Saturday, February 25, 2017

Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Lost Palace of Whitehall

by Nancy Bilyeau

At about 4 p.m. on January 4, 1698, during the reign of King William III, a fire broke out in the Palace of Whitehall. The possible cause was linen left to dry by a fireplace. The "devouring flame," in the words of James Vernon, destroyed the king's and queen's lodgings and most of the rest of the sprawling complex. "Except the banqueting house and the great gate, all is burnt down or blown up." The scene was chaotic, with court officials desperately trying to retrieve their possessions as the "gates were locked up to prevent the mob coming in."

The Palace of Whitehall, seen from
St. James Park in a painting from 1675.

This was the end of Whitehall as a royal residence, the palace where Henry VIII and Charles II died, where Elizabeth I entertained the French prince come to court her, where The Tempest was first staged for James I, where Hans Holbein designed a gatehouse and Inigo Jones a banqueting house, where Charles I was beheaded. Years after the fire, Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, said she wanted to rebuild Whitehall, but it came to nothing.

Today little remains above ground of the royal residence that covered 23 acres in Westminster, on the edge of London. The name "Whitehall" is synonymous with the British government and its civil service. Yet present-day Downing Street once was part of Henry VIII's royal entertainment grounds, with the street's first known house leased by Elizabeth I to a favorite, Sir Thomas Knyvet. The Tudor roots are strong.

Not everyone mourned the palace's destruction in the late 17th century. The duc de Saint-Simon said in his memoirs "a fire destroyed Whitehall, the largest and ugliest palace in Europe."

But Whitehall, the obsession of royal lovers Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, had once been thought beautiful.

It was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII's lord chancellor, who turned a bishop's residence on the Thames, just a short distance from Westminster Abbey, into a place of splendor. Since Wolsey held the bishopric of York, he was entitled to make use of York Place, as it had been known since the 13th century. Wolsey borrowed money and devoted his considerable energies to expanding it "most sumptuously and gorgeously." Banquets were held there, and elaborate "masques and mummeries."

Cardinal Wolsey

On March 1st, 1522, Cardinal Wolsey looked on as an elaborate entertainment was performed at York Place after supper. A "Chateau Vert" was raised, with the King and his friends masqued to storm the castle, occupied by costumed ladies, including a young brunette named Anne Boleyn, who was named "Perseverance" and had "black and beautiful eyes."

Anne Boleyn

Five years later, Henry VIII made public his quest to divorce his longtime wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. It was a struggle with momentous consequences, among them the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, whom, the king felt, didn't work hard enough to win his master the annulment.

On Oct. 19, 1529, Wolsey was deprived of the great seal and he threw himself on the king's mercy. Hampton Court, York Place--the palaces became Henry's. A week later, Henry VIII arrived at York Place for a royal walk through, accompanied by Anne Boleyn, her mother Elizabeth, and the courtier Henry Norris. (Norris would be executed for adultery with Queen Anne in 1536, but that's another story.) The king found "the present more valuable even than he expected." No one gave a thought to Cardinal Wolsey, who would the following year die, arrested and alone, on his way to the Tower of London.

Turning York Place into a palace fit for a king and his future queen was no simple matter. Wolsey's residence revolved around a great hall, privy chamber and a receiving room, a cloister and a chapel, and kitchens; there were no lodgings for the vast number of people who lived in a Tudor royal residence. No tiltyard for jousting or ornamental garden. On one side was the Thames. On the other was a large marsh that once contained a leper hospital. Not a lot of room for expansion.

Yet expand it did.

During the same tumultuous years that Henry VIII fought for his annulment, breaking with the Pope and alienating those still loyal to Queen Catherine and her daughter the Princess Mary, he was personally directing the legal procedure of seizing the surrounding land for the new Whitehall. He inspected each building plan before it went forward. Anne Boleyn was as involved as the king in overseeing the design of the new palace, taking tremendous interest in its architecture as well as the stylish details. Anne possessed the sort of sophisticated taste that came from serving the French queen as a teenager. She and Henry shared a fondness for French and Italian decor. Anne liked "antique" touches, such as classical columns and ceilings and patterned grotesque work.

The Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote that the king concentrated on Whitehall "to please the lady who prefers that place for the king's residence to any other." Perhaps planning their new home was an escape from stress for the embattled couple.

Henry VIII ordered his people to survey the surrounding property, purchase the leases and then demolish buildings. This caused "great discomfort" to those who still lived in Westminster, but the king wasn't concerned. At one point, the up-and-coming Thomas Cromwell drew up a list of the leases. When Cromwell accompanied Henry and Anne to France to meet the French king, an official left behind wrote a reassuring letter that "there is as much speed as can be made there."

Whitehall had to be everyone's priority!

In his detailed book, Whitehall Palace: An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240 to 1699, Simon Thurley wrote about the astonishing lengths taken to build a wall along the river.
The whole area was low lying and prone to flooding from high tides...In July 1531 a pump was installed in the foundations at Lamb Alley and leather buckets were also in use to bail out the waterlogged trenches. To keep the works dry torches were provided so the pumpers and diggers could work through the night, and in reward forty barrels of beer, forty dozen loaves and four whole cheeses were distributed to the workers.

Sheriffs, bailiffs and constables were informed that at absolutely any time the king's representatives could seize workmen for the "speedy furnishing and building of our new manor." Anyone who refused to relinquish bricks and other materials was subject to arrest.

New galleries and chambers were built, extensive gardens, jousting and tennis yards, a bowling green, cock-fighting pit and, of course, the magnificent Holbein gatehouse, with its checkered pattern and fleur de lis. Historians believe that on the upper floor of this gatehouse, in January 1533, Henry and Anne married in secret. Now she would reside in the palace as the king's wife.

Expansions and renovations Whitehall continued for much of Henry VIII's life. But Anne Boleyn never saw the completion of their cherished plans, since she was beheaded three years after their wedding. Some have speculated that the king did not reside in Whitehall as much after her death out of a sense of guilt, and he seems to have gone to great lengths to obliterate her memory there. But he definitely was at Whitehall at important moments: Henry VIII married Anne's successor, Jane Seymour, in the Whitehall chapel. The famous mural of the king and his family painted by Holbein shows Jane at his side, displayed in the privy chamber of Whitehall. And Henry seems to have deliberately chosen Whitehall as the place where he wanted to die.

Holbein's mural in Whitehall, from a copy made in
early 17th century. The original mural burned in 1698.

Today it's nearly impossible for us to inhabit--to imagine--the dazzling Whitehall palace that Henry VIII was so obsessed with. The Banqueting House that survived the fire was built by the Stuarts, after all. But there is one 16th century room that remains. Underneath the Ministry of Defence is a preserved chamber referred to as Henry VIII's Wine Cellar. It may be named for the Tudor monarch, but the stone-ribbed, brick-vaulted chamber was built by Wolsey.

In that, the cardinal had the last word.

Queen Mary, widow of George V,
insisted the Tudor wine cellar be preserved


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical mystery trilogy The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, published by Simon & Schuster and available in North America, the United Kingdom and Germany. The Crown was an Oprah magazine pick. Much of the third novel, The Tapestry, takes place in the palace of Whitehall in 1540. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Suspense.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Katherine Howard's True Crime

By Nancy Bilyeau

Katherine Howard is the dirty joke of the Tudor era.

The second of Henry VIII's wives to be executed, she is a tragic figure, but there is not the same level of outrage over her fate as exists for Anne Boleyn, her cousin. Many who have studied the life of Queen Anne believe that the charges of adultery and incest and treasonous conspiracy were false, concocted by Thomas Cromwell to free Henry VIII of a woman he had come to hate. Not so for Henry's fifth wife. Queen Katherine, some 30 years younger than her ailing and obese husband when they wed, took lovers before and after her marriage, it is commonly believed. She was guilty.

Wasn't she?

A miniature portrait believed to show
Katherine Howard, perhaps 18 when she married

I believe that Katherine Howard was guilty but not of what you may think. Whether she was unchaste before marriage is not her chief crime. Her struggles to hide her premarital past from her husband and his councillors--and her mysterious meetings, perhaps adulterous, with Thomas Culpepper after her marriage--were just the excuse seized on to effect her removal.

It could be argued that her alleged misdeeds were echoes of the mistakes in judgment Anne Boleyn made, in her flirtatious banter with Henry Norris and Francis Weston. But most importantly, Queen Anne was the victim of a politically motivated coup, and I would argue that her cousin Katherine Howard was too.

Anne Boleyn, first cousin of Katherine Howard.

To read the books written about Katherine Howard is to plunge into a vat of scorn, contempt and disgust: "empty headed," "good time girl" and "juvenile delinquent."

There has, recently, been a shift of opinion. In his excellent book Katherine Howard: A New History, Conor Byrne makes a convincing case that Katherine, whose mother died when she was very young and whose father was the black sheep of the Howards, was the victim of sexual predators while living with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. And Thomas Culpepper's attentions may have veered into blackmail.

In this post, though, I would argue that the crime she was actually guilty of—the reason Katherine Howard died—was not her morals, or lack of. It was her effectiveness as queen. She was the wife that Henry VIII was visibly most besotted with, according to contemporary records: his "affection was so marvellously set upon her." And, most critically, she was more than a mere plaything. She was the effective center of a power base.

What? people scream. But Katherine was promiscuous, frivolous, semi-literate, immature, grasping and heedless, right? That's what the miniseries depict and the books all agree on, even those that are supposedly sympathetic.

I would like to present some facts of Katherine's life and reign as Queen.

*  Within the span of not more than six months, Katherine, a barely literate teenager, was able to convince Henry VIII that she should be his next queen, rather than his mistress, even though he was married to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, when he "first set eyes upon her." Jane Seymour  is credited with shrewd managing of Henry VIII in similar circumstances. But Jane displaced a wife who was most likely pregnant when she began her relationship with King Henry, and is not known to have balked at Anne Boleyn's execution to make way for her. Anne of Cleves received a divorce and large settlement, not the axe. Moreover, Katherine went to great lengths to treat her predecessor, Anne of Cleves, with kindness and respect in public after the divorce.

* Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was more than 60 years old when arrested and confined in the Tower of London, charged with treason. Henry VIII considered her son, Reginald Pole, his greatest enemy, but the religious scholar lived in Italy and France, safe from the English king's grasp. So the king wiped out his family: brother, nephew and, finally, mother. Her imprisonment was not only terrifying but physically rigorous. Katherine arranged to have a set of warm clothes sent to Margaret Pole in the Tower, including a satin-lined nightgown, shoes, and slippers. It was an act of incredible bravery.

* Katherine persuaded her husband to pardon at least three people who could easily have been executed were it not for her intervention, including Thomas Wyatt. In 1541, Wyatt was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, accused of corresponding with Cardinal Pole, and referring to the prospect of Henry VIII's death. Katherine's actions led to his freedom. This success sets her apart from Jane Seymour, who when she attempted to dissuade Henry VIII from dissolving the monasteries, was told never to meddle in his affairs, and from sixth wife Catherine Parr, who was very nearly arrested after haranguing the king over religion. Although considered a 16th century "bimbo," Katherine was an effective political player.

* Katherine managed a relationship with a man in ill health, possessing volatile emotions and holding high expectations of a wife. After a "honeymoon" of several months during which Henry VIII appeared rejuvenated, his health problems returned and he was often in pain--and highly irritable. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reports rumors that Henry VIII refused to see his wife for a long stretch of days, and even considered divorce briefly. Rumors flew throughout the marriage that Katherine was pregnant, though it is unlikely she ever was. This must have been a source of considerable stress to Katherine, since the king continued to be obsessed with begetting male heirs. Yet Katherine was able to solidify her hold on the king's affections. When they returned from their progress in late October, the king proclaimed his wife a "jewel."

Less than two weeks later, Katherine was being investigated. What happened?

It is a story often told that Anne Boleyn said of Mary Tudor, her husband's daughter, that "she is my death and I am hers." As it happened, it was not her stepdaughter who killed Queen Anne. However, that same phrase could be used for Katherine Howard and Thomas Cromwell. She was his death. Many historians believe that Cromwell stalled in obtaining the king a divorce from Anne of Cleves because he didn't want a Howard queen, but that stalling was fatal.

Yet in a chilling way, Cromwell, executed on the wedding day of Henry VIII and Katherine Howard, was the cause of her death 20 months later.

The Duke of Norfolk and his heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, openly gloated over the destruction of Cromwell. Their ally, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, returned to the King's council and a leading role. But what is not often written about is how this faction tried to wipe out Cromwell's supporters. The arrest of Sir Thomas Wyatt was part of their "clean up operation," as was the arrest of Sir Ralph Sadler, Cromwell's protegee. (Sadler, too, was eventually released.)

Thomas Audley

Other Cromwell allies, like Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich, jumped to the winning side, no matter how they felt about the Howards, to survive. Thomas Audley, who had shared many of Cromwell's religious and political views, accommodated himself to the winners at court, but he was not fully trusted by Norfolk. Audley was lord chancellor, though--too useful to destroy. For now.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

The man in the kingdom left most exposed was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the only one to publicly lament the fall of Cromwell, in a distressed letter to the King himself. Some at court expected Cranmer to follow Cromwell into disgrace. But the Archbishop survived, protected (as much as one could be) by King Henry's esteem. He retreated from the forefront of court affairs.

Bishop Gardiner, Cranmer's triumphant rival, left the court in the fall of 1540 to represent England at a German meeting of many religious and state leaders determined to resolve the question of religion, including the Emperor Charles V and John Calvin. Gardiner had instructions from Henry VIII that should a way be found for the Pope to welcome England back into the fold, he should not rule out such a possibility. One can only imagine how Cranmer felt about this summit and his relief when the Diet of Regensburg failed in the summer of 1541. But there was no doubt that Gardiner would continue to lobby for a return to Rome.

Katherine's husband, Henry VIII

In the coming year, the Howard-Gardiner faction did what they could to return the kingdom to the "True Faith" and repeatedly tried to move against former Cromwell allies. Those men they targeted must have been frightened. And frightened men make passionate enemies. It was unwise to alienate men who were capable of striking back. With the King entranced by his teenage Queen, the Howards felt invincible.

They weren't.

When Henry VIII and his Queen went on their historic progress to the North of England, three men were left behind. One was Thomas Cranmer. Another was Thomas Audley, with whom he had a friendship. The third was Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who quietly shared their evangelical views and quite possibly worried that the Seymours were endangered, especially if Queen Katherine had children. There might have been occasions for this trio of men to meet and speculate about their future.

That is the moment when a man entered the picture who set the match leading to the horrible deaths of four people: Katherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Thomas Culpepper, and Francis Dereham. His name was John Lascelles, and he was a fanatical evangelical, someone who would do anything for the Protestant cause. He had once served Thomas Cromwell. He hated Thomas Howard and Bishop Gardiner (he would die himself five years later, burned to death for heresy). His sister, Mary Hall, had served in the household of the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and she saw and heard things about Katherine Howard's past. Scandalous things.

Lascelles found his way to the Cranmer-Seymour-Audley group and told them what he knew. The opponents of the Howards had found a fatal weakness. If they played this card, it could bring down the Howard faction, but it could also devastate King Henry. What should be done? Shortly after Cromwell was arrested, Katherine Howard had personally sent a note to Thomas Cranmer, reassuring him he was safe from harm. She was perhaps 20 years old when she returned with her doting husband from their northern progress; she had never done Cranmer any harm. But what if Lascelle's story were to reach the King's ears some other way?

On All Souls' Day, as King Henry left his devotionals in Hampton Court, his Archbishop of Canterbury handed him a letter and urged him to read it...

On February 13, 1542, not four months later, Katherine was executed. The match had been lit--and it destroyed the Howard faction more completely than their Protestant enemies may ever dared to dream.

Katherine Howard, RIP.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of novels set in the reign of Henry VIII: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Russia.. Katherine Howard is a character in the books.

Monday, February 6, 2017

My Interview With Ian Rankin

I'm far from the only fan of Detective Inspector John Rebus--the Rebus crime series is the best selling one in the United Kingdom--but I am one of the fortunate people who gets the opportunity to interview Scottish author Ian Rankin about his work.

As editor of The Big Thrill, I talked to Ian about his new novel, Rather Be the Devil, which was published in North America on January 31st. Among the topics, how does he handle writing mysteries with a protagonist past retirement age? His solutions are excellent while still being realistic!

I've spoken to Ian before, and he's thoughtful, funny, sarcastic and generous.

To read my interview, go here.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Viral Reach of Anne of Cleves

To my delight, and continuing surprise, the post I wrote for English Historical Fiction Authors titled "Seven Surprising Facts About Anne of Cleves" recently hit 55,000 original page views. It's the most widely read blog post I've ever written and the highest scoring one in the five-year history of EHFA, too.

Why did this post, among the dozens I've written, go viral?

One reason could be the widespread sympathy Anne generates. Henry VIII treated her badly. Although in 1539 he was obese, plagued by chronic illness, and dragging around a terrible marital record (one divorced, one beheaded, and one died), he undoubtedly viewed himself as a Prince Charming. Henry VIII arranged to marry Anne of Cleves for strictly diplomatic reasons, yet the moment he set eyes on her in England, he raged against her lack of attractiveness to his friends and councilors. Looking at the painting today, we don't see why he'd feel such repugnance. She's more attractive than Jane Seymour, surely. It's a mystery.

The marriage, never consummated, was annulled. Anne of Cleves became, in her own lifetime and in centuries since, a comic figure.

I think that one reason I wrote this post was in response to a theory that has developed about Anne of Cleves. She received a generous settlement from a king relieved by her cooperation and eager to marry the flirtatious Catherine Howard. Anne stayed out of Henry's way. To some, she became the most fortunate wife, the one who lived the longest. She must have laughed all the way to the bank--that's the way people want to think of her.

I researched Anne of Cleves' life after deciding to use her as a character in The Chalice and The Tapestry. The truth is, a divorced woman laughing all the way to the bank is a 20th century conception. When Henry VIII divorced her in 1540, she was deeply humiliated and agreed to remain in England because she did not want to return to the court of her brother. She played little part in public life after the king rejected her at the age of 24. She saw her stepchildren occasionally, but for the vast majority of time she lived alone among her servants until she died in 1557.

Historical facts undercut the image of the blissful divorcee. The Cleves ambassador approached Henry VIII on the possibility of remarriage to Anne after Catherine Howard was executed. She was treated for melancholy within a year of the king's refusal to take her back, and she publicly objected when the king took a sixth wife, saying, "Madam Parr is taking a great burden upon herself."

Everything I read convinced me that, despite all of Henry VIII's obvious shortcomings and even the potential danger, Anne of Cleves wanted to be queen of England. She was prepared for it, in the short time she reigned as queen she did a good job, and she was upset by her rejection and forced retirement.

An intelligent woman, she made the best of her fate. But she was, if not a victim, a tragic figure. She outlived Henry VIII, yes. But it was not a full life, and I doubt it was happy.

I am glad that in my blog post on her life, I'm able to highlight some points of interest on Anne of Cleves, and give her some dimensions without lapsing into modern assumptions. She deserves that much, at least.

Read the post here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Author Panel: Getting Into Print

I was asked to speak on a panel sponsored by Historical Novel Society-New York: "Getting Into Print." It looks like a good one!

The panel and general discussion will focus on publishing through traditional, indie, and small press channels. Panelists will share our unique experiences, reveal the pros and cons of each method, and answer questions from the audience.

Presenters: myself, Christina Conroy, Stephanie Cowell, Ursula Renee, Faith Justice, and Linda Trice.

Date: Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Location: Jefferson Market Library, Sixth Avenue at 10th street
 6:00-8:00 pm

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Giveaway of "America's First Daughter"

If you would like a free copy of "America's First Daughter," the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, comment below.

It is a compelling, richly researched novel that is hitting all the bestseller lists.

United States residents only.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Excerpt of 'The Tapestry' and a Giveaway

By Nancy Bilyeau

The holiday spirit is upon us! I'd like to give away seven (yes, seven) signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry. To enter the giveaway, comment at the end of this post.

And I'd also like to share an excerpt from the book: Chapter 11. I've selected a fateful dinner:  my main character, Joanna Stafford, dines with Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves at Whitehall. If you've read the first two books in the series, The Crown and The Chalice, you may be wondering how the heck that would happen. If there is one man Joanna hates, it's her second cousin, Henry Tudor! To set the stage, Joanna was summoned to Whitehall at the beginning of the novel, and with little choice, traveled to Westminster. Her talent with tapestry weaves drew the attention of Henry VIII, an obsessed collector. Since that day, she's fended off an attack on her life, earned the ire of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Howard, and Stephen Gardiner, and renewed her friendship with the queen's maid of honor, Catherine Howard. Yes, she's been busy. :)

And now...the excerpt:

            I was flooded with relief to see the new Queen Anne—the fourth of his consorts— followed by a group of ladies. Lady Rochford, her shoulders thrown back, took her place in the queen’s train.

            I made my deepest curtsey, one that would have made my mother proud.

            “You are welcome to court, Mistress Joanna,” said Queen Anne, with a dignified tilt of the head. Her accent was thick, her words halting. But I was impressed that after four months, she spoke English this well. On the boat from Calais to Dover, she had possessed not a single word.

            She looked different and it was not just her wardrobe. Anne of Cleves wore English fashions now; that strange hat and sleeves were gone. She was still a pleasant-looking young woman—the widespread rumor that the queen was too plain to attract the king were nonsense. But she was paler than I remembered. And thinner too.

            “Will you stitch with me?” she asked. “With stitches, you… are good.”

            “I would be honored,” I said, curtseying again. I could not help but be flattered that she remembered my fondness for embroidery.

            And then came the king. Henry VIII filled up the room with his presence:  tall, broad, a crown atop his red hair, and draped with a diamond-laden pendant. We all of us made our obeisance, and he limped to the table, nodding. Queen Anne sat at the other end of the table from her husband, with my place halfway between.

            At first the king said little. His attention was on neither the queen nor myself but on the food. He was quite intent on a certain course—the stuffed capon—and visibly relaxed when it appeared, just after the civet of hare. Some worry he’d had over its sauce disappeared with the first bite, and his heavy jowls shook as he consumed slice after slice.

            Six ladies attended the queen, bringing her food and serving her wine. Catherine was not among them, but Lady Rochford was. George Boleyn’s widow saw to my dinner service as well, which meant that I was frequently treated to that unfortunate smile. Such heavy dishes were not to my taste, but I did not want to appear rude and so did my best to keep up. The odors of the food mingled with the burning wax of many candles and the king’s own scent, the musk and lavender and orange water—this was not conducive to appetite.

 Peeking down the table, I detected, even in candlelight, a tenseness in Queen Anne’s expression. A certain wariness. She ate even less than I did.

            “Madame, you have met our guest before?” said the king to his wife after the capons were cleared. “We are told that our cousin Joanna made your acquaintance in France.”

            Queen Anne swallowed and said, “Yes, Your Grace, I knew—I knew…” She paused, faltered and a man surged forward. He listened to a flood of Anne’s German and then explained to the king the circumstances of my meeting her.

            “You are fortunate to be able to travel abroad,” the king said to me. “In truth, we envy you. If we leave the kingdom, it’s assumed we are planning war. We’d have to raise taxes, muster an army, and set fire to the Scottish border before we go. A high price to pay for trying out the stuffed capon in Calais.”

            The room erupted in laughter, and, to my own amazement, I joined in. I had heard from my Stafford relatives that King Henry had the power to charm, that he was witty. Now I experienced it for myself.

            One person failed to laugh. Queen Anne’s translator had conveyed the king’s joke to her, but perhaps the humor did not survive translation. She did nothing but frown.

            I was not the only one who noticed that the queen was at a loss. The king sighed and then drained his goblet. “More wine,” he called out sharply, as men scurried to obey. A silence fell over the table again.     

They were so ill at ease with each other.  Would this have been a harmonious couple even if he hadn’t been sickened at the outset? There was no way for me, for anyone, to know.

            As soon as his goblet was replenished, King Henry sipped from it, nodded, and then turned to me.  “Cousin, we should now like to hear about your tapestry enterprise. First of all: Who precisely taught you to weave?”

            Henry VIII had ordered the destruction of the monasteries, had ended a way of life held sacred in England for a thousand years. How could I tell him that it was nuns who taught me to weave? But as he drummed his fingers on the table, growing impatient with my silence, I had no choice.

            “I learned it while I served as a novice at the Dominican Order of sisters in Dartford,” I said.

            I waited for him to erupt, to bellow. Here would come the famous, feared temper. But the king stroked his beard and said, “They had a loom, correct? Your work was not done with needles, I think.”

“No, Your Majesty. I mean, yes. We used a loom.”

“Your work was first-rate on the phoenix tapestry that the queen our wife purchased,” said the king. “It shows a certain delicacy, an interpretation of myth, that is too often lacking in these triptychs from Brussels.”

            My cheeks hot, I said, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“And you have begun another?” he said, leaning toward me across the table, his eyes alight with interest.

I explained that I’d ordered the design for The Sorrow of Niobe, a Greek queen who lost everything to the Gods.

It would not seem possible for King Henry to look at me more intently, but that piece of news seemed to trigger some deep contemplation.

“Hubris, ahhhh,” he said.  “You have made an interesting choice.”

“Pardon me, Your Majesty?”

A smile playing on his lips, the king said, “Niobe’s children were slain by the gods because of hubris. She defied them, saying that her children were superior. For her pride and arrogance, for her over-estimation of the importance, she was punished.”

I had seen the word hubris in relation to this myth but not understood its full meaning. Now my stomach twisted as I realized my choice could be seen as celebrating defiance of the gods. If King Henry saw himself as a sacred being—which seemed quite likely—then this tapestry would offend him.

“Pride is a sin, Your Highness,” I said.

“Very true, Cousin.” He sipped some wine and asked, “Will you use a living woman as your model for Niobe the queen?”

“I know that near the end of a weave, when finishing the faces, some have been known to use paintings or even living subjects as models,” I said, relieved at the change in course of conversation. “I suppose it is possible.”

The king beckoned for a servant, who shortly after darted away, and suddenly Master Thomas Culpepper appeared at the table. He bent over so that the king could say something to him alone. He nodded and then withdrew from the table. I tried to catch his eye—it felt wrong to fail to acknowledge Culpepper, my greatest friend at Whitehall after Catherine Howard—but he did not look in my direction.

“There is no substitute in art for experience,” said the king, approvingly. “Bearing that in mind, tell us what you think of our collection of tapestries. You see only a portion here at Whitehall, but we are proud of what is so displayed.”

            And so went my discussion of tapestry with the king of England. As the sovereign worked his way through three more courses of food, we talked of the series I had seen thus far. He was eager to hear my opinions. The one in the main hall turned out be called The Fall of Troy. Most of the king’s tapestries told tales of classic Rome or stories of the Old Testament. “Our prize is still The Story of David, we purchased it twelve years ago,” he said. “We’ve assigned a man in Brussels. And scouts in Italy and France and Flanders. We hate to think of missing a good tapestry, particularly if it’s to the king of France.”

            This was a world I had not imagined. Of course I knew that the largest tapestries were woven in Brussels and that the wealthiest families prided themselves on their possessions. But this sprawling community of artisans and weavers, fueled by new ideas and techniques, financed by the competitive kings of Europe—I’d had only an inkling.

 “Our grandfather, Edward the Fourth, built up a strong collection,” the king explained as he dove into the next course, one of roasted pig. “The king our father added to it; he had a perceptive eye for tapestry, as he did for all things. When he died, the crown owned four hundred pieces of tapestry.”

            “Four hundred?” It did not seem possible.

            He smiled proudly. “We had it inventoried. We do so periodically. We like to know exactly what we own.” He turned his head to the group of servants standing behind. “Fetch Sir Anthony Denny.”

 Not a moment later, a thin, red-haired gentleman appeared, and the king ordered him to commence with a new inventory of the tapestries of Whitehall.

“Your Majesty, if I may?”

With a start, I turned toward the queen, who had called out to her husband in her quavering, heavily accented voice. I was overcome with shame at my incivility. I had been embroiled in conversation with the king for some time, and had made no effort to include the queen.

“Sire, I know—that you love the music,” she said, slowly. “I have surprise.”

The doors swung open and four men strode in, carrying musical instruments. They were all dark, resembling each other to an unusual degree. With one graceful movement, the quartet bowed low to the king and queen.

The queen’s translator announced on her behalf, “These are the Bassano brothers, come to court from Venice at the queen’s invitation, to entertain Your Majesty.”

King Henry looked truly taken aback. But he gathered himself and pointed at one of the brothers and asked what instrument he carried.

“It is called the violin, Sire,” the man answered in French.

I will never forget the performance of the Bassano brothers in the queen’s privy chamber. It could have been the potency of the wine, or my jangled nerves over conversing with King Henry, or my constant and underlying fear of the Palace of Whitehall. Perhaps it was all of those things. But I found the piercing, soaring, aching sound of that violin, the principal instrument in the quartet, so powerful that I found it hard to draw breath.

I loved music—I used to play a vihuela, taught by my mother—but it had been a long time since I’d heard instruments play. When was the last occasion? It took me a moment, and then I remembered, with a twist of my heart. The wedding of Agatha and John Gwinn just a year ago. I danced at that wedding, the last one with Geoffrey Scovill, who admitted more than he should have of his feelings for me. Although I had always known--always. How much Geoffrey and I had hurt each other. And the Gwinns said he would leave Dartford. What if he’d already done so—and I’d never have the chance to speak to Geoffrey again.

The Bassano brothers finished, and the queen clapped her hands, well pleased. As for the king, he had gone still as a statute, his small blue eyes a touch bleary in his fleshy face.

We waited for his reaction. Surely he must be impressed.

Henry VIII cleared his throat and said, “Such music is not appropriate for a small dinner of family in a privy chamber.”

The queen’s face fell. I could not believe that His Majesty, known for his passion for music, did not appreciate what his wife had done. Standing behind her, Lady Rochford smirked.

The king continued, “Still, we shall be sure that these brothers from Venice are fairly compensated.”

I was in an odd way grateful for his coldness to Anne of Cleves, for it broke the spell. During the long discussion of tapestry, I had found it hard to hold onto my hatred of the king. It had almost seemed as if we were family, speaking of a common interest. His depth of knowledge of tapestry, his references and insights, were so exceptional that I had been quite carried away. But now I’d returned to earth. The king was a tyrant who had ordered the deaths of people I loved. He could never be my family.

The king rose to his feet with a groan, pulling himself up by gripping the top of his high-backed seat. He had eaten and drunk so much. It was surprising he was able to rise without assistance of strong-backed menservants.

“We bid you good day, Madame,” he said to his wife. “We have another matter of tapestry to discuss with our kinswoman, Joanna.”

Anne of Cleves said quietly, “Good day.”

I rose and curtsied to the queen. To prolong my time with the king was a daunting prospect. I’d hoped to be free of him by now. But at least this meant we would soon finish our business and I’d be able to leave for Dartford.

The king moved with difficulty from the queen’s privy chamber. He had been sitting a long time; his leg seemed now a source of utter agony. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with him—Master Culpepper had said something about open sores on the king’s leg requiring constant physician attention. 

We passed a portrait of his third queen, Jane Seymour, hanging on the wall. How pale and pensive she looked, as if she knew she would die before the marriage was two years old. I wondered which ghosts walked with King Henry along the passageways of Whitehall: the first wife he spurned; the second one he had killed; or the third one he lost after she did her duty and produced a male heir. Perhaps it was not so strange the king showed no interest in Queen Anne, for he could well be a man worn down from being husband to the trio who proceeded her.

Now that I stood close to him, that singular odor filled my head. Aside from the fruit and floral extracts and the musk was the same indefinable smell—familiar and animal-like and yet somehow disgusting. At dinner I’d thought it came from one of the myriad dishes of meat. But we were far from the table now. In trying to place it, my mind skipped to a memory of Edmund treating a wound in the Dartford infirmary and then I had it—what I smelled was infected flesh. As much as he tried to cover it up, the king’s leg wound stank.

We finally arrived at the destination the king had in mind: the chamber housing The Story of David. It was undeniably magnificent, each glittering tapestry in the long series depicting an episode of the ancient king’s life. We stood side by side, saying nothing, for a few moments.

“We come here often, for only this King of the Israelites could understand our destiny,” said Henry VIII, very solemn. “We are another David, chosen by God.”

I stole a glance at him. Did he truly believe this? King Henry’s face was red and slick with sweat, whether from the long meal in the candlelight or the stabbing pain of his leg, I did not know. “I must lead the people from the darkness and ignorance of Papal superstition to truth and goodness,” he announced.

I clutched my hands tight, to keep them from trembling.

Although he did not turn from The Story of David to look at me, the king must have sensed my fear. “Do not be troubled, Joanna, for you were not at fault for seeking to become a nun. You are clearly a woman of intelligence. What you require is instruction.”

I did not like the sound of that, but there was nothing I could do but pray that soon I would be freed from royal company.

Sir Anthony Denny approached, and to my relief, reminded the king of a council meeting, but Henry VIII waved him off. “We shall be there soon enough,” he said in that high, sharp voice. Then, his tone gentler, he said to me, “Tell us, cousin, what you think of the paintings of Whitehall. You are knowledgeable about tapestry, we would like to discover what else you can speak to.”

“I appreciate art but know little of its technique, Your Majesty,” I said. “When a painting moves me, I am not sure of the reason.”

“And has a painting of mine moved you?” He turned to inspect me. “Ah, yes, one has.”

When I described the painting I had seen in the hall just before dinner, the king laughed a little. “You are a woman of surprises,” he said. “That is one of our favorites. It is part of a series done years ago by our court painter, Hans Holbein, called The Dance of ‘Death.”

“Then the skeleton in the painting is…”

 “… death.” Henry VIII finished my sentence. “It appears in each one of the series, but to different people: a nobleman, a poor man, a merchant, an abbess, even a king. You see, Joanna, death comes to all.”

I felt a chill. And for a fleeting second I thought I glimpsed fear in the king’s face too. To believe yourself chosen by God to be another David, and yet to quake before mortality, what a strange state. Or was it guilt that haunted him, guilt for the monasteries he’d destroyed, the parade or martyrs he’d created?

The king said firmly, “We did not ask for your company after dinner to speak of death. Put Holbein and his fancies from your mind. We wish to commission your next tapestry, The Sorrow of Niobe, but we have a condition. We would choose the subject whose face you model Niobe’s on.”

It took me a moment to grasp what he was saying. “But Your Majesty, my loom is in Dartford. I do all my weaving there. Unless you plan to send this person to Kent, I don’t understand how it will be possible.”

“We have a proposal on where you will weave,” he said. “Many thoughts have come to us on that. But first, we would have you meet your Niobe, we think you will agree she is worthy of admiration.”

To my shock, a fond smile played on his lips, the like of which hadn’t seen this entire day.  It was in anticipation of the Niobe I would now meet.  Once he learned of my tapestry, he’d arranged for her to be brought to this unknown room.

So he was not weary of women. Although he was a man of some fifty years of age, married to a fourth wife, fat and near-lame, Henry VIII was behaving like a love-struck swain.
The king gestured, impatiently, for a servant to open the door to a room on the passageway. With a dread approaching sickness, I walked toward it.  

 Inside was a small, windowless study. A cushioned stool was put in the center of the room, and a young woman perched on it, her skirts spread in a perfect circle, her cheeks flushed as her eyes met mine.

It was Catherine Howard.



So ends Chapter 11 of The Tapestry. If you are interested in receiving a signed novel, please comment below and include your email. I will pick the winners on December 7th and mail them shortly afterward!

Before you go, I have an important request to make. My husband wrote a modern thriller set in New York City, it was accepted into amazon's Kindle Scout program for reader-powered publishing. For 30 days, the book's first two chapters are posted and information on the novel. The more nominations his book receives, the better his chance of winning his first book contract. So please take a moment to vote! It means a great deal to me. Thank you.

To vote, click here. It takes less than a moment.