Of course, months of preparation had preceded this, with the mustering of men and arms, the signing of indentures between the king and his vassals-in-chief (my brother and I jointly indentured to provide the army with seven hundred men in return for a weekly honorarium — provisioning fighting men is not cheap), and essential alliances with both Duke Charles and Duke Francis — with whom Anthony had parlayed not long before.
And here we were in Calais: that piece of England beyond the water, or rather the last remnant of the great Angevin Empire in France which still remains to the English Crown. Calais is a fine bustling city and a major mercantile centre, protected by its great fortress of Guisnes, where our military headquarters were based. Our army of twenty thousand men were largely encamped outside the city in that strip of English territory which we had been reduced to since Henry VI’s disastrous accession. Our intelligence was that King Louis was not well-prepared and — if he saw himself encircled by enemies — could be induced to ask our king to name his price for a withdrawal from France. But would King Edward name a price so high — let us say, the duchy of Normandy — that no French king could pay and expect to survive? With three great duchies free, the French Crown would almost be reduced to its weakness of earlier centuries. And then, wouldn’t Louis expect the English to return in spring, when campaigning resumes, in order to reclaim the luscious country of Bordeaux and all Gascony from the French? Much would depend on the cohesion of our alliances, especially with Burgundy.
We were awaiting the king’s next move, when Anthony summoned me to meet him on the king’s business. I hurried to our rendezvous in the cloisters of the great church.
“The king commands us to ride post-haste to meet with Duke Charles at Bar-le- Duc; it’s in his duchy of Bar near to Lorraine.”
He saw the look of horror on my face and smiled, showing the best white teeth in the English court.
“Don’t fuss, Eddie. It’s just a few days’ ride and we can easily go north into Burgundian territory and follow the line of the Muese river through the duke’s territories till we get to Bar.”
“I can remember when the duchies of Bar and Lorraine were the fiefdom of René of Anjou. I’m beginning to feel old, Antonio. And why isn’t Duke Charles bringing his army to us?”
“That’s what we are going to ask him — most diplomatically, of course. The story is he’s been delayed from bringing his full forces to bear on the French by an annoying fracas with the Archbishop of Cologne — a very stupid, minor cleric. There are rumours of a battle at Neuss in the Rhine Valley. Hence the king’s cat and mouse policy. We are to meet him and escort his forces on their way to rendezvous with us in Normandy.”
I was sceptical. “So, the archbishop had been dealt with?”
“And the Swiss?”
“Stop worrying, brother. The duke just needs to see us—”
“He needs to see you, you mean.”
“He wants to see us both as the king’s kinsmen before he will advance. You know Duke Charles and his amour-propre.”
“Let’s hope his love of the king, his brother-in-law, is as proper.”
In reply, Anthony gave me a playful spank on the buttocks.
Our dealings with the duke were not as straightforward as Anthony had anticipated.
When we arrived at his handsome castle of Bar-le-Duc, there were no signs of an army. The duke was in residence with a bodyguard of his most favoured Knights of the Golden Fleece, but that was all. His army had clearly been left on the Rhine. We were summoned to an audience with him in the great hall of the castle, where we were received most hospitably.
“My lords, the Comte des Rivieres and Monsieur De-la-Pole.” He addressed us in French, of course. “You are most welcome both in your own right and even more so as the accredited envoys and kinsmen of my brother, King Edward. I invite you, my lords, to feast at my table amongst our brethren of the Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece.”
The king would be expecting news from us as soon as possible; why yet another delay? I looked anxiously at Anthony. His gaze in reply said: an evening of bonding with the duke and his companions can do no harm. And what choice do we have?
By now, we were used to reading each other’s thoughts.
The duke’s high chamberlain had placed me in the position of honour seated — some distance away, of course — at the duke’s right hand (perhaps he thought the king’s sister’s husband’s brother was senior to the queen’s brother — or, more likely, he was still wary of Anthony after the debacle at the joust with his brother the Bastard).
Towards the end of the splendid meal, after too many toasts to each other in heavy Burgundian wine, the duke beckoned me closer and whispered, ”Lord Edward, I have written the king some days past that — due to a little local difficulty in the Rhine Valley — I am not as yet at liberty to bring the full weight of my forces to bear on Normandy. But as a token of the love I bear him — and to cement our alliance — I shall ride with Your Lordships and a bodyguard of my knights to meet my brother at Calais and make plans for our campaign. We depart two hours after dawn.”
I nodded and smiled. But I knew it was not enough.
Even as dawn was breaking — with a glow of gold over the hills of Lorraine to the east — we were summoned, less than courteously, from our comfortable beds by ducal grooms.
We dressed hurriedly. Even Anthony looked perturbed, a little.
“This is not a good omen,” I muttered.
He replied in one of his favourite phrases, “Ora pro nobis peccatoribus. Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.”
“Yes, but not yet, I trust,” said I.
He just smiled.
The atmosphere as we entered the Great Hall was sour, with the smell of last night’s booze and the sweat of angry knights summoned from their beds unbathed and unbreakfasted; and of a very angry duke.
“Did you know of this?” shouted Duke Charles at us, as soon as we were herded into his presence.
“Your Grace, we know only of those greetings and messages we brought to Your Highness from our master.” Anthony was better than me at this kind of thing.
I felt like one of Joseph’s ten errant brothers brought before him unknowingly when he was viceroy of Egypt. Even then I knew my Pentateuch.
The duke turned to me.
“And you, what did you know?”
“I know only, sir, that we were sent here to provide an honourable escort for Your Highness — and his army.”
His eyes shot sparks at both of us. Then he addressed the assembled court.
“The King of England has made peace — has already signed a treaty at Picquigny — with the King of France. He has dishonourably accepted a double bribe from the French of fifteen thousand pounds,” Anthony and I bridled at this turn of phrase. “And a proposed marriage between his eldest daughter and the dauphin. So, for a wedding and forty pieces of silver, he has thrown me over!”
The knights banged their swords on the stone floor to express their anger; we looked at each other in horror and shock. Yet I was not so amazed.
“Well, gentlemen, what have you to say?”
We opened our mouths but — fortunately — he gave us no time to answer.
“I am not a whit surprised,” he continued, beckoning his steward and throwing back a jewelled goblet of wine. “What more can you expect from a usurper? Edward Plantagenet he is not. Edward Blaybourne, that is his name. All Christendom knows his father was the handsome, lowborn Captain of Calais, where his mother was in residence. The old Duchess of York has even said it herself!”
At this, there was uproar, as the knights cheered and shouted their support for the duke while we protested loudly.
“My lord, we strongly object to this unworthy calumny…”
“Be silent. Go back to your master and report my words. Our alliance is over. As is your audience.”
We bowed and left. Hastily.
“How could he? The duke, I mean.”
“Sadly, it is the way of the world,” said Anthony. “He is guilty at his own perfidy so seeks to lay the blame on the king.”
There was silence as we rode on.
“It cannot be true, can it?”
“What do you mean, brother?”
“That the king…” I was whispering even though our small escort was some yards behind, “That the king is not—”
“Of course not.” Anthony’s voice was sharp; the sharpest I had ever heard it.
“What he said about Duchess Cecily was true. When she was angry…”
My companion looked at me almost fiercely. “She is a bitter, demented old woman. Of course, His Grace is a Plantagenet. Who else?”
I saw of a sudden that the future greatness — even the future survival — of his two young nephews, the Prince of Wales and the sweet little Duke of York, depended on these rumours being utterly quashed.
I bit my lip and said nothing.
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