The scream-filled halls were silent now. The birthing chamber smelled of burning candle, sweat and blood, the latter two staining the bed sheets. Ladies-in-waiting hurried back and forth between bed and washbasin. They stumbled occasionally; the tapestry covered windows so darkened the room.
After three days of labour the queen was growing weak. The midwife, however, refused to summon a surgeon to cut the child from its mother’s body. Just as the first lady of the bedchamber was about to call for him, the screaming stopped. Everyone present held their breath as the midwife cleaned and swaddled the new-born. She now faced the queen, the silence in the room broken by a small wail from the bundle in the mid-wife’s arms.
“Tell me! Is it a boy or a girl?!” The room remained silent. “I demand you tell me! NOW! Is it a boy?!” The queen stared expectantly at the midwife’s face, her features as red and angry as her babe’s.
The midwife stood, unmoving. Eyes wide with fear, she shook her head.
The queen’s agonising wail drowned out those of her child.
All of England assumed Elizabeth would be a boy. Men of both faith and science had declared it would be so. She was to be the heir that secured her mother’s future as queen. God’s sign to her father that all his actions had been right. Instead, she had entered the world a girl, and everything changed.
For seven long years King Henry had waited to bed his love, Anne Boleyn, and rid himself of his first wife, Catherine, who hadn’t provided the male heir he so desperately needed. What choice did he have? His father had sired the Tudor dynasty and it now fell to Henry to ensure its continuation. He petitioned the Pope for a divorce, cynically using his anguished soul as the reason. He had, after all, married his brother’s wife, a deed forbidden in the Old Testament. The king believed that applying to the Pope would be enough to win Anne, but she held firm: the divorce must be finalised before she would grant any man, even a king, access to her body.
Rome vacillated; Catherine was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope could not afford to offend a man as powerful, rich, and threatening as he. The proceedings dragged on, but Henry’s hopes were kept alive, not only by his absolute desire for Anne, but also by the whispers of the king’s chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell. It was Cromwell who provided the financial incentive for a break with Rome, and who’d convinced Henry that, if the king declared himself Head of the Church of England, he’d have no need for the Pope’s permission to divorce Catherine and marry Anne.
The people, angry and frightened by the upheaval in their lives, blamed Anne. Henry’s behaviour only fuelled their fear. He was blinded by lust for both Anne and the new ocean of money that would previously have been sent to Rome. Still Cromwell whispered to the king, still the people blamed Anne and, by extension, her daughter; the child of a witch.
Despite the fact she rarely saw her parents, Elizabeth’s first few years were happy. She enjoyed an enormous amount of freedom at the royal manor in Hatfield, due to the efforts of her guardian Katherine Chambernowne. Kat oversaw everything, from her charge’s education and deportment to her food and personal needs. The only thing Kat wasn’t responsible for was the princess’ clothes. That was the strict domain of the girl’s mother.
Kat hadn’t been able to dress her that day, as she normally would before a visit from the queen. Instead a mousy bedroom maid had been assigned to help.
“Where’s Kat today?”
“I don’t know, your highness.”
“Will she be back soon?”
“I don’t know, princess.” The maid was busy adjusting buttons at the back of the dress.
“She chooses my dress for me when we have visitors.”
“Yes, princess.” She was now struggling with a ribbon on one sleeve.
“My mother visits today, does she not?”
“Yes, she does.”
“Did you select my dress?”
“Yes, your highness.”
Elizabeth thought for a moment before replying. “Kat is supposed to pick my dress for me.”
“Kat isn’t available, she’s busy preparing for your mother’s visit.” The woman finished with the ribbon.
“Kat wouldn’t have picked this dress.” Elizabeth squirmed, trying to get a better look at herself in the mirror. “It’s not in the style my mother prefers.” She wrested herself away from the maid and turned her back to the mirror, peering over her shoulder to see herself.
“It’s a lovely dress, princess. I heard tell it was a gift, made especially for you.” Whether this was true or not, it had the desired effect. The little girl smiled and allowed the maid to finish.
When she’d done, the maid left and another two servants started on Elizabeth’s hair. They had just finished placing her headdress when shouting from the courtyard outside signalled Queen Anne’s arrival.
The household gathered in the main hall. Elizabeth took a step toward her mother and curtsied, holding her position to a count of ten as she’d been taught, careful not to whisper the numbers aloud as she counted. Then she stood and, eyes turned downward, waited. After a moment, when Elizabeth could barely stand it any longer, her mother dropped to her knees and held her arms open, the better to receive Elizabeth’s embrace. Elizabeth ran laughing to her mother and had just thrown her arms around her when she felt the queen stiffen and stand upright again. Elizabeth’s stomach lurched. Had she done something to displease her mother?
“Elizabeth, where did you get that dress?” She flicked her finger up and down her daughter’s small figure.
“I don’t know Mama, I’m sorry.”
“Well, who dressed you today?”
Elizabeth looked around at the assembled household before returning her gaze to her mother. “I don’t see her here.”
“Was it not Kat?”
The atmosphere in the hall changed, making everyone feel uncomfortably warm. A few of the servants at the very back of the room tried to inch themselves into the darkness of the recesses, including the young maid who’d dressed Elizabeth. The queen quickly scanned the room and found her quarry. Just behind Elizabeth was Kat.
“Mistress Kat, step forward.”
“Your most royal majesty.”
“Why did you not dress my daughter? Were you not aware of our visit today?”
“Your highness, I was busy preparing the household for your noble majesty’s visit.” Anne remained silent; the explanation clearly insufficient. “And, majesty, I was preparing a gift for you, something from the princess.”
Whether a lie or not, the comment had the desired effect. “Well, as long as she’s more appropriately dressed next time, in an outfit of my choosing, I’ll overlook this incident.” She stared directly at Kat. “This time.”
Kat felt a chill pass through her and had no doubts that, should there ever be a ‘next time’, the queen would indeed make her displeasure both known and felt.
Having displayed her benevolence, Anne moved to the door. “I’m going to inspect the grounds. Please change my daughter into something more befitting her status than this,” she looked disgustedly at her daughter’s attire, “monstrosity. And see to it that the dunce who dressed her today is sent to work in the laundry. Whoever she is, she has no place in the bedroom of a princess of this realm.”
“Yes, your majesty.” Kat curtsied again. When Anne had turned to go outside, Kat grabbed Elizabeth by the hand and guided her upstairs. It would take at least fifteen minutes to undress and redress the child, which should be ample time for Anne to complete her inspection of the gardens.
“My mother is angry?”
“She didn’t like my dress?”
Kat thought for a moment. “My sweet, your mother has excellent taste and she cares for you very much. She only wants the very best for her daughter and wishes to pass her fine eye on to you.” Elizabeth held her arms in front of her so the old dress could be removed. Kat then selected an outfit the queen herself had sent a few weeks past, and had the added benefit of matching the headdress the child already wore. Hurriedly, she finished and, turning the princess to the right and to the left, declared she was ready.
Elizabeth looked at herself in the mirror again and said, “I’m very fine looking, am I not Kat?”
“You are indeed, finer looking than anyone in the realm.”
Elizabeth was pleased with this but the smile on her face was soon replaced by a more serious expression. “But not finer than my mother, Kat.”
“Oh no my sweet. Your mother is the most beautiful woman in England.”
Elizabeth was thoughtful for a moment. “Perhaps someday I’ll be as beautiful as she.”
“That you will indeed. You’re already the most beautiful princess in all of Europe.”
“Even more so than my sister Mary?”
Despite the child’s young age, she was again showing the maturity Kat so often bragged about. “Your sister Mary is a very serious young woman, and I may get in trouble for saying this, but you are more clever and prettier than she’ll ever be.” She put a finger to her lips and whispered, “Shhhh.”
Elizabeth giggled. “I won’t tell anyone, Kat.”
Kat curtsied low and replied, “You are most gracious, my young highness.”
Elizabeth reached up to take Kat’s hand and went out of the room and down the main staircase. Her mother was sitting at the table in the dining hall, drinking wine, and looking impatient. Kat made a final check of the child’s appearance, tugging at a sleeve before sending her in. Anne’s face lit up again when Elizabeth entered. She motioned her daughter over to the empty chair beside her.
“So, my daughter, tell me of your studies. What have you been learning?”
Elizabeth described her lessons in detail, her music and dancing in particular. Anne sighed, shocked at how fast her child was growing up. It wouldn’t be long until the enthusiasm she felt for these two subjects spread to other disciplines.
She remembered when Elizabeth was born. After the initial emotional shock that she had given birth to a girl had passed, it was a day of pure joy for Anne. While she consciously knew the importance of having a son, a small and suppressed part of her had wished for a girl. She’d got her wish, but at a price.
The king had visited her a few days after their daughter had been born and, with a disgusted look at the baby, had told her, “You’re at least capable of bearing children, God will surely give us a son next time. Visit me when you’ve recovered.” He’d left without another word, his attendants casting pitying looks at her. She had wisely kept any comments to herself, and today she would deliver a most hard-won gift to Elizabeth.
“My dear, I have news for you, and I hope you’ll be as pleased as I.” Elizabeth sat very still, knowing instinctively by the tone of her mother’s voice this was something important. “I’ve arranged for your sister Mary to come and join your household! What do you say to that?”
Elizabeth looked into her mother’s shining eyes. “She’s a papist.”
“She was. We’ll see to it she practises none of that nonsense here.”
“But she’s so old. And she never smiles.”
“She’s still a young woman, in her teens. She just looks older than her years and that’s the fault of her mother. And yes, she’s a very dour girl but it’s the general disposition of those who follow her faith.”
Elizabeth was silent for a moment. Then, folding her arms across her chest and frowning, she said, “She doesn’t like me.”
Anne leaned over and cupped Elizabeth’s face in her hands. “Oh, my dear, who could not like you? Nay, love you? You’re my daughter.”
“I know she doesn’t like me.”
Anne sighed and leaned back in her chair again. “She’s just upset she’ll never be queen now the king has declared his union to her mother was never a true one. She’ll be treated like the bastard she is when she lives here. Whether she likes you or not is of no import. You are the mistress of this household and I’ll not allow anyone to forget it.” She stood up abruptly and crossed the room to the window, staring out at the gardens. “Mary has been handled too delicately for far too long. People still act as though she’s a legitimate daughter of this realm, rather than the papist bastard she is. Well, that ends now. She’ll be brought to heel or face the consequences. That’s all you need know.” She turned again from the window and, after a moment, a more light-hearted voice floated across the room. “Now, what’s this about a gift for me?”
Elizabeth heard the smile in her voice and was relieved her mother’s dark mood had lifted. “May I leave you a moment while I collect your present?”
“Yes, you may. But hurry back, I’m excited about my surprise!”
Elizabeth walked as quickly as she could from the hall, then ran up the stairs to her room. “Kat, the gift for my mother, where is it?” she called.
Kat replied from the next room. “On your bed.”
Elizabeth grabbed the small wrapped parcel and, gripping it in both hands, hurried back to the queen. She walked slowly to where her mother stood and, with head lowered, presented the parcel with outstretched arms.
Anne graciously accepted the gift and oohed and aahed over the wrapping, before carefully removing the silk cover. The look on her face went from amusement to astonishment. Tears came to her eyes and she dropped to her knees, gathering Elizabeth to her.
“My daughter, how can this be? Here you are, in my arms, yet I feel my senses must deceive me because I hold in my hands the face I adore above all others!”
Elizabeth laughed and tried to muffle the sound in her mother’s lap. She raised her head and asked, “Do you really like it? Kat says it’s a good likeness.”
“Kat is a wise woman. She’s correct, it’s very like you. What a wonderful surprise! How did you do this without my knowledge?”
Elizabeth stepped back from her mother. “Kat helped me. Her cousin is an artist.”
“Well, I must thank Kat for doing so. This is indeed a marvellous gift.” She reached over and gathered her daughter into her arms once more. “Now my precious girl, I have a few more things to attend to and then I must leave you. The king, your father, is expecting a full report on your progress as soon as I return.”
“Will you tell my father of my studies and how hard I work?” Elizabeth asked excitedly.
Anne laughed at her child, delighted with the enthusiasm only a three-year old could summon. “Yes, my sweet.”
“And how clever I am?”
Anne released her daughter and straightened up. She called on Kat to take the child while she finished her errands around the estate. When she was finished, she stopped by the main house to hug Elizabeth once more and say goodbye. From a distance her mother looked the same, but up-close Elizabeth saw worry on her face.
Copyright Kelly Evans (2020)