Sheriff Hutton Castle, Yorkshire, June 1483
‘My lord, do you not think you should rest’, I ask, filling his cup with the wine which was brought for us earlier, ‘we do have a long journey ahead of us come morning’.
Raising his head he grins at me, ‘Ah, but Rob, you do forget that tomorrow’s journey will be as nothing compared to that which is to come…later’.
He sips the wine and grimaces a little, twirling the stem of the cup between long, slender fingers, the candle flame muted in the dull grey pewter. His eyes, green as the moss which covers the stones beneath the silvery waters of a stream, sparkle and dance as he muses on that final journey. His thin beautiful face animated and filled with a joyous anticipation as he prepares himself physically and spiritually for death.
Oh Jesu, that I could feel that same joy, feel as he does about his inevitable end. That he will be safe with God and in a better place, that the burdens of this transitory life will be over for him and he will have joy everlasting. But I cannot, dear God I can’t. I don’t want to know that he is safe with God. The thought does not comfort me, I can find no solace in the knowledge that soon he will be dwelling in eternal bliss. I want him here, with me God. I want him to be blissful and happy here, on Earth with me. Not with you!
But immediately I’m filled with shame at my blasphemy. So I bargain with God and promise Him that no more such thoughts will enter my head if only, only He will spare my lord and allow him to live out the rest of his days in peace with me
But looking at him now, as he sits across from me, sipping the sour wine, his pale face radiant despite the long weeks of incarceration; I can see that for him at least, a life with me would be a poor substitute to eternity with God. This is his destiny, the ultimate price he must pay for every transgression and sin he has committed in his life.
But oh, that last undertaking, that last service to his king, his prince and his country was no sin. He was but following orders; the orders of his sister the widowed queen, who even now is safe in sanctuary at Westminster. But anything he said in his defence fell upon deaf ears and now he, the best and most worthy of his kin is to be the scapegoat and pay for the sins of the Wydvilles; for the years of avarice, ambition and plotting of that family, who because a king lusted after one of their own, were raised high and given much, and craved more.
‘Rob’, he reaches across the table a takes my hand in his, ‘please don’t mourn for me. I know, none better how you are feeling now, but this was my destiny I believe. It is what our Lord ordained for me and as such, I am happy with that, and I need you to be strong for me’.
‘My lord’, my voice emerges as a ragged whisper for, despite the wine my throat is as dry as parchment but my eyes, oh Christ my eyes are wet; dangerously so and I cannot break down now, I can’t. ‘My lord’, I continue, struggling to keep my emotions at bay, ‘I’ll try, for you I’ll try. But you must know, I have to tell you………’.
He studies my face carefully as I speak, his eyes traversing every curve, every angle until once more they link with mine and they are filled with softness and compassion.
‘Rob, my dearest friend’, he says as his grip tightens on my hand, ‘I’m not blind, I know how it is with you’. He reaches across and places a hand on my cheek, his cool fingers move slightly against my flesh in a gentle caress, his eyes never leaving my face and I am so close to breaking.
I want to tell him before it’s too late and my mouth opens, the words forming on my tongue ready to spill forth in a torrent of endearment and declarations of love. To let him know that he is loved and to take my love with him where ever he is destined to go.
But once more he forestalls me, moving his hand, placing his finger against my lips, he keeps it there for seconds while his silver green eyes beseech me to be silent.
Getting up from his stool, he moves across to the window beckoning me to follow. ‘Look out there, Rob, it’s beautiful isn’t it?’ he says when I am standing beside him. I follow his gaze to the distant hills which even in the gathering dusk are still visible. Shrouded in misty evening hues of heather and dove grey and edged with silver gold, they do indeed look beautiful. And I know what it is which clouds his thoughts as he looks his fill on the horizon. After tonight he will ne er look upon them again. Never see the beauty of a Yorkshire sun set, nor hear the melodious song of the blackbird as he sings exultantly from a nearby roof top.
‘When we ride out together on the morrow, Rob’, he says, turning at last from the rapidly darkening vista, ‘I want to see everything, to hear the birds, smell the air and feel the sun on my face’.
He goes again to the table and lifting the wine jug he fills the cups and hands one to me, then crosses the chamber to sit on the narrow bed, ‘Come sit beside me, Rob and talk to me. I need your goodly company tonight as never before my dearest friend’.
I do as he asks and sit close, feeling the heat from his body, watching his throat ripple as he swallows the wine, the moistness of his mouth as he runs his tongue across his lips, savouring the sour tang of the grape. Damp shirt and woollen jerkin smell of him, of sweat and ink and paper and even now the faint aroma of rosewater; one of the few aids to vanity he had been allowed to bring with him from Northampton along with a few of his books, so hurried was our departure.
There is a tension in the air as we sit in silence, the only sounds are the distant bleat of sheep, and the muted chattering of Gloucester’s men as they go about their evening routine. And I wonder do they ever give a thought to the prisoner in their midst. A man who, not so long ago would have bested each and every one of them with lance, sword and battle axe.
‘My lord’, I say at last, ‘you wished to talk to me’.
‘Yes, I do. But I hardly know where to begin, Rob’. He stares at the floor between his feet while running his fingers through his hair, still the colour of ripe corn with nary a hint of grey despite his one and forty years.
‘They do say that the beginning is as good a place as any’, I tell him with a smile.
He turns and smiles back at me, the faint creases fanning around his eyes deepening as he does so. ‘Yes, the beginning, when you first joined my household. How long ago was it Robert?’
I tell him just a little short of twelve years ago when I was a boy of fifteen and fresh from my fathers house in Kent.
‘Twelve years, and you’ve been such a good friend and so faithful to me, Rob. I do thank you for that’. Sighing, he places his wine cup on the floor, turns and once more, cups my face in his hands, my heart pounds as he brings his face closer and oh, Dear God, his mouth covers mine, his lips moving in a gentle caress as I moan and press my body close to him. His arms tightening around me, and for a time we are lost to everything but each other.
He is first to end the embrace, the kiss and the fleeting ecstasy. The sound of strident voices outside breaking the spell and ending the dream. ‘Rob, oh God I’m sorry, so sorry but……’ he looks stricken as he speaks, his face clouded by remorse at what we’ve just done.
‘No, my lord….Antony please I beg you do not be sorry’, I touch his hand and feel it shaking as I do so. ‘I’m not sorry, not at all. I wanted to tell you so many times how I felt, but I…I thought you would hate me for it. Would think me evil and unnatural. But I do love you, I can’t help it but I do’.
For a long time he remains silent. The voices still echo across the bailey, the sheep still bleat across the fields and the candles still flicker and burn away the hours. Then moving back he lies down, hunching himself against the wall to make room for me.
‘Lie next to me, Rob, please. We have a long night to pass and I would have you close love, for God alone knows what tomorrow night will bring’.
I lay down and he pulls me into his arms, nuzzling into my shoulder and I feel his breath whisper against my neck. And it’s sweet, so sweet, and we talk a little, kiss some more and share our thoughts and as the candles burn ever lower we fall silent. He falls asleep first, exhausted both in body and spirit, and soon my eyes droop and, contented and blissful for now I follow him into the nebulous world of dreams.
Antony Woodville, second Earl Rivers 1442-1483
To read more about Antony & the Woodville’s see here
Images, top, Sheriff Hutton Castle, Google Images
Bottom, book by Oscarimages