Queen's Bountyby Fiona Buckley
Happily married to her third husband, Ursula Blanchard is rudely shaken on receipt of a threatening letter from the exiled Anne Percy, Countess of Northumberland, whose treasonous plot against Elizabeth I, Ursula helped foil a few months previously. Ursula dismisses the Countess’s letter as idle threats, but then a series of strange events rocks
Happily married to her third husband, Ursula Blanchard is rudely shaken on receipt of a threatening letter from the exiled Anne Percy, Countess of Northumberland, whose treasonous plot against Elizabeth I, Ursula helped foil a few months previously. Ursula dismisses the Countess’s letter as idle threats, but then a series of strange events rocks Ursula’s household – and Ursula herself is accused of witchcraft. Could Anne Percy really be orchestrating a plot against Ursula from her exile in the Netherlands? And, if so, how can Ursula prove it before she is hanged as a witch?
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By Fiona Buckley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2012 Fiona Buckley
All rights reserved.
I don't believe in witchcraft. Nor does my husband Hugh or my good servant Roger Brockley or my gentlewoman Sybil Jester. Fran Dale, my maid, who is actually Roger's wife, thinks there may be something in it, but Dale is inclined to be credulous. As for that aged hanger-on of mine, Gladys Morgan – I have never been sure. Gladys, being old, unprepossessing and poor, lacks influence on account of just those things, and resents it. Pretending to have supernatural abilities has sometimes been her way of commanding respect, or even fear. Where pretence blurs into belief, I don't know.
Oh, very well, let us be quite honest. There are times when even people with the strongest minds lapse into credulity, a little. In the noon of the day, when the household is all round you and you are busy with mundane tasks, then it's easy enough to say I don't believe in witches. But at dead of night, when winds and raindrops and ivy leaves tap on windows, when houses creak and whisper to themselves, and even if you light a candle, it only makes a little pool of brightness, with formless shadows fleeing and flying beyond its edges: are any of us quite so certain then?
Probably not. Still, for the most part, I maintain that sorcery is nonsense, which is why, when Gladys Morgan was convicted of causing death through witchcraft and condemned to be hanged, I moved heaven and earth, and Queen Elizabeth of England, to save her.
I had an advantage, because the queen is my half-sister, though few people are supposed to know it. In fact, more people know it than either I or Elizabeth really wish, but it's rarely mentioned aloud, by anyone. Her mother was Queen Anne Boleyn, and her father was King Henry the Eighth. My mother served Queen Anne and was seduced by King Henry, and so I came into being. It gives me the right, in an emergency, to go to the queen. I did so, and Gladys was reprieved, just in time.
She was lucky, for she'd been accused of witchcraft before. An earlier accusation was the reason why she came into my household at all. There is a strong streak of Sir Galahad in Roger Brockley. Like me he decided that Gladys had been victimized because she was aged, ugly and rude, so he rescued her.
But it was true that she had a repertoire of imaginative curses that she would hurl at people who annoyed her, which was all too easy to do. After she came to us, her habit of cursing outraged more than one vicar, and then an unkind fate made some of her ill-wishes apparently come true. Also, she was a gifted herbalist, and nothing annoys a male physician more than a female brewer of potions whose medicines work better than his. There were plenty of people to bear witness against her. Hence her narrow escape on this last occasion.
Afterwards, she became quieter and better behaved. I worried about her though when, in the year 1570, Sir Edward Heron became Sheriff of the County of Surrey. He was a conscientious man who wished to perform his duties properly, but he not only believed in witchcraft, he also hoped that in the county under his jurisdiction he would succeed in stamping it out.
Hugh and I met him for the first time at Cobbold Hall, the home of the Cobbold family, seven miles from Hugh's West Surrey house, Hawkswood. Hugh, who had been born at Hawkswood, knew the Cobbolds well, and as it happened, Anthony Cobbold knew Heron. Heron, like us, was a guest at the wedding when their elder daughter Alice was married.
'This is a bigger affair than I expected,' Hugh said to me as we got out of our coach. Surrounded by the other wedding guests, who were mostly on horseback, we had just jolted back from the service at St Peter's Church in Woking, a couple of miles away. The guests had almost filled the church, though St Peter's was quite big, surprisingly so for a place like Woking, which was little more than a well-grown village. However, despite its dignified name, Cobbold Hall wasn't particularly large. It was attractive, certainly, built of warm red-brown brick topped by black and white timber and plaster, with a thatched roof and a formal garden with a dovecote, but its rooms were not spacious. As we entered, I wondered how such a crowd could be fitted in. Anthony Cobbold, the bride's father, welcomed us at the door and announced that the feast in the dining room was not yet ready. To begin with, would guests please go into the parlour?
'He should have said would we cram ourselves in,' Hugh whispered in my ear.
The modestly sized parlour itself was pleasant, south-facing, with the sunshine of late June streaming through its leaded windows. There were glossy oak floorboards underfoot, and the air was scented by garlands of roses, strung in loops between the ceiling beams. The room was also well supplied with settles and padded stools. Between these and the crush of guests, there was hardly an inch of floor space left free.
'However will they seat us all for the dinner?' I said. 'I had no idea that the Cobbolds had such a wide acquaintance. I hardly know anyone here!'
Though Anthony Cobbold and Hugh had been friends since they were boys, our two households had not met often during the last few years, and we hadn't encountered many of their current social circle. It was some time since Hugh's worsening rheumatism had made him reluctant to travel away from home, even by coach. The seven miles between us and Cobbold Hall had become more and more of a barrier. But a wedding was a special occasion. For that, Hugh had said that he must make the effort. Now, we found ourselves amid a crowd of strangers.
Somewhere, though I couldn't see them, musicians were tuning up. As we pushed our way further in, we saw that a low platform, draped in a carpet, had been placed by the window. On it, in two high-backed chairs, sat fair-haired Alice, in ivory brocade, with a glittering new wedding ring on her left hand, and her bridegroom Robert, an amiable-looking young man in a pearl-grey doublet. Smiling people kept squeezing through the crowd to congratulate them.
A few feet away from the platform was a table where wedding gifts were being received and arranged for display by Alice's younger sister Christina. Aged seventeen and dressed for the occasion in crimson velvet with a farthingale and a pretty, lace-edged ruff, Christina was firm of jaw, with strong eyebrows, brown hair and brown eyes as bright as a squirrel's. Just now, those eyes were very alert, watching to see that the table wasn't jolted in the crush and that no one made off with any of the gifts. Such a thing was most unlikely, in this hand -picked company, but Christina visibly enjoyed being in charge.
'We are so glad you could come,' said Jane Cobbold graciously, making her way through to greet us. 'I saw you in the church, but you only arrived as the service began and I had no chance to welcome you before.'
'The roads were muddy,' said Hugh. 'There's been so much rain lately. We came by coach, and it stuck twice. My rheumatism won't let me ride a horse these days.'
'At least the sun has come out for your daughter's wedding,' I added.
'Well, the coach kept the mud from your skirts, Mistress Stannard,' said Jane, visibly studying the detail of my tawny overdress and cream brocade kirtle. She was a soft-featured, garrulous woman with big, earnest blue eyes and a habit of imitating other women's dresses and jewellery.
When I married Hugh, I had accepted his friends as mine, and therefore, because he and Anthony had known each so long, I had accepted the Cobbolds. But they wouldn't have been my choice, and when Hugh began to say that the journey to Cobbold Hall seemed to be getting mysteriously longer and more difficult, I hadn't tried to persuade him otherwise, or urged him to invite them to Hawkswood instead. At least, I didn't mind Anthony, for he was always polite even though he looked intimidating. He was tall and black-haired with a pointed beard and piercing dark eyes, and my maid, Fran Dale, after her one and only glimpse of him, had said in a hushed voice that all he needed was horns and a tail to look just like Satan. I had laughed at her. Anthony Cobbold was harmless enough, I said. But Jane ...
Try as I would, I couldn't like Jane. She was both talkative and tactless, and also I had noticed that she usually agreed with anyone who expressed a point of view with any degree of vigour. I had heard her say, 'I feel just the same,' twice in five minutes about two opposite opinions expressed by different people, who were, in fact, arguing with each other.
In addition, if I didn't take to Jane, she hadn't taken to me either. Hugh, introducing me to his neighbours, had been kind enough to be proud of my somewhat unconventional past, but with Jane, this was a mistake. Hugh had let the Cobbolds know that I had been involved in private and sometimes adventurous enquiries for the queen, and also that I had eloped with my first husband by getting out of a window at night and sliding down a roof. Anthony had been amused, but the effect on Jane was to make her look at me, whenever we met, as though I were slightly dangerous, like a barrel of gunpowder that might explode at any moment. My championship of Gladys hadn't helped.
However, to please our husbands, we put up with each other. So now Jane was uttering platitudes about muddy skirts, while I replied with similar platitudes about being glad that the sun had shone for her daughter.
'And how is your own daughter, Meg?' Jane asked. 'You should have brought her with you; why ever didn't you? I hope she is in good health?'
'She's perfectly well. But the invitation didn't mention her,' I said.
'Oh, what of it? You could have brought anyone you liked. Surely you know that!'
I hadn't known it at all but decided not to say so.
'And tell me, what about Gladys Morgan? How does she fare? We had to admire the way you saved her when she was convicted of witchcraft. Such loyalty to your dependants! The whole district was talking about it when you brought her home.' The words were admiring, the tone less so. 'I hope it's turning out well. I would be afraid of harbouring such a one, I don't mind telling you.'
No, I know you don't mind. You've said all this, several times before. I clenched my teeth to stop myself from actually speaking my thoughts.
Jane was racing on. 'After all, can you be sure she won't drift back to her old ways? They say that when the devil gets hold of someone, he never lets go. Sir Edward Heron – the new Surrey sheriff; we know him quite well and he's here as one of our guests – was saying as much only the other day ... Oh, here he is. Anthony is bringing him over.'
'We should be most interested to meet him,' said Hugh suavely, while I controlled my annoyance and made myself smile.
Anthony Cobbold was accompanied by a man even taller than himself, with a long neck and a beaky nose. Whereas Anthony, as became a bride's father, was resplendent in a russet velvet that suited his dark colouring, his lanky companion was all in black.
'Anthony met Sir Edward last year when they were both on a coroner's jury,' Jane whispered. 'A man of great integrity, Anthony says, and a firm upholder of the law, and particularly severe on witchcraft. He has a chaplain who preaches against it, and there have been several witchcraft trials since he took office. Quite rightly, I dare say. Oh, I think you once told me you didn't believe in such things, Ursula, but I'm sure you're wrong about that. You'd best keep Gladys Morgan away from him.'
Anthony and his companion arrived beside us. 'Ah, Hugh Stannard and Mistress Ursula. Sir Edward, these are our friends the Stannards. You will have heard of them, no doubt.' He dropped his voice. 'Acquaintances of the Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil; I believe they expect a visit from him shortly. Mistress Ursula ...'
'I will address her as Mrs Stannard,' said Heron. 'I prefer the short modern terms of Mr and Mrs. The honorific Mistress is suitable for young unmarried girls, but when used for mature people, it has to me an old-fashioned ring, and I can't help but equate old -fashioned with Popery.'
'As you wish,' Anthony said. 'Mistr — Mrs Stannard is ... well, related to the queen, you know, though it isn't mentioned too openly. Ursula, Hugh, this is Sir Edward Heron, County Sheriff.'
Hugh bowed. I curtsied, stifling a regrettable urge to laugh because the name Heron was so completely right for a man with long legs and neck and that sharp curved nose. There was even, I thought, something a little predatory about his cold grey eyes.
I gathered, as we stood talking to him, that Jane had not exaggerated when she said he was severe on witchcraft.
'I am finding my new post onerous in many ways,' he informed us, 'although I expected that and it has given me the means to take certain matters in hand. There has been much laxness, I fear. Because I respect the queen and she has said that she does not seek windows into men's souls, I try not to interfere with what people do in the privacy of their homes, but open Popish practices are too often winked at and they have increased since that wicked Papal Bull last month, telling Catholics not to obey Queen Elizabeth. And as for witchcraft – why, every other village seems to have a witch and even to be proud of it! Sorcery is a terrible thing and needs to be rooted out. In the short time since I have been in office, I have brought six cases to justice, and all were found guilty and hanged.'
'You are sure they really were witches?' Hugh asked mildly.
'Oh, undoubtedly. There was a woman who publicly cursed some small boys who were stealing her apples, and one of them died that same week, falling out of a tree in another garden. And after an informer had warned us, we raided a house in Woking one night and found the most shocking rites in progress: a black-draped altar, an upside-down crucifix attached to it, and three couples copulating on the floor. I look for real evidence, I assure you. I do not allow the old custom of swimming suspected witches and saying that the ones that float are guilty. I regard such things as superstition. I deal in facts. There was no doubt at all what was happening at that Woking house. Several times my men have raided suspect houses and found some shocking books – full of instructions on how to make magical brews with the most repulsive ingredients, and how to create various, well, things, which can be put to evil use. I order those to be burned, or most of them.'
'What happens to the rest?' enquired Hugh with interest. I wondered if, like me, he was having a private vision of Sir Edward Heron poring over dubious literature secretly, by candlelight, at dead of night.
'I keep some – under lock and key, of course – for when I am training young men for my staff. I let them see the books, briefly, so that they can recognize them. I'm careful, of course. I discourage any signs of unhealthy interest.'
'What happened to their original owners?' Anthony asked.
'They were all among those hanged, and good riddance,' said Heron. 'The Bible says thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, does it not? My chaplain, Mr Parkes, preached on that text only last Sunday.'
I flinched inwardly, though not on account of the house with the black-draped altar. That sounded horrible, blasphemous if nothing worse, but to me, the story of the orchard-raiding boys was far more alarming. Lads who go apple scrumping are liable to fall out of fruit trees now and again. They hardly need curses to help them. But Heron was clearly ready to pounce on any indignant orchard owner who had shouted a few profane threats. I was sure he had hanged the innocent. We would indeed be wise to keep our Gladys away from him.
Anthony drew Heron away to be introduced to someone else, and Jane, clearly concerned that we shouldn't be left without anyone to talk to except each other, led a couple of middle-aged ladies towards us. One was tall and dark-haired, more handsome than beautiful, with an aquiline nose and shapely eyebrows and a firm mouth. Her skin was tanned, as though she spent a lot of time out of doors. The other, by contrast, was fairish, dumpy and small, with plump, smiling features. They were too dissimilar to be sisters, but they were dressed like sisters in identical dark-blue gowns. Jane introduced them as Mrs Jennet Ward and Mrs Margery Seldon.
'Like Sir Edward, they prefer the title Mrs in the modern fashion,' Jane explained. 'They share a house with their little maidservant Bessie, and they are both good musicians. They have been tutoring Christina in music. She is quite talented, they say.'
'We are both widows,' said Jennet Ward. She was the tall one. 'We offered to provide the music for this occasion,' she said, 'but Jane and Anthony had already hired a trio. The lute and the spinet are our instruments. We live in Woking, and we got to know the Cobbolds when we undertook to instruct their younger daughter.'
Excerpted from Queen's Bounty by Fiona Buckley. Copyright © 2012 Fiona Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Meet the Author
Fiona Buckley is the author of the Ursula Blanchard mysteries. Under her real name, Valerie Anand, she is the author of numerous historical novels including the much-loved Bridges Over Time series. Brought up in London, she now lives in Surrey.
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Ursula just can't get a break. She's safe at home, and then begins to find out that she's surrounded by enemies. And a vindictive hand from the past reaches out to hrm her.