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To John with love
new-mown grass smelled sweet as we took our places along the verge on that grey dawn, all of us together, waiting for my cousin Anne to be brought out to die.
Though the spring was well advanced there was a chill in the air, and I shivered under my thin Spanish cloak. I drew nearer to my aunts and my grandmother Agnes, sidling up against her long bony body swathed in a gown of watchet blue under her warm woolen ermine-trimmed mantle. She did not look at me, but stood very still, her back very straight, her crimsoned cheeks wrinkled, her lips widened in a half smile. My grandma had once been handsome, so it was said, but her youth was long past and no finery, no amount of paint on her sallow cheeks, could disguise the marks of age. She was said to be the richest woman in England, and one of the most fearsome.
I drew nearer to her now, as the sun began to rise and the first crimson streaks blazed along the horizon. The hour was nearly at hand. The faces of the relatives all around me were growing tighter, aunts and uncles and cousins, ancient great-aunts whose names I barely knew, aged great-uncles who, I had been told, had fought alongside my late grandfather in the long wars that had brought him fame.
At the center of the crowded nest of relatives was my uncle Thomas, third Duke of Norfolk, the head of our family. He stood slightly apart from the rest of us, feet planted firmly, his dark face with its hooded eyes grim, his mouth set in a firm line. His elaborate padded and slashed doublet of quilted yellow silk made him stand out from among the growing number of spectators gathering to watch the dread spectacle to come.
“Get on with it then,” we who were closest to him heard him mutter. “Kill the big whore!”
Birds began twittering and chirping as the sky lightened. They swooped in and out of chinks and crannies in the great blocks of grey stone in the ancient tower walls. I watched them, fluttering and flapping their small wings, glad for a chance to be distracted by something other than the grisly business to come. I tried to forget that my cousin Anne, many years older than I and Queen of England, was to die this morning.
I had never seen anyone die by the sword. I did not want to watch. I shrank back among the others, glad for once that I was so small (at fifteen years old, I was a full head shorter than other girls my age) that I could not see over the heads of those in front of me. I could barely glimpse the raised platform, draped in black, with its thick block of wood, the guardsmen in royal livery who stood around it, the tall halberdiers with their sharp-bladed, long-handled hatchets that glinted in the sunlight.
For what seemed an hour or more we stood, weary of waiting, while the crowd grew larger and larger and the sun rose higher.
“Remember, she is not one of us!” my grandmother hissed. “She has betrayed the family! She has betrayed the Howard name! Take warning from her fate!”
Her words unleashed more accusations. Terrible accusations, from those standing near me. I heard someone say that Anne had had many lovers, that every night when she went to bed she had men lined up, ready to do her bidding. Even her brother George!
How could such things be said, I wondered. How could my cousin have so dishonored our Howard lineage? Unless she was mad, or possessed by a demon.
“Do you think she was possessed by a demon?” I whispered to my cousin Charyn, who stood near me, looking remarkably calm and self-possessed, not a single blond hair out of place under her dark headdress, her cloak lifting in the slight breeze, her gloved hands folded in front of her.
“The demon of lust, most likely,” was Charyn’s prompt reply.
Charyn was seventeen, much taller than I was and much prettier. Her hair curled naturally and seemed to flow without tangles, even on the windiest day. Her grey eyes were never troubled or filled with confusion, as mine so often were. When she spoke, her words were few and crisp and telling, and she always seemed to know just what to say. She would not believe in demons. She was sensible and practical, not easily led astray by gossip.
“He might have burned her, like a heretic,” another soft female voice reached me. “But he couldn’t. He still loves her.”
There was more hushed talk—of the swordsman brought from Calais many weeks before our cousin Anne’s trial and condemnation. The swordsman whose sole purpose was to carry out executions.
“He was planning it all along,” I heard a man say. “He wanted to be rid of her. He had tired of her. And she was cursed—she couldn’t give him a son. So he hired the French executioner. He hired him months ago. He paid him twenty-three pounds!” There were exclamations at this. Twenty-three pounds was a great deal of money, enough to buy several estates.
“Is it true she sent her gold bracelets to her old nurse and rocker, as a last keepsake?”
“She promised to marry Norris, her favorite lover,” one daring voice murmured. “She was going to kill the king and then marry him.”
“Don’t say such a thing—or you will die too!”
The babble of voices, the tramp of soldiers’ boots—then the gasps when Anne was brought out and helped to go up the steps to where the block was waiting.
Her step was brisk, lively. There was no heaviness about her. Once again I thought, she is mad, she has gone mad. She does not feel the pangs of her approaching death. Or is she relieved that she is not to suffer the agonies of death by fire?
I felt Charyn take my hand. She had taken off her glove. Her hand was cold in my warmer one.
Some in the crowd were kneeling. I heard sighs. People were drying their eyes. My uncle the duke was frowning.
“She deserves to die!” he was saying through clenched teeth. “She must suffer for her treasons!” We all knew that he had been the one to preside over the group of peers that had condemned Anne. Anne—the favorite child of his favorite sister Elizabeth.
I could see her clearly now, my view was no longer blocked by the capes and mantles of those in front of me. So many of those around me had begun to kneel—though my grandmother continued to stand rigidly in place, and as far as I could tell, none of my Howard relations appeared to be preparing to kneel. Not a knee was buckling. Charyn was trembling, but she stood.
The Lord Mayor and aldermen, solemn-faced in their black robes, watched impassively as the tall, brawny dark-haired Frenchman, his heavy broadsword drawn from its wide leather scabbard, climbed the steps to stand behind Anne. Compared to him, she looked very small. She kept turning her head to see him, to see what he was doing.
I felt Charyn squeeze my hand, her nails biting into my palm, and for the first time my stomach lurched with fear. I lowered my head. I did not want to see this.
Anne stepped forward. Her voice was strong as she asked for prayers. She did not confess her guilt. Rather she swore, on the host, that she was innocent. I was certain I saw her smile. Was she thinking of her daughter, I wondered, in those last few moments of life left to her? Her one child, Elizabeth, the child who the king had hoped would be a prince. Her legacy.
Once again she looked behind her. The swordsman was waiting. The women in attendance on her unfastened her ermine mantle and waited while she took off her headdress and covered her hair with a linen cap.
Did I only imagine that at that moment a cloud covered the sun and the sky darkened? Afterwards I could not remember clearly. I know that I looked in vain for a chaplain. Was there to be no chaplain, to say a prayer with Anne, or read words of forgiveness from the Bible? Was Anne to be denied these final comforts?
She murmured a few words to each of her attendants, no doubt wishing them well, and all but one received her last words with tearful thanks. Then she knelt. She knelt upright. She had no need to put her head on the block, for the swordsman’s blade slashed sideways, not downward.
Charyn fainted. I looked down at her. And at that moment I heard the horrible sound: a swishing in the air, a crunching, cries of fright and alarm. Looking up, I saw Anne’s twitching body, a rush of blood staining her grey gown deep red, her attendants wrapping something in a reddening cloth.
I could hardly breathe. I staggered. For a brief time everything around me seemed to blur, then my vision cleared and I began to catch my breath again. I saw that Charyn was being helped to her feet. The sky was lightening—or had it ever really gone dark?
The high grey stone walls still loomed, the birds, heedless of the drama below them, continued to soar and plunge, and then to rise, wings flapping, up into the sunny sky.
* * *
Not long after Anne’s death my father crept quietly in through a side door of the west wing of Horsham, my grandmother Agnes’s great sprawling country house in Sussex. He had sent me a note to say he was coming, and I was waiting for him in an anteroom.
I could tell as soon as I saw him that he was troubled and subdued. His shoulders were hunched, his expression dour. He had never been a robust man, but now that he was beginning to age his physical strength was waning. He sought me out from across the small room, his lined face sagging, his light blue eyes filled with worry. The eyes of a boy, I thought, rather than a man. A boy afraid of his master, like the half-naked scullery boys that scrubbed the huge pots in my grandmother’s kitchens. The thin blond hair that poked out from under father’s cap gave him a foolish look. His scraggly mop of hair was far different from my own thick auburn mane. I was proud of my hair, people said it was like the rich red-brown curls of my late mother. I resembled her—in vitality and lightness of spirit as well as in my coloring—rather than my ever anxious father.
Wearily he unhooked his cloak and cast it off, throwing himself down on a bench beside the thick wooden table in the anteroom and calling to the nearest groom for a tankard of ale. He sighed heavily and put his head in his hands.
I went to him and knelt. Weakly, almost absentmindedly, he laid his hand on my head to give me his blessing. I got up and joined him at the table.
“Did you have a rough crossing then, father? Were you ill?”
He nodded and pressed one hand to his back.
“The seas were high. And I am tortured with the stone.”
Kidney stones were the bane of my father’s life. He suffered terribly, and shouted loudly when his suffering was at its worst.
He had come from Calais, the French coastal town held by the English, where he held the office of Controller—by far the highest of the series of low court positions he had held. But I knew from his letters that he was in disgrace with his superiors there; the English governor of the town slighted him and criticized him, he wrote, and the French so disliked him that he was sure that if he left the town, he would never be allowed back in.
He clung to his office, fearing to leave. And as a result he had not been present at my cousin Anne’s execution. He had not been there to stand with the rest of us in the Howard clan, to stand beside his brother the duke, who treated him with scorn, or to bow to their stepmother, my grandmother Agnes, who did not disguise the fact that of all her many children and stepchildren, she despised my father the most.