*I have wanted to write about the Plantagenet princes and their possible fate for a long time and was inspired to do so after finishing Phillipa Gregory’s White Queen this last week. I ran long – again – sorry.
Tradition dictated that Henry spend the night before his coronation in The Tower as greater kings of England had done before him and his heirs, God willing, would do after him, but danger and sorrow were as infused in the stone walls as joy and triumph and it was those emotions speaking to him as he lay on the four-poster staring sightless at the canopy above him. His mind’s eye reflected back at him like a painter’s canvas scenes well-known and merely well imagined court gossip. The dead whispered like supplicants, begging for his ear and judgement though Henry wondered how a king with bloody hands could rightly be called upon to administer justice.
Though far from empty as there were guards at every door, even the one that separated his privy chambers from the makeshift council room set up for him by his Uncle Jasper and stepfather, Lord Stanley to serve until the new king moved into Whitehall, Henry shivered with a creeping feeling of isolation. It occurred to him that this night was perhaps the only night in his life he’d spent alone without cousins, uncles, mother or retainers of any sort. Alone.
“That’s what it is to be king,” Jasper had reminded him often in the last decade. “Your mother and I will always be nearby and ready to offer counsel, should you ask – and her even if you don’t – but to be aloof and unto himself alone is what it means to rule as King of England. No man, nor woman either, can share the burden that will fall on you.”
He sighed deeply and sat up. He hadn’t stripped down for bed. His Chamberlain yet to be decided, Henry recoiled from Stanley’s suggestion that he needed a master of the wardrobe to help him dress and undress.
“Seriously, Uncle?” he complained when it was just he and Jasper, the council dismissed for the evening and his mother reluctantly dragged off by her husband.
“You wanted to be, Harry,” Jasper smiled.
“I never wanted to be King,” Henry said. “It’s the price I pay for outliving every other claimant.”
Jasper laughed, rocking back his chair to prop his legs on the table between them.
“You preferred life on the French dole then?” he asked. “Forever a supplicant on bended knee, staring down your nose at shite caked boots?”
Henry silently surveyed his Uncle’s reclining form and toured the simple splendor of his Tower chambers with narrowed grey eyes before shaking his head, but he knew that being king was not something he would have consciously give a care to had another path been open to him.
“I miss Wales,” he said.
Jasper smiled. “It’s gone nowhere. Nor will it.”
Henry climbed from the bed and headed for the door before reconsidering and making for the small ante-chamber he’d discovered earlier. It was a small room sparsely furnished with just a desk, a chair and a tall wardrobe containing old vestments of all things. At first glance it appeared adjacent only with no way of escape save the door leading back to the bed chamber. But Henry had not spent a life on the run without learning a truth or two about rooms like these. There was always another way out though it was seldom apparent to the unhunted eye.
It had taken him less than an hour to discover the secret door cleverly concealed in the back of a wardrobe which was securely attached to a wall and led directly to a damp and dimly light staircase that spiraled up and down. Henry recalled that his own chambers were directly under an open terrace that connected towers on either side and so he turned sharply right and sprung cat-like downward into the dimness with less caution than a newly minted king should, he was sure his Uncle would have said though he was equally certain that Jasper would have followed him for the pure adventure of it as well.
Within minutes, it was clear to Henry that the stairway had passed the main floor and he was below ground. The walls dripped a dank dew and a musty smell mixed with the stench of the Thames, which lapped The Tower walls with a familiarity bred over generations. Even so Henry realized with a shock that the air was lightening as he spiraled away from the world above into the bowels of a place with more secrets than even he as king would ever be privileged to know. Only when his stockinged feet fell flat and the narrow hall widened to reveal a door cracked open to the point that light spilled out and threatened him with exposure did Henry stop and consider the rashness of his actions.
“I am King,” he thought. “I chose this at the end, so why am I prowling about like some spoiled princeling pup?”
Before he could turn thought to action and retreat up the stairwell, a voice called out from the secret room.
“Who goes there? Uncle? Is that you? Are you returned at last?”
It was a boy. Without thinking, Henry replied.
“No, it is I, Henry Tudor.”
“Not King Henry?” the voice gently mocked. “Why such reticence? I was told the Tudors thought themselves grand. I am much surprised by your humility.”
Slowly Henry approached the door, stretching out a hand to swing it open wide before peering in.
“I am no threat to you, Henry Tudor, King of England. Step in and see for yourself.”
Years on the battlefield could not quite overcome the heart hammering fear as he stepped through the doorway. Though he was not a tall man, he needed to bow slightly and when he looked up again, he found himself face to face with a monster.
In spite of himself, he gasped and tottered back, catching the frame of the door as he felt one foot slide away. The creature did not move but smiled and turned away. Limping slightly, it walked the length of a deceptively large room and seated itself at table still set for supper.
“Forgive my appearance, Cousin,” it said, waving towards a vacant seat across from itself. “Join me, please. I wish to hear all the news for it has been sometime now that I have been alone.”
Henry willed his breath to slow and place a hand hard over his ribs to stem the wild beating.
He approached haltingly and with a growing recognition that did nothing to silence the roar in his ears that grew with each step. It was not a monster, but a boy as he first suspected. A decade younger than himself though the lumpy decayed looking blemishes that covered the left side of his face and his exposed hand and forearm made age impossible to guess accurately. The long blond locks and sky blue eyes however left no doubt of identity.
“A fortnight plus,” he replied.
“You’re a leper,” Henry said as he seated himself, taking care to touch nothing and laying his hands on either knee. “That’s why Richard never produced you when the rumors of your death began their rounds.”
The boy nodded. His eyes gleamed, but Henry couldn’t tell if they were rheumy or tear-filled.
“And your brother?” Henry asked, hating himself for hoping that the noticeably absent sibling might be similarly afflicted if not dead already.
“I can’t help you with that,” he replied. “I haven’t seen my brother since returning to Ludlow last year. I suspect our Mother has him hidden somewhere in Burgundy. The boy she surrended to my Uncle’s priests was his whipping boy and he, poor thing, succumbed to a fever not long after. His innocent soul rests uneasily under yonder staircase.”
Henry cast a jaundiced eye towards the door and back again to the mottled youth in front of him.
“Forgive me Cousin when I say that you are the last trouble I needed to add to my list of things unsettled.”
The boy who would have been king smiled widely and with more warmth than Henry knew he would have been capable of had the table been inverted.
“I am too rotted to be much of a threat, don’t you think?” his voice was teasing and it reminded him of Elizabeth’s during their brief meeting a day earlier. There was much about the boy who recalled his future queen and seeing it reminded him that this potential threat to his precarious security was his almost brother as well.
“What will you do?” he asked. “Now that you know?”
Henry shook his head and shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“Kings have to know, Henry,” he said. “It’s part and parcel. But this has been a shock … to us both for I truly expected my Uncle when I heard footfall on the stairs. I promise you I am no threat, but I understand what needs be done. My death is assured and falls not on thee.”
Henry stood abruptly and the boy flinched the slightest bit before relaxing and closing his eyes for a blow he seemed more than ready for, but Henry hurriedly crossed the room and stepped out into the small hallway like a man searching for fresher air. He stood there with eyes closed, searching the canvas of his mind once more for a lost lesson on such a circumstance, but Jasper had never touched on the possibility that the Prince of Wales was still alive.
He did not turn when the shuffling sound of rag-wrapped feet stopped in the doorway behind him.
“I am a soldier,” Henry said without turning. “I do not murder innocent boys. Did I not fight your Uncle on suspicion of him having done that?”
“Among other reasons, I warrant,” the voice behind him did not bother to hide the sarcasm for vengeance was a loosely applied rationale among their extensive set of relations and they both knew it.
“I will visit again soon,” Henry said and disappeared up the stairs.
“And I will be waiting.”