Amy: August 1549 Stanfield Manor, Norfolk.
I met Robert Dudley on a night of moonlight, fire and gunpowder.
The wind had a sharp edge to it that evening, summer already turning away towards the chill of autumn. It brought with it the scent of burning from the rebel camp twelve miles to the north. The sky burned too, in shades of red and orange below the dark clouds, so that it was impossible to tell what was fire and what was sunset. They said that there were more than twelve thousand men assembled on Mousehold Heath, more than in the whole of Norwich itself, and Norwich was a great city, second only to London. Among the rebels’ prisoners was my half-brother John Appleyard, taken by our cousin Robert Kett, to help my father ponder whether his loyalty was to his king or to his kin. John’s capture cast a dark shadow over our house but our mother made no plea – it was not in her nature to beg, not even for her children – and father stood firm. He was and always would be the king’s man.
“We will be fifteen for dinner,” mother said when I met her in the hall. The servants were sweeping like madmen, some scattering fresh rushes, others covering the table with the best diamond-patterned linen cloths, the ones that mother generally considered too fine for use. I saw the sparkle of silver: bowls, flagons, knives.
“There is an army of rebels twelve miles away,” I said, staring at the display. “Is it wise to bring out your treasure?”
She gave me the look that said I was pert. I waited for the reproach that would accompany it, the claim that my father had spoiled me, the youngest, his only daughter, and that I would never get myself a husband if I was so forward. Pots and kettles; I got three-quarters of my nature from my mother and well she knew it; from her I had inherited a quick mind and a quick tongue but also the knowledge of when I needed to guard it. Men say that women chatter but they are the ones who so often lack discretion. Women can be as close as the grave.
But mother did not reproach me. Instead her gaze swept over me from head to foot. There was a small frown between her brows; I thought it was because my hair was untidy and put up a hand to smooth it. My appearance was my vanity; I was fair and had no need of the dye. My skin was pale rose and cream and my eyes were wide and blue. I knew I was a beauty. I won’t pretend.
“You are quite right,” mother said, after a moment’s scrutiny, with a wry twist of her lips. “You of all our treasures should be kept safe at a time like this. Unfortunately your father insists that you should attend dinner tonight.”
I gaped at her, not understanding. I had only been referring to the plate and linens. Seeing my confusion, her smile grew, but it was a smile that chilled me in some manner I did not quite understand. It hinted at adult matters and I for all my seventeen years was still a child.
“Your presence has been requested,” she said. “The Earl of Warwick comes at the head of the King’s army. They march against the rebels. He is bringing his captains here to dine with us tonight and take counsel with your father. Two of his sons ride with him.”
My heart gave a tiny leap of excitement which I quickly suppressed out of guilt. The Earl of Warwick was coming here, to my corner of Norfolk, bringing danger and excitement to a place that seldom saw either. It was a curious feeling that took me then, a sense of anticipation tinged with a sadness of something lost; peace, innocence almost. But the rebels had already shattered both peace and innocence when they had risen up against the king’s laws.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About the king’s army, I mean. It is hard for you, with John a prisoner and family loyalty split.”
She looked startled for a moment and then smiled at me, a proper smile this time, one that lit her tired eyes. “You are a sweet child, Amy,” she said, patting my cheek. Her smile died. “Except that you are not a child any longer, it seems.”
She sighed. “Do you remember Robert Dudley?” She was watching me very closely. I was not sure what she was looking for. “He asked your father if you would be present at dinner tonight. No…” She corrected herself. “He requested that you should be present, which is a different matter entirely.”
Her look made it clear what she thought of the sons of the nobility asking after a gentleman’s daughter. I suppose she imagined that no good could come of it, despite my father’s ambitions.
“I remember him,” I said. I smiled a little at the memory for a picture had come into my mind, a small, obstinate boy, his black hair standing up on end like a cockerel’s crest, a boy whom the other children had mocked because he was as dark as a Spaniard. More cruelly they had called him a traitor’s grandson because the first Dudley of note had been a lawyer who had risen high in old King Henry’s favour and had then fallen from grace when the new King Henry had wanted to sweep his father’s stables clean. It had all happened before I was born, before Robert had been born too, but the ghost of the past had haunted him. People had long memories and cruel tongues, and as a result he was a child full of anger and fierce defiance, seeming all the more impotent because he had been so small and so young. I had secretly pitied Robert even whilst he had sworn he would be a knight one day and kill anyone who slighted his family name.
“When did you meet him?” Mother was like a terrier after a rat when she saw that smile.
“I met him years ago at Kenninghall,” I said. “And once, I think, when the Duchess took us up to London.”
My mother nodded. I felt the tension ease from her a little. Perhaps she believed that no harm could have come of a meeting between children under the auspices of the Duchess of Norfolk.
“You were very young then,” she said. “I wonder why he remembers you?”