There is a passage in the Pentateuch — or a parsha as the Hebrews call it — in which Esau and his brother Jacob (who have grown since birth to distrust each other) make up, and exchange a kiss of peace. But over the consonants in the Hebrew word for “kiss”, the traditional script shows two dots; meaningless in the ancient language. The rabbis say they indicate we should be wary of the meaning of this word, as Jacob (and also Esau?) needed to be wary of the meaning of the act. Perhaps it was less a kiss, than a bite.
As with the classic Roman tale of Coriolanus, when once a general has turned coat, who knows if, or when, he will turn again? And so, Queen Margaret and her party (the Duke of Somerset, Archbishop Morton, and the rest) were intensely wary of their new best friend. Nonetheless, their combined power — and the new order it represented — threatened to be formidable. And, of course, in London we knew very quickly all about it. We had spies even in the cathedral itself. Malory, whom we had last seen at the conclave in Brussels, to keep his options open, was still supplying us with occasional information. And Duchess Margaret, much as she was engrossed in her passion for her husband Duke Charles and anxious to provide him with an heir, never forgot her Yorkist provenance and consistently sent us reports on what was passing in France.
But at the court of Edward and Elizabeth, it was high summer and nothing could dent our mood of sensuous apathy. Indeed, the reports Anthony was receiving — as the king’s eyes and ears abroad — from Malory’s agent in England and from Burgundian sources, was that Warwick and Margaret were entirely distrustful of each other, and that Louis was dragging his cunning little feet in providing the wherewithal for any invasion plans. It’s true that Richard Gloucester, now eighteen years of age, stunted in growth and the runt of the family but evidently deeply in awe of his eldest brother, was urging the king to step up his preparations and even prepare for an invasion of France, but the rest of the council dismissed this as the over-eagerness of inexperience. Summer was too far advanced for any invasion this year — whether by us or them.
Then Warwick’s hammer struck the anvil. It was the middle of September — an Indian summer with us. Anthony had started work on a new translation, and the buxom queen was complacently great with child, while the king with Hastings, Gloucester, Anthony and I with no more than a few hundred men at arms were in York to deal with a much-bruited uprising in the north, which failed to materialise. Then came reports: Warwick had landed on the south coast with a thousand men, mainly French. Straightway, the king sent our orders for more troops and for Montagu (Warwick’s brother who had so far stayed loyal) to join us from the north.
Within two days, we had reports that Warwick had been joined by at least another thousand of his own retainers, as he marched on London. Still we awaited reinforcements, but none arrived and our own men began to drift away. In the evening, Anthony whispered to me that it felt like the camp of Richard II in 1399, as each morning our numbers had inexplicably dwindled.
The king held a council of war.
Hastings said, “Five hundred men will join Your Grace within days. But we cannot march south yet.”
Gloucester said, “Let us march to York, brother. They are steadfast there for our House. But we cannot march south yet.”
Anthony said, “What of the queen? She may be carrying Your Grace’s heir… Ten companies of archers are on their way from Wales. But we cannot march south yet.”
They turned to me. I said, “My mother is sending men and material from Norfolk and Suffolk, Your Grace…”
“But we cannot march south yet,” said the king, looking grim and gaunt.
At that moment, a royal messenger arrived, begrimed and sodden, with a letter from the queen.
The king read it. His face blenched.
“My lords, Warwick has been welcomed into the capital. He has released Henry of Lancaster from the Tower and… readepted his reign. The queen has gone into sanctuary in the abbey with our daughters. She urges us to flee.”
There was a silence of despair.
“We will take ships to my brother-in-law in Burgundy. Arrange it, Hastings. Fast.”
Our arrival in Flanders in three carracks was not a pretty affair. We had set sail from King’s Lynn and were chased up the Dutch coast by German pirates. Fortunately, the winds blew us into the power of the good friend and brother-knight Anthony and I had bonded with on our previous visit, Louis, Sieur de Gruuthuse, whom Duke Charles had since promoted to Governor of Holland. He welcomed us at his home, Port of Bruges, not with braying of trumpets but with salt and good bread and a brotherly kindness which we have never forgot, and then took us into his great house in the centre of that beautiful town.
We had almost nothing beyond the clothes we had travelled in and a few coins, personal weapons and a handful of retainers. I had only two grooms: Q was still in London, now as Anthony’s and my joint steward, and our beloved Malcolm was back in Hull, both lying very low, hoping and waiting for news of the queen’s pregnancy and of our safety in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, we were a band of young men, alive and free, and full of spunk and expectation. Duke Charles was recently and lustily wed to Edward’s favourite sister. She adored her brother. Whilst Charles and Edward were natural allies against the wily old French King, Louis XI.
Except that Charles of Burgundy’s interests lay in another direction. As Anthony and I had heard, Charles’ overweening ambition was to exchange his heavily bejewelled ducal coronet for a royal crown. He was presently angling for a summit conference with the ponderous Emperor Frederick III — of the new Habsburg dynasty — to barter his pretty daughter and heiress Mary as wife to the Archduke Maximilian, Frederick’s heir, in consideration of the Roman Crown. Or, if that failed, to have Flanders-Burgundy recognised by Pope and Emperor as a kingdom. So it was clearly against his interests at present to provoke his French neighbour. And, for princes, dynastic ambition always outweighs conjugal love.
Of course, Edward sent urgent letters to Duchess Margaret, who replied with money, jewels and much love. But she could do nothing to move her husband even to meet with our king. He even offered to send me and Anthony to the ducal court in Brussels to point out the advantages of a firm compact between us to attack the French who, of course, can never be trusted. But that too was politely rejected. The time was not right. The wind was blowing strongly in the opposite direction.
So we whiled away the weeks in Louis de Gruuthuse’s lovely mansion in the middle of the equally lovely city of Bruges (or Brugge as the locals call it), waiting, frustrated, cut off from England and our families but never losing hope. We did receive news in the form of reports smuggled out to us by Flemish merchants, bringing letters in invisible ink from contacts in England, Malory, of course, and one from a retainer of John Tiptoft, scholar and soldier who, like Procrustes, enjoyed dismembering his victims to suit his moods. Warwick, it seemed, had placed Henry VI back on the throne, but in name only. It was the mighty earl who ruled. All was peaceful in England and, as far as we knew, Margaret of Anjou remained in France with her son and his new wife, Anne Neville, still distrustful of her beloved son’s new daddy-in-law.
We had fine apartments in the Gruuthuse house, which was built in handsome grey stone around a central courtyard and with a dark closet-chapel from which one could look down onto the altar of the neighbouring church. We prayed quite a lot in the chapel. We had a lot to pray for. We also wandered the streets most afternoons, admiring the elegant public buildings, built on the proceeds of the strong local beer. Like my own family in former generations, the Gruuthuse clan had built its wealth from business: brewing in their case, wine-selling and banking in ours.
We admired the public squares and the breathtakingly beautiful Church of the Virgin with its fabulous elaborate gilded frontage and its intricate statues and sculptures within. While Anthony, to keep his lively mind busy, laboured in his closet on his translation from French into our mother tongue of The Sayings and Dictes of the Philosophers, I enjoyed promenading the streets with just a groom for company listening to the street musicians playing their extraordinary cornemuse — akin to the Scottish bagpipe — or singing sometimes lusty, sometimes prayerful songs at street corners.
Waiting, waiting… waiting on time and fortune’s wheel… waiting on the will and whims of princes… that has become my life in this last decade or more in this vale of exile… and so it was then for weeks and months that felt like years as ‘70 turned its Janus’ face towards ‘71; and still we waited. In late November, I had a smuggled letter from Q with the glorious news that Queen Elizabeth had at last given birth, in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, to a big and healthy boy; we had our Yorkist Prince of Wales. I ran up to the king’s apartments where he was, as usual, idling away the day playing backgammon with Hastings to find that, though they had heard rumours already, this was the first reliable confirmation of the news. Anthony was summoned from his scholarly solitude, and we drank a toast in the best Flemish wine available to “Queen Elizabeth and His Highness the High and Mighty Prince of Wales”. Howsomever, we were not able to drink to him by name, as we did not know what name he might have been christened in — or even if he had been christened at all.
Looking between the handsome young, flushed faces of our little circle in the candlelight in the shadows of that winter afternoon, I wondered what sort of omen it was for a Prince of Wales to be born in near-poverty and in sanctuary in the middle of a land ruled by his royal mother and father’s enemies. A dark cloud passed over my heart as I felt a foreshadowing of a strange sad fate for such a prince. There was, for a moment, an odd bitter taste in my mouth as I saw a dark shadowy vision of a young man dead, how I knew not, in a tall dark tower. But then my gloom was dispelled by Anthony’s handsome face and the king’s evident good cheer, especially when I read out from Q’s letter that useless old King Henry had proved himself not so useless after all in the realm of charity, having sent provisions and good wishes to our queen in sanctuary, addressing her as “his good cousin Elizabeth”. The rules of war seemed thus not to apply to madmen, mothers or saints.
It brought continuing hope to us, as we knew it would to our affinities in England, that Edward was now the father of a fine son and Anthony, uncle to a high and mighty nephew. But while we received good wishes and gold coins from Duchess Margaret, no invitation to meet was forthcoming from her husband who, she sadly told us, was still in close contact with Warwick’s well-established government in England, which had, so it seemed, executed several chief Yorkist adherents including mad, brilliant John Tiptoft who had been taken, hiding in a tree, and summarily beheaded. At least he hadn’t suffered the tortures he had loved inflicting on others.
Still we waited and waited through days of expectation, and others of near despair. I remember one of those around the time of Christ’s nativity when on a cold dreary afternoon, the snow lay heavy on the roofs of Bruges’ handsome buildings, when I had gone, first to a (rather low) tavern to take some ale to keep out the cold and then, as I sometimes did, to seek solace in the lovely golden Chapel of the Virgin near the main town square and, in an ecstasy of self-abasement (something I have since seen my rabbinic mentor perform on his Day of Atonement), I threw myself down before the glistering (if idolatrous) statue of the Virgin with Her Child and begged the Lord for some sign, some promise, that all would be well for me, my friends and the poor beleaguered babe in St. Edward’s sanctuary.
As I lay prostrate, muttering God knows what prayers in a mixture of Latin and English, I felt a slight nudge, almost as if accidental, at my left foot. How dare anyone disturb my heartfelt prayers? I looked up and around, angry and discombobulated, to see a quite well-dressed fellow of the merchant class, perhaps ten years older than me, with a not very comely face peering at me through the gloom with his very sharp and lively eyes.
“Are you an Englishman, sir?”
“I am an English nobleman, shirrah, and I wish to be left in peace.” I was aware that I sounded a tad slurred.
“Noble thou mayst be, my lord, then all the more sad I am, also an Englishman, to find an English lord drunken and swaying before the graven image of Our Lady.”
I was now both angry and — a little — embarrassed. I may have partaken of two or three goblets of alcohol after our all-too-light dinner, but I was certainly not drunk.
I rose to my feet, or tried to. The Englishman helped me, respectfully.
“Like Hannah in the temple, merchant, you have mishtak — mistaken my intense devotion and prayerfulness for being in drink. Were you a knight, I should throw down my gauntlet. But as you are clearly not a knight — and at present I do not have a gauntlet, not even at my lodgings…”
“My lord, are you one of the lords attendant upon His Grace King Edward, here in Bruges?”
We were now seated on a deep stone window-ledge, the merchant having gently guided me there.
“Verily, merchant. I am Edward De-la-Pole, brother to the Duke of Suffolk and attendant upon our Lord King, here in his sad exile.” And I sighed, dolefully. “And who are you, sir, and what is your business here?”
“William Caxton, merchant printer and resident of this fair city of Bruges at your service, my lord, exercising my new trade which is an art, my lord, under licence from His Highness Duke Charles and the fair Duchess Margaret.”
“And what do you… print, Master Caxtow?”
“Caxton, my lord. I print divers books with words and pictures and music, sir.”
A slightly misshapen figure lumbered up in the darkness. I reached for my dagger.
“No, no, my lord, no need for weapons. This is my assistant whom I recruited in Cologne in the Rhenish Palatinate, my lord, where I learnt my trade. His name is Wynkyn de Worde, sir.”
“Ah, how apt that a man who works with books and letters should be named ‘Word’. I hope you are a man of your word, Wynkyn.”
They both laughed, politely.
I was warming to Caxton who seemed shrewd, loyal and, potentially, useful, in all sorts of ways.
“You must come visit us at the Gruuthuse mansion, Caxton, and bring some samples of your work. I am very interested in music, for both harp and voice, while my bosom friend Lord Rivers is a scholar and translator of some note.”
Caxton gave me a cursory bow; he was clearly not adept in the courtly arts. “It will be a great joy, my lord, as it would be if I can serve our Lord King in his exile. Let’s hope and pray it will not be for long, my lord.”
“Precisely what I was so fervently praying for myself when you interrupted me… But I am glad you did. It is always a pleasure to meet an Englishman abroad, especially one who gives allegiance to the true Plantagenet.”
He bowed again, more deeply and reverently this time; even tradesmen are useful allies in these strange and difficult times.
The ships were prepared and rolling lightly and, to me, a little disturbingly on the quayside at Vlissingen, where the
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