‘When the battayle was stryken of mykell myght’
Shadows from the past haunt my bedchamber. It is Saint Mary Magdalene’s eve once more, and in my mind’s eye, hunched figures roam the battlefield near Shrewsbury.
Overhead a blood moon is waning, and the sky is starless. Thousands of dead bodies cleave together in tangled heaps. Pale, lifeless faces stare blindly skyward in contorted agony, and riderless horses bolt into the distance. The cloying stench of death fills the evening air, cries from the dying torture the living, and in a ditch at the edge of a field of peas lies a naked dead body mutilated beyond recognition.
His horse carried him beyond the great heaps of dead sprawled on Hateley Field, and even the dutiful heralds have failed to identify him. Here the man met death alone, despite a rebel soldier’s feeble attempts to resurrect him. The soldier remained with the corpse for hours, avoiding capture, but in the end, he covered the body with brushwood and summoned enough courage to report his findings to the king.
In the shadows, I see King Henry, the fourth of that name, rebuke the rebel soldier for opposing him. He knows other insurgents are waiting to test his kingship and fears this might not be his last battle. Loyal subjects are becoming difficult to find in England since he usurped the throne, and even Henry’s closest allies doubt the kingdom will ever be secure again. Confusion and uncertainty reign in each man’s mind and I see the shattered remnants of the royal army gather as the king, closely guarded by his household, follow the rebel soldier into the night.
In my mind, I hear a clarion call to arms announcing Henry’s arrival on the battlefield. The young Prince of Wales rides ahead of his father crying out ‘God save the King!’ to warn everyone of His Majesty’s approach. Each soldier echoes the cry. They fall to their knees as Henry passes, and those men who are not wounded, follow their sovereign across the fields they have so recently fought over. Soon thousands of exhausted levies and their lords converge like cattle, eager to gain assurance that the battle is over and their commissions are ended. But all now depends on the dead body in the ditch and the king’s willingness to pardon the rebel soldier for his crime.
King Henry, bloody and weary from fighting, fixes his gaze on his wounded son and waves the heralds away as they try to pass him scrolls estimating the dead. Henry is worried about the stray arrow that has badly mauled the right side of the prince’s face. He knows he needs a surgeon urgently before the wound becomes infected. But the Prince of Wales is adamant that no one is safe until the traitor is found, and he will not be stopped from identifying the body first.
When the prince dismounts, he pushes the rebel soldier aside like a common criminal. He only sees branches covering a body, and his heart quickens as he lifts them to reveal what is beneath.
‘Is it him?’ asks the king.
No answer comes from the ditch, and the king crosses himself.
Henry is grief-stricken, but the prince shows no remorse for the corpse and pokes it with his sword. He frowns at his father’s weakness and kicks the body causing the rebel soldier to lurch forward.
He crashes into a wall of guards, and they seize him before he has a chance to protest.
‘Dies nostri!’ shouts the Prince of Wales raising a fist. ‘Victory!’
There is a halfhearted cheer from the army, but most soldiers who are close by are unsure what the discovery means. They refuse to believe that the rebel leader is dead and despite their loyalty to the king, each man measures the prince’s elation against the reaction of the highborn prisoner closely guarded by Henry’s bodyguard.
The Earl of Worcester is not bound to his horse by ropes, but by a great reputation, and when he stares forward refusing to grieve for the body in the ditch, or himself, the king becomes annoyed.
‘And by his light did all the chivalry of England move,’ cries Henry, as memories replace all traces of ceremony. ‘See how chivalric virtue has been killed by foul ambition.’
There is silence as years of friendship pass between the two men. But Worcester remains stone-faced, glances at the body in the ditch, and shakes his head.
‘His spur is not cold yet.’
‘You lie!’ cries the Prince gazing at the corpse and its arrow-destroyed face.
‘He lives yet,’ snarls Worcester, ‘I saw him ride away.’
The prince looks to his father for support, who instead calls upon his confessor to sing Te Deum to ease his soul. Henry is grieving, but now even he doubts his son’s words. Despite the ordeal of battle, he secretly hopes his former friend escaped the field. And as the voice of his confessor stills the air, the young prince kicks the body again out of spite.
‘But Harry, he was your friend,’ says the king dismounting quickly.
‘No friend of mine—’
The prince aims another kick at the corpse. His anger is too much for him to bear, and I see the rebel soldier break free from his guards aiming to charge the prince down.
There is a scuffle as the king protects his son. More guards seize the rebel soldier, and this time he is tightly bound like a young goat.
‘He was a traitor, and like all traitors was executed,’ says the prince eying the rebel soldier confidently.
King Henry avoids the quarrel and passes his son the queen’s favour to staunch the blood coursing down his face and neck. He helps the prince from the ditch, and when they see the wry smile on the rebel soldier’s face, the past comes alive in an instant.
Above them, the blood moon casts a parting amber glow on the crumpled body in the ditch, and in a dark corner of my bedchamber, I weep bitterly. Shadows fade in my bedchamber, and once again, the past is consigned to history. It is almost dawn, and before heaving myself back into the present, I see a fading vision of the prince who turns and strikes the rebel soldier across the face with his gauntlet.
I was that rebel soldier.