Authors: Cassandra Clark
THE HILDEGARD OF MEAUX SERIES
BOOK 6 - THE BUTCHER OF AVIGNON
© 2014 Cassandra Clark
Cassandra Clark has asserted her rights in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act
1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in eBook format in 2014
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All names, characters, places, organisations, businesses and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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When news of the battle at Cesena comes through every man, woman and child in England is sickened by the violence inflicted on the innocent inhabitants of the little town. Their own countryman, Sir John Hawkwood, the most infamous mercenary in all Europe, has committed an atrocious crime involving a nun. It is rumoured to be so vile that even the most brutal fighting men had vomited on the battlefield in revulsion. But that was not the worst of it for the inhabitants of the town.
Hawkwood is outdone in brutality by a churchman. Robert of Geneva.
It happened like this. Unable to break the resistance of the townsfolk, Robert, a papal legate, offers to pay Hawkwood for the short-term hire of his troops. His idea is that he will use military force against Cesena’s inhabitants since he cannot talk them into accepting the pope’s rule. The army, handed over in exchange for gold, surround Cesena. The citizens resist this form of persuasion. Of the menfolk not already slaughtered on the battle field the remaining ones are now slaughtered on the battlements. The surviving women, children, the old and infirm, are as staunch in refusing the papal takeover as their slaughtered husbands, brothers and sons. They resist. Next comes a new order. Everyone still residing in Cesena is to be put to the sword.
The mercenaries are there to carry out orders. They make sure that with over 3,000 unarmed citizens within the walls, no-one is left alive. Three thousand? Others claim it is more like eight thousand. Whichever it is, the entire population of this little walled town in the region of Forli is massacred.
This is not the end of the matter. A few months later this same Robert, son of the Count of Geneva, and now known throughout Europe as the Butcher of Cesena, is chosen as Pope Clement VII by the French cardinals, in opposition to the elected Pope, Urban VI, who sits in Rome. So begins the Schism and the rule of two infallible popes.
That was ten years ago, in 1377, the same year the ten year old Richard Plantagenet inherited the English crown from his grandfather, that old war hero King Edward III. And still the Butcher of Cesena, styled Clement VII, is pope in Avignon.
Hildegard. Getting dressed in the dark. Sickly smell of the other nun, sweating unwashed in her straw. Found her winter shift and pulled it on over her linen. Fumbled for her boots. One. But where was the other one? Fingers closing over the stout leather when she scrabbled under the bed. Thrusting in her foot, rapidly tightening the laces then pulling her cloak from the tangle of blankets, straightening as she dragged it over her shoulders.
A courier had ridden into the palace in Avignon as night fell. Ahead of the pack, bringing fresh news from England.
It was utterly unbelievable.
Appalling. If what he said was true it was the beginning of the End Days.
She forced herself to dismiss his words as nothing but malicious tittle-tattle. The gloating delight in his voice at the confounding of the English repelled her. But, only moments ago, the clatter of hooves in the forecourt had drummed into an alluring dream - in it she was riding out with Hubert on a hunting day, his hawk regarding her with sombre jealousy, and Hubert himself turning in the saddle to call to her - when the clopping of hooves on the cobble stones and the shouting of English voices below the window jerked her awake. Now, boots on, cloak pulled tight, she ran to the window slit again and looked down into the yard.
Banners. Flaring cressets. Steel. A tumult of horsemen jostling in and out of the shadows and smoke.
And she knew at once that last night’s rumour was true. Something momentous had taken place. The courier was the mere harbinger.
The door creaked as she pushed at it and her cell sister muttered something about cats but Hildegard was already out in the freezing corridor, treading as swiftly as she could over the flag stones, guessing her way through the palace labyrinth where Pope Clement VII, a black spider, crouched at its heart over his hoard of gold.
She was stopped at the outer doors by the sentry.
‘More news from England?’ she asked hurriedly in French.
‘More than that, a knight and his retinue. I trust we’re not at war, domina.’
‘Pray it’s a problem we can overcome.’
He let her pass, his
fear not, my lady
echoing along the passage.
As she hurried down the wide steps leading into the Great Courtyard her thoughts ran wildly over the facts.
The first attack against King Richard was aimed at his chancellor Michael de la Pole, impeached at the behest of the king’s enemies last autumn. That was one thing. The King, defiant, had given de la Pole a good Christmas at Windsor, seating him at his right hand to show what he thought to the arrogance of the barons in calling de la Pole to stand before the court and, against all the evidence, daring to accuse him of embezzlement. The Chancellor. The king’s trusted advisor.
What had come next, according to last night’s courier, was a thousand times worse.
Sir Simon Burley, the renowned war hero and the kings’ personal tutor, was now indicted on a charge of treason. Penalty, beheading.
The Chief Justiciar, Tresillian, also accused of treason. Penalty, beheading.
Five chamber knights similarly accused and threatened with the same penalty.
The Archbishop of York indicted on the same charge. As a churchman his penalty would be to lose all his possessions and to live the rest of his life in exile.
Archbishop Neville? A traitor?
It was beyond belief.
But this was what the courier had announced. Gleeful. Shouting in triumph. England on the brink of civil war!
Only last year Hildegard had travelled with the Archbishop from his diocese of York to attend the Westminster parliament, called by King Richard to counter a threatened French invasion. The archbishop had been at the height of his powers then. Even so, he told her of his fears for the future, warned her to return to her nunnery and live a quiet and blameless life.
The king’s enemies will not sleep until they have his crown. They will destroy his allies, however powerful. No-one will be safe.
And now the Archbishop was under arrest?
It was rumoured that King Richard’s uncle, the royal prince, Thomas of Woodstock, was behind a plot to isolate the young king so that he himself could rule instead.
Was it Woodstock now, acting in the name of the King’s Council, who was behind the arrest of these loyal allies?
Woodstock, desperate for the crown of England, as everyone knew?
She could not believe the king’s youngest uncle, a Plantagenet prince of the blood, would sink to such depths of disloyalty in his lust for power.
And yet last night, when the bearer of this dire news arrived after picking up his information at Calais, riding the long miles south through Burgundy, galloping his mud-stained horse under the Porte des Champeaux into the Great Courtyard of the palace of Avignon, he had been jubilant. The news that England was being weakened brought cheers from the onlookers. Woodstock’s name was mentioned with delight.
Pope Clement must be hymning with joy, thought Hildegard, confidant that the time was now right to drag the English into his power. With Prince Thomas as an ally how could he possibly fail?
Hildegard glanced up at the forbidding towers of the Old Palace where, high up, the window slit of Clement’s private chambers gleamed. Cressets burned in other private apartments. Shadows crossed and recrossed the source of light.
Running down the last of the steps into the main courtyard she was breathless with apprehension.
Pent within the high stone walls the noise of the new arrivals rolled like thunder. A crowd had swarmed out to greet the men-at-arms still riding in under the portcullis. Stable hands briskly attended the sweating horses, night servants, monks and cardinals with their pages, flocked into the yard, everyone dragged from sleep, night cloaks pulled round shoulders, wind swirling in eddies in the miserable January night. Monastics irritable at being dragged from their beds between the offices complained. Little enough sleep. Ill tempers later. But here, now, at the centre of this turmoil, an Englishman and his jostling henchmen.
Hildegard stared at the blazon on the surcoats of his men-at-arms. Unconsciously she pulled her hood lower to conceal her face.
I know that badge.
It depicted the arms of a vassal of a prince of the blood royal. Red, blue, gold. The light glittered over the crowned leopards, the fleur de lys. The sight confirmed her worst fears. It was the blazon of Prince Thomas of Woodstock.
She melted in among the people milling round to hear what was being said.
Torches stuttered light into the faces of the riders. Mail glinted. Weapons were visible as flashes of lethal steel. There was a smell of naphtha. Flames sizzled into the night. Smoke hung in a pall over the yard. The knight at the head of this raucous crowd gripped the reins of his caparisoned mount with one mailed hand as the glare from the torches sent his face into dark then light and back to dark as his destrier wheeled and turned. He raised a fist in a salute of triumph. Hildegard stared.
And I know you.
His face was vaguely familiar. She searched her memory
. Yes, you’re Sir John Fitzjohn.
Roaring with laughter at a quip by one of his men, with a sneer against the French to please his hosts - who were a fiefdom on their own and not subject to any French king but vassals only to the King of Heaven himself - he managed to express the physical superiority of a military man against unarmed monastics with every arrogant gesture. He made it clear he was not here to beg. Sir John, blond, big-boned, battle-scarred. Confident of his welcome.
Hildegard took in the value of his armour, the worth of his horse, the nobility of his hounds.
His mother had been one of John of Gaunt’s many mistresses. Royal blood, Plantagenet blood, ran in his veins. Duke John had allowed him the name Fitzjohn to give his bastard some status, siring several more children by the same woman before meeting Katharine Swynford who cajoled her way into the role of first concubine after his wife, the saintly Duchess Blanche, died of the plague.
The children Gaunt fathered on Katharine became known as the little Beauforts. Now nearing adulthood they preceded the Fitzjohns in all matters of importance which naturally led to friction between these two branches of Gaunt’s siring. In fact, Sir John Fitzjohn had a younger brother who had turned out badly. Escrick Fitzjohn was a name that still aroused in Hildegard a feeling of fear and revulsion.
Sir John was laughing out loud while his eyes searched the crowd in the glare from the swinging lanterns. He was handsome in a bold, physical manner, no doubt about that. His mother had been a renowned beauty like all Gaunt’s mistresses, but haughty, despite her origins, a quality she had obviously passed on to her eldest son. The arduous journey from England had not daunted his spirits. He was searching the crowd more closely now as if for a particular face. Hildegard noticed one of the foreign cardinals being hustled through the milling onlookers, his acolytes carving a path for him, then Fitzjohn swung down from his destrier, threw the reins without a glance to his page, and extended his arms in greeting. The two men embraced. The Englishman knelt to receive a blessing. Straightened at once, by no means humbled. Towering over the elderly cardinal. All smiles.
She tried to get closer but managed to hear only a few floating phrases, could hear the chuckles of the men standing beside their lord. A name or two hovered on the air. She edged deeper into the crowd.
she heard, ears straining.
That old war horse…in the knackers’ yard at last.
A rumble of complacent laughter from those nearest. Hildegard burned with fury.