THE LION AND THE LEOPARD, BOOK 1
After Christmas, King Edward moved north in a final campaign to crush Thomas Lancaster and all those who had stood against him.
Roger Mortimer and his lords, lacking money, troops and after waiting in vain for Lancaster's promised help, surrendered to the king on January 23, 1322. Under heavy guard Mortimer was packed off to the Tower of London. The imprisonment of the fiercest Marcher lord frightened most of the other rebels into surrender. Castles began to fall, knights to desert. The remaining Marchers fled north to Pontefract, where Thomas Lancaster sat as if paralyzed, allowing his allies to be captured and King Edward to march north virtually unimpeded. After only token resistance the earl's great castles of Kenilworth and Tutbury fell. Rumors of Lancaster's involvement with the Scots had long circulated and his retainers bore little allegiance to a lord who made secret agreements with their enemy. At Tutbury, Edward uncovered evidence that confirmed those rumors and marked Lancaster as traitor-correspondence with Scotland's king, Robert the Bruce.
Finally, Thomas had no choice but to bolt for his northern-most castle of Dunstanburgh. On March 16, he and a troop of seven hundred men reached Boroughbridge in Yorkshire. On the north bank of the River Ure, spanned by a bridge so narrow an armor-clad knight could scarce cross, Edward's troops awaited. They were jointly commanded by Andrew Harclay, governor of Carlisle, and Richard of Sussex. Since January Richard had traveled with Edward, but when the Despensers had rejoined him at Lichfield a fortnight past, he had ridden north. For now, at least, Richard and his brother must remain united. Now Thomas Lancaster was within their grasp.
On March 17, 1322, following a battle in which most of his commanders had been killed, Thomas of Lancaster crossed Boroughbridge and surrendered under a flag of truce. Richard accepted his cousin's sword with an emotion approaching disbelief. These past years, as England had been torn with internal strife, the cause of that strife had become embodied in Richard's mind by one man. Thomas Lancaster had gradually metamorphosed from flesh and blood to an evil, brooding presence, lurking in the bleakness of the Yorkshire moors, awaiting the proper moment to sweep south and annihilate his enemies. This day, however, Richard saw a hesitant man with narrow, slightly stooped shoulders, gray in his beard, and weary eyes—eyes in color not unlike his own. Richard almost felt sorry for him.
* * *
King Edward sat in the middle of Pontefract's great hall, surrounded by clerks and courtiers, and to his right, Hugh Despenser the Younger. Before them with head bowed and hands tied behind his back, stood Thomas of Lancaster, steward of England. Thomas had just emerged from several days in Pontefract's Swillington Tower and looked nearer dead than living. Today, March 22, the earl of Lancaster faced his peers no longer as their equal, but as a condemned criminal. In the past he'd broken bread with each of the barons—young Edmund Plantagenet, earl of Kent and Edward's legitimate half-brother, the earls of Pembroke, Sturry, Arundel, and Richard of Sussex. Nine months ago, during the Parliament of the White Bands, he had entered Westminster in triumph. Now he would not even be able to offer a defense for the charges put before him. Like Lucifer when driven from heaven, Thomas Lancaster had fallen far.
A young clerk read the summation of charges, a long list containing only one truly treasonable offense—his alliance with the Scots. Seated with the other barons, Richard found his attention wandering. Never would he understand his cousin's love of Pontefract, which was a gloomy, graceless place. One of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom, the castle perched atop eight acres of rock, beneath which existed many natural subterranean chambers. From a rectangular stained and leaded window, light streamed onto the stone floor in shimmering patches, partially alleviating the interior's murkiness. Today was one of those rare spring days that would be unmarred by rain.
Would it be better to die on such a day or in dreary winter, Richard wondered, when the world is cloaked in grey and the cold seeps into the bones so that no fire could bake it out? If I could choose the day to die...
The clerk, reading the document that would cost Lancaster his life, was obviously bored. "With banners displayed," he recited in a singsong manner, "as in open war, in a hostile manner resisted...and hindered our sovereign lord the king...for three whole days so that they could not pass over the bridge of Burton-upon-Trent...and there feloniously slew some of the king's men."
Richard looked at Thomas's brother, Henry, seated in the shadows. Henry was obviously in torment over his brother, as well as the shame that had befallen the House of Lancaster. I must see that Henry does not pay for Thomas's sin, Richard thought. If his fate is left up to Edward, he will die of neglect.
Not until the clerk referred to Piers Gaveston and his death did King Edward, who had feigned indifference throughout the entire proceedings, even look at Lancaster. Now Edward’s body went rigid, his expression became suffused with hatred. ‘Tis not really any "understanding" with the Scots or thwarting of the king's dictates that has sealed Thomas's fate, Richard thought, but his part in Piers' death, nearly a decade past.
Speaking for the first time, Lancaster cried out, "This is a powerful court and great in authority, where no answer is heard or given."
Edward fixed Lancaster with a contemptuous smile. "This is the usual summary process of martial law, as you must know, cousin. A defendant is not allowed to make a defense once his offenses have been recognized by witnesses."
Richard ran a hand across his brow and sat up straighter, trying to shake off his fatigue. He'd not had a full night's sleep since the Despensers' arrival at Lichfield. Edward's open hatred bothered him. Should not hatred, no matter how justified, be tempered with justice, if not mercy? Was it true that men of Edward's proclivities were vengeful creatures, or just that human love knew no reason?
Besides, Lancaster had touched on something that worried Richard. There were those who said that the entire trial was illegal because martial law had not been in effect at the time of Thomas's capture. Since the courts had been sitting it could not be definable as "time of war." Nor had Edward ever unfurled his banners, a second requirement. When he'd been readying to do so he'd been stopped by Nephew Hugh who feared that if time of war were declared and Edward lost the last battle, he and his father would immediately lose their heads.
"Wherefore our sovereign lord," droned the clerk, picking at a tear in his tunic,"...having duly weighed the great enormities and offenses...has no manner of reason to show any mercy..."
Richard stifled a yawn. A man will today lose his life, history is being made, and I cannot even stay awake. He arched his back, uncomfortable because of the backless bench. If I could but whisk you back to happier times I would do that for you, Tom, or rush you past your judgment to when you are moldering in your grave and will not care. But I cannot. The world will not pause, the clerk will not cease worrying his tear, and time will not wait, even for one moment—not for you, Thomas, nor me, nor any other man.
The final verdict was delivered by the royal justice. "Because you are most highly and nobly descended, you shall not be drawn and hanged but execution shall be done upon you by beheading."
"You cannot do this," Thomas cried out. "You cannot execute someone of royal blood. 'Tis without precedent. You might dispossess me, but you cannot murder me."
Two knights rushed forward. One held Thomas while a second jerked a hood over his face.
"I can do anything I please, cousin!" Edward called after him as he was dragged out of the hall. The king turned to Hugh Despenser and grinned as if he'd just related the punch line to a favorite joke.
Thomas might have been weak and foolish, Richard thought, turning away from his brother's triumph, but he is not alone.
It was not only the lack of sleep that made Richard so bone weary.
* * *
While the sun was yet high and the day mild, Thomas of Lancaster was taken to St. Thomas Hill. He made the journey on the back of a grey pony and was pelted with stones and offal by subjects who'd previously cheered him.
"King Arthur," some shouted, in obvious reference to the nom de plume he'd used in his correspondence with Robert the Bruce, "where are your knights to help you now?"
Richard, who rode behind, turned to Michael Hallam. "Good Englishmen all, aren't they? Their loyalty does not extend past these last several minutes."
Michael looked gloomier than ever. "Aye, m'lord. Their favor, as well as their stench, shifts with the wind."
At that moment, Lancaster, who'd been silent, swayed in his saddle and called out, "King of heaven, grant me Thy mercy, for the king of earth has forsaken me!"
Atop St. Thomas Hill the executioner's block was ready. The trembling earl, flanked on either side by Sussex and Hallam and several others, dismounted and knelt beside the block, facing east.
Two more minutes and your world will be ended, Richard thought. What does it matter now that you're a traitor when you will lose your life? No more will you breathe the sweet English air, see the wispy clouds crossing the sky, track a starling, hold a woman, hear the voices of your children...
Though his thoughts were his own, Richard addressed Thomas in a flat emotionless voice. "Place your traitorous head not to the east but toward the north, cousin. Look in the direction of your friends, the Scots."
Richard closed his eyes when the ax fell.