‘THIS IS YOUR fault, Mistress Elizabeth More!’
I poked my sister awake in the great bed we shared and she smiled at me, her eyes full of sleep and contentment. ‘For the sake of your stupid marriage we must vacate the house today that they may sweeten it.’ I imitated the haughty tones of my grandmother. ‘ “I will not have the county’s nobility hold their noses while they relieve themselves in my privy.” So thanks to you, Bett, they are to empty the house of offices and strew herbs and fresh rushes on every floor.’
‘Has Father forgiven me for wanting the marriage here and not in London where Queen Elizabeth might attend?’ Bett reached out her hand and gently pushed a strand of my busy auburn curls back inside my cap. They will never stay there.
I laughed. ‘Oh, he agreed soon enough when Grandfather offered to charge the wedding to his own expense.’
My father, though plentifully rich, is apt to be careful with his money.
Looking across at my sister’s lovely face, which I have woken up to see each morning of my life, I felt a sudden sadness swooping down upon me. She is the one, since our mother’s loss when I was but a maid of tender years, whom I have held closest to my heart.
And yet by temperament we are like distant continents. While I am fire and air, ever ready to argue and dispute when I should be humble, my dearest Bett is earth and water. She is as calm as a chapel in the stillness of the day, and her eyes hold that same clear brightness of sunlight on the sea. And she is so kind! While my temper is tried by the smallest trifle—the bread with our daily soup being hard, pricking my finger on a needle, my grandmother’s eternal chivvying—Bett is ever sweet and smiling. And when Frances, our youngest sister, although but ten years old, drives me to distraction with her tidying and sermonizing, Bett tells me that it is Frances, not I, who is the model for a good Christian wife and I must hold my peace.
Marriage holds no fears for Bett. She cares nothing that her betrothed, Sir John, is portly and pompous, and that he wants a wife more for her dowry and her docility than her sweetness or her spirit. It does not stir Bett to anger, as it does me, that daughters can be bought and bargained over like cows at a market place, and that the first questions before any betrothal are how large is the marriage portion and how advantageous is the settlement. These things are natural, according to my lady grandmother. What is not natural is love.
My grandmother says love cools, leaving nothing but a burned-out pot that others must clean. Perhaps Bett will be happy then with her husband, who cares more for hawking and hunting than for the joys of a new bride.
The house beneath us began to stir. It was Sunday so there would be no morning prayers, since we go to church. The servants were already stowing away the pallets they had slept on in the Great Hall and lighting the fire before all must leave for worship. Soon the whole house would be busy. Sometimes, I think, with fifty servants, not to mention we five, and passing guests who must be given a bed, there is no nook or cranny in my grandfather’s house where it is possible to be alone.
Even in bed.
As I thought of Bett’s marriage I wondered for a moment what it would be like to climb beneath the covers with a man whose eyes were afire not with thoughts of dowries or of marriage negotiations but with love and desire, and I felt suddenly stirred. Across the pillow Bett looked at me.
‘What a strange smile, Ann. As if you had tasted a ripe peach from our grandfather’s hot house and the juice was running down your chin.’
I laughed in shyness at the accuracy of her words. ‘What will I do when you have left me, Bett?’
‘You will come often to Camois Court and visit me. It is not so far away. Half a day’s ride, no more, on your sturdy old cob.’
‘Half a day! That sounds like half an eternity!’
I pulled back the curtains of the bed, our private world, as pale light filtered into the big, cold room. We are fortunate, I know, to have our own chamber. Sometimes, when the house is full, five or six must be accommodated here, often sharing a bed with a stranger, the visiting servants abed in the passageways or sleeping on truckles with their master or mistress.
The old manor house of Loseley, near Guildford in the county of Surrey, was built by my great-grandfather, Sir Christopher More, and my grandfather inherited it. My grandfather might have gone on dwelling there, since it was a solid old house, if somewhat lacking in luxuries, but Queen Elizabeth chided him. He needed a fine new house, she said, so that she might come and stay with him on one of her summer progresses.
Queen Elizabeth’s subjects do not need to be told her wishes twice. So my grandfather, Sir William More, built a fine new house using the stone from nearby Waverley Abbey, a Cistercian monastery before the Dissolution. Being a careful man he supervised the building himself at cost of £1,640 19s and 7d and still has the account books to prove it. Yet I think my grandfather regretted his largesse when the Queen and all her retinue of servants and courtiers, three hundred in all, with more than a hundred cartloads of belongings, even with their own hangings and furniture lest ours was not good enough, came to stay three times more. Some gentlemen, I have heard tell, were made bankrupt by the Queen’s visits, with all the food and fine wine her followers insisted upon, and the masques that had to be performed, the musicians provided, and all at the host’s own expense. And each time she came the Queen insisted my grandfather remove us, his family, to another place and lay straw along the roads so that her coach would not jolt her uncomfortably. He must needs take with him, she commanded, any female servant, since she liked not the whiny voices of women. Even when my grandfather pleaded illness the Queen ignored him and moved in anyway, telling him that Loseley must be left cleaner than the last time.
The house, long and wide, with many great chimneys, is faced with twenty-two loads of stone that have been quarried in nearby Guildford then cut in half, and has pillars built of rock from Hascome Hill. It has three storeys, the lowest of which houses the Great Hall, withdrawing chamber and my grandfather’s library, as well as kitchens, pantries and scullery. Above are the bedchambers, looking out over rolling pasture, and on the highest floor are quarters for the servants and less important guests. It is a plain house compared to some newer, showier mansions, more glass than wall, built by ambitious upstarts who have prospered under the Queen, but my grandfather says it has a quiet and distinguished air as befits a gentleman’s abode.
As my grandmother reminds us often, we are privileged to live in a house with fine furniture, warm wainscoting on the walls, which has been carved by master carvers, and rich tapestries to keep the wind from whistling through any cracks in the stonework.
Loseley has a great green parkland all round it, with deer nibbling at the grass—when they are not the quarry of my brother Robert’s hunting—and a kitchen garden behind leading back to a moat and stewpond, where fish are kept for the table. There is even said to be a secret passage to the cellars which we all hunted for as children, yet never found.
Bett and I dressed hurriedly, helping each other to lace up our stomachers and to tie our sleeves to our gowns, glad they were made of the fine wool of England. Prudence, our tire-woman, had laid out bread and small beer that we might break our fast. After a last check in the glass above the press I went and looked for my grandmother.
I have always lived in this house, yet my father, George More, lives not here with us which some consider strange. The truth is, he cannot get on with his father, our grandfather, for he wishes to have his own way in the running of the place, yet my grandfather feels himself to be still master here. ‘The trouble with the Mores,’ my father once said sharply under his breath, ‘is that they live too damned long.’
When our mother died he married swiftly again, and with his new wife’s money built another mansion nearby at Baynard’s. He took our brother Robert, his heir, to live with him but left us five girls here at Loseley with our grandparents, Sir William and the lady Margaret.
I love my grandparents staunchly, but I was sore hurt by this election. I knew it was much to do with my father’s new wife, Constance, a shrewish woman who wanted children of her own to replace us in our father’s affections. ‘For who would want a great brood of daughters cluttering up the hall?’ we heard her ask her guests on more than one occasion. To which my eldest sister Mary, who is elemented with fire even more than I, remarked, ‘And who would want a stepmother who is as soft and appealing as the sow of a boar?’
I must confess to kneeling by my bed and imploring God who is our Saviour to send my stepmother only female children, and to my great, though possibly impious, satisfaction he has sent her none at all. So my brother Robert remains sole heir.
Perhaps to assuage his guilt at our abandonment, and to Constance’s great anger and resentment, our father set aside the profits of several rents and leases to be used by my grandfather solely for the advancement and education of myself and my four sisters. Since my grandfather is a learned man, equally at home with the works of Seneca or Aristotle, he has tried to pass his learning on to us, feeble women though we are.
I cannot help but smile at our differing responses. My sister Mary, the eldest of us, was an apt pupil, quickly learning to speak in French and Italian, though fonder of reading the love poems of the troubadours than the history of the Roman Empire. My sister Margaret simply sighed and stated there was no rhyme or reason why a woman should wish to know any tongue but her own, and that she would rather learn the skills of my grandmother in the herb garden or the cook in the kitchen. My beloved Bett tried to listen, but her mind was ever wandering to the sunshine outside, or the sound of the birds singing. My sister Frances was too young for schooling, and so happily sewed her samplers, choosing the worthiest mottoes she could find.
That left myself. And I was different from the rest. I felt for all the world like a plant that had been withering away and was given a sudden dose of water and sunshine, so that I bloomed and bloomed. Indeed, I worked so hard at my lessons that my grandmother had to stop me, telling me I would lose my eyesight, or acquire a brain fever. Normally a dutiful wife, my grandmother castigated her husband for creating a strange freakish thing—a woman too educated for her own good. ‘For what man,’ she asked him angrily, ‘will want a wife who can quote philosophers yet her servants run idle and her meats burn in the fire?’
My grandfather listened, for my grandmother, when roused, is a fearsome lady. Indeed, I once heard a groom of the Great Chamber say her face was like to a statue carved from granite and that the sternness of her lips made him think of the general of an army. And yet, beneath all, there is a kindness she seeks hard to conceal. After that I was forbidden to study after the hour of three in the afternoon.
I walked down to the Great Hall, a fine large room with windows running from floor to ceiling looking out over the park. The windows are adorned in stained glass with the More coat of arms so that when the slanting sun shines through them, a light like rubies and emeralds plays on the wood of the floor. My favourite piece of glass, no more than four or five inches long, shows a lord and lady sitting at the table in their great hall, eating. It is like a tiny world in miniature of our own. It must have made the artisan who fashioned it laugh to think there would be two tables and two sets of lords and ladies eating in this room, the Mores, and these tiny creations caught in glass.
On all the wainscoted walls fine family portraits look down upon us. The floor in this room is wooden, strewn with fresh rushes thrice a week. A busy fire roars next to a likeness of King Edward, the boy King, and a vast candleholder, already blazing with light at this early hour, hangs from the dark beams, lighting up a fine plaster ceiling. By the great front door we could hear a loud commotion announcing that my father has arrived and is already in hot debate with my grandfather. It made me remember what a good scheme it had been that they lived not together in the same house.
‘Greetings, Father,’ I saluted him. Even when he is riding out in Surrey, twenty-five miles from the Court or Parliament, my father likes to dress according to his rank. His doublet is of black velvet, adorned with wide runnels of gold thread, his hose are elaborately worked in a similar pattern, and these are topped with a wide black hat which, like most gentlemen, he keeps on even during meals. He would argue that he has a position to keep up, as a member of Parliament and a busy local official.
‘Ann. Good morrow.’ Piercing grey eyes shone out from a long but fine-featured face with a wisp of moustache and a pale, gingery beard. It was my father’s habit to decry men with full beards, yet I know secretly he envied the dashing square-cut beard of the Earl of Essex, still the idol of the age to most, though his standing with the Queen seems to change like a weathercock depending on news of the campaigning abroad. ‘Are your sisters yet arrived?’
‘No, Father. I had thought the sound of your horse might be their approach.’
‘Your sister Mary is no doubt in two minds which of her jewels to dazzle us with,’ my father answered rudely, ‘when I know that husband of hers has not two angels to rub together. That young man has been a severe disappointment to me. He may have expectations, but expectations can be empty as a rattling gourd unless they lead to wealth and power. Any jewels she wears will have been borrowed against three times over.’ I felt a moment’s sorrow for Mary, who thought she would indeed impress us rustics with her displays of finery, not knowing my father would have unmasked her so completely.
Mary’s husband, Nicholas Throckmorton, comes from a good family but had the misfortune to be a younger son. He does, though, have connections, his sister Bess being married to Sir Walter Ralegh. And connections, in these days when advancement rests on the good word of one in power for another, were hard currency. It was his connections that had persuaded my father to agree to Mary’s marriage. But as yet, to my father’s violent choler, no advantage to our family had been forthcoming. In fact, Nicholas had made the severe error of asking my father to lend him money.
The most noticeable thing about my father is his height. Or rather, lack of it. When my grandfather and father stand side by side it is hard to see that they are father and son. My father is so small of stature that he can never stand pall-bearer at funerals lest the coffin slip untimely into the grave. Yet he is forever ready to fire up if he thinks himself the victim of a slight, while my grandfather, who is taller and thickset, with eyes that are kind yet sharp, and a long white beard, forked at the tip as is the fashion, seems to possess all the calmness of God the Father, if that be not blasphemous, and much of his patience. Which is needed often when dealing with my father. My grandfather was not always so calm. In his youth, I have heard, he turned against the Romish religion which he had followed and became a fierce scourge of all the Papists, who rightly feared him.
Now they fell to discussing whether to add swags of herbs and red berries to the carved ceiling of the Great Hall for Bett’s marriage feast.
‘Yes, yes,’ insisted my father, ‘you need some colour to cheer up the gloom of this great old-fashioned cavern. If we were at my home we could feast in the gallery. I cannot believe, Father,’ he shook his head in amazement, ‘how you can do without a gallery and that you dine still in this hall, with all the servants, and have no privacy for discourse or witty conversation. At Baynard’s we have given up dining in the hall for a comfortable dining chamber and have the upstairs gallery where we can walk and talk while the sun streams in and warms us all year round.’
I could see my grandfather wrestled with telling him to go back to his treasured Baynard’s and be done with it. ‘I do not need to eat privately from my servants,’ Grandfather informed him. ‘My servants are part of my family and will always be so. Next you will be advocating the groom of my bedchamber no longer sleeps outside my door or that, for the sake of privacy, I lead not the household in prayers thrice a day. I am the head of the house and such traditions are important to me, as they ought to be to you.’
My father, with his usual tact, ignored him. ‘Comfort’s the thing nowadays, Father. We don’t have to live like beasts of the field or poor peasant farmers. Take those great hard beds of yours. You should replace them all with feather mattresses.’
‘Forget your feather beds,’ Grandfather replied, containing his anger with difficulty. ‘In my father’s day they slept on straw pallets with covers of dogswain or hopharlots, and a good round log under their head instead of a pillow. A pillow was only for women in childbed. If he had acquired a mattress after seven years of marriage a man thought himself well set up. Not like your bed, eh, George?’ This was a subject of some delicacy since my father had spent a deal of Constance’s money on the bedchamber. Grandfather smiled slyly to himself. ‘I hear yours is topped with a gilded coronet and seven plumes of egrets’ feathers like the Queen’s. A good thing the sumptuary laws regulate clothing and not the lavishness of the bedchamber, eh?’
All around us in the Great Hall servants scurried, weighed down with armloads of cloths, silver chargers and pewter trenchers, candlesticks and silver plate, and a vast Turkey carpet to lay upon the great table at one end of the room for the wedding feast.
‘You will never fit all the guests in here,’ announced my father with a hint of satisfaction.
‘Why, Father,’ I almost asked, ‘perhaps we should be holding the wedding feast at Baynard’s instead?’ But I held my peace. My father expects respect from his daughters and it is not worth risking my sister’s happiness by challenging him.
‘Which is why we have five tents being erected outside in the park,’ answered my grandfather shortly. ‘Each decorated with painted hangings from Italy as Great Harry used in his tents on the battlefield. The musicians will play in one and the masque is to be performed in another.’
A sudden wailing from outside the scullery made us all turn to see what was amiss. As well as the sweetening of the floors and privies, today is the day my grandmother has appointed as washday for the great tablecloths needed for the wedding feast, and for the small towel each guest will place over his shoulder or arm to wipe his hands during the meal.
Miriam, one of the washer maids, was standing next to the great buck tubs, made of half-barrels, cradling her face and crying because my grandmother has just boxed her ears. ‘The stupid girl has forgotten to empty the piss-pot into the ley,’ accused my grandmother, pointing to the tubs where the cloths had been carefully folded with sticks supporting each layer so that water may filter through. ‘How does she expect us to shift these stains without the aid of urine? Silly girl! Do you think we keep the piss for our own pleasure, to sniff at it like some posy?’
Miriam cowered in the corner. ‘Go and find fresh piss from one of the bedchambers and bring it to me direct. I will supervise the next wash since you have not the wits to do it. One more mistake and I will send you home to your farm where you can break your back picking turnips and lay your stupid head down in the midden instead of on a clean straw pallet in a gentleman’s house!’
My father, bored by household drama, spied my sister Bett, who had just come downstairs to assist us.
‘Ah, here is Elizabeth, our comely bride.’ He turned to me. ‘A shame that you did not inherit your mother’s beauty, Ann, as Elizabeth has.’
Excerpted from The Lady And The Poet by .
Copyright 2009 by Maeve Haran.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.