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When a flashback is an alarm bell

So what did Richard III seem like to the man he murdered?

In my novel A Secret Alchemy,  Antony Wydvil, Earl Rivers, uncle and guardian to the new, young King Edward V, has been arrested by Edward's other uncle, the Regent Richard Duke of Gloucester. In one, long midsummer's day Antony rides, under guard, from the castle of Sheriff Hutton to Pontefract, where he knows he is to be put to death.

It is some time after midday. Anderson spies a spinney a couple of furlongs off the road and orders a halt to rest the horses. The corn in the fields is well grown, and we ride along the rising ground of the headlands to dismount in dappled shade, like a group of friends taking their ease after a morning’s coursing. One of the men leads my horse away but no man tries to hold me. They have no need, of course: I am disarmed. There is no help on its way for me, and I could no more escape on foot across these open fields than I could from an island in the sea.

So no formal watch is posted, no sentry-duty ordered. These men know each other and their trade too well. They are quiet, but for a jest or two: taking off their helmets, loosening girths, checking horse and harness, going aside to piss, eating barley bread and cheese because men must eat to do their work, watering the horses when they have cooled, but always watching. That their watch is not needed is beside the point. Still they watch, bows and horses to hand, because that is what soldiers do.

They say that each man destroys the thing he loves the most. Through my agency Ned is destroyed, for though he lives, he is alone, and I cannot hope that he will ever be crowned. Day after day and night after night in the chill quiet of Sheriff Hutton I have known that it was my own failure, and no other, that Ned was taken from my guardianship. By comparison with that, my own death is as naught.

And yet, wherein did I fail? Where – at what moment – did I decide wrongly? To this day I do not know. Sometimes I have thought that it would be easier to bear if I could comfort myself that we had fought Richard of Gloucester and been defeated in battle, that Ned was torn from my hold. But Richard was in command, a prince of the blood royal, and I did not know Richard for an enemy. He was my fellow in faithfulness to the memory of his brother, and in care for our new king.

I destroyed my boy because I trusted a man I had no reason not to trust: a sworn knight, an honourable ruler, the most faithful brother of our late king.

*

We came to Stony Stratford on the last day of April, Ned sagging in the saddle with weariness when he thought himself unseen. ‘This was your great father’s favourite hunting lodge,’ I said. ‘And it was here that he lodged when he was married to your lady mother.’ As we approached we saw a man riding to greet us, bearing Richard of Gloucester’s boar badge. Their Graces of Buckingham and Gloucester were arrived in Northampton already, he said, and begged that when I had settled the King and his train into his lodging, and myself in mine at Northampton, I would dine with them.

As many stayed at Stony Stratford as there was lodging, and among them was Louis, for we take care that no man shall know us for lovers beyond that love that any man may have for a true comrade in arms. And it was politic, too, I said to him, as I made ready to ride back to Northampton. I would know what was talked of among the new King’s retinue. When all was in order I left Richard Grey to guard Ned, jointly with my cousin Haute, and Vaughan, that loved Ned like his own son and had long been his faithful servant.

I have seen Rome, and Lisbon, and Paris, but when I was a boy Northampton looked to me as grand as I imagined London to be, and the road to it from Grafton an Appian Way of promise. I smiled as we reached my lodging in the high street: one of three inns, all meet for the custom of the nobility and gentry, said the bowing landlord, though his inn, he trusted, was the best appointed. Their Graces were housed in the inns on either side.

That night at Northampton we dined, and drank a little but not too much, and used each other courteously, making plans for the progress of the King and the coronation. I had not long since begged Richard of Gloucester to arbitrate in a dispute with one of my tenants, and we spoke of that and other business of our private estates. He has a quick mind for such matters, and an instinct for what is both fair and politic. At dawn I rose and made ready to go to Ned: we were but a day’s ride from London.

But the doors of my lodging were barred from the outside, and the men that held me prisoner were Richard of Gloucester’s.

Men pray that they will know the hour of their death. You might say I knew it then, and but for the wild dreams of hope that overcome me in moments of despair, and make my despair worse when they flee again, I have known it ever since.

We were outnumbered and but lightly armed, for the main body of our force was with the new King. When they unbarred the doors, I was arrested in the Protector’s name, on a charge of attempting to rule the realm and the King, of plotting the destruction of the blood royal: the Protector himself. I argued my case: I was the King’s legal guardian by Edward’s own appointment; Gloucester was not yet confirmed Protector; I had done no plotting, but only fulfilled the late King’s charge as best I might.

To no avail. I can still feel the hand of the captain on my shoulder; hear the scrape of my sword as I unsheathed it and gave it up at his request; see Richard of Gloucester’s eyes as black as a lake in the dark while he listened courteously to my reasoning.

‘The King is safe in His Grace of Buckingham’s care,’ he said at last, with a shake of his head. He stands very still, does Richard of Gloucester, but when he moves at last, he is quick and sharp. ‘He will be taken to London as arranged, with all due ceremony. But I cannot allow any men guilty of plotting against the blood royal to go free, however much undeserved favour my late brother granted them. Not even if they are men of the cloth like your brother Lionel.’

I was taken aback. Here, new-minted, was his brother Clarence’s envy. Had Richard only been more politic in hiding a bitterness that was yet the same?

I suppressed my scorn for his rancorous words. ‘I tell you again, and plainly, and swear it on the most Holy Cross: I have made no plots, nor have my affinity. Such favour as I have been granted is nothing to what the late King most properly gave to those of his own blood. And what I have, I have certainly earned, as has my sister, Her Grace the Queen. Those of our family whose service to the King has been more modest have had no more than modest advancement.’

‘And your nephew, the Queen’s son? When did he earn the right to enter the Tower and seize the treasure there?’

‘Thomas Grey? If he has done so, it will be by a commission of the Council’s, of which he is a member. If there is some misunderstanding it may be put right in a moment when I reach London.’

‘You will not reach London. Richard Grey, Haute and Vaughan are all arrested. You will be taken to separate custody in the north, that the King and the realm and the blood royal may be safe.’

Then he turned away, and vaulted on to his horse unaided, as he always did, though he was small and ill-made, and took the road to Stony Stratford.

*

Guilt cramps my heart: guilt that I did not see what they would do, that I lost Ned to them by a stupid trick, that I could not – did not – lift a finger to save him. The pain is real, but I would bear twice as much – bear all the pain in the world – if it would save my boy. But nothing now will do that, if Richard of Gloucester wills it otherwise.

I catch Captain Anderson’s eye. ‘I would go aside to say the Office.’

He looks at me for a moment. ‘Aye, my lord, very well.’

The spinney crowns the crest of an outcrop of rock and I walk towards the far edge. Here sunlight lies warm on stones, dead branches and rough grass. Beyond the rocky edge, and far below, a stream threads like tarnished silver through sour brown and green marshland. Behind me, I feel a movement and another. They are wondering if I will leap to freedom.

I will not. A body broken by such folly would be no freedom, and to seek my end by such a design would be a mortal sin. Nor would it save Ned, or help Louis if he is still at liberty. All I have left is God.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti . . .

I commend Ned and his kingship to God. I pray for Elysabeth, and for my two wives – one living, one dead – and for my daughter and her mother. And for Louis. Then I commend these loves, too, to God, and empty my mind of all, that it may fill with the peace and grace that God gives.

*

Yet I have spent hours and days of my captivity trying to understand Richard of Gloucester; trying to understand how I could have misjudged him so; trying to understand what he will do with Ned. When I heard that Elysabeth had gone into sanctuary at Westminster on that same first day of May, and young Dickon with her, I was glad. If Dickon was safe, then so, too, was Ned, for Richard was shrewd enough to know there was then nothing to be gained by harming him.

Yes, that is how I failed. I should have seen Richard for what he is: the same breeding as his brothers. George of Clarence would have killed his brother and taken his crown could he have done it. Even Edward did not scruple at the last to kill Henry - a cousin and anointed king - then his own brother, to keep himself safe. What Richard of Gloucester has done should be no surprise. He will not rest till he has everything in his grasp, and he thinks that we Wydvils are of the same mettle. He must hold land, and ships, and gold, and women, and the person of the King so that we cannot. It is beyond his imagining that Elysabeth and I want nothing but Ned and the kingdom’s good, no more than our just deserts for our great labour in the service of the King, and peace among the guardians of the realm.

Now I am brought to Pontefract in my turn. A horse slips and stumbles on the cobbles as we turn into the Castle Garth. Its rider curses, and slashes his whip across its neck. The drawbridge echoes under our hoofs, there is the clang of bolts, and almost silently the gates begin to open. This strange pilgrimage – one hot day’s journey, and my whole earthly life – is almost at an end.

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