A Little Piece of Alternative History
Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk, is a good height for a woman, but not tall – only her headdress make her seem so. As a recent widow, she is clad entirely in black, from head to foot, her furred gown made of the finest wool damask London mercers can supply. She is a handsome woman – some go so far as to call her beautiful – and on her lovely face there is an expression of sheer resolution. Nonetheless, she is calm, almost relaxed, nodding graciously in response to the bows and curtsies the lesser courtiers make as she passes.
Behind her by a single pace is her brother, Sir Humphrey Talbot. He is a knight, and an English gentleman, and so outwardly he also appears calm. In truth, he is close to shitting himself, because he knows what the Duchess is about to do. They have discussed it again and again, but he has failed to change her mind. However, as a knight and an English gentleman, he is still there to back his sister. He can do no other. Honour commands him, and it is as good a day as any other on which to die. The courtiers think she is here to attend the wedding of her little daughter to King Edward’s little son. Humphrey knows better. They are about to find out that Elizabeth is truly old Shrewsbury’s daughter, afraid of nothing on this earth.
The King is seated on his throne, a welcoming smile on his pudding-like face. He is very tall, and increasingly very fat. People still call him handsome, but those that do are relying on memory. These days he lives on charm, and when that fails, on threats and terror. He has lately thrown his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, into the Tower on very dubious grounds. No one doubts that Clarence is to die, though no one knows exactly what it is that he is supposed to have done. None dare question Edward on the matter. One does not question the King of England, and certainly not this particular King; a man ready to kill his own brother, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
He is a petty tyrant too. When he arranged, or rather ordained, the marriage for Elizabeth’s daughter, he forced Elizabeth to accept a reduced dower, so that his son would be the richer. The Duchess remembers that fact keenly. If you conversed with her you would find her an amiable woman, but she does not like to be cheated.
Around the King stand his leading men: His younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Gloucester looks to be in pain, because he is. He has been standing a long time, and his back is giving him agony. But he is a knight, and an English gentleman, and so he does his best to ignore it. Then there is Hastings, the King’s Chamberlain and life-long friend. All smiles, Hastings; everyone likes him, from the King to the lowest scullion of the court all will tell you what a splendid fellow he is. No one will tell you that he buys and sells favours, that his chief loyalty is to himself, and that he introduces whores to the King’s bed as part of his job. Next to him is Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, the Queen’s eldest brother. A cultured man, Rivers, who writes poems and takes part in formal jousts, pleased because Clarence, whom he hates, is locked away and likely to have his head cut off. He flatters himself that this is because of his advice, and that of his sister. So he is the image of complacency and satisfaction. Even the Duke of Suffolk is here, the King’s brother-in-law, who rarely strays from his own manors. Well, there is a Parliament, and this is also a family occasion, so that is his excuse. He has the look of an over-dressed pig farmer, and Elizabeth recalls he has manners to match. Then there are the clergy; on this occasion Bishop Russell of Rochester and John Morton, Archdeacon of Leicester. They stand slightly in the background, their smooth, assured faces like masks. She is glad the Queen is not present. She does not enjoy cat-fights, and there is no telling how that ill-bred woman will react to her announcement.
Elizabeth advances, making the prescribed three curtsies along the way. If anyone notices they are not as profound as they might be, they put it down to her rank. Rank has its privileges at court. A duchess can get away with things a mere gentlewoman might not. They are only surprised when the duchess speaks without waiting to be spoken to.
‘Edward Plantagenet,’ she says, and her voice is surprisingly loud, given that she is a woman and that this is a very large room, ‘I am a Talbot by birth and a Mowbray by marriage, and my blood is as good as anyone in this presence, yours included. I have decided that I am not willing that my daughter shall be married to your bastard.’
A strange sound seems to echo about the great chamber, the result of collective intakes of breath. No one can quite believe his ears. King Edward’s mouth – surprisingly small and rosebud-like in that great moon of a face – falls open, but no sound emerges except a gentle choking. He gets a taste of the eels and white wine he had for breakfast, but no words form.
Before he can even find his anger, the Duchess goes on. ‘In the first year of your reign, the year of Our Lord 1461, you contracted an irregular marriage with my sister, a widow at that time, Lady Eleanor Butler. You swore her to secrecy, but nonetheless you consummated the marriage. And by that very act, made it binding. You eventually grew tired of her – perhaps, because there was no child, perhaps because you never intended anything more than to seduce her. It matters not. You were still married to her when you made your subsequent, purported marriage with Dame Elizabeth Grey.’
Anthony Woodville, furious with what he perceives to be an insult to his sister and his family, takes a step forward, but Gloucester holds him back before he can make a fool of himself by physically attacking a lady who is not even his wife. For which, under court etiquette, there is no excuse.
‘You have no proof of this, my lady,’ says William Hastings. His smooth tongue is the first to recover, and his voice brims with confidence. ‘What womanish fancy is this that you bring before us? Beware, lest you be accused of treason.’
Elizabeth looks at him as if he is something unpleasant she has stepped on. ‘Oh, I have proof enough my Lord Chamberlain, and now I am a widow, and free from my husband’s commands, I’m free to bring it forth. First, my sister was devout, and Shrewsbury’s daughter – no light woman. She told me all – swore to it. As far as I am concerned, that is proof enough in itself. Yet there is more. Bishop Stillington can vouch for the tale. Not long after the marriage he became Lord Chancellor, no doubt because of his merits. Yet now he has fallen from favour, and is lodged in the Tower, for speaking some words against the King. One wonders what those words were. Perhaps we can fetch him here and ask him. There are other proofs too. A whole box of them, which I shall be happy to place before Parliament.’
All eyes go to the King. Everyone expects him to explode with anger, but in fact Edward has his head in his hands. He is actually weeping.
Hastings persists. ‘Your sister died in 1468 did she not? Even if what you say is true, the King could remarry – indeed he could already have remarried, for all you know.’
Elizabeth smiles. It’s a very special smile, that of someone who has all the cards. ‘Do you think I came here without doing research? Without consulting men learned in the law? I have news for you all. You cannot repeat the sacrament of marriage without a dispensation. Next, you cannot get a dispensation for bigamy. Not even the Pope has that power. Thirdly – and this is the biggie – the relationship between the King and Dame Elizabeth Grey is what canon lawyers call ‘polluted’ by the bigamy. They can never make a valid marriage. Not. Ever. Did you get all that? I know it’s a lot to take in – especially when you’ve only got a little woman’s brain like mine. If anyone is interested, I’ve got it all written up. My clerk Helmholz has even put it into Latin.’
‘It’s true!’ Edward’s voice is practically a squeal. ‘It’s all true. She’s got me bang to rights, and it’s a fair cop. I done it all. And what’s more I took advice too – I’m not stupid – and all that stuff about getting married again is exactly what I was told. I just hoped it would go away. But I can’t live with it on my conscience any more. I’ve let you all down so badly.’ He turns to Anthony. ‘I’m sorry, Tony. I didn’t plan it like this. I never, ever thought it would come out. Now I just want to put it all right.’
‘You can make a start,’ says Elizabeth, ‘by releasing your brother Clarence and Stillington from the Tower.’
‘I agree,’ says Richard of Gloucester. ‘It makes eminent sense. In fact, Ned, I suggest that George acts as Regent until this unpleasant mess is sorted out. It seems to me that a lot of questions need to be asked.’ He gives Hastings a suspicious glance. ‘For example, which other people were involved in keeping this secret.’
The King, still weeping softly, pulls off a ring and passes it to his brother. ‘No time for a proper warrant, Dickon, but this will do. Go and get them. I just hope George hasn’t already drowned himself.’
Gloucester rushes off. After he has gone, everyone just stands in silence, waiting.
‘I suppose the wedding’s off then,’ Suffolk says into the silence. He has a booming voice. ‘Pity, I bought them a present and everything. Hey, Duchess, what about marrying your girl to one of my sons?’
No one answers him. Rivers squats on his haunches. He tries to formulate a poem, perhaps one about disaster, but nothing he can think of quite cuts it. He is ruined. His whole family is ruined. His sister is going to go mad! The only good thing is that no one wants to execute him.
Fortunately, they’ve all been trained in the art of keeping quiet and standing still. The hours go by, or at least it seems that way. Until at long last there is the sound of footsteps ringing on the tiles. Richard is back, with his brother, George Clarence and the rather shabby-looking Bishop of Bath and Wells.
‘George,’ says the King, his voice very low and his head even lower, ‘I’ve been a fool. I’m going to step down for a while – it’s only right. You can be Protector and Defensor, and all that stuff. Dickon will help you – in fact he suggested you for the job. I’m just so glad you didn’t drown yourself.’
Clarence was a broken man when he was imprisoned, but being rowed up the Thames from the Tower has cleared his head nicely. ‘Thank you, Ned,’ he says, in his usual informal way. ‘I had no intention of suicide, although I suppose that big butt of Malmsey in my room was your idea of a subtle hint.’ He turns to Elizabeth. ‘And thank you too, my lady. You have saved me, and saved England. And you have proved that our long tradition of free speech, liberty and the rule of law is not just an idle boast. My first act as Protector will be to introduce the law of Habeas Corpus even though I am not entirely sure what it means. There will be no more tyranny, no more cases of people being hanged, drawn and quartered just for saying the wrong thing. What’s more, we shall restore your dower lands in full. Won’t we Ned?’
‘Indeed,’ says the King, who by this time is recovering himself a little. ‘It is the least we owe to you, Duchess. Without your courage and example, I might have died with this hideous sin still on my conscience. Now I shall leave you all, and go to my closet to pray. Before I do, dear, brave lady, is there anything else you want?’
‘Just one thing,’ says Elizabeth. She beckons to the Archdeacon, whom she knows slightly through her family connection with Margaret Beaufort. She points accusingly at the King. ‘Book him, Morton. Bigamy One.’
It is, after all, an offence under church law. As the King is led away, Clarence stares at the Duchess in admiration.
‘Madam,’ he says, ‘you are the most amazing lady I have ever met, or even read about. I thought my mother was tough, but compared to you, she is a lamb. As you know, I am a widower, and you are a widow. Will you marry me?’
Everyone applauds, except Rivers, who is too upset, and Hastings who has gone off to look for a consoling cup of wine.
Elizabeth looks at George. He is really quite handsome, just a bit, well – eccentric. No one in the English aristocracy objects to that. ‘I will tell you my answer next Tuesday, Your Grace. For now, I just want to go outside into the air, and give my dear brother Humphrey a high five. I think I can say – without fear of contradiction – that we Talbots rock.’
Questions for Readers Groups
- This is a piece of Alternative History. Things did not really happen this way. However, when discussing the story, please assume that Eleanor Talbot really did marry Edward IV. (After all, even the 19th Century historian James Gairdner thought she did and the marriage was confirmed by Act of Parliament.) Can you think of any reasons why the secret did not emerge in reality until 1483, after Edward’s death?
- What do you think would have happened to the real Elizabeth if she had behaved this way?
- Do you think Humphrey Talbot, or Bishop Stillington, being men, would have fared better or worse?
- If you had lived in those times, as an ordinary person, would you have revealed the secret, and what do you think would have happened to you?
- How many people do you think would have known the secret, directly or indirectly.
- Do you know of any evidence that Edward IV had a conscience? Give examples.
- Taking into account your answers to the above, do you still find it strange the secret did not come out while Edward was alive?