The King's Pleasure
He had cried for hours. Mother, his dearest Mother, was dead. It had been the most hateful, dreadful news, broken to him by Mrs. Luke, his old nurse. Not, thankfully, by Father, who was too broken by his own grief. Harry could not have coped with witnessing the King’s distress. He had enough to bear. He had wept and wept on Mrs. Luke’s broad bosom, and now, aware that great boys of eleven were not supposed to give way to womanish tears, he struggled to compose himself and went to find his sisters, who were sitting desolately on the rug before the fire in Mother’s bedchamber. He stared in horror at the bed, which had already been hung and draped with the black velvet of mourning. Mother would never sleep here again; he would never more hear her sweet voice, feel her gentle arms around him, her golden boy. How truly she had loved him; how desperately sad to think of the empty years ahead without her. He could not damp down the great swell of sorrow that was rising within him. He sank to his knees by the bed and buried his head in his hands.
He had loved her, revered her, adored her. Through her, he was the heir to the rightful royal line of England. She had been everything a queen should be: beautiful, kind, fruitful, charitable, open-handed, and devout. She had taught him his first prayers and his first letters, soothed his childish ills, and been a fount of wise advice and comfort. And now she was gone. He could not bear it.
His grandmother, the Lady Margaret, found him and lifted him up. Framed by her widow’s wimple and black gable hood, her thin face was sad and drawn.
“Harry, you must rejoice that your dear mother is with God and be happy for her.”
“How can I?” he burst out. “I need her! How can God be so cruel as to take her from me?”
“Hush, child! You must not question God’s will.” She sat on the bed and drew him to her, as Mary, not quite seven and the beauty of the family, climbed on her lap and sat there, her lower lip trembling, and Margaret, thirteen years old and normally willful and imperious, knelt at her feet, looking lost.
“Your lady mother is now in Heaven, looking down on you all and praying for you,” Grandmother told them. “She would not want you to be sad. And she is with Arthur.” Even now, Harry felt the old familiar, resentful jealousy of his brother rising in him. Whatever Arthur had had, Harry had coveted, and when Arthur had died last year, at the tender age of fifteen, Harry had suddenly had it all. He was now the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, and he was betrothed to his brother’s enchanting Spanish widow. One day, he would be the King of England and Katherine of Aragon would be his Queen. But now, Arthur, in Heaven, had stolen one final march on him and was enjoying the greatest thing of all: their mother’s presence.
“Why did she have to die?” Mary asked.
“God called her,” the Lady Margaret said.
“She died because she got childbed fever after having our sister Catherine,” Margaret elaborated.
“Would that Catherine had never been born,” Harry muttered.
“Never say that, Harry!” Grandmother chided, hugging him. “She is an innocent, poor, motherless babe, and I fear that she herself is not long for this world.”
Harry wept again, as the reality of his loss sank in. He was motherless, too. He leaned his head on the old woman’s thin shoulder and howled.
Two days later, the Lady Margaret being of the opinion that lessons would help to take Harry’s mind off his loss, he was back at his desk at Eltham Palace, laboring under the waspish eye of his tutor, Master Skelton. Learned herself, Grandmother had always taken an active interest in the welfare and tutoring of her sweet children, as she called him and his sisters, and Mother and Father had always said they should be grateful for that, since she was a generous patron of scholars and the University of Cambridge. Like Mother, she loved books, and both women had inspired in Harry a passion for learning. It was a great source of enjoyment, a journey of discovery for a young mind avid for new information, and he had always been an apt and able pupil.
Three years ago, Lord Mountjoy, a scholar whom Father had appointed to mentor Harry, had arranged for a young lawyer called Thomas More to bring the celebrated Dutch humanist Erasmus to Eltham Palace. Harry and his younger siblings had received them in the magnificent great hall built by their grandfather Edward IV, and he and Erasmus had conversed in an oriel window.
Harry had long revered Erasmus as a hero; even before he met the great man, he had read his books and been inspired by his understanding of the literature of the ancients and his studies of the Greek New Testament. He had been taught about the rediscovery of the classical works of ancient Greece and Rome, and knew that those who studied this “new learning” were called humanists. He had been honored when Erasmus invited him to correspond with him in Latin, and elated when the great scholar praised his letters and said how impressed he had been to learn that they were all his own work. I see you like to emulate my style, Erasmus had written after the Eltham meeting. You have the seeds of genius in you. You reach for the stars, and you could bring to perfection whichever task you undertake. Harry had thrilled to his words.
Now, bent over a beautifully bound manuscript of Homer’s Odyssey, he was finding it hard to concentrate, for his thoughts kept straying to his great loss. He was always an active child, and schoolwork could not distract him from his grief. He needed to be outside, running or riding or fighting with his friend Charles Brandon and the other boys seated at the adjacent desks, who seemed as fidgety as he was.
When he had been very young, there had been talk that he was to become a churchman. Fortunately, Father had changed his mind, for Harry had no inclination for the religious life. He wanted to fight battles and triumph at tournaments, woo beautiful ladies and perform feats of daring to win their love. Both his parents, especially Mother, had instilled in him a passion for chivalry, and he wanted to be the new King Arthur. That role had been intended for his brother, who was to have ushered in the second golden age of Camelot, but Harry knew that he himself was far better suited to the task than Arthur would ever have been. Arthur had been skinny and sickly; Harry was bursting with health and energy. He was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Constable of Dover Castle, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a Knight of the Garter and a Knight of the Bath; prior to becoming Prince of Wales, he had been Duke of York. He could not wait to feel the weight of the crown on his brow.
For now, however, he was relegated to the schoolroom.
“And what is so interesting outside the window?” barked Master Skelton, catching him daydreaming. “To your books, Lord Harry! England has the right to expect much from a king who has been nourished on philosophy and the Nine Muses!”
“Yes, sir,” Harry muttered, failing as usual, for the life of him, to see why Erasmus had called crabby old Skelton—Skelinton, as he himself privately thought of him—an “incomparable light and ornament of British letters.” More like the feared and hated scourge of his father’s unsuspecting courtiers, whom the tutor targeted with derisory and contemptuous satires. It was not only Harry who had felt the lash of his tongue. Father had been angered by Skelton’s barbs and had even clapped him in jail for a short spell last year. Since then, Skelinton had tempered his criticisms and spoken of leaving court and taking up a rectorship in Norfolk. Harry had been gleeful to hear that, then realized he would miss him. He had his master’s measure and knew how far he could push him. Better the devil you knew.
He caught Charles Brandon grinning at him across the room. Seven years his senior, Brandon had been chosen as one of his companions after Arthur’s death. He was the son of Sir William Brandon, who had been Father’s standard-bearer at the Battle of Bosworth, but had been cut down by the Usurper, Richard III. Had Sir William not been guarding him, Father himself would have died. In gratitude, a few years after the victory that had won him the throne, Father had placed young Charles in Arthur’s household and later made him a page. He was a boisterous boy, none too bright, but his love of jousting, chivalry, and pageantry meant he and Harry had become inseparable.
Brandon hated Skelinton, who was often exasperated with him, but the tutor had Harry’s interests at heart. Two years ago, he had written a book, The Mirror of a Prince, in which, with other improving advice, he had exhorted Harry to choose a good wife and prize her always. As if Harry would not do that! Ladies were to be worshipped and treated with reverence.