Authors: V.E. Lynne
Court of Traitors’
Table of Contents
Chapter Twenty One
Characters (asterisk denotes fictional characters)
Bridget de Brett formerly Manning*
Joanna de Brett*
Abbess Joan de Brett*
Sir Richard de Brett*
Sister Margaret Welles*
Henry VIII, King of England
Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford
Anne Seymour, Countess of Hertford
Marquess of Exeter
Gertrude Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter
Sir Edward Neville
Sir Nicholas Carew
Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire
Jane Boleyn, Lady
The Lady Mary Tudor
Sir Richard Rich
Sir William Kingston
Sir Ralph Sadler
Men rise from one ambition to another: first they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others” – Niccolò Machiavelli
Rivers Abbey, Norfolk
The Abbess Joan de Brett stared out her window in silent consternation. All she could see in the distance was a long line of carts snaking its way inexorably down the familiar, dusty path that leads up to the abbey gate. She was dismayed to see them but not surprised; she had known this day was coming, had known it for months now. At one point, she had hoped to avoid it by throwing herself, and her abbey, on the mercy of Queen Anne Boleyn, a woman from whom she had initially expected little sympathy. On that score she had been mistaken—the queen had been very sympathetic and, more than that, she had gone to the king on their behalf in order to plead their case to him. But, despite her efforts, it had made no difference. Cromwell’s men, the “visitors” who had come to the abbey in the summer, had decided that they were too few in number, and too poor, to remain in existence any longer. They were to be suppressed, their precious abbey amongst the first religious houses in England to be treated so.
abbess glanced down at the letter on her desk. It was from the queen, written in her own stylish hand. It contained the news that the line of carts was the ultimate confirmation of—her plea to the king had failed and Rivers Abbey was thus no more. The letter contained one, solitary ray of sunlight amongst the gathering gloom, at least for the future of Rivers’ two young novices. Bridget Manning, and Joanna de Brett, the abbess’s niece, were to be offered places in the queen’s household as maids of honour. Bridget actually had a slight family connection to the queen, which had seemed to delight Her Majesty when the abbess had brought it to her attention at Greenwich.
long-lost cousin, is she? Yes, I seem to recall some family talk of her mother and the decision she made to wed beneath her and where you tell me Mistress Manning was born in Norfolk is not far from our estate at Blickling. Say no more Lady Abbess—she must have a place as one of my maids. Goodness knows I need more friendly faces around me,” the queen had declared. “Let her come to court at once, your niece as well. They are most welcome here.”
abbess searched for the figures of the two young women in question; she saw them standing by the gates and she sighed in relief for the first time that morning. At least she had managed to secure a future for them. Neither one of them were suited to convent life, particularly her niece; they were sure to blossom in the brighter world of the court where hopefully they would one day find husbands and bear children. They would be safe there, God willing, under the queen’s protection. She was not so confident about some of the others, however. “Especially Sister Margaret,” she murmured to herself as she made her way from her quarters and out into the courtyard. Sister Margaret Welles was the oldest member of their order, having been at Rivers for most of her sixty-two years. She had only one remaining relative in the outside world, an elderly brother whom she hardly knew. Would he be prepared to take her in? What would happen if he were not? The abbess was so preoccupied with these thoughts that she did not notice that Sister Margaret had bustled past her and had stationed herself at the half-opened wooden entranceway. She glared at each of the men who had drawn up on the other side of the gates with absolute undisguised hatred. The men glared back at her with complete, somewhat-amused indifference.
The chief amongst them
ignored the heat of Sister Margaret’s baleful stare and strode forward, brandishing a letter in his right hand, the heavy wax seal it bore standing out like a bloody beacon.
“I seek the
abbess,” he barked, whilst looking at each of the women in turn. “The Abbess Joan de Brett.”
“I am Joan de
Brett,” the abbess answered, stepping forward calmly to meet him.
Abbess, my name is Thomas Legh. I, and my men, are here by order of His Majesty King Henry VIII.” He handed her the letter; the abbess quickly broke the seal and read the contents as fast as she could.
“Rivers Abbey is to be suppressed, as per the decision of the king’s commission. Your numbers have grown too
few, and you have an income of below two hundred pounds. You cannot be allowed to continue. Therefore, your land, buildings and all property contained within your boundaries are now forfeit to the Crown. You, Lady Abbess, and the others of your order may stay here for a further two weeks until you can make alternative arrangements for your accommodation. That is all. Now open the gates fully and make way. We do not have all day.”
you lie! It cannot be!” Sister Margaret burst out, placing herself between the advancing men and an astonished Legh. “We will not submit ourselves to this outrage! Rivers Abbey has stood for three centuries! During that time we have served both God and our local populace with devotion, dedication and true Christian constancy. Yes, we are small in number and not wealthy, but what of it? We are not corrupt, we are not base or venal. We are brides of Christ. I beg of you, sir, do not do this! We have done nothing wrong! Do not shut us down simply because the king and his pet toad Mister Cromwell seek to fill the royal coffers whose contents they have so shamefully squandered with our precious chattels!”
Hush Sister Margaret, please do not distress yourself so,” the abbess intervened, soothing the older nun, who was on the verge of tears. She turned to Thomas Legh. “Good sir, I beseech you, give us more time. It is possible that we could pay a fine, as recompense, to His Majesty, if he will allow us to stay on. I am sure that some accommodation could be reached. I have been in correspondence with the queen; I have even been to visit her at Greenwich. She is aware of our case. I will write to her again and—”
I have my instructions. There is no more time, and another letter to the queen will do you no good. You are poor. How will you ever raise the money to pay a fine, even if you had all the time in the world to do so? No, let us hear no more of this. It will advance you nought. Rivers Abbey is finished. Now, get your women to open the gates and stand aside. Please.”
abbess looked into his severe countenance and saw that further argument was pointless. With a deep sigh, she glanced across at Bridget Manning and Joanna de Brett and indicated that they should open the gates completely. They did so; the whole of the great entranceway was flung wide and Legh and his men trooped in.
“Rivers Abbey is at your
command, sir,” the abbess murmured.
Legh nodded curtly to her and strode into the courtyard with an air of authority. His men eagerly followed him and were soon set to work. For the next few hours, they went through Rivers like a plague of locusts. By the afternoon, their carts were overflowing with ill-gotten gains: plate, gold and silver cups, salvers, candlesticks, tapestries, artwork and all the books in the library that they could possibly carry. One of the men, a skinny, pock-marked fellow, had managed to find their most prized possession—a tiny fragment of St Veronica’s veil, brought to the abbey only eight years earlier after the sack of Rome. It was so fragile, and so precious, that it was kept inside a gold chest and hardly ever touched, let alone taken out. Such niceties had not bothered this man. His eyes had lit up with greed at the sight of the golden casket – so much so that he tore it open with his bare hands, grabbed the relic inside and held it up triumphantly to the light. His avarice however was soon replaced by deep disappointment.
“Why it is nothing more than a
filthy scrap of cloth! My God, what foolish bloody women these nuns are, fancy venerating a grimy old rag,” he scoffed, and with that, he threw the “rag” to the ground, grinding it into the dirt with the heel of his boot for good measure.
had seen the man rip open the chest and had run full tilt across the courtyard to stop him but had been too late. “You beast!” she screamed. “You devil! Do you know what you have done? You have destroyed a piece of St Veronica’s veil! The veil has the power to cure the sick, to heal the blind. It touched the face of our Saviour on his way to Calvary! You will be damned for this!” She turned to all the men, including Thomas Legh, who by now had stopped their work and were simply watching her in fearful wonderment.
abbess, seeing this display, hastened to the scene and summoned Bridget Manning to her side. Together they took Sister Margaret by the arm and tried to lead her away, tried to calm her, but she managed to wrench herself out of their collective grasp. “No, leave me,” she snapped. “Leave me alone!” In tears, she fell to her knees in the dirt and lovingly collected up what remained of the veil but, despite her careful handling, it came apart in her hands.
pock-marked man who had thrown the relic down in the first place sniggered. Sister Margaret rose up with a litheness that belied her years and slapped him hard across the face, wiping his satisfied smile clean away. “You laugh sir? I would not do so if I were you for your foolish and heretical actions have damned you for all eternity,” she avowed. “You, Mister Legh, the king and most especially that whoreson Cromwell . . . there are special places in Hell reserved for you all on account of the sins you have committed this day. I can promise you that.” She fixed each of them with a fiery glare that seemed to portend the terrible fates that she had just sworn awaited them. They lowered their eyes collectively to the ground. She walked up to the destroyer of the veil and stood directly in front of him. He shook under the force of her gaze.
“Mark my words
sir. You will burn for this!” She pressed what was left of the veil against his chest, and her tears fell anew. “You will burn!”
It was a fine, clear day and the wide, red-bricked façade of Greenwich Palace lay slumbering peacefully in the haze. The sunlight glinted off the rows and rows of large, mullioned windows, and Bridget’s heart twisted in her chest at the sight of it. Not for the first time in her young life, she marvelled that it was possible for something so beautiful to lodge something so deadly. This place, after all, was the headquarters of the court—the favourite residence of King Henry VIII and his third queen, Jane Seymour. The same Jane Seymour who had been in the household of the second queen, Anne Boleyn, and had married the king almost before her erstwhile mistress’s remains had grown cold in her grave upriver at the Tower. Bridget had also been maid of honour to Anne, she had attended her even unto the scaffold. The world of the court therefore was a place she was horribly familiar with. She had thought that, in light of the events of last year that she was destined never to pass through its halls again. But the turn of Fortune’s Wheel, which governs the lives of all men, was a strange thing, and not to be understood by mere mortals. Last year she had lain broken and bruised at the bottom of the wheel, her existence seemingly crushed by the hand of fate. But now, by some miracle, the wheel’s unceasing rotation had turned once more and delivered her back here to Greenwich. A sunbeam fell across the bow of the boat and, despite the warmth it emitted, Bridget shivered.