Authors: Sandra Heath Wilson
She clung to the bridle, her voice urgent. ‘Does this mean that I will not see my sons when we come from here?’
He did not answer her and at last she had to release the dancing, impatient horse. Without a further word he urged his mount forward, raising his hand in salute to Cicely and Bess, and then he was gone into the twisting snow. His horsemen followed.
Elizabeth stared after him. ‘Richard Plantagenet, I hate and despise you still, and yet . . . before God, I must admire you,’ she whispered.
Bess, standing next to Cicely, whispered as well. ‘And I must always love you, Richard.’ Then she hurried into the abbey.
As Cicely and her mother went inside after her, Cicely suddenly remembered she wore his cloak. When she reached the room she shared with her sister, Bess was waiting, the cloak very much on her mind as well.
‘It is his.’ The words were a statement, not a question.
Bess seized it and wrapped herself in it before inhaling its scent. Costmary. Him. ‘Tell me everything, Cissy, for I must know exactly what he said. Did he mention me?’
‘Oh, Bess, this has to stop,’ Cicely began. She would never tell Bess
he had said, because she had promised him she would honour his confidence. And somehow, she did not want to tell her sister anything at all, no matter how innocent. It would still be betrayal.
‘Stop? It will never stop, Cissy. Never. I have seen him again, touched him again, and his spell has enchanted me ten more times over than before. I want him so much,
him so much, and yet he loves only Anne Neville.’
‘He will never love you like that, Bess.’ Cicely said it gently, for it was true. She had seen tonight that Bess was not anything to him that she should not be. Nor would she ever be.
Annoyed, Bess did not reply, but went to curl on the bed, still wrapped in his cloak, her back to Cicely.
It was not
only the cold wind of 1 March 1484 that caused Cicely’s teeth to chatter, but also the intense excitement of imminent freedom. She and Bess stood behind their mother at the top of the abbey steps, awaiting the arrival of the king. Their younger sisters were there as well, in the care of their nurses.
Over to their right was a colourful assembly of lords and clergy, many of whom Cicely recognized and who smiled at her and her sisters. Others remained stony. The scarlet, fur-trimmed robes of the mayor and aldermen of the city of London glowed in the thin sunlight, and a crowd of curious Londoners had gathered before the steps, for the news had travelled quickly that not only were Dame Elizabeth Grey and her daughters leaving sanctuary, but that the king himself would be making an oath of friendship towards them. The crowd was for the most part quiet, although there were some jeers from a more unruly element, eager for the humiliation of the hated Woodville who had wrongly been Queen of England. There was an air of tension over the whole gathering, for Richard would soon appear.
Cicely stole a glance at Bess, whose eyes were bright with anticipation. Her cheeks were flushed as she gazed along the road from Westminster Palace for the first sight of the man she loved. The fluttering of royal banners could be seen, indicating that he would soon set out for the abbey, and Cicely felt a knot of apprehension for her sister, who stood on tiptoe to look past her mother’s flowing black veil. Having met Richard again as her older self, Cicely now knew not only his spell, but his fleshly indifference to his eldest niece.
Then the first cheers were heard in the distance as the king’s cavalcade rode out from the confines of the palace. Down the road it came, standards streaming in the breeze. Above the noise of the crowd Cicely could hear the hooves on the cobbles and then at last saw the white boar on the clothing of the riders. At the head of the procession, riding the same dappled stallion, Richard had the royal circlet on his dark head, because today he was to make an oath as King of England. He acknowledged the cheers with a gauntleted hand and a smile, and made a brave sight in his gorgeous crimson and gold clothing. Few noticed his back, even fewer cared. He was a handsome Plantagenet, still young, already known for his justice and care of the people. Richard III was no weakling, and would reign England well because he was not solely concerned with his nobles. The people appreciated that, but some of those nobles were resentful. There would always be discontented nobles.
Immediately behind him rode two gentlemen in rich clothes; one was Francis, Viscount Lovell, and the other was Sir Robert Percy. They were Richard’s friends from his early days at Middleham in Yorkshire, in the household of the king-making Earl of Warwick. Like many of Richard’s faithful followers, they had been appointed to positions of honour and trust in his new administration. Among the riders behind him, Cicely saw Ralph Scrope, looking handsome enough in Richard’s livery. Beside Ralph was a young man she did not know. He wore pale blue, was tall with long silver-fair hair, and she could not help but notice his good looks and smile when Ralph said something to him. Whoever he was, she found him attractive . . . and a little familiar, although she knew she had never met him.
At the base of the steps Richard halted, raising his hand high to quieten the cheering, and a hush fell upon the gathering, broken only by the stamping of the horses and the occasional mewing of seagulls over the river. He turned his horse towards the noblemen and burgesses of London and began to speak, his voice carrying through the silence with clarity. He promised that if the daughters of Edward IV and their mother came out of sanctuary into his custody they would be treated as befitted their station and would come to no harm or insult at his hands, that he would arrange suitable marriages for them and that, with God as his witness, he would uphold his word.
Only when he finished speaking did he glance up at the abbey steps, and his face was expressionless as he looked at Elizabeth. ‘Madam?’ He could so easily have addressed her as Dame Grey.
She straightened proudly, and with her head held arrogantly began to descend the steps towards him, her daughters following. Cicely did not dare look at her sister, for she dreaded that Bess’s feelings would be impossible to mistake. Their mother halted before Richard and knelt. He dismounted and Elizabeth took his hand to kiss it. A great cheer rose from the crowd to see the hated Woodville on her knees before the man she had sought to destroy. Elizabeth closed her eyes with humiliation, but he did not gloat over his triumph and made her rise almost immediately—he had no use for mean satisfaction.
He spoke quietly for none to hear but Elizabeth and her daughters. ‘You will have no reason to regret your actions this day, and I truly hope that there will be no regrets on my part either.’
The former Queen of England looked up into those serious grey eyes and was surprised by the sincerity she saw there. Her reply was the only one she could give. ‘Sire, you will never regret it, this I promise.’
Her words seemed to satisfy, for he remounted and to the continuing cheers of the crowd and royal party prepared to return to the palace. Not once had he looked at Cicely or her sister. Bess lowered her eyes disappointedly and Cicely squeezed her hand.
A voice spoke beside them and they turned, startled as a man addressed Elizabeth. ‘Dame Grey, Viscount Lovell, your servant.’ The newcomer sketched a bow to them; he was of an age with Richard, stockily built, with dark curly hair and a swarthy skin, and his voice denoted that he had spent a lot of time in the north of the land. He said he was to conduct them to their new quarters at the palace of Westminster, where Richard’s court was at present gathered.
Cicely wondered why Richard did not speak in the same way; after all, they had spent the same time at Middleham. Richard’s voice was . . . she did not quite know, because if there was an accent, she did not detect it. It was simply his voice and unlike any other.
The royal procession set off, with much of the vast crowd running beside it, eager not to miss a single moment. And so the fugitives left the abbey; not for them this time the ignominy of underground passages in the dead of night, instead they rode palfreys in a great cavalcade led by the king himself. Cicely rode beside Bess and delighted in the freedom and sights of London—even the smells, some of which were more than a little noxious. Anything and everything was preferable to her young heart than the hated abbey. She wanted to laugh out loud and urge her mount into a headlong gallop, to scatter the bustling Londoners to the four corners of the earth, but she resisted the impulse, and turned to Bess. ‘Is it not wonderful to be out of the abbey?’
But Bess was staring miserably at her mount’s ears.
‘Please do not be sad today; not today when we are free at last.’
Bess gave her a watery smile. ‘I am sorry, it is just . . . he did not even look at me.’
‘Nor at me,’ Cicely pointed out. ‘He simply spoke to Mother, that is all. You must try to be more cheerful, for you do yourself no good by moping like this.’
These tactless words drew Bess’s anger. ‘Do not preach about something of which you know nothing, Cissy! One day you will come to realize exactly how foolish and heartless you sound right now! ‘
Cicely was hurt. She understood how Bess felt, but was determined not to let anything ruin this day. Unthinkingly, she urged her palfrey forward, but having not ridden for quite a time was too generous with the command. She was not a good rider anyway, so instead of moving just a little away from Bess, the palfrey took her swiftly to the head of the procession, passing a frowning Dame Grey who did not approve of such unladylike behaviour. To Cicely’s relief she was able to rein her mount in before she overtook Richard as well. As it was, she found herself beside Francis Lovell, whose horse did not take kindly to her sudden arrival.
Hearing the slight commotion, Richard looked around and laughed on seeing the reason. Cicely was mortified, stammering her apologies to the viscount as he struggled to quieten his startled mount. At length he too laughed. ‘I fear, my lady, that you have been too long out of the saddle.’
‘Yes. I am so sorry, my lord. I will never amount to much of a horsewoman.’
‘No harm was done, and I believe the king would forgive his favourite niece.’
‘Oh, I do not think there is any doubt of it.’
As they approached the palace, Cicely thought of Richard’s queen. How would Anne Neville be? She had so seldom come south to London that she had left no lasting impression. Through her the great Earl of Warwick’s ambition had been realized—one of his daughters had become Queen of England. But not even Warwick could have dreamed of the circumstances that would bring this about.
‘Is the queen in London?’ she asked Francis.
‘Indeed, yes, but only until the morrow, when she and the king leave for the north. The land is peaceful at the present time and they wish to conclude the progress that Buckingham’s rebellion interrupted. And also to visit Prince Edward at Middleham.’
‘The king’s son is not here with them?’
Francis shook his head sadly and lowered his voice to be sure Richard would not hear. ‘The prince’s health does not improve and is a great source of worry to the king, as it should be to the realm. It is bitterly regretted that the prince does not have the strength of John of Gloucester, whose health and vigour outshines the prince tenfold, even though he be only the son of a lady in the Countess of Warwick’s household. The king was but fifteen when he sired John, and now John himself is older, at sixteen. He is tall, fair, handsome and dashing. I fancy you will like him.’
The journey was almost at an end, for the outer buildings of the palace were almost upon them. They rode through the great gate, past the bell tower and into the courtyard, halting at last in the shadow of the old palace, and as Richard hastened on inside, Francis jumped lightly down from his horse to assist Cicely to dismount. She smiled and reached down to his arms. Her mother and sister were helped down as well, and as Cicely straightened her gown she was aware of the rest of the cavalcade filling the area. There was some laughter, and when she looked towards the sound, she saw the young man who had caught her attention earlier.
As he dismounted she thought again that he seemed familiar. Whether he felt her scrutiny she did not know, but suddenly he turned to look directly at her. He smiled and bowed. When he straightened, his long silvery hair fluttering in the breeze, she saw him say something to her. She could not hear, but thought by his lips that he said, ‘Greetings, Cousin.’ Who was he to address her thus?
Francis observed, ‘A-ha, I see that my prediction is correct.’
‘I said you would find John of Gloucester to your liking.’
Her lips parted, and she turned to watch Richard’s son and his companions going into the palace. At last she realized why he seemed familiar; he had his father’s eyes and manner.
That night Cicely
fidgeted impatiently by the window of the rooms she and Bess had shared before, now theirs once more, and refurnished richly, in keeping with that of the king’s eldest nieces. Outside it was almost dark and across the river the lights of part of the city glimmered faintly, shining on the moving water. In the glass she could see a broken reflection of herself, dressed in a fine lavender silk gown that was trimmed with bands of delicate white fur. On her head there was a small cap of white lace, from beneath which her dark hair hung loose. The queen had kindly provided her husband’s nieces with a fine wardrobe each, and Cicely was overcome with delight to wear such rich and fashionable clothes.
Bess was in the room as well, and Cicely turned with an envious sigh, thinking her elder sister, now eighteen, was without doubt the loveliest creature in England. But Bess was changing her gown for the third time, having waved away both peach and rose, and she was
dissatisfied with her appearance, even when wearing gold. To Cicely she had looked exquisite in all of them. The harassed ladies-in-waiting fussed around her, plucking at the embroidered brocade and arranging the golden folds to perfection. Bess tapped her slippered foot anxiously. ‘What do you think?’ she demanded of her sister.
‘Oh, Bess, you know you look well, as you always do. Do not try any more. Now
come on or we will be late and that would not be proper on our first night at court.’
There came a timid knock at the door and a page entered bearing a message that their mother awaited their presence in order to go down to the hall. They looked nervously at each other, for tonight they were virtually on trial before the entire court. With quaking hearts they followed the diminutive page to where Elizabeth waited, clad from head to toe in the deepest mourning. She would have covered her face as well, had not Bess advised her that it would be going a little far, because if Elizabeth were in that deep a grief for Edward IV, she would not have attended court at all, but would retire to some secluded manor or even a nunnery. Elizabeth also made use of a walking stick, having twisted her knee when alighting from her palfrey earlier. The aid was genuinely needed, but looked an extra affectation on top of all the unrelieved black. Like Bess, Cicely believed her mother made them look nothing more than foolish.
The noise of the merry-making in the great hall reached their ears long before they came to the head of the staircase leading down to the huge gathering below. Minstrels were playing, lords and ladies danced an elegant measure, and a man was singing falsetto. As the names of Edward IV’s former queen and her two elder daughters were announced, an immediate hush fell upon the court and everyone turned to look. They descended slowly, aware of whispers behind raised hands, the occasional mocking smile and aware most of all of Richard and his queen on the dais at the far end of the room.
Cicely walked a little behind her mother and Bess, for it seemed the natural thing to do. Bess’s beauty and regal Plantagenet bearing was drawing the same appreciation that Elizabeth Woodville herself had once enjoyed, although where Elizabeth was concerned the admiration had been very grudging. Now the interest on the men’s faces was blatant, and the jealousy of the women equally obvious.
Cicely’s nervous glance moved to Francis, who stood with Sir Robert Percy. Francis winked and smiled encouragingly as she passed, for which she was grateful. Sir Robert inclined his head as well. He was perhaps a few years older than Francis, a well-built man with straight tawny hair, an open face and a hint of congeniality in his easy manner.
She also saw Ralph Scrope, splendid in sage green. His disgruntled gaze followed her across the floor, and when their eyes met, he turned away. She glanced around for John of Gloucester, but could not see him.
The walk towards the dais seemed interminable, with the tap-tap of Elizabeth’s stick sounding like a clock ticking away time itself. Cicely’s faint courage was fast disintegrating. She knew that her cheeks were aflame and was dismayed that her inexperience was there for all to see. She had so wanted to conduct herself as a young lady, to look as graceful and collected as Bess. But perhaps Bess’s composure would soon waver when she came close to Richard. Already a little tension was entering her; Cicely could almost
At last they came to the foot of the dais and went to their knees before their king, Elizabeth with some difficulty. Richard, who wore gold-embroidered velvet of the same grey as his eyes, came down to raise her. ‘I welcome you to my court but understand your discomfort, Dame Grey. Are you able to be presented to the queen?’ His golden circlet gleamed as he indicated the steps of the dais.
‘Richard Plantagenet, if you imagine I intend to
be presented to your queen, as is fitting, you are very much mistaken. You may have declared me mere Dame Grey, but I am
the consort of Edward IV,’ she responded emphatically. She knew it was wrong to address him thus, but was too proud to entirely forget that
had once been Queen of England.
‘Then please allow me to conduct you.’ He could have put her in her place, reminded her that although she may have consorted with his brother, she had never, in law, been Edward’s consort, but he allowed her the dignity she sought.
Elizabeth held her head high as she mounted the steps, but her teeth were gritted not only to quell the pain in her knee, but to also quell her anger. She was not accustomed to being less than a queen. It was one thing to be hidden away in the abbey, quite another to face the highest in the land again at court.
Cicely studied Anne Neville, who did not look at all strong. Her dainty, very pretty face was the colour of parchment and her blue eyes had dark rings around them. She was gracious and friendly towards Elizabeth, who was finding the night very difficult indeed.
When Elizabeth had been escorted to one of three chairs set out to one side of the dais, but not actually on it, Richard turned to Bess who, like Cicely, remained on her knees before him. He raised her, and Cicely saw how her fingers moved momentarily around his. He thought it was her nervousness, but her observant sister knew better. Bess managed to mask her feelings, and showed no other outward emotion as she too was conducted up to Anne, who received her with the same courtesy and favour as she had Elizabeth. As Bess was complimented upon her appearance, Cicely felt so sorry for Anne, whose primrose gown drained away what colour she had. Even her long, pale, almost strawberry-coloured hair, swept up beneath a rich, heavy headdress, was lacklustre. It was also shaven back from her forehead, a mode that Cicely knew Richard did not like. The gem-studded belt at the queen’s tiny waist showed how painfully thin she was. She looked as if he could snap her in two with one hand.
As Bess went to sit with her mother, Richard turned to Cicely. ‘Come, sweet Cicely,’ he said with a smile, bending forward to take her hand. She managed to rise with what she prayed was sufficient elegance, but her hand shook and he felt it. ‘I fear this is all necessary, Cicely,’ he said quietly, that he would not be heard by everyone.
‘I am trying not to fall over myself.’
He smiled. ‘You will not do that, for I am here to prevent it. Cicely, you will soon cease to be subject to such intense curiosity.’
‘I hope so,’ she answered honestly.
He glanced around the silent, almost echoing hall, and with a sharp gesture signalled the minstrels to resume playing. The dancing recommenced, as did much of the merriment, but many eyes were still turned towards the king and his younger niece at the foot of the dais.
Richard looked her from toe to head, and smiled. ‘You are becoming more beautiful by the day, Cicely.’
‘You tease me.’
‘No, I do not. Your loveliness is a match for your sister’s. It is . . . warmer.’
you are trying to make me feel better.’
He smiled. ‘That is more like the Cicely I recall from the abbey. I was beginning to fear you had lost your spirit. You must think better of yourself, because in so many ways you put your sister in the shade. And before you suspect me of bolstering your courage again, let me add that I am not the only one to admire you.’
He put a conspiratorial finger to his lips, but did not satisfy her curiosity. ‘Come, for my queen wishes to meet you.’
He led her up to Anne, and to her relief, she managed to kneel with some semblance of elegance. Anne inclined her head and smiled. ‘Lady Cicely, you are truly welcome. You and your sister have become beautiful young ladies now, yet it seems not long since you were mere children.’
Even her voice is pale and thin, thought Cicely as she kissed the skeletal hand. She was drawn to Richard’s kindly, hollow-eyed queen. ‘Your Grace, it is kind indeed of you to receive us so well and to have given us such magnificent wardrobes. We are very fortunate.’
fair.’ Anne smiled and raised her with a gentle hand. ‘You are my husband’s dear nieces, the children of his beloved brother. How else should we receive you but in kindness?’ Then she drew a long breath, clearly feeling unwell, and her eyes moved meaningfully to Richard, who took Cicely’s hand quickly.
‘Come, you were the first of my brother’s children with whom I spoke and so you shall be the first with whom I dance.’
She was nervous as he led her to join the dancers. She and Bess had maintained their dancing lessons in the abbey, but was she good enough to tread a measure with a king? She was aware of Bess’s jealous gaze as she moved in time with Richard, twisting and turning, her hand ready when he had to take it. He moved with a light grace that belied the distortion of his back. He may not have been a giant as her father had been but, slender or not, his was a commanding figure, and in Cicely’s eyes he was by far the most handsome man in the room. But her eyes were that of a loving niece, not of a niece who would be his lover.
As they performed the intricate steps, she saw how his eyes wandered continually towards the queen, who had begun to cough. One of her ladies was pouring her a goblet of wine, but still Anne coughed. Richard forgot the music and stood motionless as the dancing continued all around him. Cicely moved to his side. ‘Please go to her, Uncle.’
His grey eyes swung to her. ‘Forgive me, for I mean you no discourtesy.’
‘I know that.’
He caught her hand and squeezed appreciatively as he led her from the floor and up to the dais, where he left her in order to go to Anne, whose coughing had abated a little, although she looked like a wraith. Someone else was standing next to her now, John of Gloucester, leaning familiarly over to distract her by whispering something amusing in her ear. He was dressed in a mustard doublet and hose and a sleeveless, fur-trimmed jacket of russet velvet, and was already as tall as Richard. His silver-fair hair curled loosely to his shoulders, and as he looked kindly down at his father’s queen, Anne smiled up at him and patted his arm fondly.
Then Richard was there, leaning down anxiously. ‘My lady? Anne?’
‘Please forgive me, my dearest lord, but I am feeling a little tired and would return to my rooms. It is nothing that cannot be soothed by a good rest. I will be well enough to travel in the morning.’ He took her thin hand and pressed it softly and lingeringly to his lips. It was not a mere gesture but an affirmation of love. But what sort of love? Cicely wondered, thinking of Anne’s first husband. The queen’s thin fingers closed momentarily around his and then he assisted her to stand. She bade Cicely and John a good night and then was gone with her ladies.
Cicely felt sad as she watched the wraithlike figure move slowly towards the staircase. She knew—as did Richard—that the queen was not long for this world. But there had been something tepid in the way his wife had responded to him. Had it been because she was so unwell? Or was there some truth in the story that she had loved her first husband more?
To Cicely it seemed there might have been unshed tears in Richard’s eyes as he turned quickly to his son. ‘John, she is more fragile with each day. I fear greatly for her.’
‘Perhaps now, with summer almost upon us, she will improve, Father.’ John’s hand moved out to him but then withdrew again.
‘I can only pray so.’ Richard mastered himself again, and spoke more briskly. ‘But now, I will present you to your sweet cousin.’ He drew her forward. ‘Cicely, this is my son, John of Gloucester.’
All she saw were John’s grey eyes as he stepped forward and bowed low over her hand. ‘Cousin Cicely, I am your servant.’
Richard clearly wished them both gone, for Anne was still on his mind. ‘John, I have just put up a lamentable performance in the dance — you must make it up to my niece, lest she believes all men of the north to be clumsy oafs.’
As John conducted her down to join the dancing, she noticed how Ralph watched. His expression was set, and there was something on his face that conveyed he was now her implacable enemy.
Of that dance she would remember but little, for she seemed to float on air. Her flesh quivered every time John’s hand touched hers. Never before had she experienced such emotion, and she needed all her strength and purpose to control the excitement that ruled each faltering step. But what of him? Did he even see her as a young woman, or was she merely a tiresome cousin with whom he must dance? His face betrayed nothing, and they spoke not a word.
The stately dance came to its end and as the dancers bowed low to each other, Cicely’s attention was snatched away as Richard, still clearly worried about Anne, remembered his duty and approached Bess for the next dance. Bess came to life and light, claiming everyone’s attention as she bent and turned to the music. She might have been formed of golden gossamer, and her shining gaze was turned so often to her king that Cicely was afraid she went too far.
Please do not, Bess. Please.
John spoke softly. ‘Cousin Cicely, shall we dance again? Or am I forgotten?’