Royal Redemption: Chapter 13

Edward surveyed the four boys who stood before him and attempted once again to explain the niceties of serving at table. He fully appreciated the irony of being asked by Sir Henry Percy to train the latest intake of pageboys. After all, it had not been long since Hugh de Warenne and Richard Fitzurse had been instructed to teach Edward himself how to serve food and drink to those seated at high table. The lesson had not proceeded smoothly but that was as nothing compared with the appalling act of indiscipline Edward had committed when called upon to serve the guest of honour. Those present at the dinner would never forget the sight of Edward Percy tipping a huge platter of hot meat and gravy into the lap of Baron Douglas. Very few, however, were aware of the painful penalty imposed later by Sir Henry Percy, a penalty which had never had to be repeated.

Edward devoutly hoped that no one had regaled his students with the tale of his misconduct otherwise his status as teacher would be severely undermined. The four youngsters were gazing at him now with a mixture of awe, boredom and incomprehension. “It is an honour for a man to serve his feudal lord,” Edward stated firmly. “Your fathers are all vassals of the Earl of Northumberland and you’re privileged to begin your training for knighthood by waiting on him at table.”

Two of the pageboys looked anything but honoured and privileged at the prospect of serving their liege lord’s food and drink. They possessed the superior air of young lordlings who were unused to manual work and considered the task of serving at table beneath them. Edward’s fingers itched to give them both a clip round the ear but it had been made quite clear to him that he was not empowered to lay a finger on his charges. He wondered idly if he’d been equally arrogant and irritating at their age and decided that his behaviour had probably been much worse as no one at court was willing to say him nay.

The other two boys were cast in a very different mould. They lacked the casual assumption of superiority as well as the ease and grace of their more aristocratic colleagues. However, they displayed an enthusiasm for their training and a touching willingness to please. One boy in particular caught Edward’s attention. His name was Ralph Grey and when Edward discovered he was the son of Sir Humphrey Grey, Edward felt even greater responsibility for the youngster from the dilapidated and fire damaged Chillingham Castle.

Ralph listened intently to everything Edward said and tried his very best with each new task. In his eagerness to succeed, he sometimes made careless mistakes and his dismay when things went wrong endeared him even more to Edward who sensed how anxious Ralph was to gain his approval. With sudden insight he realised that he could see himself as an insecure child in the diminutive person of Ralph Grey. He may have displayed the outward arrogance and nonchalance of a king’s son but he realised that his bad behaviour had been a cover for his uncertainty and his desperate desire for recognition and praise. An encouraging word, a sign of approval, some time spent to ascertain his interests and needs: these would have made all the difference to him when he was growing up. He resolved there and then to provide for Ralph and the others some of the care and attention which had been lacking in his own upbringing.

“I want you all to pick up one of the large wooden platters… wait a moment, Ralph,” he added hastily as the lad went rushing to carry out the instruction. “I want you all to pick up one of the large platters and practise carrying it on the upturned palm of your hand. Try to keep it flat because when you do this for real it will be piled high with food.”

They were soon all absorbed in the task, the inevitable failures causing some amusement as the platters went crashing to the ground. None of them noticed when Richard Fitzurse walked into the great hall and delivered a quiet message to Edward. “My Lord Northumberland wishes to see you in his chamber. I’ll take over here if you want.”

“I’d rather finish with the boys first,” protested Edward. “How urgent is it?”

“I was told to request your presence at once,” replied Richard before adding with a grin, “What have you been up to? Are you in trouble?”

“No,” replied Edward with all the confidence of a clear conscience, “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Not even been teaching the lads how to deal with ungrateful guests?” teased Richard with the ease borne of enduring friendship.

“If you so much as mention that incident to these boys I’ll string you up,” threatened Edward laughingly, knowing full well that Richard would never betray him.

“The earl will string me up if he thinks I didn’t deliver his message. You’d better get going. I’m more than capable of dealing with these rascals. Remember, when it comes to serving at table, I taught you all you know.”

Edward went off laughing, never doubting that Richard would continue to put the pageboys through their paces. When he reached the earl’s private chamber it was clear he was expected as the steward opened the door and waved him through. The earl was seated beside the fire rather than working, as was his custom, at the long oak table. He invited Edward to join him by indicating the vacant chair placed on the other side of the fireplace but when Edward was seated the earl took his time before he began speaking.

“I’ve received a letter from His Majesty the king,” he announced and Edward stiffened, fearing that this presaged bad news for him. “He’s coming north on a royal progress and will almost certainly stay here at Alnwick Castle for some days.”

“I can’t… I don’t want…”

“Wait, Edward. Don’t get agitated. The king wants to see you. He’s heard good reports of you and is anxious to heal the breach, but the meeting will be on our terms. I want to talk to you about this. I want to know what you want.”

“How has he heard good reports of me?” enquired Edward suspiciously.

“Because I write to him from time to time,” replied the earl calmly. “I’ve told him that you’re an indispensible part of my household, that you’re brave, chivalrous and utterly trustworthy.”

“Oh,” said Edward who was suddenly lost for words. He’d been about to object to having reports sent to his father but the unexpected and lavish praise both gratified and embarrassed him.

The earl perfectly understood the cause of his young protégé’s confusion and he took advantage of Edward’s silence to return to his original point. “I asked you to join me so we can discuss the proposed meeting between you and your father. I want to know how you feel about him coming here.”

This time Edward gave the question some thought. “I don’t want everyone to know I’m the Prince of Wales. I don’t want to go back to court, not just yet, and I don’t want things to change for me here.” He paused to consider his reasons and then shared his insight with the earl. “I’m happy here,” he admitted, “happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t want to do anything to spoil that.”

The earl was touched by Edward’s admission and more than willing to go along with his wishes. “I think you’d benefit from staying here at Alnwick a bit longer, Edward. I agree that we don’t want to change the relationship you have with my men by letting them know that you’re heir to the throne.”

Edward visibly relaxed when he heard that the earl was in total agreement with him. “Thank you, my lord,” he said quietly.

“So, Edward,” the earl probed, “how do you feel about seeing your father again?”

“I’m not sure. This has all come as a bit of a shock. When I was on Lindisfarne… there was a special moment for me there… I was in the church and I prayed… I prayed for a meeting with my father. I wanted to be able to beg his pardon for failing to be the son and heir he wanted. But now I don’t know. I’m afraid he might not forgive me. He might not…” Edward had been thinking out loud and he trailed off as he realised what he’d been about to say.

“He might not what… Edward?” the earl enquired gently.

Edward raised stricken eyes to the man who’d acted as a surrogate father to him. “He might not love me,” he whispered.

The earl got to his feet and came to stand beside Edward’s chair. He placed a firm hand on the young man’s shoulder and spoke with emphasis. “I remember when you were born, Edward. Your father was Prince of Wales then. He didn’t carry the burden of kingship and he had time to spend with his infant son. You were his joy and his delight and I promise you that you are loved now as much as you were then. He told you so in the letter he gave you, didn’t he?”

“He sent me away though,” Edward pointed out, his insecurities overcoming the evidence of his father’s written word.

“You know why he did that and, although I didn’t agree with it at the time, I now see it was for the best.”

“You didn’t agree with it?” Edward asked in surprise. “Why did you remove me from the court then?”

“I could see that His Majesty had failed in his responsibilities as a father… and I didn’t hesitate to tell him so. We’re old friends, Edward, but even so, he didn’t like it. He must have reflected on my words, however, because he acknowledged his failure when he wrote to you. After all, he said he didn’t hold you responsible for your mistakes.”

“That’s true,” Edward admitted and he pulled from his doublet the dirty and dog eared letter which he carried with him always. He read it again just to reassure himself that the earl’s interpretation was correct.

“You never asked to send a personal reply,” the earl said gently. “Did you not want to write to your father once you’d learnt your letters?”

“I did try to write,” Edward admitted, “but there are things I couldn’t put into a letter. I needed to see the king, my father, face to face, that’s why I prayed…”

“And it seems the Lord has answered your prayer,” interjected the earl, “so now let’s work out how we can arrange a private meeting.”

Edward responded to the earl’s businesslike tone and sat up straight, putting his fears and uncertainties to one side. “I don’t see how that can be arranged while the king is staying here,” he commented reasonably.

“I agree. You need to meet before the royal party gets to Alnwick.”

“Have you a solution in mind, my lord?”

“I do have an idea, Edward, yes. Harry needs to ride out to Chillingham Castle to see how the works are progressing and you could accompany him. Arrangements would then be made for the king, accompanied by a small armed guard, to visit Chillingham incognito while you’re staying with Sir Humphrey Grey. No one there will ever have seen the king. The only difficulty will be to ensure that the men who ride with you don’t recognise His Majesty when he arrives here but I’m sure there are ways round that problem.”

“So I meet my father at the castle which was nearly destroyed by my disobedience and misjudgement, the castle which is in the process of being rebuilt following the siege which I caused!”

“Yes,” agreed the earl with a smile, “that is one of the drawbacks of this plan.”

Edward had long forgiven himself for his dire misconduct when charged with leading a patrol through the earl’s lands, although he would never forget the dreadful consequences of his actions. He managed to return the earl’s ironic smile and say self deprecatingly, “I suppose I have so much to confess to my father that nearly bringing about the destruction of Chillingham Castle and causing Hugh and some of the men at arms to be injured will be just one offence among many.”

Suddenly serious, the earl said, “You have to take responsibility for your own faults at court, Edward, but everything that went wrong isn’t to be laid at your door. It won’t be a one way conversation with the king. He has said he wants to heal the breach between himself and his son and heir. I think you’ll find that there are admissions of guilt to be made on both sides and both of you will be asking for forgiveness as well as granting it.”

“Do you really think so?” asked Edward doubtfully.

“I wouldn’t be setting up this encounter, Edward, if I didn’t fervently believe that His Majesty is as anxious as you are to right past wrongs. He wants to achieve a reconciliation and you need have no fears about this meeting.”

So it was that Edward found himself at Chillingham Castle on a cold, wet day watching for the arrival of the king and his entourage. Having positioned himself at the stone window seat in the solar, from where he had a good view of the surrounding countryside, he waited for hours, sometimes pacing the floor in agitation. Harry went out for a while to inspect building work on the curtain wall which was nearing completion. He recognised that Edward wanted time to himself and was too anxious and distracted to engage in conversation. When he returned to the solar, which Sir Humphrey Grey and his family had vacated for their exclusive use, he managed to interest Edward for a while by describing the improvements to the castle. To Edward’s immense relief, Harry was able to report that all remnants of the burnt palisade had been totally removed, meaning there was no evidence left of his awful military miscalculation to confront his father as he approached.

Whilst talking to Harry, Edward nearly missed the arrival of the small group of mounted men who crossed the open ground in front of the castle quickly and without ceremony. By the time he had run all the way down the spiral staircase from the top floor of the keep, the king and his most trusted followers were dismounting in the bailey.

Edward had spent little more than eighteen months in the north but the king seemed to have aged considerably in that time. His son noted at once the gaunt features and slightly stooped stance which could not just be the result of a long and tiring journey. The hood and shoulders of his cloak were soaked through and his boots were spattered with mud. He stood uncertainly in the courtyard, holding his horse’s reins and looking around for assistance. Spotting movement in the stables he called for an ostler but the man who came to the open door took one look at the driving rain and shouted to the unprepossessing visitor that he could see to his own horse.

Edward had been uncertain about how he would first approach his father. He’d turned over many scenarios in his mind ever since the Earl of Northumberland had first broached the subject of the king’s visit. Never in his wildest dreams had he envisaged his ageing and travel weary father being the subject of a servant’s abuse. Without thinking he ran forward through the rain, his boots splashing in the puddles and throwing mud up the back of his cream coloured hose. He was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: joy at seeing the king again, concern over his physical deterioration, pity at his momentary powerlessness and, above all, intense sorrow for having offended him.

The king looked up, saw his son running towards him and held out his arms at once but Edward slowed before meeting that welcoming embrace, looked for one long moment into his father’s eyes and then sank to his knees in the mud. Harry who was just behind him grabbed the reins from the king’s open hand leaving the monarch free to bend forward, take his son’s bowed head between his two palms and bestow a long and loving kiss amongst the blond curls which even the torrential rain had failed to crush.

Harry led the king’s horse towards the stables, the expression on his face causing the horrified grooms to flatten themselves against the wall. To his credit, the ostler who had insulted the unknown visitor came forward, white faced, to take the horse’s reins from his hands.

“I’m sorry, my lord,” he whispered. “I didn’t know he was a friend of yours.”

“It doesn’t matter who he is,” Sir Henry replied with barely suppressed fury. “I can’t believe Sir Humphrey would permit you to greet a wet and weary traveller in such a manner.”

“No, sir,” admitted the man, fearing for his livelihood.

“Then do a good job of grooming his horse and that might count in your favour when this matter is reported to your lord.” The ostler bowed low and hastened to obey the son of the most powerful nobleman in the north of England. He led the king’s horse into a stall filled with fresh, sweet smelling straw and set about removing the heavy saddle, ready to brush the animal’s wet and mud spattered flanks. Satisfied that proper care was being taken of the valuable animal, Sir Henry turned towards the group of grooms and ostlers who immediately scattered into the courtyard to render assistance to the rest of the party.

When Sir Henry came out of the stables, Edward was on his feet in front of the king who had a hand on each of his shoulders and was speaking to him quietly and earnestly. Edward’s hose were covered in mud, his doublet was soaking wet and water was running down his face, although one piercing glance convinced Harry that tears were mingling with rain on Edward’s cheeks. Dismissing all thought of ceremony, Harry approached the two men who appeared heedless of their surroundings and firmly suggested they move inside. The king looked up in surprise at the authoritative tone and then smiled in recognition, not of the little boy he remembered playing with his infant son, but of the grown man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Earl of Northumberland, his lifelong friend.

“Harry?” he asked wonderingly. “Are you young Harry Percy?”

“Yes, sire,” replied Harry quietly. “Please forgive the lack of formality but the fewer people who are given cause to suspect your identity the better.” He gestured towards entrance to the keep, and the king placed an arm around Edward’s shoulder to urge him forward as all three men headed for somewhere warm and dry.

As they ascended the spiral staircase to the family apartments, Harry rapidly revised his plan for the long awaited and emotionally charged meeting between the king and his son. Edward, who had dressed with such care that morning, had ruined his best hose which were slipping down his legs as muddy water dripped onto his boots. Edward himself appeared quite unaware of his dishevelled state, climbing the stairs in a daze with the king’s protective arm still on his shoulder. When they reached the rooms which had been allocated to the king and his party, Harry was relieved to find that news of the visitors’ arrival had been passed to the household. Sir Humphrey Grey was waiting to greet his unknown guest, and servants were on hand to provide comfort and sustenance to the visitors.

Harry took advantage of the flurry of activity to excuse himself and escort Edward to the tiny room he’d been allocated for their short stay. Edward would have slumped down on the bed but Harry grabbed him before he transferred mud to the bedclothes. “Come on,” he said bracingly, “let’s get you out of these wet clothes.” When Edward made no move to assist, Harry began to undress his squire with practised efficiency. As his shirt was pulled over his head, Edward was shaken out of his reverie and began to protest at his lord assuming a servant’s role.

“I can do it, sir,” he said. “I can undress myself.”

Harry stepped back at once, anxious to keep Edward calm when he was clearly so unsettled. “You’ve made a terrible mess of your hose,” he said lightly. “Maybe cream wasn’t the best choice for such a wet day. We never foresaw that you’d be kneeling in the mud.”

Edward wasn’t listening. “Did you see him?” he said in a strangled voice. “He looks so… so worn out. I must have contributed to his exhaustion with my behaviour at court. How will I ever be able to tell him how sorry I am?”

“Oh, Edward,” said Harry with ready sympathy, “you’ve already told him all he needs to know.”

When Edward looked confused, Harry pulled him into a rough embrace. “You may still have a lot to talk about with your father but you were forgiven the moment he bent to kiss you,” he explained.

“How do you know?” Edward asked uncertainly.

“I only needed to glance at the two of you out there in the courtyard to know that the king has forgiven you unconditionally. It was such an intimate moment; I felt I couldn’t intrude so I waited in the stables for a moment or two. When I came out it was it was quite clear that you were restored to your father’s affections.”

“Oh,” said Edward, wanting to believe but still not wholly convinced, “do you really think so?”

“What did the king say to you when you got to your feet?”

“I didn’t get to my feet; he pulled me up. I can't remember exactly what he said. He didn’t actually say he’d forgiven me…”

Edward tailed off and Harry wondered whether his question had been too intrusive, “If it’s private, you don’t have to tell me, Edward. I’m not trying...”

“No… no… I’m trying to remember. I was so… He said I looked grown up, that I’ve changed since coming to the north. He mentioned that he was proud of me for doing so well and he said he’d been looking forward to seeing me again. He told me my mother and brother are well and send their love and… and… he said he loves me.” Edward bowed his head, finally absorbing the paternal promise of love and acceptance.

Harry felt Edward relax against him and quietly reinforced the message of hope. “You have nothing to worry about, Edward. You can go into this meeting with the king knowing that you’re already forgiven. It’ll just be an opportunity for the two of you to talk freely and honestly. The king said he wanted to heal the breach between you. When we leave here you’ll know that you and your father are friends again.”

“That’s all I want, to be friends with my father, like you and the earl,” Edward breathed.

“Let’s get ready for the meeting then,” said Harry, placing his hands on his squire’s shoulders and gently pushing him away. There was a jug of cold water and a bowl on the wooden chair which provided the only furnishing in the room apart from the bed. Harry picked up the jug and poured water into the bowl and, taking the cloth which hung on the back of the chair, he knelt with the intention of washing his squire’s muddy legs.

If Edward had objected to Sir Henry Percy undressing him, he couldn’t countenance seeing his lord on his knees taking a wet cloth to his dirty feet. He stepped back and said firmly, “No, you mustn’t do that. I’ll clean myself up.”

Harry sat back on his heels and looked up at Edward. “Let me do this for you, Edward. It’s my privilege to serve a king’s son.”

Edward blanched. “You’ve never called me that before, sir. I’m your squire and it’s my job to wait on you.”

“No,” said Harry sadly. “We both know that’s not true. It’s served a purpose for you to act as my squire but we both know you’re Prince Edward and one day you’ll be king.”

“But not now,” said Edward desperately. “I want to remain as your squire.”

“I’m not planning on any changes for the moment,” Harry reassured him. “You’ll still be my squire but just for now, let me serve you in this way… please.”

Looking into Harry’s eyes, Edward read something which silenced his objections and he stepped closer to stand where Harry could reach his legs. When Harry lifted his foot to wipe the mud from between his toes he rested one hand for balance on Harry’s head, running his fingers through the thick, dark hair and feeling such gratitude to the man who had restored his confidence that he was overwhelmed with a powerful rush of love and affection.