Following his guide Robert Stillington limped into the room below the Council Chamber. Motes of dust danced in the air. The servants had done a good job in preparing it for Lady Anne. He was pleased to see the glow of a fire in the hearth. Though it was June, even Crosby Place could not escape the dank presence of the Thames. And his frail flesh was old enough to appreciate the warmth.
"Your grace, the Protector's Council are still in the midst of their business," trilled the Duke's Secretary. "Perhaps, you'd prefer to return later?"
He viewed the young man with a kindly eye. "My business has been waiting these 20 years to come to the Council. I'll wait, if I may."
"Certainly, your grace," replied John Kendall. "Please take your ease." He guided the old man to a cushioned chair close by the fire. As Stillington lowered his bones wearily into the seat, John continued, "I'll instruct one of the household to bring your grace some wine."
He hurried off, leaving the Bishop of Bath and Wells with his thoughts.
And his fears.
Never had he expected that it would come to this.
Once before he'd confided his secret to another and that had brought death to him and a prison cell for himself. Perhaps it would be better if he continued to keep silent.
He still could.
No one could guess at his mission here.
He had only to leave.
His gnarled hands clasped the carved arms of the chair, trying to drag his body erect. If he left now, no one would be the wiser.
But he checked himself.
He couldn't. He must speak now, before it was too late. She had never had the chance.
A serving girl bustled into the room, carrying a flagon and beautiful glass on a silver tray. Placing them on a small oak table, she poured out a generous measure and reverently placed it in his trembling fingers. Her dark brown hair and acquiline nose reminded him of another. But she had been dead 15 years.
As the girl left, he took a long drink of the fine red wine and steeled himself for the coming ordeal.
Would they believe him?
He had no evidence to offer them but his word, as a minister of the Church and officer of the late King.
Not that the Council mattered.
It was the Protector's response that filled him with anxiety. Duke Richard had idolised the King, ever since he'd been 8 years old. He'd turned a blind eye to his brother's peccadilloes and, when that had proved impossible, he'd taken himself off to harry the Scots and tend to his precious Middleham.
How would he respond to a charge of bigamy against his elder brother?
He must organise his thoughts.
"Your grace," he would say. "Your grace, I bring you grave news."
Might it not prove to be his grave?
He was under no illusions that some men would buy his silence with the axe.
But would Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Protector of the Realm?
Why had Edward died so young?
The question answered itself.
He had eaten, drunken and "made merry" with half the women in London, if the rumours were to be believed. He'd become a fat lazy man, who died of a "chill".
But in 1461 things had been so different. Then, the 19 year old Edward had swept all before him to take the crown, only to be swept in turn off his feet by Lady Eleanor. He, the handsome god of war, had been entranced by the delicate beauty and grace of Thomas Butler's widow.
And what took the King's fancy, he always made his own.
The couple had met at the home of Eleanor's sister, the Countess Warenne. Edward had taken one look at Eleanor and charmed his way into staying for a few days. His Household had been billeted in every nook and cranny.
When Stillington had been summoned from a garrett by the King, it was late at night. As Keeper of the Privy Seal, he'd assumed that there was urgent business needing his counsel.
Arriving at Edward's Chamber, he found the urgency lay in another direction entirely. Seated by the roaring fire Lady Eleanor welcomed him warmly, as Edward, bubbling with anticipation and excitement, told him that the Lady Eleanor was to be his wife.
Scrubbing the sleep from his eyes, Stillington had listened as the King told him that Eleanor required him to act as witness to the King's promise, so that they could consummate the marriage before the Royal Household were forced to move on to London. Then without further ceremony the King knelt before Eleanor and pledged himself to be her lord and husband.
The forty year old priest remembered looking from one to the other in utter amazement. Eleanor held his gaze, mutely seeking the reassurance of the Church that her King's words would bind him. Reflexly, Stillington raised his hands and blessed his sovereign's vow.
Delighted Edward winked at Stillington without poor Eleanor catching a glimpse of it. With a reassuring arm around the priest, the King escorted him to the door of the Chamber, slipping a purse of coins into his hand.
Outside the door Robert had weighed the purse. Was it a reward for fidelity or betrayal? Suppressing that thought he hastened back to his room.
And the King continued to be grateful. Before the end of the year, Robert Stillington had a yearly income to £365.
That the King did not immediately announce his marriage to Eleanor came as no surprise to Robert. The next few years were turbulent, as the Lancastrian die-hards were tracked down and silenced. But he was perturbed by his King's taking mistresses, such as Elizabeth Lucy, to his bed, at the same time as his noble wife lay in obscurity.
So, when in September 1464 the news was announced that the King was married, Stillington breathed a sigh of relief. At last Edward had come to his senses. All would now be well. It had been a secret marriage, he heard. Indeed, it had. Stillington smiled to himself, as one in the know.
But then he heard the name of the King's Bride. Not Lady Eleanor Butler, but Elizabeth Grey, daughter of Sir Richard Woodville.
He couldn't believe it.
The King was already married. He had married a daughter of the English Achilles, John Talbot, the hero of the French war. How could he do this?
The King of England had committed bigamy. He had married Dame Grey on 30th April and kept that knowledge secret even from his Privy Council for 5 months.
What was he to do?
What could he do?
Soon he found that Edward had pre-empted him.
On 14th January 1465 the Bishop of Bath and Wells died. On 20th January the King had nominated Robert Stillington to replace him, and handed over all the revenues of the office in advance.
Stillington looked at the dregs of wine in his glass.
He'd been bought off.
Keep silent about Eleanor and all will be well.
And so it had been. From 1467 to 75 he'd been the King's Lord Chancellor, apart from the year when Edward had fled to exile in Flanders. When Edward returned in 1471 he was presented with his first son; two more followed over the next 5 years. All seemed to thrive and one of them would inherit the crown of England.
But all of them were bastards.
The true heir to the Throne was George Duke of Clarence, Edward's brother.
As Bishop of Bath and Wells, Stillington was effectually George's neighbour. Once he established a rapport with the Duke, he'd taken him into his confidence.
To say the news had pleased Clarence was an understatement. But it went to his head. Like Edward he was a great drinker, but unlike the King, George couldn't hold it. Someone must have overheard his enebriated boastings and reported it to the Woodvilles.
By 1477 Clarence was brought before Parliament charged with treason. In February 1478 he had been killed in the Tower. The message was clear. To breathe a word that the King's marriage to Elizabeth Grey was unlawful meant death. When Stillington had followed Clarence into the Tower within days of George's death, the Bishop expected to suffer the same violent end.
Night after night he expected to be hurried out of this world. After a little more than 2 weeks he was released, as a marked man.
For 5 years he'd stayed silent.
Now he was about to reveal to George's youngest brother, the same secret that had cost Clarence his life.
But he would do it.
He could not live with that dread vow burning into his soul. Eleanor was long dead, but she had been King Edward's wife, not that Woodville creature. Her brats would not sit on the English Throne, if he could persuade Gloucester of the true events.
Perhaps the Duchess of Norfolk ...
"Your grace, Duke Richard is ready to see you now," said John Kendall.
Resolutely, Stillington arose, placed his empty glass on the table and followed John into the Council Chamber.