Read Owen Online

Authors: Tony Riches

Owen (5 page)

‘Take care, Master Tudor.’ Cleaver manages to add a note of threat to the words.

* * *

I lie awake, trying to think. I am not prepared to turn a blind eye to Samuel Cleaver, as my predecessors seem to have done. Even Sir Walter seems sympathetic towards Cleaver, although he has ordered a man to be posted outside my door. All that achieves is to make it impossible for Juliette to visit. They can’t guard me forever, yet I cannot live with the risk of being attacked hanging over me. Nathaniel is right. It will be difficult to prove any theft.

I eventually drift off to sleep, my mind troubled by memories of the man with the scarred face. A knock at my door wakes me and I realise I have overslept, as bright daylight streams through my window. The throbbing ache in my head is reducing, helped by a sour-tasting potion of willow bark Juliette sweetened with a little honey and made me drink. Pulling on my clothes, I open the door to see Nathaniel.

‘Good morning, sir.’ Nathaniel looks unusually cheerful. ‘I’ve had an idea. The men who attacked you must have told the stable grooms to keep out of the way when you returned from London. Someone should know them.’

‘Of course.’ I gesture for Nathaniel to enter. ‘It could be the only way to find someone prepared to give evidence against Samuel Cleaver.’

Nathaniel sits in one of the leather chairs while I put on my boots. ‘We must find out who was supposed to have been on duty in the stables. It shouldn’t be too difficult.’

We head back to find the captain of the guard. It doesn’t take long before a young stable lad is arrested and locked in a cell in the guard room. He cowers in one corner and looks doubtful about my promise to protect him in return for giving evidence. We know he is the one who should have been on duty in the stables on the evening of the attack, so it is only a matter of time before we make him talk.

I try again. ‘Tell me where I can find these three men or you’ll be charged with conspiracy to steal from the crown.’ I look at the young boy. ‘You understand what that will mean?’

‘If I help you find them, sir, will I be allowed to keep my job?’ He looks desperate. ‘It’s all I have.’

I feel some sympathy for the stable boy, who was unlucky to be caught up in Cleaver’s plans. ‘We’ll see. Where can we find the men?’

‘The man with the scar...’ The boy hesitates, frightened of the consequences of helping me or of remaining silent.

‘Go on?’

‘He warned me to keep away from the stables, sir.’

‘You know him?’

‘No, sir, but I think I know where he can be found.’

I turn to the captain, who has been watching the questioning with interest. ‘Can you send some men with him?’

‘Of course,’ the captain agrees, ‘leave it to me.’

‘If I’m any judge he’ll talk soon enough.’ I watch the stable boy massaging his wrists as the iron handcuffs are removed and hope my instinct is right. I understand how the boy is frightened of the three men and there doesn’t seem to be any point in sacking him from his job. ‘Good luck and remember—it is as much in your interests as mine that we find these men.’

The stable boy understands only too well. ‘I’ll do my best, sir.’

I realise I am late for my meeting with the queen, and as I approach her apartments I wonder again about Duke Humphrey’s words. Loyalty and trust are complicated things. The duke trusts me, but I have a greater obligation to the queen. I knock on the door and enter. The queen is alone and I see I have kept her waiting.

She is dressed for the winter chill, with a dark, long-sleeved dress and a fur cape over her shoulders. Her hair is hidden by an elaborate French headdress. I don’t find it flattering, as her headdress draws attention to her slender neck, making it look even longer. I find myself wondering how she looks with her hair down, over her shoulders.

‘Good morning, my lady.’

The queen studies me as if seeing me for the first time. ‘I am sorry to hear you were attacked. You should have had an escort from the palace guard. The road to London is notorious for robbers.’

I have already decided to make light of it. ‘Fortunately I carried nothing of value, so if they intended to rob me they were disappointed.’

‘And the duke? Was he also disappointed?’

‘Duke Humphrey seems content with the list of names I gave him.’

‘Good. Although I feel his methods are... underhand. If he wishes to know whom I am meeting with, all he needs to do is ask.’

‘He is a thorough man. I believe he has your best interests, and those of the young king, at heart in this.’

‘It sounds as if he has won you over?’

‘They say to keep your friends close—and your enemies closer.’

‘Is Duke Humphrey of Gloucester an enemy, or a friend?’

‘For now, he is a friend.’ I wonder how much to reveal. ‘Although you are right, he is no friend of your guardian, Bishop Henry Beaufort.’

The queen looks at me with new respect. ‘You have done well to make something from this situation.’

‘Thank you, my lady.’ I sense something between us has changed and hope she is starting to see me as her trusted man.

The captain of the guard is waiting to see me. ‘We think we have two of the men who attacked you, Tudor, although we need you to identify them, if you will?’

‘Of course.’ I feel as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. ‘The man with the scar?’

The captain shakes his head. ‘No sign of him, I’m afraid.’

‘Do you think they’ll talk?’

‘With a little persuasion.’

I follow the captain to the cells where the two men are held and recognise them immediately, the awful memory of the attack flooding back as I study their scowling faces.

‘Your lives will be spared if you confess right now. Tell me where we can find your accomplice—and who put you up to it?’ My voice sounds threatening as it echoes in the dark prison.

The men look at each other before one speaks. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The arrogance in his words surprises me, considering the man’s situation.

‘What about Samuel Cleaver? Is it worth losing your lives to protect him?’

The men look at each other again and my instinct tells me they are wavering.

‘Will you question them for me, Captain?’ My voice is raised so the men will hear. ‘I’m sure you can persuade them to be more helpful.’

It is enough. The older of the two men speaks. ‘I have a family. Will you promise protection if we testify that Cleaver has been helping himself to supplies?’

‘You have my word.’ I turn to the captain. ‘Let’s visit Samuel Cleaver right now—before he gets wind of this.’

A dozen guards accompany us on the short walk to the Great Kitchen. I expect Cleaver to confront me like a cornered bull, ready to take as many men down with him as he can. I am wrong. The powerfully built head cook is as keen as we are to keep his arrest private from his inquisitive staff.

Cleaver follows behind the captain, apparently unconcerned about being led to the dungeons. I follow behind with the guards, relieved it has gone so easily. As the guard commander said, such things reflect badly on the security of the queen’s household and also the safety of the young king. Bishop Henry Beaufort, as their guardian, can have both me and the captain replaced any time.

‘Why have you arrested me?’ Cleaver addresses his question to the captain, a note of challenge in his voice.

The captain looks back at Cleaver. ‘You’ll find out soon enough.’

Cleaver moves with surprising speed for such a heavy man. As soon as we are out of sight of the Great Kitchen he surprises us by sprinting for the trees, with the castle guards in pursuit. The first of the guards to lay hands on him is felled with a powerful punch, then Cleaver grabs the fallen man’s halberd and turns to face the others, yelling and swearing for me to come and face him like a man.

The captain has seen enough and nods to the remaining guards, who understand what they have to do. I watch as Cleaver charges the closest guard. The man parries the halberd and Cleaver disappears from view as several guards wrestle him to the ground.

I take a deep breath and turn to the captain. ‘We don’t have any evidence, although you’ve seen for yourself how he behaves like a guilty man?’

The captain agrees. ‘I will send them all to Newgate Gaol—unless you have other ideas?’

‘See he has a fair trial, Captain.’

Chapter Five
Summer of 1428

I made the forty mile journey from Windsor to Hertford Castle, on the banks of the River Lea, with Nathaniel to oversee the arrangements for the queen’s summer banquet to be held there. The old motte and bailey castle, with its wide moat and high curtain wall, was built by the Normans and gifted to the queen by King Henry V. It is where they stayed when they first married and, as with Wallingford Castle, Hertford is now to be used by the queen as a summer residence.

We have been kept busy organising repairs and redecoration to the Great Hall, built for his own use by John of Gaunt and still adorned with the enormous antlers of stags he no doubt hunted in the castle grounds. Nathaniel has worked long hours, checking enough deliveries of food and supplies to feed an army.

Over the past five years Nathaniel has become a loyal friend and my right-hand man, reliable and trusted. He has been in charge of supplies to the queen’s household since Samuel Cleaver’s downfall and inspects the store rooms each day to check for any discrepancies. We never apprehended the scar-faced man, and the palace guards watched over me for almost a year before I asked them to stop. Even five years later, I sometimes look over my shoulder to see if I am being followed.

Now the queen and young Harry have joined us here, together with most of her remaining household. I have been able to secure a comfortable room for myself above the servants’ lodgings. Low, dark wooden beams mean I must take care not to hit my head, but my room is spacious enough to also serve as my office while we are here. Scanning the guest list for the banquet I see the great and the good of England are invited, and one name stands out like a bed bug on white linen.

I tap the name with my finger. ‘Edmund Beaufort... I wonder if he’s making his move at long last?’

‘He was invited at the suggestion of his uncle, Bishop Beaufort.’

‘I don’t doubt it.’ I sit back in my chair and think for a moment.

Edmund Beaufort has visited the queen several times over the past few years, usually in the company of his uncle the bishop. The last time he had been escort to his mother, the Countess of Somerset. They never stay overnight and on each occasion the facts are duly reported to Duke Humphrey, but nothing seems to have come of it. I still feel a strange jealousy at the idea of Beaufort marrying the queen and am secretly pleased to be in a position to do something about it.

‘Help me keep an eye on him, Nathaniel.’

Nathaniel doesn’t need to consult his list. ‘I’ve been informed he’s planning to stay for a week, so I’ve put him in the lodgings furthest from the royal apartments.’

‘Good. I must also mention to Juliette to watch for him.’

Juliette is now the only servant remaining from the queen’s French entourage and has become the handmaiden of her bedchamber. As well as increasing her status within the household, this means Juliette is even more invaluable to me, as she is with the queen from the moment she wakes to when she falls asleep. Little can happen in the queen’s household now without Juliette learning of it.

‘Would you like to deliver this list to Duke Humphrey in London?’ I already know the answer. He enjoys his occasional visits to the city, particularly in the summer, and seems to like the importance of visiting Baynard’s Castle. On his last visit he spent a whole afternoon in the duke’s library with one of the finest collections of rare books in the country.

‘I would—and I will also take the opportunity to meet with some of our suppliers while I am there.’

I thank Nathaniel and leave to see how the king has settled into his newly refurbished lodgings. Harry will be seven years old in December and has grown into a likeable boy, with a lively imagination and an endless curiosity. He seems to think of me more like a favourite uncle than his servant, although Queen Catherine has instructed all the household staff to call him ‘Your Grace’. It is important they remember he is the king.

Dame Alice Boteler has served as the king’s governess for the past four years. In place of Juliette and the nursery maids, his nurse, Joanna Astley, cares for the king through each night. Dame Alice is kindly enough towards me, although we did not have the best start when she first arrived. She told me her task is to teach the young king good manners and courtesy, as his previous nursery maids had not done so. Dame Alice also has the consent of council to chastise the king as she sees necessary.

I resent her criticism of the way Harry has been raised by Queen Catherine and Juliette, although I must admit that, at times, the young king is quite demanding. Today the king is trying on a new outfit to wear at his public appearances, a dark red doublet trimmed with gold braid and a velvet hat with a gold coronet around the brim. As he sees me he raises a miniature sceptre in greeting.

‘Good day, Master Tudor.’ His voice is still reedy, although he is growing stronger and beginning to look as if he might one day become a true king.

‘Good day, Your Grace.’ I bow to the king, playing along with him. ‘Dame Alice.’ I bow to the governess, who curtseys in reply. ‘Is there another public appearance planned?’ I like to know everything that concerns the king or his mother.

Dame Alice shakes her head. ‘We need to be ready, as the Duke of Gloucester rarely provides notice of when he wishes the king to be seen by the people.’

I know how the duke can descend on us unannounced. It is his way of doing things. Over the past five years Duke Humphrey had been through a difficult time, having married an heiress, Countess Jacqueline of Hainault, and then failed to secure her titles and lands he considered his by right.

The duke even led an army of mercenaries across the English Channel to take Countess Jacqueline’s inheritance by force, yet returned empty handed, having abandoned his wife in Mons and returned with his young mistress, Lady Eleanor Cobham. At least the duke seems to be settling down and putting his energies into the welfare of the young king.

I watch as Dame Alice makes Harry parade up and down the room in his new outfit, pretending to wave royally to cheering crowds on each side. It is hard to reconcile the child I see with my memory of his father King Henry V, rallying the army at a siege, a warrior king.

‘Is there any word about when the Earl of Warwick is to become the king’s tutor, Dame Alice?’

She looks up at me sharply, as if the subject is not to be discussed, and then her attitude softens a little. ‘My understanding, Master Tudor, is that parliament has given approval for Sir Richard to take up his duties in the autumn... before the king’s seventh birthday.’

I knew the day would come, as Sir Richard Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, was named in the late king’s will as his infant son’s governor and tutor. The earl has only been an occasional visitor, as he is Captain of Calais, although he sees it as his duty to visit the young king whenever he returns to England.

I have allowed myself to settle too comfortably into the routine of the queen’s household and grown out of touch with events in Westminster. Dame Alice is well connected and is regularly visited by members of her family who wished to see the young king. Her understanding is almost certainly correct.

Dame Alice crosses the room and lowers her voice. ‘I also heard the Earl of Warwick is to become master of the royal household.’ She watches my reaction. ‘Where would that leave you, Master Tudor?’

‘I am sure, Dame Alice, the earl has more important matters to concern himself with than such things as ordering fresh flowers for the queen, keeping up supplies of mutton or ensuring clean linen for summer banquets.’

I sound more confident than I feel. There cannot be two masters of the household and I know the freedom I have enjoyed could end with the earl’s arrival. At least I am forewarned, for which I am grateful to Dame Alice. I decide to spend more time on my visits to the king from now on, as I need Dame Alice’s support.

‘I shall look forward to assisting the earl.’ I try to sound conciliatory. ‘And we are all most grateful to you, Dame Alice, for the excellent way you are preparing the king for what lies ahead.’

Dame Alice blushes at the compliment. ‘Thank you, Master Tudor.’ She glances across at the king, who is throwing his sceptre up in the air. He tries to catch it and fails, laughing as it clatters to the floor. ‘This work seems easy enough to most, although it does have its challenges.’

That night when Juliette steals into my low-ceilinged room, slips out of her dress and lays by my side in the darkness, I find myself reflecting on our future. It is as if an invisible barrier, like a heavy iron portcullis, has descended, stopping our lives moving forward. For five years, she has waited for me to agree the time is right to marry. Tongues have wagged and people gossiped. It was difficult for us both in the early years, yet now we think little of it.

I know she hoped to conceive a child. It has been the way of women to tip the balance, but when no child came, doubts began to form in my mind. There is no way of knowing which of us is at fault or if it is simply not God’s will. I lay awake at her side, wondering how long the life we know can continue.

My easy relationship with Juliette has not been the same since the attack in the stables. The guards keeping watch over me meant she could no longer come and go as she pleased. It kept us apart at nights for almost a year and, although we see each other every day, an unspoken distance has slowly grown between us.

Now I have a new concern as I reflect on my conversation with the king’s governess, Dame Alice Boteler. I would never admit to being ambitious and have been content in my work, but the Earl of Warwick will make me a servant again. Everything will change, including the way the king thinks of me—and perhaps even how the queen sees me as her trusted right-hand man.

That is what troubles me most. After five years, the queen has yet to soften her attitude towards me. I see her every day at meal times, meetings about visitors, banquets and all the other household matters. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of the woman I have fallen in love with, although she never confides her secrets to me and is as untouchable as ever.

I put my arms around Juliette and pull her closer. It has been a good summer and, although the hour is late, there is still enough light to see she is still awake. I like the feel of her soft warmth pressing against me and am never happier than when I lay still and listen to her gentle breathing, even though my thoughts now are of the queen.

I turn onto my side to look into Juliette’s eyes. ‘Nathaniel showed me the list of guests for the summer banquet. Edmund Beaufort is staying here for a week.’

‘Do you think he is going to try his hand with the queen?’ The thought clearly intrigues Juliette. ‘I’ve never heard her even mention Edmund Beaufort. How exciting!’

I sit up. ‘What?’

Juliette’s eyes twinkle with amusement at my indignation. ‘I think it’s about time.’ She strokes a hand down my chest and laughs as she feels me tense. ‘The queen should stop being a widow—and start living again.’

‘Edmund Beaufort has no money, no prospects...’

‘Queen Catherine has more than enough money.’

‘He is six years younger than her.’

‘Perhaps that is a good thing?’ Juliette giggles and sees how it infuriates me. ‘If I didn’t know better, Owen Tudor, I would think you are jealous of Edmund Beaufort.’

I lie back, knowing Juliette is right. I don’t need to worry about what may or may not happen between the queen and Edmund Beaufort. There are plenty of others who will do that. I drift off to sleep imagining what Duke Humphrey will say when he reads Nathaniel’s list of guests.

* * *

The royal banquet at Hertford Castle marks the high point of summer and also the beginning of the end of my daily routine. The king will soon be old enough to no longer need his mother’s care and the Earl of Warwick will take charge of his household. It remains to be decided what will become of Queen Catherine’s household; although I think it unlikely she will be allowed to stay with her son.

Dressed in the king’s royal livery I watch as the guests arrive, the cream of England’s nobility, chattering like magpies and greeting each other with over-loud exclamations. The lords wear brightly coloured sashes and swords glittering with gold and silver ornament. The ladies have furs and fashionable headdresses with exotic feathers and necklaces of rubies and diamonds. I think each guest wears jewels worth more than I will earn in a year.

The banquet is one of the grandest I have seen and has taken weeks of preparation. The old kitchens at Hertford are stretched to the limit, as the banquet demands vast quantities of food and drink, more than enough to feed a small army. The cost of candles, tapers and table linen has severely stretched the household budget.

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