Frances, Marchioness of Dorset, prepared carefully for the birth of her child. It was an anxious time, but following the traditions of the lying-in helped allay fears of the perils of labor. The room in which she was to have her baby had windows covered and keyholes blocked. Ordinances for a royal birth decreed that only one window should be left undraped, and Frances would depend almost entirely on candles for light. The room was to be as warm, soft, and dark as possible. She bought or borrowed expensive carpets and hangings, a bed of estate, fine sheets, and a rich counterpane. Her friend the late Lady Sussex had one of ermine bordered with cloth of gold for her lying-in, and, as the King's niece, Frances would have wanted nothing less.
The nineteen-year-old mother-to-be was the daughter of Henry's younger sister, Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, the widow of Louis XII and known commonly as the French Queen. Frances was, therefore, a granddaughter of Henry VII and referred to as the Lady Frances to indicate her status as such. The child of famously handsome parents, she was, unsurprisingly, attractive. The effigy that lies on her tomb at Westminster Abbey has a slender, elegant figure and under the gilded crown she wears, her features are regular and strong. Frances, however, was a conventional Tudor woman, as submissive to her father's choice of husband for her as she would later be to her husband's decisions.
Henry-or "Harry"-Grey, Marquess of Dorset, described as "young," "lusty," "well learned and a great wit," was only six months older than his wife. But the couple had been married for almost four years already. The contractual arrangements had been made on 24 March 1533, when Frances was fifteen and Dorset sixteen. Among commoners a woman was expected to be at least twenty before she married, and a man older, but of course these were no commoners. They came from a hereditary elite and were part of a ruthless political culture. The children of the nobility were political and financial assets to their families, and Frances's marriage to Dorset reflected this. Dorset came from an ancient line with titles including the baronies of Ferrers, Grey of Groby, Astley, Boneville, and Harrington. He also had royal connections. His grandfather, the 1st Marquess, was the son of Elizabeth Woodville, and therefore the half-brother of Henry VIII's royal mother, Elizabeth of York. This marked Dorset as a suitable match for Frances in terms of rank and wealth, but there were also good political reasons for Suffolk to want him as a son-in-law.
The period immediately before the arrangement of Frances's marriage had been a difficult one for her parents. The dislike with which Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, viewed her brother's then "beloved," Anne Boleyn, was well-known. It was said that women argued more bitterly about matters of rank than anything else, and certainly Frances's royal mother had deeply resented being required to give precedence to a commoner like Anne. For years the duke and duchess had done their best to destroy the King's affection for his mistress, but in the end without success. The King, convinced that Anne would give him the son that Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce, had married her that January and she was due to be crowned in May/June. It seemed that the days when the Suffolks had basked in the King's favor could be over, but a marriage of Frances to Harry Dorset offered a possible lifeline, a way into the Boleyn camp. Harry Dorset's father, Thomas Grey of Dorset, had been a witness for the King in his efforts to achieve an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He had won his famous diamond-and-ruby badge of the Tudor rose at the jousting tournaments that had celebrated Catherine's betrothal to the King's late brother, Arthur, in 1501. In 1529, the year before Thomas Grey of Dorset died, he had offered evidence that this betrothal was consummated. It had helped support Henry's arguments that Catherine had been legally married to his brother and his own marriage to her was therefore incestuous. Anne Boleyn remained grateful to the family, and Harry Dorset was made a Knight of the Bath at her coronation.
From Harry's perspective, however, the marriage to Frances-concluded sometime between 28 July 1533 and 4 February 1534-also carried political and material advantages to his family. His grandfather, the 1st Marquess, may have been Henry VII's brother-in-law, but by marrying a princess of the blood he would be doing even better; and the fact that he had only the previous year refused the daughter of the Earl of Arundel may be an early mark of his ambition. Through Frances, any children they had would be linked by blood to all the power and spiritual mystery of the crown. It was an asset of incalculable worth-though it would carry a terrible price.
Nearly four years later, sometime before the end of May, 1537, Frances's child was to be born. Harry Grey of Dorset was in London that spring, and Frances would surely have been with him then at Dorset House, on the Strand. It was one of a number of large properties built by the nobility close to the new royal palace of Whitehall. There was a paved street behind and, in front-where the house had its grandest aspect-there was a garden down to the river with a water gate onto the Thames. Traveling by boat in London was easier than navigating the narrow streets, and foreigners often commented on the beauty of the river. Swans swam among the great barges while pennants flew from the pretty gilded cupolas of the Tower. But there were also many grim sights on the river that spring. London Bridge was festooned with the decapitated heads of the leaders of the recent rebellion in the north, the Pilgrimage of Grace: men who had fought for the faith of their ancestors and the right of the Princess Mary to inherit her father's crown. For all Henry's concerns about the decorum of female rule, the majority of his ordinary subjects had little objection to the concept. That women were inferior as a sex was regarded as indisputable, but it was possible for some to be regarded as exceptional. The English were famous in Europe for their devotion to the Virgin Mary, the second Eve, who alone among humanity was born without the taint of the first sin, and who reigned under God as Queen of Heaven. It did not seem, to them, a huge leap to accept a Queen on Earth. Just as the Princess Mary's rights were under attack, however, so were their religious beliefs and traditions.
When the Pope had refused to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the King had broken with Rome, and the Pope's right of intervention on spiritual affairs in England had been abolished by an act of Parliament on 7 April 1533. With the benefit of hindsight we understand that this was a definitive moment in the history of the English-speaking world, but at the time, most people had seen these events as no more than moves in a political game. Matters of jurisdiction between King and Pope were not things with which ordinary people concerned themselves, and the aspects of traditional belief that first came under attack were often controversial ones. Long before Henry's reformation in religion there had been debate for reform within the Catholic Church, inspired in particular by the so-called Humanists. They were fascinated by the rediscovered ancient texts of Greece and Rome, and in recent decades Western academics had, for the first time, learnt Greek as well as Latin. This allowed them to read earlier versions of the Bible than the medieval Latin translations, and to make new translations. As a change in meaning to a few words could question centuries of religious teaching, so a new importance came to be placed on historical accuracy and authenticity. Questions were raised about such traditions as the cult of relics, and the shrines to local saints whose origins may have lain with the pagan gods. It was only in 1535, when two leading Humanists, Henry's former Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, and the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, went to the block rather than accept the King's claimed "royal supremacy" over religious affairs, that people began to realize there was more to Henry's reformation than political argument and an attempt to reform religious abuses. And even then many did not waver in their Catholic faith. These "Henrician" Catholics included among their number the chief ideologue of the "royal supremacy," the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner. For the bishop, as for the King, papal jurisdiction, the abolished shrines, pilgrimages, and monasteries, were not intrinsic to Catholic beliefs, but the Holy Sacraments, such as the Mass, remained inviolate. Bishop and King argued that although the English Church was in schism in the sense that it had separated from Rome, it was not heretical and in opposition to it.
Those who disagreed, and opposed Henry's reformation, felt his tyranny to full effect, as the heads displayed at London Bridge and other public sites bore silent witness. One hundred and forty-four rebels from the Pilgrimage of Grace were dismembered and their body parts put on show in the north and around the capital. Even if Londoners avoided the terrible spectacle of these remains, they would not miss the other physical evidence of the King's reformation. Everywhere the great religious buildings that had played a central role in London life were being destroyed or adapted to secular use. Only that May, the monks from the London Charterhouse who had refused to sign an oath to the royal supremacy were taken to Newgate Prison, where they would starve to death in chains. Inside Frances's specially prepared chamber at Dorset House, however, the sights, sounds, and horrors of the outside world were all shut out. She was surrounded only with the women who would help deliver her baby. When the first intense ache of labor came it was a familiar one. Frances had already lost at least one child, a son who died in infancy, as so many Tudor children did. Nothing is recorded of his short life save his name: Henry, Lord Harington. Contemporary sources focus instead on the children born to Anne Boleyn: her daughter, Elizabeth, born on 7 September 1533 (at whose christening Dorset had borne the gilded saltcellar),* and the miscarriages that had followed-the little deaths that had marked the way to Boleyn's own, executed on trumped-up charges of adultery on 19 May 1536. The King's second marriage was annulled and an act of Parliament had since declared both the King's daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, illegitimate and incapable of succession. This raised in importance the heirs of the King's sisters in the line of succession, and both King and kingdom had already shown sensitivity to the implications. The rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace had expressed their fear that on Henry's death England would pass to the foreigner James V of Scots, the son of his elder sister, Margaret. Meanwhile, her daughter by a second marriage, to the Earl of Angus, Lady Margaret Douglas, a favorite of the English court, was currently in prison for having become betrothed without the King's permission. Her lover, Anne Boleyn's uncle Thomas Howard, would die in the Tower that October. But while Frances's child would, inevitably, hold an important place within the royal family, the King remained determined that his own line would succeed him. The pressure on her to produce a male heir was therefore of a different order to that placed on Henry's wives. Dorset wanted a son, as all noblemen did, but he and Frances were still young and, when a girl was born, their relief that she was strong and healthy would have outweighed any disappointment in her sex. A servant carried the newborn child immediately to a nearby room and handed her to a nurse. It was usual for fathers to be at hand when their children were born and Dorset would have been one of the first to visit the dimly lit nursery where his daughter was being fed and bound in swaddling, to keep her limbs straight and prevent her from scratching her face. Her spiritual welfare was of still greater concern to her parents and her christening was arranged as soon as possible, though this meant Frances could not attend. New mothers were expected to remain in bed for up to a month, and some did not even sit up for a fortnight. Frances played a role, however, in helping choose as her daughter's godmother the King's new wife, Jane Seymour, after whom the little girl was named. With her pursed lips and sandy eyelashes, Jane Seymour seems a poor replacement for Anne Boleyn, whose black eyes, it was said, "could read the secrets of a man's heart," but like her predecessor, Jane Seymour was a ruthless seductress. Her betrothal to Henry was announced only the day after Anne was executed. Having gotten her king it was her performance as a broodmare that was now important. In this too, however, she was showing marked success. A pregnancy had been evident for weeks, and on 27 May the rumors were confirmed with a Te Deum sung at St. Paul's Cathedral "for joy of the Queen's quickening with child." It remained to be seen whether Jane Seymour would give the King the son he wanted, but in choosing her as godmother to their new daughter, Frances and Harry Dorset had offered a vote of confidence, and although they could not know it, the Seymour family would remain closely linked to their own, one way or another, thereafter.
About a fortnight after the christening, Frances had her first day out of bed and dressed in one of her finest nightgowns for a celebratory party. The royal tailor advised damask or satin, worn with an ermine-trimmed bonnet and waistcoat, allowing the wearer to keep warm as well as look good, for visiting female friends and relations. Frances had a younger sister, Eleanor, married to Lord Clifford, and an equally young stepmother. Frances's mother had died on Midsummer's Day in 1533, and her father had wasted little time before remarrying. The bride he had chosen was his fourteen-year-old ward, an heiress, Katherine Willoughby. He was then forty-nine, and the muscles of the champion jouster, like those of his friend the King, had begun to turn to fat. Frances would doubtless have wished her father had waited longer and made a different choice: the new Duchess of Suffolk had been raised alongside her like a sister since the age of seven. But Frances had accepted what she could not change and remained close to her childhood friend, who was now pregnant with the second of Frances's half brothers, Charles Brandon. After the party was over, Frances could venture beyond her chambers to the nursery and other rooms in the house, until the lying-in concluded at last when Jane was about a month old with the "churching"-a religious service of thanksgiving and purification that ended with Frances being sprinkled with holy water. "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean," she prayed, "wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Sisters Who Would Be Queen by Leanda de Lisle. Copyright © 2009 by Leanda de Lisle. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.