The Circle of Fortune Chapter One

August 1323 

St Peter in Chains

From his cell, high in the Tower of London, Roger Mortimer heard the chime of a bell. It was the feast day of Saint Peter-in-Chains and he knew that the guards and kitchen boys would be gathering below to give thanks for the saint’s escape.

On his knees beside his pallet bed, Roger vowed that he would build a chapel to the saint at Ludlow Castle if God delivered him from captivity. Although Roger had not entrusted his life to prayer alone. He had good friends who would ensure that he was soon on his way to France.

Roger crossed himself and got to his feet in the gloom.  His squire, Richard de Monmouth, was watching him in the light of one flickering tallow candle that kept them from total darkness.

“Will he come?” asked Monmouth.

“He will come,” said Roger as he stared at the barred and locked door that stood between him and his freedom. “I trust him,” he said, hoping that he would not find himself dangling from the end of a traitor’s rope come morning. 

The laughing voices of the garrison drifted up on the afternoon air as men made their way to a celebratory supper in the castle hall. Roger knew that, outside, the summer sun would still be high and that it would be an hour or two before his rescuer came.

It fell eerily quiet as the men went inside to eat and drink. With the castle gates shut and all the prisoners locked in their cells most of the guards were free to enjoy the feast – and Roger hoped that Gerard d’Alspaye, the deputy constable of the castle, had arranged for a generous quantity of wine to be served.

Time passed slowly and neither man spoke as they listened for any sound from outside the door, apprehensive that quiet footsteps might be those of an assassin with a knife rather than d’Alspaye come to free them.

At last, Roger heard a tapping sound. He met Monmouth’s eyes and nodded briefly. His heart raced but it seemed an age before a stone near the base of the wall began to move, and longer still before it was prised away. Roger watched as the edge of a crowbar levered away another. The work progressed faster as the mortar crumbled and Roger brought the remains of the candle to supplement the lantern which d’Alspaye had carried with him.

“My lord?” whispered d’Alspaye.

“Has all gone according to plan?” asked Roger.

“The constable lies unconscious, and most of the men,” he replied as he struggled to remove another stone. 

“I think I can get out now,” he said, pressing his body close to the gritty floor and beginning to ease himself through the hole head first.

“One more, I think,” said d’Alspaye.  “It will be better than risking you becoming stuck, my lord.”

“Quickly then!”

Another stone was wrenched away and fell with a thud that made them all pause and listen for footsteps coming up the stairwell but, apart from slurred singing in the distance, all remained quiet and Roger lay down again on his back to wriggle through the gap. He stood and slapped the debris from his clothes as d’Alspaye hauled Monmouth through. Then, with the light of the lantern casting looming shadows, they crept down the twisting stairs.

At the bottom d’Alspaye opened a door into the courtyard. Roger could see several men lying in a stupor. The soporific in the wine had been both fast and effective. They would all have sore heads by morning, he thought – though that would not be the worst of it when his cell was discovered empty.

They flitted into the kitchens. The cook, supervising the scrubbing of the pots glanced up as they came in. Work stopped as the kitchen boys paused and a whispering rustled across the chamber.

“Back to work!” roared the cook. “There is nothing for you to see here!”

The man nodded briefly and moved to guard the doorway into his kitchens as they threaded through the trestles. Roger snatched up some remains of the supper as he passed, pushing remnants of roasted fowl into his mouth. He would have lingered to eat more, but d’Alspaye urged him on towards the fireplace where the great fire with its iron spit and hooks for cauldrons had been covered. He nodded upwards and Roger reached up to clasp his hands around the warm stones. His feet scrabbled for footholds and he was aware that clouds of soot were billowing down on his companions below, but he braced his legs on either side of the chimney and inched his way towards the twilight above. Sharp edges cut into his ungloved hands and the muscles in his thighs burned with the effort, but he was not fully aware of the pain. He watched as the first stars of evening appeared in the widening patch of sky above him and at last he began to believe that fortune was on his side.

Panting with the effort, he swung himself over the edge of the chimney stack and onto the roof.  He allowed himself a moment to regain his breath as he waited for d’Alspaye and Monmouth.  It was full dark now and the night was moonless, forcing them to feel their way to the edge where d’Alspaye fixed one of the rope ladders that had been kept hidden by the cook. He climbed down first and Roger waited until he heard the ladder smack against the stone of the wall – the signal that all was clear below.  He felt for the rungs, trusting that they would hold him, and began his descent, expecting an arrow in his back at any moment. On the ground, d’Alspaye was pressed close to the wall. He shook the ladder for Monmouth to come down and they waited, only the sound of their breathing and the gentle splash of the river beyond the outer wall breaking the silence.

When Monmouth’s feet reached the ground with a gentle thud, d’Alspaye plucked Roger’s sleeve and they ran like spectres across the open ground to the outer wall. 

“Stand clear!” whispered d’Alspaye as he took the second rope ladder that he had strapped across his back and tossed its grappling irons upwards. The man had a sure throw and Roger heard the irons scrape against the wall. He climbed with increasing confidence and at the top waited for the others to follow him. Once up, they hauled on the ladder, adjusted the irons and let it snake down the outer side of the fortifications. Roger went first, feeling for only every other rung as he neared the ground. For the first time in almost two years, he was outside the Tower of London. And it felt good.

He waited, wishing he had at least a knife to protect himself, but the guards slept on and the watchmen on the towers were also likely to be dozing, d’Alspaye having arranged to have refreshments sent up to them on this special day of celebration. Moments later the other men were down. d’Alspaye whistled softly.

“This way,” he said and Roger followed him across the marshy ground towards the flash of a small lantern.

“My lord,” whispered the oarsman as Roger stepped into the boat and seated himself. The second boatman extinguished the lantern and, with knowledge of the river that had no need for light, their rescuers grasped the oars and rowed them out onto the salt drenched tide and across the Thames to Greenwich.

Monmouth was out first and held the boat hard against the bank as Roger jumped ashore.

“I will see you well rewarded for this,” he told the boatmen.  “I will not remain in France and watch England suffer under this tyranny. I will come back. And when I do I will not forget what you have done for me this night.”

“May God go with you, my lord,” said the oarsman. “And hold you in His keeping.”

“And also you,” replied Roger as they were swallowed up once more by the black night.

A horse snickered nearby and Roger turned in alarm.

“Fear not, my lord,” said d’Alspaye. “They are your own men.” He pushed a small lantern into Roger’s hand. “Hold this steady,” he said as he struck a flint and lit the wick. Roger shielded the light from the breeze. Then, holding it up as he heard the hooves come nearer, he recognised one of his men-at-arms with his favourite horse, ready saddled.

“Ned!”

“It’s good to see you, my lord.” Ned passed him the reins.  “Mount up,” he advised. “There are only a few hours until sun up and by then they will be on our trail.”

Needing no urging, Roger put his foot to the stirrup and pulled himself into the familiar saddle. The last time he had ridden this horse had been into the ward of Shrewsbury Castle where the Earl of Pembroke had guaranteed that King Edward would grant him a pardon. But the man had lied. Instead of a pardon he had been taken to the Tower where he had expected certain death – a fate he would, at one time, have preferred when faced with the clemency of life imprisonment in one windowless and airless cell. But when d’Alspaye had brought the news that he was to be executed after all, life had suddenly seemed too precious to forfeit, and, as Roger and his men headed for Portchester, he was glad that his friends were willing to risk their own necks rather than see him hang.

The lightening of the sky on the eastern horizon came as a mixed blessing. They could press the horses on at speed, but the peasants in the fields would have no qualms about betraying their passing to the king’s men for a few silver pennies. Roger hoped that when the men and dogs were sent after them they would first search the road to Dover where he might be expected to take ship to France because the route he had planned was taking them in an altogether different direction.

Around dawn they paused and his men-at-arms produced food and drink. Roger gulped thirstily. The night had been hot and the day promised intense heat to come as the sun rose, a fiery orange. Despite the beauty of the morning, there was no time to linger and the men mounted up again and pressed on – four armed and armoured, one in the clothes of a gentleman, and two in rags.

They rode on through the heat of the day, trying to avoid towns and villages where their appearance might cause comment. Instead, they chose tracks through fields and woods and did not rest, not even when the sun completed its circuit of the sky. Roger slumped in his saddle, hit by a wall of fatigue. He had not slept for over a day and the unaccustomed physical exertion of his escape had left him exhausted.

“Do you need to rest, my lord?” asked Ned, drawing his horse alongside him. Roger shook his head.

“Not until we are safely out of England,” he replied. “If I fall asleep, tie me to the saddle and ride on.”

It was dark again as they approached Portchester. They did not ride into the town but skirted around it and came to the coast where a boat was waiting. They unsaddled the horses, stripped them of their bridles and left them grazing on the shoreline as they clambered into the small craft. Roger feared that the boat might sink under the weight of so many men, but the swain seemed to know his business and set the sail to make the most of the breeze. As the land retreated behind them and the waves slapped higher against the hull, splashing Roger’s face with welcome coolness, he hoped that the horses would be collected as arranged. They were valuable animals and he was sorry to have left them behind.

“I owe you my life,” he told d’Alspaye, leaning forward in the dark to grasp the man’s hand. “I will not forget it.”

“There are many who regret your treatment at the hands of this king, and they are angry at the way Thomas of Lancaster abandoned you. They look to you as the man who might rescue England.”

“I am flattered by their faith in me,” replied Roger as he felt the boat surge beneath him. He rested his head on his arms, too tired to even contemplate doing more than surviving until he reached France. The saving of England would have to wait until another day.

It was daylight when a hand on his shoulder woke him.

“We are here, lord,” said Ned.

Roger scanned the small harbour. Some fishing boats were tied up at the wharf but the only men he could see in the dawn light were waiting with a string of horses. 

“Courtesy of your cousin,” said Gerard d’Alspaye.

As soon as the boat bumped the harbour wall Roger grasped the ladder and soon had his feet on French ground. Stiff and sore as he was, he was about to kneel and kiss it, when he saw a squire dressed in de Fiennes’ colours coming towards him.

“Geoffrey?” he said, recognising his son, yet finding him changed. The last time he had seen him he had been a boy, but now he was a man with a moustache and broad shoulders.

“Father!” he greeted him with a wide smile. Roger opened his tired arms and embraced his son.

“It is good to see you,” he said.

“And you, father.”

As the heir to his maternal grandmother’s French lands it had been decided that Geoffrey should be placed in the household of his cousin, Robert de Fiennes, so that he would know and understand French society, and, although Roger had been saddened at the news of the death of his wife’s mother, it had been provident because it meant that Geoffrey’s estates could now provide an income whilst he was in exile.  

“My lord?”  A voice interrupted them and Roger nodded. He knew that they must make haste. It would be foolish to linger. Geoffrey brought him a horse – a sturdy chestnut that Roger thought might work well in the lists. He was hoping for the chance to participate in some of the French tournaments once he had regained his fitness. It would be a good way to earn some extra cash and to show the kings of both England and France that he was still a good horseman and soldier.

The sun rose hotter than ever as they took the road towards the de Fiennes estates in Picardy. Roger could feel it burning the back of his neck, but it was a discomfort he welcomed after his time in the dark cell, only able to guess at what the weather outside might be like.

It was a full two days’ ride to reach his cousin’s home and Roger could not remember ever having felt so tired in all his life.  After he had been welcomed he was shown to a chamber with a window, a feather bed and, best of all, a tub of hot water in which to bathe. Roger stripped the grimy rags from his filthy body and got into the tub, watching as a flotilla of fleas and lice floated, drowned, to the surface.  He picked them off with distaste, splashing water amongst the floor rushes as he did. If he had been at home, his wife Joan would have come to soap the cloth and scrub the ingrained dirt from his skin. They would have laughed. He would have flicked water at her and she would have told him off for wetting her gown, saying that she would have to remove it and put it to dry.  And it would have ended with them in bed together. 

He was worried about Joan. After his own arrest she and their youngest son had been taken from the abbey at Wigmore and imprisoned.  His two eldest sons, Edmund and Roger, had been taken to Windsor and three of his daughters were locked up in nunneries. He felt angry. What kind of king took revenge on women and children like that? And now that he had escaped he was concerned that they would fare even worse.

“What will you do now, father?” asked Geoffrey when Roger was clean and dressed in fresh clothes. 

“I will present myself at the court of King Charles as an ally of France.”

“And then?”

“I am not certain,” he admitted. “But I will fight for France in any war against King Edward.” He stared out of the window. It was good to be here and to be re-united with his son. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted to free the rest of his family. He wanted his lands back. He wanted vengeance.