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If I do not catch up with her now, I will lose her forever, as will history. England might be changed for all time and it will be entirely my fault.
Heart pounding, almost thudding through the reed boning of my kirtle, I struggle to catch my breath in this damned constricting dress. It tangles around my ankles, restricting my movement. I gather up my petticoat and skirts, scrunching the silk velvet in my fists, my cow-mouthed shoes pounding against the familiar concrete-paving slabs of one of London’s most famous bridges. Staring hordes of onlookers gasp as I push past them in my strange apparel, desperate to catch up with my charge.
The sky grows black as thunderclouds gather overhead, ominous in their accumulation. Spits of rain caress my skin. Determined to take on my responsibility, I continue fighting my way through the dispersing crowds, their umbrellas springing open to shelter them from the dismal and unsurprising English weather.
The famous landmark, Big Ben, chimes its melodic tones as the afternoon approaches, whilst gossiping tourists smirk at each other, nudging elbow to elbow as I scurry past. I must look a strange sight – a young woman in full Tudor Court dress, almost soaking wet, sprinting along the pavement of Parliament Square. Stranger still is that I have no camera-crew chasing me, no areas cornered off for filming, no director, no producer. Nothing. It is not the filming of Wolf Hall. It is just me – me, pursuing the most famous woman in English history.
I’ve always known that I’m the odd one in my family – too short, too independent, too red-headed, and overloaded with too many freckles. My mum is lovely, quirky, and not like other mums. She’s a lecturer at The London College of Fashion. Svelte and typically English, she always dresses head-to-toe in navy or black and is constantly busy, tends to delegate to save time, and is unsentimental with colleagues and students. The only time she shows any affection is around her family. Her fashion hero is Christian Dior.
Dad, well, he is the most conventional of us all. A socialist civil servant, who, despite his affiliations, dresses impeccably and, if not working, always has his nose deep in The Times. He is politically astute and, when not in the city, spends his days just being Dad – a most charming, clever man, and my hero. His mind is forever on other things, although I’ve never discovered what.
Then there’s my older sister, Johanna, or Jo-Jo as she likes to be called. In this household of intellectuals lives this nature thing. She’s the polar opposite of me – a single-mum, with her elfin eyes, pink t-shirts, and eternally bare feet – she tends to be even more eccentric than the rest of my peculiar family. To me, she will always be wonderful.
This month started out the same as any other. However, as I head for uni as usual. Up until today, the only thing that has alleviated the usual monotony is Mr Marshall’s brilliant history lectures. His marker always flies across the whiteboard as he delivers dates, context, and explanation for each source he shows us on power point.
“Forget Henry for a moment! Wolsey is the man to watch…”
He cites examples of sources, declaring what a mastermind Wolsey was, until I raise my hand.
“What of Cromwell, sir? Is he in the background at this point?”
“Cromwell – now there is a character! He manoeuvres around the throne and around Wolsey. A clever man, more than a mastermind.” He nods. “Later Henry’s enforcer, as you will hear in subsequent lectures.”
He continues to smile as he describes the main players of the Tudor Court. I scribble down copious notes, trying to keep up with his eloquent explanations. The professor reminds me of the historian David Starkey, who is also extraordinary in his delivery when speaking of events and personalities at the Tudor Court, always able to bring a story to life and put it into context, rather than just spouting dates and facts.
My reasons for studying history are simple – I want to teach the subject at secondary level, but looking through the window, past the lecture hall and beyond the university grounds, I wish I could experience real historical events at first hand. Yet, if I had lived during the Tudor period, I would most likely have been born into poverty – not the best start for anyone in the England of that era.
My mind is wandering, but my thoughts snap back to reality at the sudden silence. I look up to see that I’m the focus of Mr Marshall’s attention.
“Miss Wickers, do you think Wolsey could have handled the Papal legate, Campeggio, in a more decisive way? Steering him, perhaps, from his course of returning Henry the Eighth’s divorce suit to Rome after the Blackfriars hearing?” The professor’s gaze demands an answer, prompting me to conjure one quickly.
“Wolsey fears for his position, sir. He doesn’t want to upset the King or Rome.”
“So what do you suggest he could have done in this situation?”
“If I’d been Wolsey, I would have returned to Rome myself with Campeggio and appealed to the Pope in person. Continually writing to Rome in a diplomatic manner didn’t aid his cause, it prolonged it.”
“A good point. Face-to-face meetings often produce results. But the Pope had to consider Queen Katherine, the integrity of the Catholic faith, the effect of bad judgement on other monarchs…”
I lower my head, continuing to scribble. When the lecture finishes, I pack my books away and drag myself back into the present, watching the other students bundle out the door, their inane chatter about their social lives, pub meets, and essay deadlines filling the corridor.
“Beth, before you go, can I ask a favour?” Peering over his glasses, Professor Marshall smiles.
“I’ve been having a clear-out and wondered whether you would like to take home a few boxes of books that I don’t need anymore. I thought you could put them to good use.” He beams at me, knowing my deep passion for the past.
“They’re in my study, in a box marked ‘TO GO’.” Pressing his keys into my hand, he motions me through the open door into the throng of students and staff passing by in the corridor.
“Put the keys in the top drawer of my desk. I will leave you to it, as I have to go to a department meeting. I will see you tomorrow.” His manner seems strange, almost excited. He gives me a sort of conspiratorial look as he follows me from the lecture hall.
Grinning in gratitude, I leave him and head up the oak stairs. I find his study, turn the key, and enter. The room smells of old parchment, solid wood, and red wine, as well as his tobacco smoke. Books are scattered on every available surface, while the computer on the desk hums as it idles. Searching for the cardboard box in such disorder is no easy task. I can’t help myself as I work my way around his room, tracing my fingers across the gold-leaf lettering along the leather-spine books on his shelves, fascinated by old artefacts, photocopies of state papers, and a marble bust of Henry VIII high on a shelf above my head. Small Tudor portraits cover the walls, among them a copy of the famous 1536 Holbein cartoon of Henry VIII, showing the King with hands on hips, legs apart, gaze boring into me.
There is also a copy of the National Portrait Gallery painting of Anne Boleyn. The portrait is painfully plain and she stares wistfully down at me from her vantage point, tight-lipped, keeping her secrets. I stand for a moment, looking into her renowned dark eyes. Her raven hair is constrained into a tame parting beneath her hood, and that famous ‘B’ pendant hangs from a string of pearls about her slender neck. I know, of course, that this is not a contemporary likeness – the only surviving one being a medal dating from 1534, commemorating her second pregnancy, and inscribed with her motto, ‘The Moost Happi’, but that is severely damaged about the nose and left side of her face.
The professor’s love of history permeates the walls. If only I could spend all my time in his study, reading academic papers, searching for primary sources, and losing myself in academia. At last, before me on the floor is the box I’ve come to find. I lift it on to the desk and remove the lid. Inside, I find a popular biography, Anne Boleyn, by Norah Lofts; thumbed-through old copies of the journal, History Today; a set of the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, and photocopies of The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, by George Cavendish.
Why would the professor want me to have these books and papers? Surely they’d be useful for others students besides myself? Unable to believe my luck, I stuff the books and papers into my canvas bag, then dump it back at my feet before continuing to search through the box.
At the bottom, to my surprise, I encounter something harder than a book. Lifting the few remaining papers aside, I pull out a small wooden casket, my focus sharpens, as I raise the embossed lid. Inside, a ring glistens and winks at me as the light illuminates it, whilst it lays there on a cushion of red velvet.
I wet my lips and lift the jewelled ring from its bed, marvelling at the twinkling facets of the small, individual stones glimmering before me. It is heavy, made from a setting of solid gold. At the centre of the ring are the initials ‘AB’, surmounted by a small crown. Looking inside at the faint markings, I can just make out the date: 1532. I turn the ring around and glance at the portrait on the wall.
The initials jump out at me. Of course! Anne’s ‘B’ pendant. ‘AB’, ANNE BOLEYN – that’s the connection.
I can’t resist sliding the ring onto my middle finger to see what it looks like and a chilling shiver runs through me. It is heavy, bold, and regal. I wonder if I should find Mr Marshall to return the ring to him, thinking he left it in the box in error, but I haven’t got the time for that, as my afternoon lecture will be starting soon. Remembering the date on the ring, I know research will be necessary. With my bag in hand, now laden with historical booty, I turn to go and notice, almost in front of me, a copy of Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn jutting out from the middle bookshelf. Of course, I have a much worn, thumbed through, copy so finding the information I need will just take a second. In any case, I need to hurry up, as my next lecture starts shortly and our female professor dislikes anyone being late.
I reach for the top of the spine, but the book won’t budge. Unusual. I tug at it a little harder and the exposed end moves, like a pulley. The book continues to be stubborn, and I pull a little harder, then all of a sudden, the whole expanse of the bookcase levers itself into a pitch-black cavity in the wall. The door, for that seems to be what it is, creaks as it slides into the dark expanse.
I hold my breath and peer into the gloom, my bag’s weight pulling on my shoulder, making me falter. My heart is in my mouth as I blink to adjust to the growing darkness. Careful as I tread against what feels like flagstone slabs, I take minuscule steps into the murky space beyond. I get the fright of my life when a torch to the right of me flickers into existence, as if someone has turned on a switch. Then the bookcase slams shut, the sound resonating around me.
I grab the torch from its iron holder and wave it around, as if warding off something unknown with its tongues of flame. Having the light close makes me feel a little safer. I turn back and press against the wall, trying to find the opening where the bookcase had swung from. It is no use. Even if I find it, the door would be too heavy to open alone.
The torchlight guides me forward as it cuts through the charcoal darkness. There is a heavy mustiness in the air – remnants of smells I don’t recognise. As I continue down this narrow passageway, the sounds of the students in the adjoining corridors and communal areas have not only faded, but have disappeared completely. Turning a corner, I discover a large door, oak-panelled and ancient-looking. The silence is eerie and I hesitate, wondering whether to back away from the door’s enormous handle. How can I describe the stillness behind me, or beyond the door? All I can say is that it is inconceivable for a university to be so silent.
There is no sound from down the narrow passageway as I stand before this wooden door, its handle round and protruding, shaped like a lion’s head, its tongue hanging from its mouth, almost smirking at me, beckoning me closer. I place my free hand on it and, using a little force, pull open the door. Beyond, a narrow stone staircase spirals upwards. I count the steps – all thirteen of them, and continue my exploration, the excitement biting at my heels, egging me on towards a less-cumbersome door ahead. It is ajar, and the room beyond is partially obscured by heavy tapestry drapes. I can see a hint of movement through the gap in the door, as a shadow shifts in the room’s torchlight.
Kevin Brand: My overall rating: 4.8/5 starsLoved. Every. Second. Everytime I came back to continue reading I got this overwhelming feeling of getting hooked on the first sentence... Over and over and again!The only things that were missing for me include more descriptions on what happens when Reuben touches s...
jennywren313: This is a throughly engaging and ripping yarn ... I loved the writing style .. the flashbacks so real that the current moments forgotten .. it is a great read and one I would recommend to anyone that enjoys a bit of a mystery .. wrapped up in a story .. carried by well described characters .. and...