DECEMBER 1303: AUDLEY, STAFFORDSHIRE. . . . .
Two pressing matters eclipsed the preparations for Christmas and the wedding - Thomas Audley's continuing fever, and the execution of the 'rebel' leader, John Halmer. Wretched fellow, he had been dragged unconscious from the scene of the fight, and the soldiers would have killed him out of hand, but Ufford restrained them.
"We'll have a public spectacle," he gloated, " to teach these yokels respect for their betters!"
The sergeant growled his agreement, and Ufford puffed himself up – all would know that it was he who had knocked out the dangerous would-be assassin.
When Halmer was dragged before the Baron, John de Clavering was adamant: his manhood was threatened by this assault on his family, his chattels.
"Hang him now!" he demanded.
Hawise, although one of Halmer's intended victims, piously suggested that as this was the season of Christ's mercy to man, perhaps clemency could be shown to the captive. But the men folk would have none of it: Hugh Audley nodded in grim agreement with de Clavering, who extinguished his wife's protest with a single scathing glance. Their women had been threatened and that could not be tolerated. As far as they could tell, the surviving culprits had fled across the border into the lawless county Palatine of Chester, evading Audley's posse: but they had the leader, and he would pay the penalty for them all.
More than one of Audley's manors held the ancient right of infangthef: the matter need not be referred to a higher authority. Audley word and rule was absolute. On the day before Christmas Eve, John of Halmer's End swung from a gibbet at the crossroads where his crime was committed – a dire warning to all passing by.
Thomas Ufford and the Audley boys were showered with praise for their courage.
De Clavering gave them all handsome presents, and made a great fuss of Ufford in particular, seeing in him, perhaps, the son he had never had and wanted so badly. The Baron was grateful to James and Hugh, and courteous to them for their father's sake, but they were, after all, below his rank. Ufford had conquered his foe in close combat, as became a true knight: the Audley boy had shot down his adversary with a commoner's longbow.
The killing burned James' conscience - he went to Father Giles, who absolved him willingly. The priest assured James that although it was sinful to take life, it was also a soldier's duty to protect family, King, and country. God understood, and would be merciful.
Young Hugh basked in the attention that reflected on him, swaggering about Heleigh castle telling and re-telling the tale to anyone who would listen. He could not understand why James sported such a long face, and wished it could have been his arrow that felled the swordsman. Unlike his brother, Hugh had been shooting to kill, and had only managed to wound a woman in the leg!
As the weather turned to bright, bitter cold, freezing ponds and streams, Thomas Audley's fever grew hotter and wilder. He ranted deliriously, cursing one moment, and praying fervently the next. His mother, Katherine, tended him without rest, bathing his face with cool water and soothing his rages with soft words.
She had lost her husband to a sudden illness, and it was more than she could bear to think of losing Thomas. Through her vigil her lips moved constantly in silent prayer.
Her sister-in-law Annabelle worked tirelessly to ensure that the celebrations went well She personally supervised preparations for the feast of Christmas, while the men rode out to administer Audley justice to John Halmer. They returned from that duty subdued, and it took many a cup of hot, spiced Gascon wine to restore their spirits.
On the day of the execution, Thomas Ufford, the Audley brothers, Eve, and several ladies of the household set out for Betley Mere to go skating on the thick ice that had formed. This time they had a heavy escort of soldiers and one of the Audley men-at-arms to protect them: Hugh the Elder was not about to risk any further incidents before the marriage could be solemnized.
Frivolous activities such as music, dancing, and skating, were, strictly speaking, frowned upon in the Holy Week leading up to the celebration of Christ's birth, but all the adults agreed that young Eve had been through a nasty experience, and needed cheering. She had not yet even met her groom - in fact, only his mother, physician, and priest were allowed in to see him. As for the boys, this relaxation of the fast was seen as an extra reward for their bravery. Father Giles would say a special mass for their forgiveness, and suitable offerings would be made to Saint Margaret, Audley's patroness.
Eve had never skated before: all thoughts of duty, her sick bridegroom, and the piety of the season, were forgotten in a mad whirl of excitement. More than once, she slipped off James' or Ufford's arm, landing helplessly on the ice while the chaperones giggled and pointed. The girl's natural grace overcame her lack of skill, and within an hour Eve was swooping over the glassy mere as though born to it. Ufford pranced and performed, James kept a brotherly eye on Eve, and Hugh forged up and down the ice dreaming his solitary dreams of power. Whenever Eve landed on her backside, it always seemed to be James' strong arms lifting her up, restoring her dignity. He had no sisters, and felt drawn to this girl, who could be as imperious as her father one moment, and laughing like a naughty babe the next.
She flirted shamelessly with both Thomas and James, reveling in their different kinds of attention. Ufford was boisterous and obvious, a silver-tongued courtier, while James was darkly serious. One eyebrow would lift in concealed amusement when he raised her from the ice, but he was too much the gentleman to laugh openly at her misfortune. Ufford, on the other hand, split his sides with mirth when any of the party, including him, had a spill.
All too soon, the hour grew late, and dark cloud boiled up out of the west, heralding a snowstorm fresh from the Welsh mountains. The man-at-arms called the youngsters together got them wrapped in cloaks and furs, and mounted on their horses.
"Back to Heleigh before the storm breaks," he commanded, and they set off in gathering gloom. Big wet flakes fell first, followed by finer, driving snow, and by the time they got to Heleigh, the countryside was mantled in white. Hugh the Elder had been watching for signs of their return, anxious since he had heard reports of armed gangs crossing from Cheshire and raiding isolated settlements north of Heleigh.
Halmer's 'revolt' now seemed to fit a pattern of general unrest in the area, though the Cheshire outlaws had long been a thorn in Audley's side. Why the King was not firmer with this rabble Hugh did not know. Edward was a strong monarch, harsh in his judgments, cruel even by some standards, but he never seemed to get to grips with these bandits: the Marchers were left to deal with the problem alone.
When he saw the horses plodding up the track from Betley, Hugh let out a sigh of relief. John de Clavering was in the hall, drowning his sorrows, that strange, black humour upon him. After the hanging, the Baron declined the hunt, dinner, or gaming - all he wanted to do was drink, so Hugh left him to it.
There was good news for Eve: while John Halmer kicked at the end of a rope, and the children cavorted on the ice, Katherine Audley's prayers had been answered. Thomas' fever had broken about noon, and he lay sleeping quietly, normally. The physician pronounced that danger was probably past, and he would start to recover.
"You enjoyed your sport?" smiled Hugh, helping Eve off her pony. Her dark eyes twinkled and her usually pale skin glowed with excitement and cold.
"Oh yes, it was marvelous! Can we go again?"
Hugh Audley laughed aloud to see her so happy, and gave his boys an approving wink.
"We'll see, my lady, we'll see. Now I have another treat for you: Lord Audley is much better. He has woken and is asking for you."
Eve flushed scarlet from root to tip, a great wash of shame flooding over her. While she had been. . . . . playing, with James and Thomas, her betrothed had been battling with illness, perhaps for his life. In her innocent pleasure, she had not spared him a thought Hugh must have sensed her distress: he told her not to worry, that his nephew would understand, would not have wanted her moping round the castle waiting for him to recover. The last was a white lie: Thomas would have liked nothing better, thought Hugh, but Eve had better not know that.
They mounted the stair to Thomas' room, and Eve's first real sight of her husband to be came as a shock. He sat upright in a high bed, with covers up to his chest.
His back was supported by fat pillows, his face drawn and collapsed into cavernous hollows beneath both eyes. Fair hair plastered wetly to his skull, the residue of fever and bathing. Sweet herbs burned in censers to ward off evil vapours, and the scented smoke lent an unreal quality to the scene. Eve saw Thomas' lips move, then Katherine stepped from the shadows, a gaunt but still beautiful figure.
"Thomas," she spoke softly, "Thomas, your bride is here. Here is Eve, you must greet her."
The woman urged Eve closer to the bed, which was so high that Eve's eyes were almost level with Thomas' pale face. His eyes were tight shut, but his mouth opened, as if to speak.
"My Lord," said Eve, more calmly than she felt. His eyes snapped open, suddenly alert. His voice came as if from the end of an echoing passage, its tone desperate.
"Mother, is that you?"
Katherine gnawed her fist in a gesture of despair, fought back the ever-ready tears.
"Here is Eve," she repeated, "your bride, Eve."
The Audley heir gave Eve a long, piercing stare: his blue eyes were diamond bright. At last, he was fully awake - when he spoke to Eve his composure had returned.
"My Lady Eve, welcome to Heleigh. I saw you arrive, but. . . . I am truly sorry that my illness has kept us apart these last days."
The girl blushed again at the memory of her own selfishness, and she stammered.
"My Lord, I prayed for your recovery,"
Thomas smiled bleakly,
"And to whom were your prayers addressed?"
"The Blessed Virgin: I asked her to intercede for you, to bring my pleas to Jesus." The words came easier to her now, recalling phrases she had heard her mother use.
Much to Eve's relief, it seemed she had said the right thing.
"Well, it seems she heard you," Thomas said, " and my dear mother. You both have my thanks. Are you being looked after? Is all well with you?"
"Yes, my Lord. Your Uncle Hugh is very kind."
"She has pretty manners for one so young, eh, mother?"
Katherine nodded her assent, not trusting her voice, fearful of more tears. Thomas told Eve,
"You are a credit to your family. Fear not, I shall be up and about in no time - but I think I will sleep now."
Katherine's tearfulness was infectious, and Eve felt a persistent stinging of her eyes, and a knot in her throat. Thomas' words and appearance genuinely moved her, but he was so unlike the other Audleys. Instantly she was ashamed of the thought- it was her duty to marry this boy, a fate decreed by her father for the benefit of all.
All except her, cried the rebellious spirit. Will I ever be happy with that sickly creature? Why can't he be handsome like James, or amusing and witty like Ufford? The thoughts racing through her head were far removed from the polite words of farewell she spoke. The next morning, on the eve of Christmas, she visited him early. He seemed stronger, waving his arms and talking animatedly about the wedding and his plans for an Audley-Clavering dynasty.
Father Giles rode in from Audley to administer the sacraments to Thomas: cheered and encouraged, he brightened visibly as the day went by. Eventually, moved by sheer determination, he managed to get up out of his sickbed.
Delighted, Thomas told Eve, "I shall preside over the feast of Christmas after all! What a day we shall have tomorrow - that bed has seen the last of me for a while!"
"Are you strong enough, my lord?" worried Eve: he was scarcely able to totter about the room, and the sight of his bony, wasted body made her wince. Thomas had taken offence, "You are just a child," he snapped, "so I will forgive you that doubt. Do not question my decisions in future."
Eve had spoken out of concern, despite Thomas' unappealing looks and nature. Her bottom lip quivered for a moment, but with a father like John de Clavering, she was accustomed to such attitudes, and was able to conceal the hurt of this verbal lash.
"Yes, my lord," she said meekly, but the inner voice cried, how dare you speak to me like a servant?
Friends, guests, and dignitaries arrived throughout Christmas Eve, right up until dusk. They came on horses, on foot, in wagons, and litters. With them trooped their baggage, servants, retainers, and bodyguards, all of whom had to be billeted in the keep. Extra provisions had been stocked to cater for this influx: the castle bustled with all the activity of a small town on market day. The guard was doubled in case of trouble with the Cheshire marauders or stray Welsh raiders: at sunset the massive drawbridge was raised, and the outside world ceased to exist.
Father Giles said the first mass of Christ's birth, at midnight, in Heleigh's chapel Thomas, Lord Audley, dressed splendidly in his father's baronial robes, amazed the household by appearing at the service, clinging with exaggerated dignity to the arm of his uncle Hugh. He acknowledged stares and greetings from the assembly with curt nods, and kept his lips pressed together as if biting back pain, while Hugh escorted him to his pew.
Annabelle Audley discreetly pointed out to Hawise and Eve all the important guests as they filed into the small chapel. There were Giffards, Boghays, Meres, Bidulfes, Staffords, and Swynnertons . . . . . the names all swam together in Eve's mind. She felt her eyes drooping with the lateness of the hour, in the flickering, cozy candlelight. Her mother shook her shoulder to remind Eve that she was in God's house - she must not dare to yawn.
Thomas gave a signal for the priest to proceed, and the heavy perfume of incense wafted round the chapel: a choir of sweet voices struck up the sacred songs while ceremonial Latin boomed under the finely-carved ceiling.
On Christmas morning, wave upon wave of snow beat against the castle walls, like a thwarted army unable to make a breach. Leaden skies tinged with yellow promised a long spell of bad weather, but all the inmates of Heleigh, mighty or humble, were warm and secure on this greatest of feast days. Inside the hall, an enormous pile of logs blazed unchecked on the hearth, warming the very stone of the walls. Smoke poured out of the louvred vents to be borne away on the savage wind and lost in the blizzard. Pagan memories were never far from mind at these Christian celebrations, with swathes of evergreen, bunches of holly, and sprigs of mistletoe adorning doorways and walls.
The feast itself was sumptuous: Thomas boasted to Eve that no man in the land, not even the King, would sit down to finer food than Audley could offer on this joyous day. Kitchen hands lurched under the weight of platters, trenchers, and silver dishes piled high: savoury steams rose from a multitude of fowl and flesh placed before the high table. Eve could see suckling pigs roasted whole, elegant swans arranged with heads erect as in life, dozens of capons, ducks, fat geese, haunches of venison, and much more. A huge boar's head, elaborately decorated, was the centrepiece.
In the kitchens, a whole ox carcass turned on a spit to help feed the lesser mortals.
Loaves were brought in by the basketful, and bowls of precious salt. Casks of ale gushed out good cheer at the far end of the hall while the nobles enjoyed wines imported from Gascony or looted from France. Apples, pears, plums, and nuts, all carefully stored from the last harvest, adorned the table. Fabulous confections of custard, pastry, honey, and fruit completed the delicacies. From a large chunk of ice, one of the cooks had carved a likeness of Saint George, killing the dragon, and this drew great applause when it was carried in on a tray: it rapidly turned to a puddle in front of the fierce fire.
Over the nobles' heads, in the minstrels' gallery, musicians played merry tunes: as the drink flowed, the revelers' voices rose in song, drowning conversation and building to a crescendo of raucous behaviour. All seemed pleased to see Thomas Audley assume his seat at the head of the table. The lower orders, dancing in wild abandon near the ale casks, raised their mugs to toast their lord's happiness with his bride to be.
He responded by having his men-at-arms scatter silver pennies amongst them.
The peasants scrambled for the coins in fetid, ale-sodden rushes, like dogs fighting and snapping over scraps.
Audley's tenants and retainers lined up to do homage, and present gifts for the wedding. There were many requests for boons or justice: Thomas wisely cut this short by announcing that he would hold a court after the joust the next day, the feast of Saint Stephen. A great roar of approval greeted the news, and Thomas warmed himself in the glow of his feudal righteousness. Hugh Audley would have to 'advise' at the court, naturally, but not much longer, please God.
One of the best reasons for a wedding feast was to provide witnesses for the marriage contract: there were certainly plenty present at Heleigh after the Twelfth Night antics were over. In theory, it was possible for a wedding to take place with just the bride, groom, and priest in attendance, but it was all too easy for one of the parties to repudiate an unwanted match. Therefore, it had grown into custom that as many people as possible gathered before the church door to hear the couple take their vows. That these 'guests' had to be fed and entertained was a matter of basic hospitality.
Many of the folk at the castle were already suffering from a surfeit of food, drink, and revelry, but the spirit the mid-winter celebration gave them the will to carry on. The feasting, singing, and bonfires were a pagan plea from the most ancient times for the return of the good weather each spring: Christian traditions had merely overlaid these deeply rooted mysteries. Thomas lorded over the court, granted favours, and handed out judgments on disputes. When men-at-arms and young nobles tilted at each other in the joust he insisted on being present despite the cold weather. Young Ufford begged for the honour of carrying Eve's favour on his lance, which he used to great effect: none of his own age group could stand against him, and some of the older men were surprised by the ferocity and energy of his charge. John de Clavering looked on approvingly - he seemed intent on making Ufford his protégé. Eve demurely applauded his efforts, aware of Thomas Audley's eye on her.
She could not imagine him being her champion or riding to battle wearing her colour.
Secretly, the Baron Clavering wished that Audley could be Ufford. What a son-in-law that boy would make! His junior status and lack of funds were of little importance: he was sure to do well for himself.
These daydreams hardened into definite plans when de Clavering looked at Thomas Audley and saw the pitiful state of the youth. He had personal knowledge of this consumptive disease- it had claimed his own mother - and he calculated that the Audley heir had two or three years at most to live. Then his little Eve, with a third of Audley's estate in her dowry, would make a very attractive, rich, young widow.
Would Ufford be her next match? De Clavering's mind traveled down these paths even as Lord Audley handed out the prizes for the joust. Ufford preened and strutted in the applause lavishly given, dipping his lance in salute to the lord and his lady.
All the activity between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night overtaxed Thomas' new-found strength. His mother fretted, his physician tutted, but he would not refrain. He kept late nights with the other nobles - 'my guests' he called them - drinking too much and forcing heaps of rich food into his emaciated body. It was a pathetic attempt to put a brave face on his suffering, and two days before the date set for the wedding, he collapsed again, this time at the dinner table, to the embarrassment of Hugh Audley and the annoyance of de Clavering.
"I have been away from my own estates too long," he growled, "and what about all the visitors? Some of them traveled further than we did to be here. Must we postpone the ceremony?"
His real anxiety was to get Audley's seal on the wedding contract before Thomas suffered a fatal attack.
"There could be a way," mused Hugh, deep in thought. He was as keen as John to get this business settled, though his motives were different.
" Well?" snapped the Baron.
"A proxy," suggested Hugh, " we could arrange for the marriage by proxy. We would have to get the Bishop's permission, of course."
De Clavering's eyes slitted while he considered the idea. It was quite common practice for royal and noble marriages to be carried out by proxy, particularly if travel was difficult for one of the parties.
"Who would represent Lord Audley?"
"Well, it should be a relative. His brother Nicholas would be the obvious choice, but his duties at Court prevent him from being at the wedding. I suppose my own son James, as his cousin, would be the next nearest. . . . "
"I agree," decided the Baron," we must send an envoy to the Bishop, preferably with a rich gift for one of his churches. God's favour does not come cheap! How far is the residence?"
"Eccleshall – a day's ride, perhaps an overnight stay. The envoy would be back in time for the date we set. In the meantime, if Thomas should recover. . . . "
John de Clavering snorted in ill-concealed disgust: Audley's display at the dinner table had confirmed his fear that he had made a poor choice of son-in-law. Still, there were many advantages to the match, and if Audley should die after the wedding, Eve and all her properties would return to de Clavering's control, richer by a third of Thomas' considerable estates. Then the bargaining for another suitor could begin, with the goods now even more attractive to a high bidder.
"Send young Ufford," said de Clavering," he has a pretty manner and glib tongue - just the thing for dealing with clerics. His noble birth should make him well received."
James Audley had developed a brotherly affection for the de Clavering heiress and was pleased to be asked to stand in for Thomas. Hugh the Younger sulked the way younger brothers do when the older one gets a present: Eve was more his age and he should have been chosen. Why did James and that clown Ufford get all the attention?
He stored the sleight in that secret place where he kept stock of scores to be settled in later life.
So, on a wintry day in January 1304, Eve stood before the door of Audley church holding the hand of James Audley. Her wedding finery and snow white ermine robes made her look much older, but James could see only the little girl who had laughed and played on the ice a few short days before, the child who had giggled at Ufford's pranks. He could have wept for her, knowing the sort of life she had in store with his cousin Thomas.
In the face of the church and in the presence of the priest, Giles, they were married - but the vows spoken by James were on behalf of Thomas, Lord Audley of Heleigh, who lay in bed coughing his lungs out.
De Clavering's ploy of sending Ufford to the Bishop of Lichfield had been successful, and they obtained not only permission, but also the Bishop's blessing for the proxy wedding. The Baron was relieved he would not have to wait any longer for Thomas to drag himself to the church. Hugh Audley, as guardian, gave his consent and was proud of the part played by his son: anything that brought him to the attention of the court was worthwhile. The whey-faced groom nodded weakly on his pillows, lacking the energy to resist plans made on his behalf. He mumbled, in his fever, for his father to forgive him his weakness, and swore to make amends for his mistakes.
Some of the guests had gone home after Christmas; others had arrived to replace them – the majority stayed for both festivities. An elderly relative of Lord Verdon choked on a fishbone, and nearly died on the eve of the wedding, an ill omen if ever there was one, some said.
But the wedding was celebrated, nevertheless, in even greater style than Christmas: the only person absent was Thomas Audley who festered in his sickbed, seething with impotent rage. Eve's imagination allowed her to believe that it was actually James she was marrying. This fantasy helped carry her through the traumas of the day - it was secret she never revealed to anyone, not even her confessor.
She danced and capered with the Audley boys, with Tom Ufford, and the children of other noble guests, momentarily happy. The adults looked on kindly but distantly.
The happiness or otherwise of their offspring was of little interest compared to the dynastic necessities.
James, brotherly and devoted, captured Eve's heart. She was too young to realise that she was experiencing puppy love, with all its heady passion. Ufford, teasing and full of laughter, tickled her long-repressed sense of humour. When she danced with these boys she could imagine herself still free, although the priest and witnesses had heard James say the words of marriage for Thomas. Legally, and in the eyes of God, she belonged to the Audley heir: she was his chattel; her lands and goods were his. He was her lord, unto death.
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