15 April 1355
Lord James gathered the whole household together in the courtyard.
‘I have received a letter from the Prince, which makes it necessary to go to Aquitaine much earlier than expected. All of the squires will accompany me, so training must be accelerated. I must leave immediately to plan transport.’
As the crowd dispersed, Lord James sought out John and took him out through the gates where his horse was waiting.
‘Before I leave, I thought I should tell you that I am all too aware of the troubles which plague you here. Such behaviour is not unusual amongst groups of young men.’
John squared his shoulders and looked Lord James directly in the eye. ‘It started almost as soon as I arrived.’
Lord John dropped his head. ‘Ewan does it to create a state of mind whereby if another squire joins this group you will support the newcomer being bullied in return for finally being part of the core group. It reinforces Ewan’s hold on the leadership of the group.’
‘What do you think I should do about it… him?’
Lord James lifted his head and returned John’s steady gaze. ‘Already I can see that you are doing well in your general training, but breaking Ewan’s hold on you will be your first big challenge. There are no rules for this, John.’
‘I will accept any challenge as long as I have some idea what to do.’
Lord James sighed. ‘John, I really must go now. However, I will give you something. What you do with it is entirely up to you. I do not approve of what is happening but must not intervene on your behalf. I can, however, make a suggestion. Olwain, during your next session of unarmed combat, will criticise your performance and suggest you need further tuition. Pay careful attention to what he says. You might find it very useful!’
Sure enough, Olwain delivered swinging criticism of John’s performance and demanded he return in the evening for further training. The training was not quite what John had expected.
‘We must first build up your confidence, John. I am a big man but if I was giving you a beating you could kill me.’
‘Yes, the point being that if you possess that skill, then in any close combat you cannot be beaten. Of course, when you choose to use the skill is a very different matter. I will show you.’
He thrust out a powerful arm and wound it round the back of John’s neck, pulling John towards him as he did so. He then moved his hand back across John’s chest and turned it upwards, hooking his hand under John’s jaw. John’s arm, which was closest to Olwain, was pinned by this manoeuvre. John was almost choked in the process. Olwain’s hand was now gripping John’s face and nearly reached his eye. Olwain grinned.
‘Stage one complete.’
With his other arm, Olwain pinned John’s free arm to his body and reached across his back to grip his shoulder. Olwain now pulled him even closer, so that their faces touched.
‘Now,’ breathed Olwain, ‘all I have to do is jerk your jaw sideways and at the same time pull your shoulder backwards. When your neck is twisted beyond your shoulder, you are dead. It doesn’t take a great deal of strength and there will not be a mark on your body!’ He released John, who in turn sighed with relief. ‘Now, try it on me.’
John practised the hold several times whilst Olwain offered no resistance. Then once he could find the hold with ease, Olwain offered greater and greater resistance to simulate the real situation. Soon John discovered that the hold could be applied most effectively when Olwain dashed at him and tried to grapple him to the ground. Providing the timing was right, an aggressor’s momentum could be used to complete the hold. They were both sweating profusely, when Olwain cried out.
‘For God’s sake don’t pull, John; that’s perfect, you would kill me.’
John released the grip and Olwain moved away. He reached out and shook John’s hand.
‘Good, you learn fast. If you want to retain the ability to do that you must practice it. You will only practice with someone you know you can trust!’
The practice continued for many evenings until Olwain was satisfied that John had mastery of the essential manoeuvres.
‘It’s now just a question of courage, fitness, resilience and strength. You don’t have to fight to build up fitness and strength.’
Olwain showed how an old discarded hose could hold pebbles and small rocks. He built up the weight until John just failed to lift it and then removed half of the stones.
‘Now lift that twenty times with each arm, then lie on the floor and lift it twenty times with each leg. Put it round your neck and make twenty full bows. Finally, do twenty full knee bends. Do it now.’
John performed the exercises with ease.
Immediately John understood what Olwain was teaching him. The second set was far more difficult.
John had to force himself to complete the third set. Sweat leached from his skin as he breathed heavily through the exercises.
‘Good, you should work at it every day until you can complete five sets then add one pebble every day. Only one pebble.’
‘Now it is time to put your skills to the test.’
A week later, Olwain heavily criticised Ewan’s performance.
‘No, no, you are not improving!’
And again: ‘You are not learning anything, just lazy!’
Then, after a moment’s pause, ‘We must have real fights.’ He waited, apparently considering the match ups he wanted.
‘Edward, you will fight Henry and John, you will fight Ewan.’
John saw Ewan smile.
‘Now, to give you something to fight for, the winners will have no domestic duties for the next month, all the work will be done by the losers.’
Olwain called on Ewan and John to fight first.
Ewan quickly lunged forward, swinging his fists through great arcs. John parried them easily and repaid these failed attempts with closed fist blows to Ewan’s face. After another lunge, as Ewan stumbled past him, John kicked him firmly in the backside, sending him sprawling to the dust.
There was a gaggle of laughter from the spectators.
Ewan’s naturally bad tempered face glowed full red. He changed tactics, moving more slowly towards John with the intention to grappling with him. It was then that the confidence Olwain had given John flooded into his mind.
He danced around and threw punches at will.
Ewan became more and more desperate. John felt no need to attack. He simply punched when he saw an opportunity but danced away and parried with his forearms and elbows when he didn’t, using very little energy, whereas Ewan was now breathing hard. Ewan snarled and dived at John’s thighs, intending to throw him to the ground but John feinted one way and then the other, bringing a knee up into Ewan’s face followed closely by a two handed punch to the back of Ewan’s head. That was the end for Ewan. He slumped to the ground, blood flowing in torrents from his face and nose. He didn’t move at all for several seconds.
‘Stop! Fight over,’ said Olwain and asked John to help him get Ewan to his feet. Ewan angrily shook off his helpers and staggered away.
‘Don’t forget you have to do all John’s chores,’ Olwain shouted after him. He grabbed John’s arm and leaned forward so that no one else could hear what he said. ‘Very clinical, I think we might all have underestimated you.’
Alan was also impressed. ‘Everything you did in that fight can be applied to fighting with the sword. Stand back beyond the reach of your opponent’s sword. Make him come to you, dance from side to side, when he does lunge, you will get your opportunity to damage him. You can slash, stab, disarm him or even knock him out with the hilt of your sword. We must practice all that. You are good with your axes but the time will come when you will have to use your sword.’
Ewan did do all the chores but resentment oozed from his every word, bitterness from his every gesture. Nevertheless, it was the end of his bullying—though Olwain delivered a warning.
‘Be careful, John, he will carry the desire to bring you down for a very long time. In the meantime, there is no natural leader of this group. That will not suit Lord James. Sooner or later, you will have to take that role and it will be then that Ewan will try to strike at you.’
Lord James seemed to have been away forever, but when he did return things happened very quickly. The very next morning, with his four squires trailing in his wake, he left at a gallop. At Bristol the boats were waiting.
Leaving Bristol was always a complex manoeuvre. A high tide was needed to lift the boats off the mud and then there was a question of leaving the harbour in a channel that pointed directly into the prevailing wind. The boats sailing out of Bristol were therefore of a modified design. They were fat bottomed so that even without struts they could sit on the mud without falling over and were capable of being rowed out of the harbour if required. In addition to the square mainsail, they were also fitted with a fore and aft sail on an additional rear mast that made them, to a limited degree, able to sail directly into the wind. They were ‘Shipshape and Bristol Fashion.’
As the Sally, the Mendip, and the Clevedon moved out of the harbour in the early evening, John found himself called on to man one of the oars on the Mendip. To John’s unpractised eye the Mendip and Clevedon were virtually identical, but the Sally was significantly larger. John discovered that moving a ship of the size of the Mendip with oars was hard work.
The effort had to be sustained until the boats were out in the Bristol Channel and finally the sails generated some power. Before dark, the boats were under full sail and heading for the open sea.
Leaning on the rail at the bow of the boat, John looked forward at the setting sun, but alternately gazed down into an indigo sea embroidered with the white foam as the boat forced its way westward. Lord James appeared, to ask him how his hands had stood up to his spell on the oars.
‘Excellent, Milord’ he replied, holding up his hands for Lord James to inspect.
‘No blisters, no chafed skin. I am quite used to hard work.’ Lord James made a cursory examination.
‘Good,’ he said, and made as if to move away.
‘Milord?’ John asked hesitantly.
Lord James stopped and turned back to face John. ‘Yes?’
There was an extended silence as John wondered whether his question was appropriate. Lord James looked impatient.
‘Come on, John. Whatever it is, ask me. I will then decide whether to reply.’
‘Well, it is simple really. Why do we need three ships and tons and tons of provisions for only five passengers? The only passengers are us four squires and yourself?’
Lord James came to stand by the rail alongside John.
‘If you had asked that question before we sailed John, I could not have replied, but now I can. We are travelling to Aquitaine as part of a small expeditionary force led by the Black Prince. A much larger army will be joining us later in the year. Prince Edward wants this special mission to be completely secret. He has been in Plymouth for several weeks supervising the mobilisation of the main army. Now, however, he has left that task to others. A couple of days ago he and a hand-picked force sneaked away from Plymouth and have travelled in small groups to Penryn where they now await us.’ Lord James smiled. ‘I have organised this small fleet and the provisions from Bristol. It was convenient for me and it meant that no one has connected my activities with the Black Prince. The ships have sailed under sealed orders. Thus the Prince will be able to travel to Aquitaine without anyone being aware that he has left England.’
John looked questioningly at Lord James.
‘Why would the heir to the throne of England have to indulge in subterfuge?’
‘Because he wants to keep it secret, and for you John, that is enough.’
‘Thank you, my Lord. I will respect the confidence you have shown in me.’
John observed their progress with new eyes. He watched carefully the manoeuvres necessary to make progress against the wind. The ship’s mate noticed his interest.
‘Simon Upton.’ The man held out his hand to John
‘John Stanley.’ They shook hands.
‘We cannot sail absolutely into the wind,’ he told John. ‘Occasionally we get it wrong. Out in the open sea it is not difficult to get out of. The boat is driven backwards, all that is necessary is to slacken the fore and aft sail, turn the rudder as far as it will go and as the ship comes about we then gradually tighten the sail and…’ He shrugged his shoulders, ‘off we go again.’ He shook one finger in the air. ‘That manoeuvre is dangerous if you’re close to shore. It is one of the main reasons ships are driven onto rocks. We are much more conservative in our decision making when close to shore.’ He explained the subtleties of choosing the angle to the wind and the trimming of the sail to catch the maximum propulsion effect.
Simon left on a tour of inspection.
The mainsails were now fully unfurled and the ship gained momentum. John returned to an admiration of the interaction of the bow waves and the background swell. Two dolphins played alongside the boat, gliding inside smaller waves and jumping over the bigger ones.
His reverie was interrupted by an argument towards the stern of the boat. John walked towards the noise. Simon and Ewan Fitzrobert were engaged in a full-blown row.
‘How dare you talk to me like that,’ Ewan was saying, his face swollen with anger, cheeks and lips distorted as he spat out the words. ‘I am a passenger; you are supposed to serve me.’
‘No,’ said Simon, ‘you are on my ship now. The only person who can tell me what to do is the Captain, and other than the Captain, I am the only person who can give orders to the crew.’
‘All I did was make sure the cabin boys were aware of my needs.’
‘What you did was to distract them from their basic tasks and…’ he took a step towards Ewan, ‘you were not doing it in a way which is acceptable to me.’
John watched as Ewan bristled with indignation.
At that moment, Lord James appeared from out of nowhere and pushed his way between the Simon and Ewan. ‘Ewan, on this boat we are outside of the law which applies in England. We must obey maritime law.’
He turned to John, who was hovering hesitantly in the background.
‘John, come over here.’
John advanced far enough to be part of the group.
‘John, we need someone to mediate any problems between the below decks crew and you four squires. I am appointing you. Solve any issues to the satisfaction of the mate. I do not want to hear any more of this.’
So it was done, there was no going back. John could no longer ignore Ewan and Ewan could no longer ignore John. John knew that this was Lord James telling him that the time had come for him to show leadership. ‘Yes, Milord. Ewan…’
Ewan glared, first at Lord James then at John, and sinking his head, walked away. John was about to call him back, but Lord James caught his arm.
‘No, John not straight away. Give him half an hour to cool down.’
John nodded and after a few moments returned to the bow and the dolphins. His mind was full of thoughts and images of what leadership meant. Various scenarios, most of which he found quite threatening, played out in his head as his eyes followed the dolphins. It took him some time to quieten his racing heart.
After a short time, Simon joined him.
‘You really enjoy being at sea, don’t you?’
John jumped at the sudden intrusion, then nodded.
‘Yes, but at the same time it is quite frightening. There is so much power in the wind and the waves. It is so different to life on land.’
‘If you enjoy it, think seriously about joining us. It is a wonderful life. We are totally in control of our own destiny. Once we put out to sea the captain is king and I am a knight.’
Simon continued John’s education.
‘We left Bristol in the early evening to ensure that the passage between Lands End and the Scilly Isles will be made during daylight. Wrecks on the coast either side of the passage are not uncommon.’
‘And then we must go to Penryn?’
‘The orders say that, and it is not a port we normally sail to. It can be more difficult to leave than Bristol if you are unlucky enough to get an easterly wind. I don’t want to go into the port itself. The captain tells me that it is not necessary, that we can anchor behind Pendennis point where we will pick up additional passengers who will be brought to us by tenders, probably small fishing boats. That makes me feel much easier.’
This conversation gave John something to talk about when he returned to join the other squires. He had made up his mind to be considerate but firm, copying as much as he could of Lord James’ style. He spent some time pondering what exactly he might say to Ewan but in the event he had no need to do or say anything, as Ewan Fitzrobert was now violently and uncontrollably seasick.