Margaret of Anjou - Jacob Abbott
At length the time arrived when Margaret considered her schemes ripe for execution.
Accordingly, one day, while Henry and herself were together in the king's cabinet engaged in transacting some public affairs, Margaret made some excuse for sending for Gloucester, and while Gloucester was in the cabinet, Somerset, according to a preconcerted arrangement, presented himself at the door with an air of excitement and alarm, and asked to be admitted. He wished to see the king on business of the utmost urgency. He was allowed to come in. He had a paper in his hand, and his countenance, as well as his air and manner, denoted great apprehension and anxiety. As soon, however, as he saw the Duke of Gloucester, he seemed surprised and embarrassed, and was about to retire, saying he had supposed that the king and queen were alone.
But Margaret would not allow him to withdraw.
"Stay," said she, "and let us know what the business is that seems so urgent. You can speak freely. There is no one here beside ourselves except the minister of the king, and there is nothing to be concealed from him."
Somerset, on hearing these words, paused for a moment, looked at Gloucester, seemed irresolute, and then, as if nerving himself to a great effort, he advanced resolutely and presented the paper which he had in his hands to the king, saying, at the same time, in a very solemn manner, that it contained charges of the gravest character against Gloucester; and he added that, on the whole, he was not sorry that the accused person was present to know what was laid to his charge, and to reply if he had any proper justification to offer.
The duke seemed thunderstruck. The king, too, was extremely surprised, and began to look greatly embarrassed. Margaret put an end to the awkward suspense by taking the paper from the king's hand, and opening it in order to read it.
"Let us see," said she, "what these charges are."
THE CHARGES AGAINST GLOUCHESTER.
So she opened the paper and began to read it. The charges were numerous. The principal one related to some transactions in respect to the English dominions on the Continent, in which Gloucester was accused of having sacrificed the rights and interests of the crown in order to promote certain private ends of his own. There were a great many other accusations, relating to alleged usurpations of the prerogative of the king and high-handed violations of the laws of the land. Among these last the murder of Lady Neville was specified, and the deed was characterized in the severest terms as a crime of the deepest dye, and one committed under circumstances of great atrocity, although the author of the charges admitted that the details of the affair were not fully known.
As Margaret read these accusations one after another, the duke affirmed positively of each one that it was wholly unjust. He seemed for a moment surprised and confused when the murder of Lady Neville was laid to his charge, but he soon recovered himself, and declared that he was innocent of this crime as well as of all the others. The whole series of accusations was a tissue of base calumnies, he said, from beginning to end.
Margaret read the paper through, parsing only from time to time to hear what Gloucester had to say whenever he manifested a desire to speak, but without making any observations of her own. She assumed, in fact, the air and manner of an unconcerned and indifferent witness. After she had finished reading the paper she folded it up and laid it aside, saying at the same time to the king that those were very grave and weighty charges, and it would be very unjust to the duke to receive them against his positive declarations of his innocence, without the most clear and conclusive proof.
"At the same time," she added, "they ought not to be lightly laid aside without investigation. We can not suppose that the Duke of Somerset can have made such charges without any evidence whatever to sustain them."
The Duke of Somerset said immediately that he was prepared with full proof of all the charges, and he was ready to offer the evidence in respect to any one or all of them whenever his majesty should require it.
Margaret then opened the paper, and, looking over the list of charges again with a careless air, at last, as if accidentally, fixed upon the one relating to the murder of Lady Neville.
"What proofs have you in respect to this atrocious murder that you have charged against the duke?"
Gloucester felt for the moment much relieved at finding that this was the charge selected first for proof; for so effectual had been the precautions which he had taken to conceal his crime in this case, that he was confident that, instead of any substantial evidence against him, there could be, at worst, only vague grounds of suspicion, and these he was confident he could easily show were insufficient to establish so serious a charge.
Somerset asked permission to retire for a few moments. Very soon he returned, bringing in with him Lady Neville herself. An actual resurrection from the dead could not have astounded Gloucester more than this apparition. He was overwhelmed with amazement and almost with terror. Lady Neville advanced to the king, and, falling upon her knees before him, she related the circumstances of the assault made by Gloucester upon the boat in the Thames, of the cruel murder of the passengers and boatmen, of the wound inflicted upon herself by the dagger of the duke, and the almost miraculous manner in which she made her escape.
The duke, overwhelmed by the emotions which such a scene might have been expected to produce upon his mind, seemed to admit that what Lady Neville said was true. At least he could not deny it, and his confusion and distress amounted apparently to a virtual confession of guilt. Margaret, however, soon interrupted the proceeding by saying to the king that the case was plainly too serious to be disposed of in so private and informal a manner. It was for the Parliament to consider it, she said, and decide what was to be done; and measures ought at once to be taken for bringing it before them.
So Gloucester and Somerset were both dismissed from the royal presence, leaving the king in a state of great distress and perplexity.
Such is the story of the private manúuvres resorted to by Margaret with a view to destroying the hold which the Duke of Gloucester had upon the mind of the king, preparatory to more widely-extended plans for ruining him with the Parliament and the nation, which is told by one of her most celebrated biographers. Whether there was or was not any foundation for this particular story, there is no doubt but that she exercised all her ingenuity and talent as a manúuvrer to accomplish her object, and that she succeeded. The king was brought over to her views, and so strong a party was formed against Gloucester among the nobles and other influential personages in the land, that at length, in 1447, a Parliament was summoned with a view of bringing the affair to a crisis.
Nothing, however, was said, in calling the Parliament, of the great and exciting business which was to be brought before them. So great was the power of such a man as Gloucester, that any open attempt to arrest him would have been likely to have been met with armed resistance, and might have led at once to civil war.
One of the charges against him was that he was intriguing with the Duke of York, the representative and heir of the two other branches of old King Edward the Third's family, who has already been mentioned as claiming the throne. It was said that Gloucester was secretly plotting with Richard, with a view of deposing Henry, and raising Richard to the throne in his stead.
The question of the succession was really, at this time, in a very curious state. The Duke of Gloucester himself was Henry's heir in case he should die without children; for Gloucester was Henry's oldest uncle, and, of course, in default of his descendants, the crown would go back to him. This was one reason, perhaps, why he had opposed Henry's marriage.
So long, therefore, as Henry remained unmarried, it was for Gloucester's interest to maintain the rights of his branch of the family—that is, the Lancaster line—against the claims of the house of York. But in case Henry should have children, then he would be cut off from the succession on the Lancaster side, and then it might be for his interest to espouse the cause of the house of York, provided he could make better terms in respect to his own position and the rewards which he was to receive for his services on that side than on the other.
Now Henry was married, and, moreover, it had long been evident to Gloucester that his own influence was fast declining. The scene in the king's cabinet, when Somerset brought those charges against him, must have greatly increased his fears in respect to the continuance of his power under Henry's government. Still, if it was true that he was contemplating making common cause with the Duke of York, he had not yet so far matured his plans as to make any open change in his course of conduct.
Accordingly, when the plan of calling a Parliament was determined by the king and Margaret, every effort was made to keep it a secret from the public that the case of Gloucester was to be brought before it. It was summoned on other pretexts. The place of meeting was not, as usual, at London, for Gloucester was so great a favorite with the people of London that it was thought that, if it were to be attempted to arrest him there, he would certainly resist and attempt to raise an insurrection.
The Parliament was accordingly summoned to meet at Bury St. Edmund's—a town situated about fifty or sixty miles to the northeast of London, where there was a celebrated abbey. The English Parliament was in those days, as it is, in fact, in theory now, nothing more nor less than a convocation of the leading personages of the realm, called by the king, in order that they might give the monarch their counsel or aid in any emergency that might arise, and he could call them to attend him at any place within the kingdom that he chose to designate.
While thus, by summoning Parliament to meet at Bury St. Edmund's, the queen's party placed themselves beyond the reach of the friends and adherents of Gloucester, who were very numerous in and around the capital, they took care to have a strong force there on their own side, ready to do whatever might be required of them.
When the appointed day arrived the Parliament assembled. It met in the abbey. The great dining-hall of the abbey, or the refectory, as it was called, the room in which the monks were accustomed to take their meals, was fitted up for their reception. On the first day some ordinary business was transacted, and on the second, suddenly, and without any previous warning, the duke was arrested by the public officer, who was attended and aided in this service by a strong force, and immediately taken away to the Tower.
This event, of course, produced great excitement. The news of it spread rapidly throughout the kingdom, and it awakened universal astonishment and alarm.
It was expected that charges would be immediately brought against him, and that he would be at once arraigned for trial. But the excitement which the affair had created was increased to a ten-fold degree by the tidings which ware circulated a few days afterward that he was dead. The story was that he was found dead one morning in his prison. People, however, were slow to believe this statement. They thought that he had been poisoned, or put to death in some other violent manner. The officers of the government declared that it was not so; and, in order to convince the people that the duke had died a natural death, they caused the body to be exposed to public view for several days before they allowed it to be interred, in order that all might see that it bore no marks of violence.
The people were, however, not satisfied. They thought that there were many ways by which death might be produced without leaving any outward indications of violence upon the person. They persisted in believing that their favorite had been murdered.
One account which was given of the mode of death was that Somerset went to visit him in his prison in the Tower, in order to see whether he could not come to some terms with him, but that Gloucester rejected his advances with so much pride and scorn that a furious altercation arose, in the course of which Somerset, with the assistance of men whom he had brought with him, strangled or suffocated the unhappy prisoner on his couch, and then, after arranging his limbs and closing his eyes, so as to give him the appearance of being in a state of slumber, his murderers went away and left him, to be found in that condition by the jailer when he should come to bring him his food.