Caroline worked in the theatre, teaching, as a freelance journalist and in refugee charities. Now she’s walking with the Tudors
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A small girl tumbled into the court of a Tudor Queen and their lives are never the same again.
Of Aragon - A Tudor Fairytale
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OF ARAGON Chapter One Dear daughter, my Alice, I write this for you in the second year of our glorious Queen Elizabeth’s reign, long may she live. Although Alice I must tell you that her mother was not always kind to me, although she said I sang like an angel. Those (ne ladies often had sharp tongues. What could I do? I shrugged my shoulders and smiled, because that is the lot of servants. Although I was their equal, I knew I could never tellher so.But that’s half way into my story, and I must start at the beginning. I tell you, I have served six queens, and known eight. I remember our most beloved Queen, Katherine of Aragon, when she was still young, with a complexion like a rose. I remember that King Henry loved her dearly, and carried her favours at the joust. And her, well he was the love of her life, more fool her. Queens love like us ordinary women, but their hearts are private, guarded by royal protocol. I have seen what has happened in their privy chambers, heard their tears, watched when they thought no one was looking. I have tales to tell, and now I am nearing the end of my life, I will setthem down for you. Us small people, we leave such a 2eeting footstep in time, but I will not let my memories die with me. It is up to you, Alice, to pass these stories on to your children. They will know the truth, and although it will no longer matter, it shouldmake them proud.What I tell you must stay close within our family for now dear Alice. It would still be too dangerous for you to share my strange story with anyone else. Remember to keepthis document safe, at the bottom of your oak linen chest, where no one else will see it. If the truth is known, even now, it would threaten both your and my lives. You are the apple of my eye, my golden lass, and I would never bring harm upon your head. The truth, for now, must remain secret.I was born in London, in 1510, I’m told. We were never sure about the date. My father and mother lived in three rooms in an old house within the City of London walls.We shared it with 5 other families. They called it ‘pestering’, changing the old dwellings into homes not for one, but many poor families. My father worked as a cook for a wealthy cloth merchant who lived in one of the houses clinging to London Bridge.We didn’t see him very much, he would sleep often at his master’s house so that he was at hand to prepare the breakfast in the morning. My mother Joan had also workedas a serving maid until she fell pregnant with twins - me and my brother. She was small, and round and dark haired. I still remember her warm arms, and the yeasty scent of the bread she used to bake every morning. She wore a grey worsted gown, and a white coif over her hair. I loved her so much.But the person that I looked up to most during my childhood was my brother Will. We were twins, although you never would have believed it. Will was tall, with dark curling hair and brown eyes that twinkled with mischief. Me, I was thin, and small withhair the colour of rust and small blue eyes that looked piercingly into the faces of the people I met. “It’s as if you want to look into their souls, Kat”, my mother would say. “Look down my daughter. Respect your elders.” But I couldn’t. I wanted to (nd out about people.I have always been curious, eager to learn. I wanted to know how others lived their lives; were they all as ordinary and dull as ours? I remember Mistress Stabb, who livedon the top 2oor. I looked into her black eyes, and her wizened face, and knew immediately that she was di@erent. She saw things that other people didn’t. She was a widow, whose husband had died leaving her a small portion to live on. Sometimes
she would hurry out, carrying a large bag. But many people visited her. I would hang out of our window, and watch them coming and going. They would come looking anxious, their souls unquiet. Later, they would leave, their faces either joyful, or wet with tears. What was it that she was practising in the 2oor above us?One day Will and me crept up to her chamber. Our mother was at the market and she had left us with a loaf of bread to eat, and some small ale. We had strict instructions to mind the (re which 2ickered in the corner of our little hall. But we werebored, and tired of gazing out of the window. We saw one woman leave, looking around as she went to check no one had seen her.“So what did Mistress Stabb do to her?” Will laughed. “She looks as sour as a lemon!”“Maybe she cursed her,” I suggested, “or conjured up a demon in front of her!” Will shook his head. “No, she’s just a sad old sow, gossiping with women who have nothing better to do.”I sat up straight. “Don’t you talk about her like that Will! We’re told to respect our elders. I think she is very mysterious. She could be a witch!”“A witch?” he sco@ed at me. “I’ll wager she’s no more than an idle old woman whodrinks too much ale.” His eyes twinkled as he spoke, and he turned and started to tickle me hard. I fought him o@, strongly, and hit him on the side of his head.“Stop! Stop! God’s wounds, you are strong sister” he gasped. “Stronger than you look!”“That’ll teach you not to respect women,” I crowed. “I tell you, she is a woman of magic. She casts spells, and sees the future!”“So why can’t she cast a spell to live in a palace then? Come to think of it Kat, we could ask her to cast a spell for us, so that we can live in a palace, and have lots of money, and let Father and Mother move back to the country away from this hole!”“Maybe she could’ I said. “I know the priest would say it is a sin, but if it’s for good, what is the harm?”“Those priests, they like to frighten us,” Will laughed. “But I’m not scared of them. They milk the poor, those clerics. Look at Cardinal Wolsey, with his palaces and his mistress! Some priest he is.’I nodded. “Yes, I heard the bawdy songs from the alehouse last night. That butcher’s boy is the talk of the town, acting like royalty now he is the king’s Lord Chancellor.”“I’ll not let him dictate what I will do”, Will declared. “You know Kat, there are people now who say priests aren’t needed to know what God wants. All you need to do is read the Bible.” He fell silent, maybe re2ecting that neither of us could read.“Tell me Kat, do you really believe Mistress Stabb is a witch?”“Yes indeed I do,”I answered. “And you know me, I notice everything!”
“Let’s go and see!” Will said boldly. “We can bring her our morning loaf, as a gift, and ask her to tell our future.’ He held his hand out to me. “Come Kat, let us (nd our destiny!”I jumped up. I have always been told I am as bold as a boy. Maybe it didn’t always serve me well, but I was determined not to let this chance go by. Will might have changed his mind by tomorrow, and it wasn’t long till our mother would be back.Carrying the bread wrapped in a linen cloth, I followed Will up the small twisting staircase. It didn’t smell good, with stale odours of rancid meat and sweat lingering in the air. Our mother kept our chambers as clean and sweet as she could.. Every summer she would go with us to gather cowslips and daisies from the (elds outside the city to dry and mix in with the rushes for the 2oor. But here it was dark, and the air was trapped. Will turned back.“Should we go back Kat?” he asked. “I would be a poor brother if I allowed you to be frighted out of your wits.”“Keep going” I insisted, pushing him up the stairs. We got to a door, old and heavy,scarred with many pits and stains. “Here, let’s knock!” Trembling, I knocked on the door. It echoed emptily, but nothing happened. We waited, and then I knocked again.Will started to pull me from the door, but as I turned the door started to creak open.In the doorway stood an old woman, maybe about forty years. She was smiling broadly, although she had no teeth to show, and her face was wrinkled from the sun.“Come in my dears,” she croaked. “I’ve been expecting you.”I turned to Will. “See? I was right!”“Right about what, my sweeting?” Mistress Stabb whispered, her eyes crinkling up in merriment. “I think I know.” By then we were both shaking, but it was too late. She gestured for us to come intothe room, and you know us two, we were brought up to respect our elders. I held out the bread to her.“We brought you a gift Mistress, our mother’s bread,” I stammered, holding it out toher.“Why thank you sweeting. I accept your gift with a glad heart,” the old woman said.“Now tell me what you want from me.”“Well, er, I have a touch of the ague,” said Will, “maybe a poultice or something?”She laughed heartily. “Come and sit down by the (re my sweetings. You are both (ne healthy children, you have no ague. But - I can tell you. You both have footsteps into the future that will lead you in ways you could never imagine. Look into the 2ames of my (re, look at the pictures they make. Look at the dreams that will come true my dears.”We stared intently into the (re. At (rst the 2ame 2ickered hesitantly. Then it seemed to form into a high tower, and a handsome keep. Men were mounting horses. Suddenly the old woman’s voice became loud and shrill. She pointed at Will.
“You my boy, will serve the greatest in the land, the very greatest! You will marry royal blood. You will live in palaces, you will hunt with the hounds, and sometimes thehare. But, my boy you will die in your own bed, I can tell you that now.”“Why thank you mistress” Will joked. But his face was white. “You have the gift to speak to my heart’s wishes! I think this is dreaming, not reality.”“Ah yes, my boy, it is a dream. But dreams come true my dear, dreams come true,”she whispered, smiling. I shifted impatiently. “What about me, Mistress Stabb?” I demanded. “You have given Will his royal future, what about mine? Am I just going to be a serving lass?”Her face darkened, “Look back at the (re now sweeting, it is your turn.” The (re 2ickered again. The tower was still there, but surrounded by beautiful ladies, in a garden. I looked at one, all fair and golden, and then she melted into another, a dark French beauty. She melted again, as woman after woman appeared in the 2ames. “My sweeting, you will be a serving maid,” she said 2atly. I sighed, disappointed. “But I hear music around you. You will be the heart of royalty! You will hear secrets. You will know what no one else knows. And yes, you will die in your bed. You and your brother here, your lives are linked. Whenever you are parted, you will (nd each other again.”I said crossly, “But what do you mean? The heart of royalty! How could I ever be that? And how could Will marry royalty? We are simple children. We do not have connections at court!” I was beginning to agree with Will, that she was just a silly old woman.“Aye, well young lady, just wait and see. I can tell you this, foundling, there is muchabout your story that you do not know…” The door slammed, and my mother stormed in. “Stop this nonsense at once! Mistress Stabb, I have kept a quiet tongue in my headabout your doings up here. But you must not involve my children! If you meddle again, I will make a complaint against you!.” She took there, her legs apart, glaring atthe old woman.Mistress Stabb drew herself up to her full height. Suddenly she looked menacing, and I was afraid for my mother. The old woman’s dark eyes were piercing as she stared her in the face.“Mistress Cooke, I will leave well alone for now. But you know, and I know, that you will never report me. It would put you at too much risk. We both carry the deepest darkest secret in our hearts, and were it to become known you and your family would be in grave danger.”“You are talking with the faeries, Mistress Stabb, and you know it.” my mother accused, her voice faltering. “Leave my children alone!” She picked up the linen cloth that the bread had been in, and started twisting it in her hands.“Make the truth your close friend Mistress Cooke,” advised the old woman, “or else you may (nd it betrays you. Now go, and leave me to my necromancy!” She laughed loudly and led us to the door, virtually pushing us out. We were all shaking as we ran down the stairs to the safety of our chambers, now dark and without a (re.
“And I told you to mind that (re!” our mother snapped at us. “Promise me, children, that you will never visit Mistress Stabb again. She is a witch, and she is dangerous.”“But she knows something,” I said. “She was talking about royalty. If she’s a witch,then she knows. How can we be royal? We even don’t know anyone at court.” My mother’s face clouded.“Mind your tongue my girl! Do not speak of this. Do you understand?” She said this so (ercely, that I started to feel tears welling up in my eyes. Will saw, and came and put his arm around me.“Mother, it was me that encouraged Kat to go up,” he lied. “It is my fault. Beat me for it, not her.”“I’ve a good mind to beat you both!” she shouted. “But the court” I protested, despite Will frowning at me. “What is it about the court and us? And it was me that decided to go to Mistress Stabb, not Will!”Our mother sighed. “I will never get the truth out of you two,” she said. “You always were like as one. One will always dissemble for the other. So I will punish you both. No going out for two days, you can stay in and help me keep these chambers sweet and clean.”I started to object, but she held her hand up. “It’s for your own safety. I don’t want you associating with that witch anymore. She brings danger for us.”“But …but … she said I might be a great man and work at court,“ Will muttered, his eyes downcast. I could see he had been excited by the witch’s soothsaying, and did not want to let go of that dream of becoming a grand gentleman someday. I hugged him tightly to console him.But then our mother said something that amazed us both. “If you want to know about royal connections, I have a sister, Meg. She was a laundress at the court. Not agreat lady or a great gentleman! Just a laundress, washing and making her hands red raw for her betters. So don’t go running away with the idea that you will ever have a royal connection. The only connection is through used cloths, and stained sheets.” I dropped my arms from around Will, and turned to face her.“But mother, why did you not tell us?” She stared me in the face, as if unsure of what to say. I noticed she still had the linen cloth in her hand, twisted to a rag.“Meg and I don’t get on. I haven’t seen her for eight years,” she said eventually. “Since you two were born I was too busy and she wasn’t bothered.” She dropped the cloth.“So that’s it, you two. Forget it! Forget it all. And now you can remake that (re, and get this chamber warm!”. She bustled out of the door, leaving us to struggle silently with the (re. We were both shocked by this encounter. Our mother, the gentlest of women, had never spoken to us like that before, and we didn’t like it.We never spoke of Mistress Stabb again, and if we passed her on the stairs we would shrink into the wall, so that we didn’t brush against her. She would smile, and continue on her way, knowing that we couldn’t hurt her. But in our games, we played
grand gentlemen, going on a hunt, with grand ladies riding white palfreys beside them. The truth was, Mistress Stabb had lit a 2ame in us, that would never be extinguished.That January, we came to 8 years of age, and we started to learn more of our responsibilities and tasks within our household. I didn’t like this, as Will would sometimes go and help my father in the merchant’s kitchen, while I was expected to stay at home and learn how to spin, how to wash and clean. But I was boiling with ideas and hopes. I wanted to learn to read and write. I wanted to learn how to dance and play the lute. I had so many dreams then. But as it was, I learned how to scrub a linen sheet, how to remove a stain and how to spin a (ne thread. I liked to help my mother, but it wasn’t enough.One day, in the middle of that cold January of 1518, my father came to the house, with Will tagging along behind. My father was a tall dark man, with curly hair like Will. He had the same smiling eyes, but they were often tired. He worked so hard, and wasonly able to visit us once or twice a month. I was delighted to see him. “Father, Father, have you brought me a sweetmeat?” I cried. My father would oftensneak out a tasty morsel from the meals he prepared for us to taste.“Here you are sweetheart,” he smiled, “some sugared almonds.” He dropped a fewinto my outstretched hand, and kissed me on the top of my head. Then he walked over to my mother, and put his arm around her. I noticed that Will was watching him anxiously.“Wife, I have news,” he said, looking down into her eyes. “Bad news?” she cried, fearing that her little world was in danger. She was often anxious, I’d noticed that.“No, no. Good news. Good news for our family and for Will,” he reassured her.“For Will? Has he got a position with you Tom? That would be great fortune for our family. We might even be able to live somewhere else with two wages,” my mother said excitedly.My father paused. “Not with me, Joan. With a city lawyer.”“What? How do you know a city lawyer?” she questioned, starting to look anxious again.“Hush wife, listen. As you know, Will has been coming with me to my work in the kitchen. He’s helped with the pots, and turning the spit. He is a good lad.” Our fathersmiled at Will, who looked nervously at our mother. “One evening my master’s page went missing. In a (ght somewhere no doubt. That boy is no good! Will was there in the kitchen and the master asked him to stand in as a page, as he had some important guests coming. Will was so excited, he said yes straight away! We had to get him into some clean clothes, and wash his face. He scrubbed up well, didn’t you my son?” “Yes I did!” Will looked more and more excited, although he kept glancing at our mother.
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