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
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.