Royal Redemption: Chapter 9

Edward did not have to sit for long on his own. A young man in a grey habit, which marked him out as a novice, soon entered the dormitory and made straight for Edward who stood up to await instructions.

“Welcome, Edward,” said the novice who appeared to be about Edward’s age. “I’m glad you’re joining us.”

“Not permanently,” Edward interjected hurriedly.

“I understand not,” responded the novice with obvious regret. “But I’m sure you’ll receive many blessings during your time in this holy place.”

Edward privately doubted that but he answered politely, “Thank you, Brother.”

“I’m Brother Cuthbert and the abbot asked me to give you a quick tour of the abbey. We haven’t got long because we need to be in church in time for Vespers. Come on.”

By the time Brother Cuthbert had pointed out the location of the refectory, the chapter house, the infirmary, the warming room and the scriptorium there was just time for a very necessary trip to the reredorter before they hastened into the dim interior of the abbey church. Edward gazed around at the soaring stone columns and the vaulted roof until his attention was captured by the stately procession of choir monks in their black habits who took their places on either side of the chancel and began singing the first psalm. As the Gregorian chant filled the echoing space Edward allowed his mind to wander, although he was careful to follow Brother Cuthbert whenever he knelt or stood up.

After what seemed like an interminably long service, it was a relief to step out into the cloister and hear Brother Cuthbert say it was time for supper. Having eaten nothing since the simple meal of bread and salt fish at lunchtime, Edward was ready for something more substantial. He washed his hands at the trough outside the refectory and then went to sit beside Brother Cuthbert at the long oak table. He started to ask his companion what was for supper but Brother Cuthbert placed his fingers to his lips to indicate that meals were taken in silence. The abbot intoned a long Latin grace and then baskets of bread and cheese and jugs of ale were placed on the tables. Edward looked around expectantly for the rest of the food until it eventually became clear that nothing more was to be served. He consumed his portion hastily and washed it down with the weakest ale he had ever tasted. There was no offer of any second helping so he had no choice but to sit and wait impatiently for the meal to end.

When they left the refectory Edward was surprised that Brother Cuthbert led the way back to the church. Edward was under the impression that he had completed his religious duties for the day. Unsure whether the rule of silence was still in force he hesitantly enquired of the novice why they were returning to the church. Brother Cuthbert informed him that they were about to attend Compline, the last service of the day, and Edward braced himself for a further extended period of monastic psalmody. His reservations soon proved well founded, the office of Compline being, to his untrained ears and eyes, indistinguishable from Vespers. When they emerged from the church a second time the sun was low in the sky and Brother Cuthbert headed towards the dormitory.

“Surely we’re not going to bed yet?” enquired Edward. “It’s only early evening.”

“We go to bed at sunset,” replied Brother Cuthbert curtly. “Our candles are reserved for use in church.”

“But I…”

“And we observe the grand silence from dusk until dawn.”

Edward had no alternative but to remove his boots and lie down on his bed fully clothed, as did Brother Cuthbert and the other novices. He lay for a long time thinking through the events of the day as the gloom of dusk darkened into the blackness of night. He had just drifted off into an uneasy sleep when Brother Cuthbert shook him awake and he sat up in some alarm. One of the novices held a small lantern and the others were forming up in a line behind him. Their air of calm reassured Edward and he dutifully joined the procession behind Brother Cuthbert as the whole group headed for the night stairs which led directly into the church. As close to midnight as could be accurately determined, the monks began to sing the office of Matins, during which Edward could barely keep awake.

Returning to his bed nearly an hour later, he fell at once into a deep sleep. When he was awakened at three o’clock in the morning he couldn’t believe he was expected to get out of bed a second time. But his companions were pulling their cowls over their heads for warmth and lining up again to follow the novice with the lantern. Unwillingly Edward joined the procession. This time he did manage to doze through part of the service although he noticed that one monk with a supple rod patrolled the church to give a sharp awakening to any of the brothers who nodded off.

It wasn’t until dawn, when the community was preparing for the office of Prime that Edward was summoned from his bed yet again. He recalled with some irritation Northumberland’s observation that it would be a privilege to participate in the prayer life of the abbey. He’d been given no indication that it would be a day and night commitment. On the way to breakfast Edward managed to ask Brother Cuthbert how often he was going to have to attend services in church.

“Our Rule prescribes eight services each day,” replied Cuthbert with pride.

“And that includes getting up in the middle of the night?” enquired Edward with some asperity.

“Our sainted founder, Benedict, wrote, ‘Let nothing have precedence over divine office’, so we praise God day and night.”

Edward was thoroughly sick of Cuthbert’s sanctimonious piety by the time the novice handed him over to Father Gregory for his first lesson. The priest sensed at once that Edward was in a bad mood which he suspected would render his new pupil unreceptive to teaching. “Come,” he said, “and I’ll show you round the scriptorium.”

They entered a long room with shelves along the walls containing more books than Edward had ever seen in his life. In the centre of the room monks were seated at writing desks working on sheets of vellum. Some were laboriously copying pages of text in exquisite Gothic script; others were painting illuminated capitals in glowing shades of red, blue, green and gold. Edward was entranced by their workmanship and Father Gregory watched with satisfaction as the young man’s hostility gave way to fascination. “I want to show you something,” he said to Edward when the young man could finally be drawn away from watching the scribes.

He took an enormous leather bound book down from the shelf, placed it on a lectern and opened it carefully. Entire pages were covered in elaborate patterns of intertwined geometric shapes, glowing with colour. “This is our most precious book, Edward. It was produced here on Lindisfarne over five hundred years ago. It survived Viking raids and now we keep it in the scriptorium and only take it into the church on holy days.” He turned to a beautifully illustrated page which also had a few lines of text. “Can you tell me what this page is about?” he asked.

Edward, who’d been bending over the book with interest, took an instinctive step backwards in a way which couldn’t have signalled more clearly his discomfort at being asked to read. Father Gregory pretended not to notice his anxiety and carried on talking about the text. “This is the start of a new chapter. You can tell that because it says ‘Incipit’ which means ‘Here begins’. Can you find the ‘Incipit’, Edward?”

Edward looked frantically at the manuscript and tried to decipher the letters. The priest seemed content to wait and as Edward calmed down he considered the sounds and tried to match them to the letters Brother Alcuin had taught him. Finally, he pointed, fearful that he’d got it wrong but Father Gregory was approving. “That’s right. ‘Here begins the gospel according to…’ who, Edward?”

This was more difficult but at least this time Edward knew where to look. M… a… t: slowly he spelt out the letters in his head and suddenly he knew. “Matthew; it’s the gospel according to Matthew.”

“That’s right. For someone who claims to be a beginner, you have a better knowledge of your letters than some of the postulants who come here. Well done, Edward. Shall we go and start our lesson now?” The priest’s deft handling of Edward’s insecurities had made the young man feel much more positive about his forthcoming course of study and he followed Father Gregory happily.

By the time Edward retired to the dormitory at dusk he fell asleep as quickly as the novices. His day had been one unbroken round of lessons and private study interrupted only by the regular offices in chapel. He knew he’d made progress but with so many new things to get used to he was exhausted, having been up since dawn, and he knew he wouldn’t be getting a full night’s sleep.

In the course of the following weeks he did begin to get used to the ordered existence of monastic life, governed by the bell which summoned him regularly to church. It was the first time in his life that he’d been required to follow such a disciplined regime and he discovered that a life of prayer did not suit his natural inclinations. On the other hand, he enjoyed working with Father Gregory who gradually revealed that he was a late vocation after an injury had cut short his career as a knight. There seemed to be time during the lessons to talk about interesting things like fighting, jousting, riding and hunting, and yet the young man progressed to the point where he could read simple text and write in an unsteady hand. The knowledge that success was within his grasp gave him the enthusiasm and commitment to practise reading and writing on his own and Father Gregory was able to make a favourable report to the abbot.

Brother Cuthbert still considered himself responsible for Edward even though the young man went out of his way to avoid the novice’s company. It was mainly to spite his officious guardian that Edward refused one night to get up when Cuthbert shook him awake for Lauds. He was still half asleep and he wasn’t in full control of his temper when Cuthbert pulled back his blanket and tried to drag him out of bed. However, he leapt immediately to the attack when he found himself being manhandled. Before he knew it, Cuthbert was pinned against the wall with Edward’s fingers around his throat. Some of the braver novices tried to force Edward to let Cuthbert go and the others shouted for help. Within seconds the abbot and Father Gregory had entered the novices’ dormitory and their arrival caused Edward to release his victim and stand in the flickering light of the lantern awaiting developments.

“What’s going on here?” demanded the abbot.

There was an immediate cacophony of voices as all the novices tried to speak at once.

“Silence,” instructed the abbot. He looked around the group. Brother Cuthbert was coughing, rubbing his neck and clearly in no fit state to describe what had happened to him. The abbot turned to the eldest of the novices. “Brother Alcuin, tell me what happened.”

Gravely, and with admirable brevity, Brother Alcuin described the offence. “Our visitor attacked Brother Cuthbert, Father. He pinned him to the wall by his throat.”

“Is this true, Edward?” enquired the abbot.

Edward held up his head and looked directly at the abbot. “Yes, Father.” He was conscious of Father Gregory sighing and looking away as he made his admission.

“Is there any justification for such violence, my son?” asked the abbot.

Edward thought of Brother Cuthbert’s irritating manner, his constant citing of the Rule, the way he oversaw Edward’s every activity and insisted on him getting out of bed the minute he was called. “None, Father,” he replied.

The abbot made a rapid decision and issued his instructions. Brother Alcuin, will you escort Brother Cuthbert to the infirmary and then hasten to join your brethren in church. Father Gregory, please remove Edward Percy to the punishment cell and we will deal with him in the morning. We all need to be attending to the Lord’s work now.”

It was a long night for Edward who spent it sitting on the hard bed in his small cell. He was cold without a blanket to cover him; the only concession to comfort being a stone receptacle for his bodily needs. In the darkness he berated himself for his stupidity, his lack of control and his failure to live up to his good resolutions. He remembered the disappointment in Father Gregory’s eyes and he imagined that disappointment multiplied sevenfold when Sir Henry Percy and his father got to hear of his offence.

However, as the night wore on his anger began to turn outward as he recalled the petty irritations he’d suffered at the hands of Brother Cuthbert. He found it gave him a sense of satisfaction to imagine his victim nursing a sore neck in the infirmary. He even started to think he’d done rather well to restrain his urge to thump the self righteous young man. Although he knew he’d be punished for the assault, he felt he deserved credit for not inflicting any serious harm.

He expected to be summoned to answer for his conduct soon after dawn but the morning was well advanced before Father Gregory unlocked and entered his cell. He came and sat down beside Edward but said nothing to begin with. Edward sensed neither accusation nor disappointment, just the comforting presence of another human being in his lonely place of confinement. When his teacher did speak, his opening comment took Edward totally by surprise. “Brother Cuthbert’s holier than thou attitude would try the patience of a saint,” he observed quietly. “There’ve been times when I’ve struggled to keep my hands off him when he’s made one of his pious comments.”

Edward looked up and grinned. It was good to know that Father Gregory understood exactly how he felt. “But,” the priest continued in the same quiet tone, “I’ve never laid hands on him, or on anyone else for that matter, since I came to the abbey. None of us has the right to judge another, especially someone who is trying to do his duty as best he can. Assault is one of the most serious offences a monk can commit and, although you are here as our guest and not as a member of the community, it was made very clear to you at the outset that behaviour of this kind would not be tolerated.”

Edward felt winded. Father Gregory’s simple words had ripped away the self justification which he was relying on to absolve himself of guilt. Blaming others, telling himself that he wasn’t at fault, making himself out to be the victim: these were all ploys he’d used in the past to make himself feel better about his own misconduct. He realised this wasn’t going to be an occasion when he could avoid facing up to the consequences of his ill will and bad temper. Nor could he pretend to behave nobly, take his punishment with disdain and continue to harbour angry feelings towards his victim. In that holy place he knew he would not only be required to make full and proper reparation but also to undergo a change of heart.

“What are you going to do?” Edward asked anxiously.

“It’s a question of what you’re going to do,” Father Gregory replied. “The abbot is giving you a choice. You can either acknowledge your fault before the whole community in Chapter and take your punishment there or you can be punished by me in private.”

“What is the punishment?

“The punishment is the same wherever you elect to receive it. We don’t often resort to corporal punishment in this monastery but it is prescribed in the Rule for some offences, as Brother Cuthbert could no doubt tell you.”

There was only one sensible choice to make but Edward hesitated before he took the easy way out. It hadn’t escaped his notice that Father Gregory had subtly identified the honourable course of action which was to acknowledge his fault before the whole community and take his punishment in the presence of the man he’d assaulted. As he struggled with his decision it crossed his mind that Harry might have told them he couldn’t bear the thought of a public whipping. “Did Sir Henry tell you that I wasn’t to be beaten in public?” he asked.

“He told the abbot that if you earned yourself a whipping it should not be administered in Chapter without your consent,” revealed the priest calmly. “That’s why we’re giving you a choice. Nothing will be said if you exercise your privilege to be punished in private.” Father Gregory’s assurance should have given Edward all the justification he needed to take the easier option but he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to live with himself afterwards. Nor did he want to encounter accusing stares in the dormitory from the novices who would suspect that their guest had escaped just retribution.

Above all, Edward was conscious of the reparation he owed to Brother Cuthbert. Despite his certainty that he would always hold the man in aversion, he was forced to acknowledge that there was no excuse for assaulting him. He’d lost his temper in a way that the Earl of Northumberland and his son would find totally unacceptable. His own conscience was telling him that there was only one honourable way to pay for his fault. “Who would punish me in the chapter house,” he enquired as he tried to come to terms with the prospect of public humiliation.

“You’re my responsibility. The abbot has asked me to take charge of your punishment.”

“What did you mean precisely when you said I’d have to acknowledge my fault before the whole community?” Edward had never attended a meeting in the chapter house as this was generally reserved for members of the religious community.

“We hear a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict read aloud and then the abbot will summon some of the brothers to confess their breaches of the Rule. As you’ve committed the most serious offence you would go first today. When your name is called you kneel in the centre of the chapter house and proclaim your fault, briefly, accurately and without excuse. The abbot will announce your punishment and you’ll strip to the waist to receive your stripes, kneeling throughout. Those present are instructed by the Rule to observe corporal discipline in compassionate silence; the penitent may not speak but he is not required to keep silence.”

“How long do I have to wait for this punishment?” Edward asked.

“If you want, we can get it over with here and now,” replied Father Gregory, offering Edward yet again the option of being dealt with in private. “Otherwise we’ll soon need to be making our way over to the chapter house; the meeting begins in about half an hour.”

Edward stood up with sudden resolution. “Do I have time for a wash and a shave?” he asked. “I wouldn’t want to present myself in front of the brethren looking like I’ve just been dragged out of bed.” The irony wasn’t lost on Father Gregory who smiled at the young man’s spirited response as he went to fetch a bowl of cold water and a razor.

Half an hour later Edward was seated beside Father Gregory on the stone bench which ran around the wall of the chapter house. The sound of a monk reading a chapter from the Rule of Saint Benedict filled his ears but not his mind which was fully occupied with thoughts of what was to come. He mentally rehearsed what he was going to say when he was called before the assembled brethren and he tried to imagine himself taking the subsequent punishment with dignity and fortitude.

The size of the chapter house, with its great vaulted roof, was breathtaking and the open space in the centre seemed vast. Edward was so nervous by the time he was called from his place that he feared his legs wouldn’t carry him as he walked forward in front of fifty curious pairs of eyes. As Father Gregory had directed him, he halted when he reached the centre of the room and, facing the abbot, he sunk to his knees and bowed his head.

“What do you have to accuse yourself of, Edward?” asked the abbot.

“I attacked Brother Cuthbert, Father. I pushed him and pinned him to the wall with my hand round his throat.”

“Why did you do that, my son?” enquired the abbot with what sounded like genuine curiosity.

Mindful of Father Gregory’s warning not to offer excuses, Edward took a moment to frame an answer to the question he hadn’t expected to be asked. “I lost my temper when Brother Cuthbert attempted to get me out of bed for Lauds. I’m sorry, Father.”

“Assaulting a member of the community is a serious matter, my son. God be praised, Brother Cuthbert has taken no lasting harm but the Rule is very specific about the penalty in such circumstances. You will receive a whipping from Father Gregory and, as you feel the lash across your shoulders, you need to reflect on the importance of keeping your temper under control. Pray for God’s pardon, as well as for the forgiveness of Brother Cuthbert and the whole community.”

The abbot stopped speaking and Father Gregory got to his feet. Edward could hear the slap of his sandals as he crossed the stone floor of the chapter house. When he came to a halt at Edward’s side he said, so quietly that his voice didn’t carry to the assembled community, “Take off your shirt, Edward.”

Edward fumbled as his trembling fingers worked their way along the fastenings. There was total silence in the chapter house. None of the monks so much as shifted in his seat and it felt like the community was collectively holding its breath. Edward could hear his own rapid breathing and he wondered if it was also audible to Father Gregory. He made a conscious effort to calm down and then slowly divested himself of his shirt, leaving it hanging loosely from his belt. Then he sat back on his heels to gain greater stability, placed the palms of his hands on his thighs and, leaning forward slightly, bowed his head.

Father Gregory, who was holding a small, three tailed whip, stepped back the necessary distance, shook out the leather strands and then brought them down sharply across Edward’s shoulders. He was exercising only moderate force but Edward visibly flinched at the impact and three fine red lines appeared across his back. Father Gregory felt compassion for his pupil but also a determination to teach the young man the importance of self control. He soon established a steady rhythm and the sound of the whip echoed through the chapter house as its leather cords whistled through the air and cracked across Edward’s back. But apart from laboured breathing and the odd involuntary gasp, Edward took his punishment in resolute silence.

Any concern about public humiliation was entirely eradicated by the all consuming effort it took to remain still under the bite and sting of the lash. It wasn’t so much a desire to perform his penance dutifully as a proud determination not to betray any sign of weakness which sustained Edward throughout his punishment. He had little respect for younger sons who chose the cloister rather than the life of a knight and he had no intention of failing to bear with fortitude a punishment to which they would routinely have been subject. Nonetheless, the penance imposed by the abbot tested his courage and resolution to the limit.

Father Gregory took care to lay the strokes on evenly but where the welts overlapped, small droplets of blood were beginning to appear. The priest looked enquiringly at the abbot who nodded to indicate that Edward had paid the penalty in full. Father Gregory put down the whip but it took Edward a moment or two to realise that the onslaught was over. Slowly he became aware that his muscles were still clenched and his hands were balled into tight fists where they rested on his thighs. It was only when Father Gregory’s gentle hands began lifting his arms to pull on his shirt that he finally relaxed and released one shuddering breath. The priest then helped him to his feet and guided him back to his seat.

Edward sat with his head bowed, careful not to lean back against the stone wall of the chapter house. It was then that humiliation set in and he became convinced that the entire monastic community was staring at him. The blush on his cheeks spread to his neck and was visible right down his chest where he’d neglected to fasten his shirt. The continuing business of the Chapter washed over him as he became overwhelmed by embarrassment. He was dimly aware that monks were being summoned one at a time to kneel and confess their faults but their penances only required them to prostrate themselves in chapel or beg for their dinner in the refectory.

Edward was so deeply sunk in shame that he didn’t hear Brother Cuthbert’s name called. It was only the uncharacteristically hoarse tones of his erstwhile guardian that captured his attention and he looked up to see his victim on his knees in front of the abbot. Brother Cuthbert enumerated a number of minor faults, which no doubt bothered his scrupulous conscience, before he paused and said, “I exceeded my authority with Edward Percy, Father. I tried to pull him out of bed last night… and… and I know I’ve offended him with my attempts to help him live the Benedictine life. I have failed in my duty to be his guide and mentor.”

It was the last thing Edward would have expected to hear from Brother Cuthbert and the man looked so miserable that Edward couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him. He looked around to see how Brother Cuthbert’s confession was being received by the community but all the monks were sitting with their heads bowed. It was impossible to read their expressions and he realised that he himself had not been such an object of scrutiny as he’d feared.

When the abbot had imposed a fitting penance on Brother Cuthbert, the novice rose to his feet and ventured a quick glance towards Edward Percy. Their eyes locked and quite unintentionally Edward gave a wry smile of understanding, one miscreant to another. Brother Cuthbert visibly relaxed and Edward experienced a rush of sympathy. Edward was never going to like the pious young man but he realised that Brother Cuthbert had not deliberately set out to make his life difficult. In fact, he was forced to acknowledge that even people he didn’t warm to could be deserving of his kindness and understanding. For the first time he accepted that he’d been at fault for not showing Brother Cuthbert greater respect and cooperation. He shifted guiltily in his seat and his sore back protested, reminding him that he had more than paid the price for any mistreatment of Brother Cuthbert.