Lady Rosalind Atheling sat alone with her embroidery, quietly contemplating her future and her prospects for that future after this week, when she would be married to Lord Arthur Godwinson.
Until the death of her cousin and guardian, King Edward, known as the Confessor for his piety and his commissioning of the new abbey at Westminster, she had been promised to Stephen, a young man chosen for her from among the King’s Normandy cousins. Then in January the King had died and his throne was quickly claimed by Earl Harold Godwinson with the full support of the Witan. This King’s Council accepted Harold’s tale that Edward had promised him the throne, despite him having no royal blood and no rights of heritage. All claimants to the throne told the same tale, that the Confessor had promised them the throne on his death, yet not one of those claimants could produce a witness.
Harold was merely the brother of Edward’s wife, but he had the advantage of being there at the death and able to lay claim to the crown of England. He did not wear it for long, but while he did, he caused disruption to Rosalind’s expectations for the future.
The new King decided a Norman marriage was not to his liking or benefit, but a union with one of his own cousins would strengthen his position as King. Rosalind was of Saxon royal blood, that same blood which had coursed through the veins of King Edgar, the first King to rule the whole of England, which made her a valuable commodity.
She had at least known Stephen, although not well. She was sent to visit with his family in Normandy when they were both little more than children and had carried on a correspondence with him since then. Being a female of royal birth, although a grand title, gave her no control over her own destiny and now she must prepare herself for marriage with this relative of King Harold.
Rosalind knew nothing about Lord Arthur, only that he was thrice her age and was marrying her for three reasons – to give him an heir, to enjoy her own inheritance, a vast fortune passed down through the distaff line for generations, and to move closer to the King. However, the King had gone to quell an invasion in the north from Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, who also believed he should call himself the Confessor’s heir. He had defeated the Saxons at York and declared himself King of England, but Harold gathered his armies and marched to meet him at Stamford Bridge. The word was that the Norwegian King was now dead and the English King on his way home. If he did not arrive in time for Rosalind’s wedding, no doubt her father would step in.
She was not an orphan, as the term ‘guardian’ would imply. Her father had turned the care of both her and her sister over to King Edward when she was betrothed to Stephen, but he raised no objection to Harold taking over that role when he took over the throne and the realm.
Rosalind thought her father a weak man for accepting things so complacently. He, too, wanted only to be closer to the throne and by allowing his daughters to be given away wherever the King commanded, he would achieve that. He had made no objection to his younger daughter, Jocelyn, being bartered in marriage to another of King Harold’s relatives.
Rosalind should have grown to accept her position by now, being used for the benefit of others, with no thought for her own wishes, or her own suffering, but she had not. If truth be told, she envied the lower classes, especially the peasants. The tradesmen were always trying to better their positions by marrying their children into families of slightly higher social status but the peasants, they were free to fall in love wherever they wished. They were not expected to marry when little more than children either. Why, sometimes a peasant did not marry until he or she was nearly twenty.
There had been occasions when Rosalind had sneaked out of the house, wrapped in a rough, woollen robe so that no one would recognise her, and she would visit the peasants’ settlements and watch them from behind a hedge or some other hiding place.
It was true their huts were of the poorest materials, wooden huts held together with mud and straw, the roofs sparsely thatched and often with holes to let in the rain. Their floors were just impacted mud and their only light was from rushes dipped in animal fat which stank and choked the people with their odour. And they worked, these people. They toiled from dawn till dusk and beyond so that their backs ached and their hands were rough and calloused. They rarely lived as long as the nobility; all that hard work took its toll, yet while they did have life, it was their life, it was free life.
Rosalind had watched them in the summer evenings, dancing and singing, some of them blowing a strange sort of pipe to make music. The children were always happy and playing together between their chores, which they were given as soon as they could walk far enough to carry them out. No one was going to tell them their behaviour was unseemly. Nobody cared if a peasant’s behaviour was unseemly.
Yes, they were poor, their clothing was of the worst kind of fabric, they rarely tasted meat and when the weather was bad keeping warm was a daily struggle, but they were not forced into marriage with a stranger when they were still but children. They were not told they would have to marry whoever their parents chose and if they refused, they would be beaten with birches until their backs bled and often poisoned their blood and killed them. And their guardians would shake their heads and declare it was best for such a bad seed to be discovered early, better they were dead than disobedient.
That was what Rosalind would have to look forward to if she refused this marriage. The King was determined and she had no one to defend her, to fight her cause. Her father did whatever the King wanted and her mother had no more rights than she did herself. There was nothing she could do about it and this man was a stranger to her. The King may be her guardian now, but he cared nothing for her or her happiness. It seemed a noblewoman had not the right to expect to be happy.
Only last week she watched a young peasant couple as they walked hand in hand through their little settlement and stopped to kiss and stand for a long moment, wrapped in each other’s arms. Rosalind’s heart had jumped when she witnessed that; she longed for that sort of affection. Just because she was a member of the highest family in the land, just because she was called ‘My Lady’ did not mean she did not have the same dreams and desires as any other young maid. She, too, would have liked to dream about a handsome young man who would fall in love with her, whom she could love in return. She, too, would have liked a say in who she would share her bed and her body with.
But it seemed the peasant classes had the advantage in that regard. Rosalind had no idea what her future husband looked like, no idea what manner of man he might be, whether he be kind or harsh, selfish or giving. And once wed, they would be tied together for the rest of their lives, no matter how things developed.
Rosalind bit her lip as a sudden flash of anger tore through her heart, making her miss the cloth and stab the needle into her finger instead. The little red bubble which erupted on her flesh grew rapidly and she sucked it to stop the blood before it stained the fine linen on which she worked. She was embroidering a sleeve for her wedding gown; it would never do to have a bloodstain marring its beauty. That would be taken as an ill omen if ever anything was.
It was chilly in the hall and she pulled her cloak closer about herself. A draught found its way through a crack in the wooden walls and it was still not even early autumn really.
This hall was vast and got very cold in the winter, despite all the people who shared it. It was big enough to need two fires, one either end of the vast chamber, with a hole in the roof above each one to allow the smoke to freely escape. Unfortunately, that same escape route also allowed the rain and snow to pour through and quell the fire, leaving an even greater chill and choking, damp smoke to fill the air.
Everything happened in this hall. The people ate and slept, the women would sew and the men would carve their wooden ornaments and tools, leaving sawdust and splinters all over the floor. Those slivers of wood were left to eventually work their way into the dirt floor to form insulation of a sort. After their meals, the tables would be hung on the walls to allow for more space; the servants would dance and sing and play games, while the lords and ladies of the house looked on indulgently.
Sometimes the household members would dance as well, if the dance was a seemly and elegant one. But the raucous and fast dances, where everyone joined hands together, they were not for the higher ranking lords and ladies.
At night straw mattresses were laid on the floor for the family members and the higher ranking servants, whilst the others just laid down on the hard floor and pulled whatever covering they could find over themselves. They would all sleep together, the masters and their servants. Even the King himself slept here when he visited, although he would have a bed with a canopy and curtains for privacy.
There was no privacy for married couples and therefore children grew up knowing exactly what went on in the marriage bed. That knowledge failed to make it easier to accept, as far as Rosalind and her sister were concerned. It might be all well and good for those peasants she had been thinking about, for they were in love and wanting to express that love.
Rosalind now had a bower up the stairs, a bedchamber all to herself which was a luxury but not what she had grown used to. It was traditional for a maiden preparing for her wedding to have her own chamber. It had no door; it was just a space at the top of the stairs with a window which looked out onto the grounds and the forest beyond. She felt a little lonely up there, if truth be told, but she kept her thoughts to herself; she did not want to appear ungrateful and the King had ordered the bower made especially for her.
She turned as the door opened with a loud creak and her sister appeared.
“May I talk to you?” She asked.
“Of course you may,” Rosalind replied, holding out her hand invitingly. “Come and sit beside me. I was just now considering whether to ask one of the servants to light a fire. It is growing chilly.”
Jocelyn shivered and snuggled closer into her own cloak.
“Where is the King?” She asked.
Rosalind sighed heavily.
“He has gone up north somewhere to fight off a threatened invasion by the King of Norway. The Norwegians have already won one battle, but now their king has launched another at Stamford Bridge so the King has gone to give his own expertise to the fray. It is said the Norwegians are losing the battle, that their King is dead.”
“How do you know all this?”
“From listening to others’ conversations, of course. How else would a mere female know these things? Why do you ask?
“I wondered if he had gone to arrange my marriage,” Jocelyn replied nervously.
Rosalind smiled. The idea of the King himself going to do such a thing in person was rather bizarre, but she kept silent. She did not want to make Jocelyn feel silly for asking.
“Really? Why would you think that?”
“I am of age since my last birthday and nothing has been said about it since King Edward died. I know King Harold has broken your betrothal to our Normandy cousin, so I thought it likely he would want to do the same with mine.”
Rosalind put down her embroidery and hugged her sister close to her.
“But you were not betrothed to one of our Normandy cousins, were you? Your betrothed is a Saxon, a son of the house of Godwinson no less. There is no reason for the King to want to part you from him.”
Jocelyn made no reply, but her mouth turned down a little.
“What is it? Are you not pleased with my answer?”
“I do not like Peter Godwinson,” Jocelyn replied.
“You hardly know him.”
“We have met on two occasions and both times he treated me with disdain, as though I was a backward child and just a nuisance. He has no interest at all in me.”
“That is the way of men, my dear. At least you know Lord Peter and he is near your own age; if the rumour about the battle is false and the Norwegian King succeeds with his plans to take the English throne, heaven alone knows to whom either of us might find ourselves married.”
“He is dead, My Lady,” a voice came from behind them.
It was their nurse, Enid, who had entered the hall unnoticed. They both turned to look at her.
“Dead?” Rosalind said, her eyes wide with alarm. “Who is dead? Not the King?”
“Not our King, My Lady; the Norwegian King. King Harold is on his way home as we speak.” She stopped talking and crossed herself, bowed her head and briefly closed her eyes. “Praise be to God.”
Rosalind was not sure if she were pleased or sorry. She had no love for the King; he had taken the throne on the death of the Confessor, and turned her world upside down by promising her to one of his relatives. She had expected a life in Normandy and had learned the language in anticipation of that life, which was not an easy task with no one here who spoke it. She had relied on Stephen’s letters and his instruction through them to learn, and she had done well. She could carry on a conversation now in the language of the Normans, but it seemed she would no longer need it. Who in England would be speaking Norman French?
“Is it certain that the Norwegian King is defeated?” She asked.
“Oh, yes, My Lady. Some of the soldiers have already returned with the news.”
So, the King would not be far behind and there would be nothing to delay her marriage to Lord Arthur.
Rosalind remembered Normandy as being a fair land, the weather clement, not cold and wet as England could be, and the flowers grew profusely and in beautiful colours never seen in their dank little island.
Now she would have to settle for an old man she had never met or even seen. She would have to give her allegiance and her life to him, allow him into her bed whenever the fancy took him. She would have to bear his babies, a dangerous task for a woman, many babies, whilst he, no doubt, would be sating himself with his mistresses or even a woman for hire.
Was she supposed to feel happy with the prospect? And did she think Stephen of Normandy would have treated her any better? Somehow she had always supposed he would, perhaps because they had been betrothed in childhood, perhaps because she had met and liked him when they were much younger and his letters were always fond.
But she was very young still and this man she would be forced to wed was older than her father or even her grandfather.
She had tried appealing to the King, tried to explain how she felt, but he did not care about her feelings. His only thought was to marry a woman of royal blood to a relative of his own, to strengthen his claim to the throne. It was not enough to have Jocelyn wed to a Godwinson cousin; he needed the eldest daughter and the heiress to be wed to his closer cousin, and that was Lord Arthur.
Her fortune would help the King in his efforts to fortify the country, a fortune she could not prevent from being used by both him and her husband for their own ends. In law it was her own money, but that never worked in reality as she had no way to stop them from using it.
The law, a law made by men, had decided that a woman could not possibly manage her own money. Therefore, she had no direct access to it and was forced to apply to her guardians or her husband for anything she needed. Rosalind knew that if she could learn a difficult language like Norman French, she could most certainly manage her own affairs.
Rosalind blinked back unexpected tears. She always tried to be strong, to keep her emotions in a little box where no one would ever know they existed, not even her. But sometimes they burst out of their hiding place and came pouring to the surface without warning. She should teach herself not to think about things; then she would not invite these emotions to rise up and assault her when she least expected it.
“We can prepare for the wedding now,” Jocelyn was saying.
“Your wedding. Is the dressmaker not coming this afternoon to finish your wedding clothes? Has the King not told you to spend whatever you want on them and on jewellery to complement them?”
“He has,” she answered. “It is small consolation.”
Jocelyn hugged her.
“Do not fret,” she said. “Lord Arthur is an old man; he could keel over at any moment.”
Rosalind laughed, but it was a forced laugh. Jocelyn obviously had not considered that were she a widow, the King would find some other relative to bring her fortune closer to his coffers.
The next three days were completely taken up with seamstresses, who invaded Rosalind’s bower with their materials, their measurements and their interminable chatter.
“You are so fortunate, My Lady,” the head seamstress said, more than once. “To have the King paying for your marriage and giving you away is a great honour.”
“I have a father,” Rosalind muttered.
“Oh, but I am sure he can have no objection to relinquishing the privilege to His Majesty.”
I am sure he cannot, Rosalind thought silently.
Rosalind’s gown and tunic were of a pale yellow colour which blended well with her bright titian hair and she wore a headdress of the same fabric. She looked beautiful, she even thought so herself as she carefully studied her reflection, and she was not sure that was a good thing. Would it not be preferable to look a little dour and sallow, so as not to arouse the ardour of her bridegroom?
When the seamstresses had all gone, Rosalind knew she ought to call a servant to help her remove this gown before it got spoiled, but in truth she cared nothing for that. It was a beautiful gown and tunic, a lovely colour, and she wanted to enjoy the soft, fine linen and the newness of it. Besides, she did not feel like listening to the chatter of a servant who would no doubt think her thrilled to be preparing for her wedding day.
She remembered the shoemaker had delivered her new winter boots that morning and now she saw them and reached to grab them and pulled them onto her feet. She had not yet had a chance to try them on and now she wiggled her toes to be sure there was enough room and decided to wear them for a little while, to soften the leather.
Rosalind opened one of the shutters and peered out. She could see a lot from her bower, it being up high and overlooking the farms and settlements below and she could see the little church where tomorrow she would be standing in the porch, her arm through that of the King, assuming he returned in time, as he gave her to his cousin, Lord Arthur. It was no different from him giving away a piece of jewellery or a cask of mead, a prize brood mare perhaps. Yes; that was the best comparison – a brood mare. It was for offspring she was being wed to this man, after all. Offspring and a release for his lust. That was all she was; property to be bartered like any animal.
She had no more rights than the dogs in the yard, or the horses in the paddock. She bit her lip; there were those damned emotions again, trying their hardest to force their way out of their little box and show themselves.
The King was still not back from the north. Perhaps he would meet with an accident and not arrive in time. Would the wedding take place without him? Would her father be allowed the privilege of giving his eldest daughter over to this old man?
She looked about nervously, wondering if anyone near could read her mind. She had heard there were people who could do that and even thinking about the death of the King was treason.
Her dismal thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a tall man, dressed in hide breeches and jacket, his hair dark with a few strands of grey, his beard heavy. He was a thick set figure and he was her father’s age or thereabouts. Her eyes followed him as he crossed the courtyard and entered the porch below her and she moved away from the window, wondering if she should go and see who he was and what he wanted. There were no men in the house except servants, who might not feel like stopping him should his intentions be anything but honourable.
She had no authority to do so, of course; she was a mere female, a mere maiden ripe for the marriage bed and little else. Why should she concern herself with this stranger’s intentions? Would her future be any different?
The creaking of the stairs as a heavy footfall ascended made her turn and look round for a possible hiding place, should one be needed. She had no idea why she thought of such a thing, just that the sight of that man had sent shivers through her and she could hear no one else in the house at all. That was unusual in itself; where were the servants? Where was Jocelyn? And why did this stranger feel entitled to mount the stairs to her private bower?
Confronting this intruder seemed like the best option, at least for now. She stood up, drew herself to her full height and raised her eyes to the smouldering grey ones of the heavy set man she had seen in the courtyard.
He reached the top of the stairs and stood smiling at her, but it was not a comfortable smile, not a smile to give her solace from her fear. It was the sort of smile she might see a man give to a cute little animal, a puppy or kitten perhaps, the sort of smile which would make Rosalind wonder if he intended to hug the creature or do it some harm. She shivered.
“Who are you?” She demanded. “This is my private bower. You are not welcome here.”
His smile broadened.
“There is nothing for you to fret about,” he said. “I have the consent of your guardian to be here.”
“My guardian? My guardian is King Harold and he is not here to give his consent.”
“No, but I have recently left him on the road. I wanted to make haste, could not wait to take advantage of his generosity.”
Rosalind felt the seeds of a raging fury growing. How dare he? He had taken the throne of England, he had decided that Rosalind should be under his command (he called it protection but she did not agree). He had disrupted her life and promised her to a stranger and now he was giving his consent to all and sundry to invade her privacy.
She wanted to stamp her foot, she was so angry, but she fought the urge, thought such a gesture would diminish her dignity.
“Well,” she said at last, “you might have the King’s consent to be here, Sir, but you do not have mine. Will you please leave.”
His smile spread even broader.
“Forgive me,” he said. “You have no need to fear me. I am Arthur, your betrothed.”
Rosalind felt her eyes growing wide, then they swept this man from head to foot and she felt her mouth turning down. For that moment, she had no control whatsoever over any of these features, nor over her racing heart which beat so fast she thought it might burst out of her chest.
This was the man she was expected to marry tomorrow? This old man whose beard only barely covered his double chin, whose stomach cascaded over his belt and whose thighs were flabby and pushing against the soft leather of his breeches? He had apparently ridden hard to get here and the result was a sweaty neck and streaks of dirt lining his face.
She swallowed in an effort to gather her courage and hide her distaste; her fingers bunched into fists and squeezed hard enough to embed her fingernails into her flesh.
“You are impetuous, My Lord,” she said. “I see you did not even stop to bathe.”
A quick frown crossed his forehead; at last she had managed to get rid of that lascivious smile.
“No, I did not,” he answered. “I shall, however, be happy to take myself to the river if it is your wish. Is it your wish?”
“It is indeed. I would have thought you might want to do that yourself before you present yourself at the church porch as my bridegroom.”
Once more she saw the anger in his eyes.
“I think you and I should reach a better understanding, My Lady.”
“Why are you here?” She demanded, her own anger rising rapidly.
The smile returned, broader and more lecherous than ever and she shivered again. Was she really about to tie herself to this man for the rest of her life? She thought about sharing her bed with him, about his naked body lying beside her, about his rough hands touching her secret places and the shiver turned into a tremor of disgust. For the first time since the death of the Confessor, she began to seriously think of a way out; there was none.
“I have come to claim what is mine,” he said. “It is common practice for a betrothed couple to lie together before the ceremony.”
Rosalind felt the strength leaving her legs and she sank down onto the bed behind her, then realised her mistake as he took one step toward her. Did he perhaps consider the gesture an invitation? She clutched at the bedpost and pulled herself to her feet, but he kept coming. She tried to move away from the bed, but she was not fast enough and now he was standing in front of her, reeking of strong liquor, leather and sweat.
His hand reached out and grabbed her breast and she pulled herself away.
“Let go of me! I am not your wife yet.”
“As good as.” He pushed her down onto the bed, captured her beneath his heavy weight as his hand reached down to lift her skirt and linger on her buttock cheek. “Why wait until we are weary from the dancing and feasting? Much better to get it done now.”
He moved his hand to untie his breeches and she took the opportunity to lift her leg and kick out at him as hard as she could. She was still wearing her new leather boots and she said a little silent prayer of thanks for it.
She felt her foot connect viciously with his stomach, narrowly missing his genitals, and he screamed in protest then raised a hand and slapped her face, hard. He rolled off her body and bent over to clutch at his stomach while she held her hand to her injured face and smiled with satisfaction.
But in his eyes she saw such murderous rage, it made her jump up and run from the bower, downstairs to the hall, where she saw two of the maidservants with knowing smiles on their silly faces.
So they knew! He had no doubt bribed them all to go away, take Jocelyn for a walk and leave the way free for him to force his foul attentions on her. And they did so willingly! They likely thought it some romantic gesture instead of the abuse it was.
She ran from the hall and outside, across the grounds and into the forest beyond. It was not safe to be in the woods on foot and alone; she knew that, but she would rather take her chances with the wolves and the wild boar. She had no intention of returning, even if she had to find shelter among those creatures. Lord Arthur would never see her again.
Even as she had these thoughts, she knew her plan would never work. She had nothing, no money, no food save what the forest provided, sparse fare indeed with the winter on its way. She did not even have a horse to ride and she had no one to help her, just the opposite. Remembering those servants and their silly grins, she knew there would be nobody on her side, that they would all be out searching for her, all wanting to drag her back to Lord Arthur, and once the King arrived home, she would be flogged for disobeying his order.
She heard the sound of hooves following close behind her, but she did not turn to see her pursuer. She knew who it was and, judging by sound alone, she dashed in among the trees until he sounded as though he was to the west of her, no longer following. So he had not seen her; by the time he had mounted his horse, she was already deep in the woods and away from him. All she need do was to keep perfectly still and quiet and he would never find her.
She listened as the sound of his horse moved farther away. She heard him calling her name, then nothing. Perhaps her prayers would be answered and he would never find her, but she felt sure that God paid no mind to the prayers of females.
She had no escape; she would have to marry her betrothed, who would no doubt wish to have his revenge for her defiance, make her pay for not meekly accepting him. She may as well jump in the river and put an end to her misery that way, but then Jocelyn would be given in her place. She could not allow that to happen. Her little sister was definitely better off with Peter Godwinson than with Lord Arthur.
Rosalind had no choice; she had to return and tomorrow she had to stand in that church porch and agree that she would give her life to the man who had only a few minutes ago hit her and tried to rape her.
Those damned treacherous tears welled up again. She needed to be strong, yet all she could do was weep like some weak little mouse who had been caught by a cat. But that was just what she felt like, a helpless little mouse and Arthur was the hovering cat, waiting to pounce. Worst of all, everyone would approve, everyone would think Rosalind’s objections to be mere maidenly modesty and they would all smile indulgently and tell her she would get over it.
She had been leaning back against a tree and now she allowed herself to slide down the trunk and onto the damp grass. She swiped at her wet eyes and drew a determined breath. She might have to go through with the ceremony, if only for her sister’s sake, but she would make them pay, make them waste their time searching for her. She would not return yet; she would stay here for as long as she could, just to make things difficult.
She looked back the way she had come and realised she could no longer see the house or the grounds which surrounded it, neither could she hear any sounds from that direction. She had come far deeper among the trees than she had imagined and now she wondered if she would be able to find her way back. The choice to return was no longer hers; the light was fading and she was lost.
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