Archbishop Thoresby of York, the second most powerful cleric in England, lies on his deathbed. The end of his life is seen by the great families of the North as a chance to promote one of their own as his successor—and Thoresby himself announces he will leave the matter to the dean and chapter of York.
On the eve of this decision, the dying archbishop agrees to a visit from Joan, Princess of Wales, wife of the Black Prince, heir to the throne of England. Thoresby’s captain of the guard, Owen Archer, has no doubt that trouble will follow.
As soon as the company rides into the palace yard he is proved right: they arrive burdened with the body of one of their party, and Owen finds evidence the man’s death was no accident. Within days of this discovery, a courier carrying an urgent message for the archbishop is found hanging in the woods. With guards surrounding the property, it is clear the murderer walks among the palace guests. The powerful Percy and Neville families are well represented in the entourage, including a woman who remembers an afternoon tryst with Owen as much, much more. Even the princess’s son is suspect. As Owen races to unmask the guilty and rid the palace of the royal party, his final wish for his lord is that he might die in peace . . .
“As always, Candace Robb writes a powerful story intertwined with genuine characters of the day.” —Historical Novels Review
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A Goodly Company
Captain Owen Archer stood in a shaft of sunlight with his lieutenants Alfred and Gilbert, his scarred but handsome face grim as he spoke to them. As Brother Michaelo rushed about, overseeing the preparations for the large and grand company of guests expected to arrive by midafternoon, he caught snippets of the captain's commands. The fair Gilbert was to ride out with a group of guards to surround the company as it approached, and the lanky, balding Alfred was in charge of the guard protecting the perimeter of the manor of Bishopthorpe. Noticing a deep shadow beneath Archer's good eye and how he wearily rubbed the scar beneath his leather eye patch, Michaelo remembered their conversation the previous evening.
Archer had reluctantly admitted that he would miss Archbishop Thoresby, and that he resented the danger Princess Joan's visit presented. With King Edward and his heir and namesake both ailing and the Archbishop of York on his deathbed, the Scots might anticipate sufficient disarray in the northern defences that they could easily seize Prince Edward's wife as she travelled so far north. The French had no love for Prince Edward, who had proven his military prowess on their soil all too frequently, and the new King Robert II of Scotland, having renewed the Scots-French alliance, might enjoy handing Edward's wife to the French king to prove his worth.
'His Grace should have peace in his final days and not be worrying about the possibility of such a disaster,' Archer had said, smacking the table with his hand. 'I would have it so.' His voice broke with the last words — that was when Michaelo plumbed the depths of the captain's affection for the archbishop. It surprised him. Archer had spent a decade resenting His Grace. Michaelo wondered at this change.
'They say the fair Princess Joan has ever been headstrong. Pray she suddenly changes her mind and rides south,' Archer had added.
But Michaelo welcomed the distraction of a royal guest in the palace. In his opinion it would cheer them all. Though he admitted to himself that the captain and his lieutenants hardly looked cheered.
Breath. I'm fighting my own body for breath. My flesh wants to cease this struggle, but my spirit is not ready. I will soon meet St Peter at Heaven's gate. But not yet, dear Lord, not yet.
John Thoresby, Archbishop of York and sometime Lord Chancellor of England, reminded himself of this when tempted to complain about how weary he was, how frustrated he was with his struggle for full, satisfying breaths. He was still alive, choosing to blow on the dying embers to tease out more life, and every moment was precious.
Never in all his long life had he felt so keenly the separation of mind and body. He was a little forgetful, but for the most part his mind was still robust. He felt betrayed by the weakness of his body, which trembled now with fatigue as he adjusted his legs, trying to stretch out a cramp without attracting the attention of the healer Magda Digby, who watched so discreetly from her seat beside the foot of the bed that he sometimes forgot she was there.
'Thou art cramping.' She rose and reached beneath the covers, exploring his calves, then pressing and pulling just the right muscle, showing it how to relax.
Despite his attempt to hide his discomfort from her Thoresby was grateful for her ministrations. 'God bless you,' he murmured.
She made a quiet, chuckling sound.
'He will bless you if my prayers are worth anything,' said Thoresby. Their playful interaction lifted his spirits.
'Thy god may do as he pleases,' said Magda. Clear blue eyes in a wizened face, the wrinkles exaggerated by the smile that engaged all — eyes, mouth, cheeks — she held his gaze for a moment, her expression affectionate, kind, and teasing. Then she nodded, satisfied, and returned to her chair — a stool, actually. But as she was a tiny woman, her spine still straight and strong, she preferred it to the cushioned chair the archbishop's personal secretary, Brother Michaelo, kept offering her, which would leave her feet dangling in the air.
Thoresby had grown fond of Magda. It was such an unlikely friendship that he smiled to himself thinking about it, a pagan healer and an archbishop. Magda Digby was a pagan as far as Thoresby could decipher, always quick to reject his prayers for her, though she gave of herself in a most Christian way. She was a midwife and healer, preferring to work among those who could not afford to pay her. She lived outside the city walls close to the ramshackle huts of the poor on a rock that was an island when the tide rolled upriver — many called her the Riverwoman. Owen Archer and his wife, the apothecary Lucie Wilton, had worked hard to convince Magda to come to Thoresby at Bishopthorpe. She had argued that he had the wealth to hire the best physicians in the realm. But Thoresby had observed firsthand her skill as she worked with a badly burned man a few years earlier, and the experience had opened his eyes to her profound work as a healer among the folk of York and the shire. He had decided he wanted none other caring for him at the end. He also knew she would not fuss, nor would she lie in an attempt to cheer him. There was a time when he'd condemned her, for he knew she helped women prevent unwanted births, tended some people with injuries they wished to hide from authorities, and performed other questionable services for those who could afford it in order to finance her work among the poor. But Thoresby had come to believe that her good works far outweighed those he must disapprove of as a leader of the Church.
All must come to understand Magda Digby for themselves. She was unique.
Unfortunately, his peaceful time in her care was soon to be interrupted. Later this day Joan, Princess of Wales, wife of Edward, the present King Edward's eldest son and thus the future king of England, was coming to Bishopthorpe, bringing with her a highly recommended physician as an offering. Thoresby did not wish to see the physician, but to refuse him might cause too much official interest in Magda Digby's presence. Some might consider her a heretic and oppose her presence or wish her harm, and he would be sorry to cause any discomfort to his newfound friend.
He knew Princess Joan was bringing the physician as compensation for the advice she sought from him. In her letter proposing the visit she had mentioned how the late Queen Phillippa had sought Thoresby's advice in both matters of state and personal issues, and had advised Joan to place her trust in him. Indeed, she had written, he was widely respected for his sage counsel. She need not have bribed him with compliments, for such a journey was not lightly undertaken, and he knew the seriousness of her situation. Her father-in-law the king was aged and vague, her husband Prince Edward had been suffering a wasting sickness for several years, her eldest son had died two years earlier and she feared her son Richard might be called to the throne too soon, being but six years old. Thoresby's goddaughter Gwenllian Archer was that age, and he could not imagine saddling her with adult cares. She was so young, so unformed, so vulnerable. He understood why the princess worried.
Take the boy and your ailing husband and return to Bordeaux, where you were happy, Thoresby was tempted to advise. But Joan was the granddaughter of Edward Longshanks, the present king's grandfather, the daughter of Edmund of Woodstock who had given his life for his brother, and she had been wed to two members of the Order of the Garter. She was not a woman who would run from her duty.
Nor would Thoresby neglect his duty despite Magda's advice to refuse any visitations. In one of his first conversations with Magda he'd realised she had no idea of his status. She was unaware of the extent of his power as Archbishop of York, and hence the fierce competition among the various court and Church parties to have their representative chosen as his successor. Nor did she grasp the weight of his responsibility toward the Church and the government of the realm. No wonder she treated him as an equal, he'd thought, somewhat disappointed that it wasn't a sign of a strong sense of her own personal worth. But when her behaviour did not change after he'd explained his standing to her he was strangely delighted.
'You realise that the Church of Rome is more powerful than any individual kingdom?' Thoresby asked her.
'Magda is aware that churchmen use fear of terrible suffering after death to control most of her countrymen. That has been sufficient understanding of thy power for Magda's purpose.'
Thoresby did not for a moment believe that to be the true extent of her knowledge, but he'd proceeded to explain that his See, or archbishopric, included half of the souls of the realm, and that he controlled an immense wealth as well as the spiritual conscience of half the kingdom. 'And as former Lord Chancellor I have considerable knowledge of the powerful families in the realm, their alliances, their ambitions — these same families expect me to use my influence to guide the dean and chapter of York Minster in their choice of my successor.' Although the selection of the next archbishop of York would affect not only the Church in the realm but also the political climate, it was the duty of a small group of men, the canons and the dean of York Minster, to choose Thoresby's successor. 'I've no doubt that they've spies everywhere trying to discover my intentions, whether or not I'll push harder for votes for my nephew, so that they might know whether to support or undermine me.'
'This does not sound spiritual to Magda.'
'No. If the pope and his archbishops and bishops are carrying out their duties they have little time for the spiritual life.' He dropped his gaze, embarrassed by this admission. In boasting of his temporal power he'd emphasised his spiritual poverty. It was then that he'd realised that he'd sought out Magda not just as a healer but also as a spiritual guide, sensing in her a depth of soul that he no longer found in himself.
'And the princess?' Magda had asked. 'What is her purpose in disturbing thee?'
Something in her voice suggested that she sensed his discomfort and meant to change the subject. Thoresby was grateful.
'Princess Joan might also wish to influence the chapter's vote, but her main purpose is to hear my thoughts on whom she might trust to support her young son if his father dies betimes.'
'These are heavy matters for thy sickbed,' said Magda.
'Ah, but there is a promise of blue sky behind the impending clouds — Princess Joan is one of the most beautiful women I've ever encountered, fair of face and figure, gentle and kind. She will light up this pathetic sickroom. That is a measure of God's grace.'
Magda had found that amusing.
'You leave shortly, Dame Magda?' he asked now, though as he spoke the words he heard them echo in his mind and knew that he'd asked this already, her response lost in his sometimes muddled mind.
'In a little while, Thy Grace,' she said. 'Magda and Alisoun will go to Lucie Wilton's apothecary for physicks and a rest, and then return in a few days, when thy royal visitor is not so likely to take note of common healers.'
She looked him in the eyes as she spoke, not alarmed that he'd forgotten her plans, steady in her resolve, in all things a comfort to him.
A few days. He prayed that he lived so long and was still awake and aware upon her return.
'You will remind Dame Lucie to bring my godchildren?' Gwenllian, Hugh and Emma Archer, the children of Lucie Wilton and Owen Archer, his captain of the guard, were his godchildren, and he was very fond of them.
Magda nodded. 'They will kiss thy brow before thou dost take thy leave if Magda can make that possible. Thou mightst pray to thy god for that as well.'
'You know that I have.' He smiled as he closed his eyes, but opened them with one more request. 'Ask her to bring her adopted son as well, young Jasper. He is an admirable lad.'
'Magda will include Jasper.'
Strange old crow, Magda thought as she glanced around the chamber. Silken hangings and bed coverings, embroidered cushions and finely carved chairs, the finest wines, broths made with the best ingredients — and Magda in her gown of multi-coloured rags in charge. She chuckled to herself. John Thoresby had proven to be an unexpectedly complex man of quiet wisdom, surprisingly inspiring love. She was honoured that he trusted her to care for him — she had not expected to feel so. She would mourn his passing.
Plumes of vapour floated just above the roadbed as the hot afternoon sun shone down on the mud from a week of rain. September had begun with a touch of autumn, but it now seemed like high summer again but for the cool evenings. Though they stood their posts, well aware of their captain's watchfulness, the archbishop's guards squinted against the glare when the steam shifted.
No one was more aware of the glare than Captain Owen Archer, who disliked anything that caused his one good eye to tear, effectively blinding him. Those with two functioning eyes could not appreciate their immense gift — he had not when so blessed. He sent his lieutenant, Alfred, to admonish those whose attention wandered from the road. He wanted no missteps in the plan for his men to encircle the company of the Princess of Wales as they entered Bishopthorpe, ensuring that they and only they entered the yard of Archbishop Thoresby's palace.
Owen heard the travelling party before they rode out of the woods. Horses and wagons, clopping and creaking. The herald sounded his horn as he came within sight of Owen and his men, armed and mounted and commanding the road. Owen bowed and sheathed his sword, signalling his men to begin closing in around the last of the princess's party as it halted. Knights, soldiers, clerics, a nun, and a lady were on horseback, accompanied by several carts. From the cart in the centre hung with gaily-painted fabric, a heavily veiled head emerged and then quickly withdrew. The two knights dismounted — one was much younger than the other. As Owen dismounted he noticed the usual apprehension on their faces as the knights took in his scars, the patch over his left eye.
'Captain Archer.' The older knight bowed. 'Sir Lewis Clifford. And this is Sir John Holand.'
'Sir Lewis. Sir John.' Owen was especially interested in the younger knight, Princess Joan's son by her first husband, Thomas Holand. Joan's marital history had been the talk of the realm on several occasions. As a girl of twelve, being raised in the household of the Earl of Salisbury, she had been secretly betrothed to the young Thomas Holand. But when he was away, making his name and fortune in Prussia, her guardian had married her to his son and heir, William Montague. On returning to England Thomas Holand had petitioned the Pope to overturn her marriage to William Montague in favour of her earlier secret, but still legitimate, marriage to him, and eventually won her back. In widowhood, she had won the heart of Prince Edward and, once again, entered into a clandestine marriage. Upon discovering it King Edward had been furious, having intended to use his heir's marriage for a political alliance outside the realm. But in the end he settled for dissolving the vows made in secret and solemnizing the marriage with a more official, traditional, public ceremony. Joan's sons by Thomas Holand would never be kings, but her son by Prince Edward would in his turn be heir to the throne; Owen was curious how that sat with the half-brother, whether he harboured any resentment, any ambitions beyond his station.
'I am relieved to see a seasoned soldier in charge.' Sir Lewis looked Owen in his good eye; his own were red and tired, and the dust of the road picked out the lines of fatigue on his square, tanned face. 'I had heard you were wounded in the service of Henry of Grosmont.'
'It was my great honour to serve him.' Grosmont had been Duke of Lancaster, a duchy now held by Princess Joan's brother-in-law, John of Gaunt, the second-oldest living son of King Edward III.
'I have heard you had risen to the rank of captain of archers in Lancaster's service. You were much honoured by a noble commander,' said young Sir John.
Though he did not speak it, Owen heard in that last comment Sir John's incredulity that a Welshman had been so trusted. Once again he wondered whether the young man felt shoved aside, one who feels outside the honoured circle being more keenly aware of another outsider.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Vigil of Spies"
Copyright © 1997 Candace Robb.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am very comfortable with this series now and the main characters are like old friends. The decline and death of Archbishop Thoresby was well handled. It did have a feeling of finality about it, even though the author says in her end note that she has not yet finished with Owen Archer.