The laughing victors were coming into the town in droves. The rumbling noise of the horses’ hooves on the bridge echoed through the streets, making the ground shake.
The nuns were getting worried that their town was going to be overrun with these uncouth men.
Huddling together, three of the nuns hurried through the market square towards the Greyfriars priory.
They were almost at the guildhall when they heard a loud cheer coming from the crowd of men who were gathering at the ale house on the opposite edge of the market square. Their interest piqued, they decided to stand for a few minutes and see what the hubbub was about.
A group of ten or twelve men were arriving from the battlefield. They rode very well dressed horses, quite obviously not their own, and led three or four more horses behind them. Their faces and clothes were matted with mud and blood as were most of the returning fighters.
They were drawing a rowdy group of people to them and Sister Eleanor let her inquisitiveness take over and started walking towards them.
Sister Elizabeth grabbed her arm and held her back, but Sister Eleanor was determined and moved off across the square.
Sister Anna took Sister Elizabeth’s arm and followed.
“It will be safer if we are together than if she were to go on her own,” Sister Anna whispered in her friend’s ear.
Slowly they approached the rabble. The noise was incredible, the women could hardly hear themselves think. Some men were laughing and cheering, but equally some men were moaning and groaning in pain.
The Sisters made their way around the crowd to the mounted men and their horses, trying to establish if they were noble men from the local manors, who had gathered here in Leicester with the King, just a few days earlier.
Sister Eleanor looked at the tethered horses and was shocked to see a naked man thrown over the back of one of them. She must have made a noise because one of the men turned to look at her.
“What’s the matter love, never seen a naked man before,” he finished with a terrible laugh.
Sister Eleanor backed away from his horse, bumping into her two friends behind her.
“That is not a very respectful way to treat the dead, is it?” Sister Elizabeth said haughtily.
“War is War, Madam, they would have killed us if we hadn’t done them in first,” he replied.
“Even so…” she began to reply.
Another man walked up to the nuns.
“This is probably not the best place for you sisters. The men are in a strange mood after winning the battle. There is no saying what they might do. It would be safer if you went back to the priory.”
“We came to see if there were any injured that may need our help,” said Sister Elizabeth in her strongest voice. “But if you would not like our help then maybe we should leave. Would you like us to take your friend and give him a decent burial?”
“Friend? That man is no friend of mine, Sister. That is the ex-King. He is the men’s trophy. There is no way that he will get any kind of decent burial from these men. They intend to parade him and set him on a bonfire I believe.”
The nuns crossed themselves quickly and whispered a quick prayer.
Sister Anna was the first to come to her senses.
“Very well, maybe we are not needed here. If you have any news of injured men who may need our help, please send them over to the priory, we will be happy to take care of them. Come along girls,” she said abruptly.
Taking the arms of the other women, she pulled them quickly back across the market square in the direction of their home.
“We cannot let them treat an anointed King in that way,” Sister Elizabeth whispered. “Their souls will rot in hell for behaving in such a way to one of God’s chosen.”
“We must save them from themselves,” said Sister Eleanor.
“Yes. We must. But we cannot do it by ourselves. We need to speak to the friar and see what he thinks we should do. Let us hurry,” said Sister Anna.
With that they rushed back to the priory.
The friar listened carefully as the nuns explained what they had seen and heard. He agreed that something must be done.
“The body must be brought to holy ground and buried respectfully. Before any further damage is done to the souls of those idiots.”
“How do we get it though? They have it tied to a horse,” said Sister Elizabeth.
“We must be careful. We must also be quick. We cannot allow the body to be burned. We will set a watch, and when the horse and the body is unattended, we must bring the King’s body back here.”
Friar John called in a stable boy that he trusted.
“I have a job for you boy. The inn on the market square has a large group of noisy men there. There are a group of horses with them. One has a man’s body tied onto the saddle. When they stop to eat or drink and the horses are not being watched, you will come and tell us where they are. You must be careful, they are a very rowdy crowd. I do not want you to put yourself in any danger, do you understand?”
The boy nodded and ran off.
“Now we need to get ourselves prepared. There is much to do. Fetch the monks and nuns together in the church, I need to speak with everyone,” he said, and the three nuns rushed off to gather them together.
Shortly after, there were around twenty people of the cloth gathered in the chapel. To all who looked in, they were praying and listening to their friar preach. He spoke in a low tone, not wanting his voice to travel.
“The disaster that could befall the country if God were to take revenge for their treatment of His anointed King would be terrible. We must take this matter into our own hands and deal with it.
I have a boy in the town watching the men. Brother Thomas and Brother James, you will both go into the town with a cart and be ready to snatch the body and bring it here at the first chance you get. Take two nuns with you and some bandages, you can offer to treat any injured to hide your real intentions.
Brother Jacob, take two of the stronger men and start digging a hole, we may have to rush the burial. It should be in the church, so dig behind the altar please, that way it can also be hidden quite easily.
Sister Jane, please take Sisters Eleanor and Anna, get a shroud ready, we may not have a lot of time to wrap the body once it gets here so be prepared. Have a bowl of water and some herbs ready to use. They will probably be needed too. You can use my cell to set it out.”
“Is it right that we steal the horse from the men, just to give the King a proper burial?” asked Brother James.
“No. We do not steal. We take the body only, not the horse.”
“What if they do not leave the body alone long enough. We could take the horse and body, then release the horse to return to the men?”
“No. God will give us the time to retrieve the body. I will be praying for that. He will help us in our endeavours.”
“Should it not be the Bishop who arranges the King’s burial? It should be the Bishop also who says prayers over his body. I mean, we are only lowly monks and nuns, we are not in a position with God to give the King the blessings that he deserves,” asked another of the group.
“We do not have the time to wait for the Bishop. Once they realise the King is missing they will start to search for him and we cannot risk him being found here. He must be buried quickly and quietly,” said the friar.
“Are you sure? I really think we should consult the Bishop?”
“You are not listening! There is no time to wait. If anyone here does not wish to help in this venture, they will stay in the church here, now, and pray for the souls of the dead out on that battlefield. Sister Amelia will lead the prayers as she is unable to walk quickly enough to help us.”
Sister Amelia nodded to him and moved to the front of the church to begin praying.
“Now. Everyone get to their jobs, or stay here and pray. It is time to act.”
Father John turned to face the altar and crossed himself, while saying a short prayer, before leaving. The next time he came into this chapel it would be to pray over the body of a dead Monarch. He needed to find a place to silently pray for the strength to do this.
Two monks and one nun moved to kneel by Sister Amelia and began to pray loudly.
Everyone else said a quick prayer and bowed to the crucifix before rushing off to their allocated jobs.
Brother Jacob came back in with two others and hid themselves behind the altar to start the task of digging a hole.
It was dusk when Brother Thomas and Brother James arrived in the town centre with their cart, carrying the two nuns.
The stable boy quickly found them and told them that the group of men had gone into the Black Horse Inn and were drinking lots of ale.
The horse with the King on had been paraded around the town many times. A bonfire had been begun on castle hill, but the men had lost interest. The crowd had been drinking heavily all day and the body had been stabbed randomly with daggers and arrows as it had passed through the streets. A trail of blood stained the route that they had taken.
The stable boy reported that the body must have been empty of blood by now, as it had stopped dripping when they stabbed at it and the men had lost interest in their ‘toy’.
The lure of the alehouse and bragging with fellow fighters had attracted them more.
The horse and body was now tied to a post to the side of the inn. Four men had been set the job of guarding them, though they were also quite drunk by this time.
Brother Thomas nodded to the boy and helped him onto the cart with the nuns. They moved off in the vague direction of the inn.
On the way, they picked up the dead bodies of two more men from the roadside. A quick prayer over each of them was said. Their bodies showed wounds, obviously from the battle. They had made it this far and then succumbed to the injuries. They would be buried in the churchyard as soon as possible too. For now, their bodies would provide a cover for the main objective of this night.
The small group of nuns and monks passed the alehouse slowly, slyly looking to see how many were guarding the King.
There were now five men stood by the horse laughing and joking. All had flagons in their hands, drinking freely. It would be hard to divert the attention of all of them at once.
Brother Thomas decided they should carry on walking a little way further, so as not to be noticed.
Around the corner, in an alleyway, they came across a woman sat on the ground. Her injured husband was laid across her lap and she stroked his hair gently.
Looking up to the cart, the woman’s face was full of worry. Sister Elizabeth slid herself from the cart and knelt down to help them.
Lifting his shirt to look at the man’s wounds, the Sister assessed that this man would survive, as long as he did not catch an infection. Taking a jar of salve from the back of the cart, she soothed his wounds and bound them with a bandage.
Brother Thomas stood over the injured man and said a prayer for his recovery.
“He should recover from this injury, if you are careful about looking after him,” she said to the worried woman.
“Thank you Sister. You are very kind,” she replied.
Sister Elizabeth smiled and moved back to the cart.
“You are collecting the dead?” the woman said with a nod to the cart.
Brother Thomas nodded.
“We will go out to the battlefield tomorrow and pray over the bodies that could not be brought to town,” he said solemnly.
“They should give you the King’s body too, but they won’t. It is their prize. They plan to burn him when that new King comes to the town tomorrow,” she said sadly.
Sister Elizabeth and Brother Thomas risked a glance at each other.
The woman caught sight of the glance.
“That’s what you are trying to do isn’t it? You want to get the King’s body from them!”
The holy group stood quietly, not sure what to say.
Brother James spoke first.
“We feel that we must act. The King is God’s chosen one, his blood is therefore holy. That blood has been spilled all over this town. God will be angry with those people who have spilt this blood and who have desecrated the royal body in such ways as they have done. We have to try and appease God and put this right. We may not be able to save the souls of the men who have acted thus, but we must give the King a decent burial. He was anointed with Holy oil, he must have a funeral rite on consecrated ground. If we can get him back to the friary, we can give him that, and hopefully please God in some small way.”
Everyone was silent. The sight of the blood trail along the road by the cart made them think about what disasters could befall them because of such ruthless treatment.
The woman stood quickly.
“Look after my husband. I will be back soon,” she said then rushed off.
Sister Eleanor watched her go, then whispered.
“Where do you think she goes? Will she tell the men in the alehouse what we plan and put us in danger?”
The injured man coughed and said in a hoarse voice.
“No. She will help you. She was disgusted about how they were treating him before. You can trust her.”
Sister Elizabeth knelt by him as they all waited for her return, nervously.
She returned in only a few minutes, with three other women in tow.
“I have an idea. We will go to the alehouse and distract the men who are guarding the body. You must be quick though.”
“How will you distract them?” asked Sister Elizabeth.
“Sister, because of your profession, I would prefer that you did not ask me that,” she replied.
Sister Elizabeth blushed and nodded, understanding.
“Come, and be quick,” she said.
The three women went to the side of the inn and struck up a conversation with the group of men on guard duty, who were more than half drunk by now.
Brother Thomas watched the sinful way that the women flirted with the men and said a little silent prayer for their souls.
The women giggled and took the men by the arms, leading them around to the back of the inn.
Once they were out of sight, Brother Thomas and Brother James stepped forward to the horse. They started to untie the ropes that held the naked body on the saddle.
Sister Elizabeth was quicker. With a whispered apology to the body, she pulled a knife from the buttock and quickly cut through the ropes. The body now freed, Brother Thomas and his men carried it to the cart. Lifting the other two bodies, they slid the King’s body underneath and hid it.
Brother Thomas sent the stable boy off at a run, to let the Friar know that they were on the way back with the body.
The holy group headed off into the dark night. They pulled the cart quickly, but as quietly as they could. By the time they reached the priory, they were almost at a running pace.
The four of them could feel their hearts beating fast in their chests as they came to the gates of the priory. Every second of the journey, they had expected to hear shouts of the discovery in the market square.
As they came to the wooden gates, they were hurried inside and the gates were shut and locked behind them. Brother Aaron sat watch by the gates, everyone else moving into the church grounds.
Brother Thomas and Brother James handed the cart over to Brother Andrew and Brother Peter. The two bodies of the dead men on top of the cart were lifted respectfully to the ground, to be buried later.
The four men crossed themselves and said a quick prayer over the bodies.
The King’s body was then lifted from the cart and rushed to the friar’s cell, where the nuns were waiting for it.
Sisters Jane, Eleanor and Anna were waiting in silence for the arrival. They had a clean white shroud laid out on the floor in preparation.
The three women gasped when they saw the state of the King’s body.
“We will have to clean him first. We cannot lie him to rest like this,” said Sister Jane.
“Do it then, but hurry,” said Brother Thomas and the men left the room to go to the church and check on the grave digging.
Water and cloths were to hand and the women set to their tasks quickly. Scented oil and herbs were rubbed on the damaged skin, cleansing him for the next life.
The knives and arrows were pulled from the body and the dried blood scraped from the wounds. The wounds did not bleed, there was very little of the Royal blood left in the body. The skin was almost snow white in colour.
Sister Anna took the smaller shroud and laid it under his head. His hair was matted with blood, but they did not have time to clean that fully, simply pushing it from his face. She placed the traditional coins on his closed eyelids and began to wrap the cloth about his skull.
“Oh dear. How could someone do this to another person, never mind their own King.”
“I only pray that he was not in pain for very long with his wounds. They look terrible. I hope that God took his soul quickly,” said Sister Eleanor, tears in her eyes.
Sister Anna nodded as she finished wrapping the King’s head with the cloth, whispering a little prayer to herself as she did so.
The nuns moved to his shoulders, body and legs and lifted him onto the waiting white shroud. It was not a job that was usually left to the women to do and they struggled a little, but were determined to do their best.
The door opened behind them and they all jumped.
“Are we nearly ready? We need to hurry,” said Friar John.
“Almost, Friar. Send three monks up to carry him down to the chapel please. He shall be ready by the time they get here,” answered Sister Eleanor.
The women quickly stretched out the King’s legs. As his wrists were still bound, they were unable to cross his arms over his chest as usual, but placed them on his abdomen instead. The large white shroud was then wrapped around the body carefully but quickly. They had done this many times before, but never with this haste.
Falling to their knees beside their King, they said a final prayer and Sister Eleanor felt the tears drip from her eyes onto the shroud.
Brother Thomas and two other monks knocked on the door and opened it. The three nuns got to their feet and stood back to give space for them to enter.
With a swift movement, the King’s corpse was lifted to their shoulders and the three men lowered their heads as they carried it respectfully to the chapel.
The nuns followed in silence, crying for the loss of the great man and his soul.
On entering the chapel, the entire company of friars and nuns stood to greet their dead King.
The monks processed up the nave with the body on their shoulders, giving as much respect as possible to the anointed one in their midst.
Stopping behind the altar, next to the choir stalls, the body was lowered from their shoulders and down into the hastily dug grave.
Everyone present gathered about the grave and bowed their heads.
The grave having been dug so quickly, it was unusually short for the body. The head was slightly raised at one end and the legs slightly bent at the knees.
There was nothing that could be done about that now, time was short and they must hurry.
Friar John stood by the head and cleared his throat.
“Let us pray,” he said.
“Dear Lord. Grant this brother of ours, King Richard of England, his rightful place in your kingdom of heaven.
Give him the love and peace that he has not received at the end of his time on this earth.
Dear God, please forgive the people who took his life and dignity from him, grant them the chance to redeem themselves in your eyes.
As our brother was baptised and anointed by Your holy rites, accept his soul into your eternal rest.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in the hope of life ever after.
Everyone stood in silence around the grave for a few long moments.
The monks hung their heads in prayer and the nuns sobbed quietly.
A shout from Brother Aaron at the gates brought their attention back to the task at hand.
There were men hammering on the gates and Friar John knew that this meant the missing body had been discovered.
Dropping to their knees quickly, every single monk started to push the soil back into the hole with their bare hands.
Without being told, the nuns moved to the door of the chapel and went to greet the men in the courtyard who had now come to look for their lost ‘prize’.
Sister Elizabeth spoke loudly to a big man who seemed to be in charge of the louts.
“And how can we help you men? Are you in need of spiritual guidance?”
“We are looking for the body of the King. It has been stolen from the market square.”
“And you think that members of a friary would steal something? Do you not remember from the ten commandments, ‘Thou shalt not steal’?”
“Some of your monks were seen in the town earlier. They had a dead man on a cart.”
“Yes. They collected two dead men earlier for burial. The bodies are over here. I can show you if you wish.”
“Thank you Sister. I appreciate that.”
The man waved at the drunken men to move back to the gates. He followed Sister Elizabeth across the courtyard to the two dead men, laid next to the cart.
“Is one of these the body you are seeking?” asked Sister Elizabeth gently.
“No. Are these the only ones brought back tonight?”
“To the best of my knowledge, yes,” lied the nun.
“Where are the men who brought them back?”
“I believe they have retired for the night. They intend to go out to the battlefield tomorrow and bring back more bodies for burial. Do you wish me to wake the Brothers?”
“No. I am satisfied. I am sorry for disturbing your prayers Sisters. I will remove my men back to the town.”
“Thank you Sir.”
He turned to leave. After a few steps, he looked back over his shoulder.
“Perhaps you could pray for the dead King in any case, Sister. And for the new King, Henry.”
“We pray as our Bishop guides us to, Sir. I am sure he will instruct us on whose souls are worthy of our prayers.”
The nobleman nodded and ordered his men to leave.
Brother Aaron closed the heavy wooden gates behind the crowd of men as they went and the nuns heaved a collective sigh of relief.
At that moment, Friar John and some of the other monks appeared at the doorway of the chapel. Thus confirming that the task was completed.
And so the King of England was buried with the tears of nuns on his shroud in an unmarked grave on consecrated ground, in Greyfriars Priory, in Leicester.