The young King sat on his throne, attended by the Dukes of Gloucester, Bedford and Exeter and the Earls of Warwick and Westmorland and their officials. ‘Where is my gracious lord of Canterbury?’ he said.
‘He’s not here,’ said Exeter.
‘Send for him, good Uncle,’ said Henry.
Exeter signalled to an attendant and Westmorland stepped forward and bowed.
‘Shall we call in the ambassador, my liege?’ he said.
‘Not yet, cousin,’ said Henry. ‘Before we hear him we would like some information about some important matters that are on our mind, concerning us and France.’
Some attendants showed the two bishops in and they approached the throne.
‘God and His angels guard your sacred throne and may you long grace it,’ said Canterbury.
Henry inclined his head towards the Archbishop. ‘Certainly, we thank you,’ he said graciously. He cleared his throat. ‘My learned lord, please continue, and explain the legal and religious reasons why the Salic law they have in France does or does not exclude our claim. And God forbid, my dear and loyal lord, that you should craft, distort or bias your interpretation: or compromise your integrity by urging illegitimate claims that don’t conform to the truth, because God knows how many fit men will shed their blood in pursuing what your reverence will encourage us in. Therefore, think carefully how you implicate our person: how you awaken our sleeping sword of war. We instruct you in the name of God to be careful, because two such kingdoms never fought without great loss of blood, whose innocent drops are every one a woe, a grievous reproach to the one whose cause sharpens the swords that shortens lives. Within these terms, speak, my lord, because we’re listening. We’ll consider and sincerely believe that what you say is with as clear a conscience as the soul has after baptism.’
‘Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you lords who owe your selves, your lives and your duties to this imperial throne,’ said Canterbury. ‘There is no bar to Your Highness’ claim to France, except this, which is taken from Pharamond: “In terram Salicam Muliers ne succedant” – “No woman may assume the throne in Salic land.” The French wrongly interpret “Salic land” as the realm of France with Pharamond the legislator of this law concerning the barring of females from the throne. And yet, their own writers confirm that Salic land is in Germany between the Sala River and the Elbe, where Charlemagne left a group of French settlers after he had defeated the Saxons. Being contemptuous of German women because of their slack morals these settlers then established this law: that no female should inherit the Salic land, which is, as I have said, between the Salic and the Elbe and is today known in Germany as Meissen. So it’s obvious that the Salic Law wasn’t devised for the realm of France, nor did the French possess the Salic land until four hundred and twenty-one years after King Pharamond, rashly regarded as the originator of this law, died in the year of our grace four hundred and twenty-six. Charlemagne defeated the Saxons and established the French on the other side of the River Sala in the year eight hundred and five. Besides, their writers say that King Pepin, who deposed King Childeric, as the rightful heir, being descended from Queen Blithild, the daughter of King Clothaire, claimed the crown of France. So did Hugh Capet, who usurped the crown of Charles, Duke of Lorraine, sole male heir of the legitimate line of Charlemagne. And to support his case with some plausible facts, though without doubt it was corrupt and void, he represented himself as heir to the Lady Lingard, Charles the Second’s daughter. Charles was the son of the emperor Louis who was the son of Charlemagne. Moreover, King Louis the Ninth, the sole heir of the usurper Capet, couldn’t have peace of mind as King of France until he was satisfied that the beautiful Queen Isabel, his grandmother, was a descendant of Lady Ermengard, daughter of Charles, the aforesaid Duke of Lorraine, by which marriage the line of Charlemagne was reunited with the crown of France. So it’s as clear as daylight that King Pepin’s title, Hugh Capet’s claim and King Louis’ reason to have peace of mind, all appear to uphold the principle of female inheritance. So do the kings of France to this day, even while they cite this Salic Law to bar your highness from claiming through the female line. They prefer to hide behind a transparent veil than expose their own invalid claims to the inheritance they’ve usurped from you and your forebears.’
King Henry was listening carefully to the lengthy explanation. He waited until he was sure the Archbishop had finished then he asked his question.
‘May I make this claim with legitimacy and a clear conscience?’
‘Absolutely, revered sovereign – be it on my head,’ said the Archbishop. ‘It is written in the Book of Numbers: “When the son dies, let the inheritance pass to the daughter.” Gracious lord, stand up for your rights! Unfurl your red flag of war: look to your mighty ancestors for inspiration, to your great-grandfather’s tomb, on whom you base your claim. Invoke his martian spirit, and that of your great-uncle, Edward the Black Prince, who played a great role on the French battlefield, defeating their whole power, while his most mighty father stood on a hill, smiling to see his lion-hearted son slaughter the French nobility. Oh noble English, taking on the full force of France with only half their strength, letting the other half stand laughing by, left out and cold from inaction!’
Ely nodded his agreement. ‘Remind yourself of those valiant dead and repeat their achievements with your powerful arm. You are their heir – you sit on their throne. The blood and courage that made them famous runs in your veins. And my thrice justified liege is at the peak of youth – ripe for adventures and mighty enterprises.’
Henry’s uncles were delighted with the prelates’ analysis. Exeter took his nephew’s hand. ‘Your brother kings and all the monarchs of the world expect you to rouse yourself like the former lions of your family.’
‘They know your grace has good cause, and also the means and the strength, and indeed, your highness has! Never has a king of England had richer nobles and more loyal subjects, whose hearts have left their bodies here in England and now lie encamped in the fields of France,’ said Westmorland.
‘Oh, let their bodies follow, my dear liege!’ pleaded Canterbury. ‘With blood and sword and fire, to win what’s yours. To help in this, we of the spiritual persuasion will raise for your highness a greater sum than any contribution that was ever made to your ancestors at one time by the clergy.’
‘We mustn’t only arm ourselves to invade the French,’ said Henry. ‘We must also employ our troops to defend ourselves against the Scots, who will take advantage of the situation to attack us.’
‘Those who live in the north, gracious sovereign,’ said Canterbury, ‘will be a sufficient buffer against the thieving borderers.’
‘We don’t only mean the raiding parties,’ said Henry, ‘but the whole of the Scottish nation is to be feared. They’ve always been an unpredictable neighbour. It’s an historical fact that my great-grandfather never went to France with his forces without the Scots pouring into his unprotected kingdom like the tide through a hole in a dyke, with the full force of their might attacking the vulnerable land with ferocious raids, besieging castles and towns, so that England, defenceless, shook and trembled as a result.’
‘Then she has been more frightened than hurt, my liege,’ said Canterbury. ‘Listen to this example. When all her fighters were in France, and England a widow mourning for her noblemen, not only did she defend herself well, she captured and impounded, like a stray dog, the King of Scotland, and sent him to France to enhance King Edward’s fame as having kings as prisoners, making her history as rich with glory as the slimy seabed is with sunken wrecks and priceless treasure.’
‘But there’s a very old and true saying,’ said Westmorland:
If that you will France win
Then with Scotland first begin.
For as soon as the eagle – England – goes out in search of prey the weasel Scot comes sneaking to her unguarded nest, like the mouse when the cat’s away, and sucks her princely eggs dry, making more wreckage than she can eat.’
‘It follows, then, that the cat must stay at home,’ said Exeter. ‘Although that’s not a real necessity since we have locks to safeguard our possessions and ingenious traps to catch petty thieves. While the armed hand is fighting abroad the watchful head defends itself at home, because the state, divided though it might be into three classes, acts as one, converging then coming together in perfect harmony, like music.’
‘True,’ said Canterbury. ‘That’s why heaven has divided the society of man into several functions, setting continuous human endeavour in motion: the aim or target of that is obedience. That’s how honey-bees work – creatures who follow a rule of Nature that imposes order on their community. They have a king and various kinds of officials, some of whom, like magistrates, keep order at home while others go out to trade, like merchants. Others, like soldiers, armed with their stings, plunder the velvet buds of summer, happily bringing their loot home to their emperor’s royal tent. Immersed in his royal duties, he watches the singing masons building roofs of gold: the honest citizens loading up the honey: the poor labourers squeezing through his narrow gates with their heavy burdens: the sober-faced judge with his authoritative hum, delivering the lazy yawning drone up to the gruesome executors. From this I deduce that many things, dedicated to a common purpose, can operate divergently, in the same way that many arrows, shot from different places, make for the same target: or the way several roads meet in one town: or many freshwater streams end in one salt sea. As many lines converge at a sundial’s centre, so may a thousand actions, once begun, end in one objective, and all can be executed without disadvantage to the others. Therefore, go to France, my liege. Divide your happy England into four, take one quarter into France and you will make Gaul tremble. If we, left with three times that force, can’t defend our own door from the dog, then we should be really worried that our nation will lose its reputation for toughness and good governance.’
King Henry smiled his thanks. He nodded at an attendant who stood beside his throne. ‘Call in the messengers sent by the Dauphin,’ he said and the attendant bowed and went to the door.
‘Now we have made our decision,’ said Henry. ‘With God’s help, and yours – the noble muscles of our power – as France belongs to us we’ll make it bow to us in obedience or destroy it altogether. We’ll either rule France and all her princely dukedoms completely or bury our unworthy bones in an anonymous urn, tombless with no inscription. Either our exploits will be loudly proclaimed or else our grave shall be as silent as a Turkish mute, not even distinguished by a brief epitaph.’
The messengers from France entered, carrying a chest. King Henry greeted them warmly.
‘We’re ready, now, to know what our good friend, the Dauphin, wants because we understand that your greeting is from him and not the King.’
The ambassador signalled with a nod that the King was right. ‘May it please your majesty to give us permission to deliver our message frankly, or shall we cloak the Dauphin’s sentiments in diplomatic language?’ he said
‘We are no tyrant,’ said Henry. ‘We are a Christian king. Our emotions are as constrained as the wretches chained up in our prisons. Therefore, tell us openly and frankly what the Dauphin is thinking.’
‘Here it is then,’ said the ambassador. ‘Your highness recently made representations to France, claiming certain dukedoms in the name of your great predecessor, King Edward the Third. In answer to that claim, the Prince, our master, says that you’re very much the youth and he tells you to be advised that there’s nothing that can be won in France with dancing skills. You can’t party yourself into dukedoms there. He therefore sends something more appropriate to your temperament – this treasure chest – and in return for that hopes that we’ll hear no more from you about your claim of dukedoms. That is what the Dauphin said.’
Henry turned to Exeter. ‘What treasure is it, Uncle?’
Exeter opened the chest. It was filled with tennis balls, the apparatus for the game played by young noblemen of leisure. He took one out and held it up. ‘Tennis balls, my liege.’
Everyone was stunned, not knowing what to make of it, but then Henry smiled. ‘We are glad the Dauphin feels that he can take such liberties with us,’ he said. ‘We thank you for his present and the trouble you have taken. When we’ve matched our racquets to these balls, by the grace of God we shall, in France, play a set that will hit his father’s crown into the net. Tell him he’s made a match with the kind of player that will make all the courts of France resound with volleys. And we well understand what he’s getting at – reminding us of our wilder days, not appreciating what use we made of them. We didn’t value this humble throne of England and therefore, living away from it, we gave ourself to vulgar pursuits – it’s well known that men are at their most frivolous when they are away from home. But tell the Dauphin that I will show my royal stature, be like a king, and reveal my true greatness when I take up my throne of France. It was for that I put my royalty aside and lived like a common working man. But once there I will rise to such heights of glory that I will dazzle all eyes in France – yes, strike the Dauphin blind to look at us! And tell the witty Prince that this mockery of his has turned his tennis balls into cannon balls and his soul will be charged with responsibility for the terrible vengeance that they’ll bring, because many thousands of widows will mock this mockery of his with the lives of their dear husbands: mothers will be mocked of their sons: castles will be mocked down. Oh yes, there are those not yet conceived nor born who will have reason to curse the Dauphin’s scorn. But all this lies within the will of God, to whom I appeal, and in whose name, inform the Dauphin, I am coming to get my revenge as effectively as I can, and to wield my righteous sword in a sacred cause. So go in peace. And tell the Dauphin that his joke will taste of shallow intelligence when thousands are weeping – more than ever laughed at it.’
The messengers bowed. Henry made a gesture with his hand. ‘Give them safe conduct. Goodbye.’
There was silence for a while then Exeter whistled softly. ‘That was an insolent message ,’ he said.
‘We hope to make the sender blush for it,’ said Henry. ‘Therefore, my lords, don’t miss any opportunity to expedite our venture, because we’re now thinking of nothing else but France – except for thoughts of God, that take precedence over anything else we do. Therefore, let our supplies for these wars be collected soon, and everything prepared that will make things go smoothly because, God willing, we’ll reprimand this Dauphin right in his own home. So let every man be focused so that this worthy action can be started.’