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Circles in the Water

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It was said that time ran in circles, that the deeds of men were no more than points on blind Fortune's wheel. She knew, of course, that the sins of the fathers would be visited on the children; that God was Alpha and Omega and that as she had come from dust, so would she return. These things she had never questioned. In fact, Cecily Neville never questioned anything, though the unanswered thoughts ran in circles of their own inside her head till she was well nigh dizzy from them. For she was a woman and it was not her place to ask questions.

 

i. Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
Henry VI, Part I (I.ii.133-5)

 

Cecily had always been beautiful. But that, her equally beautiful mother had repeatedly told her, was not enough. She was a Neville, practically a princess, in a world no longer made for princesses. The sun had set on the days of Agincourt, leaving behind too many shadows and too many men willing to walk within them.

 

When her father told her she was to marry the son of one of the traitors who had tried to kill King Henry the Fifth, she did not flinch. Nevilles never flinched. And Richard of York did not look like a traitor, though Cecily could recognise ambition when she saw it. After he was named Regent of France and came to her bed flushed with triumph, she realised it was infectious and imagined knots of effeminate Frenchmen bowing low as she passed, queen in all but name.

 

Instead, the wheel turned downward, the provinces fell, one by one, and she was sent back to England despite her protests. They claimed it was for her own safety. When their enemy took counsel from a witch, a harridan in armour, she was told, how could one guarantee an honest woman’s security? Two years, Richard remained on the far side of the Channel, his rare letters her link to the outside world.[i] Every time she wrote, the words would well up. Why do you not come home? But she swallowed them. He had his reasons. The Duke of Bedford is dead. The King and Protector need him to remain. Talbot demands reinforcements in Bordeaux and Somerset will not listen. They were men's reasons and she understood them even if she did not agree.

 

But even wheels and Fortune and God's Will could not explain what happened next. She closeted herself at Fotheringhay, watching in horror as her body swelled with an impossible child. She had borne children before, of course--beautiful Edward and sweet George, already fostered with their uncles of Warwick and Salisbury--but something had gone horribly wrong.[ii]

 

At first, she had not even known herself to be with child. Some eight months after her departure from Rouen, five months after Richard triumphed again, this time over the so-called Pucelle, she felt the first feeble kicks and wondered at how such a thing could have come to pass. Every day, she knelt before their chaplain, begging for answers, and he could give her none. When finally she began to show, nearly a year since she had seen Richard, she fled the court, taking refuge far from prying eyes. The child--the thing, the parasite, she began to call it--grew slowly, like a canker within.[iii]

 

Finally, when she could bear it no longer, she wrote to her husband, a frantic, hysterical letter, the sort she would have scorned in any other woman. Come back to me, Richard. For love of God, come back.

 

And he did. He charged into the courtyard even as the last echoes of Cecily’s screams faded from the bedchamber. What greeted him was silence, the room empty of all attendants, the bloodstained sheets twisted on the bed. Somewhere, a doctor paid handsomely for his silence scrubbed hard at the knife he had used to force the delivery of the Duke of York's third son.[iv] Later he would wonder if he ought to have let both mother and child die. Cecily herself was huddled in a far corner of the bedchamber, clutching her rosary until it drew blood from her palms. Miserere mei, Deus, repeated over and over again in a voice hoarsened from the three days of torture she had endured to bring--it--into this world.

 

But there was something else in her husband's eyes as he looked upon the creature she had brought forth, that strange twisted thing lying untended on the bed. She knew she had been faithful as a wife should be, and, oddly enough, the evidence was quite plain. It bore a distorted parody of her husband's face beneath the shock of dark hair.

 

"Richard, I swear to you--"

 

"I know." She could barely hear the response, muffled as it was beneath his hand. "Dear God, what have I done?"

 

"You?" Clinging to a nearby chair, Cecily dragged herself upright, ignoring the sharp stabs of pain. She had ignored the doctor's orders to stay in bed, unable to bear the memory of the monster kicking and tearing itself free of her body in a shower of blood that still marred the sheets.[v] "I don't understand," she finally said, trying to make sense of the guilt branded across her husband's face.

 

"That...the witch. When we took her to be burnt--as she deserved--she said...the things she said." He swallowed. Then, sinking onto the floor beside the bed, he told her everything. How the enchantress had cast spells upon the Dauphin and his lords, had even defeated Talbot himself in battle. When they found her, in the midst of one of her spells, of course they'd taunted her. What else would anyone do under those circumstances? As if like Circe she could change my shape...[vi]

 

"This is her doing, Cecily. She's damned us from beyond the grave." Though she opened her mouth as if to protest, there was some comfort in this knowledge. It is not my fault. Richard's arms tightened round her. "I'm so sorry. Forgive me, Cecily, please." His voice cracked on her name, unleashing the tears she did not know she had bottled away.

 

"I thought it was me," she whispered. "Something I'd done, something I hadn't known..." Catching her breath, she buried her face in his shoulder. "Richard, what are we going to do? We can't keep it, surely."

 

But he had turned his head, was looking at the thing on the sheets. "I don't think we have a choice, love." In the darkness, she heard the shriek of an owl, and crossed herself.[vii]

 

The creature was, ironically, christened Richard. Her husband had insisted upon it, despite Cecily's protests. He never told her why except that he felt the need to remind himself of his own folly, and the price of La Pucelle's death, that had brought England so little comfort in the end. Edward and George were often found clustered round the cradle, prodding at it until the plaintive cries bored them and they sought other amusements. Cecily left it at Fotheringhay and returned to London, where the only Richard she would acknowledge waited for her to welcome their newly crowned queen.

 

Of being queen, herself, she had almost forgotten she had ever dreamed so high. Richard's regency in France had been brought to an end as well, through the King's marriage, but she found she did not miss it. There was no mistaking, however, the discontent in her husband's eyes or what he said when he knew nobody else listened.

 

Peace, it seemed, was not for them.

 

ii. Be that thou hop'st to be, or what thou art
Resign to death; it is not worth th' enjoying.
Let pale-faced fear keep with the mean-born man
And find no harbour in a royal heart.
Henry VI, Part II (III.i.333-6)

 

Some might have reckoned the Frenchwoman a beauty; the King certainly did, if the foolish expression on his face were any indication. And she wondered at the naked lust in the new-made Duke of Suffolk's eyes and whispered of it to Richard. The smile it prompted was one she had not seen before his sojourn in France and though she could not say why, it made her uneasy. She had been bought at a crippling price, the lady Margaret of Anjou, relieving her royal husband of the last of his French provinces, and possibly making him a cuckold as well. Not that he would have noticed.

 

Things fell into something resembling routine, with the boys away at Ludlow and Cecily by her husband's side. Then she found herself with child again and nightmares of another monster caused her to wake, screaming, in the night. The creature was sequestered at Fotheringhay still. Cecily refused to see it, though she knew Richard visited sometimes, and had made arrangements for its fosterage when it came of age. It was he who suggested the midwife, a woman of known discretion who had assisted at the births of both Edward and George.

 

In her own placid, sensible way, Dame Alice pointed out the impossibility of what she had described and assured her that the baby she now carried was perfectly sound. Another boy for York. Would that the queen could provide so. All of England would rejoice.

 

When Edmund was born, Cecily was certain he had smiled at her from the first, and with that smile she buried all the horrors of what had come before. Even if she had not, there were other concerns far more pressing outside the boundaries of her own mind.

 

She could have predicted that the Duchess of Gloucester's lack of discretion would be her downfall; Cecily herself knew that any talk of discontent was best left away from court and that a lady's power derived from suggestion. She had never approved of Eleanor Cobham--what woman could, knowing she had betrayed her former mistress and stolen her husband all those years ago?--but there was no witchcraft about her, no matter what Queen Margaret and even Richard said.[viii] In response, Cecily urged her husband to let their sons remain in the country, in spite of Edward's letters pleading of boredom in the Marches. For, in the wake of the Lady Eleanor's disgrace, certain rumours had come to light, and it seemed advisable to keep the heirs of York away from court.

 

The Neville bloodline was writ large in Edward's features, at least to Cecily's eyes. Others, however, whispered differently in corners far from the ears of the queen's mignons. They spoke of another Edward, third of that name, tall and golden and hungry for glory, whose grandson had lost his throne to the house of Lancaster. Cecily knew, of course, of her husband's tie to the dead Earl of March, whose claim to the throne had so distressed the present king's grandfather, and that Richard was the earl's heir.[ix] The Nevilles too came from royal stock, after all, and as a daughter of their line she knew well the tangled skeins of Edward the Third's heirs. Too many than was wise in a royal house.

 

There was more in Richard's eyes now, a gleam every time he looked at poor, hapless cousin Henry, King of England. And in return, the queen's gaze had found her, the second lady in the land now that Eleanor of Gloucester languished on the Isle of Man. While Richard plotted treason in their hall and in her bed, Cecily chatted to the queen of babies and trifles even as she kept her own children far away.

 

Then, in the darkness of February, Queen Margaret made her move. Richard arrived from Bury St Edmunds in a whirlwind of activity. They were to leave for Ireland at once; he had already sent to Ludlow and to Middleham for the boys--the latter surprised Cecily, but she said nothing.[x] It was only later, on the ship out of Bristol, that he told her the Lord Protector was dead, and that London would soon erupt at the hands of one John Cade of Kent.

 

It was not Gloucester she mourned that night as she watched the coast of Wales recede. It was her cousin Henry, who, she knew, did not deserve such a loss. His queen was no doubt already picking at that carcass with Suffolk and Somerset beside her. But they arrived in Dublin to the news that the queen's lover had lost first his favoured status and, soon after, his head. Rumour had it Gloucester's shade had watched, as had those of all the others Suffolk's pride had sent to their deaths.[xi]

 

But Richard was different. He was just as ambitious as the rest, yes, but when England was his he would rule it well. She knew that as well as she knew herself. And, deep within, she as much as Eleanor of Gloucester once again wished to be queen, knew herself to be far more suited than faithless Margaret. Barren Margaret, barren no longer, but mother to a son whose parentage grew wilder in rumours she knew Richard fanned.[xii]

 

Edward and George jumped at the chance to follow their father back to London and so, surprisingly, did her third son, barely old enough to be considered, yet apparently not forgotten by Warwick and Salisbury who had fostered him and--he claimed--taught him to fight as well as any other man.[xiii] She watched him at the tiltyard once, sword gripped in withered hand, armour glinting on his twisted back, and her fingers clutched hard round her rosary. In spite of it all, he could fight, and did. What grace and poise he lacked, he made up for in sheer, manic energy.

 

Afterward he looked at her and for the first time, she looked back. He had Richard's eyes, grey and mirrorlike beneath tangled dark hair, but their lack of expression turned her blood cold.

 

"I shall bring you a trophy, Mother," he said, voice dancing lightly over the words. "Would Somerset's head please you?"

 

"Richard!" She shuddered, the name jangling harshly in her mouth. "That's quite enough. You're far too young, and I cannot think why your father..."

 

"He must learn sometime, Maman." That was Edward, slinging one careless, golden arm around his brother's warped shoulders. "I daresay one look at him will send the Lancastrians fleeing in fear, won't it, Dickon, eh?"

 

He hissed in response, and Cecily flinched, but Edward only laughed. A moment later, the younger joined in, punching Edward's shoulder with his unmaimed hand. When Richard found them, his namesake offered up the suggestion as his own and won himself a roar of approval from his brothers, but only puzzlement from his father.

 

Cecily found herself watching him incessantly during those last few days. He tolerated Edward and George as one might tolerate a high-spirited pet, and showed a surprising gentleness toward Edmund, who barely seemed to notice his deformities. But it was his father who held all the love in that strange, secretive heart. The one person from whom he could hide nothing, for whom adoration shone bright in an unexpectedly lovely smile.

 

If, of course, one could ignore the monstrosity that was the rest of him. She wondered if any woman ever would. He should have gone into the Church, she observed idly to Richard. When he was king, perhaps a bishopric should be arranged.

 

"You seem very certain," he murmured.

 

"Nothing is certain, Richard," she said with a shrug. "But I have trusted you all these years, and you have never given me reason to doubt you."

 

Cecily watched them ride into London, and once again she waited. She knew well how to do it, unlike Margaret. Patience, after all, was a virtue.

 

iii. Nor can my tongue unload my heart's great burden,
For selfsame wind that I should speak withal
Is kindling coals that fires all my breast,
And burns me up with flames that tears would quench.
To weep is to make less the depth of grief.
-- Henry VI Part III (II.i.81-5)

 

Wakefield.

 

The word tasted of ichor, raw and corrosive on her tongue. She should have been there. But when word came of the queen's advancing army, Richard had told her to stay in London. Just in case, he said. It was unlikely, practically impossible, but just in case. Trust me, love, he had said, it will all be over soon.

 

In a way, it was all over. The blood littering the snow-covered fields attested to that.

 

In her mind's eye, she saw her husband's head, mounted high above the gates of York, the flimsy crown of paper drooping like a jester's hat in the rain. Beside him, a child's head, yellow hair matted with blood, face frozen in an expression of surprise. She should have been there, to take that butcher Clifford's swordstroke for her Edmund.

 

This was too great for weeping, even for prayers. When Edward sank to his knees before her, his own tears still tracked on his cheeks, she held the limpid blue gaze with eyes harder than the ice at Wakefield.

 

"You will avenge us, Edward. They are vultures, harpies; there is no pity in them. I want them to know my heart, to suffer as I do. I want her to know it." For she knew Margaret had been there; more than that, she had taunted Richard with Edmund's death before her men cut him down. Edward nodded, gravity broken by an undignified sniff. Behind him, George was openly crying. Only Richard--oh, how the name twisted in her heart when she turned to him--looked back at her, dry-eyed, blood welling from where he had bit into his lip.

 

"Do not fear, Mother. You will have your revenge." His voice was cold, dead, but she could almost see the rage behind the words. Mater Dei, how young he still was. Not so much older than Edmund, and yet. And yet. "We will all have our revenge."

 

She heard later about what they did on the battlefield, of tens of thousands dead, bodies stacked like so much cordwood.[xiv] How men had climbed over their fellows as the river clogged with blood and flesh. And about Clifford--how her three sons had cut him down and tortured him gleefully till he was unrecognisable and left for carrion. At her command, the messenger had spared no detail, though he gagged to tell it.

 

Cecily merely nodded. "He will slaughter no more children now."

 

Of Cousin Harry and Margaret and their son, there was no word until some days later when it was said they had escaped to Scotland. As she watched Edward, her perfect Plantagenet son, Richard's heir, crowned King of England, Cecily told herself it was enough, that the wound left by Richard and Edmund could be otherwise filled. She had three sons still, and one was a king. She arranged masses to be sung every day for the dead of Wakefield and, slowly, the world began to fill with colour again.

 

When hunters discovered the quondam king wandering in the woods of Northumberland two years later, she counted it a blessing, and when Warwick made embassy to France, where the former queen went begging from castle to castle, to make an offer of marriage for the French king's sister-in-law, she thought perhaps peace might finally be at hand.

 

But that was before George barrelled into her chamber one morning in June, reddened from exertion and fury. "He's lost his wits! Or they've gone where we always thought they were--straight into his prick!"

 

"George, control yourself," she snapped. "What are you talking about?"

 

"My dearest brother, your son, our illustrious king," he paused for effect, "is married. Or will be, directly."

 

Cecily's mouth opened, but nothing emerged at first. Then, holding up one hand, she said, "Of course he will be. Why else would we have sent Warwick to France?"

"Oh, not to the Lady Bona, Maman. To one Mistress Elizabeth Grey," George practically spat the words, "a widow whose husband died fighting Ned and Father, whose beauty is no more than the common sort as far as I can see, and whose virtue is apparently such that Ned couldn't talk her into bed without deciding to marry her."

 

"But this is nonsense, George. He can't possibly marry her."

 

"That's what I thought, and Dickon too, but Ned will have none of it." George sighed. "Will you speak to him, Maman? Make him see reason."

 

"I certainly will." Cecily rose and let him lead her away, masking her unease as best she could. Surely Edward was not such a fool. She had thought him as ambitious as his father, but once he gained the crown, Edward had shown himself far more interested in drinking and women. The latter, she had been aware of for some time and tolerated with selective motherly ignorance, but this? Surely not. George was overreacting.

 

She found to her dismay that she was wrong. Edward countered her objections with blithe remarks fit to make her blood boil. It was unthinkable to marry one's own subject. But the people will love me for it, Maman. For raising one of their own. He needed to think of more than his own lusts. She is virtuous, a pearl among women. Just wait till you meet her. What of France? He should make a profitable alliance. Surely the last French Queen taught us, Maman, that alliances do not always turn out as one might wish. But to marry a widow, with children, no less? A widow couldn't be Queen of England, mother of heirs to the throne. At that, Edward lost his temper.

 

"Good Lord, woman! That she is a widow and has sons..." he shook his head, "I am a bachelor and have them too; at the very least, it proves neither of us is barren."[xv]

 

In the end, she threw up her hands in disgust and stormed from the room. It was another few weeks yet before Edward made the public announcement and sent word to Warwick in Paris, and Cecily forced herself once again to make peace with things as they were, not as she might wish them to be. If Richard had been here still...but there was no use in such thoughts.

 

Edward was, irritatingly, right. Elizabeth Woodville Grey, the new Queen of England, had a jewel-like beauty that outshone even hers in her youth, and, within less than a year, she was carrying a child.[xvi] Unfortunately, within that same space of time, a humiliated Warwick had joined his significant resources to those of Margaret of Anjou.

 

As had her second son, for the price of marriage to Warwick's daughter.

 

Cecily had warned Edward of George's feelings, had urged him to speak to his brother and cool his temper, but the King merely scoffed. "George commit treason? He hasn't got the nerve. He's sulking, nothing more."

 

She was in London when she heard of Edward's capture by Warwick and George, though she refused his queen's exhortations to join her in sanctuary. I have nothing to fear from Warwick or my son. As for Henry's queen, let her meet me face to face and we shall see who is the victor there.

 

Turn, and turn again. So the wheel span, dizzying in its speed. Her youngest son had, unexpectedly, clung to Edward's side, even when driven into exile in Burgundy. Her grandson, heir to the throne, came into the world in sanctuary, his mother ever fearful of Warwick's power. And Cecily, all but ignored beneath their very noses, began to write to George of brotherly duty, of his father's hopes, and the emptiness of ambition.[xvii] She received no reply until Edward himself landed in the north and sent her word that the prodigal brother had returned to the Yorkist fold.

 

When the news came of Tewkesbury field and the death of Margaret's son, Cecily went to the chapel in the Tower and sank to her knees, crossing herself. "It is done. An eye for an eye, Your Highness. You took my son and have lost yours in return." Raising her eyes to the altar, she said, "Please let it all be over now." Adding, sotto voce, "May Edward prove worthy of this second chance, I beg you, Lord. He is a good man, my son. It is only--"

 

Footsteps sounded in the nave behind her, slow, halting, uneven. "Why, Mother. I should have expected to find you here. God in His infinite mercy has thrust the crown once more upon our fair brother." He laughed. "Well, God helps those who help themselves."

 

She smelled the blood before she saw it, spattered across his clothing and skin, and she had to fight the sickness welling within. "Sweet Mother of God, what have you done?"

 

"Ned hadn't the stomach." The dagger clattered to the floor, unseen drops staining Cecily's skirts. "I took it upon myself to do him a service."

 

Henry. Cecily swallowed, clutched her rosary tighter. "There was no need. He was helpless, imprisoned. He had done no harm; his heir is dead. He could have lived out his days in peace."

 

"Oh, Mother, do you truly believe that?" She finally looked at him, aware of the revulsion in her face that even years of practice could not school away. "Is my soul of such concern to you?"

 

She ignored the second question. "He was an anointed king--"

 

"And we cannot have two such in one realm, dearest Mother. You know that as well as I. If I had not killed him, you would have seen it done, to protect your--I mean our--precious Ned." His fingers clamped down on hers, slippery with gore. "The throne is above such petty concerns. Is it not? And furthermore," his eyes met hers, "what of your revenge, Mother? I remember it well. You wanted Margaret to know what it was to lose a husband and child, did you not?"

 

Cecily could feel her breath rattling in her lungs.

 

"She knows now, Mother. She begged Ned and George to kill her, right there on Tewkesbury field. I would have granted that request, but Ned stopped me. And I realised that wasn't what you wanted, was it? You wanted her to live, knowing everything she ever loved had been taken from her. And so she lives." His gaze--unblinking, reptilian--did not move from hers. "Are you not proud of me, Mother? Ten years late, perhaps, but I did your bidding."

 

"I will pray for you, Richard." Her voice was shaking, though her hands remained still and cold.

 

He smiled, the flash of teeth mischievous and strangely beautiful in the darkness, but his words emerged in tones of acid. "Oh, do, Mother. Please do."

 

When he had limped out of the chapel, a trail of smeared scarlet in his wake, Cecily crossed herself again. "Ne reminiscaris Domine delicta nostra, vel filium nostrorum: neque vindictam sumas de peccatis nostris.[xviii] God give me strength."

 

But there was no answer and the smell of blood still hung in the air as she prayed for the soul of her cousin Henry, now finally at peace, and, haltingly, for Margaret, who now understood the meaning of hell.

 

iv. Long die thy happy days before thy death,
And after many length'ned hours of grief,
Die neither mother, wife, nor England's Queen!
-- Richard III (I.iii.206-8)

 

The curse was not meant for her, but Fortune's wheel cared not for intentions. Nor did that capricious lady reply when questioned, however drenched the words in tears, however hoarse from weeping.

 

For Cecily asked questions now. Screamed them to the heavens until she could do so no longer. She had brought a monster into this world, that twisted, perverse creature who laughed as he lied and smiled as he murdered. First George, stabbed and drowned in a barrel of wine, an ignominious end unfit for a king's brother. Then Edward, guilt hounding him to the end and some said poison to hasten him onward.

 

Which left one son, the son whose name tasted like ashes in her mouth. One false glass that grieves me when I see my shame in him.

 

"I am the mother of these griefs," she had said to Edward's wife and George's pitiful, orphaned children. And, if her darkest fears had indeed come to pass, she was, in every sense of the word.

 

That Richard was jealous of Edward, she had known for years. Who, after all, would not be jealous of Edward? Handsome, charming, the world at his feet, a Queen both beautiful and infinitely tolerant of his excesses? She had wondered for some time if there were more to Richard's black glances at Elizabeth than disdain. For certainly he did not love his own wife, dark-eyed, secretive Anne, whose bitter humour was always directed inward.

 

Cecily had tried to speak to her new daughter-in-law, to warn her that Richard was complicated. Her reply was a thread of laughter. "If bloody-minded be complicated, then, yes. But, you are right. I would not have married a mere butcher. As it stands, I do not know what I have married."

 

Cecily did not know either, and it left her deeply uneasy. There was no proof that Richard was responsible for George's death--it had been Edward who accused his brother of treason and shut him in the Tower in the first place--but she of all people knew how accomplished a liar her third son was. As for Edward, he had been ailing for some time despite all of their best efforts, and his own indulgences certainly had not helped. Elizabeth allowed him his excesses, unwise in Cecily's view, but it was not her place to judge. What mattered now was that, whether by poison or the shock of what had happened to George, Edward had departed this waking world, and only one person had anything to gain by that departure.

 

All that stood now between him and the throne were two boys, towheaded and playful. Each time Cecily looked at them, her heart lurched in memory, seeing instead her Edward and, even more painful, sweet, slaughtered Edmund. And when word came that Richard had taken them both, desolation descended as it had done after Wakefield. Only this time there was no revenge, only Richard standing in Westminster, the crown glittering on his brow.

 

She should have died long since. And yet God had refused, and Fortune continued to spin her wheel, ignoring her prayers. Three sons now in the grave, though their voices did not haunt her. Instead, her despair had begun to speak to her in the harsh, grief-racked tones of Margaret, whose crown she had so longed to wear.

 

Cecily had only seen the former queen once after Ned's triumph at Tewkesbury. Her son had sent her back to France some years before but Cecily had caught sight of her one last time at Wallingford and had barely recognised the gaunt, black-clad figure.[xix] Until Margaret had faced her, features twisted in fury and hatred, the dark eyes blazing as they must have done when taunting her husband with dead Edmund's blood. She said nothing.

 

"Have you come to gloat, Your Grace? Will you dance on my grave when I am dead, as you did upon my husband's?"

 

Cecily's mouth tightened. "I should not speak of dead husbands if I were you."

 

"I shall speak as I please, Your Grace," Margaret replied, her smile the rictus of a corpse. "Someday you will beg for death, as I have."

 

"I have already begged for it. When you slaughtered my Richard and my Edmund, I wished for nothing less. God grant Your Majesty long life to think on what you have wrought."

 

Margaret's mad laughter echoed even after she drew the heavy door closed behind her. Word came some years later of her death, and, by then, Cecily's thoughts of revenge had long since faded into a strange sort of kinship. Women who had outlived their relevance. And now, it seemed, her daughter-in-law had joined their number.

 

Elizabeth, who had spent her life relying on her more obvious charms, clung to her for guidance, as if a man unmoved by physical beauty would listen instead to the mother he had never heeded before. Cecily knew better, as did Anne, standing brittle as glass before the Tower walls when word came of Richard's crowning. She sought no comfort, and her smile made Cecily wince.

 

"Go thou to Richard," she found herself saying as she embraced the dark-haired girl with the premonition that it would be the last time, "and good angels guard thee." As they had not guarded anybody else, was the unspoken addition. To Elizabeth, she advised sanctuary. You have a choice now, my lady. Do not waste it.

 

That was before the boys died. Before the last shred of loyalty Cecily owed her son dissipated. Oh, God, how has it come to this? How could any child of mine murder innocent babes of his own blood? But there was no answer save the shadow of Margaret's laughter, a litany of dead names writ in blood, Richards and Edwards, husbands and children, all laid in earth before their time.

 

"Teach me," Elizabeth begged, "how to curse mine enemies."

 

Her famed golden hair hung in tangles about her face, and dirty tracks of tears marred the still-perfect skin. There was little of the queen in her now; the proud beauty who had snared her Edward's heart and ruled his glittering court was no more. So Margaret had been once, and Cecily herself, lifetimes ago in France, drawn by her husband's meteoric rise.

 

They had nothing but words. But words were Cecily's daggers and she flung them in her son's face, that same chorus of names that had echoed so long in her mind, voice rising to a harpy's shriek as he tried to drown her out. "Art thou not my son?" she demanded, fingers clamping down on his good arm.

 

She could hear Elizabeth behind her, restrained by Richard's men. Her son merely studied her, eyes shuttered as they had always been. But there were shadows beneath them now, lines etched across his forehead that had not been there before. Anne had spoken of her sleepless nights, the dreams that haunted him. Anne, who had died so very quietly, while her husband looked on, feeling no more guilt than if he had swatted a fly.

 

"Madam," Richard said with a shrug, "I have a touch of your condition that cannot brook the accent of reproof."

 

Look well, Your Grace, on what you have wrought. In the confines of her mind, she could almost see the smile on Margaret's face. And she saw a great deal more. Words were her weapons; so were they Richard's. Lies built on lies, his face a changeable mask to suit all occasions. He had his father's ambition, but deception he had learnt from his mother.

 

"Thou cam'st on earth to make the earth my Hell," Cecily spat. His face did not change, though she turned his crimes upon him and poured out all the venom in her heart. A flicker in one eye, perhaps, but little more than that as he disentangled himself from her grasp.

 

"If I be so disgracious in your eye, let me march on and not offend you, Madam." Was that petulance in his voice? Cecily nearly laughed, instead followed him and found the words spilling once more of their own accord, vowing that she would never see him again.

 

She placed herself before him, one finger levelled at his heart, and cursed him. As she had cursed Margaret that long-ago day in January, words carved from rage and sorrow, drawn from the thought of her own dead children. "Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end; shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend."

 

Richard stared at her, blanched, and for a moment, his mouth trembled. Then, he thrust her aside and stormed past, the guards dragging Elizabeth in his wake.

 

Cecily kept her word. It was the last she ever saw of him.

 

v. Thus hath the course of justice whirled about
And left thee but a very prey to time,
Having no more but thought of what thou wast
To torture thee the more, being what thou art.
-- Richard III (IV.iv.105-8)

 

Word came to her in London of Bosworth Field, of young Richmond's victory. She ought to have rejoiced with the rest, thanked God for deliverance from the child-slaughtering usurper, but Cecily felt nothing beyond a vast, unbearable weariness. It was unnatural for a mother to outlive all of her children. Perhaps fitting for the mother of an unnatural child.

 

Her last words to him had been a curse. She did not regret them as such--he had amply deserved them and she had no doubt that his soul now kept company with murderers and traitors--but she could not stop thinking of him. Cecily had never loved him; how could she have loved him, vile creature that he was? And yet he haunted her now. Not as a man, but as a boy trailing after his father, ravenous for his attention and approval. Oh, Richard, think how different it might have been if you had lived. Her husband's face, recollection undimmed even after all these years, flickered into being, then melted as if no more than a candle, into that of her now-dead son.

 

Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end. He had repaid her, it seemed, for not having loved him. He had repaid all the world for that sin. And what was left now? Fragments, pieces to be gathered, and mothers and wives and sisters to try to put them back together as they had done through time immemorial. As she herself had done, though her heart seemed to crack from it. Henry of Richmond may have called himself the heir of resurgent Lancaster, but his was a world Cecily no longer knew.

 

When she was finally summoned before the new king, Cecily refused to look down even as she made her obeisance. A Neville would not bow before a man descended from stableboys. The room surged with whispers--the creature's mother...still Proud Cis after all these years--but she kept her eyes on the man calling himself King Henry the Seventh.

 

"My lady Duchess," he acknowledged, a bland smile twitching on the thin lips. "We wish to assure you that we bear you no ill will, and that everything you possessed as mother to King Edward will remain yours."

 

Cecily inclined her head. "His Majesty is magnanimous," she said after a moment's pause. The spectre of her other son lingered, his name unspoken and yet heard. "There is a question, sire, that I would have addressed, if it please you." At his gesture, she continued, "You made an oath, sire, to marry my granddaughter, Elizabeth."

 

He shifted uncomfortably. Beside him, his diminutive mother leant close and whispered something Cecily could not hear. When she had finished, he beckoned Cecily into an antechamber. She did not deign to greet the new Queen Mother and closed the door on her brief expression of surprise.

 

"Well?" she demanded, eyeing the king once more. "Do you mean to keep your oath, Your Majesty?[xx] Or does this private audience suggest otherwise?"

 

"You presume too much, my lady," he snapped. "Mother of kings you may have been, but also of tyrants, usurpers, and murderers of children."

 

"And you should not forget, sire, that you yourself are no less a usurper," Cold and precise, she waited for the words to sink in. "When last a Henry killed a Richard, his legacy was one of blood and revenge.[xxi] Deny Elizabeth, and you scorn the house of York. And we do not suffer insult lightly, Henry of Richmond. The woman for whom your mother was named could tell you that."

 

"I could have you arrested for treason."

 

Cecily laughed, the brittle sound echoing harshly. "Could you, now? Then, do it, Henry. Think you I have any fear of death?"

 

His mouth worked, but nothing came out at first. Finally, he burst out, "They say she gave herself to the--to Richard. That he intended to marry her himself."

 

She bit back several retorts, settling on, "Malicious rumours. The commons love her, as they loved her father. If you spurn her now, they will hate you for it."

 

"I am King."

 

"Kings can be unmade." Her eyes bore into him. "You know that better than anybody. You will marry her, Henry. There will be no more delays, no more wavering. The decision was made long before you landed on these shores." Cecily allowed her voice to soften. "You have not seen her, have you?" He shook his head. "She is beautiful, Henry. I assure you it will be no sacrifice."

 

She did not add that to be king, sacrifices were required, and that it did not matter what he wanted. That Fortune's Wheel spun no differently for kings than for other men, that she was equally deaf to entreaty. But, looking at him, she was struck anew by how young he was, how utterly convinced by that single, lucky death that he had won.

 

He would learn, as they all did. She had watched time turn its circles, watched kingdoms fall apart and come together, the sole, shattered remnant of a world that no longer existed, a world that had died with the son she had never loved. It was the woman's lot to watch as men charged over and over against the same accursed obstacles, and to fashion something out of what was left. It was the woman's lot to survive.

 

 

 


[i] Two years: It is unclear exactly how much time transpires during 1HVI. Historically, York had two separate terms as Regent in France; the play conflates them into a single term, and alters the timeline to include Joan of Arc, even though she died five years before York's first term began.

[ii] She had borne children before: The plays completely distort the timelines of all the York sons to make them adults by the end of 2HVI, with the exception of Edmund of Rutland (historically the second oldest), who is still a child at the beginning of 3HVI.

[iii] Grew slowly, like a canker within: According to More and Vergil, the Duchess of York carried the future Richard III for two years before giving birth to him, so that he emerged with hair and a full set of teeth. The teeth are mentioned in the plays, and the rest implied.

[iv] Knife he had used: Also More, who claims she could not be delivered of him uncut.

[v] Kicking itself free: 'For I have often heard my mother say / I came into the world with my legs forward.' (3HVI V.vi.70-1)

[vi] As if, with Circe, she could change my shape (1HVI V.iii.35): The idea of Joan's curse rebounding on York through his son came from the RSC Histories Cycle, where York accompanied this line by mimicking the actor who later played Richard III.

[vii] Shriek of an owl: 'The owl shrieked at thy birth--an evil sign.' (3HVI V.vi.44)

[viii] Knowing she had betrayed her former mistress and stolen her husband: The plays do not mention Humphrey of Gloucester's first wife, Jacqueline of Bavaria, but Hall's chronicle condemns him for having an affair with her lady-in-waiting, Eleanor Cobham, and marrying her after he divorced Jacqueline in 1428. Her story appears in the Mirror for Magistrates.

[ix] Her husband's tie to the dead Earl of March: York is descended via Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, from Edward III's third son, Lionel of Clarence, while the Lancastrians take their title from his fourth son, John of Gaunt. Technically, therefore, York has a better claim than Henry VI. (1HVI II.v.).

[x] He had already sent to Ludlow and to Middleham for the boys: There is no mention in 2HVI of York's family accompanying him to Ireland, although the first appearance of his sons is upon his return. Historically, York spent several years as Regent, and George of Clarence was born in Dublin.

[xi] Gloucester's shade had watched: Also inspired by the RSC production, which featured ghosts prominently throughout all eight plays and occasionally altered lines--for instance, Suffolk was beheaded by the ghosts of John Talbot and his son from 1HVI, with Gloucester as a witness.

[xii] Mother to a son whose parentage grew wilder in rumours: It is not clear in the plays when Edward of Lancaster was born; he appears as a young man at the beginning of 3HVI without having been mentioned before. Hall cites rumours that he was not the king's son, and earlier sources claim Somerset was the father. There is no suggestion in the plays that Edward is not Henry's son.

[xiii] Barely old enough to be considered: There is no indication of Richard's age--or that of his brothers--in the plays. I have tried to bridge the gap between Shakespeare's assertion that he was old enough to fight with the fact that he was only born in 1452 and the battles in question take place between 1460 and 1461 (and are conflated with a battle from 1455).

[xiv] Tens of thousands dead: Not mentioned in the play, but the Battle of Towton (29 March 1461) is said to be the bloodiest ever fought on English soil. Hall gives a particularly graphic description, depicting Edward IV as a man who wades through blood to gain the throne.

[xv] I am a bachelor and have them too; at the very least, it proves neither of us is barren: This last line is a modernised quotation from More's History of King Richard III, which inspired the entire scene. Although Shakespeare kept the equivocal nature of Edward and Elizabeth's courtship, he does not include the encounter between him and his mother; a shame, because it's incredibly funny.

[xvi] Within less than a year, she was carrying a child: Historically, this should have been Elizabeth of York, but Edward, the Prince of Wales, is the only child alluded to in 3HVI. Elizabeth herself never appears onstage, but becomes significant in R3.

[xvii] Began to write to George of brotherly duty: Not included in the play, but a number of earlier sources at least partly credit George's change of heart to the influence of his mother and his sister Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, who is not mentioned in the plays at all.

[xviii] Ne reminiscaris Domine delicta nostra, vel filium nostrorum: neque vindictam sumas de peccatis nostris: The antiphon from the Penitential Psalms, translation: 'Remember not, O Lord, our or our parents' offences: neither take vengeance of our sins'. I have substituted 'filium' (children).

[xix] Her son had sent her back to France: Margaret makes several brief but memorable appearances in R3, despite the fact that historically she was sent to France in 1475 and died there seven years later. Her character is constantly associated with witchcraft and the uncanny, and her interactions with other characters have prompted theories that she is supposed to be a ghost.

[xx] Keep your oath: R3 ends with the death of Richard, and Elizabeth of York, though repeatedly invoked, never appears onstage. Henry VII finally married her early in 1486 (after a motion in Parliament 'reminding' him to do so), and she was only crowned after she had given birth to a son, Prince Arthur.

[xxi] When last a Henry killed a Richard: Richard II was deposed by Henry, Duke of Lancaster (later Henry IV), and died mysteriously soon after.