Excerpt from Chapter One
HENRY TUDOR STRADDLED THE hearth in the private audience chamber at Greenwich. Sunlight streaming through a richly colored oriel window emphasized the splendor of his huge body and red-gold beard against the wide arch of the stone fireplace behind him. He was in a vile temper. The huddle of statesmen yapping their importunities at him from a respectful distance might have been a pack of half-cowed curs baiting an angry bull. They were trying to persuade him to take a fourth wife. And because for once he was being driven into matrimony by diplomacy and not desire, he scowled at all their suggestions.
"Who are these two princesses of Cleves?" he wanted to know. That didn't sound too hopeful for the latest project of the Protestant Party. But Thomas Cromwell hadn't pushed his way from struggling lawyer to Chancellor of England without daring sometimes to pit his own obstinacy against the King's.
"Their young brother rules over the independent duchies of Cleves, Guelderland, Juliers and Hainault," he reported. "And we are assured that the Dowager Duchess has brought them up in strict Dutch fashion."
Henry thought they sounded deadly, and he was well aware that their late father's Lutheran fervor was of far more value in Cromwell's eyes than the domestic virtues of their mother.
"Those Flemish girls are all alike, dowdy and humor less," he muttered, puffing out his lips. The audience chamber overlooked the gardens and the river, and from where he stood he could hear sudden gusts of laughter from the terrace below. He thought he recognized the voices of two of his late wife's flightiest maids-of-honor.
Only yesterday he had heard his dour Chancellor rating them for playing shuttlecock so near the royal apartments. And because he was having his own knuckles rapped-although much more obsequiously-he snickered sympathetically.
"And if I must marry again," he added, "an English girl would be more amusing." It was growing warm as the morning wore on and a bumble bee beat its body persistently against the lattice. But Cromwell was a born taskmaster. "Your Grace has already-er-tried two," he pointed out, looking down his pugnacious nose.
"Well?" demanded Henry, dangerously.
Naturally, no one present had the temerity to mention that Anne Boleyn had not been a success or to gall his recent bereavement by referring to the fact that Jane Seymour had died in childbirth.
"It is felt that a foreign alliance-like your Majesty's first marriage with Catherine of Aragon-," began the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had obligingly helped to get rid of her. Marillac, the French ambassador, backed him up quickly, seeing an opportunity to do some spade work for his own country. "Your Grace has always found our French women piquantes," he reminded the widowed King, although everybody must have known that Archbishop Cranmer had not meant another Catholic queen. Henry turned to him with relief. Like most bullies, he really preferred the people who stood up to him. He didn't mean to be impatient and irritable so that men jumped or cowered whenever he addressed them. He had always prided himself on being accessible. "Bluff King Hal," peo ple had called him. And secretly he had loved it. Why, not so very long ago he used to sit in this very room-he and Catherine-with Mary, his young sister, and Charles Brandon, his friend-planning pageants and encouraging poets ...
"Your Majesty has but to choose any eligible lady in my country and King Francis will be honored to negotiate with her parents on your behalf," the ambassador was urging, with a wealth of Latin gesture which made the rest of the argumentative assembly look stupid.
"I know, I know, my dear Marillac," said Henry, drag ging himself from his reminiscent mood to their importunities. "And weeks ago I dictated a letter asking that three of the most promising of them might be sent to Calais for me to choose from. But nothing appears to have been done." He slewed his thickening body round toward his unfortunate secretary with a movement that had all the vindictiveness of a snook, and Wriothesley-conscious of his own diligence in the matter-made a protesting gesture with his ugly hands.
"The letter was sent, your Grace. But, I beg you to consider, Sir, your proposal was impossible!"
"Impossible!" Henry Tudor rapped out the word with all the arrogance of an upstart dynasty that has made itself despotic.
"Monsieur Marillac has just received the French King's reply," murmured Cranmer.
"And what does he say?" asked Henry.
Seeing that the prelate had forced his hand and thereby spoiled his bid for another Catholic alliance, Marillac reluctantly drew the letter from his scented dispatch case. After all, he was not Henry's subject and his neck was safe. "He says that it would tax his chivalry too far to ask ladies of noble blood to allow themselves to be trotted out on approval like so many horses at a fair!" he reported verbatim. And many a man present had to hide a grin, envying him his immunity. Henry gulped back a hot retort, reddening and blinking his sandy lashes in the way he did when he knew himself to be in the wrong. There had been a time, before that bitch Nan Boleyn had blunted his susceptibilities about women's feelings, when he would have been the first to agree with Francis. Mary, his favorite sister, had been alive then, keeping him kind. Lord, how he missed her! He sighed, considering how good it was for a man to have a sister-some woman who gave the refining intimacy of her mind in a relationship that had nothing to do with sex. Someone who understood one's foibles and even bullied back sometimes, affectionately. Mary would have said in her gay, irrepressible way, "Don't be a mule, Henry! You know very well those stuffy old statesmen are right, so you might just as well do what they want without arguing." But even if they were right, and he did, it wasn't as simple as all that, he thought ruefully. For, after all, whatever foreign woman they might wish onto him, it was he who would have to live with her.