To Be a Queen

Bess chewed a strand of grass, watching white clouds as they drifted on a blue summer sky. Through her half-closed eyes, the sky seemed to shimmer with heat. Pressed down by the weight of her long body, the grass beneath her formed a comfortable cushion. Are the clouds overhead as soft as the grass beneath me? She wanted to believe that, but life had long taught her to expect otherwise.

 Once, her mother, also named Elizabeth, had spoken in tones that befitted her role as the crowned consort to the King of England. Now her voice was tense, strident, angry.

Bess returned to chewing the grass strand. She suspected her mother searched in the nearby maze in the confines of the castle’s walls, not thinking Bess would venture farther. Why should she? Sheriff Hutton Castle was a place unknown to her mother while Bess had spent her first days at the castle in exploration. It hadn’t taken her long to discover a way out of the castle to the meadow just outside its walls. It became a place to escape to—a place where she found peace.

‘Besssss,’ her mother called again.

 Bess blocked her ears. She didn’t want her mother to find her. Not yet. She needed time to be alone with her thoughts. She needed time to sort out her feelings. For months, her mother had had no hesitation in bringing up the subject. It was one of the first things she had spoken of when she arrived mid-morning to the castle, saddle-worn and weary. Separated from her daughters for weeks, her mother had embraced not one of them. She had demanded to speak alone with Bess.

In the solar, her mother, in one of her worst moods, had attacked her eldest daughter with questions. ‘Are you all prepared, Bess? Soon we will know the outcome of the battle.’

As if Bess wished to think of the outcome.

When her mother spoke of the king, her uncle, winning the battle, broaching again at her evil suggestion, ‘You could marry the king. We can easily arrange a dispensation,’ Bess had had enough. She bolted and ran from the room.

Bess could have died from the shame, just like on the day when her beloved uncle, half mad with grief about the impending death of his wife, sweet Aunt Anne, had denied out loud he had ever planned to marry his niece once his queen was dead.

Bess couldn’t think of that day without praying for the earth to swallow her up. Confused and heartsore, she had also realised that day her true feelings about her uncle. He was only twelve years her senior. He was kind and handsome. His blue eyes were unforgettable.

 He played his lute and sang love songs to break hearts. 

Later, when she’d heard he had entered talks for her to marry the heir to Portugal, she felt her prayers answered. Portugal would be the earth to swallow her up. She deserved far greater punishment than Portugal. She deserved exile forever from England for her sinful thoughts.

The summer breeze changed into a strong wind, blowing down the thick wall of grass around her. She curled up, trying to make her tall body small, fearing those looking for her would now see her from the castle. When the wind dropped again, she almost wept with relief. She wasn’t ready to be found—or to return to the castle and her mother’s badgering. She wasn’t ready to return to her sisters’ questions—or to face poor Edmund and John’s anxiety.

Her cousin John, she knew, planned to escape if news came of Henry Tudor’s victory. Seventeen, Uncle Richard’s loved bastard son, he was still smarting from not being allowed to fight at the side of his father. He did not accept his presence would have offered a target for the king’s enemies.

Her cousin Edmund, unlucky to be the true-born son of the king’s dead, traitorous brother, was just a bewildered child. Still, he knew his close position to the crown left him somehow in danger if anything happened to the king. Bess had told them both they had nothing to fear. Henry Tudor would not seek their deaths. She would not let that happen. She refused to let that happen. She prayed she was right to tell them so.

And what of my own brothers? If they’re alive, then what did that all mean for them?

Many times, her mother’s behaviour confused her but more so in recent months. At court, her mother had resumed her usual practice of plotting by joining forces with Margaret Beaufort. Bess was told she would marry Margaret Beaufort’s son once he took the crown from her uncle.

Surely, that means Mother believes my brothers Edward and Dickon dead?

 But her mother did not seem grieving them. She had returned to her uncle’s court with her daughters as if not troubled about the disappearance of her sons.

 She treated their absence as if it was but a trifle. Her mother gazed at the grieving king without fear while continuing with her plots and plans. Bess rubbed her pounding temples. Her mother had even seeded the rumour about her uncle desiring Bess for his second wife. If Henry Tudor failed to take England, her mother desired Bess to marry her uncle. Bess wanted to vomit about her mother’s desires. 

The fate of her brothers gave Bess nightmares. She believed them dead. It was the only reason she agreed to marry Henry Tudor. Despite all the awful rumours, rumours that had resulted in this battle for England’s throne, she could not believe Uncle Richard had murdered them. He was a good man. She remembered the many times her father praised his brother’s loyalty.

Her head pounded again. She had seen little of her brother Edward in recent years. He had his own court at Ludlow Castle, where he learnt to rule. But her little brother Dickon? Blonde, blue-eyed like all her siblings, she had first cradled Dickon as a newborn babe. Seven years his senior, she had cared for him with devotion. She smiled, remembering his wedding as a four-year-old to Anne, his five-year-old wife. Dickon did not really understand what happened that day, but he enjoyed the feast, the new clothes and glittering jewels and even dancing with little Anne. How the court had buzzed with the echo of her father’s great amusement. Dickon always came to Bess first if he desired comfort.

No, if she believed her two brothers still lived, she could not marry Henry Tudor.

 She would rather a Portuguese marriage. She would far rather exile from the country she loved, escaping being a pawn in her mother’s plotting.

Sometimes, she came close to hating her mother. If she did not hate her, she disliked her far more in these distressing days than the father, England’s King, who had made her, and her siblings, bastards.

She had loved him, but that she could not forgive. Bad enough, his desire for a life of pleasure had diminished him as king. She was only a child when she first realised her father’s many flaws—flaws which saw the kingdom plunge into civil war—and not just once. Even as a child, she knew of the countless deaths. There were so many weeping women at court.

Two times in Bess’s life, her mother had fled with her children to take sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. The first time, her mother gave birth to Edward, her father’s longed-for heir. Her father was not there to welcome his son. He was still a sea away, across the channel, seeking to reclaim his kingdom. The second time… Bess witnessed her mother handing over Dickon to her uncle’s men. Bess believed him safe, but she had also promised herself she would die first before ever doing the same for any child of hers. Dickon was only nine. She would always remember his eyes turning to her—how scared he had been. How brave he had been. Not one tear did he shed. Every time she thought about it, her heart broke anew.

Thinking that her marriage to Henry Tudor would mean the death of another person she loved—her heart broke yet again.

Uncle Richard had been so burdened with sorrow when she had returned to court with her mother and her sisters. His young son and heir dead, followed months later by the death of his beloved wife, he seemed to be sleepwalking through his days.

She thought of the last time Uncle Richard had spoken to her and her sisters. He had told them he was sending them to this castle, far away from London, in North Yorkshire, a place he loved.

‘I pray to God, sending you all there will keep you safe. If the Tudor wins the battle, the distance will give him time enough to cool his blood and think of mercy, and not of more death.’ He paused. ‘Believe me, I have done my best to keep you all safe.’ He looked to the window. Tears coursed down his pale cheeks. There were new lines scored into his still youthful face. Lines of pain, lines of grief. Lines of torment. ‘All of you,’ he had whispered. ‘All of you,’ he repeated louder, meeting Bess’s eyes.  

No—she refused to believe the lines belonged to guilt. She did not know the fates of her brothers, but she refused to believe they came to ill at Uncle Richard’s hands. She swallowed bile. If they were dead, it was more likely to be by the hands of others. 

If I am to be Henry Tudor’s queen, what then? She breathed in sharply. But I would be England’s Queen. Even if I am a bastard, I have far greater right than him to the crown. Despite the heat, she shivered. She shook her head. If I am to be England’s queen, I will be England’s queen. Even if it means letting my husband believe he rules alone. I desire no more civil wars. I desire only good for England. I’m my mother’s daughter, but I have learnt well from her mistakes. I will not divide like my mother but unite. I will spend my life serving England. If my uncle wins, I will serve England as Portugal’s Queen.

If he loses…?

Bess rubbed tears from her eyes and rose from the ground. ‘If he loses, I will not let England lose too.’ She lifted her head like a queen ready to face her destiny.