Authors: Sandra Heath Wilson
Cicely felt an odd need to offer comfort, something her mother would never have done in return. ‘But you did not know, Mother. You were tricked.’
‘Oh yes, but it was probably no better than I deserved. I thought I manipulated your father into marrying me, but in the end it was he who manipulated me. The king warned Clarence to hold his tongue or face the consequences. But Clarence either did not believe the threat or did not care, and continued to drip his poison. Your father eventually lost patience and arrested him on a charge of treason against the realm. Easy enough to do, given George’s past waywardness. That was when Richard of Gloucester came with all haste from Yorkshire, unable to believe the sorry state of affairs between his brothers.’
Elizabeth remembered. ‘By then Gloucester was twenty-five, and in many ways more capable than his brothers put together. But he always,
supported your father. I know how Edward relied on him, and I suppose he was right to do so.
did not value Gloucester, however, because he proceeded to plead with your father to spare Clarence. That was the very last thing I wished to happen. Fortunately it was also the very last thing your father wanted. Gloucester was never told the truth, of course, and was left believing my marriage was true and Clarence a traitor.’ Elizabeth gave a short laugh. ‘Gloucester spoke well for his brother’s life. A most engaging man, your uncle, but your father stood his ground and Clarence was condemned.’
The queen glanced at her jewelled fingers, and on resuming the story, her voice sank to the merest whisper. ‘That was really when Gloucester began to despise me. He had never liked me, nor I him, but now he realized that I was in some way responsible for George’s plight.’
She got up and went to the window. ‘Your father hesitated for many days to sentence his brother Clarence to death, for it was a terrible thing to do, but in the end Clarence was secretly executed in the Tower. When Gloucester learned of it, he was shocked and distressed. Lady Eleanor Boteler was long dead by then, and as far as I knew there was no one else to speak of it. Your father and I could continue to play at man and wife, and that would be the end of it.’
She turned for a moment. ‘I was wrong, though, because there were those in Eleanor’s family, the Talbots, who knew of it but had been persuaded or rewarded to remain silent. And Robert Stillington, a priest who all those years before had known of the pre-contract, perhaps even officiated, is still alive today. He is now the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I strongly suspect him of having informed Clarence, but that cannot be proved. If he did, it would explain something of Clarence’s behaviour. Now Edward IV is dead before his time, and the good bishop has spoken up to prevent a bastard from ascending the throne of England. He has gone to Gloucester, who has chosen to believe him and is to take the throne for himself.’
Bess was immediately protective. ‘Mother, there is no
about it! If all that you have just said is the truth, we
illegitimate, and the Duke of Gloucester
the rightful king. Our uncle Clarence was attainted and his children barred. That only leaves Richard. Why should he discard his own son’s birthright for the sake of his brother’s illegitimate children? And if other whispers I have heard are true, Father was not legitimate either, but born of a brief dalliance between our grandmother and a mere archer!’
‘That is calumny! God’s blood, girl, you would say
to help Gloucester’s cause! Cannot you at least
to think purely where he is concerned? Have you never heard the word consanguinity? That man has ruined us. He thinks
of maltreating his beloved brother’s widow and children, yet
harbour unclean thoughts of him.’
Bess recoiled, pale-faced. ‘
has not ruined us, Mother, you and your hated Woodvilles have done that. If I were Richard, I would do all I could to see them overthrown. His is the royal blood, not theirs! And you are
Father’s widow, are you? You are just another of his splay-legged bitches!’
Cicely scrambled to her feet. ‘Bess!’
Elizabeth went for her eldest daughter, meaning to hit her with as much force as could be mustered, but Bess ran to the door and out of the room.
Cicely tried to follow, knowing her mother would interrogate her, but she was not quick enough. Elizabeth could still be nimble when she chose, and seized her second daughter’s arm.
this between Bess and Gloucester?’
‘I know nothing, Mother. There
nothing. How can there be when it is so long since Bess last saw the duke?’ Cicely faced her squarely.
‘She saw him last Christmas, and that is not so very long ago.’ Elizabeth searched her daughter’s eyes. ‘Has he returned her feelings? Has he . . . touched her?’
‘Say what you will of him, I feel sure he would be proper with her.’
‘How would you know?
have certainly not met him in a long time.’
‘Then be honest, Mother. You have known him ever since you met Father. Do
think he would?’
Elizabeth smiled. ‘No, I suppose I do not, but even a saint can fall by the wayside. Although not this saint, I fancy. But that does not make Bess’s adoration any better. She
love him, does she not?’
Cicely lowered her eyes. ‘I would only be guessing, as you do.’
Elizabeth smiled again. ‘Jesu, I know you will not appreciate this, but you, too, are like me, Cicely. Bess has Woodville tendencies, but not the quick mind to accompany them. She is swayed by foolish Plantagenet passions, whereas you . . . Well, I do not know exactly what it is about you that makes you so different. I see the way you watch and learn. You may only be fourteen, but you behave more like nineteen, a nineteen with a great deal of insight. You can analyze what you see and hear, and I suspect your judgement to be superior. You will always know the right thing to do, the right advice to give, although whether you can apply it to yourself may be another matter. You can also, without trying at all, induce others to trust you. On reflection, in your case, perhaps I did lie with Richard of Gloucester after all, but it was so unexceptional that it entirely escapes my memory. You certainly make me think of him.’
‘I am not accustomed to your praise, Mother.’
‘That is praise?’
‘I believe so, but whomever my father might be, please do not say I have your coldness.’
Elizabeth laughed. ‘Oh, dear me, no. There is a spark in you, Cicely, a light that tells me you will fight to the last for what matters to you. Here you are, standing midway between Plantagenet and Woodville, and you have the best of both. Oh yes, there
some good things about the Woodvilles. Not many, I grant.’ Elizabeth searched her daughter’s face. ‘If you put your mind to it, I dare say you could go far. You will certainly be able to influence men.’
‘I want love, not machination.’
‘You will soon learn to discard such romantic notions.’ Elizabeth gave an ironic laugh. ‘I really had not noticed how much you have matured. You are becoming a beauty. Maybe you will trump Bess.’
‘I do not think so, Mother. My looks and colouring are
‘Changes of fashion have to commence somewhere. Why not with you? Which reminds me, you really must have your forehead shaved back.’
‘We will see about that.’ Elizabeth moved away. ‘Now, regarding, Bess, I wish I knew what it is about Richard of Gloucester that makes women want him so. Whatever it is, he has more than his fair share. You can tell your sister that if she
harbour a fleshly desire for him, and allows it to be known, I will carve her heart out with a blunt knife.’
Richard’s revenge upon
those who had conspired against him at the time of Edward IV’s death was astonishingly temperate. Only a few had really incurred his wrath. Cicely could not help thinking that if she had been her uncle, she would have dealt much more harshly with all his enemies. There would not be any left to cause trouble in the future!
The country willingly and gladly accepted Richard of Gloucester as King Richard III. There was still discord from Lancastrians, Woodvilles and dissatisfied Yorkist nobles, but the people knew Richard would rule justly, as he always had on his lands in the north. His fame went before him.
The day of the coronation, 22 June 1483, was one to remember, even for those seeking sanctuary. As the sun stood at its highest, an expectant hush fell over the capital, and then the first fanfare sounded in the distance followed by the cheers of the crowds. The choir music began in the great church and the cheering grew more rapturous, rising to a deafening roar as the royal procession entered the abbey itself. The singing and chanting seemed to go on forever, but after the passing of more than an hour, there was a pause in the music.
Cicely closed her eyes, imagining it all, and then the joyful carols rang out once more. Outside the crowds sensed that the moment had come and renewed their wild cheering, this time with even more enthusiasm. At length those in the abbey knew the procession was returning to the great banquet at Westminster Hall, because the cheering became more distant until it blended with the air of excitement that had enveloped London for the past week.
Bess wished to be alone, and so Cicely made her way to her mother’s apartment, there being no one else with whom to sit. It was not often she sought her mother’s company, but it seemed appropriate today. Elizabeth Woodville, now to be known as Dame Grey, as she had been on the death of her first husband, was alone, seated at her table, a quill hovering over a letter yet to be commenced.
She looked up. ‘What brings you here, Cicely?’
‘Nothing really. Bess wants to be on her own, and—’
‘And I am better than nothing?’ There was a faint smile.
‘Yes,’ Cicely replied deliberately.
Her mother chuckled. ‘Oh, what have we come to, Cicely? Not so very long ago we were the most important ladies in the land, along with Bess, of course, but now look at us. Your father has much to answer for.’
Cicely sat on the window seat and poked idly at a cobweb that hung against the lattice.
‘Is Bess still eulogizing her confounded uncle?’ Dame Grey asked.
Cicely did not answer.
‘We have spoken of it before, Cicely, but I have to ask you if you know any more now than you did then. Just how far
this go with her? I may not have been a warm mother, but I do not like to think of her in such pain.’
Cicely could not hide her astonishment. Had her mother
just said something kind and thoughtful? She stood, wishing she had never come here. ‘Even though she was Father’s favourite, Bess does think more highly of Richard.’
Elizabeth leaned back in the chair and picked up the quill again, to stroke the tip. ‘Why, of
men, did she have to pick him? If the wiles of Jane Shore leave him cold I cannot imagine that the inexperience of his own niece will have any effect. I fear Bess will discover him to be far less than she imagines, for he is completely and utterly devoted to Anne Neville. Although I suppose I should now call her
‘I have heard that he has a son and a daughter by other women.’
‘Ah, yes. The girl is named Katherine, but I know no more. The boy is John of Gloucester, and he was born shortly before you, Cicely.
before Richard of Gloucester married his Anne, should you wonder otherwise. I believe John of Gloucester is to be knighted in September, and our new king’s only legitimate son, Edward of Middleham, will become Prince of Wales at the same time.’ Elizabeth drew a long breath. ‘But this takes us away from the matter of Bess’s feelings for her uncle, and indeed, if they are reciprocated.’
A voice from the door startled them. ‘Rest assured they are not, Mother.
am the evildoer, not him.’ Bess stood there, her face scarlet with humiliation and anger, and they knew that she had been listening to them. Then she left again, the heavy door swinging to behind her.
Cicely ran after her, but once in the refuge of their own room, Bess turned on her like a tigress, and slapped her with all her might. The force made Cicely stumble back, her cheek marked red by Bess’s ring. She lost her balance and fell to the rushes. Bess stood over her, her hands clenching and unclenching with the violence of her emotion.
‘You little bitch! You little maggot!’
‘Bess . . .’ Cicely whispered through a haze of pain and misery.
‘Do not make excuses, for Jesu’s sake do not make excuses—I
what you said!’
Cicely felt a hard knot of anger in her stomach, and struggled defiantly to her feet. ‘Very well, if you are so eager to believe the worst of me.’
‘Of course I believe the worst, I heard
‘What did you hear, Bess? Tell me. If I said so much, perhaps you will enlighten me, for to be sure
do not remember.’ Cicely’s voice was very like their mother then, the same ice-cold crispness belying the inner fury.
Bess faltered and the first doubt crept into her face. This was a side of Cicely she had not seen. ‘Well, you and Mother spoke of . . .’ She bit her lip and her voice sank to a barely audible whisper. ‘You were discussing the way I feel about our uncle.’ Having said it aloud at last, she sank to the bed, trembling. ‘Oh, Cissy, I have never known such misery and shame.’ She put her hand out blindly to her sister, and with a rush of feeling Cicely took it and sat to put a comforting arm around her.
‘Bess, dearest Bess, you know that I was not tittle-tattling to Mother. And believe it or not, she is sad to see you so unhappy. And she would have known nothing at all had you not betrayed yourself by shielding him so often and so violently. Your feelings are written so large that even I can recognize them for what they are.’
‘I am so ashamed of myself, so disgusted, and yet I cannot conquer it. The very sound of his name sends my pulses racing. He is my
and yet I crave him.’ Bess began to shake, her eyes pleading with her sister to forgive such iniquity.
‘My poor Bess.’
‘Cissy, I tell you if he were to beckon his finger to me I would willingly give myself to him.’ Bess hung her head once more. ‘Have you any notion of how I felt today? He was so near, in the same abbey, but I could not even
upon him. He is enshrined in my heart, every detail, every flaw. I love him so much,’ she breathed.
Cicely sat silently with her, holding her close and just listening.
When Bess spoke again, her voice was very soft. ‘The last time I saw him he was about to depart for Middleham. He had taken his leave of Father, saw me outside and came over to say farewell. He kissed my cheek and hugged me, telling me that the man who married me would have the most beautiful princess in the world. If you could have seen him then, Cissy. He was so handsome and gentle, so slender and yet so strong, wearing a thick travelling cloak over the wine velvet doublet and grey hose he had worn in the great hall as we broke our fast. And he wore thigh boots, I remember. I do so like thigh boots. It was impossible to know that his back sometimes causes him pain, for he would not let that be known to anyone. I adored him so much in that moment that I could hardly stand. I desperately wanted to tell him how I felt, but to him I was only his niece, and he did not see beyond that into my heart. The desolation I felt at his leaving left me in no doubt; no doubt at all that I love and desire my own uncle.’
‘Bess, if the Pope can—rarely, I know—give dispensation for uncles to marry their nieces, then in God’s eyes it cannot be a truly evil crime to love Richard. Can it? I wish I could say something more to help you, but I cannot.’
‘Dispensation or not, nothing can change the fact that Richard is married already, and adores his wife. I cannot bear to think of her. She has him and I do not. She may not even love him, but I would, Cissy. Oh, how I would. He would be deeply shocked if he knew anything of this, and I would lose him forever then. At least I have something of him now, a smile, an arm around my shoulder, or a kiss on the cheek. I imagine so much, you know. I lie in bed at night, thinking of how it would be if I went to him as he slept.’
Cissy was startled. ‘I do not think you should tell me anything more, Bess.’
‘But I need to, Cissy. I have to let you know what it is to be me. I
imagine making love with him. I
imagine going to him. It would be summer, the night would be warm and he would be naked and asleep. His hair spreads against the whiteness of his pillow as he dreams — of what, I do not need to know. I reach out to touch him . . .’
‘Oh, Bess.’ Cicely really did not want to hear more, but knew she had to let her sister confess everything.
Bess smiled, gazing through her tears at nothing in particular as she spoke of her fantasy. ‘I cast off my clothes and stand at his bedside, looking down at him. I see his dear body, so slim and pale, so perfect to me, in spite of fate’s unkindness to him. I adore him with my eyes. Can you imagine such a moment? To gaze upon the man you hunger for, to see him so accessible and unknowing? To hear his gentle breathing, and want his physical love so much that it is agony? I bend down and slip on to the bed with him. I move close, and stroke his chest, with its dark hairs, and my hand moves down to his loins . . .’
Cicely was shaken by such frankness. Her breath caught, and her eyes widened.
Bess hardly noticed. ‘Oh, Cicely, I find him so very alluring, unbearably so, and now I am caressing that part of him that can join me to him in the act of love. He is aroused by me, Cissy, and he pulls me close. Those fine lips that I look at so often when I am with him, find mine in a kiss, and I am in such ecstasy that I fear I may faint of it. His kisses are so tender, yet at the same time needful. It does not matter to either of us that we are uncle and niece. I feel his body come to life for me. Just for me, Cissy. He makes such sweet love to me, kissing my lips, my throat, my breasts, and that which is concealed between my legs. I feel him inside me, and my maidenhead offers no resistance. He is my lover, my beloved, my life, and for these secret minutes he belongs to me.’
Cicely gazed at her. ‘I—I do not know what to say, Bess,’ she whispered, her heart contorting with compassion.
Bess exhaled slowly and then looked at her with a sad smile. ‘I pray that if ever you fall in love like this, it will be with a man you can actually have. Certainly not Ralph Scrope, for he is not the right one for you.’
Cicely pulled herself together. ‘I hardly ever see Ralph. How can I when he is at court and I am in here?’
‘And the times you did see him?’
‘I liked him well enough. I blushed most dreadfully.’
Bess smiled. ‘Did your heart quicken, did your skin feel hot, did you feel weightless, breathless, that you were with the only reason you are alive?’
Cicely shook her head. ‘No. Definitely not.’
‘Then, believe me, you are not in love. When you are, it will strike you like a flash of lightning. When I see Richard again it will be as fresh and poignant to me as the very first time.’ Bess pressed her lips together ruefully. ‘Making love with him can only ever happen in my imagination, but to me it is almost real. Sometimes I feel I
lain with him.’
The conversation was broken by the bells of London once again beginning their joyous clamour rising jubilantly on the summer air. Bess went to the window. ‘Richard, by Grace of God, King of England and France, Lord of Ireland. May God bless and keep you safe,’ she said quietly.