By Nancy Bilyeau
The holiday spirit is upon us! I'd like to give away seven (yes, seven) signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry. To enter the giveaway, comment at the end of this post.
And I'd also like to share an excerpt from the book: Chapter 11. I've selected a fateful dinner: my main character, Joanna Stafford, dines with Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves at Whitehall. If you've read the first two books in the series, The Crown and The Chalice, you may be wondering how the heck that would happen. If there is one man Joanna hates, it's her second cousin, Henry Tudor! To set the stage, Joanna was summoned to Whitehall at the beginning of the novel, and with little choice, traveled to Westminster. Her talent with tapestry weaves drew the attention of Henry VIII, an obsessed collector. Since that day, she's fended off an attack on her life, earned the ire of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Howard, and Stephen Gardiner, and renewed her friendship with the queen's maid of honor, Catherine Howard. Yes, she's been busy. :)
And now...the excerpt:
I was flooded with relief to see the new Queen Anne—the fourth of his consorts— followed by a group of ladies. Lady Rochford, her shoulders thrown back, took her place in the queen’s train.
I made my deepest curtsey, one that would have made my mother proud.
“You are welcome to court, Mistress Joanna,” said Queen Anne, with a dignified tilt of the head. Her accent was thick, her words halting. But I was impressed that after four months, she spoke English this well. On the boat from Calais to Dover, she had possessed not a single word.
She looked different and it was not just her wardrobe. Anne of Cleves wore English fashions now; that strange hat and sleeves were gone. She was still a pleasant-looking young woman—the widespread rumor that the queen was too plain to attract the king were nonsense. But she was paler than I remembered. And thinner too.
“Will you stitch with me?” she asked. “With stitches, you… are good.”
“I would be honored,” I said, curtseying again. I could not help but be flattered that she remembered my fondness for embroidery.
And then came the king. Henry VIII filled up the room with his presence: tall, broad, a crown atop his red hair, and draped with a diamond-laden pendant. We all of us made our obeisance, and he limped to the table, nodding. Queen Anne sat at the other end of the table from her husband, with my place halfway between.
At first the king said little. His attention was on neither the queen nor myself but on the food. He was quite intent on a certain course—the stuffed capon—and visibly relaxed when it appeared, just after the civet of hare. Some worry he’d had over its sauce disappeared with the first bite, and his heavy jowls shook as he consumed slice after slice.
Six ladies attended the queen, bringing her food and serving her wine. Catherine was not among them, but Lady Rochford was. George Boleyn’s widow saw to my dinner service as well, which meant that I was frequently treated to that unfortunate smile. Such heavy dishes were not to my taste, but I did not want to appear rude and so did my best to keep up. The odors of the food mingled with the burning wax of many candles and the king’s own scent, the musk and lavender and orange water—this was not conducive to appetite.
Peeking down the table, I detected, even in candlelight, a tenseness in Queen Anne’s expression. A certain wariness. She ate even less than I did.
“Madame, you have met our guest before?” said the king to his wife after the capons were cleared. “We are told that our cousin Joanna made your acquaintance in France.”
Queen Anne swallowed and said, “Yes, Your Grace, I knew—I knew…” She paused, faltered and a man surged forward. He listened to a flood of Anne’s German and then explained to the king the circumstances of my meeting her.
“You are fortunate to be able to travel abroad,” the king said to me. “In truth, we envy you. If we leave the kingdom, it’s assumed we are planning war. We’d have to raise taxes, muster an army, and set fire to the Scottish border before we go. A high price to pay for trying out the stuffed capon in Calais.”
The room erupted in laughter, and, to my own amazement, I joined in. I had heard from my Stafford relatives that King Henry had the power to charm, that he was witty. Now I experienced it for myself.
One person failed to laugh. Queen Anne’s translator had conveyed the king’s joke to her, but perhaps the humor did not survive translation. She did nothing but frown.
I was not the only one who noticed that the queen was at a loss. The king sighed and then drained his goblet. “More wine,” he called out sharply, as men scurried to obey. A silence fell over the table again.
They were so ill at ease with each other. Would this have been a harmonious couple even if he hadn’t been sickened at the outset? There was no way for me, for anyone, to know.
As soon as his goblet was replenished, King Henry sipped from it, nodded, and then turned to me. “Cousin, we should now like to hear about your tapestry enterprise. First of all: Who precisely taught you to weave?”
Henry VIII had ordered the destruction of the monasteries, had ended a way of life held sacred in England for a thousand years. How could I tell him that it was nuns who taught me to weave? But as he drummed his fingers on the table, growing impatient with my silence, I had no choice.
“I learned it while I served as a novice at the Dominican Order of sisters in Dartford,” I said.
I waited for him to erupt, to bellow. Here would come the famous, feared temper. But the king stroked his beard and said, “They had a loom, correct? Your work was not done with needles, I think.”
“No, Your Majesty. I mean, yes. We used a loom.”
“Your work was first-rate on the phoenix tapestry that the queen our wife purchased,” said the king. “It shows a certain delicacy, an interpretation of myth, that is too often lacking in these triptychs from Brussels.”
My cheeks hot, I said, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“And you have begun another?” he said, leaning toward me across the table, his eyes alight with interest.
I explained that I’d ordered the design for The Sorrow of Niobe, a Greek queen who lost everything to the Gods.
It would not seem possible for King Henry to look at me more intently, but that piece of news seemed to trigger some deep contemplation.
“Hubris, ahhhh,” he said. “You have made an interesting choice.”
“Pardon me, Your Majesty?”
A smile playing on his lips, the king said, “Niobe’s children were slain by the gods because of hubris. She defied them, saying that her children were superior. For her pride and arrogance, for her over-estimation of the importance, she was punished.”
I had seen the word hubris in relation to this myth but not understood its full meaning. Now my stomach twisted as I realized my choice could be seen as celebrating defiance of the gods. If King Henry saw himself as a sacred being—which seemed quite likely—then this tapestry would offend him.
“Pride is a sin, Your Highness,” I said.
“Very true, Cousin.” He sipped some wine and asked, “Will you use a living woman as your model for Niobe the queen?”
“I know that near the end of a weave, when finishing the faces, some have been known to use paintings or even living subjects as models,” I said, relieved at the change in course of conversation. “I suppose it is possible.”
The king beckoned for a servant, who shortly after darted away, and suddenly Master Thomas Culpepper appeared at the table. He bent over so that the king could say something to him alone. He nodded and then withdrew from the table. I tried to catch his eye—it felt wrong to fail to acknowledge Culpepper, my greatest friend at Whitehall after Catherine Howard—but he did not look in my direction.
“There is no substitute in art for experience,” said the king, approvingly. “Bearing that in mind, tell us what you think of our collection of tapestries. You see only a portion here at Whitehall, but we are proud of what is so displayed.”
And so went my discussion of tapestry with the king of England. As the sovereign worked his way through three more courses of food, we talked of the series I had seen thus far. He was eager to hear my opinions. The one in the main hall turned out be called The Fall of Troy. Most of the king’s tapestries told tales of classic Rome or stories of the Old Testament. “Our prize is still The Story of David, we purchased it twelve years ago,” he said. “We’ve assigned a man in Brussels. And scouts in Italy and France and Flanders. We hate to think of missing a good tapestry, particularly if it’s to the king of France.”
This was a world I had not imagined. Of course I knew that the largest tapestries were woven in Brussels and that the wealthiest families prided themselves on their possessions. But this sprawling community of artisans and weavers, fueled by new ideas and techniques, financed by the competitive kings of Europe—I’d had only an inkling.
“Our grandfather, Edward the Fourth, built up a strong collection,” the king explained as he dove into the next course, one of roasted pig. “The king our father added to it; he had a perceptive eye for tapestry, as he did for all things. When he died, the crown owned four hundred pieces of tapestry.”
“Four hundred?” It did not seem possible.
He smiled proudly. “We had it inventoried. We do so periodically. We like to know exactly what we own.” He turned his head to the group of servants standing behind. “Fetch Sir Anthony Denny.”
Not a moment later, a thin, red-haired gentleman appeared, and the king ordered him to commence with a new inventory of the tapestries of Whitehall.
“Your Majesty, if I may?”
With a start, I turned toward the queen, who had called out to her husband in her quavering, heavily accented voice. I was overcome with shame at my incivility. I had been embroiled in conversation with the king for some time, and had made no effort to include the queen.
“Sire, I know—that you love the music,” she said, slowly. “I have surprise.”
The doors swung open and four men strode in, carrying musical instruments. They were all dark, resembling each other to an unusual degree. With one graceful movement, the quartet bowed low to the king and queen.
The queen’s translator announced on her behalf, “These are the Bassano brothers, come to court from Venice at the queen’s invitation, to entertain Your Majesty.”
King Henry looked truly taken aback. But he gathered himself and pointed at one of the brothers and asked what instrument he carried.
“It is called the violin, Sire,” the man answered in French.
I will never forget the performance of the Bassano brothers in the queen’s privy chamber. It could have been the potency of the wine, or my jangled nerves over conversing with King Henry, or my constant and underlying fear of the Palace of Whitehall. Perhaps it was all of those things. But I found the piercing, soaring, aching sound of that violin, the principal instrument in the quartet, so powerful that I found it hard to draw breath.
I loved music—I used to play a vihuela, taught by my mother—but it had been a long time since I’d heard instruments play. When was the last occasion? It took me a moment, and then I remembered, with a twist of my heart. The wedding of Agatha and John Gwinn just a year ago. I danced at that wedding, the last one with Geoffrey Scovill, who admitted more than he should have of his feelings for me. Although I had always known--always. How much Geoffrey and I had hurt each other. And the Gwinns said he would leave Dartford. What if he’d already done so—and I’d never have the chance to speak to Geoffrey again.
The Bassano brothers finished, and the queen clapped her hands, well pleased. As for the king, he had gone still as a statute, his small blue eyes a touch bleary in his fleshy face.
We waited for his reaction. Surely he must be impressed.
Henry VIII cleared his throat and said, “Such music is not appropriate for a small dinner of family in a privy chamber.”
The queen’s face fell. I could not believe that His Majesty, known for his passion for music, did not appreciate what his wife had done. Standing behind her, Lady Rochford smirked.
The king continued, “Still, we shall be sure that these brothers from Venice are fairly compensated.”
I was in an odd way grateful for his coldness to Anne of Cleves, for it broke the spell. During the long discussion of tapestry, I had found it hard to hold onto my hatred of the king. It had almost seemed as if we were family, speaking of a common interest. His depth of knowledge of tapestry, his references and insights, were so exceptional that I had been quite carried away. But now I’d returned to earth. The king was a tyrant who had ordered the deaths of people I loved. He could never be my family.
The king rose to his feet with a groan, pulling himself up by gripping the top of his high-backed seat. He had eaten and drunk so much. It was surprising he was able to rise without assistance of strong-backed menservants.
“We bid you good day, Madame,” he said to his wife. “We have another matter of tapestry to discuss with our kinswoman, Joanna.”
Anne of Cleves said quietly, “Good day.”
I rose and curtsied to the queen. To prolong my time with the king was a daunting prospect. I’d hoped to be free of him by now. But at least this meant we would soon finish our business and I’d be able to leave for Dartford.
The king moved with difficulty from the queen’s privy chamber. He had been sitting a long time; his leg seemed now a source of utter agony. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with him—Master Culpepper had said something about open sores on the king’s leg requiring constant physician attention.
We passed a portrait of his third queen, Jane Seymour, hanging on the wall. How pale and pensive she looked, as if she knew she would die before the marriage was two years old. I wondered which ghosts walked with King Henry along the passageways of Whitehall: the first wife he spurned; the second one he had killed; or the third one he lost after she did her duty and produced a male heir. Perhaps it was not so strange the king showed no interest in Queen Anne, for he could well be a man worn down from being husband to the trio who proceeded her.
Now that I stood close to him, that singular odor filled my head. Aside from the fruit and floral extracts and the musk was the same indefinable smell—familiar and animal-like and yet somehow disgusting. At dinner I’d thought it came from one of the myriad dishes of meat. But we were far from the table now. In trying to place it, my mind skipped to a memory of Edmund treating a wound in the Dartford infirmary and then I had it—what I smelled was infected flesh. As much as he tried to cover it up, the king’s leg wound stank.
We finally arrived at the destination the king had in mind: the chamber housing The Story of David. It was undeniably magnificent, each glittering tapestry in the long series depicting an episode of the ancient king’s life. We stood side by side, saying nothing, for a few moments.
“We come here often, for only this King of the Israelites could understand our destiny,” said Henry VIII, very solemn. “We are another David, chosen by God.”
I stole a glance at him. Did he truly believe this? King Henry’s face was red and slick with sweat, whether from the long meal in the candlelight or the stabbing pain of his leg, I did not know. “I must lead the people from the darkness and ignorance of Papal superstition to truth and goodness,” he announced.
I clutched my hands tight, to keep them from trembling.
Although he did not turn from The Story of David to look at me, the king must have sensed my fear. “Do not be troubled, Joanna, for you were not at fault for seeking to become a nun. You are clearly a woman of intelligence. What you require is instruction.”
I did not like the sound of that, but there was nothing I could do but pray that soon I would be freed from royal company.
Sir Anthony Denny approached, and to my relief, reminded the king of a council meeting, but Henry VIII waved him off. “We shall be there soon enough,” he said in that high, sharp voice. Then, his tone gentler, he said to me, “Tell us, cousin, what you think of the paintings of Whitehall. You are knowledgeable about tapestry, we would like to discover what else you can speak to.”
“I appreciate art but know little of its technique, Your Majesty,” I said. “When a painting moves me, I am not sure of the reason.”
“And has a painting of mine moved you?” He turned to inspect me. “Ah, yes, one has.”
When I described the painting I had seen in the hall just before dinner, the king laughed a little. “You are a woman of surprises,” he said. “That is one of our favorites. It is part of a series done years ago by our court painter, Hans Holbein, called The Dance of ‘Death.”
“Then the skeleton in the painting is…”
“… death.” Henry VIII finished my sentence. “It appears in each one of the series, but to different people: a nobleman, a poor man, a merchant, an abbess, even a king. You see, Joanna, death comes to all.”
I felt a chill. And for a fleeting second I thought I glimpsed fear in the king’s face too. To believe yourself chosen by God to be another David, and yet to quake before mortality, what a strange state. Or was it guilt that haunted him, guilt for the monasteries he’d destroyed, the parade or martyrs he’d created?
The king said firmly, “We did not ask for your company after dinner to speak of death. Put Holbein and his fancies from your mind. We wish to commission your next tapestry, The Sorrow of Niobe, but we have a condition. We would choose the subject whose face you model Niobe’s on.”
It took me a moment to grasp what he was saying. “But Your Majesty, my loom is in Dartford. I do all my weaving there. Unless you plan to send this person to Kent, I don’t understand how it will be possible.”
“We have a proposal on where you will weave,” he said. “Many thoughts have come to us on that. But first, we would have you meet your Niobe, we think you will agree she is worthy of admiration.”
To my shock, a fond smile played on his lips, the like of which hadn’t seen this entire day. It was in anticipation of the Niobe I would now meet. Once he learned of my tapestry, he’d arranged for her to be brought to this unknown room.
So he was not weary of women. Although he was a man of some fifty years of age, married to a fourth wife, fat and near-lame, Henry VIII was behaving like a love-struck swain.
The king gestured, impatiently, for a servant to open the door to a room on the passageway. With a dread approaching sickness, I walked toward it.
Inside was a small, windowless study. A cushioned stool was put in the center of the room, and a young woman perched on it, her skirts spread in a perfect circle, her cheeks flushed as her eyes met mine.
It was Catherine Howard.
So ends Chapter 11 of The Tapestry. If you are interested in receiving a signed novel, please comment below and include your email. I will pick the winners on December 7th and mail them shortly afterward!
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