My last article was about Richard III’s wife Anne, who was possibly “a reluctant queen.” I would like to introduce you to my take on a younger version of this character in the following passage, the first two pages of my new novel, The Neville Inheritance. The year is 1469.
Anne Neville had planned exactly how the day would go. She awoke very early on that Monday morning, the first day of May, immediately after the first cock’s crow and just as the eastern sky was beginning to show a glimmer of light. In truth she had slept very little the night before, for she was about to do something so bold that it was almost unthinkable. There was a real possibility that she could fail completely and all her plans and preparations turn to dust.
She dressed very quickly, picked up the large straw basket she had set aside the night before and went out. Middleham Castle still slept. The great hall was deserted although she detected the yeasty aroma of fresh bread as she passed the bakehouse. No matter. Hunger was the last thing on her mind now. The night watchman who stood guard at the castle’s side door gave her no more than a casual wave of his hand. He would probably have been more vigilant if her father had been at home but he was not. The great Earl of Warwick was on the Continent where he held the important post of Captain of Calais.
Anne stopped briefly as she stepped out of doors and surveyed the view of Wensleydale spread before her. Of all of the places she had lived in her young life, Middleham was her favorite. The castle was old, of Norman vintage though her father and grandfather had done their best to make it into a comfortable dwelling. Yet it was not for this that she loved it but for its location, perched on the edge of a hill above the beautiful River Ure. Below her, the river threaded its way through the valley like a silver ribbon. Around her, just visible in the growing light, rose the broad-shouldered fells that marked the edge of the dale. Above her, the sky was streaked with pink and the air reverberated with a dawn chorus of birdsong. From the pleasing cacophony of trills, chirps, and warbles, she distinguished the bubbling melody of a skylark and the plaintive cry of a curlew.
After the dankness of the castle, the morning air smelled fresh and clean and was still quite cool. For a moment she regretted not having worn a heavier wrap but there was no time now to go back for one. Instead, she walked to the meadow that flanked the castle, a large open field used in summer for pasture. Now it was empty of cattle or sheep, and spring wildflowers grew there in abundance. At this early hour, every blade of grass and every leaf, stem and blossom was beaded with dew. She scooped it up eagerly with her hands and cupped them over her face, wincing a little as the cold moisture stung her cheeks. It was well known that the dew of a May Day morning had magical properties that could bring youth and vitality to a woman’s complexion, and on this morning of all mornings she would take any advantage she could find.
She then set about gathering a rainbow of wildflowers and putting them in her basket: bright pink birds-eye primula, purple saxifrage, yellow pimpernel and cowslip, lavender dog-violets, white ramson, periwinkle harebells, and tiny blue forget-me-nots. In a sheltered area nearby, she found a patch of lily-of-the valley guarded by a thicket of dark green spears. She plucked some of the delicate white blossoms, inhaling their strong, sweet fragrance as she placed them in her basket with the others. The sun was just peeking over the eastern horizon as she made her way home. Another hour of preparation lay ahead of her.
Ever since the arrival of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, at Middleham the week before, she had known she must make her move today. Although he probably didn’t know it, she had been in love with him since they were children. Nor did she know if he shared her feelings, but she planned to find out that morning. The ancient fertility festival of Beltane, still widely celebrated with maypoles, morris dancing and general merry-making, gave her license to do things that would have been forbidden on any other day of the year. Anne was not quite thirteen, but she sensed that time was running out for her as surely as the last grains of sand sifting through an hourglass. Her parents had been having quiet conversations that seemed to end abruptly as soon as she entered the room, and she suspected they were plotting out her future in their hushed voices including, most importantly, the identity of her husband-to-be.
As far as Anne was concerned, the only acceptable candidate for that honor was Richard of Gloucester. In theory he made an ideal match. He was King Edward’s youngest brother and had spent much of his boyhood in this very castle where her family had provided the only stability he had known. His father, the Duke of York, had been slain in battle when Richard was only eight years old, and he had been sent to Middleham shortly thereafter to be trained in the manly arts of knighthood by her father. In the years he had spent in Warwick’s tutelage, he had become like a son to the family and by extension almost like an older brother to her, but her feelings toward him were not at all sisterly.
Now back in her bedchamber with her preparations almost complete, Anne regarded herself critically in the looking glass. Her heart-shaped face, with its large, brown eyes, stared back at her from between masses of dark copper-colored hair that spilled over her shoulders and down her back. She had washed it in henna and chamomile just last evening. Her muslin gown was virginal white with a sweeping full skirt and a tight, low-cut bodice that revealed a modest suggestion of cleavage. Her breasts were fairly new; they had filled out only in the past few months and were still small but high and firm. While she might have wished for fuller breasts, like those boasted by her older sister Isabel, there was no time to wait for them to develop.
On her head she placed one of the two ivy and flower crowns she had just finished after weaving in the fragile blooms from the meadow. In her hand she carried a wand covered with more flowers. A second identical floral wreath lay on the bed along with a green suit, the traditional garment worn by suitors on May Day morning. This had required extensive work over the past few days. She had sewn it late into the night, working by the light of a single candle and trying all the while to gage Richards’s size so that it would fit him when he put it on. Oh, how she hoped he would put it on!