‘Well done John. Thank you, thank you, That was the best experience of my life.’’
John Stanley -7th March 1355
Two days later, in the early hours of the morning, a party of hunters, led by the Black Prince and guided by John Stanley, splashed their way over the sand causeway at the mouth of the river Dee. At low tide, the causeway connected Middle Eye Island with the mainland.
The mixture of estuarial mud and sand leached a particular smell as their footsteps disturbed it; a pungent combination of shellfish and brine, not unpleasant but far stronger than the background smell of ozone.
An hour after dawn, John launched a small boat on the incoming tide. The boat made the return trip, drifting with the rising tide but capable of being guided by a tiny rudder and a tiny sail. In the boat, lying side by side was the forester’s son, John Stanley, and the eldest son of King Edward III of England, the Black Prince. To camouflage the smell of their bodies and avoid disturbing the deer, John had spread estuarial mud over woollen blankets and the pair lay underneath the blankets. A continual stream of icy drops fell onto both occupants of the boat. The Prince and John wriggled uncomfortably as the drops joined to form tormenting rivulets. It was extremely difficult to accept these conditions without making the slightest noise. By raising his head, John could see through a tiny peephole perhaps twenty deer, all stags, on the grassland behind the beach. Some were very close to the water.
Several deer raised their eyes as the boat drifted towards them but the boat, from a distance, had the appearance of driftwood and so the deer were unconcerned. The boat bumped along the shore until it finally lodged firmly against a spit of sand.
John pulled the blanket back. Instantly the Prince sprang to his feet bow in hand and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. He took the first deer full in the chest and before it had sunk to its knees a second arrow buried itself into the shoulder of the deer immediately behind it. The rest of the deer now took flight, but there was still time for the Prince to fell another before they had dispersed. The Prince leapt from the boat and danced on the sand. John climbed out more carefully, intending to applaud, but was dragged into an embrace by the Prince.
‘Well done John. Thank you, thank you, That was the best experience of my life.’
John had no idea whether it was allowed to hug a prince, but quickly decided he had no alternative. In seconds he was dancing to the same rhythm as the Prince.
Much later in the day, back in their family home, John was summoned into his father’s study. Lord James hovered in the background.
William Stanley addressed his son. ‘You did well, John. Now Lord James would like to give you an opportunity as his squire.’
For the second time in the day, John found himself enveloped in a vigorous embrace. ‘Serve Lord James well, you can do nothing but prosper in his service.’
John had long reconciled himself to a future as a forester, with perhaps the option of buying some land and becoming a yeoman farmer.
‘I need time to think,’ he protested. They gave him none.
‘In spring there is much to do.’ His objections were brushed to one side.
Lord James offered John the use of one of his horses. John’s mother packed a saddle-bag with essential clothes and his father brought the Saxon axes, a family heirloom. His father made the gift of the axes a formal occasion.‘These have always become the property of the Housecarls in the family. You are now embarking on a military career so it is appropriate that they pass into your keeping. Remember, whilst you have been given a relatively humble position, your heritage is a proud one. I expect you to add to the honour of our name.’
William Stanley half turned away and then turned back again. John felt the strength from his father’s hands surge into his body as they gripped his shoulders.
‘I am proud of you, John, but a man must make his own way in life. Go now.’
John moved his lips to respond but his father gave him no chance to speak.
‘Every knight has to serve an apprenticeship as a squire. Therefore every knight has at some stage been a squire. It is a great opportunity John; please take it with both hands. Knighthood gives access to other opportunities. Who knows, John, because of this you might attend court, maybe meet the woman of your desire, or acquire riches beyond your wildest dreams.’
John flung his arms around his father, and his mother dashed to join their embrace.
Later the same evening, the Prince, Lord James and John were riding south. They planned to rest the night in Chester but when they arrived, an urgent message awaited, summoning the Prince to London.
The large moon, half exposed by drifting cloud, lit the night and they took advantage of it by riding on to Shrewsbury, where the Prince broke away. Lord James thankfully called a halt at a local inn.
The room was so small that after John had carried Lord James’ bags up the stairs and placed them on the floor, the room was overcrowded. John took in the surroundings before his eyes came to settle on Lord James, who seemed totally ignorant of his presence. He cleared his throat. ‘And where should I sleep, Milord?’
Lord James looked up slowly and gave a tolerant smile. ‘Where every squire sleeps when on the road; with the horses.’
John was so surprised, he could not keep from showing it on his face.
Lord James’ smile broadened. ‘Without horses, we can do nothing. There are many horse thieves so they must be guarded through the night. In any case, by sleeping with the horses they will become used to you. When you groom and saddle them in the morning you will find them more compliant if you are not a stranger. Horses are big, warm animals. They don’t always lie down but if one does, snuggle up to it. It will prevent you from feeling the chill of the night.’
John bore no resentment as he descended the stairs to the stable. He reviewed his father’s advice: from this humble beginning, you might acquire a knighthood. He decided that the idea pleased him but had no idea how the progression might occur. He laid out clean straw and gathered his blanket around him. He resolved to make a good start by serving Lord James as well as he could and to deliver his best in everything he was asked to do. He was, in fact, very content—almost happy.