Medieval London Bridge
In the silence of the night, I heard my timber frame creaking against the gusty wind, as river Thames roared underneath. I had resigned to the falling darkness when the flicker of a lamp approaching, caught my attention.
As the light became brighter, I saw two veiled ladies struggling to walk towards the shore, the wind filling their heavy gowns up. Once closer to me, they paused and lifted their veils. Even in the dim light of the lamp, I could see her Royal Highness in the company of another woman.
“Why do you bring me here, Hilda?” asked the Queen.
“Your Majesty, earlier in the day you were enquiring about Lily roots. We were about to talk more, but then the King had walked in. So, I bring you here, away from the prying eyes of the castle to hear you talk, not as a Queen but just as any other woman,” said Hilda.
The Queen fell silent. I could say those drops on her rosy cheeks were not mere dew drops.
“You are my mid-wife. My pain is not hidden from you. How much I wanted to be a mother as a young bride. But the pain Princess Matilda’s birth brought along was unimaginable. If only I could, but King Henry I and the crown demanded an heir, so I had William. You saw how miserable I was. The healing is not complete, and the King wants another… help me, Hilda,” the Queen began sobbing.
Hilda hugged the Queen.
“Lily roots or rue? Will you get me some, Hilda? I have heard they could help.”
“I had an inkling what you wanted when you mentioned Lily roots earlier, so I brought you here. I have something better for you, Queen. If you walk with me a little further.”
Hilda led the Queen a few steps closer to the pier by the shore holding me upright and drawing the dagger out from underneath her heavy gown, began digging. A pebble beach that it was, it did not take her longer. Holding up a pouch, she said, “A treasure this is, my Queen. No lily roots or rue can do the wonders like this. Stick one to your body where no one can see. For if the King asks, this is a gift from St Romanus*. “
I wished for the waves of Thames to calm down, so I could hear the whispers that floated along with the breeze.
But all I could hear was,” …every seventh night.”
The Queen wiped her tears and with a broad grin on her face said, “None but my daughter Matilda will inherit this.”
“Send for me when you run out of them, my Queen. I shall take care of the rest. “Hilda said as the ladies turned their back to the river and walked away.
She came as a distressed Queen and walked back contented with a pouch in hand. A treasure sure it must be, I assured River Thames.
It was a full moon night. As I was expecting to see the ladies any day soon, I saw them coming. But this time there was another figure that followed behind.
“Hurry up Matilda. Walk faster,” the Queen called out.
Dressed in a flowy gown, and hair tied in a loose bun, Princess Matilda dragged herself to keep up with the older ladies. I had seen her few times earlier. But never in such proximity. A carbon copy of her mother, she looked ethereal, but unlike the docile Queen, there was a fire in the Princess’s eyes. She was no meek Princess like the many I saw before and many others later.
“It is my wedding tomorrow, Mother, followed by a long trip to Germany. Why did you have to wake me up and bring me here to the bridge?” Matilda asked.
Ignoring her questions, the Queen accompanied Hilda up to the spot while Matilda trailed behind.
With the pouch in hand, the Queen walked back to Matilda and handed it over to her. Hilda stepped closer to a confused Matilda and whispered the secret in her ears.
“Mother, you…?” Matilda could not contain her surprise.
“Yes, my dear. This saved my life, and I give it to you as a wedding gift. Let this control the reins of your young body. “
Under the starry, moonlit sky, river Thames and I were silent spectators as the treasure exchanged hands.
I did not see Matilda or the Queen for a long time after that night. Hilda would come once a while, take the essentials. A word or two dropped by the passers-by told me that the Princess was happy in her marriage, travelling far and wide in Italy and Germany. But motherhood evaded her.
A few years later, a public funeral service attracted a huge crowd. That was the last time I saw the Queen, as she was carried away in a coffin on her final journey. Prince William walked along with the King while Princess Matilda was nowhere to be seen in the procession. Later that evening, I saw her come to the shore with Hilda.
“Princess, with the Queen gone, my duties in the castle will cease. You have been like a daughter to me, so if I may ask something. Why did you keep asking for the supply continuously while you were happy in your marriage? I understood Queen Mother’s concern when you were married off at such a young age, but is it not the right time yet?”
“Not yet, Hilda. Until it is, I will keep coming back for the pouch. I may not see you in the castle anymore, so wanted to thank you for your service to my mother and me,” Matilda said.
Hilda bowed in acknowledgement and left.
Matilda stayed back a little longer. She sat on the pebbled beach, staring deep into the waves.
I heard her say, “There is no right time, until assured the crown of England is mine.”
Matilda must have stayed back longer this time to be with her father, for I saw her again in a few days. She came by the river one early winter morning. As the first rays of sun glistened over the river, with its waves brushing against my timber piers, I saw her reflection floating on the water on the shore. She stood there as if in anticipation of something. The curls were softly kissing her cheek, her face soaking in the energy from the rising sun, preparing her for a long journey ahead. She turned around to the sound of approaching footsteps. It was a messenger from the palace.
“Princess Matilda, King Henry is here to see you. It is urgent,” the messenger spoke with a bow. Matilda turned around to see the King. She took a deep breath, gathered her gown around and walked towards the King.
King Henry looked helpless and spread his arms out as Matilda rushed in and hugged her father.
“Father, you look troubled. Is everything alright?” Matilda asked.
“Your brother William…,” the King’s voice broke as he continued, “the only legitimate heir to my throne is no more. The White Ship that he set sail in sank, and no one survived,” the King wept on.
I was not able to comprehend if Matilda was shocked or if she was expecting to hear this.
After a pause, Matilda spoke her rehearsed lines that she has been repeating over, since her arrival that morning.
“Father, I am eighteen, capable and prepared to take over after you. If anyone after William has the right to the throne, it should be me.”
“I am afraid the Church will not accept you as the Queen of England, my darling. I am left with no option but to marry again, in seek of a son.”
As if she saw this coming, Matilda solaced the King and offered help to find a suitable match herself.
Within months, an announcement was made. The whole city was rejoicing to welcome their new Queen, Adela. King Henry’s match was found by none other than Princess Matilda.
The night after the wedding, Matilda rode to the shore with Adela in tow. Adela’s skin glowed in the night as she looked with the same apprehension that Matilda had looked at her mother when she was first brought here.
“My apologies to the Queen of England for making her ride here to the shore in this weird hour.” Matilda held Adela’s hand as she took her towards the destined spot.
Handing over the pouch to Adela, she said, “This, my Queen, is a treasure that none know of. Keep it a secret, will you?”
“Matilda, you are a friend first and then a step-daughter. You have my word. But, of what use is this to me. It looks like a thing from a different age, for I have never seen anything like this before,” Adela replied.
With the exchange of treasure, as I braced for another whisper, Matilda spoke out loud as Adela listened on.
“The King is old, as we all know. You, a damsel all of eighteen, as young as his daughter. ‘Precious jewel grows pale on you; a crown does not shine. Put adornment aside, for nature provides your adornment….’* This is a magical gift from nature. Stick this patch to your body when you fornicate with the King. Pleasure, it shall bring to him and you. Blessed you shall be with a son for the throne. Keep these close to you until you have a son. If the King asks, a gift from St. Romanus, it is. “
Adela bit her lips shyly as the ladies hugged and vowed secrecy.
As Matilda rode back, she turned back for a glance as if winking at me, for standing by her. It is then that I spotted Hilda’s silhouette.
Adela kept returning to the same spot with her aide. On being asked by her aide once, she had replied, “I come here to pray to St. Romanus.”
A few years later, a widowed and childless Matilda had returned to the castle, I heard. There was no good news yet from King Henry I and Queen Adela. Some said it was the King’s inability. Some blamed Adela.
I overheard the noblemen who stopped by occasionally for a quick catchup.
“With no heir in sight yet, princess Matilda has pressed the King for her rights again,” said one.
“Yes, the King finally had to give in to her demands as he had no other choice. He nominated her as his heir, making his court swear an oath of loyalty to her and her successors. The insiders say she is getting remarried so she could take the family forward,” the other confirmed.
A couple of years later, I could sense the gloomy mood as the whole city gathered around. From my towering height, I could see it was the funeral procession of King Henry I. Matilda with a toddler boy in tow, was all teary-eyed, but there was a radiant glow on her face. Standing next to her was a pale looking Queen Adela, who was nothing close to the beautiful Queen that she once was when I first saw her.
Amongst the crowd, in one far corner, Hilda stood with her head bowed low.
There were murmurs, “Princess Matilda was all set to get the crown, but with the King gone before the official crowning, there is news of invasion from her cousins already.”
“Well she may or may not get the crown, but look her little son Henry II, the future King of England.”
“If only that Queen Adela could give our King a son….”
I watched over as the body of King Henry I was taken away among unrest and confusion over the next King.
The gossip mongers say, Adela moved away from the city of London and retired to a convent for few years before she married again to the Earl of Arundel. It was no surprise then that she bore seven children out of that marriage.
I bore the brunt of the unrest that followed the King’s death. Matilda faced opposition from the crowd. Ultimately, she had to flee the castle.
On her way out of the city, she stopped by to bid adieu. Under the moonlit, starry sky, she walked close to her most frequented spot. With a torch of fire in one hand, she unearthed the pebbles as usual and held the pouch in another. I watched as she lit the pouch on fire and then in one swift movement flung both the burning torch and the pouch towards me. She rode away as my timber body razed to the ground in the great London fire of 1136, taking with it the treasure down.
I stand here, arched over River Thames, overlooking Central London. Razed to ground, then rebuilt over and again, bridging the gap between centuries. Timber, stone-arched and now steel-concrete; my appearance changed over time. So did the city, its dwellers, and their tales. Tales old and new, of royals and peasants, of love and hatred, of loyalty and treason, of lies and truth. Tales from present that trickle down to rest deep within me alongside the many others, piled up over ages.
With nightfall as silence descends, a couple walks under me on the pebbled southern shore. They sit together in an isolated spot. A little chit chat later, their lips lock in a passionate kiss as the hands slip down to unbutton each other. The man clumsily reaches for his rear pocket. The woman stops him and says, “That would not be necessary”. She lets her shirt slid down her shoulders to reveal a small rectangular patch stuck on her back.
“What is this?” the man asks.
“It is a new thing. They call it Transdermal Contraceptive or simply birth control patch. Trust me, it works.”
A small pouch with embroidered letters on it ‘H.I.L.D.A’, falls out from the girl’s bag and gets pushed further down the stones and pebbles, under the weight of the couple’s passionately entwined bodies.
St. Romanus: It is believed that Adeliza, the second wife of King Henry I prayed to St. Romanus to aid her in conceiving a child.
‘Precious jewel grows pale on you; a crown does not shine. Put adornment aside, for nature provides your adornment….’*: The chronicler Henry of Huntingdon quotes this phrase to describe Adeliza’s beauty in an interlude in his Historia Anglorum.
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
Team: Left to Write
Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Lucie Morel
Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.