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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 34


  “‘Peace of mind’?” Henry echoed and then laughed harshly. “I have a greater need than that, Uncle. I mean to ask the Almighty and the sainted Thomas to save my kingdom. Not just for my sake, for all our sakes. The vultures are already gathering, and God help him, but Hal will not be able to fend them off. He’ll be a king in name only, whilst the Count of Flanders and the French king and the Scots king carve up my domains like a Michaelmas goose. You think the people suffered under Stephen? That will look like a golden age in comparison to the misery and anarchy that would follow my defeat.”

  Ranulf could not argue with that bleak assessment of Hal’s kingship. He knew that men made pilgrimages for a multitude of reasons, both pure and profane. Some were reluctant penitents, ordered to it by an imperious bishop, an irate priest. Some sought God’s Mercy for a loved one, a frail child, an ailing wife. Some saw pilgrimage as a way to honor God. Others were driven by guilty consciences, memories of past sins. He did not doubt that those who humbled themselves of their own free will, those who asked no specific boons in return for their suffering were the ones who came away from a pilgrimage with that “peace of mind” his nephew dismissed so disdainfully. What would Harry do if he submitted to this ordeal and nothing changed? If the victory he’d prayed for was denied him? What does a man do when he acts out of desperation and despair and even that is not enough?

  “I will entreat the Almighty,” he said softly, “to hear your prayers.” And he tried not to think of a conversation he’d once had with his other nephew. Roger had assured him that God always answered prayers. But sometimes He said no.

  ON FRIDAY, JULY 12, Henry and his companions were approaching the town of Canterbury. As they neared the lazar-house of St Nicholas in Harbledown, they had their first glimpse of the cathedral in the distance. Henry dismounted, and the hospital’s master came hurrying out to meet him. Several of the lepers emerged from their wattle-and-daub huts, but they kept their distance. They were clad in long russet robes and scapulars, the ravages of their disease hidden by hoods for the men and thick, double veils for the women. Henry greeted the master and then accompanied him into the chapel to pray. After some hesitation, the Bishops of London, Winchester, and Rochester dismounted and followed, too. Most of the men remained on their horses, though, for even the bravest of knights was leery of entering a lazar-house.

  Henry and the bishops soon emerged, and after he told the priest that he was granting the hospital twenty silver marks a year, to be paid out of royal revenues, the master thanked him profusely, promising that the lepers would offer up daily prayers on his behalf. If anyone thought that those poor souls needed prayers more than the king did, it remained unspoken. When Henry returned to the others, he did not remount, and seeing that he meant to walk the rest of the way, his men made haste to dismount, too.

  They’d covered about half a mile when they saw the Westgate looming ahead. Henry headed not for the gate, though, but for the church of St Dunstan’s by the side of the road. His squires scurried after him. The other men waited, puzzled, and when the flustered parish priest arrived, none of them had any answers for him. They could see a crowd gathering just inside the Westgate, but the church bells that would normally peal out the king’s arrival were silent, for Henry had sent word that he wanted no royal ceremony.

  It had been raining lightly since mid-morning, but as they waited for Henry to emerge from the church, the heavens opened and Canterbury was engulfed in a summer downpour. When Henry finally appeared, they saw that he’d stripped to his shirt and chausses and removed his boots. One of his squires was holding out the green wool cape that he wore when hunting, and the boy looked dismayed as Henry waved him away.

  “He’s going to cut his feet to ribbons by the time he reaches the cathedral,” Willem muttered to Ranulf, who was more concerned at the moment with Henry’s intention to brave the rainstorm clad only in his shirt. Striding forward, he spoke briefly with his nephew, and to the relief of the spectators, Henry reluctantly agreed to don the green cape. As he set out, the bishops and knights fell in behind him, but Willem delayed long enough to ask Ranulf how he’d convinced Henry to wear the cloak.

  “I told him,” Ranulf said, “that if he caught a fatal chill in the rain and died at Canterbury, all of Christendom would conclude that his sins had been too great for St Thomas to forgive.”

  Willem looked at him, not knowing what to say. Ranulf had moved on, and he hastened to catch up, even though he was dreading what was coming as he’d never dreaded anything in his life before.

  Escorted by the city reeve and aldermen, Henry passed through the Westgate and entered the town. As he walked along St Peter’s Street, his feet were soon cut and bleeding, but the rain washed his bloody footprints away. People lined both sides of the street, heedless of the weather, for they knew they were witnesses to a spectacle that none would ever forget—the sight of a highborn king, God’s Anointed, offering up his pride to make peace with their saint.

  Thomas Becket had not been universally loved, even in his own city, but he’d always been revered by Christ’s Poor, and they turned out now in large numbers. The town’s merchants were quick to recognize what a blessing Henry was conferring upon them, for once word got out that the English king had prostrated himself before the Blessed Martyr, Canterbury’s shrine would become the most popular pilgrimage in all of Christendom. But their enthusiasm was tempered with uncertainty, for they did not know what was expected of them. Should they cheer the king for submitting to St Thomas? Or jeer him for his part in the Martyrdom? The result was that, for the first time within memory, a king passed by in utter silence, even the children and beggars watching in awed stillness.

  If Henry’s bloodied bare feet were giving him pain, he did not show it. Nor did he seem to feel the drenching rain or take notice of the crowds. Followed by the bishops and his knights, he continued on past the churches of All Saints and St Helen’s, past the king’s mill, the guildhall, and the pillory. St Peter’s Street had become High Street when he halted momentarily, then turned into Mercery Lane, a passageway so narrow that more than two men could not walk abreast. Ahead he could see the monks waiting by the cemetery gate. The new archbishop was still absent, having gone to Rome to get papal approval of his election, but Henry recognized Odo, the prior, and Walter, the abbot of Boxley Abbey. In the past, he’d been welcomed by the chiming of the cathedral bells and the chanting of Lauds by the choir. Now there was only the same eerie quiet that had settled over the city.

  They came forth to offer a solemn, subdued greeting, and quickly ushered him into the cathedral precincts, escorting him along the path through the cemetery for laypeople. The storm had turned it into a morass, and Henry’s feet and legs were soon caked with mud. He could think of few sights more desolate than a graveyard in the rain. The rest of the monks were waiting in the cathedral. He could see curiosity and anxiety and excitement on their faces, but little overt hostility. Oddly enough, Thomas had not been that popular with his own monks, had been feuding with Prior Odo at the time of his murder. It was only the discovery of his hairshirt and whip-scarred back that had awakened them to the realization that they’d had a saint in their midst.

  “Show me,” Henry said, and they knew at once what he meant. Holding a candle aloft, Prior Odo led the way up the nave toward the northwest transept. A small altar had been set up on the spot, and candle flames glimmered on something silvery. “What is that?”

  “Those are fragments of the sword of Richard le Bret,” the prior said, striving to sound matter-of-fact and almost accomplishing it. Another monk behind him, an anonymous voice in the shadows, volunteered that he was the knight who delivered the deathblow, striking with such force that he split the archbishop’s skull and broke his blade upon the tiles.

  This unknown informant did not repeat what the knight had cried as he stood over the archbishop’s body. Take that for the love of my Lord William, the king’s brother! There was no need, for Henry and every man in the
cathedral knew what had been said. Thomas had refused to grant William a dispensation to wed Isabella de Warenne, and when the twenty-seven-year-old William died suddenly soon afterward, his friends had contended that he’d died of a broken heart. Henry had blamed Becket, too, for Will’s death, but as he gazed at the pieces of that broken sword, it seemed so long ago to him, part of another man’s life. Kneeling, he prayed earnestly to God for forgiveness, and then leaned over and kissed the ground where Thomas died.

  Rising to his feet, he looked over at the prior. “I would like to see his tomb now.”

  “Of course, my liege. The stairway to the crypt is right behind you.”

  With the prior again leading the way, they all descended to the cathedral undercroft. It was deep in shadows, and Henry’s eyes had to adjust before he could make out the outlines of the archbishop’s tomb. A wall had been built around the sarcophagus, rising a foot above the coffin, covered by a large marble slab. In each side of the wall two windows had been cut so that pilgrims could lean inside and kiss the coffin. Henry knelt again and began to pray.

  THE BISHOP OF LONDON stepped forward to join Henry beside the tomb. “It is my honor to speak on behalf of the lord king. He orders me to declare his unreserved confession on his behalf, which I and others have heard in private. He declares before God and before the martyr that he did not cause St Thomas to be slain, but freely admits that he did use such words as were the cause of his being murdered. He begs the saint to forgive his offense, and he agrees to return all her holdings to this holy church. He has already pledged to give the cathedral the sum of thirty pounds each year, and he now adds an additional ten pounds per annum, so that candles may always be kept lit at the archbishop’s shrine. He asks you to pray to the true martyr lying here, beseeching him to lay aside all anger. The king has come here to make atonement.”

  When Gilbert was done speaking, Henry gave him an approving nod. “Thank you, my lord bishop.” Turning back toward the monks, he said, “I hereby affirm all that the Bishop of London has said. I ask now for your forgiveness.”

  Prior Odo smiled. “Gladly, my lord king, gladly.” And embracing Henry, he gave him the kiss of peace while many of the monks applauded.

  There was a lessening of tension after that, as most of the men assumed the worst was over. As Henry’s eyes moved from face to face, he saw that only two knew what was coming, Gilbert Foliot, who’d been forewarned, and Ranulf, who sometimes seemed gifted with second-sight. “I regret the Blessed Martyr’s death more than words can ever say. But actions speak louder than words. It is for that reason that I restore to the cathedral and priory all of their rights and privileges. It is my pleasure to offer to St Thomas four marks of pure gold, a silk pall, and forty librates of land in Kent. I have asked the prior to send for the archbishop’s sister so that I may make amends to her as well, and I pledge to found an abbey in honor of the archbishop. And now…so that there may be no doubts as to the sincerity of my repentance, I willingly submit to the punishment I deserve for my part in this tragedy and ask that I be scourged for my sins.” With that, he unfastened his cloak and removed his shirt.

  As they realized what he intended to do, a loud murmur swept through the spectators, expressions of shock and distress and satisfaction all mingling as one, like a river fed by smaller streams. Ignoring these ripples, Henry glanced from the bishop to the prior. “I would have each of the bishops and Abbot Walter give five lashes and then three from each one of the Christchurch monks.”

  Prior Odo hastily whispered to one of the monks, who quickly fetched a penitential whip, a leather thong attached to a short handle. When he offered it to the Bishop of London, Gilbert took it as if he’d been handed a live snake. Seeing that he’d have to be the one to initiate the scourging, Henry said tersely, “Do it,” and then knelt by the tomb, thrusting his head and shoulders into one of the wall openings. It was an awkward position and his back began to ache before the first touch of the whip, but it had the advantage of shielding his face from his audience, one small indulgence that he hoped the Almighty would not begrudge him.

  With a murmured “Deus vult,” Gilbert struck his king’s bared back. It was a light blow, as were those that followed, for all of the bishops seemed determined to make the scourging a symbolic one. Prior Odo was no less gentle, and the first few monks to wield the whip were either intimidated by the circumstances or were never partisans of the archbishop, for their lashes barely touched Henry’s flesh. In the beginning, Henry was trying to keep count of the blows, but he’d soon given it up. There were at least seventy monks, which added up to more than two hundred strikes, and he decided that was enough to know. When the first blow sliced into his skin and drew blood, there were indignant protests from some of his men that subsided only when he demanded silence.

  He discovered he could measure a monk’s devotion to St Thomas by the strength of his blows. Most were cautious or prudent, but occasionally one of the monks would employ the whip with enough enthusiasm to raise welts. Despite the care that the majority were taking, his back was soon stinging from the sheer number of the strokes. But his real discomfort came from his hunched posture, and before long, he felt as if his spine were breaking in two. The trapped, musty air of the tomb was bothering him, too, bringing on several prolonged coughing fits. At the start of the scourging, he’d sought solace in prayer, but it was difficult to concentrate when his body was anticipating the feel of the lash, and eventually he stopped trying to think altogether, just focused upon enduring the ordeal. It actually came as a surprise when he heard Prior Odo declare that it was done.

  It was not easy to straighten up, so stiff had his body become. For a moment, he felt light-headed and had to grip the tomb for support. Staggering over to the central pillar, he squatted down upon the floor and refused those who would have offered water or wine. “My penance is not over,” he said hoarsely. “I shall stay here all night, offering up my prayers to the Almighty and St Thomas.”

  After they hurriedly conferred, Prior Odo announced that they would be honored by his presence and they would make sure that other pilgrims were kept away so he might pray in private. When Henry interrupted with a curt, “No, let any enter who wish,” Odo looked troubled, but he assured Henry it would be done. He beckoned then to two new arrivals, and Henry watched as an elderly woman and a younger man timidly drew closer.

  “My liege, this is Mistress Rohesia and her son John. You sent for them,” the prior added, and only then did Henry realize they were Thomas Becket’s sister and nephew. She had none of her brother’s innate assurance, the poise and polish that had made it so easy for him to walk with kings and talk with princes of the Church. When Henry had reacted with fury to Becket’s latest outrage and expelled all of his family and retainers from England, this stooped, shy woman was one of the chief victims of his vengefulness. He was shamed now by that memory, further disquieted by the recollection of a heated quarrel he’d had with Eleanor, who’d argued in vain against the expulsion, claiming that “This interminable feuding with Becket has well and truly addled your mind!”

  “You may approach,” he said, as kindly as he could, called her “gentle sister,” and asked for her pardon and grace. She stammered out something unintelligible, and he realized that he was only frightening her all the more, for she did not know how to treat a king like a supplicant. “I deeply regret the wrong I’ve done to you and your family. I would make amends the only way I can—by granting you the king’s mill that stands by the River Stour. You ought to be able to collect at least ten marks a year in rental payments. Take it with my blessings.”

  Rohesia looked dumbfounded, but her son’s smile was bright enough to light the darkest shadows of the crypt. He began to declare their eternal gratitude, but Gilbert Foliot accurately read the exhaustion on Henry’s face and tactfully steered them away.

  “My lord king?” Willem was leaning over, looking so concerned that Henry somehow managed to find a smile for him. “What would you hav
e us do now?”

  “You may go, Willem. There is no need for any of you to remain.”

  The earl frowned. “I do not want to leave you alone, my liege.”

  “I will not be alone,” Henry said, stifling a cough. “I will have St Thomas to keep me company.” Once Willem would have been sure that was a jest; now he no longer knew.

  ALL AFTERNOON and well into the evening, pilgrims were admitted to the crypt, where they made offerings to the monk keeping vigil by the shrine, prayed to St Thomas, and watched the King of England do penance. Some were surreptitious about it, others gawked openly, but Henry was always aware of their eyes upon him. Kneeling by the tomb of the man who’d once been a beloved friend, then a hated enemy, he’d silently entreated the Almighty to forgive him, interspersing these pleas with the Latin prayers he’d learned in childhood. Refusing to eat or drink or even to pass water, he lay full length upon the cold floor of the crypt as he uttered the familiar words of the Confiteor.

  The other pilgrims did not share his knowledge of Latin, but they knew the responses to the Mass and so when he whispered, “Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Ioanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, et omnibus Sanctis, quita peccavi nimus cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” they understood that he was confessing to God, the Blessed Mary, the archangel, the apostles, and the saints that he had “sinned exceedingly, in thought, word, and deed.”