A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

  “The Lord Mayor said Buckingham had come to tell them that my lord of Gloucester should be their rightful king.”

  Kate clapped her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp, and Mattie laid a kindly hand on hers. “There’s more, my lady. The mayor said my lord of Buckingham had spoken so well that all who heard him marveled, and that he said that he wasn’t going to say anything about the bastardy of King Edward, since the Lord Protector bore a filial reverence toward his mother. Then he said that King Edward had been secretly precontracted to another lady when he wed the Queen, so that the marriage to the Queen was no lawful marriage, and their children are bastards, so the poor little King in the Tower has no right to the crown. You can imagine the uproar when the crowd heard that.”

  Kate could not take this in. “Who was the lady to whom King Edward had been precontracted?”

  “Lady Eleanor somebody,” Mattie supplied. “I couldn’t hear properly, as people were muttering all around, some saying it couldn’t be true.”

  It couldn’t be, could it? But surely her father would not have made this public without knowing it to be an indisputable fact?

  They hastened back to Baynard’s Castle. Kate was coming to terms with what she had learned, and she could also feel a rising sense of excitement, even relief. For at thirteen it was a fine prospect to be the daughter of a king, and bastard though she was, she would still be a very important young lady. At last all had been made clear: the reason for her father’s long absence in the Tower, when he had surely been investigating these matters; the worrying rumors she had heard, which she now knew to be based on ignorant people’s mistaken assumptions; and the reason why the duke’s enemies had feared him. It was no wonder, for they had had much to hide! He had uncovered a dreadful scandal, but his ascension of the throne would put everything to rights, restoring the legitimate heir and retrieving the honor of the House of York.

  She had been right not to doubt her father.

  That evening the Duke of Gloucester came to Baynard’s Castle to dine with his family. He was once again wearing sober black garments, although they were of the most sumptuous velvet and damask. He looked tense, but was clearly making an effort to be good company. Toward the Duchess Cecily, he was more than courteous and considerate, as if to make amends for the injury he had done her, but the duchess remained frosty. Anne allowed him to embrace and kiss her when he had raised her from her curtsey, yet she too stayed aloof, her manner remote and cool.

  No sooner had dinner been served than the Duchess Cecily broke the ice. “Do the people believe this precontract story?” she asked suddenly.

  “They must believe it, for it is the truth,” the duke said.

  “That does not answer my question. A king must be accepted by his people. If they question his title, how is he to command their obedience?”

  The duke was visibly riled by that. “You think I am seeking a crown,” he said. “I assure you, I know it is no child’s office. I do not want it, but I will accept it if the people press me to it.”

  “Buckingham urged them to do so—at your bidding. He even got his men to throw their caps in the air and shout ‘King Richard!’ ”

  “Buckingham is convinced of my right to it.” The duke was tight-lipped.

  “And what of your right to it, my son?” His mother turned to face him, her expression cold. “Suddenly we are hearing of this precontract, of which I never heard before. Obviously the people did not believe that calumny about me, so another pretext had to be thought up.”

  “Believe it or not, the precontract existed,” Richard replied tautly, drumming his fingers on the polished wood of the table. “Bishop Stillington came to the council two weeks ago and said he had some important information to disclose. I saw him in private, and he told me that my brother King Edward had been much enamored of Eleanor, Lady Butler, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter, and had promised her marriage if he might lie with her. She consented, and the Bishop has deposed that he married them afterward, without witnesses. But there had been an earlier promise to marry that was witnessed, and constituted a precontract and a barrier to marriage with anyone else. Stillington showed me the relevant passages in canon law, as well as legal instruments and the depositions of witnesses.”

  “But why was the Lady Eleanor not made Queen?” Anne asked.

  “The King knew the marriage to be invalid, and wished the precontract to be kept secret, fearing a scandal, for he had tired of the lady; and the Bishop, knowing his good fortune depended on the King, persuaded her to keep quiet. Thus it remained a secret. I believe there was a son, whose birth was also kept secret.”

  “And Bishop Stillington is asking you to believe that, when King Edward married Elizabeth Wydeville, the Lady Eleanor was prepared to keep quiet about the fact that he was already precontracted to her?” Anne’s tone was sharp. “What of her family? The Talbots are ancient, noble stock. They would surely have protested on her behalf.”

  “Apparently they persuaded the Bishop to come to me with the truth,” the duke explained. Kate saw that he was weary of all these questions. He must have gone over it all many times with the lords and councillors.

  “But it is inconceivable that they did not speak out when the marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville was made public! God knows, that marriage was so unpopular that they would not have lacked for supporters.”

  “Anne, do you suspect me of making this up?” Richard flared. “I assure you, I have agonized for days over it. The implications were alarming. I said nothing for a time after the Bishop disclosed it to me, knowing that once this was made public, the disinheriting of my brother’s children would be a certainty. For the proofs Stillington brought are beyond dispute.”

  His mother drained her goblet. “Proofs can be forged, my son. And do not forget that the good Bishop fell foul of King Edward five years ago and ended up in prison for a time. Maybe he had thoughts of revenge in his heart, and the hope of regaining royal favor from a new and grateful king—you.”

  “If he looks for that, he shall look in vain,” the duke said. “I do not like the man, even though I believe his story. Those were no forgeries that he showed me.”

  His wife and his mother fell silent.

  “The lords and commons gathered at Westminster today accepted the fact of the precontract,” he said defensively. “The council summoned them, and Buckingham presented them with an address on a roll of parchment. The address was a supplication to me to accept the crown, and therein it was set forth that the sons of King Edward are baseborn, on the ground that he had contracted marriage with Eleanor Butler before his marriage to Queen Elizabeth. Thus it was shown to the lords and commons that King Edward and Elizabeth lived together sinfully in adultery against the laws of God, and that all their children are bastards and unable to inherit.”

  Gloucester downed his wine. “The question of Warwick succeeding was raised, only to be rejected,” he went on. “He is disbarred from the succession by my brother Clarence’s attainder; and anyway, he is too young and feeble to rule a kingdom. Therefore, as Buckingham explained to the lords and commons at Westminster today, there is at the present time no certain and incorrupt descendant of my father York but myself, who am his undoubted son and heir.” Cecily pursed her lips at that, but held her tongue.

  “Buckingham told them I had no wish to take up the burden of the crown,” the duke continued, “but that I might be persuaded if they signed the supplication. And so he left it with them, and we shall know tomorrow how many have signed it.”

  “They may remember the fate of Lord Hastings and feel it is politic to sign,” the Duchess Cecily observed. Anne shuddered visibly.

  “Hastings was a traitor!” the duke snapped. “He had to be removed. And while we are on the subject of traitors, you ought to know that Rivers and Grey were executed this day at Pontefract.”

  There was a shocked silence. Kate felt sick and pushed her plate away.

  “I trust that they were afforded the boon of a f
air trial,” the Duchess Cecily said.

  “Whose side are you on, madam?” the duke exploded. “They had plotted my death. The Earl of Northumberland acted as chief judge.”

  “But Lord Rivers had the right to be tried by his peers in Parliament,” his mother persisted.

  “He was tried by his peers,” Gloucester said. “Let that be an end to it.” He got up and walked to the door. “I am going to bed,” he said. “Tomorrow will be a testing day. My lady?” He held out his hand, and the Duchess Anne arose, her face set.

  “We bid you good night, ladies.” The duke bowed and led her out of the room.


  “The lords are here!” Mattie announced, bursting into Kate’s chamber the following morning. “They are waiting in the great hall.”

  Kate had dressed herself carefully, anticipating that she should be looking her best on a day that promised to be momentous. The forest-green gown swirled in graceful lines from the black sash under her breasts, and its deep collar and cuffs were of a contrasting pale green damask. Her thick dark hair was loose, as became a maiden, and she was wearing her new gold pendant, which looked most becoming with the gown. She was ready, outwardly if not inwardly, for the previous night’s revelations had disturbed her. She had been left with the distinct impression that her father had lost a battle of words with her grandmother, and she could not understand why, for she had not the wit or the knowledge of Cecily. Clearly, Cecily saw aspects to these events of which she herself could divine nothing, and it bothered her.

  Kate and Mattie arrived in the antechamber to the minstrels’ gallery above the hall at the same time as the Duchess Anne and her chief ladies. Anne looked regal in pale blue silk and her customary gauzy white butterfly headdress, which crowned a caul of cloth of silver.

  “Attend me please, Kate,” she said. Then the Duchess Cecily arrived, and they all three passed into the gallery and stood waiting, just inside the door.

  Below, crammed between the dais and the screens passage, were gathered most of the peers of England, their robes a riot of all the colors of the rainbow, their heavy collars and bejeweled bonnets winking in the sunlight that was streaming through the tall stained-glass windows. There too, attended by the aldermen and sheriffs, was the Lord Mayor, while toward the back, below the gallery, were crowded many knights and citizens. Kate had a strong sense that what was about to take place here would be of far-reaching importance. This was the place where her uncle, the late King Edward, had been offered the crown after the defeat of the House of Lancaster. Was this lofty, magnificent hall now to witness the accession of another king of the House of York? The prospect sent shivers down her spine.

  At the sight of the Duchesses Anne and Cecily, the lords had uncovered their heads and bowed low, Anne responding with a graceful curtsey. The whole august company was expectant, waiting. And now the duke appeared at the other end of the gallery; he was clad somberly in black, and attended by his chaplain. He nodded briefly to his womenfolk.

  “My good lords, may I ask the meaning of this deputation?” he asked, gazing down at the assembly. The lords bowed again, and then the Duke of Buckingham leapt forward onto the dais.

  “Your Grace, we come to present our petition, beseeching you, of your lordly goodness, to accept the crown and royal estate of this realm, so that the kingdom might escape the dangers of a disputed succession and a minority, and enjoy the blessings of peace through firm and stable government.”

  Richard said nothing, but looked doubtful and troubled.

  “My good lord,” Buckingham went on boldly, “we see you are reluctant to accede to our petition, but the people are adamant: they will not have the sons of King Edward to reign over them. If you refuse our reasonable and legitimate request, then we will have no alternative but to choose another to reign over us.”

  There was a silence. The two duchesses were standing still as statues, their faces impassive, and Kate was so overawed by the momentousness of the occasion that she felt herself also frozen into immobility.

  Just then she glimpsed a young girl among the throng, a fair-haired maid who was staring up at her curiously. Her eye was drawn to the girl’s outlandish attire, the high ruffle around her neck and the sleeves puffed at the shoulders. Their eyes met, and in that brief instant there was an odd frisson between them, and she thought she had seen that face before somewhere. Then some men were jostled forward by newcomers cramming into the hall, and the girl disappeared from view. It was strange, Kate thought, to see a girl among all these important men. Mayhap some lord had brought his young wife or daughter with him. But her attention was distracted, for her father was addressing the assembly.

  “Good my lords, my Lord Mayor and citizens, you are most welcome,” he said, his mien humble. “I fear you have caught me all unawares, and I must confess that I am most perturbed at the prospect of giving up my status as a private person for the throne. It is not my wish or my desire to occupy it. I had hoped to spend my days serving my brother’s son.”

  “Alas,” chimed in Buckingham, “if you will not heed our earnest petition, to whom shall we turn? Your Grace is the right and natural heir to your late father of blessed memory, the Duke of York. There is no one more fitted by birth, lineage, and aptitude to rule us, is that not so, my lords?” There were loud acclamations from the crowd. Gloucester bowed his head; he appeared to be praying for guidance. Then he looked up resolutely. Kate caught her breath.

  “My lords and commons, since His Grace of Buckingham here has so eloquently entreated me on behalf of you all, and since you acknowledge my just title, I do consent to occupy the throne.”

  The hall exploded in a roar of cheers and shouts. “God save King Richard!” the people cried. “Long live King Richard the Third!”


  Late July 1553; Sheen Priory, Surrey

  My lady has returned. I can hear the commotion in the courtyard, and race to the window of my chamber. I have languished here fretting for ages, it seems, although truth to tell it is little more than a week since my mother departed to seek out the Queen. And the time has dragged because I cannot bear to go out and face the world, for when I ventured last Friday into the nearby town of Kingston, neighbors, and those I once called friend, ignored me or moved away at my approach. No one wants to be tainted by associating with the daughter and sister of traitors.

  Praying that the news will be good, I speed downstairs to the hall, where my mother is drawing off her riding gloves, and make the sketchiest of curtsies.

  “Be at peace, child. There is nothing to fear,” she says, sinking wearily into her chair by the fire. Her master of horse, handsome Mr. Stokes, follows her into the room with a cup of wine and relieves her of her whip. She thanks him warmly, and for a moment their eyes meet, his keen, hers speculative. In the absence of my father, who seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, Stokes has shown himself to be a devoted support to my mother, insisting on escorting her on her journey and calming the servants, who are naturally fearful about their future.

  When Stokes has gone, my lady invites me to sit on the stool at her feet, and sips her wine.

  “I caught up with Queen Mary at New Hall, on her triumphal progress to London,” she relates. “I must say she is indeed a most gentle and kind princess, for she granted me an audience and did not keep me waiting, despite the fact that people were flocking and clamoring to see her.” She sighs. “I threw myself on her mercy. I humbled myself. On my knees, I begged her to spare your father’s life and Jane’s. I insisted that we were under threat from Northumberland and much afraid of him. God forgive me, I lied to save us: I said I knew on good authority that he meant to poison your father if we did not do his bidding. Her Grace asked if I had proof of this, so I told her about Northumberland poisoning the King …”

  “He poisoned the King?” I am shaken to my heart.

  “He did, yes,” my lady laments, “although it was not to end Edward’s life, but to prolong it, so that th
e duke could bring his plans to fruition. He secretly called in this cunning woman who knew much of poisons, and so it was done. Your father was privy to it, yet he would have stopped it if he could, for the arsenic caused the King terrible suffering. But the duke was adamant it was necessary.”

  I am dumbstruck. Truly, Northumberland deserves whatever fate the Queen has in store for him, which will no doubt be the block and the axe.

  “I’m not sure that the Queen believed me,” my mother continues, “but by then I was so agitated that she raised and kissed me, and reassured me that she would not harm either your father or Jane. Jane, she told me, has been moved to the house of the Gentleman Jailer in the Tower, where she is being well looked after and is permitted to continue with her studies. Her Grace said she knew that Jane was innocent of any treasonous intent, and that when things have quieted down, she will release her.”

  The relief is tremendous. I cannot describe how worried I have been about my dear sister. My heart is filled with grateful thanks to God.

  “As for your father,” my mother says, “he is here, hiding in one of the monks’ cells in the old wing. He has been here all the time. I now have to tell him that he must give himself up when the Queen’s men come for him, as they assuredly will within the next few days, and that he must go with them to the Tower; but he will be pardoned and freed as soon as the Queen arrives in London. I have Her Grace’s word on it.” She rests her head wearily on the high back of the chair. “I can only thank God we are all safe,” she concludes.

  Yes—and I too must thank God a thousand times. But will the Queen receive my parents back into favor? And what of my marriage?

  “Are you to go to the court?” I ask hopefully.

  My lady frowns. “No, child. Not yet. The Queen commanded us all to stay here at Sheen until she sends for us.”

  “But when will that be?” I cannot hide my disappointment, and my tears are welling.

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