A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  The Duke of Northumberland bows.

  “This day I have gained a daughter,” he says, addressing Jane. “I hope you will be happy in your new husband, my dear.”

  Jane murmurs a reply. He cannot fail to see the resentment and misery in her eyes.

  The Earl of Pembroke, my new father-in-law, is more effusive.

  “You are heartily welcome to the family, my Lady Katherine,” he declares, lifting my hand and kissing it. His wife, the Countess Anne, my husband’s stepmother, hugs me warmly. She is a large lady, and no beauty, but she displays a good and loving heart.

  The earl turns to his son. “I trust you are feeling better now, Harry. You will not know, Katherine, that he has been confined to his bed with a fever these three weeks, but he is happily amended now.”

  “Do not worry,” Harry protests. “I feel much better than I did, really I do!” And he smiles broadly.

  The trumpets are sounding again, and it is time for the wedding feast. Northumberland departs bowing, pleading urgent business with the King—much to my comfort, for I find the man intimidating—and a jubilant Harry takes my hand as, with Jane and Guilford, we lead the merry procession to the great hall. Here the tables are lavishly spread with dishes of every description, all artfully arranged on gold and silver platters, and an impressive array of plate is displayed on a tall, ornate buffet for all to admire. As we seat ourselves at the high table above the great gold salts, the servitors come running with napkins, ewers, and small manchet loaves, grace is said, and the feasting begins. Reassured about Harry’s recovery, I begin to enjoy myself immensely.

  On my right, Jane waves away roast peacock dressed in its plumage and a hot salad, on which Guilford pounces ravenously, then she turns to me and murmurs, “Do you not think it strange that every lord on the council has deemed it proper to come? And all this lavish display. Our parents did not merit as much when they married. I have heard them speak of it. It was a quiet ceremony, overshadowed by Queen Anne Boleyn’s coronation. So why all the pomp?”

  I lay down my knife and sip my wine. Her words reawaken my suspicion that there is more to our marriages than we have been given to understand; and suddenly I am no longer so confident about the future.

  “This is disgusting,” Guilford says, pushing away the salad and reaching once more for his goblet, which has already been refilled several times. Jane ignores him.

  “Think on it,” she whispers to me, toying with a venison pasty for which she clearly has no appetite. “For all their fair words to Northumberland, our parents hate him, and six months ago they would never have condescended to our marrying into a family tainted by treason and not long ennobled.”

  “But it is a good alliance,” I argue, in my twelve-year-old wisdom. “He is a powerful man. It is important to be friends with him.”

  “Maybe.” She does not sound convinced. Then she whispers: “I just wish I were anywhere else! Tell me, Kat, do you fear your wedding night?”

  I can feel the heat suffusing my cheeks. “A little. But in truth I do long for it.”

  “You long for it?” Jane looks shocked. “I tell you, I dread it. I hate Guilford. I don’t want him touching me.” Her tone becomes vehement.

  Our mother is leaning forward slightly, frowning down the table at us. We have been taught that it is rude to whisper in company, so I turn and smile at Harry, who has been holding my hand while engaging in a lively discussion with my lady about hunting. He has managed to eat a goodly dinner.

  “Sweet Katherine,” he says. “I shall never forget how beautiful you look this day.”

  “You are not looking so badly yourself, my lord!” I answer, pert. He laughs, and I am enchanted. The more I come to know of Harry, the more delighted I am in him. Unlike poor Jane, I am not dreading my wedding night.

  Perhaps Harry knows why the councillors are all here.

  “It’s out of friendship for Northumberland,” he tells me, and I feel greatly cheered by that. Of course, it must be. These lords all work closely with him, governing the realm, and many must be related to him. And when Harry leans forward and kisses me again on the lips, more slowly this time, I forget all about them, blushing at the whoops and knowing remarks of those who have observed us. By now everyone is rosy with wine, all but Guilford, who wears a petulant face; he doesn’t just appear drunk, he looks green. Well, it serves him right for being so greedy!

  After the feast, two masques are performed for our entertainment. One is outrageously bawdy, and I don’t understand much of it, but the guests are guffawing and rocking with mirth, so I join in. Only Jane sits there stony-faced as the dancers in their indecent diaphanous costumes weave in and out, singing risqué songs to the very suggestive young man playing Hymenaios, the Greek god of weddings, and his youthful acolytes, the Erotes, gods of love.

  Afterward, laughing and chattering, we go out into the sunlight, making our way in procession to the tiltyard by the river, where we take our places in the stands for the jousts that are to do honor to the marriages. Harry is one of the gallant contestants, and looks very splendid indeed in finely chased tilting armor, seated on his charger. When he bows in the saddle before me, lowering his lance for me to tie on my favor as his chosen lady, my heart feels fit to burst with happiness.

  As the crowd roars, hooves thunder across the earth, spears splinter, and armored knights crash to the ground. Harry gives a good account of himself, even though he wins none of the prizes. But I am inordinately proud of him for his efforts. He is but fifteen, much of an age with Guilford, who is now too drunk even to sit straight on his horse and retires early from the tourney. His mother watches him go with a fixed smile. I sense her embarrassment, and I don’t miss the angry looks exchanged by my parents, or Jane’s barely concealed grimace of disgust. Poor, poor Jane, I think, yet again. Her obvious misery makes me feel guilty for being such a joyous bride.

  As we walk back to Durham House, in a less orderly fashion than before, she catches up with me as I stroll arm in arm with Harry.

  “Guilford has been sick,” she mutters. “Our mother is worried that people will think we have poisoned him. I told her I didn’t care if we did.” Harry chuckles, but I am not laughing.

  “What did she say to that?” I ask.

  “She pinched me hard for my lack of duty to my husband, and told me that I had better start making the best of things and put a smile on my face.”

  Guilford is behind us, white-faced and leaning on his mother for support, as my lady makes solicitous noises and promises all manner of vengeance on the cook, who must, she insists, have put the wrong leaves in the salad.

  It is now evening, and many of the guests take their leave, some of them a touch unsteady on their feet as they wobble onto their waiting barges. I see their early departure as ominous, for usually at weddings the company stays to see the bride and groom put to bed, but Harry seems unbothered and I push the thought aside. And anyway, the festivities are continuing, as my parents invite their new kinsfolk to a private banquet. Harry squeezes my hand as he leads me to the table; already there is a sense of togetherness between us. I am in no doubt that he likes me as much as I like him.

  Guilford is looking a little better now—well enough to guzzle the delicious sweetmeats provided—and the Duchess of Northumberland is disposed to be gracious about the shortcomings of our cook. My lady the Countess of Pembroke is full of smiles for me, her new daughter-in-law, and talks of dogs and horses and the happy life I will lead with my new family at Wilton Abbey, the Herberts’ country residence in Wiltshire; and the earl adds a kind word here and there, telling me how comfortable and welcome I will be there.

  “But tonight you will lodge with us at our town house, Baynard’s Castle,” he says. “I hear that the Lady Jane is to return home to Suffolk House with your parents.”

  That sounds a little strange. Jane is to return home, while I am to go to my husband’s house?

  “What of Lord Guilford, sir?” I ask.

  “
He too is to return to his parents.”

  “I see,” I say, but in truth I do not. And I am not much enlightened later, when I meet Jane coming out of the stool chamber.

  “I am so glad to see you, Kat,” she says, looking a lot happier than she had been earlier. “I have such good news. I am not to bed with Guilford for the present. I can go back home to my studies, at least for a while!”

  “But why?” I ask. This news may have pleased her, but it dismays me.

  “I do not know, and I do not care. They are just using us. They made these marriages for their own benefit and profit, not ours. Are you to come home too?”

  “No!” I say, more sharply than I had intended. “The earl says I am to go to Baynard’s Castle with them.”

  Jane smiles and embraces me. “Well then, I wish you joy of your marriage bed, sister. I can see you are eager for it.”

  After hugging and kissing Jane and kneeling with Harry to receive my parents’ blessing, I climb onto the Herberts’ gilded barge and seat myself in the cushioned cabin for the short journey to Baynard’s Castle. I have passed it often, that massive white stone building with tall towers that rises majestically from the river; and as we glide past the gardens of the Temple, Bridewell Palace, and the mouth of the Fleet River, it lies before us, with the tower of the church of St. Andrew by the Wardrobe behind it. But tonight, when I see Baynard’s Castle, I feel an odd frisson of unease: eerily pale in the moonlight, it has something unearthly about it, as if it has taken on a different aspect with the coming of night. What secrets do its walls contain? I wonder. Who has lived here, laughed here, loved, suffered, and died here in the hundreds of years it has stood?

  The impression of strangeness is fleeting, the result of too much wine, no doubt. I am with Harry, and this is his home, and it is one of the greatest houses in London. And now it is to be my home too. I should count myself fortunate!

  Imposing stone stairs ascend from the lapping water to a first-floor doorway, and torches burn brightly to light our ascent. As the barge draws alongside, Harry takes my hand; we follow his parents up the steps, cross the balustraded bridge, and pass under the lintel on which is proudly displayed, carved in stone and painted, the arms of Pembroke, three lions on a red and blue ground. I feel the grasp of Harry’s hand on mine and catch his sweet, loving looks in the moonlight glimmering on the river below us. The night seems magical, filled with promise.

  Servants wearing the green dragon badge of Pembroke hasten to take our cloaks, unload my gear from the barge, and attend us to our chambers, and then Harry leads me through room after room appointed with lavish splendor. Yet the fine furnishings, the costly carpets, the brilliant tapestries, are as nothing compared to the young man at my side. Soon we will be alone together. The thought of that makes me catch my breath.

  “This is a very old house, but you will grow to love it,” Harry tells me, squeezing my hand again. His eyes are merry, warm, and inviting.

  “The first building on this site was built in the time of William the Conqueror, for defending the City of London,” the earl adds, “but later it was sold to our former neighbor, the Black Friars’ monastery. This house was built early in the last century, on land reclaimed from the river. It was the London residence of the royal House of York.”

  “It was a fine mansion then, by all accounts,” the Countess Anne continues, “and parts of it still remain today—I will show you tomorrow, if you wish—but much was remodeled by King Henry VII, who converted it into a royal palace.”

  “Indeed, many illustrious royal persons have lived here,” the earl says with pride as we pass into a vast, opulent chamber graced with tapestries threaded with gold that glitters in the torchlight. “It was in this hall”—he waves an expansive hand at the cavernous timbered space—“that Edward of York was acknowledged as King Edward IV after his victory over the House of Lancaster. And it was here too, regrettably, that his brother, that villainous crookback Richard of Gloucester, was later offered the crown.”

  “You mean Richard III?” I ask.

  “Yes, Katherine. He had no right to it, of course, but nevertheless he accepted it. He had meant to have it all along. He stood in that gallery up there, pretending reluctance.” I look up, suddenly chilled.

  I have heard this tale from several people over the years: how, seventy years ago, Edward IV, dying long before his time, had appointed his hitherto loyal brother, Richard of Gloucester, as Lord Protector of England during the minority of his twelve-year-old heir, Edward V. Our tutor, Master Aylmer, told us the story, for there was some talk of these events in my childhood, after King Edward VI succeeded to the throne at just nine years old, and the kingdom again came under the rule of a protector. That was the late Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, brother to Queen Jane Seymour, and therefore uncle to King Edward, my cousin: the “Good Duke,” the people had called him. I’m not sure just how good a duke he was, for there were those who resented his rule. Overthrown by Northumberland, he met his end on the block last year.

  Richard of Gloucester had fared rather better in his struggle for power—at least to begin with. According to Master Aylmer, he was an ambitious man, a tyrant even, twisted in body and soul, and Aylmer held him up as one of the worst moral examples in history. Having ruthlessly eliminated all opposition, Richard had deposed the young Edward V and usurped the throne himself. By then the poor little King and his brother had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, and soon afterward they were secretly murdered, although even to this day no one knows for certain how. Because of this, their fate has never ceased to fascinate me. Certain it is that King Richard ordered their deaths, and Aylmer told us that, in the end, his ill fame was such that his supporters deserted him and switched their allegiance to the rightful Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor. And everyone knows what happened at the Battle of Bosworth …

  I gaze about me, awestruck, suppressing a shudder. This was where the usurper had stood, reading a prayer book to boast his piety, as his henchman, the Duke of Buckingham, recited his virtues and his right to the crown to the leading citizens of London. And here—their pockets no doubt lined with bribes—the city fathers had been persuaded to press Richard to accept what they were so humbly offering.

  There is someone in the gallery looking down on us: a man in dark clothing, I think, although he is in shadow. It’s a servant, no doubt, standing still and silent, awaiting his master’s pleasure or—more likely—sneaking a peek at me, his future mistress. His scrutiny makes me uncomfortable, although the earl, the countess, and Harry ignore him. My mother would have reprimanded him for staring at us so insolently, and told him to lower his eyes when his betters passed. But maybe not all masters and mistresses are as particular as my mother.

  Tonight, there is little time to stand and admire this magnificent hall where history was made. It grows late, and Pembroke is leading us onward, as his servants pull open the great double doors and light us through. We enter an antechamber; beyond, he tells me, are the private apartments of the family. There too, of course, will be the bedchamber we are to share, my young lord and I.

  “I have something of import to say to you, my children,” the earl says, turning to face us and regarding us intently. “Now heed me well …”

  KATE

  April–June, 1483. Middleham Castle, Yorkshire;

  the City of London; Crosby Hall, London

  Katherine Plantagenet—known to all as Kate—looked up in surprise as a mud-spattered courier, smelling of horse sweat, ran into the great hall at Middleham, threw himself onto his knees, and presented her father the duke with a letter. It bore the seal of Lord Hastings, whom she knew was a trusted friend of her uncle, King Edward. Kate and her father were seated at the table, where they had been enjoying a game of chess. Her half brother, Edward of Middleham, was kneeling by the hearth, playing with his model soldiers, watched by her stepmother, the duchess, who was born Lady Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick, the famous “Kingmaker” who had turne
d traitor to King Edward and perished on Barnet field. Kate’s brother John was out in the bailey, practicing swordplay with one of the sergeants. It was a peaceful Sunday afternoon, a rare opportunity for the Duke of Gloucester to spend time with his family, away from public affairs.

  Kate watched as her father took the letter and broke the seal. She saw his expression change as he read it, saw him lay it down and close his eyes as if he were in unbearable pain.

  “My lord?” The duchess half rose to her feet, her voice sharp.

  Richard of Gloucester turned to her, his face bleak and ravaged. “My brother the King is dead,” he rasped, almost choking with emotion.

  “Dead? Oh sweet Mary! No, he cannot be. He is but forty-one and in good health.” Anne was utterly shocked, and Kate could feel tears welling in her own eyes. She had met her uncle only twice, for he ruled England from Westminster or Windsor, but she had been impressed and charmed by the big, genial, pleasure-loving monarch who had kissed her most fondly on greeting, brought her thoughtful gifts—a wooden doll attired in cloth of gold, a ruby pendant, and even a dear little puppy—and taken time out from his important conferences with her father to talk to her and tell her jokes; and at dinner he had even passed her the choicest sweetmeats from his own dishes. He had little girls of his own, he’d told her: Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget—lovely girls, the lot of them, and Elizabeth, the oldest and the most beautiful, was going to be Queen of France one day: it was all arranged. He’d spoken too of his pride in his sons, Edward, Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne, who was residing at Ludlow Castle on the border of his principality, being tutored in the art of ruling kingdoms; and Richard, Duke of York, a merry scamp if ever there was one, another like his father, if the King wasn’t mistaken. Kate had quickly warmed to her uncle, and often regretted that she did not see more of him. And now she would never see him again, that larger-than-life, vital man with the twinkling eyes, sensual lips, and ready wit. Her tears spilled over.

 
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