In which the reign of the young King Henry II of England almost comes to a sudden and violent end.
It was calm and peaceful in the forest. A deer lowered its antlered head to drink from the clear rippling brook that ran through the clearing. Sparrows darted from bush to bush, and the sweet song of a blackbird sounded from an oak tree. Rays of sunlight filtered through the branches, and slanted down onto the coarse grass. A light breeze rustled the leaves.
All of a sudden the deer raised its head, twitching its ears and sniffing the air. There was a distant sound of metal clinking upon metal. The animal paused a second more, then kicked up its heels and cleared the stream with a single bound, disappearing swiftly into the trees. A flock of sparrows rose noisily from the bushes and rose into the air, scattering through the undergrowth.
About five minutes later a column of marching men emerged from the trees at the edge of the clearing. Some, wearing chain mail and helmets, were carrying spears and swords; others, clad in leather tunics and skullcaps, bore crossbows across their broad shoulders.
Striding at their head was a short, stocky, muscular man with a shock of red hair, carrying his helmet in his arms. He had handsome freckled features, and he seemed to exude energy and vitality. His bow-legged gait suggested that he was more at home astride a horse, but the dense trees and surrounding thickets would have severely hampered the progress of a mounted man.
“You should wear your helmet, my Lord,” said the dark-featured Welshman, walking at his side. “This is a dangerous place. We could be attacked at any time.”
“You speak truth, Madog,” said King Henry, “but my men must be able to recognize me if it should come to a fight. If I wore my helm, they’d not pick me out in the thick of battle, but I fancy this red hair of mine will make me stand out clearly amidst the fray!”
“I do not like this, Majesty,” declared the grim-faced individual on his other side. “I know my brother only too well. He’ll have his spies out throughout the woods. Your plan to outflank his position on the road to Rhuddlan is a bold one indeed, but I fear he may already know of our strategy.”
“Nonsense, Cadwaladr ap Gruffydd,” snapped the king. “You worry too much. We’ll be around him and fall on his rear before he knows what is happening. I trust your courage does not fail you.”
“No, indeed, my Lord,” replied Cadwalladr through tight lips. “Owain has insulted my honor, and stolen my lands. Though he is of my blood, there is no love lost between us.”
“Good!” said King Henry. “Then let us hear no more doubt or hesitation! We shall surprise him and win a famous victory!”
The past three years had been momentous ones for the twenty-four year old monarch. He had inherited a kingdom laid waste by years of civil strife and anarchy brought on by the dispute between his uncle Stephen and his mother Matilda over the succession to his grandfather and namesake, Henry I. Some of the English nobles had baulked at accepting a woman as ruler, and yet others had found the cruel and corrupt rule of his uncle equally unpalatable. This had produced a lengthy fluctuating struggle for dominance between the two factions, causing a catastrophic collapse of order and government. On the death of his uncle, young Henry II had inherited a nation in a parlous and chaotic condition, which he set out to rule with his customary energy and determination. Recognizing his vision and firmness, the barons and nobles of his kingdom, weary from years of strife and disorder, had begun to give him their allegiance and support.
His task of rebuilding his shattered kingdom had barely begun when he received an appeal for help from Prince Madog of Powys in North Wales. Owain of Gwynnedd, taking advantage of the chaotic civil war in England had expanded his power eastward until he threatened to invade neighboring Powys. King Henry realized that this might be an excellent opportunity to flex his kingly muscle and demonstrate the renewed might of England. He had therefore led his army north to unite with Madog and Owain’s estranged brother, Cadwaladr. They had set out westward to recapture Rhuddlan Castle only to find Owain’s troops blocking their path on the road from Chester. King Henry had decided to split his army, leading a force south through Ewloe Wood to outflank his enemies.
The King raised his hand, and the column of marching soldiers came to a halt on the bank of the stream.
“We will rest for a moment,” he called to his commanders. “But be vigilant! The enemy is close by, and we would best not be caught off guard!”
Madog sank to the turf alongside Cadwaladr.
“This march is ill-omened,” he grunted. “This terrain favors our enemies. The English don’t know it as they do. The forest is thick and tangled, and the steep sides of the valley on either side offer no route to safety if we are attacked.”
As if on cue, the afternoon silence was shattered by a barrage of hoarse cries and a shower of arrows that flew from the surrounding trees. Some of the English soldiers, crouching to drink from the stream, were pierced with the missiles, and keeled over on the spot. Others stood rooted in surprise.
“We are attacked!” roared the king. “Protect yourselves, and prepare for battle!”
He threw up his shield to ward off the arrows and spears that were hurtling through the air, at the same time drawing his sword.
“To me! To Me!” he called out in French. “Form a square!”
His men began stumbling as best they could into a compact shape, but at that moment a horde of Owain’s fierce Welsh soldiers burst upon them from the surrounding trees. The impact of their assault burst the fragile square asunder, and the battle turned into desperate hand to hand combat. The surprise had been complete, and the English were fighting for their lives.
King Henry hacked and thrust furiously with his broadsword on either side, struggling to carve out a path to the far side of the clearing, but the weight of the attack forced him back. He found himself surrounded by a circle of furious dark faces, hungry to claim the life of such a famous figure. His bare head with its mane of red hair, intended as a rallying point for his beleaguered men, had unwittingly proved also a target for his foes.
He held them at bay for a while. He was a strong and fearless combatant, and several of his enemies fell under his blows, but he was being slowly overwhelmed by the numbers of his attackers. He continued to retreat cutting and parrying with every step. All at once he slipped on the wet grass, and went down on one knee. He fought desperately, knowing that if he fell to the ground it would be all over with him. His chain mail would make it difficult to regain his footing, and his foes would close in for the kill.
He fought on with an energy fueled by a kind of wild desperate exhilaration.
I should have listened to my advisers, he thought. Next time I shall not be so rash. If there is a next time!
There was a bitter taste in his mouth, a sense of impending defeat, but he determined to sell himself dearly. From the corner of his eye he could see some of his men break and run back through the woods.
Damn their eyes, he thought, with a cold fury. At least, I shall die gallantly!
All at once he felt a presence by his side. Someone had rushed to his aid and was engaged in some skillful swordplay. He felt the weight of the attack on his person slackening as some of his assailants shifted their attention to easier more vulnerable targets.
There was a sudden lull in the fighting, and the king paused to lean wearily on his sword.
“I owe you my life, sir,” he said to the warrior by his side. “To whom am I indebted?”
The figure beside him raised the visor of his helm.
“Roger, Earl of Hereford, at your service, Sire,” he said. “I saw that you were hard-pressed, and hastened to your side with all speed.”
“It is well that you did,” declared the king ruefully. “In a few moments more, I should have been overwhelmed, and the king’s blood would have stained the turf of Ewloe Wood!”
“I fear, Sire, that the day is lost in spite of your courage,” said the earl. “For the sake of England you must preserve your life to fight again another day.”
Henry surveyed the battlefield. His gaze swept over the broken bodies lying stretched out on the banks of the stream that now ran red, and the fallen weapons and shields that littered the turf. The groans and cries of wounded men drifted to his ears.
“We have lost the day,” he said bitterly, “but we will return to exact revenge. I am determined in that. But come, Hereford, we must away before our enemies return.”
The two men, swords drawn, set off briskly back down the path through the trees, leaving behind them a scene of death and destruction on the wooded banks of the small stream in North Wales.
This incident, a rare early defeat for King Henry II, the most ambitious and powerful of England’s Plantagenet kings, took place in 1157. Henry had been king for a mere three years, and was finding his feet as a monarch, engaged in rebuilding his shattered kingdom. Caught in an ambush, he might well have been killed but for the timely intervention of the Earl of Hereford. As it was he lived to reign for a further thirty-two years during which he extended his realm far into what is now France, adding by conquest or marriage most of the western half of that country. The territory under his control ran from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. A man of tremendous drive and energy, impulsive and given to violent outbursts of temper, he weathered numerous storms, disputes with his charismatic wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine, a violent quarrel with Archbishop Thomas Becket and squabbles amongst his self-willed sons, only to finally see his kingdom crumbling as he lay on his deathbed.
Although the superior size and strength of the English army convinced Owain of Gwynedd to sue for peace in 1158, Henry never quite subdued the Welsh Princes. It was not until his great-grandson, Edward I, built a chain of border castles a century and a half later that Wales finally came under the control of England.