The Tale of King Henry and the Bard

[It was Sunday, and everyone in the castle knew what that meant; story night was here! Ever since the last story night, all who dwelt in the castle were eager to hear more of the tales of Good King Henry, and especially tales about his heir. To that end, everyone was extra nice to Roger, they brought him treats, made sure the kitchen prepared his favorite foods, and in general treated him more like a king than they treated the King himself.

They were afraid to bother the old monk about what came next, for he was extremely tempermental, and if sufficiently annoyed could refuse to tell one word about anything. Even those who had been told the stories before had not revealed any material, in fear of the monk's swift and terrible wrath. Therefore, now that the day was finally here, all were eager to find out what came next, and all eagerly awaited what came after dinner..

All, that is, except for the King. His Majesty had developed a fever, and a cough, and had a head that felt as if it were stuffed with straw. He dearly wanted to stay comfortably in his bed, and sleep until he was well again, but he could not disappoint his people; if he was not at dinner, there would be no 'after-dinner court' and without a court, there could be no story.

Seeing her husband in this state, the Queen sent for the old monk. "Is there anything you can say to the King, Roger, to get him to stay in bed? If he tries to get up, he might fall on his face!"

The old monk looked at his friend, and smiled. "Your Majesty, I fear I must forbid your getting out of bed; it would be a sin for you to get up and infect everyone in the Great Hall with your cold."

"I can not disappoint my people, old man; they have spent the whole week wondering what happens next. If you don't tell them soon, I fear that they might crack from the strain of being nice to you!"

"Well, we would not want that to happen; I might get used to it, and then be terribly disappointed when things returned to normal. I have a plan that will relieve you from having to go to dinner, and yet satisfy your people's hunger for what happens next." The old monk told his idea to the King and Queen, and both agreed that it should work.

That night, as people were finding their places at the tables in the Great Hall, all anxiously watched for the King's chair to be filled, they had heard that the King was ill, and they all knew what that meant. Their fears were confirmed when, after everyone had found their place, the Queen stood alone by her seat. "My people," she said; "I bring you sorrowful news; Your King has caught a cold. As I know that all of you wish to have him well again, I have asked our Chaplain Roger to say a special prayer for him after dinner. I request all remain in the Hall for this Prayer."

The collective sigh that filled the Great Hall could have been heard out in the stables; Although they all loved the old monk, everyone knew that Roger's talks and sermons, and especially his prayers, could fill up the hours, and the possibility of being bored to death crossed more than one mind. But they all loved their King, and they truly wanted him to be well again, so they all resigned themselves to what seemed likely to be a repeat of the sermon they had heard that morning.

As dinner ended, things looked worse then they had feared; the monk had had the pulpit from the Chapel set up in the Great Hall; surely this was to be a prayer that would last on into the night! As the old monk took his place, some looked wistfully to the Kitchen as the servers started to carry out the dirty dishes, but it seemed none were about to escape this prayer. "Guards, please call the cook and all her helpers; we want as many as possible to pray for our King's health."

As the people bowed their heads the old monk began his prayer; "Heavenly Father, please be with our Noble King, just as you were with Good King Henry, in those days so long gone by. As you no doubt remember, Oh Lord . . ."]

Good King Henry was pacing the Royal Bedchamber; he and the Queen were discussing names for their child, and they were having no success.

"Why not Henry," the Queen asked for the tenth time; "Every time I suggest it, you change the subject."

"Surely James is better," replied the King; "or George, or Peter?"

"My Love, please answer me; why not name your son after yourself?"

"Because it is the worst thing that you can do to a child!" the King, in exasperation, finally answered his wife. "You may not remember my older brother, but I do, and I remember well the hell he went through. He once told me that he was going to name his first son George, and if he ended up having fifty more, not one would be called after him. He said to me, 'I have spent my life being compared to our father and as an adult that is fine, but when growing up, I was always hearing how I did not do this or that quite like my father did. I resolved by the age of ten to never inflict that curse upon my child!' I did not have that problem, I was named after my mother's father, but I learned quite well from my brother: a child's life is hard enough without giving him an unfair additional burden to bear!"

"Well, I can understand that; likewise I would not want our daughter to be named Eleanor."

"That might be different; girls are not subject to the same pressures a boy endures, being the heir and all."

"Are you saying our first child, if it is a girl, will not rule after you?" The Queen looked ready to storm.

"No, of course not, but I just thought we had agreed that you would have a boy first." The King looked up at his wife, and could not understand why she looked ready to laugh.

"Do you think that I have some secret way that will determine the gender of our child?"

"Are not there certain herbs or potions that you know of, that can assure that you bear a boy?"

At that the Queen did laugh; "My Love, I was an herb woman, not a Wizard! Only God and the Saints know the sex of an unborn child, and so far, our Lord has not felt the need to inform me which one our child is. I fear you will have to wait until my labor is ended, just like every other father before you!"

"Well, if we must wait, we must. But I wish this picking of names was easier; it can make or ruin the poor child."

The Queen looked thoughtful; "Why not go out among your people, and listen to what they have to say? You surely learned a lot that time when you met me again."

"I learned the name of the one I wanted to marry," agreed the King; "perhaps I may learn the name of our child."

And so it was done. There was a royal proclamation that the King would enter a monastery for a week, to pray for the health of his child; the Queen would rule in his absence. The King took the old Friar's Habit from his wardrobe, and early one morning left the castle, to hear what his people were saying to one another.

As he walked along the King's road, he met many a traveler, and greeted everyone with a humble, "God Bless You," whether they placed a coin in his hand or no. He found that he got more coins after the blessing than before, and that it seemed the poorer the person, the more likely they were to gift him from their purse. As he intended to offer the coins to the church when he returned to the castle, he thanked each giver, and said a special prayer for their health and wellbeing. He asked each his or her name, and resolved to remember each one, to relay to his wife.

As he passed an inn, he was joined by a bard; at least that was what the young man looked like; he carried a lute, and wore garb that, although well worn, was festive and gay in color and appearance. "My name is Ralph, Good Friar, and I seem to be going your way; may I join you?"

The King returned the greeting, and said his name was John. This was not a lie, for the King's full name was Henry James John Bartholomew Plantagenet, and although he had never used it, it was his by right of Baptism. He asked the Bard where he was headed.

"I go where my feet take me," was the Bard's reply; "I have traveled these roads for seven years, and I will not stop until I meet my wife!"

"Have you lost her, then?" the King asked Ralph. "When was the last time you saw her?"

"Oh, I have never seen her," answered the bard; "but I shall know her by the blue of her eyes, and the red of her hair! Her skin will be white as milk, and her smile will light up the sky! Her breath will be sweet, and when she sings, the birds will come to listen!"

"She sounds like a wonderful person," said the King with a smile, "and I'm sure that she is out there, waiting for you to find her. You say you have been searching for seven years?"

"Aye, and next summer 'twill be eight years I have walked this road, singing for my supper, and asking the Lord to lead my path."

As the two walked along, they told each other tales of what they had seen in their travels. The King let the bard do most of the talking, as he seemed to have a never-ending supply of details concerning his intended bride; if there existed on the earth a woman as Beautiful as Helen of Troy, as Modest and Pure as the Virgin Mary, and without visible flaw or blemish, then that was the woman for him.

At each village they passed through they stopped for an hour or two, the King as a humble Friar begged a coin or two from the passers-by, and the Bard singing and playing his lute, with his cap at his feet. After singing, the bard would treat the Friar to a simple meal at a nearby inn, not one penny would he allow the King to spend.

"I have been gifted with more money than I can use; clearly they give me so I may share with you." The bard would then count out his coins, and give the Friar one-half of what he had collected.

"But a tithe is only one-tenth of what you have earned, surely you give me too much!"

"When you were not here, I gave nothing to the Church; there are a lot of back tithes I must needs make up for. Now let us be off, I fear that if I open my mouth again in this village, it will only be to pour in some ale, and it is too early to stop for the day."

The King marvelled at the kindness of the young man; clearly he was not wealthy, but he gave freely to help others. He prayed that the bard would meet his perfect woman, and have many happy years together.

The next day, as they passed a wooded glen, they heard a child's cry. They wandered off the road, until they saw a cottage, and there a child sat in the dust, crying his heart out. Beside her was his sister, and she was silent, clutching a small rag doll.

"What is this?" the bard said; "why do you cry on such a wonderful day?" The King smiled, the bard had just been telling him how these cold days seemed to make the road just a wee bit harder to travel on. "Is your Ma or Da around, little ones?"

"Me Ma's inside, and me Da's dead," spoke the boy; "we have no money, and Ma fears the winter!"

"Hello the cottage," called out the King, "can a poor traveler beg a meal?"

The doorway of the cottage was soon filled by a young woman, a plain dark-haired woman of stout build. "I have porridge and some cold water from the well; will that suit you good folk?"

"Sure, that will be a fine feast!" said the bard, "if you will allow me to work for it?"

The two men looked around; there was plenty of work to do. "We shall both work," said the disguised King; "I will not sit idle when four hands are plainly needed."

The two men set to work, the King chopped wood, and the bard started to muck out the dilapidated cow shed besides the cottage; it had clearly not been cleaned in over a month, and needed repair. As the bard worked, he spoke to the young widow, asking her of her husband's passing.

She told him, "My husband died a fortnight ago, and he had been sick before then for over a month. Our fields were filled with grain, and I could bring in but a tenth of what was grown; I do not see how we will feed ourselves throughout the coming winter."

"Would you be willing to take in a boarder?" asked the bard; "I've been looking for a place to winter in, and I have money to pay for my keep, enough to buy food for us all."

The woman looked at the bard, and for the first time in months, hope seemed to grow in her heart. "I will gladly let you stay, if you will mean what you say; you must be a gift from God. I had despaired of my life, and the lives of my children."

"That makes no sense; a beautiful woman such as yourself; I'm surprised that there is not a line of men outside, begging for your hand!"

The poor widow was dumbstruck; it had been many years since she had ever been called beautiful, and that only when she was being courted. Her late husband was not one for trifles, and telling his missus that she looked pretty was 'way down on his list of things to do.

"Please do not mock me," the woman said, "I know I am plain, and my figure has never recovered from childbirth. I do not need my nose rubbed in it!"

"Your nose is too beautiful to be rubbed, unless it is with your sweet hand. Your eyes are like jewels, and you hair as dark as the night. Make fun of you? Never! I will sing your praises from this day forth; you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen!"

The King had stopped his chopping, and stood in amazement as he listened to the two converse. Where was the dream woman that he had heard about for the last three days? Had he missed something, or was his friend cruelly teasing this poor woman?

"Friar John, you can be my witness; I, Ralph, do pledge my heart to this fair lady; if she will have a poor minstrel as a husband, I would beg her to be my wife!"

"Hadn't you better first ask her what her name is?" teased the King; "The priest will want to know that, so he may post the banns."

"My name is Gabriel," said the woman softly; "and I will ask you if we may wait until spring; I have just barely buried my husband, and I must mourn him for at least a season. If you would then still want me, I will consent to be your wife."

"Then Holy Friar, bless us both; for I shall stop my wandering; I have prayed to God for the perfect woman, and He has given her to me!"

Saying the blessing that any man might give to another, the King asked the Lord to grant them health and happiness, and if it be His will, let them be married in the Springtide.

The King and the bard had their meal, and after another prayer of thanksgiving, the King left the bard and the widow, having left all the coins he had been given on a shelf in the cottage. "They will surely need it more than the Cathedral will," he mused; "and even that might not be enough."

The King took care of any doubt that they might not survive the winter when he returned to his castle. The bard and his intended were quite surprised when a wagon filled with foodstuffs stopped in front of the cottage, and even more surprised when a herdsman led a dozen cows to their shed, and a team of workmen delivered enough wood to build a much larger cow byre, one that they quickly set up. That spring, a priest from the nearby village visited them, and asked them if they still intended to marry, and the looks they each gave the other answered the question better than words could. He recited the banns three weeks from the church pulpit, and on the forth week united the lovers in holy matrimony.

The King told his wife all that he had learned on his travels, and they spent a lot of time discussing the bard and the widow.

"He told me all that he had said before was what beauty was before he had seen it, but when he saw the widow, he realized that this was what real beauty looked like."

With a smile, the Queen then gently chided her husband, "Did you not go out looking for the name for our child? You came back with no names!"

"Oh, but I did," replied the King; "The widow's two children were named Elizabeth and William. Surely those are fine names for a King's heir?"

"Those names will do nicely, my love," said the Queen; "let it be Elizabeth if a girl child, and let a boy be named William. I think that is settled; now all I need is for this child to be born!"

[. . . And so, oh Lord, let our King be filled with a gift of your precious healing power, as you gifted the bard with the perfect wife!" The monk looked around at his audience, and gave a loud "AMEN!"

A soft "Amen," was the scattered answer; most of the audience had forgotten that they were listening to a prayer, and so did not return the expected response. Nevertheless, the old monk did not seem too concerned, and as he left the Great Hall, and made his way to his chambers, he smiled and thought how the bishop would have reacted to his choice of 'prayers' that night. "He probably would have wanted me to write it down, and let him read it in the Cathedral next Sunday; that would never do, he's such a lousy storyteller!"]

To Be Continued . . .

By
Roger of Belden Abbey
Copyright © 2005, Daniel A. Thompson, Jr.
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