‘Whatever the danger, we must do our duty. Ximene must be brought under our control.’ He paused for effect. ‘And then I must do my duty.’
John Stanley-11th May 1355
On a narrow strip of sand, a rustic table stood between a shimmering lake on one side and open woodland on the other. On the far side of the lake, high sand dunes provided a dramatic backdrop. During dinner, the conversation had been punctuated by the low roar of waves breaking on the beach at the far side of the dunes.
By now John knew that Jean de Grailly, Captal de Buch, was a Knight of the Garter and a close confidant and personal friend of the Prince. The Captal sat at one end of the table, where he had recently enjoyed dinner. Rather unnecessarily, as the Prince had asked the Captal for his thoughts on their forthcoming mission, he banged his fist on the table to attract attention. ‘We are talking, gentlemen, about the most dangerous woman in the world.’
The Black Prince sat opposite the Captal and on either side sat the two senior officers of the small expeditionary force, Lord James and the Earl of Salisbury.
The Captal checked that he was indeed the focus of attention. He took three deep breaths before continuing. ‘She is nominally the heiress to the counties of Albi, Toulouse, Beziers, Carcassonne and Razes. Her family, the Trencavels on one side and St Gilles on the other, ruled these counties as independent kingdoms. Some think that they were the rightful rulers of the whole of Occitan. However, one hundred and fifty years ago the Albigensian Crusade removed all their wealth, property and status by force of arms. The Trencavels were singled out for special attention because of their determination to uphold the Cathar religion, its beliefs and culture. The Roman Church judged this religion to be, of its very nature, heresy, hence the justification for the Crusade.’
John overheard the briefing because of his position as squire to Lord James. That night he waited on the table and busied himself clearing away the remains of the meal as the briefing started. Next, he ensured the four men’s goblets remained topped up with the best red wine of all their supplies.
The Captal continued, ‘Later in the year, the Prince will lead a vigorous attack on the rebellious Comte d’Armagnac. Once the Comte has been brought to order, we will move further east to attack the Frankish bastides in Occitan. It is the Prince’s intention… ‘he nodded to the Prince, ‘to take back Occitan from the northern Franks, who, having confiscated it, populated the land with their own people and subsequently gave special privileges to the interlopers. We think this attack might lead to English expansion into Occitan. At the very least it will distract the Franks from planned English advances in Normandy and Anjou and help stabilise Aquitaine.’
The Captal took a sip of wine. ‘This major offensive will take place later in the year. We are hoping to utilise an army of at least six thousand men, so mobilisation will take some time. This present mission is connected with, but quite separate from that major offensive. There have long been rumours that at least one of the Trencavel family, the previous lords of Occitan, has survived. It is now an established fact. Her name is Ximene Trencavel and she is currently under the guardianship of her uncle, the Comte de Foix. The Comte is my cousin; his father was the brother of my mother. That means that although I have never met Ximene and did not even know of her until recently, she is a close relative of mine. The Pope has asked King Edward to take Ximene into safe keeping. The intention is that Ximene should marry the Prince.’
The Captal nodded towards the other end of the table where the Prince looked less than delighted at the prospect.
‘That does not mean however that the Comte will surrender Ximene to us just for the asking. He is conducting what is virtually an auction for her hand in marriage and therefore offering the rights to the vast and politically important lands of Occitan.’
He looked around the table, gauging the reaction of his audience. ‘The Prince wants to meet her before the major offensive. A gathering has been arranged for early June.’ He glanced at both the Earl and Lord James in a moment of silence. ‘We are about to meet Ximene during a hunt organised by the Comte de Foix and we hope to win the Comte’s support for the Prince’s suit. Unfortunately, it is a visit fraught with danger. I…We, do not completely trust the Comte. We have reports that Ximene is virtually his prisoner. The Prince is not her only suitor. The King of Aragon is said to be prepared to go to war to bring Occitan back under his control and the King of the Franks is keen for Ximene to marry his son Louis d’Anjou.’
‘In addition, she is known to have inherited the heretical Cathar beliefs. If she comes to power she may attempt to reintroduce the Cathar heresy to Occitan. Another Crusade could result if she were to succeed. ‘
The Earl and Lord James both nodded slowly.
The Captal again breathed deeply. ‘All this is happening because of the existence of one woman. The Pope himself once called her “The most dangerous woman in the world.” Our task, gentlemen, is to remove Lady Ximene from the tender care of the Comte de Foix and bring her back to Bordeaux where a marriage agreement might be reached. During the negotiations, we must ensure the Prince’s safety.’ He smiled, ‘She will marry the Prince and have beautiful children who will give the English Crown a legitimate claim to all of Occitan.’
The Prince nodded and gave a strained smile. He added his own postscript to the Captal’s address. ‘Whatever the danger, we must do our duty. Ximene must be brought under our control.’ He paused for effect. ‘And then I must do my duty.’ He threw the last of his wine into the lake and stalked off to his tent.
John watched fascinated as the setting sun sent silver ripples across the lake. His mind was filled with visions of a mysterious woman. For a moment he was transfixed, before he remembered his duties and retreated to the makeshift kitchen.