Just a Girl by Jane Caro - Read Online
Just a Girl
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"I do not remember when I discovered how my mother died, it seems to be something I always knew, a horror I absorbed through my skin." Determined, passionate and headstrong, Elizabeth I shaped the destiny of a kingdom. Her mother; Anne Boleyn, was executed by her father Henry VIII. From that moment on, Elizabeth competed with her two half-siblings for love and for Britain's throne. In the gilded corridors of the royal palace, enemies she couldn't see—as well as those bound to her by blood—plotted to destroy her. Using her courage to survive and her wits to confound those who despised her, this young woman became one of the greatest monarchs the world has ever seen. Even though she was just a girl, she had already lived a lifetime.
Published: University of Queensland Press an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on
ISBN: 9780702247187
List price: $12.99
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Just a Girl - Jane Caro

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I am alive. My heart beats, my skin is warm, I breathe, my limbs move, I see, I hear, my head remains attached to my neck, my skin unpierced by any blade, my stomach untainted by any poison.

I am alive and I am awake. I do not know the o’clock, but it is many hours since I retired to my chamber and many hours till cock’s crow – for which I thank God and curse Him in equal measure.

I am awake and tomorrow I shall be crowned.

It is cold tonight; a wind blows outside, wuthering and moaning around the corners of this great fortress. The same wind blows around the corners of houses and hovels. It seeks out the sleeping place of every Londoner: rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief, queen, washerwoman, those who enter the world this night, and those who leave it. Its icy, uncaring breath is no respecter of rank, age, wealth or situation. Outside this room, my ladies sleep. Closest to my door snores Kat Ashley. The door between us may be fashioned from English oak the thickness of a man’s fist, but I know she snores. I do not have to hear it to know. I know it because of all the other nights we shared a bed.

I shall never share a bed again, God willing.

And tonight I do not share even my chamber. The truckle bed that one or other of my ladies usually sleeps upon lies empty. I knew I would not sleep this night and did not wish to share these hours with any but my own thoughts and the shades from the past with whom I now seek to make my peace.

I am alive, but I am also afraid. I confess it freely and I did not expect to be afraid. In the past, when I thought of this moment, let myself imagine a time when I was safe and held my father’s sceptre, I imagined I would feel exultant – triumphant. Yet I do not. I feel about as capable of running a government and guiding England’s destiny as any serving maid. I feel as imprisoned in this Tower tonight as ever I did when I was its actual prisoner. More so, because it is no mere lock that holds me here now: it is God. There is no escape from the morrow, no possibility of escaping the destiny I have sought so long.

None of my family now lives; such a lonely and melancholy thought threatens to undo me. I feel my tears begin and I must pause a while and close my eyes.

The fear and loneliness come in waves, as the grippe does. When they subside a little, I can think and apply my wits to my situation. After all, if I am to be master of this country, I must first be master of myself. It is because I am the last of my line that I find myself here, in the king’s bedchamber, in the Tower, on this night in January, in the year of Our Lord 1559, waiting – albeit with dread – to be crowned queen in Westminster Abbey. (Sweet Jesu, my heart speeds up as I think; my gorge rises in my gullet. Why does the mere thought of coronation fill me with such horror? It is a ceremony only; no actual harm can befall me.) My sister Mary faced just this ordeal a few years ago. Did she shudder and turn sick alone in her apartment, as I do now? If she did, I beg her forgiveness. I lay fevered with envy that night in a nearby chamber. Poor queen. It cheers me not to think that all she dreaded came to pass and worse, I doubt not. Dear God in heaven, spare me that fate.

Mary was of no great age when she died: scarce thirty-eight, God rest her soul. In any other family her passing would have been cause for grief. But, while many may mourn the passing of a queen, who was there to mourn the passing of Mary Tudor? Not her husband, I’ll be bound. Perhaps it is the nature of kingship that the holder becomes the office. So does a crowning also become an execution? Perhaps that is why I fear the morrow so much. Elizabeth the lady or princess will cease to exist tomorrow and her place will be taken by this stranger, this – queen. I feel as if my very soul will disappear, as the crown (like the axe) descends upon my head and I know not who or what will take its place.

I remember my sister most fondly from the time when we were both but young and mere ladies, our title of Princess stripped from each of us by mercurial fate and, of course, the whims of our all-powerful father. Then Mary played with me often and tried to teach me fine needlework. I remember how she liked to admonish me for my lack of talent as a needlewoman.

‘My Lady Elizabeth,’ she’d say, with mock severity, ‘I suppose I should not be surprised that if you think like a boy, you sew like one too.’ Perhaps I could have been a better needlewoman, but I knew how important it was for her to outshine me in something and, truth be told, plying a needle held few charms for me.

She taught me to play the lute and the harpsichord and we often sang together – country songs, folk songs, sometimes songs taught to us by those who had recently been to the courts of France, Spain and the Low Countries – but never hymns. We kept away from religion when we were together.

And she shall bring the birds in spring

And dance among the flowers

In summer’s heat her kisses sweet

They fall from leafy bowers.

That was my favourite when I was little; I used to feel such a yearning when I sang it. Sometimes, when I lay in my bed, I sang it to lull myself to sleep. I still remember the words.

She cuts the grain and harvests corn

The kiss of fall surrounds her

The days grow old and winter cold

She draws her cloak around her.

Then I would burrow further under my quilt and feel as warm and as safe as ever I could.

I sing that song and I am immediately a child back in my bedchamber at Ashridge, or in Whitehall, or at Hatfield, or our apartments at Hampton Court. Not the grand or the large ones, those apartments we each gave up in our turn – Mary to make way for me, and me to make way for Edward. But the casement windows of our more humble schoolroom that looked out over the gardens, where we could watch the household coming and going, discreet behind the dusty window coverings that hung on either side. And we were safe there, forgotten in our out-of-the-way part of the great house. Yet it was only at the royal palaces like Hampton Court and Whitehall that we stood any chance of seeing the king, our father, and all three of us lived for the moments when he cast his eyes in our direction. After the death of my mother, as I think about it now, I believe my father could not bear to set eyes on me. For a long time, it was as if I had been forgotten.

Mary and the ladies of my household with their skilful fingers patched and repaired my clothes as often as they could, but I grew quickly and soon my skirts were too short, my kirtles too tight, and my sleeves not meeting under the arms.

‘She must have new garments, Mistress Champernowne,’ said Mary. ‘She is a king’s daughter, not a beggarman’s.’

‘I know, my lady.’ Kat curtsied low. ‘I have asked and am told that garments will be ordered, but they never come.’

‘Let me write.’ And Mary took up pen and paper, wrote a word or two, then crossed it out. ‘No,’ she continued, as if talking to herself, ‘not to the king; there is no point writing to the king.’ She stared out of the window for a moment, then sighed and put the quill back into its inkpot. ‘We need a queen.’ It was not long after the death of Queen Jane that my wardrobe fell into such disrepair.

Mary turned to my governess, Lady Bryan. ‘You must write to the governor of the Lady Elizabeth’s household, listing the items she needs. Bring it to me when it is done and I shall sign the letter.’

‘Yes, my lady.’ Lady Bryan dropped low into a curtsy, lower than many saw fit to do for either my sister or me, now we were out of favour, and left the room to do as she was bid.

‘Do not fret, mi poquito chica,’ my sister said, scooping me up in her arms, ‘We’ll make a fine lady of you yet.’ I loved it when she spoke to me in Spanish. I knew it meant I was in high favour and I felt safe. I wrapped my threadbare arms around her waist and we sat like that for a long time, her embroidery forgotten, as she sang Spanish lullabies to me and we pretended we were well loved.

My father mourned the loss of only one of his wives: the mother of his son, Queen Jane. I have no memory of her, but she must have been kind, because Mary spoke of her fondly. My father must have truly loved her, for in his whole adult life, the three years that followed her death were the longest he was ever a single man.

I remember one of the few times I saw him in those years, we were at court – a rare enough event in those days – and someone had reminded him of our existence. We were summoned to his presence. He looked at me in my faded and ill-fitting garments and exploded with rage.

‘Who dresses my daughter so?’ he stormed, firing thunderous looks at my ladies, Mistresses Parry and Champernowne. Wisely, they dropped their heads even deeper into their curtsies to avoid his gaze. ‘Why was I not told of her requirements? You,’ he bellowed, pointing at poor Kat. ‘And you!’ Poor Blanche. ‘And you!’ Now he had turned on poor Mary, who had done, like the others, all she could. When I was in favour with my father, my sister was out of it, and vice versa. ‘I make an allowance for the child, the least you can do is see she is dressed decently.’

‘We have written, Your Majesty,’ ventured my sister, her head almost as low in her curtsy as those of my ladies. ‘I have even written myself.’

‘Why have these letters been kept from me? On whose authority?’ And king glared at councillor and councillor glared at courtier and courtier glared at lady and the ladies glared down at their feet. The letters were not kept from my father; no doubt he simply read and forgot them. After a scant few weeks as queen, I have more sympathy for him than I had before. Rulers of kingdoms drown in paper. His real fault lay in keeping us out of sight. Always, for him, what he did not see did not exist.

‘Dress her as befits a king’s daughter,’ he commanded. ‘And get you from my sight,’ he said, turning on me, ‘until you be properly clothed.’ It was terrifying to be shouted at by my father, particularly in company, and I curtsied and scuttled backwards, tripping over my legs in my haste to escape.

‘Look at her,’ I heard him say as I fled the room. ‘She’s as long limbed and clumsy as a young colt.’ I heard them laugh, and I felt ashamed.

But the interview brought results. I received some of the new garments I so desperately needed. I well recall the pleasure I took in their bright colours and crisp folds. It was novel to wear skirts that covered my ankles, and sleeves that reached to my wrists. I no longer felt added shame at revealing my awkward limbs before so many fine ladies and gentlemen. I knew that, even as they went through the motions of respect – curtsying and bowing to me – they saw by my attire exactly the level of esteem in which I was held and my lack of importance in my own house. And Mary and I had learnt our lesson well. We knew our strategy: when these new garments needed replacing, we would put on the worst of them and get ourselves before our father, the king.

We monarchs attain our thrones by divine right, it is said, and it may be so. But I have known and loved three rulers and I saw the fear in their eyes. Despite all their glory, their wit, their power, their wealth and their bluster, they knew themselves to be naked and afraid. My father’s eyes were blue and, as he grew larger with age, so they grew smaller. He was, by all accounts, a perfect and a pretty prince when young, loved so heartily by all who saw him that he held their regard throughout his long reign. But my father had something none of his own children ever knew: a childhood free from fear. He was the second son, destined, as he liked to tell us, for the priesthood. A picture that even tonight causes me a moment of amusement, though lusty priests are neither new nor rare. His youth was untroubled by thoughts of statecraft or kingship. Admired for his great height, his grace as a dancer, his skill as a musician, his intellect as a theologian, his agility in the joust and his courage on horseback, he was at liberty to indulge his whims and display his talent. I never saw him so. To me he was always swollen with food, wine and suspicion. I loved him; he was my father. I revered him; he was my king. I worshipped him; he was the head of my church. I feared him; he killed my mother. It was he who took me from princess to lady and back again, and it was he who enshrined my eventual succession in his will. I yearned for him – he terrified me.

Nevertheless, while he was alive, the worst I risked was disapproval, not death. His smile was as if the clouds parted, the sun shone and God and all the holy angels scattered sweet petals on me. His frown was like the coming of winter, his rage like the hot fires of hell. I experienced the full fury of his displeasure but once, and it seared itself not only on my memory, but on my soul.

We were at Hampton Court and it had rained all the morning, but as the sun emerged in the afternoon so did Edward and I. Full of pent-up energy, we played our favourite chasing games along the Yew Walk. Edward was well that autumn, his persistent cough had left him and he had filled out and shot up in height, but still he could not catch me – particularly if I caught my skirts up in my arms and gave my legs full freedom of movement. But with the coming of the sun, we were not the only residents of Hampton Court who were drawn into the gardens.

As I ran around a high hedge I came upon my father, older now and married to his last queen, my stepmother Catherine Parr, and his retinue. I stopped abruptly and dropped into a deep curtsy. Edward – not many paces behind me – flew around the corner and straight into my wide skirt. But he did not bow as I did, when he saw who had interrupted our game; he ran past me and into my father’s arms.

‘Papa!’ he cried, in a joyous tone that neither of his sisters would ever dare use. I remained with my eyes downcast, not daring to rise to my full height till acknowledged by the king and instructed to do so.

My father caught his son in his arms and clapped him heartily on the back.

‘How now, young man?’ he said in a voice both fond and indulgent. ‘Are you well and hearty, and keeping your sister on her best mettle?’ Only when he mentioned me did he turn his eyes towards me, nod and indicate that I had his permission to rise.

I did so, and immediately realised my clothing was dishevelled from the afternoon’s activity. My headdress sat awry and my kirtle had come untied. Embarrassed, as I so often felt when my father’s eyes were upon me, I struggled to put my clothing to rights, only, of course, drawing further attention to its untidiness by doing so. My father’s beady eye then spied something upon my person that caused him to step a little closer, and began to darken his affable mood.

‘What is that?’ he asked, holding his bejewelled hand towards me; the other still embraced Edward.

‘What is what?’ I said, looking down, an icy fear taking hold of me.

‘That – that chain about your neck with the likeness upon it.’ And before I could stop him, he had stepped close enough to grasp the offending item and peer at it. I knew what it was, and I also knew what a storm it would likely bring down upon my head. I normally kept it safely hidden, tucked well down under my bodice, but thanks to our romp, it had become dislodged and now hung, fatally, outside my clothing.

Some weeks earlier, for my twelfth birthday, Blanche Parry had shyly made me a present of this inexpensive trinket. It was a clumsily painted likeness of my mother, one of hundreds produced by street artists to sell at the time of my mother’s coronation. When Queen Anne fell from favour, Blanche had hidden it away and forgotten about it. She had found it while cleaning out a drawer and thought that I might like some memento of the woman she had served and loved and whom I remembered not at all. So she had cleaned it a little, attached it to a chain and presented it to me. I loved it immediately, but did not need to be warned how vital it was that no one should see the likeness of Anne Boleyn around my neck. Now her hated features lay in the fat hand of the one who had killed her.

‘By God, daughter, what traitor gave you this witch’s charm?’ His voice was low and threatening. I was so afraid that my tongue felt as if it had grown roots and fixed itself to the roof of my mouth. The best I could do was shake my head.

‘How dare you wear such an evil object and display it in public so shamelessly? Is it not enough that your mere existence reminds me daily of the she-devil who bewitched me? Must you continue to cast the spells of that whore, your mother?’ I looked to the ground, hot tears rushed into my eyes at the words he flung at me and, again, all I could manage was to shake my head.

‘This is what I think of this traitorous trinket!’ he cried and with one swift movement pulled the chain from about my neck and hurled it as far across the gardens as it would go. The violence of his gesture caused the