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Jean Plaidy - The Murder in the Tower: The Story of Frances, Countess of Essex

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Jean Plaidy - The Murder in the Tower: The Story of Frances, Countess of Essex
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From his chair of state which had been set on the stage in the tiltyard at Whitehall, the King lazily watched the champions as they tilted against each other. James was forty-one and did not himself tilt; he preferred the chase; but his young friends were eager to display their superiority over each other in this harmless way. So let them, mused James. He watched them—such handsome young men, all eager to show their old dad and gossip, James the King, how much better they were than their fellows.

“Fill the goblet, laddie,” he said, glancing at the tall young man who stood behind his chair waiting to perform this service.

The boy obeyed—a pleasant creature; James insisted on having pleasant looking young men about him; and his one was kept occupied, for the King was constantly thirsty and nothing satisfied him but the rich sweet wine which many of his courtiers found too potent for their taste. James prided himself that he was rarely what he would call “overtaken;” that was because he knew when he had had enough.

He fidgeted inside his padded clothes, which gave him the appearance of being a fat man; but ever since the Gunpowder scare he had insisted that his doublets be thickly quilted—and it was the same with his breeches, for how could he be sure when someone, resentful against a Stuart or Protestant, might not have the idea to thrust a dagger into him? There were plenty of Englishmen who were not pleased to have a Stuart on the throne; he knew that they whispered about the days of good Queen Bess, and did not care for the Scotsmen he had brought to the Court, nor their Scottish manners either. They thought him ill behaved at times, and said the Tudors had had a royal dignity which he lacked.

James could laugh at them. He might not have the looks of a King. His ancestor Henry VIII had been a fine looking man, he knew; well over six feet tall, and men had trembled when he frowned. James was neither tall nor short; his straggly beard was characteristic of the rest of him; his eyes were too prominent; his tongue seemed too large, which resulted in a thickness of speech; and since he made no effort to cast off a broad accent, and sometimes lapsed into Scottish idiom, the English were often bewildered by his utterances.

He was glad to be seated; he never felt easy when his legs were all that supported him, for they were inclined to let him down at any moment. Perhaps they had never recovered from the tight swaddling of his infancy; moreover, he had not been allowed to walk until he was five years old, and there were times when he still tottered like an infant or a drunken man.

His nature was a philosophical one; he accepted his physical disabilities by taking a great pride in his mental superiority over most of his contemporaries. The title of “The Wisest King in Christendom” had not been lightly bestowed, and he believed that if he put his mind to it he could get the better of Northampton, Suffolk, Nottingham or any of his ministers.

He scratched with grubby fingers through the padded and jeweled doublet. He disliked washing and never put his hands in water, although occasionally he allowed one of his servants to dab them with a wet cloth. The English complained of the lice which often worried them; but James believed it was better to harbor a few of the wee creatures than undergo the torment of washing.

“In the reign of good Queen Bess,” these English grumbled, “ladies and gentlemen came to Court to search for honors, now they have to search for fleas.”

“’Tis the more harmless occupation,” James told them.

So the Court had deteriorated since Tudor days, had it? But he believed the Tudors had not been such lenient sovereigns. They had demanded flattery—something which James would have scorned, immediately understanding the motive behind it, and not for one moment believing that he was the most handsome of men. The old Queen had had to be more or less made love to by her ministers when she was a black-toothed hag. Was that wisdom? Nay, James knew himself for what he was and asked for no deception. His subjects had no need to fear that their heads would be parted from their bodies on the slightest provocation. They called him Solomon; and he was proud of it, although he did not much like the jest that the name had been given to him because he was the son of David. He was the son of the Earl of Darnley and Queen Mary; and it was a calumny to suggest that his mother had taken David Rizzio as her lover and that he was the result.

But there would always be these scandals; and what did they matter now that the crown which united England and Scotland was his? The result was peace in this island as there had never been before, and all because the wisest King in Christendom, who had been James VI of Scotland, was now also James I of England.

“Fill up, laddie,” he said gently.

Wine! Good wine! When he was a baby he had had a drunkard for a wet nurse; it had not been discovered for a long time, and sometimes he wondered whether her milk had been impregnated with stronger stuff and that as he had been nurtured on it he had acquired not only a taste but a need for it.

A strange childhood his. The youth of royal children was often hazardous and that was doubtless why, when they came to power, they frequently abused it. But his childhood was even more unsettled than most; and that was not to be wondered at when he considered the events which had taken place in his family at the time. His father murdered—by his mother’s lover—and some said that his mother had a hand in it. His mother’s hasty marriage to the Earl of Bothwell; the civil war; his mother’s flight to England, where she had remained a prisoner in the hands of good Queen Elizabeth for some twenty years. Not a very safe background for a child whose legs were weak and who had only his wits to help him hold his place among the ambitious lairds surrounding him.

How he had gloried in that good quick brain of his! He might not have been able to walk but he soon learned to talk. He could memorize with the utmost ease; his prominent eyes seemed to take in more than those of the grown-up people about him; there was little they missed; and with childish frankness he did not hesitate to comment on what he saw. As soon as he began to talk, his wit was apparent; and all those ambitious men who wished him to be no more than a figurehead for their schemes were often dismayed.

That excellent memory of his had many pictures of the past preserved for him; and one of those which he liked best was himself, not yet five, being carried into the great hall of Stirling Castle by his guardian the Earl of Mar, there to be placed on a throne to repeat a speech which he had had no difficulty in learning by heart. He had astonished them all by the manner in which he could make such a speech; and as he had made it, his observant eyes had noticed that one of the slates of the roof had slipped off, and through it he could see a glint of blue sky.

He could still hear his high, precise voice informing the company: “There is ane hole in this parliament.”

From then on men had respected him, for what to him had been a statement of fact had been construed as grim prophecy. The Regent Moray had been assassinated, and the Earl of Lennox, James’s paternal grandfather, who had been elected the next Regent, quickly met a violent death.

The Scottish lairds were certain that their young King was no ordinary child.

James had been gleeful. He could not walk, but while he had attendants to carry him wherever he wished to go, what did that matter? He would walk all in good time; and while he waited for that day he would read, watch and learn.

He had come a long way from that Stirling Parliament to the Palace of Whitehall.

His eyes brightened as he watched the riders. There was Sir James Hay. A pretty boy James Hay had been when his King had brought him to England from Scotland; now he was a very fine gentleman. James had been very fond of young Hay and determined to advance him. A pleasant boy with manners to please the English because they were more polished than most Scotsmen’s since Hay had been brought up in France; James had made him a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and young Hay had proved to be a good companion, his nature being an easy going one and free of tantrums.

He was a little vain, of course, but who would not be, the King asked himself indulgently, possessed of such outstanding physical charm? The young man liked ostentation and, as James liked to bestow gifts of money on his friends, it was no concern of his how they spent it. If their tastes ran to fine garments, lavish displays, well let them enjoy themselves, remembering all the time whose kindly—if somewhat grubby—hand bestowed these favors.

Sir James was followed everywhere by his retinue of pages, all handsomely dressed, though naturally less so than their master, and it was certainly a pleasant sight to see Sir James and his little retinue in action.

James caught the eye of the Queen upon him. Her expression was reproachful. Poor Queen Anne, she was getting somewhat fat and showed the effect of seven pregnancies; yet she still preserved the petulance which he had once thought not unattractive. That was in the days of his romantic youth when he had braved the storms to go to her native land and bring his bride back to Scotland. He could smile now to remember their first meeting and how he had been delighted with his young Danish Princess, how he had in time sailed with her back to Scotland and brought to trial those witches who he believed had sought to drown his Anne on her way to Scotland. Pleasant days but gone, and James was too wise a man to wish to return to youth; he would barter youth any day for experience; knowledge was more to be prized than vigor.

Theirs had not been an unsuccessful marriage, although they sometimes kept separate courts now. That was wise, for her interests were not his. She was a silly woman, as frivolous as she had been on her arrival, and still believed doubtless that what had been charming at sixteen still was at thirty-two. She kept with her those two Danish women, Katrine Skinkell and Anna Kroas, and it seemed to him their main preoccupation was to plan balls, the Queen’s great passion being dancing. But he must be fair: Dancing and her children.

Every now and then her gaze would rest with pride on their eldest, Prince Henry; and James could share her pride. He often wondered how two like himself and Anne could have produced such a boy. A perfect King, Henry would make one day; the people thought it. They cheered him heartily whenever he appeared in public. He was an English Prince, they thought, though he had been born in Stirling. Doubtless they would not be displeased when his old Dad gave up the crown to him.

But there’s life in the old gossip yet, thought James.

Then his attention was caught by a figure in the retinue of Sir James Hay. This was a tall, slim young man who was carrying Sir James’s shield and device and whose duty it would be, at the appropriate moment, to present these to the King.

That laddie is familiar, mused James. Where can I have seen him before? At Court? ’Tis likely so. Yet once having seen him, would I not remember?

He forgot the Queen and young Henry; he forgot his own brooding on the past.

His attention was focused on the young stranger, and he was impatient for the moment when the boy would ride to the stage, dismount and come to kneel before him with his favorite’s shield and device.

The young man who had attracted the King’s attention would have been delighted had he known that James had already singled him out, because that was exactly what he was hoping for.

He had recently returned from France where he had heard rumors of conditions at the English Court. The King, it was said, surrounded himself with handsome young men who, it seemed, had little to do but look handsome—which was an easy enough task if one had been born that way, as he, Robert Carr, certainly had.

This habit of the King’s was deplored by his more serious statesmen, but as long as they were able to keep the favorites under some control they accepted it. There were worse faults in Kings.

Robert Carr, tall, slender with perfectly shaped limbs, a fine skin to which the sun of France had given a light golden tan, features so finely chiseled that strangers turned to take a second look, hair that glistened like gold and was thick and curly, was an extremely handsome young man. Women constantly plagued him, but while he enjoyed their company he did not allow them to take up too much of his time.

He had always been ambitious, and being a younger son in a not very affluent Scottish family had given him a determination, at a very early age, to rise in the world; and he had seen his opportunity when his father, Sir Thomas Carr of Ferniehurst, had found a place for him at the Court of the King.

James had been pleased to receive the boy, for Sir Thomas Carr had been a faithful friend to his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, during her long captivity and James felt the family should be rewarded in some way.

So young Robert had been allowed to come to Court to serve as a page; but he was young and ignorant of Court ways and scarcely ever saw the King in whom in any case he would have been too young to arouse much interest.

He had not been long at Court when that even took place which was to unite the two nations who for centuries had been at war with each other. Queen Elizabeth died and James was declared King of England and Scotland.

It was natural that James should leave the smaller kingdom to govern in the larger, although he had declared in St. Giles’s Cathedral that never would he forget the rights of his native Scotland and it would be his endeavor to see that Scotland lost nothing but gained everything from the union. James kept his word and many a Scotsman now was lording it below the Border.

Robert had come south in the royal retinue, but James, finding his Court somewhat over-populated by Scottish gentlemen, had found it necessary to placate his new subjects by dismissing some of them in favor of the English. Young Robert had been sent to France, which, he now realized, had been for his good. In that country he learned more gracious manners than those he could have acquired in his native land; and there was no doubt that they added to his extreme attractiveness. In France he learned what an asset good looks were; and the raw Scottish boy had become an ambitious young man.

He considered himself fortunate to have been taken into the retinue of Sir James Hay, himself brought up in France, and handsome enough to have won the King’s favor; in fact one on whom young Robert might, with reason and hope, model himself.

The King’s presents to those he favored were varied, and Sir James had been presented with an heiress for a wife. Robert being somewhat impecunious was in need of such a useful acquisition; he had no intention of remaining in a minor position in the household of a favorite when he himself—and it would have been falsely modest to deny this—was far more personable. He lacked experience of course, but that would come with time.

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