The Milk Satin of Lady Jane Grey

by Sarah Armstrong

London, 12 February 1554

Such a waste. The blood will never wash out of all that fabric. Think how many christening gowns it could make.

My Lady asks me to pull the laces at her chest so many times that my fingertips are numb, and I have yet to put the black gown on her. Her red hair and freckles stand out more against the milky satin underclothes. Pale like the full moon, the material has the effect of making her look slightly too pink around the arms. I wonder if she knows. She puts so much effort into looking right. How to work an audience was one of things she learned at Queen Catherine’s house. She knows when to lower her eyes and when to allow them to glisten with tears. It hasn’t helped her.

She’s in no hurry to get dressed this morning and, barefooted, wanders over to the window. The grey dawn draws all light from the candles and I watch how the shadows flutter over her like moths. In the distance I hear that rumbling sound again which keeps me awake. We haven’t visited the menagerie, but I have been told it is the lion. Something in the yearning sound sheers through me and catches on my soul.

Some nights it sounds so close that I rise and look from the window to see if it prowls the ground among the raging torches. I was told by Partridge that it is safely locked away by its keepers. He even brought us a sketch of a lion to marvel at, but it was badly executed. I think he had done it himself. That was before, when we were the royal household. That was when we all hoped to leave this place together and weren’t so aware of our own keepers and locks. The soldiers guard the animals and the jewel house, and they guard us too. Or they guard others from us, as a sixteen year old girl seems the biggest threat of all to the nation.

She sits to let me slip her soft shoes on. The others have been useless all morning. Mistress Jacob keeps dropping things. The nurse, Mistress Ellen, brushed the mistress’ hair, as always, and made a thick plait with half of it before collapsing on the floor again.

“My queen,” she sobbed. “Your Majesty.”

It makes my Lady shudder and pluck at her skirt. She pulls on her gloves and I button them. When she speaks her voice is so steady that I wonder whether she believes it will happen today. She’s had one postponement already. They intend to execute her husband first, so until then she can be hopeful. I suppose.

She says, “Mistress Tilney, you will pray for me, won’t you?”

I bow my head. “Of course, my Lady.” I can’t call her my queen. For nine days she was everyone’s queen, but no-one would admit to that now. Her signature, Queen Jane, is held as evidence.

“Pray with me now,” she says.

I hold my hand out so she can lower herself to the cushion. She leans on me but I can barely feel her weight through the kidskin gloves. She won’t want me to pray for her soul afterwards. Only Catholic heretics do this, she often reminds me. She calls them deformed imps, wicked. Seeds of Satan. I hide my thoughts, as ever.

I move away a little and kneel behind her. It makes me shake to see her like this, upright on her knees, hands clasped in front of her breastbone. Before we came here we saw so many like this in the doorways of churches, begging for her mercy. She sneered at them, at their pride or their envy or their desperation.

“Did you see them, Mistress Tilney? They prayed to me as if I were God.” She had shaken her head.

She is never one to keep her thoughts or her prayers to herself. I think she says them aloud so we can all join in. Who knows what would we pray for, left to our own thoughts? I watch her steadiness as the stone bruises my knees. She prays for the chance to meet her Creator, to be freed of earthly burdens. I bite my bottom lip to counter the demon that rises in my chest. I remind myself that she is sixteen, that she will never grow to motherhood, or to old age.

She doesn’t waver in her stance, even now. She sees it all so simply. Edward gave her the bright Protestant crown but, even as she held it, it turned brassy with Catholicism. Queen Mary still sends priests to persuade her to convert.

“Lord, lead me to Christian perfection. Forgive my parents for their selfishness and lead them from pleasure to duty and worship.”

She doesn’t mention the Catholics today, no filthy kennels of Satan, paramours of the Antichrist or whores of Babylon. Everyone knows they are the victors in this war of prayer. Those of us who miss the colours, scents and glint of Rome have learned to hide it. We have all had to change, or say we have changed, from bright images to plain words. Pictures are clear. There is good and there is bad: love one and loathe the other. But words shift around while I am not looking. Queen. Traitor. Condemned.

I try to pray. But all I can think of is my husband and children and my desire to be free. God forgive me, I think, but I no longer know whose side He is on.

She rises and I push myself up to help her, my knees cold with stopped blood. My mind goes back to the women kneeling on blunt church porch stone, hands extended and heads bowed.

‘Dress me,’ she says, and I fetch the black silk she wore at her trial.

She looks young as I fit it around her. Her amber eyes drift around the room as if committing it to memory. I never saw her look younger than when she was crowned, the enormity of what she was doing making her pale and tremble. I felt sorry for her then, a child sacrificed to the quarrels of men. But as her words became more bitter, it was harder for me to hold my tongue.

I have done no wrong to anyone yet I am kept here too, acting my part and hiding my face when tears are expected. I know I must displease God by thinking this, but I want to see fields, not gardens, smell anything but that stinking river which clogs my lungs, hear birds rather than beasts.

“They will execute Guildford soon, I hear.” Her voice is calm. She faces her husband’s death with the same distance as she faces her own. Is this what they call dignity? It seems too cold for that. At their wedding meal her nineteen year old husband fell ill with many others. It was a sign, but it came too late for him. I wonder what signs I have ignored.

Lady Jane adjusts the black silk, fidgets a little with how it falls, and then looks around for what else she needs to die complete. She pulls her little gloves tight and clasps her prayer book to her chest.

The dress will be removed before she kneels again and gifted to the man who will end this. The black silk hides the cream satin, but I think how much better it would be to have black to hide the blood.

I clasp my hands together. Now we all sit and wait. The nurse stands behind my Lady and tries to cry quietly. My hands sweat in my lap and I dare not move. My fingers feel empty without my rosary beads.

We hear the sound of the clock striking ten, and the sudden noise of feet and voices outside signal that Guildford is being taken to Tower Hill to be executed. We stand. My Lady watches from the window and I see her hands tighten on the prayer book. She tilts her head onto Mistress Ellen’s shoulder, and the nurse strokes her hair. Mistress Jacob speaks quietly to herself. I lean against a pillar, and feel the coolness against me. Behind the clamour of death on the hill, I hear the cry of the lion who will never be free.

When she is gone I will cry too. But, if I am asked, I will claim whichever God they want me to, swear on their Bible and cross my heart, anything to go home.

Sarah Armstrong’s debut novel, The Insect Rosary, was published by Sandstone Press in 2015. Her second novel, The Devil in the Snow, will be published in February 2017. Her short stories have been published in Mslexia and Litro, and she teaches creative writing for the Open University. Sarah lives in Essex, England with her husband and four children.

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