Welcome to new reviewers Berta433, Elin, Frog1, XUnFoRgEtTaBlEbAbEX, FetishFatale, LeahTeirnan, rosebudjamie, QuieraStrawberry9, WickedPlumVintage, Kayley Taylor, emmettcullenislove, Szi, Verasque and marine cathedral.
To cruelangel – remember that there is a crucial difference between this scenario and "Doubt"; should Henry choose to take the Executioner up on his offer, Anne will never know (unless Henry should be so stupid and thoughtless as to tell her) what happened to her or to Elizabeth in the original timeline. As far as she is concerned, it will never have happened and she won't know what he would have done to her and to their daughter, so Henry won't have to win back her trust in the same way as he did in "Doubt", when she knew exactly what happened and had every reason to be angry over it. He's going to have an easier time than his "Doubt" counterpart in that respect, but unlike the Henry of "Doubt", who never experienced the aftermath of Anne's execution, this Henry knows what he could have if Anne was dead, since he has experience his marriage to Jane and knows that she is pregnant, possibly with a son, so he's more aware of what he's got to lose.
To those who are wondering about the Executioner's role in this, I should clarify: Henry's guide is not the same person as the executioner who beheaded Anne. It's a persona that the guide has adopted, the better to get the message across, given the thickness of Henry's skull.
See if you can guess who the guide really is. :-)
The scene with Henry and Jane from episode 3.04 has been altered, to fit with this story's timeline, since Jane is only around four months pregnant at this point. The timeline has taken a wee bit of a battering in order to fit with this story, so apologies if it's odd.
Merry Christmas to all of my reviewers. You're all so amazing. :-)
Henry could scarcely believe his ears, and he stood staring at the Executioner for a long time, processing his words and half-expecting, half-hoping that he would wake up, safe in his own bed, and realize that this had all been a strange, admittedly very vivid dream, that the scenes he had seen were the product of his imagination rather than a true depiction of past events.
If he could believe that this was all a dream, then he could believe that he was not being faced with the choice the Executioner had just presented him with.
"Do you realize what it is you are asking of me?" He demanded.
"Of course." The Executioner nodded his head slightly by way of confirmation.
"What if I take back her execution but still annul our marriage?" He suggested, a strong note of desperation entering his voice. Surely there was a way in which he could negotiate with the Executioner, some way that he could persuade him that, while he could save Anne's life, he could still find a way to free himself from her so that he could marry Jane, and have their son.
If the Executioner wanted Anne to live – and he must, if he was willing to intercede for her like this – then maybe he would be willing to bargain in order to ensure that Henry chose to save her.
Anne was innocent, he believed that now, and the idea that he had willingly sent an innocent person to her death – five innocent people, as the men accused of being Anne's lovers must be as guiltless as she was – was not one that he was comfortable with. If he could turn back time and save Anne, he wanted to do that, but he couldn't give up Jane, much less the child she carried.
Anne had failed to give them a son during the three years of their marriage, so if he agreed to reinstate her as his Queen, if he pledged that she would be his wife as long as they lived and that he would never make an attempt to set her aside, now or in the future, ensuring that he would be limited to the children she bore him as the heirs to his throne, she might never bear him a son, or any other child. England might never have the Prince it needed for its future security, leaving little Elizabeth as the sole heir to the throne and himself with a struggle to guarantee her succession against Mary's supporters, but Jane had his child in her belly now, and that child might be a boy.
How could he rob his people of a Prince of Wales they could look to as their future King?
How could he erase the existence of his child entirely, a child who would never be conceived if he was not able to take Jane as his wife, much less born to live and be loved by his parents?
He was happy now, and despite the means by which his happiness was bought, he was sure that he deserved to be happy. He was owed that much, at the very least.
He didn't deserve to have his marriage to Jane erased from his life while he was forced to take back a wife he had wanted to be rid of even before he was led to believe that she was an adulteress, and morally unfit to be his Queen. He didn't deserve to be robbed of his chance to have a son – many sons – with Jane, a family of fine, healthy Princes who would show the world that he was as strong and potent as any other man, despite the previous difficulties he had had in siring healthy male heirs with Katherine and Anne. He didn't deserve to be left with only Elizabeth as the heir to the throne if Anne failed to produce a brother for her. He didn't deserve for the progress he had made with Mary, his pearl, to be erased as though they had never been able to move on from the past and reconcile as father and daughter, as though Mary had never come to her senses and recognized the invalidity of his marriage to her mother and her own illegitimacy.
What if he saved Anne's life, only to be left in a position where he was forced to send his own daughter to the scaffold for treason, if she could not bring herself to accept the truth about the illegality of his union with her mother as long as Anne lived and Mary felt that her submission would work to bolster the position of her enemy and of the half-sister who bore the title of Princess, the title that Mary herself no longer had a right to? He didn't want to lose his daughter but if she had not seen sense at last, he would have had not choice but to order her execution.
Before Mary finally agreed to take the Oath, he was steeling himself to do what he knew would have to be done, if his daughter could not be made to see reason, and he didn't want to repeat the experience. He loved his daughter and did not want her to be harmed if it could be helped.
There had to be another way to resolve this situation, a way in which he could both save Anne and make Jane his Queen and his son by Jane his heir.
He would be kind to Anne, and he would see to it that she and Elizabeth were never allowed to want for anything, and that they would be honoured by all as two of the highest-ranking ladies in England, second only to his Queen. Anne was clever, he knew that, and more importantly, she was sensible. She had to know that, if he wanted to set her aside, there was nothing she could do to prevent it. she wouldn't be foolish and stubborn like Katherine, clinging to the title of Queen when it was denied her, refusing to allow him to treat her generously, and she certainly wouldn't try to turn Elizabeth against her father, teaching her to deny Jane's claim to the title of Queen, much less the legitimacy of the children that Jane would bear him, in time.
He would even be willing to give Anne a further incentive to cooperate, by declaring that Elizabeth was legitimate, and a Princess of England, as he married Anne in good faith and had no wish to see their child suffer, not if her mother was sensible enough to realize that there was a good chance that she would never be able to bear him a son and that she would serve him and his country better if she stepped aside to allow another woman to succeed where she had failed. If Anne could bring herself to step back for his sake, and his country's, she would deserve to be rewarded. Elizabeth's standing would not be diminished in any way, and he would always honour her as the eldest Princess of England, cherishing her as dearly as he always had, if not more.
Anne wouldn't suffer either, if she was would only cooperate with him. Save for the fact that, once he married Jane, Anne would no longer be able to call herself Queen of England, he would not diminish the state she enjoyed. She would have her title of Marquess of Pembroke, a title he would make no attempt to deprive her of – he would even be willing to sweeten his proposal by making her a Duchess, so that she would rank as one of the first peers in England, and nobody would be able to insult her – and the lands he granted her when he elevated her to the peerage would ensure that she and Elizabeth would be able to live in as grand a state as they ever did, in whatever palace or manor Anne chose to reside in, and they would both be welcome at his court.
He would even deed Hampton Court to her, if she wished!
Whatever she asked of him, it would be hers, if she would only set him free.
Elizabeth would remain in line for the throne, second only to any legitimate sons he had, and although she would not be his heir, once Jane bore his son, Anne's title and estates would be a very handsome inheritance for her, ensuring that she would always live as a Princess should.
He could make things right for Anne without keeping her as his wife, he was sure of that. All he needed was for the Executioner to agree to soften his conditions, just a little.
He was surprised and dismayed when he heard a gruff, dry chuckle emanating from the Executioner; surprised because he had thought his guide incapable of feeling humour, much less expressing it, and dismayed because he knew, in his heart, that this meant that there was no hope that he would be able to bargain with him, no way that he could coax him into softening the terms of the deal, no matter how many incentives he was prepared to offer Anne.
"Have I somehow given you the impression that this is a negotiation, Your Majesty?" The honourific was infused with mockery and the eyes that stared at Henry were cold. "If I have, then permit me to make it plain to you that it is not. This is not something that you can bargain over, and you can't buy your way into getting what you want by promising her favours. This is about justice for her, and whether or not you care about that. Do you realize how rare it is for anybody, be he a King or a beggar, to be offered the chance to undo his mistake? To wipe the slate clean and erase his sin entirely? I have explained the offer; you may either choose to leave things as they are, and move on with your life, or you can save her, and keep her as your wife. These are your only two choices, and only you can decide what you will do."
He should have said that he was going to keep things as they were. Henry almost said as much aloud, almost managed to convince himself that this was the only choice he could ever make.
Surely he could not be expected to throw away everything he had with Jane in order to save Anne's life, even if he knew that she was innocent, and that it was wrong for him to have allowed her to be executed. He had a made a mistake, he was prepared to admit that, but why should his mistake cost him the life he had made with Jane, as well as the promise of a son?
Other men made mistakes, without having to pay such a high price for them.
Surely it was no fault of his that Anne had managed to alienate so many people at court, to the point where Cromwell, once her ally, a man who had gone to considerable pains to bolster Anne's place as Queen however he could, and Brandon who, while he did not like her, had helped her family put her on the throne, were willing to accuse her of a capital crime, and to see to it that she was convicted and executed based on false charges? Maybe, if Anne had treated them both more respectfully, they would not have chosen such a method of getting rid of her, even when they knew that he desired to be free of her. They could well have found some other means of setting him free without harming Anne, perhaps by meeting with her father in secret, explaining to Boleyn that his daughter would be repudiated and advising him that the best thing he could do for her was to help her see that it was in her best interests, and Elizabeth's, to cooperate.
Anne could have had an annulment and an honoured and comfortable retirement, if she had not made enemies of the men who wanted to help Henry be free of her.
"Are you suggesting that it is her fault that your friend, and your councillor, lied about her and that you believed those lies?" The Executioner asked sharply, his disapproval plain.
"No." Henry said quickly, unwilling to anger the Executioner if he could help it. Who knew where his guide might take him next if he did? "But she didn't help matters for herself, did she?"
The Executioner chose not to respond to this, leaving Henry alone with his thoughts.
If he told the Executioner that he wished to continue with his life as it was, was his guide bound to respect his decision or, despite what he had said about this being Henry's choice, would he force him to endure more scenes of Anne's pain during the final days of her life, and more scenes that would make it clear to him that the men he had trusted were unworthy of his trust, scenes that would leave him unable to trust either Brandon or Cromwell again, even if he had to pretend that he did, as he would never be able to tell anybody about what he had seen?
A thought struck him, one that sent chills down his spine; if he refused, would he be shown scenes of the Seymours next, scenes that implicated Sir John and his sons, perhaps even Jane? It was difficult and painful enough to know that Brandon had conspired against Anne, wanting her dead even when he knew that Henry loved her – something that should have ensured that he would want to protect Anne, for the sake of his friend, rather than wanting to see her destroyed – but the mere idea of learning that Jane might have been party to this was unbearable.
Surely his sweet Jane would never have supported such a plan, even if she loved him and even if she was as eager to marry him as he was to marry her. Most women would like the idea of becoming Queen, he knew that, but he couldn't believe that Jane was the kind of woman who would ever be ruled by ambition, as some might be. Surely she would have told him if she became aware of a conspiracy to bring about Anne's death, choosing to save an innocent woman, even if that might mean that she would never be Queen... but he couldn't help but wonder.
Jane was a sweet woman, a kind woman but she was also human, and there were few courtiers who were devoid of ambition, fewer still who would be unaware of what they and their family would gain if one of their number became Queen, so he couldn't dismiss the possibility that she was involved, that she might have kept quiet for the sake of her family's prospects.
Even if Jane wasn't involved, however, he was.
He had allowed himself to be convinced of Anne's guilt, without investigating matters properly, because he had wanted to be free of her, wanted it so badly that he was willing to wash his hands of Anne entirely as soon as Brandon's accusation showed him a way in which he could be free of her without having to expose himself to the embarrassment of pleading his affinity with Mary Boleyn to free himself from Anne, an idea that had revolted him, especially as he feared the public reaction to such an announcement. Those who had supported Katherine would mock him for marrying Anne, who was barred to him on the same grounds, accusing him of manipulating the law for his own ends, and he did not want that. He would have done almost anything to avoid it.
He had not even ensured that she would receive a fair trial, and he was the one who signed her death warrant, giving Anne's enemies written permission to murder her.
He might not have wielded the sword but he had helped to murder her, and murder was a sin.
If God would punish him for his part in Anne's murder, judging him to bear guilt because he had failed to make the necessary effort to investigate the matter for himself, how much more severe would his punishment be if he was offered the opportunity to save her and he refused it, essentially condemning Anne to death a second time, this time knowing that she was innocent?
When the time came, God would not be impressed by Henry's crown, nor would He be inclined to listen to excuses that Henry did not want to make any sacrifices in order to do the right thing.
God had sacrificed His own son so might He expect Henry to do the same thing now?
"Can I have some time?" He heard himself plead with the Executioner, desperate for a chance to think about the choice he was faced with. It was not a decision to be made in haste. His future, the future of his family and the future of his country rested on this choice he would have to make.
The Executioner nodded. "You may."
"How long... how long do I have before I need to answer?" Henry asked, his throat dry.
"The month is May." The Executioner told him in a calm, even voice. "Tomorrow will be the sixteenth. You know when I will need your answer."
The 19th of May.
Just days away.
Anne would be dead a year on that day, and he would have to choose whether he was going to leave her dead or if he was going to take back her death and restore her as his Queen, saving her life but at a cost so high that he shrank from the thought of paying it.
Within a matter of days, he would have to make the most important decision of his life.
Three days to go...
When he woke up, Henry wasn't certain what it was that he wanted to do, and he knew that there was nobody with whom he could speak about the choice he was now faced with, no matter how much he would have liked to be able to voice his feelings to somebody, anybody. He could not speak to Jane, not when the matter touched her as well as him, and although, under other circumstances, he might have sought Brandon's counsel, in the hope that his friend would be able to help him weigh the advantages and disadvantages of accepting this offer but, not only would Brandon believe him to be a madman if he shared the details of his encounter with the Executioner, Henry wasn't sure that he would be able to look the other man in the face without wanting to break his jaw, not after what he had seen and had learned of Brandon's true nature.
Brandon was the one who began all this, by accusing Anne, and he could no longer be trusted.
When he went out riding, taking with him only a small handful of guards to ensure his safety, he intended to ride out for a few hours, to clear his head before he returned to the palace to closet himself away to consider the question of what he should do, but he found himself riding in a certain direction, scarcely realizing where he was going until he could see a manor in the distance, and recognized it as Hundson House, the residence he had granted Mary once Anne was dead and, with Elizabeth declared a bastard, there was no need for Mary to be obliged to serve as a maid in waiting in the child's royal household, which was soon to be greatly reduced, in any case.
Since Elizabeth no longer enjoyed the title of Princess, she had no need of such a grand establishment of servants as he once granted her, when he was still in love with her mother and wanted to make it clear that, in the absence of a Prince, he favoured his daughter by Anne as heir to the throne, not Katherine's daughter, and since he had no intention of allowing her to remain the heir to the throne a moment longer, there was no need for her position to be bolstered by Mary's presence as one of the maids in waiting assigned to Elizabeth's entourage and Henry had not wanted his daughter serving a child who might not be his.
No matter how obstinate Mary was, no matter how angry he was with her over her refusal to accept the truth about his union with her mother, he had been determined that no daughter of his should have to serve Norris' child, and so he had given orders for her to have her own household, although he was not yet prepared to receive Mary at court, despite Jane's efforts to encourage him to welcome her back into his life, not until the girl admitted that she was nothing but a bastard.
Hundson was not as large or as grand as the palaces in which Mary had made her home when she still enjoyed the title of Princess, and the number of servants employed to tend her was much smaller than it was back then, as Henry was careful not to give his daughter the wrong impression, not wanting her to take Anne's execution as a sign that she could expect him to forget what he knew about the invalidity of his marriage to Katherine, even for her sake, but he had seen to it that the manor was a pleasant one, which would make a comfortable residence for his daughter, and he had given orders for an adequate household to staff it, even before Mary finally ceased to claim the title of Princess, so that she would enjoy a state suitable to a King's daughter.
Jane had wanted him to be kind to Mary, and he saw the sense in showing his eldest daughter some generosity in anticipation of her submission, wanting to show Mary that the hardship she had endured – admittedly through her own stubbornness, as she could have ended her servitude at Hatfield with a few words or a letter, anytime she chose; even if Anne had objected to Mary being favoured with his attention, he knew that he would have welcomed Mary back to court as soon as the girl admitted the truth about her bastard status – while Anne held power was over and that, if she would be his loving and obedient daughter, she would be as kindly treated as she could ever hope to be, welcomed back into her father's favour, and his strategy had borne fruit.
Kindness had won Mary over far more quickly than harshness ever could.
It may have taken some time, but Mary had eventually come to see the truth and, when she did, she knew that she had to admit it, however painful it was to accept that she was a bastard. It might have hurt her pride to cease to claim the title of Princess and to content herself with being known simply as Lady Mary but she had seen the truth, and was too honest to deny it.
Since Mary's submission, he had increased her allowance, allowing her to take on more servants, and she even had some highborn ladies in her service, young women who had not been able to secure positions as ladies-in-waiting or maids of honour in Jane's household and who sought places in Mary's household instead, recognizing her as the second lady in England.
When he reached Hundson, one of the soldiers accompanying him hastened forward to bang on the door, explaining to the servant who answered it that the King had come. Within moments, Mary's chamberlain arrived, and bowed deeply as he conducted Henry into the house.
"This is a very great honour, Your Majesty." The man – whose name Henry could not recall, although he usually had a good memory for such details, priding himself on his ability to remember the names of his servants, and even the names of the servants of some of his courtiers – gushed, bowing again once Henry crossed the threshold.
Henry could see from the expression on the other man's face that he was making a mental inventory of the supplies in the pantry, calculating how long it would take for the cooks and kitchen servants to prepare a meal that was fit for the King and horrified by the thought that his sovereign should come to pay a call on the Lady Mary, only to find that the hospitality of her household was lacking. "This is just a short visit. I will not be able to stay for dinner." He said briefly, setting the chamberlain's mind at ease on that count. "I have come to see my daughter."
"Yes, Your Majesty." The chamberlain nodded comprehension. "The Lady Mary is in the parlour, with her maids, and I am certain that she will be honoured to attend you when I let her know..."
"There's no need for that." Henry cut the man off before he could offer to send a message to Mary to let her know that her father had arrived and that she should come to pay her respects to him. He was not here as Mary's sovereign, to be received formally and feted as his royal rank demanded, he was here as her father and he did not want to begin their visit on such a ceremonial note, not when he could easily be the one to go to her. "Show me to the Lady Mary's parlour, so that I may greet my dear daughter." He commanded.
"Yes, Your Majesty." The chamberlain led the way down a corridor leading to a polished oak door, glancing back at Henry for permission before he knocked on the door and announced the illustrious guest for his mistress' benefit. "His Majesty the King is here, my Lady Mary."
As one, Mary and her attendants rose from their chairs as Henry entered the room, setting aside their sewing and sweeping deep curtseys to him, remaining posed thus, heads bent, as he crossed the room with his long-legged stride to stand in front of his daughter, cupping her chin in his hand on the day when he and Jane had last visited Hundson, immediately after Mary's submission, both of them wanting to show her that all was forgiven now that she had yielded. As Jane had said, when he first told her of Mary's submission, knowing that she too would be pleased to know that Mary was no longer their enemy, a family should not be divided, especially the royal family.
They should be together, to show the country an example of a true and loving family.
"Rise, my daughter." He told Mary, taking her hand to help her to her feet. "It is good to see you."
"I am honoured by Your Majesty's visit." Mary responded humbly, keeping her eyes lowered for a moment longer before she finally looked up to meet his eyes, relaxing when she saw that they were full of affection, and that she had no need to fear that his visit might have resulted from some offence on her part. "And it delights me to see that Your Majesty is in good health."
"Not 'Your Majesty', call me 'Father'." Henry corrected her gently, wondering if a time would ever come when Mary would address him as 'Father' first, instead of automatically using his formal honourific. Little Elizabeth had also addressed him as 'Your Majesty' when he last saw her, instead of saluting him as 'Papa', as she had when her mother was still alive, and she was still the little princess he doted on, despite the disappointment he felt over her female sex. Did his daughters believe that, when he set their mothers aside, he had also hardened his hearts to them? Did they see their bastard status as proof of rejection, thinking that if he had loved them, he would have allowed them to retain the title of Princess? The thought was more painful than he cared to admit.
He wanted to believe that Mary knew that, much as he loved her, he was obliged to declare her a bastard when his marriage to her mother was annulled, especially when Katherine was refusing to admit the truth and would have pounced on him if he decided, out of fatherly love, to find a way to allow Mary to continue to be called Princess, declaring it proof that he knew that she was his true wife, just as he wanted to believe that, when Elizabeth was older, she would understand that he could not have taken the chance of allowing her to retain her place as Princess when she might be another man's child, and that restoring her to that title now could be problematic, stirring up issues best left forgotten, but he couldn't convince himself that this was the case.
"Father." Mary amended obediently. "I hope that Queen Jane is well?" She asked, her sincerity plain. Jane had been a true friend to her since Henry had taken her as his wife, always trying to do everything in her power to see to it that Mary was a welcomed and honoured member of the court, and Mary could not resent her, for anything. She was sure that even her sainted mother would rejoice to know that the husband she had loved until her dying moment now had a kind, gentle woman by his side, to soften the harshness that had entered his nature since he met Anne.
"She is well – and the child she carries is strong." Henry reported, watching Mary's reaction to his words. "The astrologers tell me that it will be a healthy son, a fine Prince for England."
He half-expected Mary to betray some sign of disappointment at this news.
Although there were still some in England who believed Mary to be of legitimate birth, and who had campaigned for her restoration as the heiress presumptive to the throne, pending the birth of a legitimate male heir, even when Mary herself had come to recognize her bastard status, the birth of a Prince would ensure that the people would cleave to him as heir to the throne, recognizing that, by virtue of his male sex and his legitimate birth, he had the right to rule when God called Henry to Him. Those who now called for Mary's restoration would transfer their support to the Prince as soon as the child was safely born and in his cradle but, although Mary must be aware of this, her smile at Henry's words was wide and genuine, with no trace of deceit in her eyes.
"I pray to God that he will send Queen Jane a happy hour, and a strong son." She said, thinking that if her place was to be usurped, better that it should be a son of Jane's who would one day rule England in her place than a son of Anne's. If the harlot's last pregnancy had come to term, she would have been invincible, as the King would never have listened to a word against the mother of his son, and Mary would never have been welcomed into favour unless she bowed to Anne as her Queen. Had she refused to yield, Anne might have called for her head once her son was born, and had her wish granted by a King who would be so overjoyed by the birth of a son that he would give her anything. "She is such a good, loving lady that God will surely bless her with a Prince."
"Well said, my dear." Henry said, leaning forward to kiss Mary on the cheek, pleased to know that, when the time came, she would welcome her baby brother. "I hope that, when the Prince is born, you will do him the honour of being his godmother." He invited her. It was Jane who first suggested that Mary should be their son's godmother but Henry thought that it was a good idea.
"I would love to."
"Good." Henry smiled at her before offering his arm to her in a courtly gesture. "Why don't we take a walk outside, Mary?" He suggested, wanting an opportunity to speak to his eldest child alone, without having to worry about their conversation being overheard by prying ears. He wanted to speak to Mary as a father to his daughter, not as a monarch to his subject, and for that they needed privacy, not a cluster of servants and soldiers listening to every word they said and weighing the significance of every word, every glance that passed between them. This was none of their business. It was between him and his child and he intended for it to stay that way. Once they were outside, they walked in silence for a few minutes, until Henry drew his daughter to a stone bench, shaded by a tall tree. "Sit down, Mary, please," he invited her, "I would like to talk to you."
Mary sat down obediently, looking up at him with curious eyes. She didn't say a word, waiting for her father to be the one to speak, but even when he sat down, he was silent at first.
"Are you happy, Mary?" Henry asked at last, turning so that he could look into his daughter's eyes as he asked the question, wanting to know that her answer was truthful and that she would not just be speaking the words she believed he wanted to hear, wanting to please him. "I want you to be happy." He told her, reaching out to caress her cheek. "And I know that, in the past..."
"The past is behind us, Father." Mary answered hastily, her eyes widening as she took in the serious expression on her father's face, wondering what had prompted this unexpected visit, when he had only come to see her at Hundson once before, and even then, he sent messengers ahead several days in advance so that she and her household would have the time to make the necessary preparations in order to receive them in a fitting manner, just as he would have sent a message to any noble he intended to honour with a royal visit. Even when she had her household in Ludlow as the acknowledged Princess, he had never come unannounced. "I am happy to be reconciled with you, and Queen Jane has been so kind to me that I cannot help but love her too."
"I know that she thinks very highly of you, Mary." Henry said, knowing that Jane was sincere in her desire to welcome Mary. She was a friend to Mary as well as a stepmother. He rose from the bench, pacing back and forth for a minute or two before he sat down again, taking Mary's hand in his and sighing inwardly before he spoke again, knowing that he was about to broach a sensitive subject, one that had divided him from Mary in the past and that he feared might divide them again if he couldn't deal gently with the matter, without antagonizing his daughter or making her doubt the rightness of her submission and his decisions. "When the late Queen was alive," he began, feeling unable to refer to Anne by name. Mary knew who he was speaking of, and he felt her stiffen in response to his referring to Anne as Queen. Even if she now understood that her mother was never Queen, it was clear that she was not ready to think of Anne as such, even when he spoke of her as his Queen. "She and I both sent to you, to ask you to swear the Oath, recognizing my union with your mother as unlawful. You refused to take it."
"I was very young, Father." Mary excused herself hastily, her eyes widening with fear, as though she expected him to tell her that he no longer trusted in the sincerity with which she had taken the Oath, and intended to deprive her of the rewards she was given for her submission, perhaps even proceeding against her for treason, in case she sought to challenge the Prince's right to rule, now that Jane was carrying a child and her father believed that he no longer needed her in reserve as a potential heir. She was not unaware of the fact that, if his marriage to Jane was not blessed with children, he would want to see a child of his succeed him rather than the son of her Aunt Margaret, and she also knew that the people were more likely to welcome her as their Queen than little Elizabeth. "I never wanted to offend you, and it grieved me that you were angry with me but..."
"And your mother still lived." Henry said gently, knowing how much Mary had loved her mother. With hindsight, he could recognize that, even if Mary would have been willing to accept her demotion from Princess to Lady Mary if she was the only one concerned, she loved Katherine so much that, when her mother refused to accept that she was not Queen of England, it was perhaps inevitable that Mary would have sided with her, not wanting to hurt her mother by publicly acknowledging the fact that Katherine was never truly Queen. As long as Katherine cleaved to that lie, Mary's love for her mother would have compelled her to follow her example. "I understand that you didn't want to hurt her, and she would have been upset if she knew that you took the Oath."
If he was honest with himself, he could admit that he had not wanted to hurt Katherine either.
He never doubted that he was duty-bound to extricate himself from the sinful union he had entered into as a boy, once he recognized that God was trying to show him, through the sons he had lost, that his union with Katherine displeased Him, especially as he needed to give his people a legitimate heir to his throne, to rule over them when he was gone, but he wished that Katherine could have been sensible, so that the annulment could have been accomplished with a minimum of pain for her, but she had not allowed that. She had insisted on being obstinate, to her cost.
Mary nodded but she did not speak, biting her lip to keep the tears from flowing. She felt as though she had never had an opportunity to truly grieve for her mother, never had the peace she needed to reconcile herself with the fact that God had seen fit to take her loving and gentle mother from her, especially when, if she had lived but a few short months longer, she would have seen Anne's hold on the King falter, and known that her enemy had fallen at last. If her mother could only have lived to know this, Mary was sure that her health would have quickly rallied.
She would have known that she was vindicated, that the harlot had lost while her own perseverance had led to her victory, and she would know that she and her beloved daughter would soon be restored to their rightful places. That joy would have renewed her, like a woman reborn.
The King was free of Anne's poison and, if her mother had still lived, Mary believed that he would have restored her to her rightful place as his Queen, something that she knew Jane would have liked to see, never begrudging Queen Katherine her place, even if her family had hoped to see her sit in it. She wanted to believe that he would have done this but she couldn't convince herself.
Henry squeezed her hand lightly, prompting her to look up at him before he asked his next question. "Do you regret taking the Oath, Mary?" He asked her quietly.
"No, Your Majesty... Father." Mary answered without hesitation, afraid that if she paused for even an instant before reassuring him, she could find herself out of favour, or worse. "I am overjoyed to be restored to your gracious favour... and I hope that you know that I am your obedient daughter and subject." She added hastily, in case her father got the impression that the only reason why she did not regret taking the Oath was the substantial benefits she had reaped by doing so.
Henry nodded, smiling reassuringly, in case Mary believed that he might be angry with her. He certainly did not want to frighten his daughter, or to make her believe that the position she currently enjoyed in his court and in his heart was in jeopardy if she gave him the wrong answer but this issue was too important for him to be able to set it aside, not until he knew the full truth of Mary's feelings towards Anne. Was there any hope that, if he saved Anne's life and kept her as his Queen, Mary would be able to accept her, so he would not need to order her death?
"What if the late Queen was still alive?" He posed the question as casually as he possibly could. "I understand that you would not want to take the Oath if your mother lived, and there was little time after her death before the late Queen was arrested, but do you think that you would have taken the Oath and accepted her as my rightful wife and Queen – if it was discovered that she was innocent of the charges laid against her." He added, before Mary could justify her refusal by saying that Anne was unworthy of being Queen, and use that to evade answering his question.
Despite being conscious of the need to answer promptly, in case her father believed that her answers were calculated and therefore insincere, Mary was tongue-tied at first.
She had always insisted that she would never take the Oath, never allow Anne to triumph over her and her mother, as she would surely have done if she could say that Queen Katherine's daughter accepted her, and she had been relieved when Anne's fall from grace, a just punishment for the sins she had committed against Mary and her sainted mother, had ensured that she would not need to bend the knee to that woman in order to buy her way back into her father's good graces. Part of her was sure that she would have gone to the scaffold rather than bow to Anne as her Queen but she also knew that it was easy to say that now, when she would never be called upon to test that conviction, but that it might have been a different matter if Anne still lived.
Would she have had the courage to maintain that, even if her mother was dead, Anne Boleyn could not be Queen unless the King married her a second time – essentially acknowledging that their first union was invalid as he was not then free to take a wife, exposing little Elizabeth as a bastard and confirming Mary's rights as the true Princess – or would she have yielded?
She didn't know, just as she didn't know what her father wanted her to tell him now.
"If the late Queen was innocent," it hurt to refer to Anne as Queen, hurt to think that her father might still remember her as such, despite the fact that he had annulled their farce of a marriage when Anne was convicted of adultery, especially when he was always careful to refer to her mother as the Princess Dowager of Wales, never allowing himself to call her his Queen, but she couldn't refuse to use the title her father used. "Then, when I knew that your marriage to my mother was no true marriage, I would have accepted her as your true wife, and as my Queen." She kept her eyes lowered at first, not wanting her father to see the pain in them, but when she chanced a glance at his face, she could see that he was pleased to hear her say it. For whatever reason, he wanted to believe that she would have come to accept Anne, if that woman had lived.
"You are certain of this, Mary?" Henry pressed gently, wondering if she was speaking from the heart or if she was saying this to please him. "Your mother might not have liked it."
"My mother would have understood." Mary said, speaking as steadily as she could, and believing that she was telling the truth. Her mother loved her and wanted her to be happy and, more importantly, safe. She knew that. If she had to pretend that Anne Boleyn was Queen in order to secure her safety, her mother would not have condemned her for the pretence, not if she took steps to repudiate the Oath privately, and secure papal absolution for her lie. If her father chose to take her words another way, to believe that her mother would have thought that, by taking the Oath, she was admitting the truth at last, she would not disillusion him.
To her surprise, her father folded her into his embrace, kissing her on the cheek and thanking her warmly, holding her in his arms for several minutes before he released her.
When Henry rode away from Hundson later that afternoon, after dining in his daughter's company, he rode with a lighter heart. Mary's words had given him a measure of confidence that all was not lost, even if he decided that he should accept the Executioner's offer and bring Anne back to life, reassuring him that such a decision need not cost him his eldest daughter.
If Mary would be willing to take the Oath while Anne was Queen, then he would still be able to reconcile with her, even if Jane was not part of his life and Anne was.
Two days to go...
After the clarity that his visit to Mary had brought him, Henry knew where he needed to go next.
Hatfield House was within half a day's ride from London, something Henry had stipulated when he instructed Cromwell to select a suitable royal dwelling for his baby daughter, knowing that both he and Anne would want to see the child frequently, but it was still far enough away to ensure that he needed to leave early, if he wanted to be able to spend time with Elizabeth before returning.
Jane was pleased when he told him that he intended to pay a visit to Elizabeth – though it did not escape his notice that she did not greet the news of his intentions with the same degree of pleasure she had exhibited when he told her of his visit to Mary at Hundson, something that he found troubling, though he did not question her about it, not wanting to risk a quarrel with Jane in her condition. She could not accompany him, not when the strain of the journey might harm the child she carried, but she had asked Henry to convey her best wishes to her little stepdaughter.
When he arrived at Elizabeth's household, he waved aside the greetings of Sir John Shelton, Elizabeth's steward, but he spent some time speaking to Lady Bryan before he saw Elizabeth alone, wanting an update on his daughter's progress and knowing that, of all the members of the child's household, her governess was best suited to tell him what he needed to know.
"The Lady Elizabeth is the sweetest child, Your Majesty, and so bright and clever." Lady Bryan enthused once he asked her about Elizabeth, her pride in her charge plain. It pleased him to see that, despite Elizabeth's demotion, Lady Bryan still cared for her. He could imagine that it must have been an unpleasant shock for the lady who had taken such pride in her post as the governess of Princess Elizabeth, heiress presumptive to the throne, to learn that her small charge had been declared illegitimate and was now nothing more than the Lady Elizabeth, the King's second natural daughter, but it appeared that she had recovered from that shock and that it did not affect her affection for the little girl in her charge. "She is already quick at her studies, the cleverest child I have ever seen. She knows her letters now, and her numbers and is making excellent progress with reading and writing. She is beginning to learn Latin – and she is clever with her needle too, for her years." She added, in case he thought that the feminine accomplishments were neglected.
"And her music?" Henry asked, before he could stop himself.
Like him, Anne had loved music and he was sure that their daughter must share that love, however much it pained him to think of Elizabeth as her mother's daughter.
Elizabeth was young now and very innocent, too innocent for it to occur to her that the father she loved might not be the great, virtuous man that she was now taught to think of him as. A time would come when she would ask questions about her mother, about why Anne had died and about why she had been demoted from Princess to bastard. Even if the members of her household refused to answer those questions, she was too much like Anne, too clever and too obstinate, to be satisfied with a mute response and she would continue to seek answers to her questions.
If he refused to save Anne's life, would a time come when his little daughter looked at him with hatred in her heart, condemning him for her mother's murder? The thought was a chilling one.
"With Your Majesty's permission, tutors were engaged to instruct the Lady Elizabeth in the arts of music and dance, and her progress has astounded them." Lady Bryan reported proudly, clearly satisfied that nobody could allege that she had been remiss in ensuring that Elizabeth was as well educated as any princess... as any King's daughter... should be at her age. "I know that the Lady Elizabeth hopes to play for you one day, and for the Queen too, when she is more proficient."
"I look forward to hearing her." Henry smiled but his expression quickly became sombre and he lowered his voice before he asked his next question. "Does she ever ask about the late Queen?"
Much as he would like to believe that his little daughter was too young to remember the mother she had lost, much as he would like to think that Jane would be the only mother Elizabeth could remember, he knew that this would not be the case. Elizabeth was so clever that she would remember more of her earliest years than most children did and Anne had always been a loving and devoted mother to their child, visiting Elizabeth whenever she could manage to get away from the palace, delighting in spending time with her child and showering her with love.
He could not convince himself that Elizabeth had forgotten Anne, or that she ever would.
The question clearly made Lady Bryan uncomfortable. She hesitated for several long moments before answering and when she finally spoke, she spoke slowly, choosing her words with great care in order to strike a balance between giving him a truthful answer and avoiding causing him offence. "When the late Queen was executed, I thought it best to tell the Lady Elizabeth, with Your Majesty's pardon." She said, hoping that the King would not think this presumption on her part. No orders had been sent about what she was to say to the child, but she had had to say something. "Lady Elizabeth was asking for her mother, and wished to see her, so I thought I should explain. I also thought it best to tell her when Your Majesty married Queen Jane." She added.
"You were right to tell her, Lady Bryan." Henry said, feeling a renewed sense of guilt at the thought of how confused his little girl must have been. Once he banished Anne from his sight, refusing to see her or even to read the letter she sent him after her arrest, the last thing he had wanted was to have anything to do with Anne's child. How long had Elizabeth spent waiting for her mother before Lady Bryan finally broke the news to her that Anne would never come to see her again? He was afraid to ask the question. "Does she speak of her mother now?"
"She prays for her soul." Lady Bryan admitted. "But she has not spoken of her since I told her of her execution. She understands that her mother committed treason, and had to die."
Although he was aware that he should be glad that Elizabeth had not been told that her mother was murdered in order to pave the way for her successor – not that he expected any member of her household to dare to say such a thing in the child's hearing, even if such rumours were flying around the country when Anne was first arrested – he felt angry to think of Elizabeth being told that Anne deserved to die, and not just because he now knew her to have been innocent. He did not want to think that Elizabeth was taught to be ashamed of being Anne's daughter, or led to believe that this was the reason why he had not wanted to see her after Anne's death.
"I trust that you explained to my daughter that she was not to blame for her mother's actions."
Lady Bryan flinched slightly at the severity of his tone but she recovered herself. "Of course, Your Majesty." She assured him, hoping that this was true. She couldn't remember if she had reassured Elizabeth, or if she was still too indignant over her own loss of status to think of the little girl and the worries that might have troubled her over her mother's execution.
God knew that there were enough rumours about Queen Anne being executed because she had borne a daughter, not a son, and if Elizabeth had heard those... she shuddered at the thought.
"I see." Henry wasn't certain if he believed her but he didn't press the matter. "I would like to speak to my daughter." He said.
Lady Bryan was quicker than Mary's steward, and he had no chance to instruct her to let him know where Elizabeth was so that he might go for her before she dispatched a servant to bring the little girl downstairs. When Elizabeth appeared, she was being led by the hand by a maid of honour, while a second followed, hastily straightening the hem of her long gown, and Henry was struck by how small his daughter's entourage now was. At one time, at least half a dozen maids of honour would have accompanied Elizabeth, while grooms preceded her and her chamberlain called out that all present should make way for Princess Elizabeth, but she had far fewer servants now.
Once Elizabeth was ushered into his presence, she curtsied deeply to him, with a grace surprising in a child of not yet four years. "I am honoured by Your Majesty's visit." The formal words sounded strange spoken in such a childish voice, and the sight of the composed little figure – every inch a princess, even if she was now denied that title – tore at Henry's heart.
Where was the little girl who once dashed into his arms, happily unconscious of rank?
He returned her curtsey with a deep bow, doffing his hat respectfully before kneeling down and holding out his arms to her, an inviting smile on his face. "My Elizabeth." He greeted her in as gentle and as friendly a manner as he could, wanting her to know that he was still her father and that he still loved her. When she ran into his outstretched arms, returning his embrace with a kiss, he felt himself exhale in relief at the knowledge that she still loved him, as she had before.
"Papa." The word from her lips was perhaps the sweetest he could ever hear, and he rejoiced, knowing that he had not lost his little girl, not entirely.
He kept hold of Elizabeth as he rose to his feet, balancing his daughter carefully in one arm and tickling her under the chin with his free hand. "How is my little... Elizabeth?" He caught himself before he could call her his princess, knowing that if he addressed her as such, it would only confuse her and she must have been confused enough when she was first told that she was no longer a princess but simply Lady Elizabeth. "Are you well? Are you happy?" Elizabeth did not look at Lady Bryan before she nodded but, even so, Henry could sense the governess' watchful gaze and knew that she would be watching them, anxious to know that the visit was going well and that her charge's manners could not be faulted, for fear that she would be blamed if Elizabeth said or did anything amiss. If he wanted to be able to speak freely with Elizabeth, they would need to be alone. "Why don't we go out into the garden, sweetheart – alone?"
With his wishes made so plain, Lady Bryan did not dare to follow them, or to send one of Elizabeth's maids to accompany them, ostensibly to be there in case her service was required but really so that Lady Bryan could know what passed between the King and her charge, in case Elizabeth inadvertently offended her father. She had no choice but to stay behind.
Once they were out in the garden, Henry set Elizabeth on her feet, allowing her to lead him to the patch of garden that she proudly termed hers, where, while she did little actual gardening, something that both her rank as the King's daughter and the fine gowns she wore forbade, she chose the flowers to be planted and the gardener obeyed no instructions save hers.
"I wanted to plant proper Tudor roses but Jones couldn't find the right plants." Elizabeth complained with an adorable pout of discontent as she gestured to the roses that were the cause of her grievance. While she had been able to have bushes of red roses and bushes of white roses planted, Jones had told her that there was no plant for a rose that was white on the inside with red petals on the outside, like the Tudor rose. Lady Bryan said it was a made-up rose.
Henry smiled at that, remembering how, shortly after his coronation, he had tried to find gardeners who could breed a perfect replica of the Tudor rose, thinking that it would make a fine addition to the gardens of Whitehall Palace but had never been able to get what he wanted. "The roses you have now are very pretty, sweetheart." He offered instead, wanting to cheer her up.
Elizabeth smiled at this, pointing out several more flowers and explaining her plans for her garden in great detail, with Henry listening patiently, amused and touched by her fervent interest and more certain than ever that his daughter was a marvel. He was sure that most children her age would lose interest in gardening as quickly as they took it up but Elizabeth persisted, and her attention to colour and detail would not shame any of the gardeners in his employ.
When Elizabeth's smile disappeared, Henry was concerned. "What is it, sweetheart?"
Elizabeth hesitated before answering. "Will you be cross if I ask you a question?"
His daughter shouldn't have had to ask him that question, and Henry felt guilty to think that Elizabeth, still more than three months away from her fourth birthday, felt that she needed to. He had only himself to blame for her reluctance so he smiled to reassure her, squeezing her hand gently to let her know that it was alright for her to speak her mind. "Of course not." He promised.
"Why am I not a princess anymore?" Elizabeth asked, looking up at her father with wide, trusting eyes, believing that he would tell her the truth. "Why am I just Lady Elizabeth now? Lady Bryan said that you wanted me to have a new title but she wouldn't say why. Nobody will say why. I liked being a princess." She added plaintively, as though she thought that he might not know this, might think that she preferred being a Lady. "Was it because of Mama?"
He should have denied that, as the official version of events, the one circulated to the people after Anne's execution, set out that the annulment of their marriage was a separate issue to the question of her guilt. His marriage to Anne was annulled because of his relationship with her sister – although he had forbidden any public announcement of the grounds, to spare himself embarrassment – not because of her adultery. He should have told Elizabeth that her mother's death was not the reason for her bastard status but he knew that this was a lie.
He wanted to make a clean sweep and start fresh with Jane, knowing that the children of their marriage would be his heirs, so Elizabeth was declared a bastard.
"Yes, sweetheart." He said quietly.
"Why?" Elizabeth asked, tears starting to shine in her eyes as she thought of her mother, though she kept them in check. "Lady Bryan said that Mama's head had to be cut off with a sword because she did wicked things but I didn't do anything wicked. Why can't I be a princess anymore? It was nicer when I was a princess, and I got to see you more... and Mama was there." Lady Bryan had told her that she should take care not to speak of her Mama in front of her Papa, in case she made him angry, but Elizabeth couldn't help it. "I miss my Mama. I want to see her again."
Henry had to swallow a lump in his throat before he could speak, and he could feel tears pricking at the back of his eyelids. "You have your new mother, Queen Jane." He offered lamely, knowing that this was small consolation for Elizabeth's loss. Nobody would ever be able to replace Anne in her life, and he had taken Anne from her. "She is kind to you, isn't she?"
"Not like Mama." Elizabeth maintained. "Mama loved me. Queen Jane just likes me, a little. She likes Mary much better than me. It was better when Mama was your Queen."
Henry bent down to lift Elizabeth into his arms, rubbing her back while he looked around for a place where they could sit down to talk. There was no bench nearby but there was a tall oak tree and he walked over to it, spreading his cloak and sitting down with Elizabeth in his lap, so that they could sit in the shade. Once they were settled, he composed himself before speaking.
"What if you could be a princess again?" He offered, thinking that, even if the Executioner would not accept a compromise, he might be able to find a middle ground for himself, a solution that he could live with, to do something for Anne but without having to bring her back to life.
Anne had loved Elizabeth so much that her first concern would be for their child, not for herself. He had seen the evidence of this for himself, when he saw the stricken expression on her face when Cranmer broke the news to her that Elizabeth was to be declared a bastard. She didn't seem to have given a thought to the fact that, with their marriage annulled, she could no longer claim the title of Queen, the title she had fought for, she was worried about the uncertain future that Elizabeth would face now that she was demoted to the status of a bastard. Even though the hour of her death was drawing near, she was concerned with Elizabeth's welfare, not her own. If he restored their daughter to the place she had enjoyed before Anne's fall, if he saw to it that Elizabeth would enjoy the same honours and comforts she had before, Anne would be happy, even if he decided against turning back time to save her life.
Elizabeth mattered most to her.
It would not be easy to reverse the annulment of his marriage to Anne, especially as such a move would incense the Emperor, who would not be pleased to see Anne's daughter restored while Katherine's daughter remained a bastard, but it could be done, if he wished for it to be done. He would have no trouble with Cranmer, who would be happy to claim that he had erred when he told him that his marriage to Anne was invalid, and that there was never a need to annul their marriage in the first place, especially as Cranmer was Elizabeth's godfather and would be pleased to see the child restored as a Princess, for her sake and for her mother's, and Parliament would agree to his wishes, once he made them known.
Elizabeth could be a princess again within the month, allowing him to make amends with Anne but without having to sacrifice his marriage to Jane, or the promise of a prince from her.
When Elizabeth looked up at him, her expression was so grave that Henry was half convinced that she knew what he was thinking, knew what he had been offered and that he had a mind to turn down the offer, allowing her mother to remain dead for the sake of his marriage to Jane. Her voice was soft when she spoke but her words were chilling and unwelcome to his ears.
"I'd rather be Lady Elizabeth and have my Mama back than be a princess with no Mama."
One day to go...
When one of Jane's ladies came to him with a message that the Queen needed to see him, Henry was afraid that he would reach Jane's bedchamber to find her bleeding, losing their child, a stark indication that, because their marriage was made possible by Anne's murder, it would never be blessed with living issue. However, when he arrived in Jane's chamber, he was relieved to see that there were no midwives present and no physicians, who would surely have been summoned if there was a chance that there was something wrong with the Prince, but he was still worried.
"What is it?" He asked, of nobody in particular, but Jane's ladies only curtsied and withdrew, leaving him alone with their mistress. Jane was sitting up in bed, with no sign of blood on her gown or on the sheets, but Henry still felt worried. "Sweetheart, what is it?"
"Everything is alright." Jane assured him in her gentle voice, reaching out to take his hand in hers and press it against the swell of her belly, now becoming visible under her gown. "Come." Her smile was radiant as she looked up at him, her eyes alight with joy. "The baby quickened. I can feel him moving."
They both knew, without saying it, how positive a sign this was. Although Jane had missed her courses since February, and although she had been craving certain foods, quails' eggs above anything else, they could not be fully confident that she was carrying a healthy, living child until the moment when she first felt the child move within her, the moment that had now arrived. The child she carried was moving, he was alive, and he would surely be healthy. One look at Jane's face was enough to confirm that she was well and strong, glowing with vitality, rather than being pale and drawn as some women were when they were pregnant, so Henry was certain that he did not need to worry that the strain of pregnancy would prove to be too much for her.
He couldn't feel the baby move, not yet. It would be at least a couple of months more before the child's movements were strong enough to allow somebody other than his mother to feel it when he turned or kicked. However, Henry was sure that the baby was strong, and he knew in his heart that, this time, the boy that the astrologers had promised him would be born.
In October, all going well, England would have its Prince at last.
He bent down so that his head was level with Jane's belly, close enough to kiss it, or to whisper to it, words he hoped that his son would hear. "Edward," he and Jane had not discussed the name they intended to give the child – as the child's father, it was for him to decree what he should be called – but Henry spoke the name instinctively, knowing that it was the only name he could give his son. He could not call him Henry, however much he might like to think of England being ruled by Henry IX when he was gone. His son by Katherine was christened Henry, and died within the month. Little Henry Fitzroy had died before he was old enough to ride his first pony. Anne had insisted that they should call their son Henry, and she had miscarried. This child needed no ill omens. "My son." He whispered, his voice filled with wonder. "Be strong."
As he leaned forward to kiss Jane's belly, wondering if the child she carried would be able to feel his kiss too, he imagined what it would be like to have a son he could love and cherish, a son who would not be snatched away from him during his infancy or his toddler years, leaving him to grieve, a son he could watch grow up, and guide to manhood, teaching him all that he needed to know to be the King he wanted to leave England with when he was dead. He was not as young as he once was, and he knew that his health was not good, so his son might be a youth when he succeeded to the throne, perhaps no older than Henry was when he succeeded his father.
He had no time to lose when it came to raising and educating England's heir.
The future of his country, of the Tudor dynasty with whose continuance his father had charged him, was at stake and only the boy in Jane's belly would be able to secure them.
There was only one choice that he could make.
Although he knew in his heart that he could not avoid making this decision, Henry had done his best to forestall it. He was sure that, if he could stay awake, he could keep the Executioner at bay... and perhaps if the nineteenth of May passed without him falling asleep, he would miss the window of time during which he would be called upon to make a choice without committing to a decision, and he would never be faced with such a choice a second time.
He had commanded Dr Linacre to bring him the strongest stimulant he possessed, ignoring the physicians timid protestations that it might not be wise to take something like that unless he truly had need of it, and he had downed a double dose for good measure. He refused to allow his grooms to help him get ready for bed and stayed fully dressed, sitting in a chair. He played his lute to keep himself awake, determinedly focusing his mind on the task at hand, wanting to write a song for Jane, a song that could be played to the court when their son was born.
It would be a fitting tribute to his love for her.
He had written songs for Anne before, one song in particular that he was especially proud of, and if Anne could have songs from him, Jane deserved one too, the most beautiful he could compose.
He wanted to write a song praising Jane as England's saviour, as the lady who had brought such joy into his life and from whom England would have a Prince of Wales, a song detailing her many virtues, one that would be played throughout their lives and beyond, one that would show the world how much he loved her... but despite his best efforts to concentrate on Jane, despite his determination to forget about Anne and to think only of his wife, his fingers seemed to have a mind of their own, and they wished to play another song, a song he did not want to hear. He had banned it from court and refused to play it since Anne died but he was still note perfect, as though he had played it every day of his life since the day he first composed it.
Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously,
For I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your company.
When he wrote that song, after Anne left court to return to Hever Castle, her patience taxed past breaking point by the constant delays in the trial, despairing of him ever being free and feeling convinced that he would cast her off and return to Katherine, he sang of her having spurned him but, in the end, it was he who had cast her off, and in a manner that was violent rather than merely discourteous. He had loved her for so long, and taken such delight in her company, that it was difficult for him to believe that his feelings had changed so drastically, and in so little time.
Anne had gone from being the lady who held his heart in his hands, the only lady for whom he felt any passion, to a wife that he wished to be rid of within a few short years of their marriage.
Was she right when she walked away from him, seeking to return to Hever Castle? Should she have given up on the idea of them ever being together? Had he been wrong to plead with her father to persuade her to come back to court, a plea that was accompanied by a confident prediction that he would soon be free, when it would be years longer before he could marry Anne? Should he have let Anne go, helping her to contract an advantageous marriage – if a husband could be found who was willing to take her as his wife when all of Christendom knew that she was the object of Henry's affections, a husband who would not make her suffer for the infamous reputation with which Katherine's supporters had blackened her name – and have sons?
The idea of Anne bearing another man a son was enough to make Henry's gorge rise in his throat. He had wanted her to have sons, but only his sons. Not another man's.
He knew that he would not have been able to bear the thought of her in another man's bed; even when he no longer loved her, the pain of thinking of her bedding another man was excruciating, so much so that he wanted to destroy her for it. He could not begin to imagine how much it would have hurt to see her belong to another man when his love for her was still at its height.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my Lady Greensleeves.
Anne had once been the joy of his life, the lady in whose company he delighted. His heart was hers, and he was sure that it was safe in her keeping. He was happy then, with his lady, and never imagined that a time would come when he would need or want any lady other than Anne. Whatever sacrifices he had to make in order to keep her with him for the rest of their lives, he had never doubted that it was worth it, that she was worth it, no matter what price he had to pay.
Katherine's happiness, even Mary's, both could be sacrificed in order that he might have Anne.
Now he was happy again, with another lady, and he was once more being called upon to make a sacrifice in order to have Anne with him but this time, the price was too high for him to pay.
If Anne loved him, as she claimed, wouldn't she want him to be happy, even if that meant being with another woman, even if that meant letting her die? She was English, and had grown up in the peace that the Tudor dynasty had brought to England, so that the civil wars that once tore the country apart were only stories to her. Surely she would be able to appreciate just how vital it was for him to be able to father a Prince of Wales who would one day be a King to keep the country safe. Much as Anne might love Elizabeth, she must surely see that a Prince would be better fitted to keep England safe than any Princess, even one as clever and gifted as their daughter.
He would restore Elizabeth as a Princess, and see to it that he made a royal marriage for her, so that she might be Queen of another realm, while Jane's son would rule England. Surely that would satisfy Anne, and even if Elizabeth had said that she would rather have her mother back than regain her title, she would still be glad to have the right to call herself Princess Elizabeth once more, and to know that she was his jewel of England, his cherished princess again.
Surely that would be enough for them, all that Anne could expect him to do, under the circumstances, and surely if she loved him, she would understand the choice he had made. She was intelligent enough to understand the reasons for his choice, and to know that he was not leaving her dead out of hatred but because it was what he needed for his happiness.
"Surely if you ever loved her, you would be willing to give up the woman, Jane Seymour, if that was what it took to bring her back to life." The Executioner's cold voice intruded his thoughts and Henry shivered with cold and apprehension. "Even if you do not want her back for your sake, does she not have a right to live? Does your daughter not have a right to have her mother back?"
"It's not that simple!" Henry protested, incensed. It was so easy for the Executioner to stand in judgement, exuding silent condemnation for his choice but had he ever been faced with a choice of bringing back somebody he had allowed to die, wrongly, but at such a high cost? Had he ever been called upon to give up a wife he loved and the promise of a healthy son from her, all for the sake of a woman who had failed to give him a son and failed to keep him happy?
"It seems very simple to me." The Executioner told him. "You have a choice between leaving her dead and bringing her back to life. That is all that matters. Have you made your choice?"
"Yes." Henry's voice was trembling, and of a higher pitch than usual, and his cheeks burned slightly as he spoke, anticipating the Executioner's reaction. "I am going to leave things as they are – I know that she was innocent, and if I had known it then, I wouldn't have let her die, I would have found another way to be free." He said quickly, half-afraid that the Executioner would drag him back through more scenes of the past if he did not make it plain to him that he knew Anne to be innocent and had factored this into his decision. "If there was a way that I could bring her back and still marry Jane and have our son, I would take it but you won't let me do that so I have to leave her dead. The price for bringing her back is just too high to pay."
The Executioner's eyes blazed through the slits of his mask, burning with fury. "As you wish!" He ground out the words, reaching out to snatch Henry's shoulder in a vice-like grip. "You have made your choice. Pray that you can live with the consequences."
Henry shut his eyes instinctively as he felt the world melt away, afraid of what he would see when he opened them but, as with Anne's execution, he was not allowed to keep them closed. The Executioner was not prepared to allow him to avoid even a second of what was to come.
They were back on the Tower Green, standing in the crowd awaiting Anne's execution. Anne was standing on the scaffold, calm and beautiful as she made her speech and Henry's heart hurt at the sight of her, at the knowledge that the woman he loved was about to die, with his consent, and for the second time, though this time he knew well that she was innocent, and was still willing to stand there and watch her murdered, for his sake, rather than make the sacrifices that were necessary to allow her to live.
"It's not too late." The Executioner said, his voice gentler this time. "You can change your mind."
"No, I can't." Henry said. He could not look at the Executioner, and he couldn't bear to look at Anne so he kept his gaze fixed on the hat of the man standing directly in front of him, a man he could not recognize. He did his best to tune out Anne's speech, not wanting to hear her praise him or call upon the people to pray for him. This was already difficult enough for him and he wished that the Executioner would stop dangling the prospect of saving Anne in front of him, for fear that he might weaken in his resolve. He couldn't afford to soften, not now, not when he had so much at stake. If he weakened, he would lose Jane and their son and he couldn't lose them, not even for Anne's sake. Anne was innocent but she had to die, for him and for England.
"If that is what you want." The Executioner said gravely, unsheathing his sword and thrusting it into Henry's hand.
The next thing Henry knew, he was standing next to Anne on the scaffold. He held out his hand in front of him and was dismayed and horrified to see that, instead of the clean hand with neatly trimmed nails and only a few calluses from horse-riding and sport, it was dark with ingrained dirt, with broken nails and many calluses, a legacy of a lifetime of work. Instead of his fine doublet and hose, he was wearing plain homespun, somewhat grubby from travelling and smelling rather strong. How long had these clothes been worn since they were last washed?
When he looked out at the crowd, he could see the Executioner watching him and he saw an expression of grim satisfaction in his eyes, which told him exactly what was happening. He had chosen to allow Anne's execution to proceed and the Executioner had brought him back so that it could take place, but with a crucial difference; this time, he would play the part of the executioner.
"Why?" He wasn't sure if he spoke the word aloud or if he merely thought it.
Anne didn't react to the word, nor did anybody else, but maybe they couldn't hear anything that the executioner had not said the first time.
"You are the one who has decided to let her die." He heard the Executioner's cold voice in his head, the words hard and merciless. "Why do you expect that I should wield the sword?"
"It's your job!" Henry silently projected the thought to his guide, scowling at him.
"And this is your choice, and therefore your responsibility." The Executioner countered smoothly. "Make sure that it is quick." He admonished sternly. "Don't let her suffer."
The sword was no longer in Henry's hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a glint of metal, and knew that the sword was buried beneath the straw, the executioner's method of ensuring that Anne would not be able to see the sword beforehand, and be frightened by it. When the time came, when Anne was looking away, he would take the sword and behead her in one smooth stroke, before she could see the blow coming... if he could ensure that he could behead her in one stroke. What would he do if he failed to remove her head in one clean blow?
The thought that he might botch the job, leaving Anne bleeding and in agony before he could dispatch her was an unbearable one. He was resolved to allow her execution to proceed but he did not want to butcher her. Even if the Executioner wanted to make a point to him by making him do this, how could he put Anne at risk like this, exposing her to the possibility of a truly brutal end?
Anne had finished her speech and was standing by his side. Henry dropped to his knees in front of her. "Madame, forgive me for what I must do." The words were the executioner's but the sentiment was his. He had to let her die and he prayed that she would be able to forgive him.
"Gladly." Her voice was compassionate but there was no recognition in her eyes. The forgiveness was for the executioner, who was doing his job, not for the husband who sent her to her death. "And here is your purse." The leather purse she placed in his hand was a heavy one, containing the executioner's already hefty fee, with an additional gratuity to ensure a quick death.
Henry accepted the purse and rose, motioning for Anne to kneel in front of him.
Before kneeling, she spoke again. "Thus I take my leave of the world, and of you. And I heartily desire you all to pray for me." Once kneeling, she prayed, a steady tumble of words as she beseeched Jesus to have pity on her soul, a prayer that Henry echoed in his heart. Whatever sins Anne might have committed in life, they were trivial compared to the ones she was accused of and, with her death, she must surely atone for any wrongs she had committed in life. Once her soul left her body, it would fly straight to Heaven and into God's keeping.
He clung to that thought as a comfort.
Studying her neck, he could understand why the French preferred that a condemned prisoner should kneel upright instead of lying over a block. Anne's neck, long, narrow and graceful, was completely exposed, with the neckline of her gown cut low and her hair tucked under a coif so that it would not impede the sword blow. She was impeccable, save for one tiny detail.
When he saw that a strand of hair had slipped out of her coif, Henry instinctively reached out to tuck it back into place, knowing that Anne would want to appear her best. She flinched slightly, almost imperceptibly at his unexpected touch, letting out a soft whimper and he cursed himself for frightening her. When she realized what he had done, she looked up at his, blue eyes filled with fear, and thanked him quietly before resuming her prayers. When she was looking at him, her head was at the wrong angle, and she kept glancing back. He needed her to look away.
He spoke the words automatically, as though the executioner's body knew what he had to do and was guiding him. "Boy! Fetch my sword!" The boy he addressed was astonished to be spoken to, plainly bewildered to be singled out and having no idea where the sword was but that didn't matter. All that mattered was that his words were enough to get Anne to look in the boy's direction, moving her head enough so that her neck was at a perfect angle for him.
The world around Henry seemed to slow down, allowing him to snatch up the sword while Anne's head was turning towards the boy, and to raise it, ready to strike. He had a window of opportunity only seconds long, before Anne realized what was happening and turned back to look at him. If he wanted her death to be quick, he had to strike now... but he couldn't.
However much Anne might have tried to make peace with the idea of dying, however serene she might be now, she did not want to die and he couldn't pretend that she did. She was young, and she should have had so many years of life ahead of her, years that she could spend watching their daughter grow from child to woman, giving Elizabeth the guidance she needed during her formative years, before she went on to marry and have children of her own one day.
She had done nothing wrong and she didn't deserve to die.
It might be better for him if she died but could he deprive her of her chance to lead a long, healthy and happy life so that he could marry Jane and have their son?
He wanted to believe that he could but he couldn't convince himself of it.
He had hesitated too long.
Anne had seen the bewildered expression on the boy's face and knew that he did not have the sword. She looked back at him, her eyes widening in terror when she saw the sword in his hand. A single tear trickled down her cheek and Henry reached out to wipe it away, imagining how soft her skin must feel through the thick leather of his gloves.
There was no sound from Anne but her lips moved to frame the word "Please".
The sword was too heavy for him to continue to hold it.
Henry allowed it to fall from his hand, listening to it strike the floor of the scaffold with a clang.
"I can't do it." He said, his voice hoarse. "I can't kill her."