In the late 15th century, the castle and its estate belonged to the wealthy Yorkist Harrington family who owned other lands across the north but, alone and vulnerable after the death of their father in battle, two teenage sisters were at the mercy of ambitious predators.
And predators didn’t come more ambitious and more opportunist than Lord Thomas Stanley of Lathom House, near Preston, the owner of vast swathes of northern England, the most successful power-broker of his age and the man who would go on to play a critical role at the Battle of Bosworth Field which ended the bitter Wars of the Roses and saw the rise of the Tudor dynasty.
Stanley, later the 1st Earl of Derby, was given guardianship of Anne Harrington and her younger sister Elizabeth by a grateful King Edward IV in 1460 for his help in securing the throne even though the girls’ two uncles wanted the Hornby estate to remain in the Harrington family.
Wardship of the girls gave Stanley the right to marry them to husbands of his choosing – men who would automatically become owners of the Harrington lands.
In 1470, still angry and determined not to lose the family estates, one of the uncles, James Harrington, took possession of his nieces and fortified the castle against the Stanleys who tried to take it by force with a cannon brought from Bristol to blast a way in.
But it seems that the Harringtons had the support of the king’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later the controversial King Richard III, who is known to have signed a warrant on their behalf in March 1470 ‘at Hornby.’
It is also on record that Richard had an unknown mistress and as evidence places seventeen- year-old Richard and 15-year-old Anne together in Hornby Castle while it was under siege, maybe just maybe they fell in love in adversity and she became the secret love of his life.
This fascinating conundrum forms the basis of By Loyalty Bound, a wonderfully imaginative and action-packed story which puts the formative years of young Richard of Gloucester in a compelling and credible new light, and takes us into the heart of a political maelstrom which would finally see the demise of the Plantagenets.
When Richard defies his elder brother, King Edward IV, and rides from York to Hornby Castle to help the Harrington family defend their birthright against Stanley, he triggers a chain of events that will have repercussions for years to come.
It is there he meets Anne and Elizabeth, wealthy young heiresses at the mercy of greedy men and confined to the castle by their uncle for their own safekeeping.
There is an instant attraction between Richard and headstrong Anne, particularly when the castle comes under siege from Stanley who is eager to marry the girls into his own family and grab their lands and money.
Anne’s uncles, meanwhile, see political gain by encouraging a relationship between the young couple and forging family links, legitimate or otherwise, with the powerful Plantagenets.
‘Show the duke some friendship,’ urges her Uncle James, but ‘do not hope for marriage. Your legal guardian would never agree and without Hornby, you would be no heiress. But there are other ways of gaining the favour of influential men.’
When the alternative might be a forced marriage to a man she does not like or is cruel to her, a liaison with the handsome young duke sounds tempting to Anne and in the end she knows she has no choice.
Thus she becomes Richard’s lover in defiance of the wily Stanley, sparking a rift that will never be healed and one that etches itself yet deeper when Stanley puts plans in motion to secure a marriage for Anne as her guardian.
As mutual love blossoms between Richard and Anne, the duke finds himself fighting not only for her home but also for her heart while Stanley moves nearer to his final, devastating betrayal.
By Loyalty Bound is a rare treat… a sweeping love story, an exciting exploration of a piece of little-known local history and an atmospheric evocation of one of the most turbulent periods in English history.
Ashworth brings to vivid life the leading players in the final, destructive years of the long-running Wars of the Roses and gives us a stunning new slant on the last of the Plantagenet kings whose remains were discovered under a Leicester car park last year.
Hornby Castle, which is privately owned and only opens its gardens to the public for special events, was mostly rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries in Gothic style but a tapered courtyard still contains the 16th century keep built by one of the Stanleys.
Ashworth reveals on her interesting and lively website, http://elizabethashworth.com/, that Anne’s uncles were both in service with Richard at Bosworth and that if he had won the battle he was planning to reopen the debate about Hornby with a view to returning it to the Harringtons.
‘Given the close connections between Richard and the Harrington family,’ she claims, ‘it is not impossible that Anne may also have had a close relationship with him.’
An intriguing theory… and an unmissable story.
(Pen&Sword, hardback, £14.99)