Reign of the Marionettes

Title of Book: Reign of the Marionettes
By: Sheena Macleod
Genre: Historical Fiction

Book Excerpt: CHAPTER ONE
The Cavalcade

Grey clouds formed over London, casting dark shadows across the river entrance to Whitehall Palace. In the dimming light, Elizabeth stepped through a double door, set high on the crumbling facade of the palace wall. As she weaved her way through the throng of courtiers gathering on the cobbled courtyard, their accusing faces turned towards her.

Keeping her head down, she pulled her fur-lined cloak tight against the biting air and quickened her steps. Her thoughts filled with concern for her family. At forty, she’d already spent a lifetime glancing behind her, looking for danger. A surge of fear, tinged with excitement coursed through her. Could the approaching cavalcade bring them greater freedom? She dared not even think it. All she could do now was wait and hope.

Reaching the stone balustrade, overlooking the privy stairs, Elizabeth stopped and gazed out in surprise. All along the riverbank bonfires blazed into life and flames lit up the darkening sky. It was as if half of London had come to watch the procession of gilded barges sail up the Thames. The left bank of the river had transformed into a teeming mass, and shouts of, “No papists!” rang from the milling throng.

“Meu amigo, Baroness Powis.”

A smile formed on Elizabeth’s face. She hadn’t heard Queen Catherine approach, and she turned around. Her smile faded. Since they’d last met a few days before, Catherine’s olive-tinted skin had paled, and dark shadows had formed beneath her eyes.

She curtsied. “Your Majesty.”

Linking into Elizabeth’s arm, Queen Catherine leant towards her. “So many ears, always they are listening,” she whispered and gestured for her ladies to stand back.

Understanding, Elizabeth drew closer to the Queen’s tiny frame. “And fingers, pointing. Do they really believe I helped arrange this marriage?” She touched Catherine’s arm. “But, dear God, it must be harder for you.” Catherine waved a hand, ending further discussion of the matter.

Taking in the group of gossiping courtiers beside them, Elizabeth nodded her agreement.

“Ah! No fireworks,” Catherine said in her accented English and inclined her head.

Elizabeth followed the Queen’s gaze and echoed her sentiments. “Tut, tut. Such a poor welcome. But few will consider the arrival of a Catholic bride as a cause for celebration.”

“Ah, but they hid it better when I came from Portugal. It filled me with false hope,” Catherine said with sadness in her voice.

Recalling the Queen’s arrival, eleven years earlier, Elizabeth smiled. “What a blessed welcome you received. The minstrels, the fireworks –”Loud cries of ‘No Popery’ sprung from the riverside, interrupting Elizabeth. The cries turned to roars as a group of men held up an effigy of the Pope and thrust it into a raging bonfire. Sparks scattered and streams of smoke swirled into the cold air. Cats, stuffed into the Pope’s belly, screamed as they fled to safety.
Elizabeth reeled back and gripped Catherine’s arm. “God’s truth.”

With a trembling hand, Elizabeth fingered the strand of pearls around her neck. Hail Mary, full of grace. Keep my family safe. Beside her, Queen Catherine lifted a gloved hand and worried at her own rope of pearls.

“They’re here,” a voice yelled, and an almighty roar sprang from the crowd.
Excitement coursed through Elizabeth, and she leaned across the balustrade and watched the first barge sail into view. The Modena standard flapped above its stern as if urging the cavalcade to return to Italy. A drummer in a red coat crouched in the front, beating time to the dip of the oars. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Behind the drummer, the Duke of York and his new bride, Mary Beatrice, sat under a red canopy and waved to the crowd.

Barge after barge followed behind, carrying the bride’s retinue and possessions. As the cavalcade progressed through the murky water, shadows from Elizabeth’s past resurfaced in her mind. Her throat tightened. Did this retinue bring with them calm waters or a raging sea? As the oars ploughed into the murky depths, leaving furrows of uncertainty in their wake, Elizabeth doubted whether prayers would be enough to protect her family.

Church bells rang out, drawing her back to the moment. Queen Catherine stared towards her husband’s barge, and Elizabeth saw the deep longing in the Queen’s eyes. Impatient with waiting, King Charles had set out to look for the cavalcade’s approach. The Royal barge now turned in a wide arc, rocked on the current and sailed into dock. Mooring ropes were thrown from it onto the landing stage.

Charles leapt ashore, and the crowd’s roars turned to cheers. Two horse guards, swords drawn, moved over beside him. Charles paced impatiently back and forth in front of them, his eyes fixed on the first gilded barge. Elizabeth’s gaze moved beyond him, scanning the faces still disembarking, searching for her own husband.

When Powis jumped ashore, Elizabeth drew in her breath with delight. Though he was forty-eight and his jowls had slackened, she still saw the young man she had married twenty years before. She hadn’t seen him all day – Charles had kept the entire Court busy preparing for the arrival of the royal bride. Her eyes followed Powis’ movements until he disappeared into the throng surrounding the King.

When James of York’s new wife stepped out from under the crimson canopy, and down onto the landing stage, the crowd surged forward and roared,

“Papist whore, go home!”

Angling their pikes, guards pushed the crowd back. Elizabeth let out a moan of fear and covered her mouth with her hand.

Charles strode over to York and his wife, a frown further furrowing the lines already etched onto his swarthy face. Stopping in front of Mary Beatrice, he pulled off his wide-brimmed hat and bowed low before her. His dark periwig and lace cravat and cuffs billowed in the downdraught. Charles linked his arm into Mary Beatrice’s and walked her up the privy stairs. Holding his head high, he smiled at the crowd and, with his usual long strides, marched towards the palace entrance. In an effort to keep up, Mary Beatrice hurried along beside him.

Followed closely by her ladies, Queen Catherine walked over to join her husband. Elizabeth made to follow but stopped, entranced by the sight of Mary Beatrice. Swamped by the large retinue clustering around her, the girl appeared terrified. Her hair and eyes, peeping out from the hood of a blue cloak, were as black as jet, and full red lips formed a stark contrast to her pale face. She looks no more than a child, Elizabeth thought. Like a summer bloom transplanted into a winter garden, this fifteen-year-old had been plucked from her homeland and brought to a country that didn’t want her.

When Mary Beatrice disappeared from view, Elizabeth turned to follow Queen Catherine into the Palace. Beside her, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, reached for his walking sticks resting against the balustrade and winced from the effort. Without thinking, Elizabeth reached for them.
Brushing her arm aside, Shaftesbury raised his hooked nose in the air. “I’m not an invalid. I can manage.”

Elizabeth shook her head at him and bit back a nasty retort. What an insufferable man he was, but she saw no point in getting on the wrong side of his temper. “Ah! My Lord Shaftesbury,” she said with all the enthusiasm she could muster. “I’m gladdened to hear it. Then perhaps you could escort me inside, for my feet are frozen from standing here.” The coldness between them broken, Shaftesbury laughed, and they joined the throng threading their way through the maze of corridors, towards the Great Hall. The clip-clop of Shaftesbury’s high-heeled shoes echoed off the stone floor.

“It’s not just because she’s Catholic. My objection,” he said and his thin lips formed into a smile. “I‘ve got nothing against Catholics. You know that?”
Elizabeth nodded. What Shaftesbury said was true enough, but her husband, Baron Powis, didn’t trust him. “So why are you so against York marrying Mary Beatrice?” Puzzled, she turned to look at him and almost bumped into a man thrusting his word-sheet towards them. She stepped around the ballad seller.

“What good is a Parliament that’s not consulted?” Shaftesbury said. “We cannot tolerate decisions being made without our say. If we do, what then? Your husband will know this.”

Was he hoping to draw Powis over to his point of view, through her? It was hard to tell with Shaftesbury. “But, none of this is Mary Beatrice’s fault,” Elizabeth said. “And she can provide us with our much-needed heir.”
Shaftesbury glowered at her. “Your hope, Elizabeth, is my greatest fear.”

Elizabeth took her position beside the other royals and nobles, waiting to meet Mary Beatrice. Trumpets sounded, and Charles escorted the new Duchess of York into the Great Hall and along the long line.

The Queen’s tiny frame diminished further, as she reached up and hugged her new sister-in-law. York’s daughters by his first wife, Anne and Mary, giggled and blushed as they greeted their stepmother, who was only a few years older than themselves.

When her turn arrived, Elizabeth dropped to her knees. Mary Beatrice extended a hand to her, palm down. As Elizabeth bent to kiss it, the ring given by James of York to mark the marriage took her by surprise. The large ruby was far too heavy for such a delicate hand to carry. Was this an omen, she wondered? Would this girl secure a Catholic heir or, as had happened to Queen Catherine, would the burden prove too great?

Author Bio: Sheena Macleod lives in a seaside town in Scotland. She gained a PhD at the University of Dundee, where she lectured in mental health nursing. After leaving teaching, Sheena combined her love of history with her passion for research and turned to novel writing. She has written a number of short stories and poems. Reign of the Marionettes is her first published historical fiction novel.

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