King Stephen, the Silver man and Greta the Witch

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Chapter 8 - Pope Eugene III

Greta had been disgusted by the male banter, but the reference to herself almost made her stumble and give away her hiding place. With difficulty, she kept herself under control. She had heard enough and moved deeper into the forest out of ear shot of the King and his cousin, as they continued to plan further details of the deception. She needed to vent her anger. She cut a supple branch from a willow tree as thick as her wrist, and used it to thrash a clump of nettles, imagining the nettles were the King and his male chauvinist lackeys.

The King explained to his cousin, ‘while I was in France, I learnt that my young brother the Bishop of Winchester, was planning to entertain the Archbishop of Canterbury at Farnham Castle. I have sent word to my brother to wait for me there.’

William remembered that the Archbishop, William de Corbeil had conducted Stephen’s coronation and was favoured by the Pope. He had stood up too many of the clergy who did not support Stephen’s claim to the throne. William remarked, ‘I remember the Archbishop as a pious man, who values money over the pleasures of the flesh. Unlike most of the bishops, who want them both’.

The King continued, ‘you are very perceptive my cousin, I want to persuade the Archbishop to travel to Rome to entreat Pope Eugene III for his blessing to my king-ship. Once I have the pontiffs blessing no Baron in England would refuse to recognise me for fear of excommunication.’

William knew that normally to get his way, the King would instruct his men-at-arms to begin slicing ears, heads and arms from the bishop’s various wives, lovers and children until the man agreed. In the case of the Archbishop it was simply a case of agreeing a price. Of course, if the Archbishop did have a weakness, a lover for example, then they would be held hostage for good measure until he returned with the Pope’s blessing.

The King explained, ‘once we have persuaded the Archbishop to travel to Rome, I will ride with him to Portsmouth so we can see him safely and secretly on a boat to France. If I do not catch up with you before you reach Winchester you will order the carriage to turn towards the coast, saying that you need some sea air to aid your recovery, and you also want to inspect the Royal Fleet which is at anchor there. On no account must you reach Winchester before me.’

The King paused as he heard a distant thrashing sound. It sounded like someone chopping wood or clearing a section of undergrowth. It was being done with great vigour. He steered his cousin back along the way the way they had come, back towards the protection of his men-at-arms. As they walked slowly along with the heads close together so their words did not carry to waiting men, the King went into further detail of the plan,’ once we reach Portsmouth Eustace will travel to Rome with the Archbishop and my brother the Bishop of Winchester. On their return with the pope’s blessing, Eustace will inherit a large estate.’

William recognised that once his cousin had control of the Barons he could oust them from their plumb estates, he thought of one or two estates he wouldn’t mind himself. William also realised that this persuasion had to be done while apparently the ‘real’ King Stephen was on the road to Winchester. If it all went wrong, the King could deny involvement. The Archbishop was a stubborn man, and may chose death instead of entreating the Pope. The journey to Rome was hazardous and they may not complete their journey or be captured, tortured and then the story would come out. But the greater risk to Stephen, was that the Archbishop did not persuade the Pope to recognise him as the rightful monarch. If this happened it would capitulate England into a full scale civil war.

The King was confident that his cousin could carry off the deception. The King was known to like the pleasures of the flesh, and spending time in a covered wagon with a pretty serving wench was in character. The road to Winchester was one of the most used highways in England, and ensured many travellers would pass the King’s party and gossip at the next inn about his philandering. If it was necessary to buy time, and head towards Portsmouth supposedly to take-in the sea air for his health, William was instructed by the King to allow Greta and any other troublemakers to return to Winchester, before he continued to the coast.

Before the King’s party had arrived at Hertleye Wynteneye, William’s men had killed four fallow deer. After they had taken vittles’ with Eustace and Henry the two huntsmen had rode back to Williams household with instructions to keep silent on pain of death. They were good men, and William said they could be trusted.

While the King hid in the woods, Henry rode back to fetch the squires. The deer carcasses were loaded onto the pack horses, and the squires were ordered to return to camp. To complete the deception, Henry told the squires that the King had ordered himself and Eustace to ride ahead to Winchester. They would leave immediately after they had escorted the King safely back to the camp at La Fete.

The squires watched as Eustace and Henry followed the galloping King’s horse. The recognised the King’s floppy hat with the royal crest, and assumed that the monarch was anxious to get back to his beau. Just before the three men reached La Fete, the King and Henry held back while Eustace rode on ahead and bullied the camp into action in readiness for the King’s arrival. As the King rode up, it was already turning dark and Eustace was holding open the flap of the royal tent. William wearing the King’s clothes and with his hat pulled over his face, went straight inside. Eustace closed the flap behind him.

Meanwhile, Henry found the wench who had made eye contact with the King when she served last night’s dinner, and took her to the King’s tent. The girl was beside herself with fear, but the new King soon calmed her. In truth, she had never actually been close enough to the King to know if this was really him or not. She had only ever looked at him one time in the tent the other evening, but the tent was in near darkness.

In the meantime, Eustace bullied and shouted, letting the court know that the King wanted everything ready for a departure before dawn tomorrow. He said the King was feeling unwell after the hunt, and should not be disturbed. Also, so nobody could see the King in daylight, Eustace commanded that they carriages would leave in the morning before first light. This way William could get safely behind the heavy curtains of his carriage in the darkness. Eustace appointed one his best men to oversee the departure. He also said that he and Henry were leaving immediately for Winchester, they would ride through the night. This was not unusual for men-at-arms when the moon allowed night travel, but not something that caravans of carriages attempted unless in an emergency.

In the meantime, Henry had found the King’s current beau and led her out of the camp. She was a complication, so Eustace let it be known that she may be carrying a sickness that had infected the King. As a result, she was being sent back to her village. Out of ear shot, the girl let out a small cry as Henry expertly sliced her throat. He dragged the body well away from the path, hiding it in the undergrowth and covered it with heavy fallen branches.

When Henry returned to camp to meet up with Eustace he saw that there was already activity to pack up ready for an early morning departure. He gave Eustace an almost imperceptible nod, as a signal that the girl had been disposed of. The two men-at-arms then made a show of leaving camp in the direction of Winchester. When they were well clear of prying eyes, they circled back to rendezvous with the King back at Hertleye Wynteneye. It was easy to find the path, with the moon just a day from full.

King Stephen, dressed in his cousin’s hunting clothes, was sitting by a small fire and eating the hunting rations that the squires had left behind. He could not remember the last time he had been alone, and he enjoyed it. No one to command, no one to watch him. He enjoyed listening to the animal sounds of the night, and just sitting quietly in the still light of the moon. It was so good to be alone.

He heard the cantering horses approach, and saw Eustace and Henry ride into the clearing. They greeted the King and settled down to eat before they turned in for the night. Henry taking first watch.

Greta watched it all, from her hiding place in the forest. Her stomach growled from hunger as she smelt the food, but she dare not move.

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