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Copyright 2002 by Karen Harper
Other distinctions and difference I leave to the learned Physicians of our London College, who are very well able to search this matter, as a thing far above my reach . . . none fitter than the learned Physicians of the College of London.
September 25, 1562
Queen Elizabeth was mounted and waiting. She shaded her eyes and waved up at the parapet of Whitehall Palace where Kat Ashley was taking her first constitutional walk in the ten days since Dr. Burcote had cured her fever.
Kat smiled wanly and waved back. The old woman's recovery would have ordinarily been enough to make the royal spirits soar, but Elizabeth Tudor was en route to visit the Royal College of Physicians in the City. She was even less pleased with them than she had been ten days ago when she had needed them and they were gone. For since then, they had begged off a royal visittwice.
"A lovely day for an outing." Mary Sidney nearly sang the words as her brother, Robert Dudley, whom they both affectionately called Robin, helped her mount directly behind the queen. Ever the optimist, Mary was quite as pretty as she was pleasant, though that lighthearted humor ill suited the queen today.
Her Majesty heard a rumbling noise and glanced behind. Boonen, her coachman, was bringing up her round-topped, wooden and leather coach, pulled by the eight matched white mules. Though a ride in it over ruts or cobbles could shake the teeth out of one's head, Elizabeth's use of the three coaches she had ordered had set a new trend.
This one, her oldest, was upholstered inside with black velvetembossed with gold and outside was richly gilded. Like all of them, it was adorned with ostrich plumes. The effect of the equipage was exactly the awe she wanted, though folk had finally stopped calling it The Monster. She had not wanted to ride in it on the way today, but perhaps it would do for her return if the weather changed or the visit was as trying as she expected. She could, of course, have summoned the College fellows here, but she had wanted to beard the lions in their own den and see exactly what prey they had been hunting lately.
After all, that pride of lions was lorded over by two men who did not wish her well. Peter Pascal, their past president, gossip said, had never forgiven a personal tragedy for which he blamed the Tudors. When the Catholic Church was cast from England, her royal father had ordered Pascal's beloved mentor, Sir Thomas More, imprisoned and beheaded. Some said Great Henry could have saved More, but was angry with his former friend for censuring the king's conscience.
Elizabeth felt that Sir Thomas and others were legally judged guilty only for their refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy. This act granted Henry and his heirsespecially, at that time, the newborn Protestant Princess Elizabeth for whose mother the Catholic Church was dissolvedthe right to head both the kingdom and the new Church of England.
But all that was before the torrent crashed over the mill dam: Anne Boleyn beheaded, Elizabeth declared bastard, and four other stepmothers paraded through her young life. Elizabeth could grasp bitterness over someone beloved being beheaded, but she was not to be blamed for what her father had done or for being Protestant either. She was willing to let men, even Papists like Pascal, follow their consciences as long as they didn't rock the royal ship of state.
But of even more immediate concern was the eminent physician John Caius, the current president of the college. Also an ardent Papist, he had never forgiven Elizabeth for dismissing him from his lucrative, prestigious post as court physician when she came to the throne four years ago. But it was precisely the fact that he had served their Catholic majesties, Queen Mary and the Spanish King Philip, so assiduously that made her mistrust the man.
Actually, she didn't approve of Pascal's and Caius's actions any more than they did hers. Though both were learned men, she felt they had their feet mired in the past. Surely new methods and remedies were needed to fight disease today, not old physick. Yes, those two heading the Royal College of Physicians needed a close watch as she urged them to lead England's struggle against common workaday disease and the tragedy of random, sweeping pestilence.
"Isn't it just a splendid day, Your Grace?" Mary's sweet voice repeated as if Elizabeth had not heard her the first time. Her hand on the pommel, the queen shifted slightly in her sidesaddle to see her friend better.
"The weather, my dear Mary, might as well have storm clouds after the learned doctors delayed this meeting twice," Elizabeth groused. "Delayed meeting with me."
"I understand, Your Majesty," Robin put in, looking up at her, "that they had an official convocation in Cambridge, then must needs go on to Oxford. And the second time they petitioned for a stay, their messenger said it was to be certain their premises were pristine for your perusal."
"As if they had something to tidy up or hide," she added ominously.
He flashed a smile as he took her reins from a groom, patted her white stallion's flank, and tried another tack. "It is true that they overvalue their power and always have, Your Grace."
"Indeed," she replied crisply, tugging the reins from his big, brown hands, "for I have known others to do such and pay the price." With a narrow look at him, she spurred her horse before he could mount his.
Others fell quickly into their appointed places in the royal retinue. Usually the queen traveled by river barge but she was a splendid horsewoman. She always felt more in control when mounted than encased in a coach. Yet armed guards with swords circumspectly sheathed rode ahead of and behind her.
Only two ladies-in-waiting accompanied her today, Mary Sidney and Anne Carey, the latter wed to her dear cousin Harry Carey, Baron Hunsdon. Two men rode her flanks, Robin, her Master of the Horse, who scrambled to catch up, and, because she always felt safer when he was at her side, a man of no rank but in her lofty regard, her long-time protector, Stephen Jenks. If any of the horses balked, a mere look or touch from Jenks would calm them. With the carriage rattling over cobbles behind their mounts, they clattered out of the King Street Gate into the busy flow of London foot, cart, and horse traffic.
The queen gave but a quick glance back at the white towers and glittering, bannered pinnacles of the palace that symbolized the Tudor monarchy. Kat still stood on the parapet of sprawling, rose-bricked Whitehall, the queen's official London seat. Its twenty-four acres stretched between two main east-west thoroughfares of her capital, the broad River Thames and this passageway cutting through Whitehall's grounds. The latter was called King's Street, or more simply The Street. Though the city was awash with people, it was good to be away from the overly ambitious, watchful two thousand hopefuls who always jostled each other for place and position around her. In bright sun and crisp breeze, she waved to the common folk.
"Give way! Uncap there, knaves! Give access to the queen's majesty!" her first two guards began to shout in repetition. When her people heard the cry or glimpsed the queen herself, they parted like the sea. Men hoisted boys on their shoulders to see better; maids waved scarves or hats; old women peered from second- or third-story windows. The faces of her people turned and tilted toward their queen like flowers to the sun. It was always that way, and her love flowed back to them.
"God save Yer Grace! Long live our good queen, Bess Tudor!" and a hundred other jumbled cries assailed her ears. Ordinarily, that was enough to buoy her up; today it only slightly sweetened her sour humor.
But the shops and taverns did have their doors ajar. She caught glimpses of the wares within. Sometimes she wondered what it would be like to stroll the streets and peek in with no one noticing, to be simply English and not the English queen. Once, when she had Meg Milligrew in her household, she had planned to do just that, for the girl resembled her and, on a whim, she had thought to change places with her for a brief hour. But that was tomfoolery and best put away like so much else. Nothing mattered but being a good queen and a strong one. And commoner to courtier, ignorant carter to learned physician, the folk of her realm had best realize she meant to rule and not just reign.
As the queen's party turned into the long, broad street called the Strand, Elizabeth averted her eyes from the apothecary shop that Sarah Wilton, alias Meg Milligrew, her former Strewing Herb Mistress of the Privy Chamber, managed. She worked it with her husband, Ben Wilton, once a bargeman who now lorded it over the shop, the lazy lout. Through Ned Topside, the queen's fool and principal player, and two other sources of town gossip, Bett and Gil Sharpe, Elizabeth knew Meg's fate. But Meg had misled her queen about being wed. Worse, she had dared to pass herself off as the queen without permission and had even forged her royal signature.
Her Majesty always looked straight ahead as she passed, even when she knew Meg stood in her door, because she could not bear to look into her eyes or admit she had sent the girl away too hastily. God forgive her, she'd far rather trust Meg than her own treason-tainted cousins, Katherine Grey and Margaret Douglas, who coveted her throne.
Katherine was currently confined to the Tower on the other side of town that also housed Margaret's dangerous Scottish husband, Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox. Margaret, who favored Mary, Queen of Scots, for the English throne, was herself under house arrest with her son, Lord Darnley, at Sir Richard Sackville's home at Sheen. Her Royal Majesty was not backing down from dealing with anyone who challenged or defied her.
"Don't see MegI mean Sarahtoday, Your Majesty," Jenks called to her. "She's always hanging out the door or window when you go by. Seen her on boats in the Thames when the royal barge passes too. But look, there's Bett waving!"
"Leave off," Elizabeth said without letting her gaze waver. "I don't give a fig if you and Ned visit the shop, but do not try to cozen me into taking her back."
"But I din't mean"
"Ride ahead and tell the eminent doctors that their queen is on her way and she has much to say."
Her stomach knotted with churning emotions, Sarah Wilton watched and waited. Cocking her head, she listened too. Ah, there was the distant clatter of a goodly number of horses' hooves. Huzzahs came closer, echoing in the narrow, crooked streets of the City, the heart of London within the old walls and gates. She tugged her hood closer about her face, then gripped her hands tightly under her russet cloak. The queen was coming.
As the entourage and its crowd spilled into the end of Knightrider Street, Sarah stepped back into the narrow mouth of an alley so she would not be seen by the palace folk or the robed and flat-capped physicians who were slowly filing outside their ornately facaded guildhall. Their large, four-storied, black-and-white framed building was a place the barber surgeons and apothecaries of London knew all too well, but she wondered exactly why the queen was visiting today.
Sarah, who still always thought of herself as Meg Milligrew no matter what her husband or the others called her, reckoned she knew most things about the queen, even those that had happened the last two years since she'd been sent away in disgrace from royal service. And one thing Meg Milligrew knew was that Elizabeth of England seldom made purely social visits, not that clever queen.
Pressing herself against the plaster wall, Meg peeked around the corner as the noisy rabble filled the street. She picked out the queen's one-time favorite, Lord Robin Dudley, and skimmed the queen's retainers for Her Grace's Secretary of State, the wily William Cecil. Fortunately, he wasn't here, because not much escaped his eyes. Then Meg saw, in the center of it all, Elizabeth.
Meg's skin prickled, and her mouth went dry. Her Grace looked fine as evermaybe a bit thinner, if that was possiblebut Meg could read vexation in the clenched set of the high, pale brow and purse of the narrow lips. Aye, Bess Tudor was here a purpose for more than reveling in public adoration or a pleasant chat with the chief doctors of her realm. Meg could see Elizabeth's dark eyes assessing the small cluster of cloaked and befurred master physicians before she intentionally turned away from their set smiles to wave again with a slender, gloved hand to the crowd. The people responded as if she'd caressed them, the dolts, for Meg, like Lord Robin, knew well that royal affection lavished one day could languish the next.
Under her dark blue riding cloak, the queen wore another new gown Meg hadn't seen, a dark green brocade edged with sable that set off the gleam of her red-gold hair peeking out from her feathered hat. Her Grace's detested summer freckles still looked faded. Mayhap she was yet using the tansy and buttermilk face wash Meg had suggested when Elizabeth was but a princess and lived in exile.
"But four short years ago," Meg whispered as a shiver raced up her spine. She clasped her hands and glared as those blackguards who were Fellows of the Royal College bowed to the queen and gestured for her to come inside. They were always trying to rule Meg'sand all apothecaries' liveswith their dictums and pronouncements. An apothecary could even go to prison for hinting a particular medicinal cure would work, for they wanted every farthing for their own purses for giving prescriptions.
Physicians' cooks, the carping, complaining jackanapes were fond of calling those of her profession, and they treated women the worst of all. And neither the Company of Barber-Surgeons nor the Guild of Grocers, Apothecaries, and Spicers were getting visits from the queen!
"But then, I'll never get to visit with her again." Meg spit out the words, suddenly more angry than sorry for herself as the queen dismounted and went inside. "Tender and terrible, the worst, cold, cruel, and unforgiving . . ."
"Eh, you talking 'bout our queen?" a blue-coated apprentice behind her demanded so loud she jumped. He had come down the alley but now rounded on her. "Who you be, darin' talk 'bout our queen?"