Simon, the King’s ambassador to France, returns to England to find the lords at point of rebellion. King Henry, to obtain the Crown for his second son, Edmund, has promised the Crown of England to the Pope as surety for the costs of defeating the Prince of Sicily — and has failed to pay the Pope. He is attempting to extort high taxes from each nobleman to pay the debt.
“If only a small group of us would stand together for each other’s rights. No matter what the threats. It might give heart to more of us, and bring an end to these abuses.” Clare looked closely into the face of each man at the table.
Then, from the silence, Simon said quietly, “I’ll stand with you, Richard.”
“You’ll swear to it? We will uphold each other’s rights, no matter what the threats?”
“Short of breaching my oath of fealty to the Crown, I will,” Simon nodded.
“And I’ll swear too,” Roger Bigod spoke up.
“I’ll swear.” “And I.” FitzGeoffrey and Peter de Montfort added.
Looking about at the others, Peter of Savoy braced himself and said “I too.”
“Let us meet this evening. We will firm this pledge in privacy.” Clare looked to each of them.
“I offer my house for the meeting,” Savoy put forth, eager not to appear laggard. It was agreed that they would meet after vespers at the Savoy manse.
When all but Clare, Bigod and Simon had left the inn, Bigod remarked, “We will regret Savoy among us! We’d as well announce our doings direct to the king’s ear.”
“I don’t mind that Earl Peter is one of us. I welcome it,” Clare said with confidence. “With the king’s foreign favorite as one of us, we hardly can be accused of secret plottings.”
[The Provisions defining a new form of government by the representatives of the lords and common people has been created by Richard de Clare and Simon to curb King Henry’s abuses. The king’s half-brothers, the Lusignan, are outraged.]
Simon sang and drank with Clare, Cantaloup and Bigod. Their work had been astounding in its success. They were tired but exhilarated, and exceedingly happy.
Then, in the midst of the noise and laughter, someone with a ringing voice called out, “Where are the Lusignan?”
The rousing din dwindled to silence as everyone looked about. The king’s half-brothers were nowhere to be seen.
“They’ve fled!” someone cried.
“They must be stopped!” the Marshall Bigod thundered.
Climbing onto the table, Richard de Clare cried out for attention.
Simon grasped Clare’s hand. “Let them be gone, Richard! There’s too much still to be completed here.”
But Gloucester paid him no heed. “Good my lords!” he bellowed, “we must stop the Lusignan! Before they can leave England and raise foreign armies! We must stop them!” He leapt down from the table and started for the door.
All the lords in the room crowded after him. “Richard!” Simon called, “I will stay and see to matters here!”
Gloucester waved assent. Then he was gone with the mob out through the door and into the night…
A great new government had been conceived, but nothing beyond the replacement of the sheriffs and bailiffs had been done to make it a reality…
[The Lusignan have escaped to Winchester. All the lords, except Simon, have followed Richard de Clare in pursuit of them.]
On the fifth day since the lords had left, Seagrave reached Simon’s room in the early hours of the morning. He had ridden through the night without stopping. “My lord!” he cried, pounding on the door till Simon’s squire let him in. He rushed to the earl’s bedside. “My lord, there’s such a view at Winchester I thought my eyes would go blind with the sight of it!”
“What? What?” Simon asked, sleepily sitting up.
“They are all poisoned!”
“Who?” Simon looked dimly at his frantic steward.
“Everyone! All the lords of England! They’re all dying! Many are dead already!”
“This is an evil dream,” Simon rubbed his eyes.
Seagrave grasped his lord’s shoulder. “This is no dream, Sire! I saw it myself! Everywhere the camp is full of dead men lying in their filth and vomit!” The squire Peter stared at the steward. Seagrave frantically shook Simon again. “You must come see for yourself! I beg you, come! The world has never known such a calamity!”
Simon hurriedly dressed, had his cousin Peter de Montfort roused, and before dawn they were riding fast to Winchester.
Winchester Castle, on a rise beside the city’s western gate, consisted of a small gabled hall, a round tower and a bailey wall of purple and white flint enclosing a yard. Outside, on the level field at the top of the hill, a great many horses were grazing in the gray morning drizzle. The castle’s gate stood open.
Simon, his cousin and his squire slowed their mounts to a walk and cautiously rode in through the gate.
On the muddy ground of the castle’s yard men lay everywhere. They were contorted in grotesque positions, their rich, lordly clothing soiled with vomit, soaked with diarrhea. The reek was suffocating. A priest, inured to the odors of the dead and dying, moved among them bestowing the Last Rites. Several brown-robed monks removed the corpses, lifting them and laying them in wagons still bedded with grass, the packing from the Oxford fish.
Simon walked among the bodies. Squire Peter, kneeling by a body, called out, “Look, Sire! Here is the Justiciar of Ireland!” Curled with his knees to his chin, John FitzGeoffrey lay waxy pale and purple yet the flutter of his eyelids showed that life was not yet gone from him.
“Oh, my God!” Simon stared. “Get help for him!” He sent his squire running. “Where are the other members of our Council!” Simon bellowed, looking about wildly. He caught the priest by the arm. “Where are the Marshall and the Earl of Gloucester?”
“We’ve taken most of the men of high rank, who are still living, to the town,” the priest answered. “The Earl of Warwick is over there,” he pointed to the hall. “He’s in charge and can tell you where to find them.”
Simon made his way across the reeking, body-littered ground to the hall at the far side of the yard. Inside, the columned room was empty but for a barricade of wood against an inner door. Plessis, the Earl of Warwick, sat on the floor with his back against the barricade. With him were Richard de Grey and Hugh Bigod, sharing a flask of wine. They were quite drunk. Simon stood looking at them in amazement.
Richard de Grey, blearily noticing the tall, black-robed figure regarding them, scrambled to his feet. “My lord!” he bowed unsteadily, leaning from side to side.
“Are you all right?” Simon asked, putting out his hand and catching Grey’s arm to steady him.
“We’re fine,” Hugh Bigod said thickly, not even trying to get up. “The poison’s in the water. Don’t drink any of it!” He held out the leather wine flask, offering it to Simon.
“In the water,” Plessis nodded in agreement. “We’ve all eaten the fish and we’re not sick. It’s in the water. And we have them tight besieged!” He wagged his finger at the barricaded door behind him.
“The Lusignan brothers?” Simon asked.
“The Lusignan,” Hugh Bigod said with a broad smile. “They can’t get out. They’re in the tower, and this is the only entrance.”
“Except for the one on the parapet,” Grey added, clutching Simon’s arm for balance. “But we’ve blocked that door too.”
“Where are the Marshall and the Earl of Gloucester?” Simon demanded.
“They’re in the city,” Hugh Bigod waved in the town’s general direction. “My brother’s at the house beside Saint Ann’s and Gloucester is across the street.”
“I’ll take you to them,” Grey boldly offered, trying a wavering step that nearly felled him.
“No,” Simon eased Grey to the floor again. “I’ll find them myself.” He went back through the yard to where his squire and his cousin were waiting, their hands covering their noses and mouths as defense against the stench. They remounted and rode down to the town.
At a large half-timbered house beside the Church of Saint Ann they stopped, Simon dismounted and went in.
The burly Marshall sat propped up in a cushioned chair, pale and sunken-eyed but apparently recovering. “It takes more than a little spoilt fish to put me down,” he tapped his bull-like chest.
“Did you drink the water?” Simon asked.
“From the cistern? It’s wholesome enough. I’ve spent Christmastide with Henry at Winchester. The water was always good.”
“De Grey, Plessis and your brother ate the fish but haven’t drunk the water. They’re not poisoned,” Simon told him.
The Marshall shrugged his big shoulders.
Satisfied that Bigod was reasonably safe, Simon went across the street to find Richard de Clare.The woman who opened the inn’s door look haggard, exhausted. In answer to the earl’s question she dipped a tired curtsey.
“His lordship’s upstairs,” she said in a hushed tone. “He was among the first who fell ill, but his fever’s broke now. The doctor expects he’ll live. I’ll ask if he’ll see you.”
In a small room Clare lay in a plain, narrow bed beside the wall. He held up before his face a round metal mirror, its elegant, enameled back was decorated with a rampant unicorn, the arms of Clare.
“You’ve come to have a look at me?” he asked from behind the mirror. His voice was very weak.
“It seems the Lusignan poisoned the water,” Simon said. “They did so when we were at war in Poitou, and boasted of it.”
“Is that your explanation?” Clare asked hollowly. “I don’t think that is the truth.” He lowered the mirror.
Simon gazed at him, aghast.
The beautiful, fine features of Clare’s face were gone, unrecognizable, lost in putrid abscesses. His teeth were missing; the blistered, peeling lips puckered and sank to a dark hole. His bulging eyes were yellow and rheumy, the eyelids bare of lashes, giving him the aspect of a snake. Even his elegant hands had turned gray, except where the knuckles were raw and red with sores. Just a few hanks of the magnificent, long auburn hair that was his greatest vanity remained — straight, brittle and matted. Most of his head was bald, crusted with scabs.
Note: Giles, J.A. translation of Chronica Majora, published as Matthew Paris’s English History from the Year 1235-1273, Henry Bohn, London 1854 V5, pp. 291 – 296, see also Katherine Ashe, The Revolutionary p. 423.