‘Are you absolutely sure this is what you want to do? It could lead to great opportunity or you could be dead in a month.’
William de Windsor – 19th August 1353
The horse reared, lashing the air. A hoof whistled past William de Windsor’s head. He staggered backwards, colliding with the fencing surrounding the enclosure, knocking all the breath from his body.
The professional horse handler who had shouted the warning, dashed forward, attracting the horse’s attention. The handler shouted over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off the horse, ‘He just hasn’t had enough time, William. We often spend two weeks just leaving them in the enclosure whilst we come and go, just letting them get used to us. Only gradually do we progress to caressing them, then grooming them and washing them down. Every horse is different; the skill in all this is knowing when to move on to the next stage. Horses sometimes misunderstand what is required of them, but sometimes they are just obstinate.’ He softened his voice and moved towards the horse. ‘Patience is needed, isn’t it, my lovely.’
Just the sound of the handler’s voice was enough. In next to no time the horse was harmlessly circling the enclosure. William struggled to his feet, so out of breath, he could hardly speak. ‘How… how long do you take… to get a horse to the point… where it can be ridden away from here?’
The horse came to a halt but continued to vent its indignation by tossing and shaking its head, snorting intermittently. The handler judged the danger was over and turned to answer William’s question. ‘Typically three months but it might be as long as twelve. Some horses never learn, never submit.’
William avoided eye contact, gazing past the handler at the horse. ‘I wanted to copy the monks at my school… they trained their own horses and did it much faster than that. Did they occasionally fail? I must admit I don’t know. What I do know is that they spent much more time than you do with the horses. They weren’t just with them for specific activities, they were with them most of the day, caressing them and talking to them. Can I try again?’
‘Can we talk to your father? If you were to get seriously hurt your father would probably kill me.’
Just over two weeks later, William led the same horse to his father. ‘He is ready, but to prove he is ready, I would like you to ride him.’
Richard de Windsor screwed up one eye. ‘I have heard how fast he has progressed. The handlers give all the credit to you. What kind of magic have you performed? Very well then, let us put it to the test.’
Two hours later William stood next to his father on the banks of the River Thames, surrounded by the verdant green of an English summer. The smell of freshly mown hay hung in the air. The fast-flowing river added a touch of drama to the shallow valley. Swallows crisscrossed the water, feeding on insects which they, but no-one else could see. A sizeable flock of ducks took noisily to the air, apparently running on the water before taking flight, spooked by some perceived threat.
Richard de Windsor waited until the sound of the ducks’ departure had subsided. ‘It is indeed a small miracle, William, the horse is obedient but spirited; exactly the result we are searching for. Is this then the career you would like to pursue?’
William winced. ‘Well, no, not exactly.’
‘I am very disappointed, William.’ Richard almost whispered the words.
William knew from experience that it was not a wise move to disappoint his father.
Richard drew a deep breath, then sighed. ‘It is not because you do not want to break horses. We paid for you to attend school, close by here in Windsor, because of its reputation for theological studies. Your mother and I hoped you might take holy orders. We have enough influence to have opened up opportunities for you to become a bishop – not a bad life.’
William dropped his head. ‘I did not know that was what you had in mind, you never told me.’ He then hesitated, not wanting to seem to be criticising his father.
His father tightened his eyes, in an approximation of a frown, almost as if he wanted to improve his focus on the view which lay around them. ‘I am told that your performance as a student was satisfactory, perhaps even good, but that you showed no aptitude for entering the priesthood.’ He turned to face William, now he was frowning. ‘What exactly did that mean?’
William saw no point in prevarication. ‘The studies were interesting, I enjoyed the information put in front of us.’ Now it was his turn to frown. ‘However, the teaching suffered from the fact that it was always assumed that all recorded history was really about the Church of Rome.’ He clamped his jaws together and puffed out his cheeks. ‘Clearly, it isn’t.’
His father rolled his eyes. ‘It isn’t?’
William was careful to avoid a smile. ‘No it isn’t, the Romans thrived and expanded for hundreds of years before they accepted the Church as a state religion. Then before that, there was the Egyptians and yet again the Greeks.’ He let his voice tail off indicating that he could expand his theme, but without actually doing so. After what he considered a suitable pause he continued, ‘We were taught about the alternative beliefs of earlier civilisations but almost as if it were a secret, not to be shared with anyone outside our group.’ He paused again and shook his head. ‘In any case, there is much more to life than becoming a prelate.’
His father spoke slowly but firmly. ‘I am glad you think so, but from what I have been told, you came dangerously close to being considered a heretic. In your future life, you might consider not expressing your true opinions quite so openly.’ He sighed, placing his hands on William’s shoulders. ‘Well then, let us consider your remaining options. A merchant? I could introduce you to William de la Pole. Being a merchant is not totally respectable but many of our great lords indulge in trade. It possible to acquire great wealth.’
William shook his head. ‘Don’t think I am ungrateful, but no, that is not what I want, I want adventure, camaraderie. You have many friends who spend their lives fighting for the King, as you did yourself in your early life. Could one of them provide an opportunity for me?’
‘William, the difficulty of fighting for the King is that you are never in command of your own destiny.’ Richard stopped and gazed around him. ‘It is a happy accident that the ride we have taken today has brought us here to Runnymead. Do you know what happened here?’
William now permitted himself to laugh out loud. ‘Yes, I do, you have told me so many times, King John signed the Magna Carta.’
‘And that was?’
‘A treaty between King John and his Barons.’ William glanced at his father and saw that more was expected. He could not avoid a muffled groan. ‘It solved what had effectively become a civil war between the King and his nobles.’
‘And the main point being?’
‘The law of the land, administered by the Barons themselves, took precedence over the whim of the King. The Barons gained improved security for the tenure of their lands. However, the treaty confirmed the King’s right to rule.’
‘Quite, and nothing has changed since. The treaty created a delicate balance between the rights of a King and the rights of his nobles. The rest of us are swept around in a millpond of changing objectives and alliances, still searching for a measure of security for ourselves.’
‘How does this affect me?’
‘Well, If you want to fight for the King it is important to make sure that you are fighting for the King, not for a noble who has ambitions to overthrow the King. Yet, as a young man, you must declare allegiance to some noble or other to get your foot on the ladder. You must choose carefully.’
‘I have already made my choice.’
‘By listening to your conversations.’ William screwed up his nose and scratched the back of his neck. ‘William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. He and his family have served King Edward faithfully for over twenty-five years. He is almost part of the Royal Family. He is also close to the King’s eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince. Most importantly you know him. You train the Prince’s horses at his agistment at Staines and the Earl is a frequent visitor. I could not get any closer to the King. I have not been learning to break horses for nothing. I hope stories of my success will filter back to the Earl.’
Richard smiled and put his arm around his son’s shoulder. ‘Well, I never! You do listen well. Service to the Earl is not something I had personally considered, but then I thought you were going to be a priest. It is a wonderful idea.’ Richard walked back to the horse. ‘Come! There is no time to waste. The Prince is determined to drive the Franks out of Brittany and it is an open secret that he is planning an expedition to Aquitaine. He will invade Armagnac to punish the Comte for his disloyalty. The Earl will go with him.’ After lifting the reins from the floor, he hesitated. ‘Are you absolutely sure this is what you want to do? It could lead to great opportunity or you could be dead in a month.’
William laughed and lightly swung into the saddle. ‘Let’s ignore the second option, but tell me about the opportunities.’
The horse became increasingly restive, so Richard also mounted, taking a few seconds to bring the horse under control and then allowing it to indulge in a hundred yards full gallop before reining it in and waiting for William to catch up. ‘You have done a wonderful job, William, I must see if I can keep this horse for myself, but if it is to be used to sell your skills to the Earl that probably won’t happen.’
As they returned to the stables Richard took the opportunity to ride alongside William. His voice took the note of a conspiratorial whisper. ‘The noble families have made an art form of retaining their power, generation after generation, by marrying each other’s daughters. The boundaries of land ownership may change but the power blocks remain the same. Even as a successful night, well regarded by the King, you would find it difficult to break into their ranks. Our ancestors were Celtic nobles but decided to side with the Conqueror. For one or two generations we had equal status with the Norman lords. Slowly but surely they pushed us away from the centre of power.’ He sighed. ‘Now… now we are discussing what you might do to make a living.’ Once again he paused. ‘But to be with the Prince in Aquitaine and Armagnac could change everything!’
William was all attention. ‘Why? What’s the significance?’
‘An invasion of Armagnac; you as a knight with a close relationship to the Prince, you may well be offered a daughter, by a lord of Armagnac anxious to improve his own relationship with the Prince. Oh! And the Prince would encourage it, knowing that your children would be more likely to be loyal to the English crown. But that is for the future, the first task is to get the Earl to give you a post and that may not be an easy task.’
William smiled. ‘Just make sure I meet him. If I meet him he will take me. Whispering does not only work with horses.’
Richard nodded and rode off as if his life depended on it, leaving William following behind at a more circumspect pace, to reflect on the opportunity which had just been outlined for him.
His father’s words resounded in his head. ‘You could be dead within a month.’