Mistress to the CrownBy: Isolde Martyn
For my cousins, Rita and Yvonne, and for Simone,
who was once my youngest reader and who
overcame illness with such courage
Characters appearing in this novel
Nearly all these persons are historical. Where the given name of a person is unknown and it has been necessary to create one, these are marked with one asterisk. Fictional characters are marked with two asterisks.
Soper’s Lane, the City of London, 1463
At fourteen, we make mistakes. I had been a fool to come to this old man’s chamber on my own, but I was desperate for legal advice on how to annul my marriage. He had told me he was a former proctor, a church lawyer – exactly what I needed – and he had seemed as friendly as a kindly grandfather when I spoke to him after Mass on Sunday. But now he was tonguing his cheek as he eyed my body, and dancing his fingers slowly on the table between us. Behind him, in the corner, I could see his half-made bed.
I would not scream, I decided, slowly rising to my feet. Shrieking for help would mean my name would be all over the city by suppertime. No, I had to deal with this on my own.
‘Thank you, sir, I shall pass your counsel on to my friend, but now I have to go.’ My voice emerged creakily. I had meant to sound brisk.
He smiled, nastily now, no longer bothering to mask his purpose. Both of us had been lying. In truth, I was ‘the friend’ who desired advice, and his legal counsel was not ‘free’; it came with a fee that was still to be exacted.
‘If you are desperate, Mistress Shore,’ he declared, rising heavily to his feet, ‘you’ll be willing to please me.’
Yes, I was desperate for an annulment, but I had rather be hanged than ‘please’ this revolting old goat. My maidenhead was intact and I intended to keep it that way.
‘I made no such bargain,’ I said, fisting my hands within the folds of my skirts, cursing I had not brought a bodkin to defend myself.
‘We won’t go all the way because that would spoil the evidence,’ he wheezed, fumbling at the ties beneath his tunic. ‘Some fondling will do. For now.’
‘Oh, just fondling,’ I said with a pretend smile of relief. ‘I thought you meant—’
I rushed to the door but the latch tongue stuck. He grabbed my left forearm, dragging me back.
This was the moment, or never. I swung my right fist with all the fury I possessed into his face. I heard something crunch. He went staggering back and crashed against the table, the bright blood spurting from his nostrils. That and the toppling inkpots would spoil his clothes, or so I hoped as I ran down the stairs.
It was realising the enormity of my folly that rearranged the contents of my stomach once I reached the street. I did manage to hide my face as I retched, and the moment I could stand upright, I ran past the tenements up to Cheapside, and with a gasp of relief, plunged into the chaos of carts, pigs and people. My mind was still in panic. What if the old man threatened to blab to my husband or to my wealthy father?
My slow progress through the crowd calmed my shakiness. I felt concealed. Outsiders might be afraid of London cutpurses, but this wonderful, raucous hub of noise was my neighbourhood, safer to me than any quieter lane. I pushed further along to where a tight press of people was clogging the thoroughfare and wriggled in amongst them. In their midst, a hosier’s apprentice was standing on a barrow. I had heard his silver-tongued babble before. He was good.
‘The best price in Cheapside,’ the lad was yelling, waving a pair of frothy scarlet garters. ‘Just imagine your wife’s legs in these, sir.’ Laughter rumbled around me. His gaze scanned our faces. ‘And what about the jays and robin redbreasts among you sparrows?’ he challenged, flourishing a pair of men’s hose – one leg pea green, the other violet, and then his cheeky stare sauntered back to my face and slid lower.
Lordy! Squinting downwards at the gap in my cloak, I realised what the proctor had glimpsed as well – a woman’s breasts straining against an outgrown gown. And it was not just on the outside that my body was changing. I knew that. Dear God, that was why I needed the urgent annulment. I was an apple almost ripe for plucking, and my husband, Shore, was watching – waiting – like a hungry orchard thief.
I gave the apprentice a hands-off glare, tugged my cloak tightly across my front and, aware that the proctor’s neighbours might still raise the alarm, I determined to stay where I was with every sense alert.
No hue-and-cry was coming from the direction of Soper’s Lane and I said a silent prayer of thanks for that. Maybe the foul old fellow was as fearful for his reputation as I was for mine. That welcome thought made my shoulders relax. And, apart from learning that men of all ages were not to be trusted, I had at least gleaned one piece of useful advice. The proctor had told me that ‘my friend’ needed to have her case heard by the Court of Arches, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s especial court for hearing divorce petitions. St Mary-le-Bow, the church, which housed the court on weekdays, was just a few moments’ walk back along Cheapside. Perhaps the Almighty was watching over me, after all. If I went to St Mary’s straight away …