There was a flourish of trumpets and King Charles of France swept into the state room of his palace, followed by the Dauphin, the Constable of France, the Duke of Britaine and other courtiers.
‘The English are advancing on us with full strength,’ said Charles, ‘and to respond fittingly in our defence is of major concern to us. Therefore the Dukes of Berri, Britaine, Brabant and Oreans will set out, together with you, Prince Dauphin, immediately, to re-inforce and renovate our front-line towns, taking men of courage and their military equipment. The King of England’s advance is as fierce as the current that spins in a whirlpool. We therefore have to be as resourceful as we can be, bearing in mind the recent examples of defeat at the hands of the underestimated English who have been deadly on our battlefields.’
The Dauphin bowed. ‘My most respected father,’ he began. ‘It’s most fitting that we arm ourselves against the enemy. Even when there’s no war or even hostilities, peace shouldn’t blunt a kingdom so much that it becomes complacent and neglects to maintain its defences, troops and preparations as they would if they were expecting a war. Therefore, in my opinion, we should all set off to inspect the vulnerable regions of France. And let us do it without any show of fear. No, no more than if we’d heard that the English were busy preparing for a Whitsun morris dance because, my good liege, she has such a useless king, her sceptre carried so weirdly by a vain, silly, shallow, frivolous youth, that she presents no threat whatsoever.’
‘Just a minute, Prince Dauphin!’ exclaimed the Constable. ‘You’re very much mistaken about this king. Ask the ambassadors recently returned, Your Grace, how he received the messages they delivered, how well he is supplied with wise counsellors, how restrained he was in his responses, while being formidable in his firm determination, and you will find that his youthful escapades were like the outward behaviour of the Roman, Brutus. He hid his discretion beneath a coat of folly, just as gardeners hide those roots that are going to become exquisite flowers beneath manure.’
‘Well that’s not so, my Lord High Constable,’ retorted the Dauphin. ‘But what we think is irrelevant. In the case of defence it’s always best to regard the enemy as stronger than he seems to ensure that the balance is right. If it’s underestimated it’s like a miser spoiling a coat because of his meanness with the cloth.’
‘Let us assume King Henry is strong,’ said the King. ‘So, princes, make sure you arm yourselves strongly to confront him. His ancestors have tasted our blood frequently: he is of that ferocious breed that hunted us in our own territory. Like that too memorable shame when we clashed at Crecy and all our princes were taken captive by that black name, Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, while his mighty father, standing on top of a mountain, crowned with the sun’s golden beams, watched his heroic son, smiling to see him mangling our beautiful, twenty year-old sons of French fathers. He stems from that victorious stock, so let us fear his inherited greatness and his destiny.’
A messenger arrived to tell the King that ambassadors from King Henry of England begged admission to His Majesty.
‘We’ll see them immediately,’ said the King. ‘Go and bring them. You can see how hotly they’re pursuing us, my friends,’ he told the court.
‘Stand up to them and stop the pursuit,’ said the Dauphin, ‘because cowardly dogs bark loudest when what threatens them is a long way off. My dear sovereign, call their bluff and let them know what kind of monarchy you’re the head of. Self love, my liege, is not as great a sin as self abasement.’
Attendants escorted Exeter and his train into the chamber. He stood before the King and bowed.
‘From our brother England?’ said the King.
‘From him,’ said Exeter, ‘ and he greets Your Majesty like this: he would like you, in the name of God, to renounce and set aside the borrowed glories that by the gift of heaven and human and divine right belong to him and his heirs – namely the crown and all the various honours that, by custom and practice over many years, belong to the crown of France. So that you will know that this is not a spurious or irregular claim scratched out of antiquity or raked up from the dust of oblivion, he sends you this clear family tree in which every branch is a confirmation.’ He offered a parchment to King Charles. ‘He wishes you to study this pedigree and when you discover that he is indeed descended from his most renowned of famous ancestors, Edward the Third, he orders you then to resign your crown and kingdom, improperly held from him, the legitimate and true claimant.’
‘Or else?’ said Charles.
‘War.’ Exeter shrugged. ‘For even if you hide the crown inside your hearts he will search for it. So he is coming in a storm, like a Jove, in thunder and in earthquake. If asking politely fails he will compel. He asks you, in the bowels of Christ, to hand over the crown and to have mercy for the poor souls who will be devoured by this war. He places the responsibility on you for widows’ tears, orphans’ cries, the dead men’s blood, the mourning women’s groans, for husbands, fathers, and engaged lovers, that shall be swallowed up in this conflict. This is his claim, his threat, and my message – unless the Dauphin is present, to whom I expressly bring a personal greeting.’
‘As for us,’ said Charles, ‘we will give this further consideration. Tomorrow you will take our final answer back to our brother of England.’
The Dauphin was bristling. ‘As for the Dauphin,’ he said. ‘I represent him. What message did England send to him?’
‘Scorn and defiance, disdain and contempt! In fact you are beneath the mighty sender’s contempt – that’s how you are rated. That’s what my king says. And if His Highness, your father, doesn’t sweeten the bitter mockery you sent his majesty by granting all his demands in full, he’ll call you so hotly to account for it that the caves and hollow caverns of France will curse your insult and return your mockery with the echo of guns.’
‘Let’s say my father responds in the way you would like him to: it would be against my will because I want nothing but conflict with England. That’s why I presented him with the Paris tennis balls – as fitting for his youth and vanity.’
‘He’ll make your Paris palace shake for that, even if it is the finest court in Europe,’ said Exeter. ‘And be assured, you’ll be amazed at the difference, as we, his subjects have been, between the expectations of his youthful days and these, his mature ones. You’ll find out how completely serious he is if he stays in France.’
The King rose. ‘You’ll have our final decision tomorrow,’ he said.
‘Give it to us soon,’ said Exeter, ‘in case our King comes here himself to question our delay: he’s already landed in this country.’
‘You’ll be sent back soon with a considered reply,’ said the King. ‘A night is just a small expenditure of breath and minimal delay in answering matters of such consequence.’