‘He is rich who has that which is heart desires’
She was one of the richest noblewomen in England. But Alicia de Lacy lost everything when her husband, Thomas of Lancaster, led a rebellion against King Edward II.
Everything except the love of one man.
Read the first chapter:
Favoured Beyond Fortune
He is rich who has that which his heart desires.
It was the movement that caught my eye. Dark against azure a figure performed an energetic carole as it danced towards the ground, and I thought that it was beautiful. But when the cry reached me I saw that the figure was neither dancing nor swimming but was grasping at elusive air. Time paused and I gazed upwards for an eternity, eyes dazzled by the sun and my mind seeking explanation. Then I felt the courtyard shake as it thumped the ground. It looked like the doll I held in my hand. Its limbs were twisted as if they were stuffed with rags and it was silent. A woman screamed and others joined until there was a chorus. As my lady mother passed me in a cloud of lavender scent, her skirts raised to show grey stockings, I felt myself lifted skywards and carried into the dimness of the women’s chamber by my nurse. It was not until I was much older that I understood what I had witnessed.
John was the second of my brothers to die. My brother Edmund died before I could remember him. No one has ever told me about him, but adults are often indiscreet around the ears of children and I have heard enough snatches of conversation to know that he drowned in the well of Denbigh Castle when those lands were given to my father after the wars with the Welsh. My father had taken the family there that summer to oversee the building of a new stone castle. Edmund had been watching the work when another boy had taken one of the kittens that roamed the courtyard and thrown it down the well. Hearing its futile mewing Edmund had climbed down to rescue it, but had lost his grip on the slippery stones and plunged into the numb-cold water below. The water that was the life blood of the castle embraced my brother and took him for its own. He was dead before they pulled him out, the kitten still clutched in his grasp, and my father, grieving for his first born son and heir, abandoned the work and brought his family home to Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire, to the high ridge where Ilbert de Lacy had built a fortress two hundred years before.
It was here, in the nursery tower that overlooked the inner bailey, that baby Margaret slipped from this life. All I recall of her was a swaddled bundle that was placed in my arms. She was heavy. Much heavier than my doll. My mother sat close beside me, outstretched hands waiting to catch the baby should she fall. But I held my little sister tight. Her cheeks were red and the skin flaked away across the grizzled little forehead that showed beneath her bands. Her dark blue eyes sought mine and she stared up at me as if she knew me, and in that moment I loved her. She was a good baby, they said, a quiet babe who never cried. She didn’t even cry the night she died. She was too special to remain with us, my nurse gently explained. God had seen fit to take her and surely she would not go to purgatory. For what sins had she committed during her fleeting visit to earth? They lifted her from the wooden cradle, unbound her swaddling, washed her and took her away. She was the first and last baby I have rocked in my arms that I can call my kin.
When John fell from the turret my father said that if he had lived he would have whipped him for being up there. I wondered if John would have preferred that or if he was glad that he was dead, but when I asked my nurse she bade me hold my tongue lest I was punished for such disgraceful talk. So I sat near the window and unbraided and braided the yellow hair that was stuck to the head of my doll and wondered if the weeping would ever cease.
Part One – 1295 to 1311
My mother and I were sitting in the window embrasure stitching a new wall hanging. It was a scene of men and women hunting with hawks and hounds and as we worked we made up stories about the people we were embroidering, and I said that the squire in the background, with the small birds in his hand ready to be plucked for roasting, was secretly in love with the lady in the red gown who rode the fine white horse and held a merlin aloft on her wrist.
I remember that the sun was warm as it slanted in through the open window. I had not been paying full attention to my task and although my lady mother plied her needle diligently I had been teasing one of the tabby cats with a length of thread, making it stand up on its hind legs and swipe the air as it tried to grasp the bright blue filament in its sharp claws. My mother was indulgent of me and did not direct me back to my work but paused to laugh at the animal’s antics as it overbalanced and fell, then sat up to wash its flanks as if that would restore its dignity.
As we were laughing we heard the horses and I watched as my father got down from his bay courser and came towards the tower where we were working. It was unusual for him to come to us in the women’s solar and my mother quickly put aside her silks and hurried to curtsey before him. I was more leisurely. I knew that if I lingered my father would snatch me up before my greeting was complete and would hug me to him, and that he would smell of sweat and horses and wine, and his moustache would tickle my face as he kissed me. But that day his greeting seemed distracted and his face was flushed a deeper red than just the journey and the heat of the sun could cause.
My mother waved to one of the women to pour wine and she handed the cup to him with an eager face. “Do you bring good news, my lord?” she asked. She always wanted to hear the latest gossip and she and her women chatted endlessly about any snippet that could be gleaned from the travelling friars who often sat at our dinner table to refresh themselves on their journeys.
She had spent time at court before her marriage and she often told me about the things she had seen and done there. Her eyes took on a faraway glow when she spoke about her youth, as if she was still living it in her mind and it was more real to her than the present. She often talked of the king, Edward, and his queen, Eleanor. She said that they had loved each other very much and one of her favourite stories was about the time when Eleanor had accompanied Edward on crusade to the Holy Land. He had almost been killed by an assassin who struck at him with a poisoned knife and my lady mother told me that Eleanor had sucked the poison from his wounded arm and saved him. I had only vague memories of Queen Eleanor. I was presented to her once when she was at Harby, not far from Lincoln. She died there of a fever and my mother took me to see the tomb in Lincoln Cathedral where her viscera were buried before her preserved body was taken to Westminster. Even then I had thought it an odd practice and as I stood by the shining tomb I had asked my mother how Queen Eleanor would eat her dinner when she reached heaven if only the outer shell of her that was buried in London was raised up on the day of judgement. My mother didn’t answer me but shushed me harshly and hurried me out of the cathedral with apologies to the priest who had overheard my words. But it worried me for a long time and I even cried at the thought of Queen Eleanor having to remain hungry for the whole of eternity.
Now my lady mother watched my father with eager eyes as he drank his wine and handed the empty cup to the servant.
“I have spoken with Edmund of Lancaster and he has agreed to the betrothal of his son, Thomas, and our daughter.”
I laid a hand on my father’s mud splattered sleeve. “What is he like? Does he joust?” I asked, thinking of the heroes of the stories that I loved.
My father smiled down and with a warm hand under my chin he kissed my face. “It is an excellent match for you, Alicia. I could not have found you a better husband. I have agreed that Thomas should join our household,” he told my mother, “and in two years’ time we will host the wedding.”
“But surely that is too soon,” objected my mother. “At scarce thirteen she will not be ready to be a bride to any man.”
“It is the king’s wishes,” replied my father with exasperation. “He does us honour with this offer of his nephew, and if we hesitate there will be others more than willing to agree to a match with a boy who carries the royal blood of both England and France. Our grandchildren will carry royal blood from both parents and…” He paused with a shrug of his shoulders and turned his face from us. Perhaps he thought of my brother John and of Edmund, drenched and still, pulled from the well at Denbigh. “And what other future is there now for the de Lacys,” he asked my lady mother, “when my wife will bear me no more sons?”
My mother returned to the bench below the window and silently picked up her needle. I thought then that she was angry. Now I understand that it was because she could not endure the pain of loss that she refused my father.
I broke the silent tension with a question. “What does he look like?” I asked. Was he the courtly knight on the jet black horse that I had prayed to the saints for so diligently? A man who would come to win my hand in marriage as Guarin de Metz had won the hand of the Lady Melette of the White Tower. If he was a nephew to the king then surely he must be tall and well made, with a handsome face and kindly disposition. Though to be truthful I probably never considered his disposition at all. My father was the only man I knew well and at that age I thought all men were as good and kind as him. As I stood there in the solar that day my young thoughts were of nothing more than new clothes, a great feast with music and dancing and a comely man who would hold my hand and look on me with admiration and devotion. My mother spoke the truth when she said that I was too young, for I knew nothing of what it really meant to be a wife.
I was a girl of eleven summers then and what I thought I knew about love I had gleaned from the ballads that the minstrels sang and the precious books that the women read aloud in my mother’s chamber. I heard them all eagerly, not discerning between truth and legend. I believed them and stored them in my imagination to be embellished as I allowed my mind to wander in the dark hours of the night or when my attention should have been more firmly fixed on my work or on my prayers.
Sometimes the women would re-tell the stories when the day’s tasks had been done and it grew too dark to sew in the flickering candlelight. If it was not yet time to retire to bed, someone would lay their work aside and begin their favourite story. My mother liked to tell the tale of how Payn Peverel slew the giant Geomagog. I think it was because it reminded her of how my father had overcome the Welsh in the marches. But I always hoped that someone would tell my favourite story. I could never hear often enough about Lady Melette. No suitor could find favour with Melette and when her uncle asked her if there was no knight that she would take as her lord, she told him: ‘There is no knight that I would take for riches or honours of lands, but if ever I take such a one he shall be handsome, and courteous, and accomplished, and the most valiant of his order in all Christendom. Of riches I make no account, for truly can I say that he is rich who has that which his heart desires.’ Her uncle told her that he would do everything in his power to help her find such a lord, and that for a portion he would give her the White Tower with all its fiefs so that she should be sought after for her wealth as well as her beauty. Then, he made a proclamation in many lands and cities that all the knights of worth who would tourney for love should come at the feast of St Michael to the castle of Peverel and that the knight who performed the best should have the hand of the Lady Melette. The tournament was fierce and desperate. Many knights were unhorsed and many hard blows were given and received. Lady Melette and her women watched from a high tower and they saw that Guarin de Metz was the best, the fairest and the most valiant of them all. He was victorious against all comers and to him fell the prize of the tournament – the Lady Mellette. They were wedded within the sight of everyone. William Peverel made a rich feast and when the feast was ended Guarin took his wife and his brothers to the White Town where they stayed in great happiness for forty days. Then his brothers and their knights returned to Brittany, except for the youngest, Guy. He remained in England and conquered many lands with his sword and he was called Guy le Strange, and from him are descended all the great lords of England who have that name.
I went to my betrothal with my imagination fuelled by such romantic tales. I believed that when I saw Thomas of Lancaster he too would be handsome and courteous and accomplished and the most valiant of his order in all of Christendom; that he would shine with courtly deeds and goodness and would be to me as Guarin had been to Melette. I had even worked our intertwined initials on a pair of white gloves to present to my betrothed as a gift that he could carry until our wedding day.
Unlike William Peverel my father had not arranged a tourney at Pontefract where knights could fight for my hand in marriage, though he had smiled indulgently when I spoke of Lady Melette. My father was an affectionate man. He would often hold me close against his soft, warm body where my face would mould itself into his flesh and my senses would be lost in the scent of the cedar and rue in which his tunics were stored in the coffer beside the bed where he slept. His lips would press down hard on the top of my head as he whispered, “You are all I have now, Alicia. You are all I have.”
“Those are only stories,” he had said as he took me on his lap and tugged at my braid to tease me. “What if some ugly, lame or hunchback knight won your hand? You would not be pleased with me then.”
“How could he win if he were lame or hunchback?” I demanded.
“That does not exclude ugly,” laughed my father and I recall that I could not match his mirth, but clung to his warm tunic and did not know how I would ever manage without him. “We will have a Round Table to celebrate your wedding,” he promised. “You will see. Your husband will acquit himself well because I will teach him to be the best knight Pontefract has ever seen. For am I not a great knight myself?” he asked me as he wound my braid around his fingers. I ran my hand over his rotund stomach and wondered if he could still unhorse any opponent in the lists as he claimed he had done when he captained the king’s Round Table at Nefyn to celebrate the conquest of the Welsh. I believed that he could.
But as soon as I saw Thomas of Lancaster I knew that he was no Guarin de Metz. I was waiting with my father and mother outside the door to the great hall when he rode into the castle bailey on a plain grey courser beside his father, Edmund, duke of Lancaster and his mother, Blanche of Artois. He took his time dismounting and I felt uncomfortable as I stood and waited for him to hand the reins to a groom. As he approached I saw that he was much taller than me. His hair looked as though it had just been sheared. Whether his face had been shaved I was unsure, although I thought not as there was a fuzz on his upper lip. His features seemed to have sprung from his mother, along with her slightly weak chin, and his expression was one of arrogance as he stared around at the curved walls of the keep and the sturdy towers of the castle. His mouth turned down in petulance and he gazed upon me with disdain as I walked forward to greet him in obedience.
The ground was hard and stony beneath my knees and I hoped that I would not rip the fabric of my new saffron coloured gown with its purple belt, nor tear my delicate stockings as I knelt before him and offered him my palms pressed tightly together between his as a sign of my deference to his will. His hand was clammy around my fingers as he raised me up and there was a slight sound like the whisper of a midnight breeze from the women who watched us. His eyes were a mud brown and just as dull as I tilted up my face for his moist kiss. His breath smelt a little of goose fat and he had an angry red spot on his forehead.
I looked down as befitted a well behaved girl and hoped that it was because he was as overwhelmed as I was by the occasion that he seemed so unfriendly. Surely I could trust my father to have chosen well?
The next day we were betrothed. I had been bathed in water scented with rose petals and other herbs, in a tub lined with linen in the bedchamber. A bath was a special treat and I enjoyed the way the warm water lapped at my body, caressing and warming my skin and softening my finger tips until they were white and crinkled. My hair had been washed with rosemary to make it shine. One of the women had poured the water from a jug whilst I held my head back and pressed a cloth over my face to keep it from my eyes and nose. My mother and my nurse had rubbed me dry before the hearth and dressed me in a new undergown of pure white and a long fitted tunic of blue as a symbol of my purity. My hair was left uncovered and loose as befitted my maidenly virtue and when it was dry they combed and combed it until every dark strand was tamed.
I was not unused to such attentions and I enjoyed being fussed over. Ever since the day I had watched my brother fall from the turret, everywhere I went there was someone with me. I was never left unattended and the words “Be careful, Mistress Alicia” followed me like a charm.
When the hour came, my father stood at the door and smiled at the sight of me. He took my hand in his large warm one and my mother took my other hand and they led me out, across the courtyard where all the household had gathered to see me pass and throw herbs at my feet. We walked in the sunshine towards the chapel of St Clement where I would exchange vows and plight troth with my intended husband.
Thomas of Lancaster was standing between his parents at the chapel door. He was staring at the ground and pushing a small stone backwards and forwards with the toe of his pointed leather shoe. As we approached, my father and mother leading me, he looked up and met my eyes with contempt. I hesitated, but my father tugged me gently forward and when I glanced up at him he gave me an encouraging smile.
“Does he not look handsome?” he asked me. I looked again. Thomas was dressed in a long tunic of red samite as Guarin had been in the story that I loved, but it displeased me because the surly boy who stood before me had nothing in common with that hero. I gave him a half smile, but it was not returned and he did not meet my eyes again. His thin lips were pressed closed and his shoulders hunched inside the tunic with its embroidered roses. When the bishop reached for his hand to join it with mine it felt cold and I would have pulled mine away had the bishop not had his fingers clasped firmly around my wrist.
“Will you promise to take this woman as your wife?” he asked and Thomas muttered that he would and I quaked inside to think that I must spend the rest of my life with him. I thought that he looked cruel, the sort of boy who tormented those who were inferior to him for fun. I had seen such boys in my father’s household before, though he tried his best to curb such behaviour and I had once seen him strip and beat a young squire for allowing a wound to his dog’s paw to fester so badly that it had to be put out of its pain.
“Will you promise to take this man as your husband?” the bishop asked me. I looked at my sad faced mother and then at my father who nodded his head at me enthusiastically, the flecks of grey in his freshly barbered hair catching the light. Silence hung in the morning air like a bad smell as the adults waited for me to give my word.
“I will,” I whispered. For what choice had I but to comply? I gazed towards the high wall that surrounded the inner bailey. I had always thought of it as my friend, whose loving embrace kept me safe from myriad dangers that lurked on the other side ‒ the evil spirits like the fallen angel who lived in the body of Geomagog. But at that moment I saw that the high walls were my prison and that it was not a giant with a huge club that I needed to fear but the long limbed boy who stood beside me and who would be my lord and have command over me.