I had an Edward III moment, so behold, the little fictional vignette called...
The Chatelaine of Castle Rising
As a queen, even a Queen Dowager, she had the right to wear her hair as she pleased. Married and widowed women covered most or all of their crowning glory under headdresses. His wife...though she was a Queen Consort who could also do her hair as she liked...had her thick, dark brown braids folded up over and over until they were fat coils that barely brushed her shoulders, pinned to her head and framing her plump face, a barbet encasing her ears and neck, topped off by a starched and ruffled coif that resembled a cloth crown. It was the latest style amongst the young ladies of the court; some women disdained it and still wore a wimple and hood to conceal their hair completely.
But not Isabella. Never Isabella.
She wore a simple chaplet of silver embedded with tiny twinkling sapphires, the better to match her eyes, over a shoulder-length pale grey gorget of fabric so delicately sheer it was transparent, and her golden hair hung beneath it in shining waves that fell to her knees both front and back. She had always worn it so, and was not about to stop now, though she was a widow of thirty-five.
He felt as if he had been punched in the gut as he watched her glide across the stone floor of the presence chamber and approach where he and Philippa sat under their canopies of state. He’d not seen Isabella since that fateful night at Nottingham. Her lustrous mane had been bed-tousled, flowing all around her shockingly low-cut, form-fitting, brazen red satin bedgown as she pled for the life of her lover, falling to her knees with arms outstretched in a beseeching posture. He had never seen such raw fear etched into anyone’s face before. She still looked so young and beautiful, tears glimmering on her lashes, begging him to spare the life of the man who had murdered his father, and who strutted about the court as if he were the new king.
The hardest heart would have melted at her terrified supplication, and his heart was not made of stone where she was concerned. Unlike her and him when they had Hugh le Despenser executed, her lover’s sentence of hanging, drawing, and quartering was commuted by order of the king to simple hanged by the neck until dead, her desperate pleas haunting him. Dead was dead no matter how it was accomplished. Though the man rightly deserved additional torment after being dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn to be hanged, the king had shown him the mercy he and she had not granted to others.
It had taken months to work up the courage to take the bastard into custody, and it took all his willpower to not lunge forward with his sword right then and there and put an end to it himself, despite Isabella’s frightened expression. He had averted his gaze as his wary henchmen permitted their naked captive to don braies and a shirt before hustling him out of the Queen Dowager’s apartments to his ultimate confinement in the Tower of London.
That blatant nudity...disregarding his marriage vows to Joan de Genville, who was kept conveniently imprisoned so that he could take the Queen Dowager in adultery...Isabella’s seductive, revealing costume, the fact that the bedchamber held a cloying scent of mating, made him tear his eyes away from her grief as well and close his ears to her agonized, “Good son, have pity!”.
How much pity did you and he show my father? he’d wanted to shout at her. Just so you and he could rut in bed and try to bring his kingdom to ruin? He’d wanted to call her ugly names, bitch, or whore, mar the flawless beauty of her face with a hard slap that would leave a swollen purple bruise behind, send her reeling to the cold floor and shut her up. Had she even realized it was three years to the day that she had conveniently been made a widow? It mortified him that it had taken him so long to exact vengeance on his father’s behalf.
His own son, born this past June at Woodstock, had cemented his resolve to shake off their so-called regency altogether. What need had he for their supposed guidance? He was married to dear Philippa, who had turned sixteen only nine days after the birth of their son and heir, and he himself reached the age of eighteen just a month after the events at Nottingham. He was no longer a pliable lad of fourteen, stunned by the sudden turn of events that had seen his father hunted down like an animal, imprisoned at Kenilworth, and forced to abdicate the throne.
A mere week later he had made the traditional journey from the Tower to Westminster Abbey, and felt the heavy weight of his father’s crown set upon his own head, put in the peculiar position of being anointed as king whilst his father still lived.
He regretted his bewildered acquiescence to it all. His brother John, then ten, liked puttering in the gardens with their father. Without his patient instruction, John just made a mess, and wept bitterly when their mother directed that he would no longer be permitted to muck about in the dirt like some common laborer. Nine-year-old Eleanor had kicked up more of a fuss over being forbidden to see their father in the last months of his life than the child who now occupied his throne, to his everlasting shame. He’d made more noise over sending seven-year-old Joan off to Scotland as the bride of little King David Bruce, who was all of four.
Meanwhile, their father had spent his last birthday in April all alone at Berkeley. Their mother always rolled her eyes at the special treats their father enjoying planning for family occasions; he fondly remembered the last one...before he was packed off, ostensibly to do homage for Guyenne and the Aquitaine to his mother’s brother, the late King Charles of France...when they were lucky enough to have a fine April day and his father, laughing, rolled up his shirtsleeves and tried his hand at poling the royal barge down the Thames.
He wanted to see his father more than anything. He wanted his guidance on what to do about John, who at fourteen seemed to be in a perpetual state of rebellion against his tutors and spent all his time angrily practicing the art of war. He wanted to know what to do about Eleanor, who had gone from a mischievous, gregarious child to a painfully shy, anxious one. He wanted him to meet buxom, pretty Philippa, who also loved flowers. He wanted to put his sturdy, namesake grandson into his arms. He wanted to wander Windsor’s park and sit with him in the shade of the oak sapling, now a tree, that his father carefully planted with his own hands to mark his own firstborn’s birth at the castle. He had helped him do the same at Eltham, Woodstock, and the Tower of London for the rest of the children, had carried on the tradition for his own son’s birth, watering the soil with his and Philippa’s tears.
Instead of his father he was seeing his mother, just over a month after her lover had made the acquaintance of the hangman at Tyburn like the common felon he was. He didn’t know what had possessed him to move her from Berkhamsted to Windsor. Isabella was still under lock and key in her apartments and not been allowed out to partake in the merry festivities that they had planned just as his father would have done. He hadn’t wanted to look at her again after Nottingham.
But she had requested an urgent privy audience with him. He rather thought she expected a cozy little informal chat in his privy chambers. So here he was sitting on his father’s throne, with Philippa in his mother’s place, the imposing presence chamber having been cleared of courtiers and instructions given to whisk her through back passages so that no one would glimpse Isabella, hoping desperately that he was projecting a no-nonsense, kingly mien.
He had no idea what Isabella desired that was so urgent. Likely her freedom to come and go as she pleased, to visit with Eleanor and John, to write to homesick Joan in Scotland, to coo at her six-month-old grandson, to upstage Philippa and queen it over the court again as if nothing untoward had occurred.
As she drew closer he could see that her grey velvet kirtle was new, as the sleeves tapered off into slender tippets in the latest fashion. They jingled softly because she had tiny bells attached to the point of each tippet. Her deep blue surcoat was lavishly ornamented with glittering beads and laced up the sides with silver cord, showing off a slim figure that was definitely not that of a grandmother. So beautiful...so deadly.
She kept her face expressionless as she swept into a deep curtsey before the dais, head bowed, her tresses sweeping the stones around her. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Philippa glancing at him anxiously. “Arise,” he said with reluctance.
Isabella stood straight as an arrow, tinkling as she clasped her hands in front of her, and frowned as she looked him straight in the eye. “I requested a privy audience with you, Ned,” she said, dispensing with the proper form of address for a king in order to make him feel like a child in the nursery who had done something wrong, and tilting her head in Philippa’s direction as if she expected his wife to immediately take her leave.
His fingers curled around the arms of his father’s throne. “My wife, my queen, the mother of my heir, is privy to all...family concerns,” he managed in a firm, even tone. “If you find that not to your liking, you have our leave to return to your apartments.”
For a moment he thought she was going to flounce out, as he had seen her do dozens of times to his father when she could not get her own way. Her eyes flashed dangerously for a few seconds and then she swallowed hard, as if eating her anger. “Oh, Ned,” she began again, in that faux-sorrowful, I am so disappointed in you voice. “You’ve grown so...hard.”
He said nothing in response to her observation. There was nothing to be said, after all. What did she expect, when her actions had put him into this situation? His father had been forty-three when he died...was killed. His grandfather had lived to the end of his seventh decade. It was not unreasonable to have expected Isabella’s unwanted husband to live another score of years or longer. Seeing her here before him, unchanged, made his heart ache all the more in missing him.
Her gaze turned toward his wife, and it was critical. “Jesu forfend, Philippa, you’re not enceinte again, are you?”
It was plain by the way Isabella said it that she thought the queen was breeding because she had added weight to her hourglass figure during her pregnancy. He opened his mouth to deliver a sharp rebuke for the impertinent question, but Philippa forestalled that with a quiet, “Nay, Your Grace,” serene and unruffled by it.
Isabella, meanwhile, had realized there was not so much as a lowly stool in sight, let alone a comfortable chair. “Are you really going to leave me standing here like some common audience seeker, Ned?” she chided, flashing her dimples in a winning smile that said he ought to shove Queen Philippa from her throne in order to be more accommodating.
“Say your piece and begone,” he shot back, irritated. “You have already been in our presence five minutes longer than necessary.” Had she honestly thought a charm offensive would make him welcome her with open arms after what she had done?
Her lips compressed and her eyes narrowed at him, those frivolous little bells jarring discordantly as she crossed her arms beneath her bosom in equal irritation. He half-expected her to continue in this familiar manner by pointing a finger and haranguing him, her opening line the usual exasperated You’re so much like your father, Ned!. His hands gripped the arms of his father’s throne tightly in anticipation of it. He would be hard put not to strangle her if she so much as dared mention him.
“Oh, you want me to say my piece and begone? I’m pregnant,” she spat out.
He was glad he had the throne in a death grip. Otherwise he feared he might have slid off it in a faint with how abruptly lightheaded he became at her words. He felt nauseous and his ears began to roar as he stared at her in incredulous shock.
Her chin was up defiantly and a hint of a smirk played at the corners of her mouth. She had the upper hand and she knew it.
Her gentle knight had left behind a little something to remember him by, despite being wrenched from her bed to die the death he deserved.
The idea of looking at a posthumous brat sired by that murderous Marcher lord, calling it “brother” or “sister”, having it anywhere near him as a constant reminder of those dark days when neither he nor his father were permitted to rule the realm, a child who might be the spitting image of the would-be usurper whom he had eradicated...it made him want to lean forward and puke on the pointed toes of her embroidered slippers.
A queen’s bastard.
Their intimate relationship had long been a source of speculation...they had been discreet, certainly, but not sufficiently to quell the rumors...and the appearance of an infant would confirm it.
Isabella, the scandal of all Christendom.
She looked so smug as she smoothed her hands down the front of her surcoat, the loose garments concealing no ripening curve...yet. Soon it would be thrust forward for all to see, mute evidence that she had done it all for mere lust.
He heard Philippa’s soft voice over the ringing in his ears. “When reckon you, Your Grace?” she inquired with feminine practicality. Thank God she was here. Otherwise he would be gaping mutely at his mother, wondering how to proceed.
“Oh, methinks round the Feast of St. John the Baptist,” Isabella said, showing her dimples again. “Our children will both have June natal days and be close enough in age to share a nursery and be playfellows.”
As if it were all settled, and perfectly normal for a widow of three years’ standing to produce an infant! She thought he would accept her spawn into his household, bring it into the nursery with Edward, and everyone would think nothing of it. Was she demented? Queens did not lie down with felons and raise up their bastards! Was he not already providing for poor Joan and the many children she had given that villain? Isabella’s implication was intolerable. She was mad if she honestly thought it was a realistic solution to this problem. Could she be mad? Had her lover’s death driven her round the bend?
His fingers ached from clutching at the arms of the throne. He thought he might have to ask Philippa to pry them off, one by one, after Isabella’s dismissal from their presence. It was never going to be what Isabella wanted again, and she had best get that through her head. She had made him king...though she had only intended for him to be a figurehead...and now she had to live with the consequences of her actions.
“Madame,” he ground out, watching her dimples fade as she turned toward him. “Should you manage to go to term, whatever you produce will most certainly not be acknowledged as a royal child. When you return to your apartments, you will set your ladies packing. For you alone, not for them, as your household will be replaced. You will be confined to your property of Castle Rising in Yorkshire. Your misbegotten bastard will be...removed...after its birth.”
Isabella looked terrified, as fearful as she had been when she realized he meant to exact vengeance upon her lover and take his life in exchange for his father’s. “Mon Dieu,” she breathed. “Ned, you would not...an innocent babe...”
He had no clear plan yet beyond getting her away from court, only a vague, half-formed notion of sending it to a religious house, but it was plain she interpreted removed to mean infanticide. Her eyes were wide and shocked. Such a thing would be easier than trying to keep it hidden.
He took part of the blame on himself for this. Had he moved faster rather than hesitating until his friend William de Montacute’s life was being threatened by the would-be king, arrested her paramour in August instead of October, she would not be in this situation. If the bastard lived, keeping it alive would be part of his own penance for being so weak. He did not disabuse Isabella of her interpretation. Let that be a part of her penance as well.
“Do you not question me, Madame,” he said. “You will do as you are told when you are told. There will be no further breath of scandal uttered regarding your disgraceful condition. There will be no further shame brought down upon our house because of you. I am the king and I will not have it!”
His voice rang in the large, empty chamber, his fingers cramping painfully. Isabella stumbled back a step as if he had shoved her. Philippa sat very still beside him, only her brown eyes darting back and forth as she witnessed this clash of wills.
The Queen Dowager drew in a huge, shuddering breath, no longer confident and smug that she would eventually prevail over her elder son. “Yes, Your Grace,” she said slowly, inclining her head as she gave him his royal due for the first time. “Yes, I understand.”
“Then begone from our sight and commence your packing.” He jerked his head toward the door through which she had entered, unable to raise a beringed hand and wave it in dismissal. Isabella dropped a graceful curtsey once again, and then picked up her skirts to hurry away.
When he heard the sound of the door closing behind her, he slumped back in his seat, closing his eyes and willing his fingers to relax. A soft whisper of fabric drifted into his ears as Philippa arose from her throne and came to settle herself in his lap, wrapping her arms around him. “You did well, my lord,” she praised. “She is your mother, but what must be done must be done.”
He found her could move his hands at last, hugging her tightly. “Yes,” he sighed. “She is my mother.”