November: Year of Our Lord 1564
Tre Kronor, Stockholm, Sweden
Winter, Spring, and Summer: Year of Our Lord 1565
At Sea and Over Land
I may have been a maiden just shy of seventeen years of age, but I was no simpleton. I recognized beard burn on the fair face of my sister when she emerged, breathless, from a small closet off one of the king’s galleries.
“Have you been with someone?” I asked. By someone, she knew I meant a man.
She would not meet my gaze. But she answered, “Don’t be foolish, Elin.” She looked at my gown, plain cotton. “You’d best be preparing for the evening. The king is not likely to be pleased if we are not present when he commands the festivities to begin.” At that, she turned, held high her head, and proceeded down the long wooden hallway toward our mother’s palace apartment.
My stomach grew unsettled, as it always did when I was fed an untruth and forced by custom to compliantly digest it. Karin was right, though, that King Erik would not look kindly upon a late arrival. Everyone at court sought to keep the king placid and happy; he was a cart with three wheels, unsteady and liable to collapse at the slightest bump in the road, spilling his load on whoever was near. I turned and began to follow Karin into our mother’s lodgings when I heard a noise behind me, the quiet shutting of a door.
I turned to look back and saw a figure hurrying down the hallway in the other direction. “Philip?” I called after him.
My fiancé, Philip Bonde, was heir to the great Bonde mining fortune, and his face was as well favored as his purse. Before my father died some months earlier, he had finalized my betrothal to Philip. I was ever so grateful; my father had never expressed love or affection for me, preferring instead Karin, the baby, who resembled him in her blonde, blue-eyed beauty.
“Elin!” Philip stopped, turned to walk toward me, and then drew me into a quick, stiff embrace.
“Where are you going?” I asked, puzzled.
“Rather, whatever are you doing hanging about in the gallery when we’re to see the king within the hour?”
I was taken aback for a moment, recognizing, perhaps, that he sought to put me on the defense rather than account for his own presence.
He grinned and gently kissed my cheeks one by one in the French fashion, his beard lightly scratching my face, the unique spiced-herb blend of his wash water surrounding him, his lips freshly warm and soft though the hall was chilled. “I shall see you downstairs, soon.”
Then he turned and left.
I walked, slowly, to dress myself for the evening, unsettled, unhappy, confused. When I arrived at my mother’s chamber, my married sisters, Gertrude and Brita, were already fully gowned, and the lady maid was assisting Karin as she slipped into a stunning gown of green and silver. “Where have you been?” my mother clucked. I kept trying to catch my sister’s eye, but Karin kept her chin up and studiously avoided my gaze in the looking glass.
“I’m here now,” was all I answered. After Karin was gowned, the lady maid turned to me, pulled out a gown of gold-stamped gray crushed velvet, and then shook it twice before bringing it toward me. After helping me dress she weaved gold threads through my long red hair.
I would be leaving on the morrow for England, with Princess Cecelia. So my gown had been most costly, a gift that was a dear sacrifice for my widowed mother and a token of her affection and esteem. I kissed her on the cheek, and we four girls followed her down to the great hall where Erik and his new mistress would arrive.
• • •
The hall was ablaze with torches and candles; flickering gold light, rolling fires, and the heat of hundreds of noble bodies warmed the cold Swedish night. I soon lost my family in the crowd of others and danced while the king’s court musicians played on. After an hour, I sought to rest and spied Karin Mansdotter in the corner, splendidly dressed and bejeweled but forlorn and alone. Although Sweden was collectively grateful for the opiate she was upon our sovereign, she was lowborn, the daughter of a tavern-keep, and had been, only months before, a lady maid to the king’s sister. Stunned by her beauty, Erik had plucked her from the rushes and made her his own.
“May I sit near you?” I looked at the red-covered chair next to hers, which was backed against a gilded wall.
“Oh, yes,” Karin Mansdotter said, breathless, then composed herself. “I mean, assuredly.” She smiled, and I smiled back at her.
“Are you afraid to sail tomorrow?” she asked. “I know I would be. Those ships are so small and the sea so vast!”
I found her forthrightness refreshing and laughed. “I am not afraid of the seas,” I said, catching Philip and my sister dancing together, again, out of the corner of my eye.
“Do the English speak German or Swedish?” she asked.
“No,” I answered. “But the princess has had Master Dymoke, Master Preston, and Master North teaching us the English language and customs for nigh on six years, since His Majesty decided to offer his hand to their queen.”
She looked at her lap, and I chided myself for bringing up so indelicate a topic.
“I hope they have lingonberries,” I said, and at that she looked up. I smiled but said nothing more, she watching the king as he made merry with the ladies of the court and I watching my sister and my fiancé entangle their hands. I wondered about the king’s mistress, born low and raised high so quickly, instantly forced to adjust to a court and a manner of life utterly different from her own, and no friend to help smooth the transition. My sister Gertrude had told us that when the king first took Karin Mansdotter as a mistress, she had been engaged to someone else. The king had asked his new paramour to send for her fiancé, and when he arrived, Erik had him killed.
Within a few minutes, Philip came to collect me and lead me to dance. “I’ve been seeking you!” he said.
“And now I have been found,” I said, cheered that he’d been looking for me. He took my hands in his own and, after we had danced for a while, led me into the long gallery next to the hall. The ceilings were painted with images of the king’s father, Gustav Vasa, and victory against the Danes, with whom we still fought. Torches along the gallery lit the room, but dimly, as they were few. We sat on a long bench, softly cushioned.
“You leave on the morrow,” Philip said.
“I don’t have to go,” I replied. “Princess Cecelia has five other maids ready to serve her on the journey and in England, and I am sure she would not miss me.” That was probably untrue, but I felt I must make any attempt to reach out to Philip before I left, given what I had seen earlier.
Surprise crossed his face, and perhaps irritation, too, before he blotted it with a smile. “After these many years of English lessons?” he teased. “And it is a singular honor to serve the princess and perhaps make connections with the woman who might soon be our queen. England is also a seafaring country, and I know my father is interested in making himself known to mutual interests.”
“Perhaps I can assist with that,” I offered weakly. I looked up to see my sister Karin, shimmering in the candlelight, near the doorway from the hallway to the gallery. She spoke with one of our cousins. Philip glanced up at them, transfixed, and then back at me.
“There is no other reason for me to go . . . or stay?” I lightly probed. I recalled a Swedish proverb that said it was not safe to leave the kitchen while the fires were lit.
“Not at all,” he replied smoothly. “And while you are gone, I will speak with my father about the . . . missing dowry portion.”
I blinked. “What missing dowry portion?”
“You do not know?” he asked.
“I know nothing of this.”
“Before your father took ill he had been gambling with the king and some other noblemen. I understand that he took a fair portion of your dowry money, as yet unpaid to my father, and bet it as a bid to earn a dowry for your sister Karin as well.”
I shook my head, speechless and incensed. He had gambled my dowry? He would never have gambled Gertrude’s or Brita’s dowries. But for Karin . . . he’d lost mine.
“Your father did not pay the last quarter of your dowry before he died. My father was negotiating with him about it, but it is, as yet, unsettled, which may void our engagement. I shall see if I can speak with him about this and settle things while you are gone.”
I nodded, dull. I had a partial dowry. Why had no one as yet brought this matter forward?
He took my hands in his own and kissed them. “I shall find a solution, do not worry. I already have an idea in mind.”
“I hope so,” I said. None of us relished a winter voyage in rough seas or the overland portion upon the ice and snow, but Princess Cecelia had insisted we go. The king, I suspect, was glad to be rid of her persistent fault finding and allowed the journey to move forward in spite of the weather. “Will you miss me?”
Philip perfunctorily kissed my hands again. “Of course!” He bowed to me before returning to the group that included my sister and my cousin. I watched them for a long while, but nothing seemed outwardly improper. Perhaps I had misunderstood the earlier situation in the closet. Or perhaps not.
• • •
A small crowd gathered at the ship the next morning as the wind spat ice. My trunk had already been loaded into the suffocating cabin that Bridget Hand and I would share for the sea portion of our journey. The Englishmen were already on board, eager, I supposed, to return to queen and country. With the exception of our princess, we Swedes were reluctant travelers.
I stood near my mother, sisters, and brothers, and a few of my young cousins. One, seven-year-old Sofia, broke away and impudently ran toward the end of the dock. Only quick thinking on the part of my brother Johann saved her from an icy journey heavenward. Princess Cecelia soon approached us, and we all curtseyed.
“Do not worry, Lady Agneta,” the princess soothed. “I shall be as a mother to Elin Ulfsdotter. She shall be in my constant care, as will all of my ladies, and I will return with her safely, and soon.”
My mother, still beautiful, bowed her head, a tear trembling in the corner of her eye. “Thank you, my lady.”
Princess Cecelia then left us to our parting sentiments while she went to bid farewell to her own family. Her new husband, the Margrave of Baden, waited for her on board, having no Swedish family to part from.
My mother had already given me her gift earlier in the day, a golden locket necklace with a sketch of her on her wedding day, and a recent one of me, inside. Each of my sisters came to me in turn. Gertrude pressed a jar of dried lingonberries into my hand, then softly kissed my temple, as we sisters did out of affection. “Good-bye, dear sister,” she said. “I shall pray for you.”
Brita came next and held out a new needle for my lacework. She kissed my temple and murmured her affection before stepping aside for Karin. My head snapped up as I saw that she wore one of my gowns, a favorite of rose pink.
“You shan’t need it for a few months,” she said without remorse. I held my temper and my tongue in front of the others; my mother disapproved of outward displays of emotion, finding them lowbred. Karin, too, kissed my hairline and bade me a safe journey and a speedy return. I noticed, as I held her near, a faint aroma of the spiced scent of Philip’s wash water. I looked at her, alarmed. She had betrayed me, she had! I did not want to leave, and yet it was too late; Princess Cecelia was motioning us all toward the ship.
It did not occur to me until later that Karin alone had offered no gift upon my departure excepting, perhaps, a Judas kiss.
The ship wound its way through the fjords and into the open ocean. What should have been a journey of perhaps one unpleasant month turned into a nightmare of nearly ten. There was no ill weather that did not bedevil us, from ice storm to windy squall that threatened to scupper the ship nearly every week. The seas churned, gray trimmed with foamy white ribbons like an old man’s beard, and most days we kept to our cabins.
When the seas were not unwelcoming, the Danes were. They proved to be the hellhounds we expected them to be, harrying us from one coast to the next and forcing us to travel over ice-sheathed land by horse-drawn sleigh to friendly noble homes before boarding ship again. If it weren’t for the loyalty I knew I owed my king, I might have wondered if he’d signaled our route to distract the Danes from his brother Johan, whom he loved, in Finland.
“Why complain of cold when we are on our way to see the wonderful queen of England?” our princess cried in joy. Although I saw the irony in her warm pleasure while we numbed with frost, I was truly happy for her. For many years, since her brother Johan had visited England and returned to tell of its wonders, Cecelia had prepared herself for her own journey of diplomacy, mastering the language with only English merchants as teachers.
Within a few months it was clear that Princess Cecelia was with child, and we all gave a portion of our foodstuffs so she and the babe would not suffer. “I have to look away when she is sick over the side of the ship,” Christina Abrahamsdotter confided in me. “My innards pain me for lack of food, and then I watch as my supper lurches from her stomach into the sea.”
We began to run out of wood, too, with which to warm ourselves. Princess Cecelia sat shivering in a corner chair. “I need more coats!” She looked at us by turn and we reluctantly shed our warm outer clothing, and she took them one by one and layered them upon herself. From then on we ladies went about with our thinner inner garments. We often danced about in our light dresses to keep ourselves warm while the princess, now comfortable, sang English sea songs and English hymns. This did not endear any of us to royal service, but we were well trained enough to say nothing.
It was also clear that Princess Cecelia had been turning her husband away from their marital bed. Master Preston sternly warned the ship hands from even looking upon us, but he was not of a rank to speak thus to the margrave. One night the margrave appeared in my cabin as Bridget was attending to the princess.
“Hello, schön Elin,” he said, his German tight-toothed and proper. “I have been waiting for the right time for us to become better acquainted. You are the most beautiful girl at court.”
I moved away from him, steadying my feet with the constant pitching of the ship. “I think we know one another well enough already, sir.”
“But I do not, Elin,” he said. I could not even account his behavior to drunkenness, as he appeared to have all of his wits about him. He drew closer, and I grabbed hold of the feeble chair in the corner of our cabin to steady myself. As he advanced again, I feigned that I was losing my balance and pushed the chair in his direction, aiming a wooden leg for the part of him where he would feel the most pain.
He doubled over and cried out.
“I’m so sorry, my lord, I lost my balance,” I said. But I did not draw near to help him, and my voice was not falsely contrite. He left my cabin muttering and did not return again. I smiled when I thought upon it and Bridget did, too, when I told her.
Winter warmed to spring, which then unfolded into summer. We became truly alarmed that my lady would give birth before we reached London, and there was not a married woman among us, much less a midwife. Cecelia had no such concerns. Her greatest joy was that her firstborn would be birthed in the land of the queen she’d so admired for her autonomy and freedom.
One night in late summer we were happily informed that we were nearing Calais, from where they would send a message ahead that we were nearly to England. I sat that evening with Bridget; we had become as sisters during the journey and there was no thought too private for me to share with her.
“I should have married Philip by now,” I said with regret, speaking aloud the relentless thought I’d pushed back a dozen times over the months past as I lay abed wondering what he and Karin were doing in Stockholm. “It is September. Autumn.”
“Do not fret,” Bridget said. Her voice did not convey the confidence of her words.
“Perhaps they will marry him to my younger sister in my stead, as Gustav Vasa did with Princess Cecelia’s first fiancé,” I worried.
Bridget lowered her voice. “There will be no need to marry your sister to your fiancé, because your father did not find you willingly in bed with another man, drag you out by your hair, and unman the culprit.”
I agreed, and we smiled bemusedly together in the pitching cabin. The king had a coin struck with Cecelia on one side and the virginal Susanna from Holy Writ on the other, circulating the idea of his daughter’s innocence every time the coin was used. I didn’t know if the coin had made it to Baden, but the margrave had not hesitated to take Cecelia as his bride.
“There may be other reasons for Philip to desire to wed Karin,” I said, twisting the ring on my third finger, which had grown bony during our long journey. “We have been so very long gone.” She took my gown. She took my fiancé. In truth, he desired her before we’d even left. “And my dowry was not paid, which makes our engagement uncertain. Or void.” He’s always preferred her to me. Who would not?
“ ’Tis nothing to think upon now,” Bridget said sensibly. “We are far from Stockholm, and near to England. We must act upon that which is here, and we do not know what lies just ahead.”
“Are you unsettled by that?” I asked her.
She, who was typically calm and self-assured, merely nodded but didn’t speak. I, too, was anxious and unsettled, though I didn’t understand exactly why.
We were thin and weary and our teeth hurt in our heads, but we were here; within days England beckoned on the horizon, green and gold and holding out her arms to welcome us, I hoped, like Freya, the mythological Norse goddess of beauty and love.
A Novel of Elizabeth I
Roses Have Thorns
A Novel of Elizabeth I
In 1565, seventeen-year-old Elin von Snakenborg leaves Sweden on a treacherous journey to England. Her fiancé has fallen in love with her sister and her dowry money has been gambled away, but ahead of her lies an adventure that will take her to the dizzying heights of Tudor power. Transformed through marriage into Helena, the Marchioness of Northampton, she becomes the highest-ranking woman in Elizabeth’s circle.
But in a court that is surrounded by Catholic enemies who plot the queen’s downfall, Helena is forced to choose between her unyielding monarch and the husband she’s not sure she can trust—a choice that will provoke catastrophic consequences.
A rich, tautly woven tale of love, deception, and grace, Roses Have Thorns vividly conjures the years leading up to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots and is a brilliant exploration of treason, both to the realm and to the heart.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
When Elin von Snakenborg visits England with a royal entourage from Sweden and decides to remain, she drastically alters the course of her life. She marries an English nobleman and becomes one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most trusted ladies in waiting, a position that draws her deep into the intrigue, danger, and treachery of the court.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. If you were Elin, would you have wanted to return to Sweden or remain in England? What factors would have influenced your decision? Would you have changed your name, as she did?
2. Helena admits that she is fond of William but not in love with him, nor is she physically attracted to him. Is this any different from other engaged, highborn women of the time; for example, her friend Anne Russell? How did the system of marrying for dynastic and financial concerns help or hinder women of the time? Is our current system of choosing husbands always better? Why or why not?