January, 1576. After three husbands, widow Ursula Blanchard has no desire to marry again. However, she is not in a position to refuse when Sir Francis Walsingham decides she must wed Count Gilbert Renard, the illegitimate son of King Henri II, in order to build a strategic alliance with the French.
When the Count arrives at her country home to pay court, Ursula’s misgivings grow stronger. Then one of her household staff is found dead at the bottom of the stairs. An accident – or something more sinister?
The disturbing chain of events that follows sees Ursula heading on a perilous journey in a race against time to prevent a national catastrophe. En route she will encounter danger, hardship, conspiracy – and murder.
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A Perilous Alliance
By Fiona Buckley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Fiona Buckley
All rights reserved.
Retreating to Sussex
All I wanted was a quiet domestic life.
After many years of a life that was only intermittently domestic and hardly ever quiet, I desired nothing more than to live in my two houses of Hawkswood in Surrey and Withysham in Sussex – although these days I rarely visited the latter, preferring Hawkswood – and look after my small son Harry; to make occasional journeys to Buckinghamshire where my married daughter Meg lived, and to take care of my household.
I most certainly did not wish to remarry. I had had three husbands and an unwanted affair that was forced on me. Offers were made from time to time but I refused them all, being content with widowhood. The life I now desired was not only peaceful but single. And in 1575 I thought I had at last attained it.
Towards the end of that year, the steward who had been looking after Withysham suddenly died. I was then living, as usual, at Hawkswood, which I loved because it was a beautiful house and also because it had once belonged to my third and most beloved husband, Hugh Stannard. I did not go to Withysham myself to arrange a replacement but sent Hawkswood's steward, Adam Wilder, into Sussex to find and install a replacement. Adam, tall, grey-haired, with years of experience of looking after Hawkswood, could be trusted with the task and in his absence, my excellent manservant Roger Brockley could well take over his duties.
Adam was back before Christmas, saying that he had found a competent new man, named Robert Hanley, in whom I could have every confidence. We kept Christmas pleasantly at Hawkswood just as usual, but as the new year began, and I started to think about a celebration for little Harry's fourth birthday, I realized that the years were slipping by at a surprising rate. It was a very long time since I had last seen Withysham, and this was neglectful. It had been granted to me by Queen Elizabeth herself, in return for services I had been able to render to her, and it was ungrateful of me to ignore it.
And then my plans were interrupted by yet another unwanted proposal of marriage.
It was the fourth since my dear Hugh's death in 1571. Offers had to be expected, of course, for I was a well-off widow, still – just – of childbearing years, and well connected. The latter was not supposed to be widely known, but it was known, all the same. I was therefore a catch. But a year had gone by since my refusal of the third approach and I had concluded that word of this had got round and that now I would be left in peace. Then Captain Yarrow arrived at Hawkswood.
Captain Yarrow was the deputy constable of Dover Castle and I had met him in 1573 when I was involved in another of the diplomatic adventures which had for so long been part of my life. This had begun almost by accident when I first came to court, as one of Elizabeth's ladies, and was in need of money and glad to undertake an unusual assignment. Since then, I had often acted as a secret agent for Elizabeth, which was the reason why recent years had been so very unquiet and had taken me out of the domestic world so often. But I had now withdrawn from such work, for it could be dangerous and I had grown tired of it – and besides, there was Harry to consider.
Yarrow's arrival seriously annoyed me.
There was nothing really wrong with the man. He was a widower, whose wife had died of lung congestion five winters before. He had three sons, aged twelve, fifteen and twenty, and brought the eldest one with him, apparently to provide a testimonial to his good character as a husband and father. He was certainly well off. His position at Dover Castle was well paid; he was trustworthy and he was a humane man in his way when it came to questioning suspects. I had seen a demonstration of that.
He was small in stature but wiry and active and he was a brilliant marksman. He was highly respected by his men, to the point that some of them feared him. He had a couple of oddities, in that he had a high-pitched voice for a man, and a high-pitched giggle to go with it, and he did embroidery as a hobby. That alone should not have been off-putting; some of the finest professional embroiderers in the land are men. Perhaps it was the combination of the needlework and the voice. But whatever my reasons, I did not like him. Even if I had wanted to marry again, I would not have considered Captain Yarrow.
He proved hard to get rid of, however. Having invited himself and his son to Hawkswood, he seemed determined to stay and was impervious to any hints that it was time they both left. They talked persuasively to me of the pleasant accommodation the captain had at Dover, and the beauties of his own country home in Kent, of the agreeable society I would move in and how welcome all my present companions would be.
Well, most of them. As well as Roger Brockley, my closest household members were Brockley's wife Fran, my personal woman (I still often called her Dale, which had been her maiden name), Sybil Jester, who lived with me as my companion, and who was a widow like me though a little older than I, and an aged Welshwoman called Gladys Morgan who had attached herself to me long ago when Brockley and I had rescued her from a charge of witchcraft. Gladys was not an attractive character, since she disliked washing herself, was bad-tempered and had in fact been arrested for witchcraft all over again after she joined my entourage, because of the lurid curses she had thrown at people she disliked. She had also provoked local physicians by being better at brewing successful herbal medicines than they were. Yarrow said that he couldn't agree to accept Gladys.
I could tell that he wouldn't give way on this and finally managed to use Gladys as the means of dislodging him. Where I went, she went, I said firmly. It worked. He and his son at last took themselves off, disappointed.
Their presence had disturbed me so much that I had had two bad migraines during their stay. Brockley, glad to see me downstairs again after the first one had subsided, had looked at me with serious grey-blue eyes, wrinkled his high, gold-freckled forehead, and said: 'I cannot like the effect these guests are having on you, madam.'
During the second attack, two days later, Dale, her slightly protuberant blue eyes anxious, and the pocks of a long ago attack of the smallpox standing out as they always did when she was upset, brought me a soothing potion (brewed by Gladys) and said candidly: 'Ma'am, if you marry that captain, you'll spend half your life having migraines.'
Gladys had already offered to give them a distaste for Hawkswood by putting purges in their wine, but I had told her that the last thing I wanted was to have the pair of them being ill and tied to my premises accordingly. Now, Sybil, standing worriedly beside Dale at my bedside, simply said: 'Dear Mistress Stannard, don't do it.'
'I don't intend to do it,' I said, waspishly, not because I was angry with Dale or Sybil but because an invisible demon had just struck me over the left eyebrow with an invisible hammer. 'It's just so hard to convince them.'
I was touched by the concern of my people, and more grateful than I can say for the drawbacks that made Gladys so unacceptable to Yarrow. I have never bidden guests farewell with greater enthusiasm.
The day of the Yarrows' departure was when I decided that Harry's birthday, which was in February, should be celebrated in Withysham, deep in Sussex, a healthy distance from both Dover and London, as I remarked to Brockley.
'It's not that far, madam,' he observed. 'Getting to Sussex won't really be an obstacle for anyone who really wants to find you.'
'I know,' I said. 'But it just feels as though it is.'
It was January, but after one short spell of snow, the weather had cleared and by the final week of the month, it was frosty but dry. The roads would be passable. We set off at once.
I would have left even sooner, had I been present at a meeting of the Royal Council, which took place about a week before I started for Withysham. I got to know about that later, when Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, gave me a detailed description of the proceedings.
Not that moving faster would have done me much good. Brockley was right. Having to travel into Sussex was no problem to anyone who really wanted to find me.
The meeting in question took place at Whitehall Palace, which is less of a building than a small town in its own right. To get from one part of it to another frequently means coming out into the open air and crossing a courtyard or two. Because of the frosty weather, all those attending the meeting arrived, to a man, in cloaks of velvet or heavy wool, with lavish fur trimmings: ermine, sheep fleece, black bear from the Continent, and in the case of Lord Burghley, the silky, curly fleece known as astrakhan, imported expensively from Russia. As the queen's Treasurer, Cecil usually considered that for someone in his position, too much ostentation looked like a form of boasting, but weather like this excused any kind of luxury that kept a man warm.
'But there was a good fire in the conference chamber,' Cecil told me. 'Everyone shed their cloaks with a sigh of relief and the servants took them away and we settled round the table and picked up our copies of the agenda in a cheerful fashion. A mood which lasted,' he added drily, 'approximately five minutes.'
Cecil was a serious man, grave of face, with a wispy forked beard that he sometimes pulled at when worried (which was often), and a permanent anxiety line between his eyes. But he did have a quiet sense of humour and if he had a startling announcement to make, he usually did so tactfully. He was not given to melodrama.
It was the Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham – no, Sir Francis, since he had been knighted shortly before the previous Christmas – who threw the firework into their midst. Ignoring the agenda that lay in front of him, he rose to his feet and said: 'Gentlemen, before we even consider the official business of the day, there is something else, of vital importance, to discuss. I am sorry to report that somewhere in court circles there is a spy. Someone in a position to be well informed has been in touch with Spain and France, and not to our advantage.'
There was a silence, before the Earl of Leicester, Sir Robert Dudley, said: 'In what way?'
'Her majesty,' said Walsingham, 'has good reason to regard both nations as potential enemies. Both are strongly Catholic and both would like an opportunity to impose their religion on us. France also has an interest in Mary Stuart's claim to our throne. That is based, as you are all aware, of course, on the Catholic insistence that our queen's mother Anne Boleyn wasn't lawfully married to King Henry the Eighth because his previous wife was still living. Mary Stuart of Scotland was formerly a queen of France – and a very popular one. The French back her claim. Meanwhile, our relations with Spain are so uneasy that they no longer have an ambassador here! Our best protection so far has been the fact that France and Spain are hereditary foes. But as an additional safeguard, we have wished to impress both with the idea that we are a strong nation, well able to defend ourselves. For this reason, we have – again, as most of you know – tried to let it be known abroad that our navy is greater than it actually is.'
Round the table, there were nods. Everyone knew about that particular stratagem.
'It hasn't been too easy,' Walsingham said, 'since the embassies are the usual conduit for this sort of thing and, as I have just said, the Spanish embassy is currently closed. But through the French embassy, and the work of agents in both countries, we had, we thought, convinced them that we have at our disposal, one hundred and seventy ships, with more being built. Our agents now report that both governments now know that we actually have only seventy vessels ready for use. This is serious, not just because it is now clear to both Spain and France that we are a weaker nation than we wanted them to suppose, but also that someone in England is passing damaging information to them. Are there any theories on who our spy could be?'
There were shaken heads and anxious faces. There were people of Spanish and French nationality at the court but most of them were there because they were out of favour in their own countries, and had taken refuge in England. Few, in any case, were likely to be privy to the sort of information that was now being leaked.
My lord of Sussex, Thomas Radcliffe, finally remarked: 'Well, there are other ways to deal with the dangers posed by these two powers. A strong alliance with one would neutralize both of them. None of us want, or would trust, a treaty with Spain, and I therefore urge – as I have done before – that we should seek a treaty binding England and France to come to each other's aid if either is attacked by Spain, and back the treaty up by a physical bond of marriage.'
Robert Dudley, bristling, said: 'We have been into all this half a dozen times already, Sussex. You want the queen to marry and provide the land with an heir, and you did your very best not so long ago to encourage a marriage between her and a French prince. It fell through and thank God for it. How you can consider thrusting her majesty into a marriage she does not want, and risking her life in childbirth now that she is over forty, I can not understand.'
'Gentlemen, gentlemen,' said Cecil pacifically. 'I have given this very matter much thought and am in fact awaiting a reply to a letter I recently despatched to King Henri of France.'
'Without our knowledge?' snapped Sussex.
'Hardly that, since most of you agreed long ago that a marriage alliance between England and France would be desirable. I have thought of a way to provide such an alliance without putting the queen at risk. In writing to King Henri, I was testing the water, as it were. And privately. With a spy at large in the court, discretion seemed desirable.'
'Would your new scheme provide an heir?' demanded Sussex, glaring at Dudley. 'It's an heir that England desperately needs. And the queen is not so opposed to the idea of marriage as you imagine. I have talked with her several times on the subject. As for her age, she is healthy, and many women bear a first child when they are past forty, with perfect success. In some matters, we must trust in God.'
'I would prefer to trust in building up our navy – and raising an army – as soon as possible and making sure that no one passes any more secret information to unfriendly powers!' Dudley blazed, and Walsingham remarked: 'England will be in serious straits if she ends up with neither a queen nor an heir. Or no queen and an heir in a cradle. Her majesty's well-being is the well-being of us all.'
Pacifically, Lord Burghley said: 'Pending the result of my correspondence with France, I think we should set about smoking out our hidden spy. I am conscious of his existence and intended to speak of it today, except that Sir Francis did so first. I urge every one of us to consider how the spy might be discovered and I recommend an extraordinary meeting in a few days' time to discuss our ideas. We should now turn to the rest of the agenda. There have been too many complaints lately about counterfeit coins and it also seems that the gang of Algerine corsairs that two years ago made a stronghold for themselves on the island of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel, are still defying all our efforts to remove them. We need to pursue coiners with more energy and sanction a further plan for an attack on Lundy ...'
Our journey to Withysham could not be hurried, since we had a baggage cart with us, and we also needed to take the coach that Hugh had once used. Neither Sybil nor Dale were good horsewomen, while Gladys was too old to ride at all and of course we had Harry with us, and his young nursemaid, Tessie, and also Netta, a maidservant who was married to Simon, one of the grooms I wanted to take, and who was expecting their first and much longed-for baby. All six were packed into the coach. I preferred to ride my black mare, Jewel, but those of us who were on horseback had to limit ourselves to the speed of the wheeled transport. All the same, by making an early start and taking regular breaks to rest ourselves and our horses, we reached Withysham in one day. We arrived just as dusk was falling but I had sent Simon on ahead and we came through the short tunnel of the gatehouse arch to be greeted by eager barking from the Withysham dogs, candlelit windows and a smell of cooking and on the doorstep, a dignified figure dressed in a smart black suit and wearing a gold chain of office, waiting to greet us.
Excerpted from A Perilous Alliance by Fiona Buckley. Copyright © 2015 Fiona Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Table of Contents
The Ursula Blanchard Mysteries From Fiona Buckley,
Chapter One: Retreating to Sussex,
Chapter Two: A Suitable Alliance,
Chapter Three: Uninvited Guests,
Chapter Four: First Impressions,
Chapter Five: Welcome to Hawkswood Inn,
Chapter Six: A Sense of Injustice,
Chapter Seven: Playing the Queen,
Chapter Eight: Wedding Morning,
Chapter Nine: Giving Chase,
Chapter Ten: Misdirection,
Chapter Eleven: Asking the Way,
Chapter Twelve: Calling for Help,
Chapter Thirteen: Whitefields,
Chapter Fourteen: Ruby by Moonlight,
Chapter Fifteen: Scotland Versus France,
Chapter Sixteen: Tired of Trouble,
Chapter Seventeen: An Act of Betrayal,
Chapter Eighteen: The Power of Fear,
Chapter Nineteen: Hidden Treasure,
Chapter Twenty: Other Men's Gold,
Chapter Twenty-One: Conspiracy,
Chapter Twenty-Two: A Matter of Timing,
Chapter Twenty-Three: Eyes in Shadow,
Chapter Twenty-Four: Travelling on,
Chapter Twenty-Five: Four Hundred Miles,
Chapter Twenty-Six: All Too Much,
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Saving Kate,
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Shaping the Future,