Read Owen Online

Authors: Tony Riches

Owen (10 page)

The earl stares at me in disbelief and slumps back in his chair as he calculates the significance of the news. ‘Who knows of this?’

‘We kept it secret, until now.’ It is only half a lie.

‘The child... was born in wedlock?’

‘He was, my lord.’

‘And you have witnesses to the marriage?’

‘We do, my lord. Two bishops.’

The earl studies me with new curiosity. ‘You know the consequences of this, Tudor?’

He still hasn’t invited me to sit and I stand straight, trying to sound more confident than I feel. ‘I wanted you to be the first to know, Sir Richard, as we need your advice before we inform the king.’

The earl sits up and it is clear their tactic has worked. ‘The queen dowager is not informing him right now?’

‘No, my lord, we thought it best...’

‘I don’t want him told until after he returns from the coronation in France, is that understood? He has made good progress and something like this could be upsetting.’ The earl stands and walks to the window. He seems deep in thought, then turns to face me. ‘I appreciate your discretion, Tudor, but you know what people will say?’

I don’t answer as I know well enough.

The earl regards me with steel-grey eyes. ‘They will say you abused your position, took advantage of the queen—seduced her.’
 
He shakes his head at the thought. ‘I doubt the Duke of Gloucester will take kindly to this, Tudor. He’ll have your head on a spike!’

Now I regret ever agreeing to leave our peaceful sanctuary at Much Hadam. I made the long journey so Catherine can see her son and now I can’t be sure if I will even be allowed to leave. The earl can have me arrested and will not be unduly concerned about the queen dowager’s wishes.

‘I will have to worry about that when the time comes, my lord. It is the queen dowager who needs your help and support.’

The earl crosses over to an elaborately carved cabinet. ‘I don’t know whether to curse you or thank you, Tudor.’ He pulls open the door to reveal a collection of wine casks and silver goblets. He fills two goblets from one of the casks. ‘By God, you seem to have outsmarted us all. I don’t like that—but I appreciate your honesty.’ He hands one goblet to me and raises his own. ‘Congratulations, Tudor. I have decided your intentions are honourable.’

I raise my goblet in the air. ‘To the King of England and of France.’

‘To the King.’

* * *

Bishop Philip Morgan fills his chair to overflowing with his portly figure as his deep voice rises to the high, hammer-beamed roof of the great hall at Much Hadham palace. He has been invited for dinner and says a long Latin grace before we can eat. When he finishes I fill the bishop’s goblet with sweet, amber-coloured mead.

‘What news from London, Bishop?’

The bishop tastes the rich mead and nods in approval. ‘The rows between Duke Humphrey and Cardinal Beaufort have reached a new level. They divide the council with their accusations.’ He pauses as if recalling some incident. ‘I regret to say their self-interest is to the detriment of the country.’

‘Perhaps it will keep them too busy to concern themselves with us?’

‘God willing.’ He makes the sign of the cross absent-mindedly on his chest. ‘That and, of course, the coronation in France.’

‘You are to travel to France, Bishop Morgan?’ Catherine sounds concerned.

‘I am.’ He frowns. ‘You know the girl Joan was put on trial?’

Catherine answers. ‘We heard.’

‘Duke John of Bedford has colluded with Cardinal Beaufort. They wish her dead before the coronation.’

‘She is to be executed?’ Catherine’s French accent returns.

‘I regret to say... she is.’ He looks saddened at the prospect.

‘Has she been found guilty of witchcraft?’ I think it unlikely.

‘Witchcraft, heresy—and dressing like a man. Her crime is to believe she hears voices telling her she is chosen by God to lead the French army to victory.’

‘No good will come of this. Duke John of Bedford will make a martyr of her.’ Catherine must be thinking of her brother.

The bishop nods in agreement. ‘The whole thing is a sad business. I understand that she is only nineteen years old.’

The maid brings their first course, a fine glazed ham, carved into slices and served on trenchers of bread. I see the bishop’s goblet is already empty and refill it with mead. Bishop Morgan mentioned a liking for it once and Nathaniel makes sure we have a cask when he visits.

‘You said that Bishop Grey’s tenure is coming to an end?’

The bishop finishes his mouthful of ham before replying. ‘Robert Fitzhugh is to become the new Bishop of London. I knew his father, Baron Fitzhugh. A good man, I worked with him on the Treaty of Troyes.’

Catherine remembers him. ‘I travelled with Baron Fitzhugh from France. He helped escort the late king’s body back to Westminster Abbey—and now he too is dead.’

‘Does this mean that we need to move from here, if Bishop Grey’s tenure is ending?’ I have mixed feelings at the thought, as I am comfortable at Much Hadham and it is where my son was born.

The bishop lays down his knife and looks at us both. ‘That depends. Robert Fitzhugh’s appointment is supported by Cardinal Henry Beaufort.’

‘So we cannot rely on him to keep silent?’

Bishop Morgan shrugs his shoulders. ‘All I am saying is... we can’t be certain. William Grey is a trusted friend, while Robert Fitzhugh is young and ambitious.’

Catherine looks around the great hall which has become their home. ‘I don’t want to be too far from Windsor. Now we have taken Sir Richard into our confidence it should be easier to visit Harry.’

Bishop Morgan drains his goblet of mead. ‘I am to join the king in France for his coronation visit—and this is not envisaged as an expedition of short duration. John Stafford, Bishop of Bath and Wells and Bishop William Alnwick of Norwich are to accompany me. I expect it could be some time before I am able to return, so you are welcome to stay at the manor of the Bishops of Ely in Hatfield. My house is not as grand as this,’ he waves at the high ceiling self-deprecatingly, ‘although it has the advantage that no one will expect to find you there.’

Chapter Ten
 

We become guests of Bishop Morgan in late summer and find he has been modest about his manor house in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Some seven miles west of Hertford Castle, the village is known as ‘Bishop’s Hatfield’ because of the imposing palace of the Bishops of Ely, and his house at Hatfield has great chimneys of red brick, extensive, well-maintained gardens and at least twenty full-time servants and staff.

On the outskirts of St Albans, Hatfield also has the advantage of being closer to Windsor Castle, although young Harry is in Calais, with the Earl of Warwick and Bishop Morgan, preparing for his coronation. He is not expected to return for at least six months and his formal letters, rarely revealing more than he is in good health, are delivered from Wallingford by Nathaniel.

Nathaniel stays overnight at our spacious new home, before returning with Catherine’s letter of reply. He also acts as my deputy at Wallingford, keeping the servants and staff of the queen’s household under the illusion that she could return at any time. On his last visit he also brought an innocent looking letter from Cardinal Beaufort, also now in France, enquiring after the queen dowager’s health. Catherine drafts what she hopes is a reassuring reply, although we guess it will not be the last of the matter.

I was content at Much Hadham but never felt completely at ease, as we always knew it was a temporary home. Bishop Morgan has tenure for life as Bishop of Ely, so we are welcome to remain at his home in Hatfield for as long as we wish. Catherine seems more content now and delights in taking personal care of Edmund, rather than having to hand him over to nursemaids, as she had with Harry.

The bishop’s servants are used to visitors staying and have no reason to guess their newest tenants are the Queen Dowager of England and her second husband—or that the noisy infant is a half-brother to the king. Catherine is grateful for help from one of the palace maidservants, a local woman named Briony. She has been in the service of the bishops of Ely since she was a girl and soon becomes Catherine’s personal chambermaid and companion.

A few years younger than Catherine and always talkative, with an engaging sense of humour, Briony was born in Hatfield, so her local knowledge is useful to us. She explains that each Wednesday the town square becomes a bustling market-place and people travel from all around the area to buy and sell all kinds of goods and livestock and share news and local gossip.

Briony is the only one of the Hatfield servants trusted with the secret of Catherine’s true identity. She finds it hard to believe she is the maidservant to a queen, yet she understands the need for secrecy. As well as helping Catherine care for little Edmund, Briony has a new role; to help stop rumours among the other members of their household.

In the village of Much Hadham it had been almost impossible for Catherine to take a walk without being noticed. Hatfield is quite different, a busy market town, with new people passing through on their way to London or north to York. For the first time in her life Catherine is able to come and go as she pleases without drawing attention. Briony helps her to dress so she blends in with the local women and they often visit the bustling market together.

Catherine enjoys exploring the ramshackle market stalls, which spring up in noisy profusion once a week. It is possible to buy everything from freshly baked bread and live chickens to the practical boots worn by country people. Cooking pans in all shapes and sizes are sold alongside candlesticks and spurs, woollen cloth, silk and linen. Cartloads of dry rushes for hall floors are heaped next to bales of wool and planks of wood.

Farmers bring wagons laden with sacks of corn, wheat and barley, millers offer bags of flour and blacksmiths shoe horses. Catherine’s favourite corner of the market is where she can find fresh garden produce, apples and sweet pears, vegetables, garlic and herbs. Sometimes there are even spicerers at the Hatfield market, selling exotic cinnamon, cloves and many different types of sugar.

Traders shout for Catherine’s attention, offering free samples and passing ribald comments when they think she is out of earshot. Briony knows many of them by their first names and is happy to teach Catherine the art of bartering—never paying the price which is asked.

Edmund grows into a strong and healthy child, with his mother’s bright blue eyes and golden hair. Briony carries him when they visit the market and Edmund squeals with delight when she holds him high to see the assortment of goats, sheep and pigs herded into pens, some newly slaughtered and hanging by their back legs, dripping bright red blood.

Drovers with barking dogs bring great herds of black cattle from as far away as Wales to Hatfield, to sell on livestock market days. With so many animals in a confined space it is inevitable that some will escape, causing chaos as market stall holders shout to each other as they try to catch them.

I enjoy talking with the Welsh drovers, who bring great flocks of sheep from the hills of Wales. It is the first chance I have to practise speaking Welsh since I was a boy and it makes me feel nostalgic to visit the places I remember from my youth. A plan forms in my mind to seek sanctuary at Beaumaris on the island of Ynys Môn if we ever find life too hard in England.

As the first of May approaches Briony pleads with us to take part in the annual May Fayre, an old tradition to welcome the summer. She sees we need persuading, ‘It’s the best of all the country fairs—people travel from miles around and musicians play while the women dance around the maypole.’ Briony turns to me. ‘You will have to go into the forest with the men and help choose the best tree—it’s all part of the tradition.’ She turns to Catherine. ‘And you, my lady, must dress in white linen and dance with me!’

Catherine smiles at Briony’s enthusiasm. ‘It is a long time since I have danced.’

Briony encourages her. ‘That’s all the more reason for you to take part, my lady.’

‘I think I will,’ Catherine agrees. ‘And you, Owen, can help the men.’

As the day approaches, I find myself helping to carry a long, straight tree from the woods. Great care is taken in choosing the tree as there is local pride in competing with neighbouring villages for Hatfield to have the best and tallest maypole. The bark of the tree is stripped and women decorate it with brightly coloured ribbons before the men erect it in the middle of the market square.

A crowd gathers to see the dancing and Briony and Catherine wear white dresses with garlands of flowers. Musicians start playing to riotous cheers from the crowd while the youngest girls dance in an inner circle around the maypole. Catherine and Briony join the older women in the outer circle. Each holds a ribbon, attached to the maypole and during the dancing the ribbons become completely intertwined and plaited.

A good deal of ale is drunk at the May Fayre and dancing around the maypole is followed by mummers performing amusing plays, jugglers, acrobats and more singing and dancing.
 
I take part in an archery tournament, coming a respectable second to the local champion and win a hogshead of wine, which I promptly share with the other competitors.

It is an idyllic life for us all, with only one dark cloud on the horizon. Catherine is anxious about Harry and longs for him to return safely to Windsor. At last Nathaniel arrives with a letter from the young king. Catherine hastily breaks the royal seal and reads the letter with increasing concern.

‘Harry has travelled from Calais to the castle in Rouen. He says it was a long journey by road with a large company of men-at-arms. He is staying with his uncle John, Duke of Bedford and a large company of guests, including many French and English nobles and important councillors.’ Catherine looks up at me. ‘He also writes that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market place. He did not see it but says he heard the cheering crowds.’

I place my hand on her arm to reassure her. ‘Harry is growing fast, Catherine. I’m sure the Earl of Warwick will ensure he is well guarded—and remember Bishop Morgan is also there with him.’

Catherine looks concerned as she reads her son’s letter a second time. She sees from the neat hand it has been dictated to his scribe, yet the phrasing reveals the words as his own. She can only imagine what it must be like for him, surrounded by men like Duke John, who are prepared to do whatever it takes to see him crowned King of France.

‘It seems to me he is being used by his uncle John to bolster the confidence of the English army. There is no need for Harry to spend so long in France, particularly while Paris is still under threat.’

I recall Duke Humphrey’s words. ‘You are right, Catherine. Almost everyone involved has some kind of self-interest. There is nothing we can do about it.’

‘I know—but that doesn’t stop me worrying about him.’

Nathaniel waits to tell us his news. ‘I had a visitor at Wallingford Castle last week, a wine merchant from London. He claims to be interested in supplying us but was asking too many questions.’

‘What sort of questions?’ I have been expecting our long absence to eventually come to notice and am glad we have Nathaniel to help deal with such things.

Nathaniel looks at Catherine. ‘He was asking if he could see you, my lady.’

Catherine is surprised. ‘What reason did he give? I would not normally see a wine merchant.’

‘That’s what I told him. He said he’d been sent by the Duke of Gloucester, who enquires after your health.’

‘First Cardinal Beaufort—and now Duke Humphrey.’ I sense that word about our clandestine marriage has somehow leaked out, although at least it seems no one knows we are at Hatfield.

Late that night I am awake and restless at Catherine’s side. ‘It is only a matter of time before we are discovered by Duke Humphrey. Nathaniel says the duke is running the country while everyone is away in France.’

Catherine studies my face in the darkness. ‘You are worried about what he could do?’

‘I am. He has the money to pay for spies to find us, so I would prefer to be honest with him, rather than hide as if what we have done is something to be ashamed of. Do you think I should ride to London and try to explain?’

Catherine sits up. ‘No! The risk is too great. What will I do if he has you arrested?’

‘It is a risk we have to take, Catherine.’

‘In that case, I should tell you my news.’

Now I sit up. ‘What news?’

‘I am with child again, Owen. We are going to have another baby.’

I embrace her. ‘Do you think this time it will be a girl?’

Catherine laughs. ‘It will be good to have a daughter.’ She hugs me tightly, holding me down as if to stop me escaping. ‘I can’t have you locked up in the Tower of London. I’m going to need you here.’

‘What do you propose we do about the Duke of Gloucester?’

‘I have an idea about that. In the morning I shall write a letter to Duke Humphrey, thanking him for his concern over my health and asking him to grant me a favour.’ She watches to see my reaction.

‘What favour?’ Now I am curious.

‘I will ask him to reward one of my most loyal servants, a man named Owen Tudor, who has faithfully supported me through my most difficult times.’ She smiles. ‘I will request that the duke petitions parliament to grant you the rights of an Englishman, for your service to the dowager queen.’

‘Do you think he will consider it?’

‘How can he refuse a request from me?’

‘Duke Humphrey will see it as a way of further strengthening his hold over you.’

‘I haven’t forgotten you are still his spy in my household, Owen Tudor...’

‘You would do well to remember that, Dowager Queen Catherine.’

I stay awake long after she has fallen asleep in my arms, my mind a whirl of ideas and possibilities. With the rights of an Englishman I would be able to own land and property. There could even be the chance of a knighthood if the king eventually accepts me as Catherine’s husband. Catherine’s request is important for me, for as well as Edmund, our family will soon be increased by one more.

As summer turns to autumn I find I am less worried about the imminent birth of our second child. Catherine seems more at ease with herself, even visiting the weekly market with Briony. I persuade the midwife from Much Hadham to come and stay at Hatfield as Catherine’s time draws near and Briony agrees to act as her assistant.

It is a straightforward birth, early in the morning and all over quickly, yet not the daughter we hope for. The midwife holds the new born baby for me to see. It is another boy, already wailing with his strong lungs, shattering the tranquillity of the bishop’s palace.

‘What shall we name him, Catherine?’ We have not discussed names for boys.

‘We could call him Owen, after you?’

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