Chapter 6 - Hunting
The King was dressed in his light hunting clothes. He was glad to be rid of the bulky armour and the heavy metal helmet. Instead he wore a wide brimmed hat of the same brown and green materials as his hunting clothes. Both his hat and his hunting clothes were embossed with his heraldic coat of arms, derived from the symbol of power and virility from the House of Blois. He always thought how strange this coat of arms was, it featured a single mythical creature that was centaur like, half-man and half-griffin or dragon. The horse-like body with dragon’s feet, featured a longer curled tail were as if in a cantor, and the bearded man’s torso had strong muscular arms and was about to shoot an arrow from a drawn long bow. He wore a bandana around long hair and had a trimmed beard, his features looked nothing like his own.
With him were his two most trusted lieutenants, Sir Eustace of Ypres and Henry of Gloucester. Both were also dressed in their lightweight hunting clothing of brown and green, designed to blend with the colours of the forest. He watched his groom make sure that everything on his horse was tightly strapped. Today they would hunt venison, and the flighty deer would take fright at the smallest sound such as a loose metal buckle or flapping leather strap. He had chosen this prey so they could hunt as a small group. If they had chosen to hunt for wild boar, partridge or pheasant they would have used a much larger group, with a line of beaters flushing the prey towards the huntsmen. Today, a venison hunt suited the King’s purpose because the true purpose was not to hunt, but for a clandestine meeting.
Henry of Gloucester was a short man for a man-at-arms. He was known as the finest bowman in England. The muscles in his upper arms were thickened from long practice with the English long-bow. Even more muscular that the arms of the creature on the King’s coat of arms. He was excellent in a deer hunt, but even better in battle. He was the number two to Eustace in the King’s men-at-arms and personal body guard. Unlike Eustace he was a quiet man, not full of bonhomie and lude laughter around the camp fire. He preferred to sit quietly, whittling his arrows so they flew far and straight. The points honed to a needle-sharp point. Few could match him at wrestling or in a fist fight.
Although Henry went through the motions of preparing for the deer hunt, he knew that the real purpose today was a clandestine meeting the King’s cousin. The King wanted to arrange a secret meeting with the Pope, but he didn’t want anyone in the court to know. He was also planning to change places with his cousin for a while, a man of very similar build and stature to the King.
Only Henry and Eustace were aware of this secret so the three of them would be on the hunt with just two young squires. Henry was proud that he and Eustace were so trusted by the King. The two senior men-at-arms also made a formidable body guard and fighting unit, having proved themselves in battle many times. Just days before, on the way to the French coast they had been set upon by bandits, attempting to capture one of the ladies in the party for ransom. This was relatively common in France, where a protocol existed amongst the aristocracy over the capture of high-ranking ladies. The location and time of these raids were often organised in advance. The captured ladies were expected to show great distress and surprise as they were sequestered away. The captured ladies were then treated by the French aristocracy as honoured guests. Often the captor, would throw elaborate parties where the hostage would be the guest of honour. Romantic collusions or scandalous affairs sometimes followed. Ransom negotiations would often be drawn out, as it was sometimes convenient to have a spouse out of the way for a while. Sometimes these liaisons between the noble families resulted in an arranged marriage of a son or a daughter. All very convenient, and also made for delightful gossip at court. Such an arrangement would have in many ways suited the King, as a way to get the Queen Matilda out of the way for a while. However, while this sort of arranged kidnap was fine for the French aristocracy and minor Lords and the Ladies of the English court, it was not acceptable for the Queen of England.
On this occasion, the King had not been given any information about an ‘arranged’ kidnap, and he ordered a full attack. Eustace decapitated the leader of the bandits before he could offer to parley, and Henry shot and killed three of his accomplices before the leaders’ severed head hit the ground. The rest of the bandits fled. They simply left the bodies beside the road and continued their journey to Calais. Henry had since heard gossip around the camp fire that the raiders were a mercenary group hired by the Baron of Wessex to assassinate the King.