The bishop’s palace at Old Sarum,
Salisbury, Christmas 1139
Rogero deffuncto, Rex annisus est Philippum quemdam sufficere cancellarium suum, sed tam legato quam clero Sarisburiensi retinentibus destitit ab incepto.
When [Bishop] Roger died, the king strove to elect as successor a certain Philippe, his chancellor, but he was robbed of it from the start by the resolute stubbornness of both the legate [Henry of Winchester] and the clerics of Salisbury.
—De praesulibus Angliae commentarius
hilippe d’Harcourt, dean of Beaumont and Lincoln, archdeacon of Evreaux, chancellor of England and, in his own mind at least, bishop-elect of Salisbury, was tired of the greasy manners of the Norman nobility at dinner. He leaned back onto the cushion of his personal folding chair and viewed the assorted revelers with annoyance.
His patron, Stephen, King of England, had clearly come to terms with the arrogant canons who had refused to accept Philippe as their new bishop. The king had given them places of honor at the table and they were all dining together in the utmost amicability. Philippe was saddened but not surprised. In return for the unobstructed pillaging of all the secular and some of the ecclesiastical treasure of the see of Salisbury, Stephen had restored property to the canons and donated handsomely to the monastery of Malmesbury. The king had also made a tentative peace with his brother, Bishop Henry of Winchester, who had had his own candidate for the see. But, watching him from across the hall, Philippe noticed that Henry seemed nearly as irritated as he was, either by the behavior of the gathering or by some secret insult. The realization comforted him.
All the combatants of the recent struggle were at this moment gorging themselves hugely at Stephen’s expense. It was a necessary investment. Stephen needed to win all the support he could to keep his throne from the eager seat of his cousin, Matilda, who never let anyone forget she was the last surviving legitimate child of King Henry I, not to mention widow of the Holy Roman Emperor and, lately and reluctantly, countess of Anjou.
King Stephen ordered another cask of wine to be opened. The hall echoed with cheering.
Everyone was content at this joyous season. Even Bishop Henry allowed a page to pour him another cup of wine.
Philippe d’Harcourt was the lone exception. Politics and family connections aside, he
to be bishop of Salisbury. And he knew how he could prove it in such a fashion that no one would dare challenge him.
He looked down at his plate and felt his stomach turn. Despite his certainty that his cause was just, the enormity of the possible consequences of what he planned destroyed his appetite.
Just as well, he thought. One should fast before encroaching upon sacred space even for the purest of motives.
Eventually the dinner descended to the level of such dissolution that the haughty Norman nobles were challenging each other to Saxon drinking games. By the time the shouts of
“Waes Heal! Drinc Heal!”
began to be interspersed with the sounds of retching, Philippe felt the moment was right to withdraw. He signaled his wish to King Stephen, who waved him out. Philippe was known to be a serious cleric who preferred his books to an evening of carousal. No one thought it odd that he would leave early. Few noticed his departure at all.
It was well past midnight. Those who weren’t still drinking were surely asleep or at least otherwise occupied in bed. Philippe met no one as he made his way from the palace to the church. As he entered, he noticed two men kneeling before the high altar. He called to them softly. They blessed themselves, then rose and came to him.
“Did you get the keys?” Philippe asked.
“Yes, my lord.”
The younger man held them out and Philippe took them.
“Do you have the other box?” he asked.
The elder opened the sack he carried to show Philippe the contents.
“Good,” he told them. “You are both worthy servants. I’ll not forget you.”
“Thank you, my lord,” the elder said. “But we seek only to be remembered in your prayers.”
“Of course,” Philippe answered. “But I shall remember you in other ways as well, never fear. It would be better if one of you stayed up here to watch, but I need you both as witnesses. Therefore, we must rely, as always, on divine protection. Are you prepared?”
“Yes, my lord,” the younger man said. “We have spent the entire evening here praying that we might be judged worthy of this task.”
“We have eaten nothing since the host passed our lips at Mass this morning,” the elder said. “Both Father Geronce and I are resolved to accompany you and support you to the end.”
“I thank you both,” Philippe said. “Our Lord must know that we do this not for vainglory or profit, but only to allow His will to be made manifest to those men of clay who care only for worldly power.”
The three men knelt again for one final prayer. Then Philippe turned the key in the iron gate. It swung open with a grating creak. Father Geronce shuddered and the other priest winced, but Philippe entered without hesitation.
His steps slowed as he reached the reliquary. Motioning to the others to stay back, he tried to swallow. His mouth was suddenly dry with terror. What if he were mistaken?
No. It wasn’t Stephen who had intended Salisbury for him. The king was only the instrument. Philippe was sure that it was God’s will that he become bishop.
And God had little patience with the faint of heart.
Philippe knelt before the wooden box. He fumbled with the keys until he found a smaller one that fit the lock. He took a deep breath and crossed himself again, his lips moving in prayers of supplication. Behind him, he could hear the murmured support of the priests.
He opened the box.
The jewels glittered in the lantern light: ruby, topaz, beryl, sapphire, all set into brightly polished silver. Looking over Philippe’s shoulder, Father Geronce reflected that one of the Salisbury canons must have dedicated his life to seeing that no tarnish ever appeared on the reliquary. Of course, he considered, something in daily contact with the divine might well assume aspects of incorruptibility. The young priest swayed slightly. Hunger was making him light-headed.
Philippe took a pair of linen gloves from his sleeve and put them on. He wanted to prove to the saint that he meant no disrespect.
“Blessed Aldhelm,” he addressed the relic. “You who were bishop here before all others, you who brought the heathen Saxon to the Light with your wisdom, show me your mercy. Help me prove that you find me worthy to be your successor. Accompany me to France until such time as we may return here together. I ask you this with a humble heart.”
Even though he was convinced of the righteousness of his plea, Philippe trembled as he reached out and opened the reliquary.
Inside the bejeweled silver casket lay the arm and hand bones of a man. Brown with age and brittle, they lay quietly in their place, the earthly remains of a soul now in heaven.
Philippe licked his lips. Would Aldhelm allow this or would he strike at the one who would desecrate his body? The saint had once caused a band of would-be looters to be thrown paralyzed to the ground where they lay helpless until found by the canons. Everyone knew the holy ones needed no guards.
“Oh, blessed Aldhelm,” Philippe begged. “Believe my heart is pure.”
His gloved hand touched the bones.
The lanterns flickered. Somewhere there was a draft.
Nothing else happened.
Philippe’s knees went wobbly and he leaned against the case in relief.
“Quickly! Bring the box!” he ordered.
Father Geronce brought the box and opened it. Inside was another reliquary, made of wood, carved in the shape of an arm and covered in gold leaf.
“Hurry!” the other priest whispered. “I hear someone coming.”
The bones were quickly snatched from the silver reliquary and placed in the wooden one. Philippe shut the original box and locked it. The men doused the lanterns and felt their way slowly back into the nave.
“I must stay with my master, the king,” Philippe told the priests. “Go under the protection of the good saint who travels with you. Also take with you the box of vessels for the Mass that is in my chamber. I will meet you in Evreaux before Ash Wednesday. Above all, guard the relic closely. You are responsible for it to heaven and to me.”
Both priests bowed and swore they would die rather than allow the relic to be harmed. Philippe smiled as they departed, satisfied that the will of the saint agreed with his own. When the canons of Salisbury learned that he had the support of Saint Aldhelm, their opposition to his election would evaporate.
He slept that night with a clear conscience in the sure and certain belief that, with the support of their first bishop, the canons would soon welcome him as their leader.
Saint Aldhelm had other plans.
The keep at Vielleteneuse, north of Paris, Feast of Saint Julian: martyr;
and Saint Basilisa, his wife: virgin,
Thursday, January 9, 1141
Ele va par ses chanbres, se le duet molt li ciés,
Ses dens estraint ensanle, ses mal et enforciés.
Les dames qui soufroient des enfans les mesciés
Savant bien le malage, …
She goes to her rooms, and she suffers greatly there,
Her teeth clenched together, her pain increases.
Women who suffer the pains of childbirth
They know the agony well, …
—La Naissance du Chevalier au Cygne
In the room just below, Edgar leaped to his feet in an effort to reach her. Two strong pairs of arms restrained him.
“Let go of me!” he shouted. “They’re hurting her!”
His father-in-law, Hubert, pushed him firmly back in his chair. Warily, Guillaume, Catherine’s brother, and Solomon, her cousin, released their hold on him.
“I promise you, Edgar,” Guillaume said. “She doesn’t want to see you now.”
“Of course she does,” Edgar insisted. “She’s calling my name.”
Catherine screamed again. “Edgar!”
The hands descended on his shoulders once more.
“Damn you, Edgar!” Catherine’s voice echoed down the staircase. “Damn you for an English bastard. Damn you and your family and the boat that brought you here!
Edgarde! Maledicite! Edgarde, viescat verpa tua!”
Upstairs Catherine took another breath and screamed with the contraction.
“Verrucosaque fiat verpa tua!”
Then lower, as the pain subsided momentarily.
“In tres partes confracta canibus devoretur verpa tua!!
And the same to every man from Adam on. And damn Eve, too … .”
Edgar sank back, his face even paler than usual. Hubert chuckled.
“Don’t worry, boy,” he said. “If she can still make a noise like that, she’s fine.”
“But did you hear what she said?” Edgar asked.
“I didn’t catch all of it,” Hubert admitted. “Catherine has a marvelous vocabulary. I suppose it’s from all those years in the convent.”
Edgar shook his head in awe. “She never learned those words at the Paraclete. Are you sure she’s all right?”
Guillaume nodded. “When our first child was born, I sat in the next room and listened until I thought I deserved gelding for putting Marie through all that. For the second, I went hunting. It’s better not to know what your wife thinks of you at these times. She won’t remember it afterward, or that’s what she’ll tell you.”
“But it’s been hours,” Edgar said.
“Only since dawn,” Hubert assured him. “Here, have some more wine.”
Involuntarily the four men glanced out the window, where the short winter afternoon was ending. Solomon, who wasn’t married, relaxed. Hubert and Guillaume didn’t. Catherine was nineteen and strong. But it had been all day and, by the midwife’s reckoning, it was a month too soon. Guillaume poured more wine and wished he’d taken Edgar hunting, despite his protests.
Upstairs in the birthing room, Catherine’s imprecations were greeted with cheers.
“That’s right, dear,” the midwife said. “Sons of whores, the lot of ’em. Yell all you like. But don’t blame poor Eve; she was beguiled by a serpent, just like we all were. Samonie, warm a little more oil to rub her stomach with and drip some onto my hands. She needs a bit of help. Then you’d best bring that bowl of holy water Father Anselm left. Put it on the floor here.”
Catherine’s servant did as she was told. Over Catherine’s bowed head she exchanged a worried glance with Guillaume’s wife, Marie. The pains were close enough. More should be happening. As Samonie put the oil on the midwife’s hands, the old woman whispered to her.
“Give the girl a few sips of the hot ale and dittany.” She shook her head in worry. “Then be ready to hold her. I’ve got to turn it.” Samonie bit her tongue to keep from crying. Catherine sat on the birthing stool, dark curls plastered to her face, too exhausted to blink as the sweat rolled into her eyes. Samonie signaled to Marie what must be done. Marie closed her eyes a moment and began reciting a prayer to the Virgin, begging her to summon the child forth safely. But she knew from her own experience of three stillbirths that the Virgin and the saints didn’t always heed such supplications.
Catherine had said nothing for several minutes. She ached all over from trying to rid herself of this baby. The rim of the birthing stool was digging into her buttocks. Her hands and feet were freezing despite frequent rubbings with vinegar and salt. Even her eyes hurt. The room blurred and shimmered every time she opened them.
Someone forced a warm liquid down her throat. She gagged on it, then swallowed. Arms went around her shoulders and Marie’s cheek pressed against hers.
“Mother of God, care for your daughter,” she chanted. Catherine weakly nodded agreement.
“Ready?” the midwife said.
“We have her,” Samonie answered.
The midwife put her hand in to push up the tiny foot that had just appeared.
Catherine screamed again. Then there was silence.
In the room below the men looked up, hardly daring to breathe, hoping for the feeble wail of new life. They only heard the rustle of feet in the rushes on the floor above. Edgar buried his face in his hands.
“I should have left her in the convent,” he muttered. “She was happy there, safe. Now I’ve killed her.”
“Don’t say that!” Hubert snapped.
Edgar looked up, startled.
“We don’t know what’s happened,” Hubert continued. “She may only be resting between the pains. My daughter is not going to die!”
He turned his back to the others, groping for the wine pitcher. Like Guillaume, he had generally managed to be somewhere else during his wife’s confinements. At the moment, he hated Edgar passionately for causing Catherine to be in such danger. Even more, Hubert feared that this was simply a continuation of God’s punishment on him. But was the divine retribution for letting himself be baptized rather than slaughtered with his mother and sisters? Or was it for returning to the Jewish faith of his ancestors? If he knew which, he could repent, but no sign had been sent to tell him, so he simply muddled on. And upstairs, Catherine’s suffering continued.
The door opened. The men all stood. Solomon put a hand on Edgar’s arm.
Marie stood in the doorway. The look in her eyes made Edgar’s heart jolt.
“We tried,” she said. “The child was turned wrong. We got it out, but it was too late. It had strangled on the cord.”
Edgar tried to speak but couldn’t get his mouth to move.
“And Catherine?” Guillaume said it for him.
“She’s alive,” Marie said. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “The bleeding isn’t too bad. If we can stop it, if she doesn’t get the fever, if she doesn’t die of grief, she’ll survive to go through this again. I did.”
She leaned against the door, worn with the hours of fruitless work, and glared at all of them for being male. Guillaume ignored the look and went to her. She buried her face in his shoulder, crying.
Edgar fell back into his chair, too numb to cry. Catherine was alive; that was all that mattered.
“Can I see her?” he asked.
“We’ve given her a sleeping potion,” Marie told him. “They’re cleaning her now and putting her to bed. You may look in on her when they’ve finished, if you don’t wake her.”
“And the baby?” Hubert added.
“We can bury her with the ones I lost, in the corner of the garden, by the chapel wall,” Marie answered.
They all knew the child couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground since it hadn’t lived to be baptized.
Edgar lifted his head. “It was a girl?”
“It would have been,” Marie said. She wiped her eyes and nose on her husband’s sleeve, turned and went back up the stairs.
“Edgar …” Solomon began. He searched for some words of comfort, thought of none and then realized that Edgar wouldn’t have heard them anyway. Instead he sat on the floor next to his friend, hoping that his presence would be comfort enough.
Hubert sighed and left the room, followed by Guillaume. Catherine was alive; that was all that mattered. She was the one child who loved him despite knowing his darkest secret. The one who had his mother’s face. Losing her would have been more than he could bear.
But there was nothing more he could do. It was time to return to his own business.
At the final turn in the stairway before the Great Hall, Guillaume caught Hubert’s arm.
“Father,” he said, “how could you have let that man stay with us at such a time?”
“But Edgar is her husband,” Hubert answered, bewildered.
Guillaume glared at him. “Not Edgar, that associate of yours,” he said. “That Jew. Did it ever occur to you that he might have done something to make Catherine’s pregnancy go wrong?”
“Guillaume!” Hubert was frightened by the vehemence of his son’s accusation. He wished he had the courage to tell him that Solomon wasn’t some chance trading partner but his own nephew, the son of his lost brother, Jacob, and blood cousin to Catherine and Guillaume himself. Catherine knew and accepted the fact. But his other daughter, Agnes, had found out by accident the summer before and hadn’t spoken to him since. This was not the time to enlighten Guillaume about family connections.
“You’re speaking nonsense,” Hubert said at last. “Solomon is devoted to Catherine. He has been since they were children and played together at the fairs. I could always trust him to look out for her while I was doing business. And he and Edgar are good friends. Solomon would never hurt them.”
“But it is known that those people are adept at potions and evil magic,” Guillaume responded.
“I don’t know it,” Hubert answered him sharply. “And neither do you. If that were so, there’d be no children born dead among the Jews. You’ve only to see their cemetery at Saint-Denis to know that’s not true.”
Guillaume shook himself as if to rid his head of a nightmare. Reluctantly, he nodded. “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But it seems strange that Solomon showed up the evening before Catherine’s pains started.”
“He brought a message for me, from the silversmith Baruch at Saint-Denis,” Hubert explained. “The abbey has more work for us.”
He knew that was a good way to end any conversation with Guillaume. His son was not proud that Hubert’s wealth came from trade. Never mind that it had bought Guillaume military training, a wife from the lower nobility and a position as castellan for Abbot Suger. It was embarrassing. Hubert sighed. That was the penalty for raising one’s son to better things.
They entered the Great Hall. A little boy broke away from his nurse and ran to them. He was about three years old. He had the golden curls of his mother but dark eyes that made him irresistible to the ladies already, as well as a curve to his nostrils and a tint to his skin that might have betrayed his Jewish ancestry, if anyone had thought to look for it.
“Papa!” he shouted as he threw himself into Guillaume’s arms. “Do I have a new cousin?”
Guillaume held him close, remembering once again the joyous relief he had felt when they had told him that this child would live.
“No, Gerard,” Hubert answered for him. “The baby didn’t survive, but Aunt Catherine will be all right.”
Clumsily, the boy blessed himself. Guillaume nodded approval. The nurse was doing her job.
“Is it in heaven, then?” Gerard asked.
Guillaume opened his mouth to lie. But he couldn’t. “Only Our Lord knows that,” he equivocated.
The child seemed satisfied. At this point in his life, God was just a force, like the king or abbot or his father, to be feared or ignored as need dictated.
Hubert smiled on him. He doted on his grandson as well as Guillaume and Marie’s second child, a daughter, born the previous summer. It would have been nice for them to have a cousin.
“I have to go meet with the silversmith,” Hubert repeated. “I’ll be back at first light to see Catherine. Ask Solomon to stay with Edgar for the night. He’ll need a friend.”
It was past dark when Hubert arrived at the house of Baruch, which was in the town of Saint-Denis, which surrounded the great abbey. He was admitted at once.
Baruch greeted him. “You look terrible. Is anything wrong?”
Hubert told him.
“Thank the Almighty One your daughter survived,” Baruch consoled.
“I do,” Hubert said. “Now, what is this Solomon was telling me about a parcel of pearls and gold chain?”
“Prior Hervé summoned me to the abbey today,” Baruch explained. “It seems that Natan ben Judah has been to see him, offering this parcel at a suspiciously low price.”