James Audley-5 March 1355
On the north-west coast of England, it was cold, bitterly so. At the tip of the Wirral Peninsula, a pencil of land lying between the rivers Mersey and Dee, where the rivers run into the Irish Sea, waves crunched into the beach.
The wind ripped over the water with increasing violence, whistling around Hilbre Island. Spray from the tips of the waves filled the air with salty mist. The mist settled on and occasionally obscured, both the beach and the wide grassy plain behind the beach, which was punctuated with bunkers of sand and low sandstone cliffs.
Lord James Audley wore furs over his overcoat and his legs were encased in knee-length boots over thick hose.
He was on the Wirral discussing plans for a hunt with William Stanley, who through Audley family influence had been appointed forester for the vast forests of Wirral, Vale Royal and Delamere.
The Stanleys were a family of mixed Saxon and Celtic descent, distant relatives of Lord James. In the aftermath of the Norman invasion, the Audleys had intermarried several times with daughters of the dispossessed families who had previously held sway on the Welsh Borders. The women they married had long used their influence to confer benefit to the rest of the Stanley family.
Lord James surveyed the windswept tip of the peninsula.
‘It certainly is different,’ he said, standing in his stirrups and gazing all around. ‘There are deer hereabouts?’ he asked.
William Stanley chuckled. ‘Lots; they thrive on this grazing.’
Lord James dismounted and brushed the hoar frost from the turf to finger the coarse grass; thick, juicy. Light sleet now filled the air. It crusted over Lord James’ furs and clung to his large nose and protruding ears.
He sprang back to his feet. ‘And they find shelter over there?’ He pointed to a low ridge highlighted with a smudge of short scrub against the horizon.
William nodded assent.
Lord James remounted. ‘Let’s go and look,’ he said.
The horses thundered over the soft ground, icy blades of grass crunching under hooves. From the edge of the ridge, an impenetrable tangle of trees and shrubs could be seen. Both trees and shrubs were twisted by the wind and smothered by long grass and fleshy undergrowth.
Lord James smiled as he turned to look at William. ‘Not the New Forest.’
‘No indeed, Lord James, although the base of the Peninsula, Delamere and Vale Royal have all been given many acres of new planting and we work continually on the rest of the forest to limit the size of the areas of scrub. We are clearing trees to make it easier to ride at speed.’
‘Hmm, the Prince would not approve. He likes hunting grounds to be as natural as possible! However, this?’ Lord James swung his arm around in an expansive gesture.
‘Is completely untouched, My Lord.’
‘Well, this is what the Prince wants. He has heard how difficult the hunting is here and yet if you get it right, how rewarding. He desires the challenge. He intended to come directly here after the tournament at Woodstock; however, his father persuaded him to visit the new abbey at Vale Royal first. He will spend tonight at the hunting lodge at Rocksavage and will arrive here tomorrow afternoon. He will expect to hunt early the following morning whilst the deer are still grazing.’
Lord James pulled his horse around and cantered along the edge of the scrub towards the mansion house at Ellesmere where the Stanleys had their home. On arrival at Ellesmere, Lord James was shown through to a room which seemed to provide the function of both library and lounge. The floor was unadorned stone; the furnishings were rustic; and despite a fire in a massive fireplace, it was extremely dark and bitterly cold.
He turned towards William.‘ I must make sure the hunting is good.’ ‘How can we ensure the Prince gets his kill?’
‘If I might make a recommendation, my Lord, we could do worse than put it in the hands of my son, John. He understands these lands and the waters around them better than most.’
Lord James and put an arm around William’s shoulder, ensuring that his voice had exactly the correct tone. ‘I would like to meet your John immediately. We have not much time to complete a plan.’
Lord James then spent fifteen minutes attempting to warm himself front of the fire. He was glad he did not have long to wait before William introduced his son.
Lord James noted John Stanley’s light but athletic build. His highlighted blond hair showed his continual exposure to the sun. His lean face, narrow nose, high cheekbones and dark bright eyes all came together well. John projected openness and honesty. He seemed attentive and keen to be of service. Lord James was instantly impressed, but could this young man deliver what was needed?
‘Tell me a little about yourself, John,’ Lord James asked gently.