London. 1497 A.D.
Last night, the Cardinal summoned me. His servants were hammering on my door at nigh on ten of the clock. My steward Bartholomew answered it, enquiring if they knew what time it was. They replied that the Cardinal’s business was a twenty-four hour one.
Bartholomew prevaricated as best he could, but eventually the threats came and as much as I dislike the Cardinal, I was not about to lose a good man over one night’s sleep. So I gradually made my way into the draughty hall, limping somewhat on account of my gout and hailed them not too heartily.
“Sir William,” one of them said, bowing courteously. “His Eminence requests the honour of your company this evening.”
“Does he, indeed?” I growled. “Is there an evening left?”
He shrugged, “Nevertheless…”
“I don’t suppose I have a choice in the matter?”
“Come, Sir William, you know how it works. A request from the Cardinal is, in reality, an order.”
“I thought as much.”
The old goat wouldn’t give me the satisfaction of refusing to see him even at this unearthly hour.
“You’ll allow me time to change,” I barked. It was not up for discussion. Two can play at that game.
The Cardinal’s men bowed in acquiescence.
The man who had summoned me at such a ridiculous time of night was John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, former Bishop of Ely, previous Master of the Rolls and, presently, for his sins (which are multitudinous) a Cardinal of the church by papal authority. An impressive array of titles for a scoundrel who would have been hanged long ago, had he not hidden behind the immunity of a clergyman’s garb most of his life.
His minions had arranged for me to be rowed up river from my house in Putney to the palace at Lambeth, where he was currently residing. They ushered me through the huge panelled halls, somewhat hastily I might add, so much so that my leg began to throb.
I waited outside his chamber whilst I heard my name announced.
“Sir William Stafford, Your Eminence.”
The door magically swung open and from inside the dimly lit room, the old rogue himself beckoned me in.
The years had not been kind to him. The King had laid too many responsibilities upon his shoulders for far too long and now it had begun to show. But the cruel, thin mouth was still evident, as was the ingratiating, oily, lop sided grin. With some measure of reluctance I hobbled into the chamber.
“William!” he shouted enthusiastically, as if we were boon companions. “It has been many years.”
“I seldom get to court, nowadays.”
He held out his bejewelled hand for me to kiss. I hesitated, staring down glumly at his ring of office.
“It is customary,” he said, with a smirk.
God, he was enjoying this!
“I would, Your Eminence. But my gout will not allow me to kneel,” I lied.
“Perhaps I may be of assistance.”
He raised his hand level to my face, making sure I had no choice. After I let my lips graze the enormous ruby, I never felt a greater desire to spit in all my life. Instead, I simply bared him my teeth in what could loosely pass in some circles as a smile.
“How can I be of service?”
He turned to his man and snapped.
When we were alone, he began to discourse on the burning issue of the day. I groaned inwardly. It was as I feared, he wished to discuss Warbeck.
The country had been gripped in fear of an imminent invasion from a strutting impostor by the name of Perkin Warbeck. Claiming to be the youngest son of the late King Edward, he had foolishly raised a standard of rebellion against our present monarch Henry Tudor. This failed miserably and the hapless Warbeck had been captured.
“The King is anxious to put an end to this speculation,” he said, pouring a goblet of wine and passing it to me.
I bet he is! Our king’s claim to the throne is tenuous to say the least. A man with a questionable connection to the Blood Royal, he gambled all on an encounter with Richard the Third at Bosworth Field and to everyone’s surprise, not least his own, he won. The wars between Lancaster and York were ended and England for the fragile moment has a change of dynasty. Therefore any echo, however faint, of the Yorkist claim is dangerous indeed.
“I thought this matter was over and done with.” I said, dismissively. “The sons of King Edward are dead, murdered on the orders of their uncle, King Richard. I believed this to be common knowledge.”
“When Warbeck was captured he had this about his person.”
The Cardinal held out the palm of his hand. Nestled in it was a gold pendant. Even in a dimly lit chamber, I recognized it. It was one of a pair presented to the two young princes by their father the Christmas before he died. I was commanded to attend the ceremony at Westminster on that day fifteen years ago.
I took the pendant and studied the reverse side. There was the inscription proving beyond doubt that it had belonged to the youngest son.
Yet there were many disaffected Yorkists still loyal to the old regime that could have supplied Warbeck with the bauble and furnished him with personal information he could pass off as memories. I told the Cardinal as much.
“Nonetheless, we want you to talk to him.”
“What, at this hour?” I wailed, handing back the pendant.
“I can hardly have you do it in broad daylight.”
I could have sworn a smile was forming on his lips.
“Are you saying I have to go to the Tower, now?” I began to bristle.
He gave a throaty chuckle.
“Amusing as that might be, alas no. I had him secretly moved here. He is languishing in a cell even as we speak.”
He clapped his hands noisily. Immediately, two armed retainers stood in the doorway.
“Escort Sir William down to the gaol and show him the prisoner.”
As I limped towards the door, he snapped.
“I shall be here awaiting your report.”
The rumours were true then, he never slept.
The dungeon at Lambeth was surprisingly comfortable considering its primary use. There were no dark, dank recesses filled with torture implements and the cells even had makeshift beds. Presumably the quality of prisoner kept here was a cut above the usual reprobate.
When I was eventually left alone with Warbeck, I looked him straight in the eye to see if there was a flicker of recognition. He was a well formed, good looking young man similar in age to my steward Bartholomew. He spoke confidently and with the manners of a gentleman born, but he appeared vague on certain questions I put to him. All in all, the interview was brief. I had my answer. I concluded by offering my condolences, then I left him to his fate.
“You are certain?”
I was alone again with the Cardinal in his chamber, having related my discussion with Warbeck.
“That man is not one of the sons of King Edward. Trust me, Your Eminence, the young princes are dead and have been for nigh on fourteen years now. The King can sleep easy in his bed.”
This information seemed to put his mind at rest and he nodded.
“Excellent! His Grace King Henry has seen fit to reward you for this night’s work Tell me your desire and it shall be fulfilled.”
“My desire is to go home to bed.”
“Come, what is it to be? Gold? Land? A minor title?”
“I beg your pardon?” he said, incredulously.
“I was there when the gift was presented. It would merely be a keepsake.”
“Very well,” he muttered, shaking his head in amazement.
He placed it in my hand and added in a low voice.
“I trust I need not remind you that this evening’s events never occurred?”
As I bowed my head curtly in acknowledgement, he turned away sharply, signifying that our business was at an end and I was dismissed.
I enquired whether his men would row me home to Putney.
“Unfortunately, my staff have retired for the night.” There was that sly grin again. “The guards will show you out.”
Two loud claps of the hand later I was bustled back through the numerous hallways and deposited politely but firmly on the river bank.
There are few rarer sights this city has than a Thames waterman plying his trade in the early hours of the morning, so it took me some time to eventually secure one. When I did it was my misfortune to have hired possibly the most garrulous boatman in the whole of London. The man’s loquacity knew no bounds and for the entire journey he refrained not even for two minutes from his interminable babble. As he launched into yet another one of his insipid anecdotes, I felt the pendant in my pocket and let my mind drift back to when I saw it last
I had been under orders fourteen years ago to do evil work.
King Edward had died in the April of 1483, but by the June of that year his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had paved his way clear to seize the throne. His coup had been swift and ruthless with only two things standing between himself and the crown of England.
His young nephews.
I was included in a party of men who made their way to the Tower that night to kill the two little princes. My instructions were clear; to dispatch the younger son and make sure the body was never found.
On the river, dawn had already broken by the time I pulled the pendant from my pocket. As I let it slide through my fingers and dangle by its chain, the early morning sun struck it, releasing shafts of gold. It was a beautiful piece.
The boatman droned relentlessly on and I closed my eyes recalling the moment when I saw it being torn from the neck of a ten year old boy as he was roughly dragged from his cell to meet his end.
The image stayed with me for some time. Then I was brought back to the present with a jolt. We had finally arrived at Putney.
It had seemed an age since the Cardinal’s men came for me last evening and I was feeling extremely tired. I was not the only one. Bartholomew had been waiting anxiously for my return all night and he now came down to the bank to greet me.
After he had ascertained that all was well, we made our way up to the house. Once inside, he took his leave in order to retire to bed. I called him back.
“One moment,” I said. “I have something for you.”
I handed him the pendant. He stared down at it in disbelief. Tears ran down his cheeks as he read the inscription on the reverse. The inscription put there by his father.
There was never any question when it actually came to it that I would be able to commit such a foul deed. I took the boy into my custody, smuggled him into my household and told his uncle that I had murdered the young prince.
Bartholomew’s body was shaking with emotion. I laid a paternal hand on his shoulder.
“I am truly sorry,” I said. “I know this is not the life you were born to, but you do realize, if they know you are alive, they will find you and kill you?”
Although I had told him this frequently in the past, I re-iterated it He nodded and dried his eyes. I left him staring down at the pendant as I wearily made my way upstairs to bed.