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By Hilda Lewis
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Hilda Lewis
All rights reserved.
Edward, new-come to the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland, lord of Normandy, Ponthieu, Gascony and Aquitaine stirred and flung out his arms. His hand touched the head of the sleeper at his side. He turned on his elbow, keeping the fur bedcover about him, for the January morning was cold; his hand went out to stroke the dark head and then drew back lest it disturb the sleeper; he settled himself down to the warmth of the bed and the beloved body at his side.
Piers. Piers Gaveston. He'd got Piers back. It was the first thing he'd done after his father's death; the breath hardly out of the old man's body — and there was Piers back again in England. Last winter his father had driven Piers away ...
At the thought of the old King the young King's face darkened. The old man, old and cold and fierce and hard ... I was always afraid of him. So big, so tall. When I was a child he seemed to reach up to the sky — as though he could thrust his head through the clouds and talk to God. I used to think God did surely whisper in his ear; he knew everything — everything a boy did or even thought. And of course he did know everything — though it was not God that told him. And everything a boy did or thought was wrong. And it was always discipline ... discipline. I sickened at the word. I used to think blood didn't flow in those veins of his but some dark physic ...
But it was the treatment of Piers that turned dislike into hatred. Ungrateful for gallant service in his Flanders wars, the old man sent Piers across the seas; banished. And yet, once he thought well of Piers; made him an esquire in the royal household. And then because Piers was poor and proud sent him to join the palace boys, young nobles all, being trained with me, myself, for knighthood ...
Edward lay back remembering the first time he had ever set eyes on Piers — the handsome face, the friendly face. Friendly. It was the thing that made Piers different from all the others.
A prince has no real friends. People were respectful; or, when they dared, despised me ... and still they do because I like to take life easy. And why not? When there's work to do — I do it. I did well in the Scottish wars though I didn't like fighting and never will. Even that hard-bitten old soldier, that father of mine, praised me. Till Piers came I hadn't a friend. Those palace boys! They bowed their backs because their future lay in my hands, but no-one was ever my friend; too scared of the old man. But Piers was different. He wasn't afraid of anyone, ever! The first moment I set eyes on him I wanted to run to him, clasp him in both arms, to call him brother ...
And he remembered how, overcome by sudden love, he'd stood dumb; and how, in that moment when Piers had bent to his prince's hand, a flame had sung in his blood, and not all the winds of persecution could put it out.
And he remembered how Piers had stood out above all the palace boys. He was the oldest; he was skilled in every manly sport. He shone above them all — above his prince even, himself no mean sportsman. Everyone had liked Piers ... at first. He had held them all by his charm and by his wit, and by tales of the fighting in Flanders.
... He kept us all in fits of laughter by his wicked wit. But what he didn't understand — and doesn't understand — is that people laugh only when the needle pricks others; when it pricks themselves it isn't so funny. And another thing they held against him — and still do hold — is what they call his greed. They didn't understand and never will, his poverty. Those things others have as a matter of course, were never his. Between his wit and his need, his charms wore thin. And so the mischief started. It wasn't hard to turn my father against him; Piers' pride, Piers' tongue — his own worst enemy.
But not for me. I held him dear. I hold him dearer now; of all men dearest. I stood by him, I defended him, yes even to my father; I was stung by the old man's injustice. I asked for the rewards Piers' services deserved; I asked for lands in Ponthieu with all their honours, all their moneys. Too much, perhaps? But others had got more and done less — so much less. Result — the old man's cold rage; banishment for Piers, and for myself ...
Even now in the warmth of the bed he shivered, recalling those dark days robbed of his friend, weighed down by the King's cold anger.
... Days best forgotten. Days made hateful by the thought of Piers poor and shabby. I sent him all I had — moneys, jewels, my own clothes even. I went shabby myself that he might shine brighter. I tried not to hate the old man for putting the sun out of the sky, tried not to wish him dead, not to long for freedom, for summer after long winter. Well, that's finished now, God be thanked! And Piers is back again; and back with every honour his King can give. I showed then all who's King. In face of everyone, barons and bishops alike, I made him earl of Cornwall. A Royal earldom, meant for a royal prince. Sir, your father meant it for your brother the lord Thomas Walter Langton, sour-face bishop of Lichfield, the old man's chief adviser, one that had spared his prince no reproaches. Well his prince is prince no longer. He is King. The lord Thomas has been well-looked to. And, if we speak of brothers, Piers Gaveston is the brother of my heart.
So now Piers is lord of Cornwall with all its lands and castles, with all its dues, its moneys and its mines. I raised him higher still. I married him to royal blood — my own blood. I gave him my niece to wife; my sister Joanna's girl. Her brother was none — too — pleased. It may not please you, I told my nephew Gloucester, but it pleases me; and it would have pleased your mother well. And so it would. Because the girl is in love with her husband. Take love where you find it! she used to say.
He sighed for his sister dead these nine months.
But — and he brightened again, Piers' wedding! That was a wedding worthy of any King. There'd been feasting and merry-making and a riotous putting the bride to bed. And there'd been wedding gifts for Piers — a dozen castles, a dozen market-dues, a dozen licences for fairs.
But for all that it wasn't easy to give Piers into the arms of a woman — especially Margaret, so young, so charming, so much in love.
He sighed again, remembering the long nights he'd lain awake sick with jealousy, unable to endure the thought of Piers in any arms but his own.
... Yet it had to be done; Piers must raise up an heir for his great possessions. But I haven't lost by it. Piers is kind to his young wife yet he loves his friend best. Two months since that wedding and I have Piers back again. And for that he'll reap his reward! I'll show them all — the backbiters, the haters, the jealous haters! And if the old man knows as much wherever he is, as he knew when he was alive, I wish him joy of his knowledge!
Lying there in the warmth of the bed he recognised that his joyous giving to Piers was sweetened by revenge against his father. Nor had revenge stopped there. He'd brought back all those his father had put from their high place. And those his father had trusted, his son had removed; he could not work with them. He had to shake off that iron grip from beyond the grave.
First to go had been Langton of Lichfield, his father's treasurer. Finished at last with sour reproaches for extravagance. And close on his heels had followed the sanctimonious bishop of Chichester. He'd once complained that Piers had broken into his park. The old fool should have kept his fences in better order! That complaint had been the last straw; it had brought about Piers' banishment. Now Chichester could whistle for office!
But Bek of Durham and Winchelsey of Canterbury — proud prelates his father had called them — were not too proud to obey a new master; they'd come at a whistle; they'd had enough of royal displeasure. Useful men, both! Reynolds of Worcester was another bishop the old man hadn't liked; but Reynolds had been the first to welcome Piers back — and that was enough recommendation! And now Reynolds was proving himself a useful treasurer.
Everything pleasantly settled.
King at last. Twenty-four and healthy; handsome — he couldn't but know it. And free. All set to enjoy life.
But ... within a day or two he was to be married.
A shadow fell across his joy.
Well, in this at least, he was carrying out his father's commands; and, like all those commands, it brought him little pleasure. But to marry was a King's duty — he knew that! And marriage, what was it after all? It hadn't made much difference between himself and Piers. And, since marry he must, there was surely no bride to equal his. Never had a King of England so royal a wife. Isabella of France was not only the daughter of Kings, she was daughter to a Queen in her own right — Jehanne, Queen of Navarre. She was pretty, the young Isabella, they said, pretty and well-dowered. There at least, his father had served him well — though for looks the old man had cared little. For the dower he'd cared a good deal; and for a firmer friendship with France, a smoothing out of irritations between the two countries — for that he'd cared most of all.
But ... the business of sleeping together! Too soon to trouble one's self for that. The girl was young, fourteen at the most. A couple of years would arrange that matter; time always did.
He stretched voluptuously, throwing out his arms. The sleeper stirred, opened a drowsy eye and came awake at once. That was one of the endearing things about Piers. No yawning, no wondering where he was; a half — open eye — and then wide awake!
'Well!' Piers sat up in the bed, his admirable body lean and golden against the peacock lozenged pillows; Edward had chosen them for that very reason. 'So today you sail for France!'
'You'll catch your death!' Edward said, pettish; he didn't need reminding of that! 'The room's cold as death.' He pulled Piers down into the warmth of the bed.
'They say —' Piers spoke with his mocking grin, so delightful when it mocked at others, 'you're in such haste to be wed that you've called a halt to the fighting. They say it'll cost you Scotland.'
'They couldn't be wider the mark! If fighting holds no charm for me, marriage holds still less! But — the thing must be done!' Edward shrugged.
'A reluctant groom! Can it be that Edward of England's frightened; frightened of a little girl?'
Piers at his mocking again! Edward's mouth, sensitive and sensual — a woman's mouth — tightened.
'Frightened!' And he laughed a little. 'No! But ...' he hesitated' 'how if she takes it ill ... about you and me?'
'She's too young to understand such matters. Besides, I'll win her, never fear. I never failed to win a woman yet.'
And that was true enough. That Piers was the King's sweetheart didn't lessen his attraction in the eyes of women. It was a charm that didn't extend to men; Piers made many enemies. If only he'd guard his tongue a little! But with women he was debonair; his wife was hopelessly in love with him; she was complaining that she saw nothing of him. Well, what could she expect!
Edward said, a little sulky, 'It's a poor lookout if I can't handle a wife, a child of thirteen.'
'Fourteen,' Gaveston corrected him. 'Between thirteen and fourteen there's a world of difference. In a year a child grows to be a woman. As for handling her — a wife isn't a hound, nor yet a mare. Believe me, of all God's creatures, a wife, even the most loving, is the hardest animal to handle.'
'I am the King!'
'And she's the Queen — and as royal as yourself; mark it!' Then noticing the King's frown said, with a sudden change of subject, 'I wish I were going to your wedding, Ned. Of all things, I do like feasting and junketing!'
'I'll not risk to carry you into France; this is no time to set French tongues wagging. And after all I leave you as Regent; there's greater honour in that! And, if you may not come to my wedding, you shall shine at my crowning; I leave it all to you! Well, it's time to rise; I ride within the hour.'
He called aloud and a page came running to pick up the tumbled clothes, no expression on his young face. Afterwards he would tell the others how the King and his sweetheart had been so eager for bed they'd flung their clothes to the floor, which clothes had lain themselves embraced like lovers.
Now came the servants bearing fresh linen, bearing ewers and hot water and fine towels, the barbers at their heels. And now travelling clothes for the King — fine woollen cloak, soft leather riding-boots; and for Piers garments of velvet gold-embroidered, fit for a King's favourite.
'Adieu,' the King said, his lips on Gaveston's. 'I leave everything with you — the crowning and the feast, and above all my heart!'
Edward was looking from the ship's forecastle and staring down into the grey restless water when Madam Queen Margaret came from within wrapped in a fur cloak against the sea-wind. He thought again how young she looked; but then she was not yet twenty-seven — a few years older than himself. He'd always thought it strange she had been content to marry his father; stranger still how truly she mourned his loss. She had never seemed like a step-mother; only like a wise, kind, elder sister. In her gentle goodness she reminded him of his sister Joanna — save that Joanna had been lovely and Margaret was no beauty but none the less lovable for that! Margaret good withouten lack they called her.
'Sir,' she said; and then, 'Son, you are not happy about this marriage.' And it was scarcely a question.
'No.' And he could not lie into those steady eyes. 'But, if marry I must, this is as good as any!' He turned his eyes upon the grey and tumbling sea. 'It isn't because of Piers,' he said. 'If there were no Piers it would be just the same. I don't like women.'
She had long known it; her calm unshocked look encouraged him to speak further. She was glad of it; he might, a little, ease his heart.
'All my life there's been too many women. All those sisters! Eleanor and Blanche and Joanna and Margaret and Mary and Elizabeth; and all their women and their women's women. A child smothered with women. I had my own household; but I wasn't allowed to be alone in it, ever. Women; always women! Afterwards when I was older and the palace boys came it was too late; the mischief was done.'
'Surely not beyond repair!' But she feared it, she feared it. 'In a little boy it's easy to understand; but you're a man now, free to come and go. Surely you can't hate us all.'
'Not hate; but I get no pleasure from women. Hate, you?' He lifted her hand and kissed it. 'And Joanna; Joanna I loved; she died too soon. She gave me courage. Never be afraid, she used to say. But, if you must be, never show it! And she lived by it. I never saw her afraid in my life.'
'Nor I, neither. She had a great spirit.'
'Never to be afraid, not even of my father!'
'She had no need; nor you neither — if you had known. Gentleness begets gentleness.' She sighed; others had called her husband harsh and cold, his own children even; but between him and her there had been much kindness.
'Well,' she said, 'there are few sisters to trouble you now!' and sighed again. 'All dead or far away, save Mary and Elizabeth.'
'Dear Elizabeth. She was — and is — forever my friend. She was a brave one, too. When I angered my father — and that was all too often — she always stood by me. That time, when I angered him over Piers; remember? He cut off supplies, I hadn't a shilling; and he threatened to punish any that should comfort me. She sent me her own seal, the Hereford seal; and bade me take what I would, if it were to her last shilling. There was courage if you like.'
She nodded. 'My husband's anger was no light thing — though myself I never knew it. Could you not like women a little, for the sake of those two?'
He shook his head. 'Not even for you that were, of all women, the kindest to a lonely boy — and you not more than a girl yourself. I love you, all three, forgetting you are women, remembering only your goodness. But the rest — women! When I was a child there were times I couldn't breathe for women; and I would remember the brothers that died. Three little boys; and each one of them to have had the crown ... and not one of them to live to have it. And I'd think, The women are alive; but the boys, the little boys are dead. And I was sure I must die, too. I was to have the crown; should I not die like my brothers? It seemed to me there was death on the crown. Women the crown and death — they went together.'
'But,' she reminded him gentle, 'it was Joanna that died; Joanna and not you. And childhood is over; you must put away childish things.' That his life had been shadowed by women she had always known; but his childhood fear of the crown — of death in the crown, that she had not dreamed.
Excerpted from Harlot Queen by Hilda Lewis. Copyright © 2011 Hilda Lewis. Excerpted by permission of The History 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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Table of Contents
PART ONE The King and Gaveston,
PART TWO The King and the Despensers,
Check to the Queen,
PART THREE The Queen and Mortimer,
Check to the King,
PART FOUR Mortimer and the Queen,
The King's Poem,
The supposed death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle.,
The Queen's wedding-cloak.,
Some books consulted,