May 1461-September 1464
Nothing in my life had led me to believe I was either blessed or cursed. Quite the opposite: until he came into it, my life was as prosaic and predictable as thousands of others, with nothing out of the ordinary to define it. I accepted this with equanimity. I can divide my life into before I met him and after. Those years before are all but lost to me, so obscured by the passage of time and their ordinariness that few details remain.
Sometimes there are flashes of memory, so far removed from what I have become that it’s as if they belong to another person. A girl of seven filled with misery because she was leaving her home, her little brothers and sisters, her pets, and beloved parents, tearlessly waving as she was whisked away to live among strangers and become betrothed to their son. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it scared me because it seemed to carry with it an onerous responsibility.
I remember the dry and dusty smell of the schoolroom where I learned to read and write in English and French, with some Latin, and a basic knowledge of law and mathematics that would be useful in managing an estate. And I remember the eagle eye and critical tone of Lady Ferrers as I learned how to supervise the servants, run the brewhouse, bakehouse, and dairy, and how to use a needle for both practical and decorative purposes. It was a conventional education. The upbringing of a gently bred girl is mortally dull.
At sixteen, I was ready to be a wife to John Grey. No woman will ever forget the births of her children, but the struggle, the pain, have been eclipsed by so many other births. Thomas was born at Astley in Warwickshire in ’55. That was the year the fighting broke out when the Duke of York’s forces first clashed with King Henry’s at St. Albans. Richard was born two years later. Those were good years for me. Happiness is closely tied to expectation, and since marriage met all my expectations, I could say I was happy – content at least. There was no great passion between John and me, but there was a growing affection, and I had no doubt we would have muddled along quite well except for the war.
For the country, they were treacherous times. First one side would gain mastery and then the other. The common people didn’t know what the war was all about, and most didn’t care. But the rest of us understood that a struggle for control of a weak and feckless King had escalated into a fight for the crown itself.
In early ‘61 my husband went to join Queen Margaret’s army and came home in the back of a waggon, a gaping hole in his throat and all his blood drained away.
I had always believed my mother-in-law liked me well enough or at least approved of me as a good wife to her son and mother of two heirs to the barony, but when John was killed she showed her true nature. As if it wasn’t cruel enough to be suddenly and brutally widowed, she laid claim to and seized the two manors settled on John and me in jointure at the time of our marriage, which ought to have gone to the surviving spouse. It was a wicked thing to do.
My sons and I were destitute. I had no choice but to return to my parents’ home at Grafton, where I waited for another husband to come along and save me from the ignominy of being a useless burden on the household.
The day that divided the before and after was a warm and sunny day in May. I sat under a tree in my mother’s garden sewing a new summer doublet for Thomas and, as usual in times of leisure, contemplating my miserable condition. Sunlight filtered through the leaves, lying in patches on the grass. Bees were in the honeysuckle; butterflies floated among the fragrant lilies. A fat tabby sat on the perimeter wall, his bright yellow eyes following the ball my two rambunctious sons were tossing back and forth as if awaiting his chance to pounce.
The ball sailed into a border of flowers for the third time. Richard scampered after it, but Thomas looked my way guiltily.
“That’s enough!” I said crossly. “Leave it and come and sit beside me.”
“We won’t do it again,” Thomas whined, looking crestfallen.
“Do as you’re told. Come over here.”
My mother’s gardens were her pride and joy, a blaze of glory three-quarters of the year. Because she couldn’t grow flowers in winter (she had tried) she compensated with evergreen shrubs and a row of holly bushes that put forth bright red berries. By the time the boys had thrown themselves down under the tree, I had already decided that the punishment outweighed the crime. They were the dearest things I had. It was not their fault they had no inheritance and no future. I put my sewing aside and was about to rise and retrieve the ball myself when one of the windows of the house, peering like eyes through a blanket of ivy, flew open and my sister Anne leant out.
“Bess!” she called down. “You’re never going to believe it… The King is coming! He’s coming to dine with us tomorrow!”
“Coming here?” I asked foolishly.
“Mama will be having a fit!” she said gaily.
“What’s the King?” four-year-old Richard asked me solemnly.
That was what we were all wondering. We knew he was the son and heir of the Duke of York, but knew little else of him until his father and younger brother were killed at the battle of Sandal in the dying days of the previous year. Then Edward Earl of March had burst onto the national scene like Athena springing fully armed from the head of Zeus to avenge their deaths at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross and then at the bloody field of Towton. We also knew that he had a deplorable reputation with women. Now everyone was talking about him, many fearfully: soldier, seducer, and still in his teens. What kind of man – or boy – was he and what kind of King would he make? Well, a temporary one – or so my family hoped.
“He is a man we must all respect and obey,” I said to Richard.
“Does he ride a big horse?” Thomas wanted to know.
They said Towton was the greatest battle ever fought on English soil in terms of the numbers involved and the casualties. The bodies went into five huge burial pits, Lancaster and York side by side in the embrace of death. It had been such a vicious battle that the equivalent of the entire population of a town like Lincoln went into those pits. As the great Duke of Bedford’s widow, my mother was aunt-by-marriage to Henry VI, and I had briefly served Queen Margaret as one of her ladies-in-waiting, so it was natural that we Woodvilles had always been for Lancaster. It was a terrible time for us at Grafton, so soon after John’s death, because my father and brother Anthony were summoned to fight. They came home whole, but Anthony was horror-stricken at what he had seen and done. They should have crushed the upstart Yorkist King, but instead, they were defeated. Having supported the losing side, fear of reprisals filled us with trepidation.
But as the victorious young King came south, visiting the places that had given Lancaster support, we heard with surprise and relief how he summoned the important men of town and shire for a heart-to-heart concerning their future conduct, and punished by levying fines and demanding fealty rather than harvesting heads.
Like many other families, I suspect, we had a conference and decided, regretfully, that we would have to bend the knee to this boy-King, this sprig of the House of York, at least until the former King and Queen had recovered their rights. We felt no loyalty to him, only antipathy. He’d had the audacity to have himself crowned in London after driving Queen Margaret and her army away, and then he had chased her north and won that stunning victory at Towton. Margaret and King Henry escaped to seek refuge in Scotland, or so we heard, but it would only be a matter of time before they returned and tipped the impudent boy off his stolen throne. Until then we would be fools to deny his sovereignty, and the Woodvilles were not fools.
Upon hearing that he had reached Stony Stratford, my father and my brother Anthony, who was visiting us at the time, rode over to tender their submission and returned elated. At least Father did; Anthony was more reticent. I had five brothers and seven sisters, two of who were wed and gone to their husbands. Lionel, a clever boy, was presently at grammar school and hoped to go on to university and a career in the church. The rest of us gathered in Mother’s solar when Father and Anthony returned from Stony Stratford.
“Of all the families in the neighbourhood he has chosen to honour us,” Father crowed, puffed with pride like a bantam. I think he forgot for a moment that he spoke of the enemy.
Anthony, a gentle, scholarly man but not lacking a healthy dose of cynicism, said, “We are the most prominent family in the district. He probably thinks we are rich and will impose a fine on us.”
“Understand, lad. We have no choice,” Father said. “If the family fortunes are not to go into decline, we will have to submit, at least for a time, until Henry and Margaret have won back their kingdom.”
“Are you so certain they will?”
“Of course, they will!” Father said. Anything else was unthinkable.
“Is he as handsome as they say?” Mary wanted to know. She was always full of romantic notions.
Father gave her a severe look. “What has that to do with anything, child?”
“What did he say, Father?” I asked. “Did he receive you kindly?”
“Very much so. He struck me as a very personable young man. He assured us that we had done no wrong in his eyes. We were loyal to our King. As our new King, he commended us for our fidelity and hoped to command the same in time.”
“It was graciously done,” Anthony conceded. “Pardoned without pardon being asked.”
This caused a stir among us. It was not what we expected of York’s son.
“Perhaps he isn’t as bad as we thought,” Anne murmured.
“Margaret would never be so forgiving,” said Mother, who knew her well.
“If he meant it,” Anthony grumbled.
“He said he wants to rule a people reconciled to his rule, who will sustain and assist him in his endeavours to bring about a state of peace so that our country can heal of the wounds that have been inflicted on her in the recent past and grow strong and proud again.”
“Worthy goals,” I said.
“If he meant it,” Anthony said again. It was hard for a man like him to throw off the shackles of an old allegiance without losing his personal integrity.
Father shot him a look of exasperation. “Perhaps it is no more than the idealism of youth. We shall see.”
We discussed our strategy as if preparing for a battle and then my mother rose from her chair. “Well, we had better be about our business. We will entertain him as we would Henry himself. We will not mention Henry or Margaret. You will conduct yourselves like ladies and gentlemen and loyal subjects.” Mother spoke with a pointed look at Mary and then at Anthony.
Far from having a fit, as Anne had said, my mother organised the household with her usual brisk efficiency. Up with the dawn to do the shopping herself rather than leave it to an underling, she determined that nothing should go wrong on this important occasion. She had always moved in the very highest circles and was not at all intimidated by the prospect of entertaining a King under her roof.
In anticipation of his visit, the gold plate went into hiding; the hangings were taken down, my mother’s and my jewels, everything from bedcoverings to breviaries, any item that hinted at wealth was ruthlessly swept up and thrust into a storeroom. My sisters, reduced to shrieking giddiness at the prospect of meeting this reputedly handsome King, were crushed when forbidden to dress in their best but rather in everyday clothes, so be it they were clean and tidy. Mary was inconsolable because she had one of the new style truncated hennins and was unable to wear it.
In the midst of all this, a lordly young man wearing the royal colours of blue and murrey rode into the courtyard to give my parents some indication of what they might expect and what was expected in return. He sauntered around the house, inspected the kitchen, pantry, buttery, and brewhouse, and discussed the preparations with my mother and the cook, not failing to add his own suggestions: ‘And don’t stint. His Highness has a healthy appetite.’ The poor display of pewter in the hall cupboard produced in him a look of pained dismay.
“Have you no gold plate?” he enquired loftily.
My father spread his hands. “As you see, we are a poor family.”
At which point the lordly young man rattled off without apparent thought all the lands and manors my mother still owned and then suggested that since we had no gold plate of our own, perhaps we could borrow some from a neighbour. His Highness would expect nothing less. Somewhat red about the ears, my father agreed that might be possible.
The imminent arrival of the King threw the house into an uproar. My sisters’ voices were shrill with excitement and my brothers shouted to one another from various chambers. There were slaps and tears in the kitchen. Only Anthony was not caught up in the pandemonium. He sat in the garden reading out loud, an island of calm, his wife curled at his feet listening.
Added to the noise was my older son who tore around my chamber on a hobbyhorse, making various whooping and neighing sounds. I sat at my dressing table examining my appearance and debated whether I wanted to meet the boy-King. I knew I was beautiful. I say it as a simple fact. Men looked at me with appreciation, often with naked lust. What I had heard of Edward of York did not inspire me to think he would be any different. I was only three months into mourning, which was reason enough to absent myself.
From the village came the sound of cheering, followed by the clump of horses’ hooves and the jingle of harness in the courtyard. My four-year-old son hung out of the window. From below, my mother called, “Hurry up, Bess!” I seized Richard by the collar and hauled him fully into the room. In doing so, I glanced into the courtyard without any particular interest. Among the milling men and horses down below my eye was drawn to him, for he was outrageously tall. At the same moment, possibly because of Thomas’s shrieks, he looked up, and he saw me. I quickly drew back, feeling foolish. Well, that decided it. I would have to go down.
There was no time for me to improve my appearance. My serviceable gown was of plain grey. Barbe and wimple of snowy linen, tokens of my widowhood, framed my heart-shaped face in nun-like severity. That’s what I looked like – a nun! Sister Elizabeth.
By the time I had chivvied my sons along to the nursery they shared with their younger aunts he was in the hall. I descended the stairs slowly, my gaze lowered. Conversation died away to silence. I was aware that they all watched me.
“Lord King,” I murmured and executed a perfect curtsey, one leg steady behind the other as I sank and bent my head gracefully, like a flower on its stalk. My skirt settled around me with a whisper. Rising again with the aid of a courteously extended hand, I straightened and lifted my eyes to look at him.
My father cleared his throat. “Your Highness, permit me to present my eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Lady Grey, widow of ah… Sir John Grey.” The hesitation over the name was because the King would know my husband died in battle against his powerful ally, the Earl of Warwick.
A tingle ran up my arm when he brought my hand to his lips. He couldn’t take his eyes off me, and his eyes said he certainly wasn’t angry that I hadn’t met him at the door with the rest of the family. I had seen that look before and wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me was my instant response to him.
I had expected to see an immature boy, made arrogant by his successes. Instead, I found as near perfect a specimen of young manhood as the Good Lord had ever put upon the earth to break the hearts of foolish women. Standing head and shoulders above everyone else, he looked every inch a King, with the kind of face and figure that provoked an alarming heat in me. Light brown hair, sparkling blue eyes, straight nose, fair complexion, full-lipped mouth both sensual and self-indulgent and with a cleft in his chin, the whole was beautiful yet entirely masculine. And that beautiful head was set upon a tall and well-proportioned body: broad shoulders and chest, muscular but without bulk, slender waist and hips, and limbs both supple and strong. Add to these charms the fact that he was in possession of a crown, and even though his right to that crown was in dispute, he was undoubtedly the most eligible bachelor in Europe.
With the first touch of his lips on my hand, he brought to life that part of me that a conventional and insipid marriage failed to awaken, as the sun brings to life the flowers of the field. I had heard he was handsome and charming, and that women threw themselves at him. But I had always thought such women silly and myself above such infatuations. I had not expected to be ravished by one look from those blue, blue eyes… me, a respectable matron and widow.
It was strange. I had met handsome men before, but I had never before felt such a strong attraction. I have no idea how long we stood there, just gazing at each other. My hand was still in his. I don’t think he noticed. I don’t think he would have noticed if the manor had collapsed about his ears.
“He wants me to raise fifty men and take them north to join the Earl of Warwick clearing out nests of Lancastrians,” my brother Anthony told me that night when he came to my chamber to bid me good night. He was the eldest of my brothers, the same age as the King, nineteen, and although I was five years older, we had always been close because he was mature for his years.
I didn’t like to think of him going to war. He had fought at Towton because it was expected of him but claimed to have used his sword only in self-defence. It was not cowardice, by any means, only a principled repugnance of any violence, and particularly what he was pleased to call ‘the wicked waste of war.’ Anthony loved to coin such pithy expressions. ‘It is high time civilised man found a better way to settle his disputes,’ he had once said. But when challenged, he had been unable to come up with a feasible alternative. I advised him that he ought not to share his opinions with the warlike race among whom he dwelt.
“Perhaps you won’t see any fighting,” I suggested.
“Margaret won’t give up. She’s intriguing at the Scottish court. If she gets help there she’ll be back in England, sure as dusk follows day,” he said gloomily.
Her husband, King Henry, was weak and ineffectual, of a monkish temperament and certainly no soldier, and her only son was a child, so Margaret did the fighting for them. She would continue to fight for them till the breath left her body. Captain Margaret, the Yorkists called her.
“Did the King fine us?” I asked.
“That was good of him. You didn’t expect to get off scot-free, did you? He’s been very lenient. Others have been fined or placed under bond. We should consider ourselves fortunate, as it’s well known the Royal Treasury is empty.”
“I don’t consider myself at all fortunate! I’m the one who has to go north. To Warwick, of all people!”
The Earl of Warwick was the man who had done more than any other to help the new King win his throne. He had once taken my mother, father and Anthony captive, and although honourably treated Anthony would never forget the public rebuke he and Father had received for being lowborn upstarts.
“We are all going to have to reconcile ourselves to the new rule, at least for the time being.” It occurred to me that perhaps it would be a good thing for England if Henry and Margaret never had the rule of this land again. Henry was no more than a puppet in the hands of others and Margaret had turned into a vengeful and cruel woman. “Margaret threw the crown away. Bringing a Scots army into England – How could she do such a thing?”
She had promised unlimited plunder south of the River Trent in mainly Yorkist lands, instead of wages. The Scots had gone much farther than she intended. They set fires, destroyed livestock, orchards and fields, raped women and girls, stole from religious houses and even killed monks who tried to protect church property. In short, they behaved like a conquering army on foreign soil. What did she expect – that those wild borderers would knock on a rich man’s door, ask for his goods and if refused go on to the next house? Margaret of Anjou was no fool. She was utterly ruthless, didn’t give a tinker’s curse about who suffered as long as she won in the end. The Scots had their revenge for hundreds of years of border warfare, in which they came off worst.
“How could she be surprised when the Londoners refused to open the gates to her army? She left them no choice. Rather than turn the city over to her Scots’ marauders they, in effect, rejected their King.” I had never before spoken so disloyally of my sovereigns, and I was surprised that Anthony didn’t rebuke me.
Instead, he said, “And York’s son and Warwick were quick to take advantage. They were at the gates within days of her departure.”
“And given a rapturous welcome.”
How quickly they had turned things around! From the most abysmal defeat at Sandal to a dizzying pinnacle of success – Edward of York crowned, Henry and Margaret driven from the Kingdom – in just three short months.
How Margaret had feared York who, according to the English Law of primogeniture, had a better claim to the throne than Henry, had two sons close to manhood and two more following. She learned to fear Warwick too, as he grew in prestige and power. But never did she fear Edward, York’s heir, an unknown boy who had spent most of his years sequestered at Ludlow on the Welsh marches. She hadn’t anticipated him. She hadn’t even seen him coming.
I smiled at Anthony. “Now that you’ve met him, don’t you find the change of allegiance less repugnant?”
Having looked into those blue eyes and listened to him talk over dinner of his policies and plans, I certainly felt more optimistic about the new rule and about the future. After Henry’s feeble ineptitude and Margaret’s ruthlessness, he was like a breath of fresh air.
Anthony raised his brows at me. “Oh, not you too!”
“You’ve been seduced from your allegiance by a fair face. And don’t give me that prim look. You’re as bad as our idiotic sisters.”
“I certainly am not!” I declared, feeling my colour rising. “Go away. You may be a lord, with fifty men to command, but you’re still a brat.”
The King came for another visit in September, after touring the western shires, and this time there was no doubt as to who he came to see. My sisters were greensick with envy when he invited me to show him the gardens. My hand rested on his, and even that touch was enough to make my body vibrate like a plucked harp string.
We spoke of many things that day, but I particularly remember him telling me about the deaths of his father and younger brother while he had been raising an army to take to his father’s support and, to his eternal grief, roistering away the Christmas season with his friends in Shrewsbury. The Lancastrians, under the command of the Duke of Somerset, had broken a Christmas truce, lured York from his castle of Sandal and slain him on the battlefield. His second son survived and was taken captive by men who hoped to have a hefty ransom for him. And so it might have happened, except that the vengeful Lord Clifford, whose father was killed at the first battle of St. Albans, was riding by and, seeing him there, stepped down from his horse, drew his dagger and butchered the bound and helpless seventeen-year-old like a hog. In the end, the King said, the only choice left to him was to die with dignity, on his feet, facing his killer, but because he was injured even that was denied him. There was a thread of sorrow in his voice, and he said he didn’t think he would ever be whole without the brother who had been his constant companion since infancy.
He had his revenge in the end, though. The night before the battle of Towton there was a fight for the bridge at Ferrybridge. Butcher Clifford was there. Lord Herbert put an arrow in his eye. The Yorkist leadership was wiped out that day, not only York and his son but also Warwick’s father and brother. God forgive us, when we of the Queen’s party heard, we gave thanks to God, hoping for peace. And when we heard about the desecration of those noble bodies, their heads cut off and set above the gates of York, the duke’s head festooned with a paper crown, we were shocked, for it was not our way, but not too much so. As for the young Earl, I remember my mother saying that he’d been in harness and if he was old enough to fight he was old enough to die. How different things are from another perspective.
It soon became apparent that Sandal had merely swept away two fathers to make way for two abler sons.
My father said it was Sandal that changed Edward from a careless youth into an effective and capable man who showed from the start qualities of leadership and battlefield skills amazing in one so young.
Barely a month later he fought and won Mortimer’s Cross, the famous battle where three suns appearing in the sky presaged his victory. Less than two months after that came his greater victory, on that snow-laden Palm Sunday at Towton, of which Anthony had said no man who lived through it could remain unchanged.
He told me of his mother, who he clearly adored, and of his two younger brothers. His mother had sent them to Burgundy for safe keeping lest her eldest son should follow his father and brother to the grave. He had brought them home in the summer and bestowed dukedoms on them.
It was forbidden to touch the King without his leave, but I covered the hand that was resting on his silk-clad thigh with my own. I felt humbled that he had shared these memories with me.
The sun was going down beyond the garden wall. We had talked for hours, and I knew he would soon have to leave to return to Stony Stratford. I wanted to keep him with me as long as possible. I admit, he fascinated me.
“I don’t believe I have ever seen anyone as beautiful,” he murmured.
He was beautiful too. I lowered my eyes and blushed at my wayward thought. We were sat on the stone coping beside the carp pool. It was my favourite spot. He was so close that he pinned the skirts of my gown beneath him. I was quite unable to move until he was ready to let me go.
“I have thought of you often,” he said, silky-soft, “with longing and desire.”
He contrived to capture one of my hands and lifted it to his mouth, touching and tasting with lips and tongue before I gently disengaged it.
“I think perhaps it is time we returned to the house, your Highness.”
“A kiss before we must part.”
“No, Sire,” I said as firmly as I dared.
The fair brows went up, the blue eyes clouded. I think he was more surprised than angry or disappointed. It was a word he was unaccustomed to hearing, especially from the mouths of those upon whom his attention had fallen. He had, of course, been utterly spoiled by women throwing themselves at him, falling at his feet. He didn’t have to pursue them; generally, a little artful persuasion was enough to coax the object of his lust into his bed.
Then he smiled, and it was like the sun coming out. “Are you so bashful because of the spies?”
“Spies?” I echoed, and he nodded toward the house. Every window that looked down upon the garden had two or even three faces peering out.
I cannot deny that I was both flattered and thrilled by the attentions of the King, and my family were, if possible, even more flattered and thrilled, except Father and Anthony who frequently opined that he ought not to be let loose around decent women. But what I really wanted was to marry again, and quickly while I still had my looks, for I had little else to recommend me. What is a woman alone but a useless beggar, a drain on her family’s resources, growing old and bitter without ever having a bowl or spoon to call her own and never being in a position to help her children rise in the world? There were suitors once my year of mourning was up. They sighed at my beauty and praised my eyes, which were like woodland pools, like emeralds, like wells of unending happiness. But I quickly learned that beauty is a poor substitute for a dowry, and when they discovered my circumstances expressions of undying devotion turned to regret. Hand over heart, a forlorn wave, and another prospect disappeared down the lane.
We had another visit when the King was on his way north to conduct the campaign against Lancaster in person. We took a blanket out to the orchard. It was in the season when the trees were in full flower. I spread out the blanket in the shade of a tree, and he shook the trunk until tiny petals fell like snow. We were alone, where those in the house could not watch us – alone with the bees in the blossoms.
“Is it true,” I asked, “as I’ve heard, that you are a thriving merchant?”
Father thought it a scandal, but mother said because he wasn’t born to be King, he tended to be unconventional and what was wrong with that?
“I must do something magnificently innovative to make the Crown solvent.”
“The merchants will say you have an unfair advantage.”
He laughed. “They might have a point.”
“Many will say it’s demeaning, that a King should not involve himself in something as crassly commercial as trade.” I rather felt that way myself.
“True. But only those who don’t know how crassly commercial is the business of running a Kingdom.”
“What do you trade?”
“Only wool and woolfells so far, but next year I intend to ship some woollen cloths from Coventry to Flanders. Try as they might the Flemings cannot replicate Coventry’s blue and make it fast. I want to improve England’s cloth trade and feel I can better understand the complexities from the inside. Later perhaps I shall ship other things, such as tin and lead, though they aren’t nearly so lucrative as wool. I intend to make exorbitant profits.”
He sprawled out beside me, propping his head on one hand. “Will you like me better if I’m rich?”
“I like you well enough now,” I said brazenly.
I turned my head to look at him through lowered lashes. It was all the invitation he needed. He sat up and kissed the corner of my mouth and then my lips. A tongue of flame darted to my loins. I moved away with a sigh.
“Why do you keep coming back? Why?”
“Because you are a Circe, a siren. Because I cannot resist you. I think you know you have snared my heart.”
I veiled my eyes. “It is no use,” I said sadly. “I know I am not good enough to be your wife, but I’m too good to be your mistress.”
At these words, it seemed to me he withdrew slightly.
“Madam…” He had lately taken to calling me Bess, but now it was back to formality “…there is no dishonour in being the mistress of the King. You would be envied and celebrated.”
“But I don’t wish to be envied and celebrated. I wish to be wed and cherished. When I go to a new husband, I hope to do so with an unblemished reputation.”
“Unblemished! A liaison with the King would enhance not blemish your reputation. You have too much pride.”
I risked a peek at his profile. I think he was quite mystified that I wasn’t willing to jump into his bed. He still had the vanity of a boy, and I had wounded it.
“Please, your Grace –”
“God’s Breath, I am a man! I have needs. Don’t women have such needs?”
“Only wantons indulge them lightly.”
“I assure you, many women, very many, are not as fastidious as you!”
He was becoming angry now. I was going to lose him. I put my face in my hands to hide my distress. “Oh, why do you come here? You torment me!”
After a moment, he pushed my hands away and tilted my chin up. “Don’t cry, sweetheart. I can’t bear to see you unhappy.”
Sweetheart. He called me sweetheart.
I am sure he was genuinely perplexed by an attitude he had never encountered before and went away enduring all a young man’s wretchedness at an unexpected rejection. When he left, I didn’t expect him to come back, but he did. He always came back. I didn’t understand at first why he didn’t move on to an easier conquest.
As for me, I was aware that I pushed him away with one hand and beckoned him on with the other. It wasn’t calculated. The thought of never seeing him again was unbearable, yet I couldn’t bring myself to yield. Whenever I saw him coming down the lane, my heart sang as sweetly as s thrush in the hedgerow. Plato says the madness of love is the greatest of Heaven’s blessings. I didn’t want to love him. God knows, I fought against it. Why did it have to be him, a man as far above me in station as a distant star and for who I could never be anything but a brief dalliance?
He called me his green-eyed goddess and said I had as much ice as ichor in my blood. I played the part well. He would have been surprised to know that I yearned for him when he was gone, and remembered each caress, each stolen kiss in my lonely bed at night, becoming drenched between my thighs at the mere thought of lying naked in those powerful arms, his long body straining against mine. I wanted him, ached for him, lusted as fiercely as he, but not for one quick hot tumble, not even for long enough to bear a royal bastard as Lady Lucy had. But for always.
“I wish I didn’t feel as I do,” I sighed to my mother. “I know nothing can come of it.”
She snipped an early lily and examined it as closely as she did eels in the market, before placing it in the basket I carried. “That’s how it was for me too,” she said with a smile in which there was more than a trace of lasciviousness. “Ah, daughter, I well remember how the blood runs hot when a certain man enters the room.” My father was notably uxorious, and my youngest sister was younger than my eldest boy. Perhaps the blood still ran hot.
“Why do you fight it? Give him what he wants.”
“What! Become his mistress?” I was shocked that she would suggest it.
“Certainly. If you want to bed him, why not? Think of what it would mean to your family.” She straightened and turned to me, a bright lily in her hand. “Think of all the favours that would come our way. Your father would be advanced, and honours would trickle down to your brothers. Titled bachelors would queue up to wed your sisters, dowry or no dowry.”
“But what of me? I would be nothing but a whore, adored one day and cast off the next.”
Mother gave a characteristic shrug. “Perhaps. But if you were clever, and you are clever, you could secure your future. Think about never being in want again. Think about your sons. You could obtain lands for them that would make the loss of Astley and Bradgate negligible.”
The King had asked his good friend Lord Hastings, who was my overlord in Leicestershire, to look into that matter, and Hastings had come to the conclusion that Lady Ferrers had the right of it. I was at a severe disadvantage because my former mother-in-law had wed Sir John Bourchier, who was first cousin to the King. I was furious and disappointed and not at all certain that Lord Hastings had rendered an impartial decision. It was the beginning of a lifelong bias against him.
On the other hand, I was pleased that the King had not used the fact that I wanted something from him as a weapon of seduction.
“And think what a handsome young man he is, and how pleasant nights in his bed would be.” Mother gave a voluptuous chuckle. “I envy you! Carpe diem, Bess! Seize the day!” Which is what she had done.
My mother was born Jacquetta of Luxemburg, sister to the present count of St. Pol. As a young girl, she had wed the Duke of Bedford, brother to Henry V. Until the coming of Margaret of Anjou she was the first lady of the realm. After Bedford’s death, she wed my father, Sir Richard Woodville, who had been the duke’s chamberlain, a person far beneath her in rank. Furthermore, as a royal lady, she was not free to marry where she wished. It was for the King and council to bestow her hand. The marriage created a huge scandal, but it was done, and nothing could undo it. My father was imprisoned for a time and only released when the council levied a huge fine against them. To pay it, my mother had to sell some of her dower lands. Worse, they were ostracised and castigated. They – and to a lesser extent, we, their children – were subjected to sniggers, slights, and overt insults. Our society does not look kindly upon those who rise above their station.
For many years we were social outcasts, and then very slowly we came up out of the mire. My father was given small commissions and ennobled as Lord Rivers to make him a more suitable spouse for my mother, who always styled herself the Dowager Duchess of Bedford. My mother became a close friend of Queen Margaret, and finally, when I was chosen as one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, we began to believe that the Woodvilles were on the rise again and the hard years were behind us.
We are all shaped by our experiences. So I say in truth that while my refusal of the King was due in part to an inherent pride that would not permit me to become the mistress of any man, it was also due to the experiences of youth. Over the years my parents had worked patiently to restore the family’s honour. How could I, the eldest child, bring disgrace upon my house? I could not. And then there was Anthony. My brother was the most thoroughly decent and honourable man I had ever known. To be the brother of a light woman would have besmirched him, reduced him even in his own eyes.
But if not the King’s mistress, what then?
A letter came from Anthony. Though I have lost much, I still have it in my possession.
The fighting centres on three Northumbrian castles. Neither side seems to be able to hold on to them. Usually, they fall due to treachery rather than any assault. When Margaret learned the King was coming north to conduct the campaign in person, she fled by sea back to Scotland taking Henry and their son with her. They ran into a severe storm, and their ship was almost dashed upon the rocks, but they managed to get off onto a small beach before it went down. Later they were rescued by fishermen and taken to Berwick. Margaret has such interesting adventures, doesn’t she?
His Grace the King only made it as far as Durham before being felled by an attack of measles. Don’t fret, Bess, your royal swain’s youth and constitution, along with the excellent care of his physician already has him on the road to recovery. Master Hatclyffe says he is a good King but a bad patient. Papers are always strewn over his bed. He has clerks and secretaries in attendance and receives couriers every day. Even when ill he manages to get through an extraordinary amount of work.
With luck, he will be fully recovered by the time the fighting is over. Bamborough surrendered on Christmas Eve, and we’re negotiating with Dunstanborough. Lord Hastings has already gone back to his palace duties. The rest of us hope that we won’t have to spend another winter up here.
I have lost my copy of the Consolation of Philosophy. I think someone stole it. Can you find and send me another, also, some woollen hose, the thicker, the better.
God have you all in his tender care.
“I can’t see Anthony as a soldier,” seventeen-year-old John said. “The King ought to have sent me. Father says I’ve a mighty sword arm.”
“You’ve a mighty mouth too,” I said, ruffling his hair.
In spite of my new Yorkist leanings, I thought there was something quite admirable about Margaret’s refusal to give up.
The King’s wooing of me continued for three years. I am no dreamer, but at some point, I began to dream that I might become more to him than a light o’ love, a passing fancy. I am no gambler either. (What woman can afford to be? We put our faith and stake our futures in material things and certainties.) But having dreamed the impossible, I embarked upon the greatest gamble of my life. In the belief that when a young man who could have almost any woman he wanted was confronted by one who denied him, I exploiting his passion for me to its ultimate, daring and improbable conclusion. If I lost, I would spend the rest of my life in obscurity, perhaps as the wife of another nonentity like John Grey. But if I won I would have the most attractive and exciting man I had ever known – and a crown.
In May of ’64, he was on his way north, not to join the fighting this time but to negotiate a truce with the Scottish ambassadors. The previous year he made a truce with Louis of France, and where France went Scotland followed. If he succeeded with the Scots, Margaret and Henry would be bereft of powerful friends, and he would be more secure on his throne.
Having stopped for the night at his castle of Fotheringhay, he rode to Grafton for a brief visit, bringing me a gift of a merlin, a particularly suitable bird for a lady because it was one of the smallest of the breeds. Off we went into the noonday sunshine to fly the birds, accompanied by other members of my family, the King’s retinue and a few servants.
According to the rules of falconry, only Kings were permitted to own gyrfalcons, the biggest and most beautiful of the species, and Edward had several in his mews. But the gyrfalcon was very much like the merlin in its hunting habits, flying low to the ground in wide circles, fierce, unblinking eyes alert for any movement that would indicate the presence of a small animal or plump bird in the long grass. In his opinion, the peregrine was the most spectacular and provided the best sport. And he was right. I was breathless with excitement as I watched the magnificent bird fly into the blue sky high above a motley flock startled by beaters out of the marsh. Higher and higher it went until it was little more than a speck circling on currents of warm air, wings outspread and motionless, as it selected a tidbit from the feast spread below.
“Five marks she goes for a heron, Will,” he said to Lord Hastings, who stroked his jaw and appeared to ponder.
“Do you have five marks, Sire?”
I thought: such impertinence. But the King laughed.
“You know I don’t. If you win, you’ll have to join a multitude of other creditors.”
“I trust you, Sire, so I’ll take your wager.”
The peregrine began her plummet earthward, straight and true as an arrow loosed from a bow, and selected a heron. Its wings flapped lazily, long legs dangled behind as it sailed majestically above the water, unaware of the danger hurtling from above. Gathering momentum with every second, the falcon folded her wings as she stooped, and struck the bigger bird on the wing with a tremendous impact.
“No creature in the world can reach the incredible speed of a peregrine in its stoop,” Edward informed me.
I wasn’t so engrossed in the struggle in the sky that I failed to notice his arm had gone around my waist, his hand resting intimately on my hip. My breath came fast, and when the falcon seized the heron in her talons, I clapped my hands together.
Later we picnicked under a cluster of willows, waited on by the servants of Grafton. We sat in silence for a while. Our fingers entwined surreptitiously, eyes seldom straying from the other’s face. I’m sure we both wished we were alone.
When we had dusted off the crumbs, the King took me by the hand and led me a short distance away – not so far that our companions couldn’t see us – and trapped me against a tree. The breeze fluttered the leaves in the canopy above and the dappled light shifted. He held my chin between thumb and forefinger and tilted my head up. His eyes intent on mine, he said – and I’ll never forget his words, “Give me a kiss, sweetheart, and I’ll give you a crown.”
My breath caught in my throat. It was as if the very air had retreated and I could not breathe. I searched his face to be sure he was serious because he had a deplorable habit of joking about serious matters, but I saw that he was serious. He really was. It was not our first kiss. Sometimes his kisses were infinitely gentle, as if my lips were rose petals, easily bruised, and sometimes he touched his tongue to mine. But when they grew too hot I was obliged to restrain his ardour firmly.
Now when he lifted his head, he gave me a still-boyish smile, mischievous and impenitent. “Is a crown worth two?” he said.
I could well understand how so many women had jumped into his bed.
This time when he left, he took my father with him. Tell no one, he said. Until it’s done, it must be our secret. He said we would marry as soon as he returned and it shouldn’t be long. And since we were practically betrothed, could we..? No, Sire, I wasn’t born yesterday.
Life resumed its well-worn pattern. Lionel came home from school for the summer. I enjoyed my siblings. I particularly liked those evenings we spent in the solar or, on warm days, in the garden sat on a patch of grass. When Anthony was with us he would offer a philosophical proposition for discussion, or John would tell a story. John could make an adventure out of a chance encounter with a woodsman. His stories were always funny, never edifying. And sometimes Mother would talk about her girlhood in a country none of us knew.
Plague broke out in London. When the number of dead reached two hundred a day, it was declared an epidemic. The courts closed until Michaelmas term, and everyone who was able fled the city for their country houses or the homes of friends. Since Grafton lay close to Watling Street, we played host to many overnight guests. We heard how Warwick’s brother, Lord Montagu, had defeated the Duke of Somerset and executed him and several more of Margaret’s captains on his authority as Warden of the East March. The presence of his enemies on the border had been Edward’s chief concern, apart from his pitiful penury, ever since he had assumed the crown. They used Northumberland, where they had many adherents, as a portal to move back and forth across the border with impunity. It was critical to bring that turbulent and troublesome area under his control. With his successes, Montagu had gone a long way to achieving this aim. As a reward for his sterling services, the King created him Earl of Northumberland, an honour Warwick had wanted for him for a long time. The best news of all was that the King had concluded a fifteen-year truce with the Scots. They would have to withdraw their aid from Margaret now. Her best general was dead. The war was over.
But of the King coming south, there was no news.
More letters came from Anthony, giving us details about the negotiations and the intrigues behind the scenes. I brooded. I would stand at a window overlooking the village street, willing him to appear, or at least a messenger in the blue and murrey of York. I began to fear that he was playing with me, that his proposal had been an impulse, since regretted, and he had indeed moved on to an easier conquest.
While my hands were busy with some dreary chore, my tortured mind went over all the reasons he shouldn’t wed me. No reigning English King had married an Englishwoman since the Norman Conquest (as I learned from Anthony). Reigning English Kings always, always, always, married foreign brides upon the advice of their council and in order to bring some advantage to the kingdom. No English King had wed in secret. None had wed a poor widow with two sons, whose first husband died in battle against his house. Virginity is an indispensable attribute in a Queen so there can be no doubt as to the paternity of any progeny, but I was the mother of two boys. In taking me as his wife, our King was not so much breaking with tradition as smashing it into kindling.
‘Tradition!’ he had scoffed. ‘What is tradition? It isn’t written in stone, it isn’t the law. Often it had its genesis in some bygone age where it was necessary or useful and has long since become immaterial. But because it is ‘tradition’, hallowed and sanctified by long use, no one nowadays questions its relevance. Times are changing. The world is entering a new and enlightened era. We cannot cling to traditions that have outlived their usefulness. And why,’ he demanded as if repeating arguments he had rehearsed on himself, ‘must the King marry a virgin? What is the King but a great landholder – the greatest, one would hope, but otherwise no different from men like your father? Many landed men marry widows for their connections and hope to get heirs on them – your father included.’
August was hot, with brazen skies and still air. When I stepped outside the house the heat felt like a physical blow. Finally came a letter – very circumspect. He was coming south and expected to be in the area on the second day of September. He stressed again the need for secrecy but said I could tell my parents, and left all the arrangements to us. I read the letter half a dozen times. No matter how hard I looked I could see no word of love or joy. Never mind. I had enough for us both. I held the letter to my breast and kissed it repeatedly.
What was the matter with the residents of Grafton? Were they blind? Couldn’t they see the glow that surrounded me? Couldn’t they see that when I walked my feet didn’t touch the ground? How could they be unaware that they were in the presence of the most fortunate woman in the world?
Never was there such a strange royal wedding. Instead of the imposing splendour of Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral, only a small chapel buried in the woods with tough vines climbing its walls. Instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his jewelled mitre and cope to celebrate the Mass, only an anonymous parish priest in a stained cassock. No boys’ choir to send their voices soaring into the vaulted roof in celebration of the blessed sacrament, only a single nervous boy, albeit with a sweet voice. The groom was not attended by his friends, or surrounded by members of his family and the bride had only her mother and father present. No cheerful crowds accompanied us on our way, only two carefully selected gentlewomen to act as witnesses. No celebratory feast of epic proportions, attended by ambassadors from Europe, the nobility in their furs and coronets, the Mayor of London and his colleagues, only a simple wedding feast attended by six.
Myths grow around the lives of the illustrious like mistletoe winding around the trunk of a great tree, until the tree itself is strangled and eventually dies, and only the strangling vine endures. Many myths were told about us, particularly about our beginning. They say we first met in Whittlebury Forest, under an ancient oak tree where I waited to intercept him, to beg for justice for my disinherited sons. For a groat or two, the locals will point out the very tree. ‘Yes, that one. That’s where she stood, holding her two boys by the hand. And he came riding this way and was smitten by her beauty.’ A pretty story, is it not? The truth, as is often the case, is more prosaic. They also say we were wed on May Day. It would have been a good choice, if only for the joyful connotations of that day. But the truth is we were wed one golden day in September when he was riding south after concluding the truce with the Scots.
Like mistletoe, myths are hard to kill once they have taken root.
Although we were up early, the servants were already astir, banging about with pots and pans in the kitchen and preparing the table in the hall for breakfast. It was the Feast of St. Gregory and my mother gave instructions that the household was to attend early Mass at our parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. I wouldn’t be there, she said, because of a slight indisposition and my parents would hear private devotions. If anyone suspected something unusual was happening, I doubt they came close to the truth. It was too fantastic.
In the woods on my parents’ estate of Grafton stood a small stone chapel called the Hermitage because there was a local legend that it was once occupied by a hermit. In more recent times it had been used as a chantry chapel and then abandoned for many years. My father tried to get the monastery to take over the care of the place but the monks didn’t want it. My mother and I had swept out the dead leaves and cobwebs, laid a cloth and candlesticks on the altar, burned incense to get rid of the earthy smell, scraped fungus from the walls and loaded the place with flowers from her garden.
The woods were dew-wet when I arrived at the chapel with my parents and the two gentlewomen, both named Alice, who my mother had taken into her confidence. The priest and the boy were already waiting outside the door. There was no sign of my bridegroom. I said nothing of my misgivings but I was tormented by doubts. Surely he would not come. Surely his proposal had been an impulse, or another ploy to bring about my surrender. Surely by now he would have come to his senses and realised that marrying me would be a mistake of monumental proportions.
Doubts assailed me until the very moment I saw a shiver of leaves, a bough lifting, and he emerged from the greenery leading a big roan horse, dressed in hunter green as if he would blend with the surrounding woods; only he didn’t. He wasn’t the stuff of backgrounds but stood out among the woody columns every bit as much as he did in his own court because of his great height and the breadth of his shoulders and the majesty that adorned his person like a rich but comfortable garment. The priest’s watery eyes popped from his head as if they were on stalks. Until this moment, we had kept from him the identity of the bridegroom.
Edward looped the reins over a low branch and then he was beside me, the Rose of Rouen, our Sovereign Lord King Edward IV, my husband-to-be. He was dazzling, boyish, and when he smiled he stole my breath away. That smile was visited on everyone present, and I felt he would no more miss the grand royal wedding than he would the foreign princess who, in the natural course of things, ought to have shared it with him. Our fingers entwined within the folds of my skirt. That morning my mother had helped me to dress in the most beautiful gown I had ever worn. It was of ivory and gold silk, sewn with so many seed pearls I fancied I shimmered like some otherworldly vision. The neckline was cut just wide enough to show the mounds of my shoulders and the elegance of my throat. It was designed to emphasise my figure – slender and yet strong, breasts neither too heavy nor too small, the hips of a matron, straight back, square shoulders. Around my neck, I wore his bride-gift, a collar of white enamelled roses set between two ropes of gold and with small cabochon rubies at their centre. Gold fretwork in the form of knots separated each flower. Depending from the lower rope were two Es, Edward and Elizabeth, intertwined in red enamel. My crown that day was a chaplet of white roses and feverfew, worn over a gossamer veil. Mother suggested a touch of rouge on my cheeks, for I was too pale, she said, but I thought paleness suited me.
In contrast to me, the King was dressed simply, his doublet unadorned, with a white shirt of Holland cloth showing at cuffs and throat, tawny hose, leather boots and belt. What need had he of fine raiment when he was clothed in youth, beauty and majesty? And unless I truly was dreaming, he was mine.
The priest recited the service in a trembling voice. I suspect that like me, the poor man was quite aware that in this case, the familiar phrases he uttered might have earth-shattering consequences. My hand in the King’s strong warm grasp, I made the responses quietly but clearly, and when the priest pronounced us man and wife, I lifted my face for my husband’s kiss. My husband. To think the word was an unbelievable joy.
We went inside for the nuptial Mass. The chapel glowed like the interior of a jewel box from the one small unadorned window and the tall tapers burning on the altar. Baskets of flowers surrounded the altar and sprays of blossom brightened the drab stone walls, filling the musty air with their fragrance.
For those who said later, because it suited their evil purposes, that it was not a proper wedding because of this and such, I say it took place in a consecrated church and the priest who officiated was ordained, although I will admit that the banns were disregarded in order to preserve secrecy. Otherwise, everything was as it should be. There were two witnesses. The church door was left open throughout and Mass was celebrated afterwards, as required by holy church. I know it was good and proper in the sight of God.
My father, Lord Rivers, was a distinguished-looking man, with silver-gilt hair, regular features, and a slim elegant frame. I had the same colour hair and I also got my height from him – a good thing, too, for I wasn’t entirely dwarfed by my husband. Since he had just returned from the north, Mother and I had given him little time to assimilate the fact that he was about to become father-in-law to the King. His first reaction, of course, was disbelief, for which I could not blame him, and his second was fear. ‘Christ save us, have you any idea of the possible consequences?’ he’d said, looking stunned, as if a length of steel had penetrated his chest and he’d just become aware of it. And of course we thought we had, but how could any of us have known on that glorious, golden September day what the consequences would be? I said, ‘He has thought it over very carefully. I promise you this is neither a hasty nor ill-considered decision.’ But I did wonder. How much was calculation? How much the impulsiveness of youth? How much the dictates of his heart?
When we stepped outside the church, it was very awkward. No backslaps here, no bonhomie, no coarse jests. How did one go about congratulating a king anyway? What was the protocol? Always rather stiff and formal, my father said to his youthful sovereign, “May I take this opportunity to say how deeply honoured I am that your Highness has chosen my daughter to be your Queen and to assure you that you have my own and my family’s loyalty until the end of our days. We wish only to serve.”
Father had his wrist seized and pumped vigorously and then his back buffeted by a man whose exuberance was surpassed only by his strength. “So you shall,” the King promised. “But we will speak of these things later.”
Leading his horse by the bridle, he took my hand as we walked the short distance to the manor house with the other four members of the wedding party trailing behind. The woods were quiet, morning dew releasing the smell of the leaf mold that carpeted the ground under our feet. Beside the path, the growth stood high. The emerald of moss peeped out from damp hollows and toadstools sprouted in abundance at the foot of a great oak. Titmice and wrens darted like bats in the canopy above and a rabbit made a dash for its burrow. The air was mild, with a whisper of breeze that was as sweet as a caress, and the rising sun flashed through the tree trunks like a newly minted coin.
I thought we were walking in silence until I realised he was muttering under his breath. “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.”
“How many more?” I guessed he had been given a penance.
“Another ninety-eight today. I passed last night at Stony Stratford and thought it would be a good time to make confession and receive absolution. The venerable Father Francis at St. Mary Magdalen is not one of those obliging churchmen who punish sin with a light hand even when the sinner is his King. A full confession of my sins – and my sins were mostly of the ah… unexceptional variety but quite numerous – earned me a gentle homily on the manifold rewards of virtue, a night on my knees in the cold and dark church and one hundred Aves a day for the next thirty days. A staggering punishment, wouldn’t you say?”
“Penance not punishment.” And probably richly deserved. “So, your Grace has completed only two?” I asked in disapproval.
“Understandable in the circumstances, surely? You have dominated my thoughts even to the exclusion of Our Lady. I went to bed dreaming of you and awoke with you before my eyes.”
Ever since he came to the throne, three years ago, his private affairs had been discussed quite as avidly as his public ones and, among my sisters, with such detail that I wondered where they got their information. Unfortunately, despite his youth – he was then two and twenty – he already had a reputation for unchaste living, and had two bastards born of an illicit union with Lady Elizabeth Lucy, the wife of one of his late father’s knights. Scandalous tales abounded and were disseminated with great relish by prurient-minded people of those nights when the King was at his leisure and his young gentlemen smuggled in women. The guards on the doors were commanded to let no one else in on pain of castration. The King led the debauchery, raising his sloshing cup in the air to toast the bright eyes of whichever female presently claimed his attention.
‘The sooner he’s married the better,’ my father said, applying an age-old solution to the problem. ‘A wife and family will settle him down. It did the trick with me.’
I suppose in this regard he was not unlike many other young men, the difference being that, as King, he ought to have set a better example of probity for his people. Now that I was his wife, it was my earnest desire to see him rehabilitated and redeemed. In fact, I had already extracted his assurance that once we were wed he would have no need of other women.
Mother called from behind, “We should go through the churchyard – avoid the village street.”
I looked down at my wedding ring, a bright shiny band of intaglio with an emerald surrounded by small diamonds. He said I should always wear emeralds, to match my eyes.
“They say your Grace turned down the hand of Isabella of Castile.”
“Of course. My heart was already engaged elsewhere, as you well know.”
How flattering to be chosen over a girl half my age. Isabella never forgave him. “My father said you passed up an opportunity to influence and perhaps even dominate the politics of the Iberian Peninsula, and to pinch France in a vice that would allow King Louis no wriggle room.”
“Yes, and I was tempted, but there are others ways to deal with Louis. Anyway,” he added with a mischievous smile, “how can I trust my posterity to the sister of Henry the Impotent. She may well have inherited the family deficiency.” He laughed and I laughed with him. He could always make me laugh.
“And the Lady Bona? Is Lord Warwick still pressing for a French match?”
His smile died as if the sun had gone behind a cloud. A closed look came over his features. I knew this was a contentious issue and immediately regretted bringing it up. Anxiety flitted around in the recesses of my mind like bats’ wings in a dark cavern. I didn’t yet know how to please him, nor what displeased him. But I knew that I must learn, and quickly.
“It has been driven home to me that I must marry soon. The archbishop tells me the people would like to see me living more chastely. Apparently, the world cannot abide a happy bachelor. But sooner than wed that Frenchwoman I would take holy orders with the Carthusians. Picture that, if you can!”
The image of Edward as a shaven-skulled, homespun-clad member of an order of austere and silent monks might have had me giddy with laughter, but since the subject didn’t amuse him, I choked it down.
“Isn’t she a Savoyard?”
“She’s Louis’ sister-in-law, which makes her as French as the pox. She represents a closer tie with France than I want, and I’ve made that very clear to everyone. My cousin of Warwick hears nothing that is contrary to his own desires.”
We were in the graveyard, stepping carefully between lichen-covered stones. Starlings fluttered around the church steeple. I looked at my ring again, a circle symbolising eternity, the only solid sign I would have once he was gone.
“I ask them: Why must England’s queens be foreign-born? One has only to look at Margaret of Anjou to see what a disaster that can turn out to be. She brought no advantages, no dowry, only civil war. It’s fortunate her father has neither power nor wealth, otherwise he might invade England on his daughter’s behalf. Given the nationalistic sentiments prevailing these days, it is high time that an English king married an English woman.”
“You are preaching to the converted,” I said and coaxed a quick smile from him.
“It pleases me that you know your way around the marriage bed and even the fact that you have borne two sons to another man I do not see as an impediment. It proves your fertility. I want a brood of children and not for dynastic reasons alone.”
“And you shall have them.”
He dropped my hand and put his arm around my shoulders where it lay, heavy, to be sure, but warm and comforting.
We spent only three hours together after the ceremony, half of which was taken up by the wedding feast, which my husband ate rather quickly while his hand lay on my thigh under cover of the tablecloth. After suitable compliments to my mother, a kiss on the hand to the two Alices, who blushed and giggled like a pair of silly maids, he begged everyone to remain at the table and hustled me off to a specially prepared bedchamber. An hour later he was gone.
I told myself that it was real. We were wed. I had gambled and won against a field of European princesses. I wasn’t just another Lady Lucy. I was his queen. I was the Queen of England.
I had to practice one of the womanly virtues: waiting. And now, too, I had the memory of him, of that brief hour we spent abed, to torment me in the nights. I ached for him, a real physical ache. I longed to feel him rubbing against my skin, inside and out.
One day I was sewing a panel into a shirt of Thomas’s to make it last just a little longer, and I thought, absurdly: I am the Queen of England. Why am I mending my son’s shirts? It occurred to me that perhaps Margaret of Anjou had to mend her son’s shirts too. She was now in France begging help from any prince from whom she could obtain a hearing, even such unlikely prospects as the Duke of Burgundy who had always favoured the House of York. She couldn’t even raise enough money to get back to England and Henry. Two queens, both impoverished, but at least my future looked brighter than hers.
Anne sat beside me with her own sewing. “You’re so lucky, Bess,” she said. “You’ve been married, and you have your two sons –”
“Two hellions, you mean.”
“And you’ve been wooed by the King himself. While I –” a dramatic sigh. “I shall be five and twenty this year, Bess! Think of it! And no husband on the horizon. I’ll probably die unloved, unwed and childless! Oh, I can’t bear the thought!”
She put her face in her hands. Anne was inclined to drama; emotions accompanied by supporting gestures as if she was an actor on a stage with a large audience watching her every move. This was a common theme with her.
I put my arms around her and gave her a squeeze. “You’ll have a husband. I know you will.” And I thought: I will get you an earl, at least a baron. I’ll make a list.
As we sat there, we heard the rumble of horses. Sewing abandoned we dashed to a window that overlooked the courtyard. Down below, horses and men milled about, dogs barked, the grooms stood with their mouths open, chickens fluttered and squawked. My heart was in my mouth as I hurried down the stairs with Anne at my heels and arrived in the hall just as our steward brought in a young man to present to my mother. When he saw me, he changed direction, swept off his cap and went down on one knee. “Your Grace.”
Anne muttered, “He’s got the wrong person.”
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