HOURS LATER, AS he lay in his bed listening to the steady downpour of rain, Francis allowed his mind to wander back in time. Although it seemed ages ago, he recalled meeting Henry VIII when they were children. Henry's father, King Henry VII, brought Francis and a few other noble children to Windsor Castle for a few weeks during the summer of 1500 so that his son could have suitable playmates.
Francis had been part of an elite, albeit small, group which also included Charles Brandon (son of Sir William Brandon, Henry VII's standard-bearer at the Battle of Bosworth Field), Nicholas Carew (son of Sir Richard Carew, Captain of Calais), and William Compton (Prince Henry's page).
Prince Henry had only been nine years old at the time, but was already sports-minded. Francis recalled long days of fencing, archery and wrestling, along with rides in the country astride royal horses, and fulsome suppers to end the days. Yet the four young boys didn't just lavish their time with sports activities. They also discussed philosophy, religion, poetry and other writings.
Francis tried to recall Prince Henry's physical appearance, but the memory was vague. He knew the prince was tall with red hair, but could not remember exacting facial features or other physical traits. The brief time he had spent as Prince Henry's playmate was akin to a flash in his mind - a blur of red hair and bustling activity.
Francis then thought about what his father had said to him earlier in the day, and what it would mean for him.
"Father fears for me," Francis thought with a sudden clarity. "He feels as if he is throwing me into the viper pit, but he has no other choice. What else could I do with my life? Stay here at Marsworth, marry a local mouse, and father a passel of brats? Then eventually die myself and pass all of this onto my own son? What kind of life would that be? A shameful waste, that's what it would be."
Francis was certain his future was at court. He knew it deep in his soul. His only way to a life beyond obscurity in Buckinghamshire was to go to court. With trust in such a conviction, Francis knew his future and his destiny would be centered around Henry Tudor, King of England, who would perhaps be Francis' salvation.Read more >>
AT THAT MOMENT, the royal doors opened and a hush fell over the Great Hall. It was then, at that moment, that Francis Bryan laid eyes upon Henry Tudor, King of England.
Francis would remember this instant in time for the rest of his life. Years later, when he was old and musing, the memory would be one of those most fondly and vividly recalled. In simpler terms, it could easily be said it was where Francis' life began, or rather his life experiences and the formation of his true and complete character.
Henry VIII was perhaps the most magnificent and extraordinary specimen of a man for any age and time. His very presence in the room made the grandeur of Greenwich pale in comparison. As the King entered the Great Hall, flanked by four footmen resplendent in gold-and-black uniforms, all eyes were riveted to him.
Taller than any man in the room - save perhaps Francis himself - Henry VIII carried himself with an air of majesty as was befitting his station. He had a natural air of self- confidence and authority. He had red-gold hair and bright blue eyes set in a squarely handsome face, with a small mouth and a long, narrow nose. His Majesty's muscular and athletic form was clothed in the greatest and most elegant of state. His shirt was of the finest silk, with a woven drawstring at the base of his neck. His doublet was of cloth of gold. Sewn amongst the ruffles of the puffed sleeves were studded rubies that shimmered off of the meager light in the room. Several gold chains adorned his neck, matching the small gold ring bands on every other finger of his hands. The King's breeches were also gold, slit with black and a dark red, the golden threads knotted and silky. The hose was a dark brown and made from satin, trimmed in white to match his gold-colored shoes. A velvet robe was draped over one shoulder, sloping downward toward his waist and lower body. The gold fringes of the robe swept behind him over the rushes on the floor, sending the footman behind him to pick up the slack.
The King seemed to glide to his place at the table. As he moved, he nodded perceptibly to several of the nobles who stood with their wives, all of them bowing from the waist. The women dipped into the lowest of curtsies, spreading their skirts around their feet as they sank to the floor, heads appropriately lowered.
Once the King had seated himself, he draped the robe back over his shoulders. His bejeweled hand went up, signaling that the rest of the company could also be seated. There was almost a collective sigh of relief as people began to take their places. A small mistral in the gallery above the hall began to play music softly.
"God almighty," Francis whispered in Thomas Bryan's ear. "I never thought to see the like in my entire life."
"The King is quite impressive, is he not?" Thomas agreed, pleased by his son's proper awe in the face of royalty.
Impressive was beyond the comprehension and scope of words available for Francis to use. The King embodied majesty - as well he should - but it was more than that. Henry Tudor was natural King, and had he not been born to it, he would have surely found his way there somehow.Read more >>
FRANCIS QUICKLY REALIZED female company was sadly lacking during his stay at Windsor Castle. There were ladies aplenty, of course, but most of them were above the fray and not likely to conduct an illicit albeit brief affair with him. In general, the ladies of court were mostly women of noble birth, or had married into the nobility. There was always the kitchen or chamber maids to be considered, but Francis had yet to succumb to their dubious charms.
Then he met Alice Drury, the seventeen-year-old daughter and only child of Baron William Drury and Margaret Daubeney. The family came to Windsor from their holding in Suffolk the day after Christmas by invitation of the King. Baron Drury had been a presence in the court of Henry VII, receiving his title from the current King's father for fighting off a band of marauders in Bury St. Edmunds.
Alice was tall for a woman, perhaps a mere six inches shorter than Francis. Her slender frame was adorned with full breasts, blonde hair and light brown eyes. Francis was enchanted by her thin upper lip, full lower lip and a pert nose. Her pale skin almost appeared translucent in the lighting to be had at Windsor, giving her a soft glow he found impossible to resist. She was not overly shy, deliberately keeping her eyes level to his when they were introduced by William Compton.
Francis bowed slightly. "Very pleased to meet you, Mistress Drury."
She offered him a half-smile, almost mocking in its display. "Likewise, Mr. Bryan."
"How long will you be staying at Windsor?"
"His Majesty has asked us to remain until after Twelfth Night, Mr. Bryan." She regarded him with her light brown eyes. "And how long are you staying, may I inquire?"
Francis was already calculating in his mind how much time he would have to seduce Alice. It was currently December 26th, giving him just ten days to woo her before Twelfth Night on January 5th.
Francis met her gaze. "I'm staying as long as the King has need of me. We will probably return to Greenwich sometime in March." He gave her a smile. "It is unfortunate you will not be there as well."
She appeared surprised. "I must go where my parents will, Mr. Bryan. I am nothing if not a dutiful daughter."
"As you should be," he murmured in response.
Dancing was part of the nightly entertainments at Windsor. When calls for the Galliard began, Francis invited Alice to be his partner. She quickly accepted, taking his arm as they walked to a cleared area of the Great Hall. Many young couples were eager to partake of the lively dance as a band of musicians started to play from a balcony above.
"You know the Galliard?" Francis asked Alice as they paused on the floor.
She laughed. "Yes, of course. Just because I live in Bury St. Edmunds doesn't mean I'm ignorant of modern ways."
He bowed. "My apologies, Mistress Drury."
Francis was impressed by Alice's quick agility as they swept through the dance moves. When he took four hopping steps to complete one turn with a high leap, holding Alice in the air during the cadence, she squealed with delight. When he landed with one foot in front of the other, she melded into his arms. He gazed down at her, a warm light in his eyes. She returned his regard boldly, as if to let him know she wholly approved.
"You almost make me forget my comportment," he whispered into her ear.
"Don't mind your manners on my account," she returned flirtatiously.
Francis drew in his breath softly. It was obvious Alice was his for the taking. All he had to do was reach out and he could have her.
"Would you like to take a walk in the Moat Garden?" He asked her.
She nodded. "Yes, Mr. Bryan. I've grown quite warm all of a sudden. A turn in the cold air would surely remedy it."
Another set of the Galliard had commenced, so Francis and Alice were able to slip away with little notice, apart from the watchful eyes of the King. He saw the couple leave the Great Hall, a smile forming on his lips. Francis had taken a quick fancy to Mistress Drury, as well he should. She was a lovely young woman, but from a good family. Francis would have to be cautious in his perusal of the lady, the King mused. It wouldn't do to besmirch the honor of Baron Drury's daughter.
Francis and Alice went through the Guard Chamber in the round tower to exit the castle, stepping swiftly into the cold night. Torches blazed high on stone walls, lighting their way as they took a path to the garden, which was dusted with newly-fallen snow. Royal guards holding upright halberds stood in groups of two near the torches, merely nodding to Francis as he passed by them.
Alice wore a long, black ermine coat with gold-braided cuffs over her dark blue velvet gown, which included a square neckline, fur-lined sleeves and a gabled hood. Francis admired her profile as she walked briskly alongside him.
"Are you cold?" He asked her solicitously.
She shook her head. "No, not at all. I find the air to be invigorating." He saw the condensation of her breath turn into a mist when she spoke, and was oddly aroused by it. She was seemingly unaware that she was a warm, sensual woman, inviting with her eyes, speech and the simple presence of her voluptuous body. She gave an air of innocence, yet there was no denying her nubile form and quick mind.
"Are you spoken for?" He asked her suddenly, his tone blunt.
She glanced sideways at him. "Pardon?"
"Are you spoken for?" He repeated, turning his head to stare straight ahead as they walked on the path.
"No, I'm not spoken for. Are you?"
She studied him. "Never as in you've never been spoken for, or never as in you'll never be spoken for?"
"A bit of both," he admitted sheepishly.
"Oh." She seemed to let her thoughts settle before continuing. "Why? Don't you want to marry one day to carry on your family name?"
He shrugged. "I suppose, but I'm in no hurry to do so."
Alice gave a short laugh. "To be honest, neither am I. In that we are alike, Mr. Bryan. Yet I know it will be expected of me, so someday I'll have to shackle myself to a man and produce a passel of brats."
Francis laughed at her frank description. "You're right, Mistress Drury. To me, as an observer, marriage appears to be a bit of a prison sentence."
"Exactly," she replied flatly. "And who wants that?" She paused on the path, turning to look into his face. "If we are going to be friends, don't you think we should call each other by our given names? Can we please forgo with the mister and mistress drivel?"
He smiled widely at her. "I heartily agree with you, Alice."
"Thank you, Francis." She returned his smile, her eyes bright. "I feel much better now."
"Shall we return to the Great Hall?"
"I suppose we should, although I'm finding our walk preferable to a hall crowded full of revelers."
"You're a country mouse at heart," he teased her as they turned to make their way back to the round tower.
"Not so much a mouse," she responded softly. "More like a paradoxical mix of clapping thunder and a purring kitten." She gazed at him boldly. "Do you think you can handle me, Francis?"
He returned her intense stare. "I can and will, Alice. You won't regret it. It is the one promise I can make to you."
"Then what are we waiting for?"Read more >>