20 March 1355
After spending the night in Shrewsbury, Lord James rode down the Welsh Borders at a leisurely pace. John Stanley trailed behind him, as he thought a good squire should. Lord James turned and smiled.
‘Ride up alongside me, John. I have need for conversation.’
It took a full two days to reach Hellens, one of the Audley homes situated at Much Marcle near Tewksbury, and as they travelled John learned of the perceived threat of uprisings and potential war with the Welsh, despite the Welsh as a nation having been defeated over fifty years earlier.
He also learned about the English systems for representation and law, which separated the governance from the setting of laws. Lord James strongly supported the English system which he felt was the civilising influence needed in Wales.
However, Lord James told John that in his opinion there was a weakness in the system. Laws were framed by the King’s council, a small number of advisors to the King and some members of the council clearly framed laws which advanced their own interests.
John could only listen in silence. He could not even imagine how the system, utilised by people of great influence, could be changed, even if there were inequities in its operation.
In return, John told Lord James about his own upbringing and education and his expert subjects—deer and deer hunting.
Lord James laughed.
‘In some ways it might have been better had you worked for the Prince as a huntsman. You know that system of yours could be introduced to every forest in England.’
‘No, no, Milord, I am very happy to be in your service.’
Lord James laughed again. He raised himself in his stirrups. ‘There is Hellens. Come on, John. I will race you to the gate.’
The manor house was built across one end of a walled courtyard, with steeply angled roofs and a multitude of slender chimneys. An external staircase tower surmounted by a wind-vane was almost delicate in appearance, yet John could see that once the substantial courtyard door was closed, it would be easy to defend. Its origins as a fortified strong-point on the Welsh border showed clearly. John judged that much of the stone from the fortifications had been used in the present manor, leaving a small square tower as a remnant of the earlier building.
Lord James dismounted, gave John the reins to his horse and dashed into the house, shouting as he went for to John to remain in the courtyard.
As he waited, John spoke in undertones to the horses. ‘You weren’t very good to me during our journey. If I am to become a great knight, I will need a little more co-operation.’
Eventually he was approached by a large man who could only be described as muscled, with a round bald head. He wore the livery of Lord James and wore it well.
‘How be you, John? Lord James asked me to help you feel at home. I be Olwain. I be a jack of all trades but I will be responsible for your training whilst you are here. First, let’s get these horses to the stables.’ He flicked a slight foamy sweat from Lord James’ horse. ‘They need rubbing down.’
As they worked to settle the horses, Olwain talked continuously.
‘You be lucky to have been chosen by Lord James. I be goin to learn you how to wash clothes, how to cook, how to look after armour, how to groom horses and how to fight.’
John’s eyes flickered. Fight! Not something he had thought about before, but on reflection that was probably what squires were trained to do. Olwain continued.
‘A different member of the household will carry out each aspect of the training. For the combat training there will be two separate trainers. Alan Daylesford will train you in the use of a sword and I will take you for unarmed combat.’
John glanced at the bulk of the man working alongside him and thought that if anyone was likely to be suited to unarmed combat it would be Olwain.
Whilst they worked, John became aware that he had become an object of some interest. Three young men peered through the stable doorway. Eventually, Olwain also felt the presence, twisted round and looked up.
‘Ah! So there you are.’ He walked towards the door. ‘John, these are Lord James’ other squires, Ewan Fitzrobert, Henry Mortimer and Edward de Vere. We are about finished here, so Ewan will see you to your quarters.’
Ewan was a little taller than John, and much heavier built. Other than that, he was nondescript; hair, eyes, nose, jaw, mouth, all unremarkable. However what did stand out was his red fleshy face, which made him look as if he had lost his temper.
He scowled at John, but made no attempt to help him carry his belongings and simply grunted, ‘Follow me.’
John was given accommodation in the remnant of the old tower.
Ewan wasted no time.
‘Who are you and why has Lord James selected you to be his squire?’
John decided against mentioning the hunting and the involvement of the Black Prince.
‘I am a distant relative of Lord James and he was asked by another relative to take me as a squire.’
Ewan pursed his lips. ‘Distant relative? Not a nephew, cousin or second cousin?’
‘More distant than that,’ said John, wondering where the conversation was going.
Ewan seemed to relax, if only for a second. ‘Good, now here are the rules. You will do all the laundry and keep this accommodation tidy; you will also muck out the stables.’
John instinctively knew that this was wrong
‘And what will you be doing?’ he asked.
It was a mild enough comment but there was a quick response.
Edward and Henry dived on John and though he struggled, in the end he had to submit. The two squires pulled him to his feet, and Ewan approached. He hit John hard, just below the rib cage. John collapsed in a heap, only briefly constrained by the grip Edward and Henry had on his arms. As he lay on the floor, Ewan tapped him with his foot.
‘Ye’re new here, just do as ye’re told, or this could go further.’
John had no doubt what Ewan meant. He decided he must eventually beat this bully but immediately felt a qualm of conscience. However justified it might be, he had never used violence against another human being.
Concealing his feelings, he set about performing the work Ewan had allocated to him, a difficult task as he was also expected to perform well in a daily programme designed to train him in the full range of duties expected of a squire.
Alan, a slim whippet of a man who took charge of the training in swordsmanship, was fascinated with the Saxon battle-axes and John’s ability to use them.
John showed him how he could rotate both axes at the same time, one in either hand.
‘Wonderful, Wonderful, John, you have acquired a forgotten skill. You must practice with the axes every day, to build up your strength and endurance. In combat no one will be able to get near you and more than that, anyone who sees you whirling these axes will become extremely apprehensive. You will put the fear of god into people.’
Ewan heard the praise and as soon as training was over disagreed with everything Alan had said.
‘It’s nonsense! The axe can never compare with the sword. It is not for nothing that the sword is used during the knighting ceremony. The sword is the weapon of choice of a knight. Using axes in the way that you use them shows your low breeding and as for being unassailable, all I would do is keep my distance and fell you with an arrow.’
Every time John received a complement from one of the trainers, Ewan made a point of criticising John as soon as they were in private. John persuaded himself that what was happening to him was an elaborate initiation ceremony.
One night his bed was soaked with water and another night he found a dead rat in it.
After nearly two weeks of this a protest ended with Ewan enlisting the help of the other two to give John another beating. This time, Ewan’s feet were brought into play.
John was badly bruised and for the first time in his life felt despair.
There seemed to be no honourable way out. He desperately wanted to leave, to get away from this horrible situation. And yet… he felt that to run away would bring dishonour to himself and to his family.
But as he rose from the floor and glared into Ewan’s eyes, he felt a surge of adrenaline pulse through his veins. He did not feel alone. The feeling was so strong that he peered around, half expecting someone to be there. He shivered uncontrollably.
Someone, somewhere, shared his distress! Beating this bully was no longer an option, it was nothing less than a duty.
Ewan felt it too. Despite his position of power he found it difficult to look John in the eye. He turned away and lurched to the door.