Now His Majesty had turned and was beckoning the bride and her escorts to join them at the altar. Flanked by the Prince and Buckingham, Frances fixed her eyes forward on the painted artwork decorating the exquisite glass front behind the Mass Table. A figure moved in front of it, and she caught sight of her future husband.
Frances gripped the Prince’s arm and raised her head heavenwards in an effort to blink back fresh tears. The opulent fan-vaulted ceiling of the Chapel Royal towered above her. Gold stars twinkled in the lofty firmament of Henry the Eighth’s fabled blue ceiling. Coy Renaissance boys trumpeted down from their gilded pendant vantage points.
The trio reached the King and Sir Edward. The Prince handed Frances to her father with a practiced bow, while Buckingham stepped sideways to join his brother. After more words of mutual congratulation, Coke passed his daughter to the King. Frances felt her inner tensions ease. Something in the benign quality of His Majesty’s smile dispelled her bitterness that her marriage was taking place by royal command.
As Frances took the King’s arm, she found much to hold onto. James was neither especially tall nor fat, but his costume was cut full and easy. She leaned on his richly jeweled sleeve and he reciprocated by squeezing her hand.
Frances had enjoyed His Majesty’s casual affection since babyhood. Growing up in his Court and used to playing with the royal children, she had known James less as her monarch than as a kindly, erratic and often smelly man. Her nose wrinkled as it was borne in upon her that, even for her wedding, the King of England had not washed. Moreover, as he smiled over her now, his breath revealed that James had already been at the bottle.
None of these physical shortcomings dimmed the gratitude Frances felt in the moment for her King’s good-natured and rickety presence and she only gripped him the more tightly. James Stuart patted her hand and bent to whisper in her ear. “Happy, my pretty one? See how all eyes are on you today. Such a day as every maiden dreams of, eh, lassie?”
His Scots brogue was still thick, in spite of years of southern living, so that Frances was obliged to guess at certain of the King’s words but the benevolence in his voice made her want to cry again. “Ye–es, Your Majesty.” Frances hoped James would attribute her wavering voice to bridal nerves.
She dropped her head toward the floor. Oh no. Her nose was threatening to drip. She sniffed and looked up again. In front of her, the Villiers brothers, John and George, stood side-by-side facing the altar. Wishing to look anywhere in this moment but at their backs, Frances turned to her left and searched beyond the detestable Lady Compton for her mother, who must surely be in the front pew.
Lady Hatton’s natural beauty was so striking, her toilette so painstaking, her dress sense so unerring and her spending upon her wardrobe so lavish that she could be relied upon to stand out in the most dazzling of assemblies. In today’s glittering gathering, Frances Coke’s mother was conspicuous only by her absence.
Mama, why are you not here?
Papa had told Frances that His Majesty himself had required in writing that his dear friend Elisabeth grace the wedding with her presence. Was her mother genuinely indisposed or had Lady H. elected to demonstrate that she did not come running simply because Majesty crooked his little finger?
Mama, I need you.
Frances gazed around the congregation. For the first time it came to her that none of her mother’s Cecil relations were present, not even her grandfather, the Earl of Exeter. This could be no accident. She knew a sinking sense of having been abandoned in an enemy camp.
A loud sob escaped her.
One hundred heads swiveled in rapt attention. Two hundred eyes were just as swiftly averted, as the King frowned and Court discipline asserted itself. A gentle smile replaced his regal glower. The tongue that seemed too large for his mouth lolled aimlessly over the monarch’s lips and dipped toward the stringy beard that made a feeble job of covering the royal chin. James leaned forward and whispered again in the bride’s ear.
“Courage, my child. Few of us marry where we wish. We still can find love where we will.” Frances blinked in surprise. Had she misheard or imagined his words? The bride looked up into the bloodshot gaze of King James and observed his eyes seize upon the younger of the Villiers brothers.
No, she had imagined nothing.
Alerted perhaps by his lover’s stare, George Villiers chose that moment to turn and survey the King and Frances. As Viscount Buckingham received the full force of His Majesty’s naked desire, he responded with a graceful inclination of his head. The congregation held its delighted breath, and a frisson of collective voyeurism swept through the Chapel Royal.
A guileful grin spread slowly across Viscount Buckingham’s angelic features as he acknowledged the public’s recognition of his unrivaled place in his monarch’s affections. The gesture was artful, even humorous. Yet it evoked in Mistress Frances Coke a surge of fury. Here, in the moment of her own sacrifice, the author of her woes was laughing and freely demonstrating his influence over the King of England. Buckingham and his mother’s greed had already crushed Frances’s hopes of marital felicity, and now George was relishing his role in her public immolation.
On her wedding day, Frances Coke felt, for the first time in her life, visceral hatred toward another human being. It set every cell of her being on fire. The burning sensation passed, but not before she had revealed its intensity to the object of her fury. Pale and tearful as Frances had been seconds before, her face beneath her veil was now aflame. And, as George Villiers’s attention slid from the face of his lover to that of the girl-woman on the King’s arm, he must have felt the blast of her blaze. For a fraction of a second, George’s smile froze. It was replaced in the next instant by a look of contempt. George Villiers turned away, but not before Frances had received his return salvo. You, my sister-to-be, will learn that any who do not worship at my shrine are de facto my enemies.
Frances felt faint.
“Here we are, my wee lassie. Your matrimonial moment has arrived. And here’s the bonnie young man who has the good fortune to share it with ye.” The King kissed Frances and handed her to Sir John Villiers. Wordlessly she took her place, struggling still to avoid physical collapse.
In any other circumstance, Frances might have felt moved by Sir John Villiers’ tentative smile. Kindness, perhaps even seeds of a genuine love for her, animated her bridegroom’s hovering, anxious gaze. But, rather than reassure, it made her the more uncomfortable in the moment. She would have preferred to hold on to hatred than be tugged into feeling sympathy toward her betrothed. She must not cry again. How to get through this ordeal?
Frances lowered her eyes and studied her shimmering ivory gown. A plethora of pearls and a dusting of diamonds adorned the richly brocaded and farthingaled wedding overdress. Fit for a princess, my Lady, the royal dressmaker had said, while making adjustments at her final fitting. It was no exaggeration. Frances was exquisitely attired. But the bride derived no satisfaction from her finery in the moment for the ties of Frances’s supportasse bit into her neck, and she was obliged to lift her head again.
She saw that another figure had joined the little cluster before the altar and was bowing low to His Majesty. James Montagu, Bishop of Winchester, Dean of the Chapel Royal, religious mentor and personal friend of King James, smiled to the bridegroom, beamed at the man’s brother, and belatedly acknowledged the bride. The Bishop cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of His congregation to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honorable estate instituted of God in Paradise in the time of man’s Innocency.”
Where, wondered Frances, did Innocency figure in this elaborate and cynical charade into which she had been coerced?
As fourteen-year-old Frances Coke knelt beside twenty-six year-old Sir John Villiers at the feet of the Bishop, she had a fleeting flashback. Innocency had reigned once, long ago, on a sunlit day when an eight-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy met in the grounds of a Dorset castle.
Today, in the Chapel Royal of Hampton Court Palace, Innocency was dead.
Long live Innocency.