QAB Guest Post: Excerpt — The Kiss of the Concubine, by Judith Arnopp
After the King’s abrupt departure from the May Day tournament Anne realises for the first time the danger in which she stands.
May 1536 – Greenwich Palace
It is two in the afternoon and I have begun to think that perhaps nothing will come of it. The king will order them all to leave me alone, remind them that I am their queen and the beloved wife of their king. But just as I am picking up the stump work I have been concentrating on, Norfolk is announced.
He stands just inside the door, a parchment scroll rolled in his fist. He has the grace to avoid my eye.
“Why are you come?” I ask, although I already know what his answer will be. He clears his throat, as he always does before speaking.
“I am here at the king’s command, to conduct you to the Tower, where you are to bide during his Highness’ pleasure.”
His Highness’ pleasure? I know well how to pleasure Henry. A fleeting memory surfaces of him succumbing to my bedtime games, his faces flushed at the delicious indecencies I subjected him to. He can’t be tired of me, surely.
My mind returns unwillingly to the present, swiftly summing up my options. The Royal apartments at the Tower are sumptuous and warm, only recently renovated and updated for my coronation. There is nothing to fear in a short stay while the matter is cleared up. Even now, George will be pleading my case with Henry. I raise my head, regard my uncle coldly, and reply as if I have a choice. “If it is indeed the king’s pleasure then I am ready to obey.”
Behind me, one of my ladies succumbs to a fit of weeping, but I silence her with a snap of my fingers, a verbose frown. I call for my cloak.
I am not given time to say goodbye, or to order my possessions packed. Poor Urien is left behind, my needlework is abandoned on the table, my lute placed lovingly against a chair … until I return. With my chin as high as I can raise it I follow Norfolk from the room, watching his lumpy feet creep along the torchlit corridors until we emerge into a rain-washed morning where a long, low barge is waiting at the wharf.
The river craft bobs and dips in the water. As the men pick up their oars, I crane my neck to look up at the walls of Greenwich and wonder which window conceals the king.
But then I recall that Henry has left already, fled to Westminster, leaving me to the mercy of my enemies. He has discarded me like a soiled kerchief, or a broken lute string, but such flaws can be repaired, washed clean, and taken up again. Soon Henry will realise that and summon me back. My stay at the Tower will not be prolonged.
As the boat glides toward mid-stream I spy a pale face watching from behind the thick green window glass. Not knowing if it is friend or foe, I lift my hand, see a flicker of movement and am comforted, although I cannot tell who it is that dares to bid me farewell.
Erect on the barge cushions, I remember a happier May day when, dressed in splendour, I was taken to my coronation and all the world was wild with celebration.
I remember the warmth of the sunshine, the cheering of the crowd, the pushing onlookers, the exuberant excitement of my sister, Mary.
I remember a child on one of the barges, dressed as an angel. She waved at me and I recall making her day by raising my hand to return her greeting and sending her one of my best smiles. I wonder where that little girl is now, and if she will weep for me when she learns how low I am fallen.
As the river glides along beneath me I have time to think back, try to see what I have done wrong, how I may have offended the king. Every so often a shaft of panic rises, takes up residence in my breast, and it is all I can do to stifle it, thrust it back down again and maintain, at least outwardly, some semblance of serenity. I do not want them to see my fear. I must not give way to panic. Oh, where is George? Why does he not come?
As the outline of the Tower grows clearer, I draw my cloak about me, trying not to shiver in the shadow of the soaring walls. A blast of canon fire sends a dark host of screaming ravens into the sky. I cringe, fingers in ears, my heart hammering, tears springing disobediently to my eyes. The canon signals to London that a person of note has been taken prisoner. Soon everyone will know that the prisoner is their queen. Surely the king will stop this foolishness.
Help me, Henry, I whisper. Help me, George. God send me a reprieve from this nightmare.
The oarsman put up their oars, the barge collides with the wharf wall, and I take my fingers from my ears and look fearfully about me. Upon the slick green steps that will take me to my fate, Mr Kingston is waiting, his hands folded quietly in his sleeves. He is calm, a look of gentle concern creased across his brow. At his kindness the queen in me takes flight, leaving just a terrified girl. I scramble to my feet, grab desperately at his proffered hand and stumble from the boat. “Mr Kingston.”
“Your Grace.” There is something about his calm manner that vanquishes the last of my dwindling courage. A sob breaks from my throat and his grip tightens encouragingly on my forearm.
“Mr Kingston.” I try to smile but my mouth refuses to conform and all I manage is a grimace. “Are you going to put me in a cell?”
He pats my hand. “No, no, Your Grace, you will be lodged in the royal apartments, where you stayed before your coronation. All has been made ready for you, and my wife is waiting to attend you there.”
His wife. Mary Scrope is a long-time lover of the old queen and an open enemy to me. Cromwell has chosen well. I wonder what other adversaries await me here. I shake my head, smile my wobbly smile as I take his arm. He leads me on quaking limbs across the inner ward and past the Lanthorn Tower to my apartments.
As my eyes become accustomed to the dim interior I see the chambers are just as I remember, although in my new unstable status they seem somewhat tarnished and chilly, the hangings a little faded, like Henry’s love for me. But the familiarity of the apartment reassures me a little. I force myself erect. I am still the queen, still as yet unvanquished.
Cromwell hasn’t beaten me yet.
As the door is opened six women turn to greet me, bobbing to their knees, their faces detached and formal. Lady Kingston; Mary Cosyn; and my aunts, Elizabeth, Lady Boleyn, and Lady Shelton, mother of my cousin Madge. But I do not rush into their arms, for they are not my friends and I have no doubt they’ve been sent here to spy and report any misdoing to Cromwell.
Aunt Elizabeth has made no secret of her allegiance to the bastard Mary, and Lady Shelton resents how, to help save my marriage, George and I manipulated her maiden daughter, Madge, into Henry’s bed.
The other two women, the chamberers, are a far more welcome sight. Mary Orchard is my old nurse, and Mrs Stoner an honest woman who loves me well. They come forward to greet me and I am soon divested of my cloak and gloves and offered refreshment.
Barely acknowledging the other women, I toss my prayer book on to the bed and move toward the window to peer through thick green glass. Beyond the Tower walls the river is alive with bobbing craft, as traders and passengers alike cross and re-cross the wide grey stretch of water, all going about their daily lives as if nothing has happened.
I suppose nothing has happened, not to them.
And below my window, on the castle green, the inhabitants act as if there is nothing remarkable in the arrest and imprisonment of an anointed queen. For the first time I realise I mean very little to the ordinary people. If I am locked away here forever, there are very few who will care, and soon I will be forgotten, as if I have never been. All I will leave behind is Elizabeth, and a few unthinking letters, scribbled in haste.
Although I have no appetite, I accept when Sir William Kingston invites me to supper. I brush my hair, change my cap and sit at table with him while he serves my wine, carves my meat and selects all the daintiest cuts for my plate. My women wait at a discreet distance, and apart from the two guards who stand like silent sentinels at the door, I can almost believe I am not his guiltless prisoner, awaiting trial for treason against the man I love.
We eat in silence for a while; the food is good but not excellent, and the same might be said of the company. Poor Mr Kingston, I am dull of spirit and cannot pretend to be otherwise, even though I know that each word and gesture will be reported back to Cromwell. I would prefer the spies to bear tales of my confidence, innocence and strength, but it is beyond my capability to live up to such a pretence.
But, at last, I break the silence.
“Mr Kingston, would you speak to the king on my behalf and ask if I might receive the sacrament that I may pray for mercy?”
He dabs his lips with a napkin, chewing his food rapidly to clear his mouth that he might answer respectfully. He nods, swallows, licks his lips, dabs his mouth again. “Of course, of course, Your Grace. I shall make the necessary arrangements right away.”
“Thank you. There is no reason why I may not take the Sacrament. I am as clear of the company of men as I am of sin. There is no truth in these charges, you know.”
A long silence follows, a silence I want to fill with questions, but I fear the answers too much. “Mr Kingston,” I say at last. “Tell me about Mark Smeaton. Have they hurt him?”
He rinses his mouth with wine, presses his napkin to his lips. “I know not, Your Grace.”
“Is – is he here? At the Tower?”
He nods, wets his lips, nods again. “And Norris also.”
My throat closes up with grief, my voice reduced to a croak.
“Thank you, Mr Kingston.”
I try not to react to the news that poor innocent Mark and brave Norris are locked up like felons because of Cromwell’s need to be rid of me. Mr Kingston pours more wine, the rich ruby fluid flowing thick into our glasses. I reach out and lift it to my lips, inhaling the deep fruity aroma before letting it loose upon my tongue. I swallow and replace the glass carefully on the table beside my plate.
“Mr Kingston … I love the king very much. Have you seen him? Is he well?”
He shakes his head. “I haven’t seen him, Your Grace, not since May Day.”
May Day was the last time I saw Henry too, the last time I saw George. I grip my napkin, crunching it into a ball. “And what of my father, and my brother George, have you seen them? Do they plead my case with the king?”
“I know not, Your Grace.” His face seems to dissolve a little and I realise that I am weeping, the room swimming in tears. I throw my napkin onto my plate, watch as it absorbs the gravy, the greasy stain spreading as quickly as a plague. My hands are shaking, my chin wobbling.
“Mr Kingston.” My voice is high, unguarded, and I know I am on the brink of hysteria. “I have a very great need to speak to my brother. He will help me, once he knows … Mr Kingston, they say I am accused with three men, but they name but two …”
I am weeping now, knowing myself to be ridiculous, knowing myself lost. I begin to laugh, place my hand over my mouth, tears spilling over my fingers, my nose starting to run. “They name but two, and those two are lodged here in the Tower with me … so where is the third? Who is the third?”
I stand up, my chair falling backward, legs in the air. I notice one of the guards flinch, his brow creasing, his eyes no longer fastened on the opposite wall. They are not so blind as it would seem. Sensing his pity, I rush toward him.
“Do you know my brother? Can you send a message to him for me?”
The young guard does not move, even when I hold out my hands, clasp them beseechingly as Mr Kingston takes me by the shoulders and leads me away. I turn toward him as if he were a father, and cling to his robe, plucking the fur at the neck, trying and failing to remain calm.
“You are a good man, Sir, a very good man, and I know you to be my friend. You will tell George, won’t you, please? Oh Lord, how my poor mother will weep … I think she may well die of sorrow …”
“Hush,” Mr Kingston whispers and jerks his head in silent command to my women, who come to take my hand, lead me back to my chambers.
When darkness falls I do not lie easy in my bed. I toss and turn, throw back the covers only to feel cold again and wrench them back to my shoulders. Mrs Cosyn, who has been appointed to share my chamber, sleeps on in her truckle bed, oblivious to my suffering, her snores rattling the casement glass.
I pray for myself, for Elizabeth, for George and for Henry; and I pray for those accused alongside me too. I get up, peer through the dark window to the lightening dawn, and then I lie down again, to toss and turn some more.
Mrs Cosyn is sorting my linen. I watch her sinewy hands smoothing the creases, tucking in the pleats and tidying the lace. Her movements are mesmeric and I find I cannot tear my eyes away from her fingers. “They’re questioning young Weston,” she says suddenly, and I blink at her, astonished that she should know, that she should break the rules and offer me news of the events outside my prison.
“Not Weston! I fear him more than the others, lest he betray poor Norris.”
“Norris? Why? What has that poor innocent ever done?”
“Only loved me, Mrs Cosyn, or so Weston told me once. Norris would never make so bold himself.”
Her eyes slide from my face back to her task, and too late I realise I should have remained silent. “As his queen, I mean. His love for me is honourable, as befits the wife of his monarch.”
I scramble to undo the detriment of my words, but I don’t know if she believes me. I had thought Mrs Cosyn to be gentle. I had believed she was a friend, but now I am not so sure. She might carry my comment to Cromwell and increase poor Norris’ trouble. I must remember that I can trust nobody. There is no such thing as a friend, not in these hideous days.
Judith Arnopp is a prolific historical fiction writer from Wales, United Kingdom. Always passionate about history, after raising her children to adulthood, Judith graduated with a Master’s Degree in medieval history from the University of Wales, Lampeter, where she also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing. Judith’s writing is varied, focusing on Welsh, early English (Anglo-Saxon) and Tudor English history. For more information about Judith Arnopp, visit her website at http://www.juditharnopp.com.
The Kiss of the Concubine is available in paperback and on Kindle. Click below for Judith’s Amazon page:
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