Edward IV had begun to show he was a man of state as well as a man of war.
Thus negotiating a firm alliance with the Duke of Burgundy now became a necessity; to prove the king’s argument, and to avert a French/Lancastrian invasion.
You may wonder why a mere duke, descended from a younger son of a King of France, could be seen as providing a counterweight to the might of France. But Duke Charles of Burgundy was no ordinary duke, and his domains spread far wider than the duchy of Burgundy. His great-grandfather Duke Philippe le Hardi was the third son of the French king, Jean le Bon, (they all have nicknames, these Valois princes), and like all the sons of les rois français he was endowed with a splendid appanage; in his case, the fertile meadows of Burgundy, round the mustard-famous city of Dijon.
But King Jean was astute, as well as good, and had arranged a marriage for his son with the heiress of the powerful Count of Flanders. Now, as we know, the Flemish are clever merchants, good at trade and deft in weaving; an industrious nation with a busy bourgeoisie, building up their handsome towns like Bruges (my exile home), Brussels, Ghent and diamond-encrusted Antwerp. And, by equally cunning marriages, succeeding generations of Burgundians accumulated all the towns and counties that we call the Low Countries, or Nether Lands: Holland, Zeeland, Luxembourg, Brabant, the richest lands in Europe, through trade.
Feudally, of course, even the grandest duke remains a vassal — a tenant-in-chief of the French king for the duchy of Burgundy, and of the Holy Roman Emperor for all the rest. And this rankled with the Valois dukes, who began to feel the extent and wealth of their territories merited a royal crown. There was even a famous occasion when Margaret of Anjou, in the course of her travails, paid a visit to the travelling and magnificent court of Burgundy with her son, Edward of Lancaster. At the end of a banquet in their honour — which must have been welcome to Madge and her whelp who were often short of food and gold — young Edward of Lancaster, by all accounts as ferocious and haughty as his mother, began an elaborate toast to Count Charles (then the duke’s heir) who interrupted him saying, “Prithee, Your Highness, as the son of a duke, it is I who must raise a goblet to you as the son of a king.” I hear an undertone of resentment in the young count’s voice.
But there were major political problems in translating a patchwork of rich territories into a solid kingdom. For one thing, the county of Burgundy was separated from the Netherlands by territory belonging to France and, as I have explained, the duke in feudal law had two liege lords. So, as if to compensate for this lack of the ultimate accolade, the dukes elaborated their courts into the most magnificent centres of chivalry and knightly honour to be found in the known world. And their splendid chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece — named for the celebrated fleece that Jason rescued with his Argonauts — became the order of knighthood desired above all others, even above our own Garter, I must admit. But I digress…
Excitement and glamour soon become more than a drug; they become a necessity. Especially in a royal court where the courtiers’ intense desire for advancement and stimulation have to be fed by a successful king. Edward IV was well aware of this. And so it was that soon after Queen Elizabeth’s coronation (which it would be unnecessary to describe: magnificence, splendour, Anthony looking dashing, Warwick looking grim, all the Greys and Wydvilles out in force with Elizabeth herself compensating for her modest patrimony with a queenly arrogance that required lady marquesses to kneel and serve her food, while countesses arranged her train… need I write more?), His Grace announced, to the whole court, that he had finally agreed the treaty of eternal friendship that all had been hoping for between England and Charles, Duke of Burgundy, Count of Flanders et cetera, et cetera, to be sealed by the marriage of the duke with the king’s twenty-two-year-old younger sister, the Lady Margaret Plantagenet.
There were four Plantagenet sisters, two of whom you have already met. The Lady Anne, the eldest, a little older than the king in fact, had first married the Duke of Exeter, then divorced him and married, hypogamously, the laddish Tom St. Leger; she was, as we’ve seen, a fiery duchess, dominated by lust (as the Church teaches, women so often are. Though, strangely, a witch once prophesied it would be her progeny who would outlive all the rest of her dynasty and eventually resurrect its honour; no doubt yet another empty vision). The next, Elizabeth, was my sister-in-law. She was neither clever nor well-favoured; she had a clear resemblance, so they said, to her late father York, being short and dumpy with unfeminine features. Nonetheless, she had character enough to wear the jewelled codpiece in my brother’s house. Neither of them were much interested in politics but, like brother John, Duchess Elizabeth enjoyed luxury and breeding — and keeping their heads below the ramparts; a policy that in the end did them little good. According to the four humours of which the physicians talk, if Anne was blood, all fire and lust, then Elizabeth was earth; very down to earth.
The youngest sister, the Lady Ursula, I never met. No man outside her closest family ever did as she was sent to enter the cloister at an early age yet, despite her birth, never became an abbess. Unlike my brilliant Aunt Katherine, the Abbess of Barking, who turned out to have been far too able a guardian to Henry of Lancaster’s half-brothers, the Tudor bastards. Ursula’s fate faded into water.
Which leaves us with Margaret of York; her element was surely air. I had, of course, espied her at court from time to time, accompanying her Lady Mother, the Duchess of York (who had taken to styling herself vaingloriously “queen by right”). But I first met her when summoned to her presence by a royal chamberlain, soon after the Burgundian marriage treaty was proclaimed at Kingston-upon-Thames.
I write “summoned” with levity, of course. I was not a retainer to be called upon or a poor relative to be patronised. Less rich per chance, but not poor. In fact, I received a note in the lady’s own hand — a fine hand, as all the king’s sisters were well-schooled in learning and languages, and this one best of all — inviting me to meet her for a fraternal rendezvous. Intrigued at this rare invitation from a lady, I dressed to kill in a fine shot silk doublet, with the latest parti-coloured hose and a magnificent codpiece, and set off to our tryst.
The Lady Margaret was standing before a full-length shimmering mirror, wearing a long simple gown of pale blue velvet while three or four of her women brought her various pieces of jewellery and pretty trinkets to toy with against her long dark hair and oval face. A large oak coffer was in the middle of being packed in a corner. The lady was about my age, tall — almost my height — and with a face not at first glance beautiful, but strong and sensual with a firm, almost manly jaw, and the aquamarine eyes and lovely red lips of her eldest brother. She was the sister most similar to the king. And though her four maids of honour were all younger and prettier than she, it was Margaret who easily held my eye. Though not yet Duchess of Burgundy, she already radiated dignity and power, the female image of her brother. A lady worshipful indeed. And just in case any lustful thoughts invaded my head, a bosomy matron with the face of a Gorgon sat by the opened trunk sewing while pretending not to hear.
“The king, our brother, has told me that you, my lord, will be leading my noble escort to Bruges, where my wedding to my Lord Duke will be celebrated.”
She was toying with a fine necklace of sapphires which caught the blue of her eyes.
Our brother was a nice touch. Subtle as well as powerful. An interesting woman, at last. One to equal the B.M. perhaps.
“A great honour for your loyal knight, my lady.” I bowed.
“Joined with our beau-frère, Lord Scales,” she added, shooting me a keen glance. “The king assures me you two are bosom friends.”
“We are both knights in the service of His Grace and Your Ladyship.”
She smiled. Just like the king’s smile. The sun in splendour. There was a stirring in my loins. Why had I not known this handsome, puissant princess before; before she had been betrothed to one of the most powerful princes in Europe? A tinge of regret and jealousy touched my spirit.
“I may be a princess, Sir Edward, but I have no more control of my fate than a villein’s daughter. Less in fact.” She sounded a touch bitter.
“Your Ladyship will be a great duchess.”
“Only a duchess?” She laughed. There was fire in her eyes. “First, I was to marry the heir of Portugal, Dom somebody-or-other but sadly, he died. But perhaps Lusitania would have been a little too hot for a Yorkshirewoman, do you think, my lord?”
I was excited by her smile and her teasing tone.
“Then Cousin Warwick and the king agreed I should marry a French prince; perhaps the dauphin? It would have been a noble fate to become a queen; but of France? Our ancestral enemy? And now Burgundy — to marry a duke who deserves to be a king! C’est bonne chance qu’ils parlent la langue française dans les pays bourguignons, n’est-ce pas?”
“Comme, madame, déclare. C’est la langue des anges, on dit.”
“I thought that was Latin, my lord, or even Hebrew… But enough banter, Sir Edward, what can you tell me about Duke Charles?” she said as if nonchalantly. She shot me a glance. “It can’t be wrong for a lady to wish to know a little about her future husband, can it?”
“Sadly, madam, your loyal knight’s ignorance is great. Like my lady, I have never set eyes on the great duke. But he is well-known to be, like his noble father Duke Jean, the very acme of chivalry. And, of course, he is known as ‘the Bold’. Boldness is a great attribute in a warrior; perhaps also… in a husband?”
My slightly barbed comment drew a veiled and worried glance from those sensuous eyes.
“Perhaps, my lord. But you must have heard some report of him from your friend, Lord Anthony. He has met the duke; he negotiated the match. Has he told you nothing?”
“My lady is deceived if she thinks I am privy to Lord Anthony’s secrets.”
She threw me a fiery sensual look which (as intended?) inflamed my feelings.
A maid of honour had placed a chain with a golden disc around Margaret’s handsome throat — a medallion of the sun in splendour — which she was arranging carefully, over the exposed cleavage of her delicate peach-like breasts.
“Could you not find out for me?” she almost whispered. “How does the duke treat his daughter and heiress the Lady Mary? Any man who treats his motherless daughter well will be kind to his new wife, don’t you think, girls?”
One of her damsels giggled at this and said, “If he treats you the same as his daughter, ma’am, there will be no son and heir.”
I smiled and, though she rebuked the girl, Margaret gave me a subtle smile.
“I know he is a great warrior,” she said, “But some great warriors love women; others… prefer men.” Again, her voice fell to a silken whisper. “Which is he?”
I was a little surprised by the sophistication of the lady’s knowledge, despite her apparently sheltered upbringing. And this clearly was my function: to be a conduit of information for my lady. She was using me. But the thought of being used by such a lady was quite an exciting one. This was, at any rate, one way I could serve her as her loyal knight, her Sir Lancelot. And — unlike the real Sir Lancelot — smooth the silken sheets of the Burgundian marriage bed and (like my poor father before me) encourage the begetting of a male heir, in this case for the House of Valois combined with the glory of York. Oh Jesu!
I bowed myself out, intending to bring my man Q’s talents into play as well as my own to discover whatever I could of the bold (wild?) Burgundian duke. I could never marry the magnificent Margaret. But I now knew a way to serve her and be her parfait knight.
The next morning, I received the following letter from the other woman in my life:
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