Royal Redemption: Chapter 7

Seated beside Brother Alcuin, Edward allowed his mind to wander. The good monk’s patient explanation failed to capture his attention and when he was asked to reread the sentence he’d just got wrong, he repeated his earlier mistakes.

“Stop,” said Brother Alcuin with a touch of exasperation. “Weren’t you listening to me? Follow my pointer and sound out the letters.”

“Yes, Brother,” said Edward, struggling to keep his mind on the task instead of wondering what Hugh de Warenne and Richard Fitzurse were up to. He’d heard them planning to take their falcons out hunting and he wished he was on horseback beside them, with his hawk on his wrist. Having rebelled against the stifling formality of the royal court, with its regime designed to prepare him for kingship, he resented the fact that his move to Alnwick Castle had plunged him back into the labour of formal lessons. In London he’d opted out of such mind numbing activity in order to spend time enjoying himself with people his own age and he contemplated refusing to read another sentence.

His hesitation must have lasted a moment too long. “Are you going to make an effort with this, Edward,” enquired the monk, “or do I need to tell Sir Henry that we’re making no progress?”

At the Palace of Westminster Edward had merely ignored the empty threats from his tutor but he knew Brother Alcuin would readily report his lack of effort to Sir Henry Percy who wouldn’t hesitate to make his displeasure known. “I am making an effort,” he said resentfully, “but this makes no sense.”

“It would make sense if you’d learned the words from last week. You’ve got to be prepared to study on your own. I can’t do this for you, Edward.” Brother Alcuin was known for his equable temperament and Sir Henry had chosen him to teach Edward his letters, believing him capable of managing a reluctant and strong willed student. Given Edward’s maturity, they had privately agreed to spare the rod in order to give the young man a chance to take responsibility for his own learning. However, Sir Henry had made it very clear to Brother Alcuin that he was prepared to intervene if Edward failed to rise to the challenge.

“I did learn the new words,” Edward claimed, knowing that a hasty review before the lesson didn’t really count. “It was a waste of my time because none of the words are here.” He gestured at the open book they were reading from.

“If you’d really learnt them, Edward, instead of just glancing at them this morning, you would’ve been able to make a much better attempt at today’s lesson.” Brother Alcuin had got the measure of his unwilling student but he was prepared to give him a further chance to redeem himself. “Reading gets easier as you progress, not more difficult, but you have to make an effort to practise on your own. I think you’ve had enough for today but you’re to learn the words I set you last week, as well as today’s list, before we meet again.” Brother Alcuin closed the book and pocketed his precious ivory pointer before handing to Edward a small sheet of parchment on which he’d written out the list of words he wanted his pupil to memorise. “Perhaps you could ask Hugh to go over these with you. He enjoys reading and I’m sure he’d be willing to help.”

Edward picked up the parchment without comment. He had no intention of asking Hugh for help. His friends knew he was working with Brother Alcuin but he’d avoided telling them that the monk was teaching him to read. It was a skill which seemed to be second nature to Hugh and Richard. Hugh, in particular, seemed to spend time each morning and evening reading his Book of Hours. Edward had implied that he had better things to do than look at pictures in books and now he was too ashamed to admit his illiteracy. He stuffed the parchment into his pocket and went back to his chamber.

The days passed with Edward engaged in regular military training and in service to his lord, Sir Henry Percy. He enjoyed the sessions in the bailey which had improved his fitness and were turning him into a formidable opponent with the mace, axe and lance as well as the sword. He was surprised to find that he also enjoyed acting as Sir Henry’s squire. His duties, more often than not, required him to accompany Sir Henry when he was out hunting or patrolling his lands. Before the men, Edward was always careful to observe the required deference towards his lord but their closeness in age, as well as their shared experiences and interests, meant there was a fast growing bond between them.

Harry used their time together to instruct Edward in the art of leadership, although his lessons tended to be practical demonstrations rather than formal lectures. In return, Edward rendered the service required of a squire and found that it gave him pleasure to look after Harry’s horse, weapons and armour as well as to serve Harry’s food and help him dress. He would once have regarded such tasks as beneath him but waiting on Harry, ensuring his comfort, caring for his belongings and obeying his orders felt deeply satisfying in a way Edward didn’t really understand. He did know, however, that he could never have offered such willing submission to any other man.

Immersed in the daily activities of Alnwick Castle, Edward made no time for study and when his next lesson with Brother Alcuin came round he had not so much as looked at the words which he was supposed to have learnt. He knew his lack of progress would be painfully obvious and he dreaded the embarrassment of being unable to read even the simplest sentence. In addition, he feared that Brother Alcuin would not be minded to give him another chance and he would finish up having to explain his lack of effort to Sir Henry Percy. He had learnt the hard way that misbehaviour met with summary punishment from Sir Henry but he wasn’t so much afraid of a tongue lashing or a whipping from Harry.  What he couldn’t face was Harry’s disappointment that he was failing to master a skill which others seemed to find so easy.

Heading towards the chapel, knowing that Brother Alcuin would be waiting with his books in the sacristy, Edward’s route took him past the stables. On impulse, he decided to abandon the lesson and went to saddle his horse before riding out of the castle gate unaccompanied. He had no plan or destination in mind. He was just responding as he’d done in the past when faced with an unpleasant task. But whereas he’d been able evade his duties with impunity at the Palace of Westminster, truancy was a more serious matter at Alnwick Castle.

However, the relief of escaping the lesson was so great that Edward urged his horse into a canter and gloried in the freedom and exhilaration of covering the open ground so fast. He’d put a considerable distance between himself and the castle before he began to consider the possible consequences of his precipitate flight. For one thing, he had no idea how far south the marauding Scots were likely to penetrate and he knew he should not be riding alone in the countryside. For another, he was beginning to realise that the avoidance of one difficult and unpleasant lesson with Brother Alcuin would inevitably give rise to an even more difficult and unpleasant session with Sir Henry Percy. Harry’s oft repeated warning, about considering the consequences of any actions in advance, began to strike home.

When he saw a church standing on a knoll he rode towards it, thinking it would afford him a place of safety while he took stock of the situation and considered his options. He tethered his horse to one of the churchyard yew trees and cautiously opened the heavy wooden door. The interior was unlit but light streaming through the small, arched windows revealed a wealth of intricate carving on the stone capitals. The fabulous beasts and entwined foliage transported Edward to an imaginary world and for a short while he was able to forget his immediate problem. He wandered down the nave, halting at each pillar to admire the skill of the stonemason who had created such perfectly chiselled forms.

He was less interested in the brightly coloured wall paintings which depicted biblical scenes, most of which he was unable to identify. But as he approached the chancel, his attention was caught by an image he couldn’t fail to recognise. The gaping mouth of hell, depicted as a vast red beast, loomed out of the gloom and Edward could see the souls of the damned being herded into its maw by demons wielding pitchforks. A similar image adorned the chapel in the Palace of Westminster and he remembered as a child being shown the inevitable fate of evil doers.

It had been a long time since he’d considered the state of his own soul but in that quiet church he wondered if his sins had put him beyond the reach of redemption. Even with the chance to begin again and prove himself worthy to be called a king’s son, he’d reverted to his old ways and refused to cooperate with Brother Alcuin’s attempts to teach him his letters. Then he’d run away like a coward rather than face the consequences of his failure to learn. He didn’t know where he’d run to and he didn’t know his way back. More importantly, he didn’t know how to regain the trust and respect of Sir Henry Percy and the Earl of Northumberland. He went to take a seat in one of the stone sedilia reserved for the priests and, resting his elbows on his knees, bowed his head in his hands and allowed himself to be overwhelmed by a sense of loss and regret.

Edward was eventually roused from his remorseful contemplation by the quiet sound of the church door being opened. He sat upright and pushed himself back into the stone alcove, hoping that the visitor wouldn’t see a man sitting where no layperson was permitted to venture. But his hopes of escaping notice swiftly departed when he saw who had entered the church and was striding purposefully towards the chancel. He raised grief stricken eyes to Sir Henry Percy who acknowledged his presence with the ghost of a smile but then genuflected towards the altar and knelt down on the chancel steps. Harry crossed himself reverently and bowed his head in prayer.

It had never occurred to Edward to perform any act of obeisance on entering the church and now he felt uncomfortable sitting in the priest’s seat while Harry knelt in prayer. He wondered if he should kneel too but then decided it would be hypocritical to pretend to a devotion he didn’t feel. So he sat in uneasy silence, waiting for the accusations he was sure would come, but Sir Henry seemed to be taking his time with his prayers. Edward wondered whether he was praying for patience or for deliverance from such a troublesome squire. Eventually Sir Henry raised his head, got to his feet and moved to sit beside Edward in the adjoining stone seat.

“If you’d mentioned you wanted to ride this morning,” he remarked conversationally, “I would have come with you, and arranged to bring a party of soldiers for protection.”

“I know… I know,” Edward stammered. “I shouldn’t have ridden off alone. I just wanted to get away… I didn’t think.”

“I take it you wanted to get away from Brother Alcuin. He reported you missing from your lesson, you know.”

“He’d have reported me even if I’d attended the lesson,” said Edward in despairing tones. He warned me that he’d tell you if I didn’t make progress.”

“You have nothing to fear from me, or from Brother Alcuin, if you’re trying your best, Edward.”  Edward didn’t know how to respond to that statement but the long silence which ensued told its own story. “Have you been doing your best for Brother Alcuin?” Harry asked eventually.

Edward hung his head but didn’t try to evade the question. “No, sir. I didn’t look at the words he gave me to learn this week and I didn’t learn the previous list either. It’s too difficult,” he burst out. “I can’t do it.”

“I’m disappointed you didn’t tell me you were having problems, Edward,” said Harry without reproach. “There was no need to run away.”

“I didn’t run away… or, at least, I didn’t mean to run away. How did you find me, anyway?”

“I had a report from the guardroom almost as soon as your absence was reported by Brother Alcuin. You were seen riding off and I just set off in the same direction, hoping you would travel in a straight line. I also ordered patrols to scour the countryside. We’ll wait here until one of them finds us and then we’ll have an escort back to Alnwick Castle.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Edward with some trepidation and Harry did not need to ask what he was referring to.

“I’m disappointed to hear that you haven’t been trying your best for Brother Alcuin. He’s a good man and an experienced teacher who was happy to take you on as a pupil. I will ask him about your effort and attitude in the lessons but I think you deserve to feel the full measure of his displeasure, don’t you?”

Harry seemed to be expecting a response to his question and Edward nodded miserably. “I haven’t always been as polite and hard working as I should have been,” he acknowledged, realising that he wanted Harry to hear the worst from his own lips. “I haven’t done the preparation he set for me and then I’ve been resentful and uncooperative in the lesson.”

“It’s some satisfaction to hear you acknowledge your fault, Edward. But I will not have you running away rather than facing up to the consequences of your misconduct. I had hoped you’d learnt to behave more honourably.”

If Harry had taken his belt to him there and then, Edward could not have felt more chastened. He slipped to his knees beside Harry’s feet and whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hate the lessons but I know that’s no excuse for not trying or for being rude. I couldn’t face today’s lesson and I just took the easiest way out.” He swallowed hard because he had some inkling of what it would mean to be punished by Brother Alcuin. “I’ll take whatever punishment you think I deserve but please… please give me another chance.”

“There’s always another chance, Edward,” said Harry, running a reassuring hand through his squire’s blonde curls. “Remember that fact when things go wrong again, as they undoubtedly will, and come and ask me for help before you do something foolish. Now up you get and let’s go and get the horses.”

When they opened the church door, Edward was surprised to find Hugh de Warenne holding their horses and surrounded by a company of soldiers waiting to escort them back to the castle. The journey home took much longer than Edward’s headlong flight and he rode in silence between Harry and Hugh. He was conscious of Hugh’s sympathy but grateful for his tactful restraint in not asking any questions. Sir Henry spent the journey back considering how best to punish Edward, finally deciding that he should be dealt with in the same way as any other idle and disrespectful young truant. He also resolved to discuss Edward’s education with his father as he had an idea which he thought might make it easier for his squire to learn to read and write.

When they got back to the stables, Sir Henry left Hugh de Warenne to deal with their horses and he took Edward back to his own chamber.

“I don’t intend to lecture you, Edward,” he announced. “You know what you’ve done wrong and you’ve accepted that you’re going to be punished. Brother Alcuin tried to treat you like an adult but you’ve behaved like a disobedient schoolboy so I propose that he punishes you accordingly. You’ll be horsed and whipped.”

Edward’s eyes opened wide with shock and the blood drained from his cheeks although, in truth, it was what he’d feared when he offered to take whatever punishment Harry decreed. He’d witnessed his whipping boy receiving such chastisement on his behalf but it wasn’t so much the prospect of the pain which appalled him as the humiliation of being beaten on his bare buttocks while bent over the back of a fellow student. And then it struck him that he had no fellow students.

“Please,” he begged. “I can’t bear to be beaten in front of others.”

“I promised that you would always be accorded privacy, Edward, if that was your wish. I’m not about to break that promise. If you can’t bear to be beaten by Brother Alcuin then I’ll do it myself but I think you deserve to experience, at least once, the punishment you evaded so often when you were a boy. If I horse you, are you willing to take your stripes from Brother Alcuin?” Here was a chance to say no but Edward struggled only briefly before giving a curt nod. Harry privately admired his courage but felt it would be a kindness to act quickly. “Are you ready to take your punishment now?” he enquired.

“Yes, sir,” Edward said and he squared his shoulders resolutely as he followed Harry to the sacristy. Brother Alcuin was engaged in copying a page of text when they entered the room but he put his work to one side and stood up to greet Sir Henry.

“Edward would like to offer his apologies for his unexplained absence from today’s lesson,” said Harry. He seemed to know that Edward was incapable of coherent speech but he understood what was in his squire’s heart and was able to voice his sentiments. “He also tells me that he’s been remiss about his preparation for the lessons and has behaved disrespectfully towards his teacher. He’s indicated his willingness to accept due punishment from you.”

Brother Alcuin nodded gravely and turned to open the chest in which he kept an assortment of rods. He lifted a medium weight implement and looked to Sir Henry for approval.

“I’ll horse him,” said Sir Henry, “if you’ll administer the strokes. Do you think a dozen will be sufficient to emphasise the need for greater application and commitment?”

“I think so,” Brother Alcuin concurred, accepting Sir Henry’s judgement without question.

“Unlace your points,” Harry instructed Edward, “and then take my hands.” Edward untied the laces which secured his hose and when he’d finished Harry turned his back and held his hands out over his shoulders. After a moment’s hesitation Edward thrust his hands into Harry’s and felt himself being pulled forward as Harry bent over the table. As Harry was a couple of inches taller than him he was suspended with his feet off the floor, his arms stretched over Harry’s shoulders, his head resting in the nape of Harry’s neck and his whole body weight borne on Harry’s back. He felt Brother Alcuin pulling his loosened hose until they descended to his knees and his buttocks were bared for the rod.

Brother Alcuin had had a lifetime of punishing recalcitrant schoolboys and he made short work of Edward’s punishment. He laid on the twelve strokes, placing them evenly one below the other, with hardly a pause between each. The first stroke took Edward’s breath away, the second made him groan, the third made him squirm and, from that point on, he was unable to keep still. Nothing had prepared him for the wicked bite and burn of the rod and in the midst of his pain he was able to spare a thought for his whipping boy who had so often suffered this anguish on his behalf. He knew with absolute certainty that if such a whipping had been the inevitable consequence of idleness and inattention he would never have ended up illiterate. He made a sincere resolution, before he was even half way through the punishment, that in future he would devote his full attention to his studies.

He was ready to do anything to avoid undergoing such an appalling punishment ever again. The shame of squirming, bare arsed, under Brother Alcuin’s rod was bad enough but even worse was the embarrassment of knowing that every gasp, every groan, every wince and flinch was communicated directly and immediately to Harry who was bending beneath him. He was acutely aware of the way the contours of their bodies fitted together, especially of the way his genitals were pressing into the cleft of Harry’s buttocks.  He tried to restrain his squirming to minimise the friction but each stroke administered by Brother Alcuin resulted in an uncontrollable forward thrust. By the time the punishment was over, and Edward had been placed gently back on his feet with his clothing reordered, he was flushed with more than just the after effects of the whipping and he was unable to look Harry in the eye.

Sir Henry did not appear to find anything amiss, however. He put a comforting arm around Edward’s shoulder and hastened to reassure him. “Well done, Edward. You showed real courage. It’s never easy to take a whipping, no matter how old you are. I think you’ve learnt something from it though.”

Edward nodded. “I’ll certainly think twice before I neglect my studies in future,” he said ruefully and, turning to Brother Alcuin he added, “I’m truly sorry for my rudeness, Brother. I’ll be a better student in future.”

“I’m sure you will be, my boy,” said the monk with calm certainty.

“I’m sorry, too, Edward,” said Harry unexpectedly. “I should have checked on your progress sooner and maybe I’d have realised how hard you were finding things. But I’ve got an idea which I want to discuss with my father. I think we can help you learn your letters more quickly and then you’ll be reading and writing Latin in no time.”

Such a goal had never figured in Edward’s ambitions but he was finally coming to terms with the fact that if Sir Henry intended him to read and write, he had no choice but to make every effort with his lessons. Far from resenting Harry’s control over how he spent his time, he found a curious satisfaction in having to do as he was told. It gave him a greater sense of security and stability than he had ever experienced before. Despite the sting in his backside, which was making him shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, he realised that Alnwick Castle had come to feel like home and he was glad to be back within the safety of its walls.