Please bear in mind this is a work in progress, it currently runs to about 160-odd pages but I feel it is time to give it an airing on the internet. Constructive criticism and ideas are welcome.

 

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Prologue

Stone castle in Kent-seat of the De Reigner family

1276

Sir Marcus De Reigner, The Earl of Kent, stared pensively out over his lands from the strong walls of his castle. The fields and villages stretched as far as the eye could see under a hot summer Sun. He could see the men working in the fields, like so many ants. The odd Church spire could be seen amongst the hills, roads and trees. His eye unconsciously followed a cart making it’s way slowly along a narrow track towards a farmhouse. It was loaded with barrels but the driver seemed in no hurry. No one seemed to be in a hurry. It was too hot for haste.

The walls and keep of his home were made from the flints, so common in this part of the country, and immensely strong when used for building. The buildings within were set out in ranges against the defensive walls. Some were the homes of servants who shared sleeping accommodation. Many housed guards and officials of the Castle. The bailiff had a cottage on the grassed and cobbled Bailey. All were roofed with local tiles, giving the buildings a reddish appearance. The great Keep rose above all, it’s towering crenellations inspiring confidence and trust in all the inhabitants.

Marcus was familiar with this view from the walls, he had been born in this castle. He had learned to use a bow from seasoned archers within it’s walls and he had learned to use his sword from his father’s men at arms. He had played in the fields he could see from his vantage point.

At the entrance to the Castle several men stood talking and Marcus wondered idly if they knew they were being observed. He recognised them all and knew, should the need arise, that they would leap into action. Apart from patrolling his lands for outlaws and guard duty, they had little to do.

Like the walls of his castle, Marcus was solid and reliable. His family was an old one which fought with the Conqueror when he invaded this land. For generations now they had been favoured by his successors and were trusted allies. They had much land, some granted by various monarchs as tenants-in Chief and some they had bought in their own right over the years.

They also had the living of several parishes on their lands. They had gifted some to sons of families who had chosen the ecclesiastical life and thus had put those families in their debt. They were, in fact, one of the most influential families in the county of Kent and also held lands all over England.

Marcus had been blessed with 2 sons before a fever had taken his beloved Wife and it was these children that he was thinking of now. The youngest, Phillipe, favoured his mother, with blonde hair and eyes of green. He was a sturdy and affectionate child, just turned 7, golden haired and bright. He was polite and well spoken.

His older son, Godwin, was the image of his father. Raven black hair and a strong square face topped a well muscled and co-ordinated body. He excelled at sports and games and had told his father that he wished to fight in the Kings wars. God knew he would get the chance soon enough. The King always seemed to be warring on some country or another. Marcus felt his eldest son would have been more at home in the great days of the Crusades. He was now 12 and would soon start training in earnest for a military career.

Marcus sighed and walked towards the great central keep. He was proud of the castle and his standing in the area. He loved his two sons and wanted the best for both but today news had come which filled him with dread.

The King, as always, was demanding money for incessant wars in Europe but was also facing trouble from Scotland and Wales. Today he had received a message telling him to report for military service. It was an honour but also a burden. One did not turn down such requests, specially from Edward who had a fearsome temper and spread his anger liberally.

The men at the gate were also going with him. The Castle had not been under threat for years and soldiers who had nothing to do often became lazy but he let them rest for now, they would soon be called on to serve again.

His sons were too young to be left but he had options. His late wife had had a brother, Myles, and he had shown some skill for organisation. He was also literate and numerate. Marcus had been thinking about the problem while he stood alone and had decided to leave Godwin, nominally in charge, with his uncle as a kind of regent. The boy would offer to go with him and the thought made Marcus smile. He had some training with weapons but he wouldn’t last a day against an army of fully trained veterans. No, he must learn his duties at home. Marcus knew he wouldn’t live forever and Godwin needed to be ready to take over.

More of a problem was Phillipe. He was too young for anything except education. Marcus trusted his older son but knew that having his younger brother around would distract him from learning how to manage the Castle and estates.

He resolved, reluctantly, to send his younger son to a Monastery which would provide a good education. He was unsure if the happy child would ever make a Monk, Friar or Priest but time would tell. If not there was always the Universities. Oxford was well entrenched as the senior University, having been founded not long after the invasion by William, but the town of Cambridge, in the fen district to the north of London, also had a well respected university. It had been founded at he beginning of the century and was rapidly gaining a good reputation. Phillipe could do well with a start like that. A training in Philosophy, logic and rhetoric could open many doors. Even a life as a physician could be lucrative.

He felt sure this was all for the best and there was really no choice. His eldest son would learn to be a man and his youngest would sow the seeds of a scholarly, or at worst clerical life. It occurred to him that his children may not like being separated but this was his best course of action. He was sure of it.

This issue had been worrying him since the messenger arrived and he had turned it over and over in his mind. His sons were dear to him and wanted to ensure they were safe and happy. Having made a decision he strode towards the living quarters in the Keep. He went to the small room that he used when he was conducting business. Sitting in his favourite chair he sent a messenger for the parish priest and asked a servant to fetch Myles, who had quarters in the range of buildings bordering the bailey. He had acted as a scribe since Marcus married his sister and had continued after her death.

Hopefully the Cleric would know of religious establishments providing educational facilities. Even if he didn’t know, Marcus felt sure he could find out. That part would be easy. Myles was a different matter. He was not a confident man and may need to be persuaded.

Chapter 1

1445-Sittyngborne in the county of Kent.

Sittyngborne was shrouded with freezing fog on a cold morning. Puddles in the street boasted a crust of clear ice over the mud beneath. The figures of early risers engaged in various activities seemed ghostly until they were almost upon each other, then appeared suddenly, as clear as day.

The sun would struggle to burn of the fog by mid-day if at all. Winter had come early to this tiny town on the north downs of Kent and the fog itself sent a chill through the bones. The guard on the east gate shivered, looking forward to his relief arriving. There was a warm fire in the guard house and they would be having breakfast about now.

He had heard sailors who plied their trade along the tidal creek and up to London gossip that the Thames was likely to freeze. There was even talk of a great frost fair, where Londoners would indulge in business and pleasure on the frozen river itself. It was rare but so was the arrival of the north winds which bought these conditions so early. At times the great city was cut off in bad winters. If it’s early arrival was anything to go by this year was likely to be one. It would be hard on those who relied on trade with the city.

A few hardy souls were about. A hawker up early to get the best patch and a merchant on his way to open his small shop walked along, peering into the white mist that shrouded everything. They almost bumped into each other.

Near the Creek was a small building with a wooden frame and simple stone built chimney. The framework was covered in wattle and daub. The thatched roof was in poor repair. Bits of the dry and cracked outer covering were falling off in the freezing conditions. Windows and doors were covered by bits of sacking. It was built on what was little more than a large garden, almost barren now, but the state of this plot was the last thing on the mind of one of the two occupants. The other was barely aware of the world around her.

Inside the hut Philip Reyner sat on his dirty straw mattress. He was a small child. His oval face was framed by unruly brown hair, shaped roughly like a pudding basin and his ears were hidden beneath it. He had green eyes over a thin nose and a narrow mouth His arms and legs were well muscled for a boy his age. They got a lot of use. He was thin but that, also, was to be expected given his situation.

Numbers meant little to him but if truth were known he could not have been more than nine years old.

The family dwelling had two small rooms, the first containing two small straw mattresses on the floor. One was his and one his Mother’s. Apart from that the only other furniture was an old Chest, a stool and a table. There was a small fire in the hearth, barely enough to warm him on this cold night. The sounds of the livestock could be heard in the other room, separated by a curtain of old sack cloth. It hadn’t always been like this, once they had lived in a cottage with a kitchen and bedchambers. Philip sighed at the thought. He had known hardship and sorrow but tonight was the worst of his young life.

He held a Ring in his hand. It was his only legacy from his late and unlamented father, Matthew, who had died of a mysterious infection four winters before. No-one knew what it was. The town gossips had attributed it to everything from the pox to the plague. The town had seen people suffering with various ailments. They thought they knew the symptoms but this was different. Towards the end he vomited blood a lot.

A physician may have provided a diagnosis but they were expensive, very expensive. The apothecary took some eggs and milk in exchange for an unintelligible diagnosis about humours being out of balance. He had bled the man and assured his family he would be well in a few days. It was not common practice for an apothecary to do this but, aside from the cost, Sittyngborne boasted no Physician.

They might as well have saved the food for themselves. Medical cures rarely worked, even those prescribed by a Physician. The Apothecary who attended Matthew Reyner had a large shop in Sittyngborne near the ‘Lyon’. He often boasted medical knowledge so they had taken him at his word. He may have put more effort into saving Matthew if he had been paid in coin but it was doubtful he could have saved the patient even then.

Philip often wondered about the Ring he held. It looked like Gold to his young eyes but he had never really seen any before. Even so it had to be worth something. Could they have saved his father if they had sold it? After his father had died he had asked his mother that question. She had answered that the Ring was his legcy, or something like that and that it had been in the family for many years. She also said it was important, though she did not know why and She would not sell it.

In any case Matthew had been a drunken sot. He seemed to blame everyone but himself for his laziness, drinking and womanising. Mary had suspected that that the illness was God’s punishment and it was his sins that killed him.

So, Matthew died and his wife scraped together the cost of a poor burial by selling a little of their produce. After the rents and the tithes there was barely enough to feed them that year. They were reduced to eating what little they found or could scavenge. They had once farmed a few strips of land around the town and it had provided a good income but then his father gradually sank into the mire of drink, gambling and whores. He was able to exchange the tenancy of his fields, one by one, for cash. His neighbour Master Tyler was hungry for land and took all that he could get. Mistress Tyler felt a little guilty that her husband took advantage of Matthew’s situation and tried to make up for it by making small acts of charity and sending Mary cast off clothing for her and Philip.

Things settled down eventually and they actually found life a little easier without Matthew. They would never admit the fact, it would be disrespectful. He had been absolved of his sins and if God forgave him who were they to argue. Even so It soon became apparent just how much Matthew had been spending when they found they were able to amass some coin in the following years.

Sighing, he replaced the Ring in a small bag around his neck. The bag was a Yule gift from his mother, she had made it from some spare leather and it contained all those things a small boy treasures.

They had managed well until his mother had found a growth in her breast. She had not mentioned it to Philip but yet again consulted the Apothecary. Once again he blamed the humours building up and bled her. When it it didn’t go down he bled her again but it was an expensive business and they could not afford to keep the treatments up even with the little money they now possessed. They were obviously not achieving anything.

There was a man in a nearby town who claimed to remove such lumps with a knife but he charged more than the physicians. Rumour had it that more patients died than survived but it offered a chance of his mother recovering. He was sure the Ring would raise enough for the operation and offered it to his mother to sell, but this time she became angry and told him that she would never sell it no matter how pressing the need. She had also said that, if it was God’s will she should die, she would accept it.

His mother lost weight and seemed to be in pain most of the time. The symptoms got worse as time went on. Even Philip could foresee the inevitable conclusion. And today God had called her.

After a night of listening to his mother’s pain filled attempts to breathe and offering what comfort a boy could offer to a dying adult, she had called him to her.

“Hold my hand my beautiful boy.” She said weakly. “I go to God soon, I hear him calling now.”

He held her hand which was almost skeletal in keeping with the ravages of the disease that held her prisoner.

“When I am gone fetch the Priest, he will do what is needed. I have saved some money in the Chest, enough to bury me. You will not be in debt for my sake…..”

Once again she drifted off into a troubled and pain filled sleep for an hour or so. Just before dawn as the light began to show through the sacking covering the tiny window, she started as if remembering an urgent errand. She panicked when she saw Philip was gone from her side. The boy rushed over to her and held her thin hand again. Her voice was so weak he could barely make out her words.

“My son you have kin over Maydstone way, find them, they will help. They are in our debt. I must go to God now…..I am sorry to leave you to face this harsh world alone…”

Tears rolled down his mother’s face as she kissed her son for the last time.

“I Love you my boy……” She whispered and then with a dry rattle in her throat she expelled her last breath and her eyes turned flat and glassy.

Philip cried over the still form of his mother for what seemed like forever but eventually he laid her hand down and closed her eyes as he had seen her do for his father. He kissed her cold forehead and sat once again on the mattress to wait.

As soon as it was as bright as the fog would allow he went to the large Church of St Micheal near the spring at the east end of the High Street. He took a moment to kneel before the statue of the Virgin. It was set into a niche in a buttress of the Church and offered the parishioners a chance to pray when no services were in progress inside. He dutifully prayed for his parent’s souls, but his prayers were hasty because of the nature of his surroundings.

He was in the midst of grey, lichen covered and ancient gravestones. It was scary enough at night but in the fog it seemed eerie and menacing. His imagination peopled it with ghostly apparitions hiding behind each stone. As soon as he felt he had prayed enough the literally ran around the walls of the great Church, expecting a skeletal hand to grab him with each step

He wiped his face with a dirty hand on the way but all he managed was to spread the dirt on both. The Priest, a kindly man who had visited both his parents when they were ill, was in the Church porch unlocking the great wooden door. The boy tugged at his black robe.

He told the man of his mother’s death and the Vicar, Father Mark, went back to the hut to perform the necessary rites for her.

The Priest was out of breath when they arrived at the tiny structure. The boy picked up a wooden cup and offered him some beer from a small barrel which he accepted. He drank it, though it proved to be very bitter, and when he regained his breath he thanked the lad.

He bent over the body of Philip’s mother. She had taken on the pallor of the deceased. The Priest muttered words the lad couldn’t understand as he made the sign of the cross over his mother’s chest several times. Afterwards he sat down and tried to offer comfort to the boy. Philip spoke very little. This kindly fat man was the same man who preached about sin and hell fire every day and small boys always had sins, imagined or otherwise, on their conscience. He was intimidated and his tongue refused to co-operate.

“Your mother was at peace with God, she had already confessed her sins to me when I visited a few days ago and was absolved. Now we must make enquiries as to what we can do for you, young Philip. Have you family nearby, friends of your mother possibly?.”

“Mistress Tyler.” The boy said shyly. “She lives up the lane.”.

That appeared to use up his meager store of words but the Vicar knew the woman well. She helped in his magnificent Church. It was not far. He had time before mass to visit her.

Father Mark broke the awkward silence.

“I will see her on my way back and discuss your sad case with Adam Smith, the Sherriff’s man and we will see what can be done. Mistress Tyler will no doubt bring you when she comes to mass today but it will take some time to arrange things. Come and see me tomorrow after Morning Mass.”

After the Priest left Philip set about the daily routine. It was not much different today. He had been used to doing the chores alone since his mother’s illness took a turn for the worse. He was no stranger to hard work. He was often out before dawn gathering Chestnuts and picking up windfalls in the orchards which proliferated in this part of Kent. He had even worked in the fields during harvest. His mother often went fruit picking, taking Philip with her. These were his favourite memories of his mother, industriously picking apples and singing or telling him stories. It was all this and his mother’s hard work and prudence that kept them from starving.

Even so he knew that someone like him would not be allowed to continue to farm the land. His home would have to be given to someone who could make the most of it, not a young boy who would be incapable of working it alone. He sensed his time here was nearly over. He had no idea what would happen next. Philip possessed a quick and questioning mind. All the time he was carrying out his daily jobs, he was thinking about different futures and where he would end up. His thoughts presented scenario after scenario for his consideration. None seemed as good as this tiny hut with his Mother but that was over now. He looked around while he worked. The Sun had broken through the fog now though small patches lingered. Apart from that the hut was bathed in a weak wintry light.

With the animals fed he thought about finding his friend Ned, (Mistress Tyler’s youngest boy.) if only to get away from his Mother’s body. He knew it was not Mary, According to Father Mark her soul was with God, though his treacherous mind started asking questions about that too. It was the shell that remained which scared him a little and he was sure it made a few odd noises.

Before he could set off to find Ned, Mistress Tyler and her youngest son walked down the lane towards him. Ned was a few years younger than Philip and wanted to play, seemingly unaware of his friend’s grief. His Mother ordered him curtly to show some respect and sit quietly. It was awkward, Philip would have welcomed the chance to discuss all this with Ned. His mother bustled around tidying, though in truth there was nothing much to tidy. Mary’s body emitted a low grumbling noise. It was extremely loud in the silence. Mistress Tyler, who had seen death many times, ignored it. Ned, like Philip, was fearful of it’s brooding presence.

Thankfully Some men arrived with the parish coffin on the Tyler’s handcart. They took his Mother’s body to the Church. Mistress Tyler, after ensuring the place was clean, though Philip wasn’t sure why, took him to mass at mid-day. She was pious and attended services most days. He prayed for his mother’s soul but part of him wondered, irreverently, how much more prayer it would need. The Priest said she was already with God so he didn’t see how his prayers would make much difference.

After Church he was taken to the Tyler’s neat thatched cottage and seated with Ned at the huge table for the main meal of the day. He sat quietly and picked at his food while the family chattered around him. Of course his Mother’s death was the main topic.

For the rest of the day he endured Master and Mistress Tyler and even some of the older of the 5 Tyler children ordering him about. It was all bustle and rush.

Master Tyler told him he would be staying with them for the night.

Towards evening Tyler went to tend the Reyner animals with his oldest son Edward. They made sure the house was secure. All Tyler could do was tie the sacking covering the doorway with leather thongs, the hut boasted no real door. Edward Tyler proudly thought about their cottage, which had a wooden door and crude bolts top and bottom.

This day had been one of the longest of Philip’s life. There was little room in the home of such a large family so he was put in the lean-to where the animals slept, on a bed of straw. He knew his mother was with God, he had been told so endlessly today. Only now did it hit him, though, that he was alone and he cried, great heaving sobs that racked his small body. They seemed to go on forever. His sobs eventually subsided and tiredness took over as he slid into a troubled sleep.

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