The Tale of King Henry and the Baker's Son

[Spring had not quite arrived at the castle of our King, but everyone in the Royal Court was caught up in the spirit of spring's promised bounty. All the parlor maids were busy cleaning the castle under the watchful eye of the head housekeeper, the groundskeeper's men were cleaning out any and all remainders of last year's wilted foliage in the fields and flower gardens, and the royal kitchen, already immaculate, was being re-scrubbed to a shine.

Not all labor was tedious; the Ladies and the serving girls all were sewing favors to deck the belts of their swains; Knights, Squires, and Men-at-arms were working out in the drill yards, preparing for the summer's tournaments; and even with snow still in patches under the shade trees, all eyes were waiting for the first crocuses to spring from the ground.

In the Herbarium, a small group of young men and young women were gathered for a special purpose; on Mayday next the Archbishop from the Cathedral would confirm them in their faith. Confirm them, that is, if they passed their Confirmation test, and the Archbishop was not known for being an easy tester. So each lad and lass was anxiously waiting for their religion teacher to appear. There was good news, however; few of those who were taught by the King's chaplain failed the examinations, and they were glad to have such a learned man as instructor.

They had asked their elders about the Confirmation classes and the Archbishop's test, but all refused to give even a hint of what was to be learned. Oh, some of the older boys teased about having to walk through burning coals barefoot or hold a red-hot iron in their fist (or other places) for the tolling of twelve of the clock, but the younger boys had seen their elders in the baths, and no scars on foot or body were ever noticed. Still the students, no longer children but not quite adults, were a bit wary when their teacher finally arrived and sat at his work table.

"I know you are all wondering about what we will be talking about, and I am here to relieve you; not one of you will crawl through barrels of broken glass, nor are you in any danger of being permanently scarred by hot objects held to unprotected skin." The class smiled at these words, but there still was wariness in the eyes of most of the students; this was a serious class, and they did not want to bear the shame of being held back two years for the next class. The Archbishop waited until there were at least seven or more candidates to be confirmed, and the past year there had not been enough students for the ceremony; some in the class had waited over two years for this class.

"I have spoken with each of you privately, and I am quite sure that all of you are ready to take this next step in your walk with God. You are each here to fulfill the promises that your Godparents made for you at your Christenings; you are going to become adult Christians. We will spend the next few weeks talking about what that means. Each week we will start with a lecture/discussion where each of you will be expected to ask me questions. When we finish the lecture, I will give you a test; I will tell you a story, and then ask you a question about it. You will tell me the answer to my question, and what the point of the story was."

The old monk paused, briefly looked out of the window, and then resumed his lecture. "I do not wish to scare you; these tests I give will not be ones that you must answer alone. You will all work together, just as you will as adults; you will discuss what you think is the answer, and then tell me." Roger paused again, and then added, "And at the end of all the lessons, you will have to give me the question that I didn't ask you.”

Now the class was more confused then ever, and one of the young women shyly asked, "But what if we don't know what to ask?”

"Hopefully, when we get to that point, the unasked question will be obvious. Now let us begin. . .” The old monk started to speak to the students of the facts of life; not those of procreation, for they all were aware of how babies came into the world; but of those things each man and woman must know to live a rich, fulfilled life. The monk encouraged questions, and after getting over the shock of the idea that their teacher (who when storytelling demanded and got absolute silence) would allow them to interrupt him, questions came quick and fast. Finally, at the tolling of the tenth hour, the old monk raised his hand to indicate the lecture part of the class was over.

Somewhat surprised, the children realized that many hours had run by without them noticing. After Roger had them all stand, stretch their legs, and see to their personal needs, he called the class back to order. “Each story I tell you will have a message, but all the stories assembled together will have a more important one. It is this greater story that will give you the clues about what the question you must ask me is. By the time we finish, you should be able to tell me what I haven’t asked you. That is the final test.”

Seeing their still worried faces, the old Monk reassured them, “Don’t worry, I have not had a class yet that didn’t come up with an adequate answer.” He smiled at one of the more restless boys “But if I remember your father, Jacob, his question was quite unique. If I remember at the end, I will tell you his question. Now to begin: In the days of Good King Henry . . .]

The first Tournament of spring was to be held on Saturday next, and the following week there was to be a Fair and Craft Exhibitions, with horse races, merchants from all over the Kingdom, and stock shows. All the people in the villages around the castle were invited, and it promised to be a splendid affair. The lands of the King were prosperous, and war had not touched King Henry’s lands for over a decade.

The castle kitchens worked long hours to meet the needs of all the revelers, and still the good folk of the land required more food and drink. To meet the expanded needs, the King’s Chamberlain authorized the hiring of all the inns and bakeries in the surrounding communities, and food and goods poured in from all the local villages.

The first day of the Fair, the King and Queen were sitting on the dais, and discussing their plans for the week. “I need to judge the stock show on Friday, but we really are not needed until then,” spoke the King. “I think our favorite friar may appear, and see if he can listen to what our people are thinking.”

“That sounds quite reasonable,” replied Queen Elanor; “we have no courts scheduled, and the Fair being so close to the castle, you can easily slip back and forth unseen. Just be sure to wear your hood up; you don’t want to be identified.”

“I shall wear a wig,” decided Henry, “and dirty my face a little. I have found that people see the habit, not the man inside.”

And so the next morning after breaking his fast, the King donned his old friar’s robe, and slipped out of the castle and onto the Fairgrounds. “This is a much better way to see a Fair,” thought the King; “no one making a fuss over you, and you get to see and hear how people really feel.” Henry wandered along the path of the Fair, seeing the exhibitions, and listening to the sounds of his people buying, selling, laughing, and even singing. As he walked along, some of the other Fairgoers pressed a coin or two into his palm. This made the King quite happy; he loved to see how his people took care of others less fortunate than themselves. He planned, as usual, to give the coins away to others who needed them, but it would be out of character to refuse them, so he took them all with a smile and a short blessing on his benefactor.

After wandering the Fair awhile, King Henry decided to enter a nearby village, and beg or buy a small loaf of bread for his dinner. As he approached the Baker’s shop, he saw a long queue of people outside the shop. The baker was at the door of the shop, and he was speaking to those waiting to go in.

“Good people, we shall have more bread in one-half hour. The King’s men bought all we had baked this morning, and with one of my apprentices ill from too much ‘fair-going’, we are running behind. Please be patient.”

King Henry approached the Baker and offered his services. “Hello, my name is Brother Ambrose. I was going to beg for a small loaf of bread, but this would be better; why not let me help you, and earn a meal?”

The Baker agreed at once, and led the disguised King into the shop, where he showed the King where to wash up. “You are clean enough for going to a Fair,” assured the Baker; “But if you are going to be mixing dough, you need to have hands and arms that are spotless.”

As he washed and dried his hands, the King looked around the back of the bakery. Central was the huge ovens, they were being filled with loaves by a young man. This young man was covered in sweat, and the apron he wore was white with flour. There was a long table with bowls of rising dough, and a place where dough could be kneaded and shaped into loaves.

“My son Michael will be finished loading the ovens in a minute. He will show you what to do. I must needs attend to the front of my shop.” The Baker then approached the disguised King, and said in a low voice “he is but a simple lad, and not given to deep thought. But he has learned all the baking tasks that I ask him to do, and is a good, steady worker.”

After the loaves were all in the oven, the Baker’s son approached Henry and stuck out his hand. “I am Michael,” he told the King; “let me show you what to do first.” The lad went over to one of the work areas, and the King followed. “We need to make some dough, and start it rising, so that we will have dough to knead and shape two hours from now.” He showed the King how to measure each ingredient, how to add water and flower slowly, how to mix in the yeast and other ingredients, and how to stir it all so that everything got well-mixed.

As they were working side by side, the Baker’s son spoke up; “I heard you tell my father that you are called Brother Ambrose. Why is that?”

“Why, that is my name,” replied the King.

“Do you have a different name when you are a Friar and when you are a King? Why don’t they call you Henry?” asked the lad.

The King was shocked. “Why would anyone call me Henry? The King asked guardedly.

“I was told that kings are called by their first name; is Ambrose your name, too?”

“Who told you I was the King?” the astonished monarch asked.

“No one,” replied the lad. “My father gave me a penny to spend at the Fair tomorrow, and your picture is on it. Didn’t you know that?”

The King was dumbfounded. In all his years of traveling in secret, only one had ever penetrated his disguise. “I know that my face is on the coins of the realm, but I am playing a game,” he finally said. “Please do not tell anyone who I really am.”

“Oh, I will not tell, for I like games” the boy promised. “Besides,” he added, “would anyone believe a simple Baker’s son if he did tell everyone that the King was a begging friar working as a laborer in my father’s shop?”

“Are you really that ‘simple’?” inquired the King.

“Oh, I know that I am not at all clever,” the young man replied. “However, I have learned to be a good baker, and try my best to do what is asked of me. But when I was small, I did not speak until I was four years old. This made people think I was stupid, and although the teasing gets a little wearying, I find that if I smile and be polite, most people will be kind to me. I work hard for my father, and although he thinks of me as being slow, I can do everything that his other apprentices do, and usually quicker. He sees what I do, but in his mind I am still that little four year old who did not talk. Not that I talk much now,” he added; “but you have a secret, too, and so you will keep mine. Kings have to keep secrets, don’t they?”

“They do if they want to be good kings, and I want to be a good king.”

“Well, that’s what people call you; Good King Henry is a nice thing to be called, I think.”

The two bread makers continued to work while they talked. The King found that he really enjoyed being talked to as a person, not as ‘The King’, and he began to ask Michael questions about how other people felt about him; Michael was a wonderful source of information. The bakery’s customers spoke about the events of the day to each other while waiting to be served, and the young baker's son listened well to all that they had to say. Being able to hear things from another point of view was quite pleasing to the King; some people guarded their tongue when taking to a Friar, but felt no need to guard anything in front of a ‘simple’ baker’s son. The boy talked on, and the King listened well.

Finally Michael and the King got to a stopping point with the task of mixing; they were finished with that aspect of making bread. They had much more work to do, and as they talked on they kneaded, shaped, and prepared for the oven dozens of loaves. “Your father will make a pretty penny selling these loaves to me,” the King said.

“Oh, no, we barely get back the cost of the materials” responded Michael. “Your clerk came and said that we could not charge our regular prices, that making a profit from the Crown was treason.”

“That’s absurd!” cried Henry; “My father always paid a premium for the goods he bought from the villages. I have not changed that.”

“It is something new; last year my father made enough money that he gave me a shilling to spend at the Fair. This year I have but a penny, and I fear even that was dear to him. Not that he complained,” added the Baker’s son; “He smiled, praised me for my hard work, and apologized for only giving me a penny. I did not want to take it, but he insisted.”

”I will find out what is going on, and when I find out the culprit, I shall make him or her very sorry!”

“Oh, don’t punish them,” begged the boy; “I’m sure it is only a mistake; the young man who comes to pay for the bread every night is polite, and I would not want to be the cause of his being punished. Watch him and my father; he should be here in a little while.”

And so, when the young man from the castle came to pay for the bread, the King and Michael watched from the back room. The clerk was polite, and calculated the cost of the materials, and presented it to the Baker.

“He does not figure anything for labor,” spoke the King in a low voice; “and for all his politeness, he is doing a wrong thing.”

“Why not speak to his Lord tonight, and have him explain how things should be done. This way, it will look like just an error, and errors are easy to correct.”

The King promised to do that, and soon, the King left the shop with a fresh loaf of bread under his arm, and the thanks of the Baker. “Come back tomorrow, and every day of the Fair. You have worked enough for 10 loaves of bread,” the Baker called after him.

That night, the King had a talk with his Exchequer, and told him not to punish his clerk, but set him straight on what was right. He also told the Exchequer to have the clerk go around to all the shops that he had done business with, and correct his errors. Each shop was to be given a bonus payment, to make up for the mistake.

When the King went around to the Baker’s shop the next day, things were quite different. The apprentice who had been ‘ill’ the previous day was well again, and the Baker had no need of the "Friar's" services. But he insisted that the King take another loaf of bread, and as Henry went into the back room to eat it with his new friend, he watched as the Baker's apprentice told Michael what to do, slowly and patiently, as if he did not remember from one minute to the next what to do.

In an unguarded moment, the Baker’s son came over to the King and whispered, “This morning the clerk came, and gave my father every penny he should have given him before, with an added gold crown as an apology! My father gave me two shillings, and I am to have the afternoon off to spend them.”

“Come to the Royal Pavilion this afternoon; you can see the Fair with me.”

And so it happened. The Baker’s son, and the disguised King walked around the whole Fair, and they had a wonderful time, seeing everything, hearing everything, and talking between themselves about what they saw and heard. It was a fine time for them both.

[“I will not bore you with the rest of the details of the Fair, it was much the same as such things held today, and what next is important is not those things that happened at the Fair themselves, but what happened after the Fair was over.”]

It was just as the Fair was closing when one of the cleaning maids reported to the Head Housekeeper that her younger sister, one Helga by name, was missing and had not been seen since the previous day. “I know she is friendly with some of the kitchen help, and thought nothing of her spending the night sleeping in their dormitory; they often do so on nights when they have a holiday the next day. But I grew concerned when she did not appear for dinner; she has never stayed away for so long!”

Giving her charge a hug and a word of comfort, the Housekeeper promised to go directly to the Chief Cook, and between the two of them they would “soon have Helga safe back in her dormitory.”

“And perhaps a slight switching for staying away for so long without telling anyone where she was going” the Housekeeper thought to herself. Still, Helga was a good girl, quiet and honest, and had never been in trouble before. It was only when the Chief Cook came back with word that none of her staff had seen Helga since the day before that the Housekeeper began to grow worried. It was still light out, but dusk was approaching, and most of the Fair-goers were back in the castle. The Housekeeper sent runners out throughout the castle, and as each one reported back, her fears grew. Finally she approached the King’s Seneschal. “My Lord, one of my maids has gone missing, and I fear she may have gotten lost at the Fair.”

“When was the last time she was seen” the Seneschal responded. The Housekeeper informed him of all she had learned, and of her search throughout the castle. “Perhaps she fell asleep at some merchant’s stall; Fairs are busy things, and there are many places that a child might hide away for a brief nap, and not pay attention to the time. I shall send word to the villages for the watch to be on the lookout for her, and I have no doubt that by morning a highly embarrassed child will come home quite unaware of the worry she has caused.”

But the Seneschal was wrong. Morning came and word trickled in from the surrounding villages that the young maid was nowhere to be found. Worried himself now, the Seneschal went to the King, and the King called the senior staff of the castle together to discuss what to do.

“We must call out the Huntsmen and the Yeomen of the forests,” spoke the King; “Let every man who is learned in woodcraft search the woods and fields near the meadow where the Fair was held.”

At this, the call went out to the surrounding countryside, and teams of skilled men invaded the forest. On the second day, by a swiftly running stream, a pair of shoes was found, along with two stockings. Helga’s friends quickly identified them as belonging to the missing maiden. “She entered the stream, thinking to wade and cool her feet, and was overcome by the swift currents” said Siegfried, the Constable who found the shoes. “We must search downstream, and find where the currents have taken the poor lass.”

Alas, the good Constable was proven correct; by the end of the day the remains of Helga were discovered amidst the bracken by a bend in the stream. Her body was carried back to the castle, and prepared for burial. It was during that preparation that the Head Housekeeper made a horrible discovery. She quickly went to the castle Seneschal, and hearing her words, went to report to the King.

“It was no accident!” said the Housekeeper; “The child was murdered! While cleaning the body, I discovered marks on the girl’s arms and legs where she fought against being bound by a rope, and there were cuts on her throat where her blood was taken from her. Someone deliberately killed her, and then tossed her body in the stream, hoping to hide their evil by having her body washed out to sea.”

“Say nothing to anyone,” the King commanded; “Send for the Constable who found her body; We must have more information about who did this. This is no common crime; some great evil has invaded my kingdom!”

When Siegfried arrived he straightway attended the King. “What do you require, my Liege?” spoke the Constable.

The King quickly told the man what had been discovered. “We must find out where and when this occurred, and track down the fiends who murdered that poor child. Spare no effort, but keep silent on what you are doing. Right now the evil ones do not know that we have discovered their crime, and the two other people who know will remain mum also. We must find the criminals and stop them!”

[. . . and so the Constable set off to search the kingdom for evidence that would tell him who had killed poor Helga,” the old monk concluded. “We will talk more of his search next week. Now for your test; there were two young people your age spoken of in my story; the Exchequer’s assistant, and the Baker’s son. Who was more grown up, and who had yet to mature?” After a moment or two of silence, the Monk prodded them; “Remember you may talk it over among yourselves, and you may ask me questions. No, I will not tell you the answer,” he spoke quickly to one child who had suddenly smiled; “someone every class asks that, the answer to my question must come from all of you. But you may ask me questions about the story itself.”

“Why was the assistant not punished?” asked one girl.

“Because he had acted from ignorance, not malice,” responded Roger. “He was made to apologize to the Baker and the other craftsmen, and was forgiven by them. Ignorance needs teaching, not punishment.”

“The Exchequer's assistant was much smarter than the baker’s son, wasn’t he?" Inquired one of the boys.


“But we were not asked who was smarter,” spoke one of the other boys; “Father Roger said more mature, not smarter.”

“Are smart and wise the same thing?” asked the old monk.

“No!” said a lass; “and that is the answer. The Exchequer’s assistant was smart, but the baker’s boy was wise. He was the adult, not the assistant.”

“Is that what you all think?" Inquired their teacher. When the group all nodded their heads yes, the old Monk pronounced their answer correct. “Neither lad was fully grown, but the Baker's son was more mature than the Clerk. Remember, though, that the Exchequer’s assistant also learned from his error. Being a bright boy, he did not fault anyone else for his error, and in asking forgiveness, he grew closer to adulthood. Now off to your duties!” finished Roger; “I have kept you all much too long. Be here bright and early in one week.”

As his class filed out, the old Monk sighed; this class was the hardest he had to teach, for the horrows of little Helga’s death were only the beginning of the evil that would come later. “But still,” he said to himself; “I know of no other way to get them to ask me the critical question.” He sighed again, and then stood and grabbed his mug; perhaps there was cider and cookies available in the kitchen to combat the sadness of what was to come.]

To Be Continued. . .

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

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