An excerpt from Queen of Martyrs: The Story of Mary I
Mary had not quickly recovered from her disappointment at the hands of her brother. Since returning to Woodham Walter, Mary had contrived plans and written to Charles, begging for his assistance in her escape.
Now, the time had come. The Holy Roman Emperor had acquiesced to her wishes, and a small fleet would soon arrive, their mission to whisk Mary away. She would live out her days at Charles’ court, though she despaired at leaving Edward to his fate if he carried on his heretical ways. Still, when she remembered her mother’s impoverished, lonely death, Mary assured herself that she was doing what she must.
Whispers had crept through the district that Mary was plotting to leave the kingdom. It was impossible with a household the size of hers to prepare for such a feat without some rumors spreading, but no one from the king had arrived. If news had reached Edward, he had not taken it seriously.
Mary paced the corridors of her estate. There were more productive tasks that she could be attending to, but she could bring her mind to focus on none of them. Instead, she found herself memorizing the precise color of the region’s bricks and the smell of honeysuckle, for she was afraid that she would forget these small details of her daily life that would not exist in her new world.
Pain was her constant companion since leaving her brother. The headaches had been like nothing she had experienced before, even when she lost her mother. She had grown pitifully thin, because most food nauseated her. Mary would not trouble herself or others over this though. Soon, she would be relaxing in the Low Countries, at peace and snacking on fresh oranges.
The idyllic image brought a smile to her face. She deserved some peace in her life. If her brother was as independent and astute as he claimed, she need not feel that she was abandoning him.
She was not sure how many circuits of the corridors she had completed when Rochester found her. Before he uttered a word, she could see that the news had arrived and her deliverance was at hand.
“Ships have been spotted,” he whispered. His handsome brow was creased with worry, and Mary felt some guilt for the stress that she put him through.
“You have served me more loyally than any other,” Mary said. She had the urge to put a hand to his face to soothe the tension in his rigid expression, but it would not have been proper. Her words served to soften his clenched jaw a bit, and that would have to suffice.
“I would be willing to suffer death for my faith if that was what I felt God was calling me to do,” she added, though she owed him no explanation. “England is no longer a place for me.”
Rochester nodded with his lips pressed into a thin line to hold back any disagreement he might have given voice to. He had agreed to go with her, for as much as he was uncertain of the plan he would leave no one else responsible for Mary’s safety.
“Let us then be about our business,” he said. There was no reason for him to say more. The plot had been discussed at length. Four ladies had been chosen to accompany the princess, but they would carry little with them. Disguised as commoners, they would leave Woodham by boat and meet the Spanish ships. It was deceivingly simple.
Mary spun, her skirts stirring the rushes, and fled to her room. As soon as she entered, she dismissed all except the four she trusted to travel with her.
“Fran, our clothes,” she ordered, sending the woman scurrying without further instructions needed. “Susan, the jewelry.”
They could not carry anything of great size or weight, so Mary’s precious jewelry would be distributed among them. Besides the largess of Charles V, it is all they would have to live upon.
A few other frantic whispers sent the ladies to their preassigned tasks, and they were ready in less than an hour to depart. Part of Mary was thrilled by the adventure, but her guts were twisted with anxiety and uncertainty that she could not alleviate.
Rochester arrived to lead them to the water’s edge. He was confronted by five pale faces with wide eyes following him from under dark wool hoods. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mary said with much more confidence than she felt. “God be with us.”
“Amen,” the four other women murmured as they left the room in a somber single file line.
Mary was thankful that her head had cleared as she followed Rochester’s broad form, yet she was still plagued by a growing sense that something was wrong. The small party left the manor for the canopy of stars and darkness of night, and their path was clear. No one on watch noticed them to inquire who they were or what their business was. Through the summer foliage, they made their way to the pier that stretched out into the river.
The boat that was usually utilized for trips to the port town of Maldon was bobbing upon the low waves. Besides the fact that they were leaving in the dead of night, there would be no reason to suspect this boat when it took their intended course. Once they reached Maldon, their success was assured by the presence of Charles’ warships.
Rochester stood at the side of the boat, ready to hand the women across the span between the dock and the vessel. He had not spoken the words, but his countenance told Mary that he retained doubts. She stiffened her spine and told herself to stop second-guessing.
In a moment, she was on the boat, her ladies huddled tightly around her more to soothe their fear than to ward off chill. Mary realized that the summer night was mild and pleasant. It seemed odd that it had taken her so long to notice.
The boat was rowed by Rochester and a younger man he had chosen to assist him. No one spoke as they made their way up the dark river. Mary marveled that the water’s vivid turquoise of day was replaced by an oily black at night. The murky river was more eerily threatening than the same calming scene in the warm summer sunshine.
In that darkness, Mary’s imagination conjured up images of a gloomy hell that remained in shadow despite the inferno of flames. Souls in agony twisted and screamed in eternal pain that nothing could soothe. Mary closed her eyes in vain as the images continued to dance upon the back of her eyelids. Her brother’s face appeared upon one of the wraithlike figures being tortured by the demons, and his eyes bored into her accusingly.
You have left me to this fate, his face seemed to say. Mary’s eyes flashed open, and the vision disappeared. It was replaced once again by the disapproving countenance of Rochester and her terrified ladies. She searched the dark water for answers as their boat silently cut through its surface.
That darkness would not only swallow up her brother and his evil advisors. Mary started counting the little waves, pretending that they were Englishmen who followed her brother’s heresies to their doom. Squeezing her eyes shut, her face crumpled in mental anguish.
“I cannot do it,” she announced.
When no one responded, Mary wondered if she had not spoken the words aloud. She forced her eyes open, and found that her ladies were looking to her in confusion. Then her gaze met Rochester’s and found understanding. He had stopped rowing, and now gave a signal to the young man to halt as well.
“I cannot leave my people to this future,” Mary repeated more confidently. “Whatever I can do, I must, though it may cost my very life.”
Rochester nodded his approval as the women embraced Mary with happy exclamations and the boat was turned around. Mary wondered how upset Charles would be that she had changed her mind at the last moment, with his ships there waiting to receive her, but she found that she did not care. A great peace had enveloped her when she made her decision, and she knew that God had plans for her yet in the kingdom of England.
Read more of Mary's story in Queen of Martyrs, available in paperback and Kindle format.
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Free through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited.