Authors: Angus Donald
‘So Malloch had a stroke of good fortune: he was visited at his workshop by a Sacrist, a canon of Welbeck Abbey. You know the place, of course?’
I did. It was a remote house of Premonstratensians in the depths of Sherwood, not far from Worksop. The canons were reputed to be zealous and extremely wealthy. I nodded warily. Robin’s relationship with wealthy Houses of God might be likened to the relationship between a hungry wolf and a newborn lamb.
‘Abbot Richard, it seemed, had a desire for a set of golden altar paraphernalia, liturgical vessels and the like, for his Church of St James the Great, and he had heard of the growing fame of Malloch the goldsmith of Lincoln. The Sacrist had a marvellous commission to dangle in front of the craftsman: a full set of altar ornaments – chalice and ciborium, monstrance, holy water vat, wine jug, paten and pyx, a pair of candelabra – and a magnificent crucifix as the centrepiece – all in solid gold, carved and inscribed and decorated with rubies, enamels and pearls and other precious items. “Spare no expense,” the Sacrist said to our friend. “Count not the cost, my good man: magnificence is required!” It was to be Malloch’s masterpiece, a work that would be the wonder of Christendom.’
I murmured in appreciation: in my mind’s eye I could see the altar spread with these precious items, the sacred heart of the Abbey church glowing warmly with yellow candlelight reflected from these golden ornaments. It would indeed create a wondrous sight for worshippers – and ensure that Welbeck Abbey received a stream of pilgrims wishing to view such a splendid display. The Abbey would become justly famous; the Abbot’s influence and power would grow.
‘Malloch asked for a small deposit in silver to pay for his materials; he showed his sketches to the Abbot himself and they were approved – even highly praised. And then he began to work. For six long months he toiled on the Welbeck pieces, eschewing all other employment, putting his heart and soul into creating the most wonderful objects the world had yet seen. He constantly improved his designs, making them ever more costly, ever more fabulous, and borrowing money from his fellow Jews to pay for the finest jewels, for the extra gold and silver required. Then, at Easter last year, he presented his work to the Abbey.
‘Abbot Richard and all the canons were duly struck dumb with wonder at the artistry of his finished objects, and they were received with much rejoicing. Then Malloch presented his bill of accounts, detailing the monies he had outlaid on metals and jewels, the wages he had paid his apprentices and journeymen, and asking most humbly if he might be recompensed at the Abbot’s earliest convenience.
‘At first the Abbot was all kindness and reassurances; the money would certainly be forthcoming once the Welbeck estate wool revenues had come in at Michaelmas. But, as the months passed, the Abbot’s tone changed. He spoke of the deposit in silver as if that sum were a full and final settlement; then he spoke of Malloch’s duty to God, of the historical crimes of the Jews, and suggested that the “gift” of the golden altar ornaments might be seen as an act of atonement. Malloch’s increasingly vociferous pleas for payment – for at least a part of the huge sums he had outlaid – were ignored. A year passed and his fellow Jews began to demand that he make good his loans to them, but the goldsmith was unable to honour his debts. Malloch was staring ruin in the face; he went to Welbeck earlier this summer and begged for even a part of the money to meet his bills: he went down on his knees in front of the Abbot. But the Abbot’s men-at-arms dragged him away, and beat him and ejected him from the Abbey. Finally, in despair, and not knowing where else to turn, he came to me.’
My heart had been touched by the story of the Jew but this was not an unusual tale. The Jews were despised by many for their rejection of Our Saviour and for their usurious activities; while many a nobleman or bishop was happy to borrow from them, even agreeing to very high annual repayments, it was not uncommon for the same lord to refuse to repay the sum when it was called in. Indeed, some people whispered that the persecution of the Jews in York ten years ago had been at least partly fired by landowners who wanted to see those they owed money to destroyed and their mortgages consumed in the flames of the riot.
Robin had been watching me as I thought. Indeed, he seemed to have been reading my mind: ‘Do you remember that fellow, Brother Ademar, from the siege of the King’s Tower?’
I shook my head.
‘He was a monk dressed all in white, something of a skilled orator, who used his talent to exhort the crowds to kill the Jews.’
I remembered him then; and I remembered Robin hurling a great stone down on him from the battlements of the tower, which smashed his skull like an egg.
‘Brother Ademar came from Welbeck – he was an official of the Abbey, the cellarer, I believe, for many years,’ said Robin. ‘Indeed, he was Abbot Richard’s younger brother. That is a family that clearly has little love for the Jews of England.’
I sighed, beaten. ‘What does Malloch want us to do?’
Robin smiled at me, his bright eyes reflecting the last gleams of sunlight. ‘I knew I could count on you, Alan,’ he said, and he reached forward across the table and gripped my forearm for a moment. ‘I have promised Malloch that I will go to Welbeck, take the golden pieces from the altar and return them to him.’
‘And we do this for a fat fee – for a suitable recompense, I mean,’ I said, with a smile to take the sting from my words.
‘For a suitable recompense, yes,’ said Robin gravely. ‘Should I put my life at risk, endanger the lives of my men, for nothing?’
I rode back to Westbury the next morning with my heart in turmoil. I had, of course, agreed to go with Robin to Welbeck in three days’ time to steal back the golden altar items for poor Malloch – how could I refuse, after that doleful story? And the goldsmith was a friend of Reuben’s, which meant that Robin wanted to help him, and I did too – I owed Reuben my life several times over. So despite what I had promised myself, I was about to embark on a wild, unlawful escapade – and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. What I had said to Robin was quite true: I did want to live the quiet life with Goody, tend my lands, husband my crops and raise strong sons; but a part of me was vibrating like a vielle string at the thought of action. I had been a thief before I was a warrior, and long before I was a lord of lands, and I had never forgotten the thrill of larceny that I’d loved as a snot-nosed cut-purse in the crowded streets of Nottingham.
But I did not think it would be an easy task – we had to enter an abbey filled with dozens of vigorous young canons and muscular lay workers, plus a dozen of the Abbot’s personal men-at-arms, break into their church, purloin their most holy, treasured possession and escape – all without being recognized. On top of that, I had made Robin swear that we would not kill or hurt any of the Abbey folk – they were not enemy soldiers to be slaughtered; most of them were doubtless good, decent Englishmen trying to live a quiet life of religious devotion – and, with a fine show of reluctance, my lord of Locksley had agreed to my conditions.
Finally, there was Goody. What would she say when I told her I was riding off on a madcap adventure with Robin that could easily end in death, disaster or outlawry? Robin had made the obvious suggestion that I should not tell her where I was going or what I was planning to do, but I had rejected that. I did not wish there to be any falsehoods between myself and my beloved.
In the event, when I told Goody about Malloch and his golden ornaments her response surprised me. ‘Of course, you must do it,’ she said. ‘God made you a knight for a purpose and, as a knight, it is your Christian duty to protect the weak – even a Jew – and see justice done. A poor man has been cheated by a rich and powerful one: you must set things right, if it is in your hands to do so.’
I should not have been surprised. Goody had taken to reading romances recently and had developed a conception of knightly conduct that was very far from the brutal, gore-sodden reality. Her friend, Robin’s wife Marie-Anne, Countess of Locksley, had sent her a copy of a poem by Christian of Troyes called ‘Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart’, and she had read it all the way through at least three times to my knowledge. It tells a tale of the noble knight Lancelot and his adulterous relationship with Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur. This has long proved a popular theme with the ladies – as a
, I had even composed a few
on the subject myself. I had found, though, that my attitude had changed somewhat since I had become a married man, and lord of a moderate estate. And while I did not suspect my lovely Goody of a liaison with a younger man – I found her enthusiasm for these fanciful tales disconcerting.
With Goody’s blessing, then, I set about preparing myself for my mission of justice with Robin. My primary concern was that I should not be recognized as Sir Alan Dale, lord of the manor of Westbury, by the canons of Welbeck – the Abbey was, after all, only a day’s ride from Westbury, and though the canons kept to themselves, for the most part, and resided in a very remote part of Sherwood, they could conceivably be considered my neighbours. I did not care to run into the Abbot at, say, Nottingham Castle in the years to come and have to explain why I had robbed him and his brothers of their golden hoard – I cared even less for the idea that they might complain to King John and petition to have me brought before his courts. I could expect little justice, and even less mercy, if I found myself there. So I cut myself a broad strip of soft cowhide and tied it diagonally around my head in the manner of someone who has lost an eye. And I began to experiment with a weak glue of boiled beef tendons, a few drops of blood squeezed from a pin-prick in my finger and a bowl of milled oats. The day before I was due to depart with Robin, I had completed my disguise and I was admiring myself at the far end of the hall in a large polished-silver mirror that belonged to Goody.
My own mother – God rest her soul – would not have owned me. A desperate villain looked out at me from Goody’s fine mirror: I was dressed in rags; my blond hair was hidden by a tightly fitting woollen workman’s cap; half my face was covered by the broad leather eye-patch and the rest of my face and my hands were covered with a disgusting-looking skin complaint, created by sticking individual oats to my skin in little clumps and colouring them with drops of dried blood. I looked rather like one of the misbegotten lepers I had seen in the Holy Land during the Great Pilgrimage – indeed, for a moment, I was concerned that the canons would not allow me entrance to Welbeck, fearing that I would spread some awful contagion. But I was satisfied that no one would recognize the handsome young knight, Sir Alan of Westbury, in the foul-looking vagabond who stared out at me from the silver. As a final touch, I wadded a piece of clean linen and pushed it inside my left cheek, and that gave the effect of distorting the line of my jaw and cheekbone on that side. It made my speech seem muffled and odd – which pleased me, for I did not want my voice to be recognized either – but I did not expect to be doing much talking at Welbeck. I was just admiring my villainous reflection, grinning in satisfaction, when I heard a polite cough behind me, and whirled around. It was Baldwin, my usually very competent steward, looking a little shame-faced.
He was not alone.
‘Excuse me, Sir Alan, but we have a visitor: Sir Nicholas de Scras has just arrived and he insists on paying his respects to you. I’ve arranged for his horse to be stabled and his belongings to be taken to the guest hall; I hope that is all satisfactory.’
And I looked beyond my retainer at the sturdy familiar figure of the knight. Sir Nicholas was still the same slim, fit-looking man I had known in the Holy Land; his iron-grey hair had perhaps a few more flecks of silver in it; but his browny-green eyes were still sharp. He looked utterly appalled.
‘By the Cross, Alan – is that really you?’ said my old friend.
I could feel myself blushing as I hastily pulled the cap and eye-patch off my head, and scrubbed at the dried oats with my cuff in an effort to dislodge them.
‘Why in the name of all that is holy are you got up like a thrice-poxed beggarman?’
‘It is for an entertainment,’ I mumbled through my sodden cheek cloth. ‘A bit of mummery for the village, er, for the Church, to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in a fortnight.’
‘Is that really suitable attire for a church? Under the eyes of Almighty God? Well, my friend, it is your business, of course, but…’ Then Sir Nicholas stopped, his face seemed to be contorting, bulging and writhing, his skin above the neck was turning the colour of a peeled beetroot. I realized then, with a dismal sinking of the heart, that he was trying not to laugh.
‘To be honest, Sir Alan,’ wheezed this pious knight, gasping, and causing his muddy eyes to protrude in a quite unnerving manner, ‘You look rather … absurd … forgive me … like a pantaloon … ha-ha … like a seller of quack remedies at a fair … ha-ha … who has cut himself shaving and then fallen face-first into a bowl of porridge. Oh. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!’
Then Sir Nicholas, former Knight Hospitaller, warrior of Christ and pitiless scourge of the Saracen hordes, surrendered at last to his mirth. He threw back his head and brayed like a drunken donkey at his own enormous wit.
I straightened my back. ‘Welcome to my hall, Sir Nicholas,’ I said coldly. ‘What a wonderful surprise. Baldwin, stir yourself and bring us wine, will you? And hot water and a towel.’
Sir Nicholas de Scras poured the wine while I scrubbed the dried oats from my face; and in a little while I recovered my usual good humour and began to enjoy the company of my old friend.
‘What brings you here, Nicholas?’ I asked. ‘I had thought you would have your hands full in serving William Marshal, the newly made Earl of Pembroke. Does he no longer require your skill at arms?’
‘Hmm. Yes. Well, in truth, I have left the Earl’s service. I’m an idle fellow these days, Alan, a gentleman of leisure,’ said Sir Nicholas with a tight smile. ‘Plenty of time on my hands. My nephews are away training to be knights in Kent. Our lands at Horsham are run by the steward. There’s not much for me to do.’