A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  “It is, my lady!” Elizabeth Savage blurts out. “But what I know I have kept to myself for many years now. It does a body no good to get tangled up in the affairs of the great. I reckon I managed pretty well when King Henry closed down the Minories, making sure the sisters left without any fuss and the surrender went smoothly. I got my pension, and since then I’ve kept quiet. If I were to tell you the secrets I have harbored all these years, I would need your absolute assurance that they would go no further than this room.”

  “I give you that assurance,” I promise her.

  “You have my word on that too,” Sir Edward declares. “We have no cause to discuss this with anyone else.”

  Elizabeth Savage seems still to be struggling with herself, but then her resolve stiffens. “Very well,” she says. “I will tell you what I know—and what no one else but me knows, the others having long since gone to their rest.” And she tells us her extraordinary story.

  “I was born at the turn of the century; my father was a courtier—we were gentry from Worcestershire. My cousin Nan served Queen Anne Boleyn, and later became Lady Berkeley. My father was a younger son with no inheritance to look forward to, and his minor court office paid little, so there was only a small dowry for me.”

  “I was a plain girl, and no one offered for me anyway, so it was decided that I should enter the Minoresses’ convent at Aldgate. I was eighteen, and unhappy at the prospect, but in time I finally settled to the life, although that of a Poor Clare nun was no easy one. At the time of my profession, Alice FitzLewes was abbess; she died in 1524, when the community elected Dame Dorothy Cumberford. She ruled for five years until her death, and then I, by the grace of God, was chosen to be her successor. I was not quite thirty, and young for such a high office, but I had a good head for business, which is always a useful asset in a religious. I remained abbess until the friary was dissolved in 1539, and since then I have been living nearby in Hart Street. I do not go to the Minories now just to see the tombs. I like to maintain my links with the convent where I spent so many years, and the church where so many of my sisters lie buried. It is a miracle that it has escaped destruction. So many religious houses have gone.”

  She smiles wanly at us, and for the first time I see a sweetness in that sad, narrow face.

  “I’m sorry, I am apt to wander in my mind,” she says, “and I am not used to company. The tombs. Yes. It is of Abbess Dorothy Cumberford that I must speak. She had been here for many years before she was elected abbess; she was chosen for her age and holiness. She was an angel—and an inveterate gossip, like many nuns. But the tale she told me was no common gossip. Indeed, it was highly sensitive information, and she only imparted it when she knew she was dying—of a canker, bravely borne without complaint, I might add. She wanted to pass on the secrets of our house to someone she could trust. And so she confided them to me, as she had guessed I would be her successor; indeed, she had expressed her wishes in that behalf to the sisters.

  “When Abbess Dorothy was a young nun, there were several ladies of noble or gentle birth living in the great house in the friary close. That was nothing unusual, because in those days widows and spinsters often retired from the world to live in convents as paying guests. But some of these particular ladies had good reason to want to hide from the world, for they knew more than was good for them about what had happened to those hapless princes. I think you know who they were.” Again, that sweet smile crosses her face.

  “Chief among them was Elizabeth, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Her daughter, Anne Mowbray, was married to Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the princes, when they were just children, but died at the age of nine. She is buried in the choir next to her mother; she’d been laid first in St. Erasmus’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, but when King Henry VII pulled that down to build a tomb house for himself, her coffin was brought to the Minories and reburied. It was the duchess her mother who erected that monument to her beloved child.

  “Naturally, the duchess had retained an affection for the little prince who had been her son-in-law; she’d been dismayed when his brother was deposed by the usurper, Richard of Gloucester, and horrified when later she heard dreadful rumors about the princes being murdered; and, having good connections, she made it her business to find out the truth about their fate.”

  “Did she ever discover what happened to them?” I wonder.

  “She did, in the end,” Elizabeth Savage reveals. “She heard Sir James Tyrell’s name bruited about as the princes’ murderer, and made so bold as to question him about what people were saying, but he would not talk to her.” Just as he had refused to talk to Katherine Plantagenet. “Then his sister Mary came to her. Sir James had told her of the duchess ‘accosting’ him, as he put it, but Mary had her own suspicions, and she unburdened herself to the duchess. She thought her brother had been involved in some way, and that he had protested his innocence a little too vehemently.

  “Around that time the duchess and Mary Tyrell got to know Elizabeth Brackenbury, the daughter of Sir Robert, the Constable of the Tower. She too was troubled, and eventually disclosed that her father was stricken in his conscience because he had been obliged to hand over the keys of the Tower to Sir James Tyrell for one night—and when he’d returned the next day, the princes were gone, vanished into thin air, and Sir James and all his retainers with them. Mistress Brackenbury said her father had feared the worst, because earlier on King Richard had sent a letter in which he effectively commanded the constable to do away with those poor princes. Brackenbury refused to obey, saying he would not do it even if he should be put to death for it. How King Richard reacted he never found out, but the next thing he knew, Tyrell turned up with two ruffians, demanding the keys in the King’s name.”

  “This is very like what Sir Thomas More wrote,” I say, getting up and pouring some wine from a flagon that Sir Edward had thoughtfully placed ready on the table. I hand a cup to our guest.

  “Thank you,” she says humbly. “You are very kind, my lady. Yes, it is much as More wrote—although he didn’t reveal it all—and soon you will know why. Now Elizabeth Brackenbury was very worried about her father. She told the duchess and Mary Tyrell how the King had rewarded him for his cooperation and his silence with grants, estates, and lucrative offices, but she said he regarded them as blood money and was uneasy about accepting them. He had been loyal to Richard up to the time he ordered him to slay the princes; now he was afraid of him, for Brackenbury knew too much, and Richard had proved just how ruthless he could be. So after that time, Elizabeth said, Brackenbury took care never to put a foot wrong. He obeyed the summons to fight for Richard at Bosworth, and was killed in the battle.”

  “Did Brackenbury ever uncover any proof that Tyrell did murder the princes?” Sir Edward asks.

  “No. All trace of the boys had gone. Even their clothes had been removed.” Elizabeth Savage shakes her head sadly and sips her wine. “After Henry Tudor became King, the duchess decided to retire to the Minoresses’ convent as a boarder, and she invited Elizabeth Brackenbury and Mary Tyrell to join her.”

  “Why did she decide to go to the Minories?” I ask.

  “Her kinswoman, Lady Talbot, was already living there, and there was space in the big house to accommodate several ladies quite comfortably. In due course the other two ladies joined her, and with them came Mary Tyrell’s aunt, Anne Montgomery. Her husband had supported the usurper Richard, but she now wished to dissociate herself from that allegiance, and reckoned that retiring to the Minories was the safest way.

  “Sir James Tyrell, as you probably know, had long been trusted by Richard, and he apparently would have done anything to gain preferment. It was he who had brought Richard’s mother-in-law to him, so that he could lock her up and gain control of her lands. It was to Tyrell’s charge that Richard committed the men arrested with Lord Hastings—you know about Hastings’s fate, I presume?”

  We nod.

  “Tyrell was one of those who guarded his sovereign
day and night, sleeping on a pallet outside his bedchamber. Richard trusted him, but he was a villain. Even his sister and his aunt feared him.”

  Yes, I know he was a villain. Look how he had treated poor Mattie, and how disrespectful he was to her mistress.

  “Tyrell had long hoped for great rewards for his devoted service, but others stood in his way. By the time Richard asked Tyrell to go to the Tower, he was so desperate for advancement he would have agreed to anything. The rest you have read in Sir Thomas More’s account. It is fact, not an officially approved version, as you have surely guessed.”

  “So Richard did have the princes murdered?” I ask. “How do you know that for certain?”

  “I will tell you; just bear with me,” Mistress Savage reproves gently. “After he had carried out the murders, Tyrell was rewarded with sufficient grants and offices to ensure that he could attain the high status that he had long sought at court. In fact, he became a wealthy man, richer than many barons. He was Master of the Horse, Chamberlain of the Exchequer, and Captain of Guisnes Castle near Calais, where he took up residence. He would write from there occasionally to his sister, bragging about the honors that had been bestowed on him; but she was more concerned with how they had been won, and showed herself cool toward him.

  “After Bosworth, Tyrell came over from Calais and offered Henry VII his allegiance. The King confirmed him in his post, and he went back to Guisnes Castle, where he stayed for sixteen years. But then he made the foolish mistake of helping Edmund and Richard de la Pole, Richard III’s nephews, who were plotting to overthrow King Henry, and that’s how he ended up in the Tower.” She sighs.

  “Mary did her best for her brother. Out of her small income, she paid for him to have better food and a cleaner cell, and even bribed his guards to let her visit him twice. She found him a broken and defeated man. He had been warned there was a strong case against him, and that he could not look for mercy. He had been questioned about the murder of the princes, along with John Dighton, who had helped to suffocate them. He told Mary they had both confessed to that abominable crime, and confided to her the details of what had actually happened. She had no doubt that he was speaking the truth: he was a dying man, he told her, and wished to unburden his conscience before he faced God’s judgment. And indeed, he was soon afterward condemned for a traitor, and died on the block.”

  Mistress Savage pauses for another sip of wine. I notice how abstemiously she drinks: another discipline learned in the religious life, no doubt. I wonder fleetingly if she regrets the passing of those days, or harbors resentment at being turned out of her convent, yet I am much more preoccupied at this moment with the murder of the princes. It was as I had greatly feared: they were done to death on Richard’s orders. And when I think about it, I realize that he had really had no choice but to eliminate them. Alive, they would have been a constant threat to his crown, because clearly many did not believe the precontract tale. Yet the irony was that, dead, they were even more dangerous, for rumors of their murder effectively cost Richard his throne.

  “Our quest is over,” Sir Edward says sadly. “I had hoped it would have a different ending.”

  “There is one more question I must ask,” I say. “How did Sir Thomas More know all this? Did he ever meet Mary Tyrell?”

  “Yes, my lady, although I do not know if he spoke with her about this matter, and she was dead by the time he came to write his book. But there was another lady living in the house in the close; her name was Joyce Lee, and he was a friend of her family. They were grocers, I think. Joyce later became a member of our order; I remember hearing that she wore a hair shirt beneath her nun’s habit. More sometimes visited her when he was a young lawyer living at Bucklersbury in London, and it was she who told him the story of the princes. She was close friends with the other ladies, and they had confided it to her. At Joyce’s behest, More undertook never to publish his account. I don’t believe he ever finished it. Alas, who could have foretold then that he would become a world-famous scholar and statesman, or that he would end on the block? After that, others got their hands on his work, and now it is in print, and all the world can read it. At least he has not named Joyce Lee as his source. She would have been grateful for that.”

  Mistress Savage stands up, her tale finished. “I must go now,” she says. “My dog will be hungry. He’s my companion, Old Rex, all I have in the world.” She smiles uncertainly.

  “I thank you for coming here today,” I say. “We are very grateful for your help in solving this great mystery. You know you can rely on our discretion. We will not say a word about this to anyone.”

  “We shall have to think of another mystery to solve, now that we know the truth about this one,” Sir Edward jests.

  “You won’t forget your promise, sir?” the former abbess asks. “I’ve spent my life keeping silent and I don’t want this getting out. These are matters that bear some weight even today.”

  “No, I will not forget,” the lieutenant assures her. “Yet I do not think there would be anything to fear.” Indeed, there would not. For what Elizabeth Savage has just confided can only serve to confirm the Tudors’ title to the throne.

  “Then farewell,” she says, and makes to follow Sir Edward out.

  “One thing, mistress!” I cry. “Do you know where the princes were buried?”

  There is no hesitation. “Meetly deep, under a stairfoot in the Tower, beneath a heap of stones,” she says. “That’s what Abbess Dorothy always said.”

  My eyes meet Sir Edward’s. He shrugs. We both know it is unlikely that the hidden grave will ever be uncovered.

  Lying in my bed later, I am conscious of a different atmosphere. It has nothing to do with my anxiety over my condition or what might happen to me if the Queen finds out I am with child. Nor is it connected in any way with Ned. It is something in the very air of the Tower, a strange peacefulness out of keeping with this grim fortress. Somewhere near here, I know for a certainty now, lie the bones of those two princes of York, cruelly done to death simply because they were of royal blood. Somehow I know I will hear their cries for help no longer. I have found out the truth about their end. They will trouble me no more. Against all my Protestant instincts, I say a prayer for the repose of their souls, as I was taught in the years when I was a Catholic. For that was the faith in which they lived and died.

  When I fall asleep, gently, effortlessly, I find myself dreaming again of the girl in blue; she was Katherine Plantagenet, I cannot doubt it, and this time she is not reaching out to me. She is pensive and sad, but she is free of her torment, and at peace. The truth, however painful it might be, is infinitely better than the cruel anguish of uncertainty. I do not think I will dream of her again.

  When I get up in the morning, I open my silver casket, take out her pendant, and put it around my neck, wondering if I will again experience those awful feelings of despair that almost made me faint when I first tried it on. But there is nothing—not even the faintest echo of those terrible sensations. I did not think there would be now. And I will wear the pendant in the future, old-fashioned as it is, in memory of that brave dark lady in blue.

  For now, I lay it back in the casket with my other jewels. As I am replacing Katherine’s papers, I notice again the date: 1487. That still puzzles me. What happened in 1487?

  KATE

  June 1487, Raglan Castle

  Lincoln had landed in the northwest, in Cumbria, with his mysterious protégé, a great army at their back! The news, brought by fast messenger, stirred William to vigorous activity, checking gates, posterns, locks, bolts, defenses, weapons, and stores, as if he were preparing for a siege. Every day he rode out, arraying men against the invasion, and when he returned he drilled them in the courtyards at Raglan, then sent them to join the royal forces at Kenilworth Castle, where the Tudor had set up his headquarters.

  The women of the castle were not idle either. The Dowager Countess took command of the kitchens, requisitioning all the bread her servants could
bake for the fighting men, then swooped down on the dairy, appropriating cheeses, and the brewhouse, where she demanded that great barrels be filled with ale. Kate, nearing her time, and Elizabeth helped, tearing up strips of material for bandages and winding them into neat rolls for the soldiers to take with them, and mixing salves for wounds in the still room.

  Kate’s heart had leapt when she heard that John had invaded. Every day, she kept thinking of him advancing farther south, marching to meet the Tudor’s forces. She could not bear to think she was aiding his enemies. What if he really did have with him York, the rightful King? Even if he did not, he himself, come to that, had a better claim than the Tudor. He had the right of this, so God grant him the victory! It was her constant prayer.

  William was too preoccupied with his defensive measures to concern himself with a wife in the last stages of pregnancy. That was women’s business, and the women would look after her. He ordered Kate to rest, left her to her own devices, and busied himself with arming all the able-bodied men in his household.

  “Guy is being sent with the rest to join the King,” Mattie told Kate one morning, as she was brushing her mistress’s hair. She looked worried, and Kate’s heart went out to her.

  “It is always the unfortunate lot of women to wait at home while men go to war,” she said. “We must pray daily for his safety.”

  “He will need it, my lady,” Mattie muttered, lowering her voice and glancing nervously at the door. “He is going to join my lord of Lincoln.”

  Kate gaped, and the child leapt beneath her heart. “Oh, Mattie!”

  “Yes, he plans to ride some way with the others, then break away in the darkness when they camp overnight.”

  “It is a dangerous thing to do,” Kate warned. “He could be hanged if he is caught. Please urge him to think seriously before he goes so far.”

 
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