When Prince Edward was ten years old, the royal family paid its first visit to Sandal Castle, the Duke of York’s northern stronghold.
Queen Margaret was out of sorts for the entire journey, and the gossips said it was because Suffolk stayed behind in London, at the insistence of his duchess. They were correct, Margaret knew, but also very wrong. Lady Alice was Margaret’s dearest, oldest friend in England; the duchess knew how to stand by her husband, quietly.
No, the Suffolks had remained at Margaret’s request, to keep an eye on the Lord Protector. Now that Gloucester’s troublesome wife had been removed from the scene, the king was happy to believe that his uncle was once again an ally, committed to helping preserving the realm for Henry and his son. By now, Margaret had learned the futility of confronting her husband’s naive assumptions. Better to leave Suffolk in place, ready to dispatch a messenger at the moment old Gloucester overreached.
Leaving the capital made Margaret uneasy, but, nonetheless, she embraced the opportunity to view York on his own ground. Uncoupled, for once, from his Neville allies (save for his duchess, who harbored her own mysteries), the duke might at last appear before Margaret as he truly was.
The greeting that the royal party received in the castle’s courtyard was festive and ceremonious, and Margaret did not like it at all.
Lady Cecily bowed before her queen, as was her duty, and comported herself in every way as as an ideal subject. Yet Margaret could not believe that the air of insolence in the duchess’s every motion was entirely her own fancy. Cecily’s gaze held Margaret’s for an instant too long; the hand she placed on the prince’s shoulder while fussing over his beautiful curls was a touch too familiar. Margaret could only conclude that all Nevilles were born to this manner -- to do everything in the proper way, while sending a clear signal that in a better, more just world, you would be paying homage to them, rather than the other way around.
The duke, in contrast to his wife, behaved in a way that felt both proper and easy. He had been fostered by the Nevilles, after his father was disgraced, and then he had married (been married to?) his guardian’s daughter. Margaret had to wonder whether he ever had the same resentment of his in-laws’ aspirations that rankled under her skin. His daughter Elizabeth and three of his sons had joined the party that greeted the visitors at the gate: tall, handsome, and self-assured Edward, Earl of March; George, who was older but shorter than the prince, and entirely unremarkable; and small Edmund, clinging to his mother’s skirt until she shook him off and York lifted the boy in his own arms. Were the children more Neville or Plantagenet?
And what of the one who was missing? Something about the entire ceremony put Margaret ill at ease.
Henry, of course, was in raptures. He saw subjects bowing before him, saw York’s strong Edward defer to his own and believed, as he always believed, that these events reaffirmed his God-bestowed place as the rightful king. This belief fueled his irritation with even the smallest bumps along the road, but it also kept him from regarding a threat to his rule as anything other than an inconvenience, which would be sorted out in the natural order of things. No matter that the instrument of his “natural order” had all too often involved Suffolk and now Margaret pulling invisible strings (invisible, at least, to Henry).
Now he fussed over York’s children, congratulating the duchess on her “four strong sons.” A stillness fell on the York party, until the duke broke it by saying, “My son Richard . . .”
“On the tiltyard, sir,” said young March to his father, and only then to the king, “Pardon your grace, I’m certain that my brother lost track of the time. He’s quite devoted to his exercises, once he begins.” This one was all Neville, then.
“The tiltyard?” Prince Edward tugged at Margaret’s sleeve. “Mother, I want to play, too. Can I, mother?”
A smirk fluttered across Cecily’s lips, and Margaret gave her son a stern look. She had tried to convey this idea to the prince by subtle means, but perhaps it needed an explicit reinforcement: When others were watching, he should at least try to feign that his father was in charge.
Henry also looked to Margaret for an answer, which was no help. “Perhaps if he is not too tired …”
Margaret circled her husband’s arm with one hand, and tightened the grip on her son’s shoulder with the other. “It will be dark soon,” she said. “Perhaps tomorrow.” Tomorrow when the prince’s attendants would have a chance to explore the terrain, to look out for hidden dangers. A boy engaged in dangerous games, outnumbered by subjects whose love for their sovereign might have been proven (Henry thought so), but who as next in line to the throne had far less reason to love his only son and heir.
Young March offered a hand to the prince. “My brothers and I await the chance to admire your skills.” It was pure sycophancy, but delivered with an amiable grin, and Margaret could see her son bloom in the light of the older boy’s attention.
The duke was watching the two Edwards as well. Margaret would give anything to know what he was thinking.
If Suffolk were here, Margaret would take the first opportunity to confer with him, to compare first impressions and lay out the next day’s strategy.
She didn’t have Suffolk. She only had Henry.
“Four strong sons,” he laughed, when they were alone in the chamber she had been given. “Did you notice that?”
“I noticed your lack of tact and your inability to count, if that’s what you mean.” She pulled at a hairpin. “Jane! Where is that accursed girl? I cannot comb this all out myself.” She hoped her husband would take her meaning and call for the maid.
Instead, he touched the top of her head. “This cannot be so difficult.” He pulled one pin out and held it before him, proud of himself.
“A task fit for a king.” She hoped he had proved his point and would let her be, now, but instead he steered her toward a chair. He continued to touch her hair, and her stomach churned at the thought that seeing York’s large brood would inspire her husband to a rare amorous escapade. Margaret was well aware of the fragility of her position as the mother of a lone child, never more than staring down that line of York’s brats with their vacant Neville faces. But she had long abandoned the prospect of conceiving another child with Henry. If her position ever seemed so desperate as to require a new scion, there were other men she could call on.
Fortunately, her husband had no such intentions, at least not tonight. Instead Henry kept working on her hair as he said, with unmistakable delight, “You don’t suppose they expect us to believe that deformed worm was really exercising on the tiltyard?”
Margaret obliged her husband with a scandalized laugh, as though shocked that kindly-natured Henry had said such a thing. But she knew better. Certainly, Henry was kind, in the sense that he would have chided her if she had dared to say such a thing, especially if she said it in front of other people. But to Margaret, the deformity of one of York’s younger sons was, at best, a morbid sort of joke. To Henry, the grotesque child was another statement on the legitimacy of his own claim. He must rattle on about York’s misfortune in order to assert his comparative blessedness.
“What a cruel sign of fate that is," he continued. "Two healthy sons, and then his own namesake comes out with a crooked back and mismatched feet. Born with teeth in his head, they say. They presented him to me when he was very small, a pitiful thing. I’m extraordinarily curious how he will have grown up, and it’s clear enough his parents don’t want to satisfy me.”
“Perhaps you’ll see the ugly creature tomorrow,” said Margaret. Gloating with Henry was never any fun because he would simply bring it back to how well things had gone for him after all, willfully blind to the hands (usually Margaret’s) that had brought this good fortune about. “Send my girl back in, husband. The journey gave me a monstrous headache and now I am ready to sleep.”
Margaret’s maid came to her chamber door in the depths of night, and her first thought was that that Suffolk must have sent a messenger. Damnable Gloucester. The Lord Protector had barely waited until they left London to make a move, and the courier had only now caught up to tell them.
Margaret pulled a robe about her and stepped into the dark corridor, where a youth stood haloed in torchlight. She had seen him in the yard, a squire to the duke.
“Pardon your grace,” said the boy, “But my master would have a word.”
The queen was sorely tempted to remind the messenger that his master was her host and could expect an audience at a civilized time of the day. But York was a sensible man, not the type who would resort to late night intrigues if more obvious methods would serve.
One of the queen’s soldiers, alerted to her movements, appeared from another end of the hall. “Shall I wake the king, your grace?”
“No need,” she said, and the man, well accustomed to keeping his lady’s discretion, simply nodded.
“You may bring your own guard, of course,” said York’s boy.
Margaret considered. “No.” If a plot were brewing under the Duke’s roof, the queen would not be the target of it. To the soldier, she said,“Double the guard on the prince’s chamber.” She gestured to the duke’s messenger. “I trust myself to this gentleman’s honor. And you, Jane -- Go back to your bed. When you wake it will be as though a miracle has occurred, and you have seen nothing.”
The squire led her through halls and down stairways. Margaret did her best to count her paces and orient herself to the proper direction, but she was not at all confident that she could find her way again. When at last they came to the duke, he was sitting in a modest chamber with a fire roaring behind him. In front of him, a table was laid out with bread, meat, and wine.
When she entered, York stood and bowed. “Your grace.”
She took the chair he offered, and nodded to him to sit across from her. “To what do I owe this honor?”
“Why, I am honored to play host to my queen, and you honor me as my guest.” To the squire, he said, “Harry. Pour some wine for the queen, and leave us.”
Margaret accepted the goblet but kept her eyes trained on York. Their drinks had been poured from the same flagon, and she waited for him to swallow before taking a small sip. “One could be just as honored in company, in daylight.”
“This is true, your grace. I have asked to see you tonight because I am a plain-spoken man.”
“Then. Speak. Plainly.”
She thought her response might irritate York, but he smiled and raised his drink toward her. “Very well. I thought a smaller group would accomplish more in fewer words.”
“Smaller by subtraction of my husband and your wife? If this is an attempt at seduction, I must tell you --” She looked down at the plain bread, the unornamented slice of lamb. “I am accustomed to more elegant ones.”
“My wife is a strong, moral, fiercely intelligent woman. I trust her down to my soul.” He tore of a piece from the loaf of bread and offered it to Margaret. “She is also a Neville. I grew up among Nevilles. I admire the family. I further know that any of them -- my wife, her Uncle Salisbury, Cousin Warwick, even my own eldest son -- will happily suck the air out of a room, given the opportunity, and blow it out of their own mouths in the form of words, before anyone else is given an opportunity to speak. It will be enough for me to hold my own against your grace without dear Cecily as competition.”
“And my husband?”
“Henry is my sovereign lord. He is also a fool. Pardon me for saying so, but it is not my custom to flatter.”
Margaret allowed her laugh to express more surprise than she felt. “This plain speech of yours is nonsense. You flatter even as you disclaim flattery. Peace now, good duke,” she said, before he could object. “Flattery is the air I breathe, and everything I hear, unless it is condescension or abuse. But few who wish to flatter me have hit on such an effective means to that end as you have, by claiming to prefer my attention to that of my husband. Now.” She picked up the bread, and raised the wine to her mouth. “Tell me what it is that you so dearly want to say.”
As she spoke, York had begun to smile. An odd man, less straightforward than she had imagined. Whenever she thought she had been particularly cutting, he seemed more at his ease. Now he leaned toward her. “You have no love for the Lord Protector.”
“This is true. Henry is a man grown and has no need for his uncle Gloucester to control his birthright. I have said so much to Gloucester’s very face, and to the king, and in the presence of witnesses. It requires no midnight rendezvous to determine this.”
“Henry is a man grown,” said York. “He is also, as we have agreed, a fool.”
“You said so, not I.”
“And you wasted very little breath in contradicting me.”
Now it was Margaret’s turn to smile. If York preferred her company when she was being insolent, Margaret began to understand the feeling. “You are saying that the Nevilles think so little of the king that they are happy to see Gloucester remain protector indefinitely.” York, of course, had made no distinction between his view and that of his in-laws’ clan. But he had taken some pains to ensure that he could talk to Margaret when none of them were present. “And what do you think?”
York did not answer immediately. He took just the right amount of time to make a clear he was considering his response, but not inventing it whole cloth. At last, he said, “I have known far too much uncertainty regarding my birthright to ever take its future lightly. I have a duty to honor the York legacy, and to reward the loyalty of those who are sworn to me. I have a duty to my wife, and my children, and the England they will inherit. If England’s government is to pass from the hands of the Lord Protector into -- other hands, I would need to be assured that the new regime could be trusted. Going forward.”
“Well said. We should always think not just of ourselves but of the next generation. Over the course of this visit, friendships may be strengthened. Prince Edward will learn to know and trust your Edward, who will in turn serve him and fight by his side against all enemies. As for your two fair daughters. . . My son is still a child; your girls are also children. But in a few short years, the time may come that the red rose of Lancaster, and the white of York, grow together, as was always intended. And then, why, we can throw down these silly badges.”
“Your son’s hand in marriage for one of my daughters? Is this a thing that is yours to promise?”
“You asked to meet with me, did you not?” Margaret heard the snap in her own voice, but she knew this was peevishness, not the forceful scorn that she aimed for and that York seemed to like. Yet there was the rub. She could say that her son adored her, treasured her, and always put great store in her counsel; but a prince whose destiny could be promised by his mother could be no great prince in the eyes of men like York.
Besides. York’s daughters were fair and their dowries would be opulent. But Warwick had daughters. Somerset had daughters. The Duke of Burgundy and the King of France and the lords of the Low Countries had nieces and daughters and all would be players in the marriage market.
“My son will be his own man,” said Margaret. “But the attachments of youth can run deep, as you and your duchess have reason to know.”
When York laughed this time, he did not sound so amused. Margaret gave him a sharp look. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s only that we are back to the Nevilles again. I love my wife dearly, I shall love her until the day I die, but we were betrothed and wed in our minority so that her father -- my guardian -- would not lose access to my dead father’s lands.” York held a hand up. “My dead traitor father. You don’t need to say so, I am well aware of Henry the Fifth’s feelings on the matter.”
Henry the Fifth’s feelings about Richard of Cambridge had derived from quite understandable dislike of Richard’s intentions to have him murdered. Margaret was too French to have any particular affection for that dead king, married to his son and heir though she might be, and the last thing she needed was for York to get his hackles up in defense of his ancestor's sins.
“I understand your meaning,” she said. “Youthful attachments have their virtues, but making a match for a king’s son or a duke’s daughter requires a more deliberate sense of purpose. Do I have the crux of it?”
“Yes, I believe you have the crux. Not much deliberate sense of purpose, but that would be too much to expect at this point in time.”
“As I said, they are young. They will spend some time together as we visit, and as things go on, perhaps --” Margaret felt she was bungling this. She should never have brought up the idea of a marriage without a more solid plan. Then, the duke should not have pulled her out of her bed for a private conference and then held her to whatever it occurred to her to say in the moment.
She missed Suffolk’s sustaining company intensely.
“I do have one proud thing in my family legacy,” York said. “That is the hunting dogs. You may have heard them baying on the way in. My Uncle Edward, the Second Duke of York -- well, I don’t remember him; he died at Agincourt when I was only a child. But I do know he was one of England’s great hunters. He wrote books about it, some of the first in our language.”
There was only one book, really, unless you counted the French version that Edward had mostly translated it from. Margaret had looked through both and found them dull, but she suspected that saying this would not hasten the current York toward his point. All this plain speaking was about to put her to sleep.
“I had that book when I was a boy, " the duke continued. "I read it over and over. My idea of being my own man was all tied up with breeding my own pack of dogs. I determined to do so when I came into my title and settled into this home. As it happened, I went immediately to France to the wars to defeat Henry’s enemies, but I hired a first rate kennelmaster. Then I intended to come here direct from France, but I was at court to serve the Lord Protector’s whims. Still, my man kept the kennels going, and just in the last few months I have come back here. They are excellent dogs. I have spent too much time in the service of the kingdom to become an excellent hunter. But. I know a few things.”
“I know how to dangle a piece of meat over the head of a pack of dogs who have been commanded to sit. I hold it over them, a juice-dripping promise. And I can tell the properly trained ones because they don’t jump.”
“And if all your dogs behave, do they receive the meat as a prize?”
“In a sense. The master will cut it up and divide it among all the good dogs. Hardly a proper meal for any one of them.”
“Is the moral of the story that if they had jumped they could have had the entire piece?”
“If they jump,” he said. “They are no good as hunting dogs.”
“So then what? They get chopped up and fed to the other dogs, I suppose?”
His eyebrows went up. “The last one I gave to my son George to keep as a pet. But I must say, you have an astonishingly bloody mind.”
“You have an unnecessarily long story. Have we arrived at the meat?”
“The meat, your grace, is that I want you to know I am willing to ride with you. I will even ride behind you. But the Duke of York is not now and will never be your dog.”
“I understand.” Margaret looked down at the meat laid before her. “Was this meant as an object lesson?”
“I only stumbled on the metaphor. My intention was to break bread with you, as your host. I will even taste it first, if you prefer, to show my good faith.”
The offer might have been a matter of form, but Margaret slid her plate across to him anyway. Before the food reached him, the duke froze. He turned his head toward the corridor, as though he had heard a noise.
Margaret had noticed nothing, beyond the usual nighttime sounds of such an ancient fortress, but now she heard a slow dragging and thumping. Footsteps, she decided, but the stride of a man pulling a heavy weight behind him. The duke stood -- “Pardon me for a moment.” -- and moved toward the closed door.
The young squire’s voice murmured outside in a low whisper. A younger, higher voice answered, “If my father is within, I want to see him.”
York stopped with his hand on the door, and cast a thoughtful look at Margaret. “You may as well bring him in,” she said. “We were denied a proper introduction.”
The duke gave a slow nod and let the door swing inward. “To your grace, I present my third son; Richard, introduce yourself to Queen Margaret.”
The first, surprising, thing was that Richard had a handsome face: sharp cheekbones and bright, symmetrical eyes, under a boyish mop of soft, raven hair. The next was that he was not so horribly deformed as gossip and her husband had led her to believe. His gait was uneven, so that he seemed to shuffle sideways and walk forward at once. But there was nothing clumsy about the movement. His compact young body seemed controlled, even powerful, and now Margaret believed he might have been been practicing with armor and a lance after all.
Richard took a knee in front of her and when he spoke it was with a voice that had not yet completed the journey from boy to man, but showed signs of elocutionary training. “I bow before you because you are King Henry’s queen, and not only because stooping is my natural posture.” Now that he bent, she could see the odd configuration of his back.
York spoke in a warning, fatherly voice. “Richard. Why are you here?”
Margaret saw a question flash across the boy’s face -- Why am I, Father? Why are you? -- but he did not speak it and instead placed a hand on the underside of his jaw. “I have a toothache. It prevents me sleeping and you know the physician has told me it does me good to walk. So on a night such as this --”
York raised a hand to signal that he had heard enough, that Richard need not discuss such intimate matters in the presence of a stranger who was also their queen.
“Did you have the toothache this evening when we arrived?” asked Margaret.
Richard’s eyebrow rose, and half his body with it. “Is that what Mother said?”
“Richard,” The duke warned.
“Your brother March said that you were so occupied with your combat exercises that you must have lost track of the time.”
“I was,” said Richard. “And I did. And I had the toothache, and --” Now he walked toward his father, tilted his head to one side, and said, “I had a particular feeling that Mother did not want me there.”
York answered too quickly. “That’s absurd.”
“Is it?’” Addressing Margaret, Richard said, “Mother likes things to be very particular. I am often not particular enough for her.”
The boy edged toward his father and leaned close, sinking to his knees. The shoulder that rose higher than its twin was evident now; the hunched side rose, and the other sank, as Richard placed his head on the duke's shoulder. York brought a hand to the boy’s rich curls and began to stroke them, as though on instinct; then he froze, suddenly aware of being observed and turned warning eyes to Margaret.
“A lovely tableau,” she said. “Does he eat out of your hand, too?” York’s face stayed frozen, but the boy raised his head and pulled back his lips to bare clenched teeth, then wrinkled his nose into a snarl. By the time his father turned to see, Richard had resumed a less beastly expression, but Margaret did not think York was fooled.
“Richard. . .” The duke’s rising irritation fascinated Margaret. The man could smile at her provocations toward him, share a joke at the expense of his wife or even his eldest child. But this dark misshapen creature, the one Henry saw as a sign of the York line’s inferiority -- the duke saw something here that he was compelled to claim.
“I wonder,” she mused, and reached for a chunk of the meat that York had laid before her. “I wonder if he will eat out of mine.”
“Now --” York began, clearly out of temper.
But the boy cut him off. “I can handle myself, father.” Without rising from his knees, Richard shuffled toward the queen. She moved her hand from the table and dangled the scrap. The boy leaned toward her, sniffing the meat from every side. York wanted to look away, that was clear enough, but his eyes stayed fixed on Margaret. Who is not whose dog now, good duke?
Richard suddenly lunged his head toward her, snapping his teeth. Margaret dropped the meat in time, and it vanished into his jaws. She laughed; she also curled her fingers and moved her hand into her lap. If she had been a second slower, she would be shaking blood from her hands.
“What a fine game,” said Margaret. “I hope you are ready to play tomorrow, with your cousin the prince.”
“I think the boy’s had quite enough games for the evening. Richard, go with Harry and have him wake your mother’s girl to get something for your tooth. She’ll know the thing.”
“I don’t want --” Richard began to protest.
“This isn’t a negotiation. I will speak with you in the morning. Until then --” York raised a hand to his mouth.
Richard mirrored his movement. “I’ll be quiet as a church mouse,” he promised. “Or --” he said to Margaret. “As a very well-trained lapdog.”
The door closed, leaving the two alone. York looked after his son, just over Margaret’s shoulder, and neither of them spoke until voices and steps faded in the corridor.
“It is good that is not your eldest,” Margaret said at last. “You would have to arrange a fatal accident.”
“Is that how things are done in France?” The duke spoke between clenched teeth.
“I see your fondness for the boy. I am sure if you found the matter distasteful, Cecily would arrange it without involving you.”
His hand banged on the table and he jumped to his feet. “Henry’s queen or no, you are a guest in my home.” His breath came in heavy gasps, and as much as Margaret knew York to be a rational man, it made her uneasy for the first time to realize they were alone.
She knew she had to meet his wrath with calm, and so she spoke in a slow, cool voice. It was important to let him know this was all part of the same crafty pantomime. “I wondered what it would take to make you truly angry.”
“Did you?” He leaned close, staring her in the eye. “You’d have it that this is all part of your artifice, but I don’t believe you. When you look at my son, you see what you think is my weakness. And in the face of weakness, you are incapable even of feigning kindness. You cannot do it, not even for long enough to gain an advantage by it. I’m finished with you, Margaret of Anjou.”
He stood, then, and walked away, leaving the queen to find her own path back to her quarters.
Margaret never spoke of that meeting with York, but she would reflect on it, again and again.
Not for what it told her about the duke, but what it said of his son. This was Richard, poisoned by his mother’s contempt, and molded by his father’s love of feigning.
Margaret would have cause to think about that, for a very long time.