3. Hir Most Comford Suerte and Worship
Sometimes it felt more rescue than marriage, though Maud did her best to pretend otherwise. Her husband was gracious enough not to correct her, treating her like a bride not the supplicant she was. When Willoughby died, there should have been time to mourn, to collect herself together and give thought to the future. When Willougbhy died, she found herself besieged, writing anxious letters to her uncle, begging him to give her sanctuary.
She’d never got along with her late husband’s daughter, though she’d tried for almost the entire first hour after they met. The Bitch Joan, she called her privately. Papa’s little princess! Maud had no son to protect her, no baby boy to displace the bitch and keep her firmly anchored in the Willoughby lands. Servants, tenants, even neighbours she’d thought of as friends – none of them lifted a finger nor raised a word of protest against the actions of Joan and her husband. For Maud there was no option but flight.
Overnight, she became irrelevant, an embarrassment, the wealth and independence promised her in widowhood vanishing like smoke in the wind. She grasped the lifeline thrown her with both hands. Anything was better than poverty, anything better than living like a ghost at Tattershall, dependent on the charity of Uncle Ralph.
He it was who brought the marriage about, the negotiations begun almost as soon as she was safe behind the red walls of Tattershall. The Earl of Salisbury’s son would take her, in her current necessity and the promise of future wealth.
A Nevill? she said when he first broached the subject. The few times they’d come to Tattershall, tall, good looking, cultured, accomplished – but wild – she hadn’t been favourably impressed. You need a husband, my dear, he said. You can’t wither away here for the rest of your life.
Thomas was younger than her by some five years and more than tolerably good looking. The second son of the Earl of Salisbury, younger brother to the Earl of Warwick, there were women, Uncle Ralph told her, who’d consider him quite a catch. It wouldn’t have much mattered if he was old and fat and ugly. Her uncle was right. Maud had no choice.
The Nevills were close to the King, rewarded handsomely for their services. But there were stories of feuds and lawlessness, refusals to appear before the King’s Council in London, crimes against property, disruptions of order. Yesterday, she came face to face with it all. Yesterday, she feared for her life and his.
Her family, the Stanhopes, were quiet and well behaved Nottinghamshire gentry. She, her brother and sister grew up between their late father’s house in Rampton and their uncle’s castle in Lincolnshire. It was there that she married her first husband, Robert Lord Willoughby. And it was there that she married her second.
Uncle Ralph would hear no ill of the Nevills, explaining away even the worst of their behaviour. Self defence, he said. Defence of the property and lives of others.
The King wrote them letters summoning them to London, which they ignored. He wrote more letters, threatening them with forfeiture should they not cease their stirrings and riotous gatherings. These, too, were ignored.
Their grandmother was a princess. Your children will have royal blood. Maud brushed this aside. Her own people had once been farmers in Durham. Ancestry counted for little, wealth and status were all that mattered, and wealth and status she meant to have. An illegitimate princess, she said. And royal blood’s not always a blessing.
Uncle Ralph was thinking of her and her future. He was also thinking of himself. A man of dignity, pugnacious and unafraid to wage a battle of wits against any foe, he feared sometimes for his own safety. He was not a man of war. A connection with the Nevills is worth cultivating, he said. And this marriage is my only means of achieving that. I have few powerful allies and you have property to recover. There aren’t many I’d trust with that task. Look at the energy young Warwick spends ensuring his wife gets all she’s entitled to.
Her argument was hardly strenuous, her objections more a matter of form than anything else. If Thomas was half the man his brother was, her rights would be assured within a year. Warwick was a man to be admired in many ways. Four years ago, he was a knight and nothing more. The whiff of a title, the glitter of the Beauchamp wealth, spurred his energies. He doesn’t do it for her but for himself, she said. Her uncle shrugged. So long as it carries her along, she’s content.
Her mother sent her brother a letter telling him in no uncertain terms that this wasn’t a marriage she could countenance. Maud replied to it herself, setting out with as much daughterly respect as she could muster that the decision was hers alone to make. This prompted Lady Stanhope to send her daughter word that she was a silly girl who had no business making any decisions at all, let alone one as far reaching as who she should marry. Look at the mess you got into last time, she wrote. Not even your dower lands left in your control. It might be thought that it was her mother’s interference that made up Maud’s mind – their relationship had never been what might be called easy.
Then they descended on Tattershall, the whole impressive Nevill party, bringing an energy to the castle that blew away the cobwebs and the dust. Maud dressed in her best gown, brushed her hair until it shone, and greeted them graciously, her gaze flicking to Thomas’s face, her eyes sweeping over his more than impressive frame. Dry mouthed and utterly self-conscious, she’d accepted his friendly kiss, momentarily dazzled by his smile.
Willoughby was sixty when they married, and an old sixty at that. Years of war in France had wearied him. He was bedevilled by debt and aching bones. Sometimes he looked at Maud as if he couldn’t quite remember why she was there. Kind enough and gentle, if perfunctory, in the bedchamber, he did little to stir her blood. Thomas did, just by standing there, just by smiling.
She was a woman of passion. Her flesh was weak and always had been. Years ago, almost despairing of a husband, she’d come close to giving herself to the man she was sure she loved. Maybe if she had, he wouldn’t have broken her heart. She could smile about it now, had danced with him at her wedding, but in those last dark days in Greenwich, the sound of the German woman’s laughter in her ears, the poet turning her pain into music, hearing his name had been too much to bear.
There was a feast that night, the Earl of Salisbury seated in the place of honour, the intricate dance of stewards and sewers centred around him. Maud sat by Thomas, aware of him even when her face was turned away. When the tables were pushed back against the walls and the music of the dance began, she took his offered hand, acknowledging his courtly bow. Maud danced well and was pleased to see he did the same. When his fingers brushed against her breast entirely, she was sure, by accident, she drew in a sharp breath. He was a man who knew his power. He’d find out soon enough that she was a woman who knew hers. That night, she let the memory of that moment guide her hand beneath the covers.
All you’ll have is your beauty and your wit, Papa used to say to his girls. Maud’s looks had been given to her by God. Her wit was hers alone. She let him see it the next day as they walked together in the garden. Just enough to let him know she was no fluff headed girl. Not enough to make him think her learned.
Maud was level headed, practical. She looked at things through the eyes of a woman growing in wisdom. But when Thomas smiled his eyes lit up and the world around him glowed. Lust, want and need threatened to overwhelm her. She’d let him have her now, if he wanted. Down in the meadow, burrowing into the straw in a nearby barn, up against a wall like… like the sort of woman who let a man take her up against a wall the first time they were alone. It was difficult to breathe.
He caught her hand and lifted it to his mouth, his breath warm, the nearness of him making her head spin. She laughed to cover her confusion. You have been coached well, Sir Thomas. I doubt there’s a woman alive who can resist you.
When they reached the quiet corner she’d gently led him to, shaded by trees, the May air full of the scent of blossoms, she let him kiss her. Tonight, she said. If the contract is signed. Come to my rooms. I’ll send my women away. Another kiss, his hand on her waist. I shall be there, he said. Her knees almost gave way. She let him hold her up.
Uncle Ralph and the Earl of Salisbury remained shut away for much of the day, hammering out the details of the contract. The Countess and Aunt Margaret stayed in the solar, addressing more immediate and practical matters, summoning her to join them when her walk with Thomas was done. She shall come north to Middleham, the Countess said. There’s plenty of room and Salisbury isn’t quite ready to let Thomas go. There is business to attend to that requires him to be in Yorkshire for a time yet.
We shall offer as much assistance as we can, Aunt Margaret said. Poor child has had to leave so much stuff behind!
And so lists were drawn up, over which Maud wasn’t consulted. She sat by the window and watched Thomas ride out through the gate, a small escort behind him, her uncle’s forester beside him. Tattershall might be his one day. This gave her some pride. Such a gift Uncle Ralph would give her. Such a gift she would give her husband.
What? All her clothes?
As good as.
Maud turned her head to find the Countess staring at her aunt.
I had little time, my lady, she said. My late husband’s household gave me no help, preferring instead to ready themselves to welcome their new lord and lady. Such a greedy spiteful girl! The Countess turned her gaze towards Maud. No more a girl than you. She’d have had a time of it turning me out! Maud didn’t wonder at this. The Countess didn’t have the look of a woman who sat back and let things happen to her. She had a time of it with me, too, my lady, Maud said. I didn’t go easily nor quietly. But in the end, for my own safety and comfort, I had no choice. My uncle and aunt have shown me nothing but kindness, and I never needed it more than I did then. The Countess held her gaze for a moment then, with a grunt, turned her attention back to her business.
That night, after the terms were agreed, after her consent was formally sought and formally given, after the documents were signed, after yet more feasting and dancing in their honour, when all was quiet and still, she sat on her bed, waiting for his knock on her door.
There was no shyness, false or otherwise. They stood before each other and spoke quiet words of troth. Maud was not so young and foolish to believe either of them did so because they had fallen in love in the days since they met. She was hungry for the touch of a man. She saw that hunger reflected in Thomas’s eyes. There might be a few sharp looks and pursed lips in the morning, should anyone come to know of what they did, but they were within their rights.
He touched the side of her face and drew it towards his. For a brief moment, she was fearful. What if this was a game? What if he had no intention of honouring the contract and his promises? What if… Then he kissed her and she didn’t care anymore.
Afterwards, lying beside her on her bed, he let out a long sigh of contentment. I could be marrying a maid, he said. An innocent, pure of heart and body. She’d tremble in my hands and beg me to be kind. Fear closed around her. Did he think her tarnished? Spoiled and used? And I am not, she said. He turned towards her. You are not. But you’re good for a man’s soul, Lady Willoughby… Maud. I’ve lain with a maiden only once. She was terrified and wept, though she tried to keep me from seeing. And when I was done, I felt sad and sick and shamed. There can be no shame with you.
He paid several more visits to Tattershall, sometimes with his father and once with his brother, John. Each time, Maud found a way for them to be alone. Each time he swept her away. He called her beautiful, and stroked her hair. He watched her undress, his gaze lingering on the breasts she’d always thought too small.
The wedding itself was splendid. Tattershall had never been so full of people and noise. She and Thomas made their vows, and that was that. She was his, no longer a widow, once again a wife. That night, there was no need for secrecy. They became liquid when they lay together, flowing into each other. His eyes, half closed, looked into hers…
Maud jerked her head up, blinking in the early morning sun. She was so close to Thomas that she could feel the heat from his body. In the months since they’d met, she’d learned more about him than just the pleasure his body gave hers. He laughed loudly at things no-one else found amusing. He sang heartily but not tunefully. His countenance turned from light to dark in an instant. He danced like he had clouds beneath his feet. He lived his life as few others did. He felt things, made decisions and stood by them. If he had any regrets about marrying Maud, or balked at the work that must be done to secure her dower, he gave no sign. She was his wife, her troubles now his. But the Nevill self-assurance that bordered on pride, the northern wildness, wasn’t far below the surface. For all the promise, for all the respect and affection Thomas showed her, Maud feared he wasn’t going to be an easy husband. From what she’d seen, his father wasn’t.
She moved her hand, ever so little, until her fingers touched the base of his spine. Just shifting her grip, the better to keep balance on the uneven road. She could lean against him, close her eyes and drift back into sleep.
She was weary to the point of exhaustion – yawning through breakfast and yawning now. The journey was nearly done. Tonight they’d be at Middleham at last. Her new home. At least until her husband and his father helped her sort out the mess her widowhood, and the avarice of her stepdaughter, had created.
Already she missed the soft greenery of Lincolnshire. The countryside was beautiful here, but on a massive scale, overwhelming, almost forbidding. York had been less grand than she expected. It was dingy, frayed around the edges and an undercurrent of discontent rumbled through the streets, barely contained. As many people spat as hailed her new family when they passed.
The Nevill retinue was impressive. A little over five hundred men rode with them. Apart from the Countess of Salisbury and her husband, the family was well represented. John of course, the next brother down, keeping a wary eye out for trouble. More trouble. Warwick hadn’t managed to tear himself away from his business in the south and his brothers mocked him, pretending he spoke to them, mimicking poorly southern ways of speaking. They were talking now, their voices growing softer, their words more urgent the closer they got to Thirsk. This was Percy country and they must ride through it to get home.
The brothers were a lot alike, both darkhaired, with grey eyes that looked out from faces tempered by sun and wind, their mouths as quick to sneer as to smile. John was as handsome as Thomas, taller and leaner. There’ll be some broken hearts in Middleham, Thomas said, when he marries. She wondered how many her husband left behind him.
Henry Fitzhugh stayed close by Salisbury’s side. Ailie, his wife, pregnant, crotchety and uncomfortable, rode with Katheryn, twelve years old and almost grown. Margaret, at eight the youngest Nevill of all, stayed close to the Countess’s litter, keeping up a constant stream of chatter which was, for the most part, ignored. All three were astride and had been since York. This had surprised Maud. At the wedding, the sisters were the picture of elegance, the younger girls attending to their mother, and Ailie to her husband, with uncomplaining grace. Scratch the surface and who knew what lay underneath.
This was who she was now. These were her people.
On the edge of Thirsk, they stopped, Thomas dismounted and helped her down.
“Go and wait with Mother,” he said. “We have a promise from my uncle of Northumberland that we might pass in safety. But I’d rather be ready, just in case his sons are about.”
He handed her to a waiting man-at-arms and turned away.
She wouldn’t have thought that anything could threaten such a host, had she not witnessed it herself. Five hundred men, led by a man who’d fought in France and acquitted himself more than well. Everywhere, the Nevill saltire was on proud display, dotted with the blue and gold of Fitzhugh and the Scrope bend. There was a smell in the air, the smell of men and horses. The jangle of harness, the shouts of the captains as they sorted their men out followed Maud to where the litters stood, ever patient beasts standing quiet between the shafts.
The curtains of the Countess’s litter were open, the Countess being helped out, determined, it seemed to Maud, that this time there’d be no surprises.
Behind it was Maud’s litter. Hot and stuffy on such a warm day. Mary and Agnes moved aside to give her room.
“Is there to be more trouble, my lady?” Agnes said.
“I hope not. Salisbury is promised safe passage.”
Mary’s rosary was in her hands and she prayed, her lips moving soundlessly.
“We’ll be easy prey, if they think to attack us here.”
“They won’t. The ones who did are long gone. My husband told me. Fools and cowards, is what they are.”
She sounded more sure than she felt. Agnes eyed her doubtfully. Mary prayed faster and more fervently.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” Agnes whispered.
Maud caught the woman by the arm and shook her hard. “Never look back! Never wish something undone! We shall be safe within the walls of Middleham tonight.” She smiled. “And if we’re not, you can berate me in Purgatory all you wish.”
She looked at both her women wish scorn and settled back among the cushions. She’d close her eyes and sleep, just to show them how little there was to fear. But her heart was beating fast and her mouth was dry. If she died now, she had a great weight of sin on her shoulders. The weakness of her flesh, her attachment to its pleasures – when they got to Middleham, she’d find the chapel, find the priest, and pray all night if she had to. When she thought of all that she and Thomas had done together… She expected a stab of shame, but all she felt was the warm glow of memory. All that she and Thomas had done, and all they were to do in the years that stretched between this moment and their eternal rest.