Aylesford priory looked little better than the houses Mistress Lynom’s life had seen. Even today, I still have recollections of grand buildings hatted with bells atop triangular roofs. Stripes to line their faces - straight and black drizzling over the sides that faced the street, the faces I had first seen at ten-and-seven. It was mine and Edward’s first procession as king and Duke of Clarence in London, a more withdrawn boy, my heals clung to the sides of my destrier as I let the streets whirl about my eyes, taking me whole as the white roses that blended into a multitudes of white rows and houses.
Now, only a vial lies between my weak legs ; the same I have been trying at for the past none. Yesterday, my bones rattled pulling at its lid, but today I have not even started and I believe I can still hear them. I am frustrated, so I cast it from my lap and it produces a terrible shatter when it hits the stone hollowing out the cloisters long after it has done falling. The wine travels up my habit and now I have a black streak to contend with, among all the other nastinesses that had gathered on my brown cloth. I draw my cape over my shoulder, yet still shiver from the break of silence. The arches before me thump before my eyes with the irregular rhythm of my heart.
‘Brother, let me’ this brother comes rushing at my feet with linen cloth. The past couple of years and Bishop of Dromore are agreed - I am too weak to carry out any of the more taxing works, so I am allowed me this viaticum if only I vow to keep this boy-recruit about my every step until it is done. It is so that I would not be found collapsed and cold in a corridor somewhere, ‘the last of his generation dead’ and the lady unannointed. Ellis’ father had always meant this path for him, for they named him for the order they would always give him in, prophet Elijah for a father, the Carmelites his sons, our brothers, my only brothers.
Looking at me now, shrouded in old age, I, Edmund Plantagenet knew many would harumph if I confessed that I was once meant for power, bred for knighthood. From youth, fed philosophies not even for the ears of priests.
‘I trust Scrope had procured a couple of these, see him for another anon’ I say after gently laying a hand on the boy’s tonsured head. The boy was only twelve, a third of the years that I have been residing here in whole, and yet only recently they had trusted that I should be elevated to more than a lay-brother as if this were mere sanctuary. Those chasing me and that I have chased have been long gone. Upon the realisation that I am here for good works, they let me shear the long hair that I would be later told fell out of fashion in Richard III’s court. I would not know.
‘Mistress Lynom asked for me especially’ I say to him and is chosen to die here by me. She has not long - two days at most’ . And she had just now chosen to ask me to share my memories, I keep to myself.
Hanging on my grumble, the boy scurries past the alter towards the door. When I can no longer hear him, my grip tightens on my staff and I heave myself up on resolve alone ‘Mistress Shore she is most famously called’ I say smiling. To be sure Ellis is there again, but I could bare make-up how he looked confused. He had no notion of her, why would he? After her late husband’s appointment by the late Edward V as the prince’s attorney in Wales and subsequent death by sweating sickness, “Jane” and her life had been fated to nothing more than the quiet respectability of a burgess’ widow. She in her cloister, me in mine. Until to day. Let me round the register as no wife of mine did: Edward, my brother in another life - dead. Our mother - dead. George of Gloucester - dead. All their wives, our sisters, our loves -
When I pass the door leading to the ladies’ room, I find Jane stood, leaning on the sill of a lancet window as if aboard a ship. Her face looks tired but by the shift in her skirts there was tapping to be heard under earth, and the outside rhythm of horse hoof’s trot. Wizened grey eyes are smiling amidst gathering dimples, and I must confess: The great Thomas More did not need to be an attentive observer in being able to discern that former beauty had once resided in her shrivelled countenance.
In the year of our lord 1527, she is pulling her long white braid into a henin and when I wonder if she is going someplace else she laughs at the question. She looks healthy past her penance, must I anoint her once more with chrism? With each day weeping into the next, I recall that it was at terce that I had anointed her brow and that I am a fool to have rushed the viaticum bread and wine to a creature who appears so far from malady as her. It would only have alarmed her. A loud cough breaks these thoughts and as she falls back, dragging the patch of light into her large cot, the mirage of stealth is also broken. This madness would take me too, I think, once more shuddering against the cold.
‘I dreamt that he-‘ she is pointing north to Westminster ‘was my grandson, that there was still a court waiting for me where I might dance with a king as I once have’
‘You are able to look upon his face in your dreams?’ I murmur with an old man’s envy ‘still? for I can not. The eothen is past’. I have been made a scholar, you see.
She smiles quietly, lifts her bowl to her face and puts it down saying ‘I may recollect him for you, mayhaps it may strengthen your memories - the ones you vowed to tell me ‘ I too smile , a merchant’s daughter ‘till the end, methinks, she finds some way to bargain even with I - a man of no possessions.
‘I have already told you of the times before my brother Richard perished at the hands of Clifford and Edward crowned himself king’ In my tales, Richard is the sacrifice - two turtledoves for a lamb, none burnt. A blameless child who for no one’s use was let forth so Clifford could satisfy his bloodlust and avenge his father, so I could scurry off to the father in Ireland I loved most. I revived this story too many times. There were others.
‘My lord Clarence?’ my brother, the king was speaking to me. They were all huddled in a room arguing, and as custom, without me.
With me, my sister Elizabeth rose. We were two golden children admist a litany of gaelish fayes, each beholden of their own share of the ancient tempers . George of Gloucester was slacking into his seat. He had a habit of late of tossing his dagger in the air, watching it turn, twisted in the English sunlight, and so glinting until it would darken back in his fist. He was growing intemperate, though I did not then know the cause.
‘I have promised you a son who will be loyal to you as I am’ Elizabeth promised to Edward ‘My husband too, he says he needn’t much, but these are unstable times and the future will be even worse. Your nephew needs a Duke’s lot if he is to uphold your and yours’ rights to the throne’
‘Madame are you not Suffolk’s Duchess? Your mother-in-law’s words are not your own’ Edward pointed out ‘give me them’
Could any man blame her? ‘Our father had bare stretched out his yoke to pay off my dowry. She thinks the son no different and you have bare given your support in our struggle to hold the East for you. Who is to say you will deign to send arms when Lancaster rides down?’
I waited for a moment to speak and take my prelate’s half-step between them, though then I could never have foreseen this was my future ‘What our sisters means to say is that your chosen wife need not her landed estate just yet when Margaret of Anjou may come upon us anyday’
At that, George stirred in his heavy emerald and golds ‘What they both mean to say is that when Lancaster tides it over us, an annuity of £100 will be little more useful to Suffolk or to you than an oxen run loose in a Lenten village’ he interrupted ‘Had you chosen as Lord Warwick suggested, you would not need to carve your wife a holding, out of our lands. A worthy maiden would have come with her own’
I was still a man, I too was growing intemperate ‘I hardly believe it is your wound to nurse George. You have no lands in the east nor any independent control over them’ I chime in
Nothing would come down over us, but a hard slam from Edward. There was peace a while. George’s goblet spilled over him and I heard a shout from behind me as the young Duke of Gloucester was heard stalking off, angrily declaring for his valet.
‘What each of you forgets is that more that she is my wife she is your queen’ Edward said loud enough in hopes that George would hear him from inside the great hall. Elizabeth face reddened as quickly as she raised a hand and was off under some excuse or other. I came to realise what curs we both made of our lives, so hating conflict.
Left behind was a lazy September Day, the sort us two brothers would oft enjoy by passing the time on a damp bank pondering as knights of old did among the reeds and verdure. A brief nod through the rounded glass behind Edward was all that was needed to inflame my young duke’s imagination - that a simple glimmer of sunshine could here bring Ludlow to Greenwich, where the memories beckoned us. The priory I would abscond to a decade or so later holds similar scenes between its walls. Here, I joke to Mistress Shore that it was the wash of earthy brown in its walls that made this Aylesford Priory such a tempting haven for those wishing to flee forced marriages.
When alone Edward embraced me, his brown head nuzzled in my golden curls, which have given many cause for teetering that I was maidenlish ‘would that god give you the same fortune in your union with this Lancastrian widow’ I said drawing away ‘as I would have had in mine had you allowed me to marry her’
Edward’s right hand brushed over the calfskin gloves tucked under his belt. I glance down in my memory. He had matching ones made for himself and his retainers - white and embroidered with roses so that their hands may wrough no evil against their maker, their king. ‘You have married Elizabeth Grey, let me have Eleanor’
Edward shook his head but I could not as easily put her doe-eyes from my mind. A willowy woman whose hands when clasped in prayer were like those of a blanched tree. Graceful, strong when together and always promising fruit. Edward called her his Isolde of the white hands to tease her for her father who was Anguish, an English Achilles was brave Talbot. Edward had his misgivings for he was dead before his rose could wax white. My immortalisations ended when she called him to marriage and he repudiated her for he was already wedded to the stout future of a Burgundian alliance.
But I was free, and certain that no duty would call on me as it did for kings. And so I pursued her, if not for both our sakes than at least my own. I had, after all, been by Edward’s side when he had first encountered her. She held up a petition above her veiled head, impressed herself to both of us, so much so that when we had broken from the next hunting party we chose to dally about Boteler’s orchards at Sudeley. They joked and had me officiate them a pagan ceremony when she had at first refused to yield to the first of his many advances, which could have been no stranger than the May Day wedding he had with Grey’s widow, whatever the lawyers have to say.
After the handfasting was finished and Edward had retied his girdle to his knee, Eleanor sobbered up crossing herself, hoping penance would be made available from her confessor as soon as next morrow. But her eyes never left Edward as he remounted his destrier, as the figure in black cut across the bobbing mints and orange field tourmalines with only the rustle of willows to remember that he was there. Though he had just told her that this was the only marriage he would give her and she was a holy fool for not realising that the protection he would afford her as a mistress, when put on worldly scales, would far out value that of the lands he would return her. Lands Edward needed, Edward ever needed lands . I have tried taking him aside, as I would have at the chapel in Grafton. Under that summer sun I felt a pain growing in my heart, for Edward easy in love had sullied my honest one. The lady still looked at him.
We quarrelled and when I met out may queen I was stood by Hastings and the Lord Warwick and his moan of lost alliances. I only wondered if she would now have him, understand Edward’s overtures to have been false now that he had given his hand to an equally gainless Lancastrian widow - as George would put it, but without the ‘equally’. He annoyed us, so we did not tell him much. That I would not be spurned by inaction, I hoped to get myself to Sudeley Castle by nightfall for knights come by daylight.
In a shadowed passage, by the base of a turret Warwick catches me and then curtseys ‘your grace’.
My feet yearned to get away, I had hoped he would not tarry me long ‘my lord’
‘It is with great displeasure that I announce our queen. Magnify her I will on her coronation, but now… walk with me’ he layed his arm up to me.
‘No matter, what is done is done. The French alliance is not yet broken. I trust Louis will be pacified by my offering of the Princess Margaret to his brother le Duc de Berry. But little else will change this land than the old blood piecing its soul up before the queen’s family try to strike at it’
‘Strike at it what may? Margaret of Anjou is driven up north with the cold and so may remain. The blood runs in England’s veins anew - justice washes out the brigands from the roads, men aimless from the Wars in france are given to work and brought to point, the merchants are succeeding in their trades and beaming to the futures. Lo- our garden is meshed with a ground green as it may so nurture the white rose’ I said speaking up my loyalty to Edward between every line.
‘Ah young Clarence, no- it is that queen’ he strangely chooses to point downwards, to a stranger his idiosyncrasies ever need explaining ‘Know you…’ his face begins to deepen into his scarlet robe ‘that John’s son is to be deprived of a wife?’ He spoke of little toddling Anne Holland, the one dead no readier to be a wife ‘and given to that Grey cur? Ah my prince. Prince, prince … you’ he began clapping my shoulders.
‘Cousin?’ The white in his brown eyes grew with every repeat. My legs no longer yearned to go anywhere. In truth, had a habit for familiarities when I fell into such passes. In truth, he scared me. And from the space window afforded me, I saw the sun was setting earlier than usual.
He stopped laughing ‘By jove you need not even try to humble me. As knights guards, is truly a prince’s place to, outward, see his kingdom as one with only foreign politics on his mind’ he was drawing away and pointed me to an open door with his staff. I sat down as he continued to pace.
‘But allow me to offer you some simple matters, that your mind may mull when you next pick your Boethius. My lands are in disarray. Gentry fight, tenants grovel and as my services needed here my men suffer and lost wages do the commonweal bad. The land between these roads you speak of are still the gardens’
‘But my lord’ I said ‘this seems a case for men not knowing who their lords are. If you need me to intercede for you so that you royal duties be lessened-‘
Thinking me fuller than Edward, he throws his hands in a controlled manner. Then, as I swear it, a sharp scarlett shadows flashed over the stones. ‘Who may run the business of France as I have? No, it would not do I am afraid. You see the woes of a sonless father? Two maidens I leave to hold the north and west and while I slept soundly when knowing their badges to be shields’ For as long as it took to wink, my thoughts drifted to Elizabeth with my poor Suffolk nephew.
I grew sick at the suggestion. Anne no far readier to wife than my little niece and Edward had deeply endeavoured to wed his elder to Francis Lovell, he made sure to disband Warwick’s enterprises when he had stopped George for his court. With tears in my eyes I had thought him a godsend. A King Edward to finish the work of the first, and trample an anarchy that had been left unbridled in this England since the Conqueror’s days.
When I lifted my head up, I saw Warwick had sat, between shifting his legs together and resting his strong chin on the his bear-shaped pommel, he had taken the form of the vulnerable father that I so yearned to save. His voiced had lowered accordingly ‘You wax anxious. Let me stir you to more familiar matters. My niece, Eleanor. I do believe you favour her, my lady would see her a protector as, unlike my daughters, she had lost her virtue - but as I like to think - not its keeper’
It was as if a gale had swept over me, though it was nothing more fantastic than hot, dry yellow bile. I see now black may have also coarsed in my blood, for later, I wept for the image I had of the quiet, chaste Eleanor Talbot. Now, when I have little to think of between offices I let and observe the visage slip and shift like alternate canonical hours between the terrible and holiness. How quick the willow’s hair turns to snakes! For the longest time I let that small face crumple into that of a gorgon. I knew her strength, and how she was no coerced. She who willingly lay her secrets and lies to Warwick, made it so that he may enact his schemes on me; to catch me into a marriage to avenge her pride was no small thing.
I quickly told Warwick that I would think on it. When the heavy wooden door was behind me I stalked off to the brother I knew loved me and when he, gleaming in his collar in a room awash with fine tapestries where a queen with similar doe-eyes rested her ermined sleeve over his shoulder - and he bade me:
‘Bona of Savoy is still at court England’s soul is in great danger while Warwick is discontent and the spider may yet turn for Margaret of Anjou. Withall a French alliance may have suited us best. Care for the realm as I have tried for you are not as weak as I brother of Clarence ’
I told him that I would marry a post with straw for hair if he so commanded, and that our cousin thought well to offer me Bona. I kissed the mayqueen on her cheeks and surprised by their warmness, I earnestly complemented her designs to wed Margaret to Charles of Burgundy saying that no match would better benefit this realm.
The grey-eyed woman fades fast under the flail of candlelight. Yesterday, she had repented certainly and I will allow naught to consume her but the father. God is impatient for this one, I think as I see her eyes dull with the coming smoke. By superstition she would not let me open the window, nor recollect visits to my brother’s court. They were few and each found her regnant, presiding over both the drunkard and the mendicant with equal mercy. After my wife had given up the ghost, I found it harder than ever to leave for Ireland for I was entranced as was always my wont: by things terrible and holy by turns. Alas, Mistress Shore bades speak of those times I was away as the sinner cannot but confess only things in within their contemplation.
Seven years ago, I did say I would gladly join at the altar with a post for a wife with straw for hair if the king so pleases. Seven years as the seven virtues? Hah! The night before I was to set sail for the Pale I had offered her leave to join her brother the Savoyard Duke Amadeus on his pilgrimage to Saint-Claude, to show I had been keenly attentive to her brother’s plight. What a mind one should bare to forget one such as Amadeus the Happy - a nobleman in retirement, for surely only ill shall befall the one that shirks his place in god’s order.
Most else have slipped from my mind as my wife was inquisitive and demanding and had she her own court, men would say the same about her as they did her sister in France - an excellent princess but not one in whom a man could take any great delight. Though I think it a mercy, I do not mention it to her ,however much I burst with these words every time she twists into a creature of resentment offended by the queen as if she were the light that shrives away her darkness. This one ended her impression as no harridan, nor was she a gorgon deceitful by the day’s turn. Bona’s complexion was fairer than most, nor did shade hang with her where I had not put it.
I admitted then as I do now, for how much fault my mind’s eye sook in a slacking chin or rasped voice I could have fancied myself yoked to a devil and declared stupid, free of any promise. The joining of the two souls a dogma putting wrong two bodies melded by thread and pins to heaven’s beauty. I did not trust that where I had not felt, god was absent though even my fasts held more ecstasy in them and I did my duty by her and gave her Elizabeth for which the mayqueen stood godmother.
Had she only grown old enough, that she may have revelled in County Meath’s green groves and forceful brooks, but alas, the girl died young and ever in the pink of her mother’s bosom. Fairer than Queen Medb or Finnabair after her.
When Old O’Byrne came to Drogheda to swear allegiance professing that no protector of the Hibernians was worthier than I, and that it is not Plantagenet but Cork, son of the Earl of Ulster, that had been placed to reign not from the Trim in the Pale, not Westminster he did not balk to ask what came with their son of ireland . I told them that when the King refused George the Ireland I had long served before I was prince and of which I was more a son than he Desmond’s, he had taken Warwick’s eldest to wife and , promptly, the Earl struck an agreement between him and the French king to invade Burgundy and settle the lion’s share on him.
Now he and Isabel of the hushed voice that oft gave her speech the markings of an accent have Holland, Zealand and Brabrant to themselves and under English rule. A Great wealth ensconced between the hands that were so like to link when she would dangle about the gardens at Eltham striking him idiot with her dark lashes and cat’s green eyes. He had bought Tudor from the Bretons and to settle the trouble of the Richmond earldom for once he had wed her to his eldest Margaret, the progeniture of a fine line of courtiers most excellent.
But when old King Edward had told me that the quick malady that came over England had struck my Bone from this earth, and that I am to marry Charolais’ heiress Mary to come against George’s disobedient governance and reform I remembered Eleanor as she once was and then how she had claimed my brother overbore her wish to take up the veil and remain unmarried.
Jane’s eyes are now alight at my conclusion. She places her hand on my shoulder as if to say ‘eager am I to consume as He is to consume me’. Merrier than the May Queen , beyond compare more honourable than the Gorgoness, had I been in England I would have loved her as excellently as I loved all Edward’s women. Even a Knight would feel no shame for this form. Between tears I chant the viaticum and watch the communion wafer slip from between my fingers for she has more than recollected Edward for me.