All eyes and hair' a courtier had said disparagingly of her - and certainly the younger daughter of Tom Boleyn lacked the bounteous charms of most ladies of Court. Black-haired, black-eyed, she had a wild-sprite qualty that was to prove more effective, more dangerous than conventional feminine appeal. The King first noticed her when she was sixteen - and with imperial greed he smashed her youthful love-affair with Harry Percy and began the process of royal seduction. . . But this was no ordinary woman, no maid-in-waiting to be possessed and discarded by a king. Against his will, his own common sense, Henry found himself bewitched - enthralled by the young girl who was to be known as - the Concubine. . .
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Norah Lofts was one of the best-known and best-loved of all historical novelists, known for her authentic application of period detail to all her books. She was a bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic, was born in Norfolk. She taught English and History at at girls' school before turning to writing full time in 1936. Her passion for old houses and their continuing history sparked of her much praised Suffolk trilogy, The Town House, The House at Old Vine and The House at Sunset. These were followed by the bestselling The Concubine, The King's Pleasure, a novel about the life of Katharine of Aragon and Eleanor the Queen, a novel about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Lofts wrote more than 50 books, including historical non-fiction and short stories.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was devised that the Lord Percy should marry one of the Earl of Shrewsbury's daughters -- as he did afterwards. Mistress Anne Boleyn was greatly offended with this, saying that if ever it lay in her power she would work the Cardinal as much displeasure as he had done her.
Cavendish, The Life of Cardinal Wolsey
BLICKLING HALL, NORFOLK. OCTOBER 1523
The serving woman went and knelt by the hearth and busied herself with the kindling of the fire. Every movement, every line of her body, proclaimed that she was making a concession to unusual circumstance. Fifteen years and almost as many small promotions lay between her and such a lowly task: but the room, the whole house except for the kitchen, was as cold and damp as the grave, and what was left of the household was in that state of disorganization possible only to one caught unawares in the moment of relaxation following a visit from its master who has just departed and unlikely to return for some time. So Emma Arnett, a practical woman, was lighting the fire.
She had, after all, been specially charged to look after her new mistress, the pale, thin girl, stony-eyed with misery, who now stood, still in her damp riding clothes, staring out at the lashing rain. It had rained almost all the way from London, and the state of the roads had added at least two days to the miserable journey. Unless the girl were soon warmed, and coddled a little, she'd come down with a cold, and to judge by the look of her, she was in no state to shake off even the most trivial indisposition.
"Even the wood is damp," Emma said. "Or I've lost my knack."
It was as well to draw attention to the fact that she, Lady Lucia's personal body-servant, was down on her knees, blackening her hands, doing a kitchen slut's work.
"It doesn't matter," the girl said in a dull, indifferent way. "We can go to bed."
"That we can't do, yet. Apart from the servants' pallets there's not a bed in the house fi t to sleep on. Those Sir Thomas and his company used, that might have been aired, are all out in the barn, emptied and being picked over. He complained that they were lumpy, as I've no doubt they were. That slit-eyed rogue that calls himself steward is as fi t for the job as I am to be Master of Horse."
The window rattled under the onslaught of wind and rain; what little smoke had gathered in the chimney gushed out again and drifted about the room.
"A fine homecoming," Emma Arnett said.
The girl brought her hands out from under her arms and began to rub them together.
"It's not my home. It's just one of my father's houses. I haven't had a home for years. And now it looks as though I never may again."
Emma turned her head and gave the girl a cautious, almost apprehensive glance. Would it come now, the inevitable breakdown, the moment she'd been dreading ever since she had been set this task? She hated weak tearful women, and one of the things which irked her now that she had achieved her ambition to be lady's maid was the emotional demand ladies so often made of their servants. They'd smile and hold their heads high, and conceal their sufferings both of mind and body, right up to the door of the bed-chamber. Once within, with the loosening of the stays, the letting down of the hair, would come the collapse. To you, Emma, I can show my hurt; from you I can ask pity. The trouble was, she had none to give; and to be asked for it was as embarrassing as being accosted by a beggar when you yourself were penniless. Poverty, misfortune, and exploitation had made her hard, through and through, and she disliked acting the hypocrite though she did it, frequently and successfully.
If the girl, upon those woeful words, broke down and wept, Emma would pat and make clucking sounds, and fi nd something hopeful and consoling to say; but the pretense at sympathy would kill the genuine and quite lively feeling toward the girl which had been building up, hour by hour, over the last six days. For, although Emma was incapable of pity, she could be moved to admiration by any evidence of fortitude and hardihood, which were her own virtues. And so far the girl had behaved with a remarkable and surprising gallantry.
For there was no doubt that she had taken a heavy blow, all the worse for following upon what seemed to be a piece of quite astonishing good fortune.
Satisfi ed that the dangerous moment had passed, Emma turned her attention to the sulky fire while through her mind ran again, on a well-worn groove, everything that she knew about Mistress Anne Boleyn.
She had come home from France where she'd been in the service of Queen Claude, because there'd been a disagreement between King Henry of England and King Francis of France which looked as though it would end in war. She'd very soon been given a place among Queen Catherine's women which was natural enough, for her father, Sir Thomas, was one of the King's favorite errand-runners, place-fi llers, a kind of gentleman lackey.
In her new sphere the girl had been noticeable, but for all the wrong reasons. Queen Catherine -- now in her thirties and a little faded, her figure ruined by ill-fated pregnancies -- had once been beautiful and still showed a preference for good-looking women about her, just as she liked fine clothes and jewels. Anne Boleyn had no looks to speak of, no bosom even. One of the Court gallants had dismissed her with the words, "All eyes and hair," and that was a truer saying than were most such slighting remarks. Her hair and her eyes were noticeable, but they were black, and at Court brunettes were out of fashion. And out of fashion, too, was anything French. Mistress Anne, who had lived in France since she was nine years old, had brought home a marked French accent. This, with her coloring and a certain, indefi nable freedom of manner, regarded as typically French, had led a number of people to think that she was not wholly English. Any levity was noticeable at Court, Queen Catherine was, after all, a Spaniard, and Spanish Court manners were known to be the stiffest, most formal in all the world. There was another thing which weighed, in the scales of public esteem, against the plain, lively girl; her elder sister, Mary Boleyn, had been for a time the King's mistress. For a King, a man married to a woman some years his senior, Henry had led a comparatively chaste life, so his lapses were noted, and remembered.
There she was; sixteen years old, with no advantages whatsoever; the Cinderella of the Queen's ladies, and, it seemed, about to turn the fairy tale into real life. For she had caught the eye of young Harry Percy, heir to the Earl of Northumberland; a young man who by blood and wealth would have been a suitable match for any woman outside the closest kin to royalty. And even when you considered royalty's close kin, you must remember that Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, with a lineage much inferior to Percy's, had married the King's sister and weathered the storm of the King's anger. Harry Percy could, in fact, have married almost anyone; and he proposed to marry Anne Boleyn.
It was a nine days' wonder and the gossip reached Emma Arnett, busy with the wardrobe, the jewels, the hair-dressing of Lady Lucia Bryant, one of the women closest to the Queen. This, said gossip, is a love affair which will link all the Johnnies-Come-Up-Lately with those of the real nobility who survived the Wars of the Roses. Sir Thomas Boleyn's grandfather had been a tradesman, mercer, saddler, corn-chandler, who remembered exactly what? He'd been Lord Mayor of London and made a pile of money. But William de Perci had come over with William the Conqueror; and young Harry Percy's namesake, nicknamed Hotspur, had been on shoulder slapping terms, boon companion terms, with Henry V, hero of Agincourt.
People began to say that there must be more in the thin, sallow, sloe-eyed little girl than appeared on the surface. What was it? Nobody could say. It was a mystery. It was a little like those old, discredited tales of the alchemists who could turn base metal into gold. From plain Mistress Anne Boleyn to Lady Northumberland...
And then, from the center of his enormous, complicated web, from open negotiations with the Emperor, secret negotiations with the French, from his buildings, his law suits, his multitudinous ecclesiastical concerns, the great Cardinal, Thomas Wolsey, son of an Ipswich butcher and now called, not entirely in jest -- though jesting words often hold unpalatable truths -- "the King of Europe," moved. Harry Percy was attached to his household. One evening he was called in and told, pleasantly but bluntly, that his notion of marrying Anne Boleyn must be abandoned.
Wolsey was a practical man and he gave good practical reasons for his order. It was not a suitable match. Sir Thomas Boleyn was a toady, a lackey; Mary Boleyn was a whore. Daughter of one, sister of the other, Anne was unworthy of a Percy's attention.
The Cardinal was, at that moment, at the zenith of his powers. He was the friend and confi dant not only of the King of England, but of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, of His Most Christian Majesty, Francis the First of France, and of lesser rulers, Regents, Dukes, Margraves, throughout the whole of Christendom. He could make or break alliances; he could plan war or peace. The King of France and the Emperor were little boys, sitting on opposite ends of a seesaw; Wolsey, with a fl ick of the hand, could set the thing swinging. Nobody yet, except in the debased marketplace of diplomacy where "No" merely meant "What bid?," had ever said "No" to Thomas Wolsey. But on this evening, the great silly handsome boy, Harry Percy, in whom under the silk and velvet of this later, softer age, the blood of Hotspur ran, said "No" with a fi rmness which the Cardinal recognized. Harry Percy said that he did not intend to be dictated to; he'd chosen the woman he wanted to marry and he meant to stick to his choice. His Eminence could say what he liked about Sir Thomas, ...
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