been an answer from Parliament?” Edward asked, impatient.
“No, my Lord. No word has come.”
“Is the door to my chapel unlocked—or does God plot against me as well?”
“Shall I arouse your Confessor, Sire?” the Chamberlain asked, hoping to be at least of service.
Knowing the old lord would take the age of man to reach the chapel above, or might even die upon the many steps to it, Edward turned from him and headed back to the stairs, leaving him in mid-sentence.
As Edward hurried toward his private chapel, he hesitated at a corridor, lost for a moment in the unfamiliar fortress, as they had only come to Nottingham for the parliament. A sturdy young man of nineteen hurried from the other direction, still in nightshirt. His brow was furrowed with worry. Edward was glad to see his friend, Richard of Bury. Only a year older than he, Richard had been his tutor for the past four difficult years, but at this moment, they both sensed they may have reached the darkest of all.
Richard was short of breath, having been up and down stairs. “Edward, they've boxed us in!” he said urgently. “The locks have been changed. Even the castellan has no keys.”
Edward knew already. “Mother keeps them under her pillow.”
“What do we do?”
Edward clapped his friend on the shoulder, urging him, “See if we any have allies trapped with us. And we may need weapons.”
“What of you?”
Edward could hear the distant cry of an infant drifting from the chamber apartments in the labyrinth of stone above, his attention caught by the sound, feeling a mixture of pride and foreboding.
“I must be a husband.” He smiled at the thought of the one pleasure left to him untainted by the intrigue which had brought him to this moment. He braced Richard upon his shoulder and left him to his urgent task.
Edward threw open the door of a sleeping chamber and entered to find Philippa in her fur bed robe holding their baby suckling at her breast. The infant bit too hard and Philippa, a golden-haired girl of seventeen with a warm eternal sweetness, let out a small cry. She then offered a twinkled-eyed smile to her husband. “Your son is as passionate as his father,” she said.
“My Lord is bold to enter my Lady's chamber without knock or announce,” said a stern shaky voice from the inner closet. The young queen’s Waiting Maid, Lea, appeared with some linens for the babe, though with her aged prune face, she could truly only be called a maid in jest. It was not the first time she had scolded the boy king, unafraid of his position and too well familiar with his moods. Her sharpness with him only hid the deep care she held for the young couple. If only her life had been blessed by their love, she often had wished.
“Where is our guard?” she demanded. “There are clever doings about in this cold horrid northern country, and you would leave my Lady unprotected?”
Edward stroked his son's head tenderly, his heart full with wonder at the miracle, feeling the soft tufts of golden fleece, until Lea wrested the baby from his wife's arms to lay it in the crib. He keenly felt at that moment as if all might be taken from him, for he knew well the perilous balancing point upon which they all stood. He was worried, too, that there had been no sentry posted at the door. But he didn’t want to add to their concern.
“And so, is son stolen from the father,” he said, as he watched the servant bind his infant firstborn in swaddling. He dwelt for a moment on thoughts of his own absence from his father, kept separated from him on the cause of his mother’s hatred, and from it the cause of their current state. But he could not allow the rising emotions to overcome him and forced his mind to the present danger, not wanting to reveal too much, lest he frighten them.
“The guards have been dismissed,” Edward said as if it were only a matter of detail.
Philippa pressed close to him as his true worry was well concealed. She tenderly rubbed her leg against his, not yet noticing his mood and full of mischief. She had not seen him for a day with all the important ceremonies with the gathered lords and barons.
“Then, we are in private,” she purred. “My Lord is welcome to enter his lady's chamber any time he feels the urge. Would he enter tonight she would reward him with most enthusiastic shudderings.”
Lea swatted at her mistress’s bottom, “Lady! You forget yourself with such talk!”
Philippa smiled with secret thoughts, ignoring the old scold. She allowed the familiarity as Lea had long been as much mother to her as her own.
“Indeed, I forget myself completely when my husband unsheathes his sword.” She teasingly licked his ear, “I might even forget that I am angry with him,” then, bit his lobe, just lightly, “for he is an unchivalrous lover to allow the black-eyed ogre to make advance on his wife without reproach. I have had to sup in my own chamber to escape his notice.”
Edward noticed the half-eaten plate of food on the night table. An old darkness arose within him at the subject of his enemy, one whom he had once loved.
Lea whispered with old gossip, “It is said his Spanish mother was mad and poisoned his father, but your royal father pardoned her of the crime.“
“Shush,” hushed Philippa to silence her prattle.
Edward caressed her face, trying not to alarm her but intent on making her obey him this once. “Philippa, listen to me. Do not retire to your own bed tonight. Keep our child with you, and sleep with your maid in her bed.”
“What is wrong? Edward?” She now could see his troubled mind but uncertain of the cause.
“Will you do as I command?”
She was still playful with him, “I would rather sleep in my husband's bed. If he would but command me.”
“Your restless husband will neither be in his own bed tonight.”
“And whose bed will he be in?” she smirked, wanting to ease him.
He kissed her as if it might be the last. “For the time present, do as I ask. For my mind's rest—I will sleep in no bed but lay before my God.”
Candles filled the dim gloom of the bare stone private chapel of Nottingham castle with a Holy light as if the narrow walls might hold refuge from the dark plots outside. Edward prostrated himself before the altar, laying himself naked, face to the floor, with only his robe covering his body, arms stretched to the sides in cruciform. The icy coldness of the flagstone almost burnt against his skin in penance.
Edward took a moment to recall all that had brought him to this place. He believed he had tried to do good, uncertain of his true sins, even as he tried to find the words to confess them. Yet, honest confession was his intent, and perhaps, he thought, his sins might come to him as he spoke aloud to the walls.
“My Lord and Liege God, I, Edward Plantagenet of Windsor, the third of my name, King of England, Lord of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, Duke of Aquitaine, and rightful claimant to the throne of France prostrate myself before Thy glory as I came into this world, to freely confess my guilts.”
He thought for a moment longer in the silence, trying to frame in his mind what might have brought him to this night, which he well knew could be his last on earth, “Lord, forgive me my sins of vanity and my pride, for perhaps it is these faults which now hold me captive in my own house. Forgive my intemperance—for this, too, I know is a fault.”
“Is that all you wish to confess, my son?" Edward was startled by the voice of a monk he had not seen in the shadows, half-hidden in a corner of the chapel, where he had halted, not wishing to disturb the young king in his communion with the Father. "These are small sins to bring about such an unhappy state.”
Edward now realized he was not alone with God, but with an audience. He cast an eye to the monk, sizing him up, but was unfamiliar with this confessor. He traveled with his own, but this cleric was surely an inhabitant of this castle of his cousin.
The monk had an honest and sincere face, a man of middle years, with perhaps a wisdom in the eyes. They held an earnestness not to be found in all of his profession, many who had sought the solitude of the cloister to escape the challenges of a worldly life, and many who had brought the sins of the world into their Order. Upon considering him, Edward decided impetuously that he might place his trust in this confessor. He had few friends close about him, and even if the clergyman was false, his confession was unlikely to reveal any secrets his enemy did not know already. Perhaps a perspective unjaundiced by prior knowledge of his intimate history would give him fresh guidance.
“Then, will you hear my full confess, good Father?
“If you wish it, my lord, I will hear it,” said the monk, taking his beads from his simple brown cassock.
Edward was thoughtfully silent as his confessor waited in patience. The young king seemed reluctant and the monk coughed, in polite encouragement, “Wherever you care to begin, Sire.”
Edward fixed on a thought, feeling the coldness of the stone, and sat up, pulling the robe about him in modesty. “Then I will begin, good Father, where all lives begin—in naked entrance to this world.”
The old storyteller, Chaucer, paused a moment in his tale to catch some phlegm in his throat and to see if his audience was with him. He studied the old faces and the younger among them, all enwrapped. He would soon recount the darker nature of the story but wanted them with him.
“A child, or man, may only know of his very earliest of years through flashes of disconnected memories, brief images, or haphazard recollection of feelings and sensations with no true recall of the living of them, but a prince royal will hear his life repeated to him over and again in story and song sung as lullaby, with the most intimate details scratched in recorded documents. Forgive me if I began my story at near the end,” he said, hiding his well-intended mischief, “but for better understanding, I will reset the time and place to give full meaning to the events of it.”