And now I should paint for you a delightful picture, like the monkish illuminations in a priceless manuscript, of a voyage across water by a noble party all bedecked in glorious finery to escort a beautiful royal damsel to her marriage to a handsome and noble prince where love blossoms between them and all is feasting and good fellowship. And I could do that, because so it was. Except… except that now, all these years after, I cannot. For I have made so many journeys since and so many other sadder faces of life that I neither will, nor can, remember the details of that almost eventless enterprise.
If life is a pageant, then my voyage to the Low Countries, my first time out of the kingdom, was its most colourful and chivalric day. At the Yorkist court back in the 60s, we thought we had the finest food, the richest wines, the loveliest in art and fashion. But, in truth, we had seen nothing. The court of Burgundy — the distillation of the Netherlandish cities — had so much more, a culture so much richer and finer and more refined. Here, in Brussels, Bruges and Ghent, were splendour and chivalry; pageantry indeed. And it was in the kingdom of Burgundy that I bade farewell to my Lady Margaret, and became blood brothers with my beloved friend, Anthony.
Burgundy never became a kingdom, of course, despite its enormous wealth and the burgeoning power of its dukes, and in spite of the luminous value of his lovely heiress Madame Mary and her wedding to Maximilian von Habsburg, his son and heir, the old hook-nosed Emperor Frederick would never agree to his elevation to a crown; neither that of Burgundy, nor that of Rome. Poor Duke Charles! The richest ruler in Europe, but unable to call himself a king, and in the end, it all fell apart. But I leap ahead. In those days, Charles was a young widower with one daughter, anxious to marry a fair princess and beget an heir to his kingdom-to-be. Hence our grandiose journey across land and sea to the realm of Burgundy.
Had it been under my sole leadership, our elegant little flotilla would have sailed from my own port of Hull, which is the shortest distance from the coast of Holland, securely within the domain of the duke. However, it was not thought fitting for a royal bride to be sent to the northern parts of the kingdom (just in case, as I jested to Anthony, the savages might still be wearing woad), and, more seriously, because there was still Lancastrian fealty seething amongst some northern knights and gentle families. The Earl of Warwick proposed that our ships should make landfall at his port of Calais (where he had been governor for many years) and he would personally escort our party across French territory, having secured safe conduct from King Louis (the eleventh of that name) with whom he was becoming suspiciously friendly. Anthony thought this was a splendid idea, but, with my more suspicious mind, I feared a trap at the hands of Warwick and the French king, in whose power the Lady Margaret (and, to a lesser extent Anthony and I) would be a very valuable hostage.
And so we sailed — waved off by the king and queen themselves in state — from the lovely cinque port of Sandwich, keeping a wary eye on Warwick’s well-equipped ships escorting us across the English Channel. But they all saluted us courteously, dipping their sails to acknowledge our royal cargo. Clearly the wily old bear had not yet decided to make his move.
Our disembarkation at the port they call Zeebrugge would be a perfect tableau for our pageant, like a panel from the Bayeux tapestry. The port was strewn and bedecked with the most wonderful and colourful banners and images, like a welcome for Queen Guinevere herself, coming to marry with her King Arthur. The atmosphere of anticipation and hopefulness was palpable. It was spring in nature and a spring of hope for the new and lovely bride of their handsome young duke. A choir sang the “Te Deum” as we disembarked, to be met by the Archbishop of Brussels and the Sieur de Gruuthuse — one of Duke Charles’ senior courtiers, and one whom we would come to know much better in time. They were sent by the duke as his personal envoys and greeted us — and above all, our bridal cargo — with the utmost courtesy and grace.
The bobaunce with which we were received at Bruges — perhaps Charles’ most beauteous city — has become a byword for splendour and hospitality and the fabulously colourful pageant with which the Brugeois received their new duchess and her entourage has been repeated annually since, and no doubt will be for centuries to come. What really mattered was this: that when the Lady Margaret, flanked by Anthony and me, was ceremonially presented to the duke — resplendent in his golden armour in imitation of his patron St. George — his eyes straightway were fixed upon his betrothed with a gaze that spoke of admiration and desire. He was — thanks be to God! — entranced. And the lady’s reaction was no less relieved; she was blissfully happy. Against all the odds of such a state wedding, a marriage by treaty, it was love at first sight, the love that should have been between Iseult and King Mark, had not her passion for Sir Tristram intervened.
From Bruges, we were escorted by the Sieur de Gruuthuse to Brussels, Duke Charles’ capital city, grander than Bruges if less picturesque and pretty, where the duke was to be officially presented with his new duchess. On that joyous morning, we passed through the great throng of the people expressing their joy, making our Joyeuse Entrée through the great gate of the town and thence through all the crowded squares where wine was flowing in abundance from the fountains. Our breath was almost taken away as we rode into the enormous, magnificent Grande Place — probably the greatest town square in northern Europe — Anthony and I riding on handsome palfreys, his black, mine white, on either side of our fair princess reclining on a splendid litter, her hair all flowing dark and long and lovely onto her marble shoulders. She waved modestly yet warmly to the people feeling their love and good wishes. And, at moments, she would glance to left or right at Anthony and me with a little smile of recognition and reassurance. No queen or empress could have received a more loving welcome to her new kingdom.
We entered the Great Hall of the palace in grand procession with Louis de Gruuthuse preceding us, Anthony on the lady’s right, I on her left; her hands gently and elegantly resting in ours. Her dress was long and white in the lightest silk, to display her pure virginal state, whilst Anthony and I wore handsome doublets of velvet, his a bold vermilion, mine of a rich dark blue, with sleeves slashed to show off our fine silk shirts beneath. In the fashion of that time, we wore our doublets very short to reveal the shapely cups of our buttocks. We both had on our golden chains of King Edward’s emblem of the sun in splendour. Remember, we were here as much to impress as to be impressed.
As we walked slowly in, the duke’s finest musicians in the gallery above were playing “Ah, Flanders Free” — a most joyous melody by Thomas Fabri, who had been court composer to Duke Charles’ grandfather, Phillip the Bold, and was followed by even more wondrous music composed by his own Master of Music, the great Josquin des Prez. Being, by this time, an experienced courtier, I was able to keep my features composed as I saw, on the duke’s left hand exactly facing Anthony, who but my lord the Bastard Antoine with fixed and solemn features, whilst I was processing as slowly but surely to face the Cardinal-Archbishop of Brussels; a much less alarming figure in this setting. But, I am no fool, not a son of the great Duchess Alice Chaucer for nothing, so as we approached closer to the ducal party en face, to the exact beat of Josquin’s stately dance rhythm, I half-turned, bowed to my Lady Margaret, and did an elegant dosey doe round behind her, while giving a sharp nod to Anthony to do likewise. He took my purpose at once and thus, as we reached to the first step of the ducal dais, we were elegantly reversed, with Anthony facing the crinkly old card, and myself smiling with brotherly love upon my lord le Bastard. Even he could not resist cracking a sort of smile.
Monsieur de Gruuthuse now formally presented Anthony and myself to the duke as we bowed low — one would kneel only to a king — and then announced, “Your Highness, I present the wondrous lady, and most high and mighty princess, the Lady Margaret, sister to the most high and illustre prince, King Edward of England, France and Ireland.”
Duke Charles — handsome in a sombre and fascinating Valois way (the dukes were cousins, of course, to the kings of France) — now divested of his golden armour and clothed in a long and beautiful robe of heavy purple velvet, on his head the most magnificent and fabulous headdress I have ever seen (as fine as any crown), his eyes fixed lustfully upon our lovely Lady — a bit too lustfully to my possessive eyes — moved forward towards her and placing his hands upon her elegant shoulders — they were exactly the same height, most conveniently — kissed her, full and passionately upon the mouth. She returned the kiss, long and clearly heartfelt, with the same passion. And at that, the whole long hall, filled with the nobility, court officials and richer merchants of the most chivalrous appanage in Christendom, erupted in a great éclat of whoops and cheers and applause. Hats — elegant if smaller copies of that worn by His Highness — were tossed in the air and the order of court protocol was momentarily thrust aside.
Then, at a sign from Monsieur de Gruuthuse, the Great Chamberlain — an official in a splendid costume standing to our left — banged his great staff three times firmly on the stone floor, and at once decorum was renewed. Now that’s what I call protocol. The duke now handed the Lady Margaret round to his right side — indicating that she was now in effect his bride, his property — thus forcing his bastard brother to step a little further to his right. As if to make up for this apparent sleight, he now turned and, with a very slight smile — neither of the ducal brothers could accurately be called a smiler — nodded and asked, “Now our bride has been put into our hands, to commence the entertainments of our wedding, perhaps our brother would care to break a lance in knightly brotherhood with our Lady’s brother-in-law, Lord Scales?”
There was a moment’s agonised silence.
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