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THE trumpets sounded a brilliant fanfare, the shrill high notes soon lost in the bright April air, and the jousts began.
It was my wedding day, I was fifteen years old and quite content to be marrying the dauphin Francis, the boy prince I had known since we were both very small children. The elaborate, lengthy wedding mass at last over, the jousting to celebrate it was about to begin. Francis and I sat together under the roof of the wooden spectators’ pavilion overlooking the tiltyard, watching as the armored jousters rode in one by one, the crowd cheering and clapping for each.
Francis and I stood, and clapped with the others, but I stooped a little, for I was so much taller than my new husband that it was embarrassing. I was much admired in my lace-trimmed gown of ivory silk, my long reddish hair coiled like a crown on top of my head, my throat wreathed in diamonds, a long rope of large pearls dangling from my belt to the hem of my gown. My new father-in-law King Henry called me his "petite reinette," his little queen, and said that I was the loveliest child he had ever seen. Only I was no longer a child, I was far too tall for that, and growing taller every day. While my new husband Francis, poor boy, was pathetically stunted in his growth, quite the runt of his parents’ royal litter.
The cheering grew louder as King Henry rode into view, magnificent in his gleaming armor of chased silver, his metal helmet with its tall waving white plume, his long lance pointed upward.
I looked over at Francis, and saw that his small face was pale, slightly greenish. He appeared bilious. Knowing him as well as I did, I was aware that uncomfortable situations always made him nauseous. He was very uncomfortable now, aware that those seated near us were nudging each other and tittering, murmuring to one another that he was a coward.
The king had announced that Francis would join in the jousting, but at the last minute Francis had become frightened and fled to the spectators’ pavilion, humiliated and miserable. I felt sure that he knew, better than anyone, how futile it would be for him to take the field against the older, stronger competitors, how he would have difficulty couching the heavy lance, aiming at his opponent’s helmet (he was squeamish about hurting anyone or any thing), how if struck himself he would fall heavily from the horse and might well be trampled.
"Fight, boy, fight!" his father was always shouting at him. "How can you be a king if you can’t even be a man?"
But he couldn’t help his size, or the fact that he was cursed with a slight, weak body or that he was a poor athlete quick to tremble and run when chased by an opponent. I felt protective toward him—I was two years older after all—and had always defended him, ever since we were children together. I was still defending him on our wedding day, glaring at those around us who were smirking and making insulting comments and wishing, as we stood up there in the pavilion, that I had worn slippers rather than shoes so that the difference in our heights would not be so obvious.
With a thunder of hooves the king rode down the length of the narrow tiltyard, making us all gasp in admiration. He took up his position at the far end, away from us. We could see his splendid mount tossing its head and skittering and shying nervously, waiting for his full speed and power to be unleashed. The challenger now rode toward the near end of the long corridor of combat, his armor too shining in the sunlight and his charger strong and full of spirit and power.
King and challenger faced one another, the grooms who had been holding the horses loosing their hold and scurrying away. Drums rolled. Another fanfare sounded. Then, as Francis reached for my hand and we both held our breath, the jousters rode at breakneck speed toward one another, lances lowered and pointed at one another’s heads.
There was a sickening thwack as the king’s lance struck the challenger’s visor, shattering into a dozen pieces, and the hapless challenger fell over sideways off his horse.
Grooms rushed to the armor-clad figure lying prone and tried to revive him. When they failed, he was dragged off out of sight and the earth was quickly raked to evenness where he had lain. It all happened so fast that I could almost believe I had imagined it—except for the red stain in the brown earth, and the deep tracks leading off toward the stables.
I looked at Francis, and saw that his pallor had increased. He looked ill. Was he about to throw up?
I reached for my handkerchief. If the worst happens, I thought, I will cover his mouth with my handkerchief. Maybe only those in the very front of the crowd will notice.
At that moment I heard my new mother-in-law’s low, syrupy voice.
"If you spew," she said in Francis’s ear, leaning down from where she sat behind us, "I swear I’ll turn your head into a boiled cabbage."
At this Francis seemed to straighten up a little.
"Courage!" I whispered to him. "Only five challengers more."
"Leave me be!" he said sharply, both to his mother and to me. I felt relieved. He was irritated. His irritation would preoccupy him, I felt sure, and would prevent him from disgracing himself by being sick.
My mother-in-law the queen, Catherine de Medicis, now leaned over me.
"That’s the way, little reinette," she said with a smile. Her round, jowly face had the heaviness, her leathery, pockmarked cheeks the roughness of a peasant woman in the marketplace. Her small dark eyes were shrewd. "Encourage him! He will need all his courage tonight."
I knew very well what she meant. It was widely rumored that my husband was impotent. There were no pregnant serving girls claiming to be carrying his baby, as was often the case (so I was told) with princes. Francis was timid with everyone, even the serving girls, and seemed to shrink from the grown men and women around him.
I heard another voice, a much more welcome one, and turned to see that my grandmother Antoinette de Guise was coming to sit beside the queen, shooing away one of the latter’s attendants with a wave of one beringed hand and settling her ample self on the cushioned bench.
"I doubt that the prince will accomplish much in the bedroom tonight," she remarked.
"Hush, grandmamma! There is already too much talk of these very personal matters!" I knew I sounded prim, and regretted it, but the truth was, I shared my grandmother’s views. Yet I wanted to be loyal to Francis.
"I pray that we will be worthy to bring sons into the world for the honor of Scotland and France," I said stoutly, at which Grandmamma Antoinette lifted her fan to her mouth and made a sound that was somewhere between a sneeze and a snort.
"We must all pray for that," Queen Catherine added immediately, and when I turned to look at her I saw a gleam—was it a gleam of avarice?—in her small eyes. It was the same gleam I had seen on the morning I signed my marriage treaties several days earlier. On that morning, after Francis and I had signed our names on the documents prepared by the court lawyers, the queen had drawn me aside. She had shown me other documents, secret ones, which my mother had prepared without telling me. What these documents said was that, if Francis and I had no children, Scotland would belong to France.
Young as I was, I understood quite well what was at stake in our marriage. Francis and I had to have a son, if possible several sons. It was vital. Scotland’s future was at risk. I did not doubt that I was strong and vigorous enough to become a mother. But could he become a father? My household physician, Dr. Bourgoing, thought so, and I trusted his opinion.
How I wished, at that moment, that my own mother could be with us, watching the wedding joust. My widowed mother Marie, who was Queen Dowager of Scotland and who continued to live among the disorderly, treacherous Scots—yes, that is what they were!—in an effort to preserve some sort of harmony and peace among them. How I missed her! I had not seen her in so long, not since her last visit to France when I was seven years old. If I closed my eyes I could see her dear face, hear her voice.
She was a Frenchwoman, she belonged among us. Like Grandmamma Antoinette, she had the royal blood of the Bourbons in her veins.
The spectators were stirring loudly to life once again as a fresh challenger came riding against the king. Once again there came a thunder of hooves, a clashing of lances, and although the king took a blow to his shoulder, his opponent was unhorsed and fell heavily.
On through the afternoon the king continued to be victorious, tiring four mounts and shattering many lances. He seemed invincible. Only the challenger, a tall, burly knight who smashed his lance into the king’s chest and a second one into his helmet, appeared to offer real opposition. But in the end the king struck a disabling blow and the man went down.
Francis, sitting quietly beside me, began to sniff and wipe his nose on his sleeve. His attention wandered from the tiltyard.
"Only a few minutes more," I said to him. "Then the banquet will begin."
"I’m not hungry," he whispered. "I want to leave."
"We can’t leave. Not until the prize of arms is awarded."
At last twilight began to descend and the king, triumphant, came forward to receive the prize, to the applause and cheers of the onlookers. Francis and I stood, paying him homage as the undefeated champion of the joust, but Francis was yawning, and we had no sooner returned to the palace than he went to bed, without even waiting for his servant to take off his boots.
I found him there, alone in the immense bed we were expected to share for the first time that night as husband and wife. He was sound asleep under a layer of down, a weary boy at the end of a long and tiring day.
I kissed his cheek and went back to my own apartments, eager to have my attendants dress me in the lovely gown of pale blue satin that my grandmamma had chosen for me to wear that night. I did not want to miss the banquet—or the dancing that would follow it. I loved to dance and besides, it was my wedding day. I would simply explain that Francis had felt ill and needed to take some physick. Everyone would understand. And even if they didn’t, they would not dare to complain. For was I not Queen of Scotland and, as of today, dauphine of France?
Excerpted from The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots by Carolly Erickson.
Copyright © 2009 by Carolly Erickson.
Published in September 2009 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.