A CHILD UPON THE THRONE BOOK 4

CHAPTER 19

                        

Bury St. Edmunds Abbey, June 1381  

 

"I will be back tomorrow with my sister,” Matthew said, from atop his destrier. His men were already mounted. Edmundsbury Castle was a half day’s ride from Bury St. Edmund’s Abbey but knowing Elizabeth, she would have carts and furnishings suitable for a dozen wedding celebrations. Best to count on a delayed return.

Margery blew her lover a kiss before she and Serill returned to the abbey.

Margery’s host was Prior John of Cambridge, a thin-lipped priest with the mind of a lawyer and a ruthless singlemindedness when it came to gathering money. Prior John was in charge of Bury St. Edmunds Abbey and since Matthew had provided the abbey with a generous donation, the prior was at his obsequious best around him. However, after Matthew’s leaving, Prior John had virtually ignored Margery, leaving her and Serill to stay in their small quarters or explore the well-attended abbey grounds.

Quiet.

Peaceful.

And with no idea that Matthew had unwittingly deposited them in the maw of the beast. For, not only was Bury St. Edmunds Abbey one of the most powerful in England, it was among the most hated, with charters that gave it a stranglehold over both the town of Bury St. Edmunds and the surrounding countryside. It held the city gates, possessed the wardships of all orphans in the district, collected fees from the estates, and lent money. Its archives were stuffed with bills against the city’s influential citizens, who whispered “the abbot’s papers have a sharper edge than the headsman’s ax.”

As Margery and Serill finished a spartan repast tucked away in a tiny part of the abbey palace, a former chaplain named John Wrawe and a band of rebels entered Bury St. Edmunds’ south gate. As Margery and Serill left the palace to stroll in the Abbot’s Garden, situated behind and to the south of Prior John’s grand residence, the rebels marched toward the abbey. As Margery leaned over to caress the red petals of a damask rose, she heard the first shouts. Like a stag upon scenting the hunter, she stiffened and cocked her head.

“Hush!” She ordered Serill, who had been humming one of the ballads Matthew had recently taught him.

“I know things,” Thurold had said. “Take Serill and your knight…go soon.”

Margery felt the hair prickle on the back of her neck.

“What is it, Maman?”

Margery put a warning finger to his lips. Of course nothing would happen, not in this peaceful abbey with its comforting jumble of buildings and beautifully tended gardens, but she heard a rumble like that of men on horseback. Her eyes caught the cross atop the central tower of the abbey church. Was not Saint Edmund the guardian of the abbey as well as the town itself?

She tensed, trying to place the sound, which sounded a bit like the growl of thunder, though the deepening sky contained not a hint of cloud. Had Matthew and his men returned? But it was much too soon. And why would they be making such a noise? Had there been another call-up of troops? Mayhap a criminal being chased by a sheriff and his posse? But wouldn’t such matters have been discussed during their meals with Prior John? The peasant unrest? But Prior John had dismissed that particular subject with a wave.

Grabbing Serill’s hand, Margery hurried to the garden entrance. Tromping feet. Angry voices. Louder. Serill was watching her, his eyes wide and frightened so she tried to compose her expression. But she knew, aye, she knew.

“This is the moment.” Thurold had said. “’Tis an odd thing, what causes folks to say, ‘Enough.’ We’ve reached that crosssroad.”

Margery could see a portion of the Great Gate, which gave access to the Great Court and the abbot’s palace. The gate had been built for defensive purposes in 1327, following a previous riot. A portcullis hovered overhead, like the fangs of a wolf, but no guard had moved to lower it. What did that mean? If something dangerous was occurring they would close the gate, wouldn’t they?

Torches leapt against the stone walls of the gate, echoing the flames of the setting sun. The first rebels appeared, carrying pitchforks, staves, and bows slung over their shoulders.

“Do not stop,” Margery whispered, heart hammering against her ribs. “Go on.”

Surely they would not attack Bury St. Edmunds Abbey.

Thurold and his like might claim to hate corrupt friars and bishops, but such was just talk. Particularly when a priest was their primary spokesman.

Peasants spilled through the gate, spreading out across the Great Court. Some headed toward the cowshed, brewery and other supply buildings to the left, but most made their way straight toward the abbot’s palace, brandishing their weapons and chanting, “Prior John!”

“Mother Mary!” Margery breathed. She glimpsed the prior bolting out the palace’s back door, toward the meadow and the River Lark which bordered the back of the abbey.

Margery pulled Serill into the shadows of the garden hedges.

“Maman, what is it? What is happening? Who are those men? Are they with Father?”

Seeking a hiding place, Margery’s eyes swept the area— the tiny garden chapel, the Reredorter and outbuildings, and the abbey church which stood huge and solid against the darkening sky.

“Something…troubling is happening, but we’ll be safe,” she whispered to Serill. “We’ll hide in the church.”

“I do not like this, Maman. I wish Father were here. He would kill them all and rescue us—”

“We must care for ourselves until his return.” Mind racing, Margery pulled Serill toward the abbey church. She and Serill both had daggers, but they would prove useless against a horde. They must hide and hope for the best until she could devise a better plan. Perhaps Matthew and his men had seen the mob and were even now returning…

When Margery and Serill reached the Monk’s Cemetery, they heard angry voices close by. Something crashed. Margery crouched behind a small monument, pulling her son down beside her. The palace was ablaze with the rebels’ torches as they went from room to room searching, she presumed, for Prior John. Some had smashed windows and tossed out silver plate, reliquaries, and furniture. Like rats deserting a granary, priests, monks and servants poured out into the courtyard, their shouts adding to the din.

Margery scooted past the cemetery, along to the south entrance of the church, entering through St. Botolph’s Chapel. The chapel was so dark Margery had to rely on the memory of an earlier visit to guide her. The shrine of St. Edmund, located behind the high altar near the shrines of Saints Jurmin and Botolph, was the focal point of the apse.

Should we have fled the abbey like Prior John? She wondered, while groping her way toward the opening which led to the shrine. But she was unfamiliar with the area. No, they must hide and wait until Matthew’s return.

“We will be safe here. No one will violate sanctuary,” Margery said with more conviction than she felt. She led Serill toward the high altar in front of St. Edmund’s shrine.

The cathedral was one of the largest in the country; surely they could find a hiding place in its vastness.

A scream pierced the silence. Margery imagined she heard the thud of running feet across the cemetery lawn.

“Listen to me.” She lifted Serill’s chin, trying to better see into his eyes. If those outside were like Thurold and John Ball, they were nursing a lifetime of grievances. Who could predict their level of violence? And they would not give her a chance to explain—what? That she knew John Ball, that she sympathized with their cause, that she was one of their own? But who and what was she really, in her sumptuous clothes and with her prosperous business, with noble blood coursing through her veins, and with both a son and a lover in service to the most hated man in England?

“Should something happen, should you and I somehow become separated, if those men should find us, whatever you do, do not mention your father or most of all, the duke. Pretend you know naught of any lord.”

Serill’s clothing didn’t contain the Lancaster badge, that was something, though the rebels would only be momentarily fooled.

“You must be like Thurold. Repeat what you’ve heard him say about our lords. Do you understand?”

“Will they kill us if they think Father and my lord Duke are our friends?” Serill asked in a small, frightened voice.

“Just do not speak of them.” Sinking against the altar, Margery gathered her trembling son against her, stared into the darkness and prayed.

Crash!

The chapel door was thrown back on its hinges. Serill jumped; his arms tightened around her.

Voices, several in the chapel area. Margery’s heart pounded so loudly she could not hear.

I must stay calm for Serill’s sake.

She looked around to see if he might somehow escape, whether she might be able to distract the rebels long enough for him to safely slip away. But where would he flee? He was so young, only eleven. How could he survive without her?

They wouldn’t hurt a woman, would they? But the heads? The screaming…

It was dark in the chapel. Perhaps they wouldn’t see her.

Margery heard footsteps approaching. More voices. Then what sounded like one man nearing the altar. She removed her dagger, placed Serill behind her, and looked around. No place to hide.

Trapped.

A figure came in view. Shadowed, but he was huge and bulky, an impossibly formidable opponent.

Doomed.

Then she was face to face with the man. Margery blinked. Surely in the dimness her eyes were playing tricks on her.

Fulco the Smithy?

What had Thurold said? “He’s one of us…He travels from castle to castle…He’s from Bury St. Edmunds.” Had Fulco been an instigator, moving around in order to stoke the fires of the insurrection? Might he be one of its leaders?

Margery stared at Fulco. He returned her gaze, looking every bit as surprised as she felt.

“Please don’t hurt my son,” she wanted to say, but somehow she could not utter the words. They’d never needed words before…and now?

Fulco looked younger than she remembered. Coarser, as if he were naught but a common villein.

Dear God, what did I do? What have I done?

Then, a shifting of the light revealed a glimmering of a chain around his neck, just peeking from his tunic. And Margery knew. She saw not a rude peasant but her midnight lover, her gift from the pagan gods who’d thawed a heart that had been packed in ice.

“Ah, Fulco,” she whispered.

The months fell away. They might have been back by the River Stour with him above her, staring into those beautiful black eyes as they made love.

Without looking down at her son, Margery said, “We are fine, Serill. Do not be afraid.”

She stepped away from him and approached Fulco.

Motionless, he watched her. She stopped when they were as close as they’d once been, close enough to feel each other’s breaths, close enough she imagined they might hear the beating of their respective hearts.

Reaching inside Fulco’s tunic, Margery withdrew the necklace with her metal image and clasped the pendant in her fist.

She gazed up at him. Fulco bent down until their foreheads touched, and there they remained. As if they were two travelers, returning home to each other after a long and weary journey.

“My love,” she wanted to say. He wasn’t that exactly. Matthew Hart was. But whatever Fulco the Smithy meant to her, no man, not even her beloved, she knew, would ever fill that secret corner.

Fulco wrapped his hand over hers and they stayed motionless, foreheads together, sharing their breathing, as if something magical within its mingling would forever bind them together.

“Maman?” Serill’s frightened whisper returned her to the present. As did a sound from beyond, coming closer.

“Hide in the crypt.” Fulco said. “I will return when I can and find you a way out.”

They stepped away from each other.

Fulco turned and strode away, back toward the rebels. “There’s no one here,” he shouted, “Let us move on.”