I am pleased to welcome Karen Heenan to my blog today to discuss life at the Tudor Court. This is part of the book tour to promote Karen Heenan’s book, “Songbird (The Tudor Court, book 1). Thank you The Coffee Pot Book Club and Karen Heenan for allowing me to participate in this tour.
The voice, close to my ear, startled me awake. I’m alone in the bed, and the small attic room shared by the female members of the music is empty but for Flora and one other girl. They are nearly dressed—I’m late. Bolting out of bed, I asked Flora, “Why didn’t you wake me?”
She shrugged. “The rest of us get up when Mistress Edith calls.” Relenting, she said, “Here, I’ll help you.”
I pulled my nightdress over my head and washed quickly at the basin. Flora handed me my shift, then helped lace my kirtle. My hair was braided for sleeping, so I pinned it into a hasty knot and settled a white linen coif over it, hoping I wouldn’t run into Nick Hawkins when I looked so untidy.
Breakfast was served in the great hall, which was filled with trestle tables and benches. Servants brought out great bowls of steaming pottage and pitchers of ale, and there were loaves of bread set along the length of the table, for us to cut with our knives.
When the trenchers have been cleared, and the remaining food was taken away for manners—to feed the beggars at the gate—we make out way to the chapel. I let my mind drift during mass until the choir begins to sing. It is impossible not to pay attention to every sound, every note—my dream, when I first arrived, had been to sing in the choir, but girls were not permitted to offer their voices to God. No one had still given me a good explanation as to why.
If we were at Greenwich—where we would travel in the morning, the king had decided to move from Westminster in London—we could also attend the local church, St. Nicholas. Their choir was inferior, but it was pleasing to get outside the palace. The king had less need of us at Greenwich than Westminster, where we were held constantly within call.
Once mass was done, I was free to do what I liked until dinner. Flora had gone off with friends, so I went up to the practice rooms. Someone might be willing to play for me, but if not, I would sing along. If I was fortunate, Tom would be there. He was my dearest friend, and a talented lutenist and composer, though he would blush and deny that his songs are any good.
Someday it would be known, and his songs would be sung all over the court, and perhaps all over England.
He was there, supervising the packing of the many musical instruments which would be transported to Greenwich, along with all the nobles and a good number of the court servants, and all their varied possessions.
“Do you want me to play for you?” he asked, swaddling a lute in soft wrappings like a babe. His own instrument, I knew, would travel in his grasp; Tom would not trust it to the rough men who loaded the carts and barges for the trip between palaces.
“I can wait.” I leaned against the window, watching the flurry of activity below. In addition to the carts which would start this day so that things might be in place when King Henry stepped off his barge on the morrow, there were the usual clusters of men and horses, servants scurrying across the courtyard on some errand or another, and, to my delight, a certain gentleman atop a shining black horse.
I let my eyes rest on him. A man such as Nick Hawkins would never pay any mind to a minstrel girl, no matter how lovely my voice. The fact that he had spoken to me on occasion proved nothing. He was handsome—beautiful, really—and powerful, a friend of the king. A man who could have any woman in the kingdom, save the queen.
He would never look at me.
I turned to Tom, smiling. He would always look at me, always see me for who I was. But it wasn’t the same, and though I loved him as a friend and a brother, I did not think of him as I drifted off to sleep.
“What will you have me play?” Tom settled on a stool with his instrument on his lap, the light from the narrow window falling on his fair hair. “Bess?”
“Sorry.” I shook away my fancies. “We are to perform this evening for the French ambassador and his party.”
“At least we will have time to eat.” He tuned the lute carefully. “And we will be in the gallery, so you can watch the gathering to your heart’s content.”
I ignored his words, knowing he was teasing. I did like singing from the gallery so I could watch the crowd, and not just because of Nick. It was more impressive, somehow, from above. Crowded in the narrow gallery with the other minstrels, with the horns and drums and shawms, and Tom’s lute singing a sure line beneath for me to follow, I was at peace and could watch the dancers and pretend I was one of them.
A gathering for the French ambassador was sure to run late; I should go back to the girls’ chamber and pack my things for the morning so that when we were done, I could just fall into bed. “Are you happy about going to Greenwich?”
“What does it matter?” he asked. Seeing my expression, he said, “I am if you must know. The stables are closer to the palace.”
Tom loved horses, and though our indoor lives gave us little contact with the beasts, when we were at Greenwich or visiting the cardinal at Hampton Court, he always found his way to the stables. I was glad he was happy, but prolonged time in the stables made me sneeze, and I preferred to walk in the gardens if I was to take my scant free time outdoors.
Other minstrels came in and we went over our evening’s program until the bells chimed eleven; then we all streamed downstairs to dinner. I stayed with Tom; even if the others left us after the meal, we would probably sing and play together until it was time to get ready for the evening’s entertainment. Despite my dreams of greater things, singing with him was when I was happiest, and when I knew that my father had done the right thing.
I belonged in this place.
Several hours later, changed into a green gown and clean coif, with my few things packed into a small chest for the morning, I reassembled with other members of the Music in the gallery overlooking the presence-chamber. The vast room was hung on all sides with vivid tapestries depicting scenes both secular and religious, interspersed with gold and silver plate that reflected the hundreds of candles lighting the space.
The king was all aglitter himself, clad head-to-toe in cloth of gold studded with diamonds and pearls. His queen, Katherine, was dressed more soberly, though her fabrics were equally rich. They sat on their thrones under the gold cloth of state, speaking quietly, until the music started. Then the king stopped, mid-sentence, his ear cocked toward the gallery. How fortunate that Tom had instructed the others to begin with one of Henry’s own songs.
He leaned over to the French ambassador, who stood near the throne, and gestured toward us. I imagined he was telling the Frenchman that he’d written the song—though he praised us lavishly, it was much more likely that he was taking credit for the song.
I sang while the people below mingled and preened, showing off their finery for the king and each other. When the dancing started, I would step back; my voice did not lend itself to the stately pavanes which began the dancing each evening. Those were for the musicians—Tom, Harry, and Gilbert would play their instruments and the courtiers would parade slowly down the length of the room, bowing and circling, flirting with their eyes and their hands, the only parts of their bodies which touched during the dance.
King Henry began the dancing, leading Queen Katherine down from the dais and onto the floor. The jeweled crowd stepped back to give them room, and they traversed the floor alone, the focus of all eyes before the king raised his hand and called for everyone to join him. Then the courtiers paired off, men swiftly bowing before ladies and taking their chosen partner to join the king.
Nick was there, I noticed almost immediately. He danced with the prettiest women, and once arrived before a woman at the same time as King Henry, bowing deeply and giving way to his monarch, who would dance until dawn if allowed. The queen would retire early, taking her women, though some of them crept back after Her Majesty had been settled for the night.
It was after midnight when the chamber finally began to empty. I sipped from the ale which had been set aside for us; my throat was dry from singing for hours in the stuffy gallery. Tom was yawning behind his hand, and several of the other looked as though they were asleep on their feet. I was still wide awake, but perhaps it was excitement: it was spring, and tomorrow we would journey to Greenwich, where I had begun my life with the Tudor court.
[Illustration #1 – Palace of Westminster, Wikipedia]
[Illustration #2 – Minstrels, Nikki Piggott, photographer, used w/permission]
[Illustration #3 – Greenwich Palace, Wikipedia]
She has the voice of an angel…
But one false note could send her back to her old life of poverty.
After her father sells her to Henry VIII, ten-year-old Bess builds a new life as a royal minstrel, and earns the nickname “the king’s songbird.”
She comes of age in the dangerous Tudor court, where the stakes are always high, and where politics, heartbreak, and disease threaten everyone from the king to the lowliest musician.
Her world has only one constant: Tom, her first and dearest friend. But when Bess intrigues with Anne Boleyn and strains against the restrictions of life at court, will she discover that the biggest risk of all is listening to her own stubborn heart?
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Narrated by Jennifer Summerfield
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Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. She fell in love with books and stories before she could read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams—which include gardening, sewing, traveling, and, of course, lots of writing.
She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband, and is always hard at work on her next book.
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