On a stormy October dawn, all of us were gathered on the sand— royals, nobles, clergy— waiting, watching for the blustery weather to clear for the passage. King Henry's sister, Princess Mary, was crossing the Channel to marry the French king. I and my own sister, Mary Boleyn— three years my senior—were most privileged girls to be part of the wedding entourage.
"Ow!" That was my sister Mary, hand to her face, squeezing back tears threatening to fall. My father had just pinched her cheek, viciously, from the sound of the cry.
"Thomas, please. . ." My mother's tone was one—if dogs could speak—of a beast begging its master not to kick it.
"Her cheeks need pinking," he growled. "She's pale as a walking corpse."
"She is afraid," said my mother. Suddenly I thought her brave, for by her persistence she risked Father's wrath. "Look at the weather, husband. The ships bob as though they'll be torn from their moorings. Mary's never been to sea."
"That is not the sea, Elizabeth," he said as if to a stupid child. "`Tis merely the English Channel. And if our cowardly daughter cannot face the thought of four hours on a boat, then perhaps we shall leave her in France. . .permanently."
At that, a sob erupted from Mary's throat, despite her attempts to stifle it.
As my father uttered a curse on all women and turned away in disgust, his eyes fell briefly on me, but they made no contact with my own. Indeed, he did not even see me, insignificant nine year old that I was then. Dark. Gawky. And far too skinny for his taste, or fashion for that matter.
Beauty of the day demanded translucent skin of peaches and cream. Cherubic faces. Dimples, if possible. High, voluptuous bosoms. That was a perfect description of Mary Boleyn. Still, `twas not enough for our father.
My appearance, in any case, was of no account as I was already betrothed. The Butlers—a family in Ireland on my mother's side—all of our high family connections were on my mother's side—had been fighting for years over a great inheritance of property. My marriage to a son of that feuding clan—one James Butler—would, it was believed, have settled the matter once and for all. The fortune would be directed where it properly belonged—in my father, Thomas Boleyn's cold, greedy hands.
Did I like my cousin James, my future husband? Did it matter? Had I a say in whom I should wed?
No. No. No.
I rarely thought on my future. Girls were routinely ripped from their families when they married, sometimes—if distances were great—never to see them again. Letters might be written. Gifts sent. But couriers were waylaid by bandits along the road. Ships sunk. Hoped-for heirs were born dead, or worse, born girls. Over time,family ties with daughters unraveled like a thick rope whose cords, one-by-one, were severed, till hanging together by a single strand, finally snapped under the weight of years and disinterest. Even memories faded.
The women might never have lived at all.
As for that October journey to France, I stood waiting on the windswept beach unafraid. Mayhaps that is too self-possessed a description of myself. But I was experienced. A veteran, not only of the Channel crossing, but of life in a foreign court. The reason was that my father had the previous year sent me—at a most tender age—to live in the "Low Countries." My dark eyes too large for my face, a skinny reed of a thing, I had taken up residence in the Hapsburg city of Malines, in the Netherlands.
I do admit to being scared the morning I was deposited in the red brick palace, very much alone and at the mercy of my mistress, the Archduchess Margaret of Burgundy. She was daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian. He was the patriarch of the Hapsburg family—highest royalty in our world. Feared. Respected. Learned. Intermarried with every dynasty on earth.
And inconceivably rich.
Maximilian had astounded Europe's heads of state when he'd named a woman "Regent" of the Netherlands. But Margaret shocked them further when she became the most powerful female on the continent. The court she presided over was the most exquisite ever. Father must have known that everyone who was anyone sent their children to this court for training. The greatest poets, scholars, architects, painters, sculptors and musicians of the day gathered round Margaret like a honey-soaked queen of the hive. My first sight of her, though, was a bit of a shock, as she was an ugly creature by anyone's standards, even attired in the richest gown and adorned with diamonds and rubies at throat, wrist and finger. But I was clean amazed by her first act—kneeling down and embracing me. She'd said something in French that, at the time, I could not understand, but I did remember the words.
Once I'd learnt the language I discovered that they meant, "Look at you. You are gorgeous. A tiny, dark jewel."
The Palace of Malines, three stories with many windows and pretty stone arches, was furnished in the grandest manner. As I was led up the stairs and into the nursery the paintings and tapestries that adorned every wall, the music that filled every chamber, dazzled my country senses.
But for all the palace's grandeur, the true heart of the court were the rooms that housed the royal offspring, as Margaret had a strange affinity for children, of which she had none of her own. She instead doted wholly on her dead brother's litter, whom she brought up with all the love and tenderness of a mother.
The females—Eleanor, Mary and Isabella—being mere girls—were of course less highly valued than the one male, Charles. He was fourteen to my eight, perhaps a bit haughty despite a dangerously jutting lower jaw and a flabby bottom lip.
In those first weeks I admit I missed my family—my mother most of all—my dogs second, brother George third. And finally Mary, as she always had a way of making me feel small and stupid. I tried not to dwell on what I was missing but soon realized it was easy.
There was so much at the Burgundian court to do and see and learn.
I was very fortunate, for Archduchess Margaret, for no apparent reason, had taken an especial liking to me. True, I watched all the honorable ladies at court and imitated them to perfection. Midget that I was, I danced with the most spirit, if not grace, and accompanied myself on the lute and clavichord with the sweetest, tremblingest voice.
And I offered, as my mother had instructed me to do, to help at every turn. Small things counted. Picking up a dropped handkerchief. Lifting a skirt trailing unnoticed in the mud. I soon noticed that Margaret was insisting on having me near her all the time, Not long after my arrival she wrote to my father saying she found me so bright and pleasant that she was more beholden to him for sending me, than he should be to her for having me.
In the Malines schoolroom French was drilled into me, so that in the shortest time possible I'd become fluent. My penmanship and spelling, on the other hand, so appalled my tutor that I was frequently slapped. History, politics and immense Hapsburg land holdings— great swaths of Europe—ruled by the childrens' grandfather Maximilian, were of prime interest to Charles. But whilst his sisters' eyes glazed over at lectures of monarchs and kingdoms, their ever-shifting borders, enemies and allies, I sat quiet at a cat and listened.
Charles, for whom this intelligence meant everything, would catch me out the corner of his eye as I concentrated on the tutor's sometimes unfathomable lessons, then looked at his sisters who were scribbling silly notes to each other. I could not tell if his appraisal of me was approving or harsh, for at first he did not deign to speak to me.
One morning after the girls had skipped out of the classroom I'd paused to examine a map of Europe that the tutor had left behind on the table. I was looking for England, and whilst I could see London clearly marked, there was no sign of Edenbridge, the village where I'd grown up. I did not notice that Charles had also lingered behind. I looked up to find him eyeing me suspiciously.
"I've never met an English child before," he finally said. "Are they all like you?"
His question was mystifying, but I did my best to answer.
"No," I said, "some of them are boys."
He laughed sharply, and I learnt in that moment how enjoyable it was to entertain one of my betters.
"Why are you talking to me?" I ventured. "You never talk to your sisters."
"Why would I want to talk to them? They're boring as boulders."
This time I giggled.
He grew serious all of a sudden and very puffed-up. "I'm going to be the Holy Roman Emperor one day," he announced.
I gave him an impish grin. "And I'm going to be the Queen of England."
"You're outrageous!" he cried.
I shrugged my shoulders, not at all sure if his words were a compliment or an insult. But after that we became friends.
Whenever he could, Charles would sneak me away from the schoolroom and take me touring through his little world—the Palace of Malines—and I was game for almost anything.
His favorite place in which to show off was le Premier Chambre. It was a large hall with almost no furniture, but boasting a most astonishing collection of tapestries and painting.
A few were religious. There was one that shocked me7mdash;a naked man with a dog. But the bulk of them were portraits.
Being a boy, Charles cared very little for the tapestries, but the gallery of royal ancestors and political allies set him afire with storytelling. He delighted in regaling me with the highpoints of Burgundian history, the most lurid details of his family, and the tallest of tales. Sometimes they were one-in-the-same.
"My father, the Archduke Phiip, died when I was little," Charles told me as he stood proudly before a portrait of a young and very dashing nobleman. "He was a beautiful man, don't you think?"
I nodded vigorously.
"His name said so. `Philip the Handsome,' he was called. I hardly remember him."
Charles's face twisted with something that was meant, I'm sure, to be grief, but that pugnacious chin and lip of his perverted it to something almost comical in my eyes. I stifled myself and was relieved when we moved on to a portrait just next to his father's. It was a woman in the garb of a Spanish infanta. What he said then was anything but humorous.
"My mother Joanna was so in love with my father and beside herself with misery when he died, that she wouldn't be parted with his body." Charles grew thoughtful. "Some say the Spanish are prone to morbidity, but hers was so severe she wandered around Europe for two years, carting his moldering corpse with her."
I was so young that even though I understood the word "corpse" I was yet unclear about the "moldering" part, but the jist of it was horribly understandable.
"She is still alive, my mother. And altogether mad. She's been kept locked away for her own safety ever since." He brightened then. "But their marriage was a good thing all-in-all. It allied the Hapsburgs with Spain— my mother's parents were Ferdinand and Isabella. It means our empire now surrounds our most hated enemy, Louis of France." Charles came to his full height and suddenly looked very imposing to me. "When all the male elders in my family are dead I shall rule a vast territory."
"That is. . .very good," I managed to stammer.
"You know," Charles said, strolling along to another group of portraits, these hung strangely from the ceiling, each by two chains. "Your Tudor monarchs have been our family's friends and trading partners for decades."
"I didn't know," I said, beginning to blush at my ignorance. "I've never been to court in England."
"Then you probably do not know him," he said, pointing up at one of the chain-hung portraits, "though you would have heard of him. He died before you were born."
There stood a gaunt, severe looking man. At least I recognized the English garb, and I could see he was a king by his crown.
"It is your king's father, Henry the Seventh. When his wife died he tried to marry my aunt Margaret, but she wouldn't have him."
"Why not?" I said, finding my voice and a question that did not sound completely stupid.
"She'd had two husbands already and did not want a third."
"But she could have been Queen of England!" I cried, suddenly confused. Why on earth would anyone refuse to be the Queen of England? I wondered.
Charles looked offended, and I suddenly realized I'd blundered. To his credit he dismissed the idiocy of an eight-year-old naÔf and moved along to the next portrait—a young noblewoman. To my amazement Charles swiveled the wooden panel round on its chains. I could see painted on its back a coat of arms, a Tudor rose, and some writing, in English.
He read the motto written there. "`Faithful and Obedient.' This is King Henry the Eighth's sister, Princess Mary." Charles suddenly became the one doing the blushing.
"She is my betrothed."
"You're going to marry an English princess!" This news somehow delighted me. He let the panel swing back so we could view the sitter. She had pale, luminescent skin and delicate features, but only the smallest hint of fair hair was visible under her headdress.
"She's prettier in person than she is in her portrait," I said, surprising myself. Surprising, for it was a lie. One I was about to get caught in.
"I thought you'd never been to court," said Charles, eyes narrowing like a lord of the Spanish Inquisition. "So how would you know?"
In that moment, trapped by my own perversity, I was determined not to be humiliated, even if it meant another sin of deceit.
"My father is a very important man at court," I said. That was true enough. "Sometimes the royal family visits our home in Edenbridge." Another lie. I'd never met a one of them. "King Henry has a farmhouse near ours—`Haxted.' Thankfully a fact.
Charles screwed up his face again. "I think you're lying to me."
It was the first "moment of truth" in my short life. "Well, you will never know if I am. . ." I said, putting on my prettiest little girl's smile and batting my eyelashes the way I'd seen the court ladies do, ". . .will you?"
Rather than angering Charles, this obvious fibbery seemed to delight him. He laughed.
"You're a very strange child," he said and turning, strode across le Premier Chambre towards the door. "Would you like to see the library?"
"Which breast are you meant to cut off?"
"I believe it is the right," Margaret answered.
I was taken aback by Charles's question, as well as his aunt's imperturbable response.
"Of course it must be the right," he said. "A flat chest on that side would have made it more easy to pull back the arrow."
Margaret and her charges— I was now included in everything— had gathered in her beautifully appointed bedroom, la Seconde Chambre, a place where none but the duchess and her intimates were allowed. The costumes we were to wear for the latest of the archduchess's frequent entertainments were laid out on one side of her large bed.
The theme of this one, "Queen of the Amazons," had been Charles's idea. In studying his Greek, his imagination had been captured by the story of the Amazon women, a warrior tribe who lived without men and fought brilliantly with bows and arrows on horseback. They had, each of them, sacrificed a breast to make their archery skills more precise. Margaret had adored the idea for a masque, and immediately set her seamstresses to work on the performers' attire.
The archduchess, of course, would play the Amazon queen, and we girls her warriors. Charles would be king of the unlucky invaders of their land.
I really should not have been surprised at this adult exchange between Charles and Margaret. In the short time I'd lived in the Netherlands I'd observed that he was treated like a full-grown man by his aunt, and she so adored him that she spoiled and indulged him excessively.
"How will you achieve the look?" he demanded of Margaret.
"Binding the breast, I suppose. Over the shoulder. On the diagonal."
Together they stood looking down at her costume, a fabulous bejeweled creation woven so thickly with silver threads that its "breastplate" appeared metallic. A real silver helmet topped by long, puffy white feathers looked as though it could have been worn on the battlefield.
"The bodice will have to be re-fashioned so the bandaged shoulder will be hidden, don't you think?" Charles said. "And the material over the right chest should be pulled tighter and flatter, so the missing bosom is more dramatic."
Margaret smiled and gave Charles a kiss on the cheek. "You are so clever. I'll send it back to Regine today. Now," she said, "what about these Amazon women?" Margaret turned to Charles's sisters and me.
The three of them had been paying no attention whatsoever to the conversation and were sitting on the other side of the great bed looking bored with the whole affair. I, on the other hand, had been quietly oogling the costumes trying to reckon which was mine, and hanging on Charles's and Margaret's every word. I flushed red with embarrassment at being caught.
But they were far from displeased.
"I think we've found your sword-bearer," Charles said to his aunt. "Our little English adventuress looks ready to wade into battle this instant."
Now Margaret's smile fell on me. As she knelt down, Charles handed her one of the smaller outfits. She held it to my shoulders and scrutinized it carefully. Up close Margaret was uglier than ever—puffy, misshapen cheeks. Lips fat and eyes bulging.
I looked up to see Charles holding out a sword.
"It's heavy. Bend your arm when you take it," he said. "But if you're going to be the queen's sword-bearer. . ."
Suddenly his sisters were aware of the foreign interloper being singled out for some honor by their brother and their aunt. One by one they hopped off the bed and came to stand round us.
I had never been confronted by jealousy before, but now it was all too apparent.
I stared at the jeweled-studded sword, a magnificent artifact. I looked at Charles. At Margaret. And then at the three furious little duchesses. I thought mayhaps I should insist on giving the honor to one of the girls. They were royal kin. Certainly more deserving than me of the exalted role of sword-bearer.
Then suddenly it struck me. It wasn't my fault they weren't paying attention. With my fiercest Amazon warrior's expression, I bent my elbow, tightened my shoulder and wrist, and received the sword hilt from Charles.
Though merely a prop, the weight of the weapon nearly took my arm down, but I was determined not to fail in my first royal posting. I held firm, every muscle trembling and straining. Finally, with a terrible grunt, I raised it aloft, right over my head.
Margaret gasped. "Good girl!"
"That's the way!" Charles was laughing with pleasure.
I was insanely pleased with myself. Even that triangle of female jealousy directed like daggers at my neck, could not diminish it.
Even if you were a girl, I was quickly learning, it behooved you to keep your eyes and ears open.
I vowed to myself that I always would.