The Stone Rose: The sweeping third installment of Carol McGrath’s acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, the gripping series exploring the tumultuous lives and loves of three queens of England – and of three women who lived in their shadow, in an era shaped by powerful women.
Based on the extraordinary true story of the female stonemason who carved a queen’s tomb, The Stone Rose traces the life of fierce, self-destructive Isabella of France. Wife to a weak king, Isabella finds herself facing enemies from the wild north, in a war with Scotland, and from within her own family: her uncle Lancaster, whose attempts to rein in royal power cause a rift between them.
But Isabella soon comes to realise that this is a love story. And the threat to the kingdom is a threat to her marriage – and to her own life . . .
Isabella – August 1311
A fox darted from the woodland verge across the path with a flash of russet. Isabella’s palfrey shied. She tugged hard on her reins. The horse pawed the ground, trying to rise up. It would have thrown her, if her companion had not speedily edged closer to her side and seized the palfrey’s head straps. Her saviour bent his dark head and spoke in a soft tone to the creature, gentling it. Within moments, Juno was calm and stilled. Sitting firm in her saddle, Isabella leaned down to thank him.
‘If you had not been so quick, Piers, the mare would have thrown me.’
‘Near shave,’ Piers Gaveston gasped, his beautiful dark eyes filled with concern.
King Edward came trotting forward, followed by his pretty green-eyed niece, Margaret de Clare, Piers’ sixteen-year-old wife.
‘Isabella, praise Saint Thomas, you are safe, my sweeting,’ Edward said. He turned to Piers, leaned over and patted his arm. ‘Thank you, my friend. Praise God’s grace, you were right by her side.’
‘Gabriel held fast,’ Piers said, patting his horse’s neck. ‘It was a fox that flashed by in front of the Queen’s horse. I saw its bushy tail.’
Edward began to laugh. ‘You saved my Queen from a nasty fall. You protected her like a devoted knight.’
Piers grinned at Edward, then at Isabella. ‘A pleasure for this knight to protect his Queen.’
Isabella glanced over her shoulder to where the others crowded onto the narrow woodland path; they were led by the extremely well-connected Earl of Warwick, a frowning, dark, sardonic, proud and powerful noble, one of the King’s awkward council, who had been privy to Piers’ previous exile to Ireland. Hunting dogs with their keepers were snapping, barking and straining on leads. Following her nervous glance towards Warwick, Piers muttered, ‘Pity it wasn’t the Black Dog taking a tumble. That fox had unfortunate mistiming.’
Little Meg frowned at her husband, but Isabella’s lips twitched. Piers had amusing names for all the earls he considered enemies. She knew the powerful older men – Warwick and her wealthy uncle Thomas – were both jealous of the young King’s love for Piers, whom Edward called ‘brother’. Her father, King Philip the Fair of France, she mused, would never stand for his barons ordering his friends into exile, as the English barons had poor Piers. Edward had, only a month earlier, called Piers back from exile in Ireland, where, to satisfy the nobles, he had sent Piers as Lord Lieutenant. Now, Warwick, Lancaster and their allies were determined to exile Piers again, just as viciously as they had done a year previously. She liked Piers. He was kind, fun and witty. She had first met him after she arrived in England following her marriage ceremony. Piers had led her to the Privy Council to sit beside her new husband, who blushed and stared straight past her. With a smile, Piers had taken her damp hand and placed it in Edward’s clenched one. ‘I hope we can be friends, my pretty Queen,’ he had whispered in her ear.
The earls had no right to complain that Piers encouraged Edward to be extravagant and inattentive to great matters of state.
Isabella shook her head. These were silly thoughts. The earls had no power to do anything other than what Edward said. Edward was King, she was Queen, and they ruled England by God’s holy grace, not by the permission of people like Warwick, whose role was to help and serve. Warwick and his allies were always complaining about Piers – and now they were threatening another banishment and the withdrawal of Edward’s income. In Parliament, they loudly insisted that Piers was a bad influence and too close to King Edward – far too close. At this thought, Isabella felt her stomach grow so tight, it felt fastened to her ribs. What did they mean by these words, ‘too close’?
‘Your Grace, are you affrighted?’ Meg’s gentle voice broke into her thoughts. She had ridden to Isabella’s side and was offering a vial of infused mint, rosemary and lavender for her to smell. To please Meg, Isabella inhaled and passed it back. She felt better afterwards.
‘Thank you, dear Meg, the Queen seems quite recovered,’ Edward said smoothly, speaking for Isabella, as he liked to do. It had been different, some years earlier, when she was a child bride and unsure. Now, she could speak for herself, so she said, without hesitation, ‘I am well. Do not fuss so, Edward.’
‘Then, my love, it’s time to break our fast. We’ll eat in that meadow.’ Edward waved his jewelled hand towards a sunlit clearing ringed with beeches. He turned and shouted along the path towards the wiry figure of Warwick. ‘Dog—I mean, Warwick! Tell them to set up the pavilion in that glade, over there. We’ll resume the hunt after we break meats.’
Riding up to them, Warwick nodded. ‘Sire, as you wish.’ He threw a malevolent look at Piers, who sat on his horse watching him with an insolent grin on his face.
Piers does invite enmity, Isabella thought. Such impertinence is not doing his cause any favours. It does Edward no favours either.
‘As well you requested a competent organiser today, sire,’ Warwick said, turning his dark expression into a pleasant smile for Edward. ‘Ride on, sire, and it will be done.’ He kicked his heels against his horse’s flanks and the brown hunter trotted back along the track.
Almost at once, their crowd of followers had a silken pavilion erected in the meadow, with a linen-covered low table, cushions and carpets spread out under the shade of a stand of beech trees. Bowing low, servants placed baskets filled with pears and apples on the table and set out dishes of breads, cheeses and meats. Isabella paused and looked about her, feeling how lucky she was. Their court was all young men and women; they loved each other like brothers and sisters. As well as herself and Edward, there was Piers, of course, who was not from a great noble family, but had served Edward since they were two boys learning to be squires in Wales and Gascony. And her dear friend Isa Beaumont, and her French nurse Thea, and Edward’s red-haired niece, Meg, one of the younger daughters of Edward’s most powerful Welsh lord, Gilbert deClare. Meg’s sisters, Eleanor and Elizabeth, were often at court, too, though Isabella was less fond of beautiful, cold Eleanor, and knew fiery little Elizabeth not at all. Delicate Meg, however, was her dearest friend. And Edward had married Meg to his dearest friend, Piers. Isabella smiled to see Meg, at this moment, pulling her skirts around herself to sit down on cushions close to the king.
‘Has this forest a name?’ Meg said, turning to Edward. ‘Boarstall Wood. Do you like staying here, at the old palace at Brill, Meg? My ancestor, the first King Henry, built the hunting palace. My mother loved it. She made improvements – a bathing room and new tiles on the floors, with lions and crowns.’
‘I do, very much so, Uncle. Much better than London. The views over the fields, the air, the country lanes . . . I can see how Grandmother Eleanor liked it so well.’
‘And lush hedgerows.’ Edward turned to Piers. ‘Do you know, here, they weave young hawthorn and beech together to make a strong barrier that their sheep cannot penetrate?’ He twisted imaginary boughs in his hands. ‘We’ll get the villagers to show us how, Piers. A new skill to learn.’
Isabella felt herself frowning. Edward was always happier away from the castle and his royal duties. Why must he insist on mixing with peasants the very moment he found an opportunity? It was beneath him. Their job was to rule over the poor, not to associate with them. She popped a grape into her mouth. No, she must not criticise. It was not for her to gainsay her husband. Her duty was to provide him with an heir. And that, she smiled to herself, was sure to happen soon. She had just passed her fifteenth birthday. Edward had only this month bedded her for the first time since their wedding, three years earlier, and now this was happening more often.
It had not been the unpleasant experience she had feared. In fact, it had been delightful. She had enjoyed their lovemaking after the first time – though, even then, he had been gentle and considerate, caressing her in places she would never touch herself. She glanced with admiration at his great height, her eyes appreciating his lean figure and strong muscular arms, glinting with blond hairs. As they had lain naked, thigh to naked thigh, he had told her she was one of the loveliest creatures he had ever beheld.
‘Who are the others?’ she’d dared ask. He’d snorted, and not answered.
He clearly admired Piers’ handsome looks. She shivered slightly. And there was, too, the unknown woman whom Edward confessed had given him an illegitimate son named Adam, only two years ago. But that woman was no threat, having died giving birth to Adam. The child was growing up on a manor set deep in the Kent countryside. Edward had won Isabella’s approval when he admitted that he would always care for Adam, since it spoke well of his kindness and reassured her that he would always feel responsibility towards his own. He had looked at her with adoring eyes when he said he hoped she would accept the boy when, one day, he joined their court.
‘Edward,’ she had said dutifully, ‘I shall always be kind to the boy.’ Even so, the sooner she had her own son in her arms, the better.
The Silken Rose, The Damask Rose and The Stone Rose may be ordered from Amazon or Amazon UK. See below for additional dates and blog addresses in Carol McGrath’s fabulous blog tour. Keep up with the author and her other works at her website, where you can sign up for her wonderful newsletter, check out her previous books and more. And don’t miss “The Sexy Weasel in Renaissance Art,” an entry for her Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England blog tour. It’s pretty fantastic!