Central authority broke down in the ninth and tenth centuries. Europe was circled by hostile invaders. To defend against this threat to their very existence, the ruling classes fell back on an old loyalty system: Feudalism, a mechanism based on keeping sacred oaths. This story is designed to reflect the problems inherent in the system.
Honor and the Fox
Silence filled the large hall, save for the faint rustle and clank of the mailed knight who with measured step was approaching the dais. Sir Hugh du Rochet dropped to his knees before the seated figure of Reginald, Count of Belloir, and raised his hands, palms together, as if in supplication. From his slightly raised position, the Count slowly leaned forward. He pressed Sir Hugh’s hands between his as the lesser noble promised to be faithful and to protect him with his sword.
“And I promise to honor you as a true vassal and to defend you to the extent that God gives me power,” responded the Count. He raised Sir Hugh to his feet and kissed him ceremoniously.
There was yet one more feudal ritual. Sir Reginald extended toward the knight a hand that contained nothing more than a few stalks of straw. By receiving them, Sir Hugh was accepting hereditary jurisdiction over a fief, a designated land area. By the sacred affirmation of mutual loyalty and service, the Count had gained a military ally and the knight effective use of acreage.
Both men were pleased, but the Count glowed with a satisfaction that seemed unlimited.
“Tonight, Sir Hugh, we will further consecrate our oaths with a banquet worthy of such an event. Our arrangement is one that shall have far-reaching impact. I dare say that we will have innumerable opportunities for celebration in the future.”
With that the Count took his leave, under the pretext of having to see to the evening’s provisions and entertainment. He strode from the hail and Sir Hugh once again marveled at the immensity of the man. Muscularly built and well over six feet in height, Sir Reginald was not a man to be taken lightly. His flaming red hair suggested tremendous vitality. Indeed his energy seemed boundless and was equalled by his ambition.
Sir Hugh, at twenty-four, was younger than his new lord, and only slightly less physically impressive. Military prowess made him a valuable ally; but his reputation in that regard was matched, if not surpassed, by moral rectitude. His late father, Sir Charles du Rochet, had demanded that the youth’s education stress all elements of the Code of Chivalry. Valor in battle, true Christian piety, and reverence for women, the chief tenets of this code, were practical standards to Sir Charles, as his memory throughout the region attested. That his son would be a ‘true and perfect knight’ became an obsession. When the elder du Rochet died of a fever, he closed his eyes satisfied that he had succeeded. His son could stand the test.
Certainly, the boy had been tempted on many occasions to use his gifts in less than perfect ways. He possessed a dark complexion and rugged features enhanced by a scar across his left cheek, a result of a minor dispute the likes of which were common between nobles so protective of their honor. The young knight could have dedicated himself with some success to revelry or to power and wealth gained by combat, but he had chosen the more difficult road of honor.
As he watched the Count’s massive back disappear from the hall, Sir Hugh could not suppress a twinge of regret that his father was not there to witness his investiture by one of the leading nobles of the realm. He was now the effective master of huge chunks of land, but he did not have a living relative with whom to share his good fortune. Although many knights would have been proud to claim him for a son-in-law, he had no marriage prospects.
He resigned himself to savor the new vassalage with none but the Count and his associates.
The banquet would be sumptuous, and he resolved to block anything from his mind that might detract from its enjoyment. He would be rallying his band of military retainers to Count Reginald’s standard for the defense of just causes, and this made the future bright.
* * *
A traveler leaving that celebration and riding northwest four days over the narrow, dusty road would have come to the city in which King Geoffrey resided. It was little more than a town, but because it was as busy as any community trying to recover from the worst of the commerce-impaired Feudal age, and because it also served as the seat of the Archbishop, it had earned the title of “city” as a necessary badge of prestige.
The presence of the King, of course, contributed to its status, but it was by no means the city’s most important attribute. A royal title carried with it little more than traditional respect. In theory a monarch was the highest noble in the land, but unless military power reinforced such pretensions, the significance was purely superficial. The realm supposedly belonged to a king, but he might well be at the mercy of powerful vassals.
Geoffrey’s grip on his realm was a tenuous one. To secure his goals, he had to supplement with a keen wit the relatively meager number of troops directly bound to him. For a decade he had been a successful chess master, surviving a perpetual state of crisis; and he seemed much older than his thirty-five years. Youthful optimism had yielded to the tough, experienced look of cunning which had earned for him the nickname of “the Fox.”
The afternoon of Sir Hugh’s investiture, King Geoffrey was in conference with the Archbishop.
“The grant of land should be quite sufficient for the convent, my Lord Archbishop. We are ever attentive to the needs of Holy Mother Church and have recognized our dependence on Her for spiritual guidance.”
The elderly prelate, in miter and robe, smiled benignly. “My son, if only your diligence in support of God’s work could be an inspiration to the knights who let greed imperil their souls! You are always generous in your gifts and your devotion. Our Lord will reward you with the peace of mind that such kind acts bring.”
“I pray He may strengthen me against my enemies,” the King answered with a sigh. “I have received pledges of fealty from a score of knights and have granted them substantial fiefs, so that my troop strength should be the envy of all. However, many vassals have little regard for their sacred oaths. They subinfeudate their holdings so extensively that if their vassals prove loyal to them and they prove disloyal to me, I shall be left almost defenseless. A few are growing quarrelsome; they are resisting the payment of aids, such as the one I ordered to assist the operation of that new nunnery. There will be trouble soon.”
“My son, you observe the Holy Sacraments; you venerate all sacred relics; you are scrupulous in your obedience to the Holy Father at Rome. God will not leave you comfortless in your affliction.” The Archbishop made the sign of the Cross with his hand, and the King bowed his head and crossed himself.
“I have never doubted either His or your support,” replied Geoffrey. “But allow me to shift to a less ominous subject. When Sir Roger de Vane died, he left no heir old enough to reaffirm his feudal obligations. His only child is Lady Margaret. As she is only sixteen and an orphan, I am exercising my right of wardship. The fief will be administered by royal agents until the child reaches her majority. I was hoping that the good sisters of the convent might agree to care for the girl in the interim.”
For the entire conversation they had been seated, the aged Archbishop in a banquet chair temporarily placed before the King’s raised throne. Except for the visual formalities required by the positions the two men filled, there was nothing to suggest that this was more than old friends in amiable conversation.
“I am sure that the sisters will be happy to repay your generosity in such a manner,” said the Archbishop. “As soon as they establish themselves in their new quarters, I will ask the Abbess to send for the child.”
“Good,” replied Geoffrey with a smile. “She is currently staying here at court. I am not at all sure that the intrigue she may witness here is a good influence on her. What would a potential husband say, if he knew his future wife was a schemer who modeled herself after ‘the Fox?”
The two men exchanged grins. Shortly thereafter, the Archbishop and his retinue of attendants withdrew from the royal presence. Queen Catherine entered as the party disappeared through the heavy oaken doors at the opposite end of the throne room.
“You are smiling, my Lord. The visit of the Archbishop seems to have had a sanguine effect on you.”
“He is an old friend, Cat, and old friends are always reassuring. I would rather have him on my side than all of Sir Reginald’s cavalry.” The King held out his hand to his wife. How fortunate he was! Theirs had been a marriage contracted by parents for political reasons, and yet they loved each other deeply. The warmth and grace of this slight, lovely woman had strengthened him in the face of many dangers. She had grown to love him as a man, not as a reigning monarch. Her only ambition was to support him, whether his plans proved foolish or brilliant. Perhaps thanks to the strength he drew from her, those plans seemed to have grown more and more ingenious.
He drew her to him, and made room on the throne beside him. She sat down daintily on the narrow section, and he put his arm about her shoulder. “My Lord, this is a most undignified posture,” she protested, feigning outrage.
“And whom, pray, are we going to scandalize? Young Edward is in the courtyard practicing with his sword. Lady Margaret is at her sewing. Oh, and the guards are loyal!”
After a moment Geoffrey grew somber, “Cat, I have asked the Archbishop to arrange Margaret’s transfer to the nunnery. It will be better for her there. I do not want her destiny tied too closely to ours in case something unforeseen occurs.”
“You are right, my Lord, but I will miss her at court. In those few short weeks, I have grown quite fond of the child.”
“She is a fine girl,” the King agreed. “But she is no longer a child. I must try to match her to some worthy and loyal knight.”
The Queen’s face hardened. “Yes’, my Lord, ‘and loyal.”
* * *
Count Reginald paced the room gesturing emphatically.
“The opportunity is golden. With the inclusion of Sir Hugh, my forces are formidable, and what’s more, they are loyal to me. I have scrupulously honored all my feudal obligations to them, while that fool who calls himself a King has heaped upon his vassals one financial levy after another. Even if they are for the Church,” he stopped and crossed himself— “they are enough to distress more than a few knights. I could challenge him now, and use the charge that he has broken his feudal oath with these aids. My army would crush him on the field of battle, and I could secure my claim to the throne.”
The Count was addressing Sir Robert Mandeville, a veteran warrior who had become his chief advisor. Sir Robert, listening patiently, now ventured to interrupt.
“If you proceed in haste, you are acting rashly. You must convince the King’s other vassals that you do not take such a step treacherously. If they believe your motive to be a selfish desire for the crown, they may support the King. After all, it is better for them to have a clever weakling on the throne than a man such as yourself, who might constitute a threat to their privileges.”
Sir Reginald sighed. “Of course, my friend. As usual, you are subtle and logical. I must send someone who is highly regarded to court to lay my grievances before the King and seek redress. If Geoffrey acquiesces to my demands, he is weakened further. If he refuses, conflict is inevitable and the outcome certain.”
Sir Robert again interrupted. “There is one knight who can best serve your interests. He is highly regarded throughout the realm, ethically as well as militarily, and has just pledged himself to defend your interests.”
“Sir Hugh!” This time it was the Count who interrupted. “What a marvelous stroke! His armor scarcely hides his angel’s wings! Has he left the manor yet?”
“I believe he planned to rise early and depart this morning. I spoke with him during the banquet and he seemed rather pensive. Perhaps he is ill at ease in celebrations and would prefer some concrete task to perform. If he has set out for home, he cannot have gone far on the road. A messenger could reach him and bring him back before evening.”
“Excellent! I will dispatch that messenger at once.” Without even casting a glance in the direction of Sir Robert, the Count strode through the door in quest of a servant.
* * *
The rider who was dispatched successfully accomplished his lord’s wishes. He crossed the castle drawbridge with Sir Hugh late in the day and ushered him from the courtyard through the bleak stone corridors to a small, tapestry-hung sitting room. Count Reginald was waiting.
Sir Hugh bowed. “Your message said you have an urgent task for me to perform. I am ready to do my duty.” He was obviously exhausted, but he carried himself with pride and dignity.
He is a perfect choice, the Count thought to himself before begging the young knight to sit.
“You will be my guest again tonight. You must conserve your energy, since it is four days’ journey to the royal court.” With that introduction Sir Reginald proceeded to draw a picture of dedicated vassals taxed beyond endurance by a corrupt and devious monarch.
“Obviously, I do not wish to shirk my feudal responsibilities,” he continued. “Several knights who are King Geoffrey’s vassals have discussed the dilemma with me, and we have concluded that our only honorable recourse is to petition for a redress of grievances.”
Sir Hugh sought clarification. “My Lord, as you may be aware, my father held his fief by the grace of the King; and I myself renewed the vow of service upon my father’s death. When the King has called for payments, I have always given them freely, especially since they have usually gone for sacred causes that all worthy Christian knights are honor-bound to support. How is it that so many royal vassals consider themselves ill-used?”
The Count rose from his chair and moved to a small open window. He scanned the courtyard and the fields beyond. His expression suggested he was carefully choosing his words.
“Your hereditary grant is a small one, Sir Hugh. I knew your father. His manor barely produced enough to support his family and retainers. What you took over was a handful of serfs and poor soil as well. The King knows better than to anticipate much from you. Furthermore, he knows that your family has always lived by the highest moral standards. What better way to wrench from you the little you possess than by avowing some ecclesiastical cause? While it is probably true that some of your contributions made their way into Church coffers, it is more certain that much of the money has gone to support his court luxuries.” Reginald’s voice rose steadily in crescendo; he seemed to be working himself into a fury of righteous indignation.
The performance was not in vain. Sir Hugh knew King Geoffrey’s reputation for cunning.
His father had not conveyed to him a strong impression of the monarch, so he had little on which to base his evaluation but common opinion. True, the King had been gracious to him at the investiture ceremony when Sir Hugh took over his father’s obligations, but this could have been clever royal politics. Whose evaluation could be more trustworthy than Sir Reginald Demotte, Count of Belloir?
Sir Hugh listened as the Count, now calm, continued. “Please forgive my temper, sir. I am a man who believes in simple honesty. I leave subtle plotting to our regal lord. Something must be done before that man pushes honest vassals so far that their honor will permit only the recourse of combat. You must take this to Geoffrey.” He picked up a large, rolled parchment and handed it to the young knight. “I have had scribes prepare this. It is an explanation of our grievances and a strenuous request for a change in royal policy. Tell him that we do not demand an instant reply. You are to wait upon the King at court for six weeks or as long as it takes to give him the time to devise methods which we may all accept. Certainly we can be no fairer than that under our feudal obligations.”
The following morning Sir Hugh left the Count’s manor with the parchment safely packed in his gear. Accompanied only by his squire, he set out again on the dusty road.
* * *
He knew he was nearing his destination now. The spires of the great cathedral, like thin fingers reaching toward Heaven, could be seen while the rest of the city was nothing more than a tiny blur. At first sight of the holy sanctuary, still essentially under construction but impressive nonetheless, the knight reined in his horse and paused to bow his head and cross himself. He prayed for strength to perform his task. He feared “the Fox” as he feared no military adversary.
“Well, Richard, therein lies the dragon we must slay with words,” he commented with forced good humor to his squire, who knew in general terms of the errand. “Faith, my Lord! They say dragons breathe fire enough to roast a good knight. At least we need not expect this of a fox!”
The jest relaxed his master, and they soon made their way through the crowded streets to the fortified castle. In a matter of minutes they were admitted to the courtyard and informed that the King was ready to receive his noble visitor in the throne room.
“Sir Knight, I saw your shield and livery while you were yet below, and I knew you immediately to belong to the honored house of du Rochet. What favor may your King grant so loyal a vassal?” Geoffrey’s cordial tone was lost on Sir Hugh, who had braced himself against royal subtlety. He presented the parchment and briefly and emotionlessly summarized its contents.
The King was respected for his literacy and needed no scribe to decipher the contents. He glanced at the document and handed it to an attendant who stood nearby. The young knight thought he perceived a fleeting hint of consternation on the lined face of the monarch. He did not fully understand when Geoffrey turned to the Queen who sat beside him and remarked indifferently, “Well, it has begun.”
“Your Highness, I am instructed to remain at court to allow time for a proper reply. I hope that will be permitted.” The vassal tried to maintain a stiff propriety as he spoke.
However, he felt vaguely guilty about delivering such an ultimatum. “Is this pity I feel?” he asked himself.
Except for that momentary lapse, Geoffrey never lost his composure. “Not only will we permit you to remain, we demand it. You are known to be an honest and dedicated knight. Your humility is refreshingly real. As your King and lord, I would like to rely on your council in this matter and to honor you as an example all knights should emulate. Would you be willing to assist with some simple court duties during your stay?”
Although vaguely suspicious, Sir Hugh agreed.
“Good,” the King replied. “Now you must rest and we will have our first discussion this afternoon.” He motioned to an attendant. “Show this worthy lord and his man to quarters. They are honored guests.”
* * *
A few hours later, a messenger came to the room in which the two men had been resting to say that the King invited Sir Hugh to join him in the palace garden.
“Bribery with down pillows,” yawned Richard. “It takes less to win my allegiance.”
“Get up, you lazy hound,” laughed the knight. “I want my weapons and armor shining before this day is over.”
He left with the messenger who led him to a small, colorful patch of earth within the gray confines of the castle walls. The King was alone relaxing informally against a low wall. He gestured for the knight to approach.
“Here, sir, is where ‘the Fox’ devises all those devilish schemes about which you have heard. Well, you look rested and fit.” He smiled disarmingly.
“The quarters are most comfortable, my Lord,” was the only reply. Sir Hugh expected the King to dispense with pleasantries and initiate serious conversation.
He did not have long to wait. “Tell me, sir, how would you respond to the request of Count Reginald and the others? Should I give them what they want and restrict my levies?”
“It would seem the simplest solution to a problem that could have a most unfortunate result, Your Highness.”
“Yes, you are right I suppose. It does have the virtue of simplicity. Do you remember the purpose for which I usually impose these levies?”
“For the Church, my Lord.”
“And bow do you feel about donations specified for that cause?”
“Anything that promotes God’s work is, of course, the worthiest of gifts.”
Both men crossed themselves.
“Let us assume,” King Geoffrey continued, “that a substantial part of the assessment does go to Holy Mother Church. Perhaps not all, but I will get to that later. Do you know why I contribute so heavily?”
“I assume, my Lord, that you do it out of a desire to serve God.”
“While that is true, I must confess that I have other reasons as well.”
The young knight studied the weathered features of the monarch as the latter examined a flower. The subtle master of intrigue seemed to be speaking from the heart.
The King broke the silence with a surprising question. “Do you read Latin, sir?”
“I know only some phrases, my Lord. I fear I read very little.”
“Those phrases would be understood in Paris, London, or Saragossa, as well as Rome. Our vast world, from horizon to horizon, has but one thing that unites men of dissimilar natures; and that is the beneficent influence of the Church. We are all part of Christendom, sir, and without the order that has come out of this. I fear we would cut each other’s throat even more frequently than we do now.”
Again, the men crossed themselves before the King resumed. “I give the Church all I can, not just to save my soul from Hell but also to cultivate a civilizing influence. Without that influence murder, greed, and worse would have no restraints.”
Sir Hugh wanted to comment, but there was little he could add. He could not suppress the fact that he was beginning to admire this man.
The King smiled self-consciously and turned his face to his guest. “I begin to sound like my Lord the Archbishop. But I do have one request to make of you, sir. You must satisfy yourself on two counts. First, is the money which I require of my vassals actually going to the Church? And, if it is, what use is being made of it to promote the cause of Christendom?’
Sir Hugh tried to protest that a subject’s duty was never to question his King, but this feeble attempt was shunted aside.
“Loyalty ought to be based on more than custom,” persisted Geoffrey. “When a knight like you is convinced of the justice of a cause, he becomes a worthy defender. You have heard the Count’s arguments; now you will see the best defense I have against them.”
The two men began to stroll along the narrow stone paths that wound through the small garden. Sir Hugh continued to listen respectfully.
‘I have asked the Holy Sisters to look after the young Lady Margaret de Vane, who has become my ward since her father’s death. They have been establishing themselves on their new fief, and I now understand they are sufficiently prepared to receive their guest. You will escort her there tomorrow. I have taken pains to make sure that word of your visit’s true purpose does not spread; you can verify that any way you wish. Observe whether the funds I request are being properly used, and report your findings to me. I will send for you in the morning.”
After extending an invitation to the knight to join the court for dinner, the King dismissed him.
Sir Hugh, of course, attended, but even as he laughed at the antics of jesters, he kept mulling over in his mind the simplicity of King Geoffrey’s argument in the garden. He reminded himself to be observant and keep an open mind.
He did not know that his observations would be influenced by an unexpected and unfamiliar emotion.
* * *
Early the following day, the royal party left the castle and the city and slowly worked its way along an open road toward the new convent. Lady Margaret, in dark riding cloak, rode side saddle next to her escort.
She was the picture of youthful grace and charm. Her light brown hair, partly visible in spite of a hood, shone in the early sun. Her lively eyes suggested that, for all her passive bearing, here was a thoughtful, strong-willed personality. Sir Hugh noticed that she did not seem pleased with the trip.
“My Lady, you seem too pensive for such a beautiful day. Do you dread the sisters of the convent?”
Margaret glanced at the young man beside her, evaluating whether he would be a sincere and responsible confidant. She decided, on the basis of impulse to take the risk.
“No, sir knight, I know they are honest and compassionate. My fears are for those I leave behind. The King and Queen have treated me as more than a guest. I have grown to have affection for them in the weeks I have lived at court. I worry about their safety.”
Sir Hugh sought to reassure her that the King was too clever to be vulnerable.
“He would not have arranged my departure, if he were not concerned, sir. Do you know that there are rumors that one of his most powerful vassals is scheming to seize the throne? King Geoffrey is as honorable and just a lord as any subject could desire. How misunderstood he is by those who call him a schemer! When I became his ward, he could have forced me to wed any of a number of nobles who would have made powerful vassal allies for him. I suppose I feared this as much as any aftereffect of my father’s death. But he assured me that when he gave my hand and holdings to a knight, he wanted two happy and loyal subjects, not just one! I pray daily that God will protect him!”
Lady Margaret’s emotional defense of the King broke off. She tried to hide her face from her escort.
For a moment Sir Hugh felt the confusion men typically feel in the presence female tears. He experienced a twinge of guilt, knowing that he was, if not the cause, at least the catalyst of this lady’s pain. This fact moved his chivalric heart as much as his native sympathy did. No tired clichés would do here; his words had to be substantial and comforting.
“I too am an orphan who has been treated graciously by the King.”
She turned her face to stare at him in surprise. It had been hard for her to picture that rugged, scarred face as anything but a seasoned warrior, just as it had been for him, until her impassioned disclosure, to consider her more than another young and mindlessly decorative lady.
That moment forged a bond between them.
As the company travelled deliberately along its way, the two young people traded personal reminiscences. Sir Hugh scrupulously avoided any mention of the errand that had brought him to court, and prayed the subject would never come up. Lady Margaret showed herself to be politically astute in conversation. Her father had lavished all the education he could on her, perhaps to compensate for not having a male heir. Her wit dazzled the knight, whose training had instilled in him the stereotype of the passive, purely domestic court lady.
“I hope to continue my Latin studies at the convent, if the sisters will allow it. King Geoffrey encouraged me; he says an intelligent wife can be the greatest of comforts to a husband.”
This surprised Sir Hugh. He had been taught that God had designed all of them, from serf to lord, for their roles in life, and He would judge them on how well they carried out the duties incumbent in those roles. He had been taught that women were shallow, lesser beings. Lady Margaret broke this pattern, yet how well her unorthodox training seemed to fit her nature!
Inevitably, they approached the convent. Cultivated fields signaled its proximity, as did a village where the serfs and artisans whose toil supported the nuns lived. The fief had previously been granted to a knight, but his line had ended with his death. The administration of the land had reverted to King Geoffrey, who had concluded that, with some alterations, the manor house could be converted to ecclesiastical use. The aids he had assessed effected these changes.
What Sir Hugh found when at last he dismounted at the convent was a tidy household run by well-bred ladies dressed in habits. There was no better place in society for high-born widows or unwed daughters of noble families. They went about their tasks with efficient optimism in an atmosphere that was disciplined but not austere. The Abbess, who knew Lady Margaret from her stay at court, greeted them cordially and had her guest’s belongings taken to her new quarters.
Alleging the interest of a curious outsider, Sir Hugh prevailed on the Abbess to show them the new facilities to the extent rules permitted. From the main convocation hail, they passed through a spotless kitchen, then out into a garden not unlike the one he had seen at the royal court.
As they entered the small chapel, where several nuns were about their devotions, awareness of the immediacy of God overwhelmed them. They knelt briefly in silent prayer.
The Abbess tried to persuade him to stay for Vespers, but the knight protested that he had been instructed to return immediately. Before taking his leave, Sir Hugh bowed to Lady Margaret and, with as much emotion as his proper breeding would allow, asked if he might be permitted to call upon her again to bring her news of affairs at court. She smiled and with equal self-control answered that such a service would be invaluable to her and would be greatly appreciated.
As the returning horsemen disappeared behind a cloud of road dust, a nun who had been in attendance commented, “What a handsome and proper young lord!” Lady Margaret’s blush went unnoticed as she responded, “Yes. We are good friends.”
* * *
On the now-tedious journey back, Sir Hugh was tortured by contrasting feelings at war within him. He had a duty to perform for Count Reginald, but he had to be fair in assessing the King’ s blame. How could someone like Lady Margaret err in her evaluation of Geoffrey? But wasn’t Geoffrey known for his cunning? The convent was, nevertheless, just as the King had led him to expect. Wherein did his duty and honor lie?
This internal battle was still raging the following morning, when he was summoned by royal messenger. Once again, he found himself surrounded by the silent pageantry of the garden.
“Well, sir, have you found my assessments ill-spent?”
“On the contrary, my Lord. They are most impressive.”
“Did you discover evidence that I had instructed anyone to keep the truth from you?”
“No, Your Highness. I found nothing of the kind.”
“Of course, that does not mean that I could not have arranged a few distortions, does it? I am ‘the Fox,’ you know.”
Sir Hugh smiled. He sensed the King was leading to some kind of conclusion, but, unexpectedly, Geoffrey changed subjects.
“I promised that I would explain the other expenditures for which I so excessively burden my vassals. Come with me.”
They left the garden and entered the living quarters, following a narrow corridor. It led them to a low-vaulted hall in which several young boys sat working at desks overseen by the tonsured figure of a priest.
The King motioned to the room’s occupants to ignore the intrusion. He then whispered an explanation. “It has been difficult, but I believe I have put together a rudimentary school for youths who serve me at court or are the sons of my vassals. You see my son Edward there on the left.
Father Robert is a well-known Latin scholar, secured for me by my Lord, the Archbishop. I want these boys to read and write. I dare say you have never heard of this. It is an incomprehensible waste to the majority of my subject nobility. Your own father would probably have agreed with them, but this venture is scarcely two years old. Oh, but what use is a man who can read and write in a society of armor and lances? I will tell you; the man who emerges from this place will have a disciplined mind. He will know a kind of precision unfamiliar to his unlettered comrades. The vassals who complain of my levies were offered access to this for their children. They refused and accuse me of waste!”
Sir Hugh was aware that he had once again fallen under the monarch’s spell. He secretly longed to have a command of Latin, if for no other reason than to gain the respect of Lady Margaret. The King again plunged on to new subjects.
“I have one more expenditure to show you, sir, with which I feel the Count would find himself more at home.”
They proceeded rapidly along the corridor until it emptied into a broad courtyard. Mounted men were jousting with padded weapons; others were on foot practicing close, hand-to-hand combat. Sir Hugh estimated that there were approximately fifty soldiers. As they observed the drill, Geoffrey spoke slowly, with the emphasis his companion had come to expect. There were no rhetorical questions this time.
“My personal guard is small but highly skilled. I have seen to that. They are also intensely loyal to me, strange as that may seem to some. My own military abilities have no doubt fallen into disrepair, but should war break out, I will be ready. I am the only man in this realm, other than my son, who is of royal blood. The land on which my vassals live belongs not to them but to me, their monarch. I will defend what is mine against what I consider paltry, dishonest complaints. I might easily wait six weeks before saying this, but my decision will not change. I have enough loyal followers to resist the Count, and I will.”
Sir Hugh felt awkwardly uncomfortable, like a young boy being scolded by his father. What could he say?
The King’s visage softened. He held out his hand and rested it on the knight’s shoulder.
“You are honorable, sir, and I know you are struggling to determine your path, should combat result. Remember this: under the tradition of liege homage, I have a claim on your sword that is older, and consequently stronger, than Count Reginald’s. But I will not press that claim. If war comes, you must choose the side wherein your honor lies. I have presented my arguments. Please consider them tonight, and bear my message to the Count tomorrow.”
Sir Hugh realized he had been dismissed. The King departed, leaving him to watch the small band of warriors and to fight his own personal war.
* * *
Richard noticed that his lord was unusually somber and uncommunicative for the entire journey back to the Count’s manor. The squire had always been able to generate some kind of light, tension-breaking comment; but this time his instincts advised against it.
Sir Hugh had not been able to resolve the dilemma overnight. It had been complicated by his sincere desire to maintain the good graces of Lady Margaret. When would he be able to see her again? Could he face her knowing the role he played in the growing crisis? He steeled his resolve with one conclusion. He would always have to live with the decision he would make; it must be one his honor could accept. As the Count’s hall came into view on the fourth day, he knew he had reached his decision.
He was immediately ushered into the smiling, but awesome presence of Count Reginald, who stood, arms akimbo, before his chair. He greeted the traveler with boisterous enthusiasm.
“You have certainly wasted little time in fulfilling your errand, sir knight. We did not expect to see you for some weeks yet. What reply do you bring to our requests? Has the King come to his senses so quickly?”
“I fear his reply will displease you, my lord. He claims the charges are unfounded and is prepared to defend his hold on the realm.”
“What hold?” The Count’s temper flared abruptly. “He reigns because we tolerate his empty posturing! That devious reprobate did not award us the privilege of receiving a detailed answer to our petition! Let it be publicly known that he leaves us no other recourse!”
He spun around and addressed himself to a guard in attendance.
“I want messengers sent immediately to Sir Howard Fitzdale, Duke Robert of Cauneleau, and Sir John De Maine. They are to organize their forces and those of their vassals. “Robert! You have the names of the others; give them to this man. We will rendezvous at Charter Field on Monday next!”
The ever-present Mandeville bowed and moved briskly toward the door, followed by the guard. Count Reginald whirled again toward Sir Hugh like a man possessed.
“Du Rochet! You have heard what I have told these men. I claim your support as my vassal. You will muster your troops as I have ordered.”
With stoic resignation, Sir Hugh replied simply and unemotionally, “No, my lord. I will not.”
The Count stared as if he had not understood the reply, but no explanation was forthcoming.
Sir Reginald’s exclamation shattered the ominous silence.
“No? What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I mean, my lord, that I cannot honorably support your cause. By liege homage I am committed to defend the King, but if I were not so obliged, I could not join you. You have no true complaint against him except that by holding the throne he threatens your desire for power. My men will join his forces.”
“You simpleton! Do you not see how he has maneuvered you? Take your honor with you then. We do not need your pitiful support. But do not plead for mercy when next we meet, for you are a disloyal vassal in forfeit of your obligations!”
Sir Hugh bowed with excessive dignity and exited to the courtyard. When he and his squire were free of the Count’s jurisdiction, the young knight instructed Richard to return with all speed to the royal court.
“You must arrive in less than four days. The King has but a week to prepare his defenses. I will join you after I have organized my fighting men. Now, ride!”
The two men galloped in separate directions, driving their mounts with the urgency of their convictions.
* * *
An imposing armored figure rode at the head of twenty mounted warriors accompanied by more numerous foot soldiers. His shield bore du Rochet heraldry: a gold stag’s head on a field of green. Although the other knights carried designs which identified their noble lineage, none of them were of a mind to challenge the leadership of their young lord. He had proven his skill and courage in earlier engagements.
Only once did the procession halt briefly, and that was at the convent Here the startled Abbess gave Sir Hugh permission to speak with the Lady Margaret.
The interview was brief. The knight explained cryptically what was transpiring. Combat was inevitable now. He asked her forgiveness for bearing such bad news; and then, fighting to control his emotions, he confessed to her the role of deception he had played.
“I cannot support the Count, knowing what I know now. I ask only that you forgive me for misleading you. Please believe me when I say that I would not willingly hurt you for any worldly possession.”
She was visibly shaken. Maintaining what composure she could, she replied, “I forgive you, sir, and will pray God to sustain you. You must fulfill your pledge to return with news of the court.”
They smiled at each other through suppressed tears, and then he was gone.
* * *
King Geoffrey was hardly surprised by the revelations of Sir Hugh’s squire. When the knight had first arrived with the fateful document, the King had ordered those vassals whom he knew to be loyal to prepare their forces for the forty days’ military service that was a mandatory feudal obligation. They should all be nearing the city now, he reasoned, and that gave them at least a little time to outline their deployment on Charter Field.
He took one unmilitary step which he hoped might calm the city’s inhabitants. Wild rumors were circulating; and the people, whose everyday lives might not be affected by the actual events, were nonetheless clearly disturbed. He sought to check this through the influence of the Archbishop, whose presence he requested at court.
Once again, the two friends observed a minimum of formality and fell immediately into serious conversation.
“There should be no reprisals taken on the people of the city,” the King observed. “It is obvious that the rebels want nothing more than to replace me with the Count.”
“You speak as if your armies had already been defeated, my son. Why are you so faint of heart?”
“My Lord Archbishop, I have scarcely one-half the forces Sir Reginald can muster. There is an irresistible logic attached to my conclusion. We can deploy carefully, but barring a miracle, we cannot win. You must use your influence to maintain calm and order.”
“I know the justice of your cause, Geoffrey. Holy Mother Church will do all She can to protect you as you have always protected Her.”
The King smiled. “My ecclesiastical vassals have already fulfilled their feudal obligations by sending troops or a payment substitute. The Church’s support has been a great comfort to me.”
The Archbishop could only say that if the Church relied solely on strength of arms, Her meaning would be inconsequential indeed. “God and His Church will shield you,” he added in an authoritative, soothing tone. The old priest made the sign of the Cross, and the King crossed himself in response. On that comforting note, the conversation ended.
Soon after this, messengers began to arrive announcing the approach of troops led by nobles loyal to Geoffrey. He directed them to pitch camp in the fields east of the city and, when convenient, to send their commanders to him.
He greeted each man as an old friend. When Sir Hugh arrived, the King was visibly moved.
“I am glad to have one such as you with us. I hope that my son will come to know you better; he could have no one better to emulate.”
Sir Hugh replied, “If he learns from his father, sire, he will need no other teacher.”
Geoffrey’s eyes reflected his gratitude. “Is not one generation of foxes enough?” he joked, and then turned to the others. A visual survey revealed that all the principal commanders were there. Calling for their attention, the King got to the point immediately. “My Lords, we have two days before the rebel forces are due at Charter Field. I propose we consider a strategy that will minimize their numerical advantage.”
For two hours the leaders discussed the probable makeup and deployment of the enemy and the possible counter moves available.
“Count Reginald’s knights will form the center,” the King concluded. “He is a rash politician, but his courage and strength are beyond dispute.”
“We should try to strengthen our flanks and envelop him, then,” one commander suggested.
“There will be considerable risk in that,” said another. “Fitzdale and de Maine have several knights at their command. The count may use this cavalry to strengthen his right and left.”
“In any event, I believe we should make his capture our main objective,” replied the King.
The discussion continued, and it became apparent that each hypothetical move depended not only on their military prowess but also on some strategic blunder by the enemy. They were grim and resigned.
Geoffrey said finally, “The Archbishop will oversee the administration of the Sacraments tomorrow. The men will enter the fight without the burden of fear for their souls.” He again thanked each man for his loyalty and dismissed them with this simple benediction: “This day we few serve honor.”
* * *
By Sunday afternoon, Count Reginald’s formidable army had begun to assemble on the open land at the southern fringe of Charter Field. The force grew to over five thousand, many of whom were heavily armored knights mounted on gigantic steeds, displaying the easily recognized standards of nobility.
Royal scouts reported throughout the day. The only comfort Geoffrey could give his worried Queen was that Sir Reginald’s confidence and swagger occasionally led him to disregard careful planning. “If he relies on brute strength, he will fall into our hands before most of his army can strike a blow,” Geoffrey explained to Queen Catherine. “That is our best hope.”
When morning came, the two opposing forces were facing each other across the deceptive tranquility of Charter Field. The Count had stationed himself in the forefront of his line, as had been expected; but his flanks were well-manned. Geoffrey was to lead the attack on the right flank; the place directly opposite their powerful adversary had gone to Sir Hugh, who seemed to offer the best hope of holding the middle against the first onslaught.
Shields, armor, and weapons glistened in the morning sun and ensigns fluttered above the knights. Only the heavy silence that enveloped the men as they nervously awaited the signal to charge revealed that the festive colors were a deadly pageant.
From his position in the forefront, Count Reginald was preparing to wave a mailed fist as a signal for attack, when something froze him in mid-motion.
Onto the peaceful no-man’s land of the field, a small procession emerged from the road running perpendicular to the two armies. Leading the procession was a priest bearing a cross, and behind him was carried a chair in which the old Archbishop sat.
Sir Reginald’s reaction was a mixture of indignation and dismay. King Geoffrey, though surprised, concluded that his old friend had come to beg the Count to withdraw.
In the middle of the field, the procession stopped. Out of reverence and respect, soldiers in both armies bowed and crossed themselves. The Archbishop stepped free and, holding his staff, slowly scanned the warriors. Then he turned abruptly toward the Count, who loomed like a giant above the other knights.
In a surprisingly powerful voice which all could hear, the Archbishop spoke.
“Reginald Demotte, Count of Belloir, you stand in peril of your immortal soul!”
A shock ran through both forces, but the Archbishop did not hesitate.
“You have violated your sacred oath and do now stand in open rebellion before your sworn lord. No arms can avail you before the judgment of God. I now declare that should you persist in raising a weapon in anger against your King, you will be excommunicated by Holy Mother Church. Your subjects will be absolved from any loyalty to you, and you will be barred from the Sacraments. Likewise, any who follow you in your reckless course will be declared outcasts beyond the succor of God and His Church. Think well on what you now do, noble lords!”
The Count, for once, was speechless. Behind him, panic was spreading within the troops.
His infantry and cavalry began without comment to leave the field and return to their camp. The trend was gradual but beyond Count Reginald’s ability to reverse. No matter how bitter it might seem to him, he had to recognize that the battle could not occur. Bitterest of all, he now realized that the only course open to him, if he were to protect his power, and his soul as well, was to beg King Geoffrey’s forgiveness. He might retain his hereditary lands, but the King would exact forfeiture of the fiefs most recently granted to him. Crushed by the utter futility, he finally withdrew to his camp. A cheer went up from the King’s forces, who had been watching the spectacle in amazement. There was nothing left for them to do but return to their tents as well.
However, the mood of that camp was as triumphant as the Count’s was sullen.
* * *
When the King returned to court, he found that news of the morning’s extraordinary events had arrived well in advance of the royal company. The Queen shed tears of happy relief. Geoffrey remarked with a wink, “See how good it is to cultivate old friends? I want a request sent to the Archbishop that a Te Deum
be sung to thank God for this great victory in which no life was lost.
Oh, yes, I would also like to see Sir Hugh du Rochet as soon as possible.”
Two messengers were dispatched immediately, and, although they found it difficult to wend their way through individual celebrations, both were able to carry out their tasks.
Sir Hugh, still in armor, arrived in a matter of minutes. King Geoffrey greeted him with “You fought bravely, sir!”
“My Lord?” The young knight did not believe he had been called simply to hear what was by now a tired joke.
“I mean, of course, the battle you won for your honor. You showed exceptional bravery turning against the Count. I am afraid I must ask another favor of you, though. The convent has not as yet been informed of the morning’s outcome, and my sources tell me you are the specially appointed courier of Lady Margaret. You must leave at once to bring her the news!”
Sir Hugh’s face brightened. “Yes. my Lord! I will leave immediately!” Before the echo of his leave-taking died, his figure had vanished from the hall.
The King turned to Queen Catherine and grinned. She chuckled and said, “If I did not know better, my Lord, I would swear you planned the affection that is growing between those two young people.”
“Why, Cat!” Geoffrey laughed. “If I were to do something like that, they might call me a fox!”
Questions for Analysis:
1. Feudalism was a system devised to provide a measure of governmental stability and military order in an age of decentralized secular authority. What strengths and weaknesses of the system are illustrated in the story?
2. How does the story illustrate King Geoffrey’s observation that the Church was a widely accepted civilizing force?
3. Widespread education and social mobility were not generally accepted values in medieval Western Europe. What examples can you find in the story to substantiate this conclusion? How has contemporary society changed from the values of the Middle Ages?
4. What are the characteristics of Chivalry, as exemplified by Sir Hugh du Rochet? Is the Code of Chivalry a practical approach to the problems of life today?
5. Imagine that you are Count Reginald and you have returned home after that fateful day on Charter Field. Would you give up your ambitions or would you use different methods to achieve them?
6. Are King Geoffrey’s problems really solved by the outcome on Charter Field?