12 March 1355
At the Palace of Woodstock, just north of Oxford, the day had dawned with a drifting mist of fine rain. The rain soaked both the early morning scavengers, sifting through the remnants of the tournament, and the honest workers, who had been assigned the task of restoring the lawns to their former pristine condition.
Within an hour, a burst of spring sunshine had driven the rain away but clouds still hung low over the Palace.
It had taken Jean Froissart nearly five weeks to get back to London from Foix. Then he had discovered that the King was absent from London attending the tournament at Woodstock.
Jean had never previously been to Woodstock and was pleased to have the opportunity to go there. He had arrived early, and was now trailing behind the King, down the path towards the lake.
Jean screwed up his nose in protest at the pervading stench of primitive privies and stale beer. These smells were interspersed with the odours of burnt roast meat and the dying embers of the fires, from which smoke, dampened by the rain, hung close to the ground. Jean looked around in wonderment at the remnants of the tournament.
The heralds, jesters and acrobats had gone and instead the lists that had yielded dramatic combat only the previous afternoon had left twin strips of muddy sawdust across the manicured lawns of the Palace. The banners and all other decorations had been removed, leaving only the crudely constructed skeletal remains of the stands. Tons of rubbish that the crowd of some two thousand had left behind compounded the effect of abandonment. Even though the wind was no more than a whisper, scraps of paper and cloth chased each other in ever-repeating circles across the lawns.
Only four flags remained as a reminder of the pageantry, fluttering feebly in the damp morning. Jean recognised the four flags. The largest and highest displayed three leopards passant on a golden background, the blazon of the King himself.
In front of it, to its right, was a flag bearing a single lion rampant, again on a gold background, the blazon of King Edward’s son. The Prince was known formally as Edward of Woodstock, as he had been born in the Palace. Alternatively, on account of the unusually dark skin he had inherited from his mother he was known as the Black Prince and even more commonly as ‘The Prince’, even by his own family.
To the left fluttered a totally different flag. This flag was quartered, with the top left and bottom right quarters consisting of three blood-red diamonds on a white background, whist the other two quarters showed a green eagle on a gold background. This flag was the blazon of William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, the Prince’s best friend.
Watching carefully where he put his feet, Jean followed the King towards the flags.
Some distance away, in the area that the previous day had been reserved for commoners, a silver blue flag quivered and danced. It seemed to find life from the slightest breeze even when the other flags hung limp.
As they got closer, Jean observed the silver-blue flag to be a much lighter material than the other flags. The material had been dyed, not embroidered, with a montage of turquoise and silver diamonds, the traditional emblem of Saxon Kent, which had recently been adopted by Joan, Countess of Kent in a gesture of independence and defiance.
Jean hastened to keep up.
The King sighed.‘This is appalling. It is as if chivalry itself has died and these people are picking over the remains!’
‘Sire?’ Jean hastened to reply
‘As the concepts of chivalry demand, this week we have seen remarkable honourable conduct mixed in with skill at arms.’
‘It is only to be expected, but you obviously have something specific in mind?’
‘Of course, yes! Yesterday, the Prince, my son, fought his best friend the Earl of Salisbury, in a contest in which either of them could have been killed. The heralds and those who gamble on the results of a tourney described it as a grudge match. They used the information from your writings, Monsieur Froissart, to make it public knowledge that the Earl was married to Joan, Fair Maid and Countess of Kent, but that the Prince was her lover. That though she is now married to someone else, both the Prince and the Earl are still her lovers.’
‘Sire, I played no part in this calumny.’
‘I believe it was you who made this information public in the first place. I was so annoyed to see that as my son and his friend made their way to swear their allegiance to me they made no secret of the fact that they both had a filmy scarf of silver-blue silk tucked under the side of their breastplate. Both were carrying Joan’s favour into the final round of the tournament. It was at that point that those in the commoners reserve raised the flag of Kent, which is still flying now. The implication was clear. No matter what the outcome, Joan wins!’
He whirled round, grabbed a worker by the arm and pointed at the silver blue flag. ‘Remove that flag now before you do anything else,’ he screamed.
He turned again to Jean, breathing hard; his nostrils flared.
‘You see, Monsieur Froissart, you have a lot to answer for.’
The King held up a hand in front of Jean’s face. ‘No.’ He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. ‘Where the information came from is not important. Both the Prince and the Earl desperately wanted to win, but not because of Joan. They both wanted to be champion. The combat was admirable, the essence of chivalry. They both complied with the rules, and at the end they embraced and celebrated together.’
‘It is how tournaments should be,’ Jean said, attempting a smile.
The King turned away and bowed his head.
‘I worry, Monsieur Froissart. Times are changing. Chivalry itself is dying.’
‘Desperate people, doing desperate things, with no consideration for the rules of conflict, only what is necessary to win.’
‘But the Prince and other young men still show all that is best in chivalry.’
The King sighed. ‘All too soon they will have to accept the most arduous responsibility. Who knows what will tempt them?’
He cast a lingering glance at the destruction of his lawns.
‘Come, let us return to the Palace. It is all most distressing.’
Jean continued to trail behind the King as they retraced their steps, eventually ascending the main staircase of the palace, which led directly to the King’s study.
The Palace of Woodstock was a family home, unfortified, and a tribute to the peaceful times enjoyed by the citizens of Southern England. Patterned stone floors, glowing oak woodwork, tapestries, carpets and cabinets all contributed to the rich interior. The King’s study was the epitome of comfort, style and tradition. He seated himself at his desk with his back to a roaring fire.
Jean positioned himself in the centre of the room as the King did not give him permission to sit.
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 portait, 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 looking 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, 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, and not for the first time, 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 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 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.
‘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 and Scotland 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 and helps her secure it, as the wife of the Prince, 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 what 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 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 Phillipa, 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 spelled 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!’
The King had no idea that Jean had added a few notes of his own.