The Tale of King Henry and the Villagers

[In the King's Kitchen the monk was sitting at a worktable, watching the busy kitchen-folk, and sipping a refreshing cup of tea. But the quiet bustle of the room was suddenly marred by the voice of the chief cook angrily addressing a somewhat insolent page: "I don't care WHO your father is, I'm the 'Lord' of this kitchen!" "Don't you mean 'Lady' smirked the lad. "That's enough from you!" shrieked the now-enraged cook; and with a bread paddle in hand she let the poor boy know quite clearly that a 'mere' cook could punish a Royal Page for 'sass.' Afterward, the teary-eyed youth gingerly took his seat next to the monk, and started his peeling and preparing a mountain of vegetables for the court's evening meal.

"You must remember," said the monk, "She has had the King's sons serving here, and they, too, felt the weight of that same bread paddle. To get around that one," as he nodded at the cook, "you must use your wits, not your rank.

It reminds me of the tale of Good King Henry; when Henry felt a burning need to see how his subjects lived . . .]

It was a glad time in the Kingdom; the invaders in the west had been soundly defeated, the new King was crowned, and peace was once more the order of the day. But in the royal castle where King Henry was having dinner with his chief councilor, who also happened to be his mother, the King was upset. . .

"How can I rule them if I don't know them?" cried the King; "And how can I know them if I don't meet them?"

"Knowing them is certainly a good idea," commented the Queen Mother; "But you may want to rethink the way you approach it."

"My father would face it openly and honestly. How can I, his son, do any less?"

"You're probably right, my son," his mother smiled, "Go forth and do your best!"

And so it was announced that the King shall ride forth and tour his kingdom in a weeks time. All the court was excited, for the Kingdom is a wondrous place, and many who served in the royal castle had never been on such a journey. The King looked forward to meeting each townsman and villager, and seeing how they lived, what they needed, and how their lot could be improved.

In a fortnight the King was ready to go; the trip, it seemed, took a bit more preparation then he had first thought. But it was a fine sunny day; the whole court was arrayed in their finest garb, all the wagons were full of food, tents, and everything needed for a two week journey to the south. There was King in his armor, the Knights were arrayed for travel, and everyone in the party was smiling and laughing. They rode peacefully in a friendly fashion, and after a brief stop for lunch, they arrived at the first village by nightfall.

["I said it was a brief stop for lunch," commented the monk, "But it actually took almost four hours for the company to stop, get all the cooks setup with their pots and utensils, feed everyone, and get everything cleaned and packed up again. 'At this rate,' sighed the King, 'We'll all be old and gray before we're half done!'"]

At the first shop door of the village the King looked for signs of life, but everything was locked up tight. So was the doors at the second shop, the third, and so forth. "Where are all the people?" asked the King; "Did they not know we were coming?"

The King was soon answered, when the castle party reached the village square. To the King's astonished eyes, everyone from miles around was standing in a big crowded circle, with the mayor and elders of the village out in front. All wore their Sunday best, and everyone, from babes in arms, to gaffers too old to be vertical without support, was happily cheering the King!

The Good Mayor approached the King. "Your Majesty," he said in a deep voice, "We welcome you to our humble village, and invite you to a night of feasting and merriment in your honor!"

At this, the people all cheered again, and to the amazed nobility, they all parted to reveal rows of tables, with a large, throne-like chair at one end.

Flummoxed, the young King took his seat, and although the type of fare served was perhaps a bit simpler than the food in the castle, there was certainly a lot of it, and every dish was prepared with joy and care. Each villager glowed with pride when the King sampled their own family's special recipe.

"My Mother learned to fix this from one of the women who cooked for your Grandfather!"

"I bake this but once a year, it is too rich for everyday eating."

"Try this pie, Your Majesty, You'll never find the like, I'm thinkin'"

The poor King did his best, and his court dug in with a will, but never had they seen such abundance. Hours later, the unexpected feast came to an end, and the entertainment began. Many of the villagers sang and danced for their soverign and his party, and the visitors were glad that there was time to let all the food settle. As darkness approached, the King mentioned to the Mayor that bedtime was fast approaching. With the villager's help, the Royal encampment was set up for the well-fed party, and although the King had a difficult time convincing the mayor that the King should sleep with the court and not take the mayor's own bed, eventually they all settled down for a rest before the next day's travels.

Upon awaking the King and all were feasted with a fine breakfast, and when everything was finally packed and prepared for travel, it was nearly Sext when the King mounted his horse.

"Is his Majesty sure that we can not provide him a luncheon?" begged the mayor.

With quick and heartfelt assurances that they must be on their way, the King and his court road quickly away. They were so stuffed, the poor horses must have felt as if they each bore two people, not just one. The King was sorry that in all the hustle and bustle he did not get a chance to spend time with the villagers themselves, but knew the people had given from their hearts, and could scarcely refuse such a gift. "But," thought the King, "at least I'll get more time to meet my people in the next village."

When it was time for a mid-day meal, no one felt like stopping, and so they made up a little of their lost time. It was sunset when they were finally entering the next village on their tour.

But no one seemed to be home.

"Oh, No!" cried the King, in fear for his stomach's sake.

But it was true, the entire village and surrounding countrymen were gathered to greet and feast their King. And with only minor changes, for the rest of the two weeks the King ate much more than he should, and got to speak only in passing to his beloved subjects. Indeed, usually it was to turn down an additional portion of some famous family delicacy that they had prepared "Just for Him!" For some in the court things were not as bad, as they could feign sickness, or a holy fast, or [and this was not feigned] fullness, but the poor King was the target of every Goodwife's special dish.

It was a well-over-fed weary party that finally found the King's castle gates. To the Lord Chamberlain's query of "When would your Majesty desire dinner?" The King responded with a curt "Never!" And it was a much chastened King that faced his mother, and told her of his long, fulfilling, and unfruitful trip.

"I was glad to see them," stated the King," but when I found out that they were dipping into their food stores to feast us, I could only see those happy villagers starving next winter on account of me!"

"None of your people will starve," replied his mother; "I sent foodstuffs to each village you visited from the King's stores. And you need not worry about the week of work lost as each village cleaned and prettied up their homes; it is good to have an excuse to beautify your home."

"They lost a week of work?" muttered a suddenly wearier monarch, "I caused them to lose valuable time with my silly visits?"

"Don't worry, my son" repeated his mother, "They will have happy memories of your visit, and will tell their children and grandchildren that 'I served my Oatcakes to the King himself, with my own hands, and he swore they were the finest he had ever had!' You have made your people happy, my son, and that is an important part of seeing to their wellbeing."

"But I did not get to know them!" continued the King, "They were too busy feeding me and my court, to just live their ordinary lives."

"Well, if you want to see people in their ordinary lives," said the Queen Mother, "Let them see an ordinary man, not a King."

Well, the King was not a stupid man; he saw at once what his mother meant. But what to do about his very familiar face? If a strange Knight suddenly appeared in a village, talking to people, and asking questions, people will talk, and then someone will remember how the King looked like the new stranger, and then . . . Too much food!

"You might want to look in your father's cloak wardrobe, the one in the corner. You might just find a solution to your problem." And when the King had searched the closet, he hurried back to his mother's solarium, and spoke; "You knew this was here all along! Father wore this Friar's robe to visit his people!"

"You remember your father took 'retreats' every few months, to 'rest and reflect on his kingdom.' He also used the time to see his beloved people, and hear their needs and wants. I knew it, of course, as did the Chamberlain, and if there was a problem, we knew how to get in touch with him." And so saying, the Queen Mother looked at the open window, where songbirds were making a happy melody.

And so in a month's time, the King went on 'Retreat,' and started to learn how his people lived.

["Now in your case," spoke the monk, "I would suggest you gather some of those posies that grow behind the King's stables, and offer a suitable apology to the good dame."

And so it was on the very next day, that the monk was found, sipping more tea, and sharing a plate of cookies prepared by the suddenly beneficent cook with a much happier Page.

"What did the King find out in the village?" asked the boy, while munching on his treat. "Was he pleased with their work?"

"Well," said the monk, "there were many things the King learned on his 'retreats' . . .]

"Welcome, good friar, and come have some soup" was the call out the door of the first villager's hut. "Tell us of your travels, and share the Gospels with my children."

The King smiled, for it was this way at most of the places he had seen. People were anxious for news of the Kingdom, and to teach their children the holy book. When asked to hear confessions, the King demurred, and sited a holy vow that would not be up until 12th night. He entered the humble cottage, and asking God's blessing on all who lived there, and shared tales of this and that with the goodwife. The soup, although filling, was plain and simple, and that suited the friar-king just fine. It had taken him almost a month of heavy exercise to lose the weight gained in his 2 week banquet tour, and even now he carried a bit more weight then he was comfortable with. But 2 weeks of walking had restored his legs, and a few more simple meals would pare his tummy back to a rock-hardness.

After helping the goodwife clear the table, wash his bowl, and fill his mug with nice home-brewed ale, he sat down with the household children, and told them stories from the good book. The children all enjoyed the story of Jonah and the whale, and the baby Moses and the Pharaoh's daughter. After a few hours of telling tales, he excused himself from the cottage, and thanked the goodwife for all her kindness. Thrusting a small loaf of bread into his hands, she blessed him for his teachings, and asked him to stop by when again in the village.

The next cottage he came to was set apart from the others, and had a large herb garden behind it, with some herbs growing in the sunlight, and others under the protection of an old Oak. He approached the cottage gate, and was about to call out to the house when he heard a voice come from behind the cottage, "I'm back here!"

Making his way to the person who had called out, he realized the voice belonged to a lady, not just a woman. The timbre of the sounds spoke of time spent in court, and he wondered why such a person would live in a simple hut.

The maiden looked up from her weeding and said, "How can I help your Majesty today?"

The king was amazed; he had been on the 'retreat' for almost 2 weeks now, and nobody had seen through his disguise. How did this woman know him, with his tattered monk's robe, and scraggly beard?

"Can I offer your Majesty a cup of tea?" added the woman; "It's getting a bit too hot to be out here in the sun."

As they entered the cottage, the King saw that the woman was well-organized. The room was filled with many, many shelves, and every shelf was crammed with boxes and bottles of herbs, liquids, and potions, all labeled with what it was, when it was prepared, and what it was for.

"Do you sell them?" asked the King.

"No, not really;" replied the woman, "My task in life is to help keep these people healthy, bring their babies into the world, and aid them when an animal is ill. These herbs and such are my tools."

"How did you know it was me?" the King inquired.

"Well, most monks, when wearing a dusty, worn habit, have rough patches and minor holes that need repair. Your habit, although it looks worn, is sturdily sewn, and is well-hemmed. Your sandals are new, and your toe-nails are neatly trimmed, although in need of a wash. Additionally," continued the smiling woman, "your hands, although dirty, are well cared for, and show that you have worn a big ring on your right hand, just where the King wears the ring of state."

"But most of all," Spoke the amused Herb Woman; "you are the image of your late father, of whom my father served in his court many years ago. When I was a maid of 15 I remember you becoming a Page, and a woman does not forget so quickly the friends of her youth."

The King stared hard at the Lady, and suddenly exclaimed; "You're Lady Eleanor!"

"No lady, my liege, I was just a maiden of your mother, and when my parents died, I went to live with my Grandma, who was the village healer before me."

The King was overjoyed to find his old friend who he remembered so fondly. Whenever being a Page became too irksome, and it seemed that he would never get his tasks done properly, Eleanor was always there to help heal a wounded Page's pride, and offer a comforting shoulder. He sat with the Herb woman for hours, way into the night, and they talked of old times, what had happened since they had last met, and what were the needs and wants of the King's people.

"You could tell me of things they are too shy to ask me themselves!" cried the happy monarch. "Not spying" he hastily added, seeing the strange look on her face; "I need information, not gossip."

The Maiden would not hear of the King going out to sleep in the field, and so that night, the King slept by the hearth, with a hand-sewn quilt to wrap around him. The next day the King chopped some wood for his friend's fire, and after breaking their fast with a simple but filling meal of oatcakes and honey; the King set out on his way back to the castle, happy to have met an old friend, happy that his people prospered, and happy that God had blessed his realm.

["And I think that's enough story for today," said the monk; "now be off to your assigned duties. But before you leave the kitchen, go and thank the Chief cook; she'll remember that, and may remember a polite young Page when cookie-eating-time comes again!"

"Is the Herb Woman the Blessed Queen Eleanor?" asked the Page as he cleaned off the counter; "does she and King Henry get married?"

"That's a tale for another day!" said the grumpy monk, for he suddenly realized that as he was talking and telling his tale, the sly Page had eaten the lion's share of the cookies!]

Roger of Belden Abbey
Copyright © 2004, Daniel A. Thompson, Jr.

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