Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Last Days of Guillaume de Longespee- Short Story

I like to speculate a lot, and I like to speculate on the hidden possibilities of history too.  As a historian, I can't take any such liberties.  Rather than try to defend preposterous theories, however, I feel like I can create a satisfying sideline writing historical fiction for my less-defensible propositions.  If I am to be an academic, I will be an honest academic and if I am to be a writer, I will be as sensational and histrionic as I dare, but I hope never to find myself in the unenviable position of being a sensational and histrionic historian by calling my historical fiction a serious inquiry.

Furthermore, historical fiction gives me a chance to become involved in the story, and lay down all semblance of objectivity to tell the story as I see it play out, using the skeletal scenario played out in the history books as a framework to improvise a story filled with human emotion.

This story was my first true attempt at historical fiction, as it defends the first preposterous theory I've thought worth writing about, and includes embellishments from medieval chroniclers, something I could never do in a serious history essay.  Anyone offended by the historicity of the story should remember that it is only speculative historical fiction.

Set in late 1225/early 1226, it tells the story of Guillaume (William) Longespee, illegitimate son of Henry II, he served various offices under four kings (Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III) but is best known as the Earl of Salisbury, a title he married into thanks to Richard's arrangement of his marriage to Ela, Countess of Salisbury.  In fact, he is best known as "Salisbury" in many texts.

Part of the reason I chose him was because not a whole lot of good material, fiction or nonfiction, has been written about him despite the fact that he was involved with some of the most important people and events in his era.  He was a major figure, for instance, in convincing King John to adopt the Magna Carta.  He is briefly depicted in Shakespeare's "Life and Death of King John," he's portrayed in at least one badly-dated Georgian novel "Longsword, Earl of Salisbury," he's a character in a recent children's book where he is made into a very cliche knight in shining armor, and he's a figure in several novels by Elizabeth Chadwick who claims to have channeled his Akashic Records.

I, claim no inspiration up front for my work except imagination and research (that may be why this attempt is a bit rough in my honest opinion).  While much of my source material is from Roger of Wendover's Flores Historiarum (including the scene where Salisbury sees the Virgin Mary in the rigging of the ship, a scene I turned into a subjective interpretation of St. Elmo's fire on his part), I also challenge Wendover's narrative with the fact that Salisbury is sick from the time he leaves Gascony, and he isn't cast adrift for three whole months like the Christian Odysseus Wendover made him into.  Instead, the whole "cast adrift for three months" deal is revealed to be part of an elaborate ruse to hide the fact that he is dying and knows he is dying for some months before he finally succumbs to his unspecified illness.

My one biggest error- and one I suspected was wrong from the start- was a source that had erroneously stated that Salisbury had been on crusade with Richard and was at the Siege of Acre.  By the best accounts I can find, this is based on mistaken identities in medieval chronicles and he was probably too busy for the crusades as one of the barons Richard left to run the country (hence his close relationship to John who was also not involved in the Crusades).

Also, I play with his likely age quite a lot.  I used speculation I found from the 1910 Catholic encyclopedia that he had been a close friend of Marie de France, which was based on his birth date being around 1150 as the son of Henry and "Fair" Rosamund.  However, he was probably born around 1176 as his mother is now known to have been Ida de Tosny.

But the reasoning behind the real twist in the story, I will tell at the end of this post because it contains spoilers!

The Last Days of Guillaume de Longespée
by Rose LaCroix

Abbot Claude walked through the cloister of Notre Dame de Ré. Once it had been a peaceful island in the Bay of Biscay, comfortably surrounded by possessions of the King of England; now the island, while not yet ceded by the crown, was under the control of King Louis' barons.

Beside him, ill with an ailment that the brothers in the infirmary were at a loss to name, walked Guillaume Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, whose efforts to save Gascony for the Crown had been in vain. His brow bore the fretful crease of a man condemned as he shuffled unsteadily along the stones of the shaded cloister, disguised in the white robes of a monk.

"I don't have very long to live," he said as he leaned on his cane, catching his breath. "Please, let me take holy orders and become a monk."

"You are ill, my son," said the abbot. "Please, bring these matters to me when you are well enough to enter into the service of God."

"I don't believe I have long. I may be dead before the weather is fair enough to return to England. At least let me die in grace!" he protested.

"I will not. That will be between you and the Almighty," said the abbot, turning toward a narrow stairway up to a tiny room built into a half-octagon bulge in the outer wall of the East Range of the cloister.

Within the room lay a small private study, barely large enough for the two to stand in comfortably and lit only by a single narrow window, the late afternoon sun streaming into a narrow shaft on the abbot's desk.

Salisbury followed, undeterred as the abbot slammed the door behind them and sat down at his desk.  "You have orders to serve your king, and your king has called you back to England," said the abbot.

"Then let me take up holy orders. Let me become a monk," Salisbury said quietly. "Even the Kings of France and England will not refuse the church."

"No," said Abbot Claude just as firmly and quietly. "Absolutely not."

"You would deny a man who would serve the King of Heaven instead?" Salisbury said, his eyes at once full of quiet intensity.

"In this abbey, I represent the King of Heaven and I will have you just as soon serve the King of England," the abbot replied sharply.

"I'll appeal to the chapter, then," said Salisbury. "I'm sure they would not refuse me."

"What about your Ela?" said the abbot.

"Ela..." Said Salisbury, a look of sorrowful longing in his eyes.

"I knew you would see things my way," said the abbot. "You are to leave this abbey and return to England when spring arrives. Now go, let me be."

"Please, Father, my heart is heavy." Salisbury's tall frame seemed fully a foot shorter as he slouched visibly, his eyes now sorrowful and his expression defeated.

The abbot sighed. "You really don't want to leave this island, do you?" he said.

"If I am going to die, I want to die in grace. There are grave sins on my soul," he said.

The abbot winced. "Whatever sin it is that you refuse to confess, I have already told you that the crusade was penance enough. You are guaranteed salvation."

"I myself killed a hundred Saracens in cold blood at Acre," he said. "My salvation could not have come of the blood of fellow warriors."

"No one in Christendom has thought wrong of it," the abbot replied. "The filthy heathens had to know we were coming. If they didn't want to be killed they should never have fought the warriors of Christ."

"There were honorable men among the heathens," Salisbury said. "We spared Saladin, but killed perhaps a thousand of his equals or betters."

"Equals and betters?" the abbot said. "There is no such thing! And I would wager that Saladin is only a hero in these silly courtly fantasies that distract men from God. Really... what would Richard Couer de Lion think of your regrets?"

"Don't speak to me about Richard Couer de Lion!" Salisbury shouted. "You are not fit to know the heart of such a man!" He stormed away, slamming the heavy wooden door behind him.

* * *

Only a few short months earlier, he had set sail for Gascony with a compliment of his fellow barons. He still had his strength, and like his elder colleague Guillaume le Marechal, he seemed a tireless servant of the crown. But the campaign had gone sour and Salisbury had begun to feel weak, hoarse, and lethargic as fever set in.

Setting sail from Gascony, a great storm had set upon the ships of the barons and the Earl of Salisbury's ship had lost sight of the rest of the flotilla.

Salisbury himself had slept much of the way, weak and ready to surrender to his fever, when a commotion amid the coldly comforting roar of the storm caused him to rise from the small bed roll laid out for him.

He nearly fell again as he found the deck listed hard to the port side, but managed to keep his footing and staggered to where his comrades stood beneath the mast, marveling at something there.

"What is it?" said Salisbury.

"Look!" said an astonished sailor, pointing at the top of the mast.

There was a bright light up there, not unlike a St. Elmo's Fire, but in the deep gloom of the stormy night he could see, faintly at first, a beautiful woman, dark-haired and fair-faced, shielding a great ceremonial taper where a flame burned brightly.

Salisbury said nothing as the men waited for his reaction. A serene smile crossed his lips.

"Thank you, my lady," he said and crossed himself slowly and reverently.

A broad-shouldered, sandy-haired young knight gave him a curious look. "What is it, sire?" he asked.

"A favor returned, Sir Thomas. That's the taper I lit to my lady Mary the day I got my spurs," Salisbury said, then staggered and fell onto the sloping deck, sliding to a stop against the dampening gunwales.

Several of the men on board quickly picked him up and took him back to his bed roll, semiconscious and delirious.

He awoke in a launch, just as daylight had begun to break over the Bay of Biscay.

"Is the ship lost?" he said as he came to.

There was Sir Thomas. He looked concerned. "We'll be safe enough, sire, ship's in bad order but she'll be mended. We've sighted land and we're nearly ashore," he said.

"Can I count on you in my next campaign?" Salisbury said weakly.

"My Lord! It'd be an honor!" Sir Thomas said, his broad, granite jaw grinding into a boyish grin. "Back in Richard's day, watching you in the tourney, I'd have killed for you to ask me even once."

"Richard's dead?" Salisbury said drowsily, before he felt his mind wander, then go blank again.

Salisbury woke to the sound of a door bursting open. He saw himself indoors, in a great room with beds, where a great crucifix hung on the far wall. There, by his bed, stood Sir Thomas along with two monks.

"Sire, are you awake?" he said, looking worried.

"What is it, Sir Thomas?" the Earl said in a strained voice.

"Sire, we have to get out of here. We've just been told by two soldiers in the service of Saveric de Mauleon that you will not be safe here," Sir Thomas said.

One of the monks shook his head. "He's in no condition to travel. A sea voyage in winter time will kill him."

"But he can't stay here! He'll die if he's taken captive! He's lost his strength," Sir Thomas said.

At that, Salisbury raised a hand calmly.  "Give my mail and my sword to another man of my build. Send him away by launch in my stead. Give me the robes of a monk and let me rest here, until I have my strength back."

"My Lord, I don't know if that will work," said Sir Thomas.

"Do it, or I might change my mind about having you on my next campaign!" Salisbury said, a bit of the old fire in his eyes as he sat up slightly, then fell back again, clutching his temples.

One of the monks- who apparently tended the infirmary- took a cloth dampened in cool water and placed it on the Earl's forehead, dabbing away the sweat that poured down his furrowed brow.

"See to it these men who warned me are paid handsomely from my treasury. Give them each twenty Pounds, if you cannot find twenty Pounds then you may write them a note for that amount and I will seal it," Salisbury said quietly.

"It will be done, My Lord," said Sir Thomas.

He then turned to the elder of the two monks. "Tell the abbot to send word to my Ela that I am alive and will return shortly, but the seas are rough and may delay me."

"It will be done," the monk said. "Abbot Claude will be delighted to help you."

* * *

Christmas day found Salisbury at death's door in the infirmary, begging to return to England. He lapsed into delirium and began to think that he had landed in Cornwall. Only when his senses returned, on the last day of December, did he recognize his surroundings as the infirmary. But as the weeks wore on, the Earl's strength began to return and by Epiphany, he was able to walk on his own with the aid of a cane. That day, he promised the abbot that when the first signs of Spring came to the island, he would leave and return to his lady, Countess Ela.

It wasn't that he didn't love her, though it was a love tempered by duty: he had promised Richard to love her with all his heart on the day he gave him her hand in marriage, and he had made good on that. But now, as his time at Notre Dame de Ré grew short, the Earl of Salisbury began to feel that he was better off in the service of God.

Now, with Abbot Claude clearly against him, the matter was in the hands of the chapter, but the abbot would not allow him to plead his case before them; instead, he would have to wait, sitting on his hands while men he hardly knew decided his fate.

It came as no surprise when the chapter's decision was read to him in the infirmary by a senior monk: he was to leave for England as soon as the seas were calm enough.

* * *

Reluctantly, one day in mid-February, Abbot Claude allowed Salisbury to leave the abbey for a day's walk. His strength had begun to return, and there was a deep restlessness in the old knight's demeanor that pained the graying Abbot.

Disguised in the white robes of the Cistercian order, the Earl of Salisbury set his foot outside the door of Notre Dame de Ré for the first time in many months.

Salisbury could not help but smile as he saw the monks busy tending the very earliest, hardiest greens in the herb gardens that surrounded the abbey. The sky was clear and blue for once, and the wind- icy but fortuitous- blew out from the mainland of France across the Bay of Biscay, calling him along the beach to the far side of the island.

He stood there, gazing across the wide seas. There were streaks of white here and there as the wind whipped the spray, but there were no swells. A small fishing boat sat just off the coast, the fishermen casting their nets into the sapphire blue waters.

Suddenly, Salisbury fell to his knees and began to weep bitterly. Soon, he would have to leave this island, never to return. He would make a last voyage to Old Sarum, that ancient storm-raked keep atop an earthwork fort older than memory and infested with restless spirits. The rain made corridors damp and mossy, the wind howled like packs of wolves every night, and the way to the ice-cold garderobe was treacherous and hastily-built. It was a miserable place to live and a miserable place to die.

But then, there was Ela...

From his knees, he rose slightly, bending one leg forward. "I haven't forgotten you, Ela" he said quietly. "I will return to you." Even if I am a sad sight, he added silently to himself.

* * *

The Earl of Salisbury landed in the Bristol Channel on the twenty-fifth of February 1226. He arrived without fanfare, and quickly made his way back to Old Sarum.

He regaled them with tales of his adventures, of standing on the battlefield as the King's Champion, of a midnight escape from the abbey and of many months lost at sea. It took a lot out of him, he claimed, and he would be fine after some much-deserved rest.

A week later, Salisbury was bedridden.

He had become very poorly very fast. He was short of breath, feverish, and shivered constantly, and developed a horrid case of dysentery that sent him rushing to the Garderobe every few minutes.

Then on the seventh of March, In a moment between bouts of delirium, he called for a priest.

A priest was brought in from a nearby parish chapel in Sarum. The priest was a young man, new to the clergy and scarcely literate enough to perform the Last Rites. He was not prepared for what the Earl had to say.

"Let us be a moment," Salisbury said to Ela and to his children. They bowed politely and left, with Ela casting a last worried glance at him as she closed the door.

"Father," said Salisbury, sitting up with the last of his strength and fondling his rosary, "I have sinned... grievously."

"Tell me your sins, my son," the priest replied, starting to look apprehensive.

"I have confessed to many sins of the flesh," the Earl said, "And lost myself in the company of many women. But I did not consummate with Ela until she was twenty-two years of age. Do you know why?"

"How so?" the priest asked, starting to look very apprehensive.

"Ela's hand was given in marriage to me by Richard Couer de Lion. The day we wed, he held our hands together and asked me to love her as much as I loved him. But father, I confess that I am guilty of the very same sins as my brother.  And when he died, I became celibate for years out of guilt.  You see, we had loved many of the same men."

That was around the time the priest broke a sweat. "Good Lord," he breathed.

"I was his brother, in blood and in arms," Salisbury continued. "Richard knew the secrets of my heart, and I knew the secrets of his.  When he died, I feared that I would suffer the same fate for my sins.  I could not consummate with Ela because I could not look at any man or woman with a lustful thought after I lost him."

"Bless me," said the priest, wiping his brow.

"Will I be forgiven, then?" Salisbury pleaded, tears in his eyes.

"If I were you, I would spend the rest of my time on earth praying," the priest said. "But the Lord is nothing if not merciful. Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat; et ego auctoritate ipsius te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis et interdicti in quantum possum et tu indiges. Deinde, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

Thus the long vigil began, and William, Earl of Salisbury softly prayed to himself, Rosary in hand, as he contemplated death.

Ela held his hand and their children and servants looked on. William the Younger seemed deeply touched by his father's sincerity and knelt at the bedside opposite Ela, his father's bony hand with rosary tightly clutched resting on his cropped strawberry blond hair.

In the stillness, as the wind howled outside the keep, he thought of his vision of the Virgin shielding the taper he'd lit so many years ago. That vision saw him safely to shore and safely to his home, where his family waited by his side.

At once it occurred to him that nothing he had done would keep him from dying well. Whatever he had done, he had no quarrel with heaven and heaven had no quarrel with him and by and by, his voice faded from prayer over life's regrets into quiet remembrance of life's joys.

He smiled as he thought of his mistress Marie de france and her friend Chrétien de Troyes, both long since gone before. Marie loved song, arts, and stories and together they spent many nights reading tales of gallantry to each other and making love; few writers kept them warmer on those nights than Chrétien.

Chrétien had died when Salisbury was young, before he could finish his wonderful romance about Perceval and the Grail. Perhaps, Salisbury thought wistfully, he had finished that story in heaven... or perhaps the story would not matter.

"Whom does the Grail serve?" Salisbury mumbled softly with a serene smile.

"I don't understand," said Ela, looking concerned.

"Never mind, it was a long time ago," Salisbury mumbled, closing his eyes and taking a breath as deep as his tortured lungs could manage.

At once, he thought he felt a had touch his face, a hand he knew well from those long ago days of song and story in the Angevin courts, and at once Salisbury knew the time for reflection was over.

"Goodbye," he said.

He wheezed a few times, then fell still, and was gone in a moment.


Now a word about my speculation about Salisbury's sexuality... that was rampant speculation but it is not impossible by a long shot.  The evidence for it would never be worthy of a serious history essay, but it leaves a work of fiction squarely in the realm of possibility.  

What is known are the following facts:
*There is continued and highly-contested speculation that Richard I was bisexual.  
*It is more widely accepted by historians that homosexuality did run in the Plantagenet line, with William Rufus and Edward II and (it is rumored) Richard II as well.  
*Among Richard's rumored lovers were some of his knights, which although I've yet to see a source for that does give one the feeling of a secret cadre of high-profile gay and bi men who were able to survive in an age of compulsory heterosexuality simply because they had political power.
*Salisbury married while Ela was still quite young, but their first child was not born until she was in her mid-20s by which point they had been married some years (though in all truth, he was probably just too busy).
*Salisbury was known to carouse and probably did have many lovers; however, there is no evidence in the incredibly sparse resources about him that any of them were male.
*Salisbury is said to have leaped from his bed and tearfully begged to take confession in his later days.  He was clearly a man with a lot on his chest!
*Something like 70% of adults are innately bisexual to some small extent and likely to experiment under the right conditions.

Making him bisexual accounts for the female companions he doubtless had, and his success as a father, siring perhaps 8 children by his death in 1226.  Hopefully this will not offend his rather prodigious number of living descendants, whose genealogical records were of assistance to writing this story.

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