At the Mercy of the Queen

A Novel of Anne Boleyn

Anne Clinard Barnhill

St. Martin's Griffin

One
 

Already the grassy fields surrounding Hever Castle were greening, though Easter was several weeks away. The nearby forests had put out tender buds and the barley fields sprouted fresh green shoots. Though the gray sky still shrouded the land, one could feel a hint of warmth, the first indication that spring would come, after all. This, along with the birth of her favorite bitch’s puppies, made Madge Shelton frisky that morning, able to shake, finally, the feeling of dread she had carried since her arrival in the south of England. Although she could not know it yet, this was the last morning of her old life, the first morning of the life she’d hoped would never come.
“The fat one, the one with a bit of red on his chest,” said Madge, leaning over the roughly made pen that housed ten setters, her uncle’s newest stock of hunting dogs.
“He’s already been spoken for. Master Boleyn left word that the biggest and best pup was to be trained for the hunt,” said Ben Whipple, the son of the yeoman who managed the Boleyn farm.
“We’ll see about that. My birthday’s coming soon and I shall ask my uncle about the hound. I’m likely to get him, you can be sure of that. My uncle gives me whatever I fancy these days,” Madge said. She held the pup to her bosom and stroked behind his ears.
“You’ll be mine, pretty boy. And we’ll roam the fields together. I’ll teach you to point. We’ll show my uncle how a good dog and a brave girl can hunt with the best of them,” Madge said.
“Master Boleyn’s a-wanting to groom the biggest pup for the queen. He knows how she fancies a smart cur. You won’t get your way this time, mistress,” said Ben. He picked up the runt of the litter, a pitiful-looking setter with only a spot of white at the tip of its tail.
“Shall I drown this one? It’s only a bitch,” he said.
“Don’t you dare,” said Madge.
“Master Boleyn told me to get rid of the runt and spare only the smartest, healthiest ones. He can’t afford to keep the whole passel,” said Ben.
“Give me that little one, then. I’ll keep her safe,” Madge said. She put the fat pup back into the pen and wrapped her hands around the small black one. The pup nuzzled against Madge and licked her hands. “She knows I’m saving her from a watery grave. Look at how grateful she is.”
“Tell you what. I’ll let you keep her if you give me a kiss,” said Ben.
“You’ll let me keep her, Ben Whipple, kiss or no!” Madge stood up abruptly, still clutching the puppy. She smoothed her skirts with one hand while holding the dog against her chest.
“Why won’t you kiss me, Madge? You did once, down by the creek. Let me again,” said Ben.
“I’ll never kiss the likes of you again, Ben Whipple. I am cousin to the queen and must act according to my new station. In a few short weeks, Queen Anne will be crowned, and then you won’t dare speak so in my company,” said Madge.
“Pshaw. Nan Bullen’s no better than a whore and everybody knows it. Catherine’s the rightful queen and Old Harry can’t change that. Nan Bullen’s as common as these pups,” said Ben.
Madge pushed Ben out of her way, still holding the black pup. She stomped across the barnyard. Halfway, she stopped, turned toward Ben, her cheeks flushed and her red hair flying every which way in the early morning breeze.
“You’ll live to regret those words. My family’s no longer simple wool merchants. You’ll see—the Shelton name is something these days and you, Ben Whipple, better watch your tongue!” Madge turned again on one heel and headed for the main house where her nurse would have hot tea ready and maybe a tasty bit of raisin cake.
Margaret Louise Shelton, Madge as she was known to the servants and farmers on her uncle’s manor in Edenbridge, Kent, was fifteen years old and already a handful for her nurse, Cate. Tall and thin with a smallish bosom, a delicate waist, and flaring hips, Madge was quickly becoming a beauty and she knew it. Her green eyes were wide and expressive, showing every nuance of feeling a young woman could experience. When angry, her eyes narrowed and actually darkened. When happy, her eyes seemed lit from a secret sunshine within. When sad, her eyes turned watery and red-rimmed, much to her chagrin.
Though she gave her nurse, Cate, a good deal of trouble, Madge was happy to have Cate with her, for she was unused to living with the Boleyn family, especially now that Sir Thomas’s daughter, Anne, was married to the king. Unlike her own family, where she was the youngest of five children and likely to find a partner in any devilment she could think up, at Hever Castle, Madge was younger than the Boleyn children by fifteen years or more. No one laughed at her jokes or her funny faces. No one wanted to act out the story of Punchinella, and Madge couldn’t find one person who would sing duets with her in the early evenings after supper.
Cate was all Madge had to remind her of Great Snoring, her home far away. Madge longed for the fields of the family lands in Norfolk, where she spent summers cavorting with the new lambs. Cate’s presence wasn’t enough to make up for the familiar life Madge longed for. Besides, Cate insisted Madge practice her best behavior all the time. She could never relax at the Boleyn residence. There was too much at stake for that.
“What have you dragged in this time?” Cate said when she saw Madge carrying the pup into the elegant rooms they shared.
“Ben was going to drown her,” said Madge. She sat on the low stool near the fireplace and warmed her hands, allowing the pup to make a nest in her skirts.
“That’s your good wool, girl. You don’t want to be smelling of dog when you meet the king, do you?” Cate grabbed the pup and held it up for examination. “Nothing but a runt. Not even interesting in its markings.”
“Give her back. I don’t care what I smell like when I meet the king. Give me my dog,” said Madge.
“And what makes you think Sir Thomas will allow you to keep this mutt? He’s known for killing off what’s weak and small,” said Cate, handing the dog to Madge.
“I’ll keep her whatever way I can. I’ll hide her in our rooms and Sir Thomas won’t find her,” said Madge. She gathered some rushes from the floor into a small bunch and set the pup in the center of the reeds, near the fire.
“I’m warning you, my Maddie, you mustn’t anger Sir Thomas. He’s grown powerful these last ten years and your family’s fortunes ride on him. And now, they’re riding on you, too,” said Cate.
“I know, good Cate, I know. I will try to please Sir Thomas as best I can. But I can’t live for his good pleasure—I have a life of my own.” Madge slipped her feet from the stiff leather boots and stretched her toes toward the warmth of the fire.
“A woman’s life is never her own, Maddie girl. We must make our way as we can. Your father sent you here to serve Sir Thomas in whatever way he so desires. Thus far, Sir Thomas has allowed you much freedom but that may pass. You must have it in your mind to obey Sir Thomas and serve the queen.” Cate stood behind Madge and took the pins from her thick hair. Red curls snaked through Cate’s fingers. The red was flecked with gold and smelled of lemongrass. Cate combed through the locks and scratched gently at Madge’s scalp. The girl’s shoulders dropped a bit.
“I’ll make Mother proud, don’t worry. So far, Sir Thomas hasn’t said two words to me. If I’m lucky, things will stay as they are and I can go back home by All Saints’ Day,” Madge said as she nudged the sleeping puppy with her big toe. “Now, what shall we call this black runt of a dog?”
“Better call it Nothing. That way, if Sir Thomas drowns her, you’ll have Nothing to miss and Nothing to cry about,” said Cate.
“A cruel Cate you are! No, I’ll call her Shadow. She’s black and she’ll have to hide away in shadows if she’s to survive. And she follows me as if she were my very own shadow,” said Madge.
“Shadow it is, then.” Cate twirled the rope of Madge’s hair into a bun and secured it with pins. She covered the bun with a plain white cap and sat on the stone floor next to Madge, leaning her head against Madge’s knee.
Both nurse and girl were almost asleep when a loud knocking jerked each awake. Madge looked at her nurse, then at the pup. She scooped Shadow from the floor, then hurried to place the dog inside the chest that held her modest jewels—a small brooch her mother had given her covered with seed pearls, a painted comb for her hair, a long chain of gold to wear on her wedding day, and a miniature of her father.
“Why so long to answer, Nurse?” said Sir Thomas, a tall, slender man with a reddish-gray beard and thinning hair of the same color. He wasn’t exactly smiling, but he looked as pleasant as Madge had ever seen him. His features, sharp and hawklike, were usually pinched together as if he were in deep thought or as if he had enemies to smite. Seeing him storm along the walkways in the beautiful gardens of Hever Castle made Madge hide for cover. She avoided him when at all possible, curtsying to him when they processed to church and at formal dinners. She kept her head down and never dared look him in the eye. She behaved exactly as her mother had taught her and so far, she’d escaped his notice. Or so she’d thought.
“Let’s have a look at you, niece. Ah yes, you’ll do nicely. A pretty one, eh George?” Sir Thomas strolled into the apartments, his son, George, trailing behind him. George was handsome with golden hair and softer features than his father’s. Both men were dressed in rich-looking silks and Sir Thomas had a red velvet cloak lined with ermine. His undershirt was cloth-of-gold and Madge had never seen anyone look quite so fine. George, fifteen years Madge’s senior, was taller than his father and his eyes seemed more kind.
“Father, don’t speak of Madge as if she couldn’t hear you. Hello, coz. How do you find life at Hever? Hmmm, no answer, eh? I’ll talk enough for the both of us! Has anyone taken time to teach you the new games so popular at court? Chess? Cards? No? Well, coz, I shall show you. After all, once the king and queen arrive, you must help us entertain them,” said George, his voice full of fun.
Madge felt her cheeks burn as her cousin chucked her under her chin. She did not know what to make of him; he seemed too full of life to have come from the same stock as Sir Thomas. She kept her curtsy, wondering if Sir Thomas would ever allow her to rise. Her legs trembled.
“Enough, George. Margaret, I asked your father and mother to allow you to come to Hever Castle for a reason. As you know, your cousin, Anne, is now queen of England. This position has been a hard-fought one and will be hard enough for her to hold, even though she sits prettily now. But there are those who would upset her from the throne if they could—the Seymours; the Dudleys; not to mention the Spanish ambassador, Chapuys; and the Catholics. Anne is sitting on the head of a pin and could easily be toppled. It is up to us to keep her in her position until she bears an heir. Once a son is born, Anne, and all of us, will be safe.” Sir Thomas stared down at Madge, never once allowing her to raise herself from the deep curtsy she’d taken in his honor. Finally, he raised her head so that she was forced to look at him. “Do you understand, my girl?”
“Yes, my lord.” Madge did not understand, but she dared not say so. She knew better than to ask any questions. Slowly, he raised her to a more comfortable position, led her to a bench, and indicated for her to be seated.
“You will be going to court, Margaret. The king and queen will arrive at Hever later this week. I don’t know how many days they shall stay—”
“God’s blood, I hope their stay will be short,” said George winking at Madge.
“However long Their Majesties stay is not your concern, young George. What is your concern is to help your sister in whatever way you can. You must remember, our future fortune depends on Anne.” Sir Thomas’s voice was cold and Madge worried that he might strike George. She shivered as Sir Thomas turned back to her, his small, blue eyes full of anger.
“After Their Majesties return to court, Margaret, you shall follow them forthwith.” Sir Thomas bowed and headed toward the doors.
“To court? I … I cannot possibly go to court. I have no proper clothes. I cannot dance. I lack the graces for court, Sir Thomas. I’m a mere girl, I—”
“Enough! His majesty has assigned you to be one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting and to court you will go!” Sir Thomas thundered. Then he turned to Cate. “Nurse, see that this girl has the best dresses available. Tell my wife, the Lady Elizabeth, to give you bolts of silk to supply you. Margaret will need at least five gowns. You and my wife will see to the construction of each,” Sir Thomas said. “As for your want of grace, I would suggest, for your own sake, that you begin to cultivate those skills you lack. George, after we sup, you will begin to teach the girl.” Sir Thomas turned quickly and left them. He stopped in the doorway and stared at his son.
“And George, no spoiling this one, eh?” said Sir Thomas.
“Of course not, Father. Of course not,” said George.
Sir Thomas gave his son a hard, curious look and then stomped down the hall, his steps on the stone floor commanding and steady as a clock.
Madge, George, and Cate sat still as relics. Suddenly, a crying sound came from the chest next to the bed. Madge began to hum, trying to cover the noise.
“What’s that?” said George as he searched the room trying to discover the source of the sound.
“What? All I hear is my lovely Madge’s voice. Tell me, deary, where’d you learn that ditty?” said Cate.
“What’s that you are hiding, Nurse? Aha! A pup and one from father’s newest litter, I’ll warrant. What’s it doing here?” George grabbed the puppy before Madge could get her hands on the little dog.
“She’s mine! Give her to me!” Madge tried to take the puppy from George.
“So, Mousy Madge has a tongue after all! Good! Good for you, coz. Tell me, what’d you name her?” George gave the pup over to Madge, who carefully petted the dog and held her close.
“Shadow. She’s my Shadow and where I go, she’ll go, too.” Madge stared straight into George’s eyes, daring him to cross her.
“Then Shadow will be going to court soon. Best keep her safe, Madge Mouse. And yourself, too,” said George. “Court isn’t for the faint of heart. You’re going, so you better learn to master yourself and your betters.”
*   *   *
“No, no, no! You must hold the string down more firmly, Madge Mouse. See, like this,” said George, placing his finger across the neck of the lute and pressing the catgut until the tip of his finger turned white.
“I’m trying! I do not seem to have the strength for it. Perhaps we should explore another instrument—the virginals?” said Madge. Two hours earlier, when the lesson began, she would never have spoken so boldly to the great George Boleyn. But her fingers hurt, her head ached, and she wished to return to her rooms.
“The lute is the easiest to play—any dolt can learn it. All you must needs do is strum a little so you can sing. The king loves music and is quite accomplished, as is my sister. I play and carry a tune rather well myself—even our sister Mary can do such. Surely you have some of the family ability,” said George.
“Evidently I do not!” said Madge.
“Dear Margaret, forgive my impatience. I am to prepare you for court in a fortnight, teach you those things my sisters learned over years at the French court. It is a quick study and I fear I forget how many hours I spent teaching my own fingers to press the proper string. Let us put the lute away for tonight and try again on the morrow,” said George.
“Thank you, cousin. I am quite ready to retire. But if you would like, I shall sing you a lullaby, one my mother used to sing to us as we drifted off to sleep. I do have a small gift with a song,” said Madge.
“That is encouraging. Yes, let me hear you, Madge Mouse,” said George. He picked up the lute and waited for Madge to begin.
“Rock-a-bye, don’t you cry, for we will go to see Nanny/Up the hill, by the mill, to see the wee little lambie,” Madge sang softly, her voice breathy and tender.
George motioned for her to repeat the song and he strummed along with the lute. The sound of the strings gave Madge more confidence and, with George’s encouragement, she sang out more forcefully.
“Not the most inspiring words but you sang them very nicely, coz. You do have a lovely, sweet voice. And you carry a tune and sing with feeling. All this will delight the king. We shall work more on the lute in the morning,” said George. “Make not that dour face, Madge. If you do well, I shall reward you with a sweet from the cook! Now, off to bed!”
Madge curtsied and hurried to her room, ready for sleep and filled with dread of her next lesson.

 
Copyright © 2011 by Anne Clinard Barnhill