by Briar Rose
A young woman witnesses the murder of Thomas Becket
|Sir Reginald slammed his fist onto the trestle table, making the cups and trenchers tremble.
"King Henry won't put up with that bastard for much longer."
"Sir Reginald, please," Sir John interposed. He shot a meaningful glance at his fourteen-year-old daughter.
"What?" Sir Reginald turned to look at the girl as though he had not noticed her sitting beside her father since the meal began. "Oh, yes, sorry," he mumbled. Sir Reginald took a large swig of wine, but was not distracted from his theme for long. "It's true, though. Thomas Becket owes all he has to the king and now he dares to defy him. Mark my words, the Archbishop will live to regret his opposition."
Sir John looked uncomfortable. "That may be, sir, and yet we must understand that the Archbishop answers to a higher power and..."
Sir Reginald growled, "There is no higher power in England than her king."
Sir John was shocked into silence.
Young Alice glanced from one man to the other, aware of the tension but not truly understanding the substance of the discussion. She knew that King Henry and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had once been friends, but after Henry made his friend the most powerful church man in England, they had fought and fueded. The rift had already gone on for years and seemed as commonplace to Alice as the absence of her deceased mother.
Sir Reginald flashed a wolfish smile, savoring the discomfort he had created. "Of course," he conceded, "God put Henry on his throne, but Henry answers only to Him. Tom Becket, for all his robes and incense, is not God."
"He is God's representative, though, as Archbishop of Canterbury," Sir John protested.
"Yes, so you keep saying." Sir Reginald was obviously growing bored. "I really must be going." He rose from the table, adjusted his thick robes, and bowed slightly to his host. He turned to glance at the men of Sir John's household who sat at long tables throughout the hall and made a point of saying, "I travel with the king tomorrow, so I must be busy with some last minute preparations. Good day, Lord D'Alford."
Sir John rose and bowed stiffly. "Good day, Lord fitzUrse."
Alice rose and curtseyed. Before she raised her eyes again, Sir Reginald was gone.
Alice and her father retired to the solar, leaving the hall for Sir John's household to lay out beds and retire for the night.
Dame Editha, once Alice's nurse, now her companion, followed them. She settled her charge by the fire and set her to work on some embroidery.
Sir John sat in his chair and stared into the fire, a troubled crease between his usually placid eyebrows.
"No, Miss Alice," Dame Editha said with patient austerity, "you must take out that row and start fresh."
Alice sighed heavily and let her embroidery fall to her lap.
"Father, where is Sir Reginald going with the king tomorrow?"
His daughter's voice roused Sir John from his reverie.
"Oh, I'm not sure, really. France, I suppose."
"So far?" Alice lowered her eyes to rest on her idle hands. "When will he return?"
Sir John sighed. "How should I know, child? I am not privy to the king's plans."
"Yes, I know," Alice said with a forlorn look at her father. "But why? You are as wealthy and important as Lord fitzUrse. You could spend time with the king, too. Why do we not go to court?"
Sir John looked into the flames again and did not answer immediately. Finally he said, "Alice, my dear, I know you must long for something more exciting than our small bit of the world. But I know what life at court is and it is not the life I wish for my daughter. Life at court may be more exciting than Upper Harbledown but it is infinitely more dangerous."
"Dangerous," Alice cried. "How can it be dangerous with so many gallant gentlemen such as Lord fitzUrse and the king himself there?" Alice did not like to think it, but she began to wonder if her father was a coward.
Quietly, Sir John said, "There are many kinds of danger, my dear."
Alice pressed her lips shut, well aware by now that she could not convince her father to take up life at court. She picked up her embroidery hoop and jabbed her needle in, heedless of any pattern.
Lord fitzUrse was her ideal gentleman. He was not afraid to live at court and serve at the king's side. He was handsome, distinguished, with brushes of silver streaking his dark hair, fine black eyes, and a rakish smile which he could employ with devastating results. True, his teeth were not so good anymore, but he was wealthy, and well-liked by everyone.
Almost everyone, she amended. Alice shot a side-long glance at her father. She suspected that her father did not like Lord fitzUrse, though they dined together whenever Sir Reginald was in the district. She supposed that Sir John kept up the acquaintance because of the friendship he had enjoyed with fitzUrse's father. This dislike of the younger fitzUrse, as well as his apparent distrust of the king, proved to Alice that her father was a poor judge of men.
She felt a slight pang of conscience as she thought of her most cherished dream, which was sure to garner her father's disapproval, perhaps even his opposition, but she would marry Lord fitzUrse, no matter the difficulties.
She was not blind to her groom's faults. She knew that he was short-tempered at times and occasionally abrupt in dealing with those who displeased him. Alice felt certain, though, that when fitzUrse recognized the woman she was becoming and made her his wife, all would be well. She would give him the happiness he deserved.
Dame Editha interrupted Alice's thoughts to say, "Time for you to retire, Miss Alice."
Alice laid aside her embroidery, as yet unaware of the mess she had made of her earlier work, placed a sullen kiss on her father's cheek and left the solar.
When she was gone, the steady rhythm of Dame Editha's embroidery needle and the hiss and pop of the fire were the only sounds to break the silence in the room.
"Well, Edie, what is it?" Sir John asked after a long moment. Dame Editha had been with the family for so long that even Sir John had all but forgotten that she was not, in fact, family. When Sir John's wife, Lady Alice, died giving birth to little Alice, Dame Editha had committed her life to filling the void left by that good lady. She acted as nursemaid, mother, guardian and when necessary, gaoler, to her young charge. Over the years, she took it upon herself to advise Sir John on certain matters, continually concerned with the proper raising of his daughter.
Dame Editha's mouth was drawn into a thin line, a sure indication that she had something particular to say to him. "You know, Sir John, that I never presume to tell you how to raise Miss Alice." Sir John stifled a chuckle. "But that girl has some foolish notion in her head about Sir Reginald and something needs to be done about it."
Sir John frowned. "What sort of foolish notion?"
"She thinks he's some kind of hero."
Sir John digested that information for a moment. "Has she told you this?"
"Not in so many words, sir, but after fourteen years, I know what my girl is thinking and she's thinking a good deal too much of Sir Reginald."
"But he's not much younger than I am. He could almost be her father."
"Aye, sir, well I know it. But when a girl is fourteen years old, there's no telling what foolishness will enter her head. She dreams that life at court, life as Lady fitzUrse, will be pure joy."
Dame Editha closed her lips firmly and glared at her embroidery.
Sir John stood and clasped his hands behind his back in a rare show of agitation.
"FitzUrse is an arse. He is forever currying favor with the king and then bragging of his great friendship with Henry. If Henry is as fond of fitzUrse as fitzUrse claims he is, Henry is a greater fool than I think."
He turned to look at Editha. He knew her silences; she had more to say.
"Well, and what should I do?" he prompted.
With her perpetual calm, Editha said, "That girl needs to be married."
"What?" Sir John's voice cracked. "I wouldn't marry her to fitzUrse if he was the last man in England."
A spark of temper flared in Editha's eyes when she looked at Sir John.
"Not to fitzUrse, my lord." She lowered her eyes again. "To a suitable man of your choosing."
Mollified, Sir John turned to look into the fire.
"Yes," he grumbled. "I suppose so."
"And for pity's sake do it before fitzUrse realizes what a pretty girl Alice is."
With this, Dame Editha wrapped up her embroidery and bid Sir John a good night.
Christmas came and went, marked with the same quiet traditions Alice had known all of her life. She thought of Sir Reginald, of the king, and of his queen, the beautiful Eleanor, and wondered where they were keeping Christmas court this year. She whiled away the long evenings dreaming of what her life would be like when she could celebrate the season as Lady fitzUrse.
One morning, a few days after Christmas, Sir John summoned Alice to the solar. Rare December sunshine filtered through the window coverings and illuminated carpets and tapestries as well as father and daughter standing by the large stone fireplace.
Sir John looked at his daughter and mentally steeled himself. She was the very image of her mother, rich brown hair, clear blue eyes, determinedly pointed chin. How he could let her go, he did not know. But better to give her to a man he trusted than to fitzUrse.
"Alice." He paused and cleared his throat. "Alice, next month you will be fifteen years old. It is time for you to marry."
Alice's heart leapt into her throat. Hope sprang into her eyes.
"Lord fitzUrse has..."
Ruthlessly, Sir John ignored her words. "In three months, you will marry Sir Edmund Mondeville. He is a second son, it is true, but he is well regarded and will make you a fine husband."
Alice's eyes clouded with disbelief. "Sir Edmund... Who is he?"
Sir John clasped his hands behind his back. "He is the second son of Lord Hunsdon, and, you will be pleased to know, has fought as King Henry's man many times." His smile was desperate. "He is...er...well regarded."
"By whom?" Alice sounded bewildered.
"Well, by everyone I've asked."
When Sir John did not continue, Alice prompted, "And who would that be?"
"Well,...his father,...his brother..."
Alice shut her eyes and swayed slightly. She fought to control the panic that rose to choke her.
"I don't know him," she protested weakly.
"Well, well, you will come to know him." Sir John was short-tempered in his discomfort. "Alice, I will brook no argument on this. You will marry Mondeville."
He took Alice's silence as agreement and tried to conciliate.
"Tomorrow, you may go into Canterbury with Dame Editha and choose what goods you will need to fill out your trousseau. You will need a new dress for the wedding, so you may find some suitable material for it."
Alice raised tear-filled eyes to her father's face, but made no sound of complaint or disagreement.
Sir John, eager to end the uncomfortable interview, called for Dame Editha who came and escorted Alice to her chamber.
Alice glanced up from the stall of goods at the edge of the market square and spotted her nursemaid, parting the crowd with her sour expression and determined stride.
Alice knew that if she was going to put her daring plan into action it had to be now, before Editha spotted her. Editha would be furious, of course, but Alice decided that a chance of reaching Sir Reginald would be well worth the scolding and extra needlework.
Glancing around, Alice noticed a small door in the side of Canterbury’s great cathedral. She dashed between the stalls of wares and tugged on the door latch. It was unlocked.
Just inside the door, Alice allowed her eyes to adjust to the sudden dark. The gloom of the late December afternoon lacked the strength to penetrate the great stained-glass windows of the church and only candlelight from a nearby chapel illuminated the side aisle where Alice stood.
She pulled her fur-lined cloak tighter about her; the December chill outside seemed to have been intensified and concentrated by the stones which surrounded her inside the cavernous church.
She could hear the steady chant of a mass going on, the sound echoing and fading and re-echoing throughout the church. Alice thought of the ghost stories she had loved as a child and shivered as the haunting notes rose, fell, and faded.
When she could see sufficiently in the half-light, Alice moved to stand behind a pillar, careful to remain hidden equally from worshipers and priests.
Alice closed her eyes and inhaled the sharp cold as well as heady incense.
Immediately, her thoughts turned to Sir Reginald. He was now her only hope of a rescue from her father's terrifying plan to wed her to a stranger. She had to find a way to get a message to him. But he was supposed to be in France with the king. Maybe one of the monks of Canterbury could help her. She would go to the Archbishop himself if she thought he could help her in any way.
Suddenly, a door slammed, the sharp report jerking Alice to attention. Her first thought was that Editha had discovered her hiding place and meant to overturn the entire cathedral, mass or no, to find out her ward.
That thought was quickly dismissed as she heard the angry shouts of men, the clank of armor, and the heavy thud of booted feet. The sounds of the mass ended abruptly and a low murmur of alarm arose.
Alice edged forward and peered cautiously around her protective pillar. From there she could see the Archbishop, Thomas Becket, as haughty as ever, though his body was rigid with tension. He stood on the steps before the great altar. Behind him, the monks and priests who had halted their holy service looked in horror toward a point in the choir directly opposite Alice’s position; in fact, toward the door which led to the cloister.
Alice could not see the speaker, but she heard a harsh, militant voice demand,
“Absolve and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated and restore powers to them which you have suspended!”
The Archbishop curled his lip and answered in an equally strong voice,
“There has been no satisfaction and I will not absolve them.”
The answer came without hesitation:
“Then you shall die and receive what you deserve.”
Immediately, the men surrounding the Archbishop shrank back, and most turned and fled. The Archbishop did not spare a glance for those who had deserted him. He stood and watched as four knights, mailed and armed, advanced upon him.
As the knights drew closer to the Archbishop, they came into Alice’s view. She looked to see what Christian would dare enter the house of God with drawn sword and bloody intent. She could not see their faces from this angle, but she was certain that no knight of King Henry’s would be involved in such a blasphemous endeavor.
Alice's heart pounded in her throat as the scene unfolded before her. There stood the great Archbishop of Canterbury on the very steps of his sacred cathedral, and there before him stood four knights, fully armed and apparently prepared to shed blood.
The knights had paused in their advance, evidently uncertain, now that the moment had come, of how to proceed. A sudden silence gripped the cathedral. Alice felt as though the stones themselves waited for what would happen next.
The Archbishop looked steadily into the faces of his attackers, his thoughts inscrutable.
Finally, he broke the silence.
“I am ready to die, but in the name of God, I forbid you to hurt my people, whether cleric or lay.”
This statement galvanized the knights into action. They seized the man of God and tried to propel him forward in order, as they later claimed, to carry him outside so as to leave the sacred precincts of the church. Whether they intended at that moment to kill him or carry him prisoner to King Henry, no one could afterward ascertain. They had not, however, counted on the strength or stubbornness of Thomas Becket. As they passed close to a pillar, Becket grabbed ahold and refused to be pried away.
In the ensuing brawl, Alice heard the Archbishop speak, somehow managing to retain the dignity of his office even in the face of such violence.
“Touch me not, Reginald; you owe me fealty and subjection. You and your accomplices act like madmen.”
At that moment, one of the knights drew back from the attack, fury and outrage vivid on his reddened face.
Alice stifled a gasp of recognition. Reginald fitzUrse. But why had the Archbishop singled him out, sounding like his feudal lord, when all four knights were even now blaspheming by attacking him, a man of God?
Alice suddenly remembered her father saying that Reginald fitzUrse had, indeed, at one time sworn fealty to Becket, given him his solemn oath to protect and defend his liege lord. Sin upon sin. To betray his liege lord as well as a man as holy and untouchable as the Archbishop were sins which no amount of penance, no number of indulgences, no length of time in purgatory, could ever absolve.
Across the width of the choir, Alice could see fitzUrse’s face twisted with rage.
“No faith,” he ground out, “nor subjection do I owe you against my fealty to my lord, the King.” His voice rose to echo through the church until he shouted, “the King,” whereupon, he raised his sword and brought the flat of it down heavily on the Archbishop’s head.
Immediately, two of the other knights raised their swords and swung at the wounded Archbishop.
Alice covered her eyes, trying, and yet unable, to block out the horror before her.
She heard the sounds of voices, filled with hatred, the crash of a blade striking the stone floor, the ragged breathing of desperate men. No sound could she distinguish from the Archbishop, save a strangled cry, and then silence.
After a long moment, another voice said with cruel nonchalance,
“Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.”
Alice heard the clatter of the knights as they strode down the aisle to the main doors of the church and flung them wide to face the anxious mob outside.
Alice uncovered her eyes and peered around the pillar, unwilling to look but unable to look away. She saw the crumpled body of the Archbishop, lying before the steps to the altar, his rich garments splattered with his own blood. Thankfully, she could not see his head - much later she learned the horror it had suffered - but as she watched the body in wretched silence, she saw a dark stain slowly seeping out from under the body, soaking into the ancient stone.
Alice realized that she was shaking, and worse, that she was going to be sick. She ducked out of the same small door she had entered and gulped in the fresh air.
Suddenly, she faced a scene of chaos. The sight of armed men entering the church had been enough to rouse a good number of curious onlookers. But the Archbishop’s murder threatened to turn the merely curious into a raging mob.
Frantic with the need for safety and comfort, Alice searched the crowd for Editha. Several times in the press of the crowd her cloak was pulled and nearly torn from her, but she held on to it tightly. Indeed, she had been gripping it fiercely since she had left her place behind the pillar, hoping that the lush rabbit fur might ease the deep chill which had taken root inside her.
Finally, the dear face appeared, and Alice ran to her nursemaid. She buried her face in the older woman’s shoulder and clung to her, surprising Editha into forgetting the severe scold she had been composing for the last half hour.
“What is it, Alice? Are you all right?”
Alice pulled away reluctantly.
“I want to go home.”
Editha looked closely at her charge, feeling sure that simple homesickness was not the heart of the problem. With armed knights murdering men of God, though, now was not the time to be standing in the street, discussing the day. Rumors flew through the streets, and, if even half were believed, there would not be a man, woman or child left alive in England by the morrow.
“Aye, we’d better be getting home.” The two women turned and hurried away from the crowd, which was more and more unruly in its outrage.
As she walked, Alice tried to control the shaking which still gripped her. The scene she had witnessed was seared into her mind: the image of Sir Reginald’s face, nearly unrecognizable with rage and murderous intent, most devastating of all.
At fourteen, Alice could not grasp the significance of Thomas Becket’s murder to King Henry’s court, to England, and to the world at large. She only knew the sudden devastation of a child’s broken dream. The Sir Reginald she had seen murdering the Archbishop was a stranger to her, frightening and repulsive. She fervently prayed that she would never again have to see the man.
Years later, Alice and her husband, Sir Edmund Mondeville, did meet Sir Reginald, though she did not recognize him at first. So haggard and wasted was he from years of exile and penance that he did not look to be the same dashing knight with whom she had fallen in love so long before. Alice spoke kindly to him, though, for she was, indeed, grateful for the role he had played in her life. Alice had turned her back on childhood and on its false dreams the day she had witnessed the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.