Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A story for Coffee Time

The King is in his Counting House

Judith Arnopp

In a glorious garden green
Saw I sitting a comely queen
Among the flowers that freshe been.
She gathered a flower and sat between.
The lily-white rose me thought I saw,
The lily-white rose me thought I saw.
(The lily-white rose: Davies, Medieval Lyrics, no. 156)

Secrets, everybody has them.  I collect other peoples. I hug them to myself and gloat at the power knowledge brings.  It began when I was knee high.  I saw my father humping a dairymaid and, instead of creeping away, I tarried, taking notes and adding to my store of wisdom. That day I learned, not just that the female servants were mine to dally with, but that knowledge could be used as leverage. From that moment I made it my business to become intimate with the secrets of the household. On reaching the cusp of manhood, a little friendly blackmail eased Mary from the kitchens nicely between my sheets. A month or so later when she ran weeping to my mother with a belly full of troubles, she was sent off in disgrace. I was inconsolable, until I spied her sister, Martha, stealing eggs from the pantry.
Now I am an usher at the royal court, and still I watch.  I am unnoticed, hovering like a fly on the wall or a pigeon in the rafters.   I linger on stairways, concealed behind tapestries, listening, gleaning, ever alert for the biggest secrets of all. Usually the things I hear are hardly worth the knowing but, every so often, I learn something significant enough to ignite a kingdom … or bring down a king. 
I have no love for our king. Henry, the seventh of that name, is not well-loved except, perhaps, by his mother.  His instincts are those of a tradesman. He spends his days hunched over account books, his shirts threadbare at the elbow and his fingers stained with ink. For a king he takes an ignoble delight in his heaped coffers but the man fascinates me and I follow him close, discovering what I can.


It was quite by chance that I saw him in the gardens, drenching Lady Katherine Gordon in his tainted breath. I watched them as they processed amid the lavender, stopping now and again to exclaim at the flowers. The king plucked a rose and I noted how she drew back from him as she accepted it. Yellow-toothed Henry patted her hand before offering his arm and escorting her onward. She blushed uncomfortably and, my curiosity piqued, I waited and watched as they wandered by. 

Oh my! She was fair, the skin of her milk and honey breasts quivering above the square cut bodice.  She glistened like a jewel and, of all the king’s treasures, I envied him only this one. I would have squandered my fortune to unpeel her like an orange and feast upon her juicy flesh. Lady Gordon was the object of my heart’s desire.  I was never far from her, always watching, always yearning.  Had I chosen to I could have bartered my silence for the pleasures of her body and she would not have denied me for Katherine Gordon had a secret that she didn’t want told.

A splash of colour in the orchard and the queen appeared, her ladies gathered around her like fallen apples beneath a tree.  The king espied his wife approaching and stepped back from his quarry, the back of his hand brushing her breast, as if by chance.  Katherine sank to her knees at the queen’s approach, her velvet train marred with dirt and twigs.  
I watched them, a trio of untold truths, and wondered what they whispered of. Their bodies spoke a language of their own.  Lady Katherine stood beside the queen, seeking the respite that her royal presence offered from the attentions of the king. 
I have affection for our Queen Elizabeth and on that day she was like an exquisite white rose, plucked and for too long starved of water.  Her eyes were sad and I knew she could not love the king, who had slaughtered her family. I wished to staunch her unshed tears. 
As for Henry, he was the king of secrets. Like me he was a lover of intrigue and his spies were everywhere. He little realised that his own secrets were not safe. When his back was turned Men whispered of how he’d shat in his breeches when King Richard confronted him at Bosworth battle. We knew he lived each day in fear of the assassin’s knife and there were many, myself among them, who would have loved to sink a blade between his shoulder blades. That is why he did not ride freely among the people. Instead he stayed within his palace and kept about him a guard so heavy that an army couldn’t breach it. 


Henry shuffled his feet, a shopkeeper beside the natural majesty of his queen.  He offered her his arm and I watched them process about the garden.  Beneath the fa├žade, he resented her, the beloved of the people. I have seen his face blanch when the common folk called down a blessing when she passed by. As the eldest surviving child of York, Henry owed his throne to her good breeding. The people murmured against him and were soothed only by the knowledge that Elizabeth’s son would follow after.  They trusted in the thick blood of York to dilute the tainted stuff of Tudor. 


The queen laughed merrily, drawing my eye from Henry.  She was as fair as the summer sky and I was reluctant to use her secret against her … unless I had to.  She was the sister of the one they called the pretender, although there are some who swore his false claims to be true. It was last summer, before they imprisoned Warbeck in the Tower that I found myself privy to the queen’s greatest secret. 
Henry, in his magnanimity, had given his prisoner, Warbeck the freedom of the court.  I call it freedom but his movements were restricted and he was watched like a hawk. I thought it shameful to see a prince kept among jesters and fools, regarded by all as a figure of fun. Henry was secretly shaken by the pretender’s claims and he was forbidden the company of the queen for a single meeting between the prisoner and his sister could end his rule forever. I had heard Henry call out in the night; his dreams haunted both by those he’d had slain … and those he hadn’t.

When I saw the queen go swiftly into the garden, I followed her and secreted myself away. At first I thought it a lover’s tryst but, when the sun crept from behind a cloud and revealed the face of her companion, my heart began to thump, slow and loud. This was what I had waited for. I sat unmoving, scarcely breathing.

Warbeck stood up when he heard the queen’s soft step.  He whipped off his cap.
‘Richard?’ I heard her whisper and they stood, a foot apart, for a long moment before he fell to his knees. While he planted kisses on the back of her hand, her other went out to hesitantly caress his fair hair. Then she gently bade him rise.
‘Elizabeth?’ he murmured, ‘you know me then?’  She did not speak and so he continued.
‘You have grown as fair as Father always said you would, Bess.  Do you recall that day when the Frenchman had just jilted you and you were feeling downhearted? I remember Father swearing the Dauphin would come to regret it, for you would grow to be the fairest princess in Christendom!’ 
A single tear fell upon her cheek.
‘I never wanted marriage with France but it hurt to be discarded all the same,’ she smiled.
‘… and then Uncle Richard gave you a puppy to cheer you …what was his name?  Ceasar … Brutus?’
‘Rufus,’ Elizabeth laughed, ‘and didn’t Mother hate him for chewing her new slippers? Two heads, identical in colour, came together at the shared memory. They did not let go the other’s hand but clung on, loath to be parted.

I was empowered. Elizabeth, the queen, had recognised the pretender as her brother. Warbeck was, indeed, the lost prince. It was the answer to York’s prayers. With the queen’s testimony the Plantagenets could knock old Harry from his throne.

I wiped sweat from my brow and watched the couple rise and stroll about the knot garden. I strained to listen and I heard Warbeck say,
‘Will you speak out in my defence, Bess?’  I willed her to answer ‘yes,’ but the queen dropped her head and I saw her shoulders were shaking. At last, she lifted a stricken face to her brother.
‘How can I, Richard? We cannot win out against Henry and if I speak against him he will have me put away, and how can I depose my own son for my brother’s cause?  The king is a ruthless man and his retribution would be thorough.  I would never see my children again! I would lose everything! My position, my reputation, entirely destroyed!  No Richard, there is no chance of success, you must renounce your claims and I will beg Henry for clemency. Persuade him that you are the impostor he says you are.  I will entreat him to allow you to retire to the country with Katherine and you can be happy there together. A country squire and his wife; it will be better than prison …or worse.’ 
Richard’s head went up, his bearing regal.
‘I cannot believe that this is a daughter of York speaking!  You know I can never give up my rightful place, Bess.  Father would want me to fight Henry to the death and so I shall.  I must, and if you will not help me, I will do so without you.’
I heard her speak, proud and determined through her girlish tears.
‘Father would not want you to fight against me and my sons.’
Her tears fell freely now but he did not offer comfort. He knew that all the hopes he had placed on this one meeting had been in vain. Their newfound friendship was crumbling. He let loose a great cry, mixed of anger and anxiety.
‘You will lose, Richard …’ she cried after him as he ran from her presence.  She sat down abruptly on the arbour seat and her maid crept up beside her to push a kerchief into her hand.

I remained hidden, dithering on how best to use this knowledge. The country seethed with unrest. I could raise support for Warbeck and help him terminate the Tudor regime but, in backing him, I would lose all chance of winning Katherine. She would become Warbeck’s queen and even further from my reach.  If I betrayed him to the man I hated, Henry would show him no mercy, and yet I knew he would reward me well. With Warbeck sentenced to a life of darkness in the Tower, I could offer comfort to his lady. Slowly but surely, hook by hook, I could loosen her stays and ease her into my bed.  


But now, as I watched her in the garden, I realised I had a rival.  His tryst spoiled, the king excused himself to scuttle back to his account books. He bowed over the queen’s hand and then lingered over Katherine’s. When he rose, he left a string of royal spittle on her wrist.  I noticed her wipe it on the back of her gown as he shuffled away. The women seemed relieved that he was gone, and breathed more easily as they seated themselves in an arbour. 
The red and white roses cascaded above and behind, twining with honeysuckle and late columbines.
‘This is where I saw him last,’ murmured the queen and they cast their eyes about the garden to make sure that none could hear.  In my hiding place I pricked up my ears.
‘You are lucky, your majesty, for I, his wedded wife, saw him not at all, not once they had him in the tower.’ 
Elizabeth placed her hand on Katherine’s. ‘If I could have changed anything, believe that I would have.’
‘I know, I know.’ Katherine replied, her tears trembling like raindrops on the edge of a leaf.  ‘How did he seem when you saw him?’
The queen thought for a little, remembering so as to set the picture just right.
‘At first, we were like strangers, each nervous of the other. I hadn’t seen him since he was ten years old and had, for so long, believed him dead.  Now, I cannot believe I gave credit to Henry’s tales that my uncle Richard had had my brothers killed. At first, I was afraid I should not know him and, at the same time, I was afraid that I should. I expect he felt the same.  It was confusing, a mix of longing and dread, for so much depended upon me knowing him.’
‘So much,’ Katherine whispered, ‘yet, in the end, it meant nothing.’  The queen ignored the barb and continued.
‘As I came along between the lavender, he was sitting just here, where we are now. I recognised the tilt of his head and the way his hair glinted in the sun, the exact shade that Richard’s had been. Then, when he looked up at the sound of my footstep, I knew for certain it was he, the same eyes, same nose. Oh, yes, I knew straight away. As we spoke together, afraid at every moment of discovery, he wracked his brains trying to remember things from his childhood that only I would know. It meant much that I believed in him but he wasted his breath. I should have known him anywhere.  I thought that, if I could persuade the king that Richard would make no more claims to the throne, he would at least spare his life, but he would not hear of it.  Richard was a threat and so Richard had to die.’
I watched Katherine shred her lace kerchief to pieces in her lap. Her head was down but I could see her chin wobbling. Large drops fell upon her hands.
‘I could not bring myself to believe it would happen,’ she wept. ‘I was certain help would come from somewhere.  I was on my knees, night and day, begging for God’s mercy, for a reprieve. And now I can only pray for his heavenly redemption.’  Her voice broke off into an ugly sob and the queen put her arm across her bowed shoulders.
‘At least you have the boy,’ she whispered and I saw Katherine’s head come up sharply.
‘How can you know of that?’ 
The queen smiled. ‘It is as well, in my position, to know everything that goes on, my dear.  I am glad your son thrives, he is my nephew and some day, perhaps, he can take his place at court.’
‘He can never take his rightful place,’ I heard Katherine say, ‘not so long as a son of yours lives.’ 
I drew in my breath sharply as Elizabeth withdrew her arm.
‘My son will rule after his father, the king. And if I have anything to do with it, Arthur will make a fine king, in the mould of his grandfather, Edward.  He will rule in the Yorkist way. Your son, Lady Gordon, will not rule. Take my advice; you must give up all idea of him inheriting the throne. If you want him to live, he must never reveal his identity, not unless you wish to see him swing like his father.’ 
Katherine dropped her hostility, it fell at her feet like a hot coal. ‘Forgive me, your majesty; I am overwrought. Tell me, Madam, does the king know?’ 
The queen patted Katherine’s hand and they were friends again. ‘No, no, and he will never hear it from me. I could do nothing for my brother and it gives me some comfort to protect his child.’ 
Lady Gordon smiled upon her queen. ‘I am not able to see my son for more than a few weeks in the year. I would leave the court but the k…the king will not hear of it. I am kept in what he calls ‘honourable confinement.’’
‘I know that also, Katherine, and you have my condolence. I realise that your confinement suits the king’s purposes very well.  It is unlike Henry to dally with women but, you have my blessing and the honour of his attention brings you some worldly comforts, does it not?  I hear you have a fine white palfrey and you are well clothed and I noticed he lets you win at cards, something that is quite against his principles. That can be no small supplement to a gentlewoman’s income.’

This news did not please me. I shuddered at the thought of my lovely flower, crushed beneath the body of the king. She was his whore and paid well for her services but there are some comforts a woman could surely do without.  I should have moved against him when I’d had the chance. In ridding myself of one rival I had gained a greater one. But, a son … this was news indeed. 
I clawed the knowledge away.

The women kissed and parted, the queen returning to the palace leaving Katherine wilting like a lenten lily in the arbour.  Slipping from concealment, my heartbeat increased as I approached her.  I had never dared to speak to her before. She was weeping quietly.  I cleared my throat,
‘Lady?’ I murmured, adopting horrified tones. ‘Are you injured? Can I be of assistance?’ 
She looked up, a vision of heaven, and fumbled with her kerchief.
‘Allow me, Lady Gordon,’ I said, revelling at the feel of her name on my tongue. ‘I notice your own kerchief is of little use.’
She looked up at me, her blue eyes blurred with tears. My pulse raced, my loins stirred.
‘Thank you, Sir,’ she said, ‘but, you have the advantage of me and I am afraid I do not know your name.’
She wiped her tears on my kerchief.  I felt myself blessed.
‘My name, dear lady, is James Strangeways.  I am gentleman usher to the king.  Forgive me, lady, but I …I knew your husband, Perkin …or Richard, as he was to his friends.’
I was lying. I had been no friend to the pretender but her answering smile was like sunshine, illuminating my world.

Author’s note
 Sometime between the last days of Richard III’s reign and Henry the VII’s early years on the throne, the two young sons of Edward IV disappeared. Their names were Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York.  The new king put it about that they had been slaughtered by their uncle, the previous king, Richard III. However, during Henry’s reign, a man with many loyal followers claimed to be the younger of those princes.  Despite his princely demeanour, detailed knowledge of the court of his father, Edward IV, he was dismissed by Henry as a pretender. He was declared to be the son of a Flemish boatman and, prior to his execution, admitted as much.  The family of a felon suffered much less if the accused admitted his guilt. 
His wife, the Lady Katherine Gordon, was kept at Henry’s court in ‘honourable confinement.’  She served as lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York (the sister of the lost princes) until the queen’s death in 1503. After that she remained at court as Henry’s companion, some say paramour, but there is no evidence of this apart from a few hints at intimacy and grants of land and wealth that she received.
          It is not recorded what became of the son that she bore to Perkin Warbeck (or Richard of York) but today the Perkins family, who live on the Gower peninsular in Wales, trace their family tree back to the son of Peter Osbeck of Tournai.  This tale, more legend than story, becomes more solid when one considers the end of Katherine’s life.
         After Henry’s death in 1509, Katherine married the first of two subsequent husbands. The first, James Strangeways, the narrator of my story, died six years after the wedding and she was then married to Mattthew Craddock, the Earl of Worcester’s deputy in South Wales, who died in 1531. She settled near Swansea, just eight miles from the home of the Perkins family in Reynoldston on the Gower peninsular.


For more information about Perkin Warbeck I recommend Anne Wroe’s book, Perkin: A story of Deception

My historical fiction is available  both in paperback and on Kindle and include:


  1. Absolutely wonderful writing. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Thank you Wanda. Very kind of you to say so :)

  3. Very enjoyable!