Authors: Michael Jecks
The chest was lifted from the wagon, which creaked in gratitude to be relieved of its heavy load. Then the men carried it into the nave, across to the doorway, down the staircase and into the undercroft. There it would be safe.
‘Thank you, Father,’ Hob panted.
‘Where are you going?’ Father Luke asked, as Hob pulled on his gloves before remounting his horse.
His face grim, he replied, ‘I go to join Sir Hugh and the King. They are making their way west – fleeing from their enemies.’
‘God speed you, my friend, and bless you.’
‘Thank you, Father,’ Hob said. ‘Please – pray for us. Especially if we do not return.’
‘And pray for the kingdom too. I foretell a time of war and murder, Father, and only the Devil and his own will flourish.’
House of the Bardi, Cornhulle, London
‘Matteo, you are most welcome,’ his brother Manuele greeted him as Matteo strode into the hall, still trying to calm his urgently beating heart. The men in this room were the most powerful in the family, and if they saw his weakness they would despise him.
The other men present gave him a nod or a thin smile. Benedetto, the middle brother, appeared fretful, while Sebastian and Francisco, who worked with Manuele, looked haggard and exhausted. These were the men who controlled the untold wealth of the Bardi family here in England, but today disaster faced them.
It was a massive chamber, Manuele’s hall, as befitted the master of the most important bank in London. A great fire roared in the hearth against the chilly air outside, but the breath of the five men was still misting before them. Matteo could see the steam rising from his clothes, and felt filthy compared with them. They must see the dirt on his hosen and boots – well, damn their souls if they did. He was past caring. They would soon know the same terror. The rioting crowds outside were full of dreadful hatred.
And most of all they hated bankers.
‘Did you not bring your horse?’ Manuele asked, glancing pointedly at his soiled boots.
‘Men on horses are targets,’ Matteo said. He added, ‘I saw the Bishop of Exeter pulled from his horse today.’
‘They beheaded him with a knife,’ Matteo said without emotion. ‘His body they threw in a ditch.’
Manuele’s smile became a grimace of shock. ‘Bishop Walter? He’s dead?’ He rubbed a hand over his face. ‘There will be a terrible retribution for this when the King hears.’
Matteo eyed him with disbelief. ‘Manuele, the King is running for his life. He won’t come back here!’
‘You have to accept the facts,’ Matteo said steadily. ‘You think the King is all-powerful. I tell you he is not. He is weak – and all those who would have sought his protection are fleeing. There is no safety here in London. We need to have a thought for our own survival!’
‘You are our intelligencer. What intelligence do you bring?’ Benedetto asked. Younger than Manuele and more intellectual, he was also taller, a wiry man with the darker skin of one who had only recently returned from Florence. He had spent much of the last year there, and was more used to the Byzantine intrigues of that city. Matteo knew he was much more competent than Manuele, who was grown fat and lazy here in this cold climate. Benedetto was
‘You know it already,’ Matteo snapped. ‘The Queen has returned to the kingdom, and at no point was she turned back. We know she could have been repelled at sea, but King Edward’s navy refused his orders to stop her. She could also have been prevented from landing, but of the men King Edward sent to capture her, all went over to her side. As she progresses across the kingdom, the King flies before her, losing men-at-arms like a bucket leaking water, while every day her followers grow in number. She will eventually catch her husband – and when she does, who can say what will happen?’
‘She may catch the King, but the King has the authority of the coronation behind him. No one has ever killed a crowned King except those whom God favours.’ Manuele sipped from his wine, eyeing the others as though daring them to argue.
‘It is true. But the Queen has the support of the people. And her son is with her; who would dare to stand in
way? To dispute with her would be to dispute with the future King.’ Matteo was keen to convince them. This could be the end of their house if he failed, and he had no intention of seeing it destroyed. ‘London has declared for her.’
,’ Manuele sneered. ‘The city is only one of many in the realm. It is not like Florence.’
‘True, it is not independent like Florence,’ Matteo said earnestly, ‘but in many ways it is more influential. It helps govern the whole kingdom. The King of this fractious and intolerant people has to be strong to hold their allegiance, and they perceive Edward as weak because of his attachment to Despenser. So they will overthrow him.’
‘In London they will, possibly,’ Benedetto said. ‘But, little brother, I agree with Manuele: there is more to this kingdom than just one city.’
‘Yes,’ Matteo agreed. ‘Men flock to the Queen from
over the realm.’
‘The King has friends elsewhere. What of the Welsh?’
‘My spies tell me some may rise in his support, but there is no sign of it as yet. If they do not hurry to his aid . . .’
‘For the King to be saved, they will have to declare for him soon, yes,’ Benedetto put in.
Matteo shook his head impatiently. ‘Do you not see, the King has already lost?’
Benedetto glanced at Manuele. ‘I know it is alarming, but the city can soon be brought back under control.’
‘And if you are wrong?’
‘Matteo, you grow strident,’ Benedetto said with a condescending smile. ‘You bring us intelligence and we adapt our policies to suit. There is no need to become upset.’
‘Brother, the Queen will almost certainly defeat the King. The question is, what then? Will she kill those who caused trouble between her and her husband, but then return the King to the throne?’
‘Of course,’ Benedetto said. ‘She can do nothing else.’
‘She has made her husband wear the cuckold’s hat, brother. She shares a bed with Sir Roger Mortimer. So, tell me, do you think it likely she would return her husband to the throne, knowing he could charge her with treason and have her lover hanged, drawn and quartered? Or would she prefer to see King Edward imprisoned while she rules in his place?’
Benedetto stared at him for a moment, and Matteo saw a shrewd calculation flare in his eyes.
Manuele held up a hand. ‘No! The Queen would of course return her husband to the throne. He has been anointed by God.’
Benedetto kept his eyes on Matteo as he said, ‘I am beginning to think we need to reconsider this.’
‘You have been in Florence too long, Benedetto,’ Manuele scoffed. ‘I have lived here many years. The people may be angry and argumentative, but they believe in the law, and the law does not give them the right to evict their King. They will come to the brink and then surrender, as they have done before. That is why our investment must remain with the King.’
‘And if they don’t?’ Matteo asked pointedly. ‘If you are wrong, and all our money is with him, we shall be ruined, because I do not think the Queen has any liking for our House. She wanted us to help her last year in France and she was snubbed, if you remember?’
Manuele pulled a face, a tacit admission that his decision at that time had been wrong. ‘We thought that she was only there for a little while, and would return to her husband. How was I to know that she would leave him and form a liaison with a traitor? It was only logical to continue to support King Edward.’
‘You took the decision for the best of reasons,’ Matteo concurred, ‘but events have overtaken us.’
Manuele had lost his way, Matteo thought privately. Benedetto was stronger, and he possessed a certain crafty slyness, but he was too concerned with the Queen. It was enough to make a man despair. The bank needed strong leadership now, more than ever, and his brothers were so hidebound.
Matteo wanted to groan. He knew best how to guide the bank because of the flood of reports that swamped his table daily. Armed with that information, he could ensure the security of their money better than either of his brothers.
He tried a persuasive tone: ‘The Queen is back, and we must consider how this changes things for us. We should attempt to win her favour – offer her our support. We must gain her respect and that of her advisers. I have held discussions—’
‘Yes. It is as I have argued,’ Benedetto interrupted smoothly. ‘I have connections with Queen Isabella’s advisers – influential men. They can see that, with our support, she is more likely to succeed in deposing her husband.’
Matteo threw him a suspicious look. He had not expected Benedetto to be persuaded so easily.
‘This is nonsense,’ Manuele snapped. ‘The Queen? Pfft! She is nothing.’
‘We have to retain our position at the heart of the government,’ Benedetto said. ‘It is the source of all our profits. With our money behind her, the Queen can win the realm, and she will have reason to be grateful to us.’
Manuele frowned with exasperation. ‘What risk would there be to our investment in the King if he should return to power?’
‘His reign will soon end,’ Matteo said. ‘The people detest him and his advisers, especially Sir Hugh le Despenser. If Despenser fails to escape, he will be executed, and all the money which we have earned from his investments will be gone.’
‘Despenser’s funds are already gone,’ Benedetto said. ‘He has withdrawn his money, and I doubt that he will return it to us if he flies abroad. I am inclined to the opinion that we should throw our weight behind the Queen. The King is a broken straw.’
‘A broken straw will support cob or daub and make a strong wall,’ Manuele argued. ‘The man will recover his authority. He has done so before.’
‘He may, but I fail to see how,’ Matteo stated. ‘He has so alienated his barons that the country supports his Queen, not him.’
‘So that is why we should give our support to her now,’ Benedetto said. ‘That is your proposal.’
‘I say no!’ Manuele said heatedly. ‘We have invested too much in him.’
‘I do not say we ignore him,’ Matteo said, then paused. From the window, he could hear angry chanting in the street. ‘We should also bear in mind that the King is in need of friends.’
‘But if you are right, he will be insignificant shortly,’ Benedetto protested.
Matteo took a deep breath. He had hoped that Benedetto would understand.
‘Yes. But if he loses all for now, he may yet regain influence in years to come. He may tutor his son, he may again command the respect of some barons, perhaps win back the love of his Queen . . . who can tell? If he ever returned to power, he would richly reward those friends who had provided support or finance to him in his hours of deepest need, would he not?’
Benedetto smiled. ‘I think you grow confused. We should support only the Queen. She is the source of power now that she controls the heir.’
’ Matteo growled. ‘You still don’t understand!’
The bridge was closed. At the road leading to it, Sir Jevan de Bromfield studied the closed and barred gates, the men standing about with polearms and axes. There would be no escape there.
All in good time. There were other gates by which a man could leave this cursed city. For now he had to hurry to his meeting. He had an urgent mission – the first serious business since his return to England.
With the force led by Sir Roger Mortimer and the Queen, Sir Jevan had spent his time in idle meandering about the countryside. That was all it had been, an amiable wandering, while the populace turned out to cheer and applaud. The mercenaries could have been liberators instead of invaders.
But that would soon change if there was no money.
The Queen had used the little wealth she had stored in maintaining herself in France. Sir Roger Mortimer had nothing, because his estates and belongings had been confiscated when he was declared a traitor and imprisoned. As soon as his death warrant had been signed, he had lost all. So now their men, mercenaries from Hainault and the Low Countries, with some adventurers from France and a few English fighters determined to take back what they had lost, were marching with empty pockets. Money was desperately needed.
That was why Sir Jevan was here, in London, to ensure that a deal was struck. If it would hasten the end of Edward’s obnoxious reign, he would treat with the Devil himself.
House of the Bardi, London
There was a crash outside the hall, and the men in the room spun around to stare at the window as though they expected to see the mob spilling into the hall.
‘What do you suggest, then?’ Manuele demanded of Matteo. ‘You speak of supporting first the Queen, then the King – I don’t follow your reasoning.’
‘An offer to the King. Of gold, or influence. Anything he needs. A letter couched in careful terms, that would give him hope, if nothing else. Money to help him in his prison. We can tell him that he can always count upon our support, that whenever he has need of us, we will aid him. If we can get that to him, he will gain confidence from it, and reward us if he ever does return to his throne.’
‘And if the Queen or Sir Roger Mortimer found it, we should be ruined,’ Benedetto snapped.
‘Brother, hear him first,’ Manuele said, his dark eyes remaining fixed on Matteo.
‘The letter would remain a secret known only to him and us. We would have a trusted messenger take it to him. And as I said, if we couch the letter in careful terms,’ Matteo explained patiently, ‘the Queen would not seek to harm us. Especially if any doubts were already assuaged by our support for her and her son. If we advance her money, she will believe us when we state our allegiance to her. We gain the friendship of both sides, and thereby assure our continued profits no matter who wins.’
There was another crash outside. ‘Matteo, can you write such a letter?’ Manuele asked.
In answer Matteo pulled the carefully written note from his purse and passed it to him. Manuele took it warily, as though touching it conferred guilt.