“I think the problem is that he has too many distractions here,” said Harry.
“I thought you were keeping him busy,” objected the earl.
“I am, but he’s finding he likes the life of a squire and he’d rather be practising with the sword or out hunting with me than sitting inside studying. It’s not surprising that he’s doing so well with the military exercises; he came to us as a skilled, if untrained, swordsman. What I didn’t expect was that he’d take so readily to the more menial tasks associated with his newly acquired rank.”
“How does it feel, being waited on by your future king?”
“I never think of Edward as our future king when he’s serving my dinner,” responded Harry with a laugh. “When I do think about him becoming king, I find I can readily imagine him as a strong and a just ruler. But we must make sure he can read and write, and I don’t just mean write his name. I want him to be a capable writer and a confident reader. I want him to enjoy reading.”
“I can’t see him wanting to spend all day reading.”
“I think it may be the only way for him to make progress. He’s not doing enough studying on his own for the lessons with Brother Alcuin to make a difference."
“Have you spoken to Edward about this plan?”
“No,” conceded Harry. “I just told him I had an idea to help him with his reading and I was going to discuss it with you. I’m sure if I give him a choice he’ll want to stay here at Alnwick Castle but I think the change will do him good. A period away from the tumult of the world in such beautiful surroundings should be a comfort to his soul.”
“I wonder whether Edward’s presence will be a comfort to the abbot,” mused the earl.
Sir Henry Percy laughed. He knew just what his father was implying. Edward had a temper and a history of absenting himself from activities which he found uncongenial. Neither of these characteristics made him a good candidate for the regime they had in mind. “We would have to make our expectations very clear to him,” Harry conceded, “and there would have to be very clear penalties for misbehaviour.”
“Will he accept correction from anyone else?”
“We’ll have to ask him. I don’t think there’s any chance of this working unless he gives his consent. We know he won’t be keen to go and he won’t like the idea of being subject to a stranger’s authority. But I think I can persuade him at least to give it a try.”
“If you tell him that you really want him to go, I think he’ll agree just to please you,” said the earl who had noticed Edward’s growing devotion to his son. Harry laughed but didn’t reply. He’d already decided that this was the line to take if he wanted to secure Edward’s agreement.
So it was that a little over a week later Sir Henry Percy, accompanied by a troop of soldiers, set out to escort Edward to Holy Island. The description of his destination had intrigued Edward but he was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of spending time with a monastic community. The earl and his son had impressed upon him the privilege of being able to join the monks of Lindisfarne Abbey in regular prayer, as well as having the opportunity to study every day under the tutelage of a learned priest. But Edward was only brought to agree to the move on the strict understanding that he would not be required to stay at the abbey for long.
Nonetheless, the first sight of his new abode took his breath away. Leading his horse over the sand dunes he saw the island standing about three miles out to sea. On the shore two young monks were waiting to greet their visitors but there was no sign of any boat. After the introductions had been made the four of them sat down on the edge of the dunes to wait while the soldiers watered the horses and unpacked the provisions they’d brought with them. They ate their frugal meal of bread, salt fish and small ale as they watched the tide go out.
Eventually the monks got to their feet and indicated that it was safe to depart. Sir Henry Percy issued final instructions to his soldiers, who were to wait on the shore for his return, and then he urged Edward to venture out with him onto the wet sand to follow in the monks’ footsteps. Edward had only seen the sea a couple of times in his life and the vast expanse of water still amazed him. He found it an unnerving experience to walk towards the retreating tide, especially as the water was moving very fast and areas of sand were still under water. As they got further away from land, it became clear that the two monks were picking their way carefully and Edward realised that they were following upright wooden poles, placed to mark out a safe route across the treacherous sands.
As they neared the island, they entered another area of sand dunes and gently rising land which they traversed until they were able to see the massive towers of the abbey church rising up ahead of them. Edward stopped for a moment to take in the scene. The wind filled his nostrils with a salty tang, overlaid with the scent of wild flowers. A small colony of seals, lying on the wet sand at the shoreline, watched them with the unruffled curiosity of creatures unafraid of man. Only the call of the seabirds disturbed the peace and tranquillity of the island. Edward was suddenly filled with trepidation at the thought of being left in such a remote and silent location and Harry, sensing his anxiety, placed a hand on his shoulder and urged him forward.
Entering the gatehouse of Lindisfarne Abbey, it became clear that substantial monastic buildings surrounded the abbey church. Edward relaxed somewhat when he saw a group of lay brothers returning from a day’s work in the fields. It brought a semblance of normality to this windswept place of prayer. Word of the visitors’ arrival must have preceded them because a priest was already coming to greet them. “Welcome, welcome, Harry,” he called as he crossed the courtyard. “It’s good to see you again.” Although older than Harry, he seemed to be on very familiar terms with Sir Henry Percy and clearly the friendship was mutual.
Harry was smiling as he held out his hands in greeting. “You’re looking well, Father,” he said. “The sea air must be doing you good.”
“It’s the prayer and the penance which do me good,” the priest responded with a laugh before turning to look at Edward. “Is this your young relative then?”
“Yes. May I introduce Edward Percy who’s serving as my squire? He’s come to spend some time at the abbey and my father and I very much hope that you’ll help him with his reading and his writing. Edward, this is Father Gregory who’s been a good friend to me. I hope that you and he will get on well together.”
Edward executed a formal bow to his new teacher. “I’m pleased to meet you, Father. I’m afraid you’ll not find me a very good student.”
“Edward has come to his studies rather late in life,” Harry interjected. “He’ll make good progress with a firm teacher and uninterrupted time for study.” Father Gregory correctly interpreted this comment to mean that Edward possessed the intelligence but maybe not the application to make a good student. He’d had plenty of experience with young men of Edward’s stamp and he didn’t doubt his ability to keep him focused on his studies.
Edward also heard a personal message in Harry’s words. It was a message which reinforced Harry’s repeated assurance that Edward would be capable of learning his letters once he had the right teacher and sufficient time to devote to reading and writing. Harry’s confidence in Edward’s ability had gone a long way towards persuading the young man to come to Lindisfarne. His remaining reservations had been overcome by his desire to learn a skill which he privately wished he’d mastered as a child.
“I thought Edward would be most comfortable with the novices,” Father Gregory said, turning the conversation to more immediate matters. “We do expect him to join in with our Benedictine life of prayer so he’ll be called to rise with the other young men for the offices of Matins and Lauds. Would you like to come and see him settled in the dormitory?”
Harry and Edward followed Father Gregory into the cloister and up the day stairs which led to a long open dormitory where simple beds were placed at intervals along the wall. The priest pointed out the bed allocated to Edward and then went to collect a blanket and a pillow.
Edward sat down on the straw filled mattress and rummaged through the bag in which he’d brought a change of clothing, a spare pair of boots and one or two personal items. There was no chest in which to store his belongings and he was beginning to wonder whether he’d be allowed to keep his things with him. “Perhaps you’d better take some of this back with you,” he said rather hesitantly to Harry.
“You keep with you whatever you want,” Harry assured him. “Your bag will go under the bed. I’ll tell Father Gregory that your possessions are not to be touched.”
“I don’t think I’m going to like it here.” Edward observed as the reality of his situation struck home.
“You agreed to give it a fair trial,” Harry reminded him. “If you really find it intolerable you may ask the abbot to send me a message and I’ll come and take you home, but you’re not to leave here on your own under any circumstances. Do you understand?”
“Don’t look so downcast. I wouldn’t have brought you here if I didn’t think you’d come to value the experience. This island means a lot to me and there are times when I wish myself back in its holy and peaceful surroundings. I hope it will come to have a special meaning for you too.”
“Have you spent time here, then?” asked Edward with surprise. Nothing had been said of this when Edward’s move to the island had been discussed.
“My father and I visit from time to time and I spent a week here preparing for knighthood. Father Gregory heard my confession and, before the ceremony, I spent a night in prayer in the abbey church.”
“Oh,” said Edward, embarrassed that he’d asked about something so personal. “I didn’t know.”
Harry was unperturbed. “I didn’t tell you and perhaps I should have done. I will never forget the night I spent on my knees before the altar. In the silence and the darkness I prayed that God would make me a brave and a true knight. I remember the monks filing into the church at intervals during the night and the sound of their chanting was like a foretaste of heaven.”
Edward had no such memories. He’d been very young to be dubbed a knight and the ceremony had been accompanied by three days of festivities at court with banquets and jousting held in his honour. Having never served as a squire he’d not undergone the usual training and preparation for knighthood but he vaguely remembered talk of honour and purity as well as the obligation to fight for God and for right. It was not something he’d ever taken very seriously and he felt humbled by Harry’s readiness to acknowledge how important such concepts were to him. He didn’t know how to respond to Harry’s words but he was spared the need to reply by the return of Father Gregory carrying the bedding he’d gone to fetch.
“You’ll have to move soon, Harry,” said the priest, “or you’ll miss the tide.” Sir Henry stood up and Edward jumped to his feet too.
“Can I walk back with you?” he asked. When Sir Henry looked questioningly at Father Gregory he added hastily and with a hint of pleading, “Just to the edge of the island. I can say goodbye there.”
“Alright,” said Harry, “if you think you can find your way back here on your own. It’ll give us a bit longer to talk and, now you’ve seen the abbey, you may have a few more questions.”
The two monks who had escorted them across the sands were waiting to take Sir Henry back to his men but they drew ahead as they crossed the island, giving Harry and Edward some privacy. Edward walked in silence thinking about all he’d seen and learned on Holy Island. Harry wondered whether the serenity of the place was already having a calming effect on Edward, as his squire’s earlier negativity and anxiety seemed to be abating. Eventually Edward turned to Harry and said, “Thank you for telling me about your time here. I’m beginning to see why you like Holy Island. If you knew some of the places I used to frequent in Smithfield and Southwark… the stews and the ale houses, you’d understand why this seems such a strange place and why… why I’m a bit afraid.”
Edward had never before made any reference to his life in London and Harry had not pressed him. Harry wondered what had prompted this confidence now, just as they were about to part. He suspected it was because Edward knew there was no time for any probing questions but he had no intention of quizzing Edward about past faults and failings. “What are you afraid of?” he asked gently.
“The silence,” Edward replied at once, surprising himself with his answer. “I think I immersed myself in what my father called riotous living just to escape the loneliness of life at court. I’m going to have to get used to my own company here.”
“You’ll never be on your own here, Edward, but you will have to observe the rule of silence so you’ll have plenty of time for your own thoughts.”
“That’s what scares me, that and… and…” Edward was struggling to share his deepest fears, even with Harry.
“And what? What else scares you?”
“I’ve always been able to avoid doing anything I didn’t like. That’s what’s brought me here, isn’t it? I didn’t learn my lessons when I was a child and now I’m having to start at the beginning again. What if I can’t do it, Harry? What if I let you down?”
“Oh, Edward, this is not about letting me down. I know you can do this. Do it for yourself, for your own satisfaction, for your own enjoyment and learn what it feels like to have a sense of achievement. You’re not starting at the beginning either. You’ve covered all the basics with Brother Alcuin. And you’ll enjoy working with Father Gregory. When he knows you better he may tell you what brought him here. His journey through life to this place is a fascinating and a surprising one. But remember what I told you about him. He won’t hesitate to deal firmly with idleness, rudeness or bad temper. If you try your best you have nothing to fear.”
“I promise I’ll try and I’m sorry I made so many difficulties about coming here.” Edward paused and then ploughed on. “Will you tell your father that I’m sorry for arguing about it and for… for… everything, everything I’ve done wrong.”
“He knows, Edward. He just wants you to make the most of your time here.” They had reached the shoreline and the monks were waiting for Harry to join them on the long walk back across the sands. He stopped and turned to Edward. “You’ve been very honest with me today, Edward. I appreciate that and I promise I‘ll respect your confidence. Try to be honest with yourself too, face up to your difficulties and learn to ask for help. I told my father that this place would be a comfort for your soul. I pray you will find it so.” He clasped Edward in a tight embrace and then turned and walked onto the wet sand without a backward glance. Edward stood and watched until the three figures were just dots in the distance and then he turned inland and made his way back to the abbey.
Not knowing what to do or where to go he returned to the dormitory and sat by himself on his bed. He had never felt so lost or lonely in his life.
|Modern Causeway to Lindisfarne|
The tower provides a refuge for stranded motorists