Royal Redemption: Chapter 15
The soaring stone columns of the central aisle stretch out in front of me like the trunks of great trees. I wish I was walking in a forest now, with green leaves rustling gently in the branches above my head, instead of sitting uncomfortably in this cold and sombre place.
It’s barely a week since my last visit to Westminster Abbey which was for a very different purpose. Then we were assembled to mourn my father’s passing. Today the eyes of the bishops and barons are all on me as we enact the ceremonial of this great state occasion.
Behind me stands the shrine of Edward the Confessor, that saintly king who was such an inspiration to my father and after whom I am named. My father’s tomb lies close to the shrine, as he requested during his final days. I would not fail him in death by allowing him to lie far from the saint’s protection and today I too am invoking the intercession of Edward the Confessor. I pray for the grace to be a wise and a just ruler, a king worthy of the name Plantagenet.
There was a time when I forfeited the right to bear that proud name of Plantagenet and was sent from the court in disgrace. I was reconciled with my father long before his death, and I’ve since striven to atone for my adolescent misconduct by being a dutiful son, but I never grew really close to him. Even in old age he remained wrapped up in the business of state and the pursuit of military glory. I would willingly have eased the burden of his office but he found it difficult to include me in the business of government. In his own way, I think he loved me but the demands of kingship took him from his family and he never had time to spend with his sons. I do not judge him. I pray God will have mercy on his soul and help me to be a better father than he was.
To my right sits my wife, Katherine, a French princess who is soon to be crowned queen of England. My father negotiated the marriage treaty and our union has brought peace between our two nations. In addition, her beauty and poise have contributed greatly to the popularity of the monarchy. As we processed through the streets of London this morning, from the Palace of Westminster to the abbey, the shouts of the crowd were as much for her as for me.
I don’t begrudge her the popularity. It couldn’t have been easy for her to leave her native land and come to England to marry a man she had never met. She seems happy enough at court amongst her ladies and, best of all, she seems to have become a close friend of my mother. It’s a comfort to me to know that my father’s widow, now the dowager queen, has Katherine’s love and support during this period of loss and mourning.
Despite bearing three children, two of whom have survived, Katherine still retains her Gallic charm and youthful looks. She seems at ease seated on her throne and I see her shift slightly to straighten her coronation robes and check her fur lined train which cascades down the chancel steps. Neither of my children are old enough to attend this lengthy ceremony but my son, little Henry, is vastly excited that I’m about to become king and is expecting me to return home wearing the crown.
I am trying to be a good father to Henry and Eleanor and I intend, even as king, to find more time for them than my father found for me. My own adolescence was far from happy and I hope to give my children a more carefree and stable upbringing. As for myself, I’ve come to terms with my own nature now. I know I can never give way entirely to my desires but I’ve achieved a sort of happiness in a life which has to be given over to duty and the fulfilment of my birthright. Mercifully, my wife, the new Queen Katherine, doesn’t seem inclined to demand more from me than I’m able and willing to give. I no longer visit her bed, now that I have an heir and, dutiful wife that she is, she has made no demur.
I sense a heightened level of expectation in the abbey as we reach the focal point of the ceremony. Bearing the royal regalia, the Archbishop of Canterbury, accompanied by other bishops and dignitaries, approach the coronation chair on which I’m seated. After the solemn ceremony of the anointing, I am invested with the orb and sceptre and then the archbishop lifts Saint Edward’s crown high above my head before lowering it slowly in full view of the English aristocracy, gathered to witness the coronation.
The cry of, “Vivat, vivat, vivat rex!” echoes around the abbey and the shout is taken up by the crowds standing outside the open west door. I experience an unexpected sense of elation as well as a realisation that my life has changed forever. Now I will be styled Edward, King of England and Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou. I will remain forever set apart from other people, except for family and a very few trusted friends and advisors.
The feudal lords form up in procession down the central aisle of the abbey, ready to come forward and render their oath of homage. At the front is my brother, Prince Richard, who was mightily relieved when I returned from Northumberland. He has never harboured any ambition to wear the crown and there were rumours, when he was young, that my father was planning to disinherit me in his favour. I know that I can rely on his loyalty and on the support of my uncle who stands behind him. They, as members of the blood royal, take precedence in the line followed by the barons led, as always, by the Earl of Norfolk.
Then an older man steps forward in the robes of an earl. His hair is greyer than I remember and his proud stance now slightly bowed. With a stab of compassion I notice that he is walking slowly and a trifle stiffly and I turn to my chaplain to indicate that the earl requires assistance. But Father Gregory, whom I persuaded to leave his beloved Holy Island to serve at court as my confessor, has already read my mind. He is reaching for the faldstool and placing it before me so that the elderly man can kneel in comfort as he makes his act of obedience.
Looking down into the eyes of the Earl of Northumberland I see that the man, who is the closest I now have to a father, has lost nothing of his sharp intelligence. He recites the words of the oath with confidence, never breaking eye contact, and the slight smile on his face conveys his pride in my achievements. For myself, I experience a profound sense of gratitude, knowing that without the earl’s willingness to prepare me for kingship I might never have succeeded my father on the throne of England. I feel that I should be kneeling before the earl rather than have him kneeling to me but I am constrained by the requirements of the coronation ceremony and I accept his homage with just a squeeze to his hand which is hardly adequate to convey the depth of my love and respect. Father Gregory, who is an old friend of the earl, helps him to his feet with a firm hand under his elbow and then he moves the faldstool to one side.
I know there was some consternation in the royal abbey of Westminster when an unknown monk from the north country was appointed to the coveted role of royal confessor. Father Gregory shows no signs of being overwhelmed by the responsibility, or of being swayed by any of the courtiers who seek to enlist his support for their faction. He believes his role is to offer me spiritual guidance and to care for the state of my soul. He is just as tough a confessor as he was when I first stammered out my list of grievous sins in the abbey church on Lindisfarne. It seems he had a fair idea back then as to my true identity yet he treated me as any other penitent. I think that was why I wanted him at court as I take responsibility for the wellbeing of the nation. There’ll be no compromises with the truth while Father Gregory remains my confessor. I can expect fair judgement, deserved penance, kindly understanding and forgiveness for all my offences.
A familiar figure now strides confidently forward to pay homage. Even in his coronation robes, nothing can obscure the muscular frame and military bearing of Sir Henry Percy, heir to the fiefdom of Northumberland and newly appointed Chancellor of England. With his customary grace he sinks to his knees on the stone floor at my feet. Placing his palms together in the time honoured gesture of supplication he extends his hands towards me and I take them between my slightly smaller ones. Looking up at me, his eyes glinting with restrained humour and open affection, he faithfully repeats the oath of homage, “I, Harry Percy, become your liege man of life, limb and earthly worship, and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die in your service.”
I know Harry takes the oath seriously and it is a comfort to hear him pledge his life to my service. I could not contemplate the future without Harry at my side and it’s an everlasting source of gratitude that he willingly left his family in the north to serve at court. He’s already proved his worth in the royal council, with his strategic thinking and wise advice, but it is in private that I most value his services. The relationship which developed when I served as Harry’s squire has proved enduring and, when we’re alone, it’s a relief to lay down the burden of leadership and allow Harry to take charge. He acts as a check on my wilder inclinations and occasionally, when I know I’ve overstepped the bounds, I allow him to administer just correction.
I understand my own needs and desires much better now than I did as a young man. There are times during our lovemaking when I push Harry to take me over his knee just for the excitement of being naked and totally at his mercy. It’s not something we’ve ever discussed but I think Harry understands how powerfully I respond to his dominance, how much I crave the release of tension when pain drives all other thoughts from my head, and how grateful I am for the absolution which comes from paying the penalty for my misdeeds. I’m quite sure that dealing with me so firmly is no hardship to Harry. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Harry enjoys chastising me and this, the most secret aspect of our relationship, has cemented the love and trust we have for one another.
Having just sworn to be my liege man, Harry leans forward to exchange the customary kiss of peace. Without releasing his hands, I bend my head and brush my lips across his cheek whispering, in imitation of the oath of homage, “I’m your man, Harry. I am forever yours.” Harry draws back and, gazing up at me, indicates with just the slightest nod of his head that he has accepted this solemnly offered assurance of my submission. We both know that, in the midst of this coronation ceremony, we have exchanged formal words and gestures which will cement our relationship until death. A pageboy now steps forward carrying a red velvet cushion and I reach for the livery collar which lies upon it. Lifting the heavy golden chain of office, I lower it over Harry’s bowed head and arrange it across his shoulders. Thus I invest Harry with the insignia of the office of Lord Chancellor, the most powerful position in the land, and the collar marks his attachment to me just as surely as I belong to him.
Posted by Jay