Chapter 1 – October 1322
I jerked upright in bed, my heart galloping like a wild horse. A dream. Remembrance of terror, of being chased in darkness and despair, knowing my oppressor was catching up. I blinked away the shreds of the nightmare. The candle marked by the hours had burned down and out, and pre-dawn shadows filled the chamber, unknown crepuscular shapes against a deeper darkness. I slept in so many different beds, in so many different chambers the length and breadth of England, it often took me a moment or two to remember where I was. This morning I awoke in the priory at Tynemouth, and it was no surprise that I should dream about being chased, for the Scots were closing in.
It would be hours yet before the sun rose over this barren headland on the rocky coast of Northumberland. I lay down, huddling into my blankets, the air beyond chill, listening to the sonorous breathing of one of the two demoiselles who shared my chamber. Most likely it was Theophania. The sound was not irritating but a rather comforting rumble coming from deep within my dear old nurse’s chest, and I hoped it would lull me back to sleep. The nightmare was still lurking in the back of my mind, echoes of a terror that was real.
It was not the first time I had found myself in this kind of predicament, abandoned and in danger. I had a sense of myself as a valuable object carelessly left lying in the open for anyone to carry off. Was any queen before me so utterly disregarded?
I was convinced the war with Scotland was unwinnable, yet mine was not a popular view and when I spoke of it to the King he responded with anger. The first Edward had conquered Wales, and his people believed he would have served Scotland the same way if death hadn’t stopped him in his stride. His son was expected to carry on that great work, no matter that he didn’t have the makings of a warrior. Robert Bruce was known to have said, ‘I fear old Edward’s bones more than his living heir.’
As I lay in bed waiting for the first light of dawn to reveal the room’s furnishings, I thought about the King’s campaign, surely the sorriest operation to date. The last year had seen nought but war. First, there was a rebellion of the marcher lords led by the Mortimers, and then Lancaster’s dealings with the Scots had prompted the King to put him to death and lead an army against Robert Bruce who called himself King of Scots. Twelve thousand men marched into Scotland, only to find that Bruce, a clever fighter, had laid waste the entire area. The English encountered deserted farms, crops burned, the rotting carcasses of animals, poisoned wells. Nothing was found to sustain a family let alone an entire army, save one lone cow in Lothian that was the subject of many a bitter jest. The Scots organised no resistance; there was no need. Hunger and disease did their work for them. Only eight thousand men marched back across the border, and the rest were left sleeping under the sod of that godforsaken land.
Then a wild and vengeful horde of Scots poured across the border following King Edward all the way to within a few miles of where he was staying at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. He would have fallen into their hands but that the brave Sir Andrew Harclay threw the decimated and demoralised army between the Scots and the King at Byland in what was surely a courageous and suicidal manoeuvre, allowing the King to escape to York. To do so, he had to abandon all his baggage, his state papers and treasure, and the Great Seal of England, all of which fell into the Scots’ hands, and his wife – I, Isabella of the royal house of Capet. I felt my cheeks flush with shame at the thought of it.
Throughout the campaign, I had stayed at Tynemouth Priory near Newcastle. Having a fair knowledge of the geography of the island kingdom, my adopted land, I knew that I was now isolated and beyond all hope of help. The Scots had turned north, cutting me off from York and the west. Only the knowledge that I was at Tynemouth could have diverted them. It was the Feast of St. Frideswide, and my situation was desperate.
The bells began to toll, calling the monks to prime, the dawn office. They would pad out of their cells in their sandals and dusty black robes, clear their minds of whatever had troubled their sleep in readiness for prayer, shuffle through the cloisters, and blink at the sky to see what manner of weather the Lord had seen fit to send this October morning.
A glimmer of dawn showed beyond the chamber’s small window. I clapped my hands. “Arise, my ladies. Let us see what this day brings.”
Having heard mass, I said a private prayer to Our Lady for the health and safety of my husband and children, and for myself, I asked for deliverance from the hands of the Scots. I was breaking fast with my ladies on herring and fresh bread when a messenger arrived, dust-covered and fatigued. He handed me a letter upon which I recognised the seal of the King. I held it unopened until he had gulped a cup of wine.
“Have you seen aught of the Scots?”
“I took the coast road at Seaham, your Grace. Last night they were at Hexham. I know because I met some fugitives fleeing Newcastle, so I rode through the night. They may be at Newcastle already.” He spoke the last as if to alert me to the danger I was in, but I was fully aware that I had not much time. My ladies were quiet, but I saw their shared looks of horror.
“Surely you are mistaken, Sir,” Alice Leygrave, my husband’s former nurse, said with some asperity. “The Scots wouldn’t dare cross the Tyne with an army nearby.”
“I’m afraid it’s you who are mistaken,” I said. “They would risk much to take me. I would make a valuable hostage.” And the English army was a beast with no teeth or claws. No head, either.
I recalled how the first Edward had shut the sister and mistress of Bruce in wooden cages hung from the walls of Berwick and Roxburgh. For three years they hung there, exposed to the elements and the abuse of the townsfolk. It was a terrible way to treat noble women who, after all, played little part in their husbands’ activities and had no voice in their decision making.
With unsteady fingers I opened the letter, hoping that somehow, having been saved himself, my husband had found a way to rescue me. The seal broke and fell in pieces. The letter was brief, probably dashed off in haste. I read that he was well and safe in York where he intended to raise more troops. He was sending the Sully brothers, my own knights, to aid me.
I refolded the letter along its creases. What could one do with such a man – sending the Sully brothers from York to rescue me when the Scots were so close? Earlier he had written that he was placing me under the protection of Thomas Grey, the Constable of Norham Castle who had orders to raise men along the eastern march to come to my aid should the Scots approach. But there was no sign of Grey, and the Sullys would certainly arrive too late. If the Scots were at Hexham yestereve, I reasoned, they would be at Tynemouth within two days at the latest. I had no one to rely on but myself and my small household.
A shockingly cold shiver ran down my spine. I kept the letter in my closed fist instead of giving it to my ladies to read as I sometimes did. No need to make them any more fearful than they already were. I said only, “The King has arrived safely in York. He is sending the Sully brothers to help us.”
Before they could question me, an usher said from the door, “Madam, Robert Airmyn wishes to see you.”
“Let him come in.”
I had loaned the knights of my household to the King for the Scottish campaign. To guard my person I had only my squires, mere youths, who had earnestly informed me that I should fall into the hands of the heathenish Scots over their dead bodies. Robert was the young squire, still in his teens, who had assumed leadership of the rest.
A lanky lad with fair hair, a knot of anxiety sat between his bright blue eyes. He saw himself as the queen’s protector, a heavy responsibility for one with a tender beard and pimples on his chin.
“Well, Robert? If the Scots come this way, will the walls keep them out?”
“I am sorry, your Grace, but we’re told they are nearing Newcastle. We cannot repair the fortifications in time. There is too much to do, and we don’t have sufficient materials at hand. Nor do we have the resources to withstand a siege.”
I had seen as much for myself. Dating back to the seventh century, Tynemouth Priory perched on a rocky headland overlooking the Tyne estuary and the turbulent North Sea. On the seaward side, an old church had long ago been converted into a castle and a curtain wall was built to enclose both buildings as a defence against Norse invaders. But the winds and seas of Northumberland were unforgiving. Seven hundred years later the fortifications were crumbling, and it was vulnerable to attack from the sea. The priory, resting place of three ancient kings, had been maintained but the castle couldn’t have kept out a rabble of determined urchins.
I received the news calmly, knowing if I panicked, it would give my ladies leave to panic, and there were one or two among them prone to hysteria. “That’s what I thought. It was good of you to make an attempt and I’m quite sure you all did your best.”
In calmness, I thought quickly. The only road open to us was to the south, but when the Scots discovered I was no longer at Tynemouth they would quickly overtake me.
“We have no choice, Robert. We must take to the sea and sail down the coast. Can we get boats?”
The knot in his brow cleared. “There are plenty of fishing boats in the estuary. With your permission, I’ll round up a few of the better ones.”
“Do you need money?”
“No, Madam.” He was already at the door. “They’ll do it for love of the Queen or answer to me,” he said stoutly.
“They are young,” I said when he had gone, “but I couldn’t ask for more stalwart bodyguards.” I would reward them well when this was all over. Unlike the King who often forgot, I never failed to reward those who gave me good service.
A wail rose from Alice’s daughter Cecilia, the youngest of my demoiselles. “Madam, I’m afraid of the sea!”
“Then you’d better get over it, or wait here for the Scots,” I snapped.
Theophania came bustling back in carrying my fur cloak. “Here, my lamb, I saw you shivering. Let me help you with this.” She draped it over my shoulders, and I smiled my thanks. Dear Theophania. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was no longer her ‘lamb’ but a woman grown, queen of a great country, and in no need of her cosseting. Besides, sometimes it felt good to be cosseted.
My household travelled with me. I could see no point in all my people and all my goods taking to the boats, so we decided that since the Scots’ only interest was in capturing me, it was safe enough to send most along the coast road to South Shields. We would meet wherever I fetched up, possibly Scarborough, and thence to York to be reunited with my husband. My ladies, some of the squires and a dozen servants I couldn’t do without, would go with me, along with the barest essentials.
By the time we were ready to go, it was raining hard. The thought of a voyage in a fishing boat, never appealing, became terrifying. They wouldn’t even have canopies to protect the passengers from the elements.
Those going by road departed. The fishing boats were beached below the cliff and their crews were waiting. My companions and I crept down the footpath, while the monks above prayed for our safety. It was steep in some places and made slippery by the rain. My ladies and I held onto the arms of the men, who were not hampered by skirts. I clung to the arm of young Robert and was saved from a fall when loose stones rolled beneath my foot. Far out, the sea was grey with whitecaps, and above the misty horizon the clouds were turbid and almost the colour of plums. Below, surf pounded the black rocks of the headlands and sent spray high into the air. Gulls flew from the cliffs to test the air, screamed against bloated clouds and returned to their nests. I was wearing a furred cloak, oiled on the outside to keep the rain from seeping through, sturdy boots and one of my plainest gowns. By the time our party reached the shingle, my boots and hems were full of mud.
I was surprised how substantial the boats were, but they were deckless, with only a walkway running down the length, and a single mast and, Jesu, how they stank! A combination of rotten fish and seawater stung the nostrils.
“I mun warn ye,” one of the fishermen said. “There be a storm out to sea. Sit ye down and hold tight.”
“Storm or no, there is no help for it. We have to leave.” I sounded much calmer than I felt. Putting out to sea in such a craft was almost too much for my courage.
The fishermen who had come down to aid in the escape lifted the ladies into the boats before pushing them off the shingle. Once the boats were free in the water, the rest of the party scrambled aboard as best they could, and the sail was run up. We made ourselves moderately comfortable by sitting on the walkway, which was slightly elevated, our feet in sloshing water perfumed by decaying fish bits and other debris best not identified. We were dreadfully uncomfortable and miserable, only heartened by the fact that we had escaped the Scots. I didn’t complain and would brook no complaints from others.
But other dangers awaited us, other than a storm at sea. No sooner had the boats cleared the estuary than a fisherman shouted, “Hostiles a-port!”
Mist obscured the line between sea and sky, and out of that haze there appeared first one, then another, and altogether a dozen ships of the type called cogs, merchantmen which could be turned into fighting ships when the need arose.
“Who are they?” I asked, twisting in my seat to see.
“Flemings,” one of the fishermen replied, and spat over the side.
They were allies of the Scots, and likely on the lookout for me. I hadn’t foreseen it, but what else could I have done? I shivered in my cloak, from chill and fear.
The fishing boats ran before them and the Flemings, crowned with sail, gave chase, closing in fast.
“Can we outrun them?” Robert asked.
“Not a chance, youngling.” The owner of the boat grinned. “But mebbe the storm’ll help.”
A note of desperation in his voice, Robert said: “The Queen must not fall into their hands.”
As we watched, the rearmost ships disappeared. It wasn’t that the Flemings were falling behind, only that the fishing boats were farther out to sea and it was getting rougher and the weather fouler, bringing down a curtain comprised of rain and sea spray. To make matters worse, the light was fading. It was more like dusk than noon.
The last of the Flemish ships disappeared from view but so had the other two boats and the coast of England. The storm was upon us now. I asked one of the crew how he knew in which direction they were heading. He tapped the side of his nose. “This can smell the green fields of England.”
We sat huddled, drenched and wretched, while the spray battered our exposed faces and the water in the bottom of the boat crept up our ankles. I posed a riddle, which was a favourite pastime of my ladies and me as we sat with our sewing. “I can run but not walk. Wherever I go, a thought follows behind. What am I?” But the few answers that came were ill-considered.
Robert and the other squires were bailing for all they were worth. That intrepid young man didn’t pause as he sought to divert us from our misery with a song. The boat pointed its bow at the roiling sky and then fell with a sickening thud into a trough between the towering swells. My ladies screamed. Then it lurched hard to one side, and we all fell off the bench, sprawling in water made even more revolting by the vomit of some of the passengers.
“Hold tight now,” one of the crew bellowed, but there was nothing to hold on to, except each other.
Another of the crew appeared in front of me. “Come, Queen. Let me tie ye to’t mast.”
“I can’t. I can’t stand up!” The frail craft heaved and plunged so severely that getting to my feet and moving past the others was a terrifying and perilous undertaking. And besides, Theophania was hugging the mast as if it were her dearest love.
“There be nought to fear. I’ll help ye,” he insisted, thrusting toward me a rough, callused hand.
“No! Leave me alone!” I cried, very close to panic. Then I screamed and lurched forward, anchoring myself with one arm around the seaman’s sturdy legs. I just managed to grab a handful of cloak before it was torn from my grasp. Adeliza, the wife of my cofferer, John Fleet, was retching over the side of the boat when a great wave struck. I heard one short, sharp shriek as she plunged over the side and was instantly swallowed by the voracious sea. There was nothing to be done. She was beyond saving. The swiftness of her death was shocking. One moment she was there with us and the next she was gone. My ladies screamed and wept. I stared into the sea, imagining Adeliza being dragged by Poseidon’s green and weedy hand many fathoms below to her solitary grave in the unknown abyss, among the weeds, and ageless rocks; curious fish nudging her.
A cold numbing terror had me in its grip. The fisherman had to prize my arm off his legs. In silence, he moved away, as if nothing had happened, or as if what had happened was not a notable occurrence. My ladies wept and moaned, crossed themselves and murmured snatches of prayer for the soul of the one we had lost.