The Last Wife of Henry VIII

A Novel

Carolly Erickson

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One 

My earliest memory is of a windswept plain in flanders called the Golden Valley. I was seven years old, a blue-eyed, fair-haired child in the retinue of Queen Catherine, and I rode into the valley on the back of a small cart filled with trunks and baskets and cages of squawking chickens and ducks. A light rain was falling, I remember, and I put up the hood of my cloak to cover my head.
 
As we trundled and rattled down through the hills the rain suddenly ceased and the sun came out. I could see the entire plain spread out before me, with the little town of Ardres beside the river on one side of the valley and the smaller settlement of Guines on the other side. Rows and rows of tents had been erected near each of the towns and a huge tent of gold cloth with a shiny statue atop it loomed over them like a broody mother hen over her chicks.
 
It was near sunset and the late afternoon sun struck the golden tent and turned it to fire, its red-gold glow spilling out over the nearby rooftops and gilding the river water. As I watched, all the windows in a nearby stone pavilion began to glow red, reflecting the setting sun, and I thought to myself, this must be the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
 
I thought the grand display in the Golden Valley quite wondrous, but to my mother, who was a thrifty woman, it was an excuse for waste.
 
“I’m glad your father didn’t live to see this,” she remarked to me the following day, after we were settled into our lodging in Guines. “These two kings, Francis and Henry, are spending a fortune to impress each other. So much silk and brocade, so many feathered plumes and perfumed gloves and jeweled buckles. Why, our King Henry alone bought five hundred ells of fine Italian cloth of gold just to line his tent. There is so much of the stuff in view that the townspeople are calling this the Field of Cloth of Gold.”
 
“Father, if he were here, would be wearing his best velvet doublet and his gold chain of office.” My father had been controller of King Henry’s household until his death three years earlier, and had been responsible for paying out all the expenses and wages. I remembered him as a vigorous, forceful man who loved his finery and took any excuse to wear it.
 
“Yes but he would have grumbled about the king’s excesses at the same time. Now that he is gone, there is no one but Cardinal Wolsey to check the royal extravagance. And everyone knows how prudent the cardinal himself is with money.”
 
I smiled. Even I, at seven years old, knew that the cardinal threw gold coins to beggars when copper would have been lavish and wore ermine-lined cloaks that were finer than the king’s own. We all were in awe of Cardinal Wolsey.
 
“Now, Cat, I want you to remember what I told you. I will present you to Queen Catherine, you will kneel and be silent. She will bless you and smile, as she always does with children. She loves children. If you must speak, say only ‘May God keep your royal highness.’ Have you got that?”
 
“Yes, mother. ‘May God keep your royal highness.’”
 
“Now, remember. No matter what others are here for, I have brought you with me to this place for one purpose only: to find a husband for you, and to arrange for your betrothal. When the queen requires my presence, I will serve her. The rest of my time I will devote to you.”
 
She looked at me critically, smoothing down my hair and centering the pendant cross that hung from my gold necklace over my breastbone.
 
“Turn around.”
 
I turned slowly.
 
“You’ll do.” She allowed her face to relax and smiled at me and kissed my cheek. “We’ll make a fine match for you. One your father would have been proud of. You were his favorite, you know.”
 
She took me by the hand and led me to where a groom was waiting with horses. A strong wind whipped at our cheeks as we rode to the newly built tilting ground where under a bright red awning trimmed in gold Queen Catherine sat with her ladies, doing her best to look content and interested in the spectacle before her though the weather was very cold and we all wished we were indoors by a warm fire. Coals burned in open braziers but the fires did nothing to alleviate the chill. As we approached the queen I could see that she kept her hands under a fur lap-robe and when she lifted one hand and delicately wiped her mouth her finger-ends were blue.
 
I had often seen Queen Catherine before, but had never been formally presented to her. My mother had been one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting for as long as I could remember. I thought she was the most beautiful of them, with her rich red hair and white skin and wide mouth, though I had to admit that Maria de Salinas, a striking brunette, was at least equally lovely. Queen Catherine was a small woman whose reddish-blond hair had begun to go gray and whose fair skin was wrinkled around the eyes and mouth. Her expression in repose was severe—I had often seen that, when I accompanied my mother to mass with the queen or when I entered a room where the ladies-in-waiting were and the queen was among them, reading. Yet when she smiled that severity melted and she looked quite joyful. I watched that transformation now as she saw my mother approach, with me in tow.
 
“So this is your little girl,” she said, quite informally, holding out both hands to me and smiling.
 
“Yes, your majesty.”
 
I knelt before her and bowed as my mother had told me to do and the queen placed her hands on my shoulders.
 
“Bless you, child. What is your name?”
 
“Cat. Catherine. I was named for you, your majesty.”
 
“Well then, little namesake, stand up and let me take a look at you.”
 
She regarded me gravely, and I felt kindness in her regard, not the harsh scrutiny I often felt from other adults. I was used to being stared at and judged. I knew very well that my worth, as a girl, lay in my appearance. And I knew that I was thought to be a pretty little girl.
 
“Has she any dowry?” Queen Catherine asked my mother.
 
“Only a modest one. Four hundred pounds.”
 
“She has her looks, and her mother’s royal blood, and the sponsorship of the queen—”
 
My mother curtseyed deeply. “Thank you, your majesty.”
 
It was true, I was of royal descent. My mother’s mother’s family, the Fitzhughs, claimed as an ancestor John of Gaunt, a son of King Edward III. Though as I knelt before Queen Catherine, I felt very sharply aware of the difference between us. Her mother had been the great Queen Isabella of Castile, conqueror of the Moors and, with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon, uniter of all Spain. It had been Queen Isabella who sponsored the voyages of the Italian Cristobal Colon, the man who claimed the new lands of the Americas for Spain. Catherine was indeed a highborn queen, and she was honoring me with her recommendation.
 
“Ah, I see that my lord is ready to begin the joust.” Catherine stood, her attention on the tiltyard, where a crowd had been gathering to watch the competition. A wide expanse of barren ground had been fenced off, the fencing decorated with bright red and blue banners and the heraldic shields of England and France. Pennons flew in the wind atop tall poles. Down the middle of the fenced-in area ran a long wooden barrier. Riders approached each other from opposite ends of the field, on opposite sides of the barrier. Using long wooden lances with blunt ends, each attempted to knock the other off his horse. It all took much strength and skill, and the champion of the tiltyard was always the hero of the court.
 
A loud blast of trumpets and even louder noise from the crowd of onlookers announced the start of the tilting.
 
With a thunderous pounding of hoofs an immense dun-colored stallion, mane and tail flying, galloped down the length of the wooden barrier as the onlookers shouted and cheered. The rider, his face hidden behind the lowered visor of his gilded and plumed helmet, was an outsize man with a broad, strong frame and powerful legs. He dipped his lance to the cheering spectators, then rode back to the starting point.
 
“It is the king! It is the king!”
 
I was so caught up in the excitement that I almost forgot where I was, and began jumping up and down. I felt a restraining hand on my shoulder and heard my mother whisper loudly, “Look at the princess! See how well behaved she is!”
 
I glanced over to where the blond, delicate four-year-old Princess Mary rested in the arms of Maria de Salinas, her eyes bright and intent on watching her magnificent father but her body obediently still. She was well trained to keep her composure and her quietness put me to shame.
 
But then, Princess Mary was the heir to the throne. If Queen Catherine had no son—and I had heard my mother and the other ladies-in-waiting say quietly to one another that she would not—then Mary would be the next ruler of England. No wonder she was so well behaved and dignified. She would one day be queen.
 
A second rider had now made his appearance and was introducing himself to the crowd. He was the great French champion the Sieur de Chatelherault, and I heard his name murmured through the mass of spectators as he rode up and down along the barrier as the king had, making his splendid warhorse sidestep and toss his head proudly.
 
In a moment the herald stepped forward and announced the first test of arms. Now the onlookers fell silent, watching the two riders take their places at opposite ends of the lists, adjust their visors and lower their wooden lances. At a signal they spurred their mounts forward and, amid much spewing of mud clumps and churning of earth, the horses flew toward one another and the riders took aim with their long lances.
 
There was a tremendous crash as the lances splintered with the impact of the two hurtling combatants—and then it was over, the French champion in his black and silver armor lay struggling on the ground, his mount shying and snorting.
 
The crowd roared “King Henry! King Henry!” again and again, and the king, who appeared unshaken by his clash with the Frenchman, raised his visor and waved, smiling to the entire assembly before resuming his place at the end of the field.
 
Another challenger was brought against him, and then another. Each time my heart beat quickly and I feared for King Henry’s safety. Yet each time he thundered along the barrier, lance held securely, and unhorsed his opponent while evading being unhorsed himself.
 
His strength was prodigious, and his stamina even more so. I cannot now remember how long I stood watching, open-mouthed and in awe, but it seemed like a very long afternoon. Finally the herald announced the winner, in a voice that trembled with emotion: “King Harry the Eighth of That Name, champion!”
 
Yet another deafening cheer rose from hundreds of throats, and the champion made his tired mount trot up and down the tiltyard one last time while flowers were thrown in his path and tributes called out. Diverging from his path down the center of the jousting field, he turned his horse in the direction of a richly dressed young woman who stood in one of the royal pavilions adjacent to Queen Catherine’s. As we watched, the woman held out a square of shimmering blue silk and he reached up and took it from her, kissing it and attaching it to his armor where it fluttered conspicuously against the gleaming silver metal.
 
I saw that the queen had been holding out a square of red silk, no doubt expecting the king to take it and wear it. When she saw him take the other woman’s token she quickly withdrew her outstretched arm and handed the red silk square to my mother, who tucked it discreetly into the pocket of her gown.
 
“Why didn’t the king wear the queen’s token?” I asked my mother, who put her finger to her lips to silence me. Later, at the lavish banquet the king held to celebrate his victory, I had my answer.
 
In the torchlit banqueting hall of his newly built palace, King Henry gave a feast that night for the French king Francis that surpassed any feast I had ever attended. Long dining tables were heaped with platters of roast beef and pork, swan and pheasant, succulent puddings and towering miniature castles made from spun sugar and filled with marzipan and sweet comfits. The wine flowed freely and many toasts were offered to the jousters and their ladies.
 
I observed that Queen Catherine sat with the French Queen Claude and her ladies, not with King Henry. He sat at a table apart from all the others, the French king in the place of honor on his right hand but on his left, the young woman who had given him the square of blue silk.
 
She was very beautiful in her gown of deep red velvet, her abundant hair held back by a headdress that sparkled with gems. As if she did not have enough finery already, I saw the king slip an emerald ring on her finger, and her smile, when she looked over at him, was one of gratitude combined with deep pleasure and satisfaction. It was the smile of a woman who has achieved what she wants, and is well pleased with it.
 
I saw that several of the French ladies were looking over at Henry and his attractive companion and talking to one another about her. I had been instructed in French since I began my studies at the age of four, and I understood quite a bit of what they said. The woman’s name was Bessie Blount, and she had been King Henry’s mistress for several years. Evidently the king preferred her company to that of his wife.
 
One of the French ladies seemed to be staring at Bessie with fascination. She interested me because she spoke both French and English, and because I enjoyed watching her dance. She was graceful, she dipped and swayed to the music as if dancing rather than walking was her natural form of movement.
 
“That is Lady Elizabeth Boleyn’s daughter, Anne,” my mother told me. “She lives at the French court. She is one of Queen Claude’s maids of honor. I suppose she will marry a Frenchman.”
 
“She doesn’t look like the others.”
 
“No. She has a wild, gypsy look about her. Such dark skin and those black eyes. Unfortunate really. Still, I suppose some Frenchman will have her—if her dowry is high enough.”
 
Later that evening my mother discussed my dowry with a tall, spare old man who leaned on his cane and looked at me carefully as they conversed, as if examining a painting. I looked back. After a time he smiled.
 
“She has heart, your daughter. Not one girl in twenty would look back at an old man like me in that unflinching way.”
 
“She is her father’s daughter, Lord Scrope. My late husband, Thomas Parr, as you may remember, was a valiant fighter. He fought at the king’s side against the French here in Flanders some years ago. And he was a fearless rider and hunter.”
 
“So he was. Can she ride?”
 
“I am told I ride well for my age,” I said. “And I am learning to shoot. And to dance.”
 
I could see that Lord Scrope was amused at my very forthcoming response. His eyes twinkled.
 
“We will have to talk further,” he said to my mother. “Perhaps something can be arranged. It is a possibility.” And he took himself off, limping on one leg and leaning heavily on his cane.
 
I have many memories of the Golden Valley. How the wind blew so hard that the horses lost their way, blinded by the dust in their eyes. How King Francis was injured while competing in the tiltyard and had to wear an eyepatch over his bloodshot right eye. I remember Queen Catherine, when she thought no one could see her, crying quietly into her handkerchief and then drying her eyes and crossing herself. But most of all I remember King Henry, splendid in his suit of dazzling cloth of gold, a gold cloth cap on his head with a white feather plume, laughing and joking with Bessie Blount and his friends.
 
One night the French king gave a reception for the English courtiers in his huge silken tent and King Henry arrived late, making a great noise as he burst into the midst of the gathering. In his arms he carried a sturdy baby boy, dressed exactly as he himself was dressed in a small suit of cloth of gold with a feathered cap. The king went from one guest to another, showing off the baby to each of them in turn and asking, “Isn’t he a fine boy, this son of mine? Truly England never had a more handsome prince.” The baby, bounced up and down too often by his energetic father, or frightened by the sight of so many strangers, turned down the corners of his mouth and began to cry.
 
I looked at my mother questioningly. “But I thought Queen Catherine only had a daughter, Princess Mary.”
 
“Yes,” my mother answered through clenched teeth. “She does.”
 
“Then who is this boy?”
 
“He’s the son of Bessie Blount. Now, bow to King Henry and say nothing.”
 
I obeyed. We bowed low to the king as he passed, smiling and chortling over his boy. He moved on, and I watched his retreating figure, thrilled to have been so near to him, honored that he should glance in my direction, and above all puzzled that with such a lovely wife and well-behaved daughter he should show such a marked preference for a mistress and a bastard son.
 
Copyright © 2006 by Carolly Erickson. All rights reserved.