In Pursuit of justice
Book three of the Bellême series
The crowning of
William the Conqueror's youngest son Henry,
transformed the anointed monarch from a mere mortal
to a Consecrated Rex, a divine person, God's representative on earth,
all powerful and all corruptible.
The appetite of King Henry 1st for power and control grew
and God help anyone who stood in his way.
25 July, 1082- Coutances, Western Normandy
As grey dawn approached a solitary stranger made his way through Coutances, towards the western gate. The only sounds to be heard were the tread of his feet on the rough ground and the cries of agony from a nearby house. He noted the anguish, looked up briefly at the flickering candlelight in the window, thought only of his own wretched existence and continued on his way.
Gurtrida, a thirteen year-old girl, lay desperately ill. For three days she had been trying to give birth. Her mother, Hawise, frantic with worry, sat next to her and cooled her forehead with cold, wet cloths, trying to block from her mind her own helplessness in easing her daughter's torment; praying the infant would somehow be born soon.
The pains had subsided again, 'But for how long?' thought Gurtrida. 'God above, help me. For how long must I suffer?' It had left her weak, weaker than she could ever have imagined, not able to move her arms, hardly able to open her eyelids. She could hear muffled voices nearby; a cloud, a wave of numbness drifted over her. 'What is happening,' she thought. 'Can't move! I can't move, l'm helpless!'
Time passed. She awoke to another surge.
“Oh no! Aah!” she screamed, a scream as of a ritual. Pain and scream. Pain and scream, a duet, sung since before time. Gurtida could feel it growing to another surge. Pain gripped her stomach, then subsided. 'Strange! Every time the pain goes away images come before me. Images floating on a slow flowing river. Suspended above water, the sun's rays glistening on wavelets. Meadows, lush green meadows. What is it,' she thought. 'My Prince is catching me?' She spurred her horse, the wind rushing through her long red hair as if she were ready to fly away like a great bird. 'He liked my hair.' She could feel him brushing the strands away from her face. 'He was so gentle and so long ago. I can hear voices, what are they saying?'
'Follow me,' he shouted. A timbered house loomed foreboding, its drawbridge clanking down over the moat. 'This is my hunting lodge, you'll be quite safe here. Safe!' She could hear voices. 'Safe?'
“She'll be all right soon.”
They reined their horses. He was talking, his lips gave a strange smile. A funny round face.
'Hungry?' he asked.
She felt very hungry. They had met by chance and had ridden many times since their first meeting. He was always courteous. She knew who he was. Had seen him with her father conducting business. 'What business? I don't care. He's a fourteen years old Prince, a year older than me. I told him to fuck off and stop playing with my tits! He said he liked me. He liked me because I wasn't a fawning milk sop. 'Oh,' said I, 'what are you after?' I bet him. I'm stupid. 'I can race you into the ground. If you catch me you can touch me.' Stupid! Stupid! I wish I hadn't. It was a bad and stupid thing to do. How was I to know his horse was an Arab thoroughbred.
She could feel hands and something inside her and imagined it was trying to get out. The pain swelling up into another bout…
The midwives, massaging the girl's stomach with oils, noticed Gurtrida go completely limp.
“Is she dead?” said one.
“No! She's alive and I think we've managed to manoeuvre the baby into the correct position,” said another.
But still Gurtrida could not give birth.
Her father, Simon, a wealthy silversmith, could endure his daughter's suffering no longer.
“What's going wrong? The child should have been born long before now!” he shouted, pleading with the midwives. “Isn't there anything else you can do? Why is it taking so long?”
“We don't know why. Her waters have burst, the mite's head is in the correct position. We can't do more than we are doing,” replied one of the women.
Gripped by the fear of losing his daughter and her child, Simon in desperation left the house, bridled his horse and rode out, seeking help from his liege lord.
“My lord,” Simon begged, thankful that he had found the young prince. “Forgive me for disturbing you at this early hour of the day. My daughter Gurtrida is in labour and has been wracked with pain for three days. There seems no end to her suffering and still there is no sign that the baby will be born. I beg you, my lord, by all that's holy, we need a physician to help with the birth, otherwise they will both die.”
The prince considered the man's request. 'The girl was good, very good,' he remembered with a wry smile. She had been his very first. He liked her. He liked her a lot, especially in the way she rode astride the saddle. He liked her spirit. She was a fantastic fuck. Now I'll be the father of a bastard at fourteen! My first with my very first fuck. Jesus! I must be potent. I'm the most potent prince I know! But what do I want with a snotty nose kid?' He paused in his thoughts for a moment. 'It will have my blood, royal blood. What will my old man say? Mmm, isn't he a bastard? Anyway, nobody needs to know. What about its mother and this silversmith? I'll throw a few silver coins at him and get her married off to some chinless wonder at the French court. In the meantime, I'll get a wet nurse and hide the kid away until I get my own court. I could even sire some more.' He was beginning to form a plan. 'Yes, I'll raise the child somewhere near Mont Saint-Michel. After all, it's far enough away and the old man won't live for ever.'
Slowly and deliberately he took hold of a goblet, sipped some wine and returned it to the table. All the while the silversmith stood nervously watching the prince tear off a piece of bread and place a slice of cheese on it. Then pushing it away, he looked up at the man before him.
“Return to your home, silversmith. A physician will attend her.”
“Thank you, my lord,” replied Simon, retreating from the room.
By the time it was full daylight the prince, accompanied by his physician and mounted troops, had arrived at the silversmith's house,
“Where is she,” he demanded.
“In here, my lord,” answered Simon.
He showed the prince and the physician into the crowded, airless room, where his wretched daughter lay. The air was thick with smoke and the odour of burnt tallow and sweet herbs. Midwives, not noticing the prince entering, continued in their frantic attempts to induce labour.
“Everybody out!” ordered the prince.
When they were alone, the physician examined the unconscious girl. Turning to the prince, he whispered, “My lord, the infant and mother are in imminent danger. I need to speak to one of the midwives.”
“Do it, but quickly!”
The physician came back and re-examined the girl. “My lord, the head of the unborn child is stuck within and it will not allow the rest of the body to come through. If I am to save the mother, I'll have to kill and dismember the child.”
“Never mind the mother,” growled the prince. Taking hold of the man's neck, “Save that child.”
“But my lord!” protested the physician.
“That is my child,' he said through clenched teeth. “It is my first child. It is of my blood. Save it! Do...you…understand! Do whatever you need to do but save the child!” Calling the guards, he ordered, “Bar the door, let nobody into this room.”
An hour later the physician placed the sleeping, newborn baby girl in Hawise's arms.
“What of our daughter?” Simon pleaded.
“She could not be saved,” said the physician, gently.
“What have you done! What have you done to her!” screamed Gurtrida's mother.
“You're lucky this child is safe and well,” said the Prince.
Turning to the silversmith, he handed him a bag of coins. “The child comes with me.”
“But my lord …?”
One harsh look from the Prince left Simon stunned into silence!
As far as the Prince was concerned the dead mother had served her purpose. The bastard girl child, who was to be christened Isabella, had only survived by being cut out from her mother's womb.
The father was Prince Henry, son of William the Conqueror, later to become King Henry I of England.
Mid-morning - 21st August 1113
Isabella's new home, Maison-Sur-Ource, situated 37 miles north-west of Dijon,
a gift from her step-son William III (Talvas) de Ponthieu's, brother-in-law, Hughes II, Duke of Burgundy.
“My lady,” said Quarrel, the commander of Isabella's small garrison, “you shouldn't be doing manual work in your advanced condition, you should be resting.”
Isabella had no intention of resting nor of hiding her pregnancy.
“Oh, shut up,” she retorted playfully, wiping the perspiration from her brow with a handkerchief. Brushing the dust from the sleeves of her long, dark green dress, Isabella noticed Quarrel shake his head.
“You're giving me one of your disagreeable looks.”
“You shouldn't be wearing such a beautiful dress doing this kind of dirty work.”
“Stop fussing. You're being too bossy,” retorted Isabella. “My dress is well protected. I'm wearing this sleeveless leather surcoat, that should be enough.” Isabella took a deep breath, held the stanchion in place and nodded for Quarrel to hammer it into the ground.
Extraordinarily for her thirty-one tempestuous years she still retained her youthful beauty, which always had an unsettling effect on her male adversaries. As some of her critics voiced, she was like her notorious late mother-in-law Mabile de Bellêull me, whom she had never met.
In the sun, golden lights glinted in her long copper red hair which hung down her back in one single braid entwined with a gold thread. Though she had an eye for quality and beauty, she was no delicate flower but a woman of action who could ride into battle wielding a broadsword as well as any man and who enjoyed being involved in the building of her new home.
“Are you wishing for another boy?” queried Quarrel.
Isabella smiled, “It would be good for my son Robert to have a younger brother.”
'Should I tell him what is at the back of my mind,' she thought, 'of my secret yearning for a girl? Perhaps not. Another boy will also be trained as a knight and go into battle.' She closed her eyes at the prospect of her boys being killed in battle. 'Then what? Left childless with nothing of husband Robert. Just memories.' She opened her eyes, 'A girl,' she mused, 'a daughter will always remain my daughter wherever she goes and whomever she marries.'
“Whatever the sex, I'll be happy as long as it is healthy and normal in limb.”
“Have you felt the child move yet?”
Isabella momentarily laid her hand on her protruding stomach as if to reassure herself the infant was still there and safe. “Oh yes. It seems impatient to get out but let's get on with this work. Just because I'm pregnant, doesn't mean I cannot hold this post in place. You should be concerning yourself with helping me build this outer corral for my mares, who don't like to be kept tethered and restrained by ropes while they graze.”
She looked at Quarrel as he took one final swing at the post with the heavy iron headed hammer, grasping and tugging it before he was satisfied it was truly secure. He didn't take chances. For the men of Isabella's garrison, his word was law. He had helped train them and made sure they were fit and always aware of Maison's vulnerability from the north. Therefore, he always kept his greased armour and double edged battle sword close to hand.
“I think it's well and truly in place now,” he said, leaning on the long shafted hammer. He then looked with satisfaction to the other side of the corral where their men were completing another section of the fencing.
She watched Quarrel take up the hammer again and move on to the next post to be secured into the ground.
Though his cropped, once jet black, hair had now turned grey, he kept his appearance immaculate. She could never get used to the terrible scarring around his eyes, especially near his left eye, where a long raw looking wound stretched diagonally from forehead to cheek. Twenty five years previously, he was castellan of Saint-Céneri, one of Robert de Bellême's fortresses. Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror's half brother, wrongly thinking that Bellême had turned traitor, laid siege to the fortress. Quarrel and the garrison had fought valiantly, despite the antics of Robert's first wife Agnes, a pious and fanatical supporter of the church who had made a public spectacle of herself by falling on her knees, wringing her hands, pleading for Quarrel to open the fortress gates to the warring Bishop. Quarrel defied her for her husband's sake and so the garrison had fought on until forced into surrender for lack of food. He had been taken prisoner along with the garrison. An attempt had been made to blind him with red hot irons on the orders of the Bishop. However, Quarrel had had friends among his gaolers and they had made it appear as though the punishment had been carried out, whilst saving his sight.