Greenwich Palace – Spring 1510
“Play-on!” The imperious command was given by a golden-haired giant to the musicians in the gallery above his head. “Play a Pavane in honour of our queen.” Henry Tudor swung on his heel and strode down the length of the Great Hall leaving the young woman whom he had been partnering in a country-dance to stand alone in the middle of the massive chamber. He halted abruptly in front of an arched doorway, through which the dainty figure of Queen Catherine had just made her entrance followed by her ladies-in-waiting. She placed a slender, white hand into his outstretched palm and curtsied deeply. Raising eyes of a startling blue to look into her husband’s handsome face, Catherine smiled radiantly at him.
“Sire, I am honoured that you would dance the stately dance of the country of my birth, when I know you favour the faster steps and twirls of the Italian dances.” Henry’s narrow lips pursed and his small hooded eyes, of a much paler blue than those of his wife, ran speculatively over her small frame.
“Aye, but we have a care for your health madam. You have only lately returned to us after a fruitless confinement and long weeks of sickness.” The Court collectively winced at the carelessly spoken, hurtful words. Everyone at court, down to the most insignificant kitchen scullion, knew of their beloved young queen’s heartache at having miscarried her first child and of her long struggle back to good health. “You took to your bed, having lost my heir,” Henry’s broad features took on a sullen expression. “My Court was left without a queen. It was most inconvenient,” he complained peevishly. “We would not wish you to overtax yourself and endanger your health by undertaking any energetic activities too soon, for you could succumb to the malady once again!” In front of the whole Court, Henry made Catherine’s recent miscarriage and subsequent poor health appear an act of self-indulgence – a failure of her queenly duty.
Catherine paled at the egotism behind his words. They fuelled her acute sense of loss that was a physical pain, whenever she thought of her lost baby son. For a long silent moment, she studied her husband’s petulant face. Blinking away hot tears, she straightened her spine, lifted her small, determined chin and raised herself to her full diminutive height. In a soft, haughty voice, that left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were in the presence of a princess of Spain, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, Catherine responded to her husband’s self-centred lack of compassion.
“It was the will of God that the babe came too early and did not live; nor was I sick from choice your Grace.” The formal dignity of her words, and the icy tone in which they were spoken, made everyone hold their breath.
How would their spoiled, young king take this reprimand? Was the Court to witness the first royal quarrel of a marriage, many felt Henry had made too hastily, after his accession to the throne, and others, more romantically inclined, maintained was made in heaven?
Instead of the expected explosion of temper, which was Henry’s usual reaction to being opposed, he dropped his head and fiddled with the bejewelled handle of the dagger hanging at his side. Shuffling his feet, he finally looked sheepishly into his wife’s coolly composed face. Everyone then remembered that he was after all, still only eighteen years old, six years Catherine’s junior. Enfolding her tiny hand between his large paws, he pulled her closer and bent his lofty frame to whisper,
“I missed you!” Your sickness frightened me!” They wouldn’t allow me to see you! I was all alone and had to manage everything without you. I needed you beside me!” She heard the self-pitying insecurity in his voice and recalled that, unlike herself, who had known from infancy that she would one day become queen of England, and had been prepared for this role from the cradle, Henry, until the death of his brother, had been only a second son, neglected and ignored by his father. He had received no training in kingship, and until Arthur’s death, had grown up in his mother’s Court, indulged and petted by his mother and grandmother. Her heart softened. After all, he was little more than a boy. He had been her staunch friend and ally during her long poverty-stricken widowhood and on his accession to the throne, had insisted on their immediate marriage in the face of much opposition from his dead father’s Councillors. Their eyes met; Catherine realized that this was as close as she would get to receiving an apology from him. “I am fully recovered and will remain so.” She assured him in a calm voice.
“Are you really well again?” Henry asked earnestly, studying her face for tell-tale signs of illness. Her reply was emphatic.
“Yes, your Grace! I shall join you for the Hunt on the morrow. If you permit?” Henry looked doubtful.
“You are well enough to ride?”
“Be at ease Sire,” Catherine firmly pushed aside his hesitation. “I am returned to my old-self once more!”
A feeling of immense relief washed through him. His world had righted itself again. The person upon whom he totally relied was back by his side where she belonged. Henry beamed in delight. He bowed low over Catherine’s hand, kissed her slight fingers and then her smooth cheek. She squeezed his hand in reassurance.
The king signalled once more to the gallery. The musicians struck up. He turned to lead the queen into the dance, but she held back laughing,
“Not the Pavane, Sire! We are young…it is May-time!” she exclaimed. “Let us celebrate our youth; Spring and my return to Court with a joyful dance.”
“The Volta then!” Henry shouted enthusiastically. He bowed once more to his queen and the courtiers made room for their energetic young king to display his dancing prowess. Encouraged by Catherine, Henry danced, his fast footwork and high leaps making her laugh and clap her hands, then gasp in mock fear when he grasped her around the waist and lifted her high into the air. The whole Court joined their king and queen in the dancing, the Great Hall of the old palace became a vivid moving tapestry as the richly embroidered doublet and hose of the gentlemen merged with the jewel-like colours of the ladies’ swirling skirts.
Thomas More, newly appointed Under Sheriff of London, propped his shoulders against a convenient doorframe and waited for an opportune moment to pay his respects to his royal master. From this vantage point, he had watched in admiration for the way in which the young queen had dealt with her volatile husband. Noting the sullen pout of the king’s small mouth turn into a wide smile of delight, as he led her into the dancing. Thomas was content with his decision to support Henry’s hasty marriage to the widow of his elder brother. It was a wise one. Catherine’s maturity and diplomacy would restrain his temper, his extravagance and his lust for glory.
Thomas’s thoughts turned to the old king’s advisers, now languishing in the Tower. They could have taken lessons from this woman, whom they had dismissed as a nuisance for so long. To their own cost, these men had entirely misread their new master’s character. They thought that his youth and inexperience would allow them to manipulate him and continue with the parsimonious policies of their defunct regime. Henry may have been young and untried, but he was an egoist with a formidable intellect, who was determined to make his mark on the world. There was no doubt in Thomas’s mind that Henry, now in possession of the over-flowing coffers of the royal treasury, would turn his father’s tired Court into a glittering showcase that would dazzle the rest of Europe. The reign of the most handsome prince in Christendom and his pretty Consort would ensure peace, stability and prosperity for England. He was young and virile. She had proven herself fertile and although the child had died, there was time-a-plenty for young Harry to sire more little princes upon her. The future was bright indeed.
…but what did the future hold for Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Sir Thomas More? In the far distance, the thunder clouds were gathering for all the Players in this drama?
Copyright Marla Skidmore.
The moral right of this author has been asserted.