To be a servant at the court of King Henry is to live with your heart in your mouth. This is so whether you are young or old, male or female. I am young and I am female. So the danger to me is considerable.
The danger is the more acute because I am pretty and the Queen is in the last month of her confinement.
Henry has divorced one wife and executed the second. But that is far from the whole story. A string of shattered hearts lies across the land like a pearl necklace broken in rage. Aye, it’s true that complicit fathers, brothers, uncles and even husbands have got rich by leading their women like heifers to the courtly market. It is the women who give the most and suffer the most grievously.
Unless of course, they are clever.
It does not do to be too clever. Anne Boleyn taught us this. For make no mistake, King Henry is more clever than any man in the kingdom now that Thomas Wolsey is dead. And he is as subtle and wily as even the most cunning of women. Boleyn’s head rolling from the block is testimony to that.
The trick is to show your cleverness to just such a degree that Henry is intrigued by it but not threatened. The second trick is to intimate that your cleverness is at his disposal and command even more than your own. And the third trick? Ah, the third trick is to be willing to bed the great beast of appetites and to know when to do it.
My name is Alice Petherton and I am nineteen years of age. I came to court as a simple maid but I caught the eye of Anne Boleyn when she was newly crowned. I was good at singing, could dance like an elf and made her laugh and think. She made me one of her Ladies-in-Waiting and my slow approach to the furnace began.
I was fond of Anne Boleyn. She was not pretty but there was something alluring about her, some promise of carnality which affected all who knew her, King and subject, man and woman. I must confess that on more than one night I awoke hot with sweat having dreamed I had been bedded by the Queen, worn out and used by her, alive and half-deadened, exultant and dismayed. There came one morning when she stroked my cheek and kissed me swiftly on the lips. I gazed into her eyes that day, telling her that I was willing. But she merely laughed and commanded me to get on with my sewing. So are we played with by those we must learn to call our betters.
I will become that better, I determined, I will be fawned upon and bowed to some day.
Not that I aspire to be a queen, you must understand. That is too deadly by far. Henry appears to be in love with Jane Seymour. He would, of course, for she carries his child. His greatest lust is for a male successor; even more than for any pretty face and shapely form. There is no sense in seeking to usurp Seymour’s place, no hope. If she proves to be a good brood mare then he will rest content for a little while. But in the meanwhile he hungers. The furnace grows hotter by the hour.
I gathered up my book of verse and strolled across the lawn.
It was the third week in September but the weather continued unseasonably warm. King Henry was alone in a bower of roses now shrivelling on the branch. The autumn winds blew fallen petals about his feet, hither and tither, skittish as a filly.
Jane Seymour was herself one of Boleyn’s Ladies-in-Waiting and had once been my friend so the King had acquaintance of me.
I did him a curtsy and made to walk on.
‘You have a book, Alice Petherton,’ he called. ‘Is this for decoration or education?’
I curtsied once more and glanced up at him before looking at the ground demurely.
‘For education, Your Majesty,’ I said in a low voice. ‘I seek to improve myself.’
Out of the corner of my eye I saw his eyes slide from the book to my breasts and then to my hair.
‘Don’t bend your head to the ground, child,’ he said. ‘Your King will not harm you by his gaze.’
I took a breath and raised my head. The newly risen sun illuminated the lower part of my face but my eyes remained in shadow.
I saw his chest move, as if a wind of passion was surging within. He held out his hand for the book.
‘Poems by the Earl of Surrey,’ he said, perusing the title. He flipped open the pages. ‘Do you like the Earl’s poems, Alice Petherton?’
‘I do Your Majesty. They are ably writ.’
Henry’s eyes narrowed and his head turned as if he could not believe his ears. ‘Ably writ?’ he said. ‘A chit of a girl talks of my foremost poet, an Earl of the Kingdom, in such a manner?’
I curtsied again. ‘I meant no disrespect,’ I said.
‘Perhaps what you mean and what you say are very different matters, Alice Petherton?’
‘They are not designed so, Your Majesty. It must be my youthful ignorance.’
He said nothing but continued to stare at me. The sun had risen higher now and dissolved the shadows which had hidden the top of my face.
‘You have very dark eyes,’ the King said. ‘Very dark. And yet your hair is blonde and your complexion pale.’
‘Many have remarked upon this, Majesty.’
‘They are black as sloes,’ he continued. He gestured me closer and stared into my eyes. I felt the heat of him beating down upon me, or perhaps it was my own heat, gusting like a wind in summer. ‘Yes, very like sloes. Dark eyes are hard to read, don’t you think, Alice Petherton?’
‘Not as hard as the work of the Earl of Surrey, Majesty.’
He stared at me again, a quizzical look upon his face. I saw his emotions battling, his thoughts flying. Then he tilted back his head and laughed. It was a pleasant laugh, not loud, not soft; as natural a laugh as a King could make. Yet as he laughed his eyes locked fast upon me.
I smiled, a gentle smile, as if I smiled not at my own words but at my lord’s pleasure.
His laughter stopped. He stared at me as if had not seen me until this moment.
When he spoke again his voice was changed, deeper and cloying.
‘I would know you better, Alice Petherton,’ he said. ‘I would read poems with you.’
‘I am at Your Majesty’s pleasure,’ I said, giving another curtsey. But as I did so my eyes never left his face.
- V&A shows Henry VIII’s stone leopards – complete with telling tails (guardian.co.uk)