I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (11 page)

1517

Wolf Hall

T
he glory of the Seymours lasted only so long as the King of France did. By January 1515, Louis XII was dead of consumption, and his young English queen was pregnant by her secret lover, Charles Brandon, her brother Henry VIII’s most trusted companion. Everyone who had been left in France had returned to England shortly after Jane and the others had left.

Forgotten in the uproar of Mary Tudor’s great scandal, Jane settled back into life in Wiltshire. William Dormer, she was told, returned to his parents, who were installed at their primary estate in Buckinghamshire. Edward, however, had made enough of an impression on his benefactor, the young and well-placed Sir Francis Bryan, that he returned to the English court, not Wolf Hall. Edward’s advancement had been the family goal all along anyway, and to have helped her older brother in some small fashion made Jane glad.

It had been a defining journey for a girl who had only just turned nine. Jane was glad to be back home with Thomas and Elizabeth, and even with Lucy Hill, who made every attempt to make amends
now by coming around and offering herself up as a personal servant as soon as Jane had returned. To her ministrations, friendless Jane quickly softened.

By midsummer after her return, her trip to France seemed all but a fading dream to Jane. Over the next two years, the Seymour family rallied around a single goal, watching from a distance Edward’s steady progress at the increasingly grand and powerful court of the young, dynamic King Henry VIII. Two more children, a boy and a girl, were born to Margery Seymour.

Most of the damage her mother’s temper had wrought had now been repaired. Jane’s hair had long since grown back, and she had never told her mother what had actually happened in Savernake Forest. She never told anyone. The only one who knew was William, and she seemed destined never to see him again.

“Read it again,” Thomas bid her as they sat together with Lucy and Elizabeth in their favorite spot in the orchard with their little brother and sister, Anthony and Margery, tottering between them. It was 1517, and their brother’s most recent letter from court had arrived. Jane’s reading skills were the best of any of the children left behind in Wiltshire. In spite of the fact that their tutor was their family chaplain, Jane had managed to wrest volumes by Ovid and Petrarch from Father James, which she devoured. She grew more fluent in both French and Latin. Reading was her passion, no matter the language.

“He says he has been befriended by the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, and that they spend much time at war games.”

“No, read it as he wrote it,” Thomas persisted. “That way, it’s as if he’s here with us!”

Her brother’s expression was bereft. Jane knew how much
Thomas idolized their elder brother, how much they all did. Edward had risen and flown away to something very magical and grand.

“Great heavens, he hasn’t died!” Jane said with a smile.

“By your leave, please do read it word for word.”

“Oh, very well…”

Dearest family,

It is already warm here. Richmond Palace is so vast that I continue to lose my way to meals, which has brought me much embarrassment, as I have turned up in the larder more than once. I have been in the company of the king on several occasions, but still have not been presented formally to him. Our sovereign seems a spirited man, although I have seen enough of his temper at a distance to know how unwise it would be to cross him, if he ever came to know who I was.

I am told by my lord of Suffolk that His Grace knows I excel at the hunt, so I am always included in hunting and sporting events, although as a bystander. Pray, one day soon I shall be able to show him what the Seymours of Wiltshire are capable of…

“Tell us again what it was like,” Thomas pressed her.

“Awful, really. So many grandly dressed people, all shoving, pushing like sheep in a pen, trying to be nearest the queen. She had people to brush her hair, put on her shoes, clean her commode, flatter her every move…”

“But how grand.” Lucy sighed at the description. She smoothed the skirts of the pretty blue dress she wore, which Jane had given to her.

They sat in rapt attention as if this were the first time they had
heard it and not the tenth. Or perhaps it was the hundredth time that Jane had recounted the old, somewhat fading story.

She had lost track. And interest.

“I shall go to court one day, like Edward,” Thomas proudly announced. “Just you see if I don’t.”

“You shall be bored and lonely,” Jane declared sagely. “Better to make your life here in Wiltshire with me and Elizabeth.”

Their younger sister yawned with distraction.

“I shall have Edward,” Thomas countered, his expression full of ambition.

“Edward only loves himself. And adventure.”

Thomas stiffened. “You’re only jealous because you were not clever enough to be retained at court. But I shall certainly be clever enough and more ambitious than Edward by half.”

Thomas puffed out his adolescent chest. His sibling rivalry was as clear as the new bit of hair growing above his lips, which he had refused to shave.

The rejection stung Jane because she loved Thomas more than anyone in the world now that Edward was gone. Sometimes, late at night, when she’d had a bad dream or could not sleep, it was Thomas’s room into which she crept. Beside him, she could at last feel safe enough to fall asleep in the grand old house with all of its ancient and frightening creaks and shadows.

“Fine. At least I have Elizabeth.”

“Oh, no, not me. I am going to marry and have my own house when I grow up, and dozens of servants like Lucy to attend me.”

“Elizabeth!” Jane gasped as Lucy’s cheeks reddened. “That was unkind.”

“’Tis true just the same.”

“I would serve any of you, happily,” Lucy replied in that new,
servile manner that Jane was still unaccustomed to, even after more than two years, from the girl who had once chased her into the forest and had marked her for constant ridicule. Something sharp in her own sister’s tone suddenly reminded Jane of Anne Boleyn and her sister, Mary. Jane was becoming all the more aware of how different she and Elizabeth were, just as Anne and Mary had been at the French court.

She guessed that Anne was still in France, which Jane thought was the proper place for her. As far from England as possible.

But she did wonder about Mary. Even after Anne had humiliated her, Mary had continued in her kindness toward her. Jane was certain she and Mary Boleyn would have become the best of friends.

At first, she did not register a change in the boy nestled beside her, but then she felt his small body slump against her, like a heavy weight. She had forgotten her youngest brother, over whom she was to keep watch. Anthony Seymour was only two, and his usually bright smile was gone in an instant, masked with a blank stare, his face awash with perspiration. Instinctively, Jane pressed her lips to the child’s wide, freckled cheek. She tasted the fire that spelled fever and potentially the sweating sickness, less feared outside of London, yet still a threat to guard against, like the violent merchant of death it could so quickly become.

Without losing a moment, Jane scooped her brother up and carried him in her outstretched arms, dashing toward the house, stumbling and straining, her small frame bearing the weight with difficulty.

“Bring the others!” she called frantically to Thomas over her shoulder. Dutifully, he scooped up one-year-old Margery in one arm and gripped Elizabeth’s hand in the other.

Jane did not feel herself even breathe as Lucy turned the large
brass handle on the massive carved front door moments later. Jane shoved it open with a thrust of her shoulder, panic pushing past the shock.

“Mother! Father!…
Someone!
” she cried out.

Her father, who had been reading in the library beside the entrance hall, came to the door, clutching an open book. His expression was one of mild irritation at the disruption. But one glance at Anthony’s blank stare and sweat-drenched face and the book in his hands fell to the wood plank floor with a soft thud.

“Margery,” he called to his wife, and the sound was more plaintive than beckoning.
“Margery!”
he repeated more strongly, his expression frozen in terror.

Then the little girl in Thomas’s arms coughed, and the sound echoed across the silent hall. Margery Seymour descended the last step of the grand staircase in a shuffle of petticoats and heavy gray velvet skirt.

John, Jane’s deceased eldest brother, had suffered these same symptoms. The same sickness. No one spoke of it after he passed. If he had not existed, Jane thought, neither did the threat.

“Lucy, take the boy upstairs,” Margery flatly commanded the groundskeeper’s daughter, and for a moment Jane held Anthony more tightly, unwilling to surrender him, unwilling to allow this brother to disappear as well. “Elizabeth, call for Father James. John, go to the kitchen and have Mistress Allen make a physic for them both,” she instructed her husband with a dispassionate tone that stunned them all.

“Good Lord, Margery, a physic is not going to change this course!”

“Easier to prepare the crypt again than a physic?”

Her tone had switched very swiftly to a low growl. Accusatory.
Cruel. Jane rested her lips on top of Anthony’s head, pressing into the mass of pale copper curls there, desperately breathing in the child’s scent. As if, somehow, imprinting his scent on her memory would make it impossible for him to be stolen from her.

“You well know I did not mean that,” said her father. “He is my son as well!”

Jane thought her mother might cry, but her eyes were dry and clear with resolve, the exact color of an August sky. “Lucy, I said take the boy from Jane. Get him upstairs at once.”

Margery coughed again. “Give her to me,” she directed Thomas, her flat tone brittle now, holding nothing of the maternal tone Jane had often heard her use with Edward when they were younger. This was compulsory behavior, like that of a lioness who operated by instinct, not feeling. “Thomas, go. John, get the boy away from here until we know for certain what this is, or until it passes.”

Jane felt Elizabeth looking up at her. The implication was a clear and harsh reminder: daughters were not the same concern as sons. Thomas was quick, handsome, and essential to their mother’s ambitions should anything befall Edward. Jane was not. Elizabeth, she thought, could at least lay claim to the family beauty and hold on to that for the future. Jane’s only purpose was the care of her siblings, a responsibility that had been taken from her that very instant.

They were likely the only children she would ever have.

“I shall go fetch Father James,” she said shakily of the young country chaplain who made his home with them as tutor to the Seymour children.

Margery Seymour did not respond. She simply took her youngest child into her arms and followed Lucy back up the stairs. Jane blinked back tears, helplessly watching them go, her life and her memories indelibly marked forever by each footfall.

Little Margery Seymour died first. Anthony died the next evening. Jane and Elizabeth were firmly directed by their mother that there were to be no tears. There was no point in them. As men were the least expendable members of a family, John and Thomas had gone to Kent and would remain there until the summer passed and the chance of catching the sweating sickness had abated.

Margery kept her teeth clenched as she spoke the directive dispassionately, only her lips moving. There was no sign that she felt anything at all for the third and fourth children she had surrendered back to God. Until Jane saw that she was digging her fingernails into her palms as she spoke. She could see small, bloody gouges in her mother’s flesh. Mother was trying to feel something without anyone seeing, Jane thought, or stop herself from feeling something. Jane was not certain which. Her mother was an enigma.

The night that Anthony died, Jane tried to read from
The Imitation of Christ
instead of one of the more daring volumes she usually chose. The book was a great comfort. Father James had told them when they were very young that the king’s grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, had personally translated the fourth book into English from a French edition. Jane reread the words now, trying to make each directive mean something.

Some weeks later, when the threat of contagion had passed, Jane’s mother insisted on a Mass. While she said it was for the souls of her two lost children, Jane knew that she was using the tragic circumstances as a social occasion. Edward would be home from court soon with Sir Francis Bryan and his influential—and unmarried—friend Lord Anthony Ughtred, so the timing could not be a coincidence.

As she tried to focus on the verses, Jane could hear her mother and father arguing in the next room. The debate concerned whether
or not to extend an invitation to Sir Robert and Lady Dormer, who had recently returned to their local estate.

“We could host a small private supper afterward,” Margery proposed.

Jane read the same passage again, but the argument continued, distracting her.

“I do understand, Margery, but we have not seen them for years, and I do not see this as the kind of occasion Sir Robert and Lady Dormer would relish. It is rather a more somber circumstance than that.”

“And I do not detect the awkwardness in inviting them. I attempt only to be neighborly in it, John.”

“I warn you, your ambition will show through as clearly to them as it does now to me.”

“You dare to insult a woman who has so recently buried two of her own children at once?”

“They were my children as well. Do not use them to deflect my scrutiny,” John countered.

There was a slight pause in the discourse, the creak of someone outside on the stairs, before Margery said, “Well, what precisely is wrong with getting on with our lives, since nothing will bring the children back to us?”

“I have loved you for many years, Margery, but I do not believe there is a woman in all this world with less maternal instinct and more ambition than you,” her father growled.

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