To the Tower Born - Robin Maxwell

BOOK: To the Tower Born - Robin Maxwell
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub









To the Tower Born

“A lively tale, told with a natural novelist’s eye for drama and vivid characterization.”

—Carolly Erickson, author of 
The Girl From Botany Bay

“Spirited, colorfull. . . brims with page-turning drama.” — 
Publishers Weekly

“As she did in 
The Wild Irish
, Maxwell once again delivers a fresh take on an old story, giving the world a new theory to debate.”

Library Journal

The Wild Irish

“A stunning tapestry of love, loyalty, and betrayal.”


“A compelling, exhilarating, and thought-provoking account. . . . In riveting prose, Maxwell details how two remarkable women, Elizabeth I and the Irish rebel Grace O’Malley, meet face-to-face as the fighting and intrigue in Ireland escalate.”

Boston Irish Reporter

“Vivid . . . warmly drawn.”

Publishers Weekly

“Maxwell reveals for us a very complex, passionate, and remarkable woman in Grace O’Malley, the legendary sixteenth-century pirate. . . . A most satisfying novel.”

Library Journal

“Through the eyes of these intelligent and courageous women, the dramatic and violent events of the Irish conflict come stunningly alive.”

Irish World 


For the Windsor princes,

William and Harry



The judge’s expression was one of seething disapproval. “You are saying that you wish to retain your given name, that which was yours previous to this marriage?”

“I do, your lordship.”

“And what, for the record, is that name?”

“Elizabeth Caxton, though I’ve long been known in my trade as Nell, and would request—”

The judge turned to the court scribe. “Record that on this day of Our Lord, twenty-three April, 1502, one Elizabeth Caxton, daughter of William Caxton, has been granted by the courts a divorce from the aforementioned Gerard Croppe, on the grounds of—”

“Desertion,” Nell finished for him in a firm but even tone.

“Silence, Mistress Caxton.”

“And fornication many times over,” she added, ignoring the judge, whose nose, crisscrossed with veins, had turned an alarming shade of purple.


Nell held the judge steadily in her gaze.
He dislikes women,
she silently observed.
The entire species of them

“If this display is any indication of your disobedience and rebellious nature,” the judge said, “then I can only commend your husband for his desertion.”

“And his adultery?” asked Nell, smiling mildly.

“Out of my court!” he shouted.

“With pleasure,” she said, then turned from the bench, where a scraggly assortment of crooks, prostitutes, and battered house-wives sat. There she found her friend Jan de Worde, looking the prosperous businessman he was, amongst the crowd of spectators.

The native Dutchman had come to witness the dissolution of Nell’s marriage to a man about whom Jan had stringently warned her after first meeting him. Knowing Jan, there would be no re-criminations. He was the kindest person alive.

“I’m well rid of him,” said Nell.

“Your father would have been pleased.”

They walked out of the precinct hall into the spring morning. Nell was a free woman again. The sun on her face and a warm breeze delighted her senses, but all round her on the London streets were disturbing reminders that all was not well.

As they walked a brisk pace down Fleet Street, they were struck by the sight of every house and every shop swathed in black crepe. It was even draped cross the narrow roadways, strung from window to window, a grim reminder of a loss, at once public and, for Nell, personal.

Her godchild, Arthur, Prince of Wales, heir to the fledgling Tudor dynasty, lay dead, struck down suddenly at the age of sixteen, his shining future as King of England no more than a fading memory. The somber period of his mourning had, however, two weeks after his death, been rudely punctuated by a scandal of sorts.
thought Nell,
’tis more like the ripping open of an old

A man named James Tyrell had just died a brutal traitor’s death at Tyburn for crimes against England and his king, Henry the Seventh, and few had taken notice of his death. But yesterday all round London had been posted the man’s confession—not of the crimes for which he had been hanged, drawn, and quartered, and his head stuck on a pike on London Bridge. What James Tyrell had confessed to was a crime he said he’d committed eighteen years before—the murder of the little princes Edward and Richard of York. He had named not only his accomplices in the crime—the men who had actually suffocated the boys with their feather beds and buried their bodies under a stairwell in the Tower—but his master at the time, and instigator of the foul killings.

He named the long-dead King of England, Richard the Third.

Jan de Worde, the most prominent printer and publisher in the country, heavily patronized by the present-day royal family, had, in fact, produced the broadsheets of the confession, hundreds of which were now nailed at every street corner, church, bath-, and public house in London.

Nell and Jan paused at the Hound and the Fox pub, where a group had gathered to read and argue the content and merit of the posting.

“Well, of course he did it, crook-backed, wither-armed old Richard!” cried a housewife, her market basket hiked on her hip. “I was but a girl back then—”

“If you was a girl,
was the Archbishop of Canterbury,” declared a man beside her.

The crowd, all neighbors, laughed and hooted at the gibe.

“You were thirty-five with seven brats in 1483.”

my age,” said the housewife indignantly, “I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

There was a general murmuring of agreement in the gathering.

“ ’Twas as sad a time as it be today,” said another.

“Sadder,” said a robed priest who stood at the back of the crowd. “Our beloved Prince Arthur was taken by God’s will to his bosom. But those poor children were taken in a crime so unnatural, so wicked, that God and his angels cried in heaven.”

“Aye, remember the great rains that followed?”

“The Lord and his minions weeping,” the priest told his parishioners.

“Aye, aye,” murmured the crowd.

“A terrible thing.”

“Richard of Gloucester is burning in hell for his sin.”

“And will be for all future and eternity,” the man of God assured them.

“Come,” said Nell to Jan. “I’ve heard enough.” hey went onto the north end of London Bridge, where Tabove them ravens were still having their way with what was left of James Tyrell’s head, and strolled down the bridge’s ancient roadway, both sides of which were closely lined with the shops of textile and clothing merchants—mercers and haberdashers who, with their families, lived above their establish-ments in gilt and gabled houses, the upper stories leaning precariously out over the lower.

“I hope you understand that I had no choice but to publish the broadsheet of Tyrell’s confession,” said Jan.

“Of course I do,” Nell assured him. “If my father was still alive, he would have been bound to do the same. When your patron is the King of England—”

“More to the point, the king’s
” her friend added.

“Indeed, when your patrons are the bloody Tudors, you watch every step, every breath, every word.” She patted his arm. “We do what we must to survive, Jan. When Margaret Beaufort wishes something done, we do it. That said, I have come to the end of my tether with ‘the Venerable Margaret’ and her ridiculous restrictions. I’m going to see the queen today if I have to chew the old cow’s head off to get in.” The door of Caxton’s Mercantile and Haberdashery brought them into the mercer’s first, a large shop of high shelves, these brimming with the largest selection of domestic and imported textiles in all of London. There was, of course, English wool, cotton from the Low Countries, velvet and satin, taffeta and brocade from France and Italy. Silks in every conceivable hue from the East.

Through an archway was another world. Polished wood panels and Turkey carpets on the floor made luxurious London’s finest haberdashery. There were dressing cubicles, comfortable seats, and full-length looking glasses for the customers to watch as a staff of cutters, tailors, silkwomen, and seamstresses catered to the city’s elite, and those who sailed in on the River Thames from all parts of the known world.

At first sight of Nell, her employees greeted her cheerfully.

“Peter,” she said to a broad-faced young man, “will you see to Master Worde’s order? The black fustian doublet and leggings.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“There will be no charge,” she told the tailor.

“Nell—” Jan started.

She fixed her friend with a look that silenced his argument.

“Would you like to ride back to Westminster with me when your fitting’s done?”

“No, thank you. I’ve business at the Tower.” Nell and Jan embraced and he took his leave.

“I shall be at home for the better part of an hour should you need me,” she told Peter.

Nell climbed the wide, polished wood staircase and entered the first floor of her living quarters, a fine apartment that spanned the width of her shops below. In her great room, a long row of new, glass-paned windows looked east down the Thames and flooded the place with morning light. She loved the view of the splendid watercourse now teeming with greatships, barges, and wherries, the river without which England would have remained a marshy Roman backwater. Instead, by its grace, London was today civilization’s most renowned city, the center, some said, of all the world.

Nell Caxton was a prosperous businesswoman, and her house reflected her wealth, as well as a fascination with strange and exotic artifacts gathered from her buying trips to distant ports—skins of African animals gracing her floors, an intricately painted ceiling panel from a Turkish sultan’s harem, a wall hung with the gold- and silver-shot silk panels from India that now fluttered in the breeze from her open river window.

She had made a good life for herself as a
femme sole
—a businesswoman in her own right. Her ill-fated marriage was now, legally, a thing of the past. There was much to be done and she was altogether happy to be doing it alone.

The very next order of business was a ride to Westminster Palace. Since the death of Prince Arthur, the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, had prohibited all visitors from seeing her daughter-in-law, the boy’s grieving mother. Nell had received no letters from the queen, her dearest friend in all the world. It was not like Bessie to stay silent, even in times of heartache—
in times of heartache. They’d been through too much together for Nell to believe that the lack of correspondence was Bessie’s choice.

The silence would be broken today. Nell chose an appropriate kirtle and gown, black on black, long sleeves buttoned tightly at the wrist, and a high pleated neck. She took up the wrapped gift she’d prepared—several yards each of the finest black brocade, silk, and satin that Bessie might use for her year of mourning—and went off to see the Queen of England.

assing through the high-walled gates of Westminster, PNell was struck, as she always was coming here, with nos-talgia. On the short row of stores just inside the gates was her late father, William Caxton’s, old establishment, its dignified frontage still, as it was famously known, “under the sign of the Red Pale.” The printshop and bookstore now belonged to his beloved apprentice, later associate, and finally partner, Jan de Worde. Behind the storefront and separated by a small garden was the house they’d lived in from the time she and her father had returned to their native country from the continent in 1477.

She’d been thirteen when, under the patronage of the royal Yorks, Caxton had set up the first printing press in England and published the first-ever books in the English language.

It had been in the early months of their homecoming from Burgundy that, with both their families’ hearty approval, the printer’s daughter and the eldest princess of England had met and become fast friends. With the printshop within the very walls of Westminster, the teenagers—Bessie just two years younger than Nell—had done much to-ing and fro-ing twixt the two residences.

This is so like coming home,
thought Nell as she gazed round her. Yet today there was less joy in it, for her dear friend had lost her firstborn child, the all-important heir to her husband’s throne. Whilst Nell had been named Arthur’s godmother, as she had to Bessie’s other children—she’d seen little of the eldest, he sent off like all Princes of Wales to be raised in the Welsh Marches at Ludlow Castle.

God had never seen fit to give Nell children of her own, and she suspected that this had been her husband’s greatest complaint. A barren wife was more than an embarrassment. She was a liability. Strange as it seemed, Nell herself had refused, to her husband’s fury, to pray constantly to Saint Anne for fertility, wear Saint Waudru’s girdle for the same purpose, or subject herself to the apothecary’s repulsive and sometimes barbaric reme-dies to stimulate conception.

Why could Gerard not be satisfied with a loving, lusty wife?

wife at that, one who was godmother to all the princes and princesses of England?

Well, she was best shed of him. And if he came back begging after two years’ absence, he could go to the devil. Next time she would listen to her trusted friends when they warned her about a man. Even her father’s gentle words of caution had gone un-heeded in the blush of love.

Now William Caxton was gone, and there was nowhere an emptier place in Nell’s soul than that left by his death. He had been her friend, her inspiration, her collaborator. He had provided her freedoms no girl of her time or station had been allowed. He’d left her a very wealthy and independent woman. Her education was as brilliant as that of a royal prince, and that, of all his gifts, had been the finest. He’d been gone since 1491—eleven years—yet the pain of her father’s loss, whilst its razor-sharpness had been dulled by time, was as deep and lonely-making as it had been when she’d placed her hand on his face and gently closed his eyes.

Now Nell moved with confidence through the Westminster Palace corridors, her face familiar to all the courtiers, guards, and servants. To reach the queen’s apartments she was forced to cross an inner courtyard—a pretty garden abloom only with rosebushes—the bloodred of the Lancaster line, pure white of the Yorks. The two families, linked by a common ancestor, Edward III, had fought thirty years for supremacy—the “War of the Roses”—before Bessie had married Henry the Seventh and brought peace to England’s nobility. Now, though it did not exist in this garden or in nature, King Henry Tudor had commis-sioned the artistic rendering of the “Tudor Rose,” a white center surrounded by red petals, and this new dynastic symbol was painted upon walls, carved into columns, and embroidered into tapestries in every royal house in England.

Taking their ease in the courtyard was a sight strange even to Nell’s worldly eyes. Here amongst the roses was a troop of human oddities—a hideous lizard-skinned woman, another so fat that Nell wondered how she could fit through a doorway.

thought Nell,
another of King Henry’s bizarre diversions.

There was a man whose whole face was covered in thick fur, speaking to what appeared to be a tall, well-dressed gentleman standing with his back to her. But as Nell came abreast of the group, smiling politely to the lot of them, she saw that out of the tall man’s belly a second small “twin brother” was growing.

BOOK: To the Tower Born - Robin Maxwell
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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