Henry marched down the hall, intent on his mission. Recently crowned, Henry V had a lot of things he wanted to accomplish as king. First, he had to build the coffers in England. The English people needed to believe in their monarch and their government again. Then he would pursue his true desire – becoming the next King of France. Henry’s ambitious plans were sure to bring glory to England.
It was cool; the castle walls were slightly damp. Torchlight cast deep shadows over Henry and his guard. Henry didn’t care about the shadows. His brothers were back from France with their report – a report vital to English claims and his own personal interests. He flung open the heavy wooden door and marched into the receiving room.
Henry held out his arms and embraced his younger brother. When he was with them, there were no pretenses, no need to follow ceremony. He may be king, but they were his family.
Henry adored John best of all. John was loyal, sharp, quick-witted, brave in battle, and fierce in negotiations. Henry could confide his own doubts and fears to John without showing weakness, knowing John would hold his tongue.
“Henry, it’s good to see you,” said his brother, Thomas.
Henry smiled and embraced Thomas. Humphrey, Henry’s youngest brother, was also in attendance, but he had not gone to France.
“So, what’s the news?” asked Henry.
“France is in turmoil,” began John. “Their king suffers with some type of mental malady. There are two warring houses, the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, both of their ambitions are to fill the void left by the king, but all they are really doing is ruining the country.”
“France is ripe for the taking, Henry,” said Thomas.
Henry smiled and walked over to the window overlooking the castle’s gardens. Mounted on a stand was a painting, covered by a silk cloth. “Our attack must be swift and decisive. Is this the painting?”
“Yes, Henry,” replied John.
Henry grabbed the corner of the cloth and yanked it off. Time suspended like a hummingbird hovering over the most delicate flower. The object of the painting was Katherine Valois, France’s youngest princess. Her skin was fair, yet fine. Her eyes sparkled with clarity and wit. They were deep blue, and laced with a faint hint of sadness. Oh, they were wonderfully expressive, as her sister, Isabelle’s, had been. Katherine’s nose was rather short, but her cheeks were rosy and her chin steeled in royal grace. Her hair hung over her shoulders, a fine walnut color with streaks of red highlights. His heart stopped. His breathing paused. She was stunning.
“Henry?” John’s voice broke the silence.
Henry spun around. “France’s princess will make England a suitable queen.”
Humphrey chuckled. “Oh, she’s a beautiful war prize, Henry, there’s no doubt about that.”
Henry sneered. War prize? “Humphrey, your tongue is too green, referring to your future queen as such. I would urge you to curb its haste. Now, you and Thomas summon my generals immediately to Windsor. John, stay.”
John nodded. Thomas and Humphrey departed.
“You know Humphrey, he’s young. He admires you. He didn’t mean any harm,” said John.
“He speaks without thinking at times,” said Henry. He turned around to look at Kate’s picture once more. “Did you see her in person? Did you talk to her?”
“I did. The princess has a quick mind, but she’s not headstrong. She’s educated, yet demurs to her elders. She possesses a natural grace that would enchant any man. She speaks English also, but her accent is heavy.”
Henry slowly turned to face his brother. “She would have me? A soldier king?”
“I believe she would.”
John approached, putting his hand on Henry’s shoulder. “You’re fond of her, aren’t you?”
Henry stiffened as he paused. Would his soldierly ways repel her? “Aye, John. I know this is a portrait, but if all you say is true, she is everything I want in a wife and a queen. You know I’ve known many women in my younger days, but I will have no other women until I make her my wife. Yet…”
“Yet, what?” prompted John.
“Can a king show so much vulnerability where love is concerned?”
“You can show such to me. The princess will find such devotion and love appealing, Henry. She’s lived a lonely life in the monastery she grew up. You would be a breath of fresh air to her.”
“Then I pray she finds me satisfactory.”
Harfleur, France, 1417
Henry pushed the flaps of his tent back and stepped onto the field. The sun was cresting over the horizon. The morning grass was covered in a fresh layer of dew. Henry fastened the snaps of his chain mail across his chest. The French were just outside the city of Harfleur.
John rode up on his horse. “Henry, it’s time. The French have attacked our scouts.”
Henry nodded his head. “Page! Fetch me my horse and crown!”
Edmund Guern, Henry’s loyal page, raced up to the tent with Henry’s horse and presented him with his crown. Henry always went into battle with the fine object on his head. He wanted everyone to know he was on the battlefield. With John at his side, he spurred his horse forward into the heart of the battle.
The French didn’t fight with heart. Oh, they were persistent, tenacious even, yet the fierce desire for victory was lacking. Henry himself led the charge at Harfleur, his sword at the ready. Finally, the French retreated. Henry paused, stopping to watch his handiwork. A stray arrow from a desperate French bow found a mark, piercing Henry’s cheek. He slid off his horse. Blood trickled down the side of his face.
“The king!” yelled John. “Fetch the physician! Now!”
John was there by his side. Henry was put on a litter and rushed to his tent. He glanced at his brother. “See to it we win.”
“Thomas will. I need to be here with you.”
Henry’s eyes fluttered open. He began to sit up to try and get off his cot, but John held him down. The arrow was still in his cheek, but the shaft had been broken off.
“Bite this,” said John. He shoved a stick into Henry’s mouth. Henry did as he was told. With deliberate care, the physician extracted the arrow’s tip out of his cheek. Henry felt water flushing out the wound, then incredible pressure as the doctor wrapped a bandage around his face.
John looked into Henry’s eyes. “You have the best care, Brother. Remember, you are the King of England.”
Henry nodded his head before the pain dragged him toward twilight’s sleep.
Henry awoke. His face still hurt, but the pressure from the bandage was gone. John and Thomas were sitting in a corner watching him.
“You’re up,” said Thomas.
“Fetch me a mirror,” Henry demanded.
John delivered the instrument to Henry. Henry paused, sat up straight in his cot, and took a deep breath to steel his courage before bringing the mirror to his face. His blonde bangs flopped against his forehead and he pushed them away. His cool hazel eyes stared at his right cheek. A deep chiseled wound ran under the outline of his cheekbone. His proud jaw still held his profile, yet the injury was pronounced.
“Henry, the physician says you’ll recover,” said Thomas.
“How long have I been out of it?”
“A week,” said John. “We took Harfleur, but the French are amassing at Agincourt.”
“Thom, prepare the generals for an attack on Agincourt. I will join you shortly.”
Thomas nodded his head and departed. Henry threw the mirror to the ground. “This has ruined my looks!”
“It has given you character, Brother,” replied John.
“But will Kate find this attractive?”
“The princess is not vain – not like her mother.”
Henry stood up. “I’ve had enough of this. We will take Agincourt and then march onto Paris through Troyes. France and the princess will be mine.”
John nodded his head. Henry slid on his pants. A commotion could be heard outside. Finally, the flaps of his tent gave way and a dirty old woman thrust herself inside. Henry’s guards lunged at her.
“I must speak to England’s king. I must! I must!” she said.
Henry stood up straight, naked from the waist up. He looked down at the woman, covered in rags, and took pity on her. “Speak, woman. I am England’s king.”
“Henry of Monmouth you are?”
“Henry of Monmouth, a long reign of France you will have if your son is not born at Windsor.” She spoke the words as if in a trance.
“My son? I have no son. What are you mumbling about?”
“Henry of Monmouth will gain much but reign short if Henry the son is born at Windsor. Henry of Windsor will reign long and lose all, including that which his father so righteously covets.”
“Ridiculous!” John exclaimed. “Take her out of here.”
“Wait – who is she?” Henry asked.
“The village healer, Your Grace,” said one of the guards.
“Village witch, if you ask me, Your Grace,” added another guard.
“Remove her from my presence, but show mercy. I have no desire to harm any innocent French,” said Henry. “I’ll let the village deal with the claim of her witchcraft.”
The guards removed the old woman from his sight. John leaned over and whispered in his ear. “What if she is a witch? You heard her claim.”
“Her claim is nonsense,” said Henry bravely. “She was mumbling. She’s old. I have no desire to harm these people any more than I have. I want to be known as a fair conqueror. I do not want to alienate the French people.”
John nodded his head.
Henry continued dressing. He felt he had a legitimate claim to the French throne through his grandfather, Edward III, whose mother, Queen Isabella, had at one point been in line for the French throne. Now that he was so close to achieving his claim, the thought of losing it unnerved him. His efforts would not be in vain.
Troyes, finally! Henry paced in front of the doors of the church. He wore a light chain mail with a helmet decorated in fox fur and jewels. England’s crest was proudly displayed on his chest. They had taken France’s capital, but to spare the French king, he agreed to have the terms of peace read at Troyes, a small town just outside of the capital.
Thomas walked out of the cathedral. “Henry, the princess and her mother are ready.”
“And her father? Is he too ill?”
“Yes. He can’t attend. The Queen is acting as Regent.”
Henry nodded his head. “Allons. Let’s go.”
Thomas, Humphrey, and John followed him into the church. The sight of Katherine gave him a reason to pause. She was twice as beautiful in person then she was in her portrait. She wore a burgundy gown, the bodice of her dress hinting at her ample cleavage. Her eyes sparkled like sunbeams, yet he was aware that this was, no doubt, a sad moment for her and her family. He must take care not to hurt his future bride’s feelings. He would give her England and France as a wedding gift.
Henry stopped directly in front of Katherine, meeting her in the vestibule, as was custom. She was perfect. Her lips were red and rich, her skin divine. She blushed as he raked his eyes over her. Oh, he prayed that his scar wouldn’t repulse her.
“I’m sorry, King Henry, my husband is unable to attend,” said Katherine’s mother, Queen Isabeau.
“I am aware of his condition,” said Henry. He held out his hand to Katherine. “Come. I will escort you to the altar.”
She quietly nodded her head and took his hand. Henry hoped Katherine would find favor with them. He’d left her father King of France in name only until he died, then the title, King of France, would be Henry’s. He intended to be gracious to her country – and to her. Once the terms were read out loud and for all to hear, Katherine’s mother signed them. Then he knelt before Katherine, humbling himself in a manner he’d never done before. He reached for her hands, warm and tender, and looked directly into her eyes. “Katherine Valois, princess of France, will you marry me?”
Two weeks later, Troyes
Henry rolled over expecting to find the warm arms of his new wife. The bed was empty. He got up on his elbows, confused, looking for her. Tapered candles, now low, cast dim light and dark shadows throughout the blackened room. A tray of food rested on a nearby nightstand. He spied Kate next to the window, a robe wrapped around her body. Her face looked somber, serious even, but he thought he detected a slight hint of happiness masked in her sweet blue eyes. He paused for a moment. Had he hurt her during their lovemaking? He had endeavored to be tender and kind, but there was no mistaking her shyness and apprehension.
He sat up on the bed, naked. “Kate?”
She turned around to look at him. “Henry.”
“What troubles you, my love?”
She bit her lower lip. “Nothing – and everything.”
He walked over to her, taking her hand in his. “I want you to have no cares, no worries tonight, Kate. It’s our wedding night, and our witnesses have long since retired themselves. Come to bed and tell me what worries you.”
She followed him back to the bed and sat down next to him. He took her hands in his and looked directly into her sweet eyes.
“Am I enough for you, Henry?” she asked.
“Enough? How so?”
“I am not as experienced as you. I fear I disappoint you. You have France now. How can I be enough when you can have anyone – any princess in Europe?”
“Kate, you are more than enough for me. Since I’ve seen your portrait, I’ve known you were the only one I wanted to make my wife and England’s queen.”
“Henry, I’m just a poor French princess―”
He ran his hands through her soft hair. “No, my love, you are not that to me. Yes, I desired to be king of your country, and I am now, but I freely give your nation back to you so you can be its queen. Don’t doubt my love. I may be a soldier king, but my heart loves as passionately as any courtier’s would.”
She cupped his scarred cheek with the palm of her hand. “How sweet you are, Henry.”
He put his hands over hers, savoring her caress. “I don’t repulse you? My damaged looks? My poor manners?”
“No, not in the least.”
“Do you find me handsome?”
She blushed. “Yes. Can I confess something to you, husband?”
“I did not grow up in a happy court. My father would have periods of lucidity and that’s when he and my mother would have another child. My brothers and sisters all lived in separate house after we were born called the Hotel de St. Paul, not in the castle. We never had enough food and us younger children wore rags handed down from the older children,” she paused.
Henry couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A princess wearing rags?
“Finally, I and my sisters, Michelle and Marie, were taken to Poissy to receive an education. Life was better. We had food to eat and the nuns gave us our own clothes, but we were alone. When I heard the young King of England was interested in marriage, I was humbled. What could I offer such a powerful man?”
“Henry, I come into this marriage with nothing to offer you.”
“No, Kate, no, I won’t have you talking like that. I am very pleased with our marriage. You offer me something I never thought was possible – a chance at love for a soldier who thought it was unobtainable.”
“Oh, Henry, could it be true? Do you love me as I love you?”
He chuckled. “Yes, I love you, sweet Kate, but how could you come to love me? Did you have a portrait, too?”
She blushed. “No, just reports about how you were honest and noble, fair, yet firm. A part of me longed for England’s fine king to steal me away from Poissy and help me find the happiness that I’ve never had, and now that I am here with you, a part of me feels unworthy to be a wife to such a powerful king.”
He wrapped his arms around her in a fierce embrace. “Never think you are unworthy, Kate. I’ve not married for seven years because I wanted you.” He pulled away and trapped her eyes with his. “You will never wear rags again.”
Her lips curved into a sensual smile. “I want to make you happy, Henry. I want to be a good wife to you and give you plenty of children.”
He leaned toward her, kissing her sweet lips. They collapsed onto the bed and made love.
Henry marched into his private apartments at Windsor. It had been a turbulent year. He was not yet King of France, as Kate’s father still lived, yet he was confident in his conquest to leave John in Paris with Kate’s mother as co-regents. Now he was in England, intent on showing his bride her new country. She’d been a wonderful wife. John was right about her. She was quick-witted and kind, and his wound, now healed into a knotted scar, had not repulsed her.
She walked out from the bath wearing only a nightgown. It hugged her sweet curves. He smiled. Then he spied an expression he’d not quite seen before. “Kate, are you ill?” He walked up beside her and placed his hand on her elbow.
“Henry, I have wonderful news.”
“I’m going to have a baby.”
His eyes grew wide. He wrapped his arms around her, twirling her in the air. What joy! What bliss! A son! A son? He put her down and sat down on the bed, the words of the old woman haunting him as sharply as a high-pitched whistle.
“Henry, what’s wrong?” She sat down beside him, and put her hand over his.
His eyes cut to her. “You will have a son.”
“Henry, how can you know that?”
He placed his hands on her shoulders. “Promise me you will not have the baby here at Windsor.”
“I would give you anything your heart desires, and I ask only one thing of you now. Promise me you will not have our child here.”
“This is important to you, isn’t it? Why?”
He paused. How could he explain to her that the fearless King of England was suddenly afraid of an old French woman’s prophesy now that he was going to be a father? “It’s important to us – to our future and our happiness. Promise me.”
“I promise,” she replied.
Henry smiled. He knew she wouldn’t let him down.
Henry trudged through the damp layer of snow which covered the French ground as he hurriedly made his way to his tent. France was proving a challenge to keep satisfied. He’d left Kate in June to quall French discord and now it was December. His son was due to be born and he’d just received word that Thomas was waiting for him. He paused in front of the tent, steeling his resolve before pushing back the flaps.
“Thomas!” Henry embraced his brother. A gentle fire burning in a small pit filled the tent with warmth.
“How is the queen?” Henry asked.
“Good news. The queen bore you a lusty son.”
Henry smiled. “I knew she would. Tell me, Thom, where did she have the baby? Pontefract?”
Henry stumbled backward, tripping over his cot. His knees smashed to the ground.
The king held up his hand to stop his brother’s approach. The pain was nothing compared to the breach in his heart. “Windsor? Are you sure?”
“Aye. Why are you so upset?”
“Did the queen try to leave Windsor?” Henry demanded. A feeling of rage washed over him. Did she dare to disobey him?
“Aye. It was November and she had made plans to go to Pontefract, but the snow came early. It delayed her departure and then the babe came several weeks early,” Thomas replied. “What’s wrong, Brother?”
Henry hung his head. Sadness replaced his rage. She had tried to leave! She did attempt to honor her promise. Oh, he loved her even now. He couldn’t be mad at her. Slowly, he got to his feet, aware of his brother’s confusion.
“Send for the queen as soon as her confinement is over. We don’t have much time together, Thom, and I miss her terribly.”
“And the babe?”
“He is to remain in England where it is safe.”
Thomas nodded his head and walked out. Henry sat down on his cot. He prayed to God to give him more time with Kate and to allow him to see his son.
It was August. His army was sick. He was sick. The French countryside was steeped in mud after a week’s worth of rain. Henry lay in the litter in the medical tent, dying. Damn the French. Why couldn’t they accept him? He would have treated them with such dignity and respect. No, they had to rebel. They had to fight back, and Henry couldn’t allow that.
Kate sat next to him, holding his hand. “You have dysentery,” she said. Her eyes were moist.
“Aye. It’s a soldier’s disease, but I never thought, I, the king, would have it. If I would have known I would have acted differently, Kate―”
“Different? How so?”
He squeezed her hand. His heart fluttered. His lungs shook. “Kate, I have loved you from the moment I saw your portrait, and I wanted to spare you, but―”
“Spare me? From what?”
He confided the incident in Harfleur to her. “I should have told you why it was so important to leave Windsor and I didn’t. I couldn’t admit it to you.”
“Feel free to love again, Kate,” he whispered. “But know my heart takes your love to the grave.”
“J’aime vous, mon Roi.”
He smiled through his tears as he felt his hand slide out of hers.