Excerpt: A Lady Raised High
A Novel of Anne Boleyn
Accounts of the execution of my Queen said she’d been attended at her death by four women, three named, and one left unnamed.
The unnamed one was me. Why my presence should not be recorded, I never understood, because everyone knew Frances Pierce, Anne’s favorite lady, a foolish nobody Anne had brought to court and who fancied herself a poet.
On the humid, misty day in 1532 that I first saw my lady Anne, going to court and dressing like a lady was the furthest thing from my mind. I had planned only to ride out and watch her and the king’s hunting party from Hunsdon, because I wanted to see what a whore of Babylon looked like.
My aunt, who had married an English baron and lived five miles from us, was all a flutter. “The king, Frances, just think.”
We were having a grand clear-out at my uncle’s estate, Aunt Mary having nothing for it but that the tapestries must be taken down and re-hung, the bedding removed and replaced, the silver plate polished again and again, the linens washed and ready.
She’d convinced herself that Henry could at any time bring his entourage to her manor tucked far off the road in our remote corner of Hertfordshire.
I shook out linens and folded them and with difficulty held my tongue. I suppose there was a remote possibility that his grace would bring his gentlemen and ladies here for a rest and a glass of wine, but I thought it farfetched. He would, I knew, bring his hunting party through the village on his way to and from the woods, because he’d done such a thing before. I was determined, if I could escape the eagle eye of my mother, to watch.
My mother busily glared at a maid who polished plate. “The king and his strumpet. What does he mean, bringing her on progress?”
“She will be queen soon,” Aunt Mary said. “Have a care with your tongue.”
My mother, who was French, gave her a superior look. “He will never marry a mistress. Did he marry Bessie Blount when she gave him a son? Nay. Catherine is a good and pious woman, and she will always be queen, and let that be an end to the conversation.”
“He has put aside the queen,” Aunt Mary pointed out.
“Temporary madness,” my mother said in a hard voice.
My aunt Mary obviously wanted to say more, but like the rest of my father’s family, she stood rather in awe of my mother.
My father was a baronet and therefore called Sir Lionel Pierce, but he was not much more than a farmer. He lived on land in Hertfordshire that his father and his father’s father and so on had lived since time immemorial. Through wars and kingdoms and famines and plagues, the Pierces had held onto their estate. My father rode his bounds every day and sometimes worked with his tenants during harvest, when every hand was needed to bring in the crops.
My mother, a French baron’s daughter, had married a bit beneath herself, and never ceased reminding us of the fact.
Mary, my father’s sister, had managed to snare herself a baron and pop out five children, four sons and a daughter. My mother had only managed to pump out myself, and this was the one area that Aunt Mary felt the slightest bit superior.
My mother flicked her sharp gaze to me as I folded linens. I tried to look innocent, as though I was not waiting for a chance to steal to the stables. She’d take a strap to me if she thought I wanted to have a look at the king’s mistress. But my mother had so long decried Lady Anne–the nobody daughter of a courtier of Kent–that I was very curious to see her.
But, every time I saw an ease in the work, my Aunt Mary would put panicked hands to her head and discover some other meaningless task that simply must be done.
At long last my mother sent me on an errand to the buttery. Deceitful daughter that I am, I passed the errand along to one of my aunt’s maids and hied myself to the stables.
It is not the thing for a seventeen-year-old young lady to throw herself across the back of one of her uncle’s hacks and kick it into a gallop across the countryside, but that, God forgive me, is what I did. My confining wimple I left behind on a pile of clean hay, and I’d slid leather breeks under my skirts in preparation this morning.
I felt wild and free and childlike, sailing over the hills with my tow-colored hair streaming and the horse moving with sinewy grace beneath me. My mother would take a strap to me when she found out, but this heavenly freedom, however brief, was worth it.
I’d watch the hunting party and pen verses about it. I’d taken to writing poetry after my uncle had come by a copy of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s verses that were currently circulating at court. I’d read them and been smitten. I thought it a wonderful thing to make music with words, even though mine did not sing as Sir Thomas’s did.
So many visions danced in my head, and I struggled to put them onto paper. Late into the night, I wrote crooked lines of badly metered verse, the parchment dotted with my tears because I could not twist the syllables the right way.
My mother, of course, did not approve. Whenever she caught me, she’d rip up my costly bits of parchment and slap my fingers. “When you marry,” she’d say, “you must be quiet and obedient, ready on an instant to serve your husband. He will not want to see you with ink on your fingers, staring into space like you’ve lost your wits.”
“I do not wish to marry,” I’d answer, my fingers smarting. “I will stay home and keep house with you and be an obedient daughter.”
My mother never argued. She simply bent others’ wills to her own. “No.”
“I have heard that ladies of the court write verses,” I would point out.
“Certainly,” said my mother. “After they have husbands.”
My mother had ambition to marry me well. She had at first wished my father to procure me a place in the household of Queen Catherine. There, I would learn manners, and in time, get myself a husband. I thought her optimistic. Gentlemen of the court set their sights on ladies higher-born than a baronet’s daughter, and then they had their pick of beauties.
None would ever call me a beauty, by any means. I had a long nose, small, dark eyes, a pale complexion, and a thin mouth. My hair, which I kept tucked modestly under a wimple, was the color of dark wheat–not light blonde as was the fashion nor black like that of the fascinating Lady Anne. No court gentleman would trip over his feet looking at me.
I had been secretly pleased when, last summer, we heard word that King Henry had banished Catherine from court, and so all my mother’s plans to send me to the queen had collapsed.
I knew I should feel sorry for the queen, or outraged, like my mother, but I’d felt childish glee at my escape.
I let my horse scramble down hills and through streams, as I made for the road to Hunsdon where the crowd had already gathered. Children happy to leave off work ran about shouting, and when they saw my horse, they ran to me, to the horse’s alarm. I reined him in before he could do any damage, and guided him down to the road at a walk.
I was recognized right away by what I termed the Crows, four middle-aged women in dun and black who saw everything, heard everything, and knew everything about everyone in the village and for miles around.
“‘Tis young Frances,” Mistress Longacre said. She turned steely eyes to me and took in my tangled hair and hiked up skirts. “How is your lady mother? Did my blackberry wine cure the pains in her stomach?”
Mistress Longacre considered herself more learned than any physician, and constantly dosed everyone within ten miles, young and old, lowborn and high. The truth of it was, she generally always cured us.
“Aye, she is well,” I said.
Mistress Longacre looked satisfied. “I knew it. She came by the pains eating too many winter roots. Ah, well, she is French.”
I had not realized that eating root vegetables was a French trait, but I said nothing. The other three ladies looked me up and down, and I knew that before the hour was out, a report of my wild behavior would reach my mother.
I diverted them by pointing down the road at a cloud of dust. “Is it the riders? Is it the king?”
Mistress Longacre and her crows scuttled out into the middle of the road. “Aye, there are a good many horses coming.”
Anticipation heightened in the milling villagers. Children ran about, shouting at each other. The men pulled off caps, ready to wave them. And then, to my alarm, I saw Mistress Longacre and her friends begin gathering up handfuls of mud.
I nudged my horse to them. “What are you doing?”
“Preparing a welcome,” Mistress Partridge said. She was younger than the others, but she’d already developed a steady gaze that made me squirm.
“You cannot throw mud at the king,” I said. “You will be arrested.”
Mistress Partridge smiled, which was a chilling thing. “This is not for the king, but his whore.”
“The lady Anne?” I asked faintly.
“It ain’t natural, is it?” Mistress Longacre snapped, “for the king to put aside the good queen his wife? It upsets the order of things.”
“My auguries have shown it,” Mistress Partridge said. “The wrong stars are in the sky, and the signs are clear. If he does not put away this mistress, chaos will visit us.”
Mistress Partridge always made dire predictions, so I did not tremble. Unfortunately, some of what she predicted did come true, so I could not completely dismiss her.
“Chaos is certain to visit us if you throw mud at the king’s lady,” I remarked.
A few of the other village women looked worried, but Mistress Longacre stood firm. “‘Tain’t natural,” she repeated.
I circled my horse to the edge of the crowd, my stomach knotting in foreboding. They would be mad to throw the mud, but Mistress Longacre feared no man. She obeyed my mother, but no one else.
The children began cheering, and I craned to view the horses coming into sight. The hunting party was returning. It had been successful, I saw; a huntsman drove a cart at the forefront with the carcass of a deer piled carelessly onto it.
Next came the banner bearers, far enough behind the cart to keep from the stink and the flies. Behind these, the king rode with his gentlemen. I rose in the stirrups to look long and hard at him. Henry wore a brown doublet and cloak and long boots suitable for riding. I had often heard of our king’s prowess on a horse, and I well believed it now. He sat straight and guided his horse with the merest touch.
I had heard rumor that his girth had thickened, and perhaps it had, but he still looked muscular and strong. I could not see his face clearly from where I watched, but the sun flashed on his red gold hair as he turned his head to laugh at something the man beside him had said. The gentleman with him were handsome, their clothes fine, and their laughter and easy nature inspired us to cheer.
To my disappointment, I saw no lady perched on a horse beside Henry, no Jezebel gazing upon him with lovelorn eyes. The king rode alone surrounded by his gentlemen.
They passed, talking and waving to us gawking on the side of the road. I cheered at the top of my lungs, and so did the men and children around me. Some of the women cheered as well, although Mistress Longacre tried to glare them to silence.
So focused were the villagers on the king and his glittering gentlemen, that the ladies riding somewhat behind them, surrounded by grooms, had nearly passed before we noticed them.
My hungry gaze took in every detail. About five ladies rode on horseback in a cluster, astride like me, their skirts trailing like banners. In the midst of them rode my lady Anne.
She wore brown to match the king, a gown of modest cut that shielded her neck and shoulders, and a fine brown cloak embroidered with gold. Her headdress was different from the usual English wimple. While my mother wore the stiff, gabled wimple that sat heavily on the head–and unfortunately required me to do the same–Anne wore a simpler headdress. A curved band pulled back her long hair, and a wisp of silk flowed to her waist over her loose dark tresses.
Despite the rumor that she was the king’s mistress in truth, she still dressed like a maiden. I thought her beautiful.
As soon as I set eyes on her, she threw back her head and laughed. The sound entranced me. It was like dark chimes, deep and golden, ringing for pure joy. That laughter struck something within me, and I suddenly longed to laugh with her, to feel the same joy she did.
At that same moment I saw Mistress Longacre and her women move.
They ran at the ladies, bobbing up and down like a flock of geese, waving skirts like they were shoeing away something distasteful. The horses shied and danced, and the groom cursed.
“Whore,” the women screamed at Anne. “Restore the queen! Return to Babylon!”
In the confusion, the grooms dispersed. Several ladies road into the ditch, to be confronted by the women of the village. The village women hissed and spat like cats. Mistress Longacre drew back her hand.
Without waiting for thought, I kicked my horse forward, plunging between Mistress Longacre and the lady Anne, just as the handful of mud flew.
The wad caught me on the shoulder and half splattered my face, stinging my eyes. Mistress Longacre had packed the mud with pebbles. They cut my cheek, and I tasted blood on my lips.
Lady Anne’s horse swerved away. I rode my horse in a circle around hers, trying to hold the village women off, like a dog protecting a sheep from predators.
The lady Anne flashed a look of dangerous anger. A groom moved his horse beside mine, blocking me from following her, but keeping her from the women and their missiles.
Anne called to another groom. “Guide the young lady’s horse,” she commanded. “I want her to follow.”
She said nothing directly to me, but turned her attention to her horse, calming it with an expert touch. She and her groom rode on.
Another groom commanded me to follow. I rode back with him, letting him herd me into the group of Anne’s ladies. The ladies looked at me with startled eyes beneath colorful veils, highborn women surprised to find a hoyden in their midst.
I heard Mistress Longacre shriek. “Frances Pierce, come away from there at once!”
My heart beat wildly. My face stung where the mud and rocks had hit me, and my entire body quivered.
“I will go to your lady mother,” Mistress Longacre cried. “You ought to be ashamed. No good will come of this.”
I ignored her. Lady Anne, at that moment, had far more weight with me than Mistress Longacre.
The procession continued up the road, this time with me in it.
I rode directly behind the groom along the road to Hunsdon, my gaze fixed on the up-and-down motion of his horse’s mahogany hocks. The right hind had a white patch just above the fetlock. It rose and fell under my fixed gaze, and for some reason, I could not look away from it.
After a long time, we rode through a set of high gates and up the long avenue and into a courtyard. All manner of people swarmed about us, the neat line of riders dissolved into disorder.
The king habitually made a summer progress about his realm, staying in his manor houses to hunt and hawk and entertain those he wished to impress. Sometimes he went east, sometimes west, occasionally, north. He went accompanied by his favorite gentlemen, the queen by her favorite ladies, and servants of the bedchambers, cooks, footmen, maids, and the same number of people to care for his horses and other animals as cared for the people. Now they were all at Hunsdon, and the house teemed with activity.
I quickly lost sight of the king and his entourage and the lady Anne and hers. The groom who pulled me into the train dismounted his horse and disappeared toward the stables, having better things to do then to answer questions of a mud-splattered young lady.
I slid from my horse, legs shaking. A lad immediately grabbed its reins, then looked at the nag in surprise and distaste. I started to ask him what I should do, but he turned and led the horse off toward the stables without a word.
I was left alone in the midst a whirl of activity. At first glance it looked like confusion, but as I watched I realize that everyone knew exactly what to do. Lads unsaddled horses, the grooms headed for the mews and the stables, porters carried things into dark doorways, foodstuffs appeared and were trundled out of sight. I heard the clucking of fowl and the squeal of pigs. A woman hurried by with a basket on her arm overflowing bright, ripe fruit.
The only person with nothing to do in this flurry was me. I debated whether to latch on to one of the lackeys and follow them inside, or whether to slip out of the gate and make my way home. I would return to a certain beating. Even my father would be angry with me for taking my uncle’s horse without leave, not to mention leaving it behind at Hunsdon.
While I debated I noted a gentleman, one I’d seen riding with the king, watching me. He was older than me by perhaps ten years, and he wore a dark green doublet, lighter green coat, and a fine velvet cap. He had deep brown hair, tightly curled, and very sharp dark eyes. He was tall, and, I supposed, handsome, with a beard trimmed close to his face and muscular calves in well-fitting boots.
I turned away from him after my first assessment, deciding such a high-born gentleman could have no interest in a creature like me. Then I became aware that he was standing at my shoulder, glaring as well as Mistress Longacre ever could.
He said in a hard voice, “Why do you tarry here, girl?”
Now, usually, when I see an important gentleman, such as my uncle and his cronies, I at least take it upon myself to curtsey or show some sign of deference. I really have no excuse for what I did. But I was nervous and uncertain, and my face hurt dreadfully, and I was all alone and ignored.
I managed a sneer that would do my mother proud. “I take orders only from my lady Anne.”
“Lady Anne has ordered you to stand about like a lost dog?”
“She requested I be here,” I said loftily. “When she has need she will send for me.”
The trouble with my bluff was that he knew it was a bluff. His disdainful eyes took in my old gown, my mud-splattered face, and my tangle of my honey-colored hair. He was not impressed with me.
“I will advise one of the ladies to find you something to do,” he said.
He turned on his heel and stalked away. To relieve my childish frustration, I put out my tongue at him.
A bony hand clenched my shoulder and turned me around. I found myself looking into the face of a lady only a bit older than Anne herself. She wore a French hood, and had a long nose and hard eyes.
“What is your name?”
I gulped, wondering if everyone at court was this startling and abrupt. “Frances Pierce,” I managed.
“My mistress believes you very brave.” Her expression told me she doubted her mistress’ wits. “She called you a lady knight, gallantly throwing yourself between her and a dreadful missile.”
“I did not want to see her struck with the mud,” I said faintly.
The lady looked me up and down much as the gentleman had, but she seemed to see a little beyond the mud and tangles. At least, that is what my pride told me. She removed her hand from my shoulder. “Come with me.”
“Have you found work for me?” I was slightly unhappy that I’d escaped the tyranny of my aunt and mother only to be bullied by Lady Anne’s hard-eyed servant.
“My lady wants to meet you,” she said. “She has few friends, and she needs many.”