Royal Redemption: Chapter 3

Despite his curiosity about the conduct which led to the prince’s estrangement from his father, the earl was determined neither to question his charge nor to utter any word of censure. He needed to gain Edward’s trust and he hoped that the young man would eventually choose to open up about his troubled past. Northumberland did not see it as any part of his responsibility to punish Edward for past faults and he was determined to give the errant prince a chance to make a fresh start. He planned to use the journey north as an opportunity to get to know his godson better and to establish a relationship of trust and respect which would help Edward settle more quickly into the routine of Alnwick Castle.

For his part, Edward rode in silence beside Hugh de Warenne, Northumberland’s squire, as the party passed through the city of London and out through Cripplegate, heading northwards along the route of the old Roman road. As they rode uphill, Edward turned in the saddle to look back at the great city, dominated by William the Conqueror’s Tower of London which glistened white in the morning sun. Church spires rose above the smoke which spiralled slowly upwards from the hearths of innumerable wooden dwellings. In the far distance, the newly constructed London Bridge, with its closely packed houses, spanned the River Thames. But the Palace of Westminster, sited to the west of the city wall, was no longer visible. Edward stifled a sense of regret that he was unable to bid a silent farewell to his old home and turned his head resolutely to face the front and the future.

When Northumberland had finished planning the first day’s journey with his sergeant at arms he sent for Edward to ride beside him. At first the young man was difficult to engage in conversation. The earl suspected Edward was still embarrassed by the circumstances of their meeting earlier in the day so he began to talk about the prince’s childhood exploits with his own son, Harry. Gradually Edward relaxed and began to ask questions which betrayed his fascination with happier times and his desire to hear stories of his father in his younger days. Northumberland gained the impression of a personable and intelligent young man who was good at disguising his anger, confusion and deep seated sadness.

After a brief stop to rest and water the men and horses when the sun was high in the sky, Northumberland pushed on. He’d agreed with the sergeant that they would try to cover as much ground as possible on the first day and aim to reach the Priory of St Neots for an overnight stay. By mid afternoon positions had changed in the column of mounted men. Northumberland was in conversation with his squire and Edward was riding by himself, surrounded by men at arms. Whilst he was relieved to be left alone with his thoughts, he soon began musing on his growing hostility towards Hugh de Warenne. The squire, into whose care he’d been entrusted, evinced an attitude of casual superiority which Edward found intensely irritating in a man several years younger than himself. Deciding initially to ignore Hugh’s curt instructions, he’d soon found that his ignorance of how to conduct himself on such a journey, as well as his relatively lowly status, gave him no option but to follow orders, albeit with bad grace. It didn’t improve his temper to find himself relegated to riding with soldiers guarding the baggage, whilst Hugh rode alongside the earl, and he made no effort to curb his animosity towards Northumberland’s squire.

When they reached St Neots Priory that evening, Edward’s resentment and frustration came to a head. Hugh instructed Edward to oversee the transfer of baggage from the stables to the guesthouse where the monks offered overnight accommodation to travellers. Unsure what could safely be left in the stables and determined not to ask for help, Edward got the men to transfer all their bags into the large dormitory and stack them between the straw pallets which lined the walls. When Hugh returned from getting the earl settled in the prior’s lodging he berated Edward for creating extra work for the men, objected to the cluttered sleeping quarters and complained about the additional time that would be needed to make ready in the morning. Edward did not take kindly to censure and he launched a verbal attack on Hugh to which the squire responded with venom.

As the earl walked into the guesthouse to check that his men were well housed for the night, a hush fell on the assembled company and the sound of angry voices carried the length of the dormitory. Fast, purposeful strides brought Northumberland to Edward’s shoulder, just as he was raising a clenched fist to his adversary, and the earl’s fingers closed in an iron grip around Edward’s wrist. Edward made one angry attempt to pull free before he realised who was restraining him and then all the fight drained out of him.

Mindful of the shocked but curious glances the men were casting in their direction, the earl kept his voice low and steady. “Under no circumstances will you offer violence to any member of my household, Edward. You will apologise to Hugh de Warenne at once.”

Edward remained silent, partly from obstinacy but mainly because he didn’t know how to respond. He’d never made a formal apology to anyone, other than his father to whom he’d been forced to offer the occasional expression of regret. The earl sensed his anger and confusion but he couldn’t afford to let such insubordination pass unchecked in front of the men. Edward might have been accepted by them as a minor member of the Percy family but Hugh de Warenne was a younger son of the Earl of Surrey and he was being trained for knighthood. Edward could not be seen to challenge the squire’s authority with impunity.

As Northumberland’s hand shifted to press insistently on Edward’s shoulder, his thumb gently rubbed a small circle through the golden curls at the nape of the young man’s neck. It was an almost unconscious gesture of reassurance but Edward, who’d been so starved of physical signs of affection, found his resistance crumbling and responded to the unspoken appeal for cooperation with the gift of his obedience. “I lost my temper, Hugh,” he admitted brusquely. “I don’t think I would actually have hit out but I’m sorry that I raised my hand to you. I shouldn’t have done it,” he added, with a glance at the earl. “It won’t happen again.”

Hugh de Warenne nodded but said nothing. It didn’t appear that he was rejecting Edward’s apology; if anything he looked even more remorseful than Edward. His face was drained of colour and he raised haunted grey eyes to look Edward in the face. “The fault was mine,” he confessed. “I should never have made such a vile comment and I beg your forgiveness for my dishonourable conduct.” Hugh’s gaze dropped to the floor and Edward stood irresolute, not knowing what the earl now required of him.

Northumberland’s immediate instinct was to remove both young men from the guesthouse so he could investigate in private the cause of their altercation which clearly stemmed from more than just a passing disagreement. The attention of his men had shifted from the quarrel and its aftermath as the guest master and his assistant arrived bearing the soup, bread and ale which the monks provided for their guests. The opportunity for an unobtrusive departure presented itself. “Come with me, both of you,” ordered the earl and he turned sharply on his heel and headed for the prior’s lodging which had been vacated for his sole use.

Once seated in the parlour, with the two young men standing before him, he asked the question which brooked no evasion. “What was that all about?”

It was Hugh de Warenne who spoke first. “We were arguing, my lord, and I… I missaid… I spoke ill of Edward.”

“What did you say?”

“I called into question his birth… I implied…”

Understanding dawned on Northumberland. “Did you call him a bastard?” Hugh’s face had been ashen but now his cheeks were suffused with colour. He didn’t answer the question but his blush confirmed his guilt. “Did you imply that he was my illegitimate son?” the earl demanded, blaming himself for not foreseeing this complication. The unexplained arrival of a young man bearing the Percy name was bound to give rise to suspicion. “Did you?” he pressed, but Hugh just sank to his knees in silent acknowledgement of his offence and bowed his head in shame. “Look at me, Hugh,” the earl ordered and his squire reluctantly raised his head. “I want you to understand what I’m going to tell you. Edward Percy is my godson and a distant relative. His birth is as legitimate as yours or mine, and his lineage just as proud. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, my lord, quite clear,” Hugh hastened to confirm. “I beg your forgiveness for insulting Edward and maligning your honour.” Edward, who was standing uncomfortably beside Hugh, glanced down and saw the tears sparkling on his dark eyelashes.

“I placed Edward into your care and, before the first day of your charge is through, we’ve come to this,” the earl continued sternly. “I’m disappointed, Hugh; I expected better of you.” This time Edward saw a tear spill down the young squire’s cheek and he experienced an unfamiliar and unsettling sensation which was the prick of his own conscience. Before he had time to respond to its dictates the earl had issued a brief order to his squire, “Get up and stand over there with your hands flat on the table.”

Edward was unsure what was coming next but Hugh was under no illusions. He got slowly to his feet and walked over to the small table which the prior used for writing letters and sermons. He stopped a couple of feet from it, spread his legs to get a firm stance and then bent forward to grip its thick wooden edges. When the earl stood up and went to pick up the rod which the prior kept to hand for disciplining the novices, Edward was finally left in no doubt as to what was about to happen.

He watched with a sort of horrified fascination as Northumberland lifted Hugh’s doublet to expose the smooth curve of his backside, clothed in tight fitting grey hose. The earl placed the rod across Hugh’s buttocks and adjusted his stance until he was sure that he could swing the implement to connect squarely with its target. Then he lifted the rod and administered the first of six firm strokes which were laid on evenly, one below the other. It was clear to Edward that the earl was not using his full strength to deliver the punishment but the crack of the rod as it made contact with Hugh’s buttocks made Edward flinch with each blow. Hugh himself didn’t move, nor did he utter a sound; only the hiss of breath through his teeth, and the whitening of his knuckles where his fingers gripped the table, betrayed the extent of his distress.

Edward wished he could look away. He didn’t want to witness Hugh’s suffering and shame but he felt it would be a sort of betrayal if he failed to face up to the full consequences of his argument with the young man. So he stood and watched, white faced, as the penalty was swiftly exacted. The earl didn’t pause between strokes but when he put the rod down he gave his squire a few moments to recover before placing a helping hand under his shoulder to assist him to stand upright. Hugh then turned stiffly to face Edward and the hurt in his eyes reflected more than mere physical pain.

The words came pouring out of Edward then. “I started it. I was rude to him when he told me off about the baggage. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean this to happen.” For the first time in his life Edward was beginning to understand what it meant to regret his own words and to offer a sincerely felt apology.

Northumberland put a restraining hand on Edward shoulder. “Calm down, Edward. I need no man to tell me that Hugh de Warenne would never utter such an insult without dire provocation. Nor am I surprised that he confessed his fault immediately and did not seek to offer any excuse.” The earl glanced at his squire who looked as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “That’s why I went easy on him and gave him no more than a sharp reminder to guard his tongue in future. Can I rely on you, Edward, to make a greater effort to cooperate with Hugh who is charged with responsibility for you on this journey?”

“Yes, my lord,” promised Edward. “And, Hugh, will you permit me to apologise for my angry words? I’m so very sorry that my provocation resulted in this punishment. I’ll try to behave better tomorrow.”

Hugh inclined his head in grave acknowledgement. Then, anxious to be excused, he asked for permission to return to the guesthouse to check on the men. Edward would readily have followed but Northumberland called him back for a private word.

“I hope you’ve learnt something from this unfortunate business, Edward,” he said in such a gentle tone that the prince knew he wasn’t being reprimanded.

“It wasn’t easy to watch that,” he confessed.

“It’s sometimes harder to see someone suffer for your own failings than to be punished yourself,” the earl agreed. “That’s a valuable lesson in life and you’ve learnt it early on. Try to curb your temper too,” he added. “If you’d hit Hugh you would have left me with no choice but to have you thrashed in front of the men.”

Edward looked at Northumberland with horror. It had never even occurred to him that such a thing was a possibility. No one had ever laid a hand in anger on his royal person nor imposed any form of corporal punishment. He’d watched Hugh’s whipping with dismay but without appreciating that he himself could one day be at the mercy of Northumberland’s summary justice. He recalled that he had agreed to be subject to the earl’s discipline but he hadn’t thought to ask what that might entail. He considered announcing his rejection of their agreement but, on reflection, he realised that he had nowhere to go if he left the earl’s protection and nothing he had experienced so far had led him to fear or distrust his new mentor. Nonetheless, he declared firmly, “I’d rather die than be publicly beaten.”

“Then take care not to render yourself liable to such a penalty,” warned Northumberland. “Hugh de Warenne is the younger son of the Earl of Surrey. If a man without rank or title were to assault him in front of our men at arms, discipline would be permanently undermined if I imposed no public punishment, to say nothing of Surrey’s fury if I failed to defend his son’s honour.”

“I won’t insult or threaten him again, my lord,” promised Edward with unaccustomed deference.

“If you find it difficult, remember that you’re learning what it means to render obedience to a feudal overlord”, advised Northumberland. “That lesson should serve you well when you receive the oath of fealty from your own vassals.”

When Edward finally left the earl and went back to the monastic guesthouse he found the men were beginning to settle down for the night. The sun was setting and they would be up at dawn to continue the journey so some were already lying fully clothed under a blanket, their boots placed at the foot of their pallets. There was one bowl of cold soup and a large chunk of bread on the trestle table and Edward correctly assumed it had been left for him. When he looked round for an unoccupied space the only one was at the very end of the long room next to Hugh de Warenne who was lying motionless on his front. Edward went quietly to sit on the thin, straw filled mattress and eat his supper while keeping an eye on Hugh who had his eyes closed. By the time he’d finished his solitary meal and put the dish to one side, the light was failing and in the gloom he felt more comfortable with what he had to do.

“Hugh, Hugh,” he whispered. “Are you awake?” Hugh’s eyelids fluttered and his alert grey eyes sparkled in the fading light. “Are you in pain?”

“Not so much now. Just a dull throbbing. It’ll be gone by morning.”

“Will you let me apologise properly, Hugh. I know I’ve been uncooperative all day, when you were only trying to help me. I… I’m not very good at taking orders. I lost my temper when you told me off and I said some things I regret. I never thought you’d get into so much trouble. I hated seeing you beaten.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Hugh said tiredly. “I had that coming. I’m trying to prepare for knighthood and a chivalrous knight doesn’t behave as I did.”

Edward lay back and considered the extent to which his own conduct fell short of the ideals of knighthood. His dispirited sigh reached Hugh who stretched a hand across the space between them to pull Edward’s straw pallet closer to his own. “Stop worrying. We’ll both make a new start in the morning.”

When the sun’s early morning beams shone through the shuttered windows of the guesthouse, Edward and Hugh still lay fast asleep, curled up against one another for warmth and comfort.