Elizabeth heard the words without being certain if she had said them or one of her sisters. She knew only she was grateful for them, grateful for the sudden silence that followed them, for their interruption of John Sponer`s horrifying news. News that
surely could not be true. Such things did not happen in England. They happened among the infidels, perhaps. But not in England.
Uncle Richard could not be dead. That was ridiculous in itself, the thought of him dying in battle against an unsurping nobody. But even less could he have been stripped naked, transported like one of the animals her father had sometimes hunted, left lying in the sweltering sun in his own blood. Sponer had to be lying; or perhaps the ride, in the sun, from the battlefield to Sheriff Hutton. had addled his wits. Surely there was no other explanation, and yet Elizabeth stared at him transfixed, horrified. For if he was speaking the truth …
After a while, it was Bridget`s squawk of protest that broke through the silence, startling Elizabeth enough to realise she had clasped her hands over her little sister`s ears with such force it must surely hurt her. The child was struggling against it, but Elizabeth could not release her. Bridget could not, should not, hear this horror. It was enough that she had to. That her other siblings had to.
This thought of them revived Elizabeth slightly, directing her thoughts to their reactions rather than what she had just heard and could not think of, could not afford herself to think of, and she turned to look at them, finding her horror mirrored in their faces. Cecily, usually so quick-witted, seemed to be lost for words as well, standing silently
next to her, staring at Sponer. Anne and Catherine were ashen, wide-eyed, clutching each other`s hands; Dickon and their cousin Ned, all pretence at manly dignity which usually so amused Elizabeth forgot, did the same. Even Edward, who had been saying earlier that their uncle deserved defeat, only at his own hands, looked appalled, crossing himself again and again.
Before Elizabeth, feeling she had to say something, anything at all, to them, could think of something, an assurance that Sponer had to be mistaken, she heard a choked noise and spun around to find herself faced with Johnny, Uncle RIchard`s bastard, who had gone so pale he seemed like to collapse. He had sunk against a wall, while little Margaret was pulling at his sleeve, and only then did the truth break through to Elizabeth.
Sponer was correct. Uncle Richard was dead, beaten, destroyed, humiliated, and Lady Margaret`s son, a man with no blood claim to the throne, no claim to her family`s throne at all, had won. He would call himself king now, would assume the titles that had been her father`s and her uncle`s.
Like her father only two years ago, Uncle Richard was dead now. He would never give her a distracted smile again when she greeted him, the sort of smile that had always made Cecily say meant he was somewhere else entirely with his thoughts. She would never again hear his strange accent, so different from her own father`s.
He was dead, and Elizabeth felt as if she had received a blow to the stomach. Lady Margaret`s son had killed him, so he could himself claim his throne, a throne he had no right to.
For a moment, there was nothing she could say, but nor did anyone else seem able. Sponer was watching them, but did not seem to know what to say or do. He looked both terrified and sad as well, Elizabeth noticed vaguely. He had known Uncle Richard too, after all. And if he had had to witness what he had just said happened…
Elizabeth took a few unsteady breaths, throwing a look at her cousin John, Uncle Richard`s heir. By law, he was king now, if the usurper had not already changed the law. But he didn`t look kingly. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, and his mouth opened and closed without producing a tone.
It was seeing that, and the sudden realisation that John knew all too well he should be king now and feared for his life that finally made Elizabeth speak, in a desperate attempt to provide some comfort to them all.
“Our uncle`s murderer -”, she swallowed, the words sticking on her tongue, but then forced herself to go on: “- he did punish those responsible for what you said was done to our uncle?” Her voice shaking, and knowing it was a hope born of despair, not good sense. “He remedied it?”
John Sponer looked at her for a moment, then shook his head, finally speaking again. “I am sorry, my lady”, he answered, hoarsely himself. “He gave the orders for it,”
This time it was Cecily exclaiming the word. “He couldn`t have”, she choked, and Elizabeth thought vaguely that she had never heard her sister`s voice so uncontrolled before. “Uncle Richard was defeated honourably in battle! He died honourably!”
“There is nothing honourable about Tudor, though!” Sponer burst out, as if no longer able to restrain himself. “He did not even fight, did but what he had to while his uncle and Oxford led his army of French criminals and traitors. He is an usurper and coward.” His voice softening somewhat, he then added: “I do apologise for my words. But I think it best if you do know.” Unexpectedly turning to Elizabeth, he said: “Especially you, my lady.”
For the shortest of moments, Elizabeth stared at him, not understanding, before the recollection returned. The usurper had sworn to marry her. He had sworn to use her to reunite a country that had been reunited for years now, that her own father had pacified. That Tudor himself had torn apart again.
“No”, she whispered, more to herself. “No. I can`t -”
But even as she spoke those words, she knew they were stupid, useless. She would not be asked, and even if she protested - what would it bring? A man who had mistreated her honourably fallen uncle`s corpse, had mocked and humilated a fallen foe, what would he do to her and her family should she ever dare to refuse?
She would have to marry him, and at that thought, tears pricked her eyes. She would have to marry the man her father had called “imp” and spoken contemptuously about, the man who had killed her uncle and then mocked him. She would have to learn to hide her feelings, but right at the moment, she could not, and she swallowed again, had to choke down a sob before she nodded at Sponer. “I thank you”, she said, her voice unsteady. “You are right, I should know. If I have to -”
“He won`t marry you.”
The rough, unexpected, interjection came from Edward, and both Elizabeth as well as Sponer turned around to him, to find him looking at them with an indecipherable expression. He was still pale, but his voice was far steadier than Elizabeth`s had been. “He won`t marry you”, he repeated. “You know how they treat our family. The Dauphin rejected you, our uncle made you a bastard, and Tudor will make you a slut.”
“Edward!” His language seemed to have broken through to Cecily, who was looking at him in outrage, but he returned the look without flinching. “He will say it. You do not really believe he wants to marry you, now he has the throne? He will find an excuse, and that is what it will be.”
A heated protest was already on Elizabeth`s lip, but she did not utter it, for Sponer shook his head. “He cannot afford that. You sister`s fame and well-known virtue will protect her.” He suggested a small bow to her, but Elizabeth did not answer. Neither did Cecily continue her rebuke, nor did Edward say anything else.
Sponer said nothing else either, and it was only when Bridget started screaming, struggling, trying to kick her, and Elizabeth, unthinkingly, released her, that she suddenly felt tears run down her face.
She tried to stop herself - she had to stay strong for the children - but then she heard Cecily sniff as well, and then they were in each other`s arms, their sobs echoing through the room. Anne and Catherine followed their lead, starting to wail, and even Dickon sobbed quietly as the reality sank in.
Uncle Richard was dead, and his killer was now proclaimed king, and there was nothing they could do against it.
For a time, quiet prevailed, a silent shared grieving for a man each remembered all too well. Cecily raised her hand to her face, was dully surprised to find it wet. “You must tell me,” she said, and her voice was tremulous, pleading. “I know naught of battles. My uncle`s death … Was it quick?”
A long pause and then Sponer nodded. “Very quick, my lady.” But none of the men would meet her eyes. She braced herself against the back of her chair, clutched the armrests with icy fingers; she was cold, so very cold. Before she could speak, Thomas Wrangwysh said hastily:
“You should know that Doctor Stillington has been arrested, Tudor giving the order the very day of the battle. He was brought into York two days past, is to be taken to London to the Tower. He`s in a pitiful state, sore crazed by reason of his troubles. We did what we could; our Lord Mayor insisted that he be allowed to stay within the city for a few days. But we do only delay the inevitable …”
Jack stood up suddenly. “I thank you both for coming to me. And for confirming what I`d already suspected … that I`d best make my peace with God while I still can. With all the sins I have to answer for, I`ll need more time than most men, I daresay.”
It was a game attempt at a jest. one that fell utterly flat. Cecily made a small sound, quickly stifled. Sponer stared down at his hands. But Wrangwysh shook his head.
“No, my lord, mayhap not. Yorkist loyalties did not die with King Richard at Redmore Plain. A good portion of the country still holds for York. Tudor knows that; whatever else the man may be, he`s no fool. Cotam told us that if you be willing to swear allegiance to Tudor, he`ll spare your life, may even find you a place in his government.”
Jack gave a strained mirthless laugh. “For how long?”
At that Sponer spoke up. “He cannot charge you with treason, my lord. You weren`t at the battle, didn`t fight for King Richard.”
“But … but how could Tudor charge anyone with treason?” Bewildered, Cecily looked from one man to the other. “He cannot attaint any of my uncle`s supporters. For how could me fighting for an anointed King ever be accused of treason?”
“Quite easily, my lady,” Wrangwysh said bitterly. “Tudor means to date his reign from the day before Redmore Plain!”
Cecily stared at him, stunned. “But surely he`d not get away with that? It be so blatantly illegal, so unjust …”
“Unjust?” Sponer could contain himself no longer. “You think men like Tudor and the Stanleys know aught of justice, of common Christian decency? After what they did to King Richard`s body …” He caught himself but not in time.
“What mean you by that?” Jack demanded, and when Sponer still hesitated, he snapped, “He be my uncle, damn you! Tell me!”
Sponer`s face was bloodless, as if all vitality and life had been sapped by his flaming thatch of red-fire hair; livid freckles stood out across his nose like pinpoint wounds.
“He never had a chance,” he whispered. “That damned crown, it drew all of Stanley`s cut- throats down on him. He died shouting "treason”, died hard. They kept stabbing and hacking at him long after he was dead; I heard it said that men sickened afterwards at the sight of his body. They stripped him naked, knotted a felon`s halter about his neck and slung him over a horse, made one of his own heralds ride it back into Leicester, where they dumped his body in the court of Grey Friars, left it there for two days ere they`d allow burial. I heard it said, too, that some anointed him in his own blood, that they even …“
Cecily didn`t realise she`d cried out until they all turned toward her, until Jack pulled her to her feet, into his arms. "Hush, lass, hush …. Don`t think about it, Cecily, don`t …”
He was giving her wine, she drank, choked, and began to sob. Jack reclaimed his wine cup, drained it in one long swallow.
John Sponer was on his feet, too. “My lady, forgive me! God curse my stupid tongue, I never meant for you to know …”
“No,” she said faintly. “Better that I do, that I know the nature of the man we be dealing with. But Jesú, to so dishonour the dead ….”
From “The Sunne in Splendour” by Sharon Penman.
Some of Richard`s loved ones learn the extent of the obscenities done to him.