Viking 3: King’s Man, page 28
‘There!’ he said, pointing.
I peered over the wall. Grazing under apple trees were three extraordinary animals. I recognised that they were horses, but they did not look like any horses that I had ever seen before. Each animal was broad and heavy, with short muscular legs like thick pillars, and a back as broad as a refectory table.
‘Stallions, all three of them,’ explained Maurus approvingly. ‘The monastery will donate them to William’s army.’
‘As pack animals?’ I queried.
‘No, no, as destriers, as battle chargers. Each can carry a knight in full armour. There is not a foot soldier in the world who can withstand the shock of a knight mounted on a beast like that. Our monastery specialises in the breeding of these animals.’
I thought back to the incident outside the walls of Syracuse when I had witnessed Iron Arm, the sword-wielding Frankish knight, use his brute strength to destroy a skilful Arab rider mounted on an agile steed, and I had a vivid picture of William’s heavy cavalry mounted on their destriers, smashing down a shield wall of infantry.
‘But how will William manage to transport such heavy animals on his ships and land them safely on the English shore?’ I asked.
‘I have no idea,’ admitted Maurus, ‘but there will be a means, that’s for sure. William leaves nothing to chance when he wages war, and he has expert advisers, even from this abbey.’ I must have looked sceptical, for he added, ‘Do you remember meeting the monastery’s almoner yesterday? He sat near us during the evening meal in the refectory, the gaunt-looking man with three fingers missing from his left hand. That’s a war wound. Before he entered the monastery, he was a mercenary soldier. He’s a member of Duke William’s council and helps in planning the invasion. The monastery owns a parcel of land on the coast of England, just opposite the shortest sea crossing. It will be an ideal spot for William’s troops to come ashore, and the almoner – his name is Regimus – will accompany the fleet so he can point out the best place to beach the boats carrying our troops and, of course, the heavy horses.
I was thoughtful as I walked back to the monastery. Everything I had heard about the Duke of Normandy indicated that he was serious about invading England, and that he was preparing his campaign with close attention to detail. I had the impression that when William the Bastard decided on a course of action, he followed it through and made sure that it was a success. It was not ‘devil’s luck’ which had brought him this far; it was his determination and shrewdness, coupled with his ruthlessness. My earlier misgivings that Harald might be foolhardy in seeking an alliance with William came seeping back. And this time I also had to ask myself whether I too was being rash in involving myself so closely with these Christians who seemed so self-confident and pugnacious.
I made my excuses to Maurus, telling him that I intended to travel onward to Rome carrying the bishop of Bremen’s request for more priests to be sent to the northern lands. Maurus was content to remain at Fécamp, and now that I had had the experience of travelling with him, I was more confident in my disguise as an itinerant preacher for the White Christ. However, when I left the monastery early on a bright summer morning, I did make one important adjustment to my costume. I stole a black habit and a white gown from the laundry, leaving in their place my travel-stained robe of brown. From now on, I would pretend that I was a follower of the Rule.
Looking back on that theft, I realise that it was perhaps another sign that I was now too old to be a successful spy, and that I was becoming careless.
I needed a private audience with the duke at which I could propose the alliance with Harald of Norway, but I had failed to take into account how difficult it would be to gain access to him. William would be fully occupied with his invasion plans, and far too busy to listen to a humble priest, and his bodyguards would be suspicious of strangers, fearing that they were hired killers sent by the duke’s enemies or even by Harold Godwinsson in England. So, recklessly, I had devised a stratagem which I hoped would lead to a meeting with the duke and only a handful of his closest advisers. This hare-brained scheme arose from a remark made by one of the monks at Fécamp. When Maurus had described how he found me half-drowned on the beach, the monks had told us that Harold Godwinsson had spent several months at the duke’s court after a similar accident had befallen him. There Harold had been treated generously, and, in return, he had sworn allegiance to the duke and promised to support William’s candidacy for the English throne. ‘Godwinsson treacherously broke his oath by seizing the throne for himself. He is a usurper and needs to be exposed,’ asserted one of the monks. ‘There is a brother at the monastery in Jumieges who is writing a full account of this act of perfidy, and he will soon be presenting it to Duke William, just as brother Maurus here has brought to us the Life of Lord Abbot William, lovingly prepared by his friend Rudolfus Glaber in Burgundy. Duke William keenly appreciates those who write the truth.’
Thus, when I reached the duke’s palace at Rouen, I pretended I was on my way to its chapel, but then swerved aside and found my way to the anteroom where his secretaries were hard at work. Standing there in my black habit, I said that I wished to meet the duke privately on a matter of importance.
‘And what is the subject that you wish to discuss?’ asked a junior secretary cautiously. From his expression I judged that, but for my priestly dress, I would have been turned away on the spot.
‘For many years I have been compiling a history of the deeds of great men,’ I answered, allowing a sanctimonious tone to creep into my voice, ‘and Duke William’s fame is such that I have already included much about him. Now, if the Duke would be so gracious, I would like to record how he came to inherit the throne of England, despite the false claims of his liegeman Harold Godwinsson. Then posterity can judge the matter correctly.’
‘Who should I say is presenting this request?’ said the secretary, making a note.
‘My name,’ I said, unblushingly, ‘is Rudolfus Glaber. I come from Burgundy.’
It took three days for my request to filter through the levels of bureaucracy which surrounded the duke. I spent the interval observing the preparations for the forthcoming campaign. Not since my days in Constantinople had I seen such a well-managed military machine. A space had been cleared in front of the city wall where, in the mornings, a company of bowmen practised their archery. Their task would be to pin down the enemy formations under a rain of arrows until the mounted knights could deliver their charge. In the afternoons the same practice ground was used for infantry drill.
A little to the north of the city was a grassy field where I watched the manoeuvres of a large conroy, a cavalry unit contributed to the duke’s army by the Count of Mortagne. The Convoy numbered about a dozen knights accompanied by an equal number of squires or assistants. All wore chain mail, but only six of the knights were mounted on the heavy destriers. The others rode horses of a more normal size, and so they were practising how best to coordinate their attack. The lighter cavalry cantered their horses up to a line of straw targets and threw their lances, using them as javelins. Then they wheeled away, leaving their comrades on the heavy horses to advance at a ponderous trot so that their riders could run the targets through with their thicker, weightier lances or slash them to shreds with long swords. When this part of the exercise was over, the light cavalry dismounted, laid aside their metal swords and were given practice weapons with wooden blades. The conroy then divided in two and fought a mock battle, cutting and hacking at one another under the gaze of their leaders, who from time to time shouted out an order. At that moment one side or the other would turn and pretend to flee, drawing opponents forward. Then, at another shouted command, the fugitives would halt their pretended flight and the heavy cavalry, who were still on horseback and waited in reserve, lumbered forward to deliver the counter-blow.
While this was going on, I quietly sauntered forward to take a closer look at one of the battle swords that had been laid aside. It was heavier and longer than the weapons I had seen
‘Very appropriate, don’t you think, father?’ said a voice, and I looked up to meet the gaze of a heavily muscled man wearing a leather apron. No doubt he was the armourer for the conroy.
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘In the Lord’s name. It seems to be a fine blade.’
‘Made in the Rhine countries, like most of our swords,’ continued the armourer. ‘Quality depends on which smithy makes them. The Germans turn them out by the dozen. If the blade snaps, it’s not worth repairing. You only have to prise off the handle grips and fit a new blade.’
I remembered the consignment of sword blades taken aboard the cog before she wrecked. ‘Can’t be easy finding a replacement blade.’
‘Not this time,’ said the armourer. ‘I’ve served the count for the best part of twenty years, making mail and repairing weapons on his campaigns, and I’ve never seen anything like the amount of spare gear that is being provided – not just sword blades, but helmets, lance heads, arrow shafts, the lot. Cartloads and cartloads of it. I’m beginning to wonder how it will all fit on the transports – if the transports are ready in time, that is. There’s a rumour that some of us will be sent to Dives to help the shipwrights.’
‘Dives? Where’s that?’ I asked.
‘West along. The gear that’s coming in to Rouen is being shipped downriver. The boats themselves are being built all up and down the coast. Dives is where the fleet is assembling. From there it will strike at England.’
It occurred to me that Harold Godwinsson must know what was going on, and that the English could put a stop to the invasion by raiding across the sea and destroying the Norman fleet while it was still at anchor. William’s transports would make easy targets. By contrast, Harald’s Norwegian ships, now gathering at Trondheim, were too far distant to be intercepted.
I was just about to ask the armourer if Duke William was taking any precautions against an English raid when a pageboy arrived with an urgent summons to the ducal palace. My request for a meeting with the duke had been granted, and I was to go there at once.
I followed the lad through the streets and along a series of corridors into the heart of the palace, where Duke William had his audience chamber. My suspicions should have been aroused by the swiftness of my reception. The pageboy handed me over to a knight who acted as the doorkeeper, and within moments I was ushered into the council chamber itself, the doorkeeper at my heels. I found myself in a large, rather dark room, poorly lit by narrow window slits in the thick stone walls. Seated on a carved wooden chair in the centre of the room was a burly man of about my own height but running to fat, with a close-cropped head and a bad-tempered look on his face. I guessed him to be in his mid-forties. I knew he must be Duke William of Normandy, but to me he looked more like a truculent farm bailiff accustomed to bullying his peasants. He was eyeing me with dislike.
Five other men were in the room. Three of them were obviously high-ranking nobles. They were dressed, like the duke, in belted costumes of expensive fabric, tight hose, and laced leather shoes. They had the bearing and manner of fighting men, yet they were strangely dandified because they wore their hair close-shaved from halfway down their heads in pudding-bowl style, a foppish fashion which, I later learned, had been copied from the southern lands of Auvergne and Aquitaine. They too were regarding me with hostility. The other two occupants of the room were churchmen. In stark contrast to my plain black and white costume, they wore long white robes with embroidered silk borders at the neck and sleeves, and the crosses suspended on their chests were studded with semi-precious stones. The crosses looked more like jewellery than symbols of their faith.
‘I hear you want to write about me,’ stated the duke. His voice was harsh and guttural, in keeping with his coarse appearance.
‘Yes, my lord. With your permission. I am a chronicler and I have already completed five books of history, and – with God’s grace – I am embarking on a sixth. My name is Rudolfus Glaber, and I have travelled here from my monastery in Burgundy.’
‘I think not,’ said a voice behind me.
I turned. Stepping out of the shadows was a man wearing the same plain black and white costume as myself. My glance dropped to his left hand, which lacked three fingers. It was Regimus, the almoner of the monastery of the Holy Trinity at Fécamp. In the same instant the doorkeeper, standing directly behind me, clasped his arms around me, pinioning my arms to my sides.
‘Brother Maurus never mentioned that you came from Burgundy, and you do not speak with a Burgundian accent,’ said the almoner. ‘The brother in charge of our laundry also reported that a gown and habit were missing from his inventory, but not until I heard about a mysterious black-clad monk here in Rouen did I deduce that you must be the same man. I had not expected you to be so bold as to claim you were Rudolf Glaber himself.’
‘Who are you, old man?’ interrupted William, his voice even harsher than before. ‘A spy for Harold? I did not know he employed dotards.’
‘Not a spy for Harold, my lord,’ I wheezed. I could scarcely breathe. The doorkeeper was gripping me so hard that I thought he would break my ribs. ‘I am sent by Harald, Harald of Norway.’
‘Let him speak,’ ordered William.
The painful grip eased. I took several deep breaths.
‘My lord, my name is Thorgils, and I am the envoy of King Harald of Norway.’
‘If you are his ambassador, why did you not come openly rather than creeping about in disguise.’
I thought quickly. It would be disastrous to confess that Harald had asked me to evaluate William’s invasion plans before offering an alliance. That was true espionage.
‘The message I bring is so confidential that my lord instructed me to deliver it privately. I adopted this disguise for that purpose.’
‘You soil the cloth you wear,’ sneered one of the exquisitely dressed priests.
The duke silenced him with an impatient wave of his hand. I could see that William demanded, and received, instant obedience from his entourage. He seemed more than ever like a bullying bailiff.
‘What is this message that you bring from Norway?’
I had recovered my confidence enough to glance at William’s attendants, then say, ‘It is for your ears only.’
William was beginning to get angry. A small vein on the right side of his forehead had started to throb.
‘State your message before I have you hanged as a spy or put to torture to learn the truth.’
‘My lord Harald of Norway suggests an alliance,’ I began quickly. ‘He is assembling a fleet to invade the north of England, and knows that you are planning to land forces in the south of the country. You both fight the same enemy, so he proposes that the two armies coordinate their attack. Harold Godwinsson will be obliged to fight on two fronts, and will be crushed.’
‘And what then?’ There was disdain in William’s voice.
‘After Godwinsson has been defeated, England is to be divided. The south ruled by Normandy, the north by Norway.’
The duke narrowed his eyes. ‘And where will the dividing line be drawn?’
‘That I do not know, my lord. But the division would be based on mutual agreement, once Godwinsson has been disposed of.’
William gave a grunt of dismissal. ‘I’ll think about it,’ he said, ‘but first I need to know the timing. When does Harald plan to land his forces.’
‘His advisers are pressing him to invade England no later than September.’
‘Take him away,’ said William to the doorkeeper, who was still standing behind me. ‘Make sure he is kept in safe custody.’
I passed that night in a cell in the ducal prison, sleeping on damp straw, and in the morning I was encouraged when the same pageboy who had brought me to the palace reappeared to tell the guard to release me. Once again, I was led to the duke’s a
‘You may inform your lord that I agree to his proposal. My army will land on the south coast of England in the first or second week of September. The precise date will depend on the weather. My transport barges need calm conditions and a favourable wind to make the crossing. According to my information, Harold Godwinsson has called out the English levies, and is presently holding his forces on the south coast, so it is likely that he will dispute our landing. Therefore it is important that King Harald keeps to his programme and opens a second front no later than mid-September.’
‘I understand, my lord.’
‘One more detail. You are to remain here with me. It may be necessary to communicate with your king as the campaign gets under way. You will act as our intermediary.’
‘As you wish, my lord. I will prepare a despatch for King Harald confirming the details. If you can provide a vessel, I will send the message to Norway.’
That same day, feeling quietly satisfied that my mission had been accomplished so easily, I wrote out a summary of what had happened. To prevent William’s secretaries tampering with my report, I hid my meanings in phrases that only those who knew the ways of skaldic verse would understand. Harald became ‘the feeder of eagle of sea of carrion vulture’ and the Norman invasion fleet was ‘the gull’s wake horses’. And when I came to write about William himself, I buried my meaning even deeper, because I was not complimentary about his character. He became the ‘horse of wife of Yggr’ because Harold would know that Yggr’s wife was a giantess, and that she rode a wolf. Finally, to make doubly sure that the letter was treated as genuine, I folded the parchment, using the same system of secret folds which, in Constantinople, would prove that the despatch was authentic and which was known to Harald, and gave the letter to a mounted courier, who took it to the Norman coast. From there a ship would carry the despatch to Trondheim.
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