Early in April 2013 I sat at the computer wondering what to write. I had just finished the first draft of ‘Blood of Ironside’ and put it away for a rest before I started on the second draft.
I thought I might write a short story. I put my fingers on the keyboard and wrote this:
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.
I sat back bemused. Who was talking? I knew when the period was, more or less. But I was writing from the point of view of a girl. I had never done this before.
And then I wrote:
Henry has divorced one wife and executed the second. But that is far from the whole story. A string of shattered hearts lies strewn across the land like pearls from a 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. Anne’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 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 seventeen years of age. I came to court as a simple servant 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 took me as one of her maids of honour and my slow approach to the furnace began.
Alice’s voice took hold of me. For the next year, apart from an interlude when I revised Blood of Ironside, I have lived with Alice Petherton. My wife is very tolerant.
I did not know much about the Tudor period, having learned too much about it from a History teacher who was obsessed by Henry VIII. So I had to research as I wrote. I usually do some research as I write but I had to do far more as I went along for this novel.
I learned about maids of honour:
The Queen’s chamber was crowded when we arrived. Jane Seymour sat close to the window, working, as always, at her embroidery. She was said to be the finest needlewoman at court, and not merely by sycophants. I admired her work and knew that no matter how hard I tried I would never produce anything close to its quality
This was partly because I loathed working with needle and thread. I much preferred to spend my hours in reading, or even writing. But Jane liked to do neither and so all her ladies and maids must, perforce, bend themselves and their minds to the constant poke and stitch of needlework. Sometimes, at the end of the day, my fingers felt like pin-cushions.
About food, feasts and fasts:
In the centre of the table lay a roast boar, the scent of its rich meat wafting across the Hall, enticing the taste buds like no other fare can. Next to the boar was a glistening swan, roasted and embellished with fruit and sweetmeats. I guessed that stuffed inside it would be an aviary of birds: goose, chicken, partridge, pheasant, woodcock, snipe, pigeon, heron, capon and song-birds.
About births, christenings and funerals:
King Henry stood at the front of the Hall, a tiny baby held high above his head. The King began to walk down the central corridor with slow and measured tread, pausing at each group of courtiers to show the child to them. As he did so each group began to applaud with enthusiasm, some with genuine pleasure. A few called out with joy but such loud demonstrations were frowned upon by the Steward’s officers. Presumably they were fearful for the infant’s tiny ears.
The King came close to us. Knowing that we were the Queen’s Ladies he did more than merely pause as he had with the other courtiers. He stopped and moved closer to us holding the baby out so close we could have reached out and touched him. A cooing came from our throats, as though we were creatures of a Dovecote and not young women of the Household. The King smiled at this, delighted at our response.
And I had to learn about:
Royal Palaces and their layout and furniture, palace servants, the old and new nobility, courtiers and their intrigues, religious changes, Tudor clothing, musical instruments and how they sounded, the Royal Menagerie and the animals housed there, modes of transport, roads and the upholstery of a coach, popular dances and how to dance them, Tudor names and modes of address, Tudor poetry and poets, the streets and alleys of London, crime and punishment, Tudor pastimes, Tudor gardens and flowers, a Tudor farm and farming, attitudes to women and children, diplomacy and marriage negotiations and the physical and mental health of the King.
It’s been quite a journey.
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