sjhstrangetales

THE DUCHESS OF CLEVES

1.

The English call it the Dog Days of Summer, a time when the heat is so intense that dogs can go mad. If it is possible to go mad with anxiety, then perhaps I may be the same. I sit here on the window-seat overlooking the still, glass-like moat around my castle. I am wearing only a thin cotton shift, which is sticking to my flesh in this oppressive heat. How my family would be aggrieved if they could see me! This is no way for a royal princess to behave. Back home I could not appear to a stranger unless my face was veiled! But I am not amongst strangers here, this is my home. Lonely in its splendour I may be, but it is still my home. I am free here. For the time being.

What do I call myself these days? I am no longer the King’s honoured sister. These past few short years have been oddly unreal. We have lived under this petulant boy king. A mere stripling trying so hard to be the huge, towering presence that his father was. I always had a feeling in my bones that he wouldn’t be long for this world. He always appeared pale and sickly. What a poor, runt-ish creature to be born of the seed of big King Hal and that … oh no I mustn’t be unkind, it is not worthy of me. Poor Jane. She paid a heavy price for giving Henry the son he had craved so much. I wonder if she had a moment on her deathbed to ponder the enormous sacrifice she was being asked by God to give. I hope for her sake she didn’t realise her moment was near. I expect she must have been drowsy and removed from reality from much of the time. But what do I know of the dangers and horrors of childbirth? I know I am supposed to be jealous of my more fruitful predecessor, but I cannot be. I count my blessings that I have been spared that dreadful ordeal.

Talking of babies, my housekeeper tells me that a deformed child has been born in the village. She says this is an omen. Oh these English! Such simple folk. They see everything as an omen. But … hm … perhaps on this occasion she may be right. We are living through a brooding Summer. A time when the pendulum of England’s future could swing either way. I feel such fear for that poor, pathetic little Lady Jane. By all accounts she is a prim, modest, scholarly girl. She hasn’t a shred of ambition in her body. But she is being used by ruthless, unscrupulous men. Oh how I know that feeling! I too was used like a mere chess piece for the benefit of men’s ambitions. I was sent here across a stormy sea to a man who was repelled by me. Physically at least. I do not believe Henry was repelled by my personality. It is why he made me his sister.

I still miss him greatly. That may surprise you I know. This was the man who declared “I like her not!” when he first met me. Who told the entire kingdom about my saggy breasts, my inexperience in the bedchamber, my body odours. The horrible, terrible shame of it! How can you feel anything towards him but anger and bitterness, you may well ask. It is simple. I grew to become very fond of him. Once Henry was free of any obligation to be married to me, he was kindness itself. He didn’t have to impress me, pretend to still be young and vigorous. Not like that silly foolish girl, Kathryn Howard. I didn’t argue theology with him either, like his last wife, Katherine Parr, the one they call the Survivor. No I am the survivor. I was the one who knew how to play the game the way Henry liked it.

We had so many joyous evenings in this castle. He would arrive on horseback, surrounded by his vast entourage. Always jolly. Always with a laugh ready to spring to his lips, in spite of the terrible pain he was living under, from the ulcer in his leg. What a god he must have been in his prime! I would greet him at the main door. “Anne!” he would exclaim, slapping me on the shoulder like one of his male friends. And that is how he treated me. I wasn’t just his honorary sister, I was his honorary friend. We drank together (I always keep a good cellar), we played cards together, we listened to music together. It gave him such pleasure to see me so comfortable and happy here. Did it ease his conscience a little? To know that he had made one of his wives so happy? I had spared him the agony of sending another foolish woman to the block. Hmm. Henry’s conscience was always a thing of great mystery. Most especially to himself.

I am distracted by a squeal of laughter coming up from the garden. One of the maids is having a sneaky assignation with her lover on this hot afternoon. They are trying to be discreet, hiding in a leafy bower, but they don’t fool me. I try not to be irritated by their joy in each other, but it is difficult. What must it like to experience a reciprocal attraction? I know what it is to experience love. Because I loved Henry. Oh yes I did. Ardently. Even after he had sent silly little Kathryn to the scaffold, I still nursed a hope in my bosom that Henry would send for me to take her place. But it was never to be. He was fond of me as a person, but he felt nothing for me physically. And even in his old age, with his festering leg, Henry still wanted the whole carnal experience. And he still yearned for another son. A little Duke of York, as an ace in the hand. Because I suspect that even Henry, who could delude himself like a champion, knew that Edward would not live long. No. Edward would be like his brother Arthur, who was the one meant to rule England. But he died young and sickly at Ludlow Castle. Edward was … oh how the English say … a chip off the old block. But he took after Arthur, not Henry. What a strange game God plays on royalty.

How could you love such a monster? A man who beheaded two of his wives? A murderer, even if he didn’t swing the sword or the axe with his own hand. Because I don’t believe Henry was a murderer at heart. If he had been born an ordinary man, a tradesman, a tailor, a goldsmith, a farmer, I don’t believe he would have had any murderous impulses. He was not callous. He was a man of his position. He couldn’t afford to have anyone make a mockery of him, or the whole glittering facade of royalty would crumble. Henry had to appear ruthless and powerful to his people. How could he allow any woman, especially a very young, foolish one, to be seen to be making a fool of him? It would undermine his entire position. He had to rule by terror at such times.

Oh this oppressive heat. How I wish it would pass.

2.

All the talk at dinner is of how the Lady Mary will react to this latest development. Oh those foolish men. Do they really think they can change the natural course of history by putting an innocent little girl onto the throne of England? Rightly or wrongly, the Lady Mary is the rightful heir. Henry stipulated as such on his deathbed. If Edward should die without issue, then the Lady Mary would be next, and then the Lady Elizabeth. Those were the King’s wishes. It is not for mere Dukes to gainsay them. They will pay dearly for their presumption, I fear. But it is little Lady Jane I fear for the most. I have been told that on being told she was now Queen, she boldly denied it, and said that the crown was not rightfully hers. Poor child. I feel she has more intelligence and integrity in her little finger than those horrible men have put together.

I feel sick and headache-y with it all. No one is certain where the Lady Mary is at this moment. The rumour is that she is either in hiding, or somewhere marshalling her forces. She is a brave woman. She has inherited her mother’s courage and resolution. I am sure she will rise to any challenge that is required of her. And yet, I can confide to you here, that I fear what she may do when she becomes Queen. Mary is a fanatical devotee of the old religion. She has been through such suffering in her life, and her religion has often been her only comfort. She loves it as ardently as any devoted wife. Henry was cruel to her. But Henry was cruel to people who refused to fit in with his plans. And Mary is nothing if not stubborn. She will be tough and unbending. Possibly too much so I fear.

Oh what an ominous Summer this is. I feel saturated with a sense of foreboding everywhere I turn. How I long for Henry to be back, in his rightful place as King. Could there ever be another King like Henry? He will cast a long shadow over all his successors, of that I am in no doubt. He was a firm hand at the helm. No one doubted him. Oh how awful it is to live in a time of such confusion. When chaos reigns, then anything could rise up and fill the void. Anything.

3.

I cannot sleep in this intolerable heat. I roam my home, thoroughly demoralised. The servants have all gone to their own quarters. I imagine them sitting in the kitchen garden, or by an empty grate, a mug of beer in hand, either enjoying a blissful moment of quiet repose, or chatting in domestic camaraderie. I envy them their companionship. I feel more alone than ever. There is no one to share my anxiety, my grief.

On the staircase I look out of the window and see my steward seated below. He is sitting outside one of the side doors, reading by candlelight. I want to shout down to him that he will ruin his eyes, but I do not want to be mother-hen, and deprive him of a moment of peace and leisure. So I carry on up the stairs to the Long Gallery. The servants believe this part of the castle to be haunted, and although they have always stopped short of telling me who they think haunts it, I know full well. It is her. The Boleyn.

I know some of them cannot understand how I can live cheerfully in a house that had once been the home of my most notorious predecessor. It had been her childhood home. Henry had come courting her here, in the rose garden. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine him coming upon her there, bewitched by her dark-eyed unique beauty. At the height of his infatuation I believe Henry would have sacrificed his entire kingdom for her. But how quickly such white-hot passion can turn to hate. Poor Anne. She flew too close to the sun, and got her wings burnt.

Sometimes, when I first came to England, I imagined her spirit in Heaven sniggering behind her hand at me. “Oh look who he’s got now! The Flanders Mare! He’ll never be able to bed her, let alone get a son by her!” The Boleyn, with her long hair, flashing dark eyes, slender body, and her impeccable French fashions, would have despised my clumpy German solidity, my heavy, modest dresses and cumbersome hoods. I would not have been quick-witted enough to captivate her with my intellect and humour either. My gutteral voice would have grated against her soft tones. What must she think of me? Roaming around her old home, a gift from the husband who had ordered her own death.

But perhaps the Anne of later years would have been more understanding. By all accounts she became withered and ugly in her final months. She turned to religion for comfort. She must have constantly lived in fear for her life, knowing that unless she produced a son, Henry would discard her as resolutely as he had pursued her. Perhaps THAT Anne might have admired me more. But I’m not sure. It is hard to imagine her coming back here, after all the glory she had known at the royal court, and settling for a domestic life of seclusion, however comfortable it may be.

They say that as she was led out to the scaffold on that May morning, she kept constantly looking behind her, as though expecting a messenger to appear with a last-minute reprieve from the King. In her final hours did she ever think “I will do anything to live. I will spend the rest of my days in a convent, I will live quietly in the countryside, but to LIVE! That is all I require!” Did she? Or was she being absolutely sincere when she told Master Kingston, the custodian of the Tower, that she was “glad to die”?

Glad to die? To leave her little daughter? Even I, a childless divorcee, knows that that would be hard, to leave behind one’s only child. And Elizabeth was such an adorable child. How could Henry possibly have ever doubted she was his? She is the very image of him. That lustrous red hair. That profound intelligence. That Tudor presence … that Tudor temper! She is the King’s daughter, whatever jibes her sister Mary may have said about her being Mark Smeaton’s love-child. I taught her to cook. She enjoyed our little experiments in the castle kitchen. I told her that it was a useless skill I was teaching her. That as a royal princess it was very unlikely she would ever have to cook again. “Madam”, she had replied, solemnly “If I am ever turned out of my kingdom in only my petticoat, I will know how to fend for myself”. Oh, of that I have no doubt!

There is a rumble of thunder in the distance. I decide to return to my hot bed. As I descend the narrow, little twisting stair I sense a presence just ahead of me. Of a slender figure disappearing just out of sight. Was it her? The Boleyn? Or is the heat addling my exhausted brain?

My room is like a furnace when I return to it. I lay on top of the bedclothes and yearn for sleep. But oh the ghosts of Henry’s other wives haven’t done with me yet. Now little Kitty Howard sneaks into my thoughts. That good-natured, but oh so foolish little girl. Another victim of ruthlessly ambitious men. Frankly, I thought Henry was a fool to believe that a bonny young girl like her would fall deeply in love with an ailing old man like him. But men are past-masters at fooling themselves. They hear what they want to hear. A king is no exception to that rule.

I saw them together soon after they were married. I had been invited back to court as the King’s honorary sister. I came only second to Kathryn in terms of precedence. Everyone was watching me closely for signs of jealousy. Of course I was jealous. I loved Henry, but he didn’t love me, and I had been through too much public humiliation to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me hurt. I knew also that I had come well out of the deal. For several weeks in that late spring and early summer, I had feared for my very life. Convinced that Henry would find a way of sending me to the scaffold too. That was what had happened to Master Cromwell. That once proud, forbidding man had died screaming for Henry’s forgiveness. A forgiveness that had never came. Henry was never a man to let old favours and dutiful devotion sway his conscience. He had put his first wife, Katherine, out of his mind completely, so he could do the same to a member of his staff, no matter how high up the pecking-order he was.

I was on such shaky ground those weeks. It was the most terrifying time of my life. When Henry’s deal was put to me, I nearly fainted with relief. If I had to be his sister, then I would be his sister. I would have my castles, and my generous income. A Flanders Mare I may be, saggy breasts I may have, a disappointment in the bedchamber, but I was never a fool. Katherine, the Spanish first wife, had died in poverty and pain, her heart turned cancerously black. Henry had forbidden her to see her beloved daughter, had sent her into exile in some gloomy marshland, in a crumbling ruin .. and yet at the very end she still desired to see him more than anything else. I could understand that, but I was NOT going to die forgotten, in poverty, with a broken heart. If I could not have Henry’s love, then I could at least have his friendship.

And so I returned to court, dressed to the hilt, and putting on the bravest of faces. I was going to tell the world that I had done hugely well out of the deal, and I was ready to greet my successor with a sisterly embrace. I danced with her in front of the entire court, and yes I did like her. This frivolous little thing was so full of youth, I could see why the ageing Henry was captivated by her. She was his final fling. His final desperate attempt to hold back the ravages of time which had already claimed him.

On her last night on God’s Earth she had asked for the executioner’s block to be brought to her room in the Tower, so that she could practise laying her head on it, so that there wouldn’t be any mistakes. When I heard that, I shut myself away and cried for this poor lost child. Her only crime was her lack of intelligence and foresight. But I also cried for Henry. For his acute disappointment, for his own broken heart. I wanted to come back to the court and comfort him. I even wrote to my brother to ask him to put in a word on my behalf. It was a stupid thing to do. Everybody thought I was after filling Kathryn’s shoes, that I wanted to marry him again. Of course I would have done so with a gladsome heart. But no, I just wanted to comfort him. When you truly love someone, their pain is your pain, and you would do anything to ease it. But of course they couldn’t see that.

4.

This morning, after breakfast, I had a visitor in my private library. He is a contact I use to keep me informed about what is going on in the world beyond these castle walls, most particularly the royal court. It meant I had to don a heavy gown and cumbersome headdress on this torrid day, but it was worth it to hear his news.

The Duke Of Northumberland’s diabolical plot has failed. Lady Jane is no longer Queen. I absolutely dread to think what will happen to the poor child now. None of this was her fault, and I can’t imagine she gained any pleasure from her nine days on the royal throne. I am informed she was dining, when her uncle walked in and snatched the royal canopy from over her. I hope the Lady Mary is merciful to her. She is fond of young people, she even nurtured a fondness for Elizabeth, and she was the daughter of her mother’s hated rival … but this is treason, a far more serious crime than weaknesses of the flesh.

“Queen Mary is now on her way to London to take up the reins of power”, said my informant.

I was very quick to notice that he referred to her as Queen Mary, not Lady Mary. The Queen has been dethroned, long live the Queen.

“What will happen to Lady Jane now?” I asked.

“That is in God’s hands Your Grace”, he said “All we can do is pray for her immortal soul”.

Those were not reassuring words. But the brutal truth is, how could Mary let her live? However innocent she was, Lady Jane was involved in a treasonous plot to seize her throne. Short of locking her up forever behind convent walls, it is hard to see what can be done with her.

That poor child.

I offered him a goblet of my own home-brewed beer before he left. He complimented me on it, and I said how much I had grown to love English beer since living here. We dutifully gave a toast to the new Queen, and then sat in the darkened, stuffy room, mulling in companionable silence over the future.

“I think we shall all be Roman Catholics from now on, Your Grace”, were his final words as he left.

Those who wish to survive must bend with the times. It has ever been thus. Fortunately, I believe God is above such man-made matters as religion.

5.

A few days later I sent Queen Mary a letter of congratulation on the news of her betrothal to Prince Philip of Spain. It was impossible not to be reminded of my own life at this point. Here she was, pledging herself to a man from a foreign land whom she had never met. But there the similarities ended. Whereas I came to England with an open mind, and grew to love Henry as a man, my informants told me that the Queen seemed to have convinced herself she was already in love with Philip. She had fallen for him drastically. I say drastically, because on Philip’s side I suspect this marriage will be for entirely political reasons. I fear our new Queen will have her heart broken if she doesn’t rationalise her feelings for this Spanish prince she has never met.

She is a mature woman who has seen much sorrow and trouble. She is a woman of courage and intelligence. And yet at heart, in emotional matters, I fear she is still a child. Royal through-and-through she may be, but it doesn’t make her immune to follies of the heart.

Mary rode into London in triumph. How happy she must have been. The people were showing their love for her. This poor woman who had received so little love in her life. The usurpers had been jailed, and the rightful Queen was taking her place. God is in His Heaven, all is right with the world. The natural order of things had been restored.

I never had a Coronation, but I can fully imagine how exciting it must be to plan for one, and the preparations are well under way for Mary’s, which is to be held in the Autumn. I fear she isn’t getting much joy from her time of joy and miracles though. Her choice of bridegroom is already provoking a backlash. The English do not like foreigners, they want an English husband for her. They particularly do not like the Spanish. They only took Queen Katharine of Aragon to their hearts because she was such a good woman, and so dreadfully wronged. I fear her daughter is making a dreadful mistake she will live to regret.

I am a foreigner too, but the English tolerate me. Like Spanish Katherine, they see me as wronged and humiliated by their ruthless King Hal. Plus I always try to be a good mistress of my household. I treat my servants with kindness and generosity, and they reward me with their devotion and loyal service. I think more than that though they know I would rather be here than anywhere else. Discarded Queen I may be, but I have a better life here than I would ever have by returning to Germany. Here I am free to do as I please. And freedom means more than anything else. I answer to no one. I worry that Mary, soon-to-be anointed Queen she may be, will never know such contentment. Her husband will arrive on these shores and take over. She will be a downtrodden wife, and she will lose the love and respect of her people.

6.

Oh the Coronation was such a joyous event, as all Coronations should be! The dear Queen invited me to ride in the procession, sharing a carriage with the Princess Elizabeth. It was so magical to hear the shouts and cries of the people as we trundled past. The flame-haired Elizabeth, the living image of her magnificent father, and I, his only surviving bride. I hope Spanish Katherine was there in spirit to see her daughter’s long-awaited triumph.

As for Mary, oh dear I do not think she enjoyed it as much as she should have been. She is a very serious-minded person, unable to take her eye off the big picture for any length of time. At times I saw flashes of annoyance cross her frowning little visage. Did she guess that so many eyes were on her young and beautiful half-sister? She would have had to have been blind not to have seen it. I know how these simple and sentimental people are. Elizabeth looked every inch a royal lady. Her flowing red hair, worn long to her waist, so like her notorious mother’s. Tall, slim, elegant, beautifully dressed. Every inch what a queen should be.

Whereas poor Mary. Short, stout, ageing fast, her red hair liberally threaded with grey, her bustling walk – like a housewife on her way to market – and her gruff voice. She looked more like a weather-beaten farmer’s wife got up in costly clothes and jewels. I can see what the public are thinking. It doesn’t take very much insight when all is said and done, not when you have lived both at the centre and the fringes of Court life as I have done. They are thinking: she is too old to have a baby, or too old to have a healthy baby. We will be left with another sickly spawn, if that. How much these Tudors promise, and how little they deliver.

And the Prince when he arrives. He will look from one sister to the other. At the one he is supposed to marry, and the one he cannot have … yet. I know full well the fickleness of royal princes. Perhaps no one knows it better than me. Poor poor Mary.

7.

My feelings and concerns for Mary have counted for nothing. Another Summer has rolled round and I am in virtual banishment, even at my country estate. Poor Mary, in her intense paranoia, accuses me of being in collusion with the Princess Elizabeth, of plotting to overthrow her and put the Princess in her place. I long to go to her and tell her her fears are groundless. I have absolutely no wish to meddle in politics. But I know she will not believe her. Mary believes what she wants to believe, however painful it is for her.

Not for one moment must I forget that she is a Tudor sovereign. They are highly ruthless. Her own father once had someone boiled alive whom he suspected of plotting against him. Much as my instinct may be to go and comfort this poor, lonely, deluded woman, I cannot. She could order my arrest on the spot. I too would find myself in that dreadful Tower. Poor little Lady Jane was beheaded only a few months ago. That poor, pathetic child, fumbling blindfolded for the executioner’s block on a cold, February morning.

The country is holding its breath, I can feel it. These are not good times. Everyone is slowly waking up and realising they are under the reign of a bitterly unhappy woman, who puts her religion first, and who is pinning all her future happiness on a man who is wholly unworthy of such devotion. As my housekeeper has been heard to mutter, when she thinks I can’t hear, “things will get worse before they get better”. Some are already looking ahead to the day when the Princess Elizabeth will ride in triumph to take her place on the throne of England.

It is a great sadness to me that I doubt I will live to see that day. I feel something malignant has settled in my body, and it will eventually eat me alive. All I ask now is that I be allowed to live out my days in peace in the English countryside. I pray nightly for the soul of the late King. I long one day to join him again, and be his loyal companion. How I miss his jovial company. If only others could have seen him as I did. For one brief moment I saw the vulnerable little boy underneath that magnificent exterior. He so wanted me not to cause trouble, “to go quietly” as the expression is. I did, and his gratitude was boundless. If only others would learn that too. When you play with fire you get burnt. The glittering prizes everyone wants to snatch at often come with such a heavy cost.

So I will live out my days quietly, perhaps in this castle haunted by my fascinating, witch-like predecessor. I will stroll in the rose garden where she flirted with that incredible man I grew to love. And I will hope desperately that his daughter Mary will eventually forget I exist. Sometimes there are far worse things than to be forgotten.

THE END

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