Friday 15 April Sudeley Castle
I’ve come to England on this gray, drizzly day to get some research and inspiration for my next book, The Long-Lost Jules, a modern-day story whose characters explore the fate of the long-lost daughter of Queen Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife, the one who survived).
When Katherine married the aging, bombastic King, she was in love with another man, Thomas Seymour. After just a few years of marriage the King mercifully departed this world, so Katherine married her Tom with indecent haste and moved to Sudeley with him. Barely a year later, Katherine gave birth to her first child, a little girl named Mary, and died five days later. Tom, an incorrigible reprobate – a man of much wit but very little judgment according to Queen Elizabeth I – was executed just seven months after that for treason, and the baby disappeared from history, presumed to have died in infancy.
Katherine, my guide comments with British understatement, respected Henry “but was probably not fond of him.” (She probably hated his guts, I think to myself.) I am enchanted with my guide, the archivist of Sudeley Castle, especially when he agrees with me that the baby could very well have survived infancy. Katherine, we both think, had the same cool, classy confidence as Kate Middleton. She loved being Queen, and was very good at it – a role model to the future Queen Elizabeth, who must have observed her stepmother commanding men in Henry’s absence. Katherine also loved the trappings of being Queen, my guide notes, pointing out her fashionable, rich clothing and dripping jewels; she had 117 pairs of shoes when she died. I love imagining the stately Queen with a shoe closet to rival Imelda Marcos.
And I love thinking about this highly intelligent, sensible woman who fell head-over-heels in love with “a notorious scoundrel,” as my guide describes him, “a wonderfully attractive, ambitious, unreliable man.” Truly, fact is more fascinating than fiction!
Saturday 16 April, The Tower of London
JANE, the graffiti reads. Just JANE, etched into the hard, unyielding stone of the Tower walls. By a follower of Lady Jane Grey, the caption explains. I stare at my own name, trying to imagine my long-dead namesake imprisoned in the Tower, awaiting her execution, having watched from her narrow window as her husband and supporters knelt before the block for the deadly crime of having believed in her.
Now my granddaughter runs over the green grass where Jane knelt to die. I smile at the sight of little Liora leading her parents on a merry chase. Liora, just 18 months, sees the chains and “Do Not Walk on the Grass” signs as a wonderful maze designed just for her own pleasure. We bought her a princess crown and wand, and she brandishes her wand at anyone who tries to urge her off the forbidden grass. You go, girl! I think.
Sunday 17 April, The National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery
I strolled through the galleries, nodding and smiling at portraits as if they were old acquaintances. (No wonder my fellow tourists steered clear of me.) There was Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster; what secrets those deep-set, dark eyes had known! Amusingly, Walsingham’s next-door neighbor was the merry and irresistible Sir Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s favorite, whose knowing eyes held very different secrets. And Dudley faced Elizabeth herself, gorgeous in a crimson embroidered gown and magnificently looped pearls, her narrow, clever face perfectly suited to her diamond crown.
Well, hello there, Mary Queen of Scots! Poor you; I appreciate the effort, but you would need much more than a black, matronly gown to make you circumspect and wise. In death as never in life, Mary is next to her cousin Elizabeth I, whom she never met but who became her executioner. The sheer magnificence of Elizabeth’s rich gown and jewelry forms an ironic contrast to Mary’s sobriety – in life, of course, Elizabeth was the wise one and Mary the screw-up.
Oh, Henry! Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, is magnificent indeed, huge and overpowering in his oversized portrait. He doth bestride the petty world like a Colossus, I muse. And poor Anne Boleyn beside him, so proud with the golden B necklace on her breast, poor foolish girl.
And finally, the famous Delaroche painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey – but this one didn’t come to life, didn’t speak to me at all. Painted in 1833, it’s the classic idealized hagiography that my young Jane Grey in Nannyland so despises. In this painting, the doomed queen is young and healthily plump, with loose reddish-brown hair tumbling flirtatiously over her bare shoulder. She’s clad in a gorgeously draped white satin gown – the white of innocence, the white of martyrdom. Kindly hands guide her to the block, while even the hard-faced executioner looks on sympathetically.
I wonder: Did Jane really look so rosily plump and fetching after her months in the Tower?
Ugh, as my young Jane Grey would say.
Sunday 17 April, Covent Garden
I sat in the watery April sun at a café in Covent Garden, where Leo meets the woman he calls Jules in the opening scene of The Long-Lost Jules. I could almost see her sitting next to me, defiantly munching on a rich Cornish pasty and creamy mashed potatoes, keeping a wary out for anyone who might catch her eating such a forbidden lunch. And instead a tall, dark, handsome (of course!) stranger looms over her and exclaims, “Hey, Jules! I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“With some regret – he was very good-looking – she shrugged her shoulders and turned back to her book. “Sorry,” she said. “But I’m not Jules.”
Sadly, no mysterious stranger loomed over me, so I finished my pasty and creamy mashed potatoes and rose to go, noticing the savory aroma drifting from a crepe shop across the way. Maybe Leo and the woman could have dessert there after a merry chase through London…I grabbed my notebook and sat down again to scribble.
Monday 18 April, Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court is the palace most closely associated with Henry VIII, where he lived with all his wives at various times, and where the future Elizabeth I lay close to death for three long days, suffering from smallpox. It is where he married Katherine Parr, his sixth wife (the one who survived), the Queen who figures prominently in The Long-Lost Jules.
Cold even on a sunny spring day, I think that Katherine Parr must have found Hampton Court a drafty, uncomfortable palace under dark, lowering skies. My guide reminds me that Henry would have wanted everything to be perfect. It was painted red in his time; it must have been like arriving at Disneyland, everything bright and gilded and splashing with fountains.
But still I wonder how Katherine Parr felt when her water barge glided up to the Privy Gate. As we wander into the Queen’s Chapel, where the marriage took place, I ask my guide what she thinks. “Duty,” is her answer. This is where Katherine, who was deeply in love with another man, became the wife of the aging King, a man who had beheaded two wives and divorced two others. A man grown detestable and gross, embittered and humiliated by the infidelity of his latest wife; a man so huge that he had to be winched up to his horse, using a special crane.
As we stood in the Chapel, a strolling team of minstrels came through the hall, their voices lifting in perfect, age-old harmony.