A VAIN AND INDECENT WOMAN: excerpt

It is a cold, grey day in March.

My wife, Margaret, clutches little Joan in her arms and holds her out to me for a kiss but I am pressed for time, the wind is blowing the rain indoors and there has been some trouble with the horses and it has made me late to depart. I give her a hurried buss on the cheek and that is it. She puts her arms around my neck and tries to cling on. She is fresh out of bed and smells warm as straw.

I disentangle myself with a frown.

I do not know then that it will be the last time I will ever see Arundel Castle or my family again, not in this life. So I do not even look back, I keep my head down to the wind as we ride away. I have been summoned to attend the Parliament in Winchester and I think not to be away too long. That black-bearded bastard Mortimer says I must attend.

He called the former King’s favourite, Hugh le Despenser, a tyrant when he replaced him. Now we find we have replaced a wolf with a mad bear. Is there no reasonable king in all England?

Yet somehow, I still believe I will see the danger before it arrives. Why should I think that when it is clear to me, to everyone, that we have no inkling of what is in our Lord Mortimer’s mind? Shortly after I arrive in Winchester I am arrested by the king’s officers and charged with treason. Imprisoned on the Wednesday, dead on the Monday. You cannot complain that justice is not swift in our new England.

When the king’s warrant is served, I think well, perhaps a fine, banishment from Parliament, an early retirement. I do not realise until the very last that Mortimer’s judges want me dead. I go to the king, I know he is just his mother’s lapdog, but even then I do not believe he will let this stand. It is still down to him to sign the warrant of execution.

Yes, I know, I have heard people say that my young king dared not go against his mother or against Mortimer, that he feared for his own life. Nonsense, I say. Isabella would never have allowed Mortimer to harm her son. The truth is, he is just a little boy frightened of his mother, damn his eyes. And so, I have to die.

But I grovel to that beardless lickspittle. I offer to walk barefoot to Canterbury with a rope around my neck as atonement for trying to save his father – his father. I weep. There is snot all over the king’s fine carpets when I am done. All I can think of is little Joan’s arms around my neck and I long to return to her.

Don’t let it end this way. Give me one more day, my king.

Well, you all know what good that did me.

So, hands bound, I am escorted outside Winchester Castle to wait in the freezing cold in just my shirt while someone tries to find someone to swing the axe.

As I stand there shivering, the rain soaking through the linen, I think about my wife and what she will do when she hears about my misfortune. I have let her down. She is almost to term with our third child. There is little Joan, my son Edmund. I will never see either of them grow.

What will become of them now?

They tell me they cannot find the public executioner; he has fled, unwilling to lop off the head of one of Longshanks’ sons. Well at least someone shows some restraint. And so I must wait there from Lauds almost to Nones while they look for someone who is willing to do the deed. I should be gratified that it takes so long but I find I am short on feelings of appreciation.

After all, with the former king’s favourite, my lord le Despenser, they were practically queuing up to do the job.

Oh, where is this executioner? Let us be done with this. I am cold, I am despairing, I do not wish to think any more about my wife and my little ones and what Mortimer and that damned Isabella will put them through.

Finally, they find a willing soul in one of the dungeons. I am told that he is a latrine cleaner who is under threat of execution himself for doing murder and has been offered a royal pardon if he will do the deed. Heartening news.

It seems it has come to this; death at the hands of a man who shovels shit for a living. What will my family think when they hear this?

My father was the Hammer of the Scots.

My wife had warned me. ‘You’re too eager to do everything the king asks. He has made a fool of you.’

She was right, women are always right about these things. What she referred to is this: years ago I had duped a rebel baron into surrendering to the king’s mercy. I got scant gratitude from Edward for it. He never did heap appreciation on me. But he was my brother – my half-brother anyway – as well as my king. I was doing my duty.

How could I have known then that the miserable wretch I took in would become the queen’s lover and champion and rise to become the most powerful man in England? Back then Roger Mortimer was just another belligerent who refused to bow to the king’s law, but somehow he got out from under and found his way into the queen’s bed.

Clever bastard. We all misjudged him. We all misjudged her most of all.

I suppose he was hardly to forget what I had done. I was naïve to think that I could just blend into the tapestries when at last he had me in his power. I still believe the king my brother lives but perhaps, as Margaret always told me – Edmund, why do you care?

It is too late now to say that in future I will pay more attention to her counsel. There will be no future now, not for Edmund of Woodstock.

My executioner staggers as he makes his way through the gates, I suspect he is drunk. Perhaps they have given him a jug of brandy wine to fortify him for the task at hand. I tell my man to bid him try and do the job properly and I see a little purse of money change hands but it makes no difference in the end. I am sure the poor fellow does the best he can but though he is not new to murder he is new to wielding an axe. His aim is terribly off and it is a long afternoon for both of us.

Let us not linger on that part of the story.

I am back at Arundel Castle the next day – without the ghastly remains of my mortal body – when the king’s yeomen, Nicholas Langford and John Payn, ride up the avenue of beech trees to the gatehouse to perform their unenviable commission. My wife staggers when she sees them and only the intervention of one of her ladies keeps her from falling. Langford reads from a scroll that he has produced from his tunic, informing her of my arrest and trial on charges of treason against the Crown, and tells her that I have been executed for same. This time her lady is not strong enough to support her and she sinks to her knees wailing. I can do nothing but stand on the stairs, invisible and insubstantial, and see the results of my own artless faith in God’s justice.

I am a man of principle and my principle was to remain loyal to my king.

But the king is dead, or in exile abroad if you believe the rumours, and so my wife and my children are left unprotected to face the consequences of my foolishness. Look at the shock on little Joan’s face as she watches her mother wailing on her knees, gasping as if she is drowning in the air.

Joan does not understand what has happened but when she sees her mother in such distress she starts to jump up and down, both feet, like she is skipping rope. The poor mite, she does not yet have four years and there is no one to calm her. Edmund, barely a year older, just stands his ground, stricken. He is now the man of the house.

Langford and Payn look at each other and shuffle their feet. They didn’t want this commission and I don’t blame them for not knowing how to behave. Payn nods for Langford to continue and he does so, reading the rest of the warrant over my wife’s screams; the servants are to be dismissed, just two allowed to remain; the bailiffs are required to confiscate the jewellery and anything else that is of value. All lands, goods, titles and moneys are forfeit to the Crown.

Which is to say, forfeit to Mortimer.

My wife is still wailing on the floor. Did I mention she is nearly at term with our third child? My ethereal hands cannot raise her, a servant girl gets on her knees and puts her arms around little Edmund but there is nothing anyone can do for Joan. I once saw a cat, after it was scalded with a spilled kettle of boiling water, in less panic.

She is running in circles now, screaming, her eyes wild.

‘Help Joan,’ someone says.

This is all my fault. I am dead now and there is nothing I can do for them, any of them, I can only watch on.

Margaret is placed under house arrest, and is allowed just two ladies-in-waiting. Our Arundel Castle is placed in the hands of another of the king’s yeoman, Roger Ashe, and will never return to our family again. Everything is sold off and the proceeds sent to the Treasury. Even her first husband’s stepson demands the return of her dower lands. Margaret is kept under house arrest, and a month later she delivers our third child. Thomas is born under armed guard.

Poor Margaret, at a stroke she has lost her husband, her position, her wealth and her possessions to a woman she once served faithfully for many years as lady-in-waiting and to her own cousin, that black-bearded bastard Mortimer. Edmund, Joan and the new baby have all, at a stroke, lost their inheritance and their good name.

It’s all gone. My houses in Westminster, Castle Donington in Leicestershire, two manors in Gloucestershire, another manor in Woking, two more in Derbyshire and one each in Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Wiltshire. And that was just what Mortimer and Isabella took. Sixty more manors and fourteen farms went to their lackeys.

Margaret can look forward to the Tower and it will be the abbey and the convent for the children. This is why I turn my back to the light, why I cannot move on to my own peace. Instead I cry to the moon and moan around the walls of the castle at night, looking on, helpless, haunted and desperate.

What have I done?

Only little Joan still sees me, she holds out her arms to me and cries. She is scolded for talking to phantoms.

I have missed my chance. I cannot hold her now.

A VAIN AND INDECENT WOMAN is one of my MEDIEVAL FICTION novels and is available on Amazon