The King had gone hunting and was not expected back till after noon. The Queen was in The Mint. The page stood watching the path to the castle from a window in the high tower. He saw riders approaching from the south and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle.
It was the King.
The boy dashed towards the door and began the dizzying descent into the bowels of the castle. He must warn the Queen, immediately. Down, down, down he went till he hit the flagstones of the great hall running. Around the corner and through hallway after hallway, his breath coming in short sharp gasps. Finally, he burst out into the sunlight, his feet leaving deep impressions on the soft soil as he hurtled towards the grand terrace on the north side of the castle.
There flanked by imposing stone steps was a doorway leading to an underground hall.
The boy pounded on the door, leaning into the sturdy wooden frame, willing it to open. At long last the door creaked open and the page pushed impatiently past the old man who stood behind it, ignoring his cries for an explanation.
“Shut the door,” he said over his shoulder as he ran down the hallway leading to the main room. He knew he would be interrupting the proceedings but he also knew that he would not be reprimanded for it.
It was the Queen who had asked him to keep watch.
“Your Majesty,” he said as he entered the room “The King approaches” he placed his hands on his knees and bent over to catch his breath.
The room began to move in a single fluid motion. Servants hurriedly escorted LeFevre and Roussel towards a side entrance without a word. The communion cups they had been holding clattered noisily to the floor, the wine spreading in crimson pools across the flagstones.
Other servants began to dismantle the table and clean up the wine. Faraway down the hall the door burst open.
“Where is she?” it was the King.
If she was afraid the Queen did not show it. “Leave me,” she said and the servants quietly filed out of the room through the back door. The wine had not been cleaned up.
“I have heard that there have been fastings in this cellar” the King’s voice filled the room. Composing her face into a stoic mask Margaret turned to face Henry.
“I have had the pleasure of listening to a sermon my Lord,” she said
“A sermon? In the cellar? Does the church not meet my lady’s standards?”
“The building is adequate my Lord but the doctrines are not. I prefer to hear the Word of God and not that of man” she raised her eyes to meet his.
The blood burned across Henry’s face.
“How dare you!” he said “Your insult the Church of Rome here? In my house?”
“If the church is as infallible an authority as she proclaims herself to be then she does not need you to defend her my Lord. Her works and her teachings should speak for themselves” Margaret said, her eyes still locked on his.
Henry took a step towards her, closing the gap between them.
“I am a son of the Church of Rome” he ground out “My house is to be allegiant to the church”
“Your house may do as it pleases my Lord but I profess allegiance to God alone”
The blow came out of nowhere and Margaret gasped. Her hand went involuntarily to her face shielding it. Pain seared across her jaw and she stumbled backwards.
The room fell silent. There were a handful of servants in the room. Margaret couldn’t recall when they had come in.
“You will not insult my authority” his voice sounded far away and hollow. All Margaret could focus on was the pain in her jaw.
He had hit her.
Margaret gathered her wits about her and lurched upright. She would not cower before him in fear.
“If you think you can beat me into submission then you are sorely mistaken,” she said, “My faith is a matter I will not sacrifice. You will not alter my course”
Henry was still for a long moment. “We will see about that,” he said. He turned on his heel and walked down the hallway.
“Yes,” Margaret said fingering her jaw as she watched his retreating back “we shall see”
It was uncharacteristic of her to be so combative. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Margaret stood at a window watching the road that wound away from the castle towards the King’s highway. She was expecting reinforcements.
When she married Henry she had had an inkling of turbulence. Henry was nothing like her first husband. He was smarter for one thing. Margaret fingered the bruise along her jaw. He was also more violent.
But perhaps that was because he wanted to control her and she kept refusing to be controlled.
Divergence was not a new concept to Margaret.
She was born a Catholic princess in a Catholic realm. Her brother Francis was King of France. None of that stopped her from embracing the new movement that was blazing across Europe when it presented itself to her. It all began with letters to Briconnet, the Bishop of Meaux. Briconnet had read the Bible. He had spent time with men like Jacques LeFevre. All of this had led him to reject the teachings of the Church and embrace the simple realities of Salvation by Faith. Religion that transcended ritual and embraced the transforming grace of God.
Margaret had embraced the movement as well. She was now a Protestant Queen married to the Catholic King of the tiny state of Navarre.
Henry had not suspected that she was a Protestant when he married her but then he had noticed little things. She didn’t attend mass. She seemed to harbour a constant stream of rogue scholars from the Sorbonne, all of whom were in some way or the other tangled in the new movement.
She hosted artists and poets and writers with protestant leanings at court.
He had warned her. Threatened her. Nevertheless, she persisted. And today he had struck her. Nevertheless, she would still persist.
But she had not always been so persistent and that thought tugged at her. Her mind ticked back to one of her most recent confrontations with her brother. She had been protecting French reformers whenever the need arose. So many had escaped death because of her. Every time one of them was in trouble she went to her brother and pleaded for clemency, once she had even begged and cried.
Generally, Francis had a hard time saying no to her but this time was different.
They had taken Maigret while he was preaching the Reformed doctrines in Lyons. He was dragged through the streets as an example and placed in the common prison to await his execution. The authorities knew he was under the Princess Margaret’s protection but that mattered little to them.
When Maigret was taken Margaret went to Francis to plead for clemency but he refused. It was a familiar game they played. A reformer was taken, she pleaded with him and he granted clemency but Maigret was different.
“Why is this different?” she demanded
“Because this time it is a public matter,” Francis said. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against his desk. “I told you this would happen Margaret” he continued “didn’t I warn you?”
“He has done nothing wrong, Francis,” she said, ignoring his last comment, “I don’t see why this should be a matter of public opinion”
“But it is. The clerics across the country are incensed by this new reformed religion of yours. They want nothing more than to destroy it and yet they seem to come up against you at every turn” a smile played across his lips “you are quite the formidable opponent sister”
“Hardly,” she said her own lips twisting “I simply happen to have the ear of the King”
“Well it would seem that you do not have that privilege in this instance”
“Margaret, you are my sister and I would do anything for you but I cannot go any farther with this matter”
“Then you are selling this kingdom in a very cheap marketplace,” she said
Francis chuckled, “You must be desperate if you are resorting to such low means of manipulation sister”
“Not low” Margaret countered “ I already told you this when you signed the Concordat of Bologna with the Pope. You gave him absolute control over the Church and the Kingdom and now we are reaping the results of that one foolish decision”
“I hardly handed him the keys to the Kingdom Margaret, we made a fair exchange. Skin for skin”
“Yes…but more of your skin than his” Margaret pressed her lips together
“The agreement I have with the Pope guarantees me more power to rule,” Francis said
“At the expense of the spiritual well being of the people!” Margaret countered
Francis sighed in exasperation and pushed away from his desk shaking his head “the people are ignorant” he snapped.
“Because you choose to make them so!” Margaret said following him.
Francis whirled around to face her “And what would you have me do? Pardon every lunatic reformer you bring to me? Is that the solution? Let them loose like a pack of ravening dogs to tear the kingdom apart piece by piece?”
“They are offering people hope Francis.”
“They are offering them the means for insurrection”
“They are championing the right of the individual to think for himself…to approach God for himself. Surely your subjects deserve freedom of conscience Francis!”
Francis narrowed his eyes at his sister “Freedom of conscience is for Republicans”
Margaret shook her head in disagreement “Why must it be so? Freedom of conscience should be for all”
Francis rubbed a hand wearily across his face “What do you think it takes to keep that tiara on top of your head Your Highness?” he asked, “I can assure you that freedom of conscience does not”
“So this is only about power?”
“What else would it be about Margaret?”
“I had thought you had more scruples than that!”
Francis stared at his sister in silence for a long moment. When he spoke there was a stillness about him that made her apprehensive.
“Do I need to question your loyalties, Margaret? You are a Catholic Princess in a Catholic Realm. Your allegiance is to your Pope and your King”
“My allegiance is to God!” Margaret said
Francis’s face twisted into a mocking smile “How noble of you” he said “But blood is thicker than water Margaret, and if I were to place you in an impossible position and….”
“Don’t!’” she said cutting him off
“If I were to place you in an impossible position and force you to choose between your precious reformation and your relationship with me” he continued ignoring her “How would you choose?”
Margaret was quiet for a long time. “You know how I would choose,” she said.
“Then we are in agreement.” Francis was triumphant “Maigret will be tried and burned for heresy. The Pope is an ally I cannot afford to lose and I will not allow this new movement to jeopardise that alliance”
Margaret blinked back the tears that stung her eyes. It was nearly impossible to walk this line she had created for herself between her allegiance to God and her allegiance to her brother.
Margaret’s hand fell away from the bruise on her jaw. Tears welled up in her eyes and she hurriedly brushed them away.
It is easier to stand up to some than it is to stand up to others she thought to herself, her eyes still on the road. Then, in the distance, she saw it. The Royal standard flying stiffly in the breeze.
She stood watching the advancing standard and caught a glimpse of the Royal procession that followed through a gap in the tree line. Henry must have been notified by now she thought somewhat smugly. Moving away from the window she called for her lady in waiting. It was time to get dressed.
When The King of France rode up to the Chateau de Nerac Henry had just returned from hunting. He had come back empty-handed. He rushed down to the great steps of the main entrance to meet The King but found someone else already waiting there. She was dressed in black with a veil over her face.
Henry pushed forward but he was too slow.
“Sister!” Francis opened his arms wide to embrace the lithe figure swathed in mourning.
Henry reached them as they pulled apart. He was terrified.
Margaret lifted the veil off her face revealing the long bruise running along her jaw.
Francis turned to Henry with a smile “May we confer My Lord?”
Henry couldn’t remember much about the long walk to the throne room but the thing he remembered most was the stillness that surrounded Francis. Inside the room, the air was heavy and musty. Servants ran around pulling aside heavy curtaining and throwing open windows. They stood in the middle of the room facing each other, Margaret standing apprehensively behind Francis.
For a moment Henry was terrified that Francis would strike him.
“Must I declare war?” Francis asked instead
“No my Lord….that is…hasty” Henry said
Margaret shifted and opened her mouth to speak but shut it when she saw the look on Henry’s face.
“You struck my sister” Francis continued
“In a moment of passion, my Lord” Henry was blubbering
“And what is to prevent such a moment from seizing you again?”
“Please my Lord, we are a small Kingdom…your sister has been happy here” his eyes shifted pleadingly to Margaret.
“Margaret” Francis didn’t look at her “tell the man what you want”
Margeret raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Margaret” Francis turned to look at her “Why should I not throw down a gauntlet of war against the Kingdom of Navarre for what he has done?”
Margaret cleared her throat “I…” she hesitated “I only want to worship God according to the dictates of my own conscience in peace” she said
Francis turned to face Henry “Is that an unreasonable request?”
“No…No my Lord but…when I married her I had not known that…I had not known she was of the reformed faith”
“Does that matter?” Francis said
There was a long tenuous pause.
“No my Lord,” Henry said.
“Good. My sister has had the freedom to exercise her conscience as God has directed it while she was under the protection of my court. You, my Lord, will not take that freedom away from her”
“No my Lord”
Francis walked towards Henry and raised his hand. Henry shrank back cowering in fear and Francis laid his hand gently on Henry’s shoulder. “If you ever lay a finger on my sister again, I will not give you prior warning. France will ravage you with war and reduce you to ashes.”
Henry raised his eyes to meet Francis’s and nodded.
Francis’s lips twitched upward in a small smile. He turned on his heel and walked towards the door. “We will stay the night and leave after breakfast on the morrow. My court awaits me.” he tossed back over his shoulder.
He left Henry and Margaret standing in the middle of the room quietly staring at each other. The line between allegiance to God and allegiance to her brother was almost impossible to navigate but in every other instance, allegiance to God was paramount, regardless of the cost.
Margaret bit her lip, Was her conscience really as free as she believed it to be?