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Birkensnake 2 cover

Birkensnake 2

From A World Called The Blazing World

Danielle Dutton

Was it shock, then, or fear, or else a naïve sense of civic duty that provoked Margaret to join the Queen’s court at Oxford? Certainly the stories were enchanting. One: that the glamorous Henrietta Maria (Marie de Medici’s daughter) had scandalized the English by acting in her own court masques — now a princess, now an Amazon, now a water nymph, and so on. Two: that the beautiful young Queen, fond of masquerades offstage as well as on, had been spotted, by Sir John Davys, walking along the Thames and through riverside meadows disguised in order to “look upon the haymakers, and sometimes take a rake and fork and sportingly make hay with them!” Three: that the Queen, calling herself “she-majesty generalissima,” had led an army from Bridlington to Oxford (early in 1642), straddling a horse like Alexander and eating with the men in the field.

Or had Margaret spotted her way out? Upon hearing the Queen had fewer maids in Oxford than she’d been used to in London, hands at her sides, before a painting of a dog, Margaret plainly requested that she be allowed to go. She had, she said, a “great desire” to do so. Her siblings were against it. She’d embarrass herself, the family. She was shy, had been so infrequently from home; she was strange — that much was clear, even to doting sisters. But Elizabeth Lucas was tired. This war had come like a whirlwind. Hoping to please her youngest — who’d sunk into melancholy after the rape of their gardens — Elizabeth consented after a mere three sighs. Or perhaps Lizzie decided it was time her baby grew up? Therefore, at the ripe age of twenty (and nearly a spinster, let’s face it) Margaret moved from her insular family into an insular court.

The trip to Oxford was made in the dead of night. Kisses on the lawn at St. John’s Green. A perfect summer gloom of vegetal bravado: peonies, bugloss, native beetles singing. She rode with her maid (a girl called Elizabeth Moppet), pictured a royal reception in the wan summer sun. Curtsies and banners and rows and rows of marigolds. But when the coach came to a stop it was in front of a baker’s house in an obscure and narrow lane. Margaret was sped inside (a strange man gripping her elbow!) and shown to a very bad bed. But she did not sleep. She kept her wits. Amidst the sour smell of yeast and mold, she crept from the bed to peer into the lane and saw a stack of soldiers’ bodies.

The following day salvation came in the form of a handsome courtier. But she refused his arm, refused to speak, refused to meet his eye. A short trip, a series of crowded hallways, and then — unexpectedly — Margaret met the Queen. The Queen, stunning and Catholic and dressed in red and ermine. And dozens of sumptuous courtiers stood silent against the walls. Then someone cleared his throat — and Margaret saw she was in an alternate universe whirring far into space: African servants, poets, dogs in silken caps, platonic ideals, sparkling conversation, aristocratic ladies “half dressed, like angels,” and ivy-coated quadrangles with womanizing captains, dueling earls, actors. Artless girl, she was shocked to learn the court itself was a playground. In fourteen hours she’d gone from her mother’s bosom to the celebrated body of Henrietta Maria, effortlessly arousing Puritan ire for years. And Oxford itself was rotten with spies. Dead dogs and horses clogged the waterways. Corpses from both sides were flung on Jews’ Mount. Enemy combatants imprisoned in parish churches. There were military parades for the King every morning at eleven. Grain was stored in Law and Logic, drawbridges built in Rhetoric, boots cobbled in the School of Astronomy and Music. The Queen rarely left her makeshift palace, and her ladies-in-waiting rarely left her side. Margaret spent hours in hothouse rooms, clutching the Queen’s tortoise fan or gloves or lace fan or fox train. There were hierarchies amongst the ladies. Bickering over who sat where and when, who wore what and when, who fetched what and why, and who said what and to whom and what gave her the right to say that. And what flirts! Margaret shared a bed with one of the worst — another junior-ranking maid who’d had it to herself before Margaret got there. Worst of all, she was permanently underdressed, in courtyards and buzzing hallways, in her taller sisters’ outmoded hand-me-downs and caps. So she designed in her mind a sugar-spun golden gown to walk the path to church in, trailing crimson petals and greenish beetle wings. Then someone cupped her breasts — two-handed! — as she passed like a ghost down the hall. Margaret rather “chose to be accounted a Fool, than be thought rude or wanton.” She never spoke, but immediately sent word to her mother, begging to be allowed back home. Elizabeth, now in London, as promptly refused. Bad as Margaret thought she had it, life outside was swiftly unraveling for those still loyal to the King. Be tranquil, her mother’s note advised, this war will soon be over.

But the following spring it was not. So Margaret accompanied the Queen’s court to Exeter, where Henrietta Maria gave birth to a girl — the labor causing hysterical blindness and a lingering pain in her chest. Two weeks on (and leaving the tiny princess), Queen and company fled to Falmouth, where — in “a galley with sixteen oars” — they sailed for France. The French had offered the Queen an entire wing of the Louvre. It was a temporary loan, to wait out the Puritan scourge. Six months — no more — and off they sped.