Ten days later, the queen’s summer progress left Oatlands Palace, where everything had been assembled; the parade of wagons, horses, and people stretched into Surrey for nearly four miles. They stopped and ate outside for midday meal, then went on.
Led by green-clad harbingers and nearly four hundred laden baggage and provision carts, each pulled by six horses, the middle of the entourage consisted of a military escort, then scarlet-attired yeomen guards with their ceremonial halberds gleaming in the sun. After that, in the heart of the procession, came the queen herself, not riding ahorse for the last few miles toward the town of Guildford but ensconced in a ceremonial gilt and ostrich-feathered coach-and-six.
Pulled by matching white horses with manes and tails dyed orange, the conveyance was open-sided with crimson cloth and gold lace upholstery. Its leather curtains were drawn back to show England’s queen, decked in a golden gown, waving, nodding, and smiling to acknowledge the cheers. Riding behind her came the court, nearly thirteen hundred people, everyone from councilors to lords and ladies to grooms and pages.
“Uncap, knaves!” The cry went out to rude rural fellows standing along country lanes, agape at the grandeur.
They hastily snatched off their caps and shouted, “God save our queen! Good save our good queen!”
Milkmaids cried and shepherds huzzahed. Parents held children up or sat them on their shoulders to see the monarch who loved the common folk, for they adored her as a glorious goddess in return. Despite her worries and the cursed bouncing of the coach into ruts and potholes, Elizabeth’s spirits soared to be among her people.
Suddenly, a big-shouldered lout pushed his way through the crowd, dragging two little girls behind him. He snatched a straw hat from his head. Four yeomen guards instantly crossed their halberds to keep him back, but the queen caught the awed look on the man’s face. He seemed almost entranced, and she hoped he was not drunk.
“Hold!” she shouted. “Hold here!”
Her coachman Boonen jerked in the horses, and those behind reined in. It was the queen’s custom along the way to hear petitions or speak with local folk, though usually during a respite on a shady village green.
“Let him approach,” she called to the guards, who stood aside. “My good man, what business, then?”
Though his garments were soiled, his face looked freshly washed; his hair was wet, where he had probably doused sweat or grime away in a trough or stream. When he opened his mouth, no sound came at first, and then a stutter before he knelt in the road, pulling the two small girls down with him—ages six and eight, the queen guessed.
“Ju-just wanted them to see you close so b-bad,” he got out.
“Rise, man, and bring them forward. At what task do you make your livelihood?”
“Thatcher—roof thatcher—c-climbing ladders with reeds, Majesty.”
“I have well noted how fine some of the cottage thatching is in this area. And the girls’ names?”
“Anne and Jane, Majesty.”
Both girls were wide-eyed and tongue-tied. Elizabeth pulled off her perfumed, gold-threaded gloves and leaned out of the coach to touch the children on their shoulders as they rose awkwardly to their feet.
“God bless you, master thatcher, and may our good God in heaven keep your family and all of us safe,” she said loudly enough so the others, now hushed, could hear. “On, Boonen!” she shouted, before the stunned thatcher realized she’d given each girl one of her gloves.
As the procession picked up again, Elizabeth’s cousin, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, rode up on her other side. Though he was but thirty-one, he now headed the powerful House of Howard, royal relatives through her mother’s sprawling Boleyn family. To everyone’s amazement, the wily Howards had managed to survive the downfalls of both beheaded queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
Norfolk was England’s sole duke and the queen’s hereditary marshal, who, unfortunately, was a widower for the third time and fancied, though supposedly in secret, that he might wed Elizabeth’s rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Norfolk was such an uncompromising Catholic that he almost made the queen regret she allowed her subjects freedom of conscience, if they worshipped circumspectly. Norfolk was more than circumspect; he was covert and crafty.
She had to admit, though, the man kept in fine physical form; his long face was framed by a nut-brown beard and thick eyebrows under his fringe of hair. He had a hawklike nose, chiseled cheeks, and thin lips, all of which made him look older than he was. He seldom smiled, and when he did, it looked forced, flitting across his face without lifting the corners of his narrow chestnut eyes. Frowns were more his forte—and stealthy behavior of late, which Cecil’s spies tried to ferret out.
“Should word of your generous gesture to those two roadside urchins be noised about, Your Grace,” Norfolk said, speaking out of the side of his mouth as he was wont to do, “you’ll soon be out of gloves or missing your entire vast wardrobe if the mobs keep coming forward with flattery and open hands.”
“Then perhaps you will purchase me new garb with all your money, my lord, that is, unless you are buying pretty gifts for someone else these days.”
“No one, Your Grace.”
Norfolk always called her that, rather than Your Majesty, though both forms of address were entirely proper. She and Cecil weren’t certain whether he did it intentionally or without realizing it, though Norfolk’s brazen flaunting of his lofty rank to one of far loftier did boggle her mind. It seemed she and the duke were ever verbally fencing or wrestling in some silent sport.
“As first peer of the realm, cousin,” he went on, “I am sore grieved that you undervalue my influence and all I could do for you in the way of advice and counsel. For instance, the breakneck elevation of new names within your court—Cecil, for instance, and I hear you’ve sent for that baseborn seaman Francis Drake to inform you. That is perhaps why such bootlickers as that laborer back there think they can approach you.”
“Norfolk, the common people of my realm believe they can approach me because they can approach me. And I shall continue to elevate men of merit and not only those of rank.”
Robin suddenly appeared on the other side of the coach as if she had sent for him. “Enough,” she said, raising her voice because of the increasing din from up ahead. “Whatever is that caterwauling about? Can either of you see?”
“I shall ride ahead to look,” Robin offered.
“No, let Norfolk. He is eager to be of aid.”
Obviously seething at her subtle snubs, the duke spurred his huge horse ahead.
“He’s livid you made him come along at all,” Robin said.
“I’m doing him a favor, for I’ll not have him all cozy with the northern lords or sending secret marriage proposals to Queen Mary. I am trying to save his hide, and I shall tell him that plainly again, so you need not put in your pennysworth to him, my lord.”
“Not I,” he said with that flash of white smile that stood out so in a face so handsome it made her heart flutter. “For I am along on this jaunt only to please the woman I adore—as well as the queen I honor.”
Not wanting Robin to know he could still make her blush, she was almost grateful when Norfolk came flying back along the edge of the progress. “It’s just some dirty, drunken louts having a brawl of a football game,” he reported, as he reined in between Robin and her coach. Robin glowered at being cut off. Now both men looked like thunderclouds, and she knew she’d have to stop at least their impending brawl—no, she’d stop two brawls. For football oft turned bloody with bones broken; even bystanders had been hurt. More than once, a player had died, so the state had passed an edict against such violent matches, however much few heeded it.
“Stand down, you two!” she said quietly, glaring at each in turn. Then she shouted again to Boonen. “Hold! Halt here!”
“Your Grace,” Norfolk said, as Robin edged out his horse to leap down and help her alight, “the local sheriff gave everyone the day off from labors, and they probably don’t realize, with all their own noise, that your procession has arrived. I suggest you send some grooms or guards to break it up if you must, but stay put.”
That did it. She was getting to the point with this man where she couldn’t abide him and didn’t trust him. As soon as the footman smacked down the coach’s wooden steps, she took Robin’s hand and alighted.
She did not have to ask for directions to the football game, for the noise and dust gave the spot away. When she lifted her hems and strode across the road to look at the raucous game in the adjoining field, her guards and then the common folk parted as the Red Sea had for Moses.
Both teams were so intent on driving a leather-covered bladder ball between their opponents’ goalposts that no one so much as noted her. Men kicked, tripped, and punched each other to get to the ball. In a knot of at least four men, fists flew. One lout lay on the ground, holding an obviously broken leg and cursing at the top of his voice, while more than one oaf looked beaten and bloody.
“Your Majesty,” Robin said beside her, “let me—” But she strode out onto the long, narrow field. One man, another, then the rest saw her with her guards trailing and Robin and Norfolk hustling to flank her.
The closest fellow, sporting a bloody nose and two black eyes, gasped and fell to both knees. The sudden silence was deafening across the field and behind her on the road as man after man turned her way. They went still as statues before going down to their knees like ninepins, all except the one with the broken leg and two who groveled facedown.
“You—each man jack of you,” her clarion voice rang out, as she leveled a finger at each in turn, “are attacking those whom your queen might require to defend this realm! I do not deny you games of sport, but I will not have fellows who may be needed as archers if our enemies attack being bloodied and beaten by each other! Have you not heard of the ruling that each Englishman must be able to pull a bow in defense of queen and country? My lord Leicester, I believe you were in council when the edict outlawing rough sport and promoting the protection of our realm was passed shortly after I became queen. Tell them, then.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, clearing his throat, then raising his voice. “Male subjects between ages seven and fifty—”
“Sixty,” she corrected.
“And sixty are to possess bows and arrows and to be able to shoot them. This entails weekly practice at the butts, and should there be some national need, all must stand able-bodied and ready to serve.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Is there anyone here who does not understand why we must not maim and harm our fellow countrymen when the greedy Spanish would like to gobble up our kingdom for themselves and force us back to the foolish faith of a pope who threatens to excommunicate your queen?”
Beside her, Norfolk visibly startled, but she ignored him. The sweating, dirty lot of rural men hardly breathed. She could hear nothing but a screeching jay somewhere in the distant trees and the snorts of impatient horses from her retinue behind her.
“Excellent. Good day to you all, defenders of queen and country,” she said, and turned away with a wave and a smile that left everyone—but for Norfolk, whom she could see grinding his teeth— with mouths agape, just the way she liked to see all people regard her when she passed.
Copyright © 2007 by Karen Harper. All rights reserved.