In 1485-1511, Margaret Fitzwalter, daughter of the son of an English Baron and Blanch Stanley, daughter of 'a poor, but noble knight', is thought illegitimate; maltreated; discovered to be legitimate, the heiress to her father's estates. She can then marry the man she loves, who also turns out to be higher born than suspected.
The story, which covers the years 1485-1511, starts when a future baron, Fitzwalter, returns from being on the continent and fighting in England for the future Henry VII. His parents have taken on two female wards and wish him to wed one, Edith Mountford, to whose father their estates have been mortgaged; they will lose them if he does not marry her, but he loves the other ward, Blanch, daughter of 'a poor, but noble knight'. He and Blanch elope to Germany where they live with his friend De Hoffman. Blanch dies after bearing Margaret, whom we think is illegitimate, and Fitzwalter returns home and marries Edith, bringing along his friend Austin, who seems insane. Austin then leaves, becomes a Franciscan friar, and lives in the St. Margaret's cave, which is in the vicinity. Edith bears Isabel, who, raised with Margaret, develops reciprocated sisterly feelings. Fitzwalter dies when Margaret is nine and Isabel six and his will mysteriously disappears; Austin knows it 'proves' Margaret's legitimacy and suspects Edith has hidden it. Edith weds a man named De Launcy five years later and the newlyweds move away with Isabel.
Edith and De Launcy want Isabel to marry De Launcy's son Richard when she is seventeen. He goes to look at his maternal estate and, like Fitzwalter, falls in love with the woman not meant for him - Margaret. He hears Austin tell her that her parents were wed, and it is here that we learn this fact. He writes to his father to support her claims to legitimacy and the estate. A young German comes seeking Austin. Austin thinks the German nobly born, perhaps De Hoffman's son, but the German says that he is Leopold, son of a wine grower. He explains that he ran away from his father's abuse and followed a pilgrim, John, to Palestine. He adopted John as surrogate father. John, at his deathbed, has given Leopold someone's written confession and told him to take it to the convent where Blanch is buried, along with a letter to De Hoffman's wife. When he arrives at this convent near Bremen, he is welcomed by the Abbess, Adelaide, and her sister Clarice; at De Hoffman's, he is welcomed by the man's son, but De Hoffman himself - the father - at first seems unable to tolerate Leopold's presence but then inexplicably forbids his leaving. Leopold has to deliver a letter to Austin regarding this confession; it turns out to be Blanch's confession, which, along with Fitzwalter's will, proves Margaret's legitimacy. Leopold therefore escapes to Austin, who sends him to Berwick, the monastery with which Austin is connected.
De Launcy the elder - Edith's husband - imprisons Margaret and her servant Alice in the castle. Austin sends Leopold to the convent in Germany to get proofs of Margaret's legitimacy, to protect her from persecution. He disguises himself as a simple-minded 'Ethiopian' flute player who gets let in to the castle and frees Margaret and Alice. He leads them to St. Margaret's cave, where they hide briefly; he shortly thereafter takes them to safety in Germany. There he re-encounters De Hoffman's son, Ferdinand, who loves Isabel, who is in the convent. Ferdinand's father, the elder De Hoffman, sends a man named Deuhopt to assassinate Leopold, but Leopold has gone to England with proofs of Margaret's legitimacy, and Deuhopt mistakenly attacks Ferdinand, who resembles Leopold.
Austin is arrested for kidnapping the women and, about to be found guilty, he throws down a sword Leopold has taken from the Fitzwalter castle and says, 'Henry the Seventh is hostage for the debts of the earl of Richmond' (III: 293). He explains that his name is De Hoffman - that he is the real baron De Hoffman (the other, we find out soon, is his brother, next heir to the title). Austin / De Hoffman had fought alongside Fitzwalter in the battle to vanquish Richard III, a battle which made Henry king. After marrying, he had had an affair which had then ended, and his ex-lover had written him 'anonymous' letters saying that his wife was having an affair. He had seen his wife with a confessor he thought was her lover so rushed in to stab her in the breast, hitting, however, his own child. Told that the child was dying, he had to leave the land. He has mourned ever since and let himself pass for dead so everyone else could thrive as they would. Austin explains Margaret's situation and pleads protection for her. Leopold appears with the priest who had united Fitzwalter and Blanch. Margaret's claims are upheld, and although lands all go to Edith anyhow, she will not fight for them. Margaret and Isabel agree to share all.
Ferdinand appears to explain that Leopold is Austin's son. Joseph De Hoffman - Austin's brother, the current Baron - had allowed Austin to think the baby was dying and sent the child off with Deuhopt. Ferdinand does not know who Austin is; he just explains who Leopold really is, so Austin explains the rest. Abbess Adelaide, turns out to be Leopold's mother. Ferdinand and Leopold, really named William, swear brotherhood, just as Margaret and Isabel have sworn sisterhood.
While Margaret and Leopold love one another, they did not want to marry if from different classes. Margaret thought marrying that she were legitimate, marrying a man who seemed to be from so much lower a social class would be wrong; she likewise thought that if she were illegitimate, it would be wrong to tie a man she loved to a wife of such shameful birth. Her being legitimate and his being equally high born means their marriage is no sin against the class structure, so they wed. Ferdinand and Isabel also wed. Austin - John De Hoffman - re-encounters his former wife, and although the pope gives them leave to leave their vows and reunite, they choose not to, being wedded to religious life. Austin then founds a Franciscan monastery near the convent in Bremen; it is finished in 1511. The younger generation weds, has children, and stays united through love.
© 1998 Julie A. Shaffer / Sheffield Hallam University