The King's toads

This book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any living person is purely coincidental. That said, the historical events and principal characters are real.
Thanks to Linda Lowe for her stint at editing, and to Michael Tanner for his support during the novel’s gestation.
About the author
John Bottrill Ph.D. is a former professor - author of learned papers in Psychology and several books.
Apart from writing and genealogical research, he enjoys renovating houses, furniture and paintings. He currently lives in Spain with his partner and a naughty cat, called Porage.
Information about living in Spain can be found at
Historical information about the Boterel family (the original spelling!) can be found at and 
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or distributed without permission, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.
©2013 Copyright John Bottrill
Chapter 1 Nicholas Boterel, the prince, and the sparrow 1073
Chapter 2 ‘The English are revolting’ – Hereward the Wake 1070 - 1073
Chapter 3 Castle building in the North, and royal conspiracies 1073 - 1079
Chapter 4 Disaster at the banquet 1079 - 1081
Chapter 5 Sexual solutions 1081
Chapter 6 Banishment to the Order of Sion 1081 – 1983
Chapter 7 Trouble in Spain, and family marriages 1083- 1086
Chapter 8 New Boterel lands, and the dreadful funeral of William I1086 – 1087
Chapter 9 Family lands in Brittany 1087
Chapter 10 Les Bottereaux in Normandy 1088
Chapter 11 Rebellions, love, and the richest Boterel 1087 - 1088
Chapter 12 Boterel fratricide, and misplaced clerical love 1089 - 1095
Chapter 13 Order of Sion, and a call for Crusade 1094 -1096
Chapter 14 1st Crusade with Boterels in Jerusalem 1099
Chapter 15 Sion conspiracy, and the prophesied death of William II 1100
Chapter 16 Regicide 1100
Chapter 17 Nicholas Boterel and Henry I 1100 – 1106
Chapter 18 The Boterels and the king’s mistress 1102 -1118
Chapter 19 A royal tragedy 1120 – 1135
Chapter 20 Civil war – King Stephen and the Empress 1135– 1141
Chapter 21 The Boterels, the war, and disgrace 1141 -1154
Word count: 97000+
Illustrations: 111 Pages: 229


In the stables at Evreux, a prince yelled in pain. His opponent leered in satisfaction. The smack had been on target.

"Wake up, Coppertop! Your last throw."

The game had begun well enough. The smells of straw, manure, old leather, and horse sweat pressed down in the humid afternoon. The sunlight, almost stifling that Autumn of 1073, streamed in through the doorway, enhancing the feeling of cosy security in the old stalls. And the boys’ game of dice, far from the mumblings of a disgruntled tutor, had become almost an effort, its aura of naughtiness wearing thin.

Prince William Rufus, second son of the new king, William the Conqueror, almost seventeen now, jerked from his daydream. He picked up the dice and held them against his forehead to magic them, as he sometimes could. Carefully he cast them on the brick, and they bounced away until brought up short against the partition. A fair head and a black banged together as the boys excitedly craned together to check the outcome.

"Six and four - I win," shouted Rufus. "You're out of luck today, Godfrey."

The darker boy, Godfrey de Bouillon, scooped up the dice sourly. This wasn't supposed to happen. Normally he could arrange a more satisfactory outcome. He forced a smile.

"Come on. One more throw," he suggested, "as a decider." And he played with the dice, adroitly arranging them for a winning throw.

"Oh, no. The wager was best of ten throws, and I've won fairly."

"Just one more throw. I thought you a better sportsman."

"Not when I've just won your hawk. It's pay-up time. Come on, I want to see her."

"What's all the hurry for? My father says the only place you get to any faster is the tomb. Let's have another bet. It’s only fair to give a man a chance to regain his losses."

"Maybe so, but I'd have you honour your wager first."

His opponent’s knuckles showed white as he gripped the dice. "Are you saying I have no honour?" he demanded.

The prince drew himself up to his full height, and looked up at his opponent. "We wagered, you lost and now it's time to pay up. I realise how you feel, but then I would have felt the same if I'd lost to you."

"You don't trust me! By God's belly, I'll not take that from a bastard’s spawn."

“Take that back By god, I'll make you pay.

"God? God's not for you or any of your pagan religion," sneered the other. “You can rot in Hell.”

Adrenalin surged through Rufus's bloodstream, his face went even redder than usual, and he leaped at his opponent, bowling him over. The dice flew across the stall and out into the yard as Godfrey tried to save himself. His shout of fury ended abruptly in a grunt of pain as his head thudded on the floor. Rufus's eyes lit up but, before he could straddle the fallen youth, Godfrey kicked out and rolled onto his knees, pulling his adversary down with a shout of triumph. He grinned and smacked the smaller lad's face hard. Through a haze of blood and tangled hair, Rufus yelled in impotent rage, his one free arm against two. Cloth ripped and limbs flailed as they rolled across the floor.

Attracted by the dice rolling across the yard, a stable boy tracked them easily to their source. He grinned as he peered round the door, and beckoned the other lads over to enjoy the un-knightly performance. Godfrey was easily the bigger and heavier of the two, even though younger, and he now had his opponent pinned to the floor. The prince’s legs kicked ineffectually until Godfrey, grinning wolfishly in anticipation of further mayhem, shifted backwards carelessly, bringing his ear within boot range.

The blow struck, a sharp wriggle got Rufus away from the dazed boy rocking on his heels, and he leaped to seize the advantage. The torn shirt was ripped further, betraying Godfrey’s birthmark – a red cross between his shoulder blades. Immediately, the fight left Godfrey. He whipped round snarling, attempting to conceal the mark – the secret birthmark of the old French royal family.

A bellow of fury rang out. “What’s going on? What the hell d'you two think you're doing?" The day hadn’t been a great success so far and the king, attracted by his son’s yell, now took out his frustration on a suitable target.

The sustaining heat of rage evaporated in an instant to be replaced by rocks and ice. Jerked back to a sober present, Rufus looked up at his father and swallowed nervously. Crowding into the doorway, half a dozen older knights, including his host, Richard d'Evreux, next to Godfrey’s father, Eustache de Boulogne, and Prince Ursus of Stenay, were watching the scene with open amusement. It had been worth checking on the knot of stable lads, now fled at their approach. Godfrey, still dazed, scrambled awkwardly to his feet and faced the irate king swaying. Rufus opened his mouth, but a second look at his father's face made him shut it again. The king wasn't likely to listen anyway - he never did. Besides, his dishevelled clothes, matted hair, and bloody face proclaimed their own message.

"Well? Haven't you got anything to say for yourselves?"

"Sorry, father."

"I should think so." The king then turned on the other lad. "You're as bad as he is. Is this the way you spend your time - trying to maim your fellows?"

"But, he......," began Godfrey.

"Silence! How dare you argue with me? Who the hell do you think you are?"

The boy shifted awkwardly, aware of his own sire's gaze, and decided to hold his peace.

William glared at his son and swept past on his way to the bailey ward, his golden surcoat flapping in the breeze. Knights and squires followed, some hurrying after him, others drifting off elsewhere. Several grinned at the two deflated combatants behind them, as they tried ineffectually to set themselves to rights.

"There'll be hell to pay now. Serves you right."

"Huh, you should see your eye," retorted Godfrey. "Your sire won't like his son losing. You'll be for it."

In no mood to banter, Rufus made a pithy suggestion and stamped off to make further repairs.

* * * * *

It was late in the day when the knights finished their jousting practice, and still later before King William known as‘The Bastard’, had cleaned up and sent for his son. Rufus's heart sank as he climbed the stairs quietly. He hesitated before the curtain across the entrance to his father's chamber.

"Father," he called, not too loudly.

"Ah yes, come in," snapped his sire.

Sitting on his cot, William scowled at the sword he was holding, giving no sign he was aware of his son's presence. The soft light from the rush lights high on their prickets was made fitful by a procession of moths, darting round the flames before meeting their moment of glory. Rufus's confidence ebbed even further as his sire brooded.

"Pack of good-for-nothings. God knows how anyone could be expected to make knights out of them. Call this sharp?"

He flicked irritably at the rushes and herbs on the floor, then looked up and raked the boy with a cold stare. Rufus felt distinctly uncomfortable, as he usually did with his father, and all the glib explanations he had ready seemed suddenly to be mere cobwebs. Surreptitiously he shifted his weight from one foot to another. His body had begun to ache from his bruises - the beaten earth floor and Godfrey's fists had both left their mark. Would he now have to suffer further punishment from his father? He jumped when his father finally growled, "Explain!"

Dismissal did not come for half an hour at least - it seemed an eternity. A chastened boy stumbled down the ill lit stairs, his father's sharp tongue ringing in his ears. William, his temper always easily roused, had shouted his opinion of the fracas, with complete disregard of his son's fragmenting self-confidence. His son smarted with resentment: it was so unfair – not his fault anyway. He did try to please his father but it didn't always work. They never did anything together. It was different for his elder brother, Richard1 - why didn't father love him like that? There was no doubting his father's dislike of his eldest son, Robert. But that was cold comfort at the moment.

For his part, William needed to take it out on someone. He'd never liked Evreux, but the castle was a convenient stop this time on the way to Caen. He'd had a trying day. First this episode in front of his grinning peers, then a poor showing in combat, and finally a session with his wife in which he'd somehow allowed himself to be manipulated. And now he had once again to deal with this fool boy - as bad as his stupid eldest brother. Why couldn't they be more like Richard? The fight itself wouldn't have mattered, but the boy had lost in front of William’s vassals. The tactful Comte d'Evreux seemed not to have noticed, and had even had something good to say about Rufus's past two years as his squire. Even so, when Lord Eustache had taken his own son's part, William had had to agree as gracefully as possible that the dicing prize should be forfeit.

Rufus's only comfort was that none of his friends had been present to witness his humiliation, though the other boys who shared the guest room wouldn't fail to notice he'd been sent straight to bed with no supper. And when he wasn't with them in the morrow's hawking party, how Godfrey would crow!. Shamed and exhausted, he took to his pallet and went fast asleep, not stirring even in the usual rough and tumble when the other boys came up later. So he had no further chance of settling the matter with Godfrey then.

Next morning, he woke to find the others already up and, by the sound of it, most of them down in the yard getting ready to leave. Quickly he pulled on his drawers and tunic, ran his fingers through his hair, and ran downstairs. Why should that cheat go hawking with his hawk? "That's mine," he shouted when he finally spotted Godfrey in the saddle, the hawk hooded on his wrist.

The other boy's mouth twisted in a mocking smile. "Really? I don't think so. Go and ask your father, if he hasn't already told you, Coppertop."

"Don’t call me Coppertop ...... you cheat!" Rufus clenched his fists, all but inarticulate with rage and frustration. Was his father against him in this too?

"Why not? Your hair’s reddish, isn’t it – like your face? Just like the high priests of the old religion. Is that what you think you are? Cheer up! You’ve just learnt one of life's hard lessons. If a thing's worth fighting for, it's worth cheating for." And he swung away with his sniggering friends.

The defeated boy watched them go, his eyes ready to burst. He never got the hawk, but he never forgot the lesson.

* * * * *

It had been three long days’ ride from his grandfather’s home at Tréguier in Penthièvre on the north coast of Brittany to Dol on the border with Normandy and another three past Mont St. Michel to Caen, King William’s capital as Duke of Normandy, and no one was anything but thankful to dismount in the courtyard of the castle. A long day in the saddle, and the afternoon's drizzle, had left everyone tired and aching. Mired to the girth from the now liquid roads, the horses too looked forward to dry shelter and some of that munchy Norman hay.

Nicholas Boterel, aged thirteen, spent a few moments with Bertha in the stables talking to her while he untacked her, and then left her with a stable lad to be groomed. Carrying his saddlebags he went out into the courtyard, looking around in bewildered interest. It was all strange - much more extensive than he was used to at Penthièvre. His party seemed to have disappeared, and he was unsure where to go. It was huge – much bigger than back home. The curtain walls surrounded open spaces and a lot of separate buildings - barns for storage, horses, chickens etc., workshops, meeting halls - even houses for people to live in.

His indecisive wanderings were rudely cut short by the eruption of another party through the gateway, causing men to scatter from their path. There could be no question who it was - the banner proclaimed William, King of England and Duke of Normandy, known as “the Bastard”. About five foot ten inches tall, the king showed a magnificent appearance, with a fierce expression, strong arms, and dirty blond hair.

Swinging down from his destrier, his sodden leather cape clinging tightly to his riding gear, the king made straight for the keep, followed by the greater nobles, among them Brien and Alan Rufus, Nicholas’ uncles. A smaller figure swathed in a muddy cloak trotted after them– one of the Princes, perhaps. Those of lesser rank swept round and past Nicholas making for their quarters, and the horses were led away to the stables. Soon the courtyard was sufficiently empty for the lad to spot the muddy cloak making its way to the donjon tower. As he hurried after it, a savoury smell drifted from the kitchens, and his stomach rumbled its emptiness after the day's ride.

"Come on, Toady. You're in with us. You look shattered." Emerging from the cloak, Godfrey, bigger built even though the same age, patronised him easily. Nicholas disclaimed his fatigue. He would not have them think him weaker than themselves, and joined in the usual horseplay. But he was glad, little though he cared to admit it, when everyone settled down to clean up, and change for supper. Being last he had a pallet under a window. It might be cold there, but at least most of the fleas would be at the other end of the room for warmth. Besides, the window had a leather flap which would keep at least some of the night vapours out, and he'd probably be sharing the pallet anyway. Hopefully, it would have been well used, and the straw crushed enough not to stick through the canvas. Not for mere lads were linen sheets from Brittany.

After supper Nicholas made his way to the donjon tower and Brien’s, his uncle's, lodgings. "I’ll want a word with you after we've eaten - there's no time now," his uncle had said as he swept past. What could it mean? A careful search of his conscience had revealed no social gaffes so far. One of the youngest there, Nicholas had found a place at the end of the great hall, far removed from his uncles, who sat much nearer the high table. And for some time he had had no thought but for the satisfaction of his hunger and thirst, even though the meat was cold by the time it got down to him. But now even with the inner boy satisfied, he could not feel easy as he climbed the stairs and moved along the narrow passageway to the nearest doorway.

* * * * *

Two men were in the room when he got there, standing talking by the large window overlooking the courtyard. They glanced at him in the doorway, and then turned away to continue the conversation. He peered into the gloom, but the soft glints of gold from the rush lights gave him few clues. It was perhaps the arrogant tone of his uncle's companion, even before his face was momentarily revealed in the nearest light that put the boy on full alert. He hovered as inconspicuously as possible surreptitiously straightening his mantle, and trying in vain to bring some order to his tangled hair. His point made, King William. turned at last toward the boy.

"Your grace, may I present my nephew, Nicholas?" The king's first cousin, Brien, Earl of Cornwall’s, manner was easy rather than deferential, but then he and his brothers Alan Rufus, Alan Niger and William had fought side by side at Hastings in 1066 with the bastard king. In fact, without the four Boterels’ and their contingent, there would have been no Conquest. Since the Conquest, Brien and Alan Rufus had both been often at court. Their brother, Geoffrey Boterel, Nicholas’ father. and their own father would have done well to join William too. Their antipathy was most unfortunate. Well, hopefully, they’d never have to pay for it.

Brien's haggard face softened into a smile designed to set the boy at ease, but Nicholas's unease merely got worse. Magnificently attired in blue linen and brown velvet, both sombre in the gloom, the king dominated the chamber in spite of his lack of inches.

"So this is your nephew? How old are you?”

“Almost thirteen, Sire.”

The king thought rapidly, but with no result. “And your father’s …..?

“Geoffrey Boterel, son of Eudes, Count of Penthièvre, sire.”

William grunted, grunted, “Hmph. Didn’t see them at Hastings. Well, they won’t get anything from me.”

In an attempt to turn what had already proved to be a painful interview, Brien blurted, “He would have come, Your Grace, but had his young son to look after. He was only six, and was seriously ill.”

“Didn’t I have young children? It didn’t stop me. Well, never mind. At least you and your brothers acquitted themselves well at Hastings. And you’ve done yeoman service since. You and William Fitz-Osbern made short work of the rising in Devonshire – a bit brutal, I hear, but necessary. And you defeated the invasion from Ireland, three years after the conquest. Killed two sons of Harold in one day, and butchered the rest. Good work! I’m sorry to lose you – you’ve done well in Cornwall. Is your health really so bad that you have to relinquish it?”

“Afraid so, Sire.”

“Don’t call me that. We are cousins or something, after all. What will you do now?”

“I have a possible bride lined up. She’ll take care of me”

William glanced at the boy. “Not been to court before, I think. What are you doing here, er….?"

“Nicholas, Sire.” Nicholas stepped forward, propelled by his uncle's hand on his shoulder, and swallowed nervously before that direct gaze. “Sire, I bear a letter from my father for my uncle.”

“Nicholas, eh? Nicholas….Nicholas – like my uncle.”

“Yes, Sire, your uncle’s also my grandfather’s cousin.”

Brien had broken the seal of the parchment and was reading rapidly. “Oh, it seems I’m still in favour. Hoël has offered to make me Count of Cornouaille. You remember he became Duke of Brittany when he married my cousin, Hawise. He’s therefore willing to give up his lesser title in my favour, and I get to live at Quimper. Hawise of course became duchess in her own right on the death of Conan, her brother. Now she’s dead too.”

If only the floor could have opened and swallowed him, it would have been kind. The king had gone rigid. Everyone knew it was he who had had Conan, Duke of Brittany poisoned, as a possible threat to the conquest, but no one had ever referred to it in the king’s presence.

In a moment of clarity, Brien realised this must have been the trouble between his father and his elder brother and the duke, now king. At his wits’ end, Brien pushed his nephew forward. Seeing the lad cringe; the king jerked back to self-control. How to re-establish the social order? He grasped at the straw. “Ah, yes er… Nicholas – we must do something for you. Um - would you like to come to court as a page?”

Having expected at least the heavens to fall after his uncle’s gaffe, the lad gulped and stood rigid, his face aflame and only too aware of his hair. Somehow he managed a nod and a croaking noise. Mistaking his uneasiness for temper, the king forced a smile.

"Well, young Boterel, I expect you to acquit yourself well, as befits one of Eudes’ grandsons. After all, you may one day take over from him as Count of Penthièvre. I remember now, don’t I, Brien – your father and mine are cousins? Am I right?" William was hazy on relationships.

Equally hazy, Brien, who would at that moment have agreed to anything, mumbled, “Yes, your Grace.”

Nicholas looked at the floor. Did this mean he was to be transferred to the King's household? What an honour for him and the family! His brain danced a mad caper, so that he lost the thread of what the king was saying. It was therefore something of a shock to hear, "Still, you'll have to learn to curb that temper - seems to run in your family. I'll not have my son served by any hobbledehoy. He’s rough enough himself. There'll be fighting enough for you one day on the battlefield, I'll warrant, and that's no place for a hothead. He who fights coolest fights best."

Nicholas swallowed again before stammering a fervid promise to mend his ways. But William was not cross - in fact a smile actually glinted in his eyes when the boy looked up.

"Well that's settled then. You'll enter Rufus', I mean Prince William's, household as a page the day after tomorrow. He’s only three years older than you, but you will respect his rank. If you’d been his age, we might have met before at my council at Lillebonne."

Brien looked delighted. How pleased Eudes would be, back in Penthièvre! Perhaps the boy would be a credit to the family. The crisis passed, the king turned away and the two were dismissed.

* * * * *

Later, left alone, William thought yet again about the council at Lillebonne early in 1066 to arrange the invasion, and the visit by that strange churchman before it.

“Yes? Who are you, and what do you want?” Duke William, as he was then, had eased his cincture. His stomach ached as usual –full of wind.

“Prince Ursus, your Grace. I represent several powerful interests that are prepared to work behind the scenes to aid your rightful assumption of the crown of England.”

William looked him up and down suspiciously. Although primarily a soldier, he was no stranger to cloak and dagger politics – as a bastard he’d had to fight ruthlessly even to survive. Indeed, it had kept his duchy safe for him several times. But who was this? Why would a prince be dressed as a monk? He eased the dagger in his belt – it wouldn’t be the first time….

“We note that there are certain………obstacles to the invasion.”

“The duke’s eyes narrowed. What was this? “Such as…..?”

“Well, the threat from Brittany for one.”

“Some wine?” All attention now, William refilled the monk’s goblet. This man had brought up one of his foremost worries. The invasion would strip Normandy of most of its defenders. Conan of Brittany had refused to help, and would have been ready to pounce. Something had had to be done about him. And there was Philip of France to consider. He tried, but failed, not to sneer. “And you can help, can you? Where are your armies?”

“As your Grace knows from personal experience, princes need their covert allies as much as military forces. We could guarantee there would be no interference from Brittany, France or Flanders.”

“And just how would you do that?”

The monk smiled. “This wine’s rather good. As I say, it’s in our interest to support you.”

“With no quid pro quo? I wasn’t born yesterday. And who are ‘us’?”

“Let’s not worry about that until you’re King of England. You might then be in a position to return the favour. That, of course, would depend on your success in battle. We can guarantee the invasion; we cannot guarantee success. If you fail, we lose nothing; if you do succeed, we may ask you to support a project of ours which, by the way, will cost you nothing. I can tell you no more about our group. But we will be there to remove obstacles and provide information covertly. Why don’t we leave it like that? We shall not meet again.”

He set down the wine untasted, and left. Not ‘til William recalled the incident as his ships landed at Pevensey did he realise he had not dismissed the man. Instead, he felt as if he himself had been dismissed as if he’d offered poisoned wine, as indeed he had been wondering how to do to the Duke of Brittany. But perhaps Ursus and his group would now do the job for him.

As indeed they did. Duke Conan died in agony. Count Baldwin of Flanders could count on intelligence of William’s plans through his daughter, Matilda, William’s wife. He had married her to neutralise any threat from Flanders. But Baldwin might very well have waited to attack and add Normandy to his territories. He was kept quiet by disinformation suggesting a threat from the Count of Ponthieu, William’s vassal. Philip I of France was promised the county of Gâtinais for taking no advantage of the invasion and for staying neutral in a family struggle over Anjou.

But Prince Ursus had never come back to claim any quid pro quo. The king wondered what he would want when he did.

* * * * *

Later that evening, for his part, Nicholas recalled the family council at Tréguier in Penthièvre in 1066, the council which had brought the family so high. A depressing part of Brittany in poor weather, everyone had jumped at their invitation to the Beltane feast on 1st. May. The lighting of the bonfires on Beltane Eve and their ceremonies and games had resulted in many a sore head. Yet they’d all turned up at the feast next day. His grandfather, Count Eudes de Penthièvre, had swept into dinner late. They hadn't waited for him – little ceremony in a house so full of hungry sons - even the bastards. Nicholas and his father, Geoffrey Boterel, had arrived from Dol to find everyone agog to know why they had all been summoned.

Old Eudes, sixty seven now, looked complacent as he took his place at the head table, and waited for the horseplay to die down. “A few days ago, I received a messenger.”

“Yes, I know,” from Alan Rufus. “We all saw him arrive and leave soon after in a hurry. But you haven't told us what he wanted.”

“The simple answer is you.”

“What?” The young men looked at each other. Father was getting old. What did he mean?

“The messenger was from Duke William. He's summoned all his vassals, his tenants, and his friends to a council at Lillebonne.”

“What for? We’re Bretons, not Normans. We’re not his vassals.” Ever the suspicious one, Geoffrey glanced around the company for support, but found none.

The old Count glared at his eldest son. “If I may continue…..? It seems king Edward the Confessor died just after New Year.”

“So the duke's now king of England as well?” burst in Nicholas excitedly, ever quick to grasp the situation, though only six.

Eudes quelled him with another glare. “It doesn't concern you, sonny. Well, it might, I suppose. No, that's the problem. Apparently, the Witan, the English Council of Nobles, offered the kingdom to Harold Godwineson on King Edward's recommendation. He was immediately crowned king.”

“But,” burst in Alan Rufus, “hadn’t Edward previously promised the crown to our duke? And,….yes, Harold took an oath to that effect when he was William's prisoner.”

“Quite. So it should be William, and he means to fight for it. All volunteers are summoned to Lillebonne at Whitsuntide.” Several blank looks – they knew little of Christian feasts. “That’s the end of this month, so you’d better make up your minds today. Well? Who's going? If William wins, this family with its knights behind it will be well rewarded”

The subsequent uproar took some time to subside. Eudes meanwhile attacked his venison with gusto, while the hall dogs circled hopefully.

“ too....I'll go....and me” - much back-slapping and tankard-waving. Geoffrey sat silent, his thoughts working in his face.

“You have to be different, don't you!” Alan Niger had always resented his eldest brother. “Not keen on the chance to prove yourself? Must be your birth, I suppose. No true Breton, you.”

“Wasn't my fault mother was brought to bed in Normandy at Les Bottereaux.”

“Huh! Born at 'the Toads', and look like a toad. You're well-named 'Boterel.”

“I'm as keen as you are, but I won’t support the man who’s threatened to have our cousin, Conan, murdered.”

“Well, he wasn’t very loyal to the family himself. Don’t forget Conan imprisoned and chained our father for years,” Brian put in.

Geoffrey was quick to reply. “That was rather his own fault, wasn’t it? After all, he’d done the same to Conan. All I’m saying is that if the Duke can threaten one member of the family, he can threaten others. As the heir here, I’m not going off on some half-baked scheme for an enemy’s advantage.”

“So,,,? You've two sons, Conan and Nicholas, if you don't come back.”

“Oh no – I'm going,” from an excited Nicholas. “I'm not staying here – there's nothing for me here.”

That provided a way out for Geoffrey. “You’re six – keep your place! No, I'm staying here in Penthièvre with father and your brother. Besides, father's not well.”

“Doesn't seem to have affected his appetite,” acidly from Stephen.

Old Eudes looked on in amusement. What a family – eight sons and three bastards as well! No, his appetites hadn't diminished. “Well, you can't all go. Most of you are too young anyway. Since Geoffrey doesn't want to go and I’m certainly not going, it had better be Alan Rufus, Alan Niger, Brien”

“Me,” from William, another son.

“Yes, you then.” And so it was. The family rallied their vassals, and joined the rest of the Breton contingent at Barfleur. But, with the crossing and the need to construct some sort of defence in case all failed and a retreat became necessary, it was several days before battle lines could be drawn upon Senlac Hill. After the battle in the late evening twilight, both sides did what they could for their wounded. The monks of the abbey helped everyone of course, despite their antipathy to some.

Uncertain of his reception in London, William played a waiting game. He secured Dover and the treasury at Winchester and marched around London, burning as he went. All this took time, so it wasn’t until Christmas Day 1066 that he was crowned in Edward the Confessor’s new church at Westminster. But the omens were bad. When Ealdred, the archbishop, placed the crown on his head, those enthusiasts in the half-empty church gave a shout of acclimation. Fearing treachery inside, the Norman soldiers outside attacked the English. William apparently trembled on the coronation chair. Several nearby houses had been fired, and the smoke began to drift in to the church. Everyone rushed out – God had declared the usurper unfit for the divine right of kingship.

“And now,” thought Nicholas coming to the end of what his uncle Brien had told him, “now we're reaping the rewards. I have a place at court, uncle Alan Rufus is lord of Richmond, and uncle Brien has Cornwall. Or he had until he just gave it up to go back to Brittany – mad! At least the king’s given Cornwall to uncle Alan, so it’s still in the family. I wonder what I’ll end up with?”


The court had fine weather for their sport next day. The whirl of the morning danced a counterpoint to the whirl in Nicholas's solar plexus. ‘The Bastard’ had chosen to hunt with hawks rather than hounds, which allowed Queen Matilda and her ladies to join him. They made a brave company as the gathered in the outer ward. Such a pother there was, esquires and grooms checking girths and helping both knights and ladies to mount. The excitement entered the horses too, pawing the ground and whickering in frustration while the lads shouted to each other. Nearer the gatehouse, the falconers waited patiently, hooded birds clinging tightly to their gloved wrists. But even with the whole castle en fête, the men-at-arms patrolled the walls as usual. William did not tolerate slackness in those who served him.

With no duties to perform, Nicholas leaned over the bailey parapet of Caen Castle watching the bedizened group set off. They wound past the new abbey of St Gervase that William had founded fifteen years before when he became Christian on his marriage for the salvation of his soul - and his queen's of course. The burghers watched them chattering and eagerly anticipating their hunting. And since courtly love2 had not yet spread from the more civilized South, there might be other sport too in the thickets. But, for the squires and pages left behind, boredom loomed - an anticlimax to the excitement of the departure. Left to his own devices, Nicholas made his way toward the garden, the only refuge for anything natural in this man-made desert.

It was a fairly large garden as castle gardens went, partly for pleasure and partly for practical use. Being for defensive purposes, most castles didn’t have a garden, but Queen Matilda had insisted on including one at Caen. Patches of flowering herbs, destined for seasonings or for ointments, spread untended – gardening as such was unknown. A few roses still bloomed before becoming hips on which birds would feed in winter, should the châtelaine not gather them first for syrups. Climbing plants clambered along the mellow walls of Caen stone. In one corner, a cloak of honeysuckle draped itself over a stone cross. Above the outer wall the square towers of the cathedral pointed their way toward Heaven, two fingers raised in benison, or perhaps derision.

On a bench against the sunniest wall a lad, perhaps slightly older, crooned softly to the treasure he held in his lap. Curiously Nicholas went over to see what it was. "What have you .....? Oh."

His face full of pain, the lad looked up in response. In his hands a dying sparrow gasped for breath, its beak half-open and its eyes already filmed. A patch of feathers had been torn out, and blood congealed slowly round the wound.

"I scared the cat off, but I think it's too late," he said.

Nicholas crouched down and stroked the limp head. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked.

"You could get some water I suppose, though I doubt that it'll help much." The lad jerked his head to show the way. But by the time Nicholas got back, the sparrow had died. He searched for some words of comfort.

"You couldn't have done anything, and anyway it might not have lasted the winter. Or a hawk might have got it."

"Yes, but that's a quick death. This must've been agony - poor thing."

"I know how you feel. I like birds too - hawks anyway. Mine died last year, and I haven't yet got another."

The older youth looked up and smiled. "I've got three peregrines - well, two now,” he added bitterly. “You can share them till you get your own, if you like."

"Oh!" gasped Nicholas, "falcons. Yes ...... thanks. We could go hunting tomorrow - no, today. I'll be busy tomorrow attending Prince William, but he's out hunting today. My name's Nicholas Boterel. What's yours?" He held out his right hand solemnly.

"I'm not hunting today - father and I had words again. I'm Prince William." Rufus smiled at Nicholas's bewilderment, and clapped him on the shoulder. "But you're right - let's go now, and tomorrow too perhaps. First though ......"

Together the boys scooped a hole beneath a sage bush and buried the sparrow. Faced with a stranger, Rufus clutched at a Christian rite:-

"Lux perpetua dona eam."3

"Et requiescat in pace," responded Nicholas.

“You’re a Christian, I see.”

“What? Er, no.”

“Me neither.”

Their eyes met and marked the beginning of a lifelong bond. Together they ran off toward the stables, Rufus excited at the idea of acting independently of his father, and Nicholas hoping his own father would notice how high he came in the opinion of the prince.

* * * * *

1 William the Conqueror had five daughters and four sons – Robert, Richard, William Rufus, and Henry. The latter two became king in turn.

2 Courtly love was an idea that was spread from the South by Troubadours – travelling entertainers. It involved the poet/knight hopelessly loving an unattainable lady who might, however, allow him to wear her glove or other mark of her favour.

3“Give it eternal light.

And may it rest in peace.”