~Author's Note~ I've been kicking around this idea for a while. I'm not sure quite where it's going, but thought I'd post it here anyway.
The setting is going to be familiar to those of you who have read Anya Seton's wonderful novel Katherine, about the 14th-Century English prince, John of Gaunt, and his beloved mistress, Katherine Swynford. I have to admit to being inspired by Ms. Seton's novel and adapting a lot from her characterizations of these historical figures. But this story isn't meant to be a re-tread of Katherine, and it's not necessary to have read the book to understand what's going on. (I do recommend you read it yourself if you haven't already, though, it's fantastic!)
After doing my own research, I've come to some different conclusions about events in the lives of John, Katherine and their children, who became known as the Beauforts. This is my idea of what it must have been like to be in the Beaufort family - born into privilege, but on the wrong side of the blanket.
At the moment, I'm not sure if this is just going to be the story of the oldest son, John Beaufort, or all his siblings, or even some of their descendants. This story could be taken all the way to through the Wars of the Roses, really. Please, as you're reading, let me know what you think.
- 1381 -
Johnny Beaufort was nine years old when he realized his father was the most hated man in England.
It had never occurred to him before, that someone could hate that impressive regal figure who had sired him.
As awe-inspiring a person as Father could be, Johnny had never doubted he was loved by him.
It was just hard, sometimes, to feel close to him.
John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, was a busy man, and by necessity, his visits to his children's nursery tended to be brief. But when he did come and stay for an hour or two, the Duke would affectionately rumple the hair of the older children before pulling the younger ones on his lap – as loving a Father as any child in the kingdom could ask for.
At times like that, it was easy to forget the rumor that the Duke possessed more riches and commanded more knights than the king, himself. Who was to say if it were true or not. The Duke, in fact, claimed himself to be a king, although not King of England – King of Castile and Leon, in right of his second wife's unfulfilled claim to that throne.
Yes, there were times when Father seemed nearly as all-powerful as God himself.
The realization that others did not love Father as his family and retainers clearly did was a slow one coming to Johnny.
He lived a largely secluded life on the Lancastrian estates and did not have much cause to come in contact with common folk. He had even a lesser chance to find out what they might think of the lavishly wealthy Duke.
As the realization dawned on him over several months of hearing whispers - flits of palace gossip - Johnny began to look for reasons why Father was so unpopular with the Commons.
He first wondered if the people hated Father because they'd seen him in one of his rages.
Like most members of the Plantagenet royal house, the Duke had a tightly-reined temper that flew off the handle from time to time. Once set off, he would stalk about, yelling; his thin lips tightening and his blue eyes flashing dangerously at whoever happened to be in his way until the fit got out of his system.
The first time Johnny had seen Father so disturbed, a courtier had come to the Duke in the nursery with some bad news. Johnny had run to Mother for safety, thinking Father was angry at him. Mother's face had gone white too, as she held Johnny tightly on her lap - even though he was much too old for that sort of thing - and Father had ranted and raved, until his rage had cooled and he was himself again.
Johnny had felt skittish the next few times he saw Father after that, but eventually the Duke had noticed his wariness.
"Do you think I'm some kind of monster who eats children, Johnny?" he'd asked with a sore laugh, rumpling his son's golden hair. He had sounded weary. "That's one thing the Commons hasn't accused me of yet, at least."
The self-mocking words had reassured Johnny that he had not somehow incurred the Duke's wrath. After that, he knew, like mother did, that the violent wind would pass when those rages overtook the Duke and soon Father would be Father again.
Father had never really explained to Johnny what it was the Commons accused him of. Johnny had heard talk among the servants of a "Bad Parliament" and a poll tax, but had no idea what any of it meant. He just knew Father was in the middle of it, somehow, being the oldest of their young king's royal uncles.
What Johnny did not know, but was beginning to suspect from the way some of the servants talked, was that his own existence, and that of his younger brothers and sister, was part of Father's unpopularity.
Over the past year or so, it had begun to occur to Johnny that there was something irregular in the relationship between his parents.
It was not in the way they behaved towards each other, certainly. When they were alone, away from courtiers, they were still as affectionate to each other and their children as Johnny always remembered them being. Even in public, they were closer than most couples Johnny had noted in his rather limited experience.
Johnny knew they shared a sleeping chamber, as he had come to know fathers and mothers did. And Mother's place in the great hall at meals was certainly right next to Father's, where it should be.
But her place was at Father's left side, not at his right, where his wife should sit.
And then, there was the Duchess Costanza.
Johnny had been hearing that name his whole life, but he had never seen the woman it referred to. She preferred to live at Hereford Castle, a remote place. Father rarely visited there, but he never took Mother with him when he went.
That was strange in and of itself, for Mother accompanied Father when he visited nearly all of his estates.
Only recently, had Johnny begun putting the pieces together. The Duchess Costanza, he had discovered, was, in fact, the Duchess of Lancaster.
Which meant… Well, he wasn't sure what it meant. But he was fairly sure Father couldn't have two wives at once.
Perhaps another reason the Commons didn't like Father was that he tried to have more wives than was allowed.
Johnny had attempted to ask Hawise, his mother's handmaiden, about it one day, but she had shushed him furiously and left him still perplexed. "Don't you let your Mama hear you speak of such things, you naughty lad!"
And, so, Johnny had been left to ponder alone why his Father was so disliked, but could come to no satisfactory conclusion.
It did not strike Johnny how violent the people's feelings against his father were until that one early summer's night at the Palace of the Savoy when Hawise shook him awake from a deep sleep. She was usually a bustling, comfortable presence and had always been almost as much a mother to him as Mother was - but that night she was as agitated as Johnny had ever seen her.
"Quickly, now, lad, get dressed. We haven't much time," she warned him in a violent whisper.
"Is Father home?" Johnny had groggily asked, wiping sleep from his eyes. The Duke was off in Scotland, negotiating a truce and wasn't expected back home in weeks, but Johnny had no other idea why he'd been roused out of a pleasant dream.
"No… And I think it's a good thing, though your Mother would disagree with me." She cast an anxious glance at the open doorway and moved on to the other bed in the room, similarly shaking awake Johnny's younger brothers, Harry and Tamkin.
Mother appeared in the door, then, dressed in a plain traveling cloak with Baby Joan bundled up, still asleep, in her arms.
"Here, Sweet, I'll take the little one," Hawise offered kindly. "She's too heavy for you to carry all the way."
Mother looked reluctant to part with Joan, but passed her over, touching the little girl's cheek when Hawise finally held her secure. "She is growing so," she said wistfully as she watched her youngest child sleep.
Then she cried out, as if she was unaware her sons were staring at her in frank curiosity, "Oh, why isn't John here?"
With one arm still securely under her precious burden, Hawise put another around Mother's shoulder in that reassuring way only Hawise had. "Why, love, he had no way of knowing it'd come to this. There was no talk of revolt when he left."
The very word made Johnny's scalp tingle. It was a threat to his carefully ordered world.
"Mother?" he ventured, his throat tightening.
She looked at him then, her face free of the kohl and other cosmetics she wore when Father was at home. It made her look young and frightened, which did not reassure Johnny in the least.
But, then she snapped into a more authoritative mode. This was the Mother Johnny knew. "Are you not dressed yet, Johnny?" She turned and looked at the other boys, crossing the room to assist young Tamkin in pulling his tunic above his head. "We must hurry. We must leave quickly before it's too late."
"But why, Mother?" Johnny asked, finding it was difficult to pull on his own clothing without servants to help.
She answered hurriedly. "Never mind, now… We must leave."
Johnny began to wish Father were home too. Whatever this mysterious and terrifying threat was, Father would know what to do about it. He would be able to reassure Mother and fix the problem. Johnny's confidence in the Duke's abilities was absolute.
His little brother Harry, with his quick-thinking mind, voiced Johnny's thoughts. "Mother, where are we going? Where can we be safer than here?"
Mother looked up from the bungled knots she was making in the points to Tamkin's hose. She was not used to dressing without servants either. She looked over at her two older sons and sighed. "There is a peasant army just outside the city walls. Hawise thinks we'd be safer at her parents' house… If the mob gets into London, it might be able to get inside the Savoy too… Do you understand?"
Johnny didn't. It was almost too much to comprehend. He could not fathom what kind of danger would make Mother and Hawise so upset.
How could a mob made up of peasants threaten them here at the Savoy? Sitting just outside London's borders on the Thames, its white walls were solid, reassuring and impregnable. There could not be a safer place in all of Britain, Johnny thought. It could surely withstand a siege by an army mightier than mere untrained peasants.
The knot in his throat tightened, to think that Mother and Hawise didn't agree with his assessment of the situation.
"Is Henry here?" he managed to blurt out, wishing his older half-brother might talk some sense into the women. Henry of Bolingbroke was only a few years older than Johnny, the same age as King Richard, in fact; but he carried himself authoritatively in a manner beyond his fourteen years. With Father in Scotland, he was de facto head of family and surely Mother would listen to him.
But Mother shook her head and paled.
Father's heir, Henry, was not her son, but she had been a lady to his dead mother, seen him raised from a baby. In many ways Henry and his two sisters were as precious to her as her own children. "He's in the city with the king."
Johnny gulped, not liking her tone… the way she was implying his older brother was in danger.
"He's with the king," she repeated, as if reassuring herself this was so. "It's not the king those men want to harm."
Ominously, she did not mention who it was they were intent on harming.
Hawise frowned - worried that her mistress would start falling apart again - Johnny supposed.
"Come along, then, sweet… Explanations can wait 'til we're all safely away from here." She clasped Joan tighter to her ample bosom and led the way out of the chamber.
Cautiously and quietly, the two women, three boys, and one babe in arms made their way out of the palace and into the streets of London. They kept a brisk pace, but not so swift as to wear out the children. As it was, before they found the particular fishmonger's house they were looking for, Hawise had to hand Joan over to Mother so she could take Tamkin into her arms.
It seemed no sooner had they arrived at the house of Hawise's parents than they found out how right they had been to hurry. All hell seemed to break loose in the streets. Somehow the bridges defending London had been lowered and the entire angry mob was in the city. Discontented London laborers soon joined with the peasants, destroying what they could of the hated noblemen who lived off the riches of their sweat.
The refugees spent the next terrifying twenty-four hours holed up inside the stout little London home, hearing the chaos just outside the windows. Johnny, Harry and Tamkin trembled at Mother and Hawise's feet as the women took turns distractedly cooing to a howling Joan. It sounded as if murder was occurring on their very doorstep.
"When Adam and Even span, who then was a gentleman?" the crowd roared together on several occasions.
"Mother?" Harry asked, frightened. "What does that mean?"
Mother had only shook her head, her lips firmly pressed into the little girl's soft golden curls.
"It means they don't see why there should be lords and peasants, love," Hawise answered quietly. "They want everyone to be equal under the king."
Harry frowned for a moment. "How can that be? How would the peasants survive if the lords didn't take care of them?"
Hawise didn't answer.
That only prompted Harry to puzzle harder. "Hawise, they don't mean Father when they say they don't want any lords but the king, do they?"
Mother made one small whimper against Joan's head, which made Hawise reach out and pat a reassuring hand on her leg.
Soon afterwards, a speaker outside the window answered Harry's question for them all in vivid detail. His roaring voice came clearly into the house as it echoed down the street.
"AFTER ALL… THE GREAT JOHN O' GAUNT'S NOTHING BUT A FLEMISH PEASANT WOMAN"S SON, ISN"T HE?"
The crowd roared back, "Down with Lancaster! Down with Lancaster!"
Mother closed her eyes and clutched Joan so tightly that the little girl awoke from her restless sleep with another howl.
"That isn't true!" Harry leapt to his feet, his gray eyes blazing as furiously as Father's blue ones ever did. "Father's the son of a king! King Richard's father was his brother!"
"True enough, my little lad, and no one who ever saw your Father next to old King Edward ever doubted it," Hawise said softly, "But them out there likely didn't… and they aren't exactly listening to reason right now."
The crowd had changed its chant by now. "To the Savoy!" one man cried out and the others soon picked the phrase up, carrying the message to others down throughout the crowd.
Johnny began to think that this must be what it was like to be on the sidelines at the battle, but felt ashamed to be so weak as to fear what he could not even see. Surely Father had never been so frightened when he rode into battle. No, not Father.
The mob moved on, the voices still sinisterly plotting what they would do to the Duke when they found him.
"It's good he's not here," Hawise said quietly to Mother, patting her leg again. "As riled as that crowd is, they'd kill him if they found him. And you know the pride of that man of yours – He wouldn't run from them."
Johnny saw Mother nod, and as she lifted her face, that it was wet with tears.
For a while afterwards, all was seemingly quiet. The angry voices had faded into the distance. Now, there was only a haze that seemed to choke out the June-day sun.
And then came the most terrifying sound of all.
It echoed far above the mob's cries, and, in fact, silenced them. A thundering boom that blanketed the city.
"The Savoy," Mother said dazed. It was the first time Johnny could remember her speaking since the night before.
"The gunpowder stored there," she explained in just as strange a tone. "They've set it off… The whole place must be ablaze by now."
Johnny could not believe it. Not the Savoy. Not that magnificent walled city they had left but a few hours before. Surely if he could make the walk back it would still be there. Someone else's gunpowder had gone off, rocking the city.
But as the day passed into night and into another day, it became clear that Mother had been right. Serfs from the west had just descended on London in what forevermore would be known as the Great Peasant Revolt of 1381. They had come to kill a royal Duke, and being thwarted in that, they had left his favorite palace in ruins instead.
A few days later, after young King Richard had bravely marched out of the Tower to meet the mob and effectively brought the rebellion to a halt, Johnny decided he had to see what had happened. Harry helped him by picking a fight with Tamkin and distracting Mother and Hawise while he slipped out into the streets alone.
It felt strange and frightening to be alone in the great city. Certainly Johnny had never ventured forth from the Savoy's walls by himself before… always there had been Mother and Hawise, sometimes Father, and a retinue all around them in protection.
He was perfectly alone now. But he knew where he was going. And when he saw from a distance the heap of stones that had once been his home crumbling into the Thames, still giving off steam from the fires smoldering far below the surface, he wept.
He thought of all the hundreds of people who had inhabited this place with him. How many had escaped with their lives? One gossiper had stopped by the house to tell Hawise's mother that a number of looters had found themselves trapped in the wine cellars by the fire. Their screams had been heard for hours above the riotous blaze, so the woman had said.
The narrowness of their own escape struck him. What would the mob have done if it had found Mother and all the rest of them there? His mind began twisting into torturous ways. He could not help thinking if part of the reason they hated Father was Mother than surely they would not have treated her kindly.
Some other gossiper had mentioned seeing Brother William Appleton's head on a pike somewhere… a truly frightening image, for Brother William was – had been – Father's personal physician. He had nursed Johnny through many a childhood illness. What if it had been Father's head there?
At that thought, he turned away, unable to look any more.
Even though Johnny was only nine years old, he knew as he made his way back to the fishmonger's house that his childhood was at an end.