I take in a deep breath, absorbing the floral country air. I urge my horse to follow my uncle and my father along the cobblestone road. My sister pulls up beside me.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she breathes.
“It truly is, sister, “ I reply, my eyes drawn to a rabbit in the bushes.
“It will all be mine when I marry George!” she exclaims. My mother shoots her an approving look. “Not now, Jane,” my mother’s look quickly turns sour once she hears my remark. She always dotes on Jane and treats me like one of the servants.
“Now, now, Elizabeth. Do you doubt your sister’s beauty? Do you not believe in the love she shares with George Boleyn?” Mother scolds.
“What Jane shares with George is not called love. It is nothing but a temporary fling,” I shoot back.
“What would you know about love? You are so ugly, nobody wishes to lay eyes on you!” Jane exclaims. I am about to attack my sister with a spiteful comment about George’s past of ex-lovers, but the sight my eyes absorb prevents me from doing so. For there, in the near distance, is the famous Hever Castle.
I am frozen with amazement. What splendour! What beauty! My horse follows the procession glumly, but he cannot understand the truly fantastic place we are to stay in. It imposes intimidation and wonder upon me at an unprecedented level as the parade persists.
Once we have reached the moat, an eerie creaking sound travels across the murky water as the drawbridge is lowered. Thankfully, my horse walks on without command as my whole body is paralysed. How many times has the gracious Anne Boleyn entered through this very gate? How many times has His Majesty King Henry entered these walls? And now I!
My eyes search the small courtyard as the drawbridge is pulled up behind us. I explore the precious glass windows as I dismount and my horse is led away. We are ushered through to the Inner Hall. It is a simple room, with a portrait of the Boleyn sisters hanging side by side. I scrutinise their faces. What will they look like in person? Before we know it, I am climbing steep, claustrophobic spiral staircases and being led through sumptuous corridors to the Long Gallery. I take another deep breath as my family’s names are announced before the doors wing open and we see the Queen of England for the very first time.
Her kirtle, bodice, sleeves and French hood are red, with tiny intricate flowers of gold thread. Her ladies are dressed in green and red and wear the French hood. Mary Boleyn sticks out like a sore thumb as she dons a gown of black velvet and the heavy Gable hood. I let out a sigh of relief. I fit in with my favourite burgundy dress and French hood. Anne is just as she is in the picture: dark, wicked eyes, a long thin head, red lips and a slender figure. Her auburn hair is glossy and smooth, like mine!
As she approaches me, my knees feel as if they are about to give way. Her eyes intently judge every inch of my body, whilst I try to stand tall and proud (like Mother told us to). I notice that everyone else has mingled with the ladies, Mother and Jane included. I see Mother watching me from the corner of her eye.
“Who may you be?” Anne speaks in heavily accented English. Her clear words jolt me back to reality.
“Elizabeth Parker. Daughter of Henry Parker, the tenth Baron of Morley. My father and your father were very close friends.” I reply in fluent French.
“Ah! You speak French. What a delight! I know your father very well. He is my Godfather.” Anne says, her French even better than mine.
“That would make us Godsisters!” I blurt out, instantly regretting opening my mouth. My Mother must have overheard me, for she glares at me in a most disturbing manner.
“Well, then Godsister. Why don’t you come with me and I can show you around your Godhouse?” Anne chuckles. I feel excited at the prospect of spending quality time alone with the Queen of England, but my excitement is short lived as all of Anne’s ladies and my Mother and sister follow in suite.
We first enter the most beautiful sitting room that I have ever seen. The walls are covered in panels of oak. However, each panel has its own unique pattern. It is like a jigsaw puzzle: pieces of the oak panel have been removed and replaced with bog oak and holly wood. I am astounded at the detail of the panels. Each piece must’ve taken ages. Anne tells us that the ladies of the household mostly use this room. They sit here and sew while the men of the household hunt in the vast gardens. My mind flashes back to the rabbit I saw earlier. I wonder if it has already been caught in the hunt the men are partaking in at this moment.
Anne shows us the dining hall. It is very simple and plain. A tapestry has been displayed on the left wall. I do not have enough time to determine what scene it is portraying, but it is full of intricate trees and is covered with what can only be gold leaf! The high table has been set. I do not know who for, as supper time is hours away, but I catch sight of silver and gold plates. Whoever is to eat here is bound to be very important and very hungry.
We navigate our way through winding staircases and maze-like corridors. Anne seems so confident and so proud. How can she be so sure of her way. Her pride I can understand. Despite the crumbling walls of the castle and the medieval structure, Hever Castle is magnificent and a pleasure to stand in. I feel as if I should bow down to the wealth and stature that these stones posses. I look quickly at my sister. She looks as mesmerised as I am. She is most probably looking for the best room: the one she will sleep in.
Soon, we find it. Next to George’s bedroom (which Jane was besotted with: she even touched his pillow) is the master bedroom. It is small, but cosy. It is dark, but full of life. The bed is covered with the finest of furs, the kind even the Boleyn family would consider far too precious to use in the coldest of winters. The bed is draped with green curtains, laced with gold. Servants are running in and out through a door to the right of the bed. I am curious as to what lays beyond, but Anne is already moving on.
We briefly enter the Council Chamber. I almost trip on a loose flagstone. Anne lifts it up and shows me the murder hold beneath it. My spine shivers as I imagine what could’ve been poured down to the trapped invaders below. After all, we are on top of the space between the two portcullises that protect the castle. This is all part of the medieval defence system. They are no longer in use. I assume.
As we enter Anne’s childhood bedroom, I am astonished at the room. It is just like mine. However, Anne had to share her bedroom with only her sister and Governess. I had to share mine with Jane, my Governess and my darling Catherine. Anne’s ceiling is in the medieval half-dome shape to reflect the light into the room.
“What a beautiful bedroom you have!” Jane exclaims. Anne smiles arrogantly.
“Isn’t it?” she replies smugly.
“It is almost exactly like the one I had as I child,” Jane always uses this trick. The idea is to fool someone into complementing her. She exercises this vile trick on me all the time. Anne eyes my sister furiously. It is clear that Anne does not like complementing others.
“I shared my room with Jane, my Governess and my sister Catherine,” I piped, hoping to win back Anne’s favour somehow.
“Oh. I only had to share with Mary and my Governess. Then again, some of us have to make do due to the circumstances,” Anne smiles. Her ladies cackle at her joke, but their laughter sounds fake and practised, “Pray, where is your sister Catherine, child?” Anne provokes. She knows exactly what happened to her: she was the one who personally sent her condolences from the Court.
Jane answers in a nauseatingly sweet voice: “She caught the Sweat and died at the age of twelve. It is a shame since she was destined to marry Henry Percy.” Jane plays along with the game, insulting Anne in the process at the mention of her past lover and rumoured husband. I look around the room timidly, instantly feeling humiliated. My face is overcome with an appalled expression; the ladies look shocked; my mother looks wistful and heartbroken, but Anne looks defeated. Jane looks satisfied at having damaged Anne’s ego, but she must be scared of Anne’s revenge and the consequences.
“Moving on!” Anne exclaims.
As we parade to the Long Gallery once more for some entertainment before supper, I fall alongside Mary Boleyn.
“I am sorry to hear of your husband’s demise,” I solemnly say. I look into Mary’s eyes. She has softer facial features than Anne and is prettier.
“Oh bless you child! Don’t you worry about me. I have two beautiful children by King Henry VIII and I have many happy memories of William,” Mary replies, a tear glistening in her eye. “I was wondering if you could come to Court and help to look after them.”
“I would be honoured. Are His Majesty and Her Majesty content with this arrangement?” I question.
“Yes, quite so. Your Mother is awfully happy about it, too. You will need new dresses. Anne is very strict as to the fashion of her ladies at Court.” Mary warns. She is the kind, warm-hearted woman I have ever met and I wish she were my mother. But we must come back to reality at some time. Mother would naturally be happy with any arrangement that would result in me being far away from her.
As we enter the Long Gallery, I notice two chairs in the centre of the room. Anne’s eyes are haughty and darker than ever.
“I heard that you and your sister are good at playing the lute,” Anne says delicately. “Could you play for us?”
She hands over a lute to each of us. We take a seat, with my back to the door.
“I shall sing. What about Greensleeves?” I whisper. Jane nods in agreement and we begin. I feel the music rushing through me, filling my heart with love and filling my mind with dreams of the Court. I let my eyes drift shut and let my lips move without any instruction. But then I notice that I am alone. There is no muttering and praising in the background and my sister has stopped playing. I open my eyes to see everyone on their feet. My sister’s face is ashen and she is performing the pose she uses only for the royal family. In unison, everyone dips into a deep curtsey, the kind I can only hold for a few moments before falling over. Which can only mean one thing. Suddenly I know as to whom the high table had been set for and whom the master bedroom had been prepared for. My breath catches in my throat, my heart thuds loudly in my ear. I summon up all my courage and turn my head.
There, standing in the doorway in a spectacular green cape, is the King of England. I stand up as quickly as I can, all but tripping on my skirt in the process. I try to recover, but I have already made too much of a fool of myself. My whole face flushes vermillion: right up to the roots of my hair. I turn as gracefully as I can and curtsey as the King strides up towards me.
“Rise, child,” he orders in an unusual high, piping voice. “What is your name?”
“Elizabeth Parker. Daughter of Henry Parker, the tenth Baron of Morley, your Grace,” I stutter.
“What were you doing? Why did you not rise?” he demands.
“I was...I was singing. Greensleeves, Sire. It is such a beautiful song. I....I guess I was stolen by the music.” I mumble.
“I know that it is beautiful. I composed it,” he says softly. “Are you coming to Court, Elizabeth?”
“Yes, Sire. I am coming to look after Mary Boleyn’s children.”
“I hope that you will play for me. Your voice is beautiful and your playing is perfect. I look forward to seeing you.”
The King moves on to his wife, motioning for the rest of the ladies to sit. I collapse into my chair, gasping for air. I see my mother look at me approvingly. Somehow, I conjure up a smile.
We go for a walk in the gardens later on. I sing along to the swimming of the birds and dance with the bees. I feel on top of the world after my brief conversation with His Majesty the King. My sister approaches me while I examine the flowers.
“I hear that you are to go to Court,” she murmurs. I look into her eyes, sensing a trap.
“You heard correctly, sister. I am to look after the children on Mary Boleyn. I will be helping her educate and dote on her kin.” I reply.
“I will be joining the Court once more. Anne has requested me to be one of her ladies-in-waiting.” Jane says.
“Well then, sister. I shall see you there. I wish you all the best.” I say, hiding the sarcasm.
“I don’t know how I will manage without you,” I look at her in shock and stop sniffing the roses.
“What do you mean, sister?” I inquire.
“I know that I am harsh on you, but Anne is harsher on me. Did you hear her remark about our dearest sister? Just now, she called my dress gross and ridiculous. I love this plum colour, yet Anne called it revolting and childish. Whatever am I to do?” my heart softens at my sister’s confession.
“You are one of the bravest souls I have ever met. You are witty and smart and beautiful. You will become a highly respected woman and most of all: you will marry George.” My sister smiles and embraces me. “I believe in you.” I whisper emotionally.
Before I can comprehend what is happening, we are waving goodbye to the King and Queen of England and Hever Castle. Whatever will happen to us next?