Marion Swancott Yorath, Lady Grenhamshire
With an Introduction by Helena Gravari
~When I was two years old, I became obsessed with the mystical land I had heard about in the stories told to me by my grandmother; stories of men that beheaded their wives, stole from the rich and gave to the poor and would willingly die (if the Plague didn’t kill them first) for the honor of their ladies, who danced among the fairies in ancient woods. Later I realized that this fantastic land, this England, was real and I could go there if I wanted when I was old enough. From that moment until I was eighteen (made even more passionate after I returned from my long-awaited visit when I was fifteen), I devoured with unbridled voracity every book, every show, every website I could find that had anything to do with this land of mystery and magic. During that time, I became a veritable expert on anything concerning British history; Pre-Arthurian and Pre-Norman Eras, the Dark Ages, the Middles Ages and the Black Death, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Glorious Revolution, Jack the Ripper, Shakespeare, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Queen Victoria, you name it, I knew it. Then my life changed forever.
It turns out that while all of this was going on in my life, an aunt of mine was doing her homework too. Unfortunately, like many American families, our knowledge of our own family history was disappointingly shallow; we’d come over in 1919 through Ellis Island like most families of Irish origin, joined gangs, lost the family business to Prohibition, got in tussles with law and eventually became honest, upstanding, respectable citizens on the opposite side of the country. But it went deeper than that. About a year after she began researching, my aunt struck – possibly to my ecstasy alone—gold. We were English. Long before we came here, long even before we were Irish, we’d been English. In fact, we had a relative in the court of Henry VIII, named Marion Swancott. And I was hooked and on the case.
The next year of my life was crazy. I spent many sleepless nights in libraries, on the internet, meeting strange people in coffee shops and calling everyone and anyone that might be able to help me. I acquired many restraining orders and many strange looks during that period. But it wouldn’t be long until I found the proverbial Holy Grail.
I had been in London pestering the poor, patient people at the British Museum, possibly to the point of banishment for about a month when a dear, sweet, saintly young savior named Robert Guy, a young employee at the Museum, saved my life. I mean that partially in jest and partially in truth; I may just have committed suicide if the British Museum had banned me; I was just that desperate. He called me at my hotel room in what I assumed to be a polite way of preventing me from going back to the Museum. He invited me to meet him at a local pub to discuss something that might be of interest to me. I was intrigued beyond the point of sanity as I waited for the next evening when I had to keep myself from running all the way to the pub. He was there already sitting at a table with a pint gazing at me with a bemused expression. He must have talked to me enough times to know that I would be there a half an hour early.
I got through the pre-conversation niceties as best I could without throttling him, but he did eventually get to the point. He had a phone number. A phone number. The phone number of an eighty-year old man named Herald Tibbot who was a prominent benefactor of the Museum and who was rumored to have a very rare manuscript. But naturally, in his typical cheeky English fashion, Robert refused to tell me what this document was. He just smiled at me in that bemused expression that I had grown accustomed to in those few short minutes and handed me a piece of folded paper. He bid me good night, wished me good luck and walked out of my life. In retrospect, I was vaguely sad to see him go but I had a number and I was happy.
The next day I called the number. The phone rang for quite some time and finally the answering machine came on. I poured my heart out to it, explaining to Mr Tibbot who I was and why meeting him would be the culmination of many years of working and wishing and that he could reach me at—but then the answering machine clicked and told me in a clipped, automatic accent that the machine had run out of tape. I sighed and put the paper on the counter, resolving to call him again the next day. But that wasn’t to happen. The next day, as I came back in after a visit to the library, the paper was gone. I searched all over but the maid must have mistaken it for something else and thrown it away. I sat down on the bed and cried. I cried and cried and cried. I knew I couldn’t find Robert again; I don’t know how I knew but I did. Eventually, all the wind gone from my sails, I left England and went home.
For about a year, I gave no more thought to Marion Swancott or Henry or even England at all except perhaps the fleeting what-if before dosing off. Then, on June 28, 2001, on King Henry’s 510th birthday, of all days, I came home from work and found my answering machine blinking emphatically at me. I played the messages and nearly wept. Herald Tibbot had found me. It moved me so much, and still does, that I will reproduce it for you here:
“ Hello Miss Rice. This is Herald Tibbot. I got your message about my manuscript and I would like to show it to you. I am aware that by now you have left the country and I am very sorry to inconvenience you but if you would like to come back and see it, I would gladly foot the bill. You neglected to leave your phone number on my message machine so I had to do some research to find you. In doing so, I realized that you are related to me by a mutual cousin of ours named Anna Walsh. Did you know that your name is of Welsh origin, just like Henry VIII? It comes from “Rhys” which means “ardour, passion, and rash action”, though it has been made Irish. Anyway, I suppose I must leave you some room on your tape in case you are waiting for an important call. If you are still interested in my manuscript, please call me.”
A note: My name was Rice before I married my husband, Petros Gravari. In an instant, my hope was rekindled and I called him back immediately (he had left me his phone number) and by the end of the week, I was on a plane headed for London. I came into the station and caught a cab headed to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home-thorpe. I found the house Mr. Tibbot had described and a tiny man who reminded me strongly of J. R. R. Tolkien, answered the door, looking perplexed. I told him who I was and his entire demeanor changed. He pulled a wallet out of his back pocket and paid the cab in cash for me then took half a step and paid me back for my ticket in full, in cash. This first face-to-face meeting with him made the impression, as everyone says, that lasts to this day. He invited me into his home, made me tea, discussed the health of my mother and the aunt that had discovered our history then discussed the life and times of our mutual ancestor Anna Walsh. She, according to him, was what you would call a close friend of Jane Austen’s, though they never really recognized it at the time. He showed me letters that they had written back and forth over the years then he made another pot of tea and we discussed how the family had spilt and who went where and why and how it had turned out for them. For some reason, I was in no hurry at all to see the manuscript or to hurry him like I was with Robert Guy. I suppose I was so starved for this kind of contact that I didn’t care when I saw the artifact or if I ever saw it; I just wanted him to keep talking about England and how I was English with his clean and crisp English accent and his clean and tidy English house in one of the most English towns I’d ever seen. My inner two-year-old was skipping, my inner eighteen-year-old was absorbing every sound he uttered, logging it away forever and my outer twenty-two-year old was so confused by the two conflicting inner ages that she could only sit and stare and will him to keep talking.
The time passed as if the world was on fast-forward. Before I knew it and before I was ready, it was midnight and he needed to get to bed. He was, after all, eighty. So, reluctantly, I bid him farewell. He invited me back for breakfast the next day and I accepted eagerly and decided to decline his offer to drive me to my hotel, opting instead to walk and process my thoughts.
In my hotel room, I broke down. I didn’t really cry, per se, but I kind of snapped. For a while I was completely devoid of any emotion; only this suffocating, silent nothingness. It was as if I had had more emotional ups and downs than I could process. I had to reboot. So I sat for about an hour, staring at a section of chipped paint on the wall and all of a sudden stood, undressed myself and climbed into bed, as if the past hour hadn’t occurred. I began to think; what was this manuscript? Was it a letter to her? or from her? Was it, perhaps, a birth or death or marriage or baptism record? Or was it an obscure mention of her on a list of guests or in the midst of a longer document recording an event in which she played an insignificant part? With that thought, I drifted off to sleep.
Herald was not a small man. At first I must have thought so because it is my preconception of how eighty-year-old men should look. My grandfather was small-shouldered and hunched from arthritis and osteoporosis. But as I said before, Mr. Tibbot reminded me of Tolkien; he stood tall, with broad, squared shoulders and wore a sort of dazed expression when he spoke that could endear one to him forever as the quintessential agéd English scholar. His house was clean with porcelain vases brimming with lavender and rosemary on top of little white doilies, overstuffed brocade sofas and a massive leather armchair, which he inhabited most of my visits with him. There was also another armchair positioned close to his, on the other side of a small coffee table, but I wasn’t permitted to sit in it. He said that it was Liz’s and then a misty, distant look fell over his face and I didn’t want to ask who Liz was, but I assumed she was his wife, whom he never mentioned directly by name.
The next day I went to his house around nine. His housekeeper/cook/companion had already made breakfast and laid it out. English food is legendary; almost no one likes it. It’s grey and pasty and often flavorless or overdone but, in my typical way, I always kind of liked canned tomatoes and black pudding. Anyway, Annie had laid out the food and we had a nice little chat about our families and several cups of tea later, Herald seemed to remember that I was there to see his manuscript. I think he must have reminded himself by a mention he’d made to Jane Seymour; apparently Marion’s older sister had been a nun at the same convent as the Queen. A certain sadness fell over me as he stood to go look for it; it felt as though, with the culmination of my search, I would have what I wanted and Herald Tibbot, like Robert Guy, would retreat into the folds of my memory and disappear.
The manuscript turned out to be a beautifully preserved book with burgundy binding and gold filigree in the fanfare style of the French 16th century. Spirals and curlicues made to look like flowers and leaves swirled around the cover in a diamond shape surrounding the letters “LMY”. This was it; the diary of Marion Swancott, or Marion Yorath as she was after she had married John Yorath, Lord of Grenhamshire. But I was perplexed by it. It was oddly thin and I knew that Marion Swancott had died at the age of fifty-seven. There was no way that half a century of life could fit into 150 pages.
For the moment I laid my disappointment aside and took the book gingerly from Herald’s surprisingly steady hands. The cover was soft and faded with age, the pages thin, yellow and dog-eared and the ink a little blurred. But then, it was roughly 450 years old. I stared at it in awe, all of my apprehension melted away and after a few seconds, realized that Herald had been watching my face. I looked up at him and smiled. He made a joke about “our own Maid Marion” and smiled back at me and said he’d been waiting to find someone who’d love it as much as he did. Of course, he said, returning to his little joke, her contemporaries wouldn’t have known about the addition of Maid Marion to the Robin Hood legend because she wasn’t added until the late 1500’s at which point, Marion Swancott would have been Marion Yorath, would have had six children and therefore, no longer been a maid. But it was still a good joke.
Annie made another pot of tea and Herald and I sat discussing the diary; actually, he discussed the diary, I just stare blankly at it. Marion Swancott had been thirty when she began chronicling in this book, which meant that she had already left the company of the King and was already living in Myrtle Hall in Grenhamshire with Lord Grenhamshire and two of her children, Margaret and Richard. Her diary, which Herald read aloud to me, translating here and there, was full of anecdotes of her children and husband and the general condition and running of the estate.
About halfway through, I guess, Herald must have sensed my disappointment; because, happy though I was to have found this long-lost relative, I had hoped for some true first-hand account of the court of Henry and his wives. He stopped in mid-sentence and looked up at me. He guessed that it wasn’t exactly how I’d expected. I nodded sadly. He sighed, leaned back, took off his glasses and began to clean them on his sweater. After considering me for several seconds, he confided in me that he knew of one other diary and that he thought the owner might still be alive and know of where to find others. I nearly jumped out of my seat and would have rushed off that instant if it weren’t for Herald holding me back. These things must be done properly, he told me and I’ve never forgotten him whenever I get a little overzealous. We must first call the owner, then set up an appointment if they should like us to visit. So we did just that. It turned out that the new(er) Lord of Grenhamshire had recently past and, by “recently” I mean, within the last three days. But, his niece said, they were cleaning out his estate and that if we could prove we were family, she’d gladly give us the diaries. Diaries? We hadn’t planned on more than one, but then, it was the Lord Grenhamshire. So the next day, on the afore-determined meeting, we drove off to Grenhamshire to speak with the late Lord’s niece, whose name, ironically, was Marion.
Marion Pritchard was a tall, statuesque woman of thirty, with dark hair, dark eyes and a librarian disposition; she stood straight, spoke plainly and kept her voice down indoors. I liked her from the first. She looked over the papers I gave her, the documents my aunt had given me, proof of her research. After reading them, she looked up, smiled and invited us into her uncle’s home. The house was gorgeous; covered in wood work and tapestries and priceless antiquities. She led us up into the library, climbed the stairs to the second story and a ladder to reach the top shelf. There, she retrieved, not two, but four books, each the size of the diary Herald had (and brought as proof of his lineage). She brought them down and handed them to Herald. He gave me two to look at and kept two for himself. Opening the first of my two, I nearly fainted; on the first page was the date, “6 January, 1540”.
Now, anyone familiar the Tutor family would know that Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife, were married on that date. She was fifteen years old. In the latest of the diaries we had, barring the one Herald owned, she was already one of Catherine Howard’s closest ladies-in-waiting. However, it only went halfway. We know that she was a lady for Catherine Parr as well; which means that there were still twenty diaries floating around out there. Uplifted and disheartened at the same time, we left Myrtle Hall with the four diaries Marion Pritchard had given us and made our way back to Stratford-upon-Avon.
That night, I stayed over at Herald’s house; Annie had set up the spare room while we were out and had made the best hamburgers I’d ever had, thinking that I’d want a bit of American food for dinner. I didn’t really, but it was a nice gesture. Herald and I stayed up long after Annie went home and poured over our new toys, reading juicy bits aloud like schoolgirls who found their older sisters’ diaries and were reading about their crushes. We giggled over some things, gasped at politically intense bits and nearly cried at other times. But, as before, we had to go to bed at some point because he was, as I said before, eighty. So I took my diaries to my room and read under the bedside lamp until the sun came up. The next thing I knew, Annie was knocking softly at my door, asking if I’d be coming out for lunch. Shocked at the time, I nearly fell out of the bed and stumbled out to the table, clutching my diaries as if they’d steady my steps. They didn’t but that’s all right.
Herald asked if I found anything more out and I said that they were the best books I’d ever read. He chuckled quietly then grinned conspiratorially at me. Leaning forward, he said that Annie been making inquiries all morning and would I like to take a shot at finding the rest of the diaries, just for fun. I agreed immediately without even giving it any thought or consideration. And that day we were off to London to consult the Tower Records.
I don’t know why we hadn’t tried there first, but when we arrived we were greeted most warmly by the curator, Martin Cormack and shown the documents in the file which contained, among other things, three diaries. These covered where Herald’s left off until almost a year into Catherine Parr’s reign. These were really the ones I was looking forward to; I wanted to know if she was involved in the scandal around Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper. Unfortunately, Herald had decided that this was now a game and I wasn’t allowed to read anything until we found them all and then we’d read them together. I agreed because it sounded fun.
Over the next two years, we managed to track down the lot of them and formed a sort of committee of interested parties. Between all of us, we decided that Marion Swancott had been silent for long enough and they have allowed me to publish selections from her diaries. All in all, her diaries span from 10 October, 1535 (when she was ten years old) until 20 November, 1582 (when we think she contracted consumption and died).
So, with this story, I present the diary of Marion Swancott, Lady Grenhamshire of Myrtle Hall, and Lady of the Court of King Henry VIII and King Edward I, in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, 1525-1582.
By the way, this isn't a real introduction, nor is the subsequent diary real. I strive only to be as historically accurate as possible and, any names appearing herein that correspond to actual people (aside from the obvious ones, like Henry VIII, Edward, Anne, the two Catherines, Lady Rochford, etc. of course) are purely coincidental. Hope you like it!