A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  “But why?” I wail, seeing my hopes char and curl up and burst into flame, gone from me forever.

  “Because, my sweetheart, I will not risk either your neck or mine at this present time. We must be patient and endure this waiting a while longer, until Elizabeth’s wrath is truly abated. Our moment will come, I promise you.”

  “When? I cannot bear this uncertainty any longer!”

  “You can and you must bear it,” the duchess hectors me. “Make your move now, and all will be lost. Is that what you want? Besides, there are other considerations to remember.”

  “What do you mean?” I ask.

  “Ned has his way to make in the world; he desires to restore his house to the greatness that was once ours. He cannot do that if he has offended the Queen by marrying, without her consent, one whom she fears because she is the rightful heiress to the throne.”

  I look at Ned, who is staring at his boots. I know that his mother speaks sense. Reluctantly I am coming to see that it would be a bad move to approach the Queen now, and with a leaden heart I steel myself for another seemingly endless wait before my real life can begin.

  As chief mourner, I follow my mother’s coffin to the high altar of Westminster Abbey. In deepest black, my face obscured by a voluminous hood, I strive to focus my thoughts on her whom I have lost, yet I cannot help reflecting, with some bewilderment, on the latest, unexpected favor bestowed on me and my sister at the Queen’s hands. I do believe that Her Majesty genuinely sympathizes with us, for she has been uncommonly kind. For these royal obsequies, she had been pleased to command that Mary and I be accorded the dignity of princesses of the blood. Considering how rudely I had spoken to her, this was magnanimity indeed. And thus, as tokens of my new status, my mourning train is carried by a Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber, and I find myself and my sister kneeling on velvet cushions on the steps of the chancel, as the service begins amid a forest of banners and escutcheons—the whole panoply of a state funeral.

  One of the heralds—Clarenceux King of Arms—commences with a ringing proclamation: “Laud and praise be given to Almighty God that it hath pleased Him to call out of this transitory life unto His eternal glory the most noble and excellent princess, the Lady Frances, late Duchess of Suffolk, daughter to …”

  I cannot concentrate. My mind is a turmoil of emotions and hopes. My grief for my mother overrides all on this dismal day, but beneath it there stirs new hope that this elevation of my status is a prelude to my being formally acknowledged as heiress presumptive.

  KATE

  April–May 1484, Nottingham Castle

  All that season, the land was quiet, save for the persistent rumors that rumbled like distant thunder. But Kate was so sunk in despair that she paid little heed to them, or to anything else—until something happened that jolted her back to reality.

  The court was at Nottingham Castle, a massive stronghold perched spectacularly on a great rock overlooking the ancient town below, and Kate was lodged in the palatial apartments built by King Edward. Her betrothed had returned to his duties at Middleham, but John was still with the court; he kept well away from her now, although once or twice she glimpsed him watching her. He was suffering too: she could see that. Maybe he had been right to take a realistic view of her madcap plan to run away, yet still she could not face him. She was barely holding herself together as it was.

  The King, however, was in a merry, satisfied frame of mind. He had overcome his enemies, he had given the lie to the rumormongers—or so he believed—and he was on his way back to the North, where he was popular. And the Queen’s spirits had lifted because soon they would be at Middleham, where she would be reunited with her son.

  Easter came and went with its usual solemnities and celebrations. Then, two days later, a messenger came seeking the King.

  The prince was dead. That fair, delicate child had fallen violently ill with pains in his belly, and had suffered an unhappy death—eleven days ago. Eleven days! He had breathed his last, the poor, frail boy, as the court made its unwieldy way northward, and had been lying cold in his winding-sheet at Middleham as his parents feasted on Easter Day.

  Kate could not stop crying, and her grief was not all for her half brother. Some of it was for herself, and his death had created an outlet for it. The remembrance of her sad situation and her approaching marriage made her weep all the more; it was as if there was a fount within her that would never run dry.

  As for her father and stepmother, their grief almost bordered on madness. The shock had been terrible, and nothing could console them for their loss. They would see no one, but remained shut off from the court in their private apartments. Kate could only hope that they were managing to console each other in their shared agony. She longed to go to them, but the remembrance of her father’s anguished face when he told her the news, and his terrible cry of pain when he doubled up and howled at her to go from him quickly, was enough to deter her.

  She spent long hours on her knees in the chapel, praying to a God who seemed cruel and vengeful rather than kind and loving. One day, she knelt sobbing for an hour and more. Suddenly, there was someone there beside her. A hand came to rest on her heaving shoulder. It was John.

  “I am so very sorry,” he said quietly. It was more than a conventional expression of grief, she knew. “Is there anything I can do?”

  “Oh, John,” she wept, and fell into his ready arms. He held her while the torrent of weeping passed. “I have cried so much these past weeks that it is a wonder I have any tears left to flow. He was their only child. And you are my only love, and I have lost you too.”

  “He was your father’s heir too, the assurance of his dynasty. And your stepmother is not a strong woman. Maybe she will bear another child, with God’s grace, yet I fear she may not.”

  “She loved Edward so much.” Kate wept. John was still holding her, as tightly as if he could never let her go. Sad as she was, she was savoring this moment of closeness, knowing that it might have to last her for a long time.

  “When are you to be married?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

  “By Michaelmas. The date has not been set yet. I hope it never will be!”

  “Would to God you could escape it,” he breathed, crushing her to him. “But there is small hope of that. With the contract signed, and Huntingdon fattened with lands and offices, with more to come, I hear, the King will not renege on his word.”

  “I cannot bear the thought,” Kate whispered. “I want only you. John—will you do something for me? Just this one thing, and then I will ask no more of you.”

  “If it is in my power, I will do it, you may be assured of that, my love.” He looked at her uncertainly. “What is it?”

  “My heart, soon I must go to my marriage bed. I dread the thought. But I could bear it if I went to it knowing what true love really is.” A faint blush tinged her pale cheeks. She knew she was taking a perilous risk that might rebound on her in various ways; and she feared that John might think her wanton. But that hardly mattered now.

  “You are asking me to take your maidenhead? To steal it from your husband?” John’s face was a battlefield of warring emotions.

  “Yes. At least we would have that, a memory we could treasure all our lives.”

  “And if you should be with child as a result?”

  “In law, it would be my husband’s, if we lie together at the right time. He would never know. We are cousins, so any likeness could be explained.”

  The aristocratic dynast in John was plainly at loggerheads with the lover. “But sweetheart, much as I want you, a man should be able to count on his heir as his own, not a cuckoo in the nest.”

  “Do you think I care about that? Huntingdon means nothing to me! And what better heir than the offspring of royal blood, yours and mine? He will never know, John. But if you have such qualms, then I am sorry I asked.”

  He hesitated. For a moment she thought he would weigh the dangers more heavily than the joys, as he had before. Then his arm
s tightened around her again. “How could I refuse you?” he whispered, and sought her lips.

  Emerging from the seclusion of their mourning, the King and Queen were tragic specters of their former selves. Richard’s face was hard-set and careworn, Anne’s white and ghastly. It did not help that some had chosen to see the hand of God in the prince’s death. Preparing to leave the chapel one morning, Kate had overheard Bishop Russell talking to Lord Stanley in a closet that led off it, where they had probably thought themselves private.

  “Now we have fully seen how vain are the thoughts of a man who desires to establish his interests without the aid of God,” the Bishop was saying, his voice low but loud enough to carry. “Some are saying this is a judgment on him—an eye for an eye, so to speak.” His words made Kate’s blood turn to ice.

  “Without an heir, his position is even less secure,” Stanley muttered. “I’ll wager this will drive many into the arms of my stepson.”

  She could not bear to hear more. It was cruel, vile, that this tragedy of the prince’s death should be interpreted this way—and it was disloyal. What hope was there for her father when even his chancellor was faithless?

  Calumny was not confined to the court. As Kate and Mattie wandered through the market in Nottingham one morning, they heard people openly giving their opinion that, in taking to Himself the usurper’s son, God had heeded the cries of the anguished Queen Elizabeth; others were shamelessly asserting that the princes had been rid out of this world, and a particularly vociferous few brazenly claimed that it was the King who’d had those innocents put to death.

  “Murdered between two feather beds!” said a stout stallholder, shaking his head sagely. “And it was Sir James Tyrell that was sent to do it!”

  That was news to Kate. She vaguely knew Sir James Tyrell; he had been in her father’s service for some years, and she had seen him about the court occasionally. Why people should think he had murdered the princes was a mystery to her, and sounded far-fetched. What pressed on her more heavily was a growing awareness that the King had lost the hearts of his subjects—if he had ever won them in the first place. She was even conscious of a growing hostility toward him at court, where some had reacted with only muted sympathy to the loss of his heir.

  “I’d rather have the French to rule us than be under that hog’s subjection!” a butcher in a filthy apron opined. The crowd laughed.

  “Forget the white boar—it should be the bloody boar!” someone cackled.

  “Richard won’t last long,” a merchant in a furred gown declared. “From what I hear, he can only keep people loyal by intimidation or bribing them with gifts.” Kate winced at that.

  “He must know that people murmur and grudge against him,” said an innkeeper.

  “He has the remedy in his own hands,” the merchant declared. “All he has to do is produce the princes alive. That would still the rumors and confound his enemies.”

  “But can he do that?” the stallholder asked. “I don’t think so!” Heads began shaking, and there were boos and catcalls of derision. Kate tried to shut her ears.

  At last Mattie came back with her purchases.

  “We must go,” Kate muttered, and steered her away.

  “John, what do you know of Sir James Tyrell?” she asked suddenly, late that night in the chapel. It was past midnight and most souls were abed. She had made her way by stealth through the silent castle and flung herself into John’s embrace as soon as the chapel door was closed behind her. Now they were sitting in the choir stalls.

  “He’s one of your father’s retainers, from the North,” John replied, stroking her hair. “He serves now as a Knight of the Body, guarding the King at night, and performs many labors for him. Why do you ask?”

  Kate told him what people had been saying in Nottingham. He frowned.

  “They are ignorant fools and know nothing.”

  “But why should they mention Tyrell?”

  “I have no idea. Those peasants will seize on any gossip and make much of it. I’ll wager Sir James would be mortified if he knew. Just forget it, my love. We have better things to do than discuss Tyrell.” He nuzzled her ear and drew her to him. “When will you be mine? I am aching for you.”

  “When I am to be married. It is the only safe time, if I am not to risk the shame of having a high belly before the wedding. Dear heart, I long for it, even though I dread what must follow.”

  Lying in bed later that night, hugging to herself fond thoughts of her stolen hour with Lincoln, Kate recalled what he had said about Tyrell, and wondered if Mattie knew of the man. She was a veritable font of knowledge concerning what went on in the court.

  “Mattie, are you asleep?” she whispered loudly.

  “Nay,” came back a cheerful voice from the pallet bed on the floor. “I can’t stop thinking about Guy.” Guy Freeman was one of the grooms, a big, easygoing, handsome lad, and he was always flirting with Mattie.

  “He likes you.”

  “Aye—I think he does. He told me I’d make a bonny wife!”

  “He might ask for your hand.” Delighted as she felt for her maid, Kate was envious. People of Mattie’s station in life never had to worry about marrying for policy—they could wed where they chose, and for love too.

  “It’s just a matter of time!” Mattie giggled. “What did you want, mistress?”

  “Do you know anything about a courtier called Sir James Tyrell?”

  “Er, um … yes,” Mattie muttered, her tone changing. “I was hoping you wouldn’t find out.”

  “What?” Kate was puzzled.

  “I don’t just know of him—I knew him very well, the bastard.”

  “You mean, you—he …”

  “Yes,” Mattie confessed. “It was last year, on the progress. I’m really sorry, mistress—I shouldn’t have done it, and you have every right to tell me off, but he cozened me with sweet words and cheap trinkets, and then I let him. I wish to God I hadn’t.”

  “But I knew nothing of this. What happened?” Kate was stunned. She had suspected nothing—and the coincidence was astonishing.

  “He went off south to London. Had to get stuff from the Royal Wardrobe for the poor prince’s investiture in York. When he came back, he didn’t want to know. He’s one of those rats who lose interest once they’ve got what they wanted.”

  “I’m so sorry for you, Mattie. It’s lucky he didn’t leave you with child.”

  “I thank our Holy Mother for that. She must have had me under her protection that night. Oh, Lord, I was a fool.” She sighed. “Can I go to sleep now, mistress? I’m that tired.”

  “Of course,” Kate said. “Good night.”

  The next day she and Mattie looked for Sir James in the court. He noticed them staring at him and turned his head away. He was a handsome wight, Kate had to admit, but he looked vain with it, and too assured of his place in the world. She decided to ruffle his peacock feathers.

  She did a daring and impulsive thing. She sent Mattie off on an errand, then went over to where Tyrell was standing. He leered at her.

  “My Lady Katherine,” he said, bowing extravagantly.

  “I heard something rather disturbing yesterday, Sir James,” she said. “It was about you.”

  “My lady?” His expression was shifty now.

  “Yes. It seems you took advantage of my maid and then abandoned her.” Kate was surprised at her own boldness, but reminded herself that she had every right, as Mattie’s mistress, to make a complaint.

  “Who said that, my lady?”

  “She told me herself when I asked about you.”

  “Oh?” He looked nonplussed.

  “Someone had mentioned you in connection with a different matter.” She paused; let that confound him! “I do confess, sir, that I was disappointed to hear of such dishonorable conduct.”

  “She was willing enough,” Tyrell said sourly.

  “I daresay she was. But she was very young, and you, sir, are a knight, and a man of years and experien
ce. It did not become you to use her so.”

  He was angry now.

  Kate continued: “Unless you wish to be reported to the King my father, I would suggest you do not treat any other ladies in the same way. You know how strict he is where morality is concerned.”

  “Are you threatening me, my lady?”

  “Only if you conduct yourself dishonorably in the future. I must respect the example my father sets. I’m sure you can appreciate that.” She smiled sweetly.

  “What is all this about?” Sir James puffed. “You say you’ve heard about me in connection with another matter. Why did you ask Mattie about me?”

  Kate lowered her voice. “I heard your name mentioned in the marketplace yesterday. Someone said—and I only repeat it—that you were sent by the King to the Tower to murder his nephews.”

  Tyrell gave nothing away. His face did not change. If there was a tightening around his lips, it could have been put down to indignation that people could accuse him of such things.

  “You should not pay heed to gossip, my lady,” he growled.

  “I did not say I heeded it, sir,” she sparred.

  Tyrell gave her a hard look, as if he guessed she was testing his reactions. “Well, thank you, my lady,” he said grudgingly. Then he nodded his head in the briefest of bows and stalked off.

  With the prince dead and buried, and having no need now to remain at Middleham, the Earl of Huntingdon—Kate could not yet think of him as William—rode south to attend upon the King. Having established himself and his retinue at court, he took to calling upon Kate every day, often with gifts. He never stayed long, for her manner was courteous but cold. She could not overcome the revulsion she felt. There was nothing between them, no affection or even liking. They remained two strangers. How would they ever make a marriage?

  As she lay wakeful in bed one night, after a stolen hour with John on the battlements, Kate made a disturbing connection. She remembered Mattie saying that Tyrell had gone south to London to get stuff for the investiture in York. That would have been on the King’s orders, surely. The investiture had been in September, and soon afterward rumors of the murder of the princes had begun to circulate, followed speedily by Buckingham’s rebellion. Had there been any connection between Tyrell’s trip to London and the princes’ disappearance? Had he had another, more sinister purpose than just fetching necessary stuff for the investiture?

 
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