Christmas at the Tudor Court: a short excerpt from The Light in the Labyrinth.
Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.
As the holly groweth green
And never changeth hue
So I am, and ever hath been,
Unto my lady true.
Unto my lady true.
It was Christmas. On Kate’s way to the chapel for evening prayers, voices sang the King’s song once more.She stood still, listening to the refrain: Unto my lady true.
Did he believe those words when he wrote them? Did he believe he gave his heart and that life promised him rebirth, a new beginning? That he would never forsake the woman he loved? Now it seemed that the winter blasts of disappointment, disillusionment, and despair froze his heart.
“Adieu his lady,” the singers sang. “Adieu.”
Kate trembled. Stop it!All is well. Once her aunt gave the King his desired son, all would be more than well. But Kate could not shake away her sense of apprehension.
Holly, ivy, and winter flowers garlanded the doorways and walls at Greenwich. Verdant green contrasted vividly with bright red—red holly berries, red flowers, red glass, red ribbons—used to tie up the Christmas trappings and hang them in every possible place, even around the window-seats overlooking the Thames. The trappings became arches then, partially hiding the people who sat there taking rest from the many games, or those who dallied in games of love.
On the fourth day of Christmas, Kate rested in one of these window-seats. Christmas at court was a busy time, even if normal duties were on hold for the while. Days and nights of merriment took their toll.
Her brother played Blind Man Bluff. Kate grinned. The melee of young people darted in and out all around him. His laughter was carefree, so unlike the increasingly circumspect boy who considered his every move with caution.
Only a little time before, she, too, had been blindfolded, her hands outstretched, forced to search for her fellows by hearing and touch, going one way and another. A little scared by her blindness, it didn’t stop her laughing until her stomach hurt. For a short time, she even forgot the absence of her best friend at court. Almost a week ago, Catherine, the Duchess of Suffolk, had left the court to go home to attend her ailing son.
Her cheek against the cold stone of the embrasure, Kate tried to ignore the icy fingers that seeped through her gown, draughts let in by the badly sealed window behind her. She struggled to keep her eyelids open—the desire to sleep began to steal upon her.
With a shake, she sat straighter and gave herself a shake. You are young,a maid, not a grey-head crone!Had she fasted overmuch on the days leading up to Christmas, wanting her aunt to be proud of her? How she suffered for it now. Even her aunt did not wilt like this despite her daily struggle to keep down her food. Since the start of the festivities, she had made merry with the King, partnering him in dances, singing with him, talking long with him. Her happiness was contagious and spread to the court. Kate sighed. Aunt Nan had a steel will; she was not likely to seek out her bed as Kate wished to do.
Giving in to her tiredness, she leaned against the stone again, and drifted into a daydream about the Christmas masses four days before. That night she had held a taper in her hand, adding to the light of many borne likewise. The candles lit blue lights in Aunt Nan’s unbound hair and glittered her jewels, casting upon her the gauze of beauty. Side by side, hand clasped in hand, the King and Queen had taken their places to hear the three masses. As the priest told the lineage of Christ, the King bent to whisper something to Aunt Nan, his hand going to her belly. She met his eyes and smiled. Putting her hand over his, she lowered her head to pray. Joy seemed theirs that night, as on the first Christmas when the Son of God came to live among men. The joy of the first Christmas too, concerned a child. As from the beginning, a child is always hope.
Kate had started then, knowing her thoughts influenced by her mother. She had been so angry the day of her mother’s churching. The first moment she found herself alone with her mother, she had snarled, “Why have more children? Why bring us in the world when it is only pain?” Her mother’s smile had maddened her, but her answer made her cry. “Not only pain, Kate, not when a child’s loved like all my children are loved. All my children have been born in faith. Hope and faith in life.” That Christmas, Kate had no doubt her aunt believed the same.
Leaving the chapel with Madge, Kate’s happiness for her aunt kept her smiling. A smile she found answered in a slight, amused smile of an aged man who stood alone in the gallery, leaning on a walking stick. The light of one torch shone not only on the weave of holly decorations, but also his amicable, angular face framed by longish, greying hair. Despite his amused smile, Kate detected an unmistakable air of sadness around him.
Taking off his black cap, he half bowed to them. Madge bobbed a brief curtsey, and Kate did the same.
Madge approached cautiously. “Greetings, Master Chapuys. Were you in the chapel with us? I did not see you.”
The sadness around him now told its story on his face. He adjusted his black cap back on his head. “Nay, Mistress Shelton.” The voice was accented—the words slowly drawn out as if ensuring their correctness. “I am here to see the King.”
Madge glanced at Kate with a lift of an eyebrow before turning back to Chapuys. “The King? I do not envy you. Ambassador or not, I do not think he will welcome you tonight. He goes with the Queen to her chambers for supper.”
“The Queen.” Chapuys spoke even slower. His mouth pursing, he scraped his walking stick on the ground. .
Why did he linger over Queen?
Changing position, he shifted his walking stick again. “Welcome or not, I will see the King tonight. Master Cromwell has gone with my message. The King will come.”
Now, four days later, Kate understood better that strange meeting. She knew from Aunt Nan that the King had seen Chapuys. The King had returned to her chamber furious and difficult to soothe. That same night Chapuys had rode with the King’s permission, permission that had cost him the King’s anger and was only obtained under duress, to be by the side of Katherine of Aragon.
Was his news true? Was Katherine really dying?