Sunday, with only the prospect of piety until bed. Robert de Ledes was bored and it wasn’t yet eight in the morning. He’d washed and broken his fast, just waiting until it was time to leave for service. A purse dangled by its strings from his belt. He reached into it and toyed with the pair of dice.
What use was a bloody Sunday? He could have been hunting or gambling instead of listening to the priest and bowing his head with the others in Leeds. So many of them stank, their clothes as filthy as the hovels where they lived.
With a sigh Robert strapped on his sword. It was a good weapon, a gift from his father, with silver on the pommel and brass worked into the scabbard. A rich man’s weapon, and why not? The family was had money, more than most in the ville. North Hall stood near the top of Briggate, built just twenty years earlier, before the bad weather had started turning the crops foul, year after year.
Some starved, but his father made sure the family wasn’t among them. Money meant power, and his father used it well.
Down by Kirkgate he spotted William de Wayte. An idiot who believed himself a thinker. Ungainly, with no charm beyond his ability to lose at dice. More money than brains. He was with his page and John de Manston, a cousin visiting from somewhere – William had told him, but he’d forgotten.
‘Well met,’ Robert cried, and soon the pair of them were throwing the dice against the wall of a house while de Manston and the page strolled on to the church. The bell was just beginning to peal for service when Robert give a final flick of his wrist. A six and a one.
‘Seven,’ he told William. ‘I win.’ He began to rise, scooping up the dice and putting them into his purse. ‘You can settle with me later.’
‘I won’t pay a cheat. I didn’t see what came up on that last throw.’
‘Be careful with that tongue,’ Robert warned. ‘You saw it as well as I did: six and one. Or are you calling me a liar.’
‘I’m calling you a cheat.’
Without even thinking, Robert drew his dagger, blade glinting in the summer light, and advanced on William.
‘Do you think you’re man enough?’ he asked with relish. He knew William; they’d grown up together. Brave enough with some friends behind him, a coward on his enough.
Robert turned and saw the reeve coming towards him, a look like fury on his face. His assistant came behind, a burly mean with a rough face, the miller alongside, always ready for a scrap. Robert lowered the dagger.
‘No fighting on the Sabbath,’ the reeve said. Robert nodded. Eyes turned to William, who agreed reluctantly. ‘Now get to church and say your penance.’
He snored through the service, the Latin that no one but the priest understood. The summer’s day was warm, the smell from the bodies around him rank. Robert only stirred for the final blessing, staying to talk to the priest and explain why his father hadn’t attended. He’d needed to see to his manor out by Harrogate, staying there a few days.
Finished, he strolled out into the sun, blinking and squinting. The door banged shut behind him and he heard the sexton lower the bar. The man couldn’t wait to see him gone and be done with his duties.
He’d taken a step when he saw them. William, de Manston, and the page, the three of them coming closer with their weapons drawn. Robert rested his hand on the hilt of his sword.
‘Does it take three of you to argue with me?
‘I won’t be called a liar by you,’ William said.
Robert’s face curled into a smile.
‘What would you have me call you, then? Blind? A coward?’
The fight was quick. No more than a few seconds. Three on one was no battle. But Robert had trained with the sword. His fencing master had fought with the king and had taught him to spot an opening and strike at his enemy’s weakness.
It was over as soon as William fell to the ground, hands trying to staunch the blood spurting from his stomach.
He’d never killed a man before, but he knew, he knew, as he saw the life leave William’s eyes.
‘Christ’s blood,’ De Manston said slowly, raising his eyes to look into Robert’s face. ‘That’s murder.’ And with a yell he came on.
The air in the Marshalsea prison was foul. The vapours of the dying and the damned everywhere. At least his father’s money bought Robert a cell to himself and food from the cookshops outside the walls.
He’d wanted to see London, but not this way. On trial for his life, for the murder of William de Wayte. A matter too grave for the manor court, a capital crime that could only be judged in the capital.
And he’d been here for three months now. He lived from his father’s purse, money to pay the toothless jailer who kept him here. He are roast beef, roast chicken, the straw and the rushes in his cell changed each month.
He had visits from his lawyer, an oily, nervous man from the Inns of Court who assured him the case was progressing quickly. Another month, or two or three, and it would be heard. But no certainty about the verdict.
However he lived here, nothing could block out the screams and shouts from the prison. Those who had little, begging for something. Some relief, some end. He’d seen them taken out to be hanged, men and women with their heads bowed. Some walking, others dragged to the gallows as hundreds cheered at the spectacle.
He’d been brought here in chains that rubbed his flesh raw as he rode the King’s highway. Still had the scars on his legs and his face from when de Manston and the page fell on him. They’d beaten him bloody, the chaplain joining them. Beaten him until he passed out and then beaten him more before they rolled him into the ditch that separated the church from the graveyard. Then they’d walked away and left him for dead. If one of the North Hall servants hadn’t found him he’d have been a corpse.
As it was, he was eight weeks recovering. For three days his mother prayed over him. A physician came with his unguents and potions. And eventually he came back to life, with all the marks of what he’d endured. Then William’s father had him arrested for murder. A criminal. A killer.
Robert had given his testimony at the manor court, how he was attacked first. Now he’d have to give it again, and his life depended on that and the witnesses his father could gather.
The London jury had listened all day, first to Robert, how he’d just defended himself when he was attacked, then to the witnesses de Wayte produced. De Manston, the page, the chaplain, others who claimed to have seen things that Robert knew had never occurred. Then those for his defence. And over each testimony was the spectre of the hangman. And finally it was done, the last oath sworn, his life in the hands of the grim-faced men who shifted on their seats.
‘Robert de Ledes, the jury finds you innocent in the murder of William de Wayte. You can go from this court a free man.’
Cheers, shouts of outrage, but he barely noticed them. It was done.
Historical Note: The killing of William de Wayte by Robert de Ledes is the first recorded murder in Leeds, but in all likelihood there’d been a number that had happened in the years before. It did occur at the Parish Church, and de Ledes was beaten and left for dead after. On his recovery, charged with murder, he was taken to London to be tried. In an age where more depended on how believable and credible the witnesses seemed, he found some who carried more weight. He was found innocent of murder.