The fire blazed and a small tornado of smoke escaped from the fireplace adding to the dark stain which covered the central third of the mantlepiece.Two lithe hunting dogs hurriedly left the fireplace and sprinted twice round the central table, squabbling half-heartedly, before settling in the far corner of the room.Andrew shuddered, it was cold outside. He too crossed the room and obsessively tightened the closure of the shutters of each window before pulling the heavy curtains together and carefully adjusted them so that the edges of the each pair of curtains were coiled together making a seal. Finally he adjusted the embroidered bags of sand which pinned the bottom of the curtains to the floor. As he did so there was a flash of lightening.
‘One, two three four…’
The clap of thunder was deafening.
He turned to face the table.‘Four miles away at the moment, but getting closer. It’s going to be a foul night…now, have you all got a drink?’
Most of them nodded assent but some looked askance. Andrew smiled. It was a question of seniority. ‘Just help yourself, there is plenty in the jugs and there is far more where that came from.’
The table was littered with the debris of their meal and Andrew cleared a space in front of one of the empty chairs and poured himself a mug of beer before collapsing into the chair with a resounding thud.
‘I thought it better to take the ladies through to the retreat before continuing the conversation.’ Again most of his listeners nodded assent. ‘Henry you were speaking, I think’
‘Yes, I was.’ Henry groaned gently and combed his fingers through a shock of curly hair. ‘Look, if I must, I will apologise, I really didn’t think I was saying anything controversial.’
Andrew picked up the mug in front of him. He gulped several times before putting the jug down and wiping his lips.‘I was protecting you Henry, your wife Agnes is often seen in the company of the Countess and we must be careful not to upset her.’
Henry’s eyes narrowed.‘The Countess of Shaftesbury? You are scared of her? I was only asking who she really is. She is supposed to be the young widow of the Earl who died in the german crusades, but their are rumours…’
Andrew grimaced ‘No I am not scared, but I am cautious’
‘You think the Countess could, would, damage me, us? Because of a chance comment at a dinner? In any case someone would have to tell her.’ His eyes narrowed even further. He deliberately focussed on Andrew. ‘That’s ridiculous, you think my own wife might betray my inner thoughts?’
Andrew pursed his lips. ‘The countess has unbelievable power.’ he said quietly. ‘She controls the size of the army, and decides when and who they will fight.’
Another voice broke in from the far side of the room.‘Andrew are you talking about the Countess or Alice Perrers?’
Andrew snorted.’Well they are so alike it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart, but no, Alice Perrers is only the instrument. It’s is the Countess who decides policy.’
‘Good God, Andrew you make it sound like an alternative government’
‘It is an alternative government. Think about what is happening in Parliament. Parliament is supposed to be giving us all a voice in government.’ He paused, breathing deeply, accessing what he could and could not say. “Now almost every week, we have Alice Perrers pleading for a judgement to favour one of her clients. Her choice of cases to plead is very interesting. She is creating new common law with every case she pleads before Parliament.’
Andrew’s passion raised him to his feet.’Don’t you see what is happening, she advances only those cases which set precedent on policy issues, which tie our hands. Lancaster is telling the Northerners, who are almost all in his pocket, how to vote.
‘Alice is only able to assume these rights because she is the Kings mistress, but what she does she does well, she understands the working of parliament and the law as it is implemented in parliament, better than any of us.’
‘So we are talking about Alice Perrers now?’
‘Yes or at least her duet with Lancaster, but who do you think is co-ordinating all this.’ He paused just long enough for effect, ‘I will tell you, it is the Countess’
Another voice, from outside of the pools of light created by the candles.
‘I was not aware what was happening, perhaps I do not attend Parliament as often as I should. Can you give us specific examples?’
‘Yes the extension of the treaty with the Franks was the Countess’ initiative, but it passed through parliament because of Alice’s advocacy. We should have ground them into the dust whilst they were on their knees, but she wanted peace.’
‘Alice or the Countess”
Andrew thought for several seconds casting his eyes up to the ceiling.
‘The Countess. They say that when King John of the Franks was imprisoned at Clarendon palace, she became his lover.’
‘But I thought the Countess was supposed to prefer women.’
Andrew chuckled. ‘Who said King John was much of a man? Even the Franks tell stories about him. However I will give you another example.’
There was silence in the room. ‘Well?’
‘John Wycliffe. It is difficult to call Wycliffe a heretic, not least because he has the support of the ubiquitous Lancaster, but he was instrumental in the king refusing to pay the Pope a yearly tribute and if you listen to him talk as opposed to read what he writes, it is clear he does not regard the Pope as the true successor of Christ and he believes that the Church and its clerics should give away all its wealth.’
‘And what has that to do with the Countess or Alice.’
‘The Countess talks exactly the same as Wycliffe but is subject to far less scrutiny. The development of Wycliffe’s more extreme views coincided with him taking over the rectory of Ludgershall, where the Countess has property.’
“She wants to reform the church not just govern the state. In fact if you look at what is happening that may be her major objective.’
‘Well who is she then? Why does she want to do this?’
There was a bubble of conversation
‘Where did she come from?’
‘But it is not just the Countess and Alice. There is also the Roet sisters and the Perez sisters. Where did all these women come from?’
Andrew waved his hands in an attempt to get attention. He nodded around the room. ‘Yes Its incredible, there were or perhaps still are, five women in the countess’s household. Three of them are associated with Lancaster, one is his wife and the other two as his mistresses. After the death of the Black Prince he is third in line for the throne.
Another one is now married to Edmund who is fourth in line to the throne, and the fifth one, the Alice Perrers we have been talking about, is the Kings Mistress. It is in fact worse than that, Joan of Kent, the mother of the heir to the throne is also part of the Countess’s coven.’
‘So you believe the Countess has some hold over all of them, no wonder she is so influential, so powerful. Andrew tell us, other than Joan and we all know what she is or has been, does anybody know who these women really are?’
Andrew took a deep breath and waited for the hubbub to subside. He spoke slowly and carefully.
‘I do have some knowledge. I can tell you what Geoffrey Chaucer told me. As you know he tells a good story and he is married to one of those women, Pipa de Roet. He says Pipa makes it her business to know everything and of course she was or still is Lancaster’s mistress. In addition Pipa is closer to the Countess than any of them, so the story probably has some validity.
‘Geoffrey was going to publish the story himself but someone got to him, possibly Lancaster… but we mustn’t forget that the King has granted Geoffrey a barrel of claret a day for life! For services rendered!’
Well anyway Geoffrey has told me the story, and I can pass it on, at least if I keep it within these four walls. But I can’t finish it tonight. If we meet once every month it might take three or four months to tell the whole tale.’ He laughed. “Longer if you interrupt al the time’
There was a mutter of agreement.
‘Good then let’s start. Imagine you are in the Northern Pyrenees in 1321.’