Robert Meets a Challenge

Prologue – Extract from Book I

January 1079. France.

Trouble is my eternal and unshakeable companion and today it arrived once more, this time outside my borrowed abode in the fortress of Gerberoy.

‘Prince Robert!’ cried the captain of the guard. He was shivering in the biting January wind and struggling to make his voice heard from his lofty position on the battlements over the gate. I looked up from the bailey, where I was practising my sword-work. Stripped to the waist and sweating despite the cold, I delivered one last blow against the padded post and broke the wooden pole which served as a sword. I heard the comments from others of my household, my mesnie, likewise gathered in the bailey to practise the arts and skills of killing.

‘God’s blood, Prince Robert!’ shouted one of my loyal knights, he who was known for his strength. ‘Leave some trees for us.’

‘By Jesu!’ laughed another. ‘If he hits you with that blow you will surely end up as a matched pair.’

Smiling at their jest I went to the ladder leading up to the parapet.

‘Come on, you scurrilous lot!’ I called. ‘Let us see who has come a-visiting today.’

From the battlements we had a good view up the sloping valley that led down to the gate. The horizon was lined with knights on horseback and the banners they flew were those of King Philip of France.

‘That’s odd,’ I murmured to my friend Aubrey, ‘if that is the king then why does he not approach?’

‘Aye, my lord; you are here by his consent.’

‘Indeed!’

King Philip had been happy enough to let me settle within his kingdom after my latest spat with my father King William, but what was this demonstration of regal power lined up before me?

‘There’s an embassy advancing, my lord!’ We watched as a trio bearing Philip’s banners neared the gate.

‘Montgomerie! Joel!’ I commanded, ‘come with me and we shall hear what these good fellows have to say.’

Once down from the battlements we mounted our gentle palfreys, which our squires had made ready, then I ordered the gate to be opened. I wore my chainmail as normal but left off my helmet, and we carried only short swords to indicate that we had no aggressive intent.

We moved onto the short winter grass, now clearing of frost, and waited fifty paces beyond the ditch where I beckoned the leader forwards. He came at a comfortable trot and I recognised him as one of King Philip’s senior courtiers. He had nothing to fear from us and he smiled as he approached.

‘Good morning, Prince Robert,’ he hailed me in a friendly tone.

‘Good morning, Henri,’ I replied in his own language. ‘What brings you here so early?’

He coughed and gave himself time to prepare his words carefully.

‘My liege lord, King Philip, is concerned about your activities on his borders.’

We had been out and about practising war games and tactics over the border in Normandy, seeking shelter in the castles of Hugh de Châteauneuf, when we were pursued like common robbers by local lords. It was nothing serious but I supposed that it had agitated King Philip; perhaps he had complained to my father, King William.

‘So?’ I replied, without undue concern.

‘Er…he would like you to stop, if it please you, my lord.’ He left the request hanging in the air.

‘What is it to him? He does not like King William any more than I do!’

I knew that the French were familiar with the cause of my latest set-to with Father. When in lodgings in Laigle my younger brothers, the red-haired William and the obstreperous Henry, had pissed on me from a balcony. I chased them and was about to give them a thrashing when King William intervened. I might have expected him to punish the little sods himself, but no, he took their side and made me at fault for the commotion – so I took off with my closest friends to have some fun at his expense.

Henri shuffled about a bit and busied himself with bringing his horse under control – although the thing was quite well behaved – before replying, ‘I quite see your point, Prince Robert, but your father has made an approach, king to king, as it were, and King Philip is minded to listen to him.’

‘Tell me more, Henri: what has King Philip been listening to?’

‘Erm, King William wants you to go back to Rouen to present yourself to him, as a dutiful son. . . You see?’

‘No! I do not see. The last time I visited Rouen his castellan shut the gates in my face.’

Although I did see; and if Phillip was losing his attachment to the pestilential guest within his territory, it might not be long before I was invited to leave anyway.

Henri made much of keeping his horse quiet and I sat still to give him a chance to decide his next move. After a while he looked at me, directly into my eyes, and delivered the next part of his mission.

‘In which case, my lord, I am bidden to deliver you an ultimatum. You may leave Gerberoy and all of King Philip’s lands, with your arms, in peace and safety; or remain here and face an honourable challenge for the right to remain in France. What say you?’

The issue did not need much consideration. If Phillip, with King William pulling his harness, was offering me a slinking, wormy retreat as if with honour, then he would wait till hell froze over. But if he was offering the chance of a sanctioned battle, then he was offering me and my warriors our hearts’ desire.

‘How many men does my father intend to face us with, Henri?’

‘King Philip will match your numbers, Prince Robert.’

He might have wanted to emphasise that this was Philip’s choice and not my father’s – but I knew different. William the Conqueror, King of the English and Duke of Normandy, was behind this, tugging at the reins of these negotiations, and I wondered how far away he was on this chilly, misty morn.

I looked at Joel and then at Robert Montgomerie and with a nod to them said to Henri, ‘We shall be eleven. I shall be at the centre, so make sure that someone who is keen on dying is at the centre of your troop.’

Henri, discomforted, averted his eyes, and some of his agitation must have spread to his horse because it began to pull at its harness as it snorted its steamy breath into the chilly air.

‘Is this entirely necessary?’ he asked desperately, now knowing what he had set off.

‘Perhaps not,’ I replied. ‘Tell your lord that I would return to Normandy if I could bear arms and enter Rouen with my father’s goodwill and without hindrance.’

‘I will carry your message, my lord, as you wish.’

‘And if I receive no reply by midday, we eleven shall emerge astride our warhorses.’

I was firm in so saying. The jollity of the day had fled into the misty forests surrounding us and a sombre mood came over me and my two companions. I had thrown dice into the ring of fate and how they had fallen we would not know until the end of this day’s business.

Henri gave me a weak smile and swung about his horse to make his disappointed way back up the slope to brief his master.

We turned and trotted back into the bailey.

‘Make ready the destriers!’ I called as we passed through the gate and the squires scattered off to the horse lines as bidden.