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Authors: My Lord John

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BOOK: Georgette Heyer
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Thomas was not returning to the Welsh Marches, and was in high fettle. He had not disliked serving under Harry, but he was shortly to be given a command of his own, which, to one of his imperious temper, was infinitely preferable. He was to be Admiral of England, with the Northern and Eastern Fleets joined under him, as they had been under the Earl of Worcester. When it was suggested to him by Humfrey that he knew nothing of ships or how to sail them, he replied that he knew as much as Thomas Beaufort, who was at present Admiral of the Northern Fleet. Besides, said Thomas, the Admiral was not expected to sail his ship: that was the master’s business. As Admiral he was going to execute a special commission. He promised his brothers he would execute it roundly.

‘I expect he will, too,’ remarked Humfrey, lying on a banker, with his head propped on his hand, and his big, dark eyes smiling at John. ‘And he will enjoy it. Thomas is
very
vengeable, I think.’

Thomas was going to harry the Flemings and the Easterlings, who had taken a leaf out of the French book, and had been engaged for some time in acts of piracy. He was looking forward to the task, only sorry that it must be several months before he could put to sea. One did not engage in operations in the Channel until the danger of spring storms was over. Only the cogs were at all manageable when the sea was at its roughest. The big carracks were helpless in the teeth of a contrary gale; and the balingers, the barges, and the galleys had sometimes to wait for days in harbour before they could put to sea at all.

Humfrey prophesied that Thomas, thirsting for action, would be an ill companion throughout the early spring. While the Christmas plays lasted he was amused; but as soon as they were done he grew restless, always wanting someone to play tennis or hand-ball with him; or riding off in search of some sport, even if it were only a bear-baiting. The princes coursed hares and foxes, and once the King, who seemed to have recovered his health, joined them, not with any pomp or preparation, but like any other father in holiday humour. It was nearly always his voice which called: ‘Up, puss, up!’ for he found more hares than they did, and coursed them with as much zest. He was skilled in forms of the chase, almost as knowledgeable as Edward, John thought. But when he said so the King made him no reply; and Humfrey later told him that he would do better not to bring Edward to Father’s mind. Edward, Humfrey said, had been trying to have ado with the Queen. John uttered an incredulous exclamation, and Humfrey admitted that it was not quite as bad as that, though bad enough, because his gallantries – he had actually written some limping verses in her praise – caused her great distress, and angered Father.

Thomas shouted with mirth at the thought of Edward in amorous mood, but John said: ‘First the Earl of Worcester, and now Edward! I don’t believe it!’

‘Well, it’s true!’ Humfrey said. ‘And no wonder! She is so beautiful that men can’t but love her, do what she will! And she is so shamefast that she never misdoubts her that when she only means to be gracious – ’

‘Oh, stint! She told
me
that too, full-yore! She’s a breedbait!’

‘That’s a knavish thing to say!’

‘Both of you stint!’ commanded Thomas. ‘Humfrey, if you say one word of this to Father I’ll make it the worse for you!’

‘Of course I shan’t tell Father!’ said Humfrey, in an injured voice. ‘But it’s true about Edward, whatever John may believe; and if he has the least kind-wit he’ll take care not to do anything to put himself out of Father’s grace!’

‘Oh, don’t be such a buzzard!’ Thomas said impatiently. ‘Why should Edward put himself out of Father’s grace?’

6

But that was just what Edward did. While the Court, still pleasuring at Eltham, was celebrating the marriage of one of the Queen’s Breton ladies-in-waiting, he arrived unexpectedly from the Welsh Marches, to warn the King that there was a plot afoot to assassinate him. How he came by this knowledge did not immediately appear; he was rather vague about the authorship of the plot, and seemed to know nothing of its details; but he said enough to put the King on the alert. The royal family removed at once to Westminster; and hardly had the Council been informed of this new menace than Sir Hugh Waterton arrived at the palace, demanding instant audience of the King.

Never had the princes seen their late guardian so distraught! He did not cast himself at the King’s feet, for he was too rugged a man for such arts, but standing squarely before him he announced that he was a jobbard and a nithing, worthy only of a shames-death. He had allowed the young Earl of March, and his brother Roger Mortimer, to escape from Windsor Castle! He seemed to think that to be drawn and quartered was the kindest fate he deserved. The King said: ‘Nay, Hugh! Nay, old friend!’ in soothing accents; but Sir Hugh smote his brow with his fist, and groaned: ‘A suckfist! A bladder-headed stockfish, fit only to show out my visage in the pillory! I should be sewn in a sack, and cast into the Thames!’

It was several minutes before the King could allay his rage; and when he did succeed in convincing his stricken adherent that his trust in him was unbroken Sir Hugh wept, and said that so gracious a master was deserving of a better servant. After that he grew calmer, and was presently able to tell the King the whole.

Edward of York’s sister, Constance, the Lady Despenser, was the author of the plot. She had been spending Yule-tide at Windsor; and she had, in nature, companied with her young cousins of March. Unfortunately she had done more than company with them. She had bribed a blacksmith to make a set of keys to certain doors in the castle; and with the assistance of their valet had contrived to steal the boys away one night, none discovering their absence until the following morning. Where they were now hidden, said Sir Hugh, God and the devil knew.

But the King, remembering Edward’s mysterious hints, knew too. Questionless, the boys were being hurried westward to the Lady Despenser’s estates on the Welsh border. Since her tenants were already numbered amongst the King’s rebels, no more secure refuge could have been found for them. King Henry set in motion a number of measures for their swift apprehension, and wished that it were possible for him to dispose of his cousin Constance in just the way Sir Hugh thought his own desert. She ought to have been stitched into a sack and drowned years ago, he said, in an exasperated outburst which won him the wholehearted approval of his sister Bess. Constance, said Bess, had been born to bring them all to shame and abusion. A wench of the game was what Bess called her cousin, forgetting the circumstances of her own first marriage. Her loving brother recalled these to her mind; but Bess said that when she had fallen a victim to Sir John Holland she had been betrayed by youth and innocence, and at all events no one had ever accused her of being the leman of a wretched boy young enough to have been her son. No one, what was more, was going to accuse her of not having warned Henry months ago what would come of it if he didn’t put a stop to that most unnatural connection, which he should have done, since her nephew poor Edmund Holland, until he came of age last month, had been his own ward. In what way this scandalous affair bore on the abduction of the Mortimers she did not explain, and Henry did not ask.

It was an exaggeration, of course, to say that Constance was old enough to have been Edmund of Kent’s mother, but she was certainly too old to have become his mistress. She was the widow of King Richard’s favourite, who had been headed at Bristol, and her conduct since that unhappy date had been anything but shamefast. Of Edmund de Langley’s three children she was the one who most favoured her Spanish mother, inheriting from her a bold, southern beauty, and a gamesome disposition. King Henry, forgetting that Richard of Coningsburgh had done nothing to incur his wrath, said that his uncle of York had sired a brood of adders, and offered to wager his kingdom against the chance that Edward was not deeply implicated in his sister’s plot.

And of course Edward had been implicated in it. The Mortimers, caught in a forest in Gloucestershire, were brought to London a few days later. They were frightened, and Roger had contracted a bad cold, which was just what Sir Hugh had said would happen. He was a sickly boy, always in need of leechcraft. Edmund was not very hearty either. He was fourteen years of age, well grown, but backward. The King thought he did not look at all the sort of boy to embark on an adventure, and Sir Hugh said, No, he would swear to it he had never had such a notion in his head. He was a quiet lad, rather studious, never giving his guardian any trouble: nothing like the King’s spirited sons!

It was plain that neither boy could give the King any information about the plot. So, as Roger was sobbing bitterly, and March looked as if he might swoon at any minute, King Henry brought the interview to an end. He told them that he was not angry with them, but since traitorous persons had tried to use them for their own wicked ends he should send them to a secure place. No, not a dungeon, so there was nothing to weep about!

He consigned them, with a fairly liberal allowance for their maintenance, to Sir John Pelham, who was Governor of Pevensey Castle, saying to those who considered the situation of this ancient hold a trifle bleak that perhaps the sea-winds would amend Roger’s cough: he had heard that such breezes were beneficial.

The Lady Despenser was brought before the Council on the seventeenth day of February, and King Henry won his wager.

She made an impressive entry, sweeping into the Chamber in a robe of crimson bawdekin oversewn with gold flowers, a mantle bordered and lined with miniver worn over it, and on her luxuriant black locks a headdress like a decrescent moon which it would have wrung Bess’s heart to have seen. She betrayed no sign of penitence, but boldly confronted the King and his Council. She said that her brother of York had been the hub of the plot; and when Edward heaved himself on to his feet to deny with passion such a charge she behaved in a very dramatic way, calling for a champion to avenge her wrongs, and offering to be burnt at the stake if he should be worsted in her cause.

To those dubiously eyeing the Duke of York’s bulk the offer did not seem as handsome as might have been supposed. Everyone looked towards the King, but before he could intervene one of the lady’s squires had flung his gauntlet in Edward’s face, and Edward, purple with rage and effort, had picked it up.

The King did intervene then. Bishop Henry Beaufort told John that for a full minute he had thought that the King was going to burst out laughing, which would have been the best possible outcome. He had not, however; and in the ensuing enquiry the wildest accusations had been flung across the Council table. So serious did the plot seem to be that the ports were closed, and no less a person than the Archbishop of Canterbury had felt obliged to declare his innocence.

There was little doubt that Thomas Mowbray, the Earl of Nottingham and son of King Henry’s old enemy, had been implicated. As for Edward, his defence, when he was brought before the new Parliament, ranged from denial to self-justification; and included (to the joy of his young cousin) an assurance that he had not properly understood what he was doing. He said that it had been through his good offices that the plot against the King’s life had been disclosed; and went on to enumerate, with gathering passion, the various ways in which the King stood in his debt. His expenses while governing Guyenne were unpaid; he had pawned his plate and his jewels in the King’s cause, and had even pledged his estates; in fact, the only payment he had received from the King were his wages as Master of the Running Hounds, which were twelve pence a day.

The proceedings ended inconclusively, the only person to be placed under arrest being the Lady Despenser. The King sent her to confinement in Kenilworth (far too comfortable a prison for such a bawdy-basket, said incorrigible Bess), and the Council set about the task of interrogating all those incriminated either by her or by Edward.

The Mortimers’ valet, and the henchman employed by Lady Despenser, the King, never vindictive, pardoned. The Abbots of Colchester and Byleigh came next on the list, but suffered only confiscation of their goods. Queen Joanna had interceded for them, kneeling at the King’s feet, and imploring him for the love he bore her to spare the lives of those saintly men. So the King did spare their lives; and bestowed on his consort the Abbot of Colchester’s confiscated goods, which she accepted, because although it was not what she wanted, or even dreamed of, she could not find it in her heart to wound the King by refusing the grant.

Towards the young Earl of Nottingham King Henry behaved with real nobility. Thomas Mowbray was now nineteen years old, and had lately married Bess’s daughter, Constance Holland. He was so like his father, the dead Duke of Norfolk, that nobody expected King Henry to treat him leniently. He admitted his guilt, but even though he begged for mercy he did so with resentment in his voice, and a glowering look in his sulky eyes. The Countess of Hereford, in whose care he had spent his boyhood, had warned King Henry that the boy laboured under a sense of ill-usage. He was Earl of Nottingham, but he had not succeeded to his father’s Dukedom. Looking down at him, as he knelt before him, King Henry saw his enemy in that sour young face; and felt an old hatred stir in his breast. A weak, peevish face, it was: frightened, too. He drew a difficult breath, and said: ‘Since you are not of full age, Thomas, and have been, as I believe, misled, I give you grace.’

In doubt and suspicion Mowbray remained on his knees, staring up at the King. Henry unclenched his hand from the arm of his chair, and made a gesture of dismissal. Mowbray stumbled to his feet, hardly knowing what he was doing, and was called sharply to order by Bishop Beaufort. ‘You have had great mercy shown to you, my lord of Nottingham, and can find no word of gratitude?’

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