King Henry, having seized the throne from his cousin, Richard the Second, and not therefore enjoying the blessing that God’s anointed receive, had never been able to control the restless currents that were tearing the kingdom apart as a result of his action. The robust, ambitious Henry Bolingbroke, hero of the people, had become the exhausted, disillusioned and defeated King Henry the Fourth whose right to the throne was widely disputed. He longed to lead a Crusade, uniting English knights against the infidel and winning the approval of God. To that end he had assembled his court in his London palace. His younger son, John of Lancaster, sat beside him.
‘Even though we are exhausted and on edge we need to try and give the fragile peace a chance to take a breath, and think about waging new wars on far distant shores,’ he said. ‘No longer shall the thirsty lips of English soil be daubed with the blood of her own children: no longer shall war cut trenches through her fields, nor the hooves of armed cavalries in full charge bruise her tender crops. Those warring men, their eyes blazing like meteors in a troubled heaven, although fellow countrymen raised from the same stock, who so recently clashed with great violence in civil warfare, are now going to march in disciplined ranks in the same direction. No more will they be in opposition to friends, relations and allies. No more will the sharpness of civil war cut those who wage it as a badly sheathed knife cuts its owner. Therefore, friends, we’ll go to the very sepulchre of Christ, whose soldiers we are – signed up and committed to fight in the name of His blessed cross – with an army of seasoned soldiers, which we’ll raise, to chase the pagans out of the holy land, over which those blessed feet walked and which, fourteen hundred years ago, were nailed to that cruel cross for our sakes. We made this decision twelve months ago so we’re not here to tell you that we’re going: that’s not the point of this meeting. Therefore, my dear cousin Westmoreland, tell me what our Council decided to do to promote this heartfelt ambition.’
Westmoreland bowed. ‘My liege,’ he began. ‘We debated this question with enthusiasm and proposed many strategies. But last night, in the midst of all that, a messenger arrived from Wales with bad news: the worst was that the noble Mortimer, while leading men of Hertfordshire against the vicious unorthodox fighter, Glendower, was taken captive by that barbarous Welshman. A thousand of Mortimer’s men were slaughtered. The abuse of those corpses – the appalling mutilations – perpetrated by those Welshwomen can’t be described or even mentioned without shame.’
The King sighed. ‘It seems, then, that the news of this incident has put the brakes on our plans for the Holy Land,’ he said.
Westmoreland nodded. ‘There’s more, my gracious lord. Worse and more unwelcome news came from the north, and this is it: On Holly-rood day, the gallant Hotspur (young Harry Percy) and brave Archibald, that most valiant and respected Scot, met at Holmedon, where they had an unpleasant and bloody encounter, according to reports of the noise of their artillery and the best guess of the messenger who galloped off while it was going on and therefore didn’t know what the outcome was, either way.’
The king pointed to a knight who had come straight to the court before going home, not even having had a chance to change out of his battle clothes. ‘Here is a dear, loyal and conscientious friend, Sir Walter Blunt – just dismounted, covered in every kind of mud to be found between Holmedon and this palace of ours. And he has brought us welcome and encouraging news. The Earl of Douglas has been discomforted. Sir Walter saw ten thousand tough Scots and twenty-two knights drowning in their own blood on the fields of Holmedon. Hotspur took Mordake, the Earl of Fife – eldest son of the defeated Douglas – prisoner, as well as the Earls of Athol, of Murray, Angus and Menteith. Isn’t this an honourable booty, a gallant prize, hey cousin? Isn’t it?’
‘Absolutely,’ Westmoreland agreed. ‘It’s a conquest a prince could boast about.’
After the glee of his previous thought, the mention of the word ‘prince’ cast a cloud over the the King’s features. ‘Yes, that’s where you’re making me sad, and causing me to sin by envying my Lord Northumberland in that he’s the father of such a blessed son: a son who is the theme of honour’s tongue, the tallest tree in the grove, sweet Fortune’s pride and joy. When I hear the praise he receives I’m mindful of the chaotic and dishonourable behaviour that besmirches the reputation of my young Harry. Oh how I wish it could be proved that some fairy of the night had swapped our children as they slept and called mine Percy, his Plantagenet! Then I would have his Harry and he mine.’ King Henry shook his head sadly, then pulled himself upright. ‘But let me dismiss him from my thoughts.’ He turned to Westmoreland. ‘But what about this young Percy’s arrogance? He’s keeping the prisoners for himself and he informs me that I shall have none but Mordake, Earl of Fife.’
‘This is his uncle’s doing,’ said Westmoreland. ‘This is Worcester, hostile to you in every way, preening himself and stirring up the younger generation against your authority.’
The King smiled. ‘But I’ve sent for him to answer for this. And that’s the reason why we have to postpone our holy mission to Jerusalem.’ He rose. ‘Cousin, we’ll hold our Council at Windsor next Wednesday. So inform the lords, but return to us as soon as you can because there’s more to be said and done than I should utter in my present angry state.’
Westmoreland bowed. ‘I will, my liege.’
The session was over.