Authors: Diane Haeger
he mighty ship
Henry Grace à Dieu
might have been a rowboat for how it bobbed and dipped across the choppy waters of the channel called the Narrow Sea, slicing through foamy waves on the journey to France. Jane hung her head over the railing beside one of the great bronze cannons and retched again, certain she had never been more miserable in her life. All of the introductions onshore had been a blur of bowing, curtsying, and total anxiety that she not embarrass herself or her brother. She had done her best to shrink behind the throng of other elegant young girls, none of whom even acknowledged her, as they clamored to be spoken to by the Princess Mary as she boarded the royal ship.
Jane had not seen Edward since they arrived in Dover from Wiltshire, when he had been whisked off by an elegantly dressed man who introduced himself perfunctorily as Sir Francis, their father’s cousin. In that moment, as she watched Edward abandon her, she had longed to cry out and cling to him, sobbing with all of the fear she felt. She had never been made to understand how she had even been a necessary part of the bargain for Edward to come to France.
When the seasickness seemed for a moment to have subsided again, Jane turned around and sank, weak kneed and trembling, down onto the deck of the ship, wiping her mouth with a shaking hand and the lace edge of her sleeve. She thought then of jumping overboard, having decided that drowning would surely be preferable to everything about this day so far.
“Are you not meant to be with the other little girls?”
The deep male voice came to her on the cool breeze off the waves. She heard it before she saw the two sturdy legs in fawn-colored nether hose and brown ankle boots planted on the deck before her. Jane looked up, but the voice’s owner was standing in a harsh ray of sunlight so that she could see no higher than the silk sash at his waist. She recognized nothing about him, only the elegant cadence of his words, which defined him absolutely as an aristocrat.
As she struggled to her feet, he reached out a large, firm hand to help her up. There were two jeweled rings on his fingers. One was a ruby the size of an almond set in tooled silver. The other set in gold bore what looked like a family crest.
“There, now, my girl,” he said smoothly. “’Twill not do at all if you cannot speak when spoken to. I was reassured by your father that you were quite conversant.”
The man she saw then as he moved to block the sun from her eyes with his broad back was startlingly handsome. He had thick auburn hair, widely set deep brown eyes, and a strong jaw.
“Sir Francis?” she asked weakly, suddenly recognizing him from that morning.
“At your service,” he replied with a formal nod. “But John said nothing about you being so dreadfully prone to seasickness. You’re white as a sheet just now.”
“I have never been at sea, my lord.”
“Ah, yes. How old are you again?”
“Nine years old this month, sir.”
He grimaced. “A bit younger than I had hoped, but I suppose you shall fill the bill sufficiently. You are attired well enough for her service,
you manage to keep yourself clean,” he added unkindly, indicating with his eyes the railing over which she had been sick.
“Am I to know what bill I am to fill, sir?” she asked, feeling another wave of nausea build as the boat rose and dove again into another sharp series of waves.
“Her Highness, the Princess Mary, favors the company of lovely English girls, since she has been told she has much competition in France. It makes her feel more secure to be surrounded by familiarity. You are not front-row material, but you shall do well enough to fill in the background.”
It did not even surprise Jane to be told so boldly that she was plain. It was simply a fact that she had already learned to accept. And he hadn’t said it cruelly anyway. He had stated it as a matter of fact, as if he were remarking on nothing of more consequence than the color of her eyes.
“Have you eaten at all today, young Mistress Seymour?”
Jane shook her head that she had not. She had been far too nervous, having arrived late to the shore with Edward, who had been angry and shouting that he would not be made to miss this opportunity for anything, even if he had to leave her and their suddenly lame horse behind at Maidstone.
“Let us at least fetch you a draught of ale below, then, shall we? Good for whatever ails a belly. And there are windows to be opened down there. You can sit near one and catch the breeze. Something has got to bring a bit of color to those pale cheeks of yours, after all. ’Tis my hope, at least.”
Sir Francis seemed a kind enough man, in a formal sort of way, Jane thought as she joined him, and she desperately needed someone she could trust in this frightening new world. Even if he was a stranger, he was still Father’s cousin, so she made up her mind to join him.
The swaying rhythm of the drawn litter, in which she rode toward Abbeville with five other young maids of honor, was so steady that Jane fought to keep her heavy eyes open in the mellow light of the setting French sun. It was late when the ship docked at Calais because the farewells between the princess and her brother King Henry had been so prolonged at Dover and everything had been set back from there. From her place in the back of the enormous crowd, Jane had caught only a glimpse of the royal siblings, but it was clear they were both young and fit and elegant beyond measure. As Princess Mary had moved quickly past the crowd, Jane had seen so much glittering beadwork on her gown that, as it caught the sun, Jane was reminded of the shooting stars in the night sky out behind Wolf Hall. How far she was from there, she thought, pushing away the deep longing for home. Even if these two places did share the same sky, they could not be farther apart in her mind.
After he had brought her the ale and her stomach had settled, Sir Francis had disappeared, as mysteriously as he had come, back into the crowd milling about the massive ship. She had not seen him again. Jane thought now, as she fought hard to stay awake, how entirely different he was from her father. Sir Francis had a sense of grandeur and an air of mystery about him, which she was sure life at court had cultivated. Her father had said Francis Bryan was a dear friend of the king. To Jane, that was almost like being friends with Almighty God himself, since no one was actually friends with a king.
For some reason, plain Jane from Wiltshire had been invited to accompany this god’s sister to the mysterious land of France.
She looked then at the young red-haired girl perched on the bench beside her. She was a few years older than Jane and silently clutched an embroidered handkerchief and continually pressed it to her cheek in a self-soothing way. There were tears in her eyes. Jane was not certain why that surprised her, but it did. That any other girl should feel the same fear or hesitation she did was an odd comfort to her.
“I am Jane Seymour of Wiltshire,” she hesitantly offered.
“Mary Boleyn of Kent,” the girl said, sniffling in return and drying her eyes on the handkerchief, then wiping her nose, as a much younger child would do. “I have not seen my family in such a long time. My father will say I have grown quite fat when he sees me.”
“You’re not,” Jane assured her sweetly.
The girl with full cheeks and a pink nose turned her small mouth down in a sad expression. “He shall think it. He can be terribly partial when it comes to his daughters, as he believes his fortunes are tied up with ours. My younger sister is actually quite remarkably pretty.”
“Mine as well,” Jane revealed sympathetically, remembering Elizabeth.
“Anne is young like you, but people already say she has the dark-eyed beauty of Cleopatra. At least they were saying that the last time I saw her. She has been educated in Antwerp this past year, since our father has great hopes for her at court one day.”
“Are you to see them both here in France?”
“My father is a diplomat in Paris. He saw to it through his connections that Anne and I both were named maids of honor here. Although my mother is convinced I shall be sent home once Father
sees how I have changed. Believe me, Jane, I am not the girl I was a year ago. Their worst fear is that a Boleyn daughter should be mocked.”
“Nor am I the same, honestly. If you could see what is beneath this hood right now, everyone would have a good laugh at me,” Jane revealed, feeling less self-pity than she had since her own mother had taken the pair of scissors to her hair.
Mary tipped her head. “Have you an injury under there?”
“Only to my dignity, as my brother said before we left.”
“You’ve a sibling here with us?”
“My brother Edward. Like your sister, Anne, he is my family’s great hope.”
Suddenly, and for the first time, Mary Boleyn smiled as the horse litter began to slow as it rocked over the smooth cobbled stones, arriving finally at the great stone palace at Abbeville.
Everything was different here in France. Jane felt that the moment she stepped out of the litter and into the buzz and hum of a new and lyrical language swirling around her. Jane had tried to study French at Wolf Hall, but she realized now that books were a very different thing from hearing French spoken in a conversational way. She pressed back the growing sense of panic that was threatening to seize her again.
As the massive English assemblage gathered in the courtyard, Jane, as usual, was pushed steadily to the back of the group. It quickly became a crushing wave, as the girls and women subtly vied for a place near enough to witness the Princess Mary’s entrance onto French soil for her first meeting with her new husband, France’s aged king.
“He doesn’t look so old and awful as they are saying,” Jane murmured to Mary, who was beside her, pushed and pulled as well.
She was speaking of the tall, broad-shouldered, athletically built man who emerged regally from the grand chateau, elegantly draped in crimson velvet bordered with ermine. He had a kind of insolent grace that was both attractive, Jane thought, and a little frightening.
“That is the king’s cousin, the Duke of Valois, and if Louis has no son, he shall be the next king.”
Just then, a beautiful woman came within sight, and Jane knew it was the king’s sister. She was elegantly clothed in a gold gown, and an egg-shaped ruby framed in diamonds glittered at her throat, with matching earrings dangling from her lobes. Jane thought the princess was the most exquisite person she had ever seen. With brief glimpses between the fashionable bell-shaped sleeves and intricate headdresses blocking the path before her, Jane took in the princess’s beauty. Spurring Jane’s youthful sense of fantasy, the princess glided as if on a cloud toward a magnificent destiny that Jane could not quite fathom at her young age.
“There he is! There is the king!” Mary Boleyn exclaimed with youthful excitement.
Jane stood on her toes, straining to see, but others were still pushing her back and pressing forward at the same time. It felt like the sea between England and France that had battered her about. Suddenly, there was a break between padded shoulders and headdresses and Jane caught a glimpse of a diminutive man, elderly and fragile, descending the same flight of stairs down which the dashing young duke had so effortlessly stepped moments before. This man’s hair was thin and patchy, the color of a springtime snow after the first thaw. His face was drawn and bloodless, the color of parchment. As he moved forward toward the magically beautiful English princess, who was legally already his bride, Jane saw a shimmer of spittle drip from the corner of his mouth, a punctuation mark to a
thought that seemed almost incomprehensible in her mind—that these two unlikely souls were joined before God as man and wife.
Her child’s stomach rejected the vision faster than her heart did, and Jane placed a finger across her lips to push back a little spark of nausea at the disagreeable thought. The princess held her head up as the two at last came face-to-face. A woman in front of Jane with a wide, pearl-lined, gabled hood moved again so she had to strain to see, but the moment of the royal meeting ended quickly and was lost to her.
“I would rather die than marry an old man like that,” declared Mary Boleyn, who was still standing beside her, her rosy face now mottled red with shock. “We were told he was not a young man, but I do not recall ‘ancient’ being part of the description.”
“Our princess really is quite beautiful, though,” Jane said as they were ushered forward.
“She is already a queen, you know. There would have been no turning back for her no matter what he looked like after their proxy marriage back in England.”
Jane knew nothing about that, but Mary spoke with such authority, being older and potentially wiser, that she automatically believed the Boleyn girl.
The palace at Abbeville was different from anything Jane had ever seen. The tall walls were lime washed and bare of ornamentation, the floor cool marble. There were no carpets to warm them, so there was the constant echo of shoe heels as courtiers crossed the halls. Jane shivered as much from the newness as from the cold. She had been gone from Wolf Hall for only a few days and already she was dreadfully homesick. To make matters worse, it seemed the pages of honor, of which Edward was one, were sequestered from the girls, so that she still had not seen her brother since before they boarded
the massive English ship. When Jane felt her lower lip begin to quiver at the thought, she bit it.