Elizabeth of Tudor, the Girl of the Hertford Manor
The iron-shod hoofs of the big gray courser rang sharply on the frozen ground, as, beneath the creaking boughs of the long-armed oaks, Launcelot Crue, the Lord Protector's fleetest courser-man, galloped across the Hertford fells or hills, and reined up his horse within the great gates of Hatfield manor-house. "From the Lord Protector," he said; and Master Avery Mitchell, the feodary, who had been closely watching for this same courser-man for several anxious hours, took from his hands a scroll, on which was inscribed:
"To Avery Mitchell, feodary of the Wards in Herts, at Halfield House. From the Lord Protector, these :"
And next, the courser-man, in secrecy, unscrewed one of the bullion buttons on his buff jerkin, and taking from it a scrap of paper, handed this also to the watchful feodary. Then, his mission ended, he repaired to the buttery to satisfy his lusty English appetite with a big dish of pasty, followed by ale and "wardens" (as certain hard pears, used chiefly for cooking, were called in those days), while the cautious Avery Mitchell, unrolling the scrap of paper, read:
"In secrecy, these : Under guise of mummers place a half-score good men and true in your Yule-tide maskyng. Well armed and safely conditioned. They will be there who shall command. Look for the green dragon of Wantley. On your allegiance. This from ye wit who."
Scarcely had the feodary read, re-read, and then destroyed this secret and singular missive, when the "Ho! hollo!" of Her Grace the Princess' outriders rang on the crisp December air, and there galloped up to the broad doorway of the manor-house, a gayly costumed train of lords and ladies, with huntsmen and falconers and yeomen following on behind. Central in the group, flushed with her hard gallop through the wintry air, a young girl of fifteen, tall and trim in figure, sat her horse with the easy grace of a practised and confident rider. Her long velvet habit was deeply edged with fur, and both kirtle and head-gear were of a rich purple tinge, while from beneath the latter just peeped a heavy coil of sunny, golden hair. Her face was fresh and fair, as should be that of any young girl of fifteen, but its expression was rather that of high spirits and of heedless and impetuous moods than of simple maidenly beauty.
"Tilly-vally, my lord," she cried, dropping her bridle-rein into the hands of a waiting groom, " 't was my race to-day, was it not? Odds fish, man!" she cried out sharply to the attendant groom; "be ye easier with Roland's bridle there. One beast of his gentle mettle were worth a score of clumsy varlets like to you! Well, said I not right, my Lord Admiral; is not the race fairly mine, I ask?" and, careless in act as in speech, she gave the Lord Admiral's horse, as she spoke, so sharp a cut with her riding whip as to make the big brute rear in sudden surprise, and almost unhorse its rider, while an unchecked laugh came from its fair tormentor.
"Good faith, Mistress," answered Sir Thomas Seymour, the Lord High Admiral, gracefully swallowing his exclamation of surprise, "your ladyship hath fairly won, and, sure, hath no call to punish both myself and my good Selim here by such unwarranted chastisement. Will your grace dismount?"
And, vaulting from his seat, he gallantly extended his hand to help the young girl from her horse; while, on the same instant, another in her train, a handsome young fellow of the girl's own age, knelt on the frozen ground and held her stirrup.
But this independent young maid would have none of their courtesies. Ignoring the outstretched hands of both the man and boy, she sprang lightly from her horse, and, as she did so, with a sly and sudden push of her dainty foot, she sent the kneeling lad sprawling backward, while her merry peal of laughter rang out as an accompaniment to his downfall.
"Without your help, my lords—without your help, so please you both," she cried. "Why, Dudley," she exclaimed, in mock surprise, as she threw a look over her shoulder at the prostrate boy, "are you there? Beshrew me, though, you do look like one, of goodman Roger's Dorking cocks in the poultry yonder, so red and ruffled of feather do you seem. There, see now, I do repent me of my discourtesy. You, Sir Robert, shall squire me to the hall, and Lord Seymour must even content himself with playing the gallant to good Mistress Ashley"; and, leaning on the arm of the now pacified Dudley, the self-willed girl tripped lightly up the entrance-steps.
Self-willed and thoughtless—even rude and hoydenish—we may think her in these days of gentler manners and more guarded speech. But those were less refined and cultured times than these in which we live; and the rough, uncurbed nature of "Kinge Henrye the viii. of Most Famous Memorye," as the old chronicles term the "bluff King Hal," reappeared to a noticeable extent in the person of his second child, the daughter of ill-fated Anne Boleyn —"my ladye's grace" the Princess Elizabeth of England.
And yet we should be readier to excuse this impetuous young princess of three hundred years ago than were even her associates and enemies. For enemies she had, poor child, envious and vindictive ones, who sought to work her harm. Varied and unhappy had her young life already been. Born amid splendid hopes, in the royal palace of Greenwich; called Elizabeth after that grandmother, the fair heiress of the House of York, whose marriage to a prince of the House of Lancaster had ended the long and cruel War or the Roses; she had been welcomed with the peal of bells and the boom of cannon, and christened with all the regal ceremonial of King Henry's regal court. Then, when scarcely three years old, disgraced by the wicked murder of her mother, cast off and repudiated by her brutal father, and only received again to favor at the christening of her baby brother, passing her childish days in grim old castles and a wicked court, —she found herself, at thirteen, fatherless as well as motherless, and at fifteen cast on her own resources, the sport of men's ambitions and of conspirators' schemes. To-day the girl of fifteen, tenderly reared, shielded from trouble by a mother's watchful love and a father's loving care, can know but little of the dangers that compassed this princess of England, the Lady Elizabeth. Deliberately separated from her younger brother, the king, by his unwise and selfish counsellors, hated by her elder sister, the Lady Mary, as the daughter of the woman who had made her mother's life so miserable, she was, even in her manor-home of Hatfield, where she should have been most secure, in still greater jeopardy. For this same Lord Seymour of Sudleye, who was at once Lord High Admiral of England, uncle to the king, and brother of Somerset the Lord Protector, had by fair promises and lavish gifts bound to his purpose this defenceless girl's only protectors, Master Parry, her cofferer, or steward, and Mistress Katherine Ashley, her governess. And that purpose was to force the young princess into a marriage with himself, so as to help his schemes of treason against the Lord Protector, and get into his own hands the care of the boy king and the government of the realm. It was a bold plot, and, if unsuccessful, meant attainder and death for high treason; but Seymour, ambitious, reckless, and unprincipled, thought only of his own desires, and cared little for the possible ruin into which he was dragging the unsuspecting and orphaned daughter of the king who had been his ready friend and patron.
So matters stood at the period of our store, on the eve of the Christmas festivities of 1548, as, on, the arm of her boy escort, Sir Robert Dudley, gentleman usher at King Edward's court, and, years after, the famous Earl of Leicester of Queen Elizabeth's day, the royal maiden entered the hall of Hatfield House. And, within the great hall, she was greeted by Master Parry, her cofferer, Master Runyon, her yeoman of the robes, and Master Mitchell, the feodary. Then, with a low obeisance, the feodary presented her the scroll which had been brought him, post-haste, by Launcelot Crue, the courser-man.
"What, good Master Avery," exclaimed Elizabeth, as she ran her eye over the scroll, "you to be Lord of Misrule and Master of the Revels! And by my Lord of Somerset's own appointing? I am right glad to learn it."
And this is what she read:
"Imprimis: I give leave to Avery Mitchell, feodary, gentleman, to be Lord of Misrule of all good orders, at the Manor of Hatfield, during the twelve days of Yule-tide. And, also, I give free leave to the said Avery Mitchell to command all and every person or persons whatsoever, as well servants as others, to be at his command whensoever be shall sound his trumpet or music, and to do him good service, as though I were present myself, at their perils. I give full power and authority to his lordship to break all locks, bolts, bars, doors, and latches to come at all those who presume to disobey his lordship's commands. God save the King.
It was Christmas Eve. The great hall of Hatfield House gleamed with the light of many candles that flashed upon the sconce and armor and polished floor. Holly and mistletoe, rosemary and bay, and all the decorations of an old-time English Christmas were tastefully arranged. A burst of laughter ran through the hall, as through the ample doorway, and down the broad stair, trooped the Motley train of the Lord of Misrule to open the Christmas revels. A fierce and ferocious-looking fellow was he, with his great green mustache and his ogre-like face. His dress was a gorgeous parti-colored jerkin and half-hose, trunks, ruff, slouch-boots of Cordova leather, and high befeathered steeple hat. His long staff, topped with a fool's head, cap, and bells, rang loudly on the floor, as, preceded by his diminutive but pompous page, he led his train around and around the great hall, lustily singing the chorus:
A menagerie let loose, or the most dyspeptic of after-dinner dreams, could not be more bewildering than was this motley train of the Lord of Misrule. Giants and dwarfs, dragons and griffins, hobby-horses and goblins, Robin Hood and the Grand Turk, bears and boars and fantastic animals that never had a name, boys and girls, men and women, in every imaginable costume and device—around and around the hall they went, still ringing out the chorus:
Then, standing in the centre of his court, the Lord of Misrule bade his herald declare that from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night he was Lord Supreme; that, with his magic art, he transformed all there into children, and charged them, on their fealty to act only as such. "I absolve them all from wisdom," he said; "I bid them be just wise enough to make fools of themselves, and do decree that none shall sit apart in pride and eke in self-sufficiency to laugh at others"; and then the fun commenced.
Off in stately Whitehall, in the palace of the boy king, her brother, the revels were grander and showier; but to the young Elizabeth, not yet skilled in all the stiffness of the royal court, the Yule-tide feast at Hatfield House brought pleasure enough; and so, seated at her holly-trimmed virginal—that great-great-grandfather of the piano of to-day,—she, whose rare skill as a musician has come down to us, would—when wearied with her "prankes and japes"—"tap through" some fitting Christmas carol, or that older lay of the Yule-tide "Mumming":
The Yule-log had been noisily dragged in "to the firing," and as the big sparks raced up the wide chimney, the boar's head and the tankard of sack, the great Christmas candle and the Christmas pie, were escorted around the room to the flourish of trumpets and welcoming shouts; the Lord of Misrule, with a wave of his staff, was about to give the order for all to unmask, when suddenly there appeared in the circle a new character—a great green dragon, as fierce and ferocious as well could be, from his pasteboard jaws to his curling canvas tail. The green dragon of Wantley! Terrified urchins backed hastily away from his horrible jaws, and the Lord of Misrule gave a sudden and visible start. The dragon himself, scarce waiting for the surprise to subside, waved his paw for silence, and said, in a hollow, pasteboardy voice:
"Most noble Lord of Misrule, before your feast commences and the masks are doff'd, may we not as that which should give good appetite to all,—with your lordship's permit and that of my lady's grace,—tell each some wonder-filling tale as suits the goodly time of Yule? Here be stout maskers can tell us strange tales of fairies and goblins, or, perchance, of the foreign folk with whom they have trafficked in Calicute and Affrica, Barbaria, Perew, and other diverse lands and countries over-sea. And after they have ended, then will I essay a tale that shall cap them all, so past belief shall it appear."
The close of the dragon's speech, of course, made them all the more curious; and the Lady Elizabeth did but speak for all when she said: "I pray you, good Sir Dragon, let us have your tale first. We have had enow of Barbaria and Perew. If that yours may be so wondrous, let us hear it even now, and then may we decide."
"As your lady's grace wishes," said the dragon. "But methinks when you have heard me through, you would that it had been the last or else not told at all."
"Your lordship of Misrule and my lady's grace must know," began the dragon, "that my story, though a short, is a startling one. Once on a time there lived a king, who, though but a boy, did, by God's grace, in talent, industry, perseverance, and knowledge, surpass both his own years and the belief of men. And because he was good and gentle alike and conditioned beyond the measure of his years, he was the greater prey to the wicked wiles of traitorous men. And one such, high in the king's court, thought to work him ill; and to carry out his ends did wantonly awaken seditious and rebellious intent even among the king's kith and kin, whom lie traitorously sought to wed,—his royal and younger sister,—nay, start' not my lady's grace!" exclaimed the dragon quickly, as Elizabeth turned upon him a look of sudden and haughty surprise. "All is known! And this is the ending of my wondrous tale. My Lord Seymour of Sudleye is this day taken for high treason and haled to the Tower. They of your own household are held as accomplice to the Lord Admiral's wicked intent, and you, Lady Elizabeth Tudor, are by order of the council to be restrained in prison wards in this your manor of Hatfield until such time as the king's Majesty and the honorable council shall decide. This on your allegiance!"
The cry of terror that the dragon's words awoke, died into silence as the Lady Elizabeth rose to her feet, flushed with anger.
"Is this a fable or the posy of a ring, Sir Dragon?" she said, sharply. "Do you come to try or tempt me, or is this perchance but some part of my Lord of Misrule's Yule-tide mumming? 'Sblood, sir; only cravens sneak behind masks to strike and threaten. Have off your disguise, if you be a true man; or, by my word as Princess of England, he shall bitterly rue the day who dares to befool the daughter of Henry Tudor!"
"As you will, then, my lady," said the dragon. "Do you doubt me now?" and, tearing off his pasteboard wrapping, he stood disclosed before them all as the grim Sir Robert Trywhitt, chief examiner of the Lord Protector's council. "Move not at your peril," he said, as a stir in the throng seemed to indicate the presence of some brave spirits who would have shielded their young princess. "Master Feodary, bid your varlets stand to their arms."
And at a word from Master Avery Mitchell, late Lord of Misrule, there flashed from beneath the cloaks of certain tall figures on the circle's edge the halberds of the guard. The surprise was complete. The Lady Elizabeth was a prisoner in her own manor-house, and the Yule-tide revels had reached a sudden and sorry ending.
And yet, once again, under this false accusation, did the hot spirit of the Tudors flame in the face and speech of the Princess Elizabeth.
"Sir Robert Trywhitt," cried the brave young girl, "these be but lying rumors that do go against my honor and my fealty. God knoweth they be shameful slanders, sir; for the which, besides the desire I have to see the King's Majesty, I pray you let me also be brought straight before the court that I may disprove these perjured tongues."
But her appeal was not granted. For months she was kept close prisoner at Hatfield House, subject daily to most rigid cross-examination by Sir Robert Trywhitt for the purpose of implicating her if possible in the Lord Admiral's plot. But all in vain; and at last even Sir Robert gave up the attempt, and wrote to the council that "the Lady Elizabeth hath a good wit, and nothing is gotten of her but by great policy."
Lord Seymour of Sudleye, was beheaded for treason on Tower Hill, and others, implicated in his plots, were variously punished; but even "great policy" cannot squeeze a lie out of the truth, and Elizabeth was finally declared free of the stain of treason.
Experience, which is a hard teacher, often brings to light the best that is in us. It was so in this case. For, as one writer says: "The long and harassing ordeal disclosed the splendid courage, the reticence, the rare discretion, which were to carry the Princess through many an awful peril in the years to come. Probably no event of her early girlhood went so far toward making a woman of Elizabeth as did this miserable affair."
Within ten years thereafter the Lady Elizabeth ascended the throne of England. Those ten years covered many strange events, many varying fortunes—the death of her brother, the boy King Edward, the sad tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, Wyatt's rebellion, the tanner's revolt, and all the long horror of the reign of "Bloody Mary." You may read of all this in history, and may see how, through it all, the young princess grew still more firm of will, more self-reliant, wise, and strong, developing all those peculiar qualities that helped to make her England's greatest queen, and one of the most wonderful women in history. But through all her long and most historic life,—a life of over seventy years, forty-five of which were passed as England's queen,—scarce any incident made so lasting an impression upon her as when, in Hatfield House, the first shock of the false charge of treason fell upon the thoughtless girl of fifteen in the midst of the Christmas revels.