Mightier than the Sword – Ashe Barker

“You will take five hundred men and march to join Robert Fitzwalter, Earl of Dunmow. I have pledged him my aid and support. Will you be able to leave at first light?” Richard d’Aigle raised one dark eyebrow and regarded his liege, Roger d’Aubigny, Earl of Arreford with undisguised curiosity. “We are no longer neutral in this dispute, I take it?” Sir Roger landed his tankard of ale on the polished table in his private solar with a resounding clatter. “No, we are not. John goes too far, and though I have always been loyal to the crown, I am unable to keep my counsel any longer. To do so would needlessly enrage the other barons.” Richard, seated opposite his liege lord in the earl’s solar, took a slow sip of his own ale. He said nothing, waiting for Sir Roger to elaborate. The earl did not keep him waiting. “As if it was not enough that the king manages to enrage the pope, he has to squander our wealth in France on mindless skirmishes which avail us nothing. Our wealth, mind, that of the barons of England, not his own. Fifty pounds I paid him, and I might as well have sailed over to northern France and scattered the silver pennies across the muddy earth of Bouvines myself for all the good that came of it. You’ve no doubt heard all of this a thousand times already. Your own cousin, Edward d’Aigle, used to be close to the crown.

He will have seen it all.” “Yes, there was comment, on occasion, at Hereford Castle, though I have never spent that much time there. Edward is less active in politics since he inherited his title and became Earl of Hereford.” “A wise strategy,” agreed Sir Roger, “and one I would have continued to pursue myself had His Majesty not blundered relentlessly onward in his quest to ruin our land. King John refused to accept the pope’s choice of Archbishop of Canterbury but eventually had no choice but to accede lest he and the whole of England be excommunicated. Again. John listens to no one, will not heed advice. He is a despot, and though it pains me to say it, our king is a fool. For the sake of England, this must stop. He must be made to listen.

” “I had understood His Majesty was listening.” Richard set down his tankard. “Did he not meet with the barons last month? And with the archbishop and the papal legate sent from Rome? Did they not discuss the means to restore peace?” “Aye, he did. But that was last month, and it seems King John has slept since then and is again refusing to negotiate. England cannot, will not, be ruled by tyranny. We have tried to invoke the coronation charter signed by the first Henry over a century ago, but there are those who believe a new version is required.” Richard privately agreed. The charter was created in the year eleven hundred. It was now the year of Our Lord twelve hundred and fifteen. Fresh issues faced England, issues which urgently required to be resolved.

The king must be curbed, controlled, brought to heel. Richard was a warrior at heart and had little interest in politics or diplomacy, but he knew stupidity and injustice when they stared him in the face and was glad of his liege lord’s newfound resolve. “Where is Fitzwalter? At his castle?” “Aye. He is at Castle Baynard within the City of London, well-placed to spearhead this latest alliance of the barons. You will know the place well enough, having squired there for Edmund du Guid before he inherited his title.” “I should. I was there for the better part of seven years.” “Aye. You should not have any trouble finding the place. So, tomorrow at dawn?” “We shall be ready.

Do we know who else will be joining us at Castle Baynard?” “Half the barons in the land are involved, one way or another. Edmund du Guid, now the Earl of Knaresborough, is to march south with a thousand men at arms. You might meet him on the route down to London. You can reminisce over old times. Will you be taking his brother with you?” “Aye, I will. Sir Frederick du Guid may be a younger son with little in the way of inheritance to look forward to, but he’s one of the fiercest fighters I know. In these volatile times, we need men of his calibre.” Sir Roger chuckled. “Aye. Not to mention yours, Richard.

You are not known as the Eagle of the North for nothing.” Richard rose to his feet. “I thank you for your confidence in me, my lord. I shall be in the guardroom if you need me.” Richard left the solar and made his way along the upper corridor to the main stairs in Arreford Keep. His armour scraped and clattered as he walked, but he was so accustomed to the heavy plates which covered most of his body that he no longer registered the extra weight or discomfort. As captain of the Arreford guard and Warden of the Keep, he was rarely out of armour, in permanent readiness to do battle to defend his lord’s lands and property and the honour of the d’Aubigny name. Located as they were in the wilds of Yorkshire, it was not uncommon for Arreford to come under attack, usually from the even wilder north where men still resisted rule from the capital in the south. Known as the Eagle of the North as a result of his family name and his ferocity in battle as well as the rare appearance of a huge sea eagle which had circled the castle for hours on the night of his birth, Richard was both feared and respected. The immense bird of prey had hovered above Wirksworth Castle in Northumbria the night his mother laboured to bring him into the world, and there were many who swore that the spirit of the ferocious predator had entered the soul of the child.

With such an auspicious beginning to an unparalleled military career, Richard had earned his reputation as a fierce and merciless warrior repelling undisciplined hordes in the Welsh Marches and unruly bandits who believed themselves outside of the law, along with the occasional bloodthirsty and adventurous Scottish clan. He had not, thus far, been called upon to face the king’s own troops but had known this day would come. He descended the stairs two at a time to almost run into another armoured knight on the landing below. Marek de Bolbec, heir to lands in Herefordshire, was the closest the Eagle of the North came to a friend. The pair had met when they were both fostered with the mighty Pendragon family in the Welsh marches and had later trained as knights together at Castle Baynard. Richard’s own pedigree was flawless. He was great-great-grandson to Gaston d’Aigle himself, who sailed to these shores with William the Conqueror and fought beside him at Hastings, and cousin to Sir Edward d’Aigle, the Earl of Hereford. His lineage alone guaranteed him a place of honour in some fine nobleman’s personal guard. Roger d’Aubigny was no slouch and had been quick to secure his services. Richard’s skill with a sword as well as his grasp of military tactics and flair for battle won him rapid promotion, and soon he found himself in a position to surround himself with knights of his choosing, men he trusted.

Marek was the first to be approached to join him at Arreford, followed by Sir Tybalt DeGrey, Sir Frederick du Guid, and Rowan de Morbray. In the years since Richard had assembled a fine, tight-knit force of seasoned warriors. Including himself, Arreford Keep boasted no less than a dozen elite knights, and it now fell to him to select five of them to accompany him to Castle Baynard. The remaining six, led by de Bolbec, would stay behind to make sure Arreford remained secure. “Whoa, is the place afire?” Marek hopped neatly to one side to avoid a collision. “What has you in such a hurry?” “We are to march against John in support of the barons. I am leaving for London at dawn with five hundred men.” Richard halted a few paces farther down the corridor. “Walk with me, Marek. I shall require your assistance to ensure all is in readiness to depart at first light.

” The preparations were, as ever, seamlessly efficient. Richard maintained Arreford in a constant state of military alert, and it took but a few curtly barked commands to mobilise his men. The first fingers of light peeking over the horizon the following morning found the Eagle of the North astride his snorting, prancing destrier, shield on his thigh and broadsword at his hip. He wore full battle armour, as he usually did, but this time the helmet encased his head and the visor concealed his harshly handsome features. Richard raised his sword in the air to signal that they were about to depart, then kicked his mount into a canter. The men he had assembled streamed over the drawbridge in his wake. The assault on London had begun. And it was over almost as quickly as it had commenced. The march from Yorkshire took five days, and by the time Richard and his army sighted Castle Baynard, situated right at the heart of the city, the barons’ combined armies surrounding the walls totalled over seven thousand. It was a monstrous force, and the capital put up barely a token resistance.

One by one, all of England’s earls apart from Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Ferrers, and Salisbury had renounced their oaths of allegiance to the monarch and defected to support the rebel barons. London was in their hands with barely a sword raised in anger. Richard surveyed the scene from the ramparts at Castle Baynard, Sir Tybalt DeGrey at his side. “According to Fitzwalter’s spies there are pockets of supporters to the crown still holed up in dwellings to the north. Our orders are to break into those houses, secure the occupants, and confiscate property as a lesson for their continued obstinacy.” His companion cast him a sharp glance. “From your tone am I to surmise you do not relish this duty?” “I have no stomach for making war on defenceless civilians in their own homes, even less women and children.” “But our orders are to take prisoners, surely, not put them all to the sword?” “Aye. The barons want no unnecessary violence or loss of life. This confrontation will have but one outcome and no more English blood need be spilled for it, but Fitzwalter still insists that resistance must he crushed.

” “Perhaps he is right.” “I daresay he thinks so.” Richard narrowed his eyes as he watched the activity in the bailey below, not all of it especially purposeful in his view. The Eagle of the North relished efficiency, and despite their easy victory, the barons’ combined forces did not strike him as especially welldisciplined. Some men worked, others scurried about doing the good Lord only knew what. Yet more stood in huddles conversing. From his vantage point it was unclear who was in command, and such sloppiness did not sit well with Richard. It was never so at Arreford. Roger d’Aubigny was not himself a military strategist or seasoned commander. He relied on Richard to provide all the military leadership needed, and his captain of the guard had a free hand there.

It was an arrangement that suited both. Richard was unaccustomed to taking orders from his own liege lord and even less so from others. He would not fall meekly in with Fitzwalter’s dictates either. “I perceive no real threat from these citizens who remain loyal to their misguided king. Fitzwalter can accomplish his aims without help from me.” “Where will he hold those he has ordered be seized?” Sir Tybalt wondered. “The king’s garrison still holds the Tower of London.” “I expect he will bring them here. There will be room enough in Fitzwalter’s dungeons, and I doubt their stay will be an extended one. This will soon be over.

As soon as it becomes known that the king no longer controls his capital city, John will have no choice but to capitulate and seek terms with the barons.” “If we are not to assist in rounding up dissenters, what is our contribution to be?” “Let us concentrate of the real soldiering. The walls require to be guarded, so the men from Arreford will be deployed there. See to it, if you please.” Sir Tybalt gave a brief nod. “Of course, my lord.” Richard’s confidence in the final outcome was not misplaced. Less than two weeks later, at the beginning of June in the year of Our Lord twelve hundred and fifteen, John agreed to meet with the barons. Sir Roger had by now made the trip from Yorkshire to take his place alongside the rebels, and Richard walked beside him onto the great field at Runnymede where the discussions were to take place. The barons took their seats ranged on one side of a long table carried out onto the meadow on the banks of the river Thames for the purpose.

Fitzwalter, the acknowledged leader of the barons, placed himself at the centre, in the seat facing that to be occupied by the monarch himself when he deigned to turn up. Steven Langdon, Archbishop of Canterbury, sat at Robert Fitzwalter’s right hand. A roll of parchment lay spread out before him on the table, a squat pot of dark-blue ink made from oak tree galls sat beside the document, and a swan’s quill was ready in his hand. Sir Roger was ushered to a seat about halfway down the table as denoted by his rank and relative importance, the captain of his personal guard ranged behind him, sword at the ready. Richard did not truly anticipate trouble, but it did no harm to be vigilant. The king kept them waiting for almost two hours, and since the day was unseasonably hot even for June, it was a grumpy set of barons who finally rose to greet their tardy monarch. John, in contrast, appeared cool, well-rested, and fresh as a daisy, determined to assert such authority as he might yet hold. Richard permitted himself a grim smile behind the visor of his helmet. Did John really not appreciate the strength of the opposition facing him, even now? If he did not at the outset, Steven Langdon was quick to rectify that weakness in the monarch’s grasp of affairs. He and Fitzwalter were adamant regarding the terms of the peace and the grievances of the barons.

These had been faithfully recorded by the archbishop in the document before him, which he grandly titled The Demands of the Barons, and proceeded to read out to the king. John huffed and puffed and declared their demands outrageous, but those were the fruitless protests of a man well and truly cornered. By the end of the afternoon, as sweat dribbled down the back of his neck and Richard was perfectly convinced the steel of his armour was on the point of melting, the king rose from his elevated chair and offered a brief nod to the protagonists before him. A bargain had been struck, and the gathering dispersed. “Langdon is to draw up the charter, a fresh document based upon the demands made and concessions agreed. It will set out the limits on the king’s authority and protect the rights of free men.” Sir Robert relayed the outcomes of the negotiations to Richard, though he had no need to do so. Richard had been there, had heard for himself. He was aware of the establishment of a panel of twenty-five barons whose task would be to enforce the agreement with the king, and that Sir Roger himself was numbered among them. His liege lord was not best pleased to have been pressed into such service, but the responsibility was his now and could not be avoided.

“So, are we to return to Arreford?” Richard asked.

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