King Edward VIII and the Nazis – An Update

When I published my thriller Balmoral Kill a while ago, I wrote a piece on its background. The plan by the Nazis and some elements of the British Establishment to bring back the abdicated Edward VIII (then the Duke of Windsor) as a puppet king if Hitler ever conquered Britain or forced the country to seek peace. I said at the time how, in 1953, Winston Churchill begged President Eisenhower to suppress correspondence in the files of the FBI which revealed the Duke of Windsor’s sympathies with the Nazis. This week our National Archives have released documents proving the case. So I thought it worth while republishing my original piece. 

Here’s what inspired my novel… 

Edward VIII and the Nazis – Background to a Novel
It is at first sight the very stuff of romance: the King who gave up his throne for the woman he loved. Growing up in England in the 1960s it was still a tale on the lips of the older generation, the Abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936, so that he might marry the American socialite Mrs Wallis Simpson. Had it not happened we may never have had Edward’s brother King George VI on the English throne during World War Two, or the present Queen reigning to this day.Balmoral Kill: A Sean Miller Adventure by [Bainbridge, John]

In my youth there was still a feeling of distaste amongst older people that a popular monarch had been forced from the throne by a po-faced Establishment. Although a lot of the people detested Mrs Simpson, they were equally uneasy about the role played by other members of the royal family. I suspect I could have asked at random a number of people who were alive at the time and there would still be a feeling of betrayal. The affair with Mrs Simpson was kept from the British people until the last moment. Although it was widely reported in the American press, the British press barons made a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Buckingham Palace to keep the intrigue under wraps in Britain.

That was the story as I heard it as a child. But it is a mere percentage of the whole truth. Only in recent years has more of the background to the Abdication come out. And a lot more about the character of King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication.

I have recently published an historical thriller, Balmoral Kill, which is set several months after the Abdication. In my book my characters have to deal with the very real crisis that overhung Britain in the period between the Abdication and the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

The idea for the novel occurred to me several years ago when I saw a television interview with an elderly gentleman who had served as a British army officer in the events leading up to the fall of France in 1940, and the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. After arriving safely in England he had been billeted with an aristocratic family in southern England during the period of the Battle of Britain. He had said in the interview that he had been quite shocked when he found out that a number of landowning families thought that Britain should surrender to Hitler so that they might preserve their landholdings.

I was aware, of course, that there was a great deal of sympathy for Hitler in the British Establishment during the 1930s. This was in many cases quite overt. Even mainstream British newspapers such as the Daily Mail regularly heaped paeans of praise on the Third Reich, and published membership forms for Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists so that their readers might have the opportunity to join.

There was also a strong pacifist belief. Britain was still shocked by the slaughter in the trenches of the First World War. Many people thought that almost any accommodation with Nazi Germany was well worthwhile if it prevented another war. These individuals genuinely believed that Hitler would not interfere with Britain and its Empire if he was left alone. So deep was the fear of war that many chose to turn a blind eye to what Hitler as doing in Europe.

And while the majority of the British people were wise enough to have no truck with fascism and Hitlerism, there were elements of the British Establishment who thought that Hitler should be either appeased – the majority – or embraced – a very substantial minority. Indeed, appeasement was the policy of the British government, firstly under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and then his successor Neville Chamberlain. Well-meaning politicians both who simply couldn’t accept that anyone could be as evil and devious as Hitler. Former Prime Minister David Lloyd George visited Hitler in 1936 and was full of praise, considering him the “George Washington of Germany”. Newspaper barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who were to be instrumental in hushing up King Edward’s affair with Wallis Simpson, were lavishly entertained by Hitler and subsequently praised him in their newspapers.

Even as late as May 1940, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, an arch appeaser himself, said that he had been “deluged with letters from a number of the nation’s greatest aristocrats imploring him to propose a policy of surrender and appeasement to Hitler, so that they might keep their great estates.” At the time King George VI favoured Halifax as Prime Minister instead of Churchill.

As a writer, I was interested in just how far people would go to keep Britain out of the war or to try and bring Nazism to Britain. I was fascinated with the notion that Winston Churchill, grandson of a duke, and a fully paid-up member of the British Establishment, was prepared to jeopardise his own political career to put forward a contrary point of view. To warn the British people of the dangers of Hitler right from the beginning. For much of the 1930s Churchill was a voice crying in the wilderness, unheeded and even laughed at. But history was to prove that his minority voice was wiser that of the cacophonous roaring of the appeasers and fellow-travellers of the Nazi regime. Researching further, I was surprised to find just how deep the roots of Nazism went into the very depths of the British Establishment.

Edward and the Nazis

Edward VIII, or the duke of Windsor as he became after the Abdication, does not actually appear at all in my novel Balmoral Kill, though his shadow drifts across, and is the motivation for, much of the plot. His brother and successor George VI does make a brief appearance.

The British royal family had had an uncomfortable twentieth century in many ways. In World War One, following air raids on London, they had been obliged to change their surname from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg -Gotha to Windsor, at a time when shops and businesses with German names were being attacked by mobs in the street. For two hundred years, from the accession of King George I, the family had been essentially German, considering German their first language over English. World War One had brought along the embarrassment of finding their country at war with King George V’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. As the 1930s progressed a number of their other German cousins were very obviously embracing the policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, at least one of their relatives even being an officer in Heinrich Himmler’s dreaded SS.

Given the British government’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s this didn’t actually present a problem to the royal family. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Nazism was a subject open for discussion – as far as the royal family were concerned. Edward VIII’s brother, the duke of Kent, made many visits to Germany and professed a fascination for all things Nazi. His Nazi relative in Germany, Prince Ludwig von Hessen-Damstadt noted “Duke of Kent. Very German friendly. Clearly against France. Not especially clever, but well informed. Entirely for strengthening German-English ties. His wife is equally anti-French.” (The duke of Kent’s opinion changed when Hitler started dropping bombs on London in 1940.)

All through the 1930s Edward VIII, both as Prince of Wales and King, entertained many Nazis on their visits to Britain, including von Mecklenburg – a notorious member of the SS – in 1933. Edward took great pains to excise any mention of the visit from the official Court Circular. He was on friendly terms with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador to London. Wallis Simpson may well have been on even friendlier terms with Ribbentrop. The talk of London was that she was having a sexual relationship with the ambassador at the same time that she was courting King Edward. Ribbentrop sent her seventeen red roses every morning during their time together in the British capital.

Edward hated the very concept of democratic monarchy. He wanted to be a king who ruled as well as reigned. He spoke on many occasions as to his regret that Britain and its people couldn’t be “controlled” by one ruler in the way that Hitler led Nazi Germany. Even in the pro-appeasement British Establishment the alarm bells were beginning to ring.

In December 1936, King Edward VIII, who had reigned for less than a year, abdicated, when the Church of England made it quite clear that no British king could marry a divorcee. It was sold in the newspapers that were sympathetic to him as a touching and very moving love story, the very essence of tragic romance. How far the church and other elements of the establishment were pressured to jettison a king who had become a political liability, using his romance as an excuse, is still open to debate.

But there were elements in British Intelligence, already contemplating the need to fight Hitler, who were thrilled to bits. His successor, his brother Albert, became King George VI. As it happened the new king also favoured a rapprochement with Germany, though not to the pro-Hitler extent that Edward had favoured. But, as far as British Intelligence was concerned, the removal of a solidly pro-Nazi king like Edward was a step in the right direction.

Winston Churchill despaired of Edward, or the duke of Windsor, as I shall call him from now on. He had loathed the very idea of the Abdication and was personally fond of the duke. There is little doubt that he thought that the duke should have kept the throne and, initially, viewed his extreme politics and sympathy with the Third Reich as a fad that he might grow out of. In the years that followed he changed his mind.

In 1937, the duke and duchess of Windsor made a visit to Germany that acquired considerable notoriety. To Churchill’s dismay they sailed to the country on the German liner Bremen, giving the Nazis a propaganda coup. During their time in Germany the pair visited a Nazi training school, inspected the already murderous SS and had tea with Hermann Goering. A few days later they dined with Hitler’s propaganda chief Dr Josef Goebbels. On 22 October 1937, the duke and duchess had a private and reportedly very friendly meeting with Adolf Hitler. On several occasions during the tour, the duke was to be seen making the infamous Nazi salute.

The duke and duchess settled to live in France and stayed there after the outbreak of World War Two. As a serving British army officer, the duke carried out inspections of France’s defensive Maginot Line. The suggestion has been made (see Martin Allen’s book Hidden Agenda) that he sent classified information about France’s defences to the Nazis, care of his friend Charles Bedaux, an American businessman who was spying for Hitler. The truth regarding this alleged treachery may never be known. Bedaux committed suicide in 1944 after being arrested by the FBI.

The Windsors were hastily moved to Lisbon when France fell to the Nazis in 1940. But even in neutral Portugal, the duke of Windsor was thought to be in contact with well-known Nazi officials and the Abwehr, German military intelligence. In despair, the British government decided to ship the couple off to the haven of the Bahamas, a British colony where they could be kept from German influence. At first the duke refused to go. A despairing Churchill reminded the duke that he was a serving British officer and that he would be court martialled if he refused to obey this direct order.

It was around this time that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, on the direct order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered surveillance on the couple, noting that the duchess in particular, still an American citizen, “was exceedingly pro-German in her sympathies and connections.” FBI files noted a great many links between the couple and the Nazis.

My own researches suggest that there is little doubt that the Third Reich favoured the return of the duke of Windsor to the British throne, almost from the time of the Abdication and his visit to Hitler in 1937. The duke of Windsor himself almost certainly considered such a possibility. How far he would have gone, if the circumstances had allowed it, is debatable. I doubt, for instance, that he would have tolerated the assassination of his brother and successor George VI, though had anything removed King George from the throne in any other way, there is a possibility that he might have returned either as king or regent.

I based the plot of Balmoral Kill, and I must stress that my book is an historical thriller and not a history volume, on the possibility that certain elements of the British Establishment contemplated such a scenario. Although in reality matters never went as far as I have imagined in my pages, there is little doubt that the idea behind it was given much serious consideration amid less patriotic elements of the British elite. It was only after doing further research into the period after I had finished writing that I realised how close I had got to some sort of truth.

Joachim von Ribbentrop certainly proposed that the duke of Windsor should become a puppet king if Britain fell to invasion in 1940, and King George VI and his family fled to Canada. Buckingham Palace was bombed no fewer than nine times during the London blitz. At the Nuremburg Trials, Ribbentrop said that he had personally offered the duke 50 million Swiss francs if he would make a claim on the British throne. The duke of Windsor denied that any such sum had been offered.

Aftermath

King George VI, overcame his shyness and his stammer and became a considerable figurehead for British resistance during World War Two. On his premature death in 1952 his daughter Princess Elizabeth became the present Queen. The duke and duchess of Windsor lived quietly in Paris, the duke dying in 1972 and the duchess in 1986. Their connections with Hitler’s Germany were skated over in their respective memoirs.

But at the end of the war, a military intelligence officer, Anthony Blunt, later Sir Anthony Blunt, subsequently Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was sent to Germany by officials at Buckingham Palace with the task of seeking out and removing from the Nazi archives any documents that might incriminate members of the royal family. Any papers he found were probably secreted in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Many years later, Blunt was discovered to be a spy for Soviet Russia. His only real punishment for treachery was the removal of his knighthood. The British public were amazed at this mild treatment of a traitor. Suggestions were made at the time, and have been since, that he was protected because he knew too much.
If we are ever to know the absolute truth about the relationship between the duke and duchess of Windsor and the Nazis, then the relevant files are probably in the archives of the United States. As late as 1953, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister for the second time, asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to suppress any FBI documents that might suggest that the duke and duchess of Windsor were sympathetic – or even worse complicit – in the activities of the Nazi regime.

Sometimes when you write a work of fiction based on real events, you find that the events themselves are more astonishing that anything that could possibly be imagined.

John Bainbridge

Balmoral Kill is out in paperback and on Kindle. Just click the link below to read a preview or to order…

 

An Interview With Me!

I’m being interviewed in Fresh Lifestyle Magazine about my thrillers, so do have a look. Just click on the link below:

http://www.freshlifestylemag.com/author-interview-john-bainbridge-on-writing-william-quest-and-victorian-society.html

I’m interviewed by fellow writer of Victorian crime fiction, T.G. Campbell, who has asked some very interesting questions. So if you want to find out more about the Quest novels, about yours truly and how I write, do have a look.

And do visit T.G. Campbell’s own site at http://www.bowstreetsociety.com to find out more about her books and the fascinating 1890s world of her Bow Street Society murder mysteries.

William Quest On Sale

My Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest is on sale on Kindle until Monday for just 99 pence/cents, so if you have a Kindle or a Kindle App on your phone or tablet do have a look.

And don’t forget, you can download a FREE Kindle App by going to the book page.

The second novel in the series Deadly Quest is also available, and both books are also out in paperback.

I’m currently writing the third William Quest mystery thriller, which should be out by the end of the year.

So just click on the link below to start reading for free or to order…

 

Villain Publication Day

Villain is published today.

Both in paperback and on Kindle.

Thank you to everyone who pre-ordered a copy. I hope you enjoy the book. Do let me know what you think about it?

And if you bought it from an online retailer please do leave a review – they really do help with sales and morale!

The final book in The Chronicles of Robin Hood series should be out early next year.

I’m now working on the latest William Quest mystery.

And after Robin Hood is finished? I’m intending to write a new historical series.

Meanwhile, if you could tell people about the books – both historical, mystery and thrillers – I’d be really grateful. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising.

And thank you all for buying the books and your support…

Have a great weekend…

John Bainbridge

Robin Hood – The People’s Hero

Tradition labels Robin Hood not only as an outlaw but a rebel as well. In most of the tales, whether they be novels, films or television, Robin takes to the greenwood to fight for the poor and oppressed. And comes into immediate conflict with figures of authority, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisborne, Prince (actually Count) John of Mortain, various corrupt abbots and nobles etc.Villain Kindle Cover.jpg

We can all picture the scenes where Robin takes from the rich and gives to the poor and….

Wait a moment, let’s wind back to the original ballads.

In most of them Robin is certainly a hedge thief of extraordinary talent, supported by just a few of the crew we now think of as the Merry Men. He certainly combats people in power, but the ballads are less clear about what he does with the loot.

But he’s an exciting lad and you can quite understand why Robin has always been so popular with the poor and oppressed. The other essential British myth – King Arthur – gives us a noble figure too. A king who, with his knights of the round table, fights injustice in much the same way. But do you notice that the underclass scarcely gets a look in?

That’s why Robin Hood has survived as an anti-authority character. The poor and oppressed can identify with the idea of someone so anti-establishment triumphing over the medieval status quo.

And people who favour social justice still do today. Note the Robin Hood Tax Campaign that in its own way wants to take from the rich and give to the poor.

If the Robin of the ballads wasn’t quite that noble, it doesn’t matter. The British people – and I suspect a lot of folk in countries undiscovered in Robin’s time – love someone who cocks a snook at authority.

Robin Hood, if you accept the myth that has grown up, rather than the original ballads, is probably the most dangerous character in literature and popular culture.

The ballads undoubtedly began as oral accounts in a largely illiterate age. What was eventually written down is probably just one version of many, hence the various kings and locations mentioned within. (I shall blog more on this next time).

But what is clear is that the ballads were regarded as both popular and subversive from the very beginning. The written down surviving versions are only part of the story. The myth of Robin Hood, what most people know, expands and alters to cater to popular tastes.

Think of Robin Hood and we generally have two versions: a lower-born Robin of Loxley, and a Robin Hood (usually the Earl of Huntingdon or his son) who comes from the aristocracy but develops a social conscience. The television series “Robin of Sherwood” actually gave us both versions.

Now in the early ballads there is no hint of Robin of Huntingdon. He is a much later invention. And I wonder why?

Robin of Huntingdon, the noble who rides to the aid of the poor?

Could it be that his creator loved the stories but rather frowned on the idea of such a rebellious figure coming from the lower orders? Or maybe thought that the said lower orders weren’t capable of running a rebellious campaign? Or thought the tales might encourage people to rise up against their masters and start a bit of wealth redistribution?

Well, perhaps, though we will never know.

What I always find interesting in many of the later versions is that Robin Hood often sells out.

We all know the scene: having seen off numerous villains Robin Hood meets Richard the Lionheart and gets a pardon and the girl. In the Erroll Flynn film version he also gets a knighthood, a peerage and is given control over the peasants of Sherwood.

No one explains just how all of this helps the poor and oppressed of the forest…

In the TV “Robin of Sherwood”, the writer Richard Carpenter was cannier. His Robin of Loxley is dazzled by Lionheart and almost submits to his control, but eventually sees that the king can’t be trusted and that he won’t deliver the social justice that has been so bitterly fought for.

That’s better.

Medieval peasants would have cheered at Robin’s enlightenment. They may have had to obey and, in reality, had little chance of rising up in rebellion, but they were undoubtedly subversive in the few ways available – such as listening to oral ballads about Robin Hood. It was one of the few ways they could strike back.

When writing my own Robin Hood novels, I had to make a conscious choice about the background of my Robin. A man of the people or an aristocrat with a social conscience.

I decided on a fighter who has come from a poorer background. If he’s not quite a villein he’s not from the nobility either. My Robin might thieve but he’s essentially a rebel, seeking long-term solutions to social injustice. Robin finds that he has to make uneasy alliances in order to further his cause.

In the books I’ve been trying to get back to the spirit of the original ballads but, like all Robin Hood authors since, rejigging the tales to my own tastes without sacrificing the tradition.

The worst of it all is we now know – if Robin Hood ever existed as a rebellious historical figure – that he failed.   We still live with poverty and injustice.

Time for Robin Hood to come back out of the greenwood…

My latest Robin Hood novel “Villain” is now out in paperback and on Kindle. Order before Friday morning and you’ll get it at the special pre-publication price. Just click on the link below.

 

Why I Write Robin Hood

I’ve been thinking a lot about Robin Hood lately, now that I’ve completed number three in my novel series The Chronicles of Robin Hood.

When you consider it, Robin Hood is quite a remarkable guy – with King Arthur one of the two essential British myths. For darned near a thousand years, the people of Britain, and then the citizens of the world, have been entertained by his exploits.

He reaches out and says something to us all to this day.

What’s the attraction?

Well, Robin Hood appeals perhaps to the rebel in all of us, the man who’s prepared to champion the poor and powerless against the uncaring rich and powerful. Mind you, if you read the original ballads he’s not quite so selfless.  But it doesn’t matter. People need a champion and Robin Hood’s quite a good one.

I think it’s interesting that you could take a medieval peasant away from his plough, transport him through time and put him down in front of a television and let him watch Robin of Sherwood say, or Richard Greene in The Adventures of Robin Hood and he’d get the point. (Assuming he wasn’t overcome by technology or changes in the English language, of course. I frequently am!

I have always enjoyed the tales of Robin Hood, and my novels Loxley and Wolfshead, have been decades in the making. It probably all started watching episodes of the Richard Greene series. Playing at Robin Hood was always the favourite game in our neighbourhood  – in those happy days when children could make a longbow or wield a wooden sword without social services coming round to take you into care as a potential menace to society.

Unlike so many children today, our lives were spent mostly in the great outdoors, where we would vanish for hours on end, building dens and taking massive treks across the countryside. The countryside where I lived became Sherwood Forest during these youthful expeditions.

In the 1980s, the whole myth received a tremendous boost with Richard Carpenter’s imaginative remake Robin of Sherwood, which took the story in such interesting new directions.

In many ways, in the years since my first encounter with the man in Lincoln Green, I’ve led a rebellious life.

I’m sure it all started under the subversive influence of Robin Hood!

I spent a year living – mostly alone – in a wood back in the 1980s. Park Wood, at Spitchwick on Dartmoor, just across the River Dart from Holne Chase, an old Norman hunting ground.

It was part of a protest against the government’s absurd badger slaughter policy.  By simply opposing government policy we were technically breaking the law. Outlaws? Well, in a way, though the penalties were rather lighter than those imposed on medieval wolfsheads.

I’d practised archery over the years, and learned many of the arts of fighting. I took up fencing at university. I’d already practised a variety of martial arts. One or two of these skills I’ve had to use in anger.

Every writer on Robin Hood takes a different tack. Some of my fellow authors portray him as a saint or sinner, or, like me, a mixture of both. Some writers prefer Robin in Barnsdale rather than Sherwood. I chose Sherwood out of sentimentality, I guess.

In some versions, the villains, such as Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff are out and out rogues.My versions aren’t quite as clear cut as that. And I’ve been kinder to Prince (actually Count) John than a lot of other writers. My Robin questions the hierarchy of the society of his time much more than most Robins.

There have been thousands of interpretations and no doubt there are thousands still to come. We all have our own vision of Robin Hood.

If you want to read mine, the first three novels in the sequence are available in paperback and on Kindle.  Just a reminder – click on the links above and order before late Thursday and you’ll get your copy at the special pre-publication price.

 

 

Villain – An Extract

Here’s the opening of my new historical novel Villain. Do read and enjoy. There’s a link on the end if you want to go on reading. The paperback is already out and the Kindle book will be available on the last day of the month. Official publication day is June 30th. The price will go up then on all formats – so please do order today!

CHRONICLE THE THIRDVillain Cover

Prologue

Summer 1203 – Sherwood Forest.

‘Wolfshead! Running!’

The soldier pointed a grubby finger across the heathland. His commander reined in his horse and looked across the rough ground. Along the line of trees on the far side of the open countryside, a man was running, half-crouched as though trying to stay out of sight. Running in desperation. Running for his life.

Sir Guy of Gisborne raised himself higher on his horse, shading his eyes with a hand.

‘It could be anyone,’ he said.

‘It’s a wolfshead,’ the soldier persisted. ‘I know him from the taverns of Nottingham. You know him too, my lord Gisborne. It’s one of Robin Hood’s men.’

Gisborne stared into the evening light.

‘It’s not possible,’ he said. ‘They left Sherwood years ago. Probably all dead by now…’

‘That one’s back, my lord.’

‘Who is he?’

‘The villain called Scathlock,’ said the soldier. ‘Will Scathlock. Scarlet, they call him. Hair as red as blood. Matches his bloody reputation.’

Gisborne took in a deep breath. He looked down at the soldier and gave him an appreciative nod. He turned to his captain, who rode alongside him.

‘What do you think?’

‘Looks like him,’ said the captain. ‘Whoever he is, he’s running away. That gives us good enough cause to detain him.’

‘Get on with it,’ said Gisborne.

The captain turned back towards his men. There were only a dozen of them. Sir Richard of the Legh, who now commanded the shire, was reluctant to allow a greater force of men to march into Sherwood Forest. The villagers offered little resistance these days, and the old knight was against being provocative.

Gisborne thought such soft tactics a strategic blunder. The peasants of Sherwood needed constant demonstrations of brute force. Gisborne would have felt happier with a small army.

Like the old days.

The troops were a ragbag bunch, the sweepings of Nottingham Castle. The best soldiers were stationed in the south, held in readiness for an attack on Normandy. Such was the desire of King John. Gisborne regretted not bringing some of his own men from his estate in Bowland.

One man, a fugitive running in fear, was probably all that this ill-assorted dozen could cope with.

They were poorly armed too. An old man carried a hunting crossbow. The rest had spears, and those had seen better days. They were probably new at the time that William the Bastard harried the shire after his victory on Senlac Hill. Gisborne thought that some of the soldiers looked about as old.

‘If he gets away, I’ll have you all lashed,’ Gisborne yelled.

A couple of the men gave him filthy looks as they stumbled past his horse. My God! What had it all come to? An insult to the commander who’d defeated in battle that treacherous old madman Lord Malvoisin, at the time John was crowned King of England.

Gisborne had got his old family lands back, but little else. Not the funds to maintain his estates, or the barony expected by a warrior who’d vanquished such a menacing enemy of the King. He still had to work for a living, and damned bloody awful work it was. Harrying poachers in the forest and keeping down those who still muttered rebellion in the taverns of Nottingham town. And then there was…

His complaint vanished from his mind as he looked up. The wolfshead had turned and was running back towards the trees. His own troop were barely halfway across the heath. They’d never catch him at this rate. Most of his soldiers seemed to be out of breath, their legs quivering beneath them.

Gisborne turned to his captain, drawing his sword even as he spoke.

‘Come on! We’ll head off that wolfshead. He might escape foot soldiers, if that’s what they call themselves. Let’s see the thieving bastard outrun two warriors on horseback.’

He dug in his spurs and screamed into the ears of his horse. A good mount, the finest horse he’d ever possessed. The one good thing to come out of his appointment as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s battle commander. There weren’t any others.

Gisborne looked up as his horse raced across the heath. The wolfshead had halted by a long line of forest oaks. Scathlock was no longer crouching. He was standing upright, looking across the heath at the attacking troops, a hand raised in the air.

‘Damn them!’ Gisborne cried aloud, reining in his horse and waving his sword down towards the ground, an indication to his men to halt their charge.

How could he be so stupid? These easy months in Sherwood had blunted his sense of danger. He would never have fallen into such an obvious trap in old times. In those days when he ruled the forest with brutality and terror.

He would never have charged towards an ambush with such carelessness.

‘My lord Gisborne?’

The captain was at his side.

‘It’s too easy,’ said Gisborne. ‘A lone wolfshead, one of Robin Hood’s men. Unarmed and just standing there in challenge. Get within range and we’ll have a flood of arrows come at us. Those trees are bristling with outlaws. I can sense it.’

‘We’re within range now, my lord.’

Gisborne could see the fear on the man’s face.

‘Then get the men back to the track,’ he said, turning his horse.

The foot soldiers were close by, stooping near to the ground, seeking protection from the ragged bushes scattered between the rough grass and the heather. No wonder they were all very old for soldiers, thought Gisborne. Their cowardice had preserved their miserable lives.

‘We’re falling back to the track,’ Gisborne shouted. ‘It’s an ambush.’

He glanced back towards the outlaw. Scathlock was armed now. A longbow in his hands and a quiver of arrows slung across his shoulders. But he made no attempt to let loose the arrow nocked on the bowstring. The wolfshead seemed content just to keep watching.

Gisborne turned back to his men. They were retreating, very swiftly, the way they had come. All but the captain and the soldier with the crossbow, an aged veteran of Lionheart’s wars in Normandy, called Alric. One brave man amongst a flock of craven sheep, at least, thought Gisborne.

Well, if he couldn’t take Scathlock in ropes back to Nottingham, he might yet be able to quash the arrogant villain.

He looked down at the remaining foot soldier. The man’s crossbow was wound back taut, a deadly bolt gleaming in the last of the sunlight.

‘Can you take him from here?’ asked Gisborne.

‘I can try, my lord,’ said the soldier. ‘But I could do with a proper weapon. This is just a toy for hunting. He’s barely within my range.’

‘Do your best, Alric,’ said Gisborne. ‘That’s all I ask.’

Alric stood between the two horsemen, levelling the crossbow at the distant outlaw.

It was an impossible shot, given the feeble weapon. Gisborne knew that only too well. The crossbow might once have served a castle child on his first expedition after deer. It was useless in combat, except at very close range.

It was an insult even to give it to a trained marksman like Alric. A greater insult for Sir Richard of the bloody Legh and the Sheriff of Nottingham to think it sufficient for a punitive raid into Sherwood Forest.

Gisborne looked at Scathlock. The wolfshead was still standing there, not seeming to sense the danger he might be in. Gisborne was wondering why when he heard the thud of the crossbow at his side.

There was a flash of light as the speeding quarrel caught a beam from the dying red sun. But in his heart Gisborne knew that the bolt would miss its target. The old soldier was a good shot. Gisborne knew him well. But it would have taken a miracle to hit Scathlock from that distance.

He watched as a cloud of bark dust spurted out of the oak tree, two feet to the right of the outlaw. A terrific shot, to get such accuracy with that toy. They saw Scathlock raise his arm and bow a salute at his opponent.

‘I’m sorry, my lord,’ said Alric.

‘Not your fault,’ said Gisborne. ‘Not your fault at all.’

As he turned to look down at the soldier, something like a gust of wind dashed past Gisborne’s horse. The arrow caught the little crossbow and sent it spinning backwards into a thorn bush.

Gisborne was relieved to see that Alric was unharmed. That was a blessing. The old man had fought beside him in the battle against Malvoisin. Very bravely too, considering his vintage. Courage was rare in Sherwood these days. He needed soldiers like Alric.

Scathlock had nocked another arrow to his bow, and the string was half drawn. The outlaw was stepping backwards into the trees. In the darkling of first night, the forest seemed to be changing from green to a long line of black, becoming more menacing than ever.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Gisborne.

~

Will Scathlock stood in the shade of the trees and watched Gisborne and his men scamper across the heath to the road which led south to Nottingham.

Almost too easy, he considered. He could have killed Alric, but spared him. They’d once drunk together in the tavern carved into the rocks below Nottingham Castle. A pleasant old man, Scathlock had thought. Worth a dozen of Gisborne. Now that was a regret. Rather than demonstrating his skill at archery by shooting the crossbow out of Alric’s hands, he should have put the arrowhead deep into Gisborne’s gizzard.

It had been his last arrow, his quiver was filled only with deceptive twigs. If there had been other outlaws this day, they could have slaughtered Gisborne and his little force. But as Scathlock melted into the trees, he walked alone.

Only the legend of Robin Hood and his outlaws haunted Sherwood Forest these days.

Tales told at firesides in miserable huts in the forest villages or in the old ballads, raucously sung in the taverns of Nottingham town.

One

The Shire of Westmorland

‘What’s that village?’

Alan a Dale followed Robin Hood’s pointing finger, looking down from the hillside to where a cluster of cottages surrounded a church. The little settlement stood on the edge of a broad vale, surrounded by rising sweeps of craggy moorland.

‘Sker-Overton,’ the minstrel replied, ‘though the villagers call it Orton in their dialect.’ He pointed to the long stretches of exposed limestone on the surrounding hillsides. ‘There are the scars of rock from which it takes its name.’

‘Would they be friendly to us?’ asked Robin.

‘Not friendly enough, though I knew a woman there when I was the minstrel at the castle of Brough. She’d be old and haggard by now. Their lord works them into the ground.’

‘Doubt she’d be pleased to see you,’ muttered Much. ‘How many of your bastards litter the place, Alan?’

‘Not enough to take our part in any struggle,’ Alan replied, ‘and all too young anyway. No, there’ll be no comfort for us there.’

‘Then it’s another night on these bloody moorlands,’ said Much. He shivered. ‘This is the coldest summer I’ve ever known. Better to be back in Sherwood. At least we’d have the shelter of the trees.’

‘Or even Inglewood,’ said Alan.

‘It’s too much of a risk to go back there,’ said Robin. ‘Too close to Carlisle. The Sheriff of the shire has a regular army scouring Inglewood Forest for us.’

‘I thought King John had stripped the shires of their soldiery,’ said Much. ‘Needed ‘em to fight in Normandy.’

‘Not these northern shires,’ said Alan. ‘King John daren’t leave his northern flank exposed. The Scots’d come marching into England at the least excuse.’

‘Well, if Nottingham’s empty of troops, let’s go back there. We could run wild through Sherwood, with no one to gainsay us,’ said Much.

Robin looked down at the village.

‘I made an agreement with Sir Richard of the Legh,’ he said. ‘He curbs the power of the Sheriff and treats the Sherwood villages with fairness. But only as long as I stay away. From what Tuck said when he came visiting, Sir Richard’s keeping his word as best he can.’

‘Well, we can’t stop here,’ said Alan. ‘They’ll hunt us down eventually. It’s not like Sherwood. We don’t have the cottagers on our side. With the great forest of Inglewood denied to us, there’s nowhere left to run. Unless we go and skulk up there…’

He pointed to the long and distant ridge of the Pennines. The highest peaks in the mountainous range still bore traces of snow from the harsh storms of the winter and spring.

‘We’d be dead in a week,’ said Much. ‘We’ll freeze tonight unless we get a roof over our heads or a fire started. Do you think the others have found something to eat?’

‘Let’s go and find out,’ said Robin, turning his horse away from the valley and the village. Alan a Dale and Much, sharing a horse, followed in his path.

The old track led first across the heather moorland and then into a deep groove in the hill that might hide them from any distant observers. Mercifully, it kept away the freezing breeze which swept down from the higher hills nearby.

‘D’you think they’re still after us?’ asked Much.

Robin nodded. ‘They won’t stop now. We ruffled too many feathers with our raid on Carlisle. It was madness.’

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