Royal Redemption: Chapter 5

Edward was dreading the next practice session in the bailey. He knew he would no longer be allowed to engage in hand to hand combat and he was expecting his relegation to the rank of beginner to be an occasion of public shame. Struggling into his hauberk in the armoury, he felt capable hands lifting the heavy mail over his head and he emerged from the dark to find Hugh de Warenne helping him arm. After an unfortunate start, the two young men had reached an understanding on the journey to Northumberland and Edward felt grateful for Hugh’s assistance and company as he strode into the bailey with his head held high.

To his great surprise, he found all the knights as well as the squires engaged in sword drill under the watchful eye of the constable and master at arms. He was uncertain whether Sir Henry Percy had arranged a practice session for everyone in order to spare him the humiliation of having to drill with the boys but he didn’t question his good fortune. He just took his place in the line with immense relief and threw himself into the energetic manoeuvres required to wield the heavy, two handed sword. He recalled that knights were required to engage in similar practice sessions in the royal tiltyard but having absented himself once, only to discover that either the marshal did not report his truancy to the king or the king was too unconcerned to take action, he’d elected not to participate further in such boring yet physically demanding exercise.

That failure to maintain a knight’s training regime soon began to take its toll on Edward. The repeated sword thrusts and parries strained muscles unused to such exertion and he was forced to acknowledge to himself that he lacked battle ready fitness. When he stopped for a breather, a shouted reprimand from the constable soon had him back in action but not before he noticed that Sir Henry himself was exercising alongside his men, obeying the shouted commands of the master at arms. By the time the session ended, Edward was soaked in sweat, his muscles were screaming for relief and he seriously doubted whether he’d be capable of standing up in the morning, let alone embarking on another bout of exercise. Nonetheless, he felt obliged to wait for Sir Henry and offer his services in his newly appointed role as Harry’s squire. He had some notion that he should help his lord disarm and take responsibility for his weapons although, in truth, he had no idea how to perform such tasks.

It seemed, however, that Sir Henry had every intention of availing himself of Edward’s services as he indicated that his new squire should accompany him to his private quarters. There Edward helped Harry divest himself of his weapons and armour but he didn’t know what to do next. Luckily, his ignorance of a squire’s duties was of no immediate concern to Harry whose main reason for requiring Edward’s presence was to talk to him in private. “How did you get on in the practice session?” he asked.

Edward thought to dissemble but then decided to be honest. “I was struggling, sir. I haven’t practised for months and I’m not used to such a heavy sword.”

“You need to handle it every day until it feels like an extension of your arm. An enemy won’t give you time to take a rest.”

“That’s what the constable told me, although rather more bluntly,” Edward admitted with a laugh. In private he’d shed some of the deference he was careful to employ in public and felt emboldened to ask the question which he’d been pondering. “May I ask why you practise with the men, sir? It was a surprise to see you taking orders from the master at arms.”

“If I’m prepared to follow his instructions, then the most aristocratic of squires can hardly baulk at taking orders from him. If the knights see me doing regular practice, then they have no excuse for neglecting their own training. It’s called leading by example, Edward. When we go into battle, I need those men to respond to the Percy battle cry and follow me without question. I win their loyalty every day by working with them to prepare for the times when we have to fight in defence of our land and our loved ones.”

Edward listened carefully but said nothing. Sir Henry had given him a new understanding of the feudal lord’s role and he needed time to absorb the implications of what he’d learnt. Instead he asked about something else which had been bothering him, “Did you arrange today’s practice session to cover up the fact that I’m not allowed to duel until I’ve improved my skill with the sword?”

It was Harry’s turn to consider whether to be economical with the truth but finally he decided that Edward deserved complete candour. “I did think it would ease the transition if your first day as my squire was spent practising sword drill with our whole company. It is something we do frequently so no one would have thought it strange.”

“Thank you for making things easy for me, sir. Well, relatively easy; I’m not sure I’ll be able to move in the morning.” Having swallowed his pride in order to admit how hard he’d found the training session, his next question was easier to ask, “Do you want me to clean your sword and mail now?”

“No, thank you. You can leave that job to my page. He’s nearly ready for promotion to squire and he’s taken on responsibility for my arms and armour.”

“I’d like to ask him if he’d show me how to care for your accoutrements, if that’s acceptable, sir.”

Harry was privately surprised that Edward was volunteering for such a menial task and showing himself willing to take instruction from a youngster but he disguised his astonishment and serenely acquiesced to Edward’s request.

Over the following weeks Edward’s conduct remained exemplary. He presented himself without fail for training sessions which markedly improved his fitness, and he did his best to attend to Sir Henry’s needs which demonstrated a laudable willingness to fulfil the squire’s role. The Earl of Northumberland and his son privately congratulated themselves that Edward had taken so readily to his new duties and responsibilities without lapsing into the indiscipline which the king’s accusations had led them to expect. Sir Henry Percy made it his aim to teach Edward the knightly virtues without crushing his spirit. He demonstrated by example the art of leadership and Edward proved himself an intelligent and cooperative learner.

When the Scottish king indicated that he wanted to send a delegation to Alnwick Castle to discuss border issues, the earl and his son decided that they could afford to trust Edward with greater responsibility. By giving the prince the opportunity to be privy to their private discussions, they were enabling him to learn valuable lessons about one of the king’s most dangerous enemies. Sir Henry explained to Edward that he was to serve at table when he and the earl entertained William Douglas and his retinue. If Edward was less than flattered at being given responsibility for serving Baron Douglas, he gave no indication that he was unwilling to undertake the task.

Edward had never taken much notice of the service performed at banquets by the squires and pages. He took for granted the smooth delivery of the food and drink, never having had to perform any such lowly task himself. Sir Henry suspected that he had bypassed the training which all young members of the aristocracy received in the art of serving their feudal lord at table and he instructed Hugh de Warenne and Richard Fitzurse to remedy that omission in Edward’s education.

The lesson did not proceed smoothly. As Edward bumped the flagon of water against Hugh’s arm and slopped the liquid all over his lap. Hugh jumped up and shouted, “You did that on purpose, you clumsy oaf.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. You deliberately stuck your arm in my way,” Edward responded, only half in jest. He’d watched as Hugh and Richard had demonstrated how to serve food and pour drink smoothly and discreetly but putting the lesson into practice wasn’t as easy as it looked and he was rapidly losing patience with the whole exercise. He slammed the jug down on the table and began to walk away.

“Where are you going?” asked Richard Fitzurse warily.

“I’ve had enough of this. It’s boring and a waste of my time. I’m going to the mews to see the hawks.”

“You can’t do that,” Hugh objected. “The steward is going to check your progress later. If you’re not here, we’ll all be in trouble.”

That piece of information gave Edward pause. He was growing very fond of his fellow squires and he’d privately resolved never again to do anything to harm them or get them into trouble. He reluctantly returned and recommenced the tricky manoeuvre of filling Hugh’s goblet without interrupting the artificial conversation Hugh was having with Richard. When the steward arrived Edward was in the act of balancing a large platter on his upturned hand whilst sinking to his knees beside Richard’s chair and trying not to drop the helmet which Hugh had commandeered to serve as a boar’s head.

“Well done, my boy,” said the steward, walking over to Edward’s side. “Just remember to spread your fingers out under the platter to support the weight of the boar’s head.

“I’m not your boy,” replied Edward venomously.

“All you squires are my boys,” responded the steward evenly.

Edward considered making an extremely rude riposte but rapidly dismissed the idea. He’d been able to insult his father’s servants with impunity but he suspected that the steward would have no compunction about reporting him to Sir Henry Percy and the consequences of that didn’t bear thinking about. Instead, he walked, and bowed, and knelt, and served with barely disguised disdain until the steward was satisfied that he could perform his duties faultlessly.

Serving the Scottish baron presented more of a challenge. Twice Douglas directed angry comments at Edward for perceived slowness or clumsiness. Edward found himself noticing how Northumberland and his son facilitated the delivery of their food and drink, leaning back to accommodate Hugh and Richard’s movements and smiling their thanks. It made Douglas’s crass behaviour even more infuriating and Edward didn’t stop to think how often he himself had ignored or berated those who’d given him their willing service. When Edward knelt to offer Douglas the opportunity to select his own cuts of roast swan he found himself once more accused of failing to render adequate assistance to the guest of honour. This time Edward lost control of his temper and responded with a speed Douglas might have admired, were it not for the fact that Edward tipped the platter forwards to deposit all the meat and gravy into his lap.

The baron leapt to his feet, scrabbling ineffectually to scrape the hot food off his fur lined gown. Edward grinned but his moment of satisfaction was short lived as Douglas began demanding retribution. “I want him punished. I want him whipped,” he yelled.

Sir Henry Percy was on his feet almost at once, hastening to the baron’s side, apologising profusely and seeking to pacify his guest. The outraged Scot could not be deflected from his demand for justice but he finally consented to accompany Sir Henry who was offering to escort him to his chamber and personally assist him to change his clothing.

When the two men had left the room, Northumberland turned to Edward who was trying to sweep the mess back onto the platter. “Leave it,” he ordered curtly, “and go and kneel over there.” He pointed to the unoccupied space at one side of the room. Edward got reluctantly to his feet and wiped his grease stained hands on his livery. As he sank sullenly to his knees in the designated spot he heard the earl instruct Richard Fitzurse to fetch a broom to sweep the spilled food into the corner where it could later be consumed by the dogs.

With demands for his immediate chastisement removed and the earl paying him no further attention, Edward permitted himself a modicum of self congratulation. He’d resented from the first having to undertake such demeaning duties and the uncivilised Scot had just proved himself an unworthy recipient his services. As far as Edward was concerned, Douglas had got his just deserts. Tipping the roast swan into his lap wasn’t a premeditated act but Edward reflected with pleasure on the fact that the fowl was fresh from the spit and the grease was hot. Douglas had leapt screaming to his feet and Edward hoped that the liquid had soaked through to his skin.

Edward was not in the least bit sorry for his actions and it seemed clear that Sir Henry Percy had no intention of yielding to Douglas’s demands for a whipping. In view of the fact that his previous misdeeds had been pardoned after only token punishments, Edward decided that the earl and his son would take a lenient view of the offence. He settled back on his heels to await the conclusion of the meal, relieved that he would have no further work to do that evening.

The return of Douglas, accompanied by Harry Percy put an end to his musings. The Scot had donned a long green gown, belted at the waist, which reached almost to his ankles, and his green and blue plaid was slung across his shoulder. He was chatting amiably to Sir Henry as he entered the room but the sight of Edward enraged him yet again and Edward knelt up nervously when Douglas raised his voice. “I want that young devil whipped bloody, do you hear? I will not be insulted when I came here in peace.”

“Have no fear,” Sir Henry reassured him. “This young man will feel the whip for his offence but we won’t let him interrupt our meal or our discussions any further. I’ll deal with him roundly later on. Come, my lord, resume your seat and let me serve you myself.” With this calm and conciliatory response Sir Harry deftly defused Baron Douglas’s anger and redirected his attention to the meal. The conversation returned to discussion of border issues but Sir Henry remained standing to keep his guest supplied with food and drink. Douglas accepted this mark of favour as his due and Sir Henry never betrayed by word, gesture or expression that he resented acting as servant to the ungrateful Scot.

If Sir Henry’s words pacified the baron, they had entirely the reverse effect on Edward. When Sir Henry calmly announced that he would be whipping Edward later on, the young man nearly passed out with shock. He had so successfully convinced himself that he stood in no immediate danger of serious punishment that he could hardly believe what he was hearing. Yet he knew that Sir Henry was a man of his word and a man who did not make idle threats. His only consolation was the knowledge that Harry had also promised that if he was ever due a beating, it would be administered in private.

The discussion about the future status of Berwick and the free movement of peasants across the border passed over his head. It never even occurred to him that he was uniquely positioned to make a judgement about the intentions and reliability of their Scottish enemies. He was reliving the memory of Hugh’s whipping at the hands of Northumberland and trying to imagine himself taking such a punishment with equal dignity and courage. But the thought of being subject to physical discipline overwhelmed him with shame and he began to consider the possibility of leaving Alnwick before Sir Henry could lay hands on him. He reminded himself that he had only agreed to accompany the earl to Northumberland in order to escape an untenable situation at court and he’d never intended to remain in the north for long. He’d certainly never envisaged the possibility of suffering such a humiliating punishment at the hands of Harry Percy, his childhood friend.

But there was a core of steel running through Edward which ultimately led him to reject the idea of running away like a coward. Sir Henry’s good opinion had become so important to him that he couldn’t bear the prospect of losing that regard. Despite feeling aggrieved that he’d had to endure unjustified criticism from Douglas and still feeling pleased that he’d got his revenge, he began to come to terms with the punishment he had coming. He knelt up straight, clasped his hands behind his back and tried to still his pounding heart. Northumberland, who had been keeping a wary eye on Edward, recognised that the young man had reached a point of acceptance and he devoutly hoped that the forthcoming whipping would teach him to keep his temper under tighter control.

Eventually the discussion appeared to be drawing to a close with the prospect of an accord which would bring a lull in the almost constant border conflict. Sir Henry Percy began to ply Douglas with drink, ostensibly to celebrate their agreement but in reality to render the man too drunk to return to the matter of Edward’s punishment. Edward began to realise what was going on, although he’d missed the fact that Sir Henry’s gracious treatment of Douglas had played a significant part in gaining concessions during the negotiations. Sir Henry completed his service by assisting his guest back to his chamber and summoning the servants to help him into bed. Then he returned to find his father sipping wine in reflective silence while he watched Edward who was still kneeling with his head bowed. Richard Fitzurse and Hugh de Warenne had been dismissed but not before each had found the opportunity to press a reassuring hand on Edward’s shoulder.

“Come, Edward,” was all that Sir Henry said, and in such a quiet tone that he could have been summoning his squire to accompany him on the hunt. Edward scrambled to his feet and followed without a word. Northumberland caught his son’s eye as Harry left the room and the earl tried to convey firm resolution and total support in that one brief glance. When Sir Henry reached his own chamber, where the servants had lit a fire which warmed the furthest corner, he took a seat in his carved oak chair and, with a gesture, directed Edward to stand in front of him. “What have you learnt tonight, Edward, about the intentions of the King of Scotland?” he enquired.

Of all the possible opening gambits, nothing could have been further from Edward’s expectations. He’d been concocting excuses for his misconduct and he had no idea how to answer Harry’s surprising question. Indeed, he hardly understood what he was being asked. He could only wonder why Sir Henry was quizzing him on the negotiations when they both knew he was there to answer for his grave insult to their guest. Sir Henry allowed the silence to stretch for an agonisingly long period, all the while looking questioningly at Edward as though he expected an intelligent answer. Feeling he had to say something, Edward finally muttered, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what you’ve learnt?” Sir Harry probed. “You know you could have learnt a great deal about one of your father’s most dangerous enemies. Why else do you think I gave you the opportunity to assist at dinner?” Edward’s head came up in surprise at that question. He’d never thought to view the evening’s lowly task as an opportunity to gain information. Henry saw his surprise and confusion and explained further. “I don’t often ask Hugh or Richard to serve at table although they’ve both been trained for service… as have I.” Edward blushed at the reminder that Sir Henry himself had completed the task assigned to his squire and had done so competently and gracefully. “We needed total privacy tonight,” Sir Henry continued. “I couldn’t have the servants made privy to those negotiations. The men who served the food and drink had to be men my father and I could trust with our lives. Hugh and Richard recognised that and gave of their best, for the honour of the Percy name.”

There was no need for Sir Henry to say more. Edward sank to his knees overcome with remorse. He’d been contemplating the offence of tipping hot food over William Douglas and trying to justify his behaviour by blaming Douglas’s provocation. Sir Henry hadn’t so much as mentioned the insult to their guest. Instead he’d brought home to Edward that he’d betrayed his lord’s trust, failed in the task of offering hospitality and dishonoured the Percy name.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.”

Sir Henry saw the sudden shift in Edward from angry recalcitrance to unconditional repentance and he knew that his quiet words had done their work. He saw no need to labour the point, or to make things even more difficult for Edward by making him wait longer for the inevitable. “I hope this punishment will help you curb your temper in future and remind you of the importance of following orders,” he said. “We’ve been lenient with you thus far and maybe that was a mistake. You don’t have to tell me that Douglas was behaving badly but that’s no excuse for your misconduct. What matters is that you’re answerable to me and you failed to carry out my orders for the evening. For that offence, and for that offence only, you’re going to feel the full force of my belt. Strip to the waist and lower your hose.”

Edward looked at Sir Henry in horror. He’d been dreading the shame of being whipped for the first time in his life but it had never occurred to him that Sir Henry would make him bare himself for the lash. “No,” he whispered; it was almost a whimper. “Please. Don’t make me strip."

“I’m waiting, Edward,” said Sir Henry with calm assurance. “I don’t want to have to summon servants to prepare you for punishment.”

That seemed such an appalling prospect that Edward pulled his liveried tabard over his head and twisted to undo the points which fastened his doublet to his hose. His hands were shaking so badly that the laces knotted and Harry had to step to Edward’s side to help him disrobe. At such close proximity, Harry could hear Edward rapid breathing and feel his whole body trembling with apprehension. He placed a steadying hand on Edward back and said, “Calm down, Edward, calm down. I’m not going to kill you. This will be a just and proportionate punishment, no more than you deserve.”

“I know… it’s just… I’ve never been whipped before. I don’t know what to expect. I can’t bear it.”

“Are you afraid of the pain?”

“No… Yes… I don’t know. I’m just so ashamed. I don’t want to take my clothes off. I don’t want to do this.”

“Of course you don’t, Edward. But you brought this on yourself and it’s about time you learnt to take the consequences of your actions. I reckon you’ve been allowed to avoid unpleasant consequences for far too long. Come on, Edward; show me you can take this like a man.”

If there was one challenge guaranteed to stiffen Edward’s resolve, it was Harry’s appeal to his courage. The young man gritted his teeth, put his doubts and fears behind him and resolutely pulled off his shirt. His hose were already slipping over his hips and with a deep breath he bent to push the fine woollen fabric below his knees and then stood up to await instructions, his cheeks flaming with embarrassment and his hands modestly clasped across his genitals.

Sir Henry removed the heavy leather girdle which was fastened loosely over his surcoat. Edward watched with horrified fascination as he carefully folded it in two to create a short, thick length which he swung experimentally a couple of times. Satisfied with its heft, he gripped the large bronze buckle firmly in the palm of his hand and then wrapped the long trailing tail around the buckle and closed his fingers over the loose end.

“Face the wall with your hands pressed flat against it,” Sir Henry ordered. Edward shuffled into position, hobbled by his hose which had descended to his ankles. He spread his arms and placed his hands flat against the wall at head height which caused him to lean slightly forward. Almost at once the first stroke of the belt landed across his shoulders with a resounding crack. The unexpectedness, as much as the pain, forced a grunt from his lips and he gritted his teeth, determined to take his punishment in silence, as had Hugh de Warenne.

Sir Henry kept up a steady rhythm, taking care not to overlay the strokes. Inured throughout childhood to the fierce sting of the rod, Harry felt only pity for the prince whose upbringing had been so sadly neglected. He laid the strokes lightly across flesh which had never felt the impact of leather but, even so, broad welts appeared across the fair skin of Edward’s back, developing to a darker red as the minutes passed.

Reaching the bottom of Edward’s ribcage, which was clearly visible on the young man’s trim torso, Sir Henry turned his attention to Edward’s solidly muscled buttocks and thighs. He slightly increased the tempo and force of his strokes on this region, deciding that he had given Edward enough time to adjust to the feel of his belt. His overriding intention was to deliver a powerful deterrent against any further displays of temper.

Edward was just managing to keep silent but when the belt hit the sensitive skin at the top of his thighs, his body betrayed his struggle to take the punishment without resistance. He was unable to control the reflex to turn away from the flailing leather and Sir Henry had to stop and warn him of the danger. “Don’t twist your hips away from me, Edward. I don’t want to catch your belly or your testicles with this belt.”

With a supreme effort of will Edward brought himself under control and, with a few more powerful strokes, Sir Henry brought the punishment to a close. He placed a hand on Edward’s shoulder and gently levered him away from the wall. “It’s finished,” he said. “You can get dressed now. Take as long as you need.”

Edward waited a moment until the searing pain abated somewhat and his breathing returned to normal and then he bent stiffly to retrieve his hose and swiftly covered his nakedness. Reaching for his shirt and doublet, he was unable to meet Harry’s eyes. The shame of being beaten by his childhood playmate was overwhelming and he couldn’t imagine facing Sir Henry or his father ever again.

With his eyes on the ground he didn’t see Harry step close to him until his doublet was taken out of his hands and he found himself being helped into the garment which Harry then proceeded to lace. There was comfort and reassurance in the homely act and an ease Edward hadn’t experienced since being dressed by his nurse as a little boy. But he didn’t relax fully until Harry said, “Well done, Edward. You took that well. It’s never easy to submit to the lash and you showed real courage, especially as it was your first time. I do hope you’ll remember to control your temper and follow orders in the future. I don’t want us to have to do this again.”

“I’ll do better, Harry, I promise,” Edward declared, his unconscious use of his lord’s familiar name revealing how his thoughts had reverted to their childhood relationship. “I’m so sorry for how I behaved tonight. I just let my temper get the better of me and I never gave a thought to the obedience I owe to you and your father. Please forgive me.”

“You’re already forgiven,” said Harry, running a reassuring hand down the side of Edward’s face. “You’ve taken your punishment and your offence is forgotten. You learn from your mistakes and you resolve to behave better in the future. That’s how it works.”

Having escaped retribution for so many of his youthful offences, this simple truth was a revelation to Edward. Instead of struggling to ignore a nagging sense of shame such as he’d experienced after some of his wilder exploits, he realised that the throbbing pain in his back, buttocks and thighs absolved him of guilt. There was a deal of comfort in that.