The writings of  Richard Kluger

The Sheriff of Nottingham

Excerpt (pages 255-263)



THE SPEED WITH WHICH the king’s charger came clattering into the bailey was alarming enough, but the look on the sovereign’s face as he dismounted, florid and sweating in the mid-August heat, alerted Philip that a crisis was at hand. The king hurriedly closed the distance between him and his sheriff, on hand to greet the royal party on its return from Wales, and in a voice burning with rage commanded, “Hang the hostages!”

Philip went numb. “Your Majesty?”

 “You heard me – hang them! Hang them all – and at once!” The royal eyes were consumed by wildfire.

Dread so constricted the sheriff’s throat that he could barely manage the strangled question. “May I – ask Your Majesty – the reason?”

“Reason? You ask the reason?” He pressed his face close by the sheriff’s ear and, with a fury so palpable Philip feared he would bite it off the next instant, hissed, “Because your king commands it!”

Disbelief yielded to simple horror as Philip felt himself suddenly drowning in the malevolence that pulsed from his ruler in massive waves and was enveloping the bailey, now the castle, now the entire realm. “My lord, is there some –”

“Because it must be done! Because there is no other way such savages will ever understand!” He pushed by the sheriff. “We shall remain in the royal quarters without taking food or drink until you have sent word that the deed is done.”

“Does Your Majesty – mean to include – your grandson as well?”

“ ‘All’ means all!” the king screamed without looking back or slowing his pace. “All of them – and now!”

Philip stood immobilized by the enormity of the sin he had been ordered to commit. The king left him without recourse, with no leeway for appeal or pity. The merciless command, given in white heat, had no margin for cooling, either. Now – he had to act now. The children’s lives and souls, their innocence and dearness, were of no consequence. Yet it was scarcely yesterday that all their hopes were so high the boys might soon be released and sent home to their hills.




As recently as Easter the king had met at Cambridge with his daughter Joan and Prince Llewellyn, her husband, to urge more thorough pacification of his rowdy people – and doubtless to remind him of the hostages held at Nottingham against the good behavior of their elders. With such comity in the air, Anne and her daughters had even gone a-Maying in Sherwood with Cadi and a dozen of the Welsh boys, bringing back great armloads of hawthorn boughs to brighten the castle. Indeed, all their spirits had been renewed by the sweet flowering of the earth. The sheriff, though, ever vigilant, had told himself he must not let down his guard; why, the king had just fined a favorite of his, Hugh de Neville, chief forester and preeminent cuckold of the realm, some 1,400 pound sterling, equal to the annual profit of four or five plump manors, for allowing two political prisoners to escape. By that standard, anything less than the loss of his head would be a light reprimand if Philip allowed the hostages to flee. But if he had hardly welcomed playing keeper and nursemaid to thirty high-spirited lads –beautiful boys, bursting with good nature, to whom they had all grown attached – how was he now to summon the strength, and deaden his soul, to become their executioner?  It had all gone awry because the king, as always his own worst enemy, kept ignoring the past.

His successes in subduing the Scots, the Irish, and the Welsh over the three years preceding had filled John’s head with renewed dreams of grandeur even as his ongoing struggle with the pope had filled the royal coffers with the siphoned wealth of Holy Church. His martial potency thus enhanced, along with the sway of his government, the king’s ambition to rewin his ancestral Angevin empire burst forth afresh. Every sheriff was ordered that spring to compile an updated roster of who owed the crown military service for the contemplated expedition to France. A sizable quantity of Flemish mercenaries was hired, and the knights of Poitou and Aquitaine were tentatively summoned to a midsummer gathering in anticipation of John’s return by sea to French soil.

What the king chose to overlook were the incubating seeds of insurrection among elements of his baronage for whom a renewed call to arms in support of a foreign adventure remote from their interests was like striking flint to tinder…. By turning indebtedness into a prime weapon of statecraft, John had managed to estrange his debtors among the nobility, not grapple them to him as he had intended. These three camps, many of whose members were closely tied by marriage, were not known to have become leagued in any formal conspiracy as yet, but the king’s summons to war against France had surely deepened the thought. Who wished to carry colors abroad for such a sovereign?




Even as John had shattered the relative tranquility of the realm by moving to restore his lost grandeur on the Continent, so he had unwittingly inflamed it further by abandoning the crown’s time-tested, if messy, policy toward the rambunctious Welsh. The king had achieved success against Llewellyn the previous summer by isolating him from his fellow chiefs and penning him up in the northwest corner of the country under a harsh treaty. But instead of continuing to play off the remaining lesser tribal leaders against one another and thereby blunting any unified action against the crown, John turned to a scheme of conquest and occupation. New castles were strategically erected, old royal fortresses strengthened, and crown raiding parties struck preemptively against concentrations of native forces. Seeing their homeland honeycombed with English strongholds, the Welsh feared for their survival as a people and, even with Llewellyn locked away in the north, took to bedeviling the royal garrisons. It was toward quelling such passionate outbursts that the king had summoned Llewellyn to Cambridge at Eastertide. What he had not counted on, according to reports reaching Nottingham, was Llewellyn’s learning, in the course of the trip, of the heightened opposition to the king’s policies among the baronage. On top of this, the pope had added his share of spice to the Welsh stew by declaring the natives free of fealty to the king and lifting the Interdict throughout Wales. Llewellyn soon persuaded himself that John would be too preoccupied by larger and more immediate concerns to mount a second invasion against Wales if, treaty or no treaty, the natives should rise up massively against the threatened extermination of their nationhood.

Accordingly, with the prince of Gwynedd resuming the leadership, Welsh warriors went on a rampage in June, storming crown fortresses, attacking their troops, and torching the royal stronghold of Swansea. The king, in the midst of preparations for his French expedition, had intended at first to send a small force to relieve his hard-pressed royal garrisons, thinking the Welsh disturbances a mere nuisance likely contrived by France and Rome in tandem to distract him from his planned invasion. But as the reports from Wales accumulated, John realized he could hardly hazard a major thrust at France while his homeland was being harried from the rear. Reluctantly, the French adventure was postponed, and instead the king readied an immense blow against the Welsh to subdue them once and for all time and then meld what remained of that rough race into the rest of the kingdom.

All of these happenings naturally bred trepidation at NottinghamCastle, where the safety of the young hostages was now thought to be imperiled. It was one thing when the rebel attacks had been undertaken by Llewellyn’s rival chieftains, for the boys all came from the north of Wales. But once the prince of Gwynedd had cast his lot with the rest, how long would the king’s hand be stayed from lashing out at the hostages? “I’m worried sick,” Anne Mark told her husband. “He is a vengeful man.”




The sheriff, while fearful, told himself that since the hostage taking had been a preventive measure – and had totally failed – there could be no profit in further abusing the boys; the crown’s might would now be properly directed against their incorrigible fathers. But it was only a hope. “If the king is vengeful,” Philip replied to her, “what shall we say of the Welsh for so lightly regarding their sons’ lives?”

Anne, unable to deny Philip his point, put the same question to Nurse Cadi. “The prince has his whole people to think of,” the plucky old Welsh woman answered, “and likely believes he must seize the day or it will pass forever – and all of Wales with it.”

“And what of the boys?”

“Prince Llewellyn is not an overly sentimental man.”

The sheriff’s wistful hope that the king had put the hostages out of mind took on some substance as the scale of the planned Welsh invasion was revealed. All in England who held of the crown by knight service or sergeantry were summoned to a great muster to be held at Chester on the nineteenth of August. A thousand soldiers were being sent by William the Lion of Scotland, whose daughters John still held hostage. William the Marshal was due to arrive from Ireland with two hundred knights and a like number of sergeants. Boatloads of Flemish mercenaries were shortly to embark for Chester. And most telling of all, Philip and the other sheriffs were directed by Westminster to help enlist a civilian army of eight thousand ditchers, masons, carpenters, and common laborers who were to trail the crown’s vast military sweep across Wales and without delay rebuild whatever royal forts had been destroyed and add enough new ones so that the vanquished could never rise again. To pay for all these troops and supplies, the royal treasury at Nottingham Castle swelled to a sum larger than anyone there had ever seen.

“The king means to wipe the Welsh from the face of the earth,” said Constable Aubrey, awed as they all were by the size and pace of the preparations.

The king went west to Wales at the beginning of August, accompanied by his half-brother, William Longsword, the bastard earl of Salisbury and John’s chief military commander, to assess the need before deciding finally whether to unleash his mighty host later in the month. It was what they found there in the way of bloodied Englishmen that ignited the king’s fury and prompted his order, the moment he arrived back at Nottingham, to hang the boy hostages.

“Does he truly mean it?” the sheriff, welling with anguish, asked of Longsword, who had arrived a moment after the king, “or might his seizure abate by morning?”

The earl, a freckled giant of a man, dismounted slowly and gave a grim shake of his oblong head. “I shouldn’t chance it if I were you – his determination to see this done has grown, if anything, throughout our journey back. His command is as plain as it is painful.”




“The king thinks it will send grim tidings to the Welsh – of the pitiless vengeance that shortly awaits them for having broken the peace again. It may well inspire dread, and possibly surrender, thus sparing many other lives – if not the boys’.”

 “It will inspire only undying hatred and make their resistance that much fiercer.”

“I’ve tried to reason with him just as you say, Master Mark, but the king is persuaded the Welsh are truly degenerate – to behave as they have with such precious hostages held against them. He says the only thing they will understand is spilt blood and broken necks. ‘They are a faithless race!’ he shouts at me, quite beside himself with rage.” The earl’s claw of a hand fell sympathetically on Philip’s shoulder. “You’d best do as he orders – and ask God’s forgiveness.”

The sheriff moved off with unwonted torpor, as if spellbound in a cloying mist. Upon reaching his closet, he ordered the constable to assemble all the Welsh boys in their quarters and have them closely guarded by whatever portion of the garrison was not already assigned to securing the king’s safety. “See that the lads are told their monarch wishes to meet with them,” Philip added, “so they’d best make themselves kempt and be on best behavior.”  Then he dragged himself to the sheriff’s apartment, each step of the stairway a torture to scale, and told his wife that she must pack some things and prepare to take their daughters away from the castle for the next several days.

“What is it, Philip?” she asked, seeing the glazed sorrow in his eyes.

“I – cannot speak the words. You must not be here – nor the children – till it is done with.”

She loosed so fierce a wail that the whole chamber seemed to vibrate with her grief. “Philip – you cannot! The king is a depraved monster!” Her tears flowed over his cheeks as she fell against him in a restraining embrace. “You must not do it! They are almost like – our very own children!”

He grasped her tight and felt her whole essence trembling. “What would you have me do? I’ve questioned him – tried to reason –”

“Beg for their lives! Fall on your knees if you must!”

“I’ll be done for from that moment forth – dismissed as sheriff and possibly much worse, for arguing – questioning –”

“Then let me do it. I’ll go to him – as a mother – and plead for them. He may listen to a woman.”

“He’ll think I’ve put you up to it – that I’m hiding behind your skirts because it is so distasteful a task.”

“Distasteful? Philip, it’s an atrocity! You must let me try to –”




“But what conceivable good will it do to hang these boys?”

 “I cannot, my darling wife.” He pressed her to him. “It is not your place – or your business. I’ll do what I can – I can do no more. Go ready yourself – and the girls.”

Returning to his closet at a leaden pace, he summoned his clerk, the undersheriff, the constable, the bailiff, the chaplain – “and yes, let us have Sir Mitchell as well. Death by foul play is every bit the coroner’s business,” Philip added bitterly. “Being among us will doubtless simplify his task in determining if there be malice aforethought in these murders.”

They filed in soundlessly, like shades recalled to life for a moment’s judgment on the folly of the quick. Their eyes would not meet his at first, as if to spare themselves even that much contamination by so horrific an act as awaited his word. What pity they could manage for his plight, let alone the hostages’, seemed crowded out by the presence within the castle of a pervasive and irresistible evil. “Your hangdog looks mirror my own emptied heart,” the sheriff said at last after their collective silence threatened to entomb them. “I ask if you have any counsel for me.”

All their eyes turned reflexively to the senior member among them. It was eighteen years since the chaplain had successfully begged for the lives of the castle garrison by prostrating himself before the Lionheart, claiming they had been powerless against the unsheathed swords of Prince John’s party. Now that same perfidious prince was the king, and thirty other, no less innocent, lives were on the brink of extinction. Could the castle priest somehow perform a second miracle of entreaty with the ruler of the realm?

“It must not be done in silent submission,” said Father Ivo.

“I did not receive the order silently,” Philip replied.

“We have no doubt. Nevertheless, the order stands. At the very least, you must go to the king a second time and urge him to reconsider – on humane grounds if no other. He must be told the hangings will cost him far more than they can ever gain – and that eternity is his witness.”

“Will the holy chaplain join the sheriff in voicing such a sentiment to the king?” Peter Mark asked, sparing his brother the request.

“He will,” said the priest, “but I cannot think the king will credit any plea from one answerable to the pope. He is hate-addled on that.”

The sheriff slumped in his chair and closed his eyes. “And if our earnest prayers to the king avail naught – what then?”

No one spoke for a time, and then finally the constable, the least esteemed among them, dared ask, “Could you not offer to resign your office rather than fulfill so hateful an order?”




“The king would decline the offer at once,” said the undersheriff.

“Well, then – could you not say your resignation is an accomplished fact,” Aubrey went on weakly, “citing fear of damnation of your eternal soul if you were to carry out – “

‘What would resignation gain?” Sparks asked impatiently. “The best sheriff in England would be gone, and someone else – likely the undersheriff or Master Manning – would be commanded to put the hostages to death – possibly followed by Master Mark himself on the ground of treason.”

The bailiff nodded. “I hesitate to say so because it is not your way,” Manning offered, “but if carrying out this grim command so grieves you, Master Mark, there is nothing for it but flight – and urgently.” His words invited the immediate suspicion that the bailiff was seizing on this somber occasion to rid himself of a resented taskmaster. Sensing this, he promptly added, “Though it is no secret we have had our differences, Master Sheriff, I would sorely regret your departure – yet I can think of no other way to spare you the –”

“Where could the sheriff go?” Peter asked. “He is without powerful friends or financial resources – and we are many leagues from the seacoast. The king would soon hunt him down.”

“Is there anyone the king might listen to?” Father Ivo asked after sighing heavily. “The Marshal is due in England momentarily – or possibly he would heed the earl of Chester – or even Ferrers – Derby is at least close at hand. Or perhaps a messenger could be speeded to Brewer, whose mastery of cruel remedies is without peer.”

“It would take too long to reach any of them and bring them back here,” Sparks said after a respectful moment. “Besides, the king’s brother is said to be closer to him than anyone; yet Longsword has failed to dissuade him, so what hope is there that anyone else might succeed?”

“And what have you to offer us, Sir Mitchell?” asked the sheriff, having silently followed their wandering colloquy. “You would hold my office – go now if you will and tell the king that I malinger, and fear him to be temporarily deranged for issuing such a command, and dread God’s wrath more than his own. Perhaps then he will reward you with the sheriffship, so you may perform this unspeakable act and not have to answer to the buzzing coroner for your oppression.”

“Terrible,” said Sir Mitchell, for once at a loss for words. “Terrible, terrible, terrible.” His head hung low, but whether for the king’s cruelty or from the sheriff’s savage raillery was unclear.




“I thank you all kindly,” Philip said, standing now, his frustration vented at the coroner’s expense, “but plainly I must face the truth of my predicament – which is that I am entrapped by the nature of my service to the king. We each of us have heard he is capable of terrible acts of vengeance, merited or not, yet we have not ourselves been asked to perform them for him before now.  My choice, then, is simple. Either I do as I am told – with a pretense of dignity and that it is not done in vain – and will be damned equally with him who commands me. Or I deny him to save my soul – in which case I am a dead man, or as good as one, and gain nothing but possibly a firmer niche in Heaven.”

Only the bailiff did not concur. “Or you might concede, sire, that the whole regrettable business is beyond your power to alter and not torture yourself with self-recrimination.”

Philip glanced at him dully. “It would be your way, I have no doubt, Master Manning – and perhaps it is the saner one. But for my part, one cannot commit an unconscionable act and then shrug innocently that another conceived it. If I must be an accomplice, I must pay the price.”

“The price, though,” Father Ivo submitted, “is not yours to say. It is to be negotiated between the Lord God Almighty and the devil.”

“Would that someday I’ll have you to intercede with them in my behalf, Father.”  Philip reached back for his sword and, while buckling it on, dismissed them all.



©2017 Richard Kluger