1422: Owen Tudor, a Welsh servant, falls in love with the Queen of England.
The beautiful Catherine of Valois, widow of the warrior king, Henry V, is lonely.... and her son, the future King Henry VI, shows signs of the family madness.
As the country simmers on the brink of civil war, will Owen risk everything to protect her?
Discover how they change British history - and establish a dynasty...
"An experience in so many ways. Brilliantly written and informative about the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty." Amazon Reviewer
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I tense at the sound of approaching footsteps as I wait to meet my new mistress, the young widow of King Henry V, Queen Catherine of Valois. Colourful Flemish tapestries decorate the royal apartments of Windsor Castle, dazzling my senses and reminding me how life in the royal household presents new opportunities. My life will change forever, if she finds me acceptable, yet doubt nags at my mind.
The doors open and Queen Catherine's usher appears. I have been told to approach the queen and bow, but must not look directly at her or speak, other than to say my name, until spoken to. Taking a deep breath I enter the queen's private rooms where she sits surrounded by her sharp-eyed ladies-in-waiting. I have the briefest glimpse of azure silk, gold brocade, gleaming pearls and a breath of exotic perfume. I remove my hat and bow, my eyes cast down to her velvet-slippered feet.
'Owen Tudor, Your Highness, Keeper of your Wardrobe.' My voice echoes in the high-ceilinged room.
One of her ladies fails to suppress her giggle, a sweet enough sound, if you are not the reason for it. I forget my instruction and look up to see the queen regarding me with confident, ice-blue eyes.
'You are a Welshman?' Her words sound like an accusation.
'My full name is Owain ap Maredydd ap Tudur, although the English call me Owen Tudor. I come from a long line of Welsh noblemen, Your Highness.' I regret my boast as soon as I say the words.
'Owen Tudor ...' This time her voice carries a hint of amusement.
I put on my hat and pull my shoulders back. She examines me, as one might study a horse before offering a price. After years of hard work I have secured a position worthy of my skills, yet it means nothing without the approval of the queen.
'You look more like a soldier than a servant?' The challenge in her words seems to tease me.
'I have served in the king's army as a soldier.' I feel all their eyes upon me.
'Yet ... you have no sword?' She sounds curious.
'Welshmen are not permitted to carry a sword in England, Your Highness.' I am still bitter at this injustice.
I remember the last time I saw her, at the king's state funeral in Westminster. Her face veiled, she rode in a gilded carriage drawn by a team of black horses. I followed on foot as the funeral procession passed through sombre crowds, carrying the king's standard and wearing the red, blue and gold livery of the royal household.
'You fought in France?'
'With the king's bowmen, Your Highness, before I became a squire.'
The queen has none of the air of sadness I expected. Slim, almost too thin, her childlike wrists and delicate fingers are adorned with gold rings sparkling with diamonds and rubies. Her neck is long and slender, her skin pale with the whiteness of a woman who rarely sees the sun. Her golden-brown hair is gathered in tight plaits at the back of her head and her headdress fashionably emphasises her smooth, high forehead.
King Henry V chose as his bride the youngest daughter of the man they called the 'mad king', Charles VI. They said King Charles feared he was made of glass and would shatter if he didn't take care. Charles promised Henry he would inherit the throne and become the next King of France and there were rumours of a secret wedding dowry, a fortune in gold.
Barely a year into his marriage, the king left his new wife pregnant and alone in Windsor. He returned to fight his war in France, capturing the castle of Dreux before marching on the fortress at Meaux, defended by Jean de Gast, the Bastard of Vaurus, a cruel, brave captain. The king never saw his son and heir, his namesake.
The siege of Meaux was hard won and he suffered the bloody flux, the dreaded curse of the battlefield. Men had been known to recover, if they were strong and lucky. Many did not, despite the bloodletting and leeches. The flux is an inglorious way to die, poisoned by your own body, especially for a victorious warrior king who would never now be King of France.
The queen has an appraising look in her eyes. She has buried her hopes for the future along with her husband. I remember I am looking at the mother of the new king, once he comes of age. One thing is certain; she will not be left to raise the prince alone. Ambitious men are already vying for their share of power and influence.
At last she speaks. 'And now you are in my household?'
'My appointment to your service was made by Sir Walter Hungerford, Steward of the King's Household and constable here at Windsor.'
'Sir Walter was one of my husband's most trusted men — the executor of the king's will.'
'I worked as squire to Sir Walter for many years, in England and France.'
'You speak French?'
'A little, Your Highness.' I answer in French.
'Were you with King Henry at the siege of Rouen?' Now she speaks in French.
'I was, Your Highness. I will never forget it.' I answer again in French. I learned the language on the battlefield and in the taverns of Paris and can swear as well as any Frenchman.
'I heard the people of Rouen were starving ... before they surrendered.' Her voice is softer now and she speaks in English.
I hesitate to admit she is right. The townspeople of the great city of Rouen were eating cats and dogs at the end, whatever they could find. Hundreds of good men and women starved to death to give her husband his victory. I drank foul ditch water to survive and the sights of the siege of Rouen are forever engraved on my memory.
'War is cruel, yet now there is less appetite for it.'
'I pray to God that is true.' She glances back at her ladies, who are watching and listening, as ladies-in-waiting do. Queen Catherine regards me, giving nothing away. 'I welcome you to our household, Master Tudor.'
'Thank you, Your Highness.'
Our first meeting is over. She is unlike any woman I have known, fascinating, intriguing and beautiful. More than that; there is something about her I find deeply attractive, a dangerous thing to admit. Perhaps my fascination is with the glimpse I'd seen of the real woman, the same age as myself, behind the title of Dowager Queen of England.
'Aim high, boy,' my garrulous longbow tutor once advised me, his voice gruff from too much shouting. 'It's not the Welsh way to play safe and wait until you have a clear shot!' The man spits hard on the ground to add emphasis and stares knowingly into my eyes, standing so close I can almost feel the coarse grey stubble of his beard. 'When you aim high,' he points an imaginary bow up at the sky, 'your arrow will fly far into the enemy ranks and strike with the full vengeance of God.'
'Who, of course, is on our side.' A daring, foolhardy thing for a boy like me to say to a man who can punch me to the ground or worse.
For a moment I see the old man's mind working as he tries to decide if I am being disrespectful, sacrilegious or both. The moment passes. I notch a new arrow into the powerful yew longbow and fire it high into the sky, without a care for where it will fall.
I smile at the memory as I return down the long passage to the servants' hall. Life as a king's archer was hard, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of the other men and it taught me many things. As well as how to use a longbow, I learned to watch my back, when to speak up and when to remain silent. My tutor died in the thick mud of Normandy, yet his lesson serves me well. I know to aim high.
That night, wide awake in the darkness, I reflect on the unthinkable turn my life has taken. I always imagined I would become a merchant, setting up shop somewhere in the narrow, dirty streets of London, or perhaps an adventurer, sailing off to seek my fortune. I remain a servant, yet for the first time I have my own lodging room, however small and cramped.
My reward for long and loyal service as squire to Sir Walter has been this new appointment, a position of great responsibility. The queen's wardrobe is a treasure store of priceless gold and jewels, as well as all her expensive clothes and most valuable possessions. Such a senior post in the royal household pays more than I have earned in my life and carries influence, allowing me regular and privileged access to the queen.
I resolve to become indispensable to her. High and mighty lords and dukes will come and go, with their false concerns and self-serving advice, yet I will see her every day, tending to her needs. I recall how she referred to Sir Walter as one of the king's most trusted men. That is what I wish to become; Queen Catherine's most trusted man.
* * *
Life begins to settle into a routine and I soon learn what the queen likes — and what she does not. I have never worked so hard and expand my role to all aspects of the royal household, dividing my time between the army of servants who wait on the queen and the many demands of keeping the palace of Windsor running smoothly. The castle employs so many staff and servants it is almost independent of the outside world. Every day I must make decisions and resolve disputes between them.
One of the most important of my daily duties is to visit the royal nursery and check all is well with the infant Prince Henry. Although he was crowned king in September, everyone in the household refers to him as 'the prince', as he is still not one year old. Each morning I make my way down the long corridors with ornate, tiled floors and high, leaded-glass windows, to the prince's apartments. The nursery occupies an entire wing of the castle, with its own guards and staff to care for the future king.
King Henry V permitted Queen Catherine two maids and three noble ladies to accompany her to England. Juliette, at sixteen the youngest of the queen's chosen maids, greets me. She dresses plainly and covers her hair with a white headscarf, her only jewellery a silver crucifix around her neck. She looks more like a nun than a maidservant, yet I understand why the queen trusts her with the care of the young prince. There is a spark of ambition in Juliette's hazel eyes and she is always the first to notice me when I visit.
Juliette smiles in welcome. 'Good morning, sir.'
I look forward to seeing her on my daily rounds. Although I am four years older than her, she gives the impression she thinks me young for such an important post. I wish to prove myself well-organised and skilled at getting the best from the servants. Sometimes I hear them saying the most inappropriate things behind my back, but Juliette is different and I admire her easy modesty.
Juliette sees me looking at the prince. 'He has slept well, sir,' she says. 'We all give thanks to God he has passed the worst of his teething. His little teeth were keeping him awake every night.'
I look across to where the prince sits with his nursemaid. She keeps his attention with a red ribbon attached to a silver bell, which tinkles musically as she shakes it. Harry is able to sit upright now and has a full head of blond hair. He shows little sign of the thin-faced Plantagenet features of his father, although I expect these will develop with time.
'Has the queen been to visit him today?'
Juliette shakes her head. 'Not yet, sir, although we are always ready for her.'
I am happy for an excuse to stay a little longer than usual in the nursery and take my chance to know Juliette a little better. I am careful to maintain my professional distance from the servants and miss the camaraderie I shared before I came to Windsor Castle.
'I wondered ... if you would help me with the arrangements for Christmas and New Year?'
She looks surprised. 'I will be happy to, sir.'
'We need to meet, to discuss what needs to be done.' I know this will be seen by the other servants as a sign of favouritism. There will be gossiping in the corridors, but Christmas will mean many visitors coming and going, extra tradesmen to negotiate with and a thousand decisions to be made.
'I have some time tomorrow morning, if that will suit you, sir?'
'Thank you Juliette. I will see you tomorrow.'
I hum a tune as I head for the next stop on my tour of the castle, the Great Kitchen, with its high arched ceiling, steaming cauldrons and cooks shouting orders over the noise of clanging pots and pans. At first I found the scale of the kitchens overwhelming, particularly when there are banquets to be arranged. I soon learned to plan several months ahead and to take care about relying on the advice of Samuel Cleaver, the head cook, who runs the Great Kitchen.
Cleaver is a heavily built, ox of a man, with a shiny, shaven head, a thick neck and deep-set, questioning eyes. The head cook is obstructive and difficult, and regards the Great Kitchen as his personal empire. He rules over his army of minions with a harsh, bullying manner, bellowing orders to the cooks in his strong northern accent.
There are rumours he has amassed considerable wealth over his years at Windsor Castle. The vast quantities of food produced in the Great Kitchen mean there is plenty of scope for theft and I sense that Samuel Cleaver is a man with something to hide. I have no wish to make an enemy of him, yet am certain evidence of his crimes will eventually come to light.
Hearing a commotion of raised voices, I investigate and find a red-faced palace guard being rebuked by a suave nobleman in riding clothes. I recognise the visitor as Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, youngest brother of the late king, who has been appointed Lord Protector of the Realm and Regent of England.
'What seems to be the problem, my lord?'
The duke scowls. 'Who might you be?'
'I am the keeper of the queen's household, Owen Tudor, my lord.'
I feel the duke's sharp eyes judging me. 'I wish to see the queen.' He points an accusing finger at the guard. 'This man had the impertinence to challenge me.'
'My apologies, my lord. We have to be most careful.' It seems a reasonable mistake, as the duke arrived unannounced and looks dressed for hunting.
Duke Humphrey seems placated yet his tone is strident. 'From now on, I expect the palace household to know who I am, is that understood?'
'Yes, my lord. May I enquire if the queen will be expecting you to call today?'
The duke gives me a scathing look. 'I doubt it.'
I lead the duke down the corridor to the queen's apartments, wondering what she will say when she sees her visitor. It is another reminder of how little control she has over her life from now on. She is going to need to keep powerful and influential men like Duke Humphrey on her side, for they can send her to Leeds Castle in Kent and have the prince raised by nursemaids and tutors of their choosing.
The duke waits impatiently while I knock and enter the queen's private rooms, where she sits with her ladies-in-waiting. Queen Catherine looks up when she sees it is me.
'A visitor, Your Highness. Duke Humphrey of Gloucester.'
The queen seems unsurprised and dismisses her ladies. I show the duke in and wait outside in the hall, ready to escort him back after the meeting. The duke is talking in a raised voice and I struggle to make out his words through the closed doors, although his sentiment is clear. He is telling the queen how she must conduct herself.
When he finally emerges the duke orders me to take him somewhere we can talk privately. I lead him to one of the rooms set aside for visiting dignitaries. The air is musty and cold with the winter chill, as the room is unused and no fire has been lit in the hearth. The duke gestures for me to close the door and takes a seat, indicating that I do the same. I feel a sense of foreboding about what Duke Humphrey is about to say. As Protector of the Realm he has the right to appoint new staff and servants to the queen's household as he wishes or to dismiss them.
'Queen Catherine tells me she is pleased with the way you run her household.'
'Thank you, my lord.'
'You have done well here.' His tone is friendlier than before. 'Now ... there is something I need you to do for me.'
'What is that, my lord?'
'I am responsible for safeguarding the young king. It will be a long time before he reaches his majority.' His tone becomes conspiratorial. 'And I have to spend most of my time in London. I need someone to act as my eyes and ears, here in Windsor and at the other royal residences, particularly when the queen is travelling. I need to be certain everything is as it should be — behind closed doors.'
I must think quickly, as to agree will put me in an impossible position. 'You are asking me ... to spy on the queen, my lord?'
The duke's eyes narrow. 'You will simply tell me who visits her and when. There are ... factions who will seek to influence the queen for their own ends. This matter must stay between us. You are to mention it to no one. Do you understand?'
'I do, my lord.'
Duke Humphrey looks pleased. 'I will send a man every two weeks to receive your reports. If there is a problem I expect you to send a message to me.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Owen"
Copyright © 2019 Tony Riches.
Excerpted by permission of Preseli Press.
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