Galloping through the English countryside, red hair blazoning behind, Elizabeth felt the warm breath of her steed snorting the wind. Her childhood friend Robert Dudley making chase behind while all of nature seemed to be conspire with the promise of love. The trees in in bloom, fields aplenty with crop, offered fresh hope after a long winter. Babies, puppies, the fresh optimism as spring turned into summer. Such an easy time to be in love. Elizabeth felt joyful jumping from her mount, heart light as she ran through the meadow clutching her basket. The air perfumed with wild flowers filled her lungs and she breathed excitement. Finding a spot, catching her breath, she laid a royal blanket over the grass.
Dudley caught her, “My fondest wish is that we would wed,” he pinned, snaking his strong hands around her waist pulling her close.
“We have time for that,” She giggled, playfully pushing him off. Her disposition beaming, happy before a flash memory robbed her of the moment. ‘The girl looks gaunt through the shoulders, stringy neck, a small bosom – her grandmother Boleyn’s appraisal of her shortcomings. Ladies should display a plump proportion, a firm and solid fatness.” Elizabeth’s squareness and narrow hips lacked, “The pleasing flesh of good breeding,” the Countess of Wiltshire critiqued. “A royal should exemplify the desirable roundness befitting woman of today.” Assessments never mentioned in public could be heard in whispers discussed in private. Fear silenced many a tongue in the sixteenth century.
“You are wed to another, Sir.” Came her fresh reply. She laughed at the words. How God or country could expect anything else of her? She couldn’t imagine and felt confident they’d be together.
As they ate Dudley’s wife was home in bed ill about the breast. Elizabeth knew it was only a matter of time before he would be free to marry.
“Let us be content to eat our lunch and enjoy the day,” she proclaimed. In the usual course, the couple would meet to ride. Disguised in plain linen, wearing no corset, wavy red hair falling to her midriff. Elizabeth looked more like a village girl than a future monarch.
“What have you fixed for us today?” he asked.
“Provisions from all corners of the earth,” she answered. Even with the country in shambles, royalty ate of the finest fruit and nuts. A commoner might not see this much of a meal in a lifetime, let alone have it displayed in a single sitting. While the navy of a thousand ships was stretched to its limit, warring with Spain and Italy, the teenager frolicked. As a member of her half-brother Edwards’s household she was treated well.
Robert would steal his way to her bedchamber, up a long stairway, cut from Scottish stone. The sentries guarding the back looked the other way, Elizabeth’s instructions. Her governess would never know. Her life was one of privilege balanced by darkness. No stranger to the tyranny of her late father. The fate of Henry’s youngest bride relayed by Cousin Beatrice haunted her.
“I’m going to tell you a story and every word of it is true,” she whispered. It was an eerie account Elizabeth knew was fact. “It began one misty morning when a helpless fair-haired girl laying under the weight of England, was led to her death.”
“The Queen emerged moments before nine in the morning,” She bade in feigned hackneyed English. “A rain the night before had turned the courtyard muddy to our ankles. The streets contained the foul smell of chicken scratch and horse urine slurried in the mix. Gawkers pushed for position straining to see the fawn-like Katherine as she walked barefoot, clothed in a plain linen dress. The exposed skin of her upper chest so pale, I could see the ghostly blue vein patchwork beneath. The last time I’d seen her, she was amazing, the most beautiful woman in all England. Fancy and bright, riding in an open coach, smiling, sweetly waving to her subjects. I fancied the thought our eyes might have met.
‘Spill her blood!’ Someone called out. I thought, what cowards! This mob, content to stand by and watch. Clinging to their lives–any one of which could be wrenched from him in a second.
This bitter gray morning, the little Queen made her way up the old worn wooden steps, pausing briefly, turning sad-eyes to the crowd. A pitiful waif, helpless and demure. Katherine continued up the stairs, gripping the railing as if it was her mother's hand that somehow she might be swept away from all this.
Once upon the platform, facing the crowd, her tiny limbs exposed and pale, the simple dress hung over her shapeless frame. She wore no jewelry. Her one remaining vanity, long hair, was perfectly combed. The henchman placed her against the block and with the blankest stare Katherine moved her beautiful locks to one side exposing her slender neck.”
“I waited for her to rise to her feet and scream out in defiance,” Elizabeth remembered the cousin mocking, "What have I done that your precious King isn't guilty of?"
“Laying her head sideways on the block, she awaited her fate in silence. The dark-hooded killer appeared to us like a giant standing over her. A moment before, even the handle of the ax and the blade had been taller than the living little queen. He drew back. I heard the neck cracking, then a thud as the girl's head crashed to the platform floor. Steam rose from the blood pouring into a warm pool from the lifeless body slumped behind the block.” The memory gave her night sweats.
Elizabeth and Beatice shared a pact. She would never share a word of her source. They would always remain the close.
Dudley went to see his wife. The old stone house was damp and poorly ventilated. Large but ill-maintained it was no place for a sick woman.
“Are you any better my love?” he asked, knowing the hour was late.
“I hurt the same,” she replied.
“Sorry I’m late, business with the king,” he excused.
“I’m cold. Throw another log on the fire, would you?”
The bedroom had a small window, enclosed by wood shutters covered with burlap to keep out the draft.
“My fight is with the damp,” she said, turning to face him, “Where have you been my love? You know I’m lonely.”
“Have you had dinner?” He asked, changing the subject.
“I haven’t an appetite.”
“You mustn’t get too thin. You need your strength for the children.”
A lone candle flickered dim light masking her disappointment in him. Dudley looked away, tending the fire, not to risk a hint of his tryst with Elizabeth.
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, counseled, “We are at war your majesty. You must choose. A marriage to either you must be bride to one. To strengthen the Commonwealth and preserve the nation!”
Feeling manipulated, accustomed to having her way, screeching back in defiance, “I would rather be a beggar woman and marry for love than a miserable queen who marries for policy.”
“You must think first of England, your duty is to reign! Your marriage negotiations are a matter of foreign policy not the whims of a lovesick girl,” Cecil fired back, “Royal Duty should be ingrained!”
Cecil gave a secret order to the guards to block the Dudley’s passage. Elizabeth waited. Weeks passed, inconsolable; sadness overcame her spirit. One awful night, grief-stricken and lonely, she threw into a fit ordering her head be shaved. Her ladies were scared. They shrank back, fearing the raging queen would soon come to her senses and lay blame. Crying and eager, forcing the deed, Elizabeth grabbed a pair of black iron scissors from her dresser. Gathering up the first clump, she hacked away, hair sticking to tears. Moments later - bald - languid from the effort she sat stoically in front of her mirror. Studying her bare white scalp drained the playfulness from her freckled face. Her girlhood gone, she surprised everyone in attendance with a shrill order, “Tresses shall be shorn of all Ladies-in-waiting by Royal Decree.” The girls gasped in unison begging for reprieve. Rumor has it the queen scorned, “Your hair, or your head.” Wigs were fashioned from the finest hair found throughout the land. Soldiers dispatched to all corners of the kingdom brought back the mane of many an unwilling Subject. Anxious girls made a habit of preempting the ordeal by chopping off their locks. To stop the practice, Elizabeth ordered payment of a year’s wages to any family who could produce hair fit for a royal wig. Times being hard, fathers forbid their daughters from sparing themselves. The queen’s men were not especially careful; and large sections of bloody scalp would often accompany the hair. The practice left an unlucky young woman unable to grow it back. Humiliated and embarrassed, kerchief covered patches, girls would spy their former locks worn by a lady riding in procession. Elizabeth’s own appetite for wigs kept soldiers busy. Ladies-in-waiting received the lesser quality, never the hand me down of the queen. Once adorned by the royal head the discarded could only be burned.
Dudley’s Amy died from a brutal fall down a flight of stairs. An incident with no witnesses. A coroner’s inquest ruled it an accident, but rumor had him purposefully killing his wife to make way for Elizabeth. Still in love, the queen raised him to Earl of Leicester but chose not to marry rather than risk the uprising of the gentry. Dudley remarried. The years were unkind, badly scarred from smallpox, bitter and jealous, the leaden-faced queen would never marry. Elizabeth will always be remembered as the ‘Bald Virgin’ wed to England. She maintained a close friendship with Dudley secretly loving him until her death. For his part, he never stopped loving her. Proof in the form of a letter found in her belongings, “My heart is heavy with longing for the girl I felt loved me in my youth. Never a crueler fate bestowed a man than to miss out on his heart's one passion.” He died shortly after Elizabeth whose reign inspired an age. The noble sacrifice came at a high cost - her love.