On February 9, 1542, Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was plucked from Lord John Russell’s house on the Strand and taken up the river to spend her remaining days in the stone fortress known as the Tower of London. Only a few brief sentences track this movement, but nothing further exists beyond that. Where was she taken when she arrived at the Tower? How was her behavior? She was reported to have had a ‘fit of madness’ – the reason for her residence at Russell House – but had she fully recovered by the 9th? No one knows.
In my book, The Raven’s Widow, I tried to imagine what this day was like for Jane. In memory of her, I would like to share an excerpt. I do hope you enjoy it!
WE DISEMBARKED from the dock in the early morning hours as the rest of the Strand’s inhabitants slept peacefully in their beds. The normal chaos of the street was gone, and all that remained was a deafening silence, hanging like a thick fog over the deserted cobblestones. The air was as cold as I had ever felt it and each inhalation burned deep within my chest. I tried to keep my breathing shallow as I followed Sir John Gage and Lord Russell to the bobbing boat waiting in the Thames for me, but I grew winded as I struggled to keep my balance on the thin sheet of ice covering the ground. I winced at each involuntary gasp that passed through my lips.
My journey back to the stone fortress bore no resemblance to the last one I took there. The vessel returning me to prison was much smaller and contained no yeoman guards to watch over me. My only companions were Helena, Gage, and the bony, grizzled boatman who rowed us down the muddy river. Lord Russell was left behind on the shore to stare forlornly at our receding forms. The unruly tide carried us quickly towards our destination, and we docked at the wharf near the court gate before the sun’s rays unfurled from their nightly cocoon. Gage made no mention of my accommodations during the journey, so I blinked back tears of relief when he led Helena and me towards
the royal apartments rather than the inner ward.
“The king would have preferred to house you in the Beauchamp Tower this time, but it’s filled up with Howard relations,” Gage explained as our feet crunched through the frost
covering the ground. “His Grace has ordered them all detained because they knew of Katherine’s prior misbehaviour. Even the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk is here. She spends her days lamenting her abandonment by her step-son, the Duke, and emphatically denying her culpability. She is the most wretched prisoner I’ve dealt with yet.”
“Does the king want me in a cell because he’s condemned me?” The question slipped out involuntarily. Gage’s answer would make no difference, but I need to hear it. It was like a
wound I couldn’t stop poking.
Gage stopped to consider me with his clear blue eyes before pressing ahead; his words nearly lost in the frigid wind. “Yes, Lady Rochford.”
Someone had tidied up my chambers since I last left them. The crisp scent of juniper wafted from the freshly laid rushes covering the floor and a cheery fire danced in the hearth. The bench had been removed from the window, and two plump cushions rested in its place. Helena immediately set to work unpacking the small trunk that held my belongings. It had preceded my arrival, having been delivered from Russell House
the night before.
“Please let me know if you need anything, my lady,” Gage intoned as he dipped a perfunctory bow. When he came up, I asked the last question that remained in
my mind. “When can I go to the chapel?”
“You’ve done well so far, Lady Rochford. The king is pleased with Lord Russell’s reports, but I’m afraid that your greatest test is to come. I’ve been commanded to allow your access the night before your execution, so you must wait until that time. His Grace wants to ensure your decorum for the rest of your stay.”
“My stay,” I scoffed. “You make it sound as though I will be leaving; as if this is all just a pleasant diversion.” Gage shifted uncomfortably, but he maintained his gaze. “I’m not sure what you want me to say, my lady. I take no pleasure in the position in which I’ve been placed. When I close my eyes at night, I see the bloody and mangled bodies of those who have suffered within these stone walls. I shudder to remember the butchering of the piteous Countess of Salisbury. What were her crimes? Only the royal Plantagenet blood running through her veins and having children who refused to bend to the king’s will. Each time I walk by the corner where the executioner hacked her to pieces, I say a prayer for her soul. I will live with those memories forever.”
“I’m sorry, Sir John,” I whispered. “I’ve thought only of my own pain. In truth, we all suffer in the king’s service. In a few short days, I will be free of my burdens, but you will continue to carry yours throughout the rest of your life.”
“That’s kind of you to say, Lady Rochford,” Gage replied with a wistful smile. “But I’m under no illusion that I suffer more than you. I see it as a command from God to show kindness to the condemned in my custody. I wish to provide nothing but comfort in their final days. Unfortunately, I am restricted by the king’s laws. If you can show yourself well-amended, I assure you that I will escort you to the chapel myself.”
“Thank you, Sir John.” My voice wavered as the tears slid down my cheeks.
After Gage had excused himself to see to the other prisoners, I allowed Helena to lead me to the bedchamber. I had been unable to settle my mind during the night, and my body felt weary from the lack of sleep. It seemed strange to me that I could no longer comfort myself in the same way I had in the past. Before my arrest, I could always lose my worries in a deep slumber. Now that ability was gone. I found myself fortunate if I could manage a few hours of rest.
Helena removed my over gown and pulled back the thick counterpane so I could crawl into bed. “Just lie back for a bit,” she clucked as she pulled the tapestry closed to shut out the light. “It will do you some good.” I started to shake my head, but she put out her hand to stop me. “I took some when Dr Butts was otherwise occupied.” It was then that I noticed the glass phial clutched between her fingers.
“Lady Russell would be furious if she knew you stole that sleeping draught,” I admonished, but secretly I was pleased with her duplicity. A drop or two of that bitter liquid would help the long days ahead pass far more quickly.
“Lady Russell told me to do it!” Helena exclaimed with a grin. “I told you that she was kind when she wanted to be.” I felt a great laugh bubble up from inside of me and, for the first time in months, it was genuine. My laugh was not hysterical or acerbic; it was joyful.