At the Court of Broken Dreams
I was sixteen. The weather was atrocious, with snow, sleet and every other kind of freezing shit being thrown at us. It was my first battle. And, in fact, the first really big fight of the Cousins’ Wars. It was spring, though it didn’t feel like it, Palm Sunday, 29th March in the year of grace, 1461. We were in the English Midlands, where the two opposing parties were bound to rub up and clash. Because, although people talk of Lancaster and York, it was more truly the north that, very broadly, supported Lancaster, while London and the south gave its backing to York. Inevitably, the midlands of England were our main battle ground. Funny how, in war, and by extension in politics, the country so neatly divides in two. So, here we were, not far south of York, the great northern capital, out in the middle of the rolling English countryside, between two little villages, Saxton and Towton, as I recollect (strange, isn’t it, as we grow older, we remember every detail from many years ago, yet have no memory of what we ate for this morning’s breakfast).
Like everyone else in our army, from nobleman down to churl, and all the camp followers — those whores get to know everything — I knew two unavoidable facts: first, the Lancastrians (“Henry’s rabble” we called them with the usual bravado) had already got comfortably ensconced on the higher ground and were sitting there awaiting us; second, their army, containing the affinities and households of most of the nobility of England, was patently larger than ours, maybe by as much as half. And there they sat, the smug bastards, up on their slope, the chivalry of England, dukes, earls, knights on their magnificently caparisoned steeds, and well behind them (never in front, you’ll notice), their womanish king and mannish queen. They looked impressive, solid, immovable.
But, you know, we weren’t nervous or frightened. We were serious, we were concerned, we knew we had business to do; but we had faith and belief in our destiny. The wheel of fortune would turn for us. Just as, sixty years before, it had turned against King Richard. And why such belief? Several reasons: we had right on our side; for surely and in Heaven’s name, our leader, Edward of York, former Earl of March and newly proclaimed King Edward IV, was the heir-general, in succession to his illustrious father, the Duke of York, of the foully murdered Richard II, done to death by the traitorous hand of Henry IV, grandfather of our opponent, the mawkish Henry VI. More practically, we were led by the strong alliance of King Edward and his noble cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and Salisbury, the greatest landowner in England and a magnificent military and political leader, far beyond any the party of Lancaster could produce. I don’t know what effect Warwick had, at that stage, on the enemy but, by Christ, he terrified us! We were the party of David: small, lithe, youthful and godly, opposing the bloated and over-confident bulk of Goliath: the fat old giant.
Two weeks earlier, the call to arms had come to Ewelme in Oxfordshire, where I was staying with my Beloved Mother in her favourite manor, the house she had inherited from her father, Sir Thomas Chaucer, the brilliant diplomat, who had represented his (Lancastrian) king on many occasions abroad, and received good and honest treasure and manors for his labours.
When the letter arrived, sealed with the brand new, very handsome signet of His Grace, the young King Edward, I had asked my mother’s blessing to join the Yorkist army and win my knightly spurs, renewing the honour of the De-la-Pole name. She had, of course, wept and begged me not to depart, honouring my brother for his wiser counsel in sitting out this particular, unpredictable affray.
I wish I could say that, but I cannot. It would be a lie.
My “Beloved Mother” looked me over coolly and said, “Yes, I want you to go. Try to keep out of too much mayhem but if it is God’s will that you perish — and make sure it’s honourably — then at least your brother will remain alive, here with me. And, if necessary, we can make our obeisance to Henry, if he triumphs, and thus save the family estates.”
“But Mother—” my older brother, the second Duke of Suffolk, began, but he was cut off pretty damn quickly.
“You have the mind of a boy, John, and you are not yet married to Elizabeth Plantagenet. Betrothed, yes, but there’s still time to draw back should your intended brother-in-law be hacked to pieces in this campaign. We can always find you another wife. You are a duke — though it’s hard to believe, looking at you.”
B.M. was often harsh but always accurate. And she was, since Father’s death, the undisputed head of our family. My brother pursed his lips and looked away, but he did as he was told. I blanched with nervous anticipation, a touch of fear and a heap of excitement. I was going to win my spurs.
Mother, who looked after our family finances well, had not stinted on my accoutrements. In my armour, which I was very proud of — made to measure, black, gilded and heavy, with the De-la-Pole crest of deep azure and three leopards’ heads in gold upon my helm — I was weighed down, breathless and sweating like a hog. But how else can a knight, nay a lord, go into battle?
As the son of a duke, I was entitled to the honour of serving in the vanguard but as a mere kid (thanks be to God), I was placed in the third rank, which seemed close enough. In front of me, therefore, were two massed ranks of mounted men-at-arms, glittering in such rays of the early morning sun as managed to pierce the curtain of snow, and you could smell the horses — and a certain heady aroma of noble sweat and male aggression. Quite arousing really and incredible exciting for a teenage boy. Oh, and, of course, you could smell the archers massed to our right — they always stink of sweat and shit — they’re all mere villeins after all. Useful soldiers as they are.
We could see the Lancastrian forces — just, through the sheets of sleet — and they looked a hell of a lot more numerous than we were. We had passed the night in prayer and fasting — as good Christian soldiers should — and battling with our fears and demons, sent to us by Satan himself. Now it was morning, and despite the absence of our ally the Duke of Norfolk, whose forces, said rumour, had been delayed by the slow duke’s indisposition at Pontefract — the very castle where the late King Richard II had been murdered — we knew the battle could not be long delayed.
As the snow and rain and hail came vertically down, our leader, the newly proclaimed King Edward, appeared before us on his white stallion; his standard-bearer, almost as impressive, mounted by his side with the sun-in-splendour badge of York flapping and throbbing in the wind and snow. There was massive cheering from all our ranks. I had not seen our new king in recent years and now I had the chance to feast my eyes.
To describe Edward of York as beautiful could be likened unto calling the Almighty quite strong. He was… magnificent, resplendent, gorgeous. Even married men who were unattracted by the male body looked upon him in awe, mouths gaping in admiration. We were all ready to be his minions. He was very tall, well over six feet, golden blond and manly like a Greek hero. I fell in love. Here was a king to worship, a leader worth dying for.
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