Royal Redemption: Chapter 1

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, waved away the page who was bowing low to offer a dish of roasted quails. His Lordship had eaten his fill and was tiring of the endless procession of meat dishes and pastries being served at the royal banquet. He gazed around the great hall of the Palace of Westminster, its walls hung with tapestries which framed a colourful and lively scene. Ladies in silk dresses and elaborate headgear sat beside their lords whose position at table was determined by their rank. Also at the feast were groups of young knights in luxurious attire whose noisy conversation drowned out the music from the minstrel’s gallery.

Northumberland briefly closed his eyes. He was still tired from the long journey south which had taken him and his men several days of hard riding. Having responded at once to the King’s summons he'd wasted no time travelling to London yet, apart from a brief word of welcome, the King had not spoken to him since his arrival. He still had no idea why his presence at court was so urgently required and he was beginning to resign himself to a lengthy wait. He tried not to think of all the tasks claiming his attention in Northumberland, not least the ever present threat from the Scots. He reminded himself that his son, also named Henry like all firstborn males of the Percy family, was more than capable of managing the estates and defending his inheritance. Life at court proceeded at its own pace and the earl could only wait on the king’s pleasure.

Northumberland’s reverie was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a trumpet which brought the assembled company to its feet. From his position at high table, the earl watched as the king gracefully extended his right hand towards the queen. She placed her fingers lightly on his forearm and then the two of them processed down the centre of the great hall, followed by attendants and ladies in waiting. As the royal couple passed between the ranks of courtiers the men bowed low and the women curtsied, all eyes fixed on the ground where the queen’s train swept a path through the freshly strewn rushes.

When everyone had resumed their seats, Northumberland picked up his goblet and drained the last of his wine, intending to leave the great hall where many of the knights and squires would continue eating and drinking well into the night, until they eventually fell asleep under the table. As he rose to return to his quarters a royal attendant appeared at his side and discreetly delivered the king’s order, couched as an invitation, to join him in the solar.

His tiredness forgotten, Northumberland headed up the spiral staircase to the private quarters which during the day were the queen’s preserve where she and her ladies sewed. That evening only the king was present in the room when Northumberland knocked on the heavy wooden door. His Majesty stood to greet his guest who would have bowed low had he not been swept at once into his king’s powerful embrace.

“Henry, you’re looking well,” the monarch exclaimed warmly as he pummelled the earl on the back. “You’re looking very well for your age.”

“I’m the same age as you, sire,” responded Northumberland with a laugh as they slipped back into the easy intimacy which had characterised their relationship in former years.

“So I am,” the king conceded. “But I have a great many cares of state… worries which are turning my hair grey. I have every excuse for showing my age. Whereas you, my friend, you live in rural tranquillity.”

“A rural tranquillity which the marauding Scots threaten at every turn. I’m doing my best to defend the borders of your realm, sire.”

“For which we are grateful, Henry, eternally grateful. But I’m afraid the most pressing threat to the security of the realm lies closer to home.”

Northumberland’s mind shifted immediately to thoughts of conspiracy. That would certainly explain the urgent invitation to an old friend who lived too far from the royal court to get drawn into the customary jostling for position and influence. “Which of your subjects has given you cause to question their loyalty?” he asked with characteristic directness.

The king did not reply at once. Instead he drew a second chair towards the log fire which burnt in the stone grate and invited Northumberland to join him beside the hearth. Then, gazing into the dancing flames, the king began to unburden himself to his lifelong friend. “My vassals remain loyal to the crown,” he said. “I fear it is the Prince of Wales who will bring all I’ve worked for to naught. He is the one who threatens the future stability and prosperity of the country.”

“Edward?” gasped Northumberland in amazement, remembering the golden haired little boy who had once played with his own son Henry, whom everyone called Harry. “Surely Edward is not plotting against you!”

“I could almost wish he were,” replied the king heavily. “At least it would give me some indication that he’s interested in running the country… in assuming the reins of power. All he’s shown any interest in so far is a life of idleness and dissipation. Even that I could overlook if I could see signs of reformation in him. Young men need the chance to run wild, don’t they? But his recent conduct has moved from the unruly to the unlawful. Now the townspeople are openly commenting on his life of riot and debauchery. Thank God I have a younger son.”

“You’re not planning to disinherit Edward?” asked Northumberland in amazement.

“It would be a last resort. I don’t know whether Richard would prove acceptable to the nobility and I don’t want to leave a legacy of civil war. No, I’m still hoping that all is not yet lost.”

“Is Edward truly so resistant to your authority? I remember him as such an engaging little boy, always anxious to please. Do you recall how he and my boy Harry used to play together so happily before you became king and I inherited the earldom?

“And Harry has grown into a son to proud of,” the king said sadly.  “I envy you your good fortune, Henry. I could wish we had swapped sons while they were still in the cradle. Then the future of England would not now hang on the whims of a wastrel and a ne’er-do-well.”

Sire,” Northumberland remonstrated, “how can you speak so of your own son?” Anger at being challenged registered on the king’s countenance but Northumberland held his friend’s gaze as he continued to speak plainly. “You talk of my good fortune but I brought up my son to bear the burden of ruling our fiefdom and leading the vassals. If Edward has received the same training to prepare him for kingship, how can he now be resisting his father’s rightful authority? Why have you allowed his behaviour to deteriorate to the point where he is beyond your control?”

The king was the first to lower his eyes. “You always were the one to hold up a mirror to my gaze,” he said ruefully, “and I don’t like the image of myself that you’re showing me. I’ve neglected the boy; I admit it. I’ve been busy with politics, and finance, and foreign wars and I’ve let him go his own way. Now I’m reaping the reward of my inattention.” The king sighed deeply. “If it were just a case of my failure as a father then I would live with the results of my neglect but Edward is the future of England. I have to do whatever it takes to ensure that my successor is fit to wear the crown of Edward the Confessor. My son was named after our saintly king and now, Henry, I need your help to ensure that he proves worthy to follow in his namesake’s footsteps.”

“What do you want of me?”

“As you said yourself, you brought up your son to assume the responsibilities and burdens of his rank. I hope and pray that it’s not too late for you to do the same for Edward. I’m asking you to take Edward back to Northumberland with you. I can’t allow him to remain in London causing scandal and outrage amongst the people. In the north, where he isn’t known, there may be a chance for him to make a new start under your supervision. And I give you absolute authority over him, Henry. There will be no question of him claiming any privileges as heir apparent. In any case, his status is very much open to question at present. If you tell me he’s not fit to inherit the throne then I’ll name my younger son, Richard, as my successor. I’ll defer to your judgement on this, Henry, and while Edward is in your charge you will enforce obedience in whatever way you see fit. If there are scars on his back when he returns to court no questions will be asked. Do I make myself clear?”

For once Northumberland found himself lost for words. He was shaken to the core by the king’s heartless attitude towards his own son but, on reflection, he realised that the monarch was putting the demands of state above his own natural affection. The earl hadn’t forgotten the king’s pride and delight at the birth of an heir and he didn’t believe that his friend would willingly cast Edward off. “What does the prince have to say about this arrangement?” he asked at last.

“He has no say in the matter,” the king replied sharply.

“Is he willing to accompany me to Alnwick Castle?” Northumberland pressed.

“He knows nothing of this,” the king finally admitted. “I’m in the process of arranging compensation for the townspeople whose property and possessions he’s damaged and I want him removed from the capital before he causes any more ill feeling towards the crown.”

“I can’t just abduct him,” protested Northumberland.

“You won’t have to,” the king stated. “I’ll have him delivered to you bound and under guard in the morning.”

“I will not remove him from the court in chains,” Northumberland cried.

“Don’t worry. I have no desire to advertise the prince’s shame nor do I wish his whereabouts to become public knowledge. This will be managed discreetly and Edward will travel incognito.”

“All the more reason for securing his consent. Consider, sire,” pleaded Northumberland, “we must talk to Edward, persuade him of the need to leave London and discuss with him the implications of joining my household. I’m going to need his cooperation if I’m to achieve the changes you’re hoping for.”

The king appeared to consider Northumberland’s request. “I would send for the Prince of Wales,” he conceded. “That is, if I knew where he was. You must have noticed his absence from the great hall tonight… although plenty of his noisy young companions were at table.” Abruptly he bowed his head and covered his face with his hands as his facade of objectivity slipped to reveal his true feelings. “It’s breaking the queen’s heart,” he muttered in strangled tones.

Northumberland was filled with compassion as he caught a brief glimpse of parental concern. He lent forward to put a tentative hand on the king’s shoulder but the monarch stiffened, lifted his head and spoke decisively. “If the Prince of Wales has not returned home by dawn I’ll have my men search the stews and ale houses. Come what may, he’ll be delivered into your charge in the morning.”