"Who is that judge that sits perpetually in your head?"
The Book Doctor will (not) confuse you now

Elizabeth Woodville, that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair

I've lived with Elizabeth Woodville - Lady Grey, Queen Elizabeth - on and off for more than fifteen years. In many people's introduction to one of the great mystery stories of English history, The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey describes her perfectly as "that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair"; she was the mother of the Princes in the Tower, the wife of Edward IV, and she's also one of the narrators of my novel A Secret Alchemy.

I always knew that I wasn't the first, any more than Tey was, but I wrote about where my Elysabeth  came from on my website, and over on The History Girls blog I wrote Bloody Battles and Pleasure Palaces, about researching it. A Secret Alchemy hit the Sunday Times Bestsellers lists, had great reviews and was named as one of their paperbacks of the year, and then a few months later I heard that another writer had now succumbed to her. It was strange to hear a White Queen tweeting so, because I'm a writer, I wrote about that.

Since then, of course, Elizabeth, her brother Anthony, and their modern-day historian Una Pryor have been present to me. Like so many writers, I first feel a novel as a cloudy, powerful presence and then devote a year or three to making that presence real in every sound and smell and sight. And when other projects have taken its place at the front of my creative mind - other centuries, other ideas, other lives - that earlier novel becomes again a cloudy, powerful presence in my memory; it becomes part of me forever. If writing fiction, to quote Siri Hustvedt, "is like remembering what never happened", then once you have written the story, it becomes, to your mind, something that did happen.

Over here on the blog, the extract of A Secret Alchemy is part of Anthony's narrative. So this seems like a good moment to give Elysabeth her voice. And because Una, too, is part of that voice-giving, that's where we'll start.

Una – Wednesday

‘So you’re writing about the Wars of the Roses,’ Lionel’s saying, as we cross Chequer Street, shouldering our way through delivery men, traffic wardens and tourists making for the Abbey. ‘York and Lancaster and so on. Does the battle of St Albans come into it?’

I pull myself together. ‘It certainly does,’ I say, ‘Only it’s battles. There were two. The first one was – where’s the market square?’ Lionel waves ahead of us. ‘That wasn’t much more than a skirmish, but Henry VI was wounded in the neck, and captured by the Yorkists. The second one was much bloodier.’

Neatly he manoeuvres so that he’s walking between me and the road again, escorting me. The verb’s irresistible, although whether it’s this, or his ushering arm each time we pass a lamp-post and he stands back for me to go before him, I can’t decide. Adam had good manners, but more as one thoughtful human being to another than this careful, codified male-to-female dance that is as seductively restricting as the boned and stiffened New Look frocks that Aunt Elaine so carefully cut and sewed for Izzy. Above us, plastic and steel and glass fronts are welded on to a muddle of brick and rendered buildings so that only the sideways-leaning upper windows and sagging roof-trees betray their age. There are rows of cars and parking meters, electric-lit advertisements and municipal hanging baskets, and a fine Edwardian encaustic plaque on a building society that was once the Castle Inn, recording the death of the Duke of Somerset in 1455.

A heavy lorry comes growling up Holywell Hill, each gear-change a gasp then grunt. Once, the hill was barricaded by Somerset’s men, defending the King from his own cousin of York, the most powerful man in the realm. Beneath the yellow lines, the Tarmac, the cobbles, the crushed stone is the very earth they tried to hold. It would make a difference how many held a bow, how many a sword, how many a pike; whether they were confident in God’s help or fearful of damnation; if they were hungry, drunk or weak with terror. It mattered how sturdy their helmets and breastplates were, how strong their arms and shoulders, where they mustered and how steadfastly they stood.

What did it mean to do these things for someone you knew only as the name of your allegiance? God, or the King, or His Grace of York? To use everything that you were made of in that cause, your body and mind, your strengths and weaknesses, and know it might not be enough?

And how can I make Elizabeth and Anthony breathe? Did the stubble scratch her ankles after the Grafton harvest? How did he live through the months as a prisoner-of-war in Calais? When Edward seized the throne from Henry, what did they feel? Their mother Jacquetta was Henry’s aunt by marriage, Lancastrian to the core, Queen Margaret her great friend, both French noblewomen and new, bewildered brides in this damp and chilly land. What did Jacquetta feel – do – say – when her husband announced the battle was lost, Henry and Margaret were fugitives, and the family were changing sides? And it was a family matter, the business of the kingdom. Family, affinity, allegiance ... These things shaped everybody’s life.

Elysabeth – the 1st yr of the reign of King Edward the Fourth

It was weeks later, well past May Day, but cold and grey in a way that boded ill for the harvest, that my father and Antony came home as the church bell rang Nones. They rode into the yard with a cry and a trampling of hoofs and boots that told of a full following of men. At the noise the children came scampering from attics and stables, my mother hastened from the storerooms with her veil awry and Margaret ran out from the parlour with embroidery threads clinging to her gown. I called Mal and we set to, straightening the children’s jackets and skirts, wiping the worst of the grime off with spit on a cloth and reminding the little ones of their manners. Then we went forth into the yard.

I had thought that the men would be weary, perhaps wounded, but no. They did not even ride with the stiff backs and wooden visages of men worsted in a fight. They were not defying pity, or trying to hide fear and failure. True, Wat Carter had an arm in a sling that looked like to hinder his milling for a while, and one man’s cheek was slashed so deep I scarcely knew him. John from the smithy had a bandaged leg and sat pillion behind one of the squires. But my father and Antony rode easily, smiling to be home, their harness dusty from the road but clean and well cared-for.

My father raised my mother and embraced her, kissing her long and hard. Antony bowed to her, and I saw tears in both their eyes before she held out her arms to kiss him. Then my father spoke to the men of his thanks for their service, and the rewards that would come to them all, and those that were not our own servants departed.

The reward that was to come to us he told of later, sitting in the great chamber with logs piled high on the fire for all it was nearly Whitsun. Neither he nor Antony spoke of the battle but rather of other serious business, yet still he did not send the children away.

He told of the new King’s dispositions of land and gold to secure new allegiances, and ensure Henry of Lancaster could get no aid from the French King. And he discussed with my mother the money that must be raised to buy the pardons for himself and Antony. But when his eye fell on Dickon or Eleanor or any of the bigger children, where Mal was keeping them quiet with sweetmeats and scraps of wood and cloth folded into shapes, he seemed to smile, as if he were glad of their presence in the chamber. Then he told us that King Edward was at Stony Stratford. My father had promised good sport, if the King cared to hunt in Salcey Forest, and a good dinner at Grafton afterwards.

For a moment we were too astonished to speak. Then, ‘C’est bien, mon seigneur,’ my mother said, inclining her head unsmilingly, as if she accepted a compliment from a man she did not admire. ‘We shall be ready.’

Later, sitting over the remains of the fire with Antony, I asked him, ‘Did my father really invite Edward of – the King – did he really invite him in such words?’

‘Indeed he did. His Grace is ... oh, made of different mettle altogether from Henry of Lancaster.’

‘He’s young, of course.’

‘Yes. But it’s not simply his lack of years.’ His eyes narrowed as if he sought to see him better. ‘He’s ... He takes things lightly, or speaks as if he does. He even spoke of those months at Calais and laughed. We laughed with him, of course, and as a jest he asked my forgiveness for holding us so long, and rating me so, and calling me ... oh, all the low names.’ He smiled suddenly. ‘I suppose it was absurd. At least, it seems so now, to us who were at Towton ... He loves music and drink and jewels and women – scores of women, it’s said.’

‘Well, that is most certainly different.’

‘No man could work harder by day. And to see him in battle ...’ He fell silent. I held my peace, for sometimes men speak of these things, and sometimes they keep silent, and I had learnt of John that it was not for me to judge which any man should do. ‘He’s tall, you know. Taller than any of those about him. We could not see – we had the snow in our faces – we could see little, until the battles turned. But always he was there. Wherever it was hardest. Wherever we thought it most likely that we might break them, there he was, holding his men together and cutting down ours as if they were no more than the corn in a field. They said he cried that God had shown his claim was just. He has taken a sun for his badge, a sun with streams ... And when ... But in his camp there is more wine running than in the whole of Gascony, and the clerks are hardly able to keep count of the gold that’s brought, and horses and hawks, and feasting every night, though he’s been about his affairs since dawn.’

‘Different from K— Henry of Lancaster indeed,’ I said. ‘Is it true that Henry knew so little of women that the Queen Margaret’s son is not of his getting?’

‘Who knows?’ Antony smiled a little thinly, but not, I thought, at the insult to Henry of Lancaster. ‘It is said that Edward has got children of his own already. What I have seen at York ... It would not surprise me.’ He shrugged, as if to rid himself of the odour of Edward’s camp, the disgust that still lingered in his nostrils.

That day we all saw each other as if through a different glass, I think. The change of our family’s allegiance seemed also to have changed our eyes. I saw my brother afresh in the firelight: he had thinned and toughened in this campaign, though he still looked like quicksilver, and when he reached forward to togs another log onto the fire I saw that next to his skin he wore a hair shirt. I knew suddenly that he had always disliked excess in bodily matters, whether it be meat or wine or love. If our family’s new allegiance brought us advancement then he could look high indeed for a wife and a dowry. What would he make of such a one? My brothers for the most part were much as any young man: John had a girl in the village, I knew, and my brother Edward had been beaten till he howled by my mother – my father being away on business – when one of her maids had complained he had tried to force himself on her. But Antony? I knew not. He might read of the great love of Lancelot for Guinevere and hers for him, but his own tale, surely, would be of the Holy Grail. Indeed, though I am not given to blushing, even to think of such matters in his case made me blush and look aside, so that he and I sat in silence for some time, gazing into the fire and thinking our own thoughts.

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