I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (18 page)

Francis described several others of the court for Thomas and pointed them out. He felt as if he were standing at the edge of a private garden, with all the great temptations of the world laid out before him. They were like vivid flowers drawing him in with their beauty and fragrance, and he was lured by the riches, power, and
glory. He must be masterful about gaining access to this garden. And humble. Yes, an outward show of humility while one was bent on absolute success seemed essential here. Thomas could see that for himself now. No one, not even his dear Jane, must ever know the magnitude of his ambition. Or his ability to masquerade. Surely she would never understand how much deeper his ability went than her own.

Chapter Seven

May 1526

Richmond Palace

P
reparing for the May Day celebrations after the Lenten and Easter season kept the queen’s household buzzing with activity. Jane was now in the very center of it all, still working hard to learn as much as she could about the important players, to honor the proper ones and to avoid the dangerous others.

The queen sat reading several dispatches brought to her by the Spanish ambassador, Don Luis Caroz, as Jane helped her pretty new acquaintances, Margaret Shelton and Anne Stanhope, arrange one of the table displays in the Great Hall. The vast hall was crowded with jabbering court ladies in brilliant silks and satins, hands pointing and directives flying. Workmen were busily hanging great sheets of richly decorated gold arras on the walls, and others were hooking torches into dozens of new braziers in an already overheated room on the unseasonably warm spring day.

The queen’s court was to set the scene for the evening’s entertainment in an obvious attempt to please the king. But everyone whispered what an increasingly futile task that had become. The setting for the court masque, Chateau Vert, the fictional castle of a
great chivalric tale, had been under construction for several days, complete with brightly painted castle towers and red royal banners. The queen had insisted on organizing everything, including the play itself, which was set to follow the banquet. For the performance, court ladies were chosen to dress as the physical embodiment of the virtues Kindness, Mercy, Pity, Beauty, and Perseverance. Jane knew that all of the queen’s most favored ladies had been vying for the chosen parts for the attention it would attract from the king and his friends. When the king himself sent back amendments to the performance, personally recasting each of the roles, and signing the sheet in his own hand authoritatively—Henricus Rex—disappointed tears filled Katherine’s dark eyes. But they were unshed tears that she efficiently pressed away, returning to her duties in hopes of rekindling their partnership through entertainment first, if not romance.

The queen of twenty years had been given a secondary role by her own husband. She was simply to be one of the eight women who guarded the more glamorous virtues. Her name in Henry’s own hand was linked with the character Disdain. The part of Perseverance, which she had hoped to meaningfully portray, as she felt her life particularly defined that term, was to go to someone else.

“’Tis all in good fun, Your Highness. I am certain the king means you no offense in this,” Jane had heard Sir Henry Guildford try impotently to explain as Katherine planned to retire for the evening. As the king’s Master of the Revels, Guildford was in charge of the entire celebration, the lavish banquet, the uniquely creative masque, the dancing and the music. Guildford did not, however, control the casting.

“I had meant to play the dignified part myself,” she later told Maria de Salinas, as Lady Margaret Bryan, Francis’s mother, brushed out the queen’s thick rope of dark hair.

Margaret Shelton knelt to moisten the queen’s feet with scented cream beside the glowing amber light of a blazing fire that cracked and sparked in the dark, vaulted room. Jane dutifully folded back the queen’s counterpane, trying not to make it obvious that she was listening.

“That had certainly seemed the most obvious role for me to play, considering my current circumstances. I know the king’s sister is to play the part of Beauty, and the Countess of Devon is Honor, which seems nearly as appropriate as me portraying Perseverance.”

Her voice went very thin. She gazed back at the bed, which Jane had been told the king no longer visited. “I suppose it is fitting, though,” Katherine said with a heavy sigh, “that Perseverance should be played by the girl who has worked so hard to steal my husband’s attention and corrupt his heart this past year.”

Jane knew whom she meant. They all did.

“But even though he wishes it to save his own reputation with his friends, I shall not play another role,” the queen declared as Maria tied the white Spanish silk nightcap loosely beneath the gently sagging flesh of Katherine’s proud Castellón chin. Lady Bryan, who had been with the queen for many years, began to snuff out the candle lamps across the room. “I have been a fool for love, certainly, but I cannot bear to let the entire court see it. Someone else must take the lowly role he intends for me. God save me, I cannot endure so great an insult as he would put upon me!”

“Then, Mistress Seymour, you must play the part for her,” Maria calmly directed as she helped the queen toward the bed. “No one knows or yet cares who you are, so Disdain shall go unnoticed.”

For a moment, Jane could not find her voice. In the silence, Francis’s mother frowned at her. “Go on, then, child,” she urged in a whisper. “Speak up.”

The sensation Jane had at the thought of being cast as something so disagreeable, under any circumstance, reminded her of her embarrassment in France. And being taunted at Savernake before that. She swallowed hard, trying not to allow panic to overwhelm her.

“Humbly, Your Highness, I do th-thank y-you for the honor. But I know nothing of the p-part,” she heard herself stutter, each of the words catching in the back of her throat before she pushed it forward across her tongue.

“Nay,” Lady Bryan scoffed, waving a jewel-dotted hand. “’Tis only a little play and a little part. ’Twill do you no good to hesitate or equivocate. Her Highness has offered you a great honor tomorrow evening.”

Jane glanced at the queen, who at that moment was climbing into her great canopied bed and being covered like a little child by two of her Spanish women—the only ones allowed the most intimate duties in her bedchamber. “But respectfully, will the king not be expecting to see the queen in that role?”

“He will not be told, of course, who played it until afterward. It has been quite a long time since he has expected anything of me. I am told quite often how I disappoint him too greatly for that,” said the weary queen.

Jane could feel the tension wend its way through the dressing room like a living thing as she let two younger maids of honor fasten her gray satin costume for the part of a guard, with the word Disdain emblazoned on the long, flat stomacher of her dress. All around her, the other guard characters were dressing as well: Mary Roos Denys, Anne Percy, Margaret Shelton, and Elizabeth Carew. Jane heard the lethal whispers of disapproval and knew they resented her participation. The more important virtues were dressing elsewhere,
Jane was told, too elevated to share this ritual with such minor characters—both in the masque and in the reality of court life.

Jane was still an oddity, even in this more lowly group. She was a country girl to be scorned for her lack of title. Knowing that the Duke of Norfolk had avoided an association with Jane’s mother during her visit only served to strengthen their catty and silent case against her.

It might have helped if, like Anne Stanhope or Elizabeth Carew, Jane were at least beautiful, or voluptuous like Margaret Shelton. But they seemed a judgmental group who had knitted themselves together with time and experience, showing little tolerance for newcomers.

“It was one of her little tests for the king,” someone said suddenly, pulling Jane from her thoughts, although she could not identify who it was. The voice was high and willowy. Jane strained to hear without showing she was listening as a young girl carefully fitted the hood onto her head.

“By my lord, ’tis witchcraft, not wiles. Her beauty is far from the usual sort,” said another attendant to the queen whom Jane did not know.

“’Tis only a court game between them so far, my husband says,” the first attendant said. “The same one she plays with the king’s poet, Thomas Wyatt. She plays at being a virtuous woman since she is not keen to end up like her sister.”

Mary Boleyn,
Jane remembered again sadly. The word “witchcraft” did not entirely surprise her when she remembered the little dark-eyed child who had so frightened her in France.
Curious,
she thought then,
where
roads do lead.
How much she had changed and how much strength she had gained since then. Anne Boleyn had most likely changed as well.

Only time would tell who had changed the more.

They went in great procession then, the dozen ladies in beaded gray silk, their chests emblazoned in gold thread, each spelling out a different term. Each one flashed brightly as she moved down the lamp-lit corridor. Next they moved down a flight of polished oak stairs, each step creaking heavily as the women descended in a great train, following three liveried guardsmen, who were meant to lead the way. The sound of music from the Great Hall grew strong as they neared it. On the second landing, they merged with a different collection of women, all in gleaming white satin, the fabric more sumptuous, the design more daring. They wore full bell sleeves lined with sapphire blue silk, their hair swept up in matching fashion in diamond-studded sparkling mesh cauls. Jane caught sight of the king’s sister, Mary, the former French queen, among them. The great beauty had changed little with the years, even after the scandal of her marriage to Charles Brandon. She still had the same extraordinary green eyes, long lashes, and luminous skin she had possessed in France. She looked to Jane then, as now, like human perfection. It was still easy to imagine why a man like Brandon had risked his standing with the king for her.

The Great Hall into which they all swept in a sparkling mass had been fully transformed into a great theater with tiered seating, a stage at one end, and a gilded proscenium arch at the other, decorated with little niches filled with marble busts. Directly opposite the stage was a single great carved throne. Above it, a massive transparent cloth painted in gold depicted not only the signs of the zodiac but also the stars, the planets, and even the constellations that fascinated the king.

Jane was stunned by the enormity and grandeur of the place.
Her legs began to shake as she moved forward with the others, seeing how many courtiers were collected in the audience. The fat-faced director motioned for the girls in gray to begin gently twirling and dipping as they neared the steps that led up to the stage.

Just as the splendidly dressed crowd began to cheer, the fife and drums broke in with the fanfare that Jane knew was the prelude to the trumpeting of the king’s approach. The director held up his hand then to halt their entrance in anticipation of the king’s. Jane felt anxious, as the king had been away on a hunting trip since her arrival and she had yet to catch a glimpse of him. Like a great wave, everyone pivoted toward the door and the blare of trumpets. Two heavy velvet drapes were pulled back to make way for His Majesty, and for the first time…Jane saw the King of England.

He was a massive man. Clothed in rich purple Florentine velvet trimmed in gold with a great baldric of jewels across his broad chest, he was an unbelievably tall, fit, and barrel-chested sovereign. Henry VIII moved forward commandingly, hands on his hips, a bit like a rooster. The ends of his copper hair were shining beneath his wide plumed cap as he smiled and nodded to the crowd.

“By my lord, that is him, isn’t it?” she asked foolishly of Margaret Shelton, who stood beside her. Jane knew her tone sounded silly, but she was nervous, and she could not quite believe she was actually in the company of the King of England after having heard about him for so many years.

Margaret, a sensually attractive girl with a small nose and compelling sapphire eyes, cast a quick glance at her. “Best lose that doe-eyed look. This court is no place for any kind of innocence but the feigned sort.”

“I shall try to remember,” Jane replied compliantly because
she still could not afford to alienate anyone, and few had befriended her.

Then she watched as servants scurried to set up a second throne beside the king, which had not been part of the original plan. She watched Katherine enter past the curtains a moment later wearing a conservative cranberry-colored velvet gown and a tight gabled hood. True to her word, she had declined to play a guard. But she seemed to bear the slight the king had put upon her with dignity, smiling and nodding to the assembled group. Before Jane had time to feel much pity, however, the king and queen took their seats and the director clapped his hands briskly for the performance to commence.

As the girls with leading roles twirled onto the stage to raucous applause, Jane recognized Anne Boleyn immediately at the center of the group. While she had grown into the enormous coal black eyes that had always dominated her face, the essence of her remained unchanged. She wore her long black hair scandalously full, unbound, and ornamented with only a silk ribbon of sparkling jewels and a great peacock feather at the back. It was not just her dark hair and how she wore it that separated her from the other girls who took the stage with her, who were mostly fair; it was also the size and color of the huge blue and green emeralds and the rubies ornamenting her white gown.

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