‘I never trust such depictions, but if you say they are a good likeness… I cannot wait to meet her.’
Jean Froissart 1st March 1355
A smile brightened the King’s face. ‘Well, Monsieur Froissart, tell me what you know about Ximene Trencavel.’ He raised his hands above the table, palms up. ‘Is she a suitable match for my son?’
‘Yes, Sire, I believe she is most suitable.’
‘And what of her beauty?’
‘Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, Sire.’
Jean hesitated and the King eyed him impatiently. Jean knew only one reply was possible. ‘Yes, undoubtedly she is beautiful.’ He unrolled the sketches and the portrait, which had been prepared for him by Alessandro. ‘See for yourself, Sire… and I swear these sketches are a true likeness.’
The King pressed his lips together and was silent for several seconds. ‘I never trust such depictions, but if you say they are a good likeness…’ The King studied the sketches, and then laid out the portrait on his table, weighing down the corners with his silver candlesticks. ‘I cannot wait to meet her.’
He looked up from the portrait with a look of disapproval. ‘It is a pity, monsieur, that you arrived too late to tell the Prince yourself. He left for a short tour of the north at first light.’
Jean gave no outward reaction but internally he winced, reflecting that the King had searched around for a minor criticism. The King habitually used fault-finding as a tool to emphasise that he was in complete control.
Jean defended himself, as he also was a creature of habit. ‘I was not aware the Prince was leaving. I stayed overnight at Oxford. I could have made it here last night, but was forewarned that there would be no room, as the attendance at the tournament was so great.’
‘We would have found a space for you, but never mind, I have time today.’
The King sat in silence for a time, rubbing his chin as he looked at nothing in particular. Finally, he rose and turned to stare into the fire. ‘You know, when the last of my mother’s brothers died without producing a male heir who managed to survive them, I had made ready to go to Paris and accept the Frankish throne.’ He spoke gently but a touch of bitterness shadowed his words. ‘ Then I heard that my throne had been usurped by the Valois, a distant cousin. It changed my whole life; it is the reason for our current difficulties.’
Jean tried to look sympathetic, but there was little he could say. He had heard this story many times. He knew the King always hoped he would use his own writings to gain attention for the King’s cause. He had done that so many times. Unfortunately, the King believed there was no limit to the number of different ways he could present the same story.
Jean turned his attention to a large map, obviously a fixture in the study. It identified the possessions of the Kings of England on the mainland of Europe as they had been one hundred and fifty years earlier. They covered the whole of the western seaboard and in the south included the northern slopes of the Pyrenees. In the Val de Midi, the empire reached nearly the Mediterranean. Jean reflected that there was no map to show the present holdings, which were less than half of that area shown on the map.
The King returned to his seat. ‘Is this all you have to tell me?’ he said, as though the previous conversation had not taken place. His voice became more incisive. ‘That she’s beautiful? Have you nothing else?’
Jean took a deep breath. He had much to tell the King but was unsure if the time was right. ‘By judgement, luck or possibly something far worse, Gaston Phoebus, the Comte of Foix, has made himself the guardian of Ximene Trencavel.’
‘Something far worse?’
Jean resigned himself to the process of interrogation. ‘Ximene’s parents are said to have been victims of the Black Death. However, the Death had very little effect in the Pyrenees. Some would say Ximene’s parents were the only victims. It is all quite unusual.’
The King rolled his eyes ‘So you believe the Comte may have murdered them?’
‘The Comte is a devious person. He swears allegiance to you for his lands in Bearn, to the King of the Franks for his lands in Foix and to the King of Aragon for his lands in Andorra. He plays you off, one against the other, and thereby retains a surprising degree of independence. His choice of a title, Phoebus, the alternative name of Apollo the sun god, says much about his ambition.’ Jean hesitated, ‘and perhaps his theology.’
‘And did he murder them?’
‘I am careful not to make a gross assumption, but he certainly has a motive. Ximene is, perhaps, the rightful heiress to many of the lands of Occitan. Their deaths would have been the only way the Comte could have obtained control over her.’
‘Perhaps? Is she the true heiress or not?’
Jean screwed his face into the nearest thing to a smile he was able to manage. ‘Probably, but it is a most ambitious claim. She claims not only Beziers, Carcassonne, Razes and Albi, but also Toulouse through a different branch of the family. It is a vast area. I have been shown the genealogical trees which purport to support these claims… In fact, it matters little how good her claim actually is, as both the Comte de Foix and the Pope himself seem to believe it is a valid claim, and that is enough.’
The King nodded.
Jean took it as encouragement. ‘The Comte has, for the last two years, been offering Ximene’s hand in marriage to all the royal houses in Europe. Having talked to him at length, I believe there are really only two candidates. Louis of Anjou the younger son of King John of the Franks…’
‘The usurper,’ the King snarled.
‘Yes, Sire,’ Jean answered patiently, before continuing, ‘and your son is the other option. The Comte has told me that he has been forced to consider the Prince only because the Pope insists on it, but I think differently.’
‘Well there is no doubt that this is the solution the Pope wants, his legates remind me of it continually, and there is no doubt that he is prepared to recognise me as the rightful King of Aquitaine, Normandy, Anjou, Scotland and Ireland if my son marries this girl and wins Occitan from the Franks.’
Jean stopped his eyes darting from side to side and just for a second maintained firm eye contact with the King. ‘Sire, I did not know that and neither, I think, does the Comte de Foix. Why would the Pope do that?’
‘Ah, a good question. I believe he wants to create a third Christian state roughly as powerful as the Franks and the Holy Roman Empire. He hopes it may reduce his dependence on the other two. Perhaps it might stop the other two fighting with each other.’
‘And is it possible that the Pope would recognise your claim to the throne of the Franks?’
‘No! For me, that is a difficulty. But if you think about it, why would he? There would then be no third player, he would not gain the negotiating advantage he is looking for. We may have to accommodate his desires.’
Jean’s eyes gleamed. ‘The Comte has in his mind his own version of the creation of a third state. He wants the Prince to marry Ximene because in that way he can substantially improve his own situation. He is prepared to switch his allegiance for Foix to you, Sire. He has noted that the Comte D’Armagnac is in revolt and wishes to take advantage of that to extend his own fief to include Armagnac, again swearing allegiance to you.’
‘Oh, does he!’ The King sat back in his chair.
‘Yes Sire, and he believes that if he then supports Ximene’s claim to Occitan as the wife of the Prince, and helps them secure it, he will get our support in protecting the eastern and northern frontiers of his expanded territory.’
‘That we would almost certainly do.’
‘The Comte believes that in these circumstances the citizens of Provence will also declare independence, with support from Aragon, and they would then, in turn, protect our new eastern frontier. By this latter arrangement, the Papacy at Avignon will be released from the domination of the Franks.’
‘Is that an additional objective of the Pope?’
‘I do not know that for certain, but the Comte thinks it is.’ Jean turned down the corners of his mouth as he shrugged his shoulders. ‘It is not impossible.’
King Edward sat silently for more than a minute. Jean could hardly bear the tension. He consoled himself that this was something else the King did; conjure long silences in which his subordinates were left to wonder what might come next.
Finally, King Edward found his voice. ‘I see great opportunity. The Pope’s legates have never mentioned that to me, but perhaps there is no reason they would. We could not address all these opportunities at the same time; we would have to set some priorities. Continue, Monsieur Froissart.’
The King leaned forward. Jean now smiled, at least inwardly. It was not often he succeeded in getting such rapt attention. He rather enjoyed his continuation. ‘If all this were to happen, the Comte’s own position in an expanded English Empire would be substantially improved. He cannot possibly obtain the same level of advantage if Ximene marries Louis of Anjou.’
‘Yes!’ The King slapped his desk. ‘Yes. If we accepted the Comte’s solution, we will all win except…’ He hesitated and struggled to keep the look of sheer joy from his face, ‘the usurping King of the Franks.’
He rose and pounded a fist on the desk.’So it is decided, the Prince will marry Ximene.’
Jean retained his demeanour, forcing himself to be tolerant of the King’s instant decision. He hesitated. ‘There is one other issue …’ He hesitated again. ‘It is most unusual, but the final marriage contract must be negotiated directly with Ximene herself. Despite her youth, she obviously takes her inheritance seriously. The Comte has warned me, Sire, that we will need to control Ximene, as she is headstrong and idealistic. I understand, Sire, that she will insist on state support for the Cathar religion in the new Occitan.’
The King looked grave. ‘I suppose I did expect that the Cathar faith might be a problem, as one of the conditions the Pope has given us for his support is that we must root out that particular heresy in all our territories. I have no intention of doing that and I am sure we will be able to advise such a young girl to take a sensible approach. Where would these negotiations take place?’
‘The Prince is being asked to meet the lady in a tent city during a hunt on neutral ground on the lands of the Comte de Comminges; close to Muret, to be precise.’ He strode to the map and pointed to the upper reaches of the Garonne River on the map. ‘Problem is, they want the meeting to take place in early June. There is not much time to make the trip.’
The King rose from his chair. ‘No indeed! But make it we will, or rather, the Prince will.’
King Edward turned and ran down the stairs to the lounge where his wife was waiting, shouting over his shoulder for Jean to follow. Jean trailed well behind and devoted his attention to negotiating an unfamiliar and highly polished staircase without slipping.
The King muttered instructions to a series of his gentlemen who appeared as if by magic, but then shouted to his wife from the door to the lounge. ‘Come, Philippa, we will return to Westminster.’
Whilst horses were being saddled and riding clothes selected, the King dictated a quick note. He spoke so fast that Jean struggled to keep up. The King summoned a courier. ‘ Take this to the Prince at Chester; he will be in the royal apartments. I have spelt it out in the note but make sure he realises it is urgent. I don’t care what he is doing; he must come to London immediately!’
Jean was careful to give no indication to the King that he had added a few notes of his own.