Natural Justice: As You Sew, So Shall Ye Reap

The Horses Head Knight

Kent, England

High up on a hill on the The Isle of Sheppey is the village of Minster. The island is in the Thames estuary not long before it reaches the sea. At the very top of the biggest hill is Minster Abbey. 
As you enter the door there is a tomb with a marble figure on top. It is of Robert de Shurland who died in 1327. He is shown in his armour and with his sword, just like a crusading knight. However, the remarkable thing about this is that, at his feet, there is a horse’s head shown coming out of waves on the water’s edge. Many people ask about the story of this and I will relate it to you now.

Sir Robert de Shurland was the ruler of the island and had total power. He had a large manor house and if there were any arguments or disputes people would be taken to his court in a big hall for him to make a decision.
One day a group of tinkers moved onto the island. This was a very common and welcome thing and people would look forward to seeing what they were selling.
The very next day a storm broke in the evening and continued on onto the night. The thunder, lightning and heavy rain seemed to go on and on. People in those days worried very much about such things, fearing they were being punished by God. At the manor house when a servant informed Robert de Shurland that his horses were going wild in their stables he took his priest and went to see them. It was clear that something had to be done otherwise they would soon break down the doors to each stall and run wild. The priest was instructed to calm them down and he stood there reading out loud from a religious text. Over the next hour the horses all calmed down except one. This was a very large light grey stallion called Grey Dolphin, Robert de Shurland’s strongest and favourite horse.  After another 10 minutes with the storm still raging outside this magnificent animal broke the door of his stall and escaped into the night as everyone dived for cover.

Sir Robert’s soldiers were called and he told them he would lead them himself in search of this wonderful (and very valuable) horse. Three hours later both soaked and freezing Sir Robert was in a very bad mood when a soldier rode up and told him they had found the horse. 10 minutes later Sir Robert and his troops arrived at the tinkers’ camp where all their horses were tied up and the occupants were all in their little caravans sheltering from the terrible weather. Standing amongst the tinkers’ horses but not tied up was Grey Dolphin. Sir Robert flew into a rage and had all the tinkers arrested and taken back to the manor house and put in prison.
About an hour later, once he had dried out and warmed himself by the fire he brought them all up to the big hall so they could be judged. All the important people were summoned to be witnesses.

Sitting on his expensive chair that could almost be called a throne, he had the leader dragged in front of him and made to kneel. The rest of the tinker’s family and friends all watched in fear and confusion. Sir Robert charged the tinkers with stealing Grey Dolphin and asked the relevant soldier to explain where the horse had been found. Sir Robert then said this fact alone was proof. The leader of the tinkers was allowed to speak, whereupon he said they had all been sheltering from the storm and knew nothing about an extra horse arriving. He stressed that Grey Dolphin not being tied up meant the horse had come there on its own, probably to be with other horses.
Sir Robert told the leader to be silent and announced that, as punishment for stealing his favourite horse, all the belongings of this group would be confiscated and the leader would be executed.
Everyone standing there was stunned. This was surely all wrong. However, to speak up would be very dangerous for them all except, in those days for the priest, for priests were protected directly by the king. Any person who killed a priest would have all his lands and belongings taken away.
So it was that the priest, as upset as everybody else, stepped forward and said, “Sire, we all know you have had a very bad night and have not slept. Therefore I would suggest you revise your decision, perhaps after rest. Otherwise this audience may conclude that your judgement is a mix of temper and indeed greed.”
Sir Robert could not believe what he was hearing. In a rage of anger he leapt from his chair and drew his sword. The priest stood his ground knowing that he was protected by the king. This seemed to enrage Sir Robert even more and he swung the sword and cut off the priest’s head in one stroke. He then stood over the body and cried out, “See what happens to people who defy me.” He then took some deep breaths and went back to sit down. There was a shocked silence from the audience with all eyes on him as his breathing gradually slowed. Everybody there knew what this beheading meant and, of course, so did Sir Robert. As he gradually calmed down the awful truth started to dawn on him and he became both shocked and afraid.

Eventually, he looked at all the tinkers standing there with their mouths open and said, “Begone, all of you. Take your belongings and go.” Very slowly and quietly they started to leave the hall not daring to speak lest they annoy him. Just as the last one left the hall an old lady came back and knelt on one knee. She said, “My lord, because you have treated us fairly I will tell you this. Your wonderful horse will save your life and then kill you.”
Sir Robert looked at her and shouted, “Begone you old crone” and with that she left.
Gradually the hall emptied as everyone felt the need to get away. They all knew the lord of the manor was now a criminal in the eyes of the king and that sooner or later he would have to pay the price.

Sir Robert however sat there with his mind racing and it was only about three hours later that he fell asleep still sat in the hall. Nobody dared to disturb him.
When he awoke he formed a plan. He gave orders that a document be drawn up which, if signed by the king, gave him full pardon. He decided to quickly ride to the king in London in order to get there before the news of his murder. He would then lie about it being an accident and beg forgiveness. It seemed to be his only hope.
He knew the King was at The Tower of London and that it was about 40 miles. He also knew that only one horse could make that in one go, his favourite horse, Grey Dolphin. He set off two hours later with an escort of soldiers but soon left them behind as he made the best time possible. His horse galloped on and on.
Sometime later, with an exhausted horse he dismounted at The Tower stables, proclaimed who he was and demanded to see the king. The guard pointed downwards along the Thames and said, “The king is on that ship, on his way to France.” There in the distance, making very slow progress due to a lack of wind was indeed the king’s best sailing ship. Robert groaned, realising that the ship was going back the way he had just come and would eventually have to pass his home, The Isle of Sheppey.

He ran back to his horse and, only due to the protestations of the stable men, forced himself to wait for 40 minutes whilst the horse was fed and watered. They warned him that this magnificent horse was likely to drop dead if he insisted leaving without allowing proper rest but, as usual, Sir Robert did not listen. He mounted and set off urging the horse to gallop ever faster. The miles went by and from the road he occasionally caught sight of the ship. In fact he did seem to be gaining very slightly. Onward he went with Grey Dolphin giving him every ounce of possible strength. Eventually, with Grey Dolphin covered in white lather, he made it back to The Isle of Sheppey and went straight to the shore where he could see the king’s boat approaching. He urged his wonderful horse into the water and swam out to meet it.
On board sailors alerted the king who came on deck and was clearly highly amused to see one of his knights on horseback out in deep water. Grey Dolphin was duly tied to the side of the boat, which anchored whilst Sir Robert climbed aboard and explained how, in a terrible accident, he had killed a priest. Being in such a good mood the king believed all that was said and signed the Pardon Document with little hesitation. Sir Robert gratefully bid farewell, climbed over the side of the ship and urged Grey Dolphin to take him back to land. Once again this splendid creature did as it was asked and 15 minutes later they came to shore, amazingly only about half a mile from Sir Robert’s manor house. Sir Robert was exhausted (he did not consider his gallant steed) and dismounted. He lay on the beach and immediately fell asleep.

Some hours later he awoke as dusk approached. Grey Dolphin was still there, not only a faithful horse but obviously very glad of the rest. Sir Robert stood up, looked at his horse and said, “No other horse could have managed that. You’ve just saved my life.” At that moment he remembered the old woman and her warning. With that he withdrew his sword shouting, “Going to kill me? We will see about that.” And without the slightest guilt or remorse, I’m very ashamed to tell you, he swung his blade and cut off the horse’s head. He looked down and spat out the words, “Now let’s see you do me any harm.”
He then slowly walked home, where he was able to display the Document of Pardon signed by the king. Everyone was amazed but life went back to its usual routine once again with Sir Robert fully in charge of the locality.

Some months went by and Sir Robert would often go to the shore riding another horse. He would always take with him a lance because he was allowed to keep anything he found on the shoreline provided he could spear it. Indeed, if we consider the poor safety record of sailing ships in those days and the amount of wrecks there were, we could say he was a lucky man. In fact, over time, he came to enjoy storms just like the one that started this story. Once the weather had cleared up he would go to the shoreline to see what had been washed up.
The following summer his wife announced that a child was expected. As there had just been a summer storm and it was a beautiful day the two of them set off on a walk with servants following at a discreet distance. After a while they reached the sea and walked along the shore. This was Sir Robert’s favourite place. After some time they both noticed something glinting in the sunlight down on the shoreline. Sir Robert went to the water’s edge to investigate and to his mild surprise he found the skull of a horse. It had been picked clean but he knew instantly that it was Grey Dolphin. No other horse was close to that size. He looked at the skull and scoffed, “Kill me eh? Well do your worst,” and he kicked the skull into the sea.
At the same moment he let out a cry of “Owww!” He had managed to catch his big toe on one of the horse’s front teeth and it had cut his skin. It was a little sore but nothing to bother a warrior like him and so they continued the walk, enjoying the sunshine.

That night however, Sir Robert noticed his heart rate was faster than normal. By the morning his toe was swollen, extremely sore and very red. Two days and two sleepless nights later pus was oozing out of the small wound which by now was very swollen and full of all sorts of dark colours. He also noticed that red lines were creeping up his leg. The pain was becoming unbearable. Unfortunately for him medicine was not so developed in 1327 and there was nothing to be done. Two weeks later and, having suffered excruciating agony throughout that time, Sir Robert final died.
In today’s language we would say he had died of septicaemia.

We must all wonder if, during that time of such terrible suffering, his thoughts ever turned to his quick temper and the old lady’s prediction.