—after the painting by Bartolomeus Van Bassen, c. 1634
It storms for three days but the king is safe. He lies propped on a divan of lustrous, dark damask in an anteroom and looks out on his splendid dining hall with its swags and pilasters. They keep it quiet for him. He is too weak to rise. Occasionally he glances out the small window opposite into the driving snow. But mostly he gazes into the hall, at the whirling motes of dust in the leaning light from the high windows, at the creeping shadows slowly crossing the black-and-white tile floor. There is a huge bowl of white lilies on a table across the small room; it gives off a sweet, gangrenous smell. He wishes someone would remove it, but there is nobody in evidence.
He is warm. He had been chilled before, with fever. A doctor must have attended him. Now everything is still. It occurs to him, as he lies there looking through the open double doors, that his palace is overdecorated. The coffered ceiling draws up the eye and marches it through acres of tedious geometry. The embossed wallpaper is heavy with gilt. The place is full of lintels and cornices and Roman kaurymaury, though his palace is hundreds of miles from Italy. His throbbing head swims confusedly. He is here. Safe. In his beautiful palace, in—?
Bohemia. Where he has been king since the snows began. The first flakes had drifted down from the silver sky on his coronation day like a benediction: gifts for the Winter King. Ah, the cheering crowds as he emerged from the great doors of St Vitus’s cathedral, bearing the heavy gold crown of Wenceslas! He can still feel the weight of it, a band around his temples.
There is a smell of smoke from some ill-tended fire. Servants will see to it. He nods, settling back into exhausted sleep.
"Your Majesty," says Bartolomeus Van Bassen, the obsequious renovator, "there is no need for the court of the King of Bohemia actually to be in Bohemia. We must not be too literal. Princes live in exile all over Europe."
"True, true," replies Frederick, Elector Palatine, in tones of harried royalty. He had kept the throne of Bohemia for less than a year. The Winter King, he has heard people say scoffingly, whose rule melted away with his first springtime in Prague. Courtiers snigger softly behind their handkerchiefs.
His imperious English wife despises him. A king’s daughter, she was never impressed at being married off to a landgrave. His unlikely elevation to the throne of Bohemia briefly raised him in her estimation but now he has sunk even lower than before.
He has but lately ended up in Holland, home of his mother’s people. There is nowhere further to flee the ongoing disaster in the east, except perhaps to England. King Charles would welcome them, but Frederick does not want to go to England. The language is barbarous. He would be trapped on a small island with all his wife’s relatives. Besides, if he wanted water between him and the murderous continent of Europe, he would go to New Amsterdam, or Surinam. In Surinam, he might be Stadhouder: he comes of the house of Orange. And there would be no winter.
Now, here he is in The Hague, haunted by flashes of galloping horses and snow. By what folly has he brought himself here, so far from his once-handsome little principality of the Palatinate? By serving the ghost of his iron-willed father? By trying to raise up another mansion to the Lord—extending the glories of the Protestant Union all the way to Prague, right under the long papist noses of the Habsburgs? He knows now that all his efforts had been mere pious fraud, more to appease his father’s spirit than to establish the right worship of God. The Bohemians are not meant to be Protestants. Their enterprise will fail. They will be crushed under the Catholic heel. Providence has spoken.
“There is a spacious old convent in Utrecht given over to you. Once I have seen to its refurbishment, it will be quite commodious,” continues the tireless Van Bassen. He is obsessed with decorating. The more exiled kings there are floating around the Seven Provinces, the better for him. “Now, I beg you to look at this painting. It is, of course, quite fantastical, but if you would care to consider its motifs—”
The man stands looking ostentatiously modest. The painting is obviously his own. They paint endlessly, the Dutch. Europe is flooded with their paintings. Collectors stack them up like cordwood. Aristocrats in faraway Prague are proud of their collections: historical paintings, biblical scenes, portraits, elaborate pictures of fruit and silver. It would pain them to know that merchants—even labourers—here in Holland will hang dozens in their houses and think nothing of it.
The Elector looks at Van Bassen’s painting. It is certainly very fine. He nods approvingly.
The painting depicts a fancy Italianate hall, big enough to dwarf its elegant occupants, who are all seated at a long dining table along the left side. Among them Frederick, squinting, recognizes himself. He is even wearing the green doublet given him by his brother-in-law, the English Charles. His own initials are suspended on a roundel high up on the wall above him.
The man works fast, there is no doubt. Then again, Van Bassen probably had the panel ready; all he had to do was put the figures in. The place itself is a fantasy. There is not enough money in the world to transform an old convent in Utrecht into a place like this; it’s the size of a cathedral, all built of Italian marble. Looking at it, Frederick finds its pretensions unsettling.
“Now, which elements do you prefer, Your Majesty?” asks Van Bassen. “Coffering? Of course, you need a false ceiling for that—big job. Columns, now, that’s easy. Pilasters, too. None of it needs to be weight bearing. A nice bit of marble facing goes a long way. I’m rather proud of these swags—you see, there are doves in the central roundel here? Pretty. Nice smooth profiles. And then—”
Frederick is suddenly weary. It is like placing an order with a grocer. “Please, Mijnheer,” he says, “you decide. I trust your judgement.” Probably he will run out of money before the hodgepodge becomes too farcical. As his own folly had built nothing, he must be content to live in Van Bassen’s.
The artist looks as though all twelve days of Christmas have come at once. “Delightful, Your Majesty, delightful! You are certain? Then I will do my very best for you and your family.” He packs up his picture-cum-sample-book and bows himself out.
The weary king reclines on his dully shining divan. It is too hard. Overstuffed. And it is an awkward shape, holding his head up at a steep angle. Why is fancy furniture so uncomfortable? Damask is horrible stuff, slick and cold like gunmetal. It smells like iron from all the dye.
He is barely awake. A thought emerges slowly: why is he in this trifling anteroom, in his own palace? Why is he not reposing in some bed of state? Or even on that sprawling table that he sees over there, long enough for forty diners, by the huge hearth with all its classical excrescences? Why is he not lying there, pillows under his head, surrounded by anxious ministers tending to him in his collapse? It would surely be warmer. Why is he tucked away here, upright on this hard couch, with these damned, reeking lilies?
Is he not the king?
Why is nobody here? Where are the servants? Has there been a revolt? A plague? A battle? He stirs weakly, shaking his head and trying to rise. He cannot. He has an agonizing pain in his leg. The gout is acting up again. Gout: the disease of rich men who eat rich food and drink the best brandy and lead unassailable lives. Everyone in Europe aspires to have gout.
Beef, brandy, and security are everywhere in short supply. The world is a wilderness of violent death. He has no intention of leaving the protecting walls of his palace. The palace of a king is a powerful idea, a talisman, sacred ground. Those inside it are always the last to die in any disaster. Sometimes they even escape. The war, the weather, the mob, whatever is coming. He will wait here. Someone will come for him.
The two pristine white doves perched on the swag above the doors ignore his feeble attempts to get up, staring blandly and symmetrically to either side of the room. As he gazes up at them, they seem, for just a moment, to flutter and darken, cackling like crows.
Will the day ever come that he’ll have a patron rich enough to afford everything? Van Bassen glances at the painting as he wraps it carefully in burlap for storage. Tuscan marble, pediments, black-and-white tile—and gold leaf? Not unless someone deposes the Doge and he happens to settle in Amsterdam. On the other hand, working for any scion of the house of Orange is an excellent opportunity. They have a way of coming out ahead, even military losers like this one. Frederick is already well embarked on the other princely strategy: he has a tribe of children. What is it now? Seven? Ten? In any other Calvinist family it would be unseemly. But princes breed like flies. The man himself is nothing but there is no telling where his children will rule. Frederick will get his cobbled-together royal residence in Utrecht. With all those children, he will soon need a summer palace. The family does not have one to spare at the moment. Someone will have to build one.
Bartolomeus Van Bassen will do his utmost to please the exiled King and Queen of Bohemia.
The artist looks at his elegant, imaginary palace. This is really the best way to make them: in paintings. No costs. No risks. No enraged clients, their heads bashed in by falling lintels. He has not had to struggle for months with engineers over the coffering. Fortunately, there is also a vogue for this kind of architectural painting, ever since De Vries. He is happy to cater to it. He enjoys perspective. The wonderful trick of creating a huge space in a small painting is endlessly exhilarating. For him, though, it is always the details. The tidy shadows between the cornices. The soft double curves of swags. In this painting, it is the tiny counter-posed figures of the two doves. He repainted them three times until he was satisfied.
The doves, indeed, had been most insistent to appear in this painting. White doves have no heraldic significance to either of the patrons, king or queen. They are strictly decorative: imaginary. This is the freedom of this kind of picture. When the mind is entirely free, small features can take on great significance: the little birds had just appeared under his hand, unplanned. He had felt them shifting and rustling there, so round and active it had taken him some while to tame them into bas-relief. Only he will ever really notice them. They are his. Frederick would never have observed them had Van Bassen not pointed them out.
This is the whole point of princes. Meaningless in themselves, their wealth and consequence allow other people to imagine things on their credit. Occasionally he cannot help hinting at this, and they never notice. Frederick, poor fool, has just purchased Van Bassen’s dream, mistaking it for his own. But the dreams of princes are public property. Anyone can walk into them. Or even fly, as these two small white doves seem to have done.
The smell of the lilies is almost overpowering now, though they do not seem to be rotting. They appear pristine as ever in their misted silver bowl. Repulsive things. Their perfumed reek is torturing. Yes, this is how to torture kings: buy them the wrong flowers. Overstuff their silken couches. Perturb them with a touch of gout.
Outside, the bodies of soldiers litter the ground, piling up at the ever-shifting edges of the imperial map. Catholics. Protestants. Habsburgs. Hussites. Bohemians. Poles. Ottomans. The Holy Roman Empire is a welter of blood. He will lie here and count his blessings.
The recumbent king stares at the deep blue velvet curtains drawn back with white silk rope. His eye moves on to each perfectly turned leg on the rosewood table, each piece of crystal and gold plate on the sideboard, each polished alabaster urn on the floor. They are items in a catechism. He glances out through the double doors to the aerial space and peace of the coffered hall in its serene classical order. Inwardly, he commends its architect. He was wrong before to think it overdecorated. How can there be too much beauty? Each separate thing his eye falls on eases his dragging breath. The palace enfolds him like a doting nurse, like a lover.
The Queen of Hearts, Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James I and VI, is a good Christian: a firm Protestant. A much better one than her brother Charles, a waverer. She should be the one wearing the English crown. Charles is not any too good at it. He may end up in a palace next door in Utrecht if he isn’t careful. Fortunately there are many spare convents in Holland.
Mostly these spent old nunneries get converted to decent public uses: hospitals, orphanages, madhouses, homes for the old, jails. Places to keep the useless and destitute off the tidy Dutch streets. It is infuriating to think that her family is now among that number. This gorgeous new palace that is mooted for her and her children is little more than a royal almshouse. No one will ever let her forget it.
The people of Prague had loved her. She is a good deal fairer and just as tall as her ineffectual husband. Such are the margins of popular adoration. Elizabeth is not a fool: what else would she expect? Most people in Bohemia had scarcely heard of England, much less Scotland. The Bohemians would have handed their throne to a lapdog to spite the Habsburg Ferdinand, that vile tormenter of Hussites. A handy Calvinist prince from the Palatinate ruling in Prague seemed an excellent idea. It was only when he got there that they realized he was the meek son of his triumphant father, better suited to be a gardener than the next great lion of the Protestant Union.
She had known that already. She had spent the previous ten years in his little principality, learning to speak German. There was good hunting. She bore child after child. She knew Frederick to be a decent man, studious, upright, quiet, unlike his brutal and charismatic father. She hoped that his decency and uprightness could be translated into godly action for faith and family. She pushed him very hard to accept the challenge of the throne. But he was not a warrior. Had she just left him alone to his mystical tracts and his beautiful gardens in Heidelberg, the world would be a better place. Their family might still be living in the pretty little castle overlooking the Rhine, with no worse problems than boredom and eating an excess of pork.
Now those gardens are smoking ruins, part of a Catholic fiefdom. Frederick had spent every ounce of gold in the Palatinate on the Protestant cause in Bohemia. In Prague, all the Hussites had hated each other as much as they hated the Catholic enemy and the mild Elector could not constrain them. Things had fallen apart rapidly. Now the Bohemians have rushed into the arms of the infidel Ottomans. Incomprehensible, conniving fools. May they all be devoured by the Grand Turk.
So here she is in The Hague: ’s-Gravenhage, the country people say. In Scotland, a place called “the prince’s wood” would be a hunting lodge decorated with deer antlers. Here there are palaces, canals, churches, markets, guildhalls. The city is awash with members of the house of Orange-Nassau, Frederick’s maternal kin. They are exceedingly civilized and live like princes, which is what they are.
To be a prince means something else here. The only princes in England—or Scotland—are the sons of the king, and there is an end to it. Nothing else makes sense. To be forever meeting the prince of Thus-and-So and This-and-That and going through all the rigamarole every time is nauseating. A king and his family are royalty. They rule. They are holy. Most of these people are just rich.
Sitting in a sumptuous drawing room, the furnishings of which alone would buy the drafty palace of Holyroodhouse in which she had grown up at Edinburgh, Elizabeth looks with loathing at the busy architectural painting of the Dutch artist, Van Bassen. It is prominently displayed on an easel. Frederick has taken a liking to it, and insisted that it be taken out of storage, where the artist had decently placed it, having accomplished his purpose with it. Now it is the subject of much family discussion and speculation, which she finds humiliating. She must sit, hour after hour, under the sardonic eye of Prince Maurits, who will pay for it all. He is the only real prince of the lot, the Stadhouder. He himself is a terrifying general, but neither his exceptionally well-trained troops nor his money and Protestant enthusiasm had saved their cause in Bohemia. So she looks coldly back at him.
In the painting, she sees herself in a glistening dress, raising a glass to the company. Her father’s royal arms are discreetly tucked into a roundel above her head. She is not filled with filial devotion at the sight of them. James, having admonished her throughout her whole early life to act like a queen and to aspire to be one, had also failed to back them in Bohemia. He had preferred the Catholic Ferdinand, the easier course, less foreign trouble. A few Scots volunteers, loyal to her person, had been the only ones to fight on their side. Most of them, brave men, died. The few survivors, seasoned troops, went back to England to serve her brother, the papist-loving fool. She is none too proud of the house of Stuart.
Charles, though, is quite fond of Frederick. This makes her impatient though she knows it is good for them all. He will keep sending them money until the Apocalypse. For this she is duly thankful, though it makes her tightlipped to contemplate the affectionate correspondence between these two trifling, bookish men who just happen to be kings. She prays for patience. Their embarrassing situation in The Hague will continue only for a little time. In another few months she and the family will depart for Utrecht. They will move into the palace Van Bassen has constructed for them and hold imaginary court. She will be grateful. It will be a just punishment for her own ridiculous fantasy of the two of them, King and Queen of Bohemia, ruling from their luxurious palace at Prague—Prague!—which she had scarcely even heard of until the offer was made! She blinks away tears of rage.
Utrecht is a city famous for its tolerance. The King and Queen of Bohemia in exile will arrive to take up their official residence, and the good citizens of Utrecht will tolerate them. They will smile and bow to their Majesties and charge them double. At least it will be Maurits’s money, thinks Elizabeth silently, vengefully, looking at the shining surfaces of Van Bassen’s painting. Maurits had poured coin into Bohemia like water, encouraging her husband’s futile claims; let him spend a bit more now to greater effect. A great general, the prince Maurits, with nothing but bastards. She and Frederick have six children living.
Frederick admires Van Bassen’s picture. He knows much more about painting than she does. However, the one thing that she knows and that he does not is that such pictures are not really meant to praise their royal subjects. She and the Elector Palatine and the rest of their noble guests, so small and insignificant in the midst of the superb, soaring architecture, are small for a reason. That is how the artist sees them. The King and Queen of Bohemia, Frederick and Elizabeth, his patrons: they are gnats, fleas, lost in the scale of his invention, tiny bloodsuckers whom he and the rest of his class can suck dry in turn. She understands that the painting, in its elegant atrocity, is nothing but a flytrap.
Now the weakening king hears music in a distant room. There is no sign of the musicians. They are not visible in the darkening hall. The light whistling of a flute, the drone of a shawm, and the sonorous lines of a viol can be heard, quietly, just at the edge of hearing. It echoes through the great dining hall, bouncing lightly off the pillared walls and the ceiling coffers, quicksilver. Perhaps it is coming from another anteroom. It reminds him of music he has heard before.
He is used to hearing music through walls. He remembers standing, standing at attention, by doorways through which elegant music such as this, and light chattering voices, would seep into lamp-lit hallways. It seems to him that he was hungry, and hungover, and resentful of the soft voices and the clink of silver and the quiet whine of the courtly music, but he cannot think why.
Now it gives him comfort to think that there are other people out there, somewhere, sharing his palace. Musicians. Servants. Guards. They are all protected, together, by the same noble idea. The cool marble walls, the tapestries, the lustrous sheen and shield of wealth: these hide them from the horrors outside the walls. He is the king. It is only right that he give his people what protection he can.
The distant musicians continue. In the midst of their pretty, mournful tune he hears what is unmistakably the raucous caw of a crow.
Van Bassen throws the painting into the decorating deal. Frederick is well aware that it has served its turn. The palace in Utrecht will contain as many of its decorative elements as the old convent, and his budget—that is, the budget of his uncle Maurits and of the English king—can support. He himself escaped from Prague with nothing but the crown jewels. Van Bassen’s clever picture will hang on the wall of some reception room, a fantasy within a fantasy. Or perhaps a framed grocer’s receipt.
Dinner is going forward downstairs but he has begged off. He can hear music rising faintly from below, the scraping of a viol and a tootling flute. His nerves will not stand it and his appetite has been poor, so his punctilious hosts have sent a small supper up to his room. Travel upsets him. Ignominious, terrified flight, leaving a confused and headless army behind him, unsurprisingly, had been even worse. Now he faces, on a daily basis, the icy contempt of his wife and the wry scorn of Prince Maurits, hero of the field. Nightly, his imposing father rages at him in dreams.
Trying to manage the campaigns had been like an elusive dream: allies had kept melting away, only to reappear, briefly, in bizarre combinations, before disappearing completely. His ragtag army had finally been slaughtered at the White Mountain. He had not even been present. He had only seen the battlefield as he fled through it, afterward, seeking help that never came, his vision seared by limbless men and twitching horses.
He is terribly, endlessly sorry. What can he do for his subjects now? What subjects would those be? In the burnt Palatinate—in rebellious Prague? He is king of nothing. Everywhere he can think of, people need help desperately. They need food and fire and money and the safety of walls. He has no resources for repair of anything. He can provide for nobody, not even his own family. An unending desire for expiation fills him; he knows it is selfish, and even theologically suspect. But if someone gives him so much as a grape, he wants to give it away. Please! Take it! Take everything! Please, use it, however you can! Save yourself!
He is only the Winter King. What use can that be to anybody?
The surveyor walks through a field some miles from Prague. He is there to reclaim munitions for the Bohemian forces, especially cannon. They are too heavy for the locals to loot. The tack from the horses, the uniforms of the men, most of those are long gone. Some of the bodies, too, horses and men: eaten. Not that there were ever many here. Most had died on the road, defending escaping carriages or wagon trains. Of the expensive people in the carriages, or their goods in the wagons, there remains no trace. Perhaps it had been the Winter King himself, racing from Silesia back to the Rhine, to catch a boat to the precious Dutch Republic that saved his Calvinist hide.
He sees a dark bulk at the edge of the field, near the road. Approaching, he sees a fine blue-black howitzer, a beautiful machine that makes him proud to be Bohemian. Best guns in the world. This would have cut through infantry like a scythe through grain. He sees a figure propped against the cannon’s base, held up at an angle like a fine lady on her chaise longue, his bloodied head still resting on his elbow. A single soldier: the gunner, perhaps. The snow has blown off him. He wears the uniform of the German Frederick’s palace guard. He has a horrible sabre wound in his calf, black and festered. It would be stinking if his body were not frozen solid. He would certainly have lost his leg, had he lived. No chance of that, out here in the middle of nowhere, alone, in winter.
“Poor fellow,” he says to his assistant as he comes puffing up, lugging some heavy surveying equipment. He looks at the soldier’s scratched-out eyes. “Crows have been at him.”