It is Christmas 1542 and the festivities are well underway. I always enjoy this time of year, although I’ve had little else to celebrate over the last decade or so. I was born Her Royal Highness, Princess Mary, to a happy and devoted couple. Today, I am known simply as ‘The Lady Mary’, a supposed illegitimate daughter. My mother, Queen Katherine, has long since passed away and my father, who is seated on his throne beside me, is single for the fifth time in his life, having ordered the decapitation of his last queen earlier this year, and no new lady has yet caught his eye.
Mother loved Christmas too and I can still recall her sitting proudly beside the King, where I am sitting now, dressed resplendently and enjoying the feasting, masques and revelry. My father loved her and when I was a little girl, he would sit me on his knee, showing me off proudly to the court. We were a happy family – until she caught my father’s eye.
Due to a temporary lack of consort, I am co-hosting this season and while sitting here watching the ladies and gentlemen of our court dance, I realise that I could get used to this elevated position. Of course, there is little chance of that now that my father, the great and formidable King Henry VIII, finally has his son and heir.
The Prince Edward looks unhappy sat on his chair. I can see that he just wants to be like every other five year old boy, having fun without a care in the world. But he has a major role to play and is cosseted, suffocatingly so, at least until our father manages to produce a ‘spare’. Sat beside him is my nemesis – her name is Elizabeth, daughter of my mother’s usurper. She, like myself, was born a princess, only to be proclaimed a bastard less than three years later and styled simply ‘Lady’. She is nine years old and has that proud, haughty Boleyn countenance. However, I know it’s a front. A mask, if you will, to hide the hurt I know she often feels. I know it, because I feel it too. I hated her at first, but in time, my feelings softened and whilst I still hate her mother with a passion and can see flashes of her personality in Elizabeth at times, she is just as much a victim as I am.
She is looking across at me now and I find myself smiling at her, even though those dark Boleyn eyes are making every fibre of my being want to despise her. I stand up and walk over to her, holding out my hand.
“Would you like to dance, my Lady?” I ask.
Elizabeth smiles, for the first time I should think in a long while. She slips her long, white fingers around my hand and we walk into the centre of the floor. I catch a glimpse of our father who has turned his attention to us, and after a brief look of surprise, he laughs heartily and raises his goblet to us. We have his approval.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” I ask her.
“Yes.” she replies, though her eyes say otherwise.
“Father seems in good spirits.”
“He does, and I am pleased for it.”
I desperately want to hate this child for turning mine and my mother’s lives upside down, but I can’t do it. She embodies everything that went wrong in my life, and yet we have so much in common. She too has been lauded and spoilt before being abandoned. We both lost our mothers at pivotal moments, and have been in and out of favour with our father, who can switch his emotions with alarming speed. We were both once heirs to the throne, the future Queen Regnant’s of England and all her dominions, but now, of course, that will never happen. Not now that father has his precious son and heir – the boy for whom people have died so that Henry could achieve his greatest desire.
“Come and sit beside me.” I say to Elizabeth as the dance comes to a close.
She duly obliges and sits in silence, her eyes watching the ladies and gentlemen dancing in perfect synchronicity before her. Without taking her eyes off them, she slips her hand into mine.
“Elizabeth,” I whisper, “remember, we are sisters and I will always be there for you, whenever you need me.”
She looks up at me, her face still registering no emotion.
“Whatever we may be called now,” I continue, “we are princesses of royal descent, and until Edward marries and produces a son, we are still heirs to the throne.”
“But we will never be queens.” she replies.
“Of course not, but we are still royalty, and always will be, no matter how much people try to make it otherwise. We’ll be friends and sisters for the rest of our lives.”
Suddenly, a smile lights up her face and she looks even more radiant, with her youthful complexion and that deep intelligence behind her eyes.
“Thank you.” she whispers, barely audibly.
“Merry Christmas, Elizabeth, and may we have many more of them.”