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I, Elizabeth: A Novelby Rosalind Miles
He was a man in his prime and a stranger to the word "no." He had looked upon the world for forty years, over twenty of them as a king. His tall body had filled out with age, indulgence, pleasure and action to give him a huge and powerful frame, on which his rich velvet coats and satin doublets, puffed, embroidered and slashed, hung like the royalty he was.
In every group he towered above other men. He bestrode the world, straddling the earth foursquare, as if he owned it, his jeweled dagger swinging carelessly beside the thrust of his great curving codpiece, and in his green and gold, purple and white, scarlet, silver and fox, outshone them all.
I speak of him like a lover, no, my father as I first remember him? His splendor, his danger, his might? Perhaps I was--in spite of everything--at least a little in love with him then, for so all the world was too.
Now I was ten years out of my nurse's arms, and he ten years nearer his grave--years that had dealt him a hard hand of suffering, sickness and betrayal. Yet was he looking, as he stood at the altar, magnificent in gold and rubies, in furred crimson surcoat and plumed hat, as handsome, as glorious as ever--and as cheerful as any man may, for what he was about to do.
The occasion was his sixth adventure into wedlock, his sixth attempt to make a marriage that would withstand wind and weather, to find a woman who would please him, and a pleasure that would last. The bride was Dame Katherine Parr, rich, religious, and comely in cream brocade, the three months' widow of the late Lord Latimer, and of another rich and aged husband before him. Squinting at the couple between my fingers as I knelt at prayer, I pondered on the mystery of marriage, and why my father still chanced his fortune on such rough seas.
This was the only one of my father's weddings to which I came invited. The first, to Katherine of Aragon, the Infanta of Castile and pride of Spain, was long before my time, when Henry himself was only eighteen. At his second marriage, to my mother Anne Boleyn, I have to own I was present, though unbidden and unallowed; indeed, I was the cause of the hasty and secret ceremony celebrated hugger-mugger in that January of 1533, for Anne had found herself, like many a maid before, with a child in her belly before she had a husband for her bed.
The third of the King's weddings, to plain Jane Seymour, was like-wise a private affair. The fourth, to the Princess of Cleves (another Anne), was pitched as low as decency permitted, since the King, disliking her on sight, wanted to be as little married as possible to the woman he called "the Flanders Mare," with a view to unmarrying himself as soon as possible, as he was shortly to do. The fifth, another Katherine, his girl Queen of the Howard clan, the King could not wait to wed and bed--another costly lesson on the old text, Marry in haste, repent at leisure.
Only with this marriage to Madam Parr, the most motherly of all his women, did the King decide to make it a family affair. Beside me in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court that day knelt the oldest of his children, my sister Mary, surrounded by her women. By her white knuckles and pale mumbling lips, Mary was praying hard enough to satisfy both God and man--but not, as all there knew, to satisfy the King, since she clung with all the fury of her nature to the old Catholic faith of her mother Katherine of Aragon. How would she fare, the Court whispered, under the new Queen, Katherine Parr, a woman as devout in the Reformed Religion of our Protestantism as Mary was absolute for Rome?
On my other side knelt the son for whom Henry had broken with the Pope and Rome, my brother Edward, whose pale, over-solemn face flushed with smiles as he caught my eye. He wriggled his small body nearer to mine with a confidential air.
"Shall we have comfits after, sister, and candy-things?" he whispered hoarsely. At once he was silenced by his governor Lady Bryan, while mine, my trusted Kat, though all ears, winked a blind eye and continued serenely with her prayers, confident that at my great age of ten, I for one was better schooled than to chatter in church. But I gave Edward a secret smile and a nod, for I longed for him to be more like any other child of six summers, instead of the infant Solomon all expected of the heir to the throne.
Within the chapel it was as cool as a cave, though high summer blazed outside. Here the only radiance came from bank upon bank of rich wax candles, the only sound from a small cluster of the King's Music sighing away sweetly in the shadows behind the reredos. At an unseen signal, silence fell like a cloud. The Bishop of Winchester approached the altar and the ceremony began.
". . . to join together this Man and this Woman in Holy Matrimony, which is an Honorable Estate, ordained for a remedy against Sin, and to avoid Fornication, for the mutual Society, Help and Comfort that the one ought to have for the other . . ."
My child's mind wandered, drifting away with the fine white smoke of the candles, high above the humbled heads of the tiny congregation.
Where were my father's other wives now? Were their spirits here with us, to hear him make again the selfsame vows that he had made to them? And why, since he was all-powerful, so fine, so wise, so good, had they all failed him?
I bowed my forehead to my hands and with all my young heart earnestly besought God the Father to bless this marriage for the King my father's sake.
Afterward in the King's privy apartments, at a reception for the closest of his courtiers and councillors, there were all the comfits and candy-things, jellies and quinces, possets and peaches and pigeon pies that my dear Edward's six-year-old heart could desire.
A visit to Court, the chance to see my father and the great ones, was a rare treat, and not to be wasted clinging to my governor Kat's skirts. Strange how men full grown pay no heed to a child, especially a girl. I had slipped away from Kat for once, she being deep in conversation with Lady Bryan on the trials of caring for the royal young.
I was standing now by the arras in a corner of the chamber near a group of the King's lords. In truth, I was lurking there to pluck one special lord by the sleeve, since well I knew that whether he was Archbishop of Canterbury or no, Thomas Cranmer was the kindliest man at Court and would always have a fair word for me. With him in conversation were two lords of the Privy Council, Sir Thomas Wriothesley and Sir William Paget, its Secretary.
Wriothesley was a short, angry, strutting man, shifting his weight restlessly from foot to foot as he spoke. "So our lord the King plays the farmer, going to market one more time!" He laughed unpleasantly. "And fetches back neither Flanders mare nor hot young Howard filly but a fair old English cow!"
"Not so old, my lord," interjected Paget smoothly, swirling the thick golden wine reflectively round his glass. "Our new Queen has seen but thirty-odd summers--"
"--and with God's grace may see many more," added Cranmer gently.
"Well may she see another thirty before she brings home what we most need!" said Wriothesley fiercely. "Money and land she brings him, I grant you, from her former husbands, a dower fit for a queen. But not a child from either of them--never has she cropped, though the earth twice tilled! I fear my lord King will get milk enough from this cow, yet never a calf--the golden calf we pray for, the god of our idolatry--another prince, to make all sure!"
"We are blessed with one prince, my lord," said Cranmer, looking fondly across the Presence Chamber to where Edward sported with the Queen's lapdogs under the care of his uncle the Earl of Hertford. The Earl looked sad, I thought--as how could he not, remembering on a day like this the King's marriage to his sister Jane Seymour seven years before, and her death giving birth to Edward so soon after?
"Hertford looks sour!" put in the sardonic Wriothesley with a greedy gulp of wine, waving for a passing servant to recharge his goblet. "As well he might if the new Queen's kinsmen are to be grabbing for places as fast as he and his brother did!"
"Truly, the Earl is not the only one of the Seymours to feel his nose put out of joint by this marriage," added Paget with a faint smile. "I hear that brother Tom had caught the widow's eye and thought to have her--or her wealth!--before the King popped in between him and his hopes. And now the rogue finds it politic to travel abroad until her heart returns to its rightful place in her new husband's bosom!"
"Yet Dame Parr may surprise us," said Cranmer reflectively, covertly studying the new Queen's ample frame as she moved about the chamber. "There looks to be no hindrance to childbearing on her side. Remember she has only ever before had aged men as bed partners--something that smiles not on the work of generation."
"And now--how is the difference?" came Wriothesley's sharp sneer. Together the three men turned their eyes to the King where he sat on his chair of state, leaning heavily on his gold-topped staff of ebony, the only wood, his master carpenter had told him, that could now support his weight. Even then I could read their delicate silence as it hung in the air. The King is old . . . in his embraces Madam Parr will not bear nor bring forth . . .
Now they were looking at Edward with a scrutiny I could not read.
"Take heart, my lords," rallied Cranmer gently. "God is love. Our Prince is forward for his years and likely to thrive."
There was no reply. My attention wandered. Across the chamber my sister Mary was locked in conference with a group of clerics around the Bishop, still robed in his ceremonial finery after conducting the wedding. With them stood the Duke of Norfolk, a dark-faced man of policy I had always feared, even though I knew he was distantly kin to me, and his son, a young warlord a mile above my head, the Earl of Surrey.
As if she felt my gaze, Mary twisted her small body toward us and peered shortsightedly in our direction. "Sister?" she called, for if she could not see me, she could make out my bright new scarlet gown. "Elizabeth, come and know my lord--my lord Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester!"
As I moved away, Wriothesley's last gibe traveled with me: "If Popish Mary cleaves to Gardiner now, he will bear watching . . ."
Behind Mary, dominating her low form, stood a weighty figure, a bishop's cope and cross distinguishing his rank. Behind him a bevy of lesser clerics fanned out in silent ranks awaiting his command.
"Is this the child--the Lady Elizabeth?" Bishop Gardiner's air as he glowered in my direction was one of unspeakable arrogance, and his deepset eyes did not deign to meet mine. His face was swarthy, his nose hooked like a buzzard's, and his rough demeanour more that of an alehouse brawler than a man of God. His ragged frowning brows and pitted skin gave him an ugly fearsomeness, but the red mouth beneath his coarse mustache was as soft and spiteful as a woman's.
He must have known who I was! Why, then, this rude pretense? But Mary was gazing at him with an admiration that left her oblivious to anyone else. With difficulty she now gave her attention to me. "My lord Bishop has been instructing me, sister, on . . . on many matters . . ." Again the glance of adoration, which the proud prelate received as nothing more than his due. "Know him, Elizabeth, I beg of you, for your soul's good!"
"Souls, madam?" snapped the Duke of Norfolk, his left hand angrily gripping the hilt of his sword. "All was well enough when the care of souls was left to His Grace the Bishop here and his people. Our business is with bodies! If the King means to make these wars on France, we must have men--men and money! Or else the Netherlanders . . ."
I moved slowly away, so that no one would notice me. My father's marriage, my new stepmother's chance of childbearing, Mary's love of God--or was it for the Bishop?--I had food enough for one day, and more than enough for a ten-year-old mind to digest. Much of it, I confess, I laid by to think of later, and forgot. Soon afterward I was sent from Court once more and returned with Kat and my women to my quiet life at Hatfield, deep in the Hertfordshire countryside. And there did the Fates, knowing what was to come, let me sleep out the last of my childhood, the sleep of innocence from which we all too soon awake.
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2003 by Rosalind Miles
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