EXCERPT

The King's Retribution

 

Sparing no expense, the king brought Robert de Vere's

embalmed body back from Belgium. Exactly three years after his beloved friend had been killed in a boar hunt, Richard put him to rest in his family crypt at Colne Priory, in Essex. He staged an elaborate funeral, though many of the great lords were conspicuously absent. The Lords Appellant—with the exception of Mowbray—harbored rancor toward Robert de Vere that extended far beyond his death. Richard's uncles chose to ignore the king's eccentric loyalty toward a declared traitor. Even Thomas Arundel, his own chancellor, had sent his apologies. There was no mistaking the disrespect: the king noted the absence of every one of them.

On a late November evening, services began just at the cusp of twilight. Church bells tolled and swirling black clouds threatened rain. Two by two the funeral procession wended its way through the narrow streets of Earl's Colne, spaced perfectly in a seemingly endless column. Each man wore a black robe with a black hood drawn forward to cover his face. Every one of them carried a torch with a tiny shield bearing de Vere's arms below each flame. The torches cast a soft glow as the mourners walked past silent citizens lining the street. Finally the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops brought up the end of the cavalcade, swinging incense burners that filled the air with sweet-smelling smoke. Their appearance signaled the presence of the king, also robed in black, though instead of a hood he wore a gold crown. He was followed by five knights: his nephew Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, his cousin Edward Earl of Rutland, his half-brother John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, Thomas de Mowbray Earl of Nottingham, and John de Montacute Earl of Salisbury. These five supporters of the king were worthy of note; they were destined to be among his closest advisors and friends, carefully marshaled to help support his throne. Never again would Richard be accused of elevating unworthy favorites; only earls and dukes would grace his inner chamber.

The silent participants filed into the church where the cypress coffin lay on its bier next to an open grave in the floor near the altar. A row of candles on tall iron stands threw a circle of light onto the deceased. An unseen choir, placed behind a curtain, filled the space with soft tones.

As the king entered the church the tolling ceased. He took his place in a stall topped by a crown and listened while Archbishop Courtney began the services, echoed by his bishops. The Matins for the Dead were followed by Nocturnes and Lauds. Then there was the Prayer for Absolution and the Celebration of the Mass. The candles had burnt to a nub and the air of the church was cold before Richard was finally able to approach the funeral bier.

With an expression of tenderness, Richard looked down on his dear friend. The king had paid for the best embalmer in Brittany, and Robert seemed to be sleeping before him, his face betraying no evidence of his violent death. The king gazed at Robert for a long time, toying with a sapphire ring on his own hand. Blinking rapidly, Richard drew off the ring and lifted Robert's wrist, pushing the band gently onto his friend's finger. He bent over the coffin and whispered something for Robert's ears alone.

"Mine eyes have longed to see your face," he said. "I will never forget you, nor will I rest until we are avenged on those who drove you from my side. Fear not, dear Robert. My resolve is firm and I would have you rest in peace."

Although everyone nearby strained to hear what Richard said, no one—even his closest friends—could decipher the words. But it didn't take a great leap of faith to guess the meaning of his gestures. Richard's enemies would later dismiss the legend that had grown from Robert de Vere's funeral services, but those who witnessed it were never able to shake a sense of foreboding.

All the king lacked was a pair of wings to complete the picture of an avenging angel.



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