On the twenty-ninth day of January in 1542, twenty-six eligible young women sat at table in Whitehall Palace with King Henry. An additional thirty-five occupied a second table close by. We were arranged by precedence, with the highest-born maidens closest to the king. As the daughter of a baron, I was assigned a seat at the first table, but there were others of nobler birth between me and His Grace.
From that little distance, King Henry the Eighth of England was a glorious sight. At first I could scarcely take my eyes off him. He glittered in the candlelight. Not only did he wear a great many jewels on his person, everything from a diamond cross to a great emerald with a pearl pendant, but the cloth itself was embroidered with gold thread.
I pinched myself to make certain I was not dreaming. Everything at court seemed to sparkle, from the rich tapestries to the painted ceilings to the glass in the windows. I had arrived from Kent the previous day and was still in awe of my surroundings. I had lived in comfort for all of my fifteen and a half years, but this opulent level of luxury stunned me.
Wondrous dishes appeared before me, one after another. When I tasted the next offering, I closed my eyes in delight. The sweet taste of sugar, combined with ginger and the tart flavor of an unknown fruit, exploded on my tongue. I sighed with pleasure and took another spoonful of this marvelous concoction.
“Have you tried the syllabub?” I asked the woman seated beside me. “It is most delicious.”
She did not appear to have eaten anything. Although she’d taken a piece of bread and a bit of meat from the platters the king’s gentlemen had brought around, she’d done no more than toy with the food. At my urging, she spooned a small portion of the syllabub into her mouth.
“Indeed,” she said. “Most delicious.” But instead of eating more, she fixed her bright, dark blue eyes on me, examining me so intently that I began to feel uncomfortable under her steady stare.
I reminded myself that I looked my best. My copper-colored gown was richly embroidered. My pale yellow hair had been washed only that morning. Barely two inches of it showed at the front of my new French hood, but it was a very pretty color and it would have reached nearly to my waist if it had not been caught up in a net at the back.
“Mistress Brooke?” my neighbor asked. “Lord Cobham’s daughter?”
I gave her my most brilliant smile. “Yes, I am Bess Brooke.”
Thawing in the face of my friendliness, she introduced herself as Nan Bassett. She was only a few years older than I was. The tiny bit of hair that showed at the front of her headdress was light brown and she had the pink-and-white complexion I’d heard was favored at court. I had such a complexion myself, and eyes of the same color, too, although mine were a less intense shade of blue.
We chatted amiably for the rest of the meal. I learned that she had been a maid of honor to each of King Henry’s last three wives. She’d been with Queen Jane Seymour when Queen Jane gave birth to the king’s heir, Prince Edward, who was now five years old. She’d been with Queen Anna of Cleves, until the king annulled that marriage in order to wed another of Queen Anna’s maids of honor, Catherine Howard. And she had served Queen Catherine Howard, too, until Catherine betrayed her husband with another man and was arrested for treason.
Queen no more, Catherine Howard was locked in the Tower of London awaiting execution. The king needed a new bride to replace her. If the rumors I’d heard were true, that was why there were no gentlemen among our fellow guests. His Grace had gathered together prospective wives from among the nobility and gentry of England.
I had been summoned to court by royal decree. My parents had accompanied me to Whitehall Palace and impressed upon me that this was a great opportunity. They did not expect the king to choose me, but whatever lady did become the next queen would need maids of honor and waiting gentlewomen.
Conversation stopped when King Henry stood. Everyone else rose from their seats as well and remained on their feet while His Grace moved slowly from guest to guest, using a sturdy wooden staff to steady his steps. As he made his ponderous way down the length of the table, shuffling along through the rushes that covered the tiled floor, I saw to my dismay that, beneath the glitter, he was not just a large man. He was fat. He wore a corset in a futile attempt to contain his enormous bulk. I could hear it creak with every step he took.
The king spoke to each woman at table. When he spent a little longer with one particular pretty, dark-haired girl, a buzz of speculation stirred the air. Whispers and covert nudges and winks followed in the king’s wake. As His Grace approached, I grew more and more anxious, although I was not sure why. By the time he stopped in front of Mistress Bassett, I was vibrating with tension.
She sank into a deep curtsy, her eyes fixed on the floor.
“My dear Nan.” The king took her hand and drew her upright. “You appear to thrive in my daughter’s household.”
“The Lady Mary is a most kind mistress, Your Grace,” Nan Bassett said.
He chuckled and shifted his meaty, bejeweled fingers from her hand to her shoulder. “She is fortunate to have you, sweeting.”
Nan’s smile never wavered, although his grip must have pinched. I admired her self-control.
I had no warning before His Grace shifted his attention to me. “And who is this beautiful blossom?” he demanded in a loud, deep voice that caught the interest of everyone else in the great hall.
I hastily made my obeisance. As I sank lower, I caught a whiff of the stench wafting up from the king’s game leg. In spite of layers of gaudy clothing, I could see the bulge of bandages wrapped thickly around His Grace’s left thigh.
King Henry stuck a sausage-shaped index finger under my chin and lifted my face until I was forced to meet his gimlet-eyed stare. It was fortunate that he did not expect me to do much more than give him my name. That I’d attracted the predatory interest of the most powerful man in England very nearly struck me dumb.
“I am Lord Cobham’s daughter, Your Grace,” I managed in a shaky whisper. “I am Elizabeth Brooke,” I added, lest he confuse me with one of my sisters.
I lowered my eyes, hoping he’d think me demure. The truth of the matter was that I was appalled by the ugliness of Henry Tudor’s bloated face and body. Any awe I’d felt earlier had been displaced by a nearly paralyzing sense of dread.
“Hah!” said the king, recognizing Father’s title. “Imagine George Brooke producing a pretty little thing like you!”
Next to King Henry, who was the tallest man in England, any woman would be dwarfed. As for Father, I’d always thought him exceptionally well favored. But I had the good sense not to contradict His Grace.
“What do you think of our court?” King Henry asked.
“It is very grand, Sire. I am amazed by all I have seen.”
The king took that as a compliment to himself and beamed down at me. I repressed a shudder. We had a copy of one of His Grace’s portraits at Cowling Castle. Once upon a time, he’d been a good-looking man. But now, at fifty, the bold warrior prince of yesteryear had disappeared into a potentate of mammoth proportions and chronic ill health.
Still, I knew my duty. I must pretend that the king was the most fascinating person I had ever met. That way lay advancement at court for my father and brothers as well as myself. I arranged my lips into a tremulous smile and tried to focus on His Grace’s pretty compliments. He praised my graceful carriage, my pink cheeks, and the color of my hair. All the while, his gaze kept straying from my face to my bosom. I have no idea what I said in reply to his effusive praise, but when he chucked me under the chin and moved on, I felt weak with relief.
King Henry stopped to speak a few brief words to the woman who was seated on the other side of me, my kinswoman Dorothy Bray, then abandoned her for a redhead with a noble nose and a nervous smile. Dorothy, her dark eyes alive with dislike, glared at me. “Brazen flirt,” she whispered.
I was not certain if she meant me or the redhead.
Although she was only two years my senior, Dorothy was my aunt, my mother’s much younger sister. Like Nan Bassett, Dorothy had been a maid of honor to Queen Catherine Howard. In common with most young women who held that post, she was attractive. She looked very fine dressed in dark blue. Her best feature was a turned-up nose, but her lips were too thin for true beauty and just now they were pursed in a way that made her almost ugly.
I was sorry that the king had not spent more time with Dorothy, since she was clearly envious of the attention he’d paid to me, but there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation. That being so, I ignored her and turned back to Nan Bassett. Nan was as friendly as before, but now she seemed distracted. I wondered if she, too, felt alarm at having caught the king’s interest.
Until the moment the king had called me a “beautiful blossom,” I had never regretted being pretty. I had taken it for granted that I was attractive, accepted without demur the compliments from the scattering of courtiers who’d visited my father at Cowling Castle, the Cobham family seat. Now, for the first time, I realized that it could be dangerous to be pretty.
What if His Grace chose me to be his next queen?
It was a terrifying thought, but so absurd that I was soon able to dismiss it. After all, the king had paid far more attention to Nan and to that dark-haired young woman, too.
When everyone adjourned to the king’s great watching chamber, where an assortment of sweets was served, we were free to move about as we sampled the offerings—pastries, comfits, suckets, marchpane, Florentines, candied fruits, and nuts dipped in sugar. Musicians played softly in the background, as they had during the meal, but the sound was nearly drowned out by talk and laughter.
I turned to ask Nan Bassett another question and discovered that she was no longer by my side. She’d reached the far side of the chamber before I located her. I watched her look all around, as if she wanted to be sure she was unobserved, and then slip past the yeoman of the guard and out of the room.
Considering, I bit into a piece of marchpane, a confection of blanched almonds and sugar. I found the sweetness cloying. The scent of cinnamon rose from another proffered treat, teasing me into inhaling deeply. I regretted giving in to the impulse. Along with a mixture of exotic aromas and the more mundane smell of melting candle wax, I once again caught a whiff of the horrible odor that emanated from the king’s ulcerous leg. Without my noticing his approach, he’d moved to within a foot of the place where I stood.
All at once the hundreds of tapers illuminating the chamber seemed far too bright. They revealed not only the ostentatious display, but also the less appealing underpinnings of the court. Beneath the jewels and expensive fabrics, the colors and the perfumes, there was rot.
His Grace stood with his back to me, but if I stayed where I was he could turn around and see me at any moment. To escape his notice, I followed Nan Bassett’s example. Palms sweating, I retreated, backing slowly away until other ladies filled the space between us. Then I turned and walked faster, toward the great doors that led to the rest of Whitehall Palace.
My steps slowed when I was faced with a yeoman of the guard clad in brilliant scarlet livery and holding a halberd. There was one problem with my escape plan. Whitehall was a maze of rooms and corridors so vast that I did not think I could find my way back to my parents’ lodgings on my own. With Nan Bassett gone, I knew only one other person at the banquet—Dorothy Bray. She was family, I told myself. If I asked for her help, she’d be obliged to give it.
As I searched for my young aunt, the musicians struck up a lively tune and the dancing began. Ladies partnered each other for the king’s entertainment, but Dorothy was not among them. The chamber was crowded, making it difficult to find anyone, and I was beginning to despair of ever making my escape when I passed a shadowy alcove. A bit of dark blue brocade protruded from it, the same color and fabric as Dorothy’s gown. Without stopping to think that she might not be alone, I stepped closer.
A man was kissing Dorothy with enthusiastic abandon. By his dress—a green velvet doublet with slashed and puffed sleeves and a jewel the size of a fist pinned to his bonnet—he was a member of the king’s household. One hand rested on Dorothy’s waist. The other was hidden from sight in the vicinity of her breast.
At the sound of my startled gasp, they sprang apart, exposing a good deal of Dorothy’s bosom. Abashed, I started to back away.
“Stay,” the man ordered in a low-pitched growl, and stepped out of the shadows.
I obeyed. Then I simply stared at him.
He was one of the most toothsome gentlemen I had ever seen. Tall and well built, his superb physical condition suggested that he participated in tournaments. I had never attended one, but I had heard that such events were a fixture of court life. Gentlemen vied with each other to show off their prowess with lance and sword. A man who looked this athletic was certain to be a champion jouster. His face, too, was perfection, with regular features, close-cropped auburn hair, and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache.
His eyes were light brown and full of annoyance as his gaze swept over me, from the top of my French hood to the toes of my new embroidered slippers and back up again. By the time they met mine for the second time, approval had replaced irritation.
Sheltered by her companion’s much larger body, Dorothy put her bodice to rights. Still tucking loose strands of dark brown hair into place beneath her headdress, she shoved him aside. Temper contorted her features into an ugly mask. “Begone, Bess!” she hissed. “Have you nothing better to do than spy on me?”
“I did not invade your privacy out of malice. I only wish to retire to my lodgings before His Grace notices me again and I do not know the way.”
The man chuckled. His mouth crinkled at the corners when he smiled at me, making him even more attractive. He doffed his bejeweled bonnet and bowed. “Will Parr at your service, mistress.”
Dorothy slammed the back of her hand into his velvet-clad chest the moment he straightened, preventing him from stepping closer to me. It was no gentle love tap, and if the look she turned my way could have set a fire, I’d have burst into flames on the spot. “That is Baron Parr of Kendal to you, niece.”
I was unimpressed by his title. My father was a baron, too, and so was my uncle, Dorothy’s younger brother. “Lord Parr,” I said, bobbing a brief curtsy in acknowledgment of his courtesy bow, as if we were about to be partners in a dance.
Our eyes met for the third time. I recognized a spark of male interest in his gaze, along with a twinkle of wry amusement. Without warning, butterflies took wing in my stomach. It was the most peculiar sensation, and one I had never experienced before. For a moment my mind went blank. I continued to stare at him, transfixed, my heart racing much too fast.
“If you truly wish to return to your mother,” Dorothy said with some asperity, “then do so. No one here will stop you.”
Her cold voice and harsh words broke the spell. I forced myself to look away from Lord Parr. Although I could not help but be pleased that such a handsome man found me attractive, I knew I should be annoyed with him on Dorothy’s behalf. “How am I to find my way there on my own?” I asked in a small, plaintive voice.
Dorothy’s fingers curled, as if she would like to claw me, but Lord Parr at once offered me his arm. “Allow me to escort you, Mistress Brooke. Brigands haunt the palace at night, you know, men who might be tempted to pluck a pretty flower like you if they found her alone in a dark passageway.”
I looked up at him and smiled. He was just a head taller than I.
“We will both accompany you.” Dorothy clamped a possessive hand on Lord Parr’s other arm with enough force to make him wince. We left the king’s great watching chamber with Lord Parr between us and walked the first little way in silence.
Dorothy’s anger disturbed me. She’d resented the few minutes His Grace had spent talking to me. And now she wanted to keep Lord Parr all to herself. But I was not her rival. And even if I was, I would be gone from court in another day or two.
My steps faltered as comprehension dawned. Dorothy would not be staying much longer either. There was no place at court for maids of honor or ladies of the privy chamber or even chamberers when the king lacked a queen. Dorothy would have to return to her mother—my grandmother Jane at Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire—until the king remarried. What I had interrupted must have been her farewell to her lover.
I glanced her way. Poor Dorothy. It might be many months before she saw Lord Parr again, and I had deprived her of an opportunity, rare at court, for a few moments of privacy.
Worse, although I had not intended it, I had caught Will Parr’s interest. I rushed into speech, uncomfortable with my memory of the profound effect he’d had on me. “Do you think the king has someone in mind to marry?”
“He paid particular attention to you.” Dorothy’s voice dripped venom. She walked a little faster along the torch-lit corridor, forcing us to match her pace.
A wicked thought came into my head. If the king made me his queen and Dorothy were my maid of honor, she’d be obliged to obey my slightest whim. I felt my lips twitch, but I sobered quickly when I remembered that in order to be queen, I’d first have to marry old King Henry. Nothing could make that sacrifice worthwhile!
“I wager Mistress Bassett has the lead,” Lord Parr said in a conversational tone, ignoring Dorothy’s simmering temper.
“Do you think so? Nan has caught His Grace’s eye in the past and nothing came of it.” Dorothy had reined in her emotions with the skill of a trained courtier.
They bandied about a few more names, but none that I recognized. I practiced prudence and held my tongue as we made our way through the maze of corridors and finally stopped before a door identical to dozens of others we’d passed.
“We have arrived,” Dorothy announced with an unmistakable note of relief in her voice. “Here are your lodgings, Bess. We’ll leave you to—”
The door abruptly opened to reveal my father, a big, barrel-chested man with a square face set off by a short, forked beard. His eyebrows lifted when he recognized Dorothy and Lord Parr. “Come in,” he said. “Have a cup of wine.” He fixed Dorothy with a stern look when she tried to excuse herself. “Your sister has been expecting a visit from you ever since we arrived at court.”
Father, Mother, and I had been assigned a double lodging—two large rooms with a fireplace in each and our own lavatory. The outer room was warm and smelled of spiced wine heating on a brazier. Somehow, in only a day, Mother had made the place her own. She’d brought tapestries from Cowling Castle to hang on the walls, including my favorite, showing the story of Paris and Helen of Troy. Our own servants had come with us to make sure we received food and drink in good time and that there was an adequate supply of wood for the fireplaces and coal for the braziers.
Unexpected company never perturbed my mother. She produced bread and cheese and gave the spiced wine a stir with a heated poker before filling goblets for everyone. The drink was a particular favorite of Father’s, claret mixed with clarified honey, pepper, and ginger.
Lord Parr made a face after he took his first sip. “Clary, George? What’s wrong with a good Rhenish wine, perhaps a Brabant?”
“Nothing . . . if you add honey and cloves,” Father said with a laugh. “You are too plain in your tastes, Will.”
“Only in wines.”
I was not surprised that the two men knew each other. They both sat in the House of Lords when Parliament was in session. Standing by the hearth, they broadened their discussion of wines to include Canary and Xeres sack.
I joined Mother and Dorothy, who sat side by side on a long, low-backed bench, exchanging family news in quiet voices. I settled onto a cushion on the floor, leaning against Mother’s knees. At once she reached out to rest one hand on my shoulder.
The sisters did not look much alike. Mother’s hair was light brown and her eyes were blue like mine. She was shorter than Dorothy, too, and heavier, and markedly older, since she’d been married with at least one child of her own by the time Dorothy was born. She might never have been as pretty as her younger sister, but she had always been far kinder.
“Speaking of imports,” Lord Parr said, “I have just brought a troupe of musicians to England from Venice, five talented brothers who were delighted to have found a patron.”
The mention of music caught Mother’s attention. “How fortunate for you,” she said.
“My wife dearly loves music,” Father said. “She insists that all our children learn to play the lute and the virginals and the viol, too.”
“I play the virginals,” Lord Parr confessed, after which he and my mother discussed the merits of that instrument for nearly a quarter of an hour, until Dorothy, with a series of wide but unconvincing yawns, prevailed upon him to escort her to the chamber she shared with several other former maids of honor.
“As you told Bess,” she reminded him, “it is not safe for a woman to walk unescorted through Whitehall Palace at night.” She all but pushed him out the door.
A moment later, she stuck her head back in. “You should take Bess home and keep her there, Anne,” she said to my mother. “The king singled her out and admired her beauty. You know what that means.”
Dorothy’s second departure left behind a startled silence.
“Did His Grace pay uncommon attention to you?” Mother exchanged a worried glance with Father. The concern in her voice made me long to reassure her, but there was no way to hide the truth. Too many people had noted the king’s interest in me and would remember exactly how long we had spoken together.
“He . . . he called me a pretty little thing.” I squirmed under their scrutiny, feeling like a fly caught in a spider’s web.
“And what did you think of him?” Father asked.
“That he is old and fat and diseased and that I want no part of him!”
“Oh, George,” Mother said. “What shall we do? What if His Grace wants Bess to remain at court?”
“He’s not yet said he does, and as I’ve no desire to dangle our daughter in front of him like a carrot before a mule, we will leave for home first thing in the morning.”
“But if he is looking for a wife, as everyone says he is—”
“Then he will have to look elsewhere. It is not as if there are not plenty of willing wenches available.”
“Sixty of them, by my count,” I said. Relief made me giddy. “Although I suppose a few of them, even though they are still unmarried, may already be betrothed.” I had been myself, to a boy I’d met only once, but he’d died. So far, no other arrangement had been made for me.
Mother exchanged another speaking glance with Father but said only, “Are you certain, Bess, that you wish to cut short your first visit to court?”
“I would gladly stay on if I could avoid the king,” I admitted. “But for the nonce, I much prefer to be gone. Perhaps I can return after King Henry makes his selection. Surely, with so many ladies to choose from, it will not take His Grace long to find a new queen.”
© 2010 Kathy Lynn Emerson