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The King's Grey Mare
By Rosemary Hawley Jarman
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Rosemary Hawley Jarman
All rights reserved.
The Flower of Anjou
'Vanité des vanités, toute la vanité!'
Queen Margaret of Anjou
She lay in her secret place with thoughts of love. This was a nook where none could find her, hidden by the deep flank of clustering willows and bounded by high reeds that grew around the edge of the little lake. One hand supporting her cheek, she lay comfortably against a bank of kingcups. Her feet were tucked beneath her gown, and she herself was like a willow, with her long hair, more silver than gold, reflecting the trees' dappled greenness.
She could stay thus, motionless, for hours. A bright bird had settled near her sleeve and, an arms length away, two brindled trout sunned themselves in the shallows. Unseeingly she gazed at them, with eyes as clear and impersonal as the water, their blue merging with its gold and green; eyes that were still yet charged occasionally with passionate, half-formed thoughts. Virginal, receptive to the rippled message of the lake and bland as an artist's new canvas; such were the eyes of Elizabeth Woodville as she dreamed, of sweet, unreal love sucked like honey from old romances; the Chronicles of Froissart, the magic tales of the Chevalier de la Tour Landry, and Chaucer's high, gaudy myths. Love idealistic, love unfeigned, as in the far days of Eleanor of Aquitaine, when knight and lady lay on either side of a naked sword, only their souls communing. Kisses grew beside the kingcups. The trout, rising, plashed a courtly old song into her drowsy mind.
Je loe amours et ma dame mercye
Du bel acueil qui par eulx deux me vient ...
She bit off the unsung tune midway. A song of Burgundy, the enemy of France, yet a good air, mellow and sad. She sighed, nibbled a shining strand of her own hair, smoothed the plain silk of her bodice. Courtly love, courtly dances filled her heart, but her dress, two years old, fitted her no longer, and was fast wearing out. The Woodvilles were by no means poor, but it was known that Elizabeth's mother would have them richer.
'God's curse on this paucity of our estate,' Jacquetta of Bedford had said lately. Then, with a rare and very secret smile, seemingly for Elizabeth alone: 'Yet we have other things, to make us wealthy beyond the stars.' That beautiful and mysterious smile had lingered with Elizabeth. Would her mother be smiling now? Elizabeth wondered; for an hour folk had been calling, searching for her fruitlessly. First, like the bellow of an ill-played shawm, the voice of her nurse, then the chaplain whinnying in a voice unused to anything but the mumblings of the Mass, and lastly her sisters, primly, dutifully crying her name and giggling as they ran up and down the pleasaunce paths.
She parted a strand of willow and peered across the garden, now deserted. What she saw gave her small gladness. It meant little that since 1168, when William de Wyvill enjoyed the tenure-in-chivalry of Grafton land and the favour of King Henry the Second, Woodvilles had walked these same velvet lawns and had culled from those borders their simples and condiments. The fennel, the rosemary, bryony and St. John's Wort, ampion, vervain and rue; the herbs sweet and sour, the good herbs and the evil herbs, for fever and madness and the soul's easement. The plants to hide rankness or add spice to a festal dish; the gillies and violets for table-dressing, and the reeds, amongst which she lay, for strewing on a dusty floor. The sheltering yews and the one great oak in the garden's heart failed to move her. Likewise the manor itself, with its timbered gables flanking the soaring roof of the great hall and its chapel tower rosily tipped by sunlight. For Grafton Regis represented learning, nurture, discipline, and held her from that world for whose romantic splendours she yearned. At London, there was a French Queen, by rumour wildly fascinating, with a court, maybe, like that of fair Eleanor of Aquitaine ...
The sisters came into view again, running from behind the high stone wall that bounded the stableyard and bakery. Shrill and anxious, their voices called her. Catherine, her favourite, broke from the others and ran alongside the stream towards the lake. She wore a well worn murrey gown. A gleam of plump flesh showed through a split seam. Round, where Elizabeth was slender, she ran, dodging the tussocks of reed. Elizabeth raised her arm above the banked kingcups and waved, watching her own white hand and the way the green folds of her sleeve belled about her wrist in an outworn elegance. At the French court, their sleeves were like great bladders, sewn with pearls and miniver to glisten in the dance. She knew; she had seen paintings. All her undanced dances faded as Catherine plunged towards her.
Her sister's small coif was trimmed with tarnished gold, below which her fair hair spread itself in a tangled cascade. All the sisters were blonde, but none bore the colouring of Elizabeth, whose hair, silver-gilt and falling to her knees, was a shining mist in candlelight and under the sun seemed woven of rare and precious thread. Sir Hugh Johns had looked long at her hair; there had been tears in his eyes.
Breathless, Catherine threw herself down, crushing bright blossoms. The trout, frightened, flicked away into the depths.
'Oh, Bess!' Catherine gasped. 'We've searched for you for hours – Margaret tore her gown and Martha fell – her nose bled. We are all going to be beaten. Dame Joan is wroth.'
Elizabeth frowned. Dame Joan was their crabbed old nurse and Elizabeth loathed the humiliation of beatings. Sometimes wheedling could bring lenience. Today, however, the weather was warm; Joan would be sweating and merciless under the old-fashioned houpeland that encased her girth like a knight's harness. Catherine rattled on.
'Bess, I pray you, come.' Her round bosom strained dangerously at another seam. 'The whole house is upside down. Anyway –' curiously – 'what do you do here all this time?'
'I think.' Elizabeth chewed on a sour-sweet grass, gazed at the lake, diamonded by sun. 'I muse. I dream.'
'About Sir Hugh Johns?' Catherine looked archly at her. 'Oh, sister, imagine. You'll soon be a wedded lady ... the first of us. Come now, and talk of Hugh to Joan, it'll cool her temper. I'll miss you when you go,' she finished wistfully.
'I'll go nowhere,' said Elizabeth, biting the stem in two. 'With him, at any rate.'
Catherine's plump jaw dropped. 'Don't you like him?' she said incredulously. 'We all thought him a sweet and gentle knight. When he laughed at talk of your dowry and said he would almost be content with you alone, we were enchanted ...'
'Fool's prattle,' said Elizabeth. A brief vision of Sir Hugh's plain pleasant face assailed her. She had asked him of fashions, of the latest airs and dances, and he had stuttered incoherently. He had never even spoken to her of love, had merely excused himself to seek her mother's bower, where they conferred stiltedly about monetary matters. Sir Hugh was well purveyed of money. Was that what her mother had meant, speaking of their future with that strange little smile? Somehow she thought not. Somewhere, there was love, its colours unknown. Love the stranger, to be instantly recognized. Hugh Johns was not love, nor ever could be.
Catherine's voice went on, complaining: Bess was all over green stains, Bess would have them all beaten. It was hard to be one of many unwed sisters. The brothers were in livery service at noble households. Lionel was destined for the Church, Edward for the sea. They were only young yet. Nearest Elizabeth's age, Anthony was the best. She loved his slender elegance, his learning, his chivalry. He could translate any poem, Greek, Latin or French, into something better than the original. Soon he would be able to best any other stripling knight in the tourney. She wished he had been present at the interview with Sir Hugh. He would have made him blush rosier still, with his subtle, adult wit. There had only been seven-year-old John, pulling faces at the stammering knight's back. That had earned him a beating that day ...
Anthony would have been able to comfort her. 'Do what you will, sweet sister,' he would have said. 'None can drag you to the altar!'
It was not as if the Queen had commanded the match. That would have lent a different colour to the affair. Elizabeth knew that her mother had the Queen's ear through their mutual French birth. Jacquetta of Bedford's first husband had been Regent for King Henry the Sixth in France; Tante Isabel was married to the Queen's uncle, Charles d'Anjou. Thinking again of Queen Margaret, Elizabeth almost choked with frustrated longing. There was clodpoll Sir Hugh, lusting to bear her off to some distant manor, as tame and ennuyeux as Grafton Regis, while the lovely London court frolicked carelessly; for there had been scant talk of war since Jack Cade's uprising two years earlier. York, the turbulent Richard, also seemed quiescent, despite his wearying aspirations and his stirrings of Burgundy. It was an old quarrel; York and Lancaster sporadically at each other's throats like feast-day mastiffs. She was sure they would not talk of policy at the court. There would be only music and courtly love, in the royal palaces with their enchanted names: Greenwich, Eltham, Windsor, Sheen, the shining one.
'The chaplain says,' said Catherine pompously, 'that your soul is wayward, wanton ... faugh!' She shifted to another patch of reed. 'My dress is soaking. Why do you choose this dismal place to hide in?'
Elizabeth whispered: 'I love the lake.'
Catherine said uncertainly: 'Will you come now? Madam our mother, as well as Joan, will punish you.'
'Yes, she came down to welcome the party from Calais. Our father's here.'
'Imbecile!' cried Elizabeth, springing up. 'Why did you not tell me?'
Her beloved father was home, and she not there to greet him. She ran, across meadow and lawn, past the falcons' mew with its rank, raw-meat smell – under the archway into the ward and, skirting the chapel building, up the worn stone stairs to the children's apartments. There the chaplain met her, muttering prayers or imprecations. Within the solar, the nurse fussed grimly among the sisters; Jacquetta, Eleanor, Anne, Martha and Margaret; toddling, preening or playing about the floor, according to their age and disposition.
'Well, my lady,' said the nurse sourly, motioning to a tiring-maid to unfasten Elizabeth's laces, 'may you find mercy, though you don't deserve it. Hurry, now. My lord waits for you below.'
Elizabeth shivered at the cool touch of a clean linen shift. She danced impatiently on the spot, itching to run to the oriel through which she could hear the stamp and jingle of many horse, the deep voices of men, a breath of song. He could sing better than any man in England or France. How long of him had she missed already? Sometimes he only stayed a day, to enchant them all with a tale of courtly prowess. Then he would depart, leaving the manor even more dull and lifeless than before.
She was dressed at last in a high-waisted Italian silk patterned with red roses, its tight sleeves trimmed with marten. Catching the sun through an embrasure, her hair gleamed like thistledown. She descended the stairs to the Hall, followed by the sisters who were old enough to attend her, and she knew that she outshone them, as a silver candle shames a tallow dip. The Hall was full of courtiers, knights, wearing her father's blazon. A royal herald stood stiffly by the fireplace. The colours on his tabard, the leopards and lilies of France Ancient, leaped to her glamour-hungry eyes like a blaze; she heard bright, soundless music.
The tables, flanking three sides of the Hall, were laid for supper and at the knights' dais at the northern end sat her parents, talking with a tall boy. Anthony! Unexpectedly home on leave from his livery service. For the first time she cursed the seductive, solitary lake that had made her miss so much joy. She went forward to the dais and knelt.
After the long obeisance, she looked into eyes blue as her own. The eyes of Sir Richard Woodville, Earl Rivers; Knight of the Garter, Privy Councillor, Knight Banneret and leader of men; yet first, her own father, and deeply, possessively loved. He raised her, kissed her, beckoned to a henchman who came forward with a long package wrapped in hessian. Inside was a thick, shining-swathe of cobwebby lace.
'From Alençon,' said her father, smiling. 'One of the many perquisites of my captaincy there. For my fairest daughter.'
She looked at him, at the way his russet hair was threaded with silver and curled on his broad shoulders; how the rich blue velvet doublet fitted him like a skin. The old collar of 'S's, worn by all knights in the service of Henry of Lancaster, gleamed on his chest. He was called by many the handsomest man in England. She thought, gloriously: they are right! Then, while she gloated over the lace, he turned again to talk to his wife.
'Bordeaux has fallen,' he said. 'The French conquest of Aquitaine is complete.'
'Ah, Jesu,' said Jacquetta of Belford. Totally noncommittal was that little prayer, yet there was a triumph in it. England for the English, they said; yet Jacquetta's heart was bred and nurtured among the French, and Lancaster was her watchword.
Young Anthony winked at Elizabeth. He had a golden fineness, too, she thought, in his gay scarlet habit and shirt of fair Rennes cloth. She mused again on Sir Hugh, already running to plumpness; she had been spoilt by father and brother for beauty in other men. Thinking of Hugh put her in mind of her mother's yet unheard opinions. Disquiet crept over her. Had a decision been reached, while she was dreaming by the lake? And what did her father think of Sir Hugh? She listened closely to the conversation; still they spoke of policy.
'As Seneschal of Aquitaine, I had a great force,' said Sir Richard. 'Two thousand bowmen, three hundred spears. And then I kicked my heels at Plymouth, revictualling a fleet which none seemed minded to use. The King, Jesu preserve him, sometimes seems ...'
He ceased abruptly. Other conversations buzzed in the Hall; behind a screen one of the minstrels discreetly plucked his lute. Jacquetta's face was impassive as she listened, waited for her husband to resume. Elizabeth studied her; it seemed this day as if she were seeing them all for the first time.
Duchess of Bedford in her own right, daughter of Pierre, Duke of Luxembourg and Marguerite del Balzo of Andria, Jacquetta Woodville still owned much of the legendary beauty of her youth. Her eyes were lustrous, her features clear and proud. The narrow band of hair revealed at the edge of her coif was still a rich coppery gold. She wore many rings, and about her neck lay a ruby and diamond reliquary reputed to hold a bone of St. James. She was holding a parchment letter from a personage of some note, for from it dangled a great seal like a gobbet of wet blood. A letter newly arrived; Elizabeth knew suddenly that it concerned herself. Her eyes flew to her mother's, and were held in a strange, perceptive gaze. Her heart beat hard. Good or ill lay in that parchment.
The gamey scent of the roast peacock wafted to her nose, but her stomach fluttered fretfully. Now she would be able to eat nothing, even in her father's honour. Not all Anthony's wit could sharpen her taste, until she knew the content of that roll.
Still Jacquetta's eyes, all-knowing, fathomless, held hers, as the clarions sounded for supper.
Early morning sunlight pierced the chapel windows and gleamed upon paten and pyx and chalice.
Confiteor tibi in cithara, Deus, Deus meus; quare tristis es, et quare conturbas me?
The chaplain watched Elizabeth constantly, while he tongued the Mass by rote. The words meant little after years of repetition and left his mind free to wander. He marked her trembling as she took the Host; this was in itself the sign of conscience, as was the way she bent her head to draw comfort from her missal. Soul, why art thou downcast, why art thou all lament? A tear crept softly down her cheek and the chaplain's stern mouth relaxed. So the eldest Woodville maiden was penitent. She rued the disgraceful scene in Hall last evening, caused by a letter which, thought the priest, should have been hailed meekly and with gratitude.
The eldest Woodville maiden was, however, weeping not in penance but with renewed rage. She murmured, choking: 'Spera in Deo, quoniam adhuc confitebor illi ...' Wait for God's help ... my champion and my God! The painted saints about the altar studied her coolly. Everywhere there was a candle, starred by her own tears, cold as the light in her father's eyes when she had run from the Hall last evening.
They had given her the letter to read aloud. Its heavy seal had fallen across her wrist, the writing was powerful and black. Sir Richard had stretched himself in his chair, jewelled goblet in hand, prepared to enjoy his daughter's pretty voice. At first, reading, she had been proud, then incredulous, and upon reaching the fierce, swarthy signature her tongue had trembled in fury. In the body of the Hall there had been whisperings. A young page, waiting near the dais with his dish of venison frumenty, had started to grin. Amid this growing interest, this knavish amusement, she finished the letter, and the echo of its words fed a sudden, incredible anger.
To Dame Elizabeth Woodville:
Right worshipful and well beloved, I greet you well, And forasmuch as my right well beloved Sir Hugh Johns, knight, which now late was with you until his full great joy, hath informed me how that he for the great love and affection that he hath unto your person, as for your great and praised virtues and womanly demeaning, desireth with all his heart to do you worship by way of marriage, before any other creature living as he saith.
Excerpted from The King's Grey Mare by Rosemary Hawley Jarman. Copyright © 2013 Rosemary Hawley Jarman. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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