As petitioner for the office of Steward of England, Simon de Montfort was made responsible for organizing the very lavish winter festival celebrating King Henry’s wedding progress. Excerpted from Chapter 6 of Montfort the Early Years. Buy Now on Amazon.
The Royal Wedding Progress
Henry III and Eleanor of Provence were wed in Canterbury Cathedral. Archbishop Edmund Rich performed the marriage rite. Then the combined royal entourage went on to Rochester where Henry and Eleanor spent their first night.
Snow, sleet and frigid wind swept the road from London to Rochester all through the night. In the blast of the gale, by the whipping lights of torch-flames, oxen dragged wagons laden with folded tents, trestle tables, barrels of serving vessels, kettles, costumes, firewood and foods for the feast. Hogsheads of wine loomed through the snow-swirled air, rocking on their carts toward the vintners’ designated spot along the royal wedding party’s way. Gaily painted pageant wagons lumbered, their wonders cupboarded behind their folded panel doors. Men, women and children, the guild and parish players, trudged beside the wagons, bundled and huddled against the freezing night.
Simon, with the help of his squire Peter and steward deMesnil, directed each arriving caravan to its appointed place at the roadside, and allotted each arriving group its location in the fields for tents and supplies.
Through the bitter night the Londoners came in hundreds, then thousands. Not only the performers and the cooks and servers of the feast arrived, but everyone from nuns and priests to jugglers, pickpockets and cutthroats. All wanted to see the royal bride and the winter festival. London emptied to populate the road.
As the long, cold night went on, a new city grew in the fields. Masses of people clustered by bonfires that blazed in orange streams into the dark, sleety wind. To keep spirits high among the circles of frost-chapped faces in the firelights, troubadours sang songs of ancient loves, of beauties whose love-glances never died: Helen and Isolde, Guinevere and Blanchefleur.
Morning opened with a sky of infinite bright blue above a world encased in ice. The road, swept clean by the night’s wind, was like a band of polished silver. Trees glinted in the sunlight; their branches, sheathed in crystal, scattered rainbows from each prismed twig. The stubble in the fields was white as winter fur.
The encampment of Londoners, a long dark smudge on the white landscape, swarmed like a hive. The sleepless cooks and players made their last preparations. Scents of wood-smoke and of dainty dishes wafted in the icy air. Seamstresses sewed last-minute repairs. Guildsmen unpacked and counted silver serving vessels while apprentices tied swags of evergreens to litters that would bear the feast.
Simon was everywhere, like a general seeing to the readiness of his troops before battle. He checked the cook sheds, the teams of bearers and the pageant wagons’ readiness. As he went his rounds, suddenly the noisy clatter of the camp was broken by the blaring of brass horns. Above the curve where the road crested a distant hill bright pennants were fluttering.
The cooks began to ladle their hot victuals into silver chargers.
Players hurried to their places on the pageant wagons. Saint Laurence climbed upon his grill of painted flames. Saint Lucy, in a flutter of nerves, searched her pockets for her eyeballs. Saint Sebastian adjusted the arrows piercing his breast. Saint George’s dragon was stoked until its three nodding heads belched flames as well as smoke. And Hellsmouth roared with flames so hot the miserable parishioners who played the Damned could shed their cloaks and stand in their thin under-shifts. Theirs was a pageant usually performed in summertime.
The Royal Progress came on with banners of red, blue, yellow, white and black with splashing fringes of gold. Heralds and flag bearers in the red and gold livery of Plantagenet blew horns, beat drums and held aloft a forest of flags that snapped in the brisk wind. The lords of England followed in fur cloaks and pheasant-feathered hats, their horses caparisoned in satins with heraldic embroideries and fringes to their hocks.
The Londoners swarmed toward the parade. Jugglers tossed fruit to the riders and danced over ropes of sausages. Guild masters, in their finest fur-lined robes and jewels, bore holly-swagged litters heavy with silver vessels heaped with rich, rare foods: pimpernel and lark pastries; sugared flawns; black puddings squabs in wine pies filled with salmon and with luce; and boars bursting with plums and apricots.
Cherub-faced apprentices served as cupbearers with brimming beakers of hippocras and mead. The Master of the Vintners hurried with a litter of cups and ewers from the guild’s “Fountain of Cana” where the wine had frozen in arches and cascades like the buttresses and pinnacles of a fanciful cathedral made of crimson ice.
At the side of the road the pageant wagons displayed their saints. The child Saint Philomel climbed to the top of a living pyramid of angel acrobats costumed in white robes and goose-feather wings. Saint Michael, in gold armor, brandished a silver sword and held aloft a torpid snake. Saint Margaret, her face blackened and bloody, her skirts painted with flames, stood in a huge cauldron with her shivering arms uplifted joyously. Saint Lucy thrust out her hands, each holding an eye. Saint Magnus knelt before a sturdy, leather-aproned butcher who hacked at the saint’s neck with a gigantic wooden axe. Saint George, in silver helm and suit of mail, battled his fire-spewing dragon as its flames melted the frozen earth to mud beneath his feet.
Children of Saint George’s parish, dressed as monster pups, darted through the march to offer chalices of soringue of eels to King Henry, for eels were known to be his favorite dish.
Among the marchers, after the heralds, the flag bearers and the lords, came curtained, horse-borne palanquins with swaying golden tassels. Ladies peeped from the curtains to take the dainty foods offered by the Masters of the Guilds. Whenever a lady could be glimpsed, cries rose from onlookers, “Is that she?” The Londoners vied to catch the first sight of their queen-to-be, the beauty who had won King Henry’s heart.
The royal bailiffs, dressed in scarlet livery with golden lions en passant guardant, came next.
And then there was no question. King Henry and Eleanor of Provence rode side by side. In furs and cloth-of-gold the King of England sat upon a splendid chestnut destrier manteled in broad stripes of red and gold. His bride, in cloth-of-silver lined with ermine as white as the fields, rode beside him on a milk-white palfrey draped in midnight blue.
Eleanor held her head high, already a queen. She was sixteen, and everyone agreed her beauty beggared Hurle’s description. She had the luminous petal-pink complexion of her mother, Beatrice of Savoy. Her eyes were large and lustrous blue. Her forehead, like a fawn’s, was wide and round. She wore no veil; her hair, a treasure of bright golden curls, fell freely upon the shoulders of her cloak. But more than Nature’s gifts, a studied grace flowed in her every gesture. She was sensuous. In the arts of desire the lady was well schooled. She filled to the full the ideal of a people whose doctrine of love the Church declared perverse, lubricious and heretical. Henry was dazzled, madly in love.