The Earl of Northumberland and his son, Henry Percy, known to everyone as Harry Hotspur, waited for the King in the council chamber in the castle at Windsor. Northumberland’s brother,Worcester, was also present. Sir Walter Blunt and some other courtiers were in attendance. King Henry, still angry at having been crossed, entered and came straight to the point.
‘I’ve been too understanding and level-headed – too reluctant to rise to these indignities – and you have sensed this and tested my patience accordingly,’ he told them. ‘But make no mistake, from now on I will behave like a king, mighty and to be feared, rather than according to my natural temperament, which has been as smooth as oil, as soft as eider down. I’ve therefore lost the respect that a man of authority should command from other men of authority.’
Worcester spoke first: ‘Our family, my sovereign liege, little deserves to be scourged by greatness – that same greatness, moreover, which we have helped to make so great.’
‘My lord…,’ Northumberland began, but the King, not having taken his angry eyes off Worcester, interrupted.
‘Worcester, be gone! I detect danger and disobedience in your eyes. Oh sir, your manner is too bold and too familiar. Kings don’t yet tolerate a sullen, defiant expression on the face of a subject! You have my permission to go. When we need your help and advice we shall send for you!’ He waited as Worcester turned on his heel and marched away, his head defiantly raised, then he looked at Northumberland. ‘You were about to say something.’
‘Yes, my good lord. Those prisoners taken by Harry Percy at Holmedon, and which you have demanded, were not, according to him, denied with such vehemence as was reported to your Majesty. Either spite or a misunderstanding is guilty of this fault, not my son.’
The young Hotspur came forward and knelt before the King.
‘My liege,’ he said. ‘I did not deny you any prisoners. I remember, though, when the fighting was over, when I was exhausted from anger and extreme exertion, breathless and faint, leaning on my sword, a certain lord appeared, neat and dapper, fresh as a bridegroom, his chin, newly shaved, showing like stubble on a newly harvested field. He exuded perfume like a milliner and he held a bottle of scent between his finger and thumb and every now and again he lifted it to his nose then took it away again, and although it made him sneeze each time, he never stopped smiling and talking. And as the soldiers carried dead bodies past him he called them ignorant knaves, bad mannered to bring a decomposing, hideous corpse between the wind and his noble self. He went on at me in pretentious and effeminate language and amongst all the other things he said he demanded my prisoners in your Majesty’s name. Smarting as I was at the time with congealing wounds and on top of that being pestered with a pet parrot, I answered thoughtlessly – I don’t know what (whether he could have them or couldn’t) – because I was out of patience and in pain. He made me furious, looking so clean and fresh, smelling so sweet, and talking about guns and drums and wounds in the language of a gentlewoman’s lady-in-waiting, God help us! And telling me that the most fabulous thing on earth for an internal wound was spermaceti balm, and that it was a great pity – it really was – that this appalling gunpowder should be dug out of the bowels of the innocent earth which so many fit men had destroyed in such a cowardly fashion, and if it weren’t for these vile guns he would have been a soldier himself. And I didn’t respond seriously to this hollow rambling chatter of his, my lord, as I have said, and I beg you not to let his report be taken seriously as an accusation that might stand between my loyalty and your high Majesty.’
The King looked at Sir Walter with a question in his eyes. Sir Walter stepped forward and put his hand on Hotspur’s shoulder.
‘Considering the circumstances, my dear lord,’ Sir Walter began, ‘whatever Lord Harry Percy said to that person in that place at that time, with all the circumstances described, could all be forgotten and never raised again to be held against him provided he withdraws it now.’
‘But he’s still refusing to hand the prisoners over,’ the King said. ‘He’s making the one proviso and condition that we should ransom – at our own expense – his brother-in-law, the foolish Mortimer. Upon my soul, Mortimer wilfully betrayed the lives of those he led to fight against that powerful magician, damned Glendower; the one whose daughter – so we hear – the Earl of March has recently married. Are we supposed to empty our coffers to bring a traitor home? Are we supposed to pay for treason and sponsor cowards who have lost and surrendered? No, let him starve on the barren mountains because I’ll never regard that man as my friend whose mouth will ask for one penny to ransom home the rebellious Mortimer.’
‘The rebellious Mortimer?’ Hotspur looked as though he had been personally attacked. ‘He never wavered, my sovereign liege, unless it was due to the fortunes of war. To demonstrate that needs only one tongue to speak for all those wounds, those mouth-like wounds which he took so valiantly as he engaged in close combat with the great Glendower for the best part of an hour. They stopped three times for a breathing space and they drank three times by agreement from the fast-flowing Severn which, terrified by their violent appearance, ran in fear among the trembling reeds, hiding its disturbed surface, bloodstained by these valiant combatants. Outright cunning has never hidden behind such deadly wounds, nor could the noble Mortimer have received so many, and all willingly. So don’t let him be slandered with the name of rebel.’
The King banged his fist down on the arm of the throne. ‘You’re wrong, Percy – you’re wrong!’ he exclaimed. ‘He never had an encounter with Glendower. I tell you, he might as well have met the devil himself, as Owen Grendower! Aren’t you ashamed?’ He glared at the young man for a moment then took a deep breath. ‘But sirrah,’ he continued, ‘don’t let me hear you mention Mortimer from now on. Send me your prisoners immediately or you will hear from me in a way that you won’t like at all. My Lord Northumberland, we give you permission to leave with your son.’ He got up and strode across the chamber then turned at the door and called to Hotspur. ‘Send us your prisoners or you’ll hear of it!’
The court officials and Sir Walter followed him out, leaving Hotspur and his father alone in the chamber.
Hotspur had been making a great effort to hide his rage and now he burst out with: ‘Even if the devil comes and roars for them I won’t send them! I’m going after him right now to tell him so because it will make me feel better, even though I’ll be putting my head on the block!’
His father put a restraining hand on his arm. ‘What? Drunk with rage?’ he said. ‘Stop and reflect for a moment. Here comes your uncle,’ as Worcester entered the chamber.
‘Mention Mortimer?’ Hotspur’s face was red. ‘By God’s wounds I’ll mention him! And let my soul be merciless if I don’t side with him! Yes, for his sake I’ll empty my veins and shed my precious blood, drop by drop in the dirt, but I’ll lift the down-trodden Mortimer as high in the air as this ungrateful king – as this ungrateful, corrupt Bolingbroke!’
Worcester raised an eyebrow at his brother.
‘Brother,’ Northumberland said, ‘the King has made your nephew mad.’
‘Who started this quarrel after I left?’
Hotspur’s eyes blazed. ‘He’ll be satisfied with nothing less than all my prisoners!’ he exclaimed. ‘And when I urged the ransom of my wife’s brother, once again his face went white and he gave me a look that would have killed me if looks could kill, trembling at the mention of Mortimer’s name.’
‘I don’t blame him,’ said Worcester. ‘Wasn’t he proclaimed by the late Richard as the next in line to the throne?’
‘He was,’ said Northumberland. ‘I actually heard the proclamation. ‘It was when the unhappy King – may God forgive us for wronging him! – set out on his Irish expedition, which he interrupted to return, be deposed and hastily murdered.’
Worcester smiled grimly. ‘And for whose death we have been scandalised and bad-mouthed by the whole world.’
‘But wait a minute,’ said Hotspur, ‘did King Richard actually proclaim my brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, heir to the crown?’
‘He did,’ said Northumberland. ‘I heard it with my own ears.’
Hotspur nodded. ‘Well. Then I don’t blame his cousin the King for wishing he would starve on a barren mountain. Is it going to be the case that you, who put the crown on the head of this forgetful man, and for whose sake you bear the stigma of being accomplices to murder – is it going to be the case that you are going to endure the contempt of the world for being his agents or his henchmen – his ropes, his ladders, even his hangmen? Forgive me for sinking so low as to spell out exactly where you stand regarding this subtle king! Will it be shamefully spoken about in our times, or written into the history books, that men of your nobility and power used your position in the unjust cause (as both of you – may God forgive you – have done) of deposing Richard – that sweet lovely rose – to plant this thorn, this blighted Bolingbroke? And will it be said in addition, more shamefully, that you are fooled, discarded and shaken off by the same man on whose behalf you undertook these shameful things? No. But there is still time to redeem your banished honours and regain your reputations. Revenge the jeers and the disdainful contempt of this haughty king who spends his days and nights thinking of ways to repay his debt to you, that payment being your violent deaths. And so, what I say is…’
Worcester stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
‘Quiet, cousin,’ he said, ‘Don’t say anything else. And now I’m going to let you into a secret – something deep and dangerous that will satisfy your strong sense of grievance. It’s as full of danger and as hazardous as crossing a roaring river on a spear.’
‘If you fall in, it’s goodbye whether you sink or swim,’ said Hotspur. ‘Let danger come from all sides, east and west, it can be tackled as long as it’s done with honour. Oh, it takes a lot more courage to rouse a lion than to frighten a hare!’
Northumberland leant towards Worcester: ‘Thoughts of some heroic exploit are getting the better of him,’ he said softly.
Hotspur slammed his chest with his fist. ‘By heaven!’ he exclaimed, ‘I think it’s an easy thing to grasp shining honour from the silvery moon, or to dive to the bottom of the sea, where fathom lines can never reach the ground, to pull drowning honour up by her hair! As long as the one who’s rescued her can have all the credit. Down with this pathetic sharing!’
Worcester tutted. ‘He’s in a world of fantasy; not the real world.’ He spoke directly to the young man: ‘Dear cousin, listen to me for a moment.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Hotspur said.
‘Those noble Scots who are your prisoners…’ Worcester began.
‘I’m keeping them all!’ Hotspur exclaimed. ‘By God, he’ll not have a single Scot of them! Even if one of them could save his soul he won’t have him! I’m keeping them: I swear by this hand!’
‘There you go again,’ said Worcester. ‘You’re not listening to me. You can keep those prisoners…’
Hotspur interrupted him again: ‘Yes, I will. And that’s flat! He said he wouldn’t ransom Mortimer – forbade me to mention Mortimer! But I’ll get him when he’s fast asleep, and I’ll shout “Mortimer!” in his ear. ‘Yes, and I’ll get a talking bird and teach it to say nothing but “Mortimer”, and give it to him to keep his anger going.’
Worcester persisted: ‘Listen, cousin, I’d like to say something.’
Hotspur wasn’t ready to come down to earth yet. ‘I hereby solemnly declare that I will renounce all activities other than annoying and irritating this Bolingbroke,’ he said. ‘And as for that swashbuckling Prince of Wales, if it weren’t that I think that his father doesn’t like him and would gladly see him meet with some accident, I’d have him poisoned with a pot of ale!’
Worcester sighed and turned away. ‘Farewell, kinsman,’ he said. ‘I’ll talk to you when you’re in a better mood to listen.’
Northumberland reprimanded his son: ‘Why, what a waspish and impatient fool you are to break into this womanish mood, listening to nothing but your own voice!’
‘Look here,’ insisted his son, ‘I’m whipped and scourged with canes, stung by nettles and ants, whenever I hear anything about this vile manipulator, Bolingbroke. In Richard’s time – what do you call the place? Damn! You know, it’s in Gloucestershire – it was where the reckless Duke kept his uncle: his uncle Duke of York – where I first knelt before this king of smiles, this Bolingbroke. God’s blood! – you know it – when you and he came back from Ravenspurgh…’
‘At Berkely Castle,’ his father said.
‘That’s it!’ Hotspur rushed on with his complaint: ‘Why, what a load of candy courtesy this fawning greyhound offered me!”Look how the promise of his infancy has been fulfilled”, and “Gentle Harry Percy”, and “kind cousin”. Oh, may such tricksters go to the devil! God forgive me!’
He gasped, out of breath from his enraged outburst. Then he smiled. ‘Dear uncle, tell me your story. I’ve finished.
Worcester waved him aside casually. ‘No, if you haven’t, carry on. We’ll await your leisure.”
Hotspur spoke quietly and calmly. ‘I’ve finished, I promise,’ he said.
They stared at him for a few moments, then Worcester nodded.
‘Then, on the subject of your Scottish prisoners. Release them immediately without their ransom and keep Douglas’ son as your only hostage with the demand for a Scottish army which, for many reasons, which I’ll write to you about, you can be sure, will easily be granted. ‘He turned to Northumberland. ‘You, my lord, while your son is thus employed in Scotland, will get the confidence of that noble, well-loved prelate, the Archbishop.’
‘Of York, you mean?’
‘Of course. He’s taking his brother, Lord Scroop’s, execution in Bristol, hard. I’m not speculating about this – not what I think the situation might be – but saying what I know has been discussed, planned and decided on. It remains only to find the right time to act on it.’
‘I get it,’ said Hotspur. ‘On my life it’s brilliant!’
‘You’re making a too-hasty start, setting off even before the race has begun!’ his father warned.
‘But it can’t be anything else but a great plan!’ Hotspur exclaimed. ‘And so the armies of Scotland and York will combine with Mortimer!’ He punched the air. ‘Ha!’
‘And so they will,’ said Worcester.
‘Absolutely,’ said Hotspur. ‘It’s exceedingly well planned.’
‘And we’ve got every reason to move rapidly,’ said Worcester. ‘To save our heads by acting first, because however hard we try to be reasonable the King will always think himself in our debt and believe that we’re discontented until he can repay us. You can see how he’s already beginning to deny us his friendly looks.’
‘He is, he is!’ Hotspur almost jumped for joy. ‘We’ll be revenged on him!’
‘Cousin, farewell,’ said Worcester. ‘Don’t go any futher in this than what I’ll direct in my letters. When the time is ripe, which will be soon, I’ll go to Glendower and Lord Mortimer in secret, where you and Douglas and our armies will conveniently meet according to my arrangements. And we’ll be able to control our own destiny from a position of strength, compared with our present state of uncertainty.’
Northumberland took his hand. ‘Farewell, dear brother,’ he said. ‘We’ll succeed: I’m sure of that.’
Hotspur clasped his uncle’s hand and shook it vigorously. ‘Uncle, adieu,’ he said. ‘Oh, let time fly until battlefields and blows and groans constitute our lives!’