A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  The staircase spiraled down through a corner turret. At the bottom, she pushed open the heavy nailed door and forced herself to stroll past the guards and walk at a sedate pace toward the fountain.

  John was waiting there, looking like a hero of legend: tall, vital, splendid, and illustrious—his beloved Chaucer’s perfect gentle knight in person. And he was smiling jubilantly at her. Her heart leapt!

  But as she reached the fountain, she saw the smile on John’s face give way to an expression of horror. Without warning, strong arms grabbed her brutally from behind. She screamed, and instinctively reached out to John, but she was being pulled away, and she was appalled to see a man-at-arms rush forward and pinion him, holding a dagger to his throat.

  “What in hell are you doing?” John roared. “Let her go! What is the meaning of this?”

  Shrieking, and in terror for them both, Kate grabbed the stone rim of the fountain, but her fingers were roughly pried away. “Don’t struggle, my fine lady!” a harsh voice muttered as she was dragged back in the direction of the stairs. She screamed and kicked, fighting against her captor, but his grip was like a vice.

  “Help me!” she shrieked, shocked at what was happening. It wasn’t real … It couldn’t be …

  “Stop at once!” John yelled. “Let her go, I said! She has done nothing to deserve this.”

  A man in black, his weapon drawn, lunged forward, threatening John. “Yon lady is under suspicion of treason,” he growled, “and if you attempt to obstruct us in our duty, you too will be placed under arrest.”

  “Don’t talk nonsense!” John spat. “She came here for a lovers’ tryst.”

  “One suspected traitor meeting another, more like!”

  “No!” Kate howled, indignation and despair overwhelming her. She saw that people had come running to hear what the commotion was, but were being held back by the King’s guard, who had materialized as if from nowhere.

  John’s eyes blazed with fury. “Ignorant knave! Do you know who I am? I have the King’s favor. Do you think I am such a fool as to plot against him?” he roared.

  That, alas, was the last Kate heard, for her assailant had forced her back through the turret door, and he and another burly man were half pushing, half hauling her up the stairs, she struggling and screaming. Still pinioned, she was manhandled into her room and flung down on the bed before Gwenllian’s horrified eyes, her fingers smarting where they had been bent back.

  “Give me the key,” her captor demanded. Fumbling, Kate removed it from her pocket and, shaking with shock, anger, and indignation, handed it to him.

  “How dare you treat me so roughly?” she gasped. “I am with child. I mean none ill. My husband shall know of this.”

  “Rest assured, lady, he will,” the man told her, with a nasty grin. Then he locked her in.

  KATHERINE

  February 1562, Tower of London

  Time drags. It is too cold to go out into the garden. I have been a prisoner in the Tower overlong, and yearn for my freedom. Little Edward is a delight, but a child should not be confined to these rooms. He should be taken for walks, see faces other than those that are familiar to him—and know his father.

  I have not seen Ned since I was forced, near weeping, to leave him behind in the chapel on the day of the christening. Yet Sir Edward allows him to write to me regularly. Ned’s letters are mainly declarations of love, which are the breath of life to me, yet sometimes they touch on the precariousness of our situation, with which he is naturally preoccupied. In the last one, he wrote:

  Do not think I regret our marriage, yet by it I destroyed my credit with the Queen, and prejudiced your chance of being named her heir. Even so, sweet wife, I will never deny our union, not though it bring me the Queen’s favor.

  And, of course, being me, and always thinking the worst, I had to wonder if he had seriously considered doing that. Now, though, I believe he wrote those words to reassure me of his devotion. And I have replied in kind, assuring him of my steadfastness.

  The letters are a great comfort to me, although the lieutenant is kindness itself, and does his best for us both. I might wonder if he was a little in love with me, save for the fact that he speaks of his wife Audrey with tender affection. She spends most of her time at Polstead Hall, their home in Norfolk, yet sometimes she lodges here in the lieutenant’s house, although I’ve never seen her. I wonder if she is a touch jealous of the attention her husband gives me—yet I’m sure she has no cause.

  ——

  When the lieutenant visits me one freezing February evening, looking very pleased with himself, I expect him to tell me that my hopes of freedom have come to fruition, yet he has come on another matter entirely.

  “I have something to show you, my lady,” he says eagerly. “May I sit down and warm myself by the fire? It is bitter outside.”

  “By all means,” I say, trying to stifle my disappointment, and he takes the stool opposite my chair.

  “This,” he says, producing a book, “contains an account of the murder of the Princes in the Tower.”

  “Murder?” I have been praying, against all reason, that those poor innocents escaped such a fate.

  “Yes, my lady—it was murder, I fear. You may read it for yourself.” He passes me the book, which is entitled The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York, the author being Edward Hall.

  “But I have read Hall’s chronicle,” I say. “We had a copy at Bradgate, and I’m sure there is nothing about the princes in that.”

  “It is true, there is nothing in the first edition, my lady, which must be the one you had. I have read that myself. But this is a much more recent edition, and in it you will find incorporated Sir Thomas More’s history of Richard III.”

  “Sir Thomas More wrote about Richard III?”

  “Aye, and it seems he had access to sources lost to us, for his account is the most detailed of them all. I was amazed to find this book on sale in Paul’s Churchyard as I was passing by the cathedral yesterday—I had no idea they had brought out a later edition of Hall. You may keep it if you wish, and see what you make of it. I should be most interested to know your opinion.”

  “Have you formed one, Sir Edward?”

  “I must say I find this convincing. But I will leave you to make up your own mind.”

  I take the book to bed with me, setting an extra candle on my bedside table in case I have need of it. I know I will not sleep until I have read to the end.

  I know little of Sir Thomas More, save that he was a devout Papist who was Lord Chancellor of England, and that he was beheaded thirty years ago for refusing to take an oath acknowledging Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. I’ve heard too that he was a great scholar, and indeed I am astonished by his breadth of knowledge—but there are many things in his book that startle me.

  First, he repeats a lurid tale that Richard III was born after two years in his mother’s womb, with teeth, long hair, a crooked back, and one shoulder higher than the other, although Sir Thomas does write scornfully that either men of hatred had reported the truth or nature had changed its course!

  He accuses Richard of slaying Henry VI without commandment or knowledge of Edward IV—which is going further than any other account I have read, and indeed differs from some.

  More did not believe that Richard was in danger from the Wydevilles; he suspected that he had had designs on the throne even before his brother’s death. He wrote how the citizens of London donned armor after Richard’s coup, fearing it was aimed at the young King himself. Katherine mentions that too. Like others, More says that Richard decided to eliminate Hastings because he was opposed to all his schemes.

  I hold my breath as I read More’s long account of the council meeting in the Tower at which Hastings was arrested, uncomfortably aware that Caesar’s Tower, that forbidding white keep where these events took place, is just a stone’s throw from where I lie. He says Hastings was allowed no time for any long confession before he
was hustled to his death, which corroborates what Katherine witnessed. There are so many details in More’s account—where did he discover them all?

  He says that as soon as Richard had both the princes in his charge, he “opened his mind boldly” to the Duke of Buckingham. What to make of that? Did he tell Buckingham he meant to take the throne? Or did he, as Margaret Beaufort told Katherine, reveal a more sinister plan to him? I shall have to discuss all this with Sir Edward. He will understand it better than I.

  More disapproved of Richard’s attempts to declare Edward IV and the princes illegitimate. He states that the only fault of Rivers and Grey lay in being good men, true to Edward V. And he describes Richard as a close and secret king from the first.

  Here’s an intriguing detail: More writes that when the deposed Edward V, then being in the Tower, was told that he should not reign, but that his uncle should have the crown, he was abashed and began to sigh, saying, “Alas, I would my uncle would let me have my life yet, though I lose my kingdom.” More must have had access to secret information about what was going on in the Tower, otherwise how could he have known such a thing? Did he make it up, just to tell a good story? I think not. I have the strong impression that he was a man of staunch principle, and only wrote of what he believed—or knew—to be the truth.

  He has much more to say about the princes. He tells how they were both shut up in the Tower, and all others removed from them, except for a ruffian called Black Will Slaughter, who was appointed to serve them and “keep them sure.” It saddens me to read that young Edward, sick in his jaw, lingered on in heaviness and wretchedness, never even bothering to tie his hose. This all fits with what Brother Dominic and Bishop Russell and others wrote, but none of them gives these details.

  Later, More says, the number of the princes’ attendants was increased to four; one was Miles Forrest, “a fellow fleshed in murder,” which sounds chillingly ominous, and as I read on, my flesh crawls even more. Immediately after learning about the conspiracies to free the princes, More says, King Richard devised to fulfill the thing he had long intended. For he believed that, his nephews living, men would not allow him the right to the realm. He decided therefore to be rid of them without delay.

  I read how he summoned a man he trusted named John Green, and sent him to Robert Brackenbury, the Constable of the Tower, with a letter commanding Brackenbury to put the princes to death. But Brackenbury refused to commit such a dreadful deed, even though he should die for refusing.

  The King, thinking his command was being carried out, now revealed to Buckingham that he had ordered the killing of the princes; and it was this that caused Buckingham to desert Richard. Buckingham then went home to Brecon and considered how best to remove this unnatural uncle—More calls him a “bloody butcher”—from his throne. I find it all believable. Why else would Buckingham, who had staunchly supported Richard, suddenly turn on him?

  More’s account is compulsive reading, and I cannot turn the pages fast enough. I hope I am about to find out what really happened to the princes. I read that when John Green returned to the King and told him of Brackenbury’s refusal to carry out his order, Richard was angry. But then Green told him that his loyal servant, Sir James Tyrell, was so desperate to be promoted that he would agree to do anything to please his king. And so, writes More, Richard decided to entrust Tyrell with the murder of the princes, and dispatched him to Brackenbury. That fits with what Katherine wrote about Tyrell journeying to London to obtain wardrobe stuff for Prince Edward’s investiture. At last I feel I am making sense of this mystery.

  With Tyrell, More continues, rode a strong knave called John Dighton. When they got to the Tower, Tyrell, in the King’s name, commanded Brackenbury to give up the keys for one night, the night he had appointed for the murder. I shiver again, for the scene of that dreadful deed is only yards away from this very room. I have no difficulty now in believing that those voices I have heard in the night are the shades of the princes, crying out to be rescued.

  I can hardly bear to read on, but I must. Near to weeping, I learn that Tyrell removed Slaughter and the other attendants, then ordered Dighton and Forrest to kill the princes. At midnight, he positioned himself outside the door to the chamber where those poor boys lay sleeping, and waited there while his henchmen entered the room by stealth and pressed the feather pillows hard over the faces of the two innocents, who—More says—struggled in vain before finally giving up their souls to God. Then the murderers laid out the bodies naked on the bed, and called for Tyrell to inspect them.

  Instinctively, I lean over and look upon my son sleeping peacefully in his cradle, and marvel that anyone could be so cruel to a defenseless child. I cannot bear to think of the princes’ lives being cut off in the flower of their tender years—two little boys who not long before had been the hope of England. How bitter a thing it is to be cursed with royal blood! And I have suffered cruelly for it too—although never as cruelly as they did.

  My eyes swim over the part where Tyrell makes the murderers bury the bodies in secret. It is very late when I lay down the book, long past midnight, and I feel wrung out, but slumber eludes me. I cannot forget the terrible things I have read. I toss and turn, overwrought, thinking of the fate of those wretched boys. I shudder to think what Katherine would have made of all this. Did she ever find out the truth? She could never have read More’s account, written as it was many years later.

  But was it the truth? If More knew all this, how come others did not? I try to convince myself that he had it all wrong, or was writing purely to illustrate a moral lesson, but the compelling detail in his account—and the man’s patent integrity—argues otherwise.

  I am willing myself to sleep when something comes to me. Tyrell … I knew I had seen that name somewhere. And Brackenbury too, in the same place. I have it now. It must be more than coincidence.

  KATE

  November 1485, Westminster Palace

  Kate did not know how long she sat on her bed, dreading the confrontation that must take place when William returned from hunting. She was almost too frightened to move, but stayed there hunched over, her heart pounding, her head swimming, and her skin clammy and cold. Sick and faint, she could do no more than wring her hands and weep.

  After a while she began to feel cramping pains in her stomach. Soon they were like dagger thrusts, and she was hugging herself and gasping with pain. Little Gwenllian was beside herself, knowing she must run for help, yet not daring to leave her mistress alone in such a state.

  Then Kate felt a flood of warmth, and saw, to her horror, that bright red blood was seeping through her skirts onto the counterpane.

  “My babe!” she cried, keening as the cramps grew fiercer. “Oh, help me, I think I am losing my baby!”

  “What should I do?” begged Gwenllian, wide-eyed with helplessness.

  “Fetch a guard, anyone! Please! Help me!”

  The maid knocked timidly on the door. It opened, but to her dismay she found two halberdiers standing outside.

  “Council’s orders,” said one, seeing her face. “What’s all the fuss about?”

  “My mistress’s child is coming too early!” Gwenllian squealed. “We need help.”

  The man scratched his chin. “Best go find a physician,” he said to his companion.

  The other man looked doubtful. “We were told to stay at our post,” he protested.

  “But my lady is ill and in pain—she’s bleeding!” Gwenllian wailed, as Kate began screaming behind her.

  “Thank goodness I am here then,” said a mellow voice, and Gwenllian exhaled with huge relief to see the welcome figure of Kat Haute—and burst into tears.

  “I am come to see your mistress, as I promised,” Kat said. “May I enter? What is going on?”

  “Who are you?” the first guard asked.

  “Her mother,” Kat said firmly.

  “Very well, go in. But she is not allowed to leave her room.”

  “As if she could!” Gwenllian wep
t. “She is losing her baby!”

  Kat looked appalled. “What has she done to merit being shut up?” she asked.

  “I’m not allowed to say, mistress.”

  “Very well.” Her face was tense. “There are more urgent considerations right now. Please let me pass.”

  “Shouldn’t one of us go in with her?” the second guard wondered.

  “No, this is women’s business!” Kat said firmly. “It would not be seemly.”

  “All right, mistress,” the first guard agreed. “But mind—no seditious talk.”

  “I have no idea what you mean,” she said haughtily, masking her dismay. She wondered anxiously if the authorities had learned of the inquiries Kate had been making about the princes. The girl had said she thought someone had been stalking her. Please God, let them not find out about her own meeting with Queen Elizabeth and Lord Dorset this morning! That had turned up some very interesting information, which she had come to impart to her daughter. But for now, of course, it would be better to say nothing.

  With these thoughts whirling through her head, she hurried into the room. And there she saw Kate, writhing on her bed in a great pool of blood, and knew for a tragic certainty that this grandchild of Richard’s, her lost lover, would never draw breath.

  Later, when William returned, his face set grimly, it was all over and Kate lay sleeping, white and drained. Kat was sitting by the bed, watching over her.

  “The child is lost,” she said sadly. “I am very sorry.”

  He sat down and dropped his head in his hands. “Has God deserted me?” He sounded bitter, defeated. “This is not the only trouble heaped upon me. Everything I’ve built up in these past days—the King’s trust and friendship, my standing at court, a good affinity here—all destroyed. By my wife!” He was in an agony of anger and disbelief. “Tell me, was it a son?”

 
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