This story is set during the Royal progress of Queen Elizabeth I to Croydon in July 1573
———————————————————————————Anyone meeting Kate and Ellen Fettiman for the first time could be forgiven for having no idea that they were sisters. Both girls worked as chamberers in the royal household and had been with Lady Anne Russell for nearly three years – but that’s where the similarity ended. Whereas Ellen was thin and dark, Kate was all pink cheeks, dimples and blonde curls; and where Ellen would scarcely look at you, Kate’s giggle and chatter could regularly be heard from the other side of the Palace.
But no one could doubt their utter devotion to each other, and if Kate was fiercely protective of her little sister, it was because she could still remember the horrific screams she heard as a child when Ellen knocked the candle over in their bedroom, setting her hair alight. They had managed to get the flames out; but not before Ellen’s face was burned in a long scar that wasn’t entirely hidden by the coif which she always wore. Both girls had received a limited education but it was Ellen who worked hardest, knowing she stood little chance of marriage.
‘He’ll ask soon, I’m telling you!’ cried Kate, pouting. Ellen threw her arm around her sister’s shoulder. ‘Yes of course he will! He’ll be riding at top speed from Greenwich, overtaking the Queen as we speak, carrying a gift of ribbons to match your eyes and ready to sweep away from all this!’ Giggling she ducked a playful swipe from her sister.
The girls sat side by side in the meadow finishing their lunch. Once again Kate believed herself to be desperately in love. It was a common topic of conversation between the girls. Always ready to believe they loved her, wanted to marry her, and would wait until they were promised to each other– she was altogether much too trusting. The attachments rarely lasted long before she someone else caught her eye, but it didn’t stop Ellen worrying that Kate would get badly hurt one day. This time was different of course, now Kate had convinced herself that a tall young Lieutenant from the Yeoman Archers who was accompanying the progress would ask her to marry him before the summer was out.
‘Who can resist you anyway? Just keep quiet about your terrible cooking!’ teased Ellen. ‘Come on, we’d better get back, we have work to do’ she said scrambling up.
They had arrived from London Monday lunchtime and were glad that they’d made the journey early, because the Archbishop’s Palace in Croydon was not used to accommodating so many additional people. Word was that some people might have to sleep on the floor in the rooms behind the kitchens, all the grooms had already been told they’d need to bed down in the stables in this July heat – she was glad they’d been allocated a room. Thank God for Kate’s pretty looks – for she’d managed to charm the steward into finding them a tiny room in the servants’ quarters.
London was too hot and the stench from the royal palace was unbearable, so the tradition was, while they were cleaning it out, Her Majesty was on summer progress. This time they were travelling through the Surrey countryside and on into Kent. The Queen, her privy council, her ladies and all their servants planned to stay a week and were due to arrive after lunch. The girls had been rushing around all day. Honestly, did the woman really need to bring all her own furniture from Greenwich? Was there not a suitable bed to be had in the whole of Croydon? Rumours reached them that there was a trail of over a hundred covered carts – just for the clothes.
Rushing through the dark-panelled gallery on her way to the Queen’s room, with arms full of linen Ellen couldn’t see where she was going and collided with a man coming in the other direction. Looking up whilst gathering the piles of bedding to her, she encountered a pair of brown riding boots encasing long legs and a dusty riding jacket. ‘God give you good day Lieutenant Goodridge’ she greeted him formally. ‘I trust you had a good journey this morning?’ ‘Yes, just arrived and in desperate need of a wash!’ He laughed, ‘It’s good to see you again Ellen, you’re looking well.’ Swiftly she dropped her eyes and looked up through her lashes; an instinctive gesture that she had adopted since childhood when anyone mentioned her appearance – however kindly meant. ‘My sister will be pleased to see you again.’ She murmured, busying herself picking up the last sheet from the floor. Glancing over her shoulder she appraised his departing back. Was he the right man for her sister? She hoped so.
Sitting in the light-filled annex at the end of the gallery, Ellen was trying to catch the last of the summer evening’s rays while listening to the distant music for the dancing. She took out the account ledgers with which she had been entrusted by Lady Anne and spread them before her. It was a source of quiet pride that her ladyship had noted her quickness with figures and allowed her to do the accounts for the household linen; which had been in an appalling state when she had taken them on. It was hard to believe how many yards of ribbon the ladies could get through – and don’t mention buttons, more than enough to lay a trail to Canterbury for the Archbishop to follow.
Many was the evening that her eyes would ache with the concentration of staring at tiny columns of black numbers, but she loved her work. It didn’t matter that the hardest thing her sister had to do was gaze up at handsome young Edward Goodridge as they strolled in the pretty little orchard behind the palace.
Lady Anne’s personal maidservant interrupted Ellen as she gazed, dreaming, out of the window; her round face quite concerned. ‘Don’t stay at that too late dear, the figures will still be there tomorrow.’ Mary was a kindly soul who had taken a motherly interest in both girls, showing them how to conduct themselves in court circles, and advising them on how they should speak and dress. Ellen enjoyed her company and they often shared a lunch if Kate was busy with one of her gentleman admirers.
Ellen smiled up at her: ‘It’s certainly difficult to follow these tiny black figures for any length of time. I just can’t seem to get anything to add up this evening!’
‘You’re tired dear, why not leave it for now and take a cup of ale with me before we retire?’ she offered, clearly wanting some company.
‘You’re probably right’ she agreed, rising and putting the books away carefully in her trunk and pushing it under the bed. ‘I can’t stay long, but I’ll have a quick drink with you,’ she said, only intending to stay for a short while.
They walked quickly through the great courtyard and settled at one of the benches in the Servery. As Mary was returning from the hatch with a jug and two cups, Ellen was surprised to see the sour look the young girl behind the counter was giving her. Still no matter, the court was full of people who sought to further themselves, maybe this girl had hoped for a position and looked for a favour from one of Lady Russell’s most trusted servants.
The two women proceeded to swap gossip for a pleasant hour as the shadows lengthened. Whoever would have thought that the fine young lady only recently appointed to the household from such an illustrious family could regularly be found lifting her skirts for one of the grooms in the stables? She didn’t seem to mind which one of the grooms it was either.
‘You’d think the silly girl would learn to make less noise!’ said Mary with a mischievous grin which lit up her round face, suddenly making her beautiful. Then she blushed, shocked at her own daring.
Tumbling into bed that night Kate didn’t stop to breathe. ‘His eyes have the tiniest bit of green in with the brown…’ ‘He touched my hair so lightly with his hand like this…’ ‘He kissed my hand before he took his leave… He called me a shining star….’ ‘He asked if we can walk out together again one evening…’ ‘He…’
‘…is as kind and gentle as the good Lord himself!’ interrupted Ellen rolling her eyes and giggling. ‘Can we please go to sleep now? You can dream of your soldier, and I can dream of counting lots of …..buttons’ said Ellen, turning on her side as she drifted off, hoping maybe tonight she too would dream of a gentle soul. Snuggled up, they fell asleep just as they had since they were tiny girls.
The trouble was, the next morning when she had a chance to look at the figures again she saw the same problem that had troubled her the night before. It was only a small amount but it just didn’t make any sense. She might complain about the mountains of cloth-covered buttons they got through, but it seemed as though there was too much money being spent on silver lace. The Queen and her ladies could wear it of course, as much as they liked; but the only person in their household permitted to wear any lace was Lady Anne herself. They used it to trim her sleeves and hems. That would amount to maybe two or three feet, but this regular entry was for two yards.
She checked carefully and was dismayed to discover that every few months the same thing was happening. Her brows knotted in consternation but it was no mistake, someone was cheating her mistress. The woman that had shown her and Kate so much kindness and acceptance was being robbed. A member of their household was ordering the extra material but where was it going? Who could do such a thing?
‘What’s wrong sweetheart?’ said Kate later as she noticed Ellen’s drawn expression.
‘Nothing to worry about’ she said brightly, but there was no fooling her big sister. Grabbing her by the arm Kate ducked into a storeroom, pulling her swiftly in behind her. She shoved the door shut with her foot then leant on it. ‘Well?’ Ellen hesitated for a moment and then quickly explained what she had discovered.
‘But how can we find out who it is?’ Kate asked, a frown shadowing her pretty face.
‘Well, by the look of the ledger I can only make out a couple of signatures, so that must mean that there are only a few people who have any contact with the local merchants. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find out who it is.’
‘Then what do you want to do?’ asked Kate.
‘I don’t want to tell Lady Anne.’ Ellen stated quietly. ‘We will find out who this woman is and deal with her ourselves. I will not have our mistress learning that she has been treated this way.’
They didn’t have time to give the matter much thought over the next day. The Queen met with her privy council all morning and the ladies were in attendance. The two girls were kept busy carrying messages and running backward and forward to different parts of the palace. It always took Kate twice as long because she stopped to flirt with several young gentlemen. Every trip seemed to require a detour through the guard room. However after a brief conversation with a seamstress who had an unfortunate squint, she quickly sought her sister out. Catching her sister’s eye, she jerked her chin in the direction of the orchard where they could talk without being overheard.
‘I’ve been talking to Squinty Sal…’ she whispered. ‘She says there’s only one person who deals with the lace and such while we’re here. It’s Mary! She has a younger brother who works in Croydon so she’s always managed to put a bit of work his way whenever we visit. Lady Anne knows about it, you know she’s had Mary working with her since she was a child. He brings the smaller linens – linings, border, and the odd bit of silk; but then on the quiet she sells him the extra lace that she’s got hold of. They both do alright out of it. It’s only a yard every few months so no-one has picked it up before.’ Ellen stared at her sister in disbelief, it couldn’t be … not kind, dependable Mary?
‘Are you sure it can’t be anyone else?’ she asked – desperately hoping there would be another explanation. But no, on reflection, it was Mary who had tried to distract her from the accounts the previous evening, and then she remembered the milk-curdling look she had received from the serving girl. Was there more to Mary than they had first thought?
‘So we go and speak to her now!’ said Ellen, making for the little gate that led back to the main courtyard. Grabbing her hand tightly Kate pulled her back.
‘Don’t do anything rash Ellie, let me speak to her, its better this way.’ Kate said urgently. Rigid with disbelief, Ellen glared at the sister. ‘I mean it sweetheart, you’ll make things worse if you go off like this. She’ll open up to me. People trust me, they don’t think I’m clever enough to be any trouble to them.’ Gripping Ellen’s arm firmly the girls faced each other, but Kate was accustomed to winning such arguments, and Ellen eventually relaxed and nodded. It was only after Kate was gone that she realized her fists were clenched. This was the only thing that really frustrated her about her sister. She collapsed onto a bench nestling among the gnarled apple trees, alone with her angry thoughts.
Seeing Kate’s little sister sitting in the orchard, looking unusually flushed and quite distressed, Lt. Goodridge approached her, ‘May I be of service?’ he enquired cautiously. Getting up hastily she found herself looking into eyes that were indeed flecked with green.
‘Oh it’s Kate… she …just annoys me … sometimes…’ Her words came out in a rush, then she bit her bottom lip mainly to stop the tears coming to her eyes. He carried on looking at her steadily, refusing to break the silence. Under his gentle gaze she relented enough to say, ‘Why does she have to be so over-protective? Does she think I don’t understand the real world? It was me who found this out and now she’s taken it away from me like I’m … a child!’ She cried, storming off. Edward looked at her as she left; a puzzled expression darkening his handsome features.
‘I know how your sister feels,’ he murmured to Ellen’s retreating back, ‘what is it about you that makes me want to fight every man in the Spanish army single handed just to protect you, girl?’
His commanding officer had offered sage advice when it came to the fairer sex. ‘No attachments – show them a good time, but tell them you can’t be free for at least ten years. Keep an extra string to your bow if you must lad, but don’t offer them marriage. It was a life that suited him – the more the merrier – as long as they had neither husband nor silly ideas. But Ellen? She could be different.
Late that evening Kate collapsed onto a seat at the long bench, pulled her cap off and fluffed up her curls. She smiled across at two of the grooms who were watching her from another table. Before they could come over she was joined by Ellen carrying a platter loaded with wooden bowls of steaming meat stew and half a loaf of bread. Settling in opposite, the earlier confrontation now happily forgotten, she glanced behind her to check they couldn’t be overheard. ‘Well?’ She asked.
‘You’ll never guess what this has all been about!’ Kate said, then calmly picked up her spoon and slowly began to eat; an infuriating smirk playing around her lips. ‘Interesting texture to this stew. Not sure whether I like it or not. What is this meat…? Rabbit…? Pigeon…Rat….?’
‘Kathryn Fettiman you tell me everything right now or it won’t just be bits of rabbit floating in that stew!’ Ellen threatened, picking up a serving jug.
‘May I remind you sister, that patience is a virtue …’ Kate began piously but could not hold out against Ellen’s furious glare. ‘Alright! Alright!’ she laughed. ‘You will be relieved to know that she has admitted everything to me! Confessed that she’s been saving up the money for months. Guess why she wants the money…? So she can get married! Couldn’t see what all the fuss was about!’ said Kate triumphantly. ‘She has no family to support her, so she’s been scraping a bit extra each month to pay for the wedding. Says this is her only chance at happiness and she won’t be left as an old maid to be pitied and looked down on. God forgive me Ellie but I ended up feeling a bit sorry for the poor old thing – she’s got no one apart from this man and she really does believe it’s her only chance for a home life of her own. I can’t blame her, who wants to be left on their own in this world without a good man?’ The irony was completely lost on Kate as she shared this news with her sister.
‘So what did you say to her?’ asked Ellen trying not to dwell on the prospect of being alone in the world.
‘Well, I told her that we’ll tell Lady Anne unless she stops right now. She was so relieved that she agreed straight away – I don’t think she’s a bad person really, just had her head turned by a handsome man. She’s probably not the only one either.’
‘And you swear you convinced her to stop now and that’s an end to it?’ said Ellen looking earnestly at her sister.
‘Yes! It’s all over. She knows she’ll never face her reputation being ruined. How will she cope with no employment and no prospects? I even convinced her she’d be better off without her intended as well, he sounds like a complete scoundrel! Poor thing she’ll be so embarrassed.’ Both girls laughed in relief at a job well done and chattered happily as they finished their supper. Thanks be to God for a satisfactory end to this unpleasant episode.
The next day, as the royal party were winding their way out of the gatehouse they made an impressive sight, The Queen and her ladies and nobles on their fine mounts, followed by a great many carriages and all escorted by the royal bodyguard. Most people cheered and waved until the royal party were out of sight and then returned to work. The women were staying on to finish up with the packing and then preparing to leave the following morning.
Standing by the gatehouse, watching the last of the party leave, Kate waved and smiled a secret smile. Last night in a snatched moment before the final dinner, Edward had held her face in the moonlight, telling her how special she was, and that one day he would come back for her. He couldn’t be free yet even though he desperately wanted to be. She would wait for him.
Then her mind wandered pleasantly to the French diplomat who had been so extravagantly complementary to her at the dancing last evening. Frenchmen really could be outrageously flattering when they wanted to.
At an upstairs window so that she too could catch a last glimpse of Edward, Mary smiled a secret smile, hugging herself in the knowledge that she only needed to wait a little longer until she and her handsome soldier could be together. She had easily convinced that silly girl that it had all been a horrible error of judgement on her part, she’d just have to be a lot more careful in future. Maybe she could slip a few coins to the right people to keep quiet?
Meanwhile in the large bedchamber, Ellen smiled her own happy smile – ‘Thank goodness!’ she cried. She had been on her knees searching for Lady Anne’s silver thimble that had rolled under a tapestry in the frenzy of packing and she had finally reached it. She wanted to get everything tidy as quickly as she could, then she and Kate could enjoy an afternoon stroll. They could take their lunch down to the meadow beyond the canal and lie in the sun. They might even remove their boots and stockings. They deserved to relax before their journey in the morning. Maybe they could invite poor old Mary to join them.
She must be feeling wretched, and she’d always been so kind to them both, they’d try and cheer her up.
She was so busy that she didn’t even notice Edward leaving.