Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (3 page)

Cicely’s lips parted with a mixture of shock and dismay.

Elizabeth was cynical. ‘Really? And why, pray, should I believe anything
you
have to say to me. Surely you do not think me so naïve as to credit
Hastings
with a sudden change of heart? I had not thought Gloucester such a fool as to send you, of all people, with a tale like that. He must be desperate to have me out, and chooses a charge of treason with which to do it.’

‘Your Grace, I do assure you that Gloucester, of
all
God’s creatures, knows nothing of this. If he did, then Hastings would surely lose his head and I would forfeit a man who knows exactly how to use his splendid, er, cock.’

Elizabeth became even icier. ‘You think ever of your lust!’

‘Whereas you know only of power. Did you
ever
enjoy the king’s bed? I know I did, every single moment of it. He could sometimes stand for me for hours on end. Yes, really. And I rode him as often and as passionately as I wished. Even you must know how satisfying it is to have a king’s member between your legs? And such a member. Do you know, I have often wondered what it would be like to tumble Gloucester. He may be slender and slightly twisted of body, but his face . . . oh, such a face. That long, dark chestnut hair, those fine-drawn features, and those compelling grey eyes. Or are they dark blue? Somewhere between, maybe. Anyway, he is beautiful, do you not think? Yes, a true man, with great beauty of visage. I will warrant he knows an exquisite thing or two about matters of the flesh.’

‘Have you
no
dignity?’ Elizabeth demanded frostily.

‘Not when it comes to men. Good God, woman, have you not
looked
at Gloucester and seen so much more than a crooked body? I would not decline a night with him, and would certainly roll him over more energetically than his wan little wife. Anne Neville will never do right by him. What does he see in her? She is not flesh and blood, just a piteous presence.’

‘You disgust me. I have no wish to hear the lurid details of your carnal dealings with my husband or your apparent hunger for his deformed brother.’

‘Well, at least it can be said that my lust is well placed—power would bring
me
precious little gratification. Beauty does not make a real woman, just an emotionless image.’

Cicely gazed at her, absorbing what she said. Jane Shore loved men for themselves and it was a trait with which Cicely Plantagenet felt affinity.

Elizabeth raised an arm to strike her husband’s former mistress, but then thought better of it. She looked keenly into Jane’s scornful face, and after a while she said, ‘Very well, Mistress Shore, tell me your tale, for to listen will cost me nothing and may serve to amuse my afternoon.’

Jane’s chin came up. ‘Your Grace, I do not seek to merely amuse your dull life. My Lord Hastings is gravely distressed by the mistake he made in telling Gloucester of the late king’s dying wish; in fact he is so distressed that last night he was quite limp and incapable. Not by this morning, of course, for he is a man with great needs, but it is a measure of his desolation that he now wishes with all his heart to remedy his error. I know not what he intends or how he expects to accomplish it. He has not told me; merely that he wishes you to know he is intent upon putting everything right. He assures you that Gloucester will soon be dealt with as he so richly deserves. Unfortunately, for that means I may never have the tantalising duke in the hay.’

To her surprise, the queen burst into laughter. ‘Oh, come now, Mistress Shore, surely you do not imagine I am completely isolated here! I know what has happened to your beloved Hastings. He has not surged to power on the crest of a wave as he had expected because Buckingham is now at Gloucester’s side.
Another
ambitious noble who believes he has a claim to my son’s throne.’ Her cold eyes glinted maliciously as she witnessed Jane’s discomfort. ‘Well, Mistress Shore, I am right, am I not? Hastings’ nose has been pushed out of joint, and now he is the thwarted child, trying to get his own back.’

The beautiful Jane pursed her sweet lips with a twitch of anger. ‘I would not have put it quite like that. Whatever my lord Hastings’ personal reasons, the same cannot surely be said of the others involved with him.’

‘And who, pray, would they be?’

Jane listed a number of prominent Lancastrians, spiritual and secular.

Elizabeth snorted. ‘God’s truth, a nest of adders, and all with the same reason for hating Gloucester, the loss of power and influence. Jesu, I almost begin to pity him.’

Now it was Jane who laughed. ‘
Pity
Gloucester? I may find him an interesting prospect as a lover, but I do not pity him!’

The queen leaned towards Jane, her voice contemptuous. ‘How you harp upon him, mistress, for I fear he must be the only man in England to remain unmoved by your obvious attractions. You are not accustomed to such indifference, are you?’

Jane flushed angrily. ‘You are wrong, Your Grace.’

‘Indeed? Then I must have been mistaken last Christmas when you fairly threw yourself at him, to his intense discomfort. God’s blood, the man is such a prude I thought he would vomit!’

‘A
prude?
Oh, he is not
that
!’
Jane laughed again. ‘Believe me, he has a quietly devastating appeal that he rarely chooses to use. If he did, there would not be a woman at court who would not part her legs for him. Even you.’

‘Rubbish, he’s a prude. Whatever, it was most disappointing when you failed to hook him.’

‘Disappointing?’

‘Well, his faithfulness to his wife is the laugh of the court. Oh, he has bastards, which to his credit he acknowledges, but all were conceived before he married. At least, if he has had any since, it is an amazingly well-kept secret. The late king probably populated a small town, but not one such brat was acknowledged after his marriage to me. They were all known of, but adultery is frowned upon, is it not? An unmarried king may sow his oats as he will, but not once he has taken himself a queen.’

Jane’s lips pressed together.

‘I do not doubt that Richard of Gloucester is red-blooded enough to have several mistresses at once,’ Elizabeth continued, ‘but if he does, my husband the king certainly did not hear. He would have told me if he knew such an interesting morsel of scandal about his youngest brother. So I do not think Richard has anyone but his duchess to warm him at night, which must be a chilling experience, for she can barely warm herself, let alone him. I really hoped you would haul him to your bed, just to prove he was a natural man. “Loyalty Binds Me” is his motto, is it not? It clearly means “Only Anne’s Bed For Me”.’ She chuckled.

‘You are entirely wrong about my actions, Your Grace,’ Jane said again.

‘Oh,
you
may not have thought of it yourself, but I would not put it past my husband to put you up to it. He would have curled up with mirth to think of such a scene.’

Jane gave a half-smile. ‘I had no idea you were so interested in what I did that night.’

‘Tried to do,’ Elizabeth corrected. ‘However, you may carry a message to Hastings. I will welcome his attempts to remove Gloucester from God’s earth, but mark me well, if aught should go wrong, I will deny everything.’

‘He would not expect otherwise.’

Elizabeth’s lips compressed at these words and she was stung into defending herself, although she immediately regretted the impulse. ‘Mistress Shore, I
must
deny all knowledge. I have my children to consider.’

Jane’s scornful disbelief was not concealed as she swept from the room as grandly as she had arrived. She had not feared the queen before and did not fear her now.

Elizabeth stood still for a moment or so after the door closed, and then gave a howl of rage and dashed her fist upon a table, Cicely’s presence still forgotten. Only when she turned, uttering an oath that would not have been out of place in a fish market, did she see her second daughter. Clearly shocked, she seized Cicely’s wrist and hauled her to her feet. ‘What a little earwig you are. You may go now. Reading can wait until another time. But mark well that you hold your tongue about what you witnessed here today. One careless word and you will rue it. Am I clear?’

‘Yes, Mother.’ Cicely caught up her skirts and ran from the room, fearing her mother would change her mind and make her rue things
now
!

But the queen’s threats ceased to matter the moment the sisters were together again, and after securing a sworn promise of secrecy from Bess, Cicely related everything. And that meant everything, including Jane Shore’s thoughts of Richard of Gloucester.

Bess flushed angrily. ‘How monstrous she is. She would bed a horse if it were all there was to hand.’

‘Bess!’

‘I take nothing back. How
dare
she speak of our uncle so crudely.’

‘She speaks of every man crudely,’ Cicely observed. ‘But she likes men for themselves, not because they are powerful. I like that in her. It is honest.’

Bess said nothing.

‘If only we could be free again, able to return to court and—’

‘You would have the Duke of Gloucester
murdered
so that you can dance again and have a new gown?’ Bess’s words were acidic. ‘They spoke of overthrowing him. Do you really believe that only means removing him from office and sending him back to the north on a promise of good behaviour? Of course it does not, it means putting him to death!’

‘No, of course that is not what I want.’ Cicely drew back. Murdered? Put to death? She had not meant any such thing!

‘Then what
do
you want? Just because you have gazed wistfully at Ralph Scrope you think you know everything. Well, you do not. You do not know anything at all. I would rather stay here for the rest of my life than have my dear Richard’s blood upon my conscience. Not a drop of it would I spill, do you hear? Not a drop! I will not be party to this plot! I would rather betray Mother to him than see him harmed.’ Bess got up and hastened from the room.

Cicely stared after her. My
dear
Richard?

Hastings’ scheming came to nothing. News soon reached the abbey that discovery of the plot had led to Hastings being beheaded immediately. Such had been the Duke of Gloucester’s fury and disappointment that he did not hesitate. The other conspirators escaped with their lives. It might have been better for the Lord Protector had he rid himself of all of them, but he was lenient. Jane Shore received no harsher punishment than having to perform an act of penance. She appeared before St Paul’s Cross, barefoot, wearing a kirtle with no concealing underskirt, carrying a taper.

Cicely could not help wondering if such leniency—and subtle humour—only made Richard of Gloucester even more attractive to Jane. Yes, she imagined it would.

Chapter Three

On a bright
June morning, the Council arrived at the abbey, where they were received by the queen. Wishing to play the beleaguered widow, Elizabeth had all her children present for the meeting.

It was fully expected that Richard of Gloucester himself would lead the Council, and Cicely waited in anticipation. Any mention of him drew abuse from her mother and a strangeness from Bess, and between these two stood Cicely, more than a little confused and now half-frightened of him. But he did not come.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke first. ‘Your Grace, we are here to implore you to —’

She interrupted. ‘My lord archbishop, I understood I was to meet with the Lord Protector himself, not his minions!’ The words brought an angry muttering from the rest of the Council.

‘Your Grace,’ the archbishop responded after a moment, ‘the Lord Protector deemed it wiser not to come himself. He thinks only of sparing you any embarrassment.’

‘His own embarrassment, more like.’ She rapped her fingers on the table before her. ‘Very well, if I must deal with you, what is it you wish me to know?’

‘Your Grace, we again urgently entreat you to come forth from this place. It is not right for you and your family to remain here. It serves no purpose —’

‘No purpose? No purpose?’ Her voice rose angrily. ‘Is it then
no purpose
to save my life and the lives of my children by seeking sanctuary?’

He spread his arms. ‘But your lives have never been endangered, Your Grace. The Lord Protector
assures
you of this. He respects your position as queen and your children as brothers and sisters of the king, and as his own nephews and nieces.’

At these familiar words Cicely glanced at Bess, and saw her triumphant smile.

The archbishop continued: ‘Please believe me, Your Grace, no harm will befall you.’

Elizabeth sighed, as if dealing with a dim-witted child. ‘My lord archbishop, Richard Plantagenet has every reason for wishing to be rid of me and I therefore find it impossible to expect any good intention of him. I am a thorn in his side while I remain here and he wishes to have me out. Once that happened, I would conveniently vanish one day and a suitable story would spread of my sudden mortal illness.’

The archbishop was shocked. ‘I must protest, Your Grace. The Lord Protector is a man of his word, and wishes to live at peace with you.’

Bess’s eyes were now bright with excitement.
Surely
her mother must capitulate.

‘Pah!’ Elizabeth Woodville was at her rudest. ‘Richard Plantagenet is your cousin, is he not, my lord archbishop? You are
so
full of praise for him.’

The acidity of her tone and the implications behind her words provoked the mild archbishop into righteous anger and he abandoned all attempts at sweet reason. ‘Very well, Your Grace, as you remain so determined, I am instructed to receive into my custody the person of His Grace, the Duke of York.’

‘You jest!’ she cried, taken by surprise.

‘No, madam, the king himself wishes the company of his brother and has urgently requested the Lord Protector to send for him.’

There was a hush in the room as the queen stared at the Council and the Council stared back. Without a word the archbishop placed a paper on the table, and by craning her neck Cicely recognized her brother Edward’s inelegant scrawl. The queen read the letter and then folded it slowly between shaking fingers.

‘I will
not
give my other son into the clutches of the Lord Protector.’ Her eyes were lustrous and tear-filled as she employed her considerable wiles upon the men before her, but it was from another direction that an unexpected interruption came.

Dickon flung himself on the rushes at her feet. ‘Mother,
please
let me go to Edward. Please, I do not want to stay here.’

‘Silence!’

‘But Mother, I—’

‘Enough!’ Her voice quelled him, but as he sat up his eyes were brimming.

The archbishop was victorious. ‘Your Grace, you cannot keep him here against his own will and that of his brother the king. That is to violate the holiness of sanctuary as truly as if we were to seize you now and force you from here.’

This was defeat and Elizabeth knew it. There were too many witnesses for her to attempt denial of her son’s wishes. She stepped back from the little boy, her chin held high. ‘You may take him, but my daughters remain here with me.’

She saw the protest and anguish in the girls’ eyes and dismissed them peremptorily to their rooms before they too could speak their minds. Then, turning once more to the Council, she said, ‘You may tell the Lord Protector that nothing short of a public avowal of allegiance to my son, and of his good intentions towards my family and me, will induce me to leave here. And I
mean
public! The whole realm must know we are safe from his malice.’

The archbishop was so incredulous he could only gape.

‘Those are my terms. Good day, my lords.’ In an imperious swirl of black, Elizabeth left the room, and the door was closed upon on her delighted son and the angry Council.

For a while the monotony returned, the days passing at a snail’s pace, with endless sitting, reading, embroidery and music. The summer months were fine, the sun flooding the old stone of the abbey with its golden warmth. Often Cicely sat at the window with Bess, although they were barely able to see more than a few yards in either direction because the walls of the gloomy building were so thick. The courtyard always seemed deserted, even the birds seemed absent. How Cicely longed for the open happiness of the palaces and gardens, and for the freedom of daylight and sunshine, but she said nothing to Bess for fear of further charges of intent to foully murder the Lord Protector.

One day in late June, their solitary existence was shattered when the Archbishop of Canterbury came once more to see the queen. He was very troubled and most insistent that he be received by the queen alone. Cicely and Bess hoped against hope that he brought news of their possible release. However, what he had to say concerned an entirely different matter.

Once again it was Biddy who came with all haste to tell the sisters. She was as white as a sheet and trembled from head to toe. They made her sit down and tell them what ailed her. It appeared that she had been about to knock on the door of the queen’s apartment when she heard raised voices from within. The queen was distraught and the archbishop’s voice was insistent.

‘What were they saying?’ Bess demanded impatiently. ‘Surely nothing can be
that
bad?’

‘It can, my lady. To begin with, your uncle Earl Rivers and your half-brother Sir Richard Grey have been executed at Pontefract for treason. And, far worse for you, it seems your father’s marriage to your mother has been declared bigamous, your father having already been betrothed to one Lady Eleanor Boteler, Talbot as was, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury.’

Bess was shaken by the first revelation, absolutely shattered by the second. ‘And . . . and the Lord Protector has allowed this?’

‘Yes.’

Cicely sat back weakly. ‘How
could
he?’ she breathed.

There was an urgent tapping at the door and one of their mother’s ladies entered to beg Bess to come at once because the queen was as one demented now the archbishop had left. Bess gathered her skirts and ran along the passage to her mother’s room, with Cicely following close behind. They found the queen so agitated that she hurled ink at her terrified ladies as they huddled in a corner. They squealed and ran out, almost knocking Cicely from her feet as they passed.

Bess was firm, making Elizabeth sit down, while Cicely brought a goblet of wine. It was accepted, because their presence was apparently soothing. But when Elizabeth spoke, it was not of her dead brother and son, nor even of Lady Eleanor Boteler, but again of the dead Duke of Clarence. ‘George Plantagenet comes back from the grave to destroy me,’ she whispered. Her face was ghastly and her eyes bright with fear.

Bess frowned. ‘What is the matter, Mother? What do you mean?’

‘Mean?’ The queen sat upright, as if suddenly awakening from a nightmare. ‘I mean nothing! I am merely feeling unwell. My head aches so.’

There was authority in Bess’s voice. ‘Mother! Your brother and son
were
guilty of treason, as you are too, for plotting against Father’s dying command that the Duke of Gloucester was to be Lord Protector. We have a right to know everything because if you have been declared the mere mistress of our father, then
we
have been declared bastards!’

‘Yes, and by your precious uncle—do you
still
defend his every action?’

‘Mother, I would merely know his reasons.’

‘He wants the throne for himself, is that not obvious?’ Elizabeth gave a disparaging snort of a laugh.

‘That is not good enough, Mother. You and I know that he could take it by force were that the case. But he would not do that. Think of him what you will, but he would never use arms against us. Whichever side of the blanket we are, we will always be his brother’s children. There is more to all this and I intend to be told! What has our uncle Clarence to do with it?’

Cicely’s legs began to tremble so much that she leaned against the wall and sank to the floor. She was surely asleep, and would soon awaken. . . .

‘Very well, Bess, you wish for the truth and you shall have it. All of it.’ Drinking the last of the wine, Elizabeth stood a little weakly, refusing to let Bess help her. She went to the fireplace, cold, black and dark, and with her back towards them, began her story.

‘Your father married me knowing he was already betrothed to the widowed Lady Eleanor Boteler, daughter of John Talbot, the first Earl of Shrewsbury. Married to her, to all intents and purposes. Certainly they were married if he bedded her after promising marriage. Which he did. It was the only way he could get between
my
legs, so no doubt he did the same thing with her, except that in her case he really did make her his wife. Unwittingly, no doubt, for he was young and rash, but it was done all the same. Unless, of course, there was another before
her
. Who knows? He was capable of anything when it came to women. But as things went on, he found himself trapped with me. I knew nothing of it all, and believed myself truly wed to him. He rewarded Lady Eleanor well for her silence by showing favour to her family. She was very pious, kept the secret and died four years after the bigamous ceremony with me. I am told she died a very sad lady. I sympathise, for I now share her fate, because her death did not make any of you legitimate. Your father and I were never truly married.’

Cicely stared. ‘Never?’

‘No, child. I was never his wife, merely his mistress.’

Cicely blinked back tears. Her father fully intended his bastard son to ascend to the throne?

Elizabeth sighed. ‘Others knew, of course, but your father purchased their silence. He paid enough for them to stand by him. Gloucester did not know, of course. He and your late uncle Clarence were the last two men your father wished to have in on such a secret. Clarence because his son was in fact the rightful heir, Gloucester because Edward valued his loyalty and support, which might not be so freely given if this great lie were to be discovered.’

She paused. Speaking of it at last was both purge and greater weight. ‘All might have stayed well and hidden had your father not given offence to the Earl of Warwick, whom he taunted about me. You see, the earl—who was often called the ‘Maker of Kings’, because whoever he supported did indeed ascend to the throne—had been instructed to negotiate a French marriage for Edward. Warwick was justifiably incensed to find he’d been sent on such an empty and insulting errand. He left the court and took Clarence, by then his son-in-law, with him. Clarence was married to Warwick’s daughter Isabel, and Anne, whom Gloucester had wished to marry, was the wife of the Lancastrian heir, Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales. Whether York or Lancaster, a daughter of Warwick was destined to be Queen of England.’

Cicely’s brows drew together. ‘So Lady Anne has had two husbands? I thought she and the Duke of Gloucester had been a love match since childhood.’

‘She certainly turned willingly from him to marry Prince Edward. She was in love with the prince, or so it was believed at the time. Edward was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. By then she was almost fifteen, and Richard seventeen, maybe eighteen, I do not know for certain. Anyway, Richard took her back and they have been married ever since. God help him for having such a cool marriage bed.’

Bess smothered a gasp. ‘How can you say this? It is
known
that the duke and his wife love each other very much!’

‘And maybe
he
does.’ Elizabeth’s eyes met her eldest daughter’s. ‘It is whether she has ever fully returned that love that is in question.’

Bess turned away, as if she had learned something momentous.

Elizabeth went to sit down again, and leaned her head back. ‘We wander from the point, for I was speaking of Warwick. Your uncle Clarence had been certain the Maker of Kings would turn upon your father and put
him
on the throne instead, but Warwick went over to the mad Lancastrian King Henry VI, to whom I and my family once adhered, but by then poor Henry did not know what day of the week it was. So Clarence, realizing Warwick was now aiming to put the House of Lancaster back on the throne, crept back to the House of York and made his peace with your father. At least, so it seemed on the surface. Clarence somehow sniffed out the truth about Lady Eleanor Boteler and tried to use it to his advantage. George was unscrupulous, tactless, foolish, faithless and much given to drinking, and believed he had discovered something that would ensure the crown passed from Edward to him, and thence to George’s own son. Not to Edward’s
illegitimate
son by me. He even came to taunt me in person.’ The queen smiled reflectively. ‘He said I was no better than the king’s other doxies, and he was right, as a confrontation with your father soon revealed.’

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