The red queen, p.1
The Red Queen, p.1Part #3 of The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels series by Philippa Gregory
By the same author
The Cousins’ War
The White Queen
The Wideacre Trilogy
The Favored Child
The Wise Woman
A Respectable Trade
The Tudor Court Novels
The Other Boleyn Girl
The Queen’s Fool
The Virgin’s Lover
The Constant Princess
The Boleyn Inheritance
The Other Queen
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ISBN 978-1-4165-6393-8 (ebook)
July 10, 1460
September 1471: Tenby, Wales
April 1483: Westminster
May 1483: London
June 1483: London
Sunday, July 6, 1483
August 19, 1485
August 20, 1485
August 20, 1485: Leicester
Sunday, August 21, 1485
The light of the open sky is brilliant after the darkness of the inner rooms. I blink and hear the roar of many voices. But this is not my army calling for me, this whisper growing to a rumble is not their roar of attack, the drumming of their swords on shields. The rippling noise of linen in the wind is not my embroidered angels and lilies against the sky, but cursed English standards in the triumphant May breeze. This is a different sort of roar from our bellowed hymns, this is a howl of people hungry for death: my death.
Ahead of me, and towering above me as I step over the threshold from my prison into the town square, is my destination: a wood stack, with a stepladder of rough staves leaning against it. I whisper: “A cross. May I have a cross?” And then, louder: “A cross! I must have a cross!” And some man, a stranger, an enemy, an Englishman, one of those whom we call “goddamns” for their unending blaspheming, holds out a crucifix of whittled wood, roughly made, and I snatch it without pride from his dirty hand. I clutch it as they push me towards the woodpile and thrust me up the ladder, my feet scraping on the rough rungs as I climb up, higher than my own height, until I reach the unsteady platform hammered into the top of the bonfire, and they turn me, roughly, and tie my hands around the stake at my back.
It all goes so slowly then that I could almost think that time itself has frozen and the angels are coming down for me. Stranger things have happened. Did not the angels come for me when I was herding sheep? Did they not call me by name? Did I not lead an army to the relief of Orléans? Did I not crown the Dauphin and drive out the English? Just me? A girl from Domrémy, advised by angels?
They light the kindling all around the bottom, and the smoke eddies and billows in the breeze. Then the fire takes hold and a hot cloud shrouds me, and makes me cough, blinking, my eyes streaming. Already it is scalding my bare feet. I step from one foot to the other, foolishly, as if I hope to spare myself discomfort, and I peer through the smoke in case someone is running with buckets of water, to say that the king whom I crowned has forbidden this; or the English, who bought me from a soldier, now acknowledge that I am not theirs to kill, or that my church knows that I am a good girl, a good woman, innocent of everything but serving God with a passionate purpose.
There is no savior among the jostling crowd. The noise swells to a deafening shriek: a mixture of shouted blessings and curses, prayers and obscenities. I look upwards to the blue sky for my angels descending, and a log shifts in the pyre below me, and my stake rocks, and the first sparks fly up and scorch my jacket. I see them land and glow like fireflies on my sleeve, and I feel a dry scratching in my throat, and I cough from the smoke and whisper like a little girl: “Dear God, save me, Your daughter! Dear God, put down Your hand for me. Dear God, save me, Your maid …”
There is a crash of noise and a blow to my head and I am sitting, bewildered, on the floorboards of my bedroom, my hand to my bruised ear, looking around me like a fool and seeing nothing. My lady companion opens my door and, seeing me, dazed, my prayer stool tipped over, says irritably: “Lady Margaret, go to bed. It is long past your bedtime. Our Lady does not value the prayers of disobedient girls. There is no merit in exaggeration. Your mother wants you up early in the morning. You can’t stay up all night praying; it is folly.”
She slams the door shut, and I hear her telling the maids that one of them must go in now and put me to bed and sleep beside me to make sure I don’t rise up at midnight for another session of prayer. They don’t like me to follow the hours of the church; they stand between me and a life of holiness, because they say I am too young and need my sleep. They dare to suggest that I am showing off, playing at piety, when I know that God has called me and it is my duty, my higher duty, to obey Him.
But even if I were to pray all night, I wouldn’t be able to recapture the vision that was so bright, just a moment ago; it is gone. For a moment, for a sacred moment, I was there: I was the Maid of Orléans, the holy Joan of France. I understood what a girl could do, wha
“Our Lady Mary, guide me, angels come back to me,” I whisper, trying to return to the square, to the watching crowds, to the thrilling moment. But it has all gone. I have to haul myself up the bedpost to stand. I am dizzy from fasting and praying, and I rub my knee where I knocked it. There is a wonderful roughness on the skin, and I put my hand down and pull up my nightgown to see both knees, and they are the same: roughened and red. Saints’ knees, praise God, I have saints’ knees. I have prayed so much, and on such hard floors, that the skin of my knees is becoming hard, like the callus on the finger of an English longbowman. I am not yet ten years old, but I have saints’ knees. This has got to count for something, whatever my old lady governess may say to my mother about excessive and theatrical devotion. I have saints’ knees. I have scuffed the skin of my knees by continual prayer; these are my stigmata: saints’ knees. Pray God I can meet their challenge and have a saint’s end too.
I get into bed, as I have been ordered to do; for obedience, even to foolish and vulgar women, is a virtue. I may be the daughter of a man who was one of the greatest of English commanders in France, one of the great Beaufort family, and so heir to the throne of Henry VI of England, but still I have to obey my lady governess and my mother as if I were any other ordinary girl. I am highly placed in the kingdom, cousin to the king himself—though dreadfully disregarded at home, where I have to do as I am told by a stupid old woman who sleeps through the priest’s homily, and sucks sugared plums through grace. I count her as a cross I have to bear, and I offer her up in my prayers.
These prayers will save her immortal soul—despite her true deserts—for, as it happens, my prayers are especially blessed. Ever since I was a little girl, ever since I was five years old, I have known myself to be a special child in the sight of God. For years I thought this was a unique gift—sometimes I would feel the presence of God near me; sometimes I would sense the blessing of Our Lady. Then, last year, one of the veteran soldiers from France, begging his way back to his parish, came to the kitchen door when I was skimming the cream, and I heard him ask the dairymaid for something to eat, for he was a soldier who had seen miracles: he had seen the girl they called the Maid of Orléans.
“Let him come in!” I commanded, scrambling down from my stool.
“He’s dirty,” she replied. “He’s coming no closer than the step.”
He shuffled into the doorway, swinging a pack to the floor. “If you could spare some milk, little lady,” he whined. “And perhaps a crust of bread for a poor man, a soldier for his lord and his country—”
“What did you say about the Maid of Orléans?” I interrupted. “And miracles?”
The maid behind me muttered under her breath and raised her eyes, cut him a crust of dark rye bread and poured a rough earthenware mug of milk. He almost snatched it from her hand and poured it down his throat. He looked for more.
“Tell me,” I commanded.
The maid nodded to him that he must obey me, and he turned and bowed. “I was serving with the Duke of Bedford in France when we heard of a girl who was riding with the French,” he said. “Some thought her a witch; some thought her in league with the devil. But my doxy …” The maid snapped her fingers at him, and he choked down the word. “A young woman I happened to know, a French young woman, told me that this girl Joan from Domrémy had spoken to angels and promised to see the French prince crowned and on the throne of France. She was only a maid, a girl from the country, but she said that angels spoke to her and called her to save her country from us.”
I was entranced. “Angels spoke to her?”
He smiled ingratiatingly. “Yes, little lady. When she was a girl no older than you.”
“But how did she make people listen to her? How did she make them see she was special?”
“Oh, she rode a great white horse, and she wore men’s clothes, even armor. She had a banner of lilies and angels, and when they brought her to the French prince, she knew him among all his court.”
“She wore armor?” I whispered wonderingly, as if it was my life unfolding before me and not the story of a strange French girl. What could I be, if only people would realize that the angels spoke to me, just as they did to this Joan?
“She wore armor and she led her men in battle.” He nodded. “I saw her.”
I gestured to the dairymaid. “Get him some meat and small ale to drink.” She flounced off to the buttery, and the strange man and I stepped outside the dairy and he dropped to a stone seat beside the back door. I stood waiting, as she dumped a platter at his feet, and he crammed food into his mouth. He ate like a starving dog, without dignity, and when he was done and draining his mug, I returned to the inquiry. “Where did you first see her?”
“Ah,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “We were set for siege before a French town called Orléans, certain to win. We always won in those days, before her. We had the longbow, and they didn’t; we just used to slice them down, it was like aiming at the butts for us. I was a bowman.” Then he paused as if ashamed at stretching the truth too far. “I was a fletcher,” he corrected himself. “I made the arrows. But our bowmen won every battle for us.”
“Never mind that, what about Joan?”
“I am telling about her. But you have to understand that they had no chance of winning. Wiser and better men than she knew they were lost. They lost every battle.”
“But she?” I whispered.
“She claimed she heard voices, angels talking to her. They told her to go to the French prince—a simpleton, a nothing—to go to him and make him take his throne as king and then drive us from our lands in France. She found her way to the king and told him he must take up his throne and let her lead his army. He thought she might have the gift of prophecy, he didn’t know—but he had nothing to lose. Men believed in her. She was just a country girl, but she dressed as a man-at-arms, she had a banner embroidered with lilies and angels. She sent a messenger to a church, and there they found an old crusader sword exactly where she said it would be—it had been hidden for years.”
He laughed and then coughed and spat phlegm. “Who knows? Perhaps there was some truth in it. My dox … my woman friend thought that Joan was a holy maid, called by God to save France from us English. Thought she couldn’t be touched by a sword. Thought she was a little angel.”
“And what was she like?”
“A girl, just a girl like you. Small, bright-eyed, full of herself.”
My heart swelled. “Like me?”
“Very like you.”
“Did people tell her what to do all the time? Tell her she knew nothing?”
He shook his head. “No, no, she was the commander. She followed her own vision of herself. She led an army of more than four thousand and fell on us when we were camped outside Orléans. Our lords couldn’t get our men forwards to fight her; we were terrified of the very sight of her. Nobody would raise a sword against her. We all thought she was unbeatable. We went on to Jargeau and she chased after us, on the attack, always on the attack. We were all terrified of her. We swore she was a witch.”
“A witch or guided by angels?” I demanded.
He smiled. “I saw her at Paris. There was nothing evil about her. She looked like God Himself was holding her up on that big horse. My lord called her a flower of chivalry. Really.”
“Beautiful?” I whispered. I am not a pretty girl myself, which is a disappointment to my mother, but not to me, for I rise above vanity.
He shook his head and said exactly what I wanted to hear. “No, not pretty, not a pretty little thing, not girlish; but the light shone from her.”
I nodded. I felt that at that very moment, I understood … everything. “Is she fighting still?”
“God bless you for a little fool, no: she’s dead. Dead, what—about twenty years ago.”
I was horrified. “But you said she was guided by the angels!”
“She followed her voices to her death,” he said flatly. “But they examined her and said she was a virgin indeed. She was Joan the Maid in truth. And she saw true when she thought we would be defeated in France. I think we are lost now. She made a man of their king, and she made an army out of their soldiers. She was no ordinary girl. I don’t expect to see such a one again. She was burning up long before we put her on the pyre. She was ablaze with the Holy Spirit.”
I took a breath. “I am such a one as her,” I whispered to him.
He looked down at my rapt face and laughed. “No, these are old stories,” he said. “Nothing to a girl like you. She is dead and will be soon forgotten. They scattered her ashes so no one could make her a shrine.”
“But God spoke to her, a girl,” I whispered. “He did not speak to the king, nor to a boy. He spoke to a girl.”
The old soldier nodded. “I don’t doubt she was sure of it,” he said. “I don’t doubt she heard the voices of angels. She must have done. Otherwise, she couldn’t have done what she did.”
I heard my governess’s shrill call from the front door of the house, and I turned my head for a moment as the soldier picked up his pack and swung it round on his back.
“But is this true?” I demanded with sudden urgency as he started to walk in a long, loping stride towards the stable yard and the gate to the road.
“Soldiers’ tales,” he said indifferently. “You can forget them, and forget her, and God knows, nobody will remember me.”
I let him go, but I did not forget Joan, and I will never forget Joan. I pray to her by name for guidance, and I close my eyes and try to see her. Ever since that day, every soldier who comes to the door of Bletsoe begging for food is told to wait, for little Lady Margaret will want to see him. I always ask them if they were at Les Augustins, at Les Tourelles, at Orléans, at Jargeau, at Beaugency, at Patay, at Paris? I know her victories as well as I know the names of our neighboring villages in Bedfordshire. Some of the soldiers were at these battles; some of them even saw her. They all speak of a slight girl on a big horse, a banner over her head, glimpsed where the fighting was the fiercest, a girl like a prince, sworn to bring peace and victory to her country, giving herself to the service of God, nothing more than a girl, nothing more than a girl like me: but a heroine.
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