“What family of citizens offers so clear an example of strict harmonious wedlock?”
–Erasmus on the English Court’s royal couple, 1520
My father made his mark at court, and I, too, served as a Gentleman Ushers in Ordinary to the king’s household. His majesty favored us with offices of respect. It was not forgotten how my father held the king’s standard in the wars in France, nor how he was one of the many knights deputed to meet the French king on the Field of the Cloth of Gold only last year.
The king fancied clever men who knew how to make an honest fortune, and with my having married the king’s ward—a Montgomery—I was wealthy without ill favoring myself. I was satisfied with the knowledge of that wealth, giving a nod to Father and all his plotting. I would have been an unhappy man as a pauper and wed to the farmer’s daughter. But she was never far from my thoughts, was Dame Isabella, as she was now called, sweeping down the drafty halls of Blackladies in her black nun’s weeds. My feelings for her despite my reconciling to my place, did not cool as I had hoped they might. But I took George Throckmorton’s advice, and attended to my wife, and there I cobbled a marriage of it, the equal of any courtier I knew.
Dorothy was with the ladies in another gallery—praise God. All the chattering and giggling preyed on one’s nerves, and there was work to do. Court was a pleasure of course, but its purpose was more for what could be gained than reacquainting oneself with old friends. True, old alliances were remembered, old ties rebound. And there were amusements in-between these toils. It was a place bright with gold, pomp, music, and disguisings.
King Henry was a man who devoured amusements, be they feasts, or wardrobe, or masques, or women. He enjoyed the company of many a charming lady. My sisters Cassandra and Dorothy stuck close to their husbands while at court, though they did not often attend. It was a place for Father and me to make ourselves available should any important appointments be offered.
My daughter Elizabeth was holding her own court back home at Caverswall. A dainty creature at five years, she was nevertheless robust, and tried the patience of her nurses. At present, she was my only progeny. I cooled to my wife’s attentions after discovering where Isabella resided…and of my feelings for her.
Dorothy had been with child one time more, but the babe was cast out of the womb far too early, and died. It was a boy. Such was also the fate of our king, for the good queen delivered at last a living babe, but it was a girl, the Princess Mary. She was nearly the same age now as my Elizabeth, and such a cheerful child. The king often referred to her as his “pearl of the world.” The last time the queen was pregnant was three years ago, and no more were likely. It seemed our “pearl of the world” would be reigning queen after Henry. He said as much to the Emperor’s envoy. The last reigning queen in England was the Empress Matilda nearly four hundred years ago, and that sad queen’s history did not readily appeal to our courtiers. After all, when that first King Henry named her his heir, there was civil war, and it was her cousin Stephen who seized the throne.
The nobles were unhappy with this turn of affairs, for history was leaden in us all. The robust king could not seem to produce a legal heir, though he did sire a bastard, Henry Fitzroy, on his mistress Bessie Blount not long after the Princess Mary was born.
“But what is a king to do?” said Philip Draycot in my ear. A courtier some ten years my junior, he became my fast friend through his merry wit and sharp ear for news. I glanced sidelong at him and at that pride of wheat-golden hair that reached in a curled edge to just below his ears. It seemed he could read my thoughts aloud, though it was a subject pressing on everyone’s mind.
“He can beget more bastards and name them to the throne,” I answered, “but I doubt he will keep the bloodline to the throne from his lawful heir, his daughter.”
“A woman on the throne? Have you not always said, Thomas, that there would never be a woman on England’s throne?”
“Well…” I brushed my mustache with a fingertip. “Perhaps I was wrong.”
Draycot laughed into his hand as we both perused the room of gallants and bedecked females. Wolsey was also there, fervently instructing a crony who wore a dark plain gown—a commoner named Thomas Cromwell—while the king watched a musician pluck “As I walked the Wood so Wild” on a lute.
“This is a day worth celebrating,” Draycot said close by me, as others turned to look at us. “A Giffard admit he is wrong!”
“Stranger things have happened, Draycot. When a cardinal can be chancellor, then maids can be queens.”
“Careful when you speak ill of the Church lest you be taken for a Lutherist.”
“I am not a Lutherist. What do I care about the rantings of a German ex-monk? And I speak no ill of the Church, Draycot. Only its envoy.”
“Wolsey sticks in everyone’s teeth like last night’s mutton, but do not let George Throckmorton hear you. You know he often transacts business with Wolsey. Land grants or some such.”
No sooner did I turn my head to look for Throckmorton, than I saw him making his way through the throng toward us.
“Lord Giffard,” he said with a perfunctory bow.
“Lord Throckmorton,” I did in kind.
“Both your brows are so heavy, you must be speaking of the succession.”
Draycot made an expression of mock chagrin. “Do you mean we are the only ones?”
Throckmorton shook his head with disdain and turned his back on young Draycot. “It is said that the Princess Mary may soon be betrothed to the Emperor.”
“Is she not already betrothed to the Dauphin?” asked Draycot, not in the least offended by Throckmorton’s contumelious treatment of him.
“Betrothals are like games of cards,” offered Throckmorton, instructing. His eyes glanced here and there about the room, cautious of heads cocked our way. “One jack after another is discarded for a higher hand.”
“The Princess Mary is the hope of the realm,” I said. “If not as heir, then as mother to the heir.”
Throckmorton nodded. “Yes, that may be the way. Better the king’s grandson as heir than…others.”
Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham strolled across the hall with his attendants, his attention strictly on the king at his gaming table.
“And there goes the ‘other’,” whispered Draycot between us.
“He has made certain of his royal claims,” said Throckmorton. “He now has York blood with his son married to Ursula Pole. I think he makes crowned heads uneasy.”
“He is too ambitious for his own good,” I agreed, smiling only a swath of teeth at an acquaintance nodding at me from across the room.
“He does not forget slights easily,” said Throckmorton. “Thomas and I were young at the time,” he said to Draycot, “but no doubt you have still heard of the occasion when the king had his…indiscretions…with Buckingham’s married sisters.”
“Yes. I recall talk of it.”
I pivoted to watch the king’s dice game. “Buckingham defended the honor of his none-too-chaste siblings and never forgave William Compton for acting as pimp to the king’s pleasure,” I said.
Draycot nodded and swept his gown hem aside to place a fist at his hip. “Buckingham has no liking for commoners, even when they are the king’s bosom friends like Compton. Or Wolsey.”
Throckmorton sniffed. “Nevertheless. He never forgot how unwelcome he was at court after the incident. Though it was ten years ago.”
“Memory runs long at court,” said I.
“I would keep clear of Buckingham,” said Draycot soberly. “I fear he thinks too much of himself in these uncertain days. He listens too dear to his friends who would set him in high places.”
“Too high,” I agreed.
Draycot talked on, but I listened very little. A great fire roared in the hearth and the torches burned equally bright. I cocked an ear toward several courtiers my own age standing in a loose circle, discussing their lands and their hopes, while other young hawks talked of war with France, and fretting at the hilts of their bodkins. I listened to all distractedly even as the musician played on, and the king gathered his fellows over the dice table: his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, and Edward Neville, among them.
I, too, was thinking about what I should do with my life; about when I would be knighted; about the estates. Oh I was fit for all of it, of that I did not doubt. It was the timetable that troubled me, for I should like to make something of myself. At thirty, I was getting old, and my career already fell behind that of my father’s. It irked me. Having married well, I knew these things will soon accelerate. A male heir was the first step, after all, to a dynasty. Yet even so.
I looked, and also saw the queen at the other side of the hall, surrounded by her own pleasures and ladies. How weary she looked. How old. Yet she was barely older than myself. Never a robust lady, the years and her many unsuccessful pregnancies must have taken their toll.
It suddenly occurred to me that there was one more option for the king’s heir: his widowerhood. When Catherine died, he could marry again and yet father a legal male heir.
Was it a good thing to contemplate the death of a queen…or of a wife?
I turned to the ladies’ gallery to spy Dorothy laughing and chatting with her many contemporaries. Was I to leave my estates in no better claim than the doomed Montgomery’s, awaiting the Giffard buzzards to swoop in and pick their bones clean? Leaving my estates to a woman, where any jack could come along…
Frustrated, I rasped a sigh. The idea of Dorothy in my bed while Isabella dwelled nearby in that convent was a cold winter to my desired summer.
The king won at his game and roared his approval, echoed by the surrounding courtiers. The king’s fiery red beard set off the roundness of his face, giving it a merry mien when he laughed, and an equally fierce countenance when he angered. He grew the beard in an obstinate avowal. He would not shave, he said, until he met the king of France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, but he kept it ever after, pleased with its added maturity. It was said the queen did not favor it, but Henry was a man of his own convictions.
His courtiers laughed again at one of the king’s jests, and it occurred to me to become part of the fawning milieu, until I reckoned the many faces already occupied with such. I could not bring myself to become part of that. I would prefer to accompany the king on a battlefield and earn my knighthood rightly by toils rather than by obsequious expressions of false flattery.
Buckingham maneuvered his way beside him, and rolled his dice upon the gaming table but was foolhardy enough to win, and this did not please the king, who growled and reluctantly handed over his gold pieces. I looked quickly at Draycot and Throckmorton and wondered if Buckingham possessed a wit of common sense to lose. Again, he cast his dice with care, and won another two gold pieces from the king. Praise God Neville stepped in and nudged Buckingham none too graciously aside, letting Henry win again, but not too obviously.
“That is how to keep your head,” hissed Throckmorton in my ear.
“I do not think the king would behead a man simply for besting him at dice,” I answered. “But see how sour Buckingham is. Do you think he will make a fool of himself?” Buckingham was one who believed his ambitions would lead him to a throne. He did not know that much of what he plotted was well known and would someday cast him down. Court was a hazardous place if one did not watch one’s step—or one’s friends.
The king rose from the gaming table at last, knuckling Neville in the chest. Neville could be the king’s twin, so alike did they look, and used it for more than one jest. His majesty lumbered toward the gallery, no doubt in search of the banqueting hall. To my surprise, he headed straight for me. An unexpected flutter tickled my heart as he approached.
“Your grace.” I made a graceful bow. Throckmorton and Draycot, too, made their obeisance, withdrawing subtly into the crowd.
“Thomas. You have not been at court of late. No doubt you languish in the country, eh? You are wed to someone Montgomery.”
“Dorothy Montgomery, your grace.”
“And so. A former ward, eh Thomas? How long now married?”
“Six years, your grace.”
“Six years! Is it six years already? How the years cascade one upon the other.” Chuckling, he put a hand on my shoulder. “You have a daughter, Thomas.”
“Yes, your grace. She is the same age as the Princess Mary.”
“You do not say so. Perhaps she should wait upon the princess. Would you like that, Thomas?”
It was, of course, a great honor he offered me, but with Elizabeth so young, the notion tore at my heart. “Your grace, she is my only child and precious to me. I fear I dote upon her too much to let her go very far at so young an age. Forgive a man for his weaknesses.”
“Yes, Thomas,” he said, putting his arm about my shoulders. “We fathers do indeed dote upon our little girls. What jewels they are, eh?” He squeezed my shoulder uncomfortably, before releasing me. “I like that country in Staffordshire. It’s bold land, rich with fields and woods.” The king took in the men around him and, obviously in a convivial mood, swallowed them up in his presence. “Is it good hunting?”
“Yes, your grace. We would be honored to have your majesty guest at Caverswall.”
“It might be so, Thomas. I do not often venture to my estates in Stafford.”
My mind whirled with incomprehensible thoughts. I had the king’s ear. Now what, by the Rood, was I to do with it?
“Ever been to tournament, Thomas?” he asked me. His eyes scanned my lanky frame. My figure was deceptive, for though tall and lean, I was strong and a worthy fighter.
“I have, your grace.”
“Your father. He’s a good rider. A good man. But you look as fit as he. I should not think it will be long before you win many competitions yourself.”
“As a knight, your grace?”
An expression of varying hues tinted his face. It began as surprise, turning to amusement, and finally to warning. He smiled. “There is no hurry,” he said, before barreling into a throng of other courtiers, leaving me depleted in his wake. The earlier familiarity was gone. Damn, my own impudence, I rebuked in my head. Others followed after him like puppies, but I remained as I was, dismissed. Until I felt a shadow at my elbow.
“A bold lunge,” said the voice I did not recognize.
I turned, running my gaze perfunctorily over the plump person beside me. He wore velvets in a style somewhat excess for English tastes, almost to bad taste. “Do I know you, sir?”
“No, Lord Giffard. There is no reason you should. I am Thomas Legh. Only a secretary.”
“Truly.” I lost interest while looking for Draycot and Throckmorton. “It is a wonder you are here.” It was meant to dismiss the man, but clearly his intentions were otherwise. He meant to fraternize where he did not belong, and I wondered briefly whose secretary he was, though did not deign to ask. I moved away, but the creature followed.
“The king’s interests are many. He populates his court with many rising morning stars. But beware, Lord Giffard. A morning star still sets.”
I stopped and glared at him. “And what are you, sirrah? A shooting star? They streak quickly across the sky in a flash of light, and are soon extinguished, seen no more. Any morning star may set, but it rises again.”
“‘Tis true, my lord, but—”
“You are too familiar with me, and I know you not. Stand aside.” I swept past him, noting how he glowered at me as if memorizing my features. In his insolence, he must have believed he was of some importance at court, yet like so many others, his ill-chosen words to the wrong man would depose him. I glanced back again, and saw Cromwell approach him and rest his hand upon his shoulder. So. It made more sense to me, then, these two in Wolsey’s employ. Like jackals. I did not know whose bones they waited for, but I was determined they would not be mine.