It grows darker with the passing of every minute. The people in the streets crowd together and gaze up at the sky. It is a portent of evil, they say. God is showing His displeasure by covering the face of the sun.
Very soon I shall lay down my pen. I am too tired to write more. My strength is slowly ebbing away and I feel Death close.
It is an unhappy time to leave this world. Suspicion and treachery are all around us. There are rumors to which I try to shut my ears. They frighten me. I tell myself I do not believe them. I do not want to hear the things people are saying--yet I must know.
"Tell me . . . tell me everything," I beg my ladies.
They shake their heads. They say, "There is nothing, your Grace."
That is not true. They know but they will not tell me.
We were happy at Middleham before Richard took the throne. Middleham will always be home to me . . . and, I believe, to him. It meant something very special to us both. It was there that we first knew each other. I always said it was there that love between us first began. The people there understood him. They knew his worth. They do not like him here. In their hearts they do not accept him as their king. He is not tall and handsome as his brother was. He lacks the gift of charm that Edward had in such abundance. How perverse human nature is! Richard would be a good king; he would serve his country faithfully; but it was Edward whom they loved because he was good to look upon; he was a giant among men; he smiled his way through his reign, beguiling rich and poor alike. His profligacy, his self-indulgence mattered not. He looked like a king and they had adored him. It was perhaps natural that they should resent his successor. Richard is not tall; he lacks the golden beauty of his brother; he is dark and serious and does not smile easily; he serves his country with zeal; but the people remember Edward's charm and mourn for him.
And in the streets they are whispering that I am dying on my husband's orders. The rumor is that he is having me slowly poisoned. How cruel they are! They cannot think of anything vile enough to say of him. It is his enemies of course--and they are all about us. They would make a monster of him. But who should know him better than I? And I know he is a good man. He would be a great king and good to them, greater than his self-indulgent brother--if they would let him.
It is true that I am dying--but not at his hands. He knows that I cannot live long and he is heartbroken. I can see the misery in his eyes. I am the only one whom he can trust. How could anyone think that he would want to be rid of me? I know I am sick, unable to bear the sons all kings want, but there has been a special bond between us since he came to my father's castle when we were children. If only he could cast away his crown! If only we could go back to Middleham and the North where the people love and understand us. Richard is paying too highly for his crown.
I try to comfort him. More than any I know his feelings.
"Whom can I trust?" he asks. "Who in this sad court can trust whom?"
I know he is thinking of Buckingham--his one-time friend, or so he thought--now turned traitor.
Sometimes when he looks hurt and bewildered he reminds me so much of the boy I knew all those years ago. I alone am able to see the real Richard; to others he is cold, aloof, a stern king, determined to hold what he believes to be his by right, dedicated, determined to do his duty.
Throughout the court there is a rumor that he wants to marry his niece, Elizabeth, when he has rid himself of me. I think this has grieved him more than anything.
"They hate me so much," he said. "They bring the most harmful accusations against me. They compare me with my brother. They say I have usurped the throne from young Edward. They do not believe he is a bastard. Oh, if only my brother had not died! How they loved him! He could do no wrong in their eyes and I can do no right."
I said, "Your brother was an unfaithful husband; he was profligate. He loved luxurious living. He cared more for his own pleasure than for the good of the country. You are a good man, Richard. You will be a good king; and in time the people will come to realize that."
He smiled at me sadly, fondly. I remember that, from the time he was a boy, he would not listen to criticism of his brother. Edward had been a god in his eyes. It had always been so. Like the rest of the country, he had succumbed to that charm.
"They are silent when I pass," he said. "Do you remember how they used to cheer Edward?"
"They will cheer you one day."
He shook his head. "And now they say I would remove you that I might marry Edward's daughter--my own niece! Anne, you could never think for one moment . . ."
I took his face in my hands and kissed it. I wanted to assure him of the contempt in which I held such gossip.
But secretly there were moments when I thought with some apprehension of Elizabeth of York. The eldest daughter of handsome Edward and his beautiful Queen. It was natural that she also should be beautiful--sparkling, radiant, healthy. If she were like her mother she would bear many children.
Before I was so ill I would see her at court. Did I fancy she watched Richard with speculation in her eyes? Did she flaunt her beauty, her radiant charm? Was she implying: "Look at me. How different I am from the poor, sickly queen." I did not believe for one moment that she was in love with Richard; but she was her mother's daughter and she would dearly love a crown.
And even I, knowing him as I did and understanding full well the venom of his enemies, was sometimes overtaken by cruel doubts. I am ill. I am barren, I would say. And is it not the duty of kings to get sons?
Common sense returns and I remind myself that it is I whom he has always loved; and then how I long for the days of peace at Middleham and I say, "If only Edward were back on the throne and we could return to the North--our true home, where we are known and loved and the people do not murmur evil slander against us."
Here there are enemies everywhere. There are sly rumors . . . ridiculous rumors, but the people accept them as truth because that is what they want to do.
Richard's enemies are all about us. They are whispering of a certain Henry Tudor, now sheltered by our enemies of France, waiting until that day when he is ready to make his spurious claim to the throne.
Yes, there is treachery all around us.
The light is fading. The face of the sun is almost obscured now and for me the end is near. What will become of Richard? What will become of the country? I shall never know.
My life is fading as the light is. Someone approaches. It is one of my women.
"My lady, the King is on his way to you."
I shall write no more. Richard is coming and something tells me this is the last time I shall look upon his face.
Looking back over my life I often think how strange it is that a woman such as myself should have so little control over her own destiny.
I was the daughter of a man who at the time of my birth was one of the most important men in the country. In truth I might even say the most important for he was even greater than the king. He was indeed known as the Kingmaker. Then I was the affianced wife of a Prince of Wales and later a queen. What a glittering fate that would appear to be, yet now that my life is coming to an end, I realize that it was lived in the shadows. I moved--or perhaps it would be more correct to say I was moved--into important positions, but always for the benefit of others--except, I like to think, in marriage to the man who became King of England. It was certainly my wish and I hope his that I should become his queen. And now I have come to the time when I must ask myself for how long?
But I must go back to the very beginning. Who would have believed that a man such as my father could fail to beget the son he so ardently desired and had only been able to produce two girls--my sister, Isabel, and myself? His grandfather, Richard, Earl of Westmorland, had had twenty-three children from his two marriages. But perhaps my father found consolation in the fact that even girls have their uses. They can form alliances that can be of inestimable value. My father was a man to make the most of his advantages.
It was different with my mother. I believe she was very satisfied with her two daughters, as is often the way with mothers who come to believe that the offspring they have are just what they wanted. At least my father could not have been disappointed in his marriage, for through my mother had come the greater part of his wealth; she had been Anne Beauchamp, heiress to vast lands and fortune, and she had brought him the earldom of Warwick.
She lavished great care on Isabel and me, which was necessary, I suppose, because neither of us was robust. The three of us were very happy together, whether we were at Middleham Castle, Warwick Castle, Cawood, or Warwick Court in London.
We saw our father infrequently, but when he did come the atmosphere changed completely. Bustle, excitement, apprehension prevailed. Men wearing the emblem of the Ragged Staff were everywhere, and, of course, there was my father's dominating presence. He took some interest in us girls, which was surprising. I sometimes thought he might have been a family man if he had not been so ambitious to rule the country, through the king of his making. My childhood memories are of comings and goings, some of which affected us and then we could be off to other family residences at a moment's notice.
Isabel was my senior by nearly five years and she often tried to explain to me what was going on, but when she herself did not understand she refused to admit it and relied on her invention. When my father departed with his followers, we would be at peace again.
Of all our homes I loved Middleham best. It was situated in the heart of wild and open country in the North Riding of Yorkshire--and it will always be home to me.
It was at Middleham Castle that I first met Richard of Gloucester, when he was sent to my father to learn the arts of war and chivalry; and it was there that the bonds of something deeper than friendship were forged between us.
I was five years old when a momentous event occurred. Isabel, then ten, told me about it.
"There is a new king on the throne," she said. "It is all because of the War of the Roses. The White Rose is for York . . . that is the good one. That's us. Then there is the Red Rose of Lancaster. That is the wicked one for silly old Henry and his horrible Queen Margaret. They are not King and Queen anymore because our father does not like them. So he has made our cousin Edward king and he is now called Edward the Fourth."
"Does our father say who is to be king then?" I asked.
"Of course. He is the Kingmaker. Wicked Queen Margaret killed King Edward's father at Wakefield. She cut off his head and put a paper crown on it to mock him because he had wanted to be king instead of silly Henry, and she stuck his head on the walls of York. Our father was very cross about it and he would not let her be queen anymore--so Edward is king instead."
This was in a way a version of what had happened at Wakefield, for the battle had been a decisive one in the War of the Roses. Edward, however, had not such a strong claim to the throne as Henry, who was the son of King Henry the Fifth and therefore in the direct line; but Edward's father was descended from King Edward the Third through both his father and mother--through Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who was the old king's second son, and Edmund, Duke of York, who was his fifth. Richard told me all this during one of our talks when I was a little older.
Most people, except those absolutely dedicated to the cause of Lancaster, must have thought it preferable to have a king like Edward than one such as Henry. Edward was young, strong, and outstandingly handsome--he was a giant among men and a king the people could admire and be proud of.
He was also Richard's brother and because of the deep bonds of friendship between King Edward and the man who had put him on the throne--my father--it was decided that Richard should be sent to Middleham to be brought up under the guidance of the Earl of Warwick. Thus it was we met.
I remember the first time I saw him. He was sitting alone and despondent. He was very pale; he looked tired and was staring rather gloomily straight ahead.
I said, "Hello. I know who you are. You are the king's brother."
He turned to look at me. I could see that he was not very pleased by the intrusion and was wishing that I would go away.
"Yes," he answered. "I am, and you are the earl's daughter--the younger one."
"How long are you going to live with us?"
"Until I have learned all that I have to learn."
"There are always people here learning what my father can teach them."
"I know Francis Lovell and Robert Percy," I said. "Do you?"
"Yes. I know them."
Excerpted from The Reluctant Queen by Jean Plaidy. Copyright © 2007 by Jean Plaidy. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.