As the websites first post, I am delighted to have had Tony Riches, the writer of popular Tudor novels, reach out to me with an extract of his book, Owen. His Tudor trilogy has been on my reading list for some time, so to have him reach out to me is a little unbelievable (fan-girling out a bit here, sorry!).
Now, without further ado..
Winter of 1422
I tense at the sound of approaching footsteps as I wait to meet my new mistress, the young widow of King Henry V, Queen Catherine of Valois. Colourful Flemish tapestries decorate the royal apartments of Windsor Castle, dazzling my senses and reminding me how life in the royal household presents new opportunities. My life will change forever, if she finds me acceptable, yet doubt nags at my mind.
The doors open and Queen Catherine’s usher appears. I have been told to approach the queen and bow, but must not look directly at her or speak, other than to say my name, until spoken to. Taking a deep breath I enter the queen’s private rooms where she sits surrounded by her sharp-eyed ladies-in-waiting. I have the briefest glimpse of azure silk, gold brocade, gleaming pearls and a breath of exotic perfume. I remove my hat and bow, my eyes cast down to her velvet-slippered feet.
‘Owen Tudor, Your Highness, Keeper of your Wardrobe.’ My voice echoes in the high-ceilinged room.
One of her ladies fails to suppress her giggle, a sweet enough sound, if you are not the reason for it. I forget my instruction and look up to see the queen regarding me with confident, ice-blue eyes.
‘You are a Welshman?’ Her words sound like an accusation.
‘My full name is Owain ap Maredydd ap Tudur, although the English call me Owen Tudor. I come from a long line of Welsh noblemen, Your Highness.’ I regret my boast as soon as I say the words.
‘Owen Tudor…’ This time her voice carries a hint of amusement.
I put on my hat and pull my shoulders back. She examines me, as one might study a horse before offering a price. After years of hard work I have secured a position worthy of my skills, yet it means nothing without the approval of the queen.
‘You look more like a soldier than a servant?’ The challenge in her words seems to tease me.
‘I have served in the king’s army as a soldier.’ I feel all their eyes upon me.
‘Yet… you have no sword?’ She sounds curious.
‘Welshmen are not permitted to carry a sword in England, Your Highness.’ I am still bitter at this injustice.
I remember the last time I saw her, at the king’s state funeral in Westminster. Her face veiled, she rode in a gilded carriage drawn by a team of black horses. I followed on foot as the funeral procession passed through sombre crowds, carrying the king’s standard and wearing the red, blue and gold livery of the royal household.
‘You fought in France?’
‘With the king’s bowmen, Your Highness, before I became a squire.’
The queen has none of the air of sadness I expected. Slim, almost too thin, her childlike wrists and delicate fingers are adorned with gold rings sparkling with diamonds and rubies. Her neck is long and slender, her skin pale with the whiteness of a woman who rarely sees the sun. Her golden-brown hair is gathered in tight plaits at the back of her head and her headdress fashionably emphasises her smooth, high forehead.
King Henry V chose as his bride the youngest daughter of the man they called the ‘mad king’, Charles VI. They said King Charles feared he was made of glass and would shatter if he didn’t take care. Charles promised Henry he would inherit the throne and become the next King of France and there were rumours of a secret wedding dowry, a fortune in gold.
Barely a year into his marriage, the king left his new wife pregnant and alone in Windsor. He returned to fight his war in France, capturing the castle of Dreux before marching on the fortress at Meaux, defended by Jean de Gast, the Bastard of Vaurus, a cruel, brave captain. The king never saw his son and heir, his namesake.
The siege of Meaux was hard won and he suffered the bloody flux, the dreaded curse of the battlefield. Men had been known to recover, if they were strong and lucky. Many did not, despite the bloodletting and leeches. The flux is an inglorious way to die, poisoned by your own body, especially for a victorious warrior king who would never now be King of France.
The queen has an appraising look in her eyes. She has buried her hopes for the future along with her husband. I remember I am looking at the mother of the new king, once he comes of age. One thing is certain; she will not be left to raise the prince alone. Ambitious men are already vying for their share of power and influence.
At last she speaks. ‘And now you are in my household?’
‘My appointment to your service was made by Sir Walter Hungerford, Steward of the King’s Household and constable here at Windsor.’
‘Sir Walter was one of my husband’s most trusted men—the executor of the king’s will.’
‘I worked as squire to Sir Walter for many years, in England and France.’
‘You speak French?’
‘A little, Your Highness.’ I answer in French.
‘Were you with King Henry at the siege of Rouen?’ Now she speaks in French.
‘I was, Your Highness. I will never forget it.’ I answer again in French. I learned the language on the battlefield and in the taverns of Paris and can swear as well as any Frenchman.
‘I heard the people of Rouen were starving… before they surrendered.’ Her voice is softer now and she speaks in English.
I hesitate to admit she is right. The townspeople of the great city of Rouen were eating cats and dogs at the end, whatever they could find. Hundreds of good men and women starved to death to give her husband his victory. I drank foul ditch water to survive and the sights of the siege of Rouen are forever engraved on my memory.
‘War is cruel, yet now there is less appetite for it.’
‘I pray to God that is true.’ She glances back at her ladies, who are watching and listening, as ladies-in-waiting do. Queen Catherine regards me, giving nothing away. ‘I welcome you to our household, Master Tudor.’
‘Thank you, Your Highness.’
Our first meeting is over. She is unlike any woman I have known, fascinating, intriguing and beautiful. More than that; there is something about her I find deeply attractive, a dangerous thing to admit. Perhaps my fascination is with the glimpse I’d seen of the real woman, the same age as myself, behind the title of Dowager Queen of England.
‘Aim high, boy,’ my garrulous longbow tutor once advised me, his voice gruff from too much shouting. ‘It’s not the Welsh way to play safe and wait until you have a clear shot!’ The man spits hard on the ground to add emphasis and stares knowingly into my eyes, standing so close I can almost feel the coarse grey stubble of his beard. ‘When you aim high,’ he points an imaginary bow up at the sky, ‘your arrow will fly far into the enemy ranks and strike with the full vengeance of God.’
‘Who, of course, is on our side.’ A daring, foolhardy thing for a boy like me to say to a man who can punch me to the ground or worse.
For a moment I see the old man’s mind working as he tries to decide if I am being disrespectful, sacrilegious or both. The moment passes. I notch a new arrow into the powerful yew longbow and fire it high into the sky, without a care for where it will fall.
I smile at the memory as I return down the long passage to the servants’ hall. Life as a king’s archer was hard, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of the other men and it taught me many things. As well as how to use a longbow, I learned to watch my back, when to speak up and when to remain silent. My tutor died in the thick mud of Normandy, yet his lesson serves me well. I know to aim high.
That night, wide awake in the darkness, I reflect on the unthinkable turn my life has taken. I always imagined I would become a merchant, setting up shop somewhere in the narrow, dirty streets of London, or perhaps an adventurer, sailing off to seek my fortune. I remain a servant, yet for the first time I have my own lodging room, however small and cramped.
My reward for long and loyal service as squire to Sir Walter has been this new appointment, a position of great responsibility. The queen’s wardrobe is a treasure store of priceless gold and jewels, as well as all her expensive clothes and most valuable possessions. Such a senior post in the royal household pays more than I have earned in my life and carries influence, allowing me regular and privileged access to the queen.
I resolve to become indispensable to her. High and mighty lords and dukes will come and go, with their false concerns and self-serving advice, yet I will see her every day, tending to her needs. I recall how she referred to Sir Walter as one of the king’s most trusted men. That is what I wish to become; Queen Catherine’s most trusted man.
Tony Riches is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and enjoys sea and river kayaking in his spare time.