February 1452 – Blackheath near London
In the dreary chill of a dark winter morning, two horsemen picked their way carefully over the brittle furze, bracken and tussocky grass that lay between two army camps. They wore gleaming cuirasses without scratch or dent; full armor was so cumbersome it was worn only at the onset of battle. Under their furred cloaks they had swords strapped to their hips and silver spurs attached to their heels betokening knighthood. In his gloved fist, the younger man was holding an ash rod upon which a white flag hung limply in the still air.
“What’s this place called?” he asked, guiding his horse around a bare and stunted bush.
“Blackheath,” the elder replied. His voice was coarse, like the rustle of dry leaves. “Some history here. If you paid attention to your lessons you’d know it was here King Richard II met the mob during the Peasant’s Revolt.”
“They’ll have a different name for it if we can’t make him see sense. They’ll call it Bloody Heath.”
They did not anticipate treachery but proceeded even more slowly, the younger waving the flag so it could be plainly seen. Behind the two sentries was a sprawl of tents with a cloud of smoke hanging over it. The points of two halberds were leveled in the general direction of their mailed chests.
“Hold! Stay where you are!” A voice barked, and when they had come to a standstill: “State your business.”
“I’m the Earl of Salisbury. This, the Earl of Warwick,” said the older man. ´Take us to the duke.” He was Richard Neville, a stocky northerner, whose mounting years had produced iron gray hair and a weathered face. The younger was also Richard Neville, his eldest son. Both men had keen brown eyes and a distinctive nose: a bump at the bridge gave it the aspect of a bird of prey.
The two sentries exchanged a quick glance and the halberds went down. “This way, my lords.”
Weapon shouldered he led them into a camp they estimated to contain about two thousand men, roughly the same number as their own. The duke had arrived first and his men had had time to settle in. Tents were up, rough shelters built for those without, the detritus of camp living lying around. There were a few fires, giving off more dismal smoke than warmth or light and men standing or sprawling around them. From somewhere nearby came the thin wail of a flute.
Ahead now was a large tent, with a banner above drooping from the center pole. Two soldiers sprang forward to hold their bridles as the earls dismounted. The sentry had a brief conversation with a guard stationed outside the tent, who ducked inside and returned a moment later to hold the flap for the visitors.
A brazier warmed the inside of the tent. Several men crowded the interior, some of whom Salisbury recognized: William Oldcastle and Davy Hall, knights in the duke’s household and Lord Cobham, a Kentishman and suspected Lollard. The surprise inclusion was the volatile and vicious Earl of Devon, usually to be found in his own west country engaged in his favorite form of recreation: feuding with the Bonvile family.
Ignoring the rest, the two newcomers dipped their heads in deference to the greater rank of the one they had come to see: Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. Not a very prepossessing man, the duke. A little under average height but solidly built, with no fat on him. Fit and trim. Grey eyes with thick straight brows that gazed upon his world with a certain chill disdain. Generally he looked as if he had just come from the funeral service of his entire family. Two deep creases were carved into his brow and the downward turn of his mouth proclaimed a rather dour and pessimistic disposition. The worse things were going for him, the more his mouth tended to resemble an inverted ‘U’. He was Salisbury’s brother-in-law, being wed to the earl’s youngest sister. Eleven years older, Salisbury hadn’t had much to do with the boy who came to Raby Castle when he was only four years old, the son of an attainted traitor. It wasn’t until the war in France brought them together years later that they got to know each other and developed a mutual liking and respect without ever really becoming friends.
“You’re looking well,” Salisbury said. He offered his hand but York turned away as if he hadn’t seen. Nor were they offered a drink, letting the two earls know that he viewed them as adversaries and not kinsmen. They in turn judged his mood to be hostile.
“The king sent you, I suppose,” said York. “Because we’re kin or because of Warwick’s silver tongue?”
Warwick was the only one to laugh. His tongue was sharp and he used it as a weapon, to goad, to threaten, to wound, only occasionally to persuade.
“Because we bear you no ill will,” said Salisbury. “He sent us to tell you that if you disband your army, he will receive you and hear your petition and he is sure you will go away content.”
“My army?” York snorted. “I have no army! Those men out there are an escort to protect me against my enemies. It is untenable, but it is a fact that I cannot move around the kingdom without a strong guard to protect me. If I send them away, what happens to me?”
“If you don’t, what happens to us all?” Salisbury said grimly. “You’re not a warmonger. You can’t want this to end in bloodshed.”
“I don’t, but what will be required of me to end it?”
York looked frankly skeptical. “Already given.”
“You don’t trust me,” said Salisbury, sounding genuinely hurt.
Without answering, York paced slowly over to a small table and poured a measure of golden ale into a pewter maser. “Alright,” he said, “you have precisely as long as it takes me to down this ale to persuade me why I must disband my ‘army.’”
Salisbury jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction from which they had come. “Over there they are saying your success in Ireland has given you grand ideas. Words like rebel and traitor are flying about like dead leaves in a wind. Over there the king also has an army – about the same size as yours, I’d say, also assembled for his protection. So the armies are gathered. Some are itching to take up their weapons. Now, Henry doesn’t want a battle, we all know that. He’d rather end it peacefully if possible. If you provoke one – no, if there is a fight, provoked by you or not, you may tell yourself that it’s Somerset you’re fighting, but while Henry is over there, while the royal standard of England is flying, it is the king you’ll be fighting. And win or lose the only way you’ll come out of it is covered in so much shit you won’t be able to stand your own stink.” His gaze flickered over the cluster of knights. “As will everyone with you.”
“Here’s another cogent reason,” said Warwick. “You are playing directly into Somerset’s hands. The perception is that he’s the loyal one supporting his king; you’re the disloyal one confronting the king with an army at your back. He smells of roses, you stink of shit. What kind of vitriol do you suppose he is pouring into the king’s ears at this moment? Reminding him that you returned from Ireland without being summoned, before your term as lieutenant governor was up? Perhaps reminding him that you are suspected of being complicit in the Jack Cade rebellion? Perhaps even,” he added softly, “reminding him that you are the son of a traitor and blood tells?”
Warwick’s was an interesting face, revealing an unmistakable stamp of arrogance and the knowledge of its owner’s worth. He had inherited his father’s nose, a bony protuberance that dominated his face. In Salisbury it lent character, but in Warwick it had achieved handsomer proportions, jutting out provocatively from his lean face and giving it the look of a predator on the hunt. Yet his deep-set brown eyes seemed to be glinting at some private jest, and the thin-lipped mouth, which appeared harsh and uncompromising when at rest, was easily provoked into smiles. It was a face that would invariably make an impression.
The duke took a long drink from his cup before answering. “As to Ireland, that was a ploy by my enemies to get rid of me. Ten years! Unheard of! I never had any intention of enduring such an exile for ten long years while England under Somerset’s hand went to the dogs.” He paused for another drink and gazed at the wall of the tent. “I did good work while I was there though. The Irish will tell you that. I reformed the administration. I arbitrated longstanding disputes between English settlers to the satisfaction of both parties. And the machinery of justice is rolling along smoothly as never before. I didn’t just abandon the place. I left good men in key offices.”
“It was time to come home. As to the Jack Cade rebellion, I emphatically deny any involvement.”
“So it is mere coincidence that the rebels, among other demands, called for your return,” Warwick drawled.
“It was neither coincidence, nor an indication of my complicity,” York snapped, glowering at his nephew. “What is was, as any man of sense ought to know, was a great shout that the commons are outraged by our losses in France and fed up of the corrupt and abominable government that is bringing England to her knees. I speak of a bankrupt Crown, a slump in trade, highways and forests infested with outlaws, roads and bridges not kept up, parliament frustrated in its efforts to improve matters. I could go on, my lords, to speak of other evils but you know them as well as I, and you know that many members of the government are more concerned with stuffing their purses than solving problems.”
Yet upon his return, Warwick knew, the good work he had done in Ireland was overlooked. The two terms he had spent in France, as its lieutenant governor, without losing one acre of English-held land were not rewarded. He hadn’t even been paid his wages, let alone his expenses, which amounted, he claimed, to thirty-eight thousand pounds! A little peculation to offset such expenses was generally winked at, even expected, but it was damned hard to suck a drop of juice from a fruit that had already been squeezed dry. And yet he was not even offered the place among the king’s chief advisers that his Plantagenet blood and exalted rank entitled him to and that his talents warranted. Why? Warwick wondered. Why was a man of such proven ineptitude as Somerset, who had single-handedly lost Normandy, put in a position of power that would allow him to do further damage to England herself? And the answer was: the queen. Whoever sat on the council was entirely Henry’s choice but that hollow reed didn’t have a chance against the force that was his wife allied to Somerset.
Outraged and frustrated, York had published a manifesto and marched south. While maintaining his loyalty to the Crown and offering to swear allegiance, he noted his past service and the poor way he had been repaid and demanded the removal of the Duke of Somerset. The first thing that went wrong was that he’d garnered little support. The second was that he was denied entry into London. He ought to have retreated at that point but there was a thick streak of stubbornness in the man, born not so much of ambition as a sense of entitlement, that wouldn’t allow him to back down. So he’d marched his army across the bridge at Blackwall and settled at Blackheath. If he hoped Kent would rise in his favor that proved a further miscalculation. Historically, Kent was always in the forefront of any popular movement, but in the wake of Cade’s rebellion the shire was thoroughly cowed and disinclined to bring further punishment on itself. The sight of a royal army, replete with the banners of the nobility, must have shaken the ground under his feet and disheartened his men. His position was untenable. The entire campaign wasn’t well thought out nor well executed. A little forethought would have told him that the queen or Somerset would convince the king that his march was a threat to the royal authority and to meet him with a similar or greater force.
Now he didn’t know what to do to save face. He couldn’t just creep off into the night, and yet Warwick suspected he didn’t want to provoke a fight against the king. Salisbury was right about that: he would cover himself in odium.
On the other hand, nor did Henry want a battle. Not only was he a peace-loving man, but most of the commons and many of the lords too acknowledged that York had been a good servant to the crown and had been shabbily treated in return. To attack him would have been seen as another injustice against a loyal man who had been pushed to the brink by the many assaults on his dignity as a peer.
“If you want something,” said Salisbury, “there is a right way to go about getting it and a wrong way. Resorting to arms is not the right way at this juncture. No matter why you left Ireland without being recalled, no matter the truth of Jack Cade’s rebellion, with this act you have given your enemies a weapon to use against you, and even your friends reason to suspect your motives.”
“His Grace has just grievances,” Devon remarked. “Is he not the premier peer of the kingdom and the nearest in blood to the king? And yet he holds no office of the Crown, not even a minor one. He doesn’t have a seat on the council, no voice in the government, while thrice-cursed Somerset, who cravenly lost Normandy, all but runs the kingdom with the queen’s help.”
“You need Thomas Courteney to speak for you?” Warwick demanded of York.
Down went the corners of York’s mouth. “The truth is, as you well know, I stand virtually alone. The more who are prepared to speak for me the better.”
“You are scraping the bottom of the barrel with this miscreant,” said Warwick. “He will add no luster to your cause.”
“You dog, Warwick!”
“Your Grace!” Salisbury barked, claiming York’s attention while Devon glared at his son and Warwick replied with a supercilious sneer. “You have got yourself into a bad position. You are not going to win. Your only chance is to dismiss your men and submit to Henry. He has said he will give you a hearing.”
“You are asking me to put myself in the hands of my enemies,” said York, taking another drink from his cup.
Salisbury shook his shaggy gray head. “Not so. It is true that Somerset is your enemy and will do you harm if he can, but the rest only want this impasse resolved without bloodletting.”
“I want more than a hearing. I want Somerset disgraced and out of the government. I want him arrested as a beginning. Then we can talk.”
“You’ll get nothing from Henry but platitudes,” Salisbury insisted. “He remembers Suffolk. How he too was blamed for our losses in France and impeached by parliament. Henry sent him into exile to save his life, but it didn’t save his life, did it? He was caught and his head hacked off by common men. Henry isn’t going to chance something of the sort happening to another of his favorites.”
“I like him no better than you do, Uncle,” said Warwick. “He is venal and corrupt. Perhaps these things are excusable in an officer of the crown, but he’s also incompetent, which is not. The day will come, I guarantee it, when you will be in a position to bring him down, but not today. He’s too firmly entrenched in the affections of both our sovereigns.”
The two earls rode back to the king’s camp, returning some time later to resume where they had left off, chipping away at York’s objections like master masons tapping with chisels and mallets at a block of resistant stone, until, acknowledging that their tools were ineffective against such adamantine resolution, they admitted that the king had empowered them to say that Somerset would be arrested as York wished and, once he had disbanded his army, the king would receive him and hear his grievances.
York smacked his hands together in elation. He might have lost the earlier rounds but he had won the main bout.
“This easy capitulation is suspicious,” Devon said.
“When it comes to treachery,” Warwick sneered, “we must all bow to your superior knowledge.”
Devon’s hand went to his sword, Warwick’s too, but the duke intervened. “Enough! Do you, my lords, guarantee my safety?”
“We do,” they said in unison, and Salisbury added: “And so does the king.”
From the other men in the tent there arose a chorus of protesting exclamations, Devon shouting down the rest to demand how far the king’s word could be trusted if Somerset was bending his ear. York silenced them and spoke to his chamberlain.
“Dismiss the men, Sir William, and have my horse fetched.”
Good servant that he was, Sir William Oldcastle swallowed his own anxieties and strode from the tent. York made a slow business of strapping on his sword and settling a cloak around his shoulders. Like his brother-in-law and nephew, he was harnessed only in a cuirass. “Alright, I’m ready,” he said, and led the way out. As they were waiting for his horse to be brought, Sir William returned.
“Will you allow me to accompany you, Your Grace?”
York nodded without consulting his escort. “The rest of you stay here and see that the men get on their way.”
They rode in silence through the camp, unaware of the glances that followed them from parties of men already beginning the laborious business of packing up. Word had gone around and the general feeling was one of relief. They were oath-bound to follow and obey their lord, but no one wanted the odium of fighting the king.
Salisbury and Warwick took their places on each side of the duke with Oldcastle bringing up the rear. The two earls had to hold their horses back to keep pace with the duke who rode so slowly they were afraid he would take fright and bolt back to his own camp. They crossed the scrubby heathland between the two armies and then they were through their own picket lines. Ahead they could see the king’s pavilion. Warwick was thinking that the royal arms hanging limply and ineffective in the breathless air was a fitting symbol of Henry and his reign when their way was suddenly blocked by men with pikes and drawn swords, men wearing the Portcullis badge of Somerset on shoulders or breast. Noises behind them alerted him that they were effectively surrounded, and then Somerset himself appeared, and seized the bridle of the duke’s horse. Startled, the horse shied but Somerset held on and the duke struggled to control his horse or be thrown from the saddle.
“Get down, traitor,” Somerset snarled.
Warwick reached for his sword but, before he could clear it of the scabbard, a pike was leveled at his chest and its owner said low: “Don’t do it, my lord.” Other men jostled him and his father away from the duke’s horse and they could do nothing but roar in outrage as he was dragged from the saddle and hustled away.
Smiling, Somerset said: “I’m obliged, my lords. A job well done.”
“You filthy swine!” Warwick was beside himself with fury. “We gave our word! The king gave his word!”
“I think you’ll find the king not displeased with my handling of the affair.” With a nod, he turned and strode after his men.
Oldcastle dismounted and hurried after his master. Warwick dug in his spurs and rode to the royal pavilion, sliding from the saddle before his horse had come to a complete halt. As he approached the tent flap, the two guards crossed their halberds barring his way.
“You may not enter, my lord,” one said. “His Grace is at his devotions.”
Oh, he would be, Warwick thought sourly. There was an emperor of Rome who supposedly played the lyre while the city burned. Henry was the sort who would be on his knees in prayer while his world turned to ashes. When faced with a crisis or a confrontation he didn’t want, you could be sure to find him communing with the Almighty. Prayer was the answer to everything. Warwick didn’t bother to argue. He strode away to his own tent.
Salisbury limped after him; a wound taken in France had left him with a gimpy leg. As he entered the tent, a flying campstool just missed him. His son could be reckless when his temper was up. “Calm down, lad.”
But Warwick wasn’t ready to calm down yet. His fist was slamming repeatedly into the cup of his other hand, the knuckles cracking. Pacing the cramped confines of the tent like a caged animal, he felt as if he was about to explode with the rage building inside him and no way to vent it. His hands tingled for the feel of Somerset’s throat.
“He used us! He used us to do his dirty work! That whoreson! That devil’s spawn! He dragged our honor down into the dust. That’s what I can’t stomach.”
“He’s right about Henry, isn’t he?”
Salisbury nodded. “He’s a pacifist. He’ll be grateful that the affair ended without bloodshed.”
“He’s weak. He hasn’t the mettle to govern a nunnery.”
“True, but he’s our king. We owe him duty and – Wait! Where are you going?”
But Warwick was gone. He was making for Buckingham’s tent when he spotted the duke beside a smoking fire with his frail looking son, Lord Stafford. Betrothed to a daughter of Somerset, he remembered. Not that it signified an affiliation. Land, status, money, these were the reasons people wed. Political alliance was a long way down the list. Generally respected, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham was another of Warwick’s uncles, being wed to his father’s sister Katherine. He was a tall, very lean man with a face so thinly veneered by flesh it was almost skeletal. His eyes, bulbous, the only fat thing about him, fixed warily on his nephew.
“Your Grace,” Warwick said, inclining his head, “Have you heard what has happened?”
“What do you propose to do about it?”
“What do you expect me to do? Mount a rescue operation?”
“Tell me this: How much did the king know of this evil work?”
Buckingham’s eyes slid away. He pursed his lips. He doesn’t like what was done, Warwick thought, but he’ll put up with it, as they all will.
“My lord,” he said, “I would advise you to let well enough alone. You might be surprised to know that I sympathize with the duke’s aims – the government is in need of…purging, but I mislike his methods. He cannot range through the kingdom putting out propaganda, inciting the commons to support him and making demands of the king.”
“And do you like Somerset’s methods?” Warwick asked scathingly. “That whoreson has besmirched my honor and the honor of the king, although I doubt he cares as much about that as I do.”
Buckingham stiffened. “You are very proud, Warwick. Let me caution you to guard your tongue. An unwise tongue can be a dangerous instrument. If you wish to prosper, do not speak disrespectfully of our sovereign lord.”
Warwick turned on his heel for fear his unwise tongue might reveal what he truly thought of the weak and feckless king. As he strode away, Buckingham called after him: “No harm will come to him, my word on it.”
“Oh, your word,” Warwick muttered.
March 1452 – London
The Grey Friars owned a house conveniently located within the city of London. The Earl of Warwick had leased it on the understanding that he would continue to lodge any visiting brethren who had business in the city. His father owned a fine house called The Herber in Dowgate where he could have lodged had he chosen to, but pride demanded that a man of his standing have a town house of his own. Besides which, his normal household, having mushroomed to some two thousand persons, precluded his sharing accommodations with his father without first giving it a severe pruning. Which he was not prepared to do; the size of a man’s household was a symbol of his status. The Earl of Warwick’s was princely.
The city of London was only about a mile wide by half a mile between the walls, so it was no great distance between his Grey Friars’ house and The Herber where he was bound on this chilly March morning. Men doffed their caps as he passed. Women bobbed their heads; some gave him the come hither look that men of his distinction attracted as pollen attracts bees. He looked as if he owned the world, or a large part of it. An escort of one hundred men in scarlet livery accompanied him as he rode under the Bear and Ragged Staff banners of his house. Among them was his almoner who distributed coins indiscriminately along the way to eager-eyed citizens. A scattering of silver coins could result in a brawl, even broken bones, but the victors cheered him and blessed his name, while the losers picked themselves up and hoped for better luck next time. Small boys ran alongside his horse, jostling one another. He was becoming renowned for his generosity. He lavishly entertained the great men of court, city and church and the remains of his feasts were gathered up and distributed to the hundreds of poor who waited at his gates. Not that they were all poor. Fat monks could be spotted among them; even some upstanding citizens weren’t averse to dining on the leavings of Warwick’s table.
Warwick was a grandson of the prolific Ralph, Earl of Westmoreland. Ralph’s first litter numbered nine, his second thirteen. It ought to have been the elder branch that achieved prominence but, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of the earl’s second wife, it was the junior branch that flourished. Although the eldest son of the elder branch inherited the earldom of Westmoreland, Joan Beaufort (of the house that produced the dukes of Somerset) arranged the marriage of her eldest son to Alice Montacute, daughter and heiress of the Earl of Salisbury, and he came into that title in time. Another of her sons went into the church and was now Bishop of the palatine of Durham. For the rest she obtained lordships. She did even better with her daughters. Three married dukes, Norfolk, Buckingham and York, while the fourth married the Earl of Northumberland – quite a coup since the Nevilles and the Percys had been feuding for decades. Thus the Nevilles of the junior branch, having a foot or more in every great house in the kingdom, were multitudinous and influential.
Warwick owned land in eighteen counties, over a hundred manors and more than a score of castles, the principal being mighty Warwick Castle, which had benefited from many modern improvements by the Beauchamp family. The centers of his power were the west Midlands and South Wales, from which he drew a huge income and was able to call upon multitudes of fighting men in need. In due course, the Salisbury estates in the north would be his also. He was rich, young, energetic, and it seemed to him the world was his for the taking.
He had his wife to thank for these blessings. He had married Anne, daughter of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, because she had a handsome dowry and a prestigious name. As his father-in-law had three daughters by his first wife and a son, Henry, by his second, Anne’s mother, Richard Neville could hope for little from his marriage without a stroke of luck. Not for the last time in his life, a stroke of luck smote him. First Henry died prematurely, leaving as his heir a small daughter; but she too was not destined to enjoy her riches and upon her death two years later, Anne, as the only full sister of Henry, the last earl, was declared his rightful heir. Naturally, this did not sit at all well with the three older half-sisters and their husbands, one of whom happened to be the Duke of Somerset. A court battle ensued amid some nasty in-family squabbling. The law found in favor of Anne and, not incidentally, her husband, who would be master of the Beauchamp and Despenser estates in right of his wife, making him a very wealthy young man.
As he had chortled to his adversaries once the matter was settled: ‘Almighty God only bestows his blessings on the most worthy.’
Along with vast wealth and vast pride, Warwick owned vast ambition. He was only twenty-four but he knew, knew to the core of his being, that he was destined for great things, that he would make a difference in his world. He had money, he had men to command and he had a burgeoning confidence in his abilities. What more did a man need to succeed. Experience, yes. Influence. And luck. Yes, a man needed luck and he had it. There was a place for him in the political arena that was England in the throes of a disastrous war, bankrupt, shamed, prey to the hazards of unemployed soldiers and civil unrest, trade in a dismal slump, rent by two contending parties, a king who was ill-equipped to deal with the least of these problems and a queen who was barren and unpopular.
He rode south past the great edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral, its tall spire rising like a finger pointing the way to heaven and turned east onto Watling Street. Ah, London, he loved it. It was the dirtiest, smelliest, bawdiest and most overcrowded place imaginable. Only the citizens themselves seemed not to notice the appalling stench of putrefaction pervading the air, trapped in the narrow, airless streets, a noxious combination of sewage, rotting food and a population that seldom bathed living in close proximity to themselves and their animals: horses, dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, a cow or two sequestered in a back yard, birds and bats, squirrels, moles and rats, and all their droppings. Flies crawled in heaps over rotting garbage tossed into fetid alleys and thrummed in swarms against windowpanes. Rats popped up in unexpected places and scuttled about shops chased by broom-welding boys. As their population increased, the creatures became ever more brazen and aggressive in their hunt for food, making their appearance in broad daylight and darting between the feet of pedestrians. Although it was against the city’s bylaws some people still tossed the contents of their chamber pots into the street, hoping to reach the open channel that ran down the center and hoping, too, to miss any passer-by who happened to be in the path of trajectory, but if not – whoops! – It became part of the sludge that served as city streets. Horses dropped their dung and dogs defecated even in fashionable and prosperous neighborhoods, adding to the general foulness. Where it could reach between tall houses, cantilevered to provide more living space above and creating a tunnel-like effect below, the sun would warm up the mess of human and household discharge, maggot riddled rodent and dog corpses, aiding the decomposition, releasing foul miasmas into air already polluted by smoke and the effluence disgorged by factories.
Then there were the rivers. To pass from London to Westminster one had to cross the stone bridge straddling the malodorous Fleet River. Those who had to traverse the bridge on horseback or foot usually did so with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of their face or a sweet-smelling pomander stuck to their nose, to avoid even a whiff of the poisoned air that many folk believed caused the plague.
Looking down, one might see human excrement, bits of rotten animal flesh, dead rats and dogs and an assortment of household rubbish floating on the effluence dumped into the turbid water from the butchers, dyers, tanners and tallow chandlers. The Fleet River was nothing more than a sewer, flushing the noxious detritus of the neighborhoods adjoining it into the Thames, where the greater portion of it washed out to sea and the rest lay trapped in the shallows swishing back and forth with the eddies. A wise man didn’t look too closely to see what floated in the shallows of Father Thames. Dead animals were commonly flung into the river for easy disposal and sometimes human corpses were found face down in the mud and scum amid an assortment of discarded shoes, broken crates, rotting fruit and general ordure. When rain was scarce and the Thames at its tidal low, the Fleet turned into an indescribable soup of muck, all of it seething with bloated black flies.
In spite of everything, he loved the city. Squalid, reeking, noisy, overcrowded, vermin infested, infested also by cutpurses and whores and beggars, with crooked streets and dangerous alleys, but he loved it. He loved it because it was so vibrant, so pulsing with life and energy. Something of that energy resonated within him. He could still marvel at the formidable Tower of London and the bridge over the broad Thames, built over twenty-one arches, an amazing feat. He liked to visit the royal menagerie in the Lion Tower, foundries and manufactories to see how things were made, the Guildhall where he was entertained by the Mayor of London, and the famous Tabard in Southwark, reputed to be Geoffrey Chaucer’s favorite tavern.
And the people – perpetually fascinating! Leaving aside the criminal element, your average Londoner was a canny political animal. Living cheek-by-jowl with the court of Westminster, he had strong opinions about how things were and what should be done to improve them, and he was prepared to defend his position with knives and cudgels if need be. Warwick was always willing to talk and listen, not only to the city’s aldermen and merchants but to the common men, the cobbler who made his boots, the tailor who fashioned his new doublet, the boatmen who rowed him on the Thames, and, occasionally, the host of one of the city’s more reputable taverns.
He rode east along Thames Street, the Tower looming ahead. On his right were the warehouses where goods were stored after being offloaded from the ships. Rising above them he could see the crenellated walls of Baynard’s Castle. Originally it had been intended as the sentinel partner of the Tower of London, with the city snug and safe between them. Its defensive aspects had long since fallen into disuse and now it was the Duke of York’s city house on the Thames, where he was being held under bond. Three weeks had elapsed since Blackheath while at Westminster they debated what to do with him. Many thought he should be in the Tower, but Henry wouldn’t go so far. There was a rumor (Warwick doubted there was any truth in it) that York’s eldest son was putting himself at the head of an army to march on London and rescue his father.
In the stable yard at The Herber, in the chill of the March morning, the Earl of Salisbury was sparring with one of his knights, who was both taller and younger. Face flushed and sweating, sword in hand, he was wearing a battered cuirass that had seen long service in France. Warwick and his brothers used to examine their father’s harness and weapons with awe when they were lads. Their father had a story for every nick on his sword. As a boy of fifteen, he had been there during England’s most glorious hour when the army of Henry V, decimated by hunger and disease and outnumbered at least four to one, had snatched an unexpected and overwhelming victory from the French. It was a fact that more of the French nobility had died on the field than English commons. Salisbury was immensely popular with young knights who loved to hear his tales, although his sons had long since tired of them. Particularly in these days of inglorious defeat, it was something to be able to say: ‘I was at Agincourt.’
His opponent wasn’t holding anything back. Warwick couldn’t help but be impressed by his father’s quick movements and the power of his strokes. In spite of being over fifty, Salisbury was in fine physical shape and meant to stay that way.
There were a few spectators, mostly stable hands and lower echelon servants, stamping their feet and tucking arms into armpits.
Despite his application to other matters, Salisbury saw his son at once. “What brings you here on this fine morning?”
“I’ve been thinking about things concerning York and Somerset.”
“Still sitting in your gut like a dish of spoiled eels, is it?”
“It is. I mean to pay that whoreson back.” He broke off, wincing, as his father swung his sword in both hands in a downward slice. It was not the four-foot long weapon of the battlefield; nevertheless, it had an edge and a point and was capable of inflicting damage. The knight brought his own sword up to block the blow, but there was such power behind it that he staggered back and the point of his sword was forced down.
“Get over it, son. We’ve enough trouble with the Percys without feuding with the Beauforts,” Salisbury snarled as he stared into his opponent’s eyes, their breath mingling, faces contorted with the effort.
He put his shoulder to the other man’s chest and pushed him away. The knight stepped back and his sword came down at the same instant, Salisbury getting his own up to meet it just in time. The blades scraped along each other’s length, and once again the two men were hissing into one another’s faces, locked in a deadly embrace with the naked blades between them. What they were saying Warwick couldn’t hear, but by their looks it seemed they were cursing each other to eternal damnation.
“I will not. He has besmirched our honor.”
Salisbury shot him a glance, in which there was considerable irritation. Warwick caught his breath and the audience hissed as the knight took advantage of the earl’s distraction in an attempt to pierce his belly. Salisbury was apparently ready for him, for he sidestepped, swiveled on the balls of his feet allowing the impetus of the other’s assault to carry him past, and then gave the unprotected buttocks a quick swipe with the flat of his sword. “Could have carved you another arsehole, Hugh,” he said with a grin, and the audience capered and howled with laughter.
“The one I’ve got is adequate for my needs,” the other riposted cheerfully.
“Do you think we might discuss this when you’re not quite so…occupied?” Warwick said dryly.
“Enough,” said his father and thrust the point of his sword into the ground. Someone handed him a coarse towel. He scrubbed his face and neck vigorously and started toward the kitchen door.
“Still an old warhorse,” said Warwick.
“Not so old. Fifty-one is only old when you’re twenty-three. I’m as sound in wind and limb as you and a good deal better looking.”
“What have you in mind?”
“What would York say if we were to offer him our support?”
His father grunted and said nothing as they entered the kitchen, still redolent with the smell of that morning’s baking, and went through into the great hall. As Warwick straddled a bench, his father called for ale and a squire hurried forward to remove the earl’s battered cuirass. His chamberlain approached but he waved the man away.
“I would imagine he’d get down on his knees and thank the saints for their benevolence,” he said, sitting opposite his son, “But why should we?”
“First, he’s kin.”
“So is Somerset. You’ll have to do better than that.”
“It seems to me we’re going to have to make a choice sooner or later: either York or Somerset. Somerset is already surrounded by young men, eager to use him to make their way: Exeter, Wiltshire, Shrewsbury’s son, not to mention his own sons who are of an age to take their places in the government. There’s no place for me among such as these. Besides, in spite of the fact that he’s survived the loss of Normandy with his head still where it’s supposed to be, his handling of the war proved him to be inept – one of those idiot parvenus who believe that a noble name is all that’s required to bring the world to his feet. If he doesn’t end up like Suffolk with his head hacked off he’ll be lucky. I’d do it myself given half a chance. When he goes down I don’t want to go down with him.” Warwick paused, his expression changing as if he’d just tasted something foul. “Then there’s Blackheath. That whoreson used us to further his own ends. I’ll not be used by any man.”
The ale had arrived and Salisbury took a long drink, his bristled throat rippling as he swallowed and then forced an appreciative belch. “There’s the real reason. Your pride’s been injured, your honor tarnished and you’ve been made to look a fool. You want revenge.
“But we don’t have to take sides. We can remain neutral.”
“Can we? If we don’t support York, we’ll find ourselves in Somerset’s camp, like it or not. York is heir to the throne and yet he’s treated like a pariah. The big difference between York and Somerset is that the one has unattainable ideals, the other no ideals whatsoever. Given the chance, York will try to reform the government; Somerset couldn’t care less. With our help he can neutralize Somerset and do it.”
Salisbury shook his shaggy gray head. “He stands alone. Look at the support he had at Blackheath. Cobham, a Kentishman and Lollard, and that renegade Devon. He’s put himself outside the pale. No respectable man is going to stand with him after that. My great fear is that if we support him we’ll find ourselves in opposition to all our peers and perhaps one day, as he did at Blackheath, in arms against the king.”
Aye, then there was Henry, Warwick thought. How much did he know about what had happened? He had assured them that York wouldn’t be molested, and they had passed that assurance on. Did his word mean nothing? Had someone leaned down to the royal ear once they were gone and persuaded him that York didn’t deserve a hearing? Or had Somerset acted on his own initiative? One could never tell with Henry. He was a reed, bending to the prevailing wind. Warwick despised him for it.
Although she had earned her share of it, the unpopularity that should have gone to the king for the disasters of his reign was heaped on the slender shoulders of his queen. Henry was loved by his subjects for his gentleness and piety – the very qualities, in Warwick’s opinion, that made him such a dismal failure as king. So the queen, who was French, who had brought no dowry to the marriage, not a groat, who was obtained at the cost of Anjou and Maine, grew larger in the public imagination as the author of all the kingdom’s problem
Suffolk paid for that rotten bargain with his life. Impeached by parliament, exiled by Henry to save his life, captured, head hacked off with a rusty axe, body flung on the sands. Noblemen weren’t supposed to die at the coarse grubby hands of common men, but that he had deserved death for his disastrous policies could not be doubted.
Warwick had yet another grudge against the king. No respecter of the law, Somerset continued to contest on behalf of his wife Warwick’s ownership of the Beauchamp lands in south Wales, particularly the lordship of Glamorgan. When appealed to, Henry had granted the lands to his favorite, giving Warwick notice that should the opportunity arise, those half siblings of his wife would be on him like wolves on a deer carcass, tearing and rending and running off with whatever chunks they could get. Warwick swore he would yield nothing even if that meant armed conflict against the king himself. No one took what belonged to the Earl of Warwick.
But he said nothing of this to his father, who was loyal. “It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve talked about this. He should never have got himself into a position from which there was no way out without loss of face.”
“Which doesn’t speak well of his political acumen.”
“You know him better than I. What do you think of him?”
Salisbury considered, stroking his bristled chin. “Not brilliant but competent. He has a good head for the plodding routine of administration, for detail and organization as he proved by the success he had made of his time in Ireland. He didn’t put a foot wrong in France either. Politically, perhaps not ruthless enough and a ditherer. He has a stubborn streak a mile wide, but who hasn’t? A decent man, withal.”
“That’s not a great portrait of a leader but still better than Somerset. Look, why don’t we go and see him. Let’s hear what he has to say, what his goals are and how he intends to implement them.”
“We’re probably the last people he wants to see, but we’ll give it a try. Give me a few minutes.” Salisbury slapped his hands down on his knees, rose and went off to change his clothes.