A Song of Sixpence: The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck

Copyright © JudithArnopp2015

First Edition

 

The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

 

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

Cover photo: [email protected]

Edited by Cas Peace

 

 

 

 

I wish to dedicate this book to the memory of the late M.M. Bennetts,

an author whose support and encouragement has made me the writer I am today.

She is very much missed.

 

 

Other books by Judith Arnopp

Intractable Heart: the story of Kathryn Parr

The Kiss of the Concubine: A story of Anne Boleyn

The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII

The Song of Heledd

The Forest Dwellers

Peaceweaver

 

 

 

 

A

Song

of

Sixpence

 

Judith Arnopp

 

Chapter One
Boy

 

 

London ― Autumn 1483

 

Ink black water slaps against the Tower wharf where deep, impenetrable darkness stinks of bleak, dank death. Strong arms constrict him and the rough blanket covering his head clings to his nose and mouth. The boy struggles, kicks, and wrenches his face free to suck in a lungful of life-saving breath. The blanket smothers him again. He fights against it, twisting his head, jerking his arms, trying to kick; but the hands that hold him tighten. His head is clamped hard against his attacker’s body. He frees one hand, gropes with his fingers until he discovers chain mail, and an unshaven chin. Clenching his fingers into a fist, he lunges out with a wild, inaccurate punch.

With a muffled curse, the man throws back his head but, keeping hold of his prisoner, he hurries onward down narrow, dark steps, turning one corner then another before halting abruptly. The boy hears his assailant’s breath coming short and sharp and knows he too is afraid.

The aroma of brackish water is stronger now. The boy strains to hear mumbled voices, low and rough over scuffling footsteps. The ground seems to dip an
d
his stomach lurches as suddenly they are weightless, floating, and he senses they have boarded a river craft. The invisible world dips and sways sickeningly as they push out from the stability of the wharf for the dangers of the river.

The only sound is the gentle splash of oars as they glide across the water, then far off the clang of a bell and the cry of a boatman. Th
H
e boy squirms, opens his mouth to scream but the hand clamps down hard again. The men draw in their breath and freeze, waiting anxiously. There’s a long moment, a motionless pause before the oars are taken up again and the small craft begins to move silently across the surface.

River mist billows around them; he can smell it, feels it seeping through his clothes. He shivers, but more from fear than cold.

He knows when they draw close to the bridge. He can feel the tug of the river; hear the increasing rush of the current, the dangerous turbulence beneath.
Surely they will not shoot the bridge, especially after dark?
Only a fool would risk it.

The boy wriggles, shakes his head, and tries to work his mouth free of the smothering hand. He strains to see through the blinding darkness but all is inky black. The boat gathers pace and, as the noise of the surging river becomes deafening, the man increases his hold, a hurried prayer rumbling in his chest.

The whole world is consumed in chaos, rushing water, clamouring thunder, biting cold. In the fight for survival, the boy continues to battle fruitlessly for breath, struggle for his freedom. The body that holds him hostage tenses like a board and beneath the boy’s ear beats the dull thud of his assailant’s heart. The blanket is suffocatingly hot, his stomach turning as the boat is taken, surging forward, spinning upward before it is hurled down again between the starlings, shooting uncontrollably beneath the bridge.

Then suddenly, the world is calmer. Somehow the boat remains upright on the water. It spins. He hears the men scrabble for the oars, regain control, and his captor relaxes, breathes normally again. Exhausted and helpless, the boy slumps, his fight defeated.

All is still now; all is quiet. The oars splash, the boat glides down river, and soon the aroma of the countryside replaces the stench of the city.

His clothes are soaked with river water; his stomach is empty, his body bruised and aching. As the man releases his hold, the boy slumps to the bottom of the boat. He lies unmoving, defeated and afraid.

He sleeps.

The world moves on.

 

Much later, waking with a start, the boy hears low, dark whisperings; a thick Portuguese accent is answered by another, lighter and less certain. This time when he blinks into the darkness, he notices a faint glimmer of light through the coarse weave of the blanket. He forces himself to lie still, knowing his life could depend upon not moving, but his limbs are so cramped he can resist no longer. He shifts, just a little, but it is too much. His kidnapper hauls him unceremoniously from the wet wooden planks.

The boy’s legs are like string. He stumbles as they snatch off his hood and daylight rushes in, blinding bright. He blinks, screwing up his face, squinting at the swimming features before him, fighting for focus. He sees dark hair; a heavy beard; the glint of a golden earring—and recognition and relief flood through him.

“Brampton!” he exclaims, his voice squeaking, his throat parched. “What the devil are you doing? Take me back at once.”

Brampton tugs at the boy’s tethered arms, drawing him more gently now to the bench beside him.

“I cannot. It is unsafe.”

“Why?” As his hands are untied the boy rubs at each wrist in turn, frowning at the red weals his bonds have left behind. He pushes Plantagenet-bright hair from his eyes, his chin juts forward in outrage. “If my father were here …”

“Well, he is not.”

Brampton’s tone lacks respect, but the boy knows him for a brusque, uncourtly man.

“But where are you taking me? What is happening?”

“To safety. England is no longer the place for you.”

The boy swallows, his shadowed eyes threatening tears. Switching his gaze from one man to the other, he moistens his lips, bites his tongue before trusting his breaking voice. “Where is my brother? Where is Edward?”

Brampton narrows his eyes and looks across the misty river. He runs a huge, rough hand across his beard, grimaces before he replies. His words, when they come, spell out the lost cause of York.

“Dead. As would you be had I left you there.”

Chapter Two
Elizabeth
Sheriff Hutton Castle – August 1485

 

“Sing for us, Bess, and I’ll give you a fat sixpence.”

The court falls silent at the king’s voice and all eyes turn expectantly toward me. My father, King Edward IV, slouches in his chair, his fingers slick with grease as he shreds flesh from the fowl before him. I do not see the pouches on his cheek that others see, nor the shadow of death beneath his eyes. He is my hero, my king, and to me the epitome of manhood.

With a smile, I rinse my fingers daintily and wipe them on the cloth before sliding from my seat and taking my place before the assembled court. I do not ask what song I should sing. I know the king’s favourites and the players do, too. With a nod to the minstrel the music begins, and I break into a merry tune about a cuckoo and the onset of summer. The company, replete with meat and wine, sway in their seats as I sing for them. The royal fools begin to dance with hands on hips and pointed toes in a parody of their betters.

Sumer is Icumen in,

Loudly sing, cuckoo!

Grows the seed and blows the mead,

And springs the wood anew;

Sing, cuckoo!

When I reach the part about the cows, the fools moo and snort loudly, turning my performance into a farce. Father is rolling in his seat now, mopping his face with a big kerchief, and my own voice trembles with suppressed laughter. At last, when my song is done and the applause has died down, the king asks for another.

Hidden in my chamber, I have a vessel of coin earned by these means. My sister Cecily says if it were hers she would buy a new hood or a pair of hunting gauntlets. She thinks I am soft to give my earnings to the poor, but I have a deep concern for the ordinary people.

Sometimes, when I am safe and tight in my bed, I think of them shivering beneath inadequate covers, the roofs of their houses leaking, the rain and wind gusting in beneath the doors. I am always aware that but for the whims of fate, I too could have been born a pauper instead of a royal princess of York. I’ve learned that a princess’s first duty is to charity, but sometimes I fear it is a lesson that has passed my sister by. We have never known want, our bellies have always been full, but that doesn’t mean I cannot imagine the misery of poverty. If England is to remain a merry place, those in our position should do all they can to ease the hardships of the poor.

My father and his supporters fought and won wars for the privilege of ruling over England. For years men died and women wept but now all that is over, and under York’s rule the country is at peace and likely to remain so. The people love my father and cry out in cheer when we ride through the streets, although it is not so for my mother.

Father was criticised when he married her secretly, undermining the control of his guide and mentor, the Earl of Warwick. Mother is not only a non-royal but the widow of a man who fought and died for the cause of Lancaster and, to add insult to injury, she was already mother to two small boys.

Warwick had set his sights on a foreign princess for my father; a union to secure our position on the throne of England. But my mother, with her silver-blonde hair and merry laughter made a fool of the great Earl and snared herself a king. She has proven more fruitful than even Warwick could have dreamed.

Now Warwick lies unmourned in his grave, killed in anarchy against his king, and the royal York nursery is teeming with children. With two strong sons and a bevy of princesses, my father’s hold on the crown is unshakeable.

York is here to stay. Our claim is strong, our line legitimate, and the days of Lancaster are over.

 

My song comes to an end and as the music tails into silence, the minstrel bows and I curtsey low to the king amid wild applause. My father beckons me to his side for a kiss and I skip toward the dais to give him my salute. When I press my lips against his cheek, his hands slide about my waist and he pulls me onto his knee. “Ah, Bess,” he whispers. “You are just like your mother.”

Father signals for a stool to be brought and I squeeze between my parents and look across the hall, my heart light, my cheeks pink with embarrassed pleasure. A trio of fools flip upside down across the hall, leaping and bounding like deer from the hounds. Father leans forward and presses a coin into my hand and I turn to thank him.

But as I go to speak, something changes. His cheeks begin to blur and the whole scene begins to dissolve before my eyes. The people in the hall are silent now. Darkness rushes in from the periphery of the room. I call out his name, spin around to find they are no longer there. I am alone.

They are gone. Father is gone, the royal court has disappeared, and only Cecily is weeping in the darkness of our chamber. I sit up in my bed and look around at the humped shadows, the dying embers of the fire. It was all just a dream. My happiness seeps away as reality washes over me. The first streaks of morning are showing in the east and with the dawning of the day, the living nightmare that my life has become begins again.

As my mind re-engages with the present, I remember with sickening clarity that Father is dead and my royal brother has been deposed. My father’s children are all bastards now and Uncle Richard, who stole their crown three years since, has marched away to defend it against the spawn of Lancaster; Tudor. Henry Tudor.

Tudor has sworn that, once he has gained his rightful throne, he will marry me and merge his house with mine, finally putting an end to the wars of York and Lancaster. But I loathe Henry Tudor; his very name turns my stomach and makes me want to spit.

I am Elizabeth of York and it should be me weeping in the dark not Cecily, for should Lancaster prove victorious, it is I, the eldest of my father’s daughters, who will be served like a pig on a platter to the triumphant king.

*

“Stop crying, Cecily. It won’t change anything.”

At my cruel words her tousled head emerges from beneath the covers and she sits up, wipes her nose on the back of her hand.

“How can you be so calm? Things had just begun to go right for us. At least King Richard was treating us with some respect. If he loses the fight and Tudor is victorious, do you think a Lancastrian will do the same? He might well throw us all in the Tower.”

She is red-eyed and snotty, and Mother would be horrified at such loss of dignity. I pass her a kerchief.

“What would Mother say, Cecily? For goodness sake blow your nose, wash your face and behave like the York princess you are. We are not defeated yet.”

She scowls at me and snatches the kerchief, blowing her nose loudly as her shoulders continue to shudder. There is no use in tears. I wept too many when my father died and my siblings and I were made bastards. Our Uncle Richard took the throne for himself and kept my brothers close in the Tower. I could not comfort them. I could not distract my brothers with tales of King Arthur or try to explain to Edward that Uncle Richard thought he was acting for the best.

I railed against Richard at first, spoke scathingly and unwisely of his actions, and when Mother plotted against him, I did nothing to prevent it. Most kings would have had us taken up for treason, but Richard is quite unlike other kings.

It was a dark day when he came to us in Westminster sanctuary. My mother and sisters were still deep in mourning for the sudden loss of our father and were not expecting a visit from the ‘
vile usurper’
as Mother labelled him.

We were gathered in a gloomy chamber about a lazy fire when some small sound made me look up from my needlework. Richard hesitated at the door, absorbing our hatred, understanding our sense of betrayal. He moved through our bitterness to sit among us and try to make us understand why a child could never hold England’s crown.

His features swam beneath my tears as he spoke quietly and rationally in a voice so soft I was forced to lean forward to hear him. Cecily was weeping noisily and the children were restive.

“An infant prince has never thrived in England…”

Mother leapt to her feet.

“Edward is no infant. God curse you, Richard!” she cried, as if she were still queen. “God damn you and all your heirs.”

With a look that would wither nettles, she whirled on her heel and marched imperiously from his presence. Richard remained seated, regarding me as if he expected me to follow her, but I tarried and listened to his words.

The firelight fell upon his sleek dark head, shadowing his face, his occasional glint of tears testament to his regret. And as we sat together, I began to see a glimmer of reasoning behind his ruthlessness. But I hated him still.

“If I could have the time again,” he said, “I’d do all I could to prevent your father’s death and keep England merry, as it used to be.”

Cecily left us, mumbling words like
hypocrite
and
usurper
but I was not so quick to judge. I knew more than Cecily. I was aware, as she was not, that our father made some harsh decisions too… for the sake of the realm.

Of course, Richard’s apologies didn’t make me resent his actions less. The throne belonged to my brother by right of birth. He was raised to be Edward V and had my father lived just a little less extravagantly, perhaps his son would have held on to his crown.

“You have named us all bastards. How are we to trust you?”

He sighed and looked away, shamed and sorry, but made no answer.

“Can I see my brothers?” I asked with great daring. Richard raised his sad eyes to me and slowly shook his head.

“Not yet, Elizabeth. Not until everything is settled. You can see them then.”

“They will be frightened … grieving!” I stood up, my book falling to the floor, and Richard stood with me. He reached out and clasped my wrist gently.

“They are safe in my care, Elizabeth. I would never hurt my brother’s sons but I cannot allow them to be a target for my foe. I must keep them close.”

I trusted him. He was their uncle, as he was mine, and the Plantagenet bond was unbreakable. I gave the ghost of a smile and did not fight for my brothers.

I told myself there’d be time for that later.

 

When the boys disappeared from the Tower our hearts broke afresh, for the king would not tell us their whereabouts or even confirm they were still living. It was hard to bear so soon after losing father, for even if they lived, estranged from us, they were as good as dead.

Mother swathed herself in mourning and lost no opportunity to smirch the reputation of the new king. She took some sort of theatrical joy from refusing to leave sanctuary and return to court. She cursed Richard as a usurper, the abductor of her sons, and the destroyer of her reputation. Her hatred for him was ungovernable, verging on madness. Her mood swung from violent rage to cold, calculating scheming. One moment she wept, the next she called for parchment and pen and began a desperate correspondence with our erstwhile enemy.

So, when she agreed to release us from sanctuary and into the care of our uncle, the king she professed to hate, Cecily and I were astounded.

*

My sisters and I poured from the grim sanctuary walls like birds from a cage. After so many months of austerity and boredom we embraced life at court with alacrity. It did not matter that we were no longer called ‘princess’ but simply ‘lady’. It did not matter that our aunt Anne now sat as queen in our mother’s place. The younger children were absorbed into the royal nursery while, with the selfish, thoughtless enthusiasm of youth, Cecily and I burst onto the royal court with a zest for life and fine clothing and romance inherited from our dazzling parents.

Within weeks, Cecily had embarked on a round of flirtation that raised the eyebrows of the gossips. I let her go her own wild way and took little notice, for my own romantic interest was sparked by someone far more unsuitable and closer to home.

When I was small and my uncle Richard came to my father’s court, I would sit on his knee and shriek with laughter when he discovered coins behind my ears or pulled acorns from my nose. He was the first man, apart from Father, to guide me gently around the dance floor. He had the goodness not to remark upon my faltering steps or less than serene grace. He was like an elder brother, another father, someone I could rely upon to keep my childish indiscretions secret. My father had trusted him, too. Of all the men in the kingdom his brother Richard was the one he depended upon … above all others.

That is why, when my childhood hero transformed into Herod and stole my brother’s throne and saddled me with the stain of bastardy, my heart was broken.

I thought our relationship was over.

But on our arrival at court, Richard sought me out. I looked askance at my father’s crown glittering on his dark hair, but I curtseyed low before him.

He gave me presents and both he and Aunt Anne made it very clear that they regarded all my father’s children as their family. Despite my sorrows it was good to be back at court, hailed among the highest in the land again, albeit of bastard stock.

With a belly full of fine food, a soft bed to sleep in and a closet of new clothes at my disposal, I began to overlook his sins. Gradually the old avuncular relationship between the king and I began to recover.

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