I was once told that whenever I felt suspicious of someone’s intent, no matter how faintly, I should trust that instinct, but since the man who issued this advice had himself tried to kill me, and nearly succeeded, it was difficult to know how much weight to give his words.
I felt this distrust in a place where all others seemed at ease, as I followed a page through the tall, gleaming rooms of the Palace of Whitehall, filled with the most prosperous subjects of King Henry VIII. To anyone else, it would seem the safest place in all of England.
But not to me. Never to me.
Only eight days earlier I’d received the summons, calling me back to London, the city where I had seen much cruelty and death. I read it in my small house on the High Street of Dartford, where I had come to serve as a novice at its priory of Dominican sisters and hoped and prayed to prove my worthiness to take vows and become a Bride of Christ. But, two years ago, by the king’s command, our exquisite priory was torn down, and I was cast out with the others.
“This missive is from the king’s council, Sister Joanna,” said Gregory, pushing it into my hands as if it were a loaf pulled fresh from the oven that was singeing his fingertips. Gregory was a clerk in the town. He married the vintner’s daughter just after Candlemas Day, and his face soon thickened, like a hunting dog turns fat and sleek when brought into the house at season’s end. But Gregory, no matter his station now, once served as porter to our priory and
continued to take an interest in my welfare. He still called me Sister. When a letter came to town bearing the royal seal, Gregory insisted on delivering it to me.
I thanked him and closed the door on the bright noise of the High Street. My fingers heavy with dread, I found a knife to break the beeswax seal. It was light brown, with these words circling the figure of a man on horseback, holding sword and shield: “Henry the Eighth, by the grace of God, of England and France and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, and on Earth, of the English and Irish Church, Supreme Head.”
I smoothed the sheet of thick, creamy vellum onto my table. “Touching on the matter of the commission of tapestry, Mistress Joanna Stafford, daughter of Sir Richard Stafford, is hereby summoned to the Palace of Whitehall, in the third week of April in the Year of Our Lord 1540, to wait upon the Keeper of the Great Wardrobe of His Majesty, King Henry the Eighth, and receive the King’s command.”
I was dismayed but could not say I was surprised. I knew full well that the king took an interest in my tapestries. Bishop Stephen Gardiner had told me, with his usual gleam of bland menace, that King Henry was pleased with The Rise of the Phoenix, the first tapestry I wove on my own after leaving the priory. I sold it to Anne of Cleves, who came to our kingdom to become the fourth wife of Henry VIII, and she made a gift of it to him. Said Bishop Gardiner, “His Majesty dislikes everything about his new queen, with one exception: the present of the phoenix tapestry.”
A week after Bishop Gardiner told me that, the first letter from the king’s court appeared. Unsigned and unsealed, it was a simple request for my presence at court to speak of tapestries.
If I were of a more sanguine humor, I might find comedy in this. Henry VIII wished to commission a tapestry from a woman who’d treasonably opposed him, not once but twice. The king now lived because of what I did—or, rather, what I failed to do. Yet he would never know any of this history, never realize how tightly our fates
were intertwined. No, to Henry VIII, I was but a distant cousin with an intriguing talent for weaving.
And the truth was, I did have another tapestry planned. I’d ordered a drawing from Brussels of The Sorrow of Niobe but had not yet stretched it on the loom. I did not wish to sell this one to the royal couple. For that and other reasons, I failed to respond to the first royal summons. Beset by a troubled marriage and rumors of foreign invasion, His Majesty King Henry VIII would forget about me, surely?
It seemed he would not.
Not only was the second summons worded more forcefully, it was signed. As I stared at the precise strokes of ink slanting across the vellum, my throat tightened. Henry VIII did not write the command himself, of course. One of his secretaries composed the words. But the paper was signed by a different hand. The script was precise and clear, with each curved letter slanted to precisely the same height: Thomas Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal. The king’s chief minister, the man whom we, the faithful of God’s Holy Church, hated and feared above all other men, even the king.
I was in need of advice.
The summons carried a legal import, but I could not bring this matter to the constable of Dartford. Geoffrey Scovill was recently bereaved and still suffering. Three months ago, I stood with him beside the grave of his wife, Beatrice; weeks later, I attempted to offer further condolences, but was met with cold silence. I could not blame him, considering my role in his circumstances. He came to Dartford because of me. I knew that he’d wished to marry, and at times Geoffrey evoked strong feelings in me—equal parts longing and shame—but we often quarreled and clashed. It was Edmund Sommerville, a onetime friar in the Dominican Order, sensitive, erudite and kind, whom I chose to marry. Geoffrey then wed Beatrice, my friend and fellow novice, who had loved him from the first moment she saw him. Now Edmund was gone and Beatrice was with God. Constable Scovill and I were both alone, and lonely, but we did not turn to each other.
What should I do about the royal summons? I prayed for hours that day and far into the night, touching no food or drink. If only that feeling of certainty would fill me, the grace of God’s undoubted wisdom. But it didn’t come; I was unworthy. When morning came, I hurried up the High Street to Holy Trinity Church. There, the way forward could be revealed.
I always took a seat near the chantry chapel. Like a hand that by force of habit drifts to the ridge of a scar, my gaze lingered on the back chantry wall once beautified by a mural of Saint George. More than a year ago, the painting was whitewashed over, at the same time that the candles were snuffed and the altar stripped, but if I squinted a bit, I could still detect the outline of the saint on horseback, sword raised to fight the dragon.
Father William Mote, he who must disseminate the New Learning, preached a dry, cautious sermon that day. Ever since Parliament passed the Act of Six Articles, England no longer followed Martin Luther’s lead away from the Catholic Church. Yet, to my disappointment, there seemed no hope of returning to obedience to Rome, either. We now took some unfathomable middle path. From priests and landowners to humblest tinkers and carpenters, no one in Dartford could discern where we headed as a kingdom. But we did know that any mistake in religious practice, no matter how small, could bring savage royal punishment: a chopped hand was the best consequence.
Father William’s voice rose at the end of his sermon. “Not enough of you have opened the Great Bible kept at this very altar by instruction of Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer.” He pounded on the platform, his fist nearly striking the massive book resting atop it. This, at least, he was sure of. “You dishonor God, the creator of all things, if you do not shun evil and ignorance and idolatry for the profound wisdom of Scripture, written here for you in English.”
There were a few sighs, a few shrugs. The people of Dartford were a timid lot, willing to obey the king, but only a handful had
been taught to read. Many could write their own names and add sums. Long stories of Scripture were beyond them.
“Christ deliver us,” whispered a woman to my left.
It was Sister Eleanor, unable to suppress her disgust over Father William’s outburst. When the king’s men closed our priory, six of the sisters, unwilling to forsake their vocation, formed a community in a house outside town. Sister Eleanor did not officiate over them as prioress—we no longer had a prioress—but she was the oldest of the sisters.
After Mass, I beckoned to her in the back of church. Startled, Sister Eleanor took a moment to follow me. She was uncomfortable in my presence, and always had been. My disposition was too riotous for her severe spirit. But it was that severity I now required.
Outside the church, it was raining, and we pressed against the wall so that its slanted roof would protect us. I slipped her the summons.
Sister Eleanor read it in seconds and made the sign of the cross.
“The king would commission you?” she asked.
“It seems so, Sister.”
“But your tapestries are a God-given talent,” she said. “To adorn the walls of the apostate king with one of your gifts . . . it is not to be borne.”
“To refuse to serve King Henry would bring criticism,” I pointed out. “Men of the court could follow. Even soldiers.”
Sister Eleanor clasped my hands. Her fingertips, callused from the labor of the nuns’ farm, dug grooves into mine, but I did not flinch. “Leave your house in town and come to us, Sister Joanna,” she urged. “You know you should live among us again—we are only safe if we are together.”
“I would not carry such risk to your house, Sister.”
Sister Eleanor said, “You would show yourself to no one, as if you were still enclosed. The king and his men would not know where you were.” Still gripping my hands, Sister Eleanor stepped back, heedless of the rain spattering her capped head. “But should they find you, we
will be at your side. God in His Mercy will protect us. We will not submit.”
I gently pulled my hands from hers, murmuring, “I thank you for your valuable counsel, Sister. Christ and the Virgin be with you.”
Before I’d reached the other side of the High Street, leaping over the spreading puddles, my decision was made. I could never expose the sisters of Dartford to danger. Such hot, eager anger in Sister Eleanor’s eyes—it sprang up because she had never witnessed firsthand the wrath of the king. I had.
To face royal condemnation alone—could I do that? Certainly. I had done it before. But would I? No. For there was a pressing reason to conform to the royal will. Arthur. I wanted to once again raise the orphaned son of my cousin Margaret Bulmer.
I’d written letter after letter to Margaret’s brother, the head of our family, Lord Henry Stafford, asking that Arthur, now eight, be returned to me in Dartford. I’d sent the boy north to Stafford Castle before leaving England. Now, despite the fact that he was a difficult child to raise, I missed Arthur greatly. His ready laughter, his determined step, I ached for them in my silent house. As much as it was possible to plan in a time of chaos, I planned to lead a quiet life: weave tapestries, honor friends, submit to God’s will. It would be an honorable existence; after all, I was the daughter of Sir Richard Stafford and Isabella Montagna. Living without honor was unthinkable. But there would be no more dangerous quests or conspiracies. My fervent hope was never again to hear the word prophecy, nor to find myself among spies, seers, and necromancers. That was the world of fear, of darkness. I wanted only light.
In devoting myself to another person, to Arthur, if I could bring that about, I would be truly blessed. I wanted to serve Arthur, too, in a way that only I, the guardian of the secrets of his parentage, could. It was so important that he learn how precious his mother was, learn of her kindness and her courage. I feared that as Arthur grew older, the horror of her death—burned to death for treason in Smithfield before the mob—would overshadow all.
At first, Cousin Henry refused to return him—stating again that he had never understood why my father placed Arthur with me, an unmarried woman of no prospects, rather than with Henry’s own large family—but of late I’d detected a softening. And he let slip in one letter that Arthur missed me. If I were the holder of a royal commission in tapestries, the head of my own budding enterprise, my cousin might relent. He hated trade, but he hated failure more.
“Your storm and fury”—that is how Beatrice once described my nature. But, for the sake of that small boy, I would quiet my storms. Now that I’d been forced to accept the triumph of King Henry and Thomas Cromwell, there would be no cause for anger. I’d travel to Whitehall, see no one but the wardrobe master who managed the king’s tapestries, and slip back home.
Thus I resolved to go on this journey. How could I know that it was not a journey but a dance? I was taking the first step forward on a vast dance floor, and on the other side, a partner would emerge from the darkest shadows to meet me—a partner who hungered for nothing more than for my death.