The Crown A Novel - By Nancy Bilyeau




London, May 25, 1537

When a burning is announced, the taverns off Smithfield order extra barrels of ale, but when the person to be executed is a woman and one of noble birth, the ale comes by the cartload. I would ride in one of those carts on Friday of Whitsun week, the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King Henry the Eighth, to offer prayers for the soul of the condemned traitor, Lady Margaret Bulmer.

I heard the cartsman’s cry go out as I made my way on Cheap-side Street, clutching the London map I’d sketched from a book in secret two nights before. I moved faster now that I’d reached such a wide and cobbled street, but my legs throbbed. I’d spent the morning trudging through mud.

“Smithfield—are ye bound for Smithfield?” It was a cheerful voice, as if the destination were a Saint George’s Day fair. Just ahead, in front of a tannery, I saw who had shouted: a burly man flicking the backs of four horses hitched to a large cart. A half-dozen heads peeked above the rails.

“Hold!” I shouted as loudly as I could. “I wish to go to Smithfield.”

The cartsman whipped around; his eyes searched the crowd. I waved, and his face split into a wet smile. As I drew nearer, my stomach clenched. I’d vowed I would speak to no one this entire day, seek no assistance. The risk of discovery was too great. But Smithfield lay outside the walls of the city, to the north and west, still a fair distance away.

When I reached him, the cartsman looked me up and down, and his smile sagged. I wore a heavy wool kirtle, the only one available to me for the journey. It was a bodice and skirt made for the dead of winter, not spring, and not a day when bursts of warmth were anchored by sheets of billowing mists. Mud soaked my tangled hem. I could only be grateful no one could see beneath the heavy fabric, to my shift drenched with sweat.

But I knew it wasn’t only my disheveled garments that gave the cartsman pause. To many, I look strange. My hair is black as polished onyx; my eyes are brown with flecks of green. My olive skin neither reddens by Saint Swithin’s Day, nor pales by Advent. Mine is the coloring of my Spanish mother. But not her delicate features. No, my face is that of my English father: a wide forehead, high cheekbones, and strong chin. It’s as if the mismatch of my parents’ marriage fought on the foundation of my face, plain for all to see. In a land of pink-and-white girls, I stand out like a raven. There was a time when that troubled me, but at twenty-six years of age, I was no longer subject to such petty concerns.

“A shilling to ride, mistress,” the cartsman said. “Pay up and we’ll be off.”

His demand took me by surprise, though, of course, it shouldn’t have.

“I am without coins,” I stammered.

The cartsman barked a laugh. “Do ye think I do this for amusement? I’ve run low on ale”—he pounded a wooden barrel behind him—“and I must earn enough to pay for the cart.” On the far side of the barrel, I could see his passengers craning to get a look at me.

“Wait,” I said, and fished for the small cloth purse in the pocket I’d stitched into my dress. Swirling my fingers around the purse, I found a slender ring. I didn’t want to give him anything finer. Some important bribes lay ahead.

I held out the ring. “Will this do?” In an instant his scowl turned to delight, and the slight golden ring of my dead mother disappeared into the driver’s dirty palm.

When I climbed into the back of his cart, I could see pity and contempt playing across the faces of the other passengers. My ring must be worth more than the ride. I found a clean pile of straw in the corner and looked down, trying to avoid their curious stares, as the cart resumed its journey.

An elbow poked my side. A sturdy woman sidled closer, one of middling years, the only other female in the cart. Smiling, she held out a piece of brown bread. I’d had nothing to eat since last night’s supper. Ordinarily, I gloried in the pangs of hunger, the mastery over my weak mortal flesh, but my mission required a certain vigor. I took the bread with a grateful nod. A mouthful of food and