November, 1569: Happily married to her third husband, Hugh Stannard, Ursula Blanchard is hoping to give up her undercover work for Queen Elizabeth l in order to enjoy domestic bliss. But when Hugh unwittingly endangers possession of his ancestral home, Ursula is forced to take on a seemingly hopeless, but handsomely paid, private assignment—which the queen considers the perfect cover for a covert investigation into a group of rebel barons plotting to put Mary, Queen of Scots back on the English throne . . .
“Ursula is the essence of iron cloaked in velvet—a heroine to reckon with.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The worthy Ursula is an estimable heroine, and Buckley’s confident mastery of sixteenth-century British history lends an air of authenticity to her cleverly spun adventures.” —Booklist
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Queen Without a Crown
By Fiona Buckley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2011 Fiona Buckley
All rights reserved.
Walking in the Rain
The messenger who came thundering over the bridge to Windsor Castle on that damp November morning in 1569 brought grave news to Queen Elizabeth and a very curious message to one of her Ladies of the Bedchamber, namely myself, Ursula Stannard. He brought me a riddle to solve and also, possibly, the answer to a prayer. If only I could close my hand upon it.
I was a woman in my thirties and I had led an unusual life, for I had for a long time been not only one of the queen's ladies, but also, now and then, an agent undertaking secret missions for her and for her secretary of state, Sir William Cecil. In the course of all this I had acquired some unconventional skills such as picking locks and breaking ciphers. I was accustomed to searching out plots and traitors, taking on false identities, reading other people's letters and listening at doors. I wore divided over-kirtles with hidden pouches sewn inside them so that I could carry lockpicks and a dagger about with me.
I had, however, never learned how to travel into the past, and the best way to grasp the golden prize now dangling before me, which would turn sadness to joy if only I could but win it, would be to turn back time for twenty-three years. It was something of a challenge, to put it mildly.
In an attempt to take a cheerful view of the situation, I reminded myself that although there was serious trouble in the north of England, the queen did not want me to be involved in it. I was not, for once, being ordered to journey into peril on some secret mission. The strange new assignment I was being offered would at least not lead me into danger.
Unfortunately, my mortal ears couldn't hear Fate laughing.
That morning began in the most ordinary fashion. It was drizzling, but Elizabeth didn't mind walking in the rain and often did so, her ladies and courtiers, perforce, walking with her. One of her gentlemen would always be at her side, while everyone else followed behind, the ladies lifting their skirt hems clear of the puddles, wishing their shoes were stouter and occasionally sneezing. If Elizabeth acknowledged the sneezes at all, it was usually with a sharp glance over her shoulder and a curt command to stop that noise.
At least, this time, she was keeping to the castle terrace, where we had paving stones underfoot instead of wet grass. Christopher Hatton, one of her most devoted friends, was beside her this time, and the hooded fur cloak that protected the royal head of hair and the queenly array of white brocade and pearls had been a gift from him. I wished my cloak were as good.
We all had cloaks of course, for the drizzle was penetrating. It drifted in chilly clouds over the Thames and the open heath below the castle. I said to my husband Hugh, who was with us, that it was wonderful how weather could alter distance. Amid the sloping open land below us stood a lonely cottage. On clear days it looked as though one good throw would toss a stone into its garden. Today, we could barely see its outline and it seemed distant and unreal.
We were both low in spirit. We would rather have been at home in one of our two houses, Hawkswood on the Surrey border or Withysham in Sussex. We hadn't welcomed Elizabeth's summons to Windsor.
It was a safety measure, for the castle was well defended and the rebellion in the north was gathering strength. No one knew how serious the danger was or how far south it would reach, but Elizabeth's person had to be safeguarded and so, she insisted, did mine. 'You would make a useful hostage, if the rebels once got hold of you, Ursula,' she told me.
I had no legal status, for although my father had had a formidable list of wives, my mother was never among them. But blood ties are blood ties and people are vulnerable through their kinfolk. Queen Elizabeth and I were half-sisters. My mother, while serving Queen Anne Boleyn at court, had been seduced by King Henry the Eighth. The facts of my parentage were not widely known, but enough people were aware of them to turn me into a target for conspirators.
I knew I should be grateful to her for taking such care of me and mine. My husband, my fourteen-year-old daughter Meg, and the principal members of our household were in Windsor with us. They included my daughter's tutor Dr Lambert, my gentlewoman Sybil Jester, our good servants Fran and Roger Brockley and an aged and exasperating hanger-on of mine, Gladys Morgan, for whom I had a reluctant responsibility. We were together and well housed, but it fretted me to be cut off from home.
At home, after all, I was the mistress of the house. At Windsor, I was a Lady of the Bedchamber, a promotion from my former place at court as a Lady of the Presence Chamber, but with drawbacks. Attending on the queen in private as I did now, I was more than ever subject to her wishes, her whims (and occasionally her tempers) as well as being compelled to walk in the rain whether I liked it or not – and I didn't.
And that wasn't all. Of our two homes, the one we longed for most was Hugh's property of Hawkswood, a grey stone manor-house set in a peaceful valley, looking south towards Sussex, with a vista of low wooded hills. It possessed a small ornamental lake, a charming knot garden and a rose garden which was Hugh's especial pride. I sometimes thought that his roses occupied the place in his heart which his children would have filled, had he ever had them.
Beyond the gardens and the lake there were cattle meadows, cornfields, and a small beech wood. It was a good property, serene and productive, and Hugh had been born there. He loved it, and gradually I had come to love it too.
And now we were in danger of losing it. While it was still ours, we wanted to be there. We walked side by side in the rain, trying to talk of other things but quite unable to concentrate on them.
Abruptly, I said: 'Hugh, once again, why not sell Withysham instead? I don't feel about it as you feel about Hawkswood. I wasn't bred there; it isn't my family home. Why won't you let me do this?'
'Because the queen gave it to you for services rendered, and they were dangerous services. You earned Withysham as I never earned Hawkswood. Because she might even take offence if you were to sell it. And because the unhappy muddle we're now in is my fault and not yours. I didn't marry you to rob you, Ursula. I will not let you sacrifice Withysham; please don't mention it again.'
When Hugh spoke in that tone, he meant what he said and would not be moved. I looked at him sadly. 'Very well,' I said.
For the third time, we turned at the western end of the terrace and began to walk back. It was cold and I felt concerned for Hugh, who was much older than I was and whose health sometimes wavered. 'If only this business in the north could be settled quickly!' I said. 'Then we could go home, at least for a while. I wish we knew what was happening. Surely news must come soon.'
Ahead and below, just visible through the rain haze, we could see the bridge across the river. Suddenly, Hugh's hand closed on my arm. 'I think,' he said, 'that news is arriving now. Someone's coming across that bridge at a gallop.'
I joined Elizabeth's court originally as a young widow after the death of my first husband, Meg's father, Gerald Blanchard. I was in need of money, and when the chance came to earn some, I seized it. That was how I turned into one of the agents employed by Elizabeth and Cecil. Strange and perilous though the business was, it was at least well paid.
And inescapable. I married a second time, and my new husband, Matthew de la Roche, was no friend to Elizabeth. That should have ended my spying days, and as the work had begun to sicken me, I was not sorry. But although Matthew took me to live abroad, the queen, undeterred, found means to draw me back to England. While I was away from him, I heard of Matthew's death from plague.
Again I tried to escape into private life, by marrying Hugh Stannard, but still, now and then, I was called back into service. I still had my lockpicks and my dagger. If you were useful to Elizabeth and Cecil, they used you, whether you wished it or not. Like walking in the rain.
It was more with resignation than surprise that I heard that the messenger from the north, though his principal business was with the queen and Cecil, had asked to see me as well.
The meeting took place in the anteroom to the queen's bedchamber. Elizabeth received us formally, seated on a dais, very much the gracious queen in her pale brocade, her pearls and her open lace ruff, except that her expression wasn't gracious at all, but sharp as a hatchet. The messenger stood facing us, and Cecil stood beside the dais, formally gowned. I waited a few steps back, wondering what all this was going to mean to me. I was worried about Hugh's health and afraid that the loss of Hawkswood might damage it further. I did not want distractions now.
The rain had grown heavier and blew against the leaded windows while the messenger talked. He was a young man, well educated to judge from his voice, not tall but very handsome, with shapely cheekbones and dark, winged eyebrows sweeping outwards and upwards above deep-set brown eyes. His black hair was vigorous, growing strongly from his hairline. His name was Mark Easton, and he was in the employ of Lord Sussex, President of the North.
He had ridden hard from York, changing horses frequently at the royal posting stables and barely pausing to eat or sleep. Tired and wet though he undoubtedly was, he had insisted on delivering his message before taking any refreshment or even removing his cloak and boots, and it was from his left boot that he withdrew his employer's written report. He would have knelt to present it to her, but Elizabeth, with an impatient: 'No need for that!' held out her hand for it, and when he gave it to her, she broke the seal at once and began to read the contents aloud.
They were alarming. The earls of Westmorland and Northumberland, stirred up by wild ambitions on the part of another nobleman, the Duke of Norfolk, had between them mustered fifteen thousand men, and had now ridden into the city of Durham in the north-east 'to raise the standard of revolt,' read Elizabeth grimly. 'They intend to release Mary of Scotland from her captivity in England and carry her back to Scotland, and then, apparently, they dream of reinstating the Catholic faith in our own country. These are their pretexts for this act of treachery. So Lord Sussex writes. It turns my stomach.'
She stopped reading aloud, but glanced rapidly through the rest of the letter and then handed it to Cecil. 'Here. See for yourself, Master Secretary. It appears,' she said, addressing the rest of us, 'that Westmorland's wife, Jane Neville, who happens also to be Norfolk's sister, has done much to encourage it all by telling her husband, and Northumberland too, that after all Norfolk's urging and his efforts to raise money for this ... bah! ... this exploit ... inaction would shame them forever and leave them nothing but to crawl away into holes in the ground. I wonder where Sussex got that item of information from?'
'He has his spies, madam,' said Mark Easton. 'He receives good reports of the enemy's movements and intentions. A shepherd here, a vicar there; a disgruntled butler who overhears the table talk while he's handing the sauce; a tenant who doesn't agree with his landlord's politics.'
'All this,' said Elizabeth, 'springs from the foolish dreams of that foolish man, Thomas Howard of Norfolk. He wants to see Mary of Scotland rescued, reinstated on the Scottish throne, and he hopes to marry her and make himself her consort. Well, well. His sister wants to help him. The next stage, of course, would be an attempt to take my throne for Mary.'
'I have been hoping, all this time, that the revolt would fizzle out for lack of support,' said Cecil bitterly.
'Courtesy of the delightful Jane Neville,' said Elizabeth, 'it has not. I have heard that Northumberland's wife is as bad. The women appear to be worse than the men. What's to be done?'
'Sussex seems to be doing it.' Cecil had by now read through the rest of the letter. 'He says here that by the time we receive this, he will have forces mobilizing in the midlands to make sure that whatever happens, the rebels can't reach Mary.'
'Where is she now, Sir William?' I asked. 'The last I heard, she was at Tutbury Castle. Is she still there?'
'She is indeed,' said Elizabeth. 'On the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire. I've never seen it, but I'm told it would be a formidable obstacle to them even if they got there.'
'It stands on top of a hill, and there are marshes below,' said Cecil. 'Mary's been there before, and she doesn't like it. She says it's damp and draughty, and it probably is, but it's certainly secure. I think we have her fast. We've also got Norfolk, nicely mewed up in the Tower of London. The important thing now is to have these wretched earls imprisoned too, as soon as possible, in some other castle and preferably in its dungeons. But for the moment, the matter is in the hands of Sussex. There is little to be done here in the south.'
'Except that Master Easton has asked that Mistress Stannard should be here,' said Elizabeth. 'Does Sussex require the services of my Ursula?'
Here it came. I braced myself. No doubt Lord Sussex wanted me for some secret and probably uncomfortable spying task. Probably, it was something at which a harmless-looking woman was more likely to succeed than a man. Presumably, I was about to be sent north, away from Hugh, with orders once again to listen at doors, read private documents and put myself at risk for Elizabeth's sake.
'Not Lord Sussex, madam,' said young Master Easton unexpectedly. 'It is a private matter. There has perhaps been a little misunderstanding. Lord Sussex knows my business with Mistress Stannard, but it is not official and is not connected in any way with him. I do indeed seek her help, but it's a private matter – a family affair.'CHAPTER 2
Windsor was a royal castle, which meant luxury (at least for the queen and the courtiers, if not for the scullions) and also, when viewed from a would-be attacker's point of view, an air of grim impenetrability.
The luxury was on a grand scale: mighty fires, velvet-hung beds, carved furniture glossy with beeswax polish; tables draped in valuable carpets or fine white linen; candles galore to drive back the shadows of night (or the grey skies of winter); fine food served on gold plate for formality and gilt for everyday; music, singing, dancing. Out of doors, one had the terrace to stroll on and the gardens to wander in; there were boats on the river, the busy little town of Windsor with its shops and taverns and a vast park with a herd of deer in it to provide sport and exercise.
The impenetrability was similarly impressive. Grey walls loomed ominously; towers commanded views of every approach. We are more than just mighty walls and towers, they said. We represent the power of the crown, the gold in the royal treasury, the queen's armies and the loyalty of her people. Don't waste your cannon on us.
In the castle, Hugh and I and our people, therefore, had comfort and security, but privacy and a domestic atmosphere were more difficult to come by. Still, we tried. Because of the link between myself and the queen, we had a good suite of three rooms. They were secluded, at the top of a twisting stair in one of the towers, and were adequate for us all except for Meg's tutor, Dr Lambert, who lodged at the Garter Inn in the town.
Old Gladys rarely left the suite, because she said (or, to be more accurate, grumbled) that the stairs were a struggle, but if anything, this was an advantage, since Gladys didn't get on well with other servants, though she was less of a liability than she had been. A narrow escape from being hanged on a charge of witchcraft – I had managed to save her, but only just – had had its effect. She no longer spat curses at people she disliked, and she washed, these days, without being told.
I had at one time feared that old age was damaging her mind, but it was as though the shock of coming so close to death had jolted her back to normality. All the same, I wasn't sure that she'd stay there, and I felt that the less she mingled with other people, the better.
She did light cleaning and plain sewing for us, for her eyesight was good, despite her age. She slept on a truckle bed in the room where the Brockleys occupied a small four-poster. They didn't like the arrangement, but could hardly complain, for few servants had a room of their own and a curtained bed. To have an extra person in the room was a minor inconvenience.
In any case, Roger Brockley was responsible for Gladys' presence in my household in the first place. Brockley, my groom, manservant, steward whenever we were at Withysham and sometimes my invaluable co-agent, had a chivalrous kindness for the aged. Gladys had been charged with witchcraft more than once. Years ago, when we first came across her on the Welsh border, Brockley, seeing her as a helpless, frightened old woman, had intervened to protect her from a similar accusation. 'So you really can't object to sharing a room with Gladys now,' I had told him. 'She wouldn't be here at all, but for you!'
Excerpted from Queen Without a Crown by Fiona Buckley. Copyright © 2011 Fiona Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An uprising in the north of England has Elizabeth keeping her court close at Windsor, including her half-sister and sometime agent, Ursula Blanchard. Ursula is commissioned by a family friend to discover if his father was really a poisoner. This--and Elizabeth's need for a spy in the north--sends Ursula and her cohorts into danger.Interestingly twisty, and I like Ursula's third husband much better than her second.
Ursula Blanchard heads north to find out the truth about a 23 year old murder, and about continued rebellion on behalf of Mary Stuart. She, as usual, runs into danger, and, as usual, get the necessary information.