A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  At last the waiting time is over, and we arrive at Whitehall. Now all that remains is to say farewell to my parents before I depart for the Queen’s lodgings. As I kneel before them to receive their blessing, my father beams at me proudly and my mother’s smile is warm; all their hopes are now in me.

  “Rise, Lady Katherine.” To my surprise, the Queen has a deep voice like a man’s. Daring to raise my eyes, I see before me a prematurely aged lady of small, spare stature in a heavy plum-colored velvet dress with a cloth-of-gold kirtle and a wide stand-up collar lined with exquisite embroidery. Around her waist is a bejeweled girdle, and on her breast is a large cross set with gems. Her hands are loaded with rings, and her French hood is trimmed with pearls and goldsmith’s work. The whole effect is dazzling, yet it cannot mask the sad fact that the wearer has no claim to youth or beauty, with her heavy brow, watchful eyes, snub nose, pinched lips, and determined jaw. All this I see in an instant, and in that moment I begin to feel sorry for the Queen, for all the sadness of her life is reflected in her features.

  Yet suddenly she smiles, extending her hand to be kissed, and my fears are allayed.

  “You are most welcome to Whitehall, little cousin,” she says. “It is time you took your proper place here. Be assured I do not hold you responsible for events that are better left in the past. You are very young, and your sister too. I assure you, I intend her no harm, and she is being well cared for. You will see her again one day soon. I trust that my lady your mother is well?”

  “Very well, Your Majesty. She is here at court. She sends her love and duty to Your Majesty, and awaits your pleasure, and my lord my father too.”

  The Queen inclines her head graciously. “I am sorry for the breaking of your marriage. It must have been hard for you.”

  “Very hard, Your Majesty,” I agree fervently; then, inspired by her kindness, I fall to my knees and raise my clenched hands in supplication. “Please, madam, is there anything that can be done to mend it? Harry—Lord Herbert and I—we love each other, and our separation is painful to us both.”

  The Queen frowns, then gently pulls me to my feet again. “Hush, child! I feel for you, indeed I do. But you must understand that my lord of Pembroke has his reasons for seeking an annulment, and that this is a private matter in which I cannot intervene. I am very sorry.”

  Even I, innocent as I am of the world, know that the Queen could command Pembroke in this matter if she were so inclined; but clearly she is not. She too considers me an unfit, nay, a dangerous bride for his son, for I am a Protestant with royal blood and a sister in the Tower. My hopes wilt and die.

  “Do not look so crestfallen, little cousin,” Mary counsels me. “You are young yet, and one day, God willing, you will be found a more suitable husband. In the meantime, you will be joining the other ladies in my Privy Chamber. I trust it pleases you to serve me there.”

  “It is an honor that pleases me more than I can say, Your Majesty,” I say humbly, not wanting her to think me in any way unmindful of her kindness.

  As a member of the Queen’s privy chamber, elevated and favored by her, I can hold my head up again and face the world. It is less than I asked for, but far more than I could have expected. Better still, my new status gives me cause to hope that when Pembroke sees me high in favor, the chosen servant of the Queen, and in a position of honor, he will decide after all that I am a fit bride for his son.

  I have not been at court two days before I hear from the other ladies how the Lady Elizabeth, the Queen’s young half sister, is proving obstreperous in regard to religion. Susan Clarencieux, who is closer to Her Majesty than most, tells me that our good mistress was deeply touched when Elizabeth had ridden to offer her allegiance at the time of her accession—“although not until she heard for certain that the Queen would be victorious,” remarks Clarencieux tartly—and had welcomed her warmly to court.

  “They hadn’t seen each other for years, and it always saddened the Queen to know that Elizabeth had embraced the Protestant faith. So she told her that it would make her very happy if she would accompany her to Mass. And that’s when the little madam began to play up, turning up late, or pleading a headache or a stomachache. She even got one of her ladies to rub her belly for her as she neared the chapel!” Clarencieux laughs at the memory, but her smile quickly fades. “It grieves the Queen,” she says, shaking her head. It is obvious that she loves her mistress dearly, but has little affection for the Lady Elizabeth.

  “In the end she had no choice but to go to Mass,” adds Anne Wotton, “and Her Majesty was overjoyed. But then the Lady Elizabeth absented herself again, and the Queen was forced to summon her and demand an explanation.”

  “Oh, she dissembled cleverly!” Clarencieux snorts. “She’s a minx, that one, just like her mother, and look what happened to her. No wonder the Queen doubts her sincerity, and quite rightly too, if you ask me. She fears that if she does not marry and bear a child, the throne will go to Elizabeth, and all her cherished hopes of restoring the faith will come to naught.”

  “But surely the Queen plans to wed?” I ask. I have heard much gossip that the choice is now between Prince Philip of Spain and Lord Edward Courtenay, a descendant of the House of York, although no one seems very keen on the prospect of either as King.

  “Yes, Lady Katherine, but nothing is certain yet,” Clarencieux tells me.

  I rise to go—I have many errands to run, and the gardens are beckoning. They are beautiful, and I want to make the most of the last warm days of the year.

  The privy garden, with its symmetrical beds of flowers and herbs, railed and decorated with figures of heraldic beasts on gaily striped poles, is a tranquil place, enclosed by the long gallery on the river side and the Queen’s apartments on the other. Here, members of the Privy Chamber are free to walk and enjoy the sweet-scented air, untroubled by the courtiers who throng the Great Gardens farther north.

  Today there are only a few ladies seated on stone benches, conversing quietly, and a gardener unobtrusively deadheading the late roses. I have with me my puppies, Arthur and Guinevere, who gambol at my feet, reveling in their freedom, for in the royal apartments they are expected to be as sedate as the ladies, and I have much trouble controlling and cleaning up after them.

  It is in the privy garden, fragrant with those roses, that I encounter His Excellency, Monsieur Simon Renard, the Imperial ambassador. I am already aware that he is a highly important dignitary and one of the chief advisers to the Queen: naturally she favors him as the representative of her cousin, the Emperor; of course her inclination is toward Spain, of which the Emperor is also King, because her mother, Katherine of Aragon, whose memory she reveres and cherishes, was Spanish.

  To my astonishment—it is a week of wonders—Renard sweeps a courtly bow, introduces himself, pays his addresses to me in an uncommonly friendly manner, and offers me his arm, indicating that he would walk with me.

  “Her Majesty speaks especially highly of you, Lady Katherine,” he tells me as we stroll along the paths, admiring the blooms, the puppies trotting happily beside us. Renard’s strong, handsome features are infused with warmth and admiration, and it occurs to me that his wife—whom he tells me he has perforce had to leave behind in Brussels—is a very lucky lady; he speaks of her several times, confiding how much he misses her. Yet he is not averse to paying compliments to another. “Rumor does not lie as to your beauty,” he says, raising my hand to his lips and kissing it chivalrously. “May I speak frankly, my lady?”

  Rumors of my beauty? People are talking about me? I suppose, as Jane’s sister, I must be an object of interest at court. But I am taken unawares by this. It makes me realize that I am an innocent among wolves here.

  The ambassador does not miss my recoil. “Fear not, Lady Katherine, Her Majesty has asked me to approach you,” he murmurs, “which is why we must be private, by your leave.” And he steers me away from the chattering ladies, whistling for the pups to follow us.

  “I am told that Her Ma
jesty’s father, King Henry, conducted much of his confidential state business in his gardens, where he could be certain that no one was able to eavesdrop,” Renard says, leading me to a stone seat at the end of a path. “Naturally, the Queen will marry,” he goes on, “yet all prudent monarchs must decide who should succeed them in the event of their dying childless. Her Majesty, as you know, is no longer young, and childbirth may not be easy for her. We all of course pray that she bears Prince Philip many fine sons.”

  I am startled to hear him speaking of the proposed marriage as a foregone conclusion, for according to court gossip, it is by no means settled.

  “Amen to that,” I say dutifully.

  “But who is next in line if Her Majesty—God forfend!—dies without leaving an heir of her body?” Renard asks. “It is the Lady Elizabeth—yet Her Majesty would be loath to leave her crown and royal estate to such a one, for she knows Elizabeth to be a heretic through and through. Nor is she trueborn, for her mother was punished as a public strumpet, and her paternity is not beyond question.” Inwardly, I doubt this, for anyone who has seen portraits of the Lady Elizabeth and her father, King Harry, might easily see that she is his own daughter. Yet I have heard the Queen openly questioning it, and so it has become the fashion to do so—although behind hands and closed doors.

  Renard is now speaking about King Harry’s Act of Succession, of which I have heard much this tumultuous year. “The next heir is the Lady Jane, your sister, but she languishes in the Tower, and is of the same religious persuasion as the Lady Elizabeth. The next in line, my lady, is yourself.”

  I am struck dumb, yet at the same time filled with elation! Suddenly I recall the whole court bowing, the glorious crown lifted onto that young head … To be named heir to the Queen, and with her approval! It is beyond anything I could have imagined.

  “There is another claimant,” Renard is saying. “Mary, Queen of Scots, the Dauphine of France, and she, of course, is a Catholic. That carries much weight with Her Majesty, but the Scottish Queen has no rights under the Act of Succession—King Harry passed over that line—and she is a stranger born out of this realm, which many believe disbars her. The French are naturally supporting her claim to be heir, but France is the great enemy of Spain, so my master, the Emperor, and his son, Prince Philip, are eager to see you, Lady Katherine, named as the Queen’s successor.”

  He looks into my eyes. “I see the prospect pleases you, my lady. And you will be heartened to know that the Venetian ambassador is also for you. But above all, it is the Queen’s will that you be named heir presumptive.”

  “It is more than I could ever have deserved or looked for,” I breathe, feeling a little light-headed and struggling to find the appropriate words. “I am Her Majesty’s loyal subject, and will humbly bend to her will in this. Yet although it pleases me greatly, I pray that God vouchsafes the Queen many strong sons for the continuance of her line.”

  Renard smiles approvingly, and I know I have said the right thing. “There is just one thing, madam,” he says. “The Queen knows that you have been brought up in the Protestant faith, but Her Majesty is hopeful that you, being young, would be willing to be guided by wiser minds in the matter of religion. It would make her the happiest woman alive to know that her preferred successor will carry on her good work.”

  I hesitate. I can imagine my parents’ reaction to this, and Jane’s. They are all staunch Protestants and hot for their faith.

  “You will think seriously on this?” Renard asks. “I need not remind you how much is at stake.”

  “Oh, certainly, sir,” I tell him warmly, not wanting to risk compromising my chances of being acknowledged the Queen’s lawful heir by hesitating—and yet not wanting Her Majesty to think I take matters of faith lightly. “I will think on it most earnestly.”

  ——

  As I go about my tasks in the Queen’s privy chamber, I can think of little else. Above all things, I desire to be Queen one day. It is my greatest dream, and now it could well become reality, with only one ailing woman’s life standing between me and the crown of England.

  Yet my ambitions are not entirely selfish. I think of all the good I could do as Queen, how magnificently I could advance my family, and—most important of all—that Harry and I could be reunited and I could make him my consort. How I should love to discountenance Pembroke thus, and see him humbled and chastened, bowing the knee before me!

  I vow to do all in my power to live up to Her Majesty’s expectations. I hope never to give my kind mistress any grief over religion. Yes, I have been brought up in the reformed faith, yet it seems to me a mark of gratitude to do the Queen’s pleasure in this crucial matter. I confess I am not as fervent in religion as Jane or my parents, and thus I am the more easily tempted to bow to Her Majesty’s wisdom. If I do not, I fear I will do myself and my family no favors; and if I do, there are many benefits to be gained—maybe even in Heaven itself.

  I wonder how staunch in their faith my parents would prove if they knew that my conversion is the price of my becoming Queen. I suspect that their ambition is every bit as great as their love for the reformed faith, if not greater, and that they might consider the price worth paying. But Jane, I know, would never compromise her beliefs, and I fear she might never speak to me again if I become a Catholic. Yet even she might come to see the wisdom of it if it brought her the benefits of freedom and a life devoted to study, which is what she desires above all else.

  Should I discuss the matter with my parents? I must think awhile before I do that. To be plain, I am nervous of their reaction. But in my heart I know that the decision is already made.

  The September weather is mild, and I am always glad of the chance to take my leisure in the privy garden. Today I have my puppies and my embroidery with me, and am just placing my basket on an unoccupied bench when I see a tall young lady a little older than myself coming my way, with two attendants walking demurely behind her. She is striking-looking, with long red hair that falls below her waist, and wears a modest cream damask gown with very little in the way of jewelry. She is not beautiful—no one with that thin face and hooked nose could be called beautiful—yet she has presence, and a certain charm, which is evident in the gracious smile she bestows on me, and the graceful carriage of her slender figure. I know instinctively who she is, and rise to my feet and curtsey, aware that she towers over me.

  “You are new at court,” she says; it is a statement, not a question. “I have not seen you here before.”

  “I arrived only a few days ago, my Lady Elizabeth,” I tell her.

  “And you are?”

  “Lady Katherine Grey,” I tell her. I nearly add “your cousin,” but think better of it. I am not sure how to take her. Is she friendly, just curious, or even hostile? I cannot tell.

  If she is surprised, she does not show it. “Welcome to court, little cousin. I had looked to see you here.”

  “I am come to serve the Queen, Your Grace, and to attend the coronation.”

  Elizabeth moves toward the bench and I hurriedly remove the basket and place it on the ground. She sits down and stoops to pat my two dogs. At her nod, her attendants walk on and wait for her a little way off.

  “I knew your sister, the Lady Jane,” she says. “We were together in Queen Katherine’s household, God rest that good lady. I am sorry for your sister’s trouble.” I notice that when Elizabeth is talking, she has a habit of moving her slender, long-fingered hands into affected but attractive poses against the fine fabric of her gown.

  “I thank Your Grace. Her Majesty assures me that Jane is well and in comfort.”

  “And she has you here, under her eye, so that you may not get up to like mischief all unwitting!” Elizabeth smiles, watching my face intently with those sharp, hooded eyes. “Did that not occur to you, little cousin? That the Queen has brought you to court because she fears some fool might seek to use you as Jane was used by Northumberland? Jane is out of reach—but you are another matter.”

 
“I would never do anything to hurt Her Majesty!” I protest.

  “Nay, you would not; I’ll wager there is no malice in you. But you do not have to do anything; others might do it on your behalf. It is not what you do that worries my sister, but what you are.”

  “Her Majesty has never expressed any concern about that.” I decide to keep silent about the Queen’s wish to name me her heir.

  Elizabeth sighs. “We have learned in a hard school, you and I, but you do not seem to fully understand the lesson. Listen.” She leans toward me, and I can smell the spicy scent of her perfume, see the flawless clarity of her fair skin against her fiery hair. There is a gleam of malice in her eyes. “You think yourself in a place of honor, little cousin. In truth, it is a place of surveillance.” But that I cannot believe, especially in view of what Renard told me. I fear Elizabeth is just seeking to discountenance one who might be a rival at court—or for the succession itself.

  “We share a common bond in many ways,” she continues. “We should help each other.”

  “If I can do any service to Your Grace, I am ready,” I say uncertainly, hoping she will never ask me to do anything that conflicts with my loyalty to the Queen or jeopardizes my hopes for the future.

  “I see you are already a courtier!” She laughs shortly. “But listen, little cousin. We are bound together by our close kinship to the Queen. If she bears no heir, I am to succeed her. Then comes your mother, who has waived her claim once and might again; then Jane, who is in the Tower; and, after her, you, Lady Katherine. That is the law, as ordered by my father, King Henry. It is no treason to say it. But because of what happened with your sister, the Queen is suspicious of all those with a claim to the throne. She wants us out of the reach of would-be traitors. That is why she keeps us at court, under her eye.”

  I wonder if the Lady Elizabeth has heard any talk of the plan to exclude her from the succession in favor of me. Maybe not, but I imagine she can be a clever dissembler. Is she baiting me, or fishing for information? Or is she genuinely in ignorance, believing her position inviolable? Well, I will not be giving anything away, so I decide to say nothing.

 
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