Royal Redemption: Chapter 10

“I’d like to send a message to Sir Henry Percy,” announced Edward tentatively, after he’d been at the monastery for some months. The concern on Father Gregory’s face and the hurt in his eyes alerted Edward at once to the priest’s misapprehension. “I mean I’d like to try and write a letter to him, a personal letter. I don’t mean I want him to come and take me away.”

“Oh, of course,” said the priest with relief. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. For a moment I thought you wanted to be taken off the island. Harry told me to send at once if ever you asked for a message to be conveyed to Alnwick Castle.”

“Did he?” said Edward, touched by this evidence of Sir Henry’s concern for his welfare. He hadn’t forgotten Harry’s promise to come and take him home if he found life in the monastery intolerable but it had never occurred to him that Harry would leave instructions to ensure his squire’s wishes were respected. “There’ve been a couple of times when I felt very close to asking for Sir Henry to come and get me,” he admitted with a laugh, “but each time I stuck it out.”

“I’m glad you did,” said Father Gregory with genuine warmth. “I’ve enjoyed our lessons together.”

“So have I,” admitted Edward, slightly embarrassed to admit how much pleasure he took in Father Gregory’s company and how elated he was by the progress he’d made with his reading and writing. “I’ve enjoyed my time here.”

“Even getting up for the night offices?” teased the priest.

“I’m used to it now,” responded Edward. The daily round of prayer, study and work, punctuated by the monastery bell, had become second nature to him. Since Father Gregory had lent him a Psalter which enabled him to follow the services, he didn’t resent so much the time spent in church. His ability to read Latin had improved immensely as he followed the verses chanted by the monks. In addition, he was gradually coming to appreciate the poetic language of the psalms and to associate himself with the psalmist’s plea for God’s forgiveness and protection.

Father Gregory began cutting a fresh quill so that Edward could start writing. “Do you want a large sheet of parchment for your letter?” he enquired.

“I’m not sure,” replied Edward in some perplexity. “I’ve never written a letter before. I’m not sure how to set it out or what to say. I think I need to do a rough copy first. I don’t want to mess up a new sheet of parchment. Will you help me get it right?”

“With pleasure, Edward. What message do you want to send?”

“I want to show Sir Henry that I can write. I want him to know that I’ve tried my best and made good progress.” Edward stopped in some confusion. “That is, if you think that I’ve made progress.”

“Of course, I do, Edward, and what better way to demonstrate your achievements to the Earl of Northumberland and his son than to send a dutiful and well written letter?”

“That’s what I was thinking but now I’m not sure what to write. Do you think… do you think I need to tell them about that business with Brother Cuthbert?”

“That’s entirely up to you, Edward. What takes place in Chapter is never shared outside the community so they won’t be hearing anything about it from me or from the abbot.”

Although Edward was relieved to hear that his assault upon a novice would not be reported to the earl or his son, somehow he felt that made it all the more incumbent on him not to conceal his misbehaviour from the Percy family. It also struck him that there was an advantage to disclosing the facts of his crime and subsequent punishment in a letter. It would spare him the embarrassment of making a face to face confession and having to witness the disappointment in Harry’s eyes as he recounted his shameful lapse. He wasn’t quite sure how to word his disclosure in order to minimise its impact without straying from the truth, but he hoped for inspiration when he got to that point. “How do I start off?” he asked.

“You know the standard format, Edward. You start with your name; then you give the full name of the person you’re writing to and send him greetings. Write that out first and then we’ll think about what information you want to include.” Father Gregory watched affectionately as Edward’s head bent over the task and his golden curls obscured his face. The priest made a mental note to get Edward’s hair cut the next time the monks were having their tonsures renewed. He feared the young man would object to the attentions of a monk whose job it was to shave the crowns of the brethren and he resolved to overrule Edward’s objections with a promise that his hair would be trimmed, not shorn.

“What do I put next?” Edward asked.

“Why not begin by telling Harry that this is your first letter? He will never have seen your writing, will he? He needs to know the letter is in your own hand.”

That seemed like an excellent suggestion and Edward bent his head once more to the task, his quill scraping noisily across the page. Once he started writing he didn’t take long to think about what to say. Father Gregory glanced at the uneven script and numerous misspellings, judging correctly that his pupil was not concerned with such niceties on his first draft. When Edward stopped to review his work he remained unconcerned about technical errors, picking up the quill only to cross out one sentence and rewrite it at the bottom of the page.

Eventually he passed the messy and ink spotted sheet to Father Gregory. “Will you check this for me, Father?” he asked.

“Let’s do it together,” suggested the priest. “You read aloud what you want to say and I’ll write out any corrections we need to make.”

Edward began to read, “Edward, to Sir Henry Percy, greetings. This is the first letter I’ve ever written in my own hand so I have to thank you for giving me the chance to learn to read and write. I’ve enjoyed studying with Father Gregory and I’ve tried my best, as I promised.”

The next sentence was heavily crossed out and Edward pointed to his second attempt at the bottom of the page. “There have been a few occasions when I’ve failed to maintain the standards you would expect and for the most serious offence I was punished in Chapter.” Father Gregory couldn’t help but admire the final wording which wisely revealed no details in a letter which might get lost or stolen but which, nonetheless, conveyed Edward’s desire not to conceal his misdemeanours.

Edward returned to the main body of the text as he continued to read. “I’m beginning to see why you love this place. The island has a wild beauty and I shall be sorry when the time comes to leave. I’m even getting used to all the services in church, although I’m looking forward to spending the whole night in bed at Alnwick Castle.”

Father Gregory felt duty bound to protest at that observation. “You won’t then receive the blessings which the Lord showers upon his servants who praise Him night and day,” he said gravely.

Edward was unworried about any loss of grace but it occurred to him that the Earl of Northumberland might be offended by his frivolous comment. He knew that Harry shared his irreverent sense of humour but, in deference to the earl’s sensibilities, he decided to rephrase that sentence. “I could say something about being able to follow the services in the Psalter you lent me?” he suggested.

“I think that would be more appropriate,” Father Gregory agreed.

“I wasn’t quite sure how to finish off,” Edward declared. “Sir Henry said that he and his father sometimes visit Holy Island and I was… I was sort of hoping they might come and see me.”

“I think that would be lovely, Edward. It would make me proud to be able to show them how well you’ve done. Why don’t I issue an invitation and you can add it at the end of your letter?”

Edward picked up the quill, crossed out his comment about spending an uninterrupted night in bed, and laboriously finished his first draft while Father Gregory went in search of a sheet of finest quality parchment, such as Edward had never before used. When the priest returned, Edward asked for his opinion on the final section of the letter which he read aloud. “I’ve got used to all the services in church and enjoy them more, now that I can follow the words in the Psalter. Father Gregory has asked me to invite you and My Lord Northumberland to visit Holy Island. It would give me such pleasure to see you both and show you what I’ve been studying.”

“That’s excellent, Edward. You have a real talent for conveying your thoughts in writing. I’ve made a few small corrections to your first draft and all you need do now is produce a neat copy. I think you should sharpen that quill while I mark out some fine lines on this sheet of parchment, as we do when we’re copying pages from the Bible.”

Edward was happy to follow Father Gregory’s advice. He was glowing at his teacher’s praise of his letter writing skills and he was determined to produce a fine copy to send to Sir Henry Percy. The priest sensed Edward’s pleasure as well as his enthusiasm for the task. Once he’d got Edward started he left him to his writing, not wishing to distract him with too close an oversight.

Thus it was that Father Gregory was occupied in the scriptorium when he heard Edward’s loudly voiced blasphemies emanating from the adjoining room. The two monks working on illuminated manuscripts looked up in alarm and Father Gregory hastened to address the problem. As he entered the small parlour where he had been conducting the lessons, he saw Edward pick up an ink stand and prepare to dash its contents across his sheet of parchment. With a lightning fast movement he grasped Edward’s wrist in a grip strengthened by years of practice with the sword. Edward mewed with discomfort but the priest did not relax his hold although he spoke with a voice of calm authority. “Put the ink stand down, Edward. If you deliberately spoil that precious sheet of parchment you will answer for it before the assembled community in Chapter.”

Edward knew exactly what it meant to answer for his offence in Chapter. With an effort of will he gave a barely perceptible nod of assent and ceased to try and pull away from Father Gregory’s grasp. The priest cautiously relaxed his hold on Edward’s wrist and was relieved when the young man voluntarily replaced the inkstand on the table. However, Father Gregory wasn’t yet done with his angry pupil. “We do not take the name of the Lord in vain, Edward,” he admonished gravely. “You will prostrate yourself on the floor and pray for God’s forgiveness.”

Edward looked at the priest with surprise and some resentment. He had not been asked to perform such a penance during all his time in the monastery and he wasn’t quite sure what was required, let alone whether he was prepared to accept such a humiliating sanction.

“Come on, Edward. You’ve seen monks perform this penance on the church floor. You know what’s required.” Edward reluctantly sank to his knees beside the desk, took a deep breath and then lent forward, supporting himself on his outstretched hands until he was face down on the cold stone flags. He went to pull his hands under his head to cushion his face but Father Gregory issued one last instruction. “Arms stretched out, palms downward, feet together. Let me see you form a cross, Edward.”

Reluctantly Edward complied, turning his head to rest his cheek against the stone floor. He was still inwardly seething at his own carelessness which had led him to make an error in the fair copy of his letter. Far from regretting his outburst, he wished he’d had time to vent his anger more effectively. Father Gregory could tell that Edward was still furious every time he glanced down at him. There was something about the set of Edward’s shoulders, the tension in his body and the rigidity of his arms and legs which proclaimed his rage very clearly to Father Gregory’s experienced eye.

The priest sat down at the desk and, after one brief glance at Edward’s letter, moved the papers to one side so he could embark on copying out a herbal remedy which the infirmarian had asked for. Some of the ingredients were unfamiliar to him and he had to transcribe the quantities with care. It was a task which he knew would take some time and he was perfectly happy to leave Edward lying prone to consider the error of his ways.

Initially Edward did nothing of the sort, although his anger gradually melted away as the enervating effects of lying face down on the floor made themselves felt. He had no sense of the passage of time but he was increasingly conscious of the hard floor, the discomfort of remaining motionless and the boredom of looking only at table legs. As his mind returned to the letter, it was no longer with anger but with a bitter sense of failure and regret. He had so much wanted to show Harry that he’d learnt to read and write. Father Gregory’s encouragement had made him feel very proud but as he lay with his head on the ground all sense of achievement crumbled to dust.

He found himself blinking an unaccustomed wetness from his eyes and, to hide his childish distress from Father Gregory’s sight, he turned his head to rest his forehead on the ground. The slight movement caught the priest’s attention and he knew at once that the period of enforced silence and immobility had done its healing work. All sign of tension had gone from Edward’s outstretched form and Father Gregory knew that the young man would soon be amenable to rational argument.

The priest turned his attention back to the document he was working on. He had a shrewd suspicion that Edward needed a bit of time to pull himself together and he felt there was nothing to be lost by making his pupil wait. When he’d finished transcribing the herbal remedy, he checked his work thoroughly before going to put the book he’d been using back on the shelf. On his return he stopped beside Edward and quietly enquired, “Are you ready to put matters right now?”

Privately Edward felt that some things were beyond repair but he answered obediently, “Yes, Father.”

“Get up then and come over here. We need to talk about this.” Edward got stiffly to his feet and scrubbed his sleeve hastily across his cheeks to remove any telltale sign of dampness. Then he went and sat in his customary seat beside Father Gregory, the seat in which he’d sat to pore over his lessons for the past couple of months. The priest pulled Edward’s letter towards him and asked simply, “What went wrong?”

“You can see,” said Edward with resignation. “I wasn’t concentrating and I made a mistake copying that last word.”

“Does that make it acceptable to blaspheme and threaten to deface valuable parchment?”

There was no answer to a question like that. “I’m sorry, Father,” said Edward, rather lamely.

“Did you pray for God’s forgiveness, as I told you to?”

Edward could have lied but he wanted only to remedy his fault and not make things worse. “No, Father,” he admitted, hanging his head.

“I’m sure God won’t mind waiting for you to say sorry,” said Father Gregory with a grin which surprised Edward. “On the other hand, you’ve scandalised Brother Wulfstan and Brother Wilfred. Do you think you could ask them to forgive you?”

Edward was fond of the two old monks who spent much of their time working in the scriptorium. Now the first blaze of his anger had passed, he felt ashamed of his intemperate words and was more than willing to offer his apologies. “Of course, Father,” he said as he made to get to his feet, but the priest restrained him.

“If you apologise nicely enough, you may find that Brother Wilfred will correct your mistake for you.”

Edward’s head came up in surprise. He’d never imagined such a thing might be possible. “How?” he enquired in amazement.

Father Gregory picked up Edward’s letter and held it out to him. “You’d be surprised to find what’s possible for those who keep control of their temper and know how to ask for help in a civilised way when things go wrong.”

Edward accepted the rebuke with a grimace but said nothing as he took the proffered letter and walked out into the scriptorium. Although Father Gregory didn’t intend to eavesdrop on Edward’s apology he couldn’t help but hear as his pupil addressed the elderly monks. There was a sincerity in Edward’s tone and also a warmth which gave Father Gregory an inkling of how Edward might have charmed his way out of difficulties in the past. The young man had a certain charisma, made all the more endearing by his apparent ignorance of the power of his own personality. When Father Gregory judged that he could enter the scriptorium without appearing to be checking up on Edward, he found his pupil sitting beside Brother Wilfred who was using his knife to carefully scrape away the offending word on the sheet of parchment.

“It’s a delicate task, Edward,” Brother Wilfred was saying. “It’s easier to correct errors on vellum because that’s made of animal skin which is thicker than parchment.”

“But you’ve nearly got rid of the wrong word,” pointed out Edward.

“Not quite, but I reckon it won’t show if you write over the top. We all make mistakes from time to time. Mistakes can always be put right one way or another.”

Father Gregory came and stood behind Edward, placing his hands on his pupil’s shoulders. “That’s right, Edward,” he said. “Mistakes can always be put right, whether you’ve made them on paper or in life. All you have to do is say sorry and ask for help.”

Edward had cause to mull over the priest’s words as he waited for his letter to be delivered, hoping all the while that a reply would announce a visit from Sir Henry Percy. The thought of saying sorry made him wonder whether Harry had intended him to use his time in the monastery to put right some of the things that had gone wrong in his life. He remembered Harry telling him that Holy Island was a special place where he’d made his confession and kept vigil prior to being knighted. He had a vague memory of Harry promising that he too would find solace and peace on the island but he’d been so agitated and upset the day he came to Lindisfarne he couldn’t remember Harry’s exact words. He did know, however, that his time on the island had not brought comfort to his soul but an increasing sense of his own sinfulness. The more he understood of the psalms of lamentation the more he became conscious of his need for God’s forgiveness. He’d written triumphantly to Harry to display his new learned skill of writing but he began to wonder if Harry had expected more fundamental changes to spring from his sojourn in the monastery.

Edward knew he’d been resistant to the spiritual life of the abbey and the many hours of silence had proved hard at first. He’d been forced to draw on his own reserves and they had soon been found wanting. He was used to action, noise, excitement and entertainment, and he sought activity which enabled him to blot out unpleasant memories from his past. In the unaccustomed stillness and solitude his thoughts returned to his life in London and he found he could not contemplate the way he’d besmirched his name and reputation without a sense of shame and remorse. Eventually, at the end of one of his lessons, he responded to the veiled invitation Father Gregory had given by asking, with averted eyes, “Will you hear my confession, Father?”

At once the priest’s manner changed from the pedagogic to the pastoral. “Of course, my son. Are you ready to make your confession now? Shall we go into the church?”

Edward nodded and followed Father Gregory around the cloister to enter the abbey church through the south door. The priest led the way to one of the small side chapels which was dimly lit by a row of candles burning in front of a statue of Our Lady. He took a seat in the oak chair beside the altar and gestured to Edward to kneel at his side. Edward hastily complied, relieved at not having to make eye contact with his confessor. Fixing his gaze on the stone floor on which he was kneeling Edward made the sign of the cross and whispered, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been… I can’t remember… it’s been years since my last confession.”

“You’re here now, my son. Just name the sins you can recall.” Father Gregory asked.

Edward launched into a rapid recitation of the sins that had been weighing on his conscience. “I’ve missed Mass many times and I’ve taken the name of the Lord in vain. I’ve failed to honour my father and mother. I’ve been disobedient and turned my back on my duties and responsibilities. I’ve allowed other people to suffer for my mistakes. I’ve lost my temper many times and attacked others, verbally and physically. I’ve got drunk on many occasions and led my companions astray.”

Edward paused. He knew very well that he’d compounded the seriousness of his faults by persuading others to join him in his dissolute ways. He wanted to confess everything but, despite the secrecy of the confessional, he didn’t want to disclose his identity to Father Gregory. The priest prompted him gently, “How have you led others into sin, my son?”

“We… we used to go on the rampage through… through the town and overturn market stalls. I damaged property belonging to merchants and shopkeepers and stole some of their goods.”

“You’ll have to make restitution before I can grant you absolution, my son,” explained Father Gregory.

“The… my father, he paid back all that I stole.”

“Were you short of money? Were you hungry or in need?”

“No… no… I had all that I wanted and more. I just did it for fun, for excitement… because I could.”

“How many times did you do this, my son?”

“I’m not sure, Father, quite a few times. The shopkeepers eventually made a complaint. That’s why… well, I came to stay at Alnwick Castle after that.”

“I see,” said Father Gregory, guessing at more than Edward realised. “Are there any other sins on your conscience?”

Even as a child, Edward had always kept his most shameful faults to the end of his confession. He took a deep breath and rushed through his final admission. “I’ve sinned against purity, Father, on my own and… and with others. I’ve visited the stews and had carnal knowledge of women… and once or twice I’ve lain with men. For these, and all my sins, I ask pardon of God, penance and absolution from you, Father.”

“You’ve managed to commit a great many serious sins in your short life,” Father Gregory observed sadly, as he imposed a fitting penance. “Make a good act of contrition, my son, and resolve to sin no more.” Edward’s quiet but sincere words of sorrow blended with the priest’s timeless words of absolution, “I absolve you of all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Kneeling before the statue of Our Lady to recite his prayers of penance, Edward experienced a powerful sense of peace and liberation. He’d already discovered the power of punishment to release him from the burden of guilt but this time he felt that he was being given a second chance to make good in his life. Once he’d performed his penance he remained kneeling in the dim quietness of the church and his thoughts turned to his relationship with his father which he’d feared was damaged beyond healing. Remembering the message of love and hope contained in his father’s letter which he carried everywhere with him, he began to consider ways of achieving a reconciliation. To his surprise, he found himself wishing he could speak to the king, to beg pardon for his failure to be a dutiful son and heir and to pledge his love and obedience for the future. He bowed his head and silently uttered one brief and heartfelt prayer before crossing himself and getting up to leave the church.

It was a further week before a messenger arrived to announce a forthcoming visit by Sir Henry Percy. From then on Edward spent every spare moment on the landward side of the island gazing across to the mainland in the hope of spotting Harry’s arrival. Eventually his vigilance was rewarded and he saw a large party of mounted men settling down to wait for the tide to retreat. He ran back to the monastery to report the arrival of guests and waited in an agony of frustration until two monks could be despatched to guide the visitors across the sands. From his customary vantage point he watched as the monks returned, escorting two visitors. The distance was too great to make out their features but Edward knew, as much by intuition as by familiarity with their form, that the Earl of Northumberland and his son were making the crossing to Lindisfarne. Edward was quite unprepared for the powerful rush of emotion he experienced as he recognised the two men who had become closer than family, tears of joy springing to his eyes at the prospect of seeing them again. He decided there and then to raise the question of his return to Alnwick Castle as soon as the earl and his son were rested.