Monday 9 December 2019

Secrets by Judith Arnopp - A Story Inspired By A Song

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Vintage, Old Fashioned, Victorian

Secrets; everybody has them. I collect other peoples. I like to hug them close and gloat at the power knowledge brings. It began when I was very young and saw my father humping a dairymaid. Instead of creeping away, I lingered, taking notes and adding to my store of wisdom. That day, I learned it was acceptable to dally with servants, and, more importantly, knowledge was power.
From that moment, I made the secrets of the household my business. I’d barely reached the cusp of manhood when a little friendly blackmail eased one of the maids between my sheets. A month or so later, when she ran weeping to my mother with a belly full of troubles, she was sent off in disgrace. I was inconsolable until I spied her sister stealing eggs from the pantry.
Now I am a man, I am an usher at the royal court. I still watch the people around me and learn. I pass unnoticed, hovering like a pigeon in the rafters. I linger on stairways, or conceal myself behind tapestries, listening, gleaning, ever alert for the biggest secrets of all. Usually, the things I hear are not worth the knowing but, every so often, I learn something significant; secrets so important they could ignite a kingdom … or bring down a king.
I have no liking for our king. Henry Tudor is not well-loved, except perhaps by his mother. He spends his days hunched over account books, his shirt cuffs and fingers stained with ink. For a king, he takes an ignoble delight in the health of his coffers but the man fascinates me. So I follow him close, discovering what I can.

File:Henry Tudor of England.jpg

It is quite by chance that I come upon the king in the gardens, drenching Lady Katherine Gordon in his tainted breath. I watch them stroll among the lavender, stopping now and again to exclaim at the flowers. The king plucks a rose, and I note how she draws back a little as she accepts it. Yellow-toothed Henry pats her hand before offering his arm and escorting her onward. She blushes uncomfortably, and I wait and watch as they wander by.
Oh my! She is fair, her skin is like milk and honey, and she glistens like a jewel. Of all the king’s treasures, I envy him only this one. I would give all my fortune to unpeel her like an orange to sup upon her juices. Lady Gordon is the object of my heart’s desire. After that first day, I am never far from her, always watching, always yearning. It isn’t long before I learn that Katherine Gordon has a secret she doesn’t want told.

Elizabeth of York, 15th century costume.jpg

A splash of colour in the orchard and the queen appears, her ladies gathered around her like fallen apples beneath a tree. The king, spying his wife’s approach, steps back from his quarry, the back of his hand brushing her breast, as if by chance. Katherine sinks to her knees at the queen’s feet, her velvet train marred with dirt and twigs.
I watch them pass, a trio of untold truths, their bodies speaking a language of their own. Lady Katherine moves closer to the queen, seeking the protection that her royal presence offers from the king’s attention.
I hold Queen Elizabeth in great affection and today she is exquisite; like a white rose that’s been plucked and starved too long of water. Her eyes are sad, and I know she cannot love the king who slaughtered her family and stole their throne.
As for Henry, he is the king of enigma. Like me, he is a lover of intrigue and his spies are everywhere. He does not realise his own secrets are unsafe but he knows he is unloved. When his back is turned, men whisper of how he’d near shat his breeches when King Richard bore down upon him at Bosworth field. Since the battle, victorious or not, he’s lived each day in fear.
There are many ways for a man to die; by poison or an assassin’s knife. And there are many, myself among them, who long to sink a blade between his shoulders. That is why he cannot move freely among the people but keeps a guard about him so heavy an army couldn’t breach it.

Anemone, Florets, Blossom, Bloom

Henry shuffles his feet, unkempt beside the natural majesty of his queen. He offers her his arm and I watch them process about the garden. He conceals his resentment well, but I have seen him blanch when the common folk call her name instead of his as she passes by. As the eldest surviving child of York, Henry owes his throne to her good breeding. Those who would rise against him are soothed by the knowledge that the thick blood of York will dilute the tainted stuff of Tudor.
The queen’s laughter draws my eye from Henry. She is as fair as the summer sky, and I will not use her secret against her … unless I have to.
She is the sister of the one they call the pretender, although there are some who swear his false claims are true. He is lodged at court, housed in the king’s closet, the butt of all jokes, a humourless clown among princes. Only the queen and Katherine do not laugh.
Last summer, before Warbeck was imprisoned in the Tower, I found myself privy to a private conversation, and in possession of the queen’s greatest secret.
For a while, in his magnanimity, the king allowed Warbeck the freedom of the court. I call it freedom but his movements were restricted and his every movement watched. It was shameful for a prince to be kept among jesters and fools, regarded by all as a figure of fun. He made light of it but secretly, King Henry was shaken by the pretender’s claims, and more than once I heard him call out in the night; his dreams haunted both by those he’d slain … and those he hadn’t.
I saw the queen go swiftly into the garden and, my curiosity piqued, I followed and hid myself away. At first, I thought it a lover’s tryst but when the sun crept from behind a cloud to reveal the face of her companion, my heart began to thump, slow and loud.
I sat unmoving, scarcely breathing.

Warbeck stood up when he heard the queen’s soft step. He whipped off his cap.
‘Richard?’ she whispered. For a long moment they stood a foot apart, and then he fell to his knees. While he planted kisses on the back of her right hand, her other went out to caress his fair hair.
‘Elizabeth?’ he murmured. ‘You know me then?’
She did not speak and so he continued. ‘You have grown as fair as Father always said you would. Do you recall when the French king broke the treaty and you were downhearted? Father swore the Dauphin would come to regret it, for you would grow to be the fairest princess in Christendom. He was right; you are a beauty!’
A single tear fell upon her cheek.
‘I never wanted marriage with France but it hurt to be discarded all the same,’ she smiled.
‘… and then Uncle Richard gave you a puppy to cheer you - what was his name? Ceasar? Brutus?’
‘Rufus,’ Elizabeth laughed. ‘And wasn’t Mother furious when he chewed her new slippers?’
Two heads, identical in colour, came together at the shared memory. They did not release each other’s hands but clung on.
I was empowered. Elizabeth, the queen, recognised the pretender as her brother. Warbeck was, indeed, England’s lost prince. The answer to York’s prayers.
I wiped sweat from my brow and watched the couple rise and stroll about the garden. I strained to listen and heard Warbeck say; ‘Will you speak in my defence, Bess?’
I held my breath, willed her to answer ‘yes,’ but the queen dropped her head. I noticed her shoulders were shaking.
‘How can I, Richard? I cannot fight Henry, and if I speak against him, he will have me put aside. How could I depose my own son for my brother’s cause? The king is ruthless and his retribution would be thorough. My position, my reputation would be entirely destroyed! No Richard, you must renounce your claims and I will beg Henry for clemency. Let him believe you are the impostor, Warbeck, as he says you are. I will entreat him to allow you to retire to the country with Katherine Gordon. You can live in contentment there, a country squire and his wife; it will be better than prison … or worse.’
Richard’s head went up. Familial faces; his stricken, hers tortured.
‘You know I can never give up my rightful place, Bess. I am of York! Father would want me to fight to the death for my crown, and so I must.’
She lifted her chin, proud and determined through her tears.
‘Father would not want you to fight against my sons.’
Her tears fell freely but he offered her no comfort. The hopes he had placed on this one meeting were all in vain, and their kinship disintegrating. With a great cry, mixed of anger and anxiety, he turned and sped away.
‘You will not win, Richard …’ she cried after him before dropping onto the arbour seat.
I dithered, uncertain how I should use this knowledge. The country was seething with unrest. I could raise support for Warbeck and help him terminate the Tudor tyranny but, in backing him, I would lose all hopes of Katherine for she would be queen and even further from my reach.
If I betrayed him to the king, the man I hated, I would be rewarded well. With Warbeck sentenced to the darkness of the Tower, slowly but surely, hook by hook, I could reel her into my bed.

Red Rose, Rose, Rose Bloom, Blossom

But now it seems, I have a greater rival than her husband. His tryst spoiled, the king bows over the queen’s hand, and then lingers over Katherine’s, leaving a string of royal spittle on her wrist. I notice her wipe it on the back of her gown as he scuttles back to his counting-house. Once he has gone, the women seem to breathe more easily. They seat themselves in an arbour where red and white roses cascade above and behind, twining with honeysuckle and late columbines. The queen reaches up to pluck a rosebud and holds it to her nose.

Rose, Blossom, Bloom, White, Bud, Pink

‘This is where I saw him last,’ she murmurs. The women look about the garden to ensure they are not overheard and, in my hiding place, I prick up my ears.
‘I am his wedded wife, yet once he was in the tower I did not see him at all.’
Elizabeth places her hand on Katherine’s. ‘If I could have changed anything, believe that I would have.’
‘I know, I know.’ Katherine’s tears teeter like raindrops on leaf’s edge. ‘How did he seem, when you saw him?’
‘At first, we were like strangers, each nervous of the other. I hadn’t seen him since he was ten years old, and I had truly believed him dead. I was afraid I would not know him yet, at the same time, afraid that I would. I imagine he felt the same. It was confusing, a mix of longing and dread; so much depended upon me knowing him.’
‘So much,’ Katherine whispers, ‘yet, in the end, it meant nothing.’
Ignoring the barb, the queen continues.
‘When I came upon him sitting just here, where we are now, I recognised him straight away; the tilt of his head, the way his hair glinted in the sun, the exact shade that Richard’s had been. Then, when he looked up, he had the same eyes, the same nose. Oh, yes, I knew him straight away. As we talked, afraid at every moment of discovery, he recalled things from his childhood that only I would know but he didn’t need to prove himself to me. I would have known him anywhere. If only I could have persuaded Henry to spare his life, but he would not hear of it. Richard was a threat; Richard had to die.’
Katherine is tearing her lace kerchief to pieces in her lap. Her head is down but I can see her chin wobbling, the teardrops that fall upon her hands.
‘I could not bring myself to believe it would happen,’ she weeps. ‘I was certain help would come from somewhere. I was on my knees, night and day, begging for God’s mercy, for a reprieve. But now all I can do is pray for his heavenly redemption.’
Her voice breaks on an ugly sob, and the queen places her arm across Katherine’s shoulders.
‘At least you have the boy,’ she whispers and Katherine’s head jerks. Her face pales.
‘How can you know of him?’
The queen smiles.
‘In my position it is as well to keep informed, my dear. I am glad your son thrives; he is my nephew and one day, perhaps, he can take his place at court.’
‘He can never take his rightful place,’ Katherine hisses, ‘not as long as a son of yours is alive.’
Elizabeth withdraws her arm.
‘My son, Prince Arthur, will make a fine king, in the manner of his grandfather, Edward. He will rule in the Yorkist way. Your son, Lady Gordon, will not rule. You must give up all idea of him ever inheriting the throne. His identity must never be revealed. You’d not want him to swing, like his father.’
I am surprised to discover our meek, obedient queen conceals a heart of steel.
Katherine drops her hostility like a hot coal.
‘Forgive me; I am overwrought. But please, does the king know?’
The queen pats Katherine’s hand and they are wary friends again.
‘No, no, and as long as you keep quiet, he will not learn of it from me.’
Lady Gordon smiles upon her queen.
‘I am not able to see my son for more than a few weeks in the year. I would like to leave the court but the king will not hear of it. He keeps me here in what he calls ‘honourable confinement.’
Her dagger does not find its mark.
‘I know that also, Katherine, and you have my condolence. Your confinement suits the king’s purposes very well but his favour brings you some worldly comforts though, does it not? I hear you have a fine white palfrey, and you are well clothed. I even noticed him allow you to win at cards, something which is quite against his principles. The winnings must provide substantial supplement to a gentlewoman’s income.’

British School, 16th century - Elizabeth of York - Haunted Gallery, Hampton Court Palace.jpg

This news displeases me. I shudder at the thought of my lovely flower, crushed beneath the body of the king. She may be paid well for her services but there are surely some comforts a woman can do without. I wish I had moved against the king when I’d had the chance. In ridding myself of one rival I have gained a greater. But … Warbeck has a son – a son of York… this is news indeed. 
I claw the knowledge away.

Roses, Espalie, Have, Fredensborg

The women kiss and the queen leaves Katherine wilting like a cut lily in the arbour. As I slip from concealment, my heart is pounding. I have never dared to speak to her before. When I clear my throat, she ceases weeping.
‘Lady?’ I murmur, in horrified tones. ‘Are you unwell? May I be of assistance?’
She looks up, a vision of Heaven, and fumbles with her ruined kerchief.
‘Allow me, Lady Gordon,’ I say, revelling at the sound of her name on my tongue. ‘I notice your own kerchief is of little use.’
She looks up at me, her blue eyes blurred with tears.
My pulse races, my loins stir.
‘Thank you, Sir,’ she says, ‘but, you have the advantage of me. I am afraid I do not know your name.’
She blesses my kerchief with her tears and attempts to smile.
‘My name, dear lady, is James Strangeways; gentleman usher to the king. Forgive me, lady, but I knew your husband, Perkin Warbeck …or Richard, as he preferred to be called.’

King Henry, Royalty, Tudor, Monarch

I am lying, of course. I’ve never been a friend to the pretender but her answering smile is like sunshine...

©Judith Arnopp 2019 

Did you guess the song title?
(Official You Tube Video)

Author’s note

Sometime between the last days of Richard III’s reign and Henry the VII’s early years on the throne, the two young sons of Edward IV disappeared from the Tower of London. Their names were Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York. The Tudor’s claimed they were slaughtered by their uncle, Richard III. However, during Henry’s reign, a man with many loyal followers challenged Henry’s throne, claiming to be the younger of  those princes.
Despite his princely demeanour and detailed knowledge of Edward IV’s court, he was dismissed as a pretender. Henry declared him to be Perkin Warbeck, the son of a Flemish boatman and, prior to his execution, he admitted as much
The Pretender’s wife, Lady Katherine Gordon, was kept at Henry’s court in ‘honourable confinement.’ She served as lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York (the sister of the lost princes) until the queen’s death in 1503. After that, she remained at court as King Henry’s companion, some say paramour, but there is no evidence of this apart from a few hints at intimacy and grants of land and wealth that she received.
The fate of the son she bore to Perkin Warbeck (or Richard of York) is not recorded but today the Perkins family, who live on the Gower peninsular in Wales, trace their family tree back to the son of Peter Osbeck of Tournai. This tale is more legend than fact but it becomes more intriguing when one considers the last years of Katherine’s life.
After Henry’s death in 1509, Katherine married the first of two subsequent husbands. The first, James Strangeways, died six years after the wedding. Katherine subsequently married Matthew Craddock, the Earl of Worcester’s deputy in South Wales. He died in 1531 and Katherine settled near Swansea, just eight miles from the home of the Perkins family in Reynoldston on the Gower peninsular.

Judith Arnopp is the author of twelve historical fiction novels written from the perspective of historical women from all walks of life, prostitutes to Tudor queens. Her non-fiction articles feature in various historical anthologies, magazines and historical blogs.


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There will be another story inspired by a song tomorrow!

The Full List of Authors

2nd   M.J. Logue   First Love 
3rd   Richard Tearle Chips and Ice Cream
4th    Helen Hollick Promises, Promises
5th    Paul Marriner Memories
6th    Pam Webber One Door Closing
7th    Louise Adam Hurt Me Once
8th    Barbara Gaskell Denvil Sticks and Stones
9th    Judith Arnopp Secrets
10th  Erica LainĂ©  Silk Stockings
11th   Anna Belfrage Hold Me, Love Me, Leave Me? 
12th  Annie Whitehead Frozen
13th  Tony Riches Alas, My Love
14th  Clare Flynn, Zipless
15th  J.G. Harlond The Last Assignment
16th  Elizabeth St John Under The Clock
17th  Alison Morton Honoria’s Battle
18th  Jean Gill The Hunter
19th  Patricia Bracewell Daddy's Gift
20th Debbie Young It Doesn't Feel Like Christmas
21st   Ruth Downie  Doing It Properly
22nd Nicky Galliers What God Has Joined
23rd  Elizabeth Chadwick The Cloak
26th  Helen Hollick Ever After
27th   Barbara Gaskell Denvil Just The One... Or Maybe Two
28th   Deborah Swift Just Another Day
29th   Amy Maroney What The Plague Brings
30th   Cryssa Bazos River Mud

 Note: There is copyright legislation for song lyrics 
but no copyright in names, titles or ideas

StorySong graphic by @Avalongraphics 
additional images via Pixabay accreditation not required


  1. Fascinating history and a villain so slimy I need to go and shower! Brilliant choice of viewpoint and adds suspense to this turbulent time.

    1. Ha ha, yes a hot shower and a bar of carbolic should sort it - lol

  2. Great story Judith! What an interesting premise and what a great character James is. Nasty, scheming, but great!

    1. I have probably done Mr Strangeways a great disservice. Thank you for enjoying my villain.

  3. Not being a Tudor 'fan' I know very little about this period - heard the name of this guy but that's my limit so I found this story particularly interesting - thanks Judith!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. We know very little of Strangeways and I'm sure he was a lovely chap really.

  4. Oh yes, love this story. great sense of period and two villains! Well done!

  5. How intriguing! And how tragic, with poor Elizabeth having nothing to offer her brother...

    1. Thank you. Elizabeth never officially met Warbeck but I imagine she must have seen him and if it had been Richard … would she have admitted it? I doubt it.

  6. Thank you for all the kind comments.This short story inspired me to take it further and write A Song of Sixpence which tells the story of Elizabeth in more detail. I had one person this morning complaining that Henry Tudor was a good guy but of course these aren't my opinions, they are James Strangeways' - lol.

    1. I absolutely fail to see how Henry VIII could be seen as a good guy... and hooray for the expanded version, will you make it into an entire novel? (hope so!)

    2. I already did Helen, A Song of Sixpence came out in 2015 - lol

  7. A terrific villain – a real shudder job – and poor Katherine Gordon!
    i love these mysteries of history, the side stories of great events and great people. Thank you!

    1. I love writing villains. You are right, where would Histfic authors be without these lovely voids in the historical record.

  8. Fascinating Judith, and really enjoyed!

  9. What wonderful writing, and I totally agree, Henry Tudor was a cad! And poor Elizabeth - I didn't think I could feel sympathy for her.

  10. Thank you. I must admit my feelings toward Henry have mellowed since I wrote this. The research I did for The Beaufort Chronicle when I had to view him through Margaret Beaufort eyes suggested he wasn't all bad :)


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