Authors: Rosemary Hawley Jarman
In the few biographies of Elizabeth Woodville, she is shown either as a helpless woman subject to the terrible vicissitudes of fifteenth-century fortune, or as a cruel dynast obsessed only by the welfare of her own faction.
In this novel I have endeavoured to portray her as the victim of circumstances, no worse and no better than many others of her time; a woman blessed with outstanding physical beauty and incredible luck.
She gambled, won and lost, and was often influenced by others more evil than herself.
Acknowledgement should be made to the Reverend S.
Baring Gould’s book: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, in which he touches briefly upon the legend of Melusine, the water-witch from whom the Woodvilles claimed descent.
Whether this was merely wishful thinking on their part is immaterial.
Few can quarrel with Elizabeth’s fitness for the role of enchantress.
All characters, with a few minor exceptions, really existed.
‘Mistress Grace, a natural daughter of King Edward’ is mentioned in contemporary records as the chief mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral.
The little flame burned beneath a gilt-headed statue of the Virgin.
It quivered in the draught that crept in the corners of the great chamber; it burned up and down, shining upon worn tapestries.
At times its radiance stung the eyes of the woman in the bed.
She gazed feebly away and up to the dim, vaulted ceiling, then down again at the two or three weary faces that had come to watch her dying.
Then she gazed at the statue until her sight was tired.
They had begged her to sleep, but there would be time enough, an eternity of black, velvet sleep.
If God were merciful.
No stars for her, no gold crown.
And, cried her consciousness, O Holy Virgin, O blonde, remote-faced Virgin!
The time was near and she knew it.
During the long weeks on the hard bed of the Abbey guesthouse at St.
Saviour, Bermondsey, an unseen stranger had stood in shadow, courteously waiting, like a foreign emissary.
Now, he made his subtle presence known.
She saw how his breath stirred the little flame.
She moaned and closed her eyes and immediately there came vision after vision, clearer than truth.
A procession of ghostly beings, a pale lisping child who plucked at her gown and offered a nosegay; a blind boy, singing.
A priest who fumbled with his breviary and cast a frightened glance towards her.
A gypsy woman with her throat torn out by hounds, blood dropping like slow rubies.
A tall man, roaring with laughter, and a fair-haired girl, weeping.
Then a beloved face, a face long-dead, with a tender mouth and eyebrow quirked in sweet good humour.
Next a black-clad knight, his face resolute and stern.
Lastly, a thin face beneath rich jewels.
Famished eyes and a tight line of mouth.
It smiled so dreadfully that she dragged herself from the vision with a cry.
One of the watchers sprang out of a doze, embroidery slipping from her lap.
‘Madame, only a dream …’
‘A dream,’ she repeated weakly, as they raised her on stonehard pillows, proffered an undrinkable tisane of reeking herbs.
Then, lucidity struggling to return: ‘What time is it?
‘Past midnight, Lady.
They’ll soon be ringing Matins.’
And, as if obedient, a bell shattered the feverish quietness.
‘Tis June, Madame.
The seventh year of his Grace King Henry the Seventh.’
‘His Majesty,’ reproved another.
Kings had a new title now, fitting the divine dynasty of Tudor.
‘And who am I?’
– fixing the speaker with glittering blue eyes that were oddly alive in the perished face.
‘Why, Madame, who but our dear lady Elizabeth,’ said the woman.
‘Plain, unadorned Elizabeth?’
A mechanical touch of the old hauteur here; enough to make the flame shiver and sigh.
‘The Queen’s very dear mother, Madame.
Queen-Dowager, no less, sovereign lady of King Edward Fourth, whom God assoil.’
The title was mouthed, breathed, with a snigger in the breath, half-hidden.
They whispered it in a dying fall of whispers, and she sank back on memory.
With her own painful breath, the light beneath the fair pale Virgin guttered and rose.
Hearing the sparse, obsequious voices she thought: I am Elizabeth, one-time Queen of England, and these wenches are all I have left to cherish me on this last journey.
Once there were a thousand to do my bidding alone.
The flame muttered of death’s inexorable advance, and of times older than any of those remembered by the vigil-weary women about the bed.
Times sweet and sour; times lived through, somehow, with a divided heart.
She was Elizabeth, dying.
She of many names would be but a cold inscription, and soon forgotten.
What did they call me?
Elizabeth Woodville; and then, the widow of the virgin’s face.
Later, it was Bessy; lovesome, bedsome Bessy.
A King called to her; she saw the great golden face engorged with longing, felt the striving hands.
She thought: in the time before the heart ceased to have any value, I had another name.
A dead Queen, faery-like, danced before her closed eyes.
The frozen tears of pearls garlanded her hair.
‘I shall call you Isabella!’
– a phrase like a song.
‘And you shall choose your own husband,
ma toute belle
Consciousness waxed and ebbed; her life’s review.
So, I was Dame Isabella Grey.
Grey, that most beloved name, so cruelly translated into a jest by the common folk.
They never loved me, as they loved the King.
Her hands clutched air; old thoughts of vengeance renewed, shaming her in a fresh vision’s sad, drawn face.
Ah, she thought: he was handsome, but he mocked me too.
The face advanced, in time with the sonorous plainsong from the chapel nearby.
‘You destroyed me, Elizabeth,’ the face said, softly.
Shifting like mist, the years crept back.
Unheralded there came another name, black with heresy, and with it, her mother’s face, whose ancient raddled beauty the grave had left unmarred.
Together they stood beside a forest pool.
Under a little moaning wind, the mother’s insistent voice spoke.
‘See, child, see!
She’ll never fail us, so pray to her …’
The water rippled.
All around trees seemed to shrink in fear, shrouding their trunks with foliage.
In the depths of the pool, something evil, beautiful, rose darkly, and the old voice said: ‘She lives in us.
From time’s beginning, we have shared her power.’
Elizabeth, one-time Queen of England, shrieked aloud, then, swiftly as it had engulfed her, the elemental terror withdrew.
Dimly she knew that someone prayed; through tear-stung lashes she looked to see who had come to kneel by the bed.
Gold hair shimmered in her sight, green eyes, a fresh young face, tragic, loving.
She tried vainly to sit upright.
‘Majesty …’ she said.
The ill-matched words tailed off, suffused by the mumble from the corners of the room, the click of rosary beads.
They were all praying.
Ave Maria, gratia plena
Mercy everlasting, on her soul.
‘She thinks you to be the Queen!’
said one, breaking off her prayer.
Mirth tinged her voice as she spoke to the newcomer, who leaned forward, frowning, bending near the stricken face.
‘Sweet Madame, ’tis Grace,’ she murmured.
‘Sleep a little; I’ll not leave you.’
And she blinked tears away so that the others should not see, for they were gossips, jealous, fickle, and iron-hearted for all their feigned duty.
And the Queen-Dowager was sleeping, the anguish passing from her face like a rain-cloud from the stars.
She was growing young again, a child greeting womanhood, when each morning, hung with birdsong, brought her to the eager day, and each day was itself the morning of life.
Death’s pale flame swirled about her, but she knew nothing of it.
She was fifteen years old.
Vanité des vanités, toute la vanité!’
Queen Margaret of Anjou
She lay in her secret place with thoughts of love.
This was a nook where none could find her, hidden by the deep flank of clustering willows and bounded by high reeds that grew around the edge of the little lake.
One hand supporting her cheek, she lay comfortably against a bank of kingcups.
Her feet were tucked beneath her gown, and she herself was like a willow, with her long hair, more silver than gold, reflecting the trees’ dappled greenness.
She could stay thus, motionless, for hours.
A bright bird had settled near her sleeve and, an armslength away, two brindled trout sunned themselves in the shallows.
Unseeingly she gazed at them, with eyes as clear and impersonal as the water, their blue merging with its gold and green; eyes that were still yet charged occasionally with passionate, half-formed thoughts.
Virginal, receptive to the rippled message of the lake and bland as an artist’s new canvas; such were the eyes of Elizabeth Woodville as she dreamed, of sweet, unreal love sucked like honey from old romances; the Chronicles of Froissart, the magic tales of the Chevalier de la Tour Landry, and Chaucer’s high, gaudy myths.
Love idealistic, love unfeigned, as in the far days of Eleanor of Aquitaine, when knight and lady lay on either side of a naked sword, only their souls communing.
Kisses grew beside the kingcups.
The trout, rising, plashed a courtly old song into her drowsy mind.
Je loe amours et ma dame mercye
Du bel acueil qui par eulx deux me vient …
She bit off the unsung tune midway.
A song of Burgundy, the enemy of France, yet a good air, mellow and sad.
She sighed, nibbled a shining strand of her own hair, smoothed the plain silk of her bodice.
Courtly love, courtly dances filled her heart, but her dress, two years old, fitted her no longer, and was fast wearing out.
The Woodvilles were by no means poor, but it was known that Elizabeth’s mother would have them richer.
‘God’s curse on this paucity of our estate,’ Jacquetta of Bedford had said lately.
Then, with a rare and very secret smile, seemingly for Elizabeth alone: ‘Yet we have other things, to make us wealthy beyond the stars.’
That beautiful and mysterious smile had lingered with Elizabeth.
Would her mother be smiling now?
Elizabeth wondered; for an hour folk had been calling, searching for her fruitlessly.
First, like the bellow of an ill-played shawm, the voice of her nurse, then the chaplain whinnying in a voice unused to anything but the mumblings of the Mass, and lastly her sisters, primly, dutifully crying her name and giggling as they ran up and down the pleasaunce paths.
She parted a strand of willow and peered across the garden, now deserted.
What she saw gave her small gladness.
It meant little that since 1168, when William de Wyvill enjoyed the tenure-in-chivalry of Grafton land and the favour of King Henry the Second, Woodvilles had walked these same velvet lawns and had culled from those borders their simples and condiments.
The fennel, the rosemary, bryony and St.
John’s Wort, ampion, vervain and rue; the herbs sweet and sour, the good herbs and the evil herbs, for fever and madness and the soul’s easement.
The plants to hide rankness or add spice to a festal dish; the gillies and violets for table-dressing, and the reeds, amongst which she lay, for strewing on a dusty floor.
The sheltering yews and the one great oak in the garden’s heart failed to move her.
Likewise the manor itself, with its timbered gables flanking the soaring roof of the great hall and its chapel tower rosily tipped by sunlight.
For Grafton Regis represented learning, nurture, discipline, and held her from that world for whose romantic splendours she yearned.
At London, there was a French Queen, by rumour wildly fascinating, with a court, maybe, like that of fair Eleanor of Aquitaine …
The sisters came into view again, running from behind the high stone wall that bounded the stableyard and bakery.
Shrill and anxious, their voices called her.
Catherine, her favourite, broke from the others and ran alongside the stream towards the lake.
She wore a well worn murrey gown.
A gleam of plump flesh showed through a split seam.
Round, where Elizabeth was slender, she ran, dodging the tussocks of reed.
Elizabeth raised her arm above the banked kingcups and waved, watching her own white hand and the way the green folds of her sleeve belled about her wrist in an outworn elegance.
At the French court, their sleeves were like great bladders, sewn with pearls and miniver to glisten in the dance.
She knew; she had seen paintings.
All her undanced dances faded as Catherine plunged towards her.
Her sister’s small coif was trimmed with tarnished gold, below which her fair hair spread itself in a tangled cascade.
All the sisters were blonde, but none bore the colouring of Elizabeth, whose hair, silver-gilt and falling to her knees, was a shining mist in candlelight and under the sun seemed woven of rare and precious thread.
Sir Hugh Johns had looked long at her hair; there had been tears in his eyes.
Breathless, Catherine threw herself down, crushing bright blossoms.
The trout, frightened, flicked away into the depths.
‘We’ve searched for you for hours – Margaret tore her gown and Martha fell – her nose bled.
We are all going to be beaten.
Dame Joan is wroth.’
Dame Joan was their crabbed old nurse and Elizabeth loathed the humiliation of beatings.
Sometimes wheedling could bring lenience.
Today, however, the weather was warm; Joan would be sweating and merciless under the old-fashioned houpeland that encased her girth like a knight’s harness.
Catherine rattled on.
‘Bess, I pray you, come.’
Her round bosom strained dangerously at another seam.
‘The whole house is upside down.
Anyway – ’ curiously – ‘what do you
here all this time?’
Elizabeth chewed on a sour-sweet grass, gazed at the lake, diamonded by sun.
‘About Sir Hugh Johns?’
Catherine looked archly at her.
‘Oh, sister, imagine.
You’ll soon be a wedded lady … the first of us.
Come now, and talk of Hugh to Joan, it’ll cool her temper.
I’ll miss you when you go,’ she finished wistfully.
‘I’ll go nowhere,’ said Elizabeth, biting the stem in two.
‘With him, at any rate.’
Catherine’s plump jaw dropped.
‘Don’t you like him?’
she said incredulously.
‘We all thought him a sweet and gentle knight.
When he laughed at talk of your dowry and said he would almost be content with you alone, we were enchanted …’
‘Fool’s prattle,’ said Elizabeth.
A brief vision of Sir Hugh’s plain pleasant face assailed her.
She had asked him of fashions, of the latest airs and dances, and he had stuttered incoherently.
He had never even spoken to her of love, had merely excused himself to seek her mother’s bower, where they conferred stiltedly about monetary matters.
Sir Hugh was well purveyed of money.
Was that what her mother had meant, speaking of their future with that strange little smile?
Somehow she thought not.
Somewhere, there was love, its colours unknown.
Love the stranger, to be instantly recognized.
Hugh Johns was not love, nor ever could be.
Catherine’s voice went on, complaining: Bess was all over green stains, Bess would have them all beaten.
It was hard to be one of many unwed sisters.
The brothers were in livery service at noble households.
Lionel was destined for the Church, Edward for the sea.
They were only young yet.
Nearest Elizabeth’s age, Anthony was the best.
She loved his slender elegance, his learning, his chivalry.
He could translate any poem, Greek, Latin or French, into something better than the original.
Soon he would be able to best any other stripling knight in the tourney.
She wished he had been present at the interview with Sir Hugh.
He would have made him blush rosier still, with his subtle, adult wit.
There had only been seven-year-old John, pulling faces at the stammering knight’s back.
That had earned him a beating that day …
Anthony would have been able to comfort her.
‘Do what you will, sweet sister,’ he would have said.
‘None can drag you to the altar!’
It was not as if the Queen had commanded the match.
That would have lent a different colour to the affair.
Elizabeth knew that her mother had the Queen’s ear through their mutual French birth.
Jacquetta of Bedford’s first husband had been Regent for King Henry the Sixth in France; Tante Isabel was married to the Queen’s uncle, Charles d’Anjou.
Thinking again of Queen Margaret, Elizabeth almost choked with frustrated longing.
There was clodpoll Sir Hugh, lusting to bear her off to some distant manor, as tame and
as Grafton Regis, while the lovely London court frolicked carelessly; for there had been scant talk of war since Jack Cade’s uprising two years earlier.
York, the turbulent Richard, also seemed quiescent, despite his wearying aspirations and his stirrings of Burgundy.
It was an old quarrel; York and Lancaster sporadically at each other’s throats like feast-day mastiffs.
She was sure they would not talk of policy at the court.
There would be only music and courtly love, in the royal palaces with their enchanted names: Greenwich, Eltham, Windsor, Sheen, the shining one.
‘The chaplain says,’ said Catherine pompously, ‘that your soul is wayward, wanton … faugh!’
She shifted to another patch of reed.
‘My dress is soaking.
Why do you choose this dismal place to hide in?’
Elizabeth whispered: ‘I love the lake.’
Catherine said uncertainly: ‘Will you come now?
Madam our mother, as well as Joan, will punish you.’
‘Yes, she came down to welcome the party from Calais.
Our father’s here.’
cried Elizabeth, springing up.
‘Why did you not tell me?’
Her beloved father was home, and she not there to greet him.
She ran, across meadow and lawn, past the falcons’ mew with its rank, raw-meat smell – under the archway into the ward and, skirting the chapel building, up the worn stone stairs to the children’s apartments.
There the chaplain met her, muttering prayers or imprecations.
Within the solar, the nurse fussed grimly among the sisters; Jacquetta, Eleanor, Anne, Martha and Margaret; toddling, preening or playing about the floor, according to their age and disposition.
‘Well, my lady,’ said the nurse sourly, motioning to a tiring-maid to unfasten Elizabeth’s laces, ‘may you find mercy, though you don’t deserve it.
My lord waits for you below.’
Elizabeth shivered at the cool touch of a clean linen shift.
She danced impatiently on the spot, itching to run to the oriel through which she could hear the stamp and jingle of many horse, the deep voices of men, a breath of song.
could sing better than any man in England or France.
How long of him had she missed already?
Sometimes he only stayed a day, to enchant them all with a tale of courtly prowess.
Then he would depart, leaving the manor even more dull and lifeless than before.
She was dressed at last in a high-waisted Italian silk patterned with red roses, its tight sleeves trimmed with marten.
Catching the sun through an embrasure, her hair gleamed like thistledown.
She descended the stairs to the Hall, followed by the sisters who were old enough to attend her, and she knew that she outshone them, as a silver candle shames a tallow dip.
The Hall was full of courtiers, knights, wearing her father’s blazon.
A royal herald stood stiffly by the fireplace.
The colours on his tabard, the leopards and lilies of France Ancient, leaped to her glamour-hungry eyes like a blaze; she heard bright, soundless music.
The tables, flanking three sides of the Hall, were laid for supper and at the knights’ dais at the northern end sat her parents, talking with a tall boy.
Unexpectedly home on leave from his livery service.
For the first time she cursed the seductive, solitary lake that had made her miss so much joy.
She went forward to the dais and knelt.