|Waltham Holy Cross in its |
heyday with two towers
I had never heard of this before and, during a day devoted to Harold, I was intrigued. Being a lover of all things Edward III, I was beguiled to learn that the surviving version of the manuscript dates from the reign of this king.
Now there's a thought, I said to myself. Why should such a bizarre and extraordinary story be resurrected during the reign of Edward III of all people, and presumably, never visited again? What was going on in Waltham Holy Cross, the medieval name for that abbey, during this particular period that meant a story about the survival of a king who everyone accepted was dead saw the light of day to the extent that an illuminated copy was made?
For me there was an irresistible parallel - the death or survival of Edward II and the death or survival of King Harold II. Dismiss this if you will, but do first accept that there are more pieces of independent evidence to support the survival of Edward II than there are to support the death of Edward II. But this is a topic for another post. For now, all we have to know is that doubt was cast on the accepted story of his death within months. The only person who knows the truth cannot now tell it. Or can he?
|The Vita Haroldi. I love the doodle at the bottom of the king|
The abbey church of Waltham Holy Cross, Essex, the year of our Lord 1342
The day began like any other and Richard de Hertford, abbot of Waltham Holy Cross, wished it otherwise. It had rained during the night, lightly, but enough to water the herbal garden and the vegetable patches, and also enough to drip through the hole in the roof of his chamber and leave his blankets wet and himself damp beneath.
His clothes chests were placed away from the danger so there was dry attire within, but the bed was too big to move clear of the leak and he had to put up with it. On nights he knew it would rain he would sleep in a bed in the dorter and leave a bucket on his mattress.
Dressed awkwardly in a clean, dry, but stiff, habit and robe, his aching joints were thankful for the fresh warmth. He made his way through the corridors to the night steps to the abbey church. He had a prie dieu in his chamber but what was the point when he had this magnificent church all to himself? It was before prime and the brothers would not wake for a little while.
He eased his creaking body down onto the stone steps in front of the high altar. It was the only sound in the entire echoing building. Not even mice scurried among the corners of this hallowed place. But unlike in his chamber, it was not an oppressive silence. It was welcoming, it was liberating, and it allowed his mind to explore.
Today all there was to explore was the precarious position the abbey was in financially. The money given to the abbey six years ago to make good certain deficiencies had been spent within a shorter space than they had anticipated and there was nothing left to repair the dorter. There were still repairs needed in the abbey church, and they were his priority. Up here in the presbytery all was well, but the roof leaked near the font in the old part of the church, the parish part that was built by Henry, son of the Conqueror. A window had broken in a late spring storm and that had eaten up the last of their saved funds leaving nothing spare for lesser needs.
He prayed to the Holy Father for a miracle. He had been abbot for thirty-four years and he cared for this place, the family he had given up, the child he had never had.
The shuffling of sandaled feet brought him back from his thoughts and he rose slowly to join his brothers in the quire to celebrate the new day.
No matter how often he added the figures, nothing changed. There was not enough to spare to fix the roof. His or the nave’s. Usual running costs, yes, but not enough to afford wood to make repairs. It was depressing. Rents from around one hundred and fifty households seemed plenty, but this was a larger church even than Winchester and it ate money. He absently rubbed the bald tonsure on top of his head, crowned by ever-thinning grey hair. He controlled his body, retaining his manly figure when many others in his position over-indulged and were fat, but he could not control his lack of hair. Any more than he could control the abbey expenses. He had yet to break his fast that day and was beginning to feel peckish which was not helping his mood. He was unlikely to find time to eat until later when he would join his brothers in the frater for the late afternoon meal.
He was deep in his administrative work when a knock sounded at his door and he barked impatiently. The door opened and the brother stood back to let someone else enter. Richard stood abruptly, a smile spreading, his work and hunger forgotten.
‘My lord, what a pleasant surprise. You were not expected.’
‘I travelled quietly,’ the visitor said. ‘My retainers are in your guest hall keeping out of the way. They number just ten. I hope it is not an inconvenience.’
Richard thought briefly on his dire finances but the smile did not fade. ‘Of course not, my lord.’ The king was a frequent visitor but he had not been here for a couple of years.
The elder man held the younger in an embrace born of genuine fondness before he let go and directed him to a seat. King Edward lowered himself with unconscious grace and settled without fidgeting. Richard shuffled around to his side of the large wooden desk. He pushed the sheets of rolling parchment to one side. He would deal with them later.
‘Have you been to pay your respects to Harold?’
‘Of course. I always go there as soon as I arrive.’
‘He is none of yours, of course,’ Richard began but the king cut him off.
‘His heart belonged to England, as does mine. I like to think I have more in common with him than with William the Bastard, for all he is my ancestor.’
Richard had not stopped smiling. It was sometimes difficult to remember that this personable young man had been king for nearly sixteen years. He was so youthful, so vibrant. And yet the eyes were disconcerting. They reflected a soul that was old. Older than his own he often felt. And then, when the light forsook them, he saw the pain and struggle that lay there, hidden in those purple depths by the affable nature of their owner. Such eyes, in such a face! What a joy to call him ‘friend’.
‘What brings you here this time? What can I do for you?’ Richard said.
‘I have not visited for some time and I felt in need of spiritual succour.’
‘Can you not get that at Westminster, St Paul’s?’
Edward’s gaze drifted to the window. It was not a particularly good view, through the cloister but mostly of wall and a just a thin line of green grass and a sliver of blue sky. He was not looking at the view in any case.
‘I find something here that I cannot find elsewhere.’ He drew back from wherever he had been and bestowed a soft grin on the abbot. ‘You are here.’
‘I have rarely received such a compliment. I am flattered.’
‘My father trusted you. Sometimes he could be astute. Mostly not, but in you he was correct.’
‘We have always welcomed your family.’
‘You have,’ the king agreed, ‘and we are most grateful for your kindnesses.’
‘And how is your boy?’
Edward did not need to know which of his four sons Richard referred to. ‘Ned surpasses my expectations,’ he said. ‘He challenges his tutor at arms every day.’
‘Then England will be in good hands with its next Edward.’ A pity, thought Richard, that this particular Edward would be lost to the country before the next could ascend his throne.
Edward rose unexpectedly, but in a single smooth motion that made Richard yearn to return to his own youth. ‘May I peruse your library? I wish to find something that amuses me and I have exhausted much of London. Something fresh.’
‘Of course, my lord, you do not even have to ask. Borrow, if you wish, those that are not chained, and there are many that are still loose and rolled. The books must remain here, I am their guardian, not their owner and they belong at the abbey.’
The bell was due anytime for Vespers when Edward wandered back across the cloister garth, climbed the stone steps, the leather on the soles of his boots sliding a little, and he knocked on the study door.
Richard had finished his work for the day, tallying the tithes from the farmland they owned nearby and assessing incomes. He had to eke out something to pay for wood to repair the parish nave roof. The longer it went unrepaired the worse it would get, and the more it would cost. Not to mention his chamber and the amount of bed linen ruined by rainwater filtered through the dirty roof. His woollen blankets did not like the excretion. He had had to purchase a new blanket last market day, an unexpected replacement for a mildewed, ruined article and no time to wait for his own looms to create one, and that was damp now from the previous night. The return of the king was a welcome distraction.
‘I thought you had completed the works here. And yet there is a bucket by the font. A bucket filled with dirty water. Are times so hard that you baptise the parish children in God’s own bounteous rain?’
Richard flushed. ‘If it displeases your grace, I shall have it removed before Vespers-’
‘What displeases me is that it is required. What happened?’
Richard shrugged. ‘The forty pounds you kindly granted is gone, it was not sufficient for all that we needed it for.’ He pulled a sheet of parchment to him and dipped a pen in his inkwell. ‘Maybe we should have been more careful and queried the costs more closely-’
‘Richard,’ the king stopped him gently. ‘What can I do?’
Richard opened his mouth and then closed it again. He hated to beg but what was there left to do? ‘We need wood,’ he heard himself say. ‘We need wood for the roof in the nave. And my own chamber leaks.’
‘Wood.’ Edward rubbed his chin, lightly shadowed this late in the day. His hair flopped across his right eye and he shook it back revealing his amethyst eyes, now gleaming. ‘Waltham Forest is nearby, is it not, and it is royal demesne?’ The abbot nodded in agreement. ‘Take two hundred pounds of wood from there, your choice of timber. I’ll have my agent deal with it but you can start felling straight away.’
It was the miracle that Richard had been looking for. Two hundred pounds of wood. That was more than enough to fix everything, to repair the roofs and strengthen others, and to start building the pigsty he wanted. Tears of relief moistened the old man’s eyes.
‘Thank you, my lord, thank you. You are more than generous, I am left speechless.’
Edward was a father and that shone through the curve of his lips and the warmth that enveloped the older man leaving him feeling far more like a child than a Father. ‘You only had to ask.’
‘We should be wealthy, we have rents from land here in Waltham, and the manors around, but the harvests are not good, and we find we struggle-’
‘Richard,’ Edward said softly, leaning forward in his chair. ‘Just ask.’ He drew back and relaxed back into his seat. ‘It is done now. Two hundred pounds of timber. That should see you right.’
‘More than right, your grace,’ the abbot said humbly.
The king smiled at the formality.
‘Did you find what you were looking for, in the library?’ Richard asked to deflect the king’s attention from his pathetic gratitude.
The smile grew and Edward drew out a bundle of sheets of vellum from inside his tunic. It was a rather extraordinary sight, to see a king tug a handful of documents from inside his gold embroidered green velvet tunic.
‘I found this,’ he replied and laid the sheets on the desk with a flourish.
Richard pulled them towards him with a gnarled hand. ‘The Vita Haroldi?’ he asked in surprise. ‘What on earth for? You know it is not true.’
Edward drew the sheets back to him and sifted through them. ‘So, this is not true?’ he asked, his finger tracing a line under some text. ‘”He also, with splendid liberality, endowed them with estates and possessions that they might have sufficient for their necessities.” That is true, is it not?’
‘I am not saying it is all incorrect, but Harold did not survive the Battle of Hastings. He is buried just a few steps away.’
The look bestowed by Edward made Richard cringe.
‘His beloved heart is here, I will grant you that. His body is at the church at Bosham on the south coast.’ He laughed at his friend’s discomfiture. ‘It is hardly a secret, but it is a truth that few accept. It matters not, but you must keep in mind that not everything is as it seems.’
Richard had no idea to what the king could possibly be alluding to, but he was sure it went beyond a random and rather odd document found in the depths of Heaven-knew-where about a long dead king.
He raised his eyes from the vellum sheets that the king had laid back down on the desk but let them fall. Long dead king. Dead king. Christ. His father.
There had been rumours. Of course there had been. And then that dreadful episode with Edmund of Woodstock, the Earl of Kent. Nothing the young king could have done to Roger Mortimer, the man who had had the earl executed for treason - for trying to release a dead man from prison - would bring back the king’s uncle. But what if the earl had been correct in his belief that his brother, the old king Edward, had still been alive, just as the scribe of this Vita Haroldi claimed for King Harold?
It was a struggle to raise his eyes once more to meet those of his king. He had accepted the official version of the old king’s death at Berkeley castle because that was what had been required of him. And now here was the present king, the young man who knew everything and rarely spoke of anything, suggesting that this hundred year old manuscript was some kind of parallel?
‘What are you trying to tell me?’ Richard ventured, not sure he actually wanted an answer.
Never was a single word more imbued with meaning than that one. He was saying a great deal - the writer of the Vita Haroldi was saying it all for him.
‘I was hoping you could make a copy of this, illuminate it maybe. Keep it here, at Holy Cross, but I would like to see it when it is finished.’
‘Do you mind if I ask why?’
The king said nothing for long enough to make Richard more uncomfortable, but he did, before Vespers, sigh heavily and shrug. ‘There are too many things that cannot be said, even by me. But this can say what it chooses.’ He ran his hand over the spidery black ink, stroking it with emotion akin to melancholy. ‘I want to know why this was written, what made the scribe go beyond what was known, what was accepted. And from my own experience I cannot dismiss this as easily as everyone else. Oh, I know it is not true, of course I do. I have seen the site of his true grave, in Bosham, and I pay homage to his heart and his body as often as I can. But there is a part of me that wonders, that wants this to be true.’ He ran his fingers over the words of Latin on the page. ‘It would make it all easier to accept, if someone else understood, as I must.’
‘My lord?’ Richard was concerned and he reached for Edward.
‘Fear not for me, I am well. A little dispirited, but well.’
Richard patted the smooth hand as it lay on the manuscript. ‘I will see it is done.’ He hesitated and then added, ‘And I will not disseminate what we have said beyond these walls.’
‘I thank you,’ Edward said, ‘but I never thought I needed to ask.’
The woodcutters had gone, their tools slung over their shoulders, heading to the forest to begin selecting trees for felling. Richard lingered long after they had turned along the road and were beyond sight.
Two hundred pounds of timber. It was the saving of the abbey, a gift from a generous king. A gift, or payment? Payment for copying a bizarre manuscript, payment to assuage his guilt over a father who had not perished, who had lived on, leaving Edward himself feeling too similar to his usurping ancestor William of Normandy. There was no similarity to the dour, vicious duke who had taken a throne that he had no right to. What Edward envisaged for France was quite, quite different. He had God and Right on his side, as well as blood. He was the rightful heir and the whole of France knew it. That was why they were so afraid of him.
Well, two hundred pounds to soothe a conscience was little enough for a king, but it meant a great deal to Holy Cross. The abbey may live on to see another hundred years, and maybe that manuscript would be unearthed by another king, and maybe he would wonder at its survival at all, and in particular its survival from an era when another king had gone missing, presumed dead.
© copyright 2016