A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  That evening, as dusk was falling, the Duchess Cecily received them graciously, greeting them at the top of the imposing stairs that led up from the jetty. But as Kate stepped onto those stairs, she experienced a moment of blind panic and despair; so strong was the impression that she caught her breath. The horrible sensation persisted until she was inside the house, and only then did she feel like her normal self again. She wondered what it was that had made her feel so desperately sad and terrified, but she put it down to anxiety over her father, and the moment passed.

  The duchess led them through a series of vast, splendid chambers, each more exquisitely appointed than the last, with tiled floors, stained-glass windows, vaulted ceilings, and traceried windows. But there was little furniture, just the odd bench or chest.

  “I rarely use these rooms now,” the duchess told them. “I observe a conventual regime, and normally confine myself to my chamber and the chapel.” Later, Kate got to see her grandmother’s chamber, a stuffy, dark room with a simple bed and a portable altar. In fact, the whole mansion was dark, hung with rich, gloomy tapestries that obscured much of the light and gave the lofty rooms a sad, oppressive air.

  “Three years ago, child, I decided to dedicate myself to God and take the Benedictine habit,” Cecily explained, as Kate knelt at her feet by the fireside. “My life is now ruled by prayer.” Looking at her, upright and frail, seated in her high-backed chair, her once-beautiful features framed by a nun’s wimple and veil, and her only adornment and concession to her rank the enameled cross at her breast, Kate had an impression of strength and piety. She wished she could unburden her fears to this old lady, who was clearly very wise and could see beyond the preoccupations and vanities of the world.

  The following evening, as they sat in the solarium after supper, she listened avidly as the Duchess Cecily told her stories of the old days, of the civil wars between the houses of Lancaster and York, and of an even earlier time, when Cecily had been young and renowned for her pride and her exquisite aristocratic looks.

  “They called me the Rose of Raby,” she reminisced, “and that wasn’t all! The other name they used was Proud Cis, and I deserved it, I tell you. I had a very high opinion of myself in those days.”

  York—she always referred to her long-dead husband as York, although Kate knew her grandfather’s name had been Richard Plantagenet—had adored her. “Fourteen children I bore him. Your father was the last but one. Nine of them are with God.” Her face clouded; Kate thought she was thinking of Edmund, Earl of Rutland, dead in battle at seventeen, and George, Duke of Clarence, drowned in Malmsey wine in the Tower by order of his brother, King Edward. How terrible it must have been for the duchess to have had one son killed by order of another.

  Kate did not like to say anything; indeed, did not know what to say.

  “They put a paper crown on his head,” the old lady went on, toying absentmindedly with her rosary beads. Kate was nonplussed, but the Duchess Anne had warned her that her grandmother’s mind was apt to wander in strange directions. “He was their rightful king, yet they slaughtered him in battle,” Cecily continued, “and, not content with that, they cut off his head and crowned it with that paper crown, then they set it on the Micklegate Bar at York. They mocked him! Our Lord enjoins us to forgive, but I cannot.”

  Kate realized that the Duchess Cecily was talking about her husband, York, who had been slain at the Battle of Wakefield more than twenty years earlier.

  “It was a terrible thing to do, my lady,” she said gently. The elderly duchess patted her head.

  “You’re a good girl, Kate,” she said, “and I fancy you have a look of him about you. Your grandsire, I mean. Your father is more like him than any of my other children.” Her eyes were wistful. Then abruptly she turned to Anne and changed the subject.

  “The duke my son sent word that young York has joined his brother in the Tower,” she said.

  “I know,” Anne replied.

  “Strange about Dorset disappearing,” Cecily observed. “But he will have heard what happened after the Battle of Tewkesbury, when Richard had the Lancastrian leaders dragged out of the abbey to summary execution, saying it was his right as Constable of England.”

  If her father had said he had the right, then he must have had. Yet her stepmother was looking uneasy, and her grandmother’s face was grim.

  Anne broke the silence. “My lord has commanded me to take care of Clarence’s son, young Warwick. He will be a playmate for John.”

  “My grandson Warwick is a backward child, as you will see,” Cecily said sadly. “It is as well that his poor father’s attainder prevents him from ever inheriting the crown, for he would be next in line to the throne after the King and young York. But if anyone wished them harm, they might try to use Warwick for their own ends. Attainders can easily be reversed.”

  Kate was beginning to feel very edgy about all this. It was fast becoming clear to her that being of royal blood and close to the throne was not just about honor, power, and obligation; as her father’s anxieties over the past weeks had shown, it was also about going in fear of your life, and in danger of the intrigues of others.

  “It is only ten days to the coronation,” Anne was saying. “Then Parliament must decide whether my lord continues in office. We must pray that Dorset does not show his hand.” She was pale with fear.

  Kate and Mattie were walking through London when they suddenly encountered a procession led by none other than the Duke of Gloucester, astride White Surrey. Kate was astounded, not only to meet her father riding abroad, but also to see that he had put off his black mourning clothes and was wearing a sumptuous purple robe. Behind him followed a huge contingent of his liveried retainers, all wearing his white boar badge.

  “There must be a thousand of them, as sure as I live!” Mattie muttered. Realizing instinctively that it might be better to preserve their anonymity, the two girls moved quickly to the back of the crowd, such as it was, for few were bothering to line the street, and even fewer to doff their bonnets. But the duke did not see his daughter and her maid: he was bowing from left to right, intent on gaining the goodwill of the people, although he was enjoying little success, judging by the mood of the Londoners.

  “Look at him, acting like a king!” one said. “I’ll be damned if he don’t seize the crown.”

  “I’d curse him with a fate worthy of his crimes,” spat another. Kate was just about to round on the speaker, but Mattie grabbed her hand and pulled her away, diving down a side street. “Best not to say anything,” she said when they came to a breathless halt at the other end. Kate was angry with the man for his unjust words, and with Mattie for depriving her of the chance to challenge him, but when she calmed down, she realized that her maid had been wiser than she. Nothing she said now could disabuse people like that of their fixed opinions. Only her father could retrieve his reputation—and retrieve it he would, given time, she knew it.

  London was becoming very crowded, its population swelled by an influx of great lords and their retinues, come for the coronation, along with many other visitors up from the country. Inns were full, cook-shops busy, and thieves were doing good business: whenever they went out, Kate and Mattie saw the sheriffs’ men chasing after pilferers, followed by an outraged merchant or gentleman complaining indignantly of his loss. All was bustle and expectancy—and then, out of the blue, came the proclamation: the coronation was to be postponed. No reason or new date was given, and suddenly London was abuzz with speculation. Yet it was not long before it became common knowledge that preparations were still going on apace at Westminster, and everybody relaxed: there would still be a coronation—the only question was when.

  “I wonder why it has been postponed,” Kate mused, fingering the gorgeous blue damask gown that was now finished and hanging from its peg in her chamber, and wondering when she would get the chance to wear it.

  “I have no idea,” the duchess said. “My lord writes that the King’s coronation robes are ready, and
that some dishes have already been prepared for the banquet in Westminster Hall, so probably this is just a minor delay.”

  “I hope so,” Kate said fervently. She did not want her father’s detractors to be given any more cause to think ill of him.

  KATHERINE

  July 1553. Baynard’s Castle, London;

  Sheen Priory, Surrey

  Against all the odds, it seems, the Lady Mary has eluded capture. In many shires men are arming in her favor, not only Catholics but also Protestants, loyal to King Harry’s daughter. The only heartening piece of news is of a rising against her in Cambridge, yet we hear no more of that.

  “Northumberland must act now if victory is to be ours,” Harry says.

  But Northumberland remains in London.

  “He dare not leave yet,” says Pembroke grimly, on one of his rare visits home. “He does not have enough men, and is doing his utmost to recruit them. He has drafted a letter for Queen Jane to send to the lord lieutenants of the counties, commanding them to do all in their power to defend her just title.” His tone is slightly ironic, as if to imply that her title might be anything but just.

  I turn my head away. I have nothing to say to my father-in-law. I hate him. But in a few days, God willing, he may have to come craving my forgiveness. I am looking forward to that moment.

  In the meantime I need distractions to take my mind off my anxieties. One morning—much encouraged by the news that Northumberland has mustered an army at least two thousand strong—I open the little silver casket in which I keep jewels, letters, poems, and the bundle of papers I found in the turret room. First, I take out the gold pendant. Even though it is of a style long out of fashion, and frowned on these days, I would that I could wear it. It is so beautifully wrought, and the sapphire is a heavenly blue. As I hold it in my hand, it feels alive, vibrant! Guiltily, I hang it around my neck—and immediately am swamped by that awful sense of despair that I had before. It is a terrible feeling—as if all hope has gone and only death remains. Clawing at the chain, I struggle to extricate myself, and my breath is coming in short gasps when I finally succeed in tearing off the pendant. Surely it is bewitched! I must never put it on again. And yet—it is so beautiful, and seemingly harmless when I look at it lying on the table. I stare at it for a bit, then make up my mind. Wrapping it in a scrap of taffeta from my needlework basket, I thrust it to the bottom of my casket, resolving that there it shall stay.

  I wonder if she experienced those feelings—that girl in the blue dress. I still dream about her sometimes, dream of her reaching out to me, as if she wants something. But I never discover what it is; I always wake up. I have her painting in my bedchamber now—Harry asked the earl if I could. I am convinced that she is Katherine Plantagenet, Richard III’s daughter. I hope that horrible sensation of despair has nothing to do with her. Who knows how many people have worn that pendant since?

  I turn to the bundle of papers. I have been meaning to read them properly, but events have overtaken me. I need time and concentration, for they are written in an ill hand, very cramped and hard to decipher. Because of what I saw on the stairs to that tower room where I found the papers, I have come to believe that someone wants them to be read.

  The first few lines are in bigger, clearer script. I can read them easily; I have, indeed, done so several times, and memorized them, for they are startling, and of some import. I read them again, wondering.

  These lines I write for posterity. It is said that King Richard murdered his nephews in the Tower of London, so that he could usurp the throne. But that is surely a calumny, put about by his enemies, which in these days may not be denied.

  There is more, but the handwriting suddenly becomes minuscule, almost illegible. Given the preamble, I suspect that what I have before me was once highly controversial, even dangerous, and probably kept hidden by its author.

  I am sitting at the table in the parlor trying to make out the next line when Harry comes in and flops down beside me.

  “Phew! Archery practice is hard work in this heat,” he grumbles, mopping his brow with his sleeve. “What’s that you have there, Katherine? Oh, it’s those papers from the chest. May I see?”

  I show him the first page. “What do you make of that?”

  He reads, exhales, and raises his eyebrows.

  “It’s about Richard III. Look, there’s a date—1487. But he was killed at Bosworth in 1485.”

  I peer closer. Yes, there is the date 1487 right at the foot of the page—and I can just make out the words “appreh” and “Raglan Castle.” Most of the bottom lines have faded away.

  “It must have been written by one of my ancestors,” Harry says.

  “Would they have known something about the fate of the Princes in the Tower?”

  “Who knows? What is there to know? King Richard murdered them.”

  “Whoever wrote this didn’t think so.”

  Harry shrugs. “But we don’t know who wrote it, or why, so how can we judge it? And Richard was a wicked, evil man. We may thank God that Henry Tudor vanquished the bloody tyrant at Bosworth.”

  “I suppose anyone claiming in 1487 that Richard was innocent would not have been popular.”

  “They’d have been laughed at, or worse!” Harry sniffs. “It would have been rash, even perilous, to write such nonsense. Yet my forebears of the time were staunch Yorkists, loyal to Richard’s house. They evidently found something to admire in him, and maybe they didn’t believe the rumors that the princes had been murdered. My great-uncle was married to Richard’s daughter; he was also in the service of Richard’s son; and he got word to Richard that Henry Tudor had landed.”

  “I don’t suppose he was very popular with Henry Tudor afterward.”

  “He made his peace with the new King,” Harry tells me. “You see, he was rather like my father. He did not fight at Bosworth. He was said to have turned up late, but I suspect he waited to see which way the wind blew before committing himself. It is a regrettable family trait, I fear.” He gives me a rueful look. “But it was as well, because King Henry craftily dated his reign from the day of Bosworth, so that all who fought for Richard were traitors. My great-uncle kept his earldom. He was a canny man.”

  I look at the papers again. “So he could not have written this.”

  “He would not have written it!” Harry is adamant. “Henry Tudor was suspicious of all those who had been close to Richard. William would have had to go out of his way to prove his loyalty to the Tudor dynasty. Anyway, I think this was written by a woman. A man would not have tied these papers up with a ribbon.” He dangles the tawdry, fraying thing.

  “I have it!” I say, but am silenced when the countess enters the parlor, obviously bursting with news.

  “My lord has sent word. Northumberland is to ride to Norfolk at the head of the army, to take the Lady Mary. He has said that Jane and Guilford shall be crowned in Westminster Abbey within this fortnight.”

  “Hurrah!” cheers Harry, and my heart leaps! The duke must be sure of victory if he is planning a coronation. I can start to think about a new gown—and, which is far more precious, bedding openly with Harry!

  “Good news at last,” I breathe. “But did not the Queen refuse to have Guilford crowned?”

  “That might be the price of the duke’s support,” my lady says shrewdly. “Now, Katherine, I should like you to come to the still room to help me make some honey. I’ve got some lovely lavender in, and if we’ve time, we can mix some balms and salves too. And, Harry, I have word from the stables that your new courser has arrived. You had best go and check that you are satisfied with him.”

  My husband disappears in an eager hurry, and I tie up the little bundle of papers and put them back in their casket before hastening after my lady’s retreating back.

  I am not allowed to go out. My lady is adamant. There are rumors of a mutiny in Yarmouth against Northumberland, and armed men prowl the streets of London.

  “They are deserters from the duke’s army
,” she says. “The mood of the people is ugly. They suspect these deserters of being spies, sent by him to seek out dissidents.”

  “The soldiers are deserting?” I ask in alarm. How swiftly the wheel of fortune turns.

  “Yes.” She is tight-lipped. I know she feels sorry for me, but her first loyalty is to her lord. “They complain they have not been paid. Our steward heard some of them spouting forth in a tavern. And he heard something else, my dear—something I think you should know.”

  We are alone in the quiet of the still room, making scent with the rest of the lavender—a scent I shall never want to smell again.

  “What is it?” I ask, sharper than I had intended because of my fears.

  “He heard people saying that the Lady Mary is marching on London with a force of thirty thousand men, and that most towns have declared for her and proclaimed her Queen.” The countess looks unhappy. We might all be casualties of Northumberland’s ambition.

  We sit late after supper that evening, going over and over the latest news and its possible consequences, as the candles burn down and, beyond the open latticed windows, the sun disappears, leaving a soft, velvety sky studded with stars. It grows late, but none of us are ready to sleep. In fact, I doubt I could sleep. I keep dwelling on Jane, shut up for her own safety in the Tower. Has she heard these disturbing reports? Does she realize that, if Mary wins, she might be branded a usurper and traitor? She, who never wanted her crown! Does Northumberland realize what he has done? And our parents? Did it ever occur to them, when they abetted him in this grand scheme, that they might be putting their daughter in danger—and themselves? And that there might be evil consequences for me too?

  “I do fear for my sister,” I blurt out.

  Harry reaches for my hand. His eyes are kind and full of compassion. “Do not worry, sweetheart. All is not lost yet.”

  “The Lady Mary is known to be a merciful princess,” the countess says. “She will understand that Jane is young—and that she did not want to accept the crown.”

 
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