Tag Archives: henry viii

Bedtime Story

There was once a king who, when he was about to be married, summoned all of his carpenters and decorators to gather around him in a single, expectant battalion. He wanted them to use all of their skills and dainty armaments to build a marriage bed. And he wanted it to be decorated exclusively in pearl. He wanted it to be rich and rare, chaste and pure – as pure as his young bride.

The king was Henry VIII, and he was in love. Not politically, physically or intellectually in love – but foolishly and blindly…a doomed emotion, short-lived yet fraught with danger. The year was 1540: he was nearly fifty, and his bride-to-be was eighteen. Her name was Catherine – soft and curved, stupid and immodest, madcap and pathetic.

Catherine - an unconfirmed portrait, however

Catherine – an unconfirmed portrait, however

Her king was fat and clumsy, with suppurating legs which kept him immobile and irritable. He was over a foot taller than Catherine, and at their wedding ceremony stood next to her like a reeking colossus.

Yet court witnesses all attest to his inelegant caresses and embraces: he would crush her to him like a fragile bouquet, pink and white, petals undamaged: and upon releasing her was himself unharmed – she was indeed his ‘blushing rose without a thorn’.

He gave her jewels and enameled beads tipped with gold; gowns of twilight-colored silks and amber brocades. He gave her French hoods which perched saucily on the back of her head, revealing a daring view of forehead and hair. And he gave her a glowing, pelagic bed.

It flourished in the evening, a shining lake as translucent and pale as a saucer of milk. It was so pale that the moon, as curious as a cat, hovered low on the horizon to look at this reflection, this simulated echo. And when the inquisitive moonlight spread across the earth, it embraced the nacreous ornamentation as well, to create a radiance that was depthless and alive.

However, it wasn’t long before the King began to retire alone to his personal chambers – whether drunk, incapacitated with overeating or dulled with pain: he was no fit occupant for the dainty bed. And soon after, courtiers, whose only job was to lurk and listen, would hear the queen’s tiny hands open the door to welcome a new resident.

Eventually Henry found out about his flower’s guilty and treacherous secret. And when he did, Henry VIII – the proud, feared behemoth – broke into tears. He then gathered his wits to order her immediate execution. At one point he picked up his own sword and threatened to exact the punishment himself.

But he allowed the cruel laws of the 16th century to progress. Adultery and treason coiled into a single deadly helix with only one penalty: another queen was to be beheaded. (Catherine’s cousin was Anne Boleyn – they were buried in the same unmarked grave.)

She died early in the morning, in February 1542. She knelt in front of the block, her neck showing white against the wood, dark and scored by the marks of earlier condemnations. Courtiers and advisors had assembled, as well as ambassadors and spies who would write accounts for their masters, scattered across Europe.

Very few of them were sad. But in the distance, the moon, which would not be setting for another hour, watched with pity the little girl who each night had laid like a pearl in her oyster bed.

There is no other record of the pearl bed. It could have been sold, forgotten. It could have been destroyed, so that no memory of the shameless queen and the king’s humiliation would remain. But perhaps there came a night when the moon decided to linger before floating upwards like a ship through the twilight currents. And within that winsome pause she decided to embrace the lonely nacre to her, so that they could journey together – leaving only a pile of abandoned quilts and splintered wood behind.

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The Superlative Horse

I began reading the stories of J.D. Salinger when I was about 14 years old.  I suspect that I started with “Nine Stories” as around that time my creative writing teacher had read to us “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.  The book delighted me and I worked my way through the Salinger canon with great speed.

I remember every detail, every word…but I also recall another story. Or perhaps it was a legend, or a myth, or history.  Or maybe it was a fable – for the reading of it taught me a lesson which stays with me today.  The story was called ‘The Superlative Horse’.  It was used at the beginning of ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour:  An Introduction.”

It begins with Duke Mu of Chin commenting to Po Lo, “You are now advanced in years. Is there any Member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?”   The answer he receives is in the negative; but he has a friend, who can procure for the Duke a truly superlative horse “one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks”.  The judgment of his sons lies on a far different, inferior plane.  The friend, “a hawker of fuel and vegetables” is dispatched on his quest.  Eventually word gets back to the Duke that his horse has been found, a dun-colored mare.

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But when the animal is sent for, it turned out to be a stallion – as black as coal.

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In a fury, the Duke sends for Po Lo to complain of the friend’s ineptitude.  On hearing this Po Lo, responds, “There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external.”  And when the horse finally arrived, “it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal”. It is a strangely moving text: a few paragraphs of prose that softly tread the fragrant waters of poetry.  The arrangement is silken, and before you are even aware, it has been committed to memory.

What Salinger had done was take nearly word for word, with a few variations, a work from “The Huainanzi”, a compilation of Chinese philosophical essays from the 2nd century BC.  It was an anthology of learned debates between the Prince of Huainan and the guests and scholars of his court.  Elegant reprimands, gentle reminders, evocative lessons, all paced as delicately as a ballet.  And the story of the depthless superlative horse contained each graceful virtue.

Emperors, Kings, Sultans, Caliphs…all men with a penchant for power and beauty at one time or another sought for themselves a superlative horse.  Before he became a weighty torment to the backs of his draft horses and Friesians, Henry VIII was one of the most polished and exquisite riders of his generation.

He was considered one of the most beautiful and accomplished princes in Europe.  He had spent his childhood sequestered with books and now this slim, long-limbed king only wanted to dance, sing, hunt, wrestle…and ride.  One man who saw him on horseback described him as “Saint George in person”. It quickly became known amongst foreign ambassadors currying favor for their masters that the quickest way to earn the love of the new king was to bring him a gift of a superlative horse.

Henry VIII and Brandon-Portsmouth 1548

His stables were populated with the sleek, muscular breeds of Europe and the desert: barbs, neopolitans, jennets, andalusians.  Every new creature was fawned over:  noble profiles praised as effusively as the marble busts of philosophers. Even the sickle of white that showed in impatient eyes was a sign of spirit – a mount fit for a king.

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Henry was skilled in the art of dressage, a classical – and highly rarefied – art of riding, in which the steps had the contained grace achieved by only the most robust of pairings.   He took his horses through the capriole, regarded as one of the most difficult of the “airs above the ground”, in which the horse jumps straight into the air, kicking out with its hind legs, before landing on all four legs at the same time. It is difficult to imagine the traditional image of Henry VIII – crude, monstrous – once possessing the intuition and soft hands necessary for such a delicate sport.   There are reports from witnesses of kingly rider and mount performing this art for more than two hours.  And when one horse was exhausted, Henry would send for another.

He recruited the finest riding masters: from Naples, Ferrara and Mantua. He followed the Italian practice of training a horse to seek the rider’s “cherishing”, rather than fearing his spurs. To correct, Henry would exclaim, “Ha traitor! Ha villain!”. To praise he would say, sotto voce, “Holla, holla, so boy, there boy”, stroking their necks with fingers that had not yet become uncouth or pudgy.

In 1514, the Marquis of Mantua sent Henry a gift of horses, among them a shining, strapping bay named Governatore. Momentarily stunned by the animal’s magnificence, he touched the bay’s lissome neck, murmuring, “So ho, my minion”. He asked its trainer, “Is not this the best horse?”

And somewhere amongst the clouds, in a blissful firmament of dreams and wisdom, Duke Mu agreed that it was a superlative horse indeed.

 

 

“Idyll Poesies”

The illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages were some of the most precious remnants of that complicated time.  With spines and covers bristling with jewels and costly metals, they were the cherished toys of the aristocracy.

When opened, the pages crackled; jeweled hands smoothed the sheets of vellum and parchment and fingers – barely visible beneath golden rings and lace cuffs –  traced over the stolid, Gothic script. Stars of gold leaf were scattered across skies of ultramarine:  the most valuable of colors, made from crushed lapis lazuli obtained from Afghanistan. Flamboyant initial letters introduced stories of religion:  of blood, wars, kings, whores and hermits – of unspeakable violence and sublime peace.

Surrounding these narratives like a garland were living margins, populated with a bestiary of creatures, balanced on filigrees of pen strokes, peering from forests of color and wonder.  They rustled in the leaves as each page was turned.  Many of these border-animals were taken from reality – products of the new explorations and explanations:  the bright reasoning that came as the renaissance warmed the minds of the thinkers of the 14th century.

Some, clearly were not.

Drolleries – mad products of an artist’s fancy – appeared side-by-side with their more earthly relations.  They combined dragons with elephants, chickens with dogs, men with snails – or turned the natural world upside down, with tournaments that included sword-bearing hares, with cats reading to mice…anything that might appeal to the imagination of a bored scribe.

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Some writers resorted to words to express their very worldly sentiments: “New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.”  “As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.”  “Oh, my hand.”

These manuscripts remained popular until the 16th century; they were still in use, but had lost some of the incandescence of their predecessors.  The combination of reality, rarity and eccentricity was gone.  But still, there would be the occasional scribe who would plant a thought in the bower that surrounded the block of dour text.

In the early Tudor court of the 1530’s, Anne Boleyn was the new Queen.  Pregnant at her coronation, she was due to give birth, to disappoint her husband with a daughter.   During these times, it was Henry VIII’s habit to ignore his expectant wives, and instead to eye their ladies-in-waiting, who shone with a new delectability when compared to their temporarily ponderous mistresses.

Within Anne’s copse of ladies was a cousin of hers:  one who quickly gained a reputation for sprightliness and spirit, for youth, audacity…and dimples.  Her name was Mary (or Madge – one of the indicators of Tudor calligraphy was the similarity between ‘g’ and ‘y’.  Most historians consider both names to refer to the same lady) Shelton – here was another “fresh young damsel, that could trip and go.” – as a poet had once written of Anne herself.

414px-Mary,_Lady_Heveningham,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Mary became the King’s mistress (there was even a rumor in 1538 that she might be the next Queen), their relationship lasted about six months:  not an overlong stay in the bedchamber, but long enough to infuriate the Queen.

In addition to being light and frivolous, Mary was highly literate and had many like-minded friends at court.  She found an outlet for her irrepressible creativity, writing scraps of poetry in the margins of her prayer books.  Like the beasts of the manuscripts from centuries ago, they loitered in the borderlands, telling stories of their authors more memorable than the original text.

Anne scolded her errant maid for her ‘idyll poesies’.  But Mary had another project in hand.

The Devonshire Manuscript, was a collection of verse of the 1530’s and 1540’s, compiled primarily by Mary, Mary Howard, and Lady Margaret Douglas.  Included were original compositions, transcriptions and fragments – the majority composed by Sir Thomas Wyatt.  But the ladies contributed as well.  Mary wrote a sad little poem that ends hopefully:

“bot wan I hawe got that I hawe mest/I shal regoys among the rest”

(“but when I have got that I have missed/I shall rejoice among the rest”)

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Another begins:

“my ywtheffol days ar past  (my youthful days are past)
my plesant erese ar gon  (my pleasant years are gone)
my lyffe yt dothe bot wast  (my life it doth but waste)
my grawe and I hame wan”  (my grave and I are one)

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A poem by Thomas Wyatt, “Suffryng in sorow in hope to attain”, has an unsentimental codicil in Mary’s hand:

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“ondesyard sarwes  (undesired service)
reqwer no hyar”  (requires no hire)

In the margin of the previous page – very faintly – can be seen Margaret Douglas’ comment, “fforget thys,” to which Mary had countered:  “yt ys worthy”.  The borders were still lively country.

All these writings indicate that here was a lady of education, creativity and even ambition:  to graduate from ‘idyll poesies’ to writings that became part of what has since been called “the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry and of the literary activities of 16th-century women.”[

Playful Mary was one of the brightest lights of Henry VIII’s court.  There were many such lights – and when they went out, nothing remained – save for a courtier’s infatuated memory of a pretty face or a white neck.  But Mary knew enough not to keep her words and emotions hidden.  Either crouched behind formidable devotions or holding their own in a manuscript her thoughts became a part of history and of a warmth that will be felt forever.

 

What Did She See?

The life of Anne Boleyn is well-known – her lethal fame, the circumstances of her downfall; her public death:  the French sword, her bloody denouement.  Her queenly career is well-known: bearing the brunt of England’s hatred, riding to her coronation through a rain of spittle and jeers.  Her husband is well-known:  broad and muscular, red and gold, marbled with fat – a royal butcher.  Henry VIII was still young, and for a while had hopes that his dark wife would bear him a son.

And Anne did bear him a child – but a girl.  And she is well-known, too.  Pale and angular, with intellectual energies burning her into a skeleton, Elizabeth grew to be a brilliant ruler, a devastating opponent, a maddening personality.  But that would be in the future.  When she lay at Anne’s side, flushed and swaddled, she was only a disappointment.

The face of Anne Bolen is well-known:  the eyes as feral and dangerous as a jungle, the currents of black hair that flowed down her back like a thick, depthless river, the skin that her admirers called ‘olive’ and her detractors described as ‘jaundiced’.

Her career was infamous – tantalizing, tormenting and teen-aged, a spirited girl moving with ease through the predatory courts of Francis I and Henry VIII.  Without shame, and full of spirit, amongst the young men she was the stuff of legend.

Anne’s death is known to all – the first ‘beheaded’ in the old litany of Henry’s wives: ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’.  Her request for a sword, a blade with would swipe quickly through her neck.  The moment when she grasped her neck between her hands, telling her handlers that she had ‘but a little neck’.  Her hair piled in careful cords by her ladies, so as not to impede the headsman’s work.

These images are familiar.  But they are still things that are read, stationary visions framed by words in a book.  There is nothing that makes the miraculous leap from page to heart.  There is nothing that will place Anne Boleyn within the warmth, the closeness of your mind.

Sometimes it is a small thing that will bring a distant tragedy, to brilliant, thrilling life.

Witnesses to Anne’s beheading say that before she knelt before the block, she repeatedly looked behind her.  A simple act – but something that can be shared; it is something we all do, not a thing only relegated to a doomed queen.

What did she see?  What did she hear?  Did she hear her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, in the crowds?  Did she see him – the glint of his chain of office?  Did she think she heard a messenger – perhaps with the king’s reprieve?  Did she hear the soft weeping of her ladies?

And suddenly, at the end of her life, Anne Boleyn suddenly comes alive.  And we are suddenly near her, pressed against the scaffold, holding handkerchiefs aloft, reading to catch the blood of a tragic, misjudged queen.

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The King’s Noble Stomacke

Youth is an envied commodity, it seems.  Look how jealously it is held on to; how desperately it is pursued…how the grasping fingerprints still show on its soft skin.

This wasn’t always the case.  Photographs and portraits provide galleries of children and teenagers dressed as adults – diminutive and unprepared. Frog-like, they have blithely leapt over their childhood; landing instead in a marketplace built out of society’s expectations.

History has long portrayed these defeated children.  Crinolines, hoops and farthingales trying in vain to balance on undeveloped hips.  Greatcoats that are too great, after all.  Tiny silk slippers and tight polished boots.  Corsets that punish soft bones:  their crossed laces creating a pattern of misery on thin backs.  We see the faces of distant youth, impervious and set:   profiles of extinguished rebellion.

What hope was there for the mutinous child?  What prospect was there for the young adult brave enough to be witty – that volatile combination of audacity and intelligence?

In 1538 Christina of Denmark was 17 years old and already a widow – she had been wearing her smothering ‘weeds’ for two years.  The Duke of Milan had proposed marriage to her when she was only eleven – her guardian, Charles V, not only agreed to the match but also to its immediate consummation.  His sister, Mary of Hungary – a strong and moral woman – was able to delay the wedding until Christina was thirteen.

In 1533, a portrait was done of the bride-to-be, no doubt to be rushed to the groom before the paint had completely dried.  Christina is seen in a three-quarter profile, taking advantage of her curving brow, the soft landscape of her neck and mouth.  She is dressed in a gown of quiet midnight; her hair scraped from view beneath her cap – no madcap tresses, no scintillating curls to tickle the skin unbidden.  She is shown reading a book – an obvious symbol of her careful education – yet it seems that at any moment the charming, red mouth will flutter into a smile and the lids rise to reveal eyes full of childish confidences.  She has been carefully posed, yet she has the attitude of a mischievous Madonna.

A Wise Child

Five years later, another portrait of Christina was painted.  Henry VIII had been on a marriage hiatus for almost a year and needed a new wife.  His third wife, Jane Seymour had done the unexpected – given birth to a male heir – but had also done the expected, dying as a result of her three days of labor.

Hans Holbein’s portrait of Christina reveals a face of barely subdued dimples, of restrained amusement.  She is wearing black, standing in a shadowy room:  her white hands bloom against the dark like soft flowers.

The Merry Widow

In her eyes there is a demure twinkle; a cleverness that kept her informed of events happening beyond her realm. And it is with that same spark that she commented to the English ambassador:  “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”  The ambassador, Thomas Wriothesley, no doubt thinking the outspoken girl deserved a good beating, commented to the King’s minister that their master should; “fyxe his most noble stomacke in some such other place.”

Christina is an example of the extraordinary child – the spirit that would battle her way into adulthood on her own terms.  In any century, there was hope for the honest child, the strong woman.  But that hope was rare, a prickly star few could hold on to.  But for the majority, there were only vanquished dreams, and a life to be spent staring into the starry sky.

My Lady Carey

The 16th century was full of music, a packet of jewels that sparkled with a metallic radiance, their facets an alchemy of wonder and spliced colors.  Galliards, pavans, madrigals, motets, rondeaus, bergerettes…ethereal rhythms that decorated the foggy skin of history.

The exotic, feminine names say it all.  But there is one that stands outside this musical fairy ring:  dompe…a dour word, it means lament, or dirge.  It possibly comes from the French “tombeau” (lament), or the German “dumpf” (dull or dazed).  But ultimately its source is a mystery:  an etymological curiosity.  

Most of these laments have been forgotten.  But there is one, written in the mid 1520’s, famous enough to be included in the echelon of the very best of Renaissance minstrelsy.  It is called ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  Its tune is golden and complex – its threads twisting like the helix of a DNA.   Moving with Byzantine grace, it is a filigree that curls through the air.

So – what was Lady Carey’s lament?  In the shadows of the court, amidst perfume and dogs, pearls and plague…why did she grieve? She was bold, pretty and shallow.  She was given to pursuing pleasure using her dark eyes and charming stupidity as her weapons.  Her name was Mary.  And she collected kings.

In 1514, at the age of 15, she arrived at the French court as maid of honor to Mary Tudor – the future, and very unwilling, bride of King Louis XII (Louis was nearly four times her age; he died three months after their wedding).  Even though the Queen Dowager left for England shortly thereafter, Mary stayed in Paris and before 1519 became the mistress of Louis’ son, King Francis I.  Her voluptuous reputation was already established; Francis himself referred to her as an ‘English Mare’ and ‘infamous above all’.

My Lady

In 1519 she returned to England, as maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon.  In 1520 she married Sir William Carey – handsome, athletic, a distinguished art collector. 

Carey

On that happy day they were proud to receive a special guest:  King Henry VIII.  In a year it was only she who was receiving King Henry – ever a victim to the type of girl who would flirt even on her own wedding day.

 
Their affair lasted five years, a hidden event full of whispered logistics and secret arrangements.  The two children born to her might have been her husband’s, they might have been future princes.  By 1526 she had lost the king’s affections to a darker, sharper girl:  her sister, Anne Boleyn.  Mary’s lazy charms had only created a man yearning for a quick wit.

And in 1526 an anonymous, sympathetic composer wrote ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’.  In her sloe-eyed, languid way, Mary accepted the intricate tune – so unsuited to the subject – as she took affection, gifts, her ill fame:  unthinking and willingly.

In 1527 she  became  sister to a Queen.  In 1528 she was a widow – ignored and in debt.

Mary married again in 1534 – to a soldier, William Stafford.  Anne was furious that her sister had chosen to marry without her permission, and beneath her station.  Her place on the throne was a shaky one, and she could not afford to be related to a commoner.  In two years Anne would be dead.

Disowned by her family, Mary’s financial situation became so desperate that she resorted to begging the King’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, to speak to Henry and Anne on her behalf.  What she told him could have been set to her own lament:  “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom.  And I believe verily…he would not forsake me to be a king.”

False Daphne

I have a favorite radio station.  It's not local.  It comes from quite a distance, over many miles and many years.  It's called 'Ancient FM' – All Ancient, All The Time.  I'm listening to it now, to something sad and dour, with a vielle maybe, a pipe, a solitary drum – slow and Byzantine; impossibly lovely.

The playlist doesn't go beyond the late 17th century:  the songs are in Italian, French, Spanish, German.  Originally played by minstrels traveling over border and bower, or by professional musicians of the glittering and stinking courts, they tell stories of war, romance, betrayal, loss.

 

I know no language other than the one I'm using now – so when I hear a song from England, I listen with special care.  But unused to the intonations and rhythms of 500 years ago, I only catch an occasional word or phrase:  woe, summer, silk dress, she stands, spinet, good companye.

Once I caught a very telling phrase:  "false Daphne".  I don't recall any other words, but I can guess at the story.  I know Daphne, namesake of she who fled from Apollo.  I know her delights, her youthful shamelessness.  I know that she was a rude sprite – an urchin dressed in velvet and slashed sleeves; the tips of her prancing shoes just visible beneath her brocades and skirts.

The song seemed to date from the early 16th century – so Daphne, or the memory that inspired her creator, was fair and foolish amongst the many pretty ones that were bold in the court of Henry VIII.  Daphne was not a child beaten into a pastel modesty.  Instead she was bright and wild, wise beyond her inexperience, with a charm that would drive an admirer to such distraction that he would write a song of torment for her.

I was reminded of this song, as I thought about Daphne and her cruelty:

"And I were a maiden
As any one is
For all the gold in England
I would not do amiss

And I were a wanton wench
Of twelve years of age
These courtiers with their amours
They kindled my courage

And when I was come to
The age of fifteen year
In all this land, neither free nor bond
Methought I had no peer"
– Anonymous, 1510

Flirts were younger then.  Trailing their adolescence behind them like a tantalizing ribbon, they wound a complicated dance amongst the hungry gallants, quickly past their outstretched hands.  They stayed only briefly – until the smiles hardened, and the eyes became serious.

Daphne would marry:  against her will; she did not retire happily – but matrimony could very well have saved her.  She would hide her hair under her cap, put away her pins, keep her dangerous eyes lowered.  But she would think of the handful of years when she was peerless; when she had the cleverness to be false, and therefore safe.

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The King’s Coat

"King Jamie hath made a vow,
Keepe it well if he may:
That he will be at lovely London
Upon Saint James his day"

Flodden Field is a grim, soaked name:  soaked in rain, soaked in blood.  The name is dark with lowering clouds, heavy against a gangrenous sky of gray and green.  It is without warmth, save for the life forces absorbed into the parasitic ground as the great men lay dying.  It is a name without horizon; a killing field symbolizing Scotland's shame and despair.

In 1513, King Henry VIII was in France.  He rode arched Friesian horses into his small battles,  feeling their muscular spirits through his hands and legs.  He wore suits of armor tattooed with gems so audacious that they made the sun look away in a fit of pique.  His tents were thick with tapestries; animals, a frozen heraldic population, stared from within their embroidered forests.  Local girls ran out with wild, scented garlands in their hands to take a look at the young and beautiful English king.

He left his wife at home.

Queen Katherine was made regent in the king's absence.  Symbolically, the cold and knight-errant island was hers.  But although she was mild and devout, a pale nun in cold velvet, there were fires lurking inside her.  Isabella of Castile was her mother:  leader of the Spanish Inquisition, a warrior against the Jews and Muslims; fearless, intolerant, brilliant.  It was her blood that warmed her daughter's pallid faith.

When it became known in Scotland that the king of England was away to France, James IV – linguist, scientist, builder, adulterer – raised his head from his mistress' breast to listen. 

The 'Auld Alliance' with France, nearly 250 years old, had to be honored.  England was ripe for invasion.  So, despite his queen's protestations and precognitive dreams, a massive army – with an arrogance as heavy as the armor on their backs – was assembled.

Queen Margaret begged him not to go to war with her brother.

"Then bespake good Queene Margaret,
The teares fell from her eye:
'Leave off these warres, most noble King,
Keep your fidelitie.'"

Flodden Field is located in Northumberland, the darkest and saddest of English counties.  The two armies met there in October 1513, behind a mourning veil of rain that beaded on the blades of swords like bold crystals.  Katherine wisely named the Earl of Surrey – 70 years old, memories of past battles stitched into his skin – as the commander of her army.  James, yearning for a chivalry which never existed, led his own army.  Overcome by foolish courage, he galloped beneath the royal standard of Scotland, a blood-red lion that roared in dismay.

The result was a famous English victory, at the cost of 1,500 men.  But the flat, blank field was suddenly mountainous with 10,000 Scottish corpses, and somewhere amongst them lay James IV, punished for his futile dreams.

His torn and bloody coat was sent to Katherine, who proudly had it delivered to her husband.  No one knows what Henry thought as he ran the shattered cloth through his fingers.  It is doubtful that he felt any guilt for his widowed sister, mourning far away from home.

"That day made many a fatherlesse child,
And many a widow poore,
And many a Scottish gay lady
Sate weeping in her bower."

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“She Hath Done Wondrous Naughty!”

Look at her.  She once had a name, until historians took that name away, and she merely became 'An Unknown Lady'.  Now I have just read that her name has been restored to her.  This – finally – is the serious, oddly demure portrait of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII's friskiest, stupidest wife.

This painting is like a letter from home, assuring the teacher that the student had behaved well during her absence.  Her hands fold like a solemn promise.  Her lids are heavy – subduing eyes that once dazzled and dared.  Now those eyes obediently stare into intermediate space, non-committal, haughty and bored.

Her features are thick:  if you could run your hands over her face they would encounter broad plains, unsubtle angles, sudden heights and buried orbits of bone.  The strap of her French Hood is buried in her soft, fleshy chin.  Even though she was a Howard, an ancient name mired in wars, acreages, castles and the pride that came from a history of avarice, her face is more like that of a knowing peasant girl.

And yet she was a queen when this portrait was painted.  Her face looks detached from her black gown; an unsettling example of painterly premonition.  Streams of gold embroidery run in thick currents down her sleeves, ending in a white froth of starched cuffs.  Though Henry gave all the jewels he had to his 'rose without a thorn', she only wears a few ornaments – a golden cord around her neck, chips of rubies shining like spots of blood.  The neck of the bodice is nothing but a quiet, modest declaration of femininity.

It is a humble costume for a woman who has perhaps sensed her demise.

No one is quite sure when she was born – the years vary, from 1520 to 1525.  She spent her childhood at Lambeth Palace, red-bricked and stolid, shrouded by the fumes of Lambeth Marsh.  Her upbringing was casual, offering no bridle or punishment for a girl who, by all accounts, was a libertine before her fifteenth birthday.  She had an affair with her music teacher in 1536, when she was between the ages of eleven and fifteen.  Two years later she and the household secretary became lovers.

But by 1540 she was at court, a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, the poor hausfrau whose idea of marriage was a kiss in the morning and one more at night.  The court openly mocked this queen with her clumsy gowns and awkward innocence.

The marriage was dissolved, and in two weeks Catherine was queen.  In two years she was dead, the blood from her gaping neck seeping into the grass of Tower Green, joining the blood of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, long dried and linked with the earth.

Catherine had come to the king claiming to be chaste.  She had committed adultery with Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry's courtiers (her scrawled love letter to him was discovered in her chambers).  She had brought the lovers of her youth to work in her royal household, an act of stupid bravado, possibly to order and torment these takers of her young body, these men who had corrupted her childhood.  (Though she was more than willing.)  They were all arrested on charges of treasonable acts.

Culpepper, as a gentleman, was permitted to die as one, and was beheaded.  The two others, a mere teacher and secretary, were reminded of their low birth by the executioner's axe, wielded like a butcher's knife, as it disembowled, slashed and then divided their bodies into quarters.  Before death silenced them, they might have found the breath to curse themselves, to curse the king and to curse the girl who had tempted them.  Their streaming remains were displayed throughout the city, turning London into a human abbatoir.

Some say she still lives – that her ghost can be heard screaming in the halls of Hampton Court, that her gray, clammy hands still beat on the doors, still trying to beg her husband's forgiveness.  A shadow that claws at freedom, that shatters its fingernails as it tries to hold onto the precipice, that dislocates limbs and splinters tendons before it is forced to let go and fall into despair.

A song from earlier in Henry's reign – some say it was written by him – reminds me of Catherine:  bold, spirited, long hair separating like rivers in the wind as she danced the galliard, cloth of gold glinting in the candlelight, being passed from partner to partner:

"And I was a maydyn
As many one is
For all the golde in Englalnd
I wold not do amysse

When I was a wanton wench of
Twelve yere of age,
These courtiers with there amours
They kindled my courage

When I was come to
The age of fifteen yere
In all this land, neither free nor bond,
Methought I had no peer" 

 

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The First One

She was born in Madrid, amongst hushed duennas and modest women.  Her parents expelled the Jews from Spain.  Her mother was the patroness of Christopher Columbus.  Her father was the 'cunning fox' so admired by Machiavelli.  Her sister was mad, refusing to abandon the rotten, cholera-ridden body of her dead husband.  She grew up against the scarlet agonies of the Inquisition.  She came to England when she was barely sixteen, the bride-to-be for a King.

The next year, in 1502, she lost her husband to the 'sweate'.  She watched him, soothed him, pressed a damp handkerchief to his temples to absorb the thick, stinking sweat.  She prayed.

This portrait was painted at about this time.  A widowed cherub, with gaze lowered and focused on worries she was too young to name.  Thoughtful, she eyed an unfair fate that mocked her and gamboled at her feet.

Her weeds are black and plum; her chains are simple weaves, and scallops – emblems of the pilgrims of St. James – bite the square shoreline of her bodice.

For seven years, she waited.  She wandered the palace, ignored by her distant parents, a shadow to her father-in-law.  He and his advisors were too busy grooming the golden lion who was growing into adulthood in their midst.  They had plans for him; they imagined a marriage with a princess whose veins would tangle Europe like vines, drenching countries in their royal sap.  A sad princess, already used, was not good enough. 

In 1509, it was time for another son to be crowned.  And this Spanish princess – despite, or possibly because of, palace politics – was the chosen bride.  On June 11, Katherine of Aragon was wedded to Henry VIII.  Witnesses noted her thick hair, a river of melted bronze shot with gold, pouring down her back.  Her plump oval face, pink and white, agreed happily with the English vision of healthy womanhood:  innocent, yet of good child-bearing stock.

She was the first, and she had him at his best.  He was fit, virile, slim, athletic.  He still had his shy ways:  his childhood was a sheltered one and he trod carefully on the words of his tutors as if each syllable was an eggshell.  He was optimistic and careless.  He was a handsome boy.  And she was in love.

But he grew up.  Power drove her heel into his neck and taught him the ways of cruelty, impatience and greed.  She stood in the way of…so many things.  But she would not move:  her core of resolve was an alloy of steel buried in the meek earth.  Quietly, she kept Anne Boleyn listening at the keyhole.  She was the silent figurehead around whom the people rallied: against the king, his new religion and his filthy mistress.  The Vatican was in awe – she was exotic, she was fearsome:  she was honest.

But honesty does not breed kings.  Her babies died, one after the other, except for one daughter.  And this child, in time, would suffer too.

And when Katherine lay dying, she was alone once more, even denied communication with her daughter.  Did she think of her years as a young widow, a living ghost in dusty velvet?  Maybe all she remembered was her final letter to her husband – the words hanging before her eyes like curtains – that ended with a vow of shattering devotion:

"Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things."

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