1 – England 1549
What first strikes her about the boy is that he is tall, with dark eyes and a high forehead and a slightly concave line to his nose. His dark hair is carefully swept back beneath his hat, but not fussily. He is a man who likes his sport and keeps himself trim and neat for that reason alone. No wonder his careless, wild good looks have earned him the nickname ‘the gypsy.’
She is slight and short, a little plump in the face, but with golden hair that hangs about her like a cloak. She is fairer than fair against his sultry darkness. Her mouth might be a little pert, her expression a little sharp, but she is lively and happy and he is in her home.
His name is Robert, hers is Amy. He is on his way to meet the Kett rebels with his father. Stanfield Hall, the family home of the Robsarts, is merely a stopping point in his travels. Sir John Robsart, his host, can hardly believe his eyes as he looks out on a sea of soldiers, perhaps as many as 10,000, no one is quite sure. But more than the old man has seen in his lifetime. The humble hall surrounded by fields suddenly seems to have become the centre of a military fair – tents litter the landscape and on the guest list for that evening’s meal at Stanfield Hall is an earl, a marquis and three lords; not to mention the two young men who have ridden out with their father, the Earl of Warwick, John Dudley.
John Dudley’s star is rising; after several successful military campaigns in Scotland and France, he has become one of Henry VIII’s intimates and a leading proponent of religious reform. Two years ago he was made an earl, now he has been trusted with putting down Kett’s rebellion in Norfolk. Can John Robsart help but be pleased at seeing the interest the earl’s son, Robert, now pays his only child, Amy?
But Robsart is anxious too, as any man would be who finds his sister-in-law married to the leader of a rebellion against the king’s administration. Robsart is married to Elizabeth Scott, the widow of Roger Appleyard, a once influential member of the Norfolk gentry. Stanfield Hall is, in fact, part of Elizabeth’s inheritance from her dead husband; Robsart has chosen to live there because his own family home at Syderstone is lying in virtual ruins. Yet Roger Appleyard also had a sister, a woman named Alice Appleyard and she has married Robert Kett. To complicate the matter further, Robert Kett is in the midst of a long-running feud with local lawyer Sir John Flowerdew over the enclosure by Flowerdew of some common land. Flowerdew is the steward of Robsart’s Norfolk estates and his son William is due to marry Frances Appleyard, John Robsart’s stepdaughter and Roger Appleyard’s child. Needless to say, Robsart is treading carefully around John Dudley and his entourage.
Poor Elizabeth Robsart, his wife, is beside herself with worry too, but for different reasons. News has just reached them that her sons John and Phillip have been captured by the rebels and taken to Mousehold Heath just outside the City of Norwich, where Kett has set up camp. Now there is an army outside her house and her husband is making it as plain as possible to the Earl of Warwick that he is loyal to the crown, despite his dangerous family ties.
And in the centre of it all is the pretty Amy Robsart. Seventeen-years-old and the only child from Elizabeth’s second marriage. Amy is excited by the arrival to her quiet home of so many soldiers and gentry. She is dazzled by the horses and men in fine armour. Her eyes linger on the two young men who have joined their father in this testing mission. Ambrose Dudley is the older boy, as dark and handsome as his brother, but coarser in his manners. Robert Dudley, the gypsy, is too dashing in his fine armour to avoid Amy’s eye, and he looks back at her keenly.
She vaguely feels she may have seen him before. In her short life she has travelled among noble families and picked up a good education for the daughter of a country gentleman. She writes in a neat calligraphic hand and is genteelly mannered from time spent with the grand Howard family, before their catastrophic downfall. Robert has the feel of a boy she has seen somewhere before, even if only fleetingly. But even if she is wrong, even if this is their first meeting, she is already in no doubt that Robert Dudley is the most handsome man she has ever seen and that he looks upon her, and even smiles upon her, is more than she can bear.
When the men come indoors the talk will be about campaign tactics and politics alone, but she hopes secretly for a moment when she might steal a few words with the dashing Robert. Perhaps she might make a remark of some import that will lure his eyes to hers. Or is she being merely vain to think he looks upon her favourably? She is pretty, if not beautiful, and she is small and well-rounded. She takes great heed of her clothes, even if they may not be of the fashion in court. Should she not feel able to charm an earl’s son?
In the morning he will ride to his first battle, would not a few comforting words from her help to ease his night? Perhaps she should wish him luck for the coming day? Whatever she says he must recall her in the morning, for she has no idea when they will next meet. He must remember her! She cannot let him forget this fleeting moment.
As he passes her in his armour – he will not take it off this night for fear of surprise attack – she steps a little closer, lets her skirts brush him. He glances up.
“My lord,” a curtsey, slow and graceful as she was shown by the Howards, “I wish God’s grace to follow you tomorrow.”
He smiles a little, his dark eyes take in this slip of a girl.
“My lady,” he says with a bow, then he is away from her and with his brother, being ushered into the Grand Hall and towards the feast her father has speedily arranged.
But she is satisfied. He shall remember her, of that she is certain. She saw it just for a moment in his eyes.