Prologue

Andrew Danbray-20 November 1370

The fire flared and a small tornado of smoke escaped from the fireplace, adding to the dark stain which covered the central third of the mantelpiece. Two lithe hunting dogs hurriedly left the fireplace and sprinted twice round the central table, squabbling half-heartedly, before settling in the far corner of the room.

Andrew Danbray, recently appointed Master of the Kings Horse, had squeezed his way back into the room through the barely opened doorway. He had shut the door forcibly behind him but had not been quick enough to prevent a draught of air swirling through the room.

Andrew shuddered, then he too crossed the room and obsessively tightened the closure of the shutters of each window. He pulled the heavy curtains together and carefully adjusted them so that the edges of each pair of curtains were coiled together making a seal. Finally, he adjusted the embroidered bags of sand which pinned the bottom of the curtains to the floor. As he did so there was a flash of lightning… which despite his efforts could still be seen around the periphery of the curtains.

‘One, two, three, four.’

The clap of thunder was deafening.

He turned to face the table.

‘Four miles away at the moment, but getting closer by the minute. It’s going to be a foul night.’ He smiled, ‘however we don’t have to go out into it… now, have you all got a drink?’

Most of them nodded assent, but some looked askance. Andrew sensed that the younger members of the group needed encouragement.

‘Just help yourself, there is plenty in the jugs and there is far more where that came from.’

The table was littered with the remains of a meal.

Andrew cleared a space in front of one of the empty chairs and poured himself a mug of beer, before collapsing into the chair with a resounding thud.

‘I thought it better to take the ladies through to the retreat before continuing the conversation.’ Again most of his listeners nodded assent. ‘Henry, you were speaking, I think?’

‘Yes, I was.’ Henry groaned gently and combed his fingers through a shock of curly hair. ‘Look, if I must, I will apologise. I really didn’t think I was saying anything controversial. I merely asked if any of us had actually met the Countess and if so, what did they think of her.’

Andrew picked up his mug and took several gulps before putting the mug down again and wiping his lips. ‘I was protecting you Henry, and perhaps the rest of us. Your wife Persephone is often seen in the company of the Countess,’ he paused, ‘and we must be careful not to upset… the Countess.’

Henry’s eyes narrowed. ‘The Countess of Shaftesbury? You are scared of her?’

‘No not scared, but certainly cautious.’

‘You think the Countess could, would damage me, us? Because of a chance comment at a dinner? In any case, someone would have to tell her.’ His eyes narrowed even further. ‘That’s ridiculous, you think my own wife might betray my inner thoughts?’

Andrew pursed his lips. ‘The Countess has the most unbelievable power.’ he said quietly.

Another voice broke in from the far side of the room.

‘Are we talking about the Countess or Alice Perrers?’

Andrew snorted. ‘Alice Perrers is only the instrument. It’s the Countess who decides policy.’

‘Good God, Andrew you make it sound like an alternative government.’

‘It is an alternative government. It even affects me as Master of Horse. Every one of my decisions is questioned.’ He glanced around the table and perceived polite indifference. He chuckled. ‘No you are wrong, this is not just a personal issue. Think about what is happening in Parliament.’

He still could not sense any support. He drew a deep breath and started again.

‘Parliament is supposed to be giving us all a voice in government.’ He paused, still breathing deeply, accessing what he could and could not say. ’But now we have the Duke of Lancaster, with his own agenda, using Alice Perrers to manipulate us. Alice Perrers is clever enough to help him. She has invented this role of the solicitor; pleading cases before parliament on behalf of wealthy clients.

Finally, there was a response.

‘She is creating new common law with every case she pleads before us.’

Andrew’s passion raised him to his feet.‘Of course she is. Don’t you see what is happening, she advances only those cases which set precedent on policy, which tie our hands. Lancaster then tells the northerners, who are almost all in his pocket, how to vote. She is only able to assume her role because she is the Kings Mistress, but what she does… she does well’

‘So we are talking about Alice Perrers now, umm, I thought she had been married to William of Windsor.’

‘Yes she has, but he has been now been packed off as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and she remains at the King’s shoulder. The marriage means nothing. There is no doubt about the importance of Alice Perrers’ role but again I ask, who do you think is coordinating all this.’ He paused just long enough for effect, ‘I will tell you, it is the Countess.’

Another voice, from outside of the pools of light created by the candles.

‘What exactly do you mean? Have you examples of how she uses her influence?’

‘John Wycliffe.’ Andrew shifted in his seat. ‘It is difficult to call Wycliffe a heretic, not least because he has the support of the ubiquitous Lancaster, but he was instrumental in refusing to pay the Pope the yearly tribute. If you listen to him talk as opposed to reading what he writes, it is clear he does not regard the Pope as the true successor of Christ and he believes that the Church and its clerics should give away all its wealth.’

‘And what has that to do with the Countess?’

‘She talks exactly the same as Wycliffe. The development of his more extreme views coincided with him taking over the rectory of Ludgershall, where the Countess has property.’

‘So?’

Andrew shrugged his shoulders. ‘She wants to reform the church not just govern the state. Perhaps her target is the church and she is disrupting government, simply to reduce the authority of the Church.’

A ripple of accord now flowed around the table.

‘Well, who is she then?’

‘Where did she come from?’

‘It, not just her, it is the other women; Alice Perrers herself, Geoffry Chaucer’s wife, Phillipa de Roet.

Phillipa’s sister, Katherine, Hugh de Swynford’s wife.

‘And the Black Prince’s wife, Joan of Kent.’

‘We all know about Joan…’ The table erupted in laughter.

‘But neither Chaucer or Swynford have any particular power, do they?’

‘No, it is their wives, both Lancasters mistresses’

‘What?’

Suddenly there was a babble of conversation.

‘These women are more or less running the country.’

‘Some say that Alice Perrers and the Countess are almost identical. Sisters?

‘What is the source of the Countess’s wealth?’

‘The Countess has some hold over all of the others.’

‘Does anybody know who these women really are?’

Andrew took a deep breath and waited for the hubbub to subside. He spoke slowly and carefully. ‘It might help if we understand the Countess’s story and the story of these other women.’

The table was suddenly silent.

Finally, it was Henry who completed the cycle by breaking the silence.‘And you know?’

Andrew held both his hands in the air. ‘I can only tell you what Geoffrey Chaucer told me. As you know he tells a good story and as you observed he is now married to one of those women, Phillipa de Roet. He says Philippa makes it her business to know everything and of course, she was, or perhaps still is, Lancaster’s mistress!’

He thought for a moment. ‘In addition, Philippa is closer to the Countess than any of them, so the story probably has some validity.’

He paused again, carefully refilling his mug. ‘Geoffrey was going to publish the story himself but someone got to him, almost certainly Lancaster, but possibly even the King. We mustn’t forget that the King has granted Geoffrey a barrel of claret a day for life! For services rendered! A rather generous reward! What services?’

Andrew glanced around the room. Every eye was riveted on him.

‘Well, anyway, I can tell the story as it was told to me, at least if we keep it within these four walls. There are surprises! But I can’t finish it tonight. If we meet once every month, with a gap for Christmas, it might take five or six months to tell the whole tale.’

There was a mutter of agreement.

‘Good then let’s start. Imagine you are in the Northern Pyrenees, nearly sixteen years ago, in 1355’. He chortled with laughter ‘No, No! I will change that. Let us start two years earlier, here in Surrey on the south bank of the Thames!’

The most dangerous woman in the world

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