I, Jane: In The Court of Henry VIII (9 page)

She must not disappoint her family.

The tears of a child would most certainly do that.

Jane and Mary Boleyn were pressed along with the others up a wide, curved stone staircase with a wrought-iron railing. When they arrived at what seemed like the front of a long line of silk-and-velvet-clad girls, they came to a round-faced woman with a steely, determined gaze. She was dressed in a forest green gabled hood and heavily embroidered dress with a pearl and gold chain at her waist. When Mary curtsied to the woman, Jane did the same.

“Mother Guildford,” Mary said in deferential greeting.

The woman arched a thick, graying brow. “Why, Mistress Boleyn, I see you were included after all. Your father must have pulled a great many strings to see both you and your younger sister among Her Majesty’s new train here in France.”

“Is Anne already here, then?”

“I am told young Mistress Anne was brought from Antwerp last week. I know not what favors are called in to bring about these postings, but ’tis not mine to question.”

Jane took in the kaleidoscope of velvet, silk, pearls, beads, and elegant, full, bell-shaped sleeves around them.

“Who have we here, then?” Mother Guildford said as her appraising gaze fell upon Jane.

“This is Mistress Jane Seymour.”

“Ah, so you are Jane,” Mother Guildford remarked with an indecipherable, thin-lipped smile. “You are Sir Francis’s choice.”

“I am honored to be so.”

“You are awfully young. Too young, ’twould seem.” She touched Jane’s chin with a discerning pinch.

“I am nearly nine years old, mistress,” Jane tried to respond with a note of pride, but it dissolved almost before it left her lips. They began to quiver again in the face of such a bold-looking woman with so deep and steady a voice.

“Yes, well, all of these other girls you see are at least twelve. Mary here is fourteen. Aren’t you, Mary?”

Mary Boleyn nodded. “Yes, Mother Guildford.”

“So what, then, I wonder, did Sir Francis have in mind in bringing you here?”

“I was told only to accompany my brother Edward to France, mistress, not why I was to do so.”

“First of all, child, you must address me as Mother Guildford, as the French queen herself does. I was in Her Majesty’s service before she was old enough to speak, and I am in charge of her girls. I am to organize you all and keep you in line. You would do well not to question authority, particularly the sort here at court, English or French. You shall go much further that way. Or at least have fewer problems. Mistress Seymour, you shall be in the dormitory with Mistress Boleyn and her sister, who is closer in age to you. That might be some comfort to you, at least in a strange land. This is your first time away from home, I gather?”

Jane bit her lip even harder now and lowered her eyes to force away the tears pressing forward. “It is, Mother Guildford.”

“Then you would do well to make friends. Mary here is a respectable start.”

The older woman bobbed her head like a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, then turned her attention to the two giggling girls behind them. The encounter was over. But not Jane’s fear and longing. No matter how they dressed her up, or what she
managed to endure without weeping, she was still a little girl in a faraway place.

“She does look a bit young,” remarked Sir Thomas Boleyn, standing in the shadows of the second-floor landing as the fresh crop of English girls presented themselves to Mother Guildford in the room just beyond him.

Boleyn was a slim, dark-haired, elegant man, accustomed to court ways. He had a slightly crooked nose and eyes a little too deeply set, but his thick glossy waves of ebony-colored hair, along with a slightly wicked smile, helped label him one of the most desirable English courtiers.

“She was the best I could do on short notice, and for the price,” Francis Bryan responded on a note of irritation. “And Jane shall do quite handsomely to make your two daughters appear old enough for your purposes, as you requested. Perhaps Mary and Anne will even look worldly now.”

“That might be stretching it,” Boleyn replied snidely.

One of the English king’s diplomats, Thomas had been posted this past year, by order of Henry VIII, to the Netherlands, where he had taken his younger daughter, Anne. His elder daughter, Mary, had grown a bit fat before they departed from Hever Castle in Kent, Francis recalled, so it was decided Anne would be the daughter capable of more quickly ingratiating herself, and to eventually move up the court ladder. The ultimate good would be to make an important enough marriage that it would benefit the entire Boleyn family. So far, little Anne Boleyn had not disappointed her father. Thomas was eventually able to bring her successfully into the house of Archduchess Margaret of Austria, where Anne
was invited to remain with him until the invitation to France had come.

It was in that heady and prideful moment that he had decided to bring both of his daughters to the court of France and to see if either of them could find a more permanent post. Anne was young, so placing someone young like Jane Seymour beside her was a calculation to enhance his daughter’s place.

Fortunately, Francis Bryan had never been above bribery.

Thomas Boleyn drew the small coin-stuffed black velvet pouch from his doublet and handed it to Francis, who tucked it away in the same fluid movement as both men glanced around, ensuring the exchange had not been witnessed.

“You might have found one a bit prettier, though,” Thomas Boleyn could not resist saying. “In addition to being so young, your little charge there is really quite stunningly common about the face.”

“Perhaps she will grow into her looks,” Francis weakly defended.

“’Twould be more likely for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” Thomas Boleyn said unkindly, before he turned and melted back into the swirling crowd, leaving Francis Bryan wondering if he had not just made a very grand error in judgment by bringing his cousin’s plain little daughter to France.

The bed was cold but the dormitory room was colder, filled with an icy draft, shadows, and the whispering voices of strange girls.

“Quiet, or she shall hear you!” Mary bid her younger sister in the darkness infused with pale moonlight streaming through the bank of uncurtained leaded windows. Jane, Mary, and Anne were in small beds next to one another beneath the windows.

“I understand not why you talk to her, or what she is even doing
here. She is not like any of the rest of us. And she is as awkward as she is homely,” Anne whispered back.

“Shh! She is bound to hear you, and she has been very nice to me.”

“Well, I am not going to be nice to her,” Anne pronounced cruelly from beneath her downy bedcovers. “There is far too much at stake here for both of us. Father said so.”

Jane might be young, but she knew well enough that she was the present topic of conversation. She pressed the pillow over her head, trying to drown out the voices as another wave of homesickness descended on her.

There was no going back. This was her reality now, and she must somehow rise to the occasion and make a place for herself. At least she tried to tell herself that without bursting into tears so that the others would hear.

That whole week after Mary Tudor’s wedding to the King of France, Edward Seymour avoided his little sister. At first, Jane told herself it was a coincidence when he walked the other way whenever he saw her. There were so many banquets, pageants, revels, and even a fireworks display, so many people to meet, that he could not be expected to come and reassure her, or to introduce her to the other pages of honor.

That was the story her heart allowed her to believe.

But as time went on, Edward’s intentional avoidance of her became clear. Jane struggled not to feel hurt, but that had become unavoidable. As Mary Boleyn spent much of her time now with her sister, Anne, with whom she had been reunited, Jane was set adrift in a sea of other young women who knew precisely how to be seen and
heard in the busy, high-stakes French court. Jane did not. She tried to stay quiet, to watch and learn, but the pace was heady and mistakes were likely. More than one of the well-heeled young girls was reduced to tears each day by Mother Guildford’s condemnation of something said or a step taken out of turn. With her experiences at Wolf Hall as her primer, Jane vowed to avoid that indignity if she could.

As Sir Francis had predicted, she was made for the background, in order to add dimension, not distinction, to the English ensemble supporting the new young French queen. At large events, Jane receded into the crowd, never attracting the least bit of attention.

The same could not be said for Mary and her sister, Anne.

The Boleyn girls were always prominently placed in the front, always full of confidence, and in the case of Anne, she always found subtle ways to draw attention to herself.

But today there were no revels, no jousts, and no banquets. It was Sunday, and the old king and his new bride were having an argument in plain view of all of her ladies, with nothing to mask it. While his English was poor and heavily accented, the sentiment and the emotion behind it were clear to everyone.

“The English girls must go back,” he repeated in his thick, rheumy baritone marked by his Gallic accent. “You are a French queen now.”

“But they are my support and encouragement here.”

The girls and women sat around the queen like a wall of defense, pretending to sew or play card games.

“There are many French women here who can be the same for you, but you must give them, and my country, a chance.”

“Am I to keep none of my friends about me, then?” the beautiful young queen asked in a defiant tone.

“You may retain a small group without complaint, but only that, so I suggest you choose wisely,” he replied coldly.

Jane, who was sitting a few feet away at a card table along with Mary Boleyn and two older, more established attendants—the Countess of Oxford and Lady Mary Norris—tried her best not to stare once she saw tears begin to glisten in the young queen’s eyes. So this homesickness and loneliness did not become easier to bear with time and experience, apparently, she thought. Even a beautiful royal was susceptible to it.

A moment later, the old king, dressed this morning in a pale blue surcoat lined with ermine, leaned over to kiss his new wife on top of her head as though she were a petulant child in need of patience. The move brought a fit of rheumy coughing, and for a moment he seemed to lose his balance with the exertion. The young queen took a step nearer to him, concern suddenly darkening her flawless expression. As he continued to cough, he waved her away and two of his stewards approached, one providing a cloth for him to place over his mouth as they helped him to leave the room.

“That was wretched.”

Jane heard the catty whispered voice from the table beside her and realized it was Mary’s sister, Anne, who she had not noticed was nearby until now.

Knowing enough not to implicate herself in gossip, Jane kept her gaze impassive and faced forward, trained on the queen as Mother Guildford bent down by her side to speak privately. Jane watched the young queen’s pretty eyes fill with tears before she surrendered her face to her hands and shook her head.

Mother Guildford put a maternal hand on the queen’s shoulder, which at the moment was racked by sobs. Mother Guildford then
looked across the room at the large collection of English ladies and girls, who sat in stunned silence.

“Her Majesty requires some fresh air. A selection of you shall attend her.”

The aide began to scan the sea of suddenly hopeful expressions. “Lady Norris, Lady Oxford, Mistress Mary Boleyn, and…Mistress Seymour.”

Jane heard Anne Boleyn huff angrily behind her.

It was Jane’s first opportunity since she had come here to be in such close proximity to the queen. She felt the excitement even as her fear flared. This was a pivotal moment for her. She could not say or do anything wrong right now. But she was still so proud to have finally, after ten days, found this moment when she might actually make an impression with the queen.

Jane heard indecipherable grumblings behind her as Mary stood. Jane drew in a breath, straightened her skirts, and moved to rise, too. But as she did, she felt a firm tug on the linen fall of her headdress. As she turned to see if it had perhaps caught on the chair, she felt another tug just before her beaded hood clattered to the floor, leaving her head and her chopped hair exposed to everyone, including the young queen.

Jane heard her own horrified gasp, but it felt as if it had come from some other place, as if she was not quite connected to the moment or the sound. She knew what she must look like to them. She could see it on their faces, a sea of cruelly competitive little smiles, as she stood there, exposed and humiliated. When she glanced back, she saw Anne smiling innocently, her fingers steepled.

“Shall I go in Jane’s place while she collects herself, Mother Guildford?” Anne asked so sweetly that Jane felt too utterly humiliated to counter the question.

Anne Boleyn was a force with which to be reckoned.

Jane readied herself to walk from the room in a dignified manner, at least to escape before the tears came. But then she felt a foot slyly move forward and catch on her toe, causing her to stumble and nearly lose her balance. Only then did Jane abandon all decorum and break into an ungainly sprint, feeling a first sob rush its way up her throat.

“My, what an awkward little girl,” she heard Anne murmur cruelly as Jane brushed past her.

Out in the corridor, safe from view, Jane clung to a pillar, the choking sobs and the stress taking over as she folded in on herself and wept. A little girl lost. Alone, far from home. Humiliated. She was relieved that Mother Guildford had not come after her, since she was certain to face criticism for her unladylike exit; just now she could not bear another bit of harshness.

“I want to go home,” she whispered to herself in a futile sob, holding her headdress in her trembling hand.

“’Twill do you no good. You must be strengthened by it, not undone, if you are to survive here.”

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