Edward II. At Berkeley Castle by An Eye Witness

by Maurice Baring

(With apologies to Mr. H. Belloc)

The King had not slept for three nights. He looked at his face in the muddy pool of water which had settled in the worn flagstones of his prison floor, and noticed that his beard was of a week's growth. Beads of sweat stood on his forehead, and his eyes were bloodshot. In the room next door, which was the canteen, the soldiers were playing on a drum. Over the tall hills the dawn was ruffling the clouds. There was a faint glimmer on the waters of the river. The footsteps of the gaolers were heard on the outer rampart. At seven o'clock they brought the King a good dinner: they allowed him burgundy from France, and yellow mead, and white bread baked in the ovens of the Abbey, although he was constrained to drink out of pewter, and plates were forbidden him. Eustace, his page, timidly offered him music. The King bade him sing the "Lay of the Sussex Lass," which begins thus:

     Triumphant, oh! triumphant now she stands,
     Above my Sussex, and above my sea!
     She stretches out her thin ulterior hands
     Across the morning . . .

But the King, to whom memories were portentous, called for another song and Eustace sang a stave of that ballad which was made on the Pyrenees, and which is still unfinished (for the modern world has no need of these things), telling of how Lord Raymond drank in a little tent with Charlemagne:

     Enormous through the morning the tall battalions run:
     The men who fought with Charlemagne are very dearly done;
     The wine is dark beneath the night, the stars are in the sky,
     The hammer's in the blacksmith's hand in case he wants to try.
     We'll ride to Fontarabia, we'll storm the stubborn wall,
     And I call.

     And Uriel and his Seraphim are hammering a shield;
     And twice along the valley has the horn of Roland pealed;
     And Cleopatra on the Nile, Iseult in Brittany,
     And Lancelot in Camelot, and Drake upon the sea;
     And behind the young Republic are the fellows with the flag,
     And I brag!

The King listlessly opened his eyes and said that he had no stomach for such song, and from the next door came the mutter of the drums. For on that night—which was Candlemas—Thursday, or as we should now call it "Friday"—the gaolers were keeping holiday, and drinking English beer brewed in Sussex; for the beer of West England was not to their liking, as any one who has walked down the old Roman Road through Daglingworth, Brimpsfield, and Birdlip towards Cardigan on a warm summer's day can know. For a man may tramp that road and stop and ask for drink at an inn, and receive nothing but Imperialist whisky, and drinks that annoy rather than satisfy the great thirst of a Christian.

Outside, a little breeze had crept out of the West. The morning star was paling over the Quantock Hills, and the King was mortally weary. "This day three years ago," he thought, "I was spurred and harnessed for the lists in a tunic of mail, with an emerald on my shoulder-strap, and I was tilting with my lord of Cleremont before Queen Isabella of France. The birds were singing in Touraine, and the sun was beating on the lists; and the minstrels of Val-es-Dunes were chanting the song of the men who died for the Faith when they stormed Jerusalem. What is the lilt of that song," said the King, "which the singers of Val-es-Dunes sang?" And Eustace pondered, for his memory was weak and he was overwrought by nights of watching and days of vigilance; but presently he touched his strings and sang:

     The captains came from Normandy
     In clamorous ships across the sea;
     And from the trees in Gascony
     The masts were cloven, tall and free.
     And Turpin swung the helm and sang;
     And stars like all the bells at Brie
     From cloudy steeples rang.

     The rotten leaves are whirling down
     Dishevelled from September's crown;
     The Emperors have left the town;
     The Weald of Sussex, burnt and brown,
     Is trampled by the kings.
     And Harmuth gallops up the Down,
     And, as he rides, he sings.

     He sings of battles and of wine,
     Of boats that leap the bellowing brine,
     Of April eyes that smile and shine,
     Of Raymond and Lord Catiline
     And Carthage by the sea,
     Of saints, and of the Muses Nine
     That dwell in Gascony.

And to the King, as he heard this stave, came visions of his youth; of how he had galloped from Woodstock to Stonesfield on a night of June within eleven hours, with a company of minstrels, and of how during that long feast at Arundel he made a song in the vernacular in praise of St. Anselm. And he remembered that he owed a candle to that saint. For he had vowed that if the wife of Westermain should meet him after the tournament he would burn a tall candle at Canterbury before Michaelmas. But this had escaped his mind, for it had been tossed hither and thither during days of conflict which had come later, and he was not loth to believe that the neglect of this service and the idle vow had been corner-stone of his misfortunes, and had helped to bring about his miserable plight.

While these threads of memory glimmered in his mind the small tallow rush-light which lit the dungeon flickered and went out. The chapel clock struck six. The King made a gesture which meant that the time of music was over, and Eustace went back to the canteen, where the men of the guard were playing at dice by the light of smoky rush-lights. The King lay down on his wooden pallet, whose linen was delicate and of lawn, embroidered with his own cipher and crown. The pillow, which was stuffed with scented rushes, was delicious to the cheek, and yielding.

All that night in London Queen Isabella had been waiting for the news from France. A storm was blowing across the Channel, and the ships (their pilots were Germans, and bungled in reading the stars) making for the port turned back towards Dunquerque. It was a storm such as, if you are in a small boat, turns you back from Broughty Ferry to the Goodwin Sands. The Queen, who took counsel of no one, was in two minds as to her daring deed, and her hostage trembled in an uncertain grasp. In Saxony the banished favourites talked wildly, cursing the counsels of London; but Saxony was heedless and unmoved. And Piers Gaveston spoke heated words in vain.

The King, who was in that lethargic state of slumber, between sleep and waking, heard a shuffle of steps beyond the door; a cold sweat broke once more on his forehead, and he waved his left hand listlessly. Outside the sun had risen, and a broad daylight flooded the wet meadows and the brimming tide of the Severn, catching the sails of the boats that were heeling and trembling on the ripple of the water, which was stirred by the South wind. The King looked towards the window with weariness, expecting, as far as his lethargy allowed, the advent of another monotonous day.

The door opened. The faces he saw by the gaoler's torch were not those he expected. The King, I say, looked towards them, and his hands trembled, and the moisture on them glistened. They were dark, and one of them was concealed by a silken mask.

Three men entered the dungeon. In the hands of the foremost of the three glowed a red-hot iron, which was to be the manner of his doom.