Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction, #Scottish
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2016
Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Cover by Design for Writers
Thanks to Simon Walpole for the Artwork.
Dedicated to all my New Zealand fans especially Dave and Cathy.
Stockton Castle - January 1140
It had taken us two weeks to travel north to our home on the Tees from the lands of the west controlled by the Empress Matilda and her half brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester. It had been a frozen land which became increasingly covered with a blanket of snow the further north we went. It was a journey fraught with potential danger. There were still supporters of the Empress in the land through which we passed but most of the knights, lords and magnates were her enemies. We chose the castles in which we stayed wisely. We passed through old trails and forest as we avoided the scrutiny of Stephen the Usurper's supporters. Had there been any brave enough then we might have encountered bandits for we carried back the fruits of our victory. We had horses, weapons, mail and coin. The war in which we had fought had given us knights for ransom as well as the goods and horses of the dead we had slain. However my banner was well known and any bandit knew that an attack on the Warlord of the North would result in but one thing, death. We rode north and were unmolested.
The journey back afforded me the time to reflect on the last months of the old year. I had advised the Empress that I would stay away from her court in Gloucester. She had not wished me to do so but I did not want any hint of scandal associated with the Empress. Her brother suspected that I was the father of young Henry FitzEmpress, her son. We could not have that suspicion. The Empress' husband, Geoffrey of Anjou still prosecuted the war on her behalf in Normandy. A hint of scandal might tear our fragile alliance apart. The Empress' forces would consolidate the land around Worcester and Gloucester. I would stay in my northern fortress. True I was surrounded by enemies, but none frightened me. I had beaten them all. If they came again then I would defeat them. I had a small retinue but all of my men were renowned fighters and they fought for me. Each was worth five I might hire in the markets.
When I had reached my castle and our goods had been stored I realised that I was alone. My son and my grandson were in Normandy and the woman I loved was separated from me by my enemies. I had my men and I had my land but, as I looked out on a frozen River Tees I felt my isolation more acutely than ever. I had my men at arms and they were like brothers to me and I had my squires but I still had to rule the land of the Tees for my Empress alone. I had no one with whom I could consult, If I made the wrong decisions and we lost it then the flood gates would be opened. The Scots would pour across the river and devastate the land. Had we not held them at Northallerton, at the battle they called the Standard, barely two years ago then this land would now be Scottish. The effect of that last invasion was still clear for all to see. Ruined castles had still to be rebuilt. There were manors without lords and without the people to work the fields. I had parlous few lords I could appoint to do so and the lack of a lord meant a lack of revenue. This war cost money. The Palatinate of Durham was ruled by the Scottish puppet, William Cumin, and Prince Henry, the son of King David of Scotland, was now Earl of Northumbria and he ruled the land north of mine.
I roused myself. I had been taught by my father not to waste time worrying about what I could not do. I had money now and I would use it. I would summon my steward and my mason. We would rebuild the north, one castle at a time.
That winter seemed to last forever. In some ways that helped us for although we could do nothing about my castles, the smiths in my towns were able to produce more mail and armour for my men. We used the spare labour we had to help my smith, Alf, and his men at their forges. It took skill to forge a sword but only muscle was needed to work the bellows. My squires now had full hauberks. All of my men at arms wore mail and had fine helmets. The armouries had swords and spears aplenty. My fletchers produced the hundreds of arrows my archers needed and we bred more horses. My men at arms, and the men of my manor, trained. When I went to war it was the burghers of Stockton and my small garrison which would defend my walls. I had used an idea from the east where I had been brought up. Instead of a mighty wall running all the way around my land I had a ring of castles and fortified manors. Each could be defended against a smaller enemy but if we were invaded then they would garrison the jewel in the crown, Stockton. It was one of a handful of powerful castles which could withstand a prolonged siege. Durham, Bamburgh, Barnard Castle and York were the others.
The ice and the snow did not stop me venturing to Norton where Erre guarded my northern frontier, nor Normanby in the east. Barnard Castle and Hugh of Gainford protected the west and in the south lay Sir Richard of Yarm. With Hartburn, Thornaby and Elton close by we felt safe. I knew that could not last. The Scots had been quiet for over a year and soon they would make another attempt to enlarge their land at our expense.
When the first grass was seen after the snows and the ice I summoned my knights to my hall. I had sent Captain William and my ship,
to Anjou. My son had his own manor now; he was Baron of Ouistreham but Sir Leofric was the constable of my manor of La Flèche. It was a rich manor in Anjou and the riches we had collected would allow us to buy that which we could not produce. It also provided men at arms for us. We were not reliant on those who had been brought up in England. When I saw the new grass it meant we could think about going to war once more.
My knights arrived for my council of war. This was the first time they had all been together since we had returned from our campaign in the west. Not all had been with me. I had left most at home guarding my land and they were full of questions for each other. I did not mind the noise and banter. I sat back with a goblet of Angevin red and enjoyed it. Whilst apart they were bastions and held the line. When they were together they were a force to be reckoned with. We had a combination of superb archers and doughty men at arms. Wielded wisely and well we were an unstoppable force. Our enemies had discovered that. Even when we were outnumbered we emerged victorious. My detractors said it was because I was lucky. They were wrong. I thought about warfare more deeply than they did. I had studied at the Emperor's school in Constantinople and I had read of leaders from the past. I knew how Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar had fought. I had seen Justinian's walls and spoken to those who kept many times their numbers of barbarians at bay with well armed and well led soldiers. I tried to copy that. The only one of my enemies who came close to thinking as I did was my nemesis, the usurper Stephen of Blois. He was a clever general and he was popular with his men. He also had more honour than Prince Henry of Scotland. That made him harder to defeat.
I was aware that the noise had stopped and they were all staring at me. Dick, formerly the captain of my archers and now titled Sir Richard, looked concerned and said, "My lord, does something bother you? You have a frown on your brow."
I realised that I had been deep in thought. That was the problem with being alone so much. It made a man brood. I stood and smiled, "Forgive me my friends. I keep alone too much. Now that we are all joined then nothing worries me. John, have Alice bring in the food. Please sit. Choose you own places, you know we are not precious about that!"
I knew that some Earls, such as Richard of Gloucester, liked to reward their men by allowing them to sit closer to them. That was not my way. We were all equals and they chose their companions. Erre, Wulfric and Dick sat together with Edward. They had all been lowly men until I had elevated them and made them knights. Tristan, Hugh, Harold, John and my squires sat together; they were the young bloods and Sir Richard of Yarm sat between me and his son. I had invited Father Henry, the priest of my manor, too, and he chose to sit on the other side of me.
Aiden and his two hawkers, Edward and Edgar had been hunting and we had a fine deer. Along with the other delicacies which Alice had procured we ate well. My lands in Anjou ensured that we had better wine than any in England. The feast was convivial. When the plates had been cleared and we nibbled on the sweetmeats served by Alice, talk turned to the civil war which raged.
"So my lord, do we head south to join with the Empress and the Earl? Do we drive Stephen back to Blois?" Wulfric was blunt. He spoke the way he fought, directly.
"Would that it were that easy my friend. Twixt here and Gloucester lie a sea of enemies. I promised the Empress that I would await her commands and, as yet, she has not sent me word. The day will come when we join forces but for the moment she and the Earl consolidate what we won in the autumn and winter."
Sir Edward of Thornaby was a wise warrior. "Do not be so ready to leave this valley Wulfric. The Scots look for weakness."
Sir Hugh of Gainford who was constable at Barnard Castle nodded, "My men have caught and hanged four Scottish spies this winter. They probe and they watch. Balliol wishes his castle to be returned to him."
"I know and that is why you are my rock in the west."
"Then we just wait, lord?"
Wulfric craved action. For him a castle was somewhere warm to spend the winter. Now it was getting on for spring and he was keen to fight. "Do not worry, Wulfric, if you have a stout garrison and constable then, when we do go to war, you shall be on my right hand, as ever."
His grin showed me that I had pleased him. "I will have men to garrison by the time
returns, my lord."
Sir Harold had his own manor of Hartburn but in these uncertain times his family lived with me in my castle for he just had a hall. I liked the arrangement. His wife and children made me remember my family when they growing up. Sir Tristan's family did the same at Yarm. Elton and Hartburn did not have castles and the fortified halls were not strong enough to defend with the Scots on the rampage. It was these who looked at each other and then Harold spoke for them both. "We, too, would come to war with you, lord. We know our families are safe here."
I nodded. "Sir Edward?"
Laughing he said, "I am not too old to go to war, Lord. Besides you will need someone to keep this wild berserker in check."
He nudged Wulfric in the ribs. Wulfric feigned innocence. "Just because I am fearless in battle there is no need to insult me!"
We all joined in the laughter for when Wulfric had the smell of battle in his nostrils there was no holding him back. He would charge into any number of enemies wielding his war axe. His squires did not last long.
"Then I have my conroi. I would Sir Hugh Manningham was with me for he is a doughty warrior but he is the only knight who is north of here on whom I can rely."
Philip of Selby said, "Then will I be with you and Sir Richard? We are your mounted archers."
"You are. You have proved time and again how you can turn a battle when all seems lost and to that end I have an errand for the two of you." They both leaned forward expectantly. "Philip I would have you visit with your uncle, the Archbishop. It is some time since we spoke. I would have you gauge the mood of York."
"Aye lord. It will be good to see the old man again."
"Dick, I need you to risk the high country and visit with the Empress. I will not trust my plans to letters; they can be intercepted. She knows you and can trust your words. I will give you a message for her."
Sir Edward asked, "Not her brother, lord?"
"The Earl has yet to commit fully to our cause and he has little love for me at the moment. The Empress commands the army and it is her orders I shall obey."
"And when do we leave, lord?"
"Tomorrow. That will give us a month to prepare for a campaign. A word of warning, Dick. Steer clear of the land around Chester. That treacherous Earl changes sides every time the wind blows."
With our plans made my knights spoke of horses and castles. They talked of men at arms they had trained. Sir Edward's son was now a squire and he, too, was full of the promise his son betokened. His words were fulsome and proud as he spoke of his family. "I was a man at arms, lord. Had you not elevated me I would be one yet but my son is the son of a noble." He hesitated. "When I fall will he have the manor?"
"If it is in my power then aye. That may be in hands other than mine." He nodded. If we lost this civil war then all of my knights might lose their manors. Choosing the wrong side could be disastrous.
Father Henry took his leave after the last of the sweetmeats had gone. He had listened more than he spoke. "Pray stay, Father."
"No, my lord. Your men are warriors and would talk of war. I do not mind that but I fear they would be inhibited by my presence. Besides I have to be up early in the morning for matins."
"As you wish. Thank you for coming."
He nodded, "Despite what your enemies say about you, lord, you are a good man. I see that in your deeds around the manor not on the battle field. I know not who is right in the matter: the King or the Empress. I know that this anarchy is bad for the country but I am happy that I live here in this island of peace. The people prosper and they are happy. I am their shepherd and they are my flock. That is all a priest can ask."
"And you are a good man."
"I try. Our church prospers. Each year William the Mason makes some improvement. The avenue of yew trees we planted have lasted well this winter. It will be some time before your men can make bows from their branches but they are a fine avenue and help to shade the graveyard."
"You are the shepherd of men, father. You watch over their souls. I plan for the future. My son and my grandson will be here long after I am gone. They will thank me for the yew trees and the bows they produce."
He smiled sadly, "They will thank you for much more than that lord. Pray do not give us the memory too soon."
After he had gone I reflected on his words. He was right. I had challenged Stephen to single combat. I was the Empress' champion but he had refused. He was a good knight at the tourney but he knew I had never been beaten. Had I had a lesser reputation we might have settled this conflict with no loss to the people. They were the losers. Bands of knights and vagabonds roamed the land raiding, raping and stealing either in the name of Stephen or Matilda. In truth they served neither. Knights like Sir Miles fitz Walter, Sir Pain, Brian Fitz Count and Sir Geoffrey Talbot were true knights. They served the Empress well. As for others....
The wine flowed freely and my knights were replete. None ventured forth and they slept where they could. The company had put me in good humour. The morbid black humour of January had gone. Perhaps it was winter which made me feel that way. I had a grandson I had never seen and a son who had grown up and become a man without me knowing. My other son I could never acknowledge. One day he would be King of England and I would bow my knee to him. I knew his mother would never tell him that I was his father. The fate of England, Normandy and Anjou lay in his hands. We would have to take that secret to our graves. My head and my heart were filled with secrets. I saw them each night when I closed my eyes. They weighed heavily upon me.
After they had gone I sent for my two squires. Gilles was the son of one of my archers who had died in Normandy and Richard had been the squire of Sir Ralph Buxton whom I had slain. They had both proved to me that they would make fine knights but that day was some way off. They were still learning. Both had killed men but they were not yet ready to be in the line which charged. They needed more muscle to carry the armour that they would need. However they both needed a better sword. I took them to see Alf. He was the smith in the town and along with Ethelred, the merchant, was one of the most important men in the manor. He was also the most loyal. A fierce warrior with an axe he would fight alongside my Frisians to defend my town if enemies came.