I was not born to high estate. My father, Edward Guildford, was only a knight—and he was not even that when I was born, but a mere squire, albeit one high in the young king’s favor. It was owing to this royal esteem that one chilly day in January 1512, my father strode into our hall at Halden in Kent with a black-haired boy in tow. “This is John Dudley, Mouse,” Father said, using the pet name I had been given to distinguish me from my stepmother, Joan, whose name was sufficiently close to mine as to cause confusion sometimes.
“He is to be my ward—that is, in my care—now that his father is dead and his mother’s remarried. He’ll be staying here a long time.”
John, who was seven years of age to my three (almost four, as I liked to point out), executed a respectful bow, but did not match my stepmother’s welcoming smile. “You look cold, John,” my stepmother said then, her voice lacking its natural warmth. “Why don’t you sit by the fire?”
It was an order rather than a suggestion, and the boy said, “Yes, mistress,” and obeyed. His voice was not a Kentish one, even I at my young age could tell.
“He seems very ill mannered,” my stepmother said when the boy was out of earshot.
“He’s coming among strangers, and he’s tired. He’s a London boy, don’t forget, not used to riding.” My father chuckled. “Stared at my horse as if he were at the menagerie at the Tower. I had him take the reins for a time while coming here, though, and he did quite well. He’s sharp.”
“Aye, like his father. And look where that got him, speaking of the Tower.”
“Where’s that, Mama?” I could not resist asking. “What tower?”
“Never you mind,” said my stepmother briskly as my father gave her what I had begun to recognize as a meaningful look. I was a quiet child, which meant adults often said interesting things in my presence they might have avoided saying in front of a more talkative girl, but sometimes to my disappointment they remembered themselves. Pitching her voice in a manner that informed me that future comments would not be welcome, she said to my father, “How much does he know of all that, by the way?”
“Most all, I fear. Some of the neighbors talked before they stopped speaking to the family altogether, and he figured out the rest for himself. He’s sharp, as I said.”
“Oh.” My stepmother’s voice softened. “Poor lad.” She glanced at me. “Jane, why don’t you join Master Dudley by the fire?”
I obeyed. John was sitting on a bench and staring into the flames. Shy as I was, I was being brought up to converse properly, as became a well-bred young lady. “Hello,” I said brightly.
John looked at me with apparent reluctance, though in my opinion, I was at least more interesting than the fire, crackle as it might. “They called you ‘Mouse’ just now,” he said with the air of one feeling bound to say something. “That’s a strange name.”
“That’s just what they call me here. My real name is Jane.” I paused. “Jane and John. They sound almost alike.”
“I have my own pony,” I went on, undaunted. How I had forgotten to mention this to John immediately I had no idea, for there was no creature I loved more than my new pony, which I was just learning to ride. I’d tried my best to let everyone in Kent know of my new acquisition. “Father said you don’t know how to ride yet.”
“No. Why should I? I’m from London.”
I did know something about London. Father was often at the king’s court there. But I didn’t know all that much. I contemplated this apparently horseless place for a time before asking, “How do you go places there? Walk?”
The boy gave me a pitying look for my ignorance. “Just for short distances. People do ride, especially if they’re coming in or out of the country, but if you’re traveling from one part of London to another, it’s best to take a boat down the Thames.”
“My father used to take me all of the time before he died.”
“My mother’s dead,” I offered companionably. “She died the same day I was born.” (I thought at the time only that this was rather an interesting coincidence.) “They say she got sick. What did your father die of?”
“They cut off his head.”
I stared at him in bewilderment. I vaguely knew that men who did wrong things could get hanged, though I had never seen such a dreadful sight. But cutting a man’s head off? “Like a chicken?”
I placed my hands on my neck and determined that losing one’s head would not be an easy accomplishment. “But why?”
“Mouse,” said my father, putting his hand on my shoulder and looking at John apologetically. “That’s enough questions for now. Your mother needs you to help her with—well, she needs you to help her with something.”
“Yes, Father,” I said, but I could not resist looking back at the boy as I scurried away. I had good reason to look back, after all; without knowing it, I had met my husband.
If I must say so myself, I sew a shirt beautifully. On many a New Year’s Day, I had presented my creations to my uncle King Henry, who confided to me once that they excelled his first queen’s handiwork, and she was a capital shirt maker. I also made smocks, which graced the forms of both the ladies Mary and Elizabeth. I did not neglect to keep my own family well supplied with these garments, and I was hard at work on a shirt for Harry when he joined me in my chamber later that evening. “I am doing something new with the embroidery this time. See?”
“Lovely,” Harry agreed. “So what did you think? Were you pleased to see our Jane getting on so well in the queen’s household?”
“It appears that Jane has become very fond of the queen.” I sighed slightly.
“So what is wrong with that?”
What was wrong with it, I longed to say, was that I wanted her to love me. “Nothing, of course. I just wish she paid the same respect to me as she did the queen.”
“When has she been insolent toward you?”
“Never in so many words. Well, not at all, really. She is a good girl. But—”
“Collaborating with the queen when she gets older! Did you hear that? I say, this has opened up a world of opportunity for our Jane.”
“I just hope it doesn’t give her an inflated idea of herself,” I ventured. “Modesty is an accomplishment in itself.”
“Well, of course.” My husband yawned.
I continued to work on my husband’s shirt, my thoughts not on my stitches but on my first child, my little Henry, born when I was still just sixteen. What a sweet baby he had been! But he had lived only six months, and at seventeen, I had watched as he was laid in his tiny grave. I had been too drained from days of watching him fade away to cry. Harry had stood beside me, weeping openly, and his hateful mother had stood there, too. She had let it be known I was a burden on her son, with the large retinue he insisted I have as a duke’s daughter. This mother of several healthy grown sons had stared at the little coffin dispassionately, plainly thinking I was proving even worse of a bargain than she thought. I could not even bear her Harry a healthy male child.
My husband and I had been too young to know how to offer each other the comfort we each needed. After our little boy was buried, he had turned to his books and to his gambling and to his life at court, and I had turned to my relations and friends, whom I had visited for weeks on end. Somehow, though, we had come together often enough for me to conceive a second child, who had lived only hours. But whatever God’s plan had been in depriving me of my first two babes, he seemed to have changed it with the birth of my third, for Jane and her sisters after her had been thriving infants, gulping their nurse’s milk and protesting vigorously against the indignity of being swaddled.
Yet I could not stop thinking about my lost children—especially about my son. It was foolish, I knew, for he had died so young that I had no way of knowing what sort of boy he would have become, but I pictured him as an affectionate, kind young man who would have never scorned my ignorance and who would have written to me regularly from his place at court. I pictured him much like my younger half brothers, who were nearly as learned as my Jane but with a taste for archery and tennis, as well. Or perhaps Henry might have been like the lads of Jane Dudley, Countess of Warwick. The countess had lost several of her boys, two as young children and one during the siege of Boulogne three years before, but five had survived: handsome sons who outshone their plain little mother in every respect but who never treated her as an embarrassment.
My little Henry would have proudly worn my shirts, I thought as I sighed and turned my attention to my work.