He had not nearly exhausted The Rose of Raby and the illicit joys of fiction when, next morning about eleven, a parcel arrived from Marta containing the more respectable entertainment of history as recorded by the sainted Sir Thomas.
With the book was a note in Marta’s large sprawling writing on Marta’s stiff expensive notepaper.
Have to send this instead of bringing it. Frantically busy. Think I have got M.M. to the sticking point re Blessington. No T. More in any of the bookshops, so tried Public Library. Can’t think why one never thinks of Public Libraries. Probably because books expected to be soupy. Think this looks quite clean and unsoupy. You get fourteen days. Sounds like a sentence rather than a loan. Hope this interest in Crouchback means that the prickles are less nettlish. Till soon.
The book did indeed look clean and unsoupy, if a little elderly. But after the light going of The Rose its print looked unexciting and its solid paragraphs forbidding. Nevertheless he attacked it with interest. This was, after all, where Richard III was concerned, ‘the horse’s mouth’.
He came to the surface an hour later, vaguely puzzled and ill at ease. It was not that the matter surprised him; the facts were very much what he had expected them to be. It was that this was not how he had expected Sir Thomas to write.
He took ill rest at nights, lay long waking and musing; sore wearied with care and watch, he slumbered rather than slept. So was his restless heart continually tossed and tumbled with the tedious impression and stormy remembrance of his most abominable deeds.
That was all right. But when he added that ‘this he had from such as were secret with his chamberers’ one was suddenly repelled. An aroma of back-stair gossip and servants’ spying came off the page. So that one’s sympathy tilted before one was aware of it from the smug commentator to the tortured creature sleepless on his bed. The murderer seemed of greater stature than the man who was writing of him.
Which was all wrong.
Grant was conscious too of the same unease that filled him when he listened to a witness telling a perfect story that he knew to be flawed somewhere.
And that was very puzzling indeed. What could possibly be wrong with the personal account of a man revered for his integrity as Thomas More had been revered for four centuries?
The Richard who appeared in More’s account was, Grant thought, one that Matron would have recognised. A man highly-strung and capable of both great evil and great suffering. ‘He was never quiet in his mind, never thought himself secure. His eyes whirled about, his body was privily fenced, his hands ever on his dagger, his countenance and manner like one always ready to strike again.’
And of course there was the dramatic, not to say hysterical, scene that Grant remembered from his schooldays; that every schoolboy probably remembered. The council scene in the Tower before he laid claim to the crown. Richard’s sudden challenge to Hastings as to what was the proper fate for a man who plotted the death of the Protector of the Kingdom. The insane claim that Edward’s wife and Edward’s mistress (Jane Shore) were responsible for his withered arm by their sorcery. The smiting of the table in his rage, which was the signal for his armed satellites to burst in and arrest Lord Hastings, Lord Stanley, and John Morton, Bishop of Ely. The rushing of Hastings down into the courtyard and his beheading on a handy log of wood after bare time to confess himself to the first priest who could be found.
That was certainly the picture of a man who would act first in fury, in fear, in revenge — and repent afterwards.
But it seemed that he was capable of more calculated iniquity. He caused a sermon to be preached by a certain Dr Shaw, brother of the Lord Mayor, at Paul’s Cross, on June 22, on the text: ‘Bastard slips shall take no root.’ Wherein Dr Shaw maintained that both Edward and George were sons of the Duchess of York by some unknown man, and that Richard was the only legitimate son of the Duke and Duchess of York.
This was so unlikely, so inherently absurd, that Grant went back and read it over again. But it still said the same thing. That Richard had traduced his mother, in public and for his own material advantage, with an unbelievable infamy.
Well, Sir Thomas More said it. And if anyone should know it would be Thomas More. And if anyone should know how to pick and choose between the credibilities in the reporting of a story it ought to be Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England.
Richard’s mother, said Sir Thomas, complained bitterly of the slander with which her son had smirched her. Understandably, on the whole, Grant thought.
As for Dr Shaw, he was overcome with remorse. So much so that ‘within a few days he withered and consumed away’.
Had a stroke, probably, Grant considered. And little wonder. To have stood up and told that tale to a London crowd must have taken some nerve.
Sir Thomas’s account of the Princes in the Tower was the same as The Amazon’s, but Sir Thomas’s version was more detailed. Richard had suggested to Robert Brackenbury, Constable of the Tower, that it might be a good thing if the Princes disappeared, but Brackenbury would have no part in such an act. Richard therefore waited until he was at Warwick, during his progress through England after his coronation and then sent Tyrrel to London with orders that he was to receive the keys of the Tower for one night. During that night two ruffians, Dighton and Forrest, one a groom and one a warder, smothered the two boys.
At this point The Midget came in with his lunch and removed the book from his grasp; and while he forked the shepherd’s pie from plate to mouth he considered again the face of the man in the dock. The faithful and patient small brother who had turned into a monster.
When The Midget came back for his tray he said: ‘Did you know that Richard III was a very popular person in his day? Before he came to the throne, I mean.’
The Midget cast a baleful glance at the picture.
‘Always was a snake in the grass, if you ask me. Smooth, that’s what he was: smooth. Biding his time.’
Biding his time for what? he wondered, as she tapped away down the corridor. He could not have known that his brother Edward would die unexpectedly at the early age of forty. He could not have foreseen (even after a childhood shared with him in uncommon intimacy) that George’s on-goings would end in attainder and the debarring of his two children from the succession. There seemed little point in ‘biding one’s time’ if there was nothing to bide for. The indestructibly virtuous beauty with the gilt hair had, except for her incurable nepotism, proved an admirable Queen and had provided Edward with a large brood of healthy children, including two boys. The whole of that brood, together with George and his son and daughter, stood between Richard and the throne. It was surely unlikely that a man busy with the administration of the North of England, or campaigning (with dazzling success) against the Scots, would have much spare interest in being ‘smooth’.
What then had changed him so fundamentally in so short a time?
Grant reached for The Rose of Raby to see what Miss Payne–Ellis had had to say about the unhappy metamorphosis of Cecily Nevill’s youngest son. But that wily author had burked the issue. She had wanted the book to be a happy one, and to have carried it to its logical conclusion would have made it unredeemed tragedy. She had therefore wound it up with a fine resounding major chord by making her last chapter the coming-out of young Elizabeth, Edward’s eldest child. This avoided both the tragedy of Elizabeth’s young brothers and the defeat and death of Richard in battle.
So the book ended with a Palace party, and a flushed and happy young Elizabeth, very magnificent in a new white dress and her first pearls, dancing the soles out of her slippers like the princesses in the fairy-tale. Richard and Anne, and their delicate little son, had come up from Middleham for the occasion. But neither George nor Isabel was there. Isabel had died in childbirth years ago, obscurely and as far as George was concerned unmourned. George too had died obscurely, but with that perverseness that was so peculiarly George’s, had by that very obscurity won for himself imperishable fame.
George’s life had been a progression from one spectacular piece of spiritual extravagance to the next. Each time, his family must have said: Well, that at last is the summit of frightfulness; even George cannot think of anything more fantastic than that. And each time George had surprised them. There was no limit to George’s antic capacity.
The seed was perhaps sown when, during his first backsliding in the company of his father-in-law, Warwick had created him heir to the poor crazy puppet-King, Henry VI, whom Warwick had dumped back on the throne to spite his cousin Edward. Both Warwick’s hopes of seeing his daughter a Queen and George’s royal pretensions had gone down the drain on that night when Richard had gone over to the Lancastrian camp and talked to George. But the taste of importance had perhaps proved too much for a natural sweet-tooth. In the years to come the family were always heading George off from unexpected vagaries, or rescuing him from his latest caper.
When Isabel died he had been certain that she had been poisoned by her waiting-woman, and that his baby son had been poisoned by another. Edward, thinking the affair important enough to be tried before a London court, sent down a writ; only to find that George had tried them both at a petty sessions of his own magistrates and hanged them. The furious Edward, by way of rapping him over the knuckles, had two members of George’s household tried for treason; but instead of taking the hint George declared that this was just judicial murder, and went about saying so in loud tones and a fine blaze of lèse-majesté.
Then he decided that he wanted to marry the richest heiress in Europe; who was Margaret’s step-daughter, young Mary of Burgundy. Kind Margaret thought that it would be nice to have her brother in Burgundy, but Edward had arranged to back Maximilian of Austria’s suit, and George was a continual embarrassment.
When the Burgundy intrigue came to nothing, the family hoped for a little peace. After all, George owned half the Nevill lands and had no need to marry again either for fortune or children. But George had a new scheme for marrying Margaret, the sister of James III of Scotland.
At last his folie de grandeur graduated from secret negotiation undertaken on his own behalf with foreign courts to open display of the Lancastrian Act of Parliament which had declared him heir to the throne after Henry VI. This, inevitably, landed him before another Parliament, and a much less amenable one.
The trial was chiefly remarkable for a flaming and wordy row between the two brothers Edward and George, but when the expected attainder was passed, there was a pause. Depriving George of his standing was one thing: desirable and indeed necessary. But executing him was something else again.
As the days went by without sentence being carried out, the Commons sent a reminder. And next day it was announced that George, Duke of Clarence, had died in the Tower.
Drowned in a butt of Malmsey, said London. And what was merely a Cockney’s comment on a drunkard’s end passed into history and made the undeserving George immortal.
So George was not at that party at Westminster, and the emphasis in Miss Payne–Ellis’s final chapter was not Cecily Nevill as the mother of sons, but on Cecily Nevill the grandmother of a fine brood. George might have died discredited, on a dried-leaf heap of worn-out friendships, but his son, young Warwick, was a fine upstanding boy, and little Margaret at ten was already showing signs of the traditional Nevill beauty. Edmund, dead in battle at seventeen, might seem a wanton waste of young life, but there to balance it was the delicate baby whom she had never thought to rear; and he had a son to follow him. Richard in his twenties still looked as though one could break him in two, but he was as tough as a heather root, and perhaps his fragile-looking son would grow up to be as resilient. As for Edward, her tall blond Edward, his beauty might be blurring into grossness and his amiability into sloth, but his two small sons and his five girls had all the character and good looks of their combined ancestry.
As a grandmother she could look on that crowd of children with a personal pride, and as a Princess of England she could look on them with assurance. The crown was safe in the York line for generations to come.
If anyone, looking in a crystal ball at that party, had told Cecily Nevill that in four years not only the York line but the whole Plantagenet dynasty would have gone for ever, she would have held it to be either madness or treason.
But what Miss Payne–Ellis had not sought to gloss over was the prevalence of the Woodville clan in a Nevill–Plantagenet gathering.
She looked round the room and wished that her daughter-in-law Elizabeth had been blessed either with a less generous heart or with fewer relations. The Woodville match had turned out far more happily than anyone had dared to hope; Elizabeth had been an admirable wife; but the by-products had not been so fortunate. It was perhaps inevitable that the governorship of the two boys should have gone to her eldest brother; and Rivers, if a little nouveau riche in his liking for display and a little too obviously ambitious, was a cultured creature and an admirable person to have the boys in charge during their schoolroom days at Ludlow. But as for the rest: four brothers, seven sisters, and two sons by her first husband, were really too many by half to have brought into the marriage market in her wake.
Cecily looked across the laughing mêlée of the children’s blind man’s buff to the grownups standing round the supper table. Anne Woodville married to the Earl of Essex’s heir. Eleanor Woodville married to the Earl of Kent’s heir. Margaret Woodville married to the Earl of Arundel’s heir. Catherine Woodville married to the Duke of Buckingham. Jacquette Woodville to Lord Strange. Mary Woodville to Lord Herbert’s heir. And John Woodville, disgracefully, to the Dowager of Norfolk who was old enough to be his grandmother. It was good that new blood should strengthen the old families new blood had always seeped in but it was not good that it should come suddenly and in a flood from one particular source. It was like a fever in the political blood of the country; a foreign introduction, difficult to be assimilated. Unwise and regrettable.
However. There were long years ahead in which that influx could be assimilated. This new sudden power in the body politic would cease to be so concentrated, would spread out, would settle down, would cease to be dangerous and upsetting. Edward for all his amiability had a shrewd common sense; he would keep the country on an even keel as he had kept it for nearly twenty years. No one had run England with a more despotic power or a lighter hand than her acute, lazy, woman-loving Edward.
It would be all right eventually.
She was about to rise and join them in their discussion of sweetmeats they must not think that she was being critical or aloof when her granddaughter Elizabeth came breathless and laughing out of the scrimmage and swept into the seat beside her.
‘I am much too old for this sort of thing,’ she said between her gasps, ‘and it is ruinous to one’s clothes. Do you like my dress, grandmother? I had to coax it out of Father. He said my old tawny satin would do. The one I had when Aunt Margaret came from Burgundy to visit us. That is the worst of having a father who notices what women wear. He knows too much about one’s wardrobe. Did you hear that the Dauphin has jilted me? Father is in a pet, but I am so happy. I lighted ten candles to St Catherine. It took all I had left of my allowance. I don’t want to leave England. I want never to leave England ever. Can you arrange that for me, grandmother?’
Cicely smiled and said that she would try.
‘Old Ankaret, who tells fortunes, says that I am to be a Queen. But since there is no prince to marry me I do not see how that may be.’ She paused, and added in a smaller voice: ‘She said Queen of England. But I expect she was just a little tipsy. She is very fond of hippocras.’
It was unfair, not to say inartistic, of Miss Payne–Ellis to hint at Elizabeth’s future as the wife of Henry VII if as author she was not prepared to face the unpleasantness that lay between. To presuppose in her readers a knowledge of Elizabeth’s marriage to the first Tudor king, was also to presuppose their awareness of her brothers’ murder. So that a dark reminding shadow fell across the festive scene with which she had chosen to end her story.
But on the whole, Grant thought, she had made a good enough job of the story, judging by what he had read of it. He might even go back sometime and read the bits he had skipped.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01