Regent Rule by Benjamin Stickney Morrison
This story is to remember Lady Betty Balfour who planted an Ilex Aquifolium - Scotch Gold Holly- on 11 February 1910
July 1544 – Hampton Court Palace
It was on a Sunday in early summer that Henry asked me to be his regent. I remember it clearly. Not, I believe, because of the power given to me, but rather the memory of my own surprise upon entering the chapel. For as I made my way down the aisle, my ladies trailing behind like ducklings, I was shocked to see my husband waiting at my pew. He wore an outfit of the deepest purple, a velvet so dark it reminded me of a midnight sky, and a plume of black feathers sprung from the side of his cap.
“Your Grace,” I’d said and sunk into a curtsey, then took his left hand and kissed his ring.
“Kat, you are always a vision,” he’d said, before pulling me up.
He paid my ladies no attention, escorted me into the pew and took the seat beside me. Then the Archbishop Cranmer himself made his way to the altar for my private morning prayers. It was the sight of those two men in the chapel that has stayed in my mind. Almost as soon as we’d begun to pray, Henry leaned in close. His beard, flecked with grey, tickled my ear as he whispered ever so softly, “I’m going to war, and I want you to be regent.”
My hand immediately moved to cover my mouth and brushed the purple velvet he wore. He stifled a laugh, then took my hand in his. It was nearly invisible between his large palms, the calluses from his sword brushed my knuckles and sent goosebumps up my arms. My eyes met his, only for a moment, and they seemed to tell me not to speak yet. So, I turned mine to heaven and found on the chapel ceiling the same striking blue that was in my husband’s eyes. I traced the golden beams around the roof, the diamonds filled with small golden stars that came together to make bigger stars.
I can’t remember a single word the Archbishop spoke, nor did I turn my eyes away from the stars even for a moment of the entire service. “Guide me, Oh God,” I prayed silently, over and over. Until I felt Henry rise beside me and I knew what I must do. Had I not taken the motto, “To be useful in all I do,” upon my coronation? My choice was simple. I got up on the tips of my toes and reached my hand to cup around his ear as he lowered himself and his beard brushed my smiling lips.
Yet, to rule was much harder than agreeing to be regent. As Sir William Petre placed the ink pot and quill before me, I was drawn back to the Council Room. Taken away from the view of a setting sun through the bay window of Hampton Court. Lord Hertford cocked his chin at me, ever so slightly so that only I might notice, as if to question my decision to ban from Court those who had come into contact with the plague. But I was not deterred, and with a calm and steady hand signed the royal proclamation: Katherine the Queen KP.
Sir Petre blotted the ink himself and sent the parchment away with one of his runners almost immediately.
Hertford sat just below the setting sun, the windows behind him open to allow a breeze in. Papers littered the long wooden table, goblets of red wine dripped from lazy sips, leaving rings around the table and staining the papers’ edges with burgundy and saliva. There was only my chair at the head, the other end of the table was pushed against the far wall, splitting the room perfectly down the centre. Three thin chairs on either side of me. Guards waited outside the chamber’s door, and Sir Petre kept three runners behind him. They stood next to the small fireplace, waiting for the snap of Petre’s fingers summoning one of them. A servant kept a pitcher of wine in his hands as he eyed the goblets round the table, ready to refill them at a moment’s notice. Candles sat along the fireplace and across the table, the sweet scent of their beeswax still faintly in the air.
I smoothed my hand over the dress I’d worn which in my mind was simple for a Queen; crimson with a white collar. I’d forgone any of the decadent jewels Henry had given me. I wore only the table-cut diamond ring set in gold he’d presented at our wedding. I wore no crown or hat, instead my cousin Maud had woven a strand of pearls through my auburn hair. But I was the most colourfully-dressed person in the room. It was jarring at first, to sit around that long table flanked by five men. Men whose wives I’d known for so long, men who’d served me the holy sacrament, and ones I’d never normally see without my ladies or my husband. It was invigorating to be in a position that no other woman in England could imagine. And terrifying to think that, in that room, I represented all women. In those long council meetings, I was not just their Queen, but a voice for my sex. My successes and my failures as regent not only reflected back on me, but could be used for, or against, all women. I was being held to a standard that no man could imagine being held to. I empathised with Atlas, the weight of the world all on his shoulders.
Wriothesley, the Lord Chancellor, cleared his throat from the end of the table. “We’ve received word that the Lady Elizabeth will arrive at Court today. But we have not yet resolved the issue of Prince Edward coming to Court.”
Again, my eyes were drawn to Hertford, the boy’s uncle. He who stood as my biggest hurdle in bringing my step-son to Court. He met my eyes as he peeled an apple in one hand, the knife circling round, the crimson peel falling to the table in one long piece, like a snake. I felt my face beginning to redden but fought to keep my anger down.
“The Prince is very content in Leyton. I don’t think it wise to disturb his peace,” Hertford said with almost palpable arrogance. “And I believe it would be His Majesty’s wishes that young Edward—”
“My Lord, I did not realise you were privy to my husband’s intimate beliefs and wishes,” I interrupted. This received a hearty laugh from Cranmer, Wriothesley and Sir Petre. The scowl on Hertford’s face made it all the more pleasurable. Hertford was no match to his brother Thomas, whom I’d once loved. Thomas’s brown eyes were caring, whereas Hertford’s green eyes left me cold. Hertford’s nose was too large for his face and took away any chance he had at being attractive; what his wife was forced to look at, day in and day out, I couldn’t bear to think.
Hertford sat silently, the noise of the busy palace all around him. The sound of footmen’s heavy feet and of wooden doors that creaked. Even the noise of soldiers training in the forecourt, their swords clanging, seeped through the walls of the Council Room.
“As the boy’s uncle, I feel it is my duty to assert he stays where he is,” he finally said.
The eyes of the four other men in the council turned to me, the woman in the room, and their Queen. They knew my position was temporary, what practical ruling power I had would cease when the King returned. But there was always the chance he wouldn’t, in which case Henry had instructed that I rule as regent until Edward was of age. It seemed to me that the men were weighing their options. I imagined they were considering their futures; did they want Hertford to favour them to their future king? Or should they ally themselves with me and hope I would recommend them to Henry?
“I—” I’d begun to say, when the door to the Council Room burst open.
It was Princess Elizabeth, followed quickly by her governess Kat Ashley. Elizabeth’s long, red curls spooled over her dandelion-coloured dress. Her brown eyes were bright upon entering the room.
“Bess,” I cried out, forgetting myself in the moment.
All the men in the room, except Hertford, rose upon Elizabeth’s sudden entrance. She launched herself at my arms as the men bowed.
“Lady Elizabeth!” Came Kat Ashley’s cry.
“Oh, Lady Mother, don’t be angry, please. I was so eager to see you, to feel your touch, and tell you everything that has happened. Don’t be angry at me.”
“Elizabeth!” Kat called again.
“It’s alright Kat,” I said and waved her away. I took Elizabeth on my knee. “Bess, it was very improper of you to burst in here, you understand that?”
She nodded at me solemnly.
“We are having an important meeting, to make sure the Kingdom is safe and your father is well supported in France. That’s what I’m doing here with all these men. Otherwise, I’d have been waiting for you at the gates.”
“But it’s so late.”
“Yes, but matters of state can take a long time. You know some of these men, don’t you? Archbishop Cranmer, Bishop Thirlby, and Lord Hertford, I’m sure you’ve met.”
“Yes, Lady Mother,” she said, and her face sank to look at my skirts.
“And here is the Lord Chancellor and Sir William Petre. Gentlemen, may I present the Lady Elizabeth.” Sir Petre and Wriothesley bowed again.
Elizabeth hopped off my knee and curtseyed to them.
“All these men have families, just like me…Although I doubt they have a daughter as beautiful as you.” As I said this Elizabeth smiled brightly. “I’m sure they are as eager as I am to finish this meeting and return to them. But they’re doing what is best for England and staying here to help me run the country. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Lady Mother.”
“I’m glad. So, go with Kat and mind her. Maybe she’ll even take you to see your sister. I must return to matters of state. But know that I will be thinking of you and I will call on you once I’ve finished my business here.”
“Do you promise.”
“I promise, and a Queen never makes a promise she can’t keep.”
“Is my brother here yet? Oh—”
“Come along Lady Elizabeth,” Kat said, grabbing her by the hand. “My apologies Your Majesty,” she bowed to me. “My Lords.” With another bow she backed out of the room, a giddy Bess following behind.
“Well gentleman, where did we leave off before that entertaining interrupt—”
“She’s very precocious, a bit too much like her mother for my liking,” Hertford said.
“My Lord,” I said.
“Not you, Your Majesty. I, of course, meant her ill-fated mother, Anne. The Lady Elizabeth may do well to be more like you.”
His quip cut me like a dagger, and his eyes betrayed that he’d meant it too.
“Hertford, hold your tongue before the Queen,” Wriothesley said. His hands were crossed, his fingers weighed down by many gold rings.
“I only mean—” Hertford started to say.
“We…we were discussing the possibility of Prince Edward coming to Court,” Bishop Thirlby shouted.
“Ah yes I believe that’s correct Bishop,” Cranmer said.
“I’m sure it was decided that it is too dangerous to move Prince Edward, to risk exposing him to the plague,” Hertford said as he took a bite of his now brown apple.
At that moment I could see my head on the executioner’s block, should Edward come to Court and die of the plague. The thought sent a shiver up my spine. Who was Hertford to think he knew better than me about the child’s wellbeing? It was as thought he believed my opinions to be invalid.
Then I thought of my godmother Queen Catherine of Aragon, and of Anne Boleyn, even of Jane Seymour, of Princess Anne of Cleaves, and Catherine Howard. Of the Lady Mary and of young Elizabeth. I thought of my mother Maud and my stepdaughter Margaret, of the women who came before me and those who would come after. Edward was my responsibility, my de facto son, his care and that of his sister’s entrusted to me by Henry. I was their mother now. I had to trust myself, to take a risk.
A noise drew my eye to the door where I saw the unmistakable red curls and a small brown eye of the Lady Elizabeth, looking through the crack. She must have wriggled away from Kat again. That was the final push I needed.
I took a final look around the room. None of the men had noticed Elizabeth peeking through the door.
“Gentlemen, I’ve come to a decision.”
Benjamin S Morrison was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has a BA in History from Louisiana State University and an MFA in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) from the University of East Anglia. He is currently studying for a MPhil in Education at the University of Cambridge (Queens’ College). In his free time, he enjoys seeking the picturesque. Katherine Parr’s life is the subject of his second novel, Survived. He is a feminist. Benjamin volunteered on the Suffragette Stories project, teaching at the first workshops in Cromer and the last in Thetford.