Good King John was on A Visit of State to, or rather freeloading on, the wealthy and powerful Bishop Mauger of
one spring, being short of ready money yet again, the legacy of the spendthrift
and war mongering brother King Richard who had preceded him. Worcester
Also, as King John had been excommunicated he did not have to bother with the Cathedral services and going through the motions of worship that such a visit might entail. Bishop Mauger was happy; it meant he could snooze through the droning of the services instead of being disturbed by the interminable rattle of the King’s dice on the Cathedral floor and the yelping of the Royal gambling school.
It was morning, and in keeping with the ordinary procedure of the Court, just after the breakfast, time for exemplary cases of justice to be dealt with to keep the wheels of administration turning, and to clear the dungeons of felons, heretics, and tax evaders.
The King did not believe in the deterrent effects of imprisonment, the sooner wrongdoers were granted the benefit of the judgement of God, the better for all concerned, especially those whose lifestyle relied on the raising of taxes. The first case promised to be tedious if it was allowed to drag on, and the King did not want to waste the day on matters such as this.
Hubert the Chamberlain had two peasants dragged in and thrown before him. They had been found in the Palace with several items of the King’s silver plate stuffed up their jerkins, and were unable to claim benefit of clergy.
The Chief Executioner had been summoned up from his lair in the crypt, the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Of Mercy, and had the first thief hauled forward by his hair, “Eh up lad,” John said, the King was Norman French and his mastery of the many and various local dialects that plagued England was imperfect, “’oo the ‘ell are you and what’s t’ excuse?”
“I am Adam a’ Winwood of Leigh, and my family are starving.” “Bad move!” said the King, and pointed his sword at the jury, who had been dragged from their ploughs that morning and made to stand at one side, each with a noose around his neck to remind him of the fallibility of the human mind.
Their plaintive cries of “Yea” were immediate and unanimous. John nodded to the executioner who hung Adam from a beam by his legs and then got to work with an axe. This greatly cheered the King as an execution or two after his morning spitted wild boar and goose eggs set him up for the day.
After what was left of Adam was chopped into smaller portions to be thrown to the dogs the next thief was dragged before him. King John was now into his stride, “Right then?” “I am Thomas le Vobe of Mathon and I was engaged in the necessary business of redistributing wealth held off balance sheet for the purpose of encouraging consumption to help overcome the present economic difficulties.”
King John had heard all this before from his Exchequer, and a preaching friar, Maynard John of Keynsham, had been bricked up in a wall for a similar suggestion, so he just nodded again, not waiting for the jury. It was the way King John smiled when he beat them to the decision that worried them, as well as the tightness of the ropes, but they gibbered their agreement.
As Thomas le Vobe was being lifted to the beam, he coughed, pointed to the King’s favourite dogs and said, “Pity about this I was just going to offer to teach one of them to talk.” King John heaved a deep and weary sigh; even the most crazed heretic or alchemist had failed to come up with anything like that.
The King was about to enjoy another blood bath, but then he felt Queen Isabel, the Beauteous Rose of Angouleme tug at his sleeve. He had abducted her in a burst of passion, divorced his wife, and then remarried to Isabel in a haste he had come to regret. Her urgent voice, told him that she was at the pleading game again.
Isabel’s command of the local patois was worse than his, which was saying a lot. “’ere dearie, just you fink abart it, one, give a bit of mercy now and again puts points up with God, two, you’re down for a war against the Barons again after harvest and three, you need your poll ratings up with peasants. They’d love a talking dog, so they’d forget this Parliament rubbish, believe you me, God would like that as well.”
King John was not a man who enjoyed being interrupted, especially when there were things to do. On the list were women taken in adultery to be trebucheted off the Cathedral roof into the River Severn; to be rescued only if the King desired to ascertain their vulnerability to this dreadful sin, one of the few duties he enjoyed.
He needed to cut Isabel short and proceed with the business. “Can’t we just give them another baby?” asked the King, “No you dirty sod, anyhow its Lent, and they are fed up with royal kids, all the gifts, now a talking dog……” It was a long ten minutes before he could intervene, when she finally needed to draw breath.
King John was not entirely happy. When he had snatched the maiden from her betrothed at Baron William de Mowbray’s suggestion, her God thing had not been mentioned, and she was altogether too keen on it for his taste. At the times he pleasured her, her appeals to The Good Lord for his mercy for engaging in carnal activity seemed excessive. Mowbray had time to consider his error now; with his head spiked on
. London Bridge
But she was usually right about the peasants; they seemed very keen on God as well. The King did not like it, some of them thought that the Deity was on their side, and even the incessant rambling of certain of the Bishops could lead to them making such a mistake. Mowbray had suggested something for the peasants called football instead to distract them, the fool’s idea that had cost him his head.
As the Chief Executioner was about to swing the axe, King John raised his hand. He was reluctant, he never liked to disappoint the Chief, “A word first.” Thomas was lowered, cuffed about the head, spat on, and then flung down again before the King, according to the ancient custom. “Oh aye, a dog, talking?”
Waiting first for the Royal goblet to be flung to bounce off his head, Thomas raised himself cautiously, pausing and giving meaningful weight to his words. “Indeed, Sire, give me a year, with my well tried linguistic training techniques, preferential feeding, and psychological incentives, and you will be able to hold an intelligent conversation with the animal to your entire satisfaction.”
The court was silent, this was a new one, and John’s reactions were variable at the best of times. It was a little while before the King spoke, he was sure he could find a way to have the insolent head, greed usually tripped up people like this. “And I suppose you will want a fortune and an heiress?”
Thomas brightened, smiled, and all thought he had been hooked, “By The Lord no, Sire, decent board and lodging only, time and the right to walk the dog.” The grunt of dissatisfaction was audible. The Queen squealed with joy, with luck Thomas le Vobe would be the first English Saint since Thomas A’ Beckett.
Modern Archbishops and the clergy had become more circumspect in recent years and cautious of martyrdom. Even Gerald of Wales had learned when to be quiet, but then there had been a glut of Welsh martyrs on the market. This could be better than Francis of Assisi,
The Church would have a new Order, The Caninian Order of
St. Thomas even, and if she
played the game right, the offerings would be rolling in, and there would be
joy in the . A happy Pope made a happy Church she was fond
of saying to her husband, who did not always agree. Vatican
“Nothing more?” The King was feeling trapped, then Thomas spoke again and the King’s hopes were raised. “Well, Sire, just one thing,” “Got ‘im” thought the King. “The executioner, I wouldn’t like him to lose his fee or bonus, well, it’s only right.” The Queen clapped her hands, the Bishop nodded, and the King had lost.
“Right, right, yeah, one year, then we see.” King John pointed to the most stupid hound he had and it was brought to Thomas, who was led away, clutching the dog. “Next!” shouted the King with an edge of venom in his voice. All the courtiers twitched in fear. The jurors looked at each other and began to pray.
The Chamberlain had brought in a shrunken weakly figure. It hobbled unevenly across the floor, lurching and lumbering. A large cowl enveloped the shoulders and upper torso. It looked like a under sized goblin. The Chamberlain pulled back the cowl to reveal a scarred and lopsided face of surpassing ugliness.
“’oo’s this then?”, asked the King. “Robin the Hood, son of
the Scrivener of Eastwood in the
Shire of Nottingham.” The King liked the
odd joke on these occasions, the question in the courtiers’ minds was always
who would be the victim. He sat back,
waved his arm with a generous gesture at the specimen before him and declaimed,
“Ha, look, someone’s son and lover!” Lawrence
The courtiers paused, uncertain of the context, the King could be playing tricks again, and the King was below his performance target on the body count for the month. But they saw the Plantagenet smirk on the mouth, relaxed, and laughed as loudly as they could. The King let them go on until they all began to wheeze and then flapped a hand.
“And?” said the King. The Chamberlain delivered the charge. “Branch Secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Foresters And Related Trades; responsible for your job creation scheme in the North Sherwood District to employ and train local unemployed bandits into revenue collectors. Failure to keep up to date accounts and to consult fully with senior management before introducing new work procedures.”
The King bent forward with a smile of sheer malice playing on his face. The Hall was warmed with more laughter from the audience; they knew what was about to happen. The sword was raised, the Jurors cried “Yea” with a religious rapture previously unknown in the Cathedral, and the King roared, “So, you forgot to pay the Sheriff his consultancy fee?”
The King picked up a slice of wild boar and waved it above his head. “Chop, chop!” he cried, and the courtiers roared with helpless relief and joy. Cardinal Langton waved a chalice of claret above him cried “Errare humanum est!” and then fell off his stool. Even the Chief Executioner laughed so much that he had difficulty in hoisting Robin to the beam. Outside in the cloister, Thomas heard the merriment and began a cold muck sweat.
Two weeks later in the quiet of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin of Mercy, a place never visited by any of the Court, Thomas le Vobe and the Chief Executioner were sharing a gallon of ale, a haunch of venison, and a few other good things and passing the time of day. “You know, that Robin was a rare giggle,” said the Chief, “His last words were I should have stuck to being a ponce.”
There was a short silence then the Chief spoke again. “I’m going to be sorry to do for you, you know, at the end of the year, I’ve learned a lot from you, and I like your theory that unpredictable monetary movements are the cause of all the trouble and not the Devil going round shagging old women.” “Who knows?” said Thomas, throwing a lump of meat at the chosen dog. “Woof!” said Thomas, “Woof, woof.” replied the dog.
The Chief shook his head. “Look, this is the age of instant communication, in a years time bits of you are going to be nailed to the doors of Parish Churches all over the Kingdom as a dire warning.” Thomas waved a bone at him. “No, no, no, look at it this way, in a year, I might die anyway, you might die, indeed the King might die, and that brings a pardon. Who knows, even this young dog might die.” The Chief shook his head again. Thomas threw a larger piece of meat and barked at the dog. “Aaargh Woof.”
“Aaaarrrgh Aaaarrrgh, Woof Woof.” responded the animal.
“And the dog might talk,” said Thomas.