The Tale of King Henry and the Plague

[Well another week had gone by, and Roger checked with the Head Housekeeper to see how her charges were faring.

“Are my friends worthy of a story tonight?” asked the portly old monk.

“They have all been very good,” replied the Housekeeper, “and to their surprise the work seems to go quicker when they approach it with enthusiasm! Even the small ones work faster; two of them found out that making beds together got all of their chores finished so quickly that they had time left over to beg a cookie from the cook!”

“We will have to watch that,” said Roger with a faux worried tone, “There might not be enough cookies later for poor humble monks!”

The pair smiled at each other, and went back to their duties. Later that night, when story time was near, Roger wondered what the girls would ask for tonight. He had fooled them the last time, and although they liked the story he told, it did not answer their many questions about the budding romance between King Henry and Eleanor. However, the girls, who had coached the youngest what to say, surprised the crafty old monk.

“Dear Roger,” Teresa began in a soft voice; “We know you are much smarter than we are, and we would never be able to fool such a wise monk as you are, but we really want to learn what happens next with King Henry and Eleanor. Would you please give us what we want, even if we ask for it wrong?” and all the girls nodded their heads.

Struck by their sincerity (and a little amazed at their wisdom), the old monk relented, and decided to give them what they wanted. “Come sit on my lap,” the monk told Teresa, “and I shall tell you what you want to hear.” Then Roger looked at them all and asked, “But you must all promise to keep this a secret, for if the King found out how to get his way with me, I would be ruined!”

Giggling at the thought of the King outsmarting Roger, the girls all nodded, and Roger began their story. “Do you remember where we left off the first night?” he asked his audience. Getting their assurances, he said “Well . . ."]

When the Herb Woman Eleanor abruptly left the King and Queen Mother, Henry stared after her in confusion. “Why did she say no?” the King asked his mother. “Does not every woman want to marry the King and be the Queen?”

“Eleanor is not just any woman!” responded his mother sternly, “and you managed to make the offer sound like you were hiring a maid, not wooing a wife.”

“Surely she knows that I must marry for the good of the Kingdom? I do not have the luxury of romance.”

“But she is under no such prohibition; she may marry who she will. She is a very independent person,” spoke the Queen in a gentler voice.

“That is clear!” responded her son ruefully.

The King sent word next day that he would like the Herb Woman to come to the castle and talk to him, but the messenger replied that Eleanor was unavailable that day. The messenger was sent the next day, the next, and the next after that, until a whole week had gone by.

“What could she be doing?” wondered the King to his mother, “Why is she so busy?”

“Did the messenger say that she told him to say ‘she was busy’?” answered the Queen.


“Well what DID the woman say?” the Queen asked.

Not knowing the answer, the King called for the messenger, and asked what exactly happened when he got to the Herb Woman’s cottage.

“Well, your Majesty, first she invited me in, and offered me tea and cookies. Then she asked about my wife, who has the arthritis something bad, and if the medicine she had sent the day before had helped. Then I told her it had and that my wife was most appreciative and then . . .”

“I’m glad your wife is better,” thundered the King, “but what did she say to my request?”

“Er, um, as I told you this morning, your Majesty, she indicated she was not available.”

“She has time to sit and chat with my messenger, but no time to visit the King?” asked the surprised monarch.

“Perhaps you are asking the wrong thing,” counseled his mother; “Good man, what exactly was said?”

“Well, your Majesty, I gave her your message, word for word,” replied the frightened soldier; “and she asked me ‘Did he order me to come?’ and I responded, ‘no, the King said, “requested”’ and so she said ‘then I will not go!’ and then we had our tea.”

“I see, “said the King, “well, you go right back there and…”

“Stop!” interjected his mother, “You are dealing with a hurt woman, not a recalcitrant slave. You must find a way to get her to forgive you, and ordering her will certainly not do that!”

And so the messenger was sent back to his duties, and the King and Queen Mother sat and discussed what to do the next day. But the next morning, as they broke their fast in the castle gardens, the King received a special visitor. A large and stately Owl came to a tree near the Royal table, and spoke to the King.

“Great King, there is sickness in the Land!” spoke the Owl; “In the North your people lie stricken, and some are even dying! You must send them aid!”

“What is their illness?” exclaimed the worried Monarch; “and how far has it spread?”

“It is but one village now,” said the bird, “but if not dealt with ‘twill quickly spread! As for the illness itself, your people call it ‘plague.’” With a mighty flap of his wings, the Owl flew off to its rest, for Owls usually sleep through the day.

“Plague!” cried the King, “I must send them aid. But what should I send?”

His mother replied: “Why not ask Eleanor, she might know.”

“But she will not come when I request!” responded the King sadly.

“I myself will send word, and I will beg her to come,” said his mother; “and I will tell her it is a medical emergency.”

Straightway the messenger was sent, and soon he returned with not one Herb Woman, but two. “This is my partner Rachel,” introduced Eleanor; “she is knowledgeable in the ways of illness, and offers her aid.”

“She is welcome,” responded the Queen Mother, “For this problem will take all our wits to resolve.”

The King quickly filled in the two herbalists what had transpired, although he did not tell the women how he had found out. “What should we do?” finished the King, “how should we face this menace?”

“With hot water and soap,” responded Rachel; “My teacher taught me that the first steps to take in fighting plague are to get people clean, as it seems for some reason that the Plague shuns cleanliness. Then boil all the people’s clothes, and fill all the village’s privies, digging new ones. As for the plague itself . . . I know of no herb to cure it. I’m sorry, your Majesties” she concluded.

“I was taught that sprinkling Pennyroyal in the cottages aids in preventing the illness, but care must be taken to avoid animals and children from ingesting it; Pennyroyal can be quite toxic,” added Eleanor.

The four of them talked further, and it was decided that the King and Eleanor would lead a party of soldiers and servants north to aid the King’s people. The Queen Mother would rule in his stead, and Rachel would care for the Herb women’s villagers in Eleanor’s absence.

A rescue party was quickly assembled, and before nightfall they set out for the north. Holding torches, the soldiers led the way through the evening dark, and they only stopped when it was unsafe to travel any further that night. Their rest was short, and they were up before the dawn. As the sun rose they were already mounted and riding northward. The King drove them relentlessly, and few stops were allowed. They ate cold meat for a midday meal, and never left their saddles. In two more days time they reached the village, a feat of travel that would have sickened lesser men, but the King filled the assembled soldiers with his purpose, and even the horses seemed to thrive on the King’s will.

Finally dismounting, the King had the servants set up a camp, and prepare fires to heat water for bathing and for clothes washing. The soldiers entered the village, and went from cottage to cottage, taking inventory of who was sick, who was well, and who had died. Thankfully, the last category was small. Unfortunately, one of the most seriously ill was the village Priest. The fallen were quickly buried with the King himself praying for their souls.

Next the King and his couriers cleaned and washed the church, for that was the biggest building in the village, and Eleanor wanted to use it for her hospice. As they all worked the King and Eleanor alternated in quiet peeks at the other, and if Eleanor was impressed at how hard the King labored for his subjects, the King watched how Eleanor would not turn away from any unpleasant duty. She cleaned vomit and fouler substances off of the sick with nary a cross word, but with a soft voice and a gentle hand.

As the days went on, the number of people getting sick slowed down, and those who were ill did not grow sicker. The King and Eleanor took to breaking their morning fast with a quick cup of tea and some toasted bread, and both seemed to enjoy their brief time together. Things seemed to be progressing when one day, only the King showed up for breakfast.

“Has anyone seen Eleanor?” inquired the King. Getting no reply, he set out looking for her, and his search ended at the door to her tent. Eleanor lay there in a fever, and barely stirred when he picked her up and carried her to the Church. As he prepared a pallet for her, the stricken woman tried to make him stay away.

“I have the Plague,” she tried to shout, but it came out in a whisper; “If you come near me you will catch it too, and the Kingdom will suffer. Let someone else care for me.”

Taking no notice, the King placed Eleanor on her pallet, and fixed a broth that seemed to be popular with the stricken. He cleaned her up when the broth did not stay down, and coaxed Eleanor to try to take some more. “You said to give the sick fluids, so they do not get sicker,” smiled the King; “now you must follow your own advice!”

The King never left Eleanor’s side. He told her jokes, he told her stories, and he told her his dreams of what he wanted to accomplish in his kingdom. Eleanor learned that beneath the young man’s inept words was a heart that truly loved his people. He spoke of his youth, and how she had helped him to face the difficulties of being the King’s son in a court where he was expected to be perfect every day. As the King’s awkwardness around women washed away, Eleanor actually saw him as he was, and saw what his potential could be, and she was happy that the land had such a good man as the king.

The day came when Eleanor felt strong enough to stand, and the King helped her rise, and led her to a chair. She sat and watched as the King finally left her side, and went around tending to the other sick. Thankfully, Eleanor was the last to fall ill, and although three more villagers did not survive the plague, its spread was stopped, and none of the surrounding villages fell ill.

The day came when it was time for the King’s party to return home. Before they left, the village Priest said a special Mass of thanksgiving, and everyone for miles around came and gave praise to the King. The King would not accept the praise for himself, and said the praise rightfully belonged to the Lord, who healed the sick, and was their real benefactor. After a brief meal, the King and his party mounted their horses and rode to the south, at a much slower rate of travel then their breakneck ride to the north. As they traveled, the King and Eleanor rode side by side, and talked about the King’s plans for the future.

“When I was first ill, I asked you to let another tend me, and you refused,” spoke the maiden. “Was that not a foolish thing to do? If you had gotten sick and died, the Kingdom would have been thrown into chaos, and perhaps even civil war. Why did you not do the wise thing, and let another aid me?”

“I know you are right, and I acted foolishly,” responded the King, “But I could not put into another’s hands the life of the Lady I loved.”

“I am no lady, my Liege, and you should know it well,” replied Eleanor. However, the King’s response unnerved her; that was the first time he had ever said that he loved her. She continued, “And you should not talk of love for me, for I am but a common woman, and not of your rank or class.”

“You seem to think that I am of some special station, because I am king,” said her King. “Having a crown on my head does not make me greater than the least of my kingdom’s peasants in the eyes of God. As for loving you, I have loved you since the first day I entered your cottage months ago. It was only my mother’s insight that opened my eyes and let me see that the woman I loved could also be the woman I wed. I fear that in my haste to accomplish this I forgot that you could not read my mind. I had never before said I loved you, for that would have been cruel and insensitive. I did not want to ruin our friendship by letting you know my feelings, and then have to marry for reasons of state. Can you forgive me?”

“No.” the Lady said quietly.

They rode together for a little while longer, and then the maiden said, “Are you not going to ask me why I said no?”

The saddened King looked up, and saw a smile on Eleanor’s face. With a suddenly hopeful heart, the King asked, “Why?”

“Because there is nothing to forgive!” said his love. “But I shall make sure you never forget it!” she added.

“And how shall you do that?” the King asked.

“By marrying you and reminding you every night before we go to bed!” said the future Queen.

[“The two lovers rode on, and as their talk is not for young one’s ears, this tale is over. So now you know how King Henry persuaded the fair Eleanor to become his bride. And you also now know why the people started to call their Liege the ‘Good’ King Henry, for word of his deeds up north spread all throughout all the kingdom, and his people knew that if it were any way possible, that their King would always come to their aid, no matter what problem.”

“But what of their wedding?” asked Teresa.

“That is a tale for another night,” smiled the weary monk, “now be off with you!”

And sending the children off to their beds, the King’s storyteller went to his cell to enjoy a cup of cider, and to reflect on the wonderful things that could grow from such a horrid thing as plague.]

To Be Continued. . .

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

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