Halcyon Days

"The king loved this woman [Alice] more than he loved the queen." – Thomas Walsingham, from his Chronica maiora

14 May 1364

Havering Palace

I'm to marry my betrothed today, but this news is eclipsed by the arrival of the Queen's newest appointed damsel. Fortunately the King and Queen have been generous enough to give us lodgings for the year, so I might be allowed to know this new lady better. What I have heard of her thus far is distressing—which is why her arrival is sure to incite curiosity.

Her name is Alice Perrers. I choose to call her the Other Alice because her name is so similar to mine once I'm married. I'll be known as Alys de Preston. There are other reasons I'm choosing to name her Other Alice, and those relate to her history, a dark one if I've ever heard one. The Queen told me she was born to humble origins in Essex near Oxney Manor. What's worse is she is nearly unlettered, though the Queen swears she is good with sums. What are sums to the gentry? We accumulate them, but it is our appointed stewards who measure and distribute them. Sums are for the mercantile class, those urban upstarts, and this Other Alice was married to one of them, a Janyn Perrers, who is rumored to have been some sort of Genoese wool merchant. A Genoese wool merchant.

As one of the Queen's closest confidantes, I reminded her that merchants are lawless upstarts—all of them—and Janyn Perrers is a foreigner besides that. It was French scholar-bishop who correctly identified the three classes, three: those who work, those who pray, and those who fight. Nowhere belongs those who exploit others and gain selfishly from these endeavors.

I told the other damsels to guard their precious jewels and prayer books carefully against Other Alice.

We were a picture of femininity when a messenger informed us of my betrothed's arrival: the youngest girls were practicing the lute, lyre, and psaltery; five of her ladies-in-waiting were reclining on overstuffed pillows reading; some others were immersed in embroidery. We were speaking quietly, but with gaiety. Queen Philippa and I took turns reading from The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin from her gorgeously illuminated book of hours. I envied that book, loved that I had the privilege of touching it.

"We honor you with longing; we venerate you with awe," I recited for the Queen. I was appointed to her service when I was twelve; today I was twenty-three, or thereabouts. My family is mostly gone. I've never met either of my parents, which would have left me an orphan if not for my uncle, a Lancaster man of lesser gentry. Queen Philippa, the spirit of compassion, often takes young ladies of obscure origins into her retinue. We are mostly noble, of course, but we came form no great houses, no royal blood. She appointed me as her damsel when I was a little fool and a small child, and we have loved each other since. I revere her as I wanted to revere my own mother, had I known her. The Queen is my Queen of Heaven, and she saved me many, many times.

I closed the book of hours when I heard the door creak open. The Queen granted me a smile, welcomed the messenger in, and then it was a flurry. Almost all of us ran down the stairs like girls. The Queen did not. A few years ago she was thrown form her horse, and she has not since recovered. We escorted each other down the stairs with smiles.

"How blessed, how happy a day," she said to me.

I squeezed her arm. "I hate that I must eventually leave you, your grace." I felt twelve again as I said that.

Her big brown eyes looked away then, and I knew I had said the wrong thing. "It is," she said softly, "part of being the Queen Mother. You love your children and then—"

They leave. And then they leave.

We arrived in the solar in the light of midday. Two pages and some of Sir Peter de Preston's men stood to greet us. I found Peter already bowing to the Queen. He then turned to me and smiled. Although I had only spent a few hours with him, I trusted the Queen with the decision. She would not betray me to a life with someone she did not favor. De Preston was knight who fought with the Black Prince's retinue at Poitiers, had two manors (one in London, which was thankfully near Havering Castle) and an annuity of £120. He seemed kind, educated and sincere. He was not ugly.

He kissed my hand. "I could ask for no other," he said politely.

I returned politely, "I think the same."

I could still write to the Queen. I could still visit her. And de Preston and I would be here for the entire year before we would retire to his country manor. A woman about to be a bride should think of nothing besides her betrothed, but I was thinking these things. I felt my chest swell.

Later that day we were married outside of the church. The other damsels cheered and the Queen fussed about to ensure all was well.

It was until that little—that Other Alice appeared. Her arrival was unannounced. I wonder if she did that on purpose to create drama. I'd gamble she did. Of mercantile stock, sure to usurp everything.

We were feasting in Havering's great hall when she swept into the room, strutted to the high table where the Queen and I sat, and curtseyed deeply. She was very lovely, but not beautiful. Her gown was too rich, and her dark hair was encrusted with small opals too fine for it. She was slender and full of vitality.

Queen Philippa pulled her into her arms. The pair was a study in contrasts. They both had dark hair, but the Queen's had lost its fine luster. Her body had swelled to fatness ever since she was thrown from that mare and could no longer ride as she once had. She moved awkwardly. A cruel person would say she waddled. She was the essence of maternity. Other Alice was fresh and maidenly even though she was a widow.

Other Alice whispered something into the Queen's ear; the Queen laughed. I made certain to hide my dissatisfaction as I, too, greeted this awful woman. The high-vaulted hall had grown smaller. I suddenly felt small and old.

Queen Philippa knew she loved her husband when she first met him. On looks alone, most loved King Edward. Even if he was dressed in sackcloth, one knew he was royal. In his youth he was tall, handsome and well mannered. Little had changed in his middle years. They met at Valenciennes Castle in Hainault, her homeland, where Queen Isabella had stopped in order to secure support from the Count. In this, they were formally betrothed. Most political marriages—and almost all of them are—are rarely love matched. You become accustomed to your husband, to his mannerisms, and eventually some degree of love comes about. In the very least you care about him. After so many years of intimacy, it would be difficult not to. But this was a love match.

They spent time reading from her psalter, walking in the fine gardens and playing the lute together. They still do sometimes. He was devoted to her, she to him. When Prince Edward left for England with his mother, she burst into tears.

One day she told me about Calais.

"They were starving and pitiful, the people," she said, "and I couldn't bear to see them like that. I know the ways of war, that sometimes horrible things are necessary to bring about a resolution. Originally Edward did not want to bring me. He said I was wondrous kind. Too delicate for these sort of things, but I wanted to see what he loved almost as much as me. So I went. Calais was a very stubborn town. The siege lasted much longer than sieges usually do and as I mentioned before, the people were reduced to eating rats and—and such.

"Edward was understandably furious when Jean de Vienne finally gave him the keys to the city. He devised to punish them all even more, although they had suffered so much already. In a very somber scene, he made the six riches townsmen walk barefoot through the stubborn city. Around their necks were nooses, which Edward promised to use on them later. I—I—"

She closed her eyes, folded her hands in her lap.

"Dearest, you've never seen a besieged city after they stop. It is an unholy thing. I remember how cold the day was, how flat and grey and filled with crows it was. I remember the stench. I remember the starving burghers. Perhaps it was because I was pregnant, but I couldn't allow it any more. It was torture. So be it if I have a delicate soul, I thought, I'm a woman after all. And a Queen. God knows I've asked few favors of my love. So I fell to my knees, weeping."

I put her hand in mine. "What did you say?"

"I said, 'My love, my lord, ever since I crossed the Channel I've asked for nothing. But now I humbly beg you, for the Son of the Blessed Mary and for the love you bear me, have mercy on them.' Something as that. Edward looked at me as if I were a changeling. He stared at the six men with ropes around their necks. Then he grabbed all six ropes in a red fist and handed them to me. He told me I could do what I pleased with them."

"And that is when you had them clothed and fed and gave them coin to leave the city," I said, remembering.

"Indeed," she said kindly. "He was angry with me for some time, but I knew in that moment my love for him was the most complete passion I've ever felt. I had conquered the conquering king with love. And he surrendered for the love he bears me." I thought she might cry, but then she said, "I sound like a braggart. Forgive me, sweet. It is just-just I love remembering that. When my daughters died, I kept remembering that moment. I still had some of my children. And best of all, I still had Edward."

The King loved her for countless reasons. He had never, to anyone's knowledge, seduced another woman while he was married to the Queen. Most men strayed. Even some women, like dead Queen Isabella, strayed, but never Philippa's husband.

"He said one time," she went on, "that of all the animals he knew, I was most like the kingfisher."

Little I knew of birds, I knew the kingfisher was a pretty one, and rare. The Queen was both of these things.

"A kingfisher, he explained to me, can calm even the worst sea storms. 'A kingfisher for a king,' he said, 'how perfect. How perfect, Philippa.' Then he gave me this." She opened her book of hours, where on the second page was an illuminated carpet page depicting a very large letter P. Hiding in the crook of the letter was a small brownish bird with a black tail. Its eyes were made of gold dust.

28 June 1364

Havering Palace

A great uproar woke us all early. A messenger came as dawn softened everything. The dawn would have eased us all awake, but he reported that King Edward would be arriving that afternoon. Often I shared a bed with Philippa when my husband was in London settling his affairs. This was one of those mornings. The Queen snapped awake, animated and blushing, calling for her favorite ribbons and gowns and garter belt. She called for the jewels the king gave her. These were not property of the kingdom. They were jewels specifically given to the Queen by the King from his personal funds. A spendthrift, he loved being generous, especially to her.

It had been only a few months since she last saw him, but she kept crying, "A lifetime! It has been a lifetime since I saw my love. Come, come, Alys, help me dress. Send the little ones to the kitchen to inspect the stores. Call Alice to fix my hair. She has such tidy hands."

"Your Grace," I said, a little bitterly. Other Alice did have tidy hands.

The King arrived as the messenger had promised. Queen Philippa was restless with joy. Would I ever feel so enamored by Peter de Preston? Love shared or spurned, I've never come across anything like them.

Somehow King Edward had failed to age as most men do. Philippa argued it was his Plantagenet blood. They were busy kings, and virile. He danced with all of her retinue that night. I have always gotten along well with the King, for he loved knowing his wife's friends. We ate, sung, laughed, and enjoyed all of the pageantry of his visit. There was always pageantry with him.

"Your newest lady is a fine dancer," he commented. I was sitting to the Queen's right, and listened.

"She is," she said. "That is Alice Perrers of Hertfordshire. I'm growing fond of her. You should make a gift to her later this year, as a promise that she will stay with my household. Gascony wine, perhaps?"

The King nodded. "Two tuns."

"That is…quite an amount," Philippa said. "But if it assures she will stay with me, then give her ten tuns a year."

He laughed brilliantly.

The following evening, when we were all supping together more intimately, I witnessed the King and Other Alice talking a lot. It was not unusually forward or flirtatious, but it was frequent. The Queen did not comment on it, though to do so would be beneath her. In fact, I don't know if she even noticed it. The King doted on her when he wasn't in Other Alice's company. Beyond this small—but troubling—occurrence, everything was as it should be.

It was common household knowledge that the Queen disliked Joan of Kent for the sins of marrying her golden prince and being such a scandalous creature. She began speaking about this with Other Alice, who seemed to sharpen the Queen's dislike of the woman into hatred. Other Alice weaseled her way into becoming the Queen's single confident in this issue. For long hours, the Queen, the King and Other Alice sat discussing the future of the realm, especially when it concerned the prince and his wife. It was the first time I was excluded from the company; of course it was not the last. The Queen was too good for hatred. Mothers do not hate.

23 April 1365

Havering Palace

For suspicious reasons, Other Alice had gone to Surrey Castle.

Queen Philippa informed us that morning that her beloved damsel would be residing at Surrey for the rest of the summer. Allegedly her deceased husband had some family who lodged there, and that is where she would remain for several months. Of course none of us believed the Queen. Not even a wealthy usurper merchant has connections to royal palaces. Certainly not his kin, either. But we did well to mask our disapproval, for we loved our Queen, and we knew, although she had been worse ever since Other Alice, she loved us, too.

There was gossip. We did well, also, to mask this gossip. It was agreed upon that King Edward had fallen to Other Alice's charms. What could not be decided is if he placed her at Surrey to more openly indulge in their affair, or because she was with child. He visited Havering enough, but not enough to dismiss the rumors.

At one point, the Queen heard that in 1341, the King had conducted an affair with a noblewoman named Katherine de Grandison. This was all dismissed, for she loved the King. There was no evidence, besides. So it was treated as silly gossip to hurt the King's Scottish campaign. I began wondering if he had, though.

"I shall miss good Alice," Philippa said one evening while we read near the hearth, "but I shall miss my lord husband more. Edward has been gone so often these days. It is unlike him, except in times of war."

I waited for some small accusation, a hint at her understanding, but the Queen returned to her book of hours, continued to read from the psalms. When the hour grew late and the bells pealed for Nones, she turned to the carpet page decorated with her kingfisher and touched it longingly. She pressed her hand to her breast and sighed. I reached for her hand; I held it. Did she know? Surely, yes. But there was de Grandison, there was her.

"How goes your correspondence with your dearest?"

I told her, "Well enough. He is a fine letter writer, and he possesses adequate vocabulary. I like reading about London, as well."

She smiled sadly my way. "Ever so literal, my sweet. How is he? Do you long for him?"

"Naturally," I said politely. "I'm so grateful you arranged our marriage. He's a fine man, and a grand knight. I am happy to see him while I'm sorrowful to leave your side."

"It is like that, isn't it?" She paused. "When I was small, my mother the countess told me that I better enjoy bittersweet tarts. She said life is full of them."

I nodded.

She said, "I forget how young you are, dearest. Sometimes your solemnity hides your youth."

That wounded me. I could think of nothing to say back to her, for she didn't mean it maliciously. It must have been something Other Alice told her. She was full of misplaced gaiety.

"I miss youth," she said wistfully, and we were the best of companions once more. The summer without Alice, my last summer at Havering, was one of the dearest of my life. Somehow I forgave the Queen for exiling me.

Then Other Alice returned during the harvest season. The King was not far behind. I took it as innumerable evidence, but when the Queen greeted them, I saw nothing but immense happiness.

23 September 1368

Havering Palace

The hour was dark and the velvet curtains were pulled, and some of us ladies are gossiping. We sat like magpies on our canopied beds—three to a bed for sleep—and agree that Other Alice is a usurper as those belonging to the merchant class are. Although I was older and married, I came to visit the Queen for her birthday. I forgot to leave, and I situated myself in the role I grasped with all my strength. De Preston left for his manor.

"How can the King love her more than the Queen?" One asked.

"He doesn't love her more," I said fervently. "He's enchanted by her. She is a dark creature, intent on forwarding her place in the world as much as she can by using the King and befriending the Queen at the same time." Nods all around. "After all, she was born to humble origins and her dead husband was a merchant, a foreign one, from Italy. They are told from childhood to further themselves by using others."

"Where do you think…it is?"

"Who knows," piped another. "Probably still at Surrey. The King is generous, and generous kings provide for their…offspring."

"I overheard Thomas de Leylan mention something about Monylaws. I think the King has bequeathed on our darling damsel a manor," I said. I felt full of venom. "Where are our manors? We get wardships…"

"But perhaps that is because we don't spread our legs," the youngest lady said. Normally we would have balked at her forthrightness, but this was venomous talk, and we were all serpents.

"She gets wardships too," another said. "Last year she got the wardship of Robert de Tirriol's heir, who is a wealthy knight. It was a wardship for…for life."

This was something, because wardships for life bring in far more wealth than standard ones.

"He doesn't flaunt it at least."

"No," I agreed. "At least he doesn't do that."

"Last year you missed out, Alys," the youngest said. "As if seducing the King was not enough, the witch stole William de Windsor, the governor of Ireland. There is no stopping her. I mourn the Queen. She loves him so much."

"I know," I said quietly, "I know. As do I. As do we all."

15 August 1369

Windsor Castle

At once I came. Peter de Preston did not come with me, for he was making rounds of the harvest near his country manor, but he granted me leave to come. Had he not, I would have come anyway.

The Queen is dying. The Queen, whom I have known for sixteen years, is dying. She was my surest friend. I wrote her letters as often as I could, which was nearly daily. I told her about my newborn girl, about the manors, about how wonderful de Preston is. She kept me vaguely informed, but I did not chastise her for this. I knew her health had been waning since she was thrown from her mare years ago. The deaths of her beloved daughters Margaret and Joan brought upon her spirit a sadness that never seemed to lift. Letter writing had perhaps lost its charm for the Queen.

I am not yet thirty, but I know one thing about aging. I think the worst part is that you love people, and then they leave and never come back. Where does the love go? Some people transfer it to objects or places. I wondered about where my love would go as I sat by Philippa's side. Her hand was in mine.

She had grown even fatter, older. Her dark hair was almost entirely grey, a big bush coming undone from dual plaits that ran down her back. In her youth she wore her glossy dark hair in great buns around her ears, creating the illusion of the face being framed by them. Often she wove flowers or jewels in the plaited buns, dark ones that illuminated her eyes. We all adopted the style. Even as we sat or stood in the humid room, openly grieving or—the better of us—giving the impression of placidity, we wore our hair coiled about her ears in an homage to our Queen of Heaven, who had rescued and sheltered us, who had crafted us into the finest ladies in England.

Save for Other Alice, of course.

None of us dared mention what we knew about the affair. It would be a blasphemy worse than almost any other one we noble ladies could commit: To disturb God's anointed on his or her deathbed. It is a selfish thing, to expose a betrayal to ease your own mind. That is the cross we bear. And we all bear them, whatever our station.

Seated fittingly in the shadows was Other Alice. She looked on the deathbed with an embroidered handkerchief to her mouth, very near to sobbing but strangely in control. As much as I despised her for all she was, I sensed a genuine sincerity in her eyes. For the briefest moment, a trickle of pride fell upon my heart, which I otherwise thought had hardened toward her. Queen Philippa had saved her as well; in this, we were similar. May be that it was the only thing, but it was something.

"You ladies have been my truest and dearest friends," she said weakly. "I ask that you pray for me in Heaven, as well as donate alms with which the monks will pray to intercede for my soul. May the Queen in Heaven welcome me, smiling. Send for my…send for my confessor."

With that, both Other Alice and I in the same instant let out cries.

"And lovely Alys, be sure to send in my husband the king. His love began my life, and I shall embrace it in my last hour." She gripped my hand with all the strength she could find. "Be quick. Our Lord is waiting."

I kissed her brow. When all of the other ladies had exited, I brought my King into the stuffy dark room, where gloom collected from all sides. And yet, what brilliance there was between those two, enough to combat all misgivings, all of our long sleeps. In that moment I thought of my own husband with a certain sadness I would never understand. It was hollow, in a way.

Before I left them their parting words, I brought before my Queen her little book of hours, where on the second page was an illuminated carpet. In this gesture, I poured all of my love, elsewise I did not know where I would put it. Where does the love you bear someone go after they die? I prayed to the blue-robed Intercessor that this would help.

"A kingfisher for a king," I said softly, and met her glance once more. Her white mouth smiled. The King gazed down at me with vast gratitude I did not know a king could possess.

Like all things in my life, I had done this gracefully and dutifully, and for those traits I can hold none responsible save the Queen.

The other damsels swooped around me when I returned into the light, each tear-streaked and red-eyed. Here were her oldest ladies, some widowed and others spinster, as well as the maidenly ones she welcomed to her as a mother. There were the two Joans, the de Roet sisters Katherine and Philippa, Margaret FitzHenry, Meg Horton, Little Lady Lyttel, Young Maude who was really the oldest of us, and Other Alice.

"She was the best queen who ever lived," Meg said.

"The most beautiful, the most gracious, the most pious of them," echoed Young Maude.

Beautiful Katherine de Roet brushed away a tear. "I never knew my mother; the Queen was mine own."

I embraced her, for I had never had a mother either.

Her brood, her children, her orphans.

As customary, the King would reward we ladies-in-waiting with a pension, usually a small but respectful one, for the years of our service to the Queen. It was also customary for him to award us all black cloth with which to order mourning clothes made.

The confessor stepped from within the dark enclosure. Though he said nothing, he nodded. He shut the door and left us to our mourning.

Then Other Alice said, "Might be that our candle went out, but the King will never see the sun again."

For a moment, we stared stupefied at her. This woman had numerously betrayed the Queen she was mourning. She was no good: A usurper, a thief and a slattern. There she stood, her face pale and sad and fearing.

"You'll see," she went on, tears falling, "he won't be the same ever again."

"Shhh your mouth," Young Maude warned.

"He wont," Other Alice said. "Nobody is ever the same. You'll see. See if he invades France this year or the next. See if he doesn't begin aging. Watch, and see. My mother, God keep her, always told me people don't adjust to the darkness like they do the light. He will be so sad."

Katherine de Roet and I exchanged glances. Only she understood what I just grasped: Other Alice was not only mourning the Queen, but the long path ahead of the King as well. Did she truly love him? Had she truly loved the Queen? Where does love go when you get old and people go away? Where does the love you bear them go?

Other Alice fled, weeping. We watched her glossy black hair fall loose, and in my vision blurred from the tears, I swore I saw young Philippa in that corridor, loved, and beautiful, and loved.