Stories from English History - Hilda Skae

The Boy Who Would Be a King

The Norman King of England, a descendant of William the Conqueror, having died without leaving any children, his brother John made himself king.

John was a very bad man; and he was both mean and cowardly. Although he was King of England and Duke of Normandy he was never happy or at rest, for he knew that his nephew Arthur, the son of his elder brother, had a better right than himself to the crown. As time went on he became more and more uneasy, for he found that his subjects did not like him, and he was afraid that they might learn to like the fine, handsome lad whom many of them believed to be their rightful sovereign.

At the time when John made himself king, young Arthur was only twelve years old, and he was living safely in his own dukedom of Brittany. His father having died when Arthur was only a baby, the young prince had been Duke of Brittany all his life; and he had grown up among his people, who loved their young duke very much.

King Philip of France was an enemy of John; and when he heard that the man whom he despised had taken the crown which should have been Arthur's, he invited the young duke to his court, made him a knight, boy although he was, and promised him his daughter in marriage when he should be a man.

Alas! Poor Arthur never lived to marry the Princess of France.

One day the French king said to the young prince, "Arthur, you know your rights, and that your uncle John is not the true King of England. Would you not like to be a king?"

The boy looked at King Philip with his large, bright blue eyes.

"Truly," he said, "I should greatly like to be a king."

"Then win back your inheritance," said the King of France. "I will give you two hundred of my knights, and you shall come with me and make war upon your uncle in Normandy, which is yours by right. Once we have taken Normandy from the usurper, it will be easy to drive him from England.

Prince Arthur flushed with joy and pride; and his eyes sparkled more brightly than ever. The King of France gave him a beautiful horse, and Arthur had a fine suit of armour made for himself; and then he was unable to rest or sleep for joy at the thought that he would soon be a king, and marry the beautiful princess who had been promised to him as his wife.

When the people of Brittany heard that their gallant young duke was going to fight for his inheritance, they gathered together five hundred knights and five thousand foot soldiers and sent them to Arthur in France.

Arthur was very proud of his little army, and he felt sure that with the help of his followers he would soon win back England and Normandy. Seeing him upon his fine horse, and wearing his rich suit of armour, the knights and soldiers were delighted with the fine, spirited lad, and set off gaily under his leadership to besiege a town which was in the possession of King John.

Upon hearing the news, the King of England came himself to fight against his nephew. He did not bring a large army; he knew that King Philip of France was in another part of the country, and he did not think it would be very difficult to overcome Prince Arthur.

One night the prince's troops were surprised by treachery. A number of King John's soldiers stole into the camp, made prisoners of some of Arthur's knights, and stabbed others in the dark.

Prince Arthur was sleeping in his tent when he was rudely awakened by some armed men, who seized him by the wrists, and bade him come with them and not make any noise.

His captors hurried the lad through the streets of the little town, which were full of King John's soldiers, running to and fro with lighted torches, and some of them leading Prince Arthur's brave French and Breton soldiers as prisoners.

Presently they reached a lighted hall, and when his eyes became accustomed to the glare Arthur saw before him his uncle John, a look of triumph upon his mean face and in his shifty eyes. In a corner was a group of Arthur's knights, with fetters on their wrists and ankles.

"Do you know me, boy?" said King John, trying to look his nephew in the face.

The prince stood up boldly and looked at his uncle with his honest, fearless eyes.

"Yes," he said, "I know you; you are my uncle, the usurping King of England."

John's mean face became white with anger, and he was unable to speak.

"I command you," continued the boy, "to restore to me my rightful inheritance, of which you have unjustly deprived me, and to set my knights instantly at liberty."

Some of the bystanders were looking at the lad with pity, mingled with admiration for his courage; but the boy's fearlessness only filled the king with a desire to lower his pride.

By the time he had found his voice, John's eyes were glittering with a cruel determination.

"To Falaise with him!" he said. "Take him away; and in the dungeon there he will learn to rebel against his uncle and lawful king."

Arthur was not frightened yet. He remembered that King Philip had promised to make him King of England; and he saw nothing to be afraid of in the mean, cowardly face of the man before him.

"No king of mine," he said; "you may put me in a dungeon, but you cannot keep me there. The King of France is on my side and against you, base usurper; and he will send an army and deliver me from the strongest fortress of those that you have stolen from me."

King John made a sign; and the boy was hurried away, still defying his uncle. A horse was waiting for him, and he was made to ride, strongly guarded, all the long distance to the castle of Falaise, which was reached early one fine sunny morning.

Standing beneath the grim walls of the castle, the chief of Arthur's guards blew a horn.

Some men-at-arms stirred upon the battlements; then the drawbridge was lowered, the iron grating raised which guarded the entrance; and the party clattered under the entrance tower and into the courtyard.

Arthur descended from his horse; and weary as he was, he was led along a passage and down a stone staircase to a great iron door which one of his guides opened with a large key.

Arthur's spirits sank when he saw before him a dreary stone dungeon lighted only by a window high up in the wall, and furnished with a narrow bed, a stool, and a heap of straw.

Still, he said to himself, it was only for a few days. To-morrow, or the next day, or the day after that at farthest, the King of France was sure to come, and then Arthur would mount his gallant horse again, put himself at the head of his devoted little army, and set forth once more to make himself King of England.

To-morrow came, and the next day, and the day after that; and Arthur was still in his dungeon. Weeks passed; and the King of France had not arrived to rescue the prince who was to be his son-in-law.

Spring came, and sometimes the sun shone brightly through the small window, and made a brilliant patch of light on the opposite wall of Prince Arthur's dungeon.—When the breezes blew, branches with young unfolding leaves would appear for a minute at the opening and then vanish. Balmy air stole in at the unglazed window and breathed softly upon the face of the prisoner; and Arthur would hear the song-birds and the voices of other boys at their games beneath the castle walls, and all the pleasant sounds of a world where every one save himself appeared to be at liberty. Sometimes Arthur would sit for hours, gazing upwards at the tiny square of light, his heart swelling with impatience as he thought of the spring pastimes that he was losing; and he wondered when the King of France would come and set him free.

One day the bolts were withdrawn at an unusual hour.

Here, then, was King Philip at last!

Arthur turned quickly; and in the archway of the door, he saw the white face of his uncle.

"Arthur," said King John, trying to meet his nephew's eyes, "will you not trust to your loving uncle?"

"I will trust my loving uncle," replied the boy, "when he does me right. Restore to me my kingdom of England, and then come and ask me that question."

The king looked at his nephew, whose high-spirited young face had become so much paler by confinement; then he turned away without a word and left the prison.

After this King John took counsel with his advisers.

"What shall I do with this boy," he said, "who defies me and thinks that he is to become King of England?"

"Behead him," said one. "Have him poisoned," said another.

"Put his eyes out," suggested a hard-faced nobleman who had not spoken before; "the people will not care to have a blind man for their king."

"Put out his eyes," mused the king; "put out his eyes; those eyes which look with unseemly boldness at his uncle and true sovereign."

John I and Arthur


The longer he dwelt upon the idea the more attractive did it become to him.

The boy who could not be made to fear him; who persisted in believing that he would one day force his uncle to yield up the crown—it would be gratifying to know that he had been deprived of his frank, fearless eyes.

John sent to the prison a man called Hubert de Burgh, whom he believed to be devoted to himself; and gave him charge of Prince Arthur.

Hubert had a stern face but a kind heart, and he soon grew so much attached to the bright boy who was his prisoner, that he felt towards him almost as a father. He took the prince out of the dungeon, and gave him bright sunny rooms in another part of the castle; and often he spent hours with his young charge, enjoying his cheerful boyish conversation.

What was Hubert's dismay when one day he received a letter from the king, commanding that his prisoner's eyes should be burned out with hot irons. Not only that, but he had sent two executioners to see that it was done.

Hubert was hardly able to bear the pain which such an order gave him; but he was unable to see any way of escape for the prince.

He entered Arthur's room that morning with so sad a face that the prince asked what ailed him.

"May one not be sad at times, prince?" said Hubert, whose sorrow made him gruff.

"Indeed there may be many things that make people sad," replied Prince Arthur, "although I was nearly forgetting that any one could be unhappy who is out of prison—Indeed, Hubert, I am beginning to think that if only I were free and kept sheep I could be as merry as the day is long. Perhaps I should not trouble any longer about being a king if only I had the blue sky above my head once more, and no prison bars.—I wish I were your son, Hubert; and then I should not have to spend my time in prison."

Poor Hubert, it was necessary that he should tell the prince what was going to happen; and yet the longer he waited the more impossible it seemed for him to begin. He moved uneasily about the room, and looked so gloomy, that Arthur felt sure that something was the matter.

"Here, prince, read this letter," said Hubert abruptly at last, feeling it impossible that he could utter the dreadful news.

Arthur took the letter; and then he became deadly pale.

"Hubert, is this true?" he said.

"Prince, these are your uncle's orders!" said Hubert with a shaking voice.

"Have you the heart to do it?" said Arthur piteously. "Will you indeed burn out my eyes?"

"I must," said Hubert; "your uncle has sent two men to see that it is done."

"O Hubert!" was all that Arthur could say.

"Better get it over quickly," muttered Hubert to himself, and he called the executioners, who had been waiting outside the door.

"Send these men away, Hubert!" cried the boy. "I will stay quite still, Hubert, I will not move if you will do it yourself; but I cannot bear the sight of these men."

"You may go," said Hubert to the executioners; "I will call when I am ready for you."

"Indeed," said one of the men, who had pitied the boy, "I am best pleased to be away from such a deed."

But it was impossible for Hubert to burn out the eyes of his dear young prisoner; and it was impossible for Arthur not to beg for mercy.

"I cannot do it," said Hubert more to himself than to the prince, "and I will not; I shall have to take the consequences." He opened the door, and called in the two men.

They came in unwilling, each hoping that he would not have to do the deed.

"I have not burned out the prince's eyes," said Hubert abruptly. "What is more, I am not going to allow you to do so. You can tell the king if you like."

"Indeed, sir," said one of the men, "we won't tell his majesty anything at all. And by your leave, sir, we would both rather be excused from doing our duty if it's to be a young gentleman like this, who can't have done anything to deserve it. And so we will wish you good-day, sir."

The men shuffled out of the room, but Arthur's troubles were not over yet. King John began to think that Arthur, even without his eyes, was too dangerous a prisoner to keep on his hands; and he suggested to a knight named William de Bray that he should stab the prince in prison.

"I am a gentleman and not an executioner," replied William de Bray; and he turned from the king in disdain.

Then John hired an assassin for a large sum of money, and sent him to the castle to kill the prince.

"Upon what errand dost thou come?" asked Hubert de Burgh, as the fellow presented himself at the castle gates.

"To despatch Prince Arthur," said the man. "Go back to him that sent thee," said Hubert, "and say that I will do it."

King John, knowing very well that Hubert was trying to save his prisoner, separated Arthur from his kind gaoler, and had him imprisoned in the strong castle of Rouen, which is washed on one side by the river Seine.

Then he came himself in a boat by night and waited outside the castle walls.

Arthur was awakened by his gaoler and made to follow him to a small door by the river-side. When the door was unfastened, the gaoler threw down his torch and trod upon it to put it out, and Arthur was only able to distinguish two dark forms in the boat. From the voice he could tell that one of them was his uncle.

Arthur was dragged on board the boat, imploring the king to have mercy upon him; and what happened after that has never been told. Some say that John stunned his nephew with a large stone, and flung his body into the Seine; at all events, neither the prince, nor his dead body, was ever seen again.

If John thought that his nephew's murder would make him undisputed King of England he was much mistaken. The cruel deed aroused the greatest indignation throughout England and France. Through it the dukedom of Normandy was lost to the English crown, and some years later John died a ruined man, with his subjects in open rebellion against him.