14 March 1355
On the north west coast of England it was cold, bitterly so. At the tip of the Wirral Peninsula, a pencil of land lying between the rivers Mersey and Dee, where the rivers run into the Irish Sea, waves crunched into the beach.
The wind ripped over the water with increasing violence, whistling around Hilbre Island. Spray from the tips of the waves filled the air with salty mist. The mist settled on and occasionally obscured the beach, and wide grassy plain behind the beach which was punctuated with bunkers of sand and low sandstone cliffs.
Lord James Audley wore furs over his overcoat and his legs were encased in knee-length boots over thick hose.
He was on the Wirral discussing plans for a hunt with William Stanley, who through Audley family influence had been appointed forester for the vast forests of Wirral, Vale Royal and Delamere.
The Stanleys were a family of mixed Saxon and Celtic descent, distant relatives of Lord James. In the aftermath of the Norman invasion the Audleys had intermarried several times with daughters of the dispossessed families who had previously held sway the on the Welsh Borders. The women they married had long used their influence to confer benefit to the rest of the Stanley family.
Lord James surveyed the windswept tip of the peninsula.
‘It certainly is different,’ he said, standing in his stirrups and gazing all around. ‘There are deer hereabouts?’ he asked.
William Stanley chuckled. ‘Lots; they thrive on this grazing.’
Lord James dismounted and brushed the hoar frost from the turf to finger the coarse grass; thick, juicy. Light sleet now filled the air. It crusted over Lord James’ furs and clung to his large nose and protruding ears.
He sprang back to his feet. ‘And they find shelter over there?’ He pointed to a low ridge highlighted with a smudge of short scrub against the horizon.
William nodded assent.
Lord James remounted. ‘Let’s go and look,’ he said.
The horses thundered over the soft ground, icy blades of grass crunching under hooves. From the edge of the ridge an impenetrable tangle of trees and shrubs could be seen. Both trees and shrubs were twisted by the wind and smothered by long grass and fleshy undergrowth.
Lord James smiled as he turned to look at William. ‘Not the New Forest.’
‘No indeed, Lord James, although the base of the Peninsula, Delamere and Vale Royal have all been given many acres of new planting and we work continually on the rest of the forest to limit the size of the areas of scrub. We are clearing trees to make it easier to ride at speed.’
‘Hmm, the Prince would not approve. He likes hunting grounds to be as natural as possible! However, this?’ Lord James swung his arm around in an expansive gesture.
‘Is completely untouched, My Lord.’
‘Well, this is what the Prince wants. He has heard how difficult the hunting is here and yet, if you get it right, how rewarding. He desires the challenge. He intended to come directly here after the tournament at Woodstock; however, his father persuaded him to visit the new abbey at Vale Royal first. He will spend tonight at the hunting lodge at Rocksavage and will arrive here tomorrow afternoon. He will expect to hunt early the following morning whilst the deer are still grazing.’
Lord James pulled his horse around and cantered along the edge of the scrub towards the mansion house at Ellesmere where the Stanleys had their home. ‘I must make sure the hunting is good.’ He turned towards William. ‘How can we ensure the Prince gets his kill?’
‘If I might make a recommendation, my Lord, we could do worse than put it in the hands of my son, John. He understands these lands and the waters around them better than most.’
Lord James and put an arm round William’s shoulder, ensuring that his voice had exactly the correct tone. ‘I would like to meet your John immediately. We have not much time to complete a plan.’
On arrival at Ellesmere, Lord James was shown through to a room which seemed to provide the function of both library and lounge. The floor was unadorned stone; the furnishings were rustic; and despite a fire in a massive fireplace, it was extremely dark and bitterly cold. He was glad he did not have long to wait before William introduced his son.
Lord James noted John Stanley’s light but athletic build. His highlighted blond hair showed his continual exposure to the sun. His lean face, narrow nose, high cheekbones and dark bright eyes all came together well. John projected openness and honesty. He seemed attentive and keen to be of service. Lord James was instantly impressed, but could he deliver what was needed?
‘Tell me a little about yourself, John,’ Lord James asked gently.
John cleared his throat and quickly removed the tremors from his voice. ‘Milord, I have been responsible for the deer on the Peninsula for two years now and, before that, I was shepherd for the family sheep. In summer they run on the same pasture as the deer. I know this area well, very well.’ He stopped abruptly, wondering if it was actually permissible to graze domestic sheep in the King’s forest.
Lord James showed no reaction. ‘And what are your biggest problems, John?’
John thought for a moment. ‘Wolves…and poachers.’
‘And how do you deal with the poachers?’
‘It depends whether you mean Baron de Masci or the people from the villages.’
‘Baron de Masci is a poacher?’
‘Yes, Milord. He acts as the sponsor for the Benedictine monastery at Birkenhead but uses his frequent visits to hunt. We make sure he knows we are reporting his hunting to the King but other than that there is little we can do. Because we will not co-operate with him, however, he has no detailed knowledge of the deer’s habits.’
‘And you do, John?’
‘Yes Milord I do. It is my job. I probably know every track on the peninsula and every grazing area. Can I show you something, Milord?’
‘Yes, of course.’
John turned to a large wooden writing desk and from the top drawer pulled out a bulky loose-leaf folder. He lit several candles to make it possible to read the enclosed documents.
He smiled, hoping it gave an impression of confidence. However, he knew from past experience that not everyone was impressed by what the folder contained. He opened the folder and turned over the first four pages. He pointed to the fifth page. ‘This is a picture of a track in the forest.’ He flicked through the next ten pages allowing Lord James to get no more than a quick glimpse of each one. ‘All these pages are pictures of sub-tracks from the first track I showed you. On the summary page, the sub-tracks are shown in red, the main track in black.’
‘And the dots on each page?’
‘Green dots are my deer sightings, blue dots are traps I find, red dots are deer taken by wolves. Black dots are sightings of the baron’s hunters. The small circles are known grazing and resting areas. All the sub-tracks are summed up to the main tracks and all the main tracks summed up to geographic areas of the peninsula. The top page is a summation of all the areas. Please, Milord look at the top page. Here you can see the mismatch between the baron’s hunting patterns and where the deer actually are.’
‘You can see where traps are set and where the wolves are most active. I use all of this to manage our area. It enables me to decide where to concentrate my effort.’
Lord James emitted a low whistle. He flicked back and forth between the pages .
‘Incredible! And who does all this?’
‘I do, Milord.’
‘And who taught you to do this?’
‘No one Milord; it just seemed sensible.’
‘So, looking at the traps, who sets those?’
‘The people from the villages, Milord. To catch them is just a question of continual inspection of the tracks the deer frequent and knowing from the diagrams where they are most likely to set traps. Once a trap is located we watch it until a deer is caught and the poacher emerges to take his prize. My father holds forest courts at which the poachers are heavily fined.’
‘Who takes the most deer?’
‘The Baron, despite the fact that he does not know where the biggest concentrations of deer are. Since the Black Death took so many people there are too few people to work on the farms. Wages have at least doubled, perhaps even more, so the people from the villages are better off than they have ever been. They no longer need to risk poaching. The ones who still do it are those who see it as easier than honest work. They are ne’r do goods.’
Lord James’ eyes flickered.
‘And the wolves?’
‘The wolves will take deer or sheep. In the midst of winter they will take an occasional unwary traveller, even on horseback. They have their lairs and again the concentration of the dots helps us to pinpoint the most likely location of the lairs. In spring we spend much of our time searching for the lairs. If we can kill the cubs, the packs can be kept to manageable proportions.’
‘Is that dangerous work?’ Lord James’ brow crinkled as he lifted one eyebrow.
‘Not in the way you might think. They will try to lead you away from the lair but will sacrifice the cubs rather than involve themselves in a fight they believe they can’t win. But they are not cowards; they are intelligent and unforgiving. They will actively search out those who have been involved in a raid on their lair. It happened to me.’
‘How did you escape?’
‘I am not sure escape is the right word, Milord. I was guarding the sheep one night, when two wolves sniffed me out. I had a fire lit, which is supposed to hold them at bay, but it didn’t. I have a set of throwing knives and unsheathed them. The wolves came at me from opposite sides. Their eyes are yellow, and reflect the firelight so, though I could not see their bodies, I knew exactly where they were. One of them charged and I threw a knife instinctively. As there were only the eyes to aim at, I suppose it was inevitable that I took it in the eye. It knocked me over but fell dead at my feet. I turned to face the second one but it turned tail. It knew I had killed the first wolf and it did not know how I had done it, so it ran. It still watches me, I can feel it.’
‘So you are skilled with weapons?’
‘Only Saxon weapons, axes and knives, which my elder brother and I use to give displays at local fairs. I have started practising with the longbow but with uncertain success.’
Lord James fingered his bottom lip and returned to the main topic. ‘And because of all this you know the movements of the deer very well?’
‘I do, Milord.’
‘Then tell me, how will the Prince get his kill?’
‘Milord, we are outside of the normal hunting period and the hinds are with foals. I take it we will not use any hunting technique which would disturb the hinds?’
‘Yes, you are right. The Prince will use a bow and we must get him a clear shot at a stag without using dogs.’
‘At this time of year there is, then, only one way.’
Two days later, in the early hours of the morning, a party of hunters, led by the Black Prince and guided by John Stanley, splashed their way over the sand causeway at the mouth of the river Dee. At low tide the causeway connected Middle Eye Island with the mainland. The mixture of estuarial mud and sand leached a particular smell as their footsteps disturbed it; a pungent combination of shellfish and brine, not unpleasant but far stronger than the background smell of ozone.
An hour after dawn, John launched a small boat on the incoming tide. The boat made the return trip, drifting with the rising tide but capable of being guided by a tiny rudder and a tiny sail. In the boat, lying side by side was the forester’s son, John Stanley, and the eldest son of King Edward III of England, the Black Prince.
To camouflage the smell of their bodies and avoid disturbing the deer, John had spread estuarial mud over woollen blankets and the pair lay underneath the blankets. A continual stream of icy drops fell onto both occupants of the boat. The Prince and John wriggled uncomfortably as the drops joined to form tormenting rivulets. It was extremely difficult to accept these conditions without making the slightest noise. By raising his head, John could see through a tiny peep hole perhaps twenty deer, all stags, on the grassland behind the beach. Some were very close to the water.
Several deer raised their eyes as the boat drifted towards them but the boat, from a distance, had the appearance of driftwood and so the deer were unconcerned. The boat bumped along the shore until it finally lodged firmly against a spit of sand.
John pulled the blanket back.
Instantly the Prince sprang to his feet bow in hand and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. He took the first deer full in the chest and before it had sunk to its knees a second arrow buried itself into the shoulder of the deer immediately behind it. The rest of the deer now took flight, but there was still time for the Prince to fell another before they had dispersed. The Prince leapt from the boat and danced on the sand. John climbed out more carefully, intending to applaud, but was dragged into an embrace by the Prince.
‘Thank you, thank you, John! That was the best experience of my life.’
John had no idea whether it was allowed to hug a prince, but quickly decided he had no alternative. In seconds he was dancing to the same rhythm as the Prince.
Much later in the day, back in their family home, John was summonsed into his father’s study. Lord James hovered in the background.
William Stanley addressed his son. ‘You did well, John. Now Lord James would like to give you an opportunity as his squire.’ For the second time in the day, John found himself enveloped in a vigorous embrace. ‘Serve Lord James well, you can do nothing but prosper in his service.’
John had long reconciled himself to a future as a forester, with perhaps the option of buying some land and becoming a yeoman farmer.
‘I need time to think,’ he protested
They gave him none.
‘In spring there is much to do.’
His objections were brushed to one side.
Lord James offered John the use of one of his horses. John’s mother packed a saddle-bag with essential clothes and his father brought the Saxon axes, a family heirloom.
His father made the gift of the axes a formal occasion.
‘These have always become the property of the Housecarls in the family. You are now embarking on a military career so it is appropriate that they pass into your keeping. Remember, whilst you have been given a relatively humble position, your heritage is a proud one. I expect you to add to the honour of our name.’
William Stanley half turned away and then turned back again. John felt the strength from his father’s hands as they gripped his shoulders.
‘I am proud of you, John, but a man must make his own way in life. Go now.’
John moved his lips to respond.
‘Every knight has to serve an apprenticeship as a squire, therefore every knight has at some stage been a squire. It is a great opportunity John, please take it with both hands. Knighthood gives access to other opportunities. Who knows, John, because of this you might attend court, maybe meet the woman of your desire, or acquire riches beyond your wildest dreams.’
John flung his arms round his father, and his mother dashed to join their embrace.
Later the same evening, the Prince, Lord James and John were riding south. They planned to rest the night in Chester but when they arrived, an urgent message awaited summonsing the Prince to London.
The large moon, half exposed by drifting cloud, lit the night and they took advantage of it by riding on to Shrewsbury, where the Prince broke away. Lord James thankfully called a halt at a local inn.
The room was so small that after John had carried Lord James’ bags up the stairs and placed them on the floor, the room was overcrowded. John took in the surroundings before his eyes came to settle on Lord James, who seemed totally ignorant of his presence.
He cleared his throat. ‘And where should I sleep, Milord?’
Lord James looked up slowly and gave a tolerant smile.
‘Where every squire sleeps when on the road; with the horses.’
John was so surprised, he could not keep from showing it on his face.
Lord James’ smile broadened. ‘Without horses we can do nothing. There are many horse thieves so they must be guarded through the night. In any case, by sleeping with the horses they will become used to you. When you groom and saddle them in the morning you will find them more compliant if you are not a stranger. Horses are big, warm animals. They don’t always lie down but if one does, snuggle up to it. It will prevent you feeling the chill of the night.’
John bore no resentment as he descended the stairs to the stable. He reviewed his father’s advice: from this humble beginning you might acquire a knighthood. He decided that the idea pleased him but had no idea how the progression might occur.
He laid out clean straw and gathered his blanket around him. He resolved to make a good start by serving Lord James as well as he could and to deliver his best in everything he was asked to do. He was, in fact, very content—almost happy.