Jean Plaidy

The Vow on the Heron


IN the ancient castle of York, Queen Isabella lay sleepless beside her lover. There was nothing to fear, he assured her. This castle of York, this great fortress which was said to have been built by the Conqueror, with its deep moat, its drawbridge and its palisades, was invulnerable. The watch from the top of Clifford’s Tower would warn them of the approach of any enemy; none could break through the massive stone walls, and those circular turrets. But it was not an invading army Isabella feared; it was the ghost of her murdered husband.

Since they had brought her the news of that night when his agonized screams had been heard, so she was told, even by those outside the walls of Berkeley Castle this terrible unease had settled upon her. Sometimes she would awake and fancy she saw a tall shape in the room. He had been a tall man and she would picture his face in the darkness distorted by an expression of hideous anguish. Sometimes she dreamed that his lips moved and that he uttered curses on those who had condemned him to such a brutal death. In the sighing of the wind she heard his voice.

‘Isabella, you are the guilty one ... you ... with your lover Mortimer. I know he was your paramour. I know you live with him in blatant sin, you, the She Wolf of France. How long did you deceive me? How long did you plan my murder?’

How long? she thought. As soon as it had become necessary. You blame me. Have you forgotten the way you treated me ... how you humiliated me and passed me over, when I was ready to love you, ignored me to be with your pretty boys? You deserved what came to you.

No, not that. No one could deserve such a death. Why did they have to do it in such a way?

She pictured the sly face of Ogle. ‘But, my lady, it was on your orders ... yours and my lord’s. No marks on his body. None must know that he had died by any but a natural death.’

It was but a settle she saw in the darkness. It took on its own shape as her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. Only briefly had she thought it had the shape of a man and was Edward come forth from the grave to mock her. But because he lived on in her mind, he would not let her forget him and he came unbidden ... in the dead of night.

‘Mortimer,’ she whispered, ‘are you awake? Gentle Mortimer, wake up for me.’

Gentle Mortimer sighing turned his big body to face her. ‘What is it, my love?’ he murmured sleepily. ‘More dreams?’ ‘Dreams,’ she answered. ‘Always dreams.’

‘They are of no substance then.’

‘I cannot sleep,’ said the Queen. ‘I think of him there ... on his bed. They placed a table over him so that he could not move. It was an iron spit red hot in a case of horn to leave no mark ... and with it they burned his entrails.’

‘Death would come quickly,’ soothed Mortimer.

‘And agonizingly,’ she answered. ‘They say his screams penetrated the walls of Berkeley Castle.’

‘Tis nonsense. Remember Berkeley ... built like a fortress.’

‘I would I could forget Berkeley. Mortimer, listen. In the castle they talk. The servants ... they whisper together.’

‘There will always be rumours when a man dies and if he is a king these rumours go on for a while. Give them time. They will pass away.’

‘What if they should reach the King’s ears?’

‘He would never believe them. We could deal with that. Has he not always listened to you? He is but a child.’

‘But he will grow up.’

‘By then your husband will be forgotten. Your son will have heard of his father’s death by now.’

‘Messengers were sent to him and they will surely have

reached him. He will be told that his father died peacefully in Berkeley Castle, and that he had been ailing for some time.’ ‘By God, how he clung to life!’

‘Making it necessary to remove him, I know, but the means ...’

‘Now Isabella, my queen, you must not dwell on this. It would have been swift, I know. Young Edward will accept what he is told. He has his own wounds to nurse just now. The peace with Scotland will occupy him. This little exercise should humble him a little, should show him how much he depends upon us. I believe he thought he was marching north to glory.’

‘There is something about the boy, Mortimer. Something his father never had.’

‘God be praised for that.’

‘I have heard it said that he has a look of his grandfather.’

‘I doubt the First Edward would have made much of a ruler at the age of fourteen.’

‘He is growing up fast.’

‘But he has a lot of growing to do yet. Isabella, my love, stop plaguing yourself. All is well. Think of the plans we made. Think of our victories. Here we are ... rulers of this realm. They did not make us regents, did they, but we outwitted them. The King is ours to guide and that is how we wanted it to be. Come, take heart. We shall never be troubled by your husband. He is dead. Forget him. He is no longer of importance. Rumour. There are always rumours. But we are strong enough to quell them. He was a danger to us. He had to die. It was better for the sake of the country that he did so. Now we have our third Edward, your promising son, who has much to learn and I promise you this, he will return from his Scottish enterprise considerably chastened and he will turn to us and we shall continue to guide him. That is how it will be, my Queen. Leave it to your gentle Mortimer.’

‘Oh gentle Mortimer, you comfort me as always. Soothe me now to sleep and all my fears will be gone by morning.’

But it was not so, for very soon the ghost of her murdered husband was back to haunt her.


WHEN young Edward, a few weeks after his coronation, had ridden out at the head of his army to meet the Scots his father had been alive, and Edward believed comfortably lodged in Kenilworth Castle as the guest of his cousin, the Earl of Lancaster.

It was somewhat disconcerting to find oneself a king at the age of fourteen, but Edward had always been aware of his destiny and was determined to show them that he could be his grandfather all over again. Throughout his life he had been compared with his grandfather. ‘He grows more like Great Edward every day.’ How often had he heard that whispered. It was never ‘How like his father.’ And he had learned that that would not have been a compliment, for he had realized that all was not well with his father.

He had never really felt at ease with the tall fair-haired handsome man who had always been kind to him, though often absent-minded as though, much as he delighted in his son, he was not really interested in him. Hugh le Despenser was constantly with him and it seemed to the boy that they shared private jokes and that anyone who came near them was intruding.

When he had joined his mother in France he had been ready to believe that his father was not a good man and to accept the fact that she could no longer love him. There had been so many to convince him that she was right. Roger de Mortimer, Earl of Wigmore and now the Earl of March, was one of them and, although there was something about Mortimer which he did not like, the Earl was a powerful man with a convincing way with him and his mother said that he was their most faithful friend.

Sir John of Hainault was another and he was a great soldier. Then there were his uncles, the Dukes of Kent and Norfolk. They had come to help her; and with so many supporters and the people of England acclaiming her, he was certain that she had done right when she came to England with an army and his father was forced to give up the crown.

Then had come the moment when he had had to make his decision and something had told him that he must not take that which was his father’s unless his father first gave his consent; and it was not until they came to him with his father’s agreement that he had allowed himself to be crowned. It was his first act of defiance and it had surprised them a little. It had taken a certain firmness to insist on that but being about to become a king he was determined to act like one.

Almost immediately he was setting out on the Scottish campaign for Robert the Bruce had agreed to meet him to discuss peace terms. Robert the Bruce was a man he had heard mentioned throughout his childhood and he knew that there was a leader to be reckoned with in spite of the fact that, according to rumour, he was dying of leprosy, which was probably the reason why he wanted a permanent peace. He was a bold man and it was soon realized that in spite of his desire for peace he was determined to have it on his own terms and if he could not achieve this then he would invade England. For this purpose he had gathered together a large army and there must only be one reply to this. Edward must march at the head of his army and be ready for action if the talks should fail.

Newly crowned and with the knowledge that his father was the guest of his cousin the Earl of Lancaster in Kenilworth he had set out for the North. With him and his army came his mother and Mortimer, his eleven-year-old brother John, and his two sisters, nine-year-old Eleanor and six-year-old Joanna. They would not of course go into battle with the army but remain in York while the troops, with Edward at their head, marched up to the Border and into Scotland.

They had been joined by Sir John of Hainault, a rather exuberant romantic-minded knight, brother of the Count of Hainault, who had taken pity on Queen Isabella when she was exiled from her brother’s country of France and needed help to begin the invasion of England. Sir John was so overcome with admiration that he had persuaded his brother to provide the money for Isabella and Mortimer to raise an army.