The Tale of King Henry and the Maidens

["Good Father, may I have a word with you?" the Castle housekeeper asked the portly old monk.

"Of course, my friend, what can I do for you?" replied Roger. The monk had known the housekeeper for many years, and had spent many an evening telling tales to her young charges, the cleaning maids of the keep.

"It's my younger girls; with spring upon us, they are spending more and more time trying to attract the eye of a handsome squire, and less and less time on their duties. I know it is this way every year, but for some reason this season the boys are especially distracting. I know I can send my young ones to the chief cook for a switching, but they are really not bad, just not focused on their work; and besides, I hate to do anything that drastic, for the resulting sullen attitudes are worse than just being moon-eyed!"

The monk thought for a moment, and slowly a smile came to his face. "I think I know a way of motivating them to please you," he said cheerfully; "what do you think of this?" and the two of them put their heads together, and developed a plan of attack.

That night the girls were delighted to see the old monk in their day room, for they knew it meant a story. They were overjoyed to hear him say, "You may have one story, and one story only; agreed?" The girls all nodded happily, and all of them gathered around the monk to hear him better.]

Now in the days of King Henry's youth there came a time when the Royal Chamberlain and the King's Chief Advisor were approached by a delegation from the Counts and Barons of the kingdom. They were quite concerned; they said in worried tones that there was no Royal Heir. Oh, the King's cousin had a daughter who was theoretically the next in line to the throne, but the assembled Lords were desirous of seeing the King produce an heir of the body.

"It is time that the King thinks of his duty to the kingdom; he must find a wife!" said the noble's spokesman. "There are many fine families in the Kingdom, and many have daughters of the proper age and station."

"The King is still settling into his duties of ruling the country, and is well aware of the need to produce an heir," responded the Dowager Queen. "But I shall bring your concerns to him, and ask him to put proper attention to this quite reasonable request of yours."

And so that night, the King and his mother sat at their meat with the Lord Chamberlain in attendance. Also present was Eleanor, a friend and confidant of the King from his early days as a Page. After they were done eating, the Queen gently brought up the idea of marriage. "My son, I think it would be wise that you take a small amount of time away from your efforts to learn all that a king must know to rule his kingdom properly, and think about the other aspect of your duty to the Land; you must think about the future."

"I have thought about the future, Mother, and I think that if we encourage the Lords of the western lands to build more keeps along the coast, we will be better prepared if and when the raiders come again."

"I do not think your mother was thinking of the raiders," spoke Eleanor, "but of your duty to engender an heir. You need to be thinking about finding a bride."

The King sat back in his chair, and a strange expression crossed his noble face. "I must, I know. If things had been different, I would have had my mother and father pick a proper young woman of noble estate, to help bind the Kingdom to an ally or even to some kingdom not so friendly, in order to strengthen the safety of our Land. But here we are at peace, and my father is not here to do the negotiations; so I fear I must seek my own bride."

The Lord Chamberlain smiled at his solemn liege; "You are quite lucky in this, your Majesty; many royals do not get to meet their prospective spouse until the wedding day." He paused a moment, and then spoke on, "Have you seen a Lady that takes your eye?"

"When have I had a chance to search out Ladies?" replied the King. "I have spent my life learning to be a Knight, and then studying to be the king. The only women I know are my dear mother's ladies in waiting and the servants here in the castle, and of course, none of them is remotely suitable. I just don't know that many women," he mused, sipping his goblet of wine. The Queen and Eleanor shared a startled glance as the King went on; "I fear I must meet them before I can pick one to wed."

"Wait!" he exclaimed, "That's it! I need to meet the young Ladies of suitable birth and age! We will have a grand ball, and I shall invite the daughters of the Nobility to an evening where all may be presented for consideration."

The King jumped out of his seat, and began to pace. "We will send word throughout the Kingdom, and send messengers to our neighbors who have daughters of suitable age. I will invite young men to the dance, of course, for there is no way I would want to be the only rooster among the hens! We will call it my Birthday Celebration and its real purpose shall be known only to us. This shall be Fabulous!"

The Queen smiled, and shook her head; she knew her son could not hear her now, and knew better than to deter his thought processes with cold and clear reason. Eleanor, on the other hand, pursed her lips and silently lowered her eyes. The Chamberlain looked at his excited king in bewilderment. However, the King only had eyes for his idea.

So then it was announced that a grand Ball, in the style of those of antiquity, would be held on the King's birthday, four weeks hence. They would start with a great feast and end with dancing until dawn. The Royal Chamberlain procured a list of suitable young women, and he, the King, the Dowager Queen and Eleanor all went through the list, and discussed each woman's relative merits.

"Silvia, the daughter of Count Edward?" asked the Chamberlain, reading from the list in front of him.

"Isn't she betrothed?" inquired the Queen.

"No, that was her older sister, Rebecca," responded Eleanor, "Silvia is still unwed."

"She's of suitable age, and they say she is quite pretty," said the Queen. "Add her to the invitation list."

"That makes twenty-four young Ladies, all under 25 years of age, and all of noble rank or station," said the Chamberlain; "Any more and we will not have enough places at the royal banquet table. Is that sufficient, my Liege?"

"Wonderful" replied the King, "If I don't find a Lady that is suitable, then we can have an Autumn Ball, a Christmas Feast, and so on." Then the King looked at his Mother and inquired; "do you think 25 is too old a cut-off? Should I not look for a bride younger than myself?"

The Chamberlain coughed nervously and Eleanor, an ancient dame of twenty-eight summers, sat mute.

"You will be twenty, my son, I think that a bride of twenty-four would not stretch the bounds of propriety beyond repair," sighed his mother; "After all, I was ten years older than your father."

"Oh, I did not want to imply that you and father were ill-matched," spoke the King; "I hear that women often outlive their husbands, anyway."

"You are correct, Sire," smiled Eleanor, "in the villages there always seem to be more old women than old men. Why, I just took one on as an apprentice to learn herb craft."

The Chamberlain then recommended a number of suitable young men, some from noble families, others officers in the King's Royal Guard. "I will make sure, your Majesty, to invite none who would out-shine you!"

"Oh, no!" replied the King; "Make them all handsome; if a maiden chooses looks over substance, we need to know it now. Invite twenty-five gentlemen;" he went on further; "for I will need you, Eleanor, to sit with us and get an opinion on the relative qualities of the Ladies; I cannot be watching all twenty-four at once!"

Before Eleanor could give a politely phrased refusal, the Queen looked at her and pleaded, "Please, Eleanor, as a favor to me, I would have you there."

Poor Eleanor could not refuse her old mistress. "I will of course make myself available to your Majesty," spoke the young woman, looking at the Queen, not the King. However, the King did not notice.

"Splendid!" cried the King, "This is coming together famously! I'll leave you three to work out the rest of the details; I have to prepare for this afternoon's Court."

And so the day of the King's birthday approached. The Great Hall was made ready, and the young people who were invited were busy preparing to out-shine each other with gowns of silk and lace, and suits of the latest cut. The Officers among the men were lucky, for they knew that young Ladies could not resist a King's Guard in his dress uniform.

The Queen helped Eleanor to prepare, for the young woman was poor and had no father's fortune to raid. "You will look fine in this old gown of mine," said the Queen; "It is simple and elegant, and the color becomes you. You will sparkle in the torchlight"

"I don't want to sparkle," said the maiden, "it is not my night to look special."

The older woman smiled, but said nothing aloud. You cannot help but sparkle, she thought; I only wish you knew that. At Eleanor's adamant request, the Queen's Ladies-in-waiting took the selected gown, removed the fine lace trim from the collar and sleeves, and turned it from a dress suitable for a Queen to something a young lady of modest family might wear. The Queen was not worried, for she knew that Eleanor was a jewel of the first water, and no simple gown could conceal that to someone of clear sight. "If only my son had clear sight!" she said quietly to herself.

The birthday dinner was a huge success; all were on their best behavior, and no one dropped a fork, or spilled soup on their nice new clothes. "I will not be shamed by any of them," thought the King, "if their table manners are an indication of their poise and deportment."

Eleanor dutifully watched the young women, but did not focus on their ability to use the proper spoon. Instead, she watched as they talked to their table partners, and noted those who were outspoken, and those afraid to look up from their plates.

At the end of the meal, the Royals were seated on the dais in the Great Hall, and smiled as the young couples were introduced to them, two by two. The King noted how each Lady curtsied to him and the Queen, how they smiled, and how they tried to look both demure and ravishingly beautiful at the same time. The Queen looked at how they talked to their escort after they left the Royal presence, and how they either maintained their composure or seemed to fall apart from nervousness.

The final couple was presented to the King and Queen Mother; it was Eleanor escorted by the Captain of the King's guard. The King scarcely noticed her, but the Queen gave her a warm smile, and noted that Eleanor took her role as escort to the Captain seriously. She smiled at him, enjoying light conversation and banter; making him feel that he was the focus of all her attention.

It was time for the King to lead the first dance; he offered his arm to his Royal Mother, and they walked to the dance floor. The King was not an especially accomplished dancer, but part of his training as a Page and Squire had been in the art of dance and the love of music; he could even play a few notes on a Lute, and his singing voice, although not especially strong, was a pleasant baritone.

As they danced, the King asked his Mother if she had any thoughts on the Ladies that had just been presented to them. "It is too early to discuss that, my son," she replied; "You must now mingle with them, and dance with as many as you can."

And so as the night wore on the King asked each Lady who caught his eye to have a turn dancing with her Monarch. After her dance with her son, the Queen retook her seat, and watched the dancing quietly. She noted how each Lady treated her partner, and focused more on the smiles and laughter of each couple than how well each pair of feet trod the floor. She noted how some smiles seemed genuine, while others looked painted on. She noted how some kept up a polite conversation while others had an intense look of concentration on their solemn faces. But more of all she looked for Ladies who were having fun, and it seemed that there were not many who were enjoying themselves. It was almost as if each Lady knew that the King was looking for his bride, and the strain of trying to be perfect was quite a weight on each pair of delicate shoulders.

It was quite a long night, and there was more than just continuous dancing. There were pauses while the musicians took a well-deserved rest, where jugglers, acrobats, and minstrels took the floor. All enjoyed the respite from dancing, and some took the chance to replenish their strength by sampling the various dainties that were spread out on tables a joining the dance floor.

At last the final dance was announced, and the King took the hand of Eleanor, so as to hear her thoughts on the Ladies she had seen. But she begged the King to wait until the morrow for any analysis, so that she might discuss things after a good rest. Therefore, they began to just dance, and for the first time that evening, the King could pay attention to his dancing, and not be reviewing his dance partner for grace and poise. After the final note was played, the King thanked Eleanor for all her efforts, and stood near the door of the Great Hall to say goodbye to each guest as they left. As servants began the huge task of cleaning up, the conspirators agreed to meet in the King's private dining room for dinner and discussion. All then sought their beds, and the King's birthday was finally over.

The next day dawned bright and early, but few of the nobles who were at the ball saw it, for almost all were sleeping in until at least Sext, and some were only greeting the day by None. Therefore, it was a quiet foursome that met in the King's diningroom that evening. Looking somewhat unhappy, the King spoke first: "I fear that none of the Ladies at my party will do! Some were too vain and spent the dance talking about themselves excessively, while others would not look me in the eye; and still others knew nothing of the Kingdom but where to shop for dresses!"

Up spoke Eleanor to the King, "I thought there were a number of Ladies there who would make you a fine, loving wife."

However, the Queen Mother agreed with her son; "I understand what Henry is saying, my dear. I myself saw only one who was fit to wear the crown, but as the King did not notice her fine character and abilities, I will not say her name."

Eleanor then looked at her King with concern and asked, "Do you know what exactly you are looking for in a wife? Why not make a list of those attributes you think the perfect wife should have?"

"That's a good ides," said the Queen; "This will make it easier for us to help you in your search."

"Well," replied the King; "She must be young, of noble family, and it would be nice if she were beautiful, or at least pretty. She needs be modest, kind, and fair to all. Her knowledge of the Kingdom should be more then where to shop, who is marrying whom, and what dress to wear at the Christmas Feast. State affairs need not have been part of her schooling, but she should have the ability to learn them. She will be the model of grace for the whole country, and thus needs be filled with poise. Finally, she needs be healthy, as she will bear the future ruler of the Kingdom."

"That is quite a list!" spoke his mother, "There are not many Ladies like that in the Known World, let alone one small kingdom. Let us review your points, and see if some might be adjusted. First of all, must she be of noble blood, or may she be just of a good, honest, decent family?"

"Well, I think that it required that the King marry a Noblewoman, isn't it?" asked her son.

"No, that is not so, for although I came to your father from a family with a noble name, your grandmother's father was a butcher, and your Great-grandmother was the daughter of one of your ancestor's soldiers."

"Then that makes the list so much longer!" cried the King, "shall I hunt for my bride among the villages?"

"Not at all," replied his mother, "just keep your mind open for someone who might not be of a titled parentage."

"You know," continued the Queen, "As to the flighty nature of the Ladies you have seen, most have not lived close to the Royal court, and few were allowed to sit with their fathers when he met with the villagers of his lands. You must find someone who has been at court, or at least knows something of the lands beyond her home. It is funny, but except for the point about being of noble birth, I just might have been talking about Eleanor here. She is, after all, the same age I was when I married your father, and she has lived at the Royal castle for much of her youth."

Eleanor gave the Queen a horrified glance, as the King looked as if struck. Nevertheless, after a moment to collect his thoughts, the King agreed with his mother; "You are right, mother, and she DOES fit each point as if it had been written directly about her! She would make a splendid bride!" Turning to Eleanor, the King said, "What do you think, Eleanor, would you like to be my Queen?"

Eleanor was thunderstruck! "What!" the poor girl yelled; "Be your Queen? No, of course not!" She leapt out of her chair, and ran from the room.

["And that ends my story of King Henry and the maidens;" finished the monk.

"But what happens next?" the girls all cried, "You must tell us all more about Eleanor!"

"Oh, but that would be another story, and we agreed to only one story tonight. Besides, I have heard that some of you might not be doing her duties in the castle to her fullest capabilities, I don't think you DESERVE another story!"

The chief housekeeper saw her young charges deflate as if stuck with a pin; and carefully she spoke to the monk as they had agreed that morning; "Good Father, If I were to watch them closely for, say, a week; I could let you know if their work has improved, and they could hear another story then. Would that be okay with you?"

"Well, I don't know." the monk replied, and he was suddenly buried by what seemed to be thousands of eager willing to work young women, all promising great amounts of diligent effort, and all full of assurances that the castle would be spotless.

"I'm sure they will work hard, Roger, please do it for my sake?" asked the housekeeper, working to keep a smile off her lips. She was herself not too anxious to hear the next tale, for she had heard the stories in their entirety years ago, but felt that this fact would not help her plan if known by her girls.

"Well, okay." Agreed the monk, "But it had better be a very good report!" And later as the monk found his way down to the kitchen to see if there might be a snack to be found, he giggled to himself, knowing that he would give the young lasses what they asked for, but not what they wanted.]



To Be Continued. . .




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


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