Will Sommers was a great favourite with the king, and ventured upon familiarities which no one else dared to use with him. The favour in which he stood with his royal master procured him admittance to his presence at all hours and at all seasons, and his influence, though seldom exerted, was very great. He was especially serviceable in turning aside the edge of the king’s displeasure, and more frequently exerted himself to allay the storm than to raise it. His principal hostility was directed against Wolsey, whose arrogance and grasping practices were the constant subjects of his railing. It was seldom, such was his privileged character, and the protection he enjoyed from the sovereign, that any of the courtiers resented his remarks; but Sir Thomas Wyat’s feelings being now deeply interested, he turned sharply round, and said, “How now, thou meddling varlet, what business hast thou to interfere?”
“I interfere to prove my authority, gossip Wyat,” replied Sommers, “and to show that, varlet as I am, I am as powerful as Mistress Anne Boleyn—nay, that I am yet more powerful, because I am obeyed, while she is not.”
“Were I at liberty,” said Sir Thomas angrily, “I would make thee repent thine insolence.”
“But thou art not at liberty, good gossip,” replied the jester, screaming with laughter; “thou art tied like a slave to the oar, and cannot free thyself from it—ha! ha!” Having enjoyed the knight’s discomposure for a few seconds, he advanced towards him, and whispered in his ear, “Don’t mistake me, gossip. I have done thee good service in preventing thee from taking that kerchief. Hadst thou received it in the presence of these witnesses, thou wouldst have been lodged in the Round Tower of Windsor Castle to-morrow, instead of feasting with the knights-companions in Saint George’s Hall.”
“I believe thou art right, gossip,” said Wyat in the same tone.
“Rest assured I am,” replied Sommers; “and I further more counsel thee to decline this dangerous gift altogether, and to think no more of the fair profferer, or if thou must think of her, let it be as of one beyond thy reach. Cross not the lion’s path; take a friendly hint from the jackal.”
And without waiting for a reply, he darted away, and mingled with the cavalcade in the rear.
Immediately behind Anne Boleyn’s litter rode a company of henchmen of the royal household, armed with gilt partisans. Next succeeded a chariot covered with red cloth of gold, and drawn by four horses richly caparisoned, containing the old Duchess of Norfolk and the old Marchioness of Dorset. Then came the king’s natural son, the Duke of Richmond—a young man formed on the same large scale, and distinguished by the same haughty port, and the same bluff manner, as his royal sire. The duke’s mother was the Lady Talboys, esteemed one of the most beautiful women of the age, and who had for a long time held the capricious monarch captive. Henry was warmly attached to his son, showered favours without number upon him, and might have done yet more if fate had not snatched him away at an early age.
Though scarcely eighteen, the Duke of Richmond looked more than twenty, and his lips and chin were clothed with a well-grown though closely-clipped beard. He was magnificently habited in a doublet of cloth of gold of bawdekin, the placard and sleeves of which were wrought with flat gold, and fastened with aiglets. A girdle of crimson velvet, enriched with precious stones, encircled his waist, and sustained a poniard and a Toledo sword, damascened with gold. Over all he wore a loose robe, or housse, of scarlet mohair, trimmed with minever, and was further decorated with the collar of the Order of the Garter. His cap was of white velvet, ornamented with emeralds, and from the side depended a small azure plume. He rode a magnificent black charger, trapped in housings of cloth of gold, powdered with ermine.
By the duke’s side rode the Earl of Surrey attired—as upon the previous day, and mounted on a fiery Arabian, trapped in crimson velvet fringed with Venetian gold. Both nobles were attended by their esquires in their liveries.
Behind them came a chariot covered with cloth of silver, and drawn, like the first, by four horses in rich housings, containing two very beautiful damsels, one of whom attracted so much of the attention of the youthful nobles, that it was with difficulty they could preserve due order of march. The young dame in question was about seventeen; her face was oval in form, with features of the utmost delicacy and regularity. Her complexion was fair and pale, and contrasted strikingly with her jetty brows and magnificent black eyes, of oriental size, tenderness, and lustre. Her dark and luxuriant tresses were confined by a cap of black velvet faced with white satin, and ornamented with pearls. Her gown was of white satin worked with gold, and had long open pendent sleeves, while from her slender and marble neck hung a cordeliere—a species of necklace imitated from the cord worn by Franciscan friars, and formed of crimson silk twisted with threads of Venetian gold..
This fair creature was the Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, daughter of Gerald Fitzgerald, ninth Earl of Kildare, who claimed descent from the Geraldi family of Florence; but she was generally known by the appellation of the Fair Geraldine—a title bestowed upon her, on account of her beauty, by the king, and by which she still lives, and will continue to live, as long as poetry endures, in the deathless and enchanting strains of her lover, the Earl of Surrey. At the instance of her mother, Lady Kildare, the Fair Geraldine was brought up with the Princess Mary, afterwards Queen of England; but she had been lately assigned by the royal order as one of the attendants—a post equivalent to that of maid of honour—to Anne Boleyn.
Her companion was the Lady Mary Howard, the sister of the Earl of Surrey, a nymph about her own age, and possessed of great personal attractions, having nobly-formed features, radiant blue eyes, light tresses, and a complexion of dazzling clearness. Lady Mary Howard nourished a passion for the Duke of Richmond, whom she saw with secret chagrin captivated by the superior charms of the Fair Geraldine. Her uneasiness, however, was in some degree abated by the knowledge, which as confidante of the latter she had obtained, that her brother was master of her heart. Lady Mary was dressed in blue velvet, cut and lined with cloth of gold, and wore a headgear of white velvet, ornamented with pearls.
Just as the cavalcade came in sight of Datchet Bridge, the Duke of Richmond turned his horse’s head, and rode up to the side of the chariot on which the Fair Geraldine was sitting.
“I am come to tell you of a marvellous adventure that befell Surrey in the Home Park at Windsor last night,” he said. “He declares he has seen the demon hunter, Herne.”
“Then pray let the Earl of Surrey relate the adventure to us himself,” replied the Fair Geraldine. “No one can tell a story so well as the hero of it.”
The duke signed to the youthful earl, who was glancing rather wistfully at them, and he immediately joined them, while Richmond passed over to the Lady Mary Howard. Surrey then proceeded to relate what had happened to him in the park, and the fair Geraldine listened to his recital with breathless interest.
“Heaven shield us from evil spirits!” she exclaimed, crossing herself. “But what is the history of this wicked hunter, my lord? and why did he incur such a dreadful doom?”
“I know nothing more than that he was a keeper in the forest, who, having committed some heinous crime, hanged himself from a branch of the oak beneath which I found the keeper, Morgan Fenwolf, and which still bears his name,” replied the earl. “For this unrighteous act he cannot obtain rest, but is condemned to wander through the forest at midnight, where he wreaks his vengeance in blasting the trees.”
“The legend I have heard differs from yours,” observed the Duke of Richmond: “it runs that the spirit by which the forest is haunted is a wood-demon, who assumes the shape of the ghostly hunter, and seeks to tempt or terrify the keepers to sell their souls to him.”
“Your grace’s legend is the better of the two,” said Lady Mary Howard, “or rather, I should say, the more probable. I trust the evil spirit did not make you any such offer, brother of Surrey?”
The earl gravely shook his head.
“If I were to meet him, and he offered me my heart’s dearest wish, I fear he would prevail with me,” observed the duke, glancing tenderly at the Fair Geraldine.
“Tush!—the subject is too serious for jesting, Richmond,” said Surrey almost sternly.
“His grace, as is usual in compacts with the fiend, might have reason to rue his bargain,” observed Lady Mary Howard peevishly.
“If the Earl of Surrey were my brother,” remarked the Fair Geraldine to the Lady Mary, “I would interdict him from roaming in the park after nightfall.”
“He is very wilful,” said Lady Mary, smiling, “and holds my commands but lightly.”
“Let the Fair Geraldine lay hers upon me, and she shall not have to reproach me with disobedience,” rejoined the earl.
“I must interpose to prevent their utterance,” cried Richmond, with a somewhat jealous look at his friend, “for I have determined to know more of this mystery, and shall require the earl’s assistance to unravel it. I think I remember Morgan Fenwolf, the keeper, and will send for him to the castle, and question him. But in any case, I and Surrey will visit Herne’s Oak to-night.”
The remonstrances of both ladies were interrupted by the sudden appearance of Will Sommers.
“What ho! my lords—to your places! to your places!” cried the jester, in a shrill angry voice. “See ye not we are close upon Datchet Bridge? Ye can converse with these fair dames at a more fitting season; but it is the king’s pleasure that the cavalcade should make a goodly show. To your places, I say!”
Laughing at the jester’s peremptory injunction, the two young nobles nevertheless obeyed it, and, bending almost to the saddle-bow to the ladies, resumed their posts.
The concourse assembled on Datchet Bridge welcomed Anne Boleyn’s arrival with loud acclamations, while joyous strains proceeded from sackbut and psaltery, and echoing blasts from the trumpets. Caps were flung into the air, and a piece of ordnance was fired from the barge, which was presently afterwards answered by the castle guns. Having paid his homage to Anne Boleyn, the mayor rejoined the company of bailiffs and burgesses, and the whole cavalcade crossed the bridge, winding their way slowly along the banks of the river, the barge, with the minstrels playing in it, accompanying them the while. In this way they reached Windsor; and as Anne Boleyn gazed up at the lordly castle above which the royal standard now floated, proud and aspiring thoughts swelled her heart, and she longed for the hour when she should approach it as its mistress. Just then her eye chanced on Sir Thomas Wyat, who was riding behind her amongst the knights, and she felt, though it might cost her a struggle, that love would yield to ambition.
Leaving the barge and its occupants to await the king’s arrival, the cavalcade ascended Thames Street, and were welcomed everywhere with acclamations and rejoicing. Bryan Bowntance, who had stationed himself on the right of the arch in front of his house, attempted to address Anne Boleyn, but could not bring forth a word. His failure, how ever, was more successful than his speech might have been, inasmuch as it excited abundance of merriment.
Arrived at the area in front of the lower gateway, Anne Boleyn’s litter was drawn up in the midst of it, and the whole of the cavalcade grouping around her, presented a magnificent sight to the archers and arquebusiers stationed on the towers and walls.
Just at this moment a signal gun was heard from Datchet Bridge, announcing that the king had reached it, and the Dukes of Suffolk, Norfolk, and Richmond, together with the Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyat, and a few of their gentle men, rode back to meet him. They had scarcely, however, reached the foot of the hill when the royal party appeared in view, for the king with his characteristic impatience, on drawing near the castle, had urged his attendants quickly forward.
First came half a dozen trumpeters, with silken bandrols fluttering in the breeze, blowing loud flourishes. Then a party of halberdiers, whose leaders had pennons streaming from the tops of their tall pikes. Next came two gentlemen ushers bareheaded, but mounted and richly habited, belonging to the Cardinal of York, who cried out as they pressed forward, “On before, my masters, on before!—make way for my lord’s grace.”
Then came a sergeant-of-arms bearing a great mace of silver, and two gentlemen carrying each a pillar of silver. Next rode a gentleman carrying the cardinal’s hat, and after him came Wolsey himself, mounted on a mule trapped in crimson velvet, with a saddle covered with the same stuff, and gilt stirrups. His large person was arrayed in robes of the finest crimson satin engrained, and a silk cap of the same colour contrasted by its brightness with the pale purple tint of his sullen, morose, and bloated features. The cardinal took no notice of the clamour around him, but now and then, when an expression of dislike was uttered against him, for he had already begun to be unpopular with the people, he would raise his eyes and direct a withering glance at the hardy speaker. But these expressions were few, for, though tottering, Wolsey was yet too formidable to be insulted with impunity. On either side of him were two mounted attend ants, each caring a gilt poleaxe, who, if he had given the word, would have instantly chastised the insolence of the bystanders, while behind him rode his two cross-bearers upon homes trapped in scarlet.
Wolsey’s princely retinue was followed by a litter of crimson velvet, in which lay the pope’s legate, Cardinal Campeggio, whose infirmities were so great that he could not move without assistance. Campeggio was likewise attended by a numerous train.
After a long line of lords, knights, and esquires, came Henry the Eighth. He was apparelled in a robe of crimson velvet furred with ermines, and wore a doublet of raised gold, the placard of which was embroidered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, large pearls, and other precious stones. About his neck was a baldric of balas rubies, and over his robe he wore the collar of the Order of the Garter. His horse, a charger of the largest size, and well able to sustain his vast weight, was trapped in crimson velvet, purfled with ermines. His knights and esquires were clothed in purple velvet, and his henchmen in scarlet tunics of the same make as those worn by the warders of the Tower at the present day.
Henry was in his thirty-eighth year, and though somewhat overgrown and heavy, had lost none of his activity, and but little of the grace of his noble proportions. His size and breadth of limb were well displayed in his magnificent habiliment. His countenance was handsome and manly, with a certain broad burly look, thoroughly English in its character, which won him much admiration from his subjects; and though it might be objected that the eyes were too small, and the mouth somewhat too diminutive, it could not be denied that the general expression of the face was kingly in the extreme. A prince of a more “royal presence” than Henry the Eighth was never seen, and though he had many and grave faults, want of dignity was not amongst the number.
Henry entered Windsor amid the acclamations of the spectators, the fanfares of trumpeters, and the roar of ordnance from the castle walls.
Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn, having descended from her litter, which passed through the gate into the lower ward, stood with her ladies beneath the canopy awaiting his arrival.
A wide clear space was preserved before her, into which, however, Wolsey penetrated, and, dismounting, placed himself so that he could witness the meeting between her and the king. Behind him stood the jester, Will Sommers, who was equally curious with himself. The litter of Cardinal Campeggio passed through the gateway and proceeded to the lodgings reserved for his eminence.
Scarcely had Wolsey taken up his station than Henry rode up, and, alighting, consigned his horse to a page, and, followed by the Duke of Richmond and the Earl of Surrey, advanced towards Anne Boleyn, who immediately stepped forward to meet him.
“Fair mistress,” he said, taking her hand, and regarding her with a look of passionate devotion, “I welcome you to this my castle of Windsor, and trust soon to make you as absolute mistress of it as I am lord and master.”
Anne Boleyn blushed, and cast down her eyes, and Sir Thomas Wyat, who stood at some little distance with his hand upon his saddle, regarding her, felt that any hopes he might have entertained were utterly annihilated.
“Heard you that, my lord cardinal?” said Will Sommers to Wolsey. “She will soon be mistress here. As she comes in, you go out—mind that!”
The cardinal made no answer further than was conveyed by the deepened colour of his cheeks.