JUST TWO FEET
Even in late August, the nights were short. Too short. And this one was hot. There had just not been enough time to do this job properly.
Friar Thomas sat morosely in one of the darkend rear choir pews, the sweat pouring off him, dripping down his temples and cheeks. It might have been just before dawn, when the air is normally more chill, a bit more fresh. But this night had been hot and humid, and at his age and weight, he could do without the pressures that came with burying a body secretly in the dead of night.
For secret it must be. He'd had his instructions. He chose five of his most trustworthy brethren in the friary, and they set about the task of digging this very hurried grave. Friar Thomas was there merely to supervise, to see that this job was done properly, quickly, and above all else, that secrecy was maintained. Heads would roll if word got out about this, and the first rolling head would probably be his.
He huffed and puffed and sweat a little more, as he watched the friars feverishly shovelling piles of fresh earth to one side, steadily increasing the dimly lit mountain now covering the beautifully tiled floor of that part of his church. It would soon be light, and he really was beginning to doubt they'd get the job done. Friar Thomas, by temperament, was a doubting sort of man. It always surprised him just how much earth could come out of such a small hole.
The friar brother in charge of the digging, Brother James, broke his reverie.
“Do you think that will just about be deep enough,” he asked as he stood up and stretched his back, leaning on his spade. The other friars stopped digging, and looked up hopefully. It had been a long, hot and hard night. They'd been at this since just before midnight, and by God himself, the ground was hard. Almost solid. They'd dug some graves before, but God's Truth, this one took the biscuit.
“It'll have to be!” Friar Thomas almost snapped, “light is coming up, and if we're not done here in a few more moments, folks will be up and about and the game will be up for us. Right! Let's get him in.”
Lying in the gloom, just nearby the huge pile of red earth, lay a figure, a long figure, wrapped in a plain, white cloth. A cloth that had been recently been clean, but was now stained dark with the gruesome smears and evidence of blood. Brother James placed his spade on the pile of earth, went over to the body, and partially unwrapped the shroud that hid it. Then he pulled the cloth back entirely, and stood pondering in the gloom for a moment.
The body had been brought to them in darkness, quietly, in secret, and the increasing light would be the first time any of them would see it properly, at least without candlelight. They hadn't lit any candles in the church, for fear of attracting attention. And discovery now would almost certainly be fatal, for all of them.
“Don't just stand there! What are you looking at, man?” hissed Friar Thomas, every moment of now increasing light serving to jangle his nerves even more taut than they already were.
“He's not going to fit. He's too long. We've not dug it big enough,” Brother James said, almost despairingly. He wasn't usually given to despair, being a cheerful sort of man, and usually full of optimism and good cheer. Almost the opposite, in fact, of Friar Thomas. But now, he gently kicked his shovel. "It might be deep enough, but it doesn't seem quite long enough." He paused another moment, and then asked, "So, what shall be done?”
He neatly passed the problem back to Friar Thomas. He was the boss. Brother James didn't want to get involved in this foolish escapade in the first place, any more than Friar Thomas did, or his fellow friars here assembled, but the decision had been made, and they'd had their instructions. He pondered a moment more, hearing Friar Thomas sigh this way, and sigh that way, audibly wrestling with what to do next. In the gloom of a dawn that was just beginning to break, Friar Thomas lifted his corpulent body from his seat, and came down to the front of the pews. He, too, stood pondering, looking down at the now fully exposed body laid on the tiled floor before them.
For here, awaiting this quick and unceremonious burial, lay a king. A king killed in battle, whose wrecked and broken body was still covered in the dark, dried blood from the mortal injuries sustained in conflict. He had been a fine figure of a man in life, handsome, ferociously strong in battle, and said to be a fine leader of his men, though it was obvious looking at his twisted body now in death that he didn't stand up all that straight in life. It had been said that the king was not built quite right, but rumour had it that he had got worse of late. Friar Thomas and his friars could see now, as the light level increased through the high church windows, the fearful wound on the back of the king's head, quite probably from the blow that finally felled him.
The story was already going around that the king, in full battle armour, had been unhorsed, and was spinning around right in the throng of friends and foe alike shouting for another, when the mortal blow was struck. There were lots of stories going around, and it was only two days since the battle itself. One story was that it wasn't an enemy that had done it.
The battle had been truly ferocious, and many good men on both sides had died fighting for their leaders. Stories were still coming into the town of numbers, but it was clear now that it was more than just hundreds. King Richard was fighting to defend his throne, a crown he'd only had for two years, though there were many rumours. There were some people who spread rumours and gossip and whispers, some more wicked than others, that disputed his right to that throne. Some of the gossip was even treasonable, could lose a man his head on a good day, let alone a bad. But it was very widely said he'd almost taken the crown by force, if not of arms.
No, he'd taken it by sheer, dogged force of argument with the council, browbeating many of them, it was true, so that they gave in more for want of an end to all the arguments, all the in-fighting and the bitter civil wars that had beset this land for more than thirty years. An end to it all, they said, too many good people had died. So Richard was crowned, quickly, and styled the third of his name.
There were many alive who could remember the previous Richard, the second, and knew of the devious and dastardly means that were used to remove him from the throne of England. Since then, there'd been two other kings, one a Henry, and another an Edward. How was an ordinary mortal man to know what was right, which man had more right to a throne than another. A man could be alive one minute, and dead the next, all for want of knowing which was his rightful king and thus saying the wrong thing in the street.
Now they had a new king. Another Henry. He had won the battle, of that there was no doubt, literally wrenching victory from the jaws of defeat, to have Richard's fallen crown thrust upon his head almost the moment it had been found, fallen away and hanging inside a thorn bush.
Friar Thomas and Brother James had pondered long enough. Time was running out. Time now to do it.
“Right, you two there, come and give Brother James a hand. Pull him over here, on this sheet,” Friar Thomas instructed, pointing and waving to the dead king's body. “He'll have to go in, too big or not. There's no time to do anything else. We've got to get all this put back, and the tiles re-laid, before anyone out there is any the wiser. And remember, all of you, not a word of this to anyone, or you'll be joining him. And probably me too,” he added under his breath. But they all heard him, and knew it to be true.
Quickly, the other friars now helped Friar James slide the body across the tiled floor, to lay almost alongside the newly dug grave. Still laid inside the sheet, but now more decently covered over, they manoeuvred the body into the grave, a monk at each end, and lowered him down. There was enough light now to be able to see right down into the grave itself, and once the king's body was laid in the bottom, it was plain to see that Friar James had been quite right. He was too big. Or more correctly, the grave was too short. By about two feet.
Even with the king's head laid to one side, and bent upwards, it was still going to be a struggle. Oh Lord Almighty, thought Friar Thomas to himself, what a way to treat an anointed king. This is not right. But, needs must. He had to go in, and now. If not quicker. If word got out, there'd be more than hell to pay. It was imperative that Richard's defeated supporters, and there were many of them, even lying low as they were doing just now, had no idea where his body was laid. They would almost certainly try to retrieve it and whisk it off to the north. For a brief moment, Friar Thomas really wished that they would. He didn't need this.
The new king had given very specific instructions. After the body had been displayed for a few hours in the town, just to reassure everyone that Richard was indeed dead, and there was a new king on the throne, one whose will must be obeyed, the old king was to be given a decent burial. In a church of course, but secretly, and no-one thereafter was to know where the grave was. At least, not until many a year had passed. Not until the new king felt his crown secure on his head could anyone have an inkling where the broken and bloodied Richard lay.
Friar Thomas' problem was the secrecy bit, which didn't quite tie in with the decency bit, and he concluded that the only way it could truly be secret was with the involvement of the minimum number of persons, and in the dead of night. And in late August, that gave precious little time for the burial, or decency, let alone any sort of appropriate ritual. The sort of ritual that would be normally expected to be given to an anointed and deceased king. It had still been almost light enough to read a bible outside until only shortly before the midnight hour, and the light was back again in less than five hours.
Everyone in the friary were still in shock at this turn of events, shocked that there had been a battle at all, that the soothsayers had all been right all along, and even more shocked at the outcome. The king was not expected to lose. A huge army was said to have turned out to fight for him, to defeat this Welsh usurper and lay the issue to rest once and for all. But the king was dead, and here they were burying him. No lead-lined coffin for this king, no marble or alabaster tomb, no choirs or bells or lavish ceremony. Just dumped into a hurriedly dug grave, in the middle of the night, and a few words for the passage of his soul.
But he wouldn't fit. There was not enough time to lengthen the grave now, so he must be made to fit, king or no king.
Friar James once again broke the silence.
“I think he's about two feet two long. Even with his head cocked.”
Friar Thomas looked at him, and frowned, and looked down. Two feet. Two feet? Yes, by God's Blood, that was the answer, two feet!
“Right. Take his feet off.”
“What!” exclaimed Friar James. The other friars all took a simultaneous deep intake of breath. What did he say.
“Take his feet off! Yes, both of them. Come on, someone. You, boy,” the Friar Thomas addressed Brother Robert, the youngest of them and still really a novice, “quick, get up to the kitchen and bring back the largest butcher's saw you can find. And make sure it's sharp, mind. Go on, be quick about it.”
Brother Robert, astounded for a short moment, took to his heels and fled.
“Surely, Brother Thomas, you can't cut the feet off a king?” He hardly dare question Friar Thomas in any matter, but this was so, well, so preposterous, it was almost unbelievable that anyone could contemplate such an act.
“Well, do you have another suggestion. It's either that, or his head! Well, what is it to be, we haven't got all noight.”
For a moment, Friar Thomas stopped himself saying anything further. For a moment, the thought that Friar James and all four other friars were going to faint on him. He didn't feel particularly well himself. Come to think of it, he'd never felt so queer. He did feel a bit barbaric, but what was a man to do.
Amazingly, within a few moments, the terrified young Brother Robert came hurtling back, brandishing a very large butchers saw knife. Luckily, he had found just the thing. They should be able to cut an ox up with this.
“Ah, that will do very nicely. Brother James, help to lift him back out,” Friar Thomas commanded.
Brother James stood for a moment, aghast, before he responded to the order. He couldn't believe what they were about to do. Having already lifted the dead king into his grave, however inappropriate that grave was, they were now going to lift him back out again, only to cut off his feet.
By now, there was quite enough light in the church to see clearly. Faces that had been blurred images when they were digging in the dead of a summer night now became recognisable people. And those people were frightened to death themselves at even the remotest possibility of being recognised. There was no guarantee at all that this new king would secure his throne, or even could secure his throne.
For what if the boy king Edward, long said to be dead but there had never been any proof, came out of hiding to raise an army to win the crown back for the Yorkists. It was said he would have a massive amount of support if he did. This Henry they had now was said to a descendant of the Lancastrians, though he calls himself Tudor, and many folk said he had no right to the throne at all. Moreover, wasn't he Welsh?
What was a man to do? What was a simple brother to do? Who was right? It did seem to depend on where in the country you were, or were from. By and large, the south of the country were Yorkists, and supported old King Edward, the boy's father now dead this past two years and his Plantagenet family. Richard had been his brother, so his lineage wasn't disputed. The north of the country, by and large, supported the Lancastrians, descendants of the old John O'Gaunt of long lost and late memory. But legend has it that the whole branch of that family were forbidden, disbarred the throne by laws of parliament, for, it was said, some distant past sins of the flesh ... involving bastardy.
North, or South? Who did you support. For here in the little market town of Leicester, they were neither really one way nor the other. A bit betwixt and between, as we might say. Not really northern, and not in the south either. A bit middling really, sort of 'on the fence'. But Richard did have a huge amount of support in the town, or it would seem that was so when he left his lodgings and rode out to do battle. Was that really only, what, two days ago.
Oh, who was right. Life could be so precarious. All the friars had talked quietly amongst themselves, all knew, or thought they knew, what they were into. This had been after compline, when Friar Thomas had dismissed the rest of the friary to talk to just this five of them, when he'd first told them of the plan, and what dreaded deed they had been elected to do. Even Friar Thomas thought that the word 'volunteer' was a little to strong for it.
All were frightened, none least than Friar Thomas himself. If young Edward were to come back and claim his throne, and it became known who had conspired to throw this dead king into this inglorious hole, they'd all be for the high jump. And probably the block after that. Folk had been disembowelled for less. Hadn't Richard's family been slightly known for being a trifle unforgiving of disloyalty. Look what Richard himself was said to have done to their own Lord Hastings. A friend one moment, head on the block the next, and sliced off into a basket shortly after that. And then there were the princes. What about them?
But now, they had the king back out of his grave, and lo and behold, Friar James was actually instructed to cut the king's feet off. He nearly fainted with shock, his hand trembling with the saw, almost too large for him to handle. Under Friar Thomas' increasingly hysterical manner, he drew the first strokes across the top of one of the king's ankles. He was surprised, and somewhat calmed, and a little heartened, that there was not the expected spurt of blood. For why would there be. The poor chap had probably spent all he had on the battlefield.
And after, by all accounts. There were many wounds on his body that were surely not taken in battle. His chest and ribs, thighs, shoulders, were a real mess, cut to ribbons in parts, and who knows what had been done at his back. When he had helped the Friar Thomas first take charge of the body, and helped to wrap him in the shroud, he'd seen by candlelight the injury to the king's seat that made him wonder if the king had indeed sat on a sword or a pike. Surely, some cruel sod had done that afterwards.
All four friar brothers, and Friar Thomas, looked on in suppressed horror, as Friar James, sawing away, severed first one foot, and then the other. Time really was now of the essence, it was almost fully light. Noises were starting to become clear from outside the church, a cart rumbled past in the nearby street, the chance of discovery increasing by the minute.
With both feet now painlessly and bloodlessly removed, if untidily through Brother James inexpert butchery, the saw was cast aside, and once again, the friars lifted the king's body, now minus its feet, and indeed about two feet shorter both literally and in size, back into the deep grave.
“Ah, that's better,” sighed Friar Thomas. “He fits, or he will do. Now, you two, out! Let's get him covered up.”
“What . . what about the words?” stammered Friar James.
“What words .. oh, yes, those words. Young Robert, fetch me my prayer book. It's up there, on my choir stall.”
Robert fetched the book. Friar Thomas fumbled with the pages, searching for the right prayer. What was the right prayer for a dead king, felled in battle. He mumbled some lines of Latin words for a few minutes, looked up at the windows, quickly finished the closing lines of the prayer for the dead and the saving of the soul, waved his arms about wildly, and almost whispered, “Amen”.
Amen, said the gathered assembly, crossing themselves very nervously, and with no further ado, all five friars picked up their spades and started shovelling the earth back into the grave like their lives depended on it. For indeed they did. Within less than a couple of minutes, King Richard's body had totally disappeared. The hole indeed did fill up far quicker than it had been excavated, and in less than thirty, it was nearly full. Brother Robert was sent to fetch a couple of sacks and a barrow, for it dawned on Friar James first that not all of the spoil was going to go back into the same hole.
Within another few minutes, four of the friars were on their hands and knees relaying the square tiles back into the choir floor, trying to match and remember the right pattern, as Brother Robert handed them half a dozen tiles at a time. There had been, if a tad hurried, some planning in this.
They were almost done, the first signs of the sun coming up as new light streamed through the windows. All was going well, only half a dozen tiles left to place, and it was at that point that Brother Robert, doing some sweeping up, pointed out the king's feet with his broom, the severed feet casually laid to one side at the base of the front choir stall.
“Are you going to do anything with the feet?” he asked rather tentatively.
There was a momentary stunned silence, before Friar Thomas exploded.
“Good Lord in his Heaven above!! WHY is this happening to me,” Friar Thomas cried out in despair, making all the four friars on their hands and knees at the graveside startle quite sharply. One dropped the last handful of tiles, breaking three of them. “WHY did you not say before! What did you think we were going to do with them, put them in the pot for dinner!”
Friar James was horrified at such an undignified suggestion, and crossed himself again, more reverently, whereupon the other four instantly stood up and did the same.
“Never mind that, finish it off now. May as well now we've started, there's not enough time to open it up again,” Friar Thomas added despairingly, and turned again on Brother Robert, his frustration at this turn of events very plain to see.
“Oh, you .. you take them. Breathe not a word of this, mind. Get rid of them.”
Brother Robert, because of previous frightening conversations, sensed even more fear than ever. What if he was found with the king's feet? He didn't want the blessed things.
“Here,” Friar Thomas said to Brother Robert, “put them in one of those sacks with the last of the spoil and … and … just get rid of them. I don't want to see them again, and I don't want to know where you put them. Ever. We won't speak of this again. And that goes for all of you,” he added with a knowing frown. They knew what he meant.
By the time the sun came up properly, glinting and reflecting on the gold ornamentations of the altar, the tiles were all back, if not necessarily in the right order, the remaining spoil carted away, the floor swept, and everything back in as near good order as it had been just before midnight when they'd first started. No one would ever know the floor had ever been up.
Friar Thomas breathed a huge sigh of relief. A man of God he might be, but if asked if he knew anything about where the king's body had been taken, he could lie through his back teeth as well as any common man. If he had any back teeth, that was. He didn't have a lot of front teeth either, but he got by. If pushed, he would simply say that he'd heard that the king's body had been thrown into the river. Who would know, one way or another.
Anyroads, there were several chapels, two more friaries, and four other large churches in the town that could just as easily have been chosen for this burial. Who's to know where he was.
Friar James also breathed a huge sigh of relief. He knew that, if their deed was discovered, by either side of these incessant wars, not only himself and Friar Thomas, and the four other friars that took part, indeed the whole friary would be in grave danger. They could all end up in a shallow grave. Perhaps together.
Brother Robert breathed a sigh of despair. He did feel relief, yes, though mostly despair. As he walked along later in the morning sunlight, a sack slung over his shoulder containing about half a bucketful of red soil, and two king's feet, his despair deepened. Usually, even at this time of the morning, shortly before seven of the clock, the bridge down the hill in front of him would be teeming with people, horses, asses, carts, and occasional flocks of sheep. Especially this being a Monday.
On this morning, so close after the great battle, that had taken place just a few miles away over the fields, the road and bridge were almost deserted. It was almost as if, in the aftermath of this turn of events, folk just didn't want to be seen. They didn't want to be out and about, not least until they better knew which way the wind was truly blowing.
Brother Robert suddenly remembered that this was the way the king's body had been brought back from the battlefield. Indeed, Brother Robert himself had been not so far from where he now walked when it happened, when the appalling bloody cortège of horses and carts, many carrying dead men, were escorted over the bridge into the town by the new king's loyal and noisy supporters. For there amongst them, shockingly, cruelly, was the king himself, the old king now, the dead king, naked, slung over a horse, the king that he had just helped to bury, secretly. His memory made him shudder for the umpteenth time. Just what had he done?
A few of the new king's supporters were shouting and yelling, but most looked drawn and dead tired. Absolutely dead beat, Brother Robert thought then. But it was the memory of the crowds of jeering townsfolk, the language they used, the awful demeanour and behaviour even of the womenfolk towards the horse and the battered body that it carried, that still haunted him. Surely these weren't the same folk that had cheered this dead king on his way, prayed for him and wished him well against his unworthy foe. Surely all this jeering and hissing was just for show. Wasn't it?
Brother Robert had been completely aghast at Friar Thomas' suggestion, nay, instruction, to take the feet away and just get rid of them. While he stood there hesitating, just after Friar Thomas had departed the choir back to his lodgings, and to some sleep no doubt, Friar James had come up with a gentler suggestion.
“Are you going to see your mother this morning, as usual, Brother Robert?”
It was Monday, and Brother Robert usually went the short walk across the bridge and out up the hill towards his mother's cottage, just to take her some kitchen scraps, if he could glean any. Old Mother Haywood always welcomed visitors that brought kitchen scraps from the friary, or any other big house in the town. They tended to be of better quality, you know. And you found all sorts of things hidden within them. She found a gold ring once, but didn't mention it to her novice son.
“Yes, I suppose so. Though I'd rather go back to bed.” To underline the point, he yawned widely.
“Well, take the sack, go back to your mother's, and just … bury them. But try to do it where your mother's dog doesn't dig them up.” Brother James gave a nervous laugh at his own mental image of a dog retrieving the king's feet for his dinner. A meal fit for a dog, you might say.
Brother Robert was aghast yet again, he had never been so flabbergasted so many times in so short a space of time. What was this man saying! At supper last night, he had been a simple young novice friar of no importance. To join the church had been his own choice. Now he wished he'd joined the army. Now he had a secret. He didn't think his flabber could stand any more gasting.
And what a secret. As he walked onto Bow Bridge, he felt himself almost thrill inside with the enormity of it. But, what of his mother, what would she say if she knew he'd brought home the king's feet. A few wizened turnips would be all she expected. What would she say, even if she did look into the sack. But then, what could she say. How could she know whose they were. The toes didn't have little crowns on them. Burying the dead king in secret, without ceremony, was bad enough. Sawing the bottom of his legs off was something else. His mother would have a pink fit if she ever knew. All these questions and many more buzzed through his sleepy brain.
He paused at one of the embrasures on the stone bridge. Ha, it was said that King Richard had banged his spur here on his ride out to battle. Here, he fingered a fresh mark in the stone, perhaps it was right .. just .. here. He'd also heard that the poor soul had banged his head in almost the same spot on his return, bound and slung naked over that horse.
Brother Robert looked over the stone wall, and down into the sluggishly flowing water. Almost on impulse, without any real thought or considering the consequences, he took the sack from his shoulder and opened it. There inside, sticking out from the soil, was one set of human toes. He'd have done with it and throw them in the river. Though, he was a bit loathe to even touch them. Surely, that was the answer to his dilemma, no mother asking him what's in the sack, the son fending her off with a lame excuse about a sack of spare soil for the garden. She wasn't that daft as to swallow that one.
No, he looked around, saw no-one in sight, and started to tentatively reach down into the sack to grab the first of the feet. He almost had his eyes shut. He didn't want to see. Just at that moment, a door creaked open in the nearby inn, the noise filling the air on that still and breathless morning.
The inn was the one he'd just walked by, on the town side of the bridge, and a man came out. With no further ado, Brother Robert picked up the sack, twisted and closed the neck, and heaved it over the parapet. His heart was thumping soundly, as the man approached and asked him what he was doing. Had he just thrown something in the river? What was that splash?
“Nothing.” Robert replied, with the innocent air of a little boy caught being naughty, “Why?”
“If I didn't know better, I would think you had thrown a body in the river,” the man explained, almost laughing. Brother Robert thought he might have been the publican, he was so nosey. All publicans were nosey.
“No, just a bag of old soil,” he said.
The man looked over the parapet and down at the sack, now half submerged in the mud and reeds at the water's edge.
“Ha. That's what you say,” the man said laughing, “the old king's body has disappeared did you know, and some are looking for him. Though, I will admit, looking at that sack down there, it hardly seems big enough for a dog, let alone the body of a king.”
And with that, the nosey man went on his way across the bridge. Brother Robert, relieved more than he could possibly tell, decided he didn't want to go and see his mother after all. The night was done. Best to go to sleep and forget all about it. When he woke up, he'd probably find it had all been a very bad dream. Very bad.
He'd be dreaming of severed feet in the dead of night for months to come.
© 2013 : Robert L Haywood