The horses’ footfalls made deep, plopping sounds as the two palfreys ambled along the muddy lane that straddled the Couesnon River down to the sea. Roger de Beauclerc pulled his blue mantle tightly about his shivering body. He was not used to the weather in Normandy. It was not yet the end of September and already the cold chill of an early winter seemed to have seeped into everything.
Of course, Roger offered no complaint. His formation in knighthood had trained him to endure all manner of hardships. The muddy road, clammy Norman weather, and steadily falling rain were not enough to elicit a protest from him.
The same could not be said for Bishop Guilbert, Roger’s traveling companion. At age forty-five, the good bishop was twenty-three years Roger’s senior and a good deal heavier as well. He wore a cloak of thick ermine that any other man would have envied, but it did little to keep out the Norman autumn. “Accursed rain!” exclaimed the bishop. “If we were still in Poitiers, we should now be enjoying the fairest weather of the season, I dare say!”
Roger smiled. “Yes, your grace, but I do not believe the canons of the cathedral would appreciate our presence.”
Guilbert snorted. “You’re right about that, good sir! If they see my face on Judgement Day, it will be too soon for them – and for me as well!” The bishop’s countenance fell. It was still a sore subject.
“You can rejoice that your misfortune was brought about in defense of Queen Eleanor,” Roger said, trying to raise his spirits.
Guilbert grunted. “The former Queen Eleanor, you mean.” The men again fell silent, both letting their minds drift to the monotonous plodding of the horses and the gently falling rain. The Couesnon was a lazy river, not more than thirty feet wide is most spots and quite shallow the nearer it got to the sea. The rain was steady, but light. It made a pleasant sound as it struck the Couesnon in waving sheets.
“Do you suppose the Abbot Robert will have word of our affairs in Outremer?” Roger asked, breaking the silence with a welcome change of subject.
“Oh, I do imagine the good Abbot Robert will have word about everything under the sun,” Guilbert said. “The Mount is the center of the world in these part, don’t you know?”
Roger smiled. “Ironic, isn’t it? Men retreat to desolate places like the Mount to avoid the affairs of the world. What happens? Their retreats end up being the hub of worldly affairs! Their holy men end up the confidants of popes and kings. Look at what happened to old Bernard down in Clairvaux!”
The portly bishop laughed. “Yes, my son, ’Non potest civitas abscondi supra montem posita’, the Gospels say.”
“A city…the city can’t…” Roger stumbled over the Latin. It had been over four years since he had practiced the tongue of the Church and his mind struggled to recall the phrase. All conversation in Sicily and Outremer had been in the Norman French dialect.
“A city set on a hill cannot be hidden!” Guilbert translated. “From our Lord’s beatitudes. When people see something good, they are drawn to it. They were drawn to the saintly Father Bernard. And they are drawn to the Mount – especially under the government of the good Abbot Robert. Every Norman lord coming to or from England makes an obligatory stop at the Mount; every knight who takes up the cross pays his respects to Christ and the Archangel at the Mount before heading east and heads there to give thanks when returning safely.”
“As I do now, in your good company,” said Roger.
“For which I am very grateful, lad,” retorted Bishop Guilbert. “And I am sure, with the Feast of the Archangel upon us and the Mount thronged with visitors, that you shall certainly find some word of the kingdoms of our people in Outremer – and perhaps of your personal affairs.”
The two continued to converse about this and that for some time. The rain began to falter, giving way to a kind of hazy mist that hung in the air. The land flattened out into broad pastures on both sides of the Couesnon, the flat green landscape occasionally broken by crude stone walls. The sound of the few remaining raindrops on the muddy road was joined by the bleating of sheep emerging from their hiding to feed on a dew-spotted grass.
The sun did not quite break through, but a noticeable burst of warmth swept down upon the travelers as they followed their course toward the sea. “Ah, that’s what I love about Normandy,” said Roger. “The warmth!”
Guilbert laughed. “The warmth? Sir, to value Normandy for its warmth is the same as to value Arabia for its snow or the English for their cuisine!”
“Fair enough, good bishop, fair enough. It is true that Normandy is often chilly and dank. Tis true that God allots it more than its share of rain, as we have seen this day. It is true that the Norman winters can make the devil’s marrow run with ice. But, ah! When you are riding down a fair lane such as this one – through the land you were reared in, mind you – after having been away for so long, and you come down to the sea and the warmth strikes you just as it did us this moment…well, that is something to be treasured, my good bishop.”
Guilbert smiled thoughtfully. “Well said, Roger. So, according to your thinking, a pleasure, though small of itself, can have its value magnified due to its scarcity?”
“Confound your learning!” Roger laughed. “You say eloquently in one phrase what I stumble to get out in ten times as many! Yes, yes, you have said it quite well.
“Give yourself some credit, Sir Roger! It was a profound insight. You might not be sharp with Latin, but you have a good head on your shoulders.” The bishop leaned over closer to Roger, as if to whisper some secret taboo. “Have you ever considered a vocation with the Church, my good man?” he said.
Roger chuckled. “Me, a cleric!? Bah! You jest, good bishop.”
“I swear I do not!” Guilbert retorted sharply. “Many men such as yourself have served the Church honorably!”
“I know little of the sacred sciences, Master Guilbert. And I doubt whether I could stand to confine myself to a monastery or abbey for life. I crave the open road!”
“Which is why you are returning home?” Guilbert smiled.
“Yes…well…let’s just say I crave an open road closer to home!” Roger said. “Besides, God can do better, I’m sure…”
This was how the conversation went as they began to hear the rolling of the seas waves upon the broad, sandy shore. The Couesnon widened out until it was little more than a few inches deep and spilled its waters into the ocean. Across the horizon stretched the gray, hazy line of the sea. And standing out against its gray waters loomed the Mount.
“Ah, Mont Saint-Michel!” Guilbert said, crossing himself hastily. The tone in his voice was of reverent longing. Roger crossed himself as well. “The first sight of the Mount is always an occasion for thanksgiving,” the bishop added. Not much detail could be seen from the path save the massing hulk of the Mount, which stood aloft in the sea like a mountain dropped from heaven. Atop the Mount the roofs of buildings and spires of the abbey church were clearly discernible, although indistinctly due to the distance and haze that hung over the sea.
They had only just sighted the great abbey and were still some ways from the sea, but the sight of it had filled the pair with a fresh burst of energy. They ceased their conversation and urged on their palfreys, which now trotted comfortably along a byway of set stone that the monks of the Mount had constructed to lead visitors down to the seashore. It soon dumped them out onto the beach almost directly across from the Mount.
Mont Saint-Michel stood about a half mile out into small bay that the Couesnon fed into. Part of the day, when the tide was low, one could simply walk across the sand to reach the Mount. But the tides here were treacherous, and pilgrims said the waters flooded in at the speed of a galloping horse. A traveler crossing over to the Mount at the wrong time took his life into his hands. As Roger de Beauclerc and Bishop Guilbert made their way down to the sea, they saw that the tide was high. The Mount was cut off from the land - an island of solitude in the midst of the waters.
The two men looked out at the ocean. The rain had largely subsided, but the surging waves did not look inviting. “That water is much too deep and choppy for wading,” said Guilbert. “I believe we shall have to rest here for a time until the tide recedes. Probably three or four hours, judging from the sun.”
“That will put us there just in time for dinner,” noted Roger.
“And Vespers,” added Guilbert.
The men put their horses to pasture in some grass near the beach and then collapsed onto the sand. Both men were wet and cold, the bishop more than the knight, the latter of whom wore a suit of chain mail and a leather tunic beneath his blue mantle. Guilbert took off his ermine cloak and draped it over a nearby rock wall before falling immediately to sleep against a sandy embankment.
Roger would find no such rest. Of course, as a knight he had been trained to live in his armor, and he had slept in it many times. But his heart and mind were restless. Would he find the truth he sought at Mont Saint-Michel? Would rumor and accusation be put to rest at last? What if the rumors proved to be true?
Roger quickly recalled his mind. That sort of thinking led to idleness and despair. Roger did not consider himself a particularly religious man – not more so than any man of his age, at least – but he was sufficiently formed in Christian precepts to know that dwelling on things beyond his control was not at all helpful.
The knight reclined upon the sand near the slumbering bishop. Roger looked him over with a mixture of admiration and pity. “Now Bishop Guilbert,” Roger said to himself, “there’s a man who has had his share of troubles!” Roger had not known Guilbert for very long; the two had only met up in Poitiers at the beginning of the summer. Both the knight and the bishop were in dire circumstances at that time and they formed a sort of friendship of convenience that had begun to mature into a true affection. Guilbert took an instinctive liking to young knight on his quest of vindication; Roger took longer to warm up to Guilbert, but he had come to have a grudging respect for the churchman. The bishop had seen more than his fair share of adversity. Roger tried to piece together the details of Guilbert’s story from various things the good bishop had related to him during their travels.
It had been a sad, painful affair. Three years earlier the French King Louis VII had sought and obtained an annulment from Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had been unable to bear the king a son and had been estranged from him for some time. To be thus annulled - to have ones marital status become the object of gossip and speculation across the kingdom - was of course difficult on any woman, though Eleanor was not unhappy to be separated from Louis. Guilbert, then an abbot of the important Abbey of St. Martin of Ligugé, was a confidant ansd confessor of Queen Eleanor. He understandably took her side during these controversies with the king. Partially as a result of his patronage, Eleanor walked away from the marriage with Louis with a handsome compensation in land. Eleanor rewarded Guilbert by obtaining for him the bishopric of Poitiers in 1151 after the annulment was finalized.
But after the annulment, Eleanor was no longer queen. Guilbert’s position suddenly became threatened. The canons of Poitiers, seeing a weakness in the situation of their new bishop, began to agitate against him and make complaints to King Louis VII and the papal legate.
But his undoing came the following year. While traveling to Poitiers to spend the summer, Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, tried to kidnap Eleanor and force her to marry him. Eleanor barely escaped his clutches; Guilbert had sheltered her in his personal fortress when she reached Poitiers and used his own resources to dispatch messages to Duke Henry of Normandy, asking him to come marry her at once. Henry responded immediately, sending envoys to whisk Eleanor away to Normandy where she was wed to Henry.
With Eleanor gone, however, Guilbert had lost his protectress and source of influence. The canons of Poitiers – many in the pay of Geoffrey of Nantes who sought revenge on the bishop – soon rose up against Guilbert. Under pressure from Geoffrey and King Louis VII, Guilbert lost his bishopric and was expelled from Poitiers.
But Eleanor had not forgotten about her friend. Word soon came that she had secured for him the abbacy of Jumièges outside Rouen. He was to take up his new office in Jumièges after celebrating the Feast of the St. Michael the Archangel in the Mount.
It was a confusing, convoluted story that Roger had to go over several times in his mind to get straight. It was only when Guilbert was preparing to depart Poitiers for the Mount that Roger fell in with the bishop, so he only knew the details from the bishop’s recollection. “Another irony”, he thought. “Preachers are always warning about the uncertainty and fleeting nature of worldly office, yet Guilbert proves that an office in the Church is no more secure than anywhere else!”
Roger’s thoughts waxed philosophical as he slowly dozed into a lazy sleep. The sky was a dark grey, but the sun beat down from above the heavens, drying the earth and bringing radiant colors forth from the mist in the air. A rainbow emerged over the bay behind the Mount. It drew the attention of some local peasants who happened to be in the fields, but the bishop and the knight were oblivious. They slumbered on peacefully, the Norman sun drying their garments and warming their bodies.