The Unfaithful Queen

A Novel of Henry VIII's Fifth Wife

Carolly Erickson

St. Martin's Press

ONE

Tower GreenMay 1536
 

THE new-mown grass smelled sweet as we took our places along the verge on that grey dawn, all of us together, waiting for my cousin Anne to be brought out to die.
Though the spring was well advanced there was a chill in the air, and I shivered under my thin Spanish cloak. I drew nearer to my aunts and my grandmother Agnes, sidling up against her long bony body swathed in a gown of watchet blue under her warm woolen ermine-trimmed mantle. She did not look at me, but stood very still, her back very straight, her crimsoned cheeks wrinkled, her lips widened in a half smile. My grandma had once been handsome, so it was said, but her youth was long past and no finery, no amount of paint on her sallow cheeks, could disguise the marks of age. She was said to be the richest woman in England, and one of the most fearsome.
I drew nearer to her now, as the sun began to rise and the first crimson streaks blazed along the horizon. The hour was nearly at hand. The faces of the relatives all around me were growing tighter, aunts and uncles and cousins, ancient great-aunts whose names I barely knew, aged great-uncles who, I had been told, had fought alongside my late grandfather in the long wars that had brought him fame.
At the center of the crowded nest of relatives was my uncle Thomas, third Duke of Norfolk, the head of our family. He stood slightly apart from the rest of us, feet planted firmly, his dark face with its hooded eyes grim, his mouth set in a firm line. His elaborate padded and slashed doublet of quilted yellow silk made him stand out from among the growing number of spectators gathering to watch the dread spectacle to come.
“Get on with it then,” we who were closest to him heard him mutter. “Kill the big whore!”
Birds began twittering and chirping as the sky lightened. They swooped in and out of chinks and crannies in the great blocks of grey stone in the ancient tower walls. I watched them, fluttering and flapping their small wings, glad for a chance to be distracted by something other than the grisly business to come. I tried to forget that my cousin Anne, many years older than I and Queen of England, was to die this morning.
I had never seen anyone die by the sword. I did not want to watch. I shrank back among the others, glad for once that I was so small (at fifteen years old, I was a full head shorter than other girls my age) that I could not see over the heads of those in front of me. I could barely glimpse the raised platform, draped in black, with its thick block of wood, the guardsmen in royal livery who stood around it, the tall halberdiers with their sharp-bladed, long-handled hatchets that glinted in the sunlight.
For what seemed an hour or more we stood, weary of waiting, while the crowd grew larger and larger and the sun rose higher.
“Remember, she is not one of us!” my grandmother hissed. “She has betrayed the family! She has betrayed the Howard name! Take warning from her fate!”
Her words unleashed more accusations. Terrible accusations, from those standing near me. I heard someone say that Anne had had many lovers, that every night when she went to bed she had men lined up, ready to do her bidding. Even her brother George!
How could such things be said, I wondered. How could my cousin have so dishonored our Howard lineage? Unless she was mad, or possessed by a demon.
“Do you think she was possessed by a demon?” I whispered to my cousin Charyn, who stood near me, looking remarkably calm and self-possessed, not a single blond hair out of place under her dark headdress, her cloak lifting in the slight breeze, her gloved hands folded in front of her.
“The demon of lust, most likely,” was Charyn’s prompt reply.
Charyn was seventeen, much taller than I was and much prettier. Her hair curled naturally and seemed to flow without tangles, even on the windiest day. Her grey eyes were never troubled or filled with confusion, as mine so often were. When she spoke, her words were few and crisp and telling, and she always seemed to know just what to say. She would not believe in demons. She was sensible and practical, not easily led astray by gossip.
“He might have burned her, like a heretic,” another soft female voice reached me. “But he couldn’t. He still loves her.”
There was more hushed talk—of the swordsman brought from Calais many weeks before our cousin Anne’s trial and condemnation. The swordsman whose sole purpose was to carry out executions.
“He was planning it all along,” I heard a man say. “He wanted to be rid of her. He had tired of her. And she was cursed—she couldn’t give him a son. So he hired the French executioner. He hired him months ago. He paid him twenty-three pounds!” There were exclamations at this. Twenty-three pounds was a great deal of money, enough to buy several estates.
“Is it true she sent her gold bracelets to her old nurse and rocker, as a last keepsake?”
“She promised to marry Norris, her favorite lover,” one daring voice murmured. “She was going to kill the king and then marry him.”
“Don’t say such a thing—or you will die too!”
The babble of voices, the tramp of soldiers’ boots—then the gasps when Anne was brought out and helped to go up the steps to where the block was waiting.
Her step was brisk, lively. There was no heaviness about her. Once again I thought, she is mad, she has gone mad. She does not feel the pangs of her approaching death. Or is she relieved that she is not to suffer the agonies of death by fire?
I felt Charyn take my hand. She had taken off her glove. Her hand was cold in my warmer one.
Some in the crowd were kneeling. I heard sighs. People were drying their eyes. My uncle the duke was frowning.
“She deserves to die!” he was saying through clenched teeth. “She must suffer for her treasons!” We all knew that he had been the one to preside over the group of peers that had condemned Anne. Anne—the favorite child of his favorite sister Elizabeth.
I could see her clearly now, my view was no longer blocked by the capes and mantles of those in front of me. So many of those around me had begun to kneel—though my grandmother continued to stand rigidly in place, and as far as I could tell, none of my Howard relations appeared to be preparing to kneel. Not a knee was buckling. Charyn was trembling, but she stood.
The Lord Mayor and aldermen, solemn-faced in their black robes, watched impassively as the tall, brawny dark-haired Frenchman, his heavy broadsword drawn from its wide leather scabbard, climbed the steps to stand behind Anne. Compared to him, she looked very small. She kept turning her head to see him, to see what he was doing.
I felt Charyn squeeze my hand, her nails biting into my palm, and for the first time my stomach lurched with fear. I lowered my head. I did not want to see this.
Anne stepped forward. Her voice was strong as she asked for prayers. She did not confess her guilt. Rather she swore, on the host, that she was innocent. I was certain I saw her smile. Was she thinking of her daughter, I wondered, in those last few moments of life left to her? Her one child, Elizabeth, the child who the king had hoped would be a prince. Her legacy.
Once again she looked behind her. The swordsman was waiting. The women in attendance on her unfastened her ermine mantle and waited while she took off her headdress and covered her hair with a linen cap.
Did I only imagine that at that moment a cloud covered the sun and the sky darkened? Afterwards I could not remember clearly. I know that I looked in vain for a chaplain. Was there to be no chaplain, to say a prayer with Anne, or read words of forgiveness from the Bible? Was Anne to be denied these final comforts?
She murmured a few words to each of her attendants, no doubt wishing them well, and all but one received her last words with tearful thanks. Then she knelt. She knelt upright. She had no need to put her head on the block, for the swordsman’s blade slashed sideways, not downward.
Charyn fainted. I looked down at her. And at that moment I heard the horrible sound: a swishing in the air, a crunching, cries of fright and alarm. Looking up, I saw Anne’s twitching body, a rush of blood staining her grey gown deep red, her attendants wrapping something in a reddening cloth.
I could hardly breathe. I staggered. For a brief time everything around me seemed to blur, then my vision cleared and I began to catch my breath again. I saw that Charyn was being helped to her feet. The sky was lightening—or had it ever really gone dark?
The high grey stone walls still loomed, the birds, heedless of the drama below them, continued to soar and plunge, and then to rise, wings flapping, up into the sunny sky.
*   *   *
Not long after Anne’s death my father crept quietly in through a side door of the west wing of Horsham, my grandmother Agnes’s great sprawling country house in Sussex. He had sent me a note to say he was coming, and I was waiting for him in an anteroom.
I could tell as soon as I saw him that he was troubled and subdued. His shoulders were hunched, his expression dour. He had never been a robust man, but now that he was beginning to age his physical strength was waning. He sought me out from across the small room, his lined face sagging, his light blue eyes filled with worry. The eyes of a boy, I thought, rather than a man. A boy afraid of his master, like the half-naked scullery boys that scrubbed the huge pots in my grandmother’s kitchens. The thin blond hair that poked out from under father’s cap gave him a foolish look. His scraggly mop of hair was far different from my own thick auburn mane. I was proud of my hair, people said it was like the rich red-brown curls of my late mother. I resembled her—in vitality and lightness of spirit as well as in my coloring—rather than my ever anxious father.
Wearily he unhooked his cloak and cast it off, throwing himself down on a bench beside the thick wooden table in the anteroom and calling to the nearest groom for a tankard of ale. He sighed heavily and put his head in his hands.
I went to him and knelt. Weakly, almost absentmindedly, he laid his hand on my head to give me his blessing. I got up and joined him at the table.
“Did you have a rough crossing then, father? Were you ill?”
He nodded and pressed one hand to his back.
“The seas were high. And I am tortured with the stone.”
Kidney stones were the bane of my father’s life. He suffered terribly, and shouted loudly when his suffering was at its worst.
He had come from Calais, the French coastal town held by the English, where he held the office of Controller—by far the highest of the series of low court positions he had held. But I knew from his letters that he was in disgrace with his superiors there; the English governor of the town slighted him and criticized him, he wrote, and the French so disliked him that he was sure that if he left the town, he would never be allowed back in.
He clung to his office, fearing to leave. And as a result he had not been present at my cousin Anne’s execution. He had not been there to stand with the rest of us in the Howard clan, to stand beside his brother the duke, who treated him with scorn, or to bow to their stepmother, my grandmother Agnes, who did not disguise the fact that of all her many children and stepchildren, she despised my father the most.
He drained the tankard that was placed before him and called for another.
“The stone, the everlasting stone! It burns me. It stabs me. I tell you, Catherine, there are times when it makes me writhe in agony.”
“I’m sorry father. I wish I could help you. Can you get no physick there in Calais? I have heard that the apothecaries of France are superior to our own.”
He shrugged.
“I have medicine—but it works over well. It breaks the stone, I void the gravel and then—” he spat into the rushes at his feet “—and then it makes me piss all night long.”
I tried not to laugh at his forlorn words. He looked over at me.
“I dare not go home because of Margaret’s wrath! She beats me when I piss our bed. I tell you, she beats me! She says, ‘Only children piss their beds, not old men!’ But I am not old, merely afflicted. I would do anything to rid myself of that damnable pain!”
“They say eating a stork’s wing will keep your water from spilling over,” I suggested.
“Not true. I have tried it. Margaret laughed at me for trying it.”
I had little love for my stepmother Margaret Jennings, my father’s blustering, bullying third wife. She had been my stepmother for some three years, and the best thing about her was that she stayed away in the country most of the time, avoiding my father and taking no interest in me. She had married him because he was Lord Edmund Howard, brother of the powerful, wealthy Duke of Norfolk, and for no other reason. He had married her because she had a modest fortune, and now that he had spent that fortune (he had none of his own, being a younger son), he had no further use for her nor she for him. Yet they still shared a hearth—when he was not in Calais—and she continued to mistreat him.
I called for a plate of comfits for my father and turned the conversation to other topics. But there was really only one topic that concerned those of us living in Grandmother Agnes’s household: that of our late cousin Anne, and the king’s new wife Jane Seymour.
Father shifted on his bench and rubbed his sore back.
“Everyone fears that the new queen will cancel all of Queen Anne’s appointments,” he said as he picked at the plate in front of him. Father owed his position as Controller of Calais to the benevolence of the late Queen Anne; he had begged her to help him and she had. Now that Anne was dead, Anne who had shown him pity, he was afraid that he would lose his office for sure.
“All we hear from morning to night is Seymour, Seymour, Seymour. I have to tell you, Catherine, I am in dread of losing my office.”
“Cannot Uncle Thomas find you another?”
“He can—if he will. There is an Englishman lately condemned whose goods are forfeit. I have written to Thomas to ask for them as a gratuity.”
“And has he replied?”
Father shrugged. “He sends me a golden toothpick and some slates for my roof. A golden toothpick! Now what is such a silly bauble worth? A golden toothpick will not keep me out of debtor’s prison, nor keep my wife from beating me when I piss my bed!”
He rose to go, and sighed once more.
“I cannot keep mother waiting any longer.”
I knew that he dreaded facing her. Yet there was the smallest of smiles on his face as he turned to leave me.
“You will be glad to hear that I am doing well here at Horsham, father,” I called out to his retreating figure, and at my words he turned back, eager for the chance to delay his interview with the duchess a bit longer. For the first time he looked at me fixedly, really taking in my appearance.
He nodded. “Yes. You are ripe. You are doing as you’re told then? Minding your manners? Staying out of harm’s way? Staying out of your grandmother’s way?” He chuckled.
“If you mean, am I whipped? I can of a truth say no. I am learning to avoid the rod—and grandmother’s wrath.”
He continued to scan my face, and it seemed to me that his gaze was more tender than appraising.
“And how do you spend your days then? Does she have you splitting wood, or baking bread, or collecting goose down for her pillows?”
Now it was my turn to chuckle. “Perhaps all that is to come. For now I am taught to dance, and to bow gracefully, and never to wipe my fingers on the curtains the way the servants do when they think grandmother is not watching.”
He laughed.
“I practice my stitching, and listen to Father Dawes while he reads to us from the Scriptures, and I practice my letters, and I go with grandmother and my cousins to the farms and villages near here when she gives out her cures.”
“Her cures?”
“Her medicines. Her gingerflower water and oil of rosemary and all the other potions and possets she says will cure the poor.”
“I wish she had a cure for the stone,” my father muttered.
“Ask her for one,” I said. “And father—”
“Yes?”
“Until you are recovered, why not stay with Uncle William? He would welcome you I’m sure.” My uncle William Cotton, my late mother’s half brother, had a large estate in Kent. He was a warm, congenial man, known for his kindness and goodheartedness. I had never heard him speak ill of my father. “No need to go back to stay with Margaret.”
Father nodded. “Yes. I’ll do that. If only his estate were nearer the court.” And with a final pat on my shoulder he went to find grandmother.
*   *   *
I never knew what I might find when I went upstairs, into the room we called the Paradise Chamber, the cold, drafty, barnlike room with the lofty ceiling where we girls spent our days and nights when not attending to our duties or our lessons.
When I first arrived at Horsham it was all I could do not to think of the Paradise Chamber as not a paradise at all but rather a sort of dungeon, a place of no escape where we girls were locked in at night and watched by our jailers. We each had a small bed, with a thin mattress and a blanket, but bedwarmers were few, and my feet were always cold at night. The Paradise Chamber was drafty, and the beds farthest from the single hearth got little heat. At the foot of each bed was a trunk that held our clothing and other possessions. Some of the girls hid things underneath their mattresses but as the mattresses were full of fleas nothing of value could be kept there, except coins, and no one dared to put coins under their mattress because everyone knew that was where they were likely to be hidden.
Nights in the Paradise Chamber were full of discomforts. We were awakened by the barking of the watchdogs in the courtyard, or by the moans and coughs of the sick girls among us, or by the cries of others awakened by nightmares.
Some girls wept. One night not long after I arrived at Horsham I was awakened by the sound of sobbing from a bed near mine. The fire in the hearth had burned low and the few candles in the room gave little light, but when I sat up and looked for the source of the sobbing I quickly realized that it was coming from the bed directly across the room from mine. The bed where Alice Restvold slept. Like nearly all the girls in the room, Alice was a distant relation of mine, a few years older than I was, a red-headed girl with a pinched face and large staring blue eyes.
The noise of her sobbing and sniffing annoyed me, I did not like being awakened. But at the same time I was curious to know what was causing her such distress. I got out of bed and, taking a candle, went to her.
“Alice!” I whispered. “What is it, Alice?”
“He—has—gone away,” she managed to say.
“Who has gone away?”
“My John.”
“He is—your betrothed?”
“No!”
“Then who is he?”
“My—beloved!”
Her beloved, I thought. But not her betrothed. I had never known love, but I had seen it, often. I had seen lovers walking hand in hand, lying together in the warm wet grass on May Day, exchanging glances in church or at table—even embracing in darkened hallways. Father Dawes lectured us sternly about lust, the devil’s temptation of the flesh, but young as I was, I knew that love was a thing apart, nobler far than lust. A treasure to be cherished. I did not yet understand how the two can be entangled, how confusing the urges and pleasures of the body can be.
“Why would your beloved ever leave you?” I whispered to Alice.
But my question only made her sob more freely and more loudly. Several of the other girls tossed irritably in their beds and tried to shush her.
“She’s at it again!” I heard one of them say. “Why can’t she just forget him! He’s gone!”
Presently I heard a disturbance behind me and in a moment another girl had come up to Alice’s bed. A girl I didn’t recognize. In the dim light I could tell only that she had long dark hair, loosely braided, and that she wore around her shoulders a thick woolen shawl embroidered in a pattern of deep blue and sparkling silver.
“Stop that noise, foolish chit!” the newcomer said tartly. “You’re keeping us all awake!” She did not bother to keep her own voice low, but barked out her words as she reached swiftly under the blanket and took Alice by the hand.
“Come with me!” she said. “I’ll give you something to put you to sleep, so we can all sleep through the night.” And pulling the weeping Alice out of bed she fairly dragged her to a door at the opposite end of the long room and, taking a key that she wore around her neck, unlocked the door.
“You may as well come along,” she said to me as she pulled Alice through the door after her.
We were in a small chamber furnished with two beds, a chest and a low table. It had a sloping roof and a little barred window, beneath which was a brazier full of red coals. The room smelled of smoke and of something else, something heavy and sweet. A scent I had never smelled before.
“You are both new to this house,” the girl with the braid said. “You are Catherine, whose mother no one mentions because she was the king’s whore. And you are the sniveling Alice, whose lover has married another.”
“What?” The shock of the girl’s words made Alice stop crying. “What did you say?”
“I said your lover, John Brockley, the gentleman usher, has married another woman. He never told you he was betrothed, did he.”
Alice, her eyes wide, shook her head.
“What other woman?”
The girl with the braid went to the wardrobe and began pouring what looked like wine into a goblet. To this she added powder from a jar and stirred the concoction.
“It matters not. When next you see him, he will have a wife.”
She handed the goblet to Alice.
“Here. Drink this.”
Alice sniffed the liquid, made a sour face, then looked at us. She flinched, but obeyed and drank the liquid in a single gulp. When she finished she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand—something we were admonished never to do—and handed the goblet back.
I stood watching, somewhat dazed.
“Who are you?” I asked the girl with the braid. “And how dare you speak ill of my mother?”
She regarded me coolly. “I am Joan. My father is William Bulmer, Lord Mannering. And everyone in this household knows about your mother, the ill-famed Lady Jocasta.”
Alice was staring at me.
“My mother was beautiful. Others were envious of her beauty, and so they defamed her.”
Joan smiled. “If you like,” she said. “The truth is known, whatever you may say. And besides, she is long dead.”
I needed no reminder that my mother had been laid to rest long before, when I was a very small child, barely old enough to remember her. My memory of her was of a great sadness, of something warm and loving that had suddenly vanished from my life, leaving only sorrow behind.
“You guard your tongue about my mother, Joan Bulmer! Or I will whip you!”
“Indeed? I would not advise it. The last girl who struck me was found much bruised and broken, beside the malt-house door.”
The menace in her tone made me wary. I knew little of the workings of my grandmother’s large household, but I was aware that every large noble household had its share of ruffians, its cliques, its back-stairs brawls. It had been that way in my father’s much smaller establishment. Things went on behind the backs of the stewards—deeds that were never brought to light. Sometimes quite violent deeds. Until I knew more about the ways of my grandmother’s establishment I would not provoke this brazen girl further.
But before I could decide how to reply, or what to do, I saw that Alice was slipping down in a faint. To my surprise, Joan reached down and tried to pick her up.
“Help me,” she said, and together we lifted Alice onto one of the small room’s two beds. She lay there, still and pale, her eyes closed. Frowning, Joan picked up a candle and held it close to Alice’s white face.
“Has she been spewing?” she asked me.
“I don’t know.”
She set the candle back down and felt Alice’s stomach and belly, making her moan.
I heard Joan swear under her breath.
“By the bones of Christ, not another one!”
I looked at Joan questioningly, our quarrel and clashing words for the moment forgotten.
“These girls! These rich, protected girls, who know nothing of the world, who come here to this lustpit of a house, and get themselves with child, and then—”
“She’s carrying a child? Are you sure?”
Joan gave me a withering look, then slapped Alice’s cheek. “Wake up girl!”
Alice protested, pushing Joan away feebly with one hand.
“Don’t hurt her!” I objected.
“Hurt her? I’m helping her! I’m going to help her get rid of this unwanted encumbrance! Before we all are whipped till our backs are raw!”
What I was seeing and hearing confused me. This forceful, unsparing girl Joan, with her threats and her slaps and her insult to my mother’s memory, seemed to be saying that Alice’s disgrace reflected on us all. That we were living in what she called a pit of lust, not a noble household—my grandmother’s noble household. How could she say such a thing? And how could she be certain that Alice was carrying a child?
As the night wore on, my confusion lessened. At Joan’s insistence (“Do you really want the wrath of the old duchess to come down on all our heads?” she demanded) I stayed on in the small room while Joan administered another drink to the drowsy Alice. This one took longer to make, and smelled so foul that I thought I would retch. The stench of it filled the room.
Poor Alice admitted that she had not had her monthly flux for many weeks and that she had often been sick, that whatever she ate would not stay in her stomach.
“Did no one ever tell you that if you let a man have his pleasure with you there would be a child? Did no one ever show you what to do to make sure no child would be born?”
Alice shook her head.
“Then I will tell you.” With a sigh Joan went to the wardrobe and brought out a lemon, which she cut in half.
“Here,” she said, handing one of the halves to Alice. “Take this and put it inside you.”
Alice, groggy from the drinks she had been given, stared at Joan, incomprehending.
“Stupid girl!” Joan spat out. Then, taking the other half of the lemon, she lifted her skirts, spread her legs, and packed the dripping fruit up into her honeypot.
So quickly did she do this that I hardly had time to be surprised. Alice, after fumbling a bit, managed to imitate her.
“Do this whenever you are with a lover. If you have no lemons, use a bit of sponge. Dip it in vinegar first. Or if you have no vinegar, dip it in sour milk.”
“How do you know this? How can you be sure it will work?” I wanted to know. “You are no midwife or wise woman.”
“I know,” Joan responded, “because I have lain with boys and men since I was younger than you, and I am eighteen now, and I have never yet been with child. I learned what I know from other girls, of course. Older girls. How else?”
She looked over at Alice, who was holding her stomach with both hands.
“She’s going to need the chamber pot,” Joan told me. “Don’t be alarmed. The drink I gave her—the second one—was very strong. The juice of tansy and pennyroyal. It will cause her to expel her child. The pain will be great, but it will not last long.”
Alice was doubled over, grimacing and moaning. She squatted over the chamber pot to relieve herself but could only grunt and emit little shrieks. Her forehead shone with perspiration. She reached for my hand, and when I offered it, she squeezed it so hard it hurt.
“Help me,” she whispered, then let out a piteous moan.
What happened over the next hour is best left unrecorded, except to write that when Alice’s pain was finally past, she was no longer carrying her lover’s child. And I, having witnessed her suffering, and done my best to help her through it with soothing words and encouragement, was left exhausted and in need of rest.
But the lessons of that long night stayed with me. If, as Joan Bulmer said, we were living in a lustpit, then I was determined to avoid its pitfalls. I had no lover, but I vowed that, should a lover come to me, I would keep plenty of lemons nearby, and would be wary and prudent in making use of them. I did not yet know how perilous the ways of love could be, and how even the most prudent of girls could fall prey to its perplexing tangles.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Carolly Erickson