A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  But today would be different, I was sure, for I was very happy to be betrothed to the fine young man in the miniature, and most eager to meet him. I could barely stand still for impatience as Mrs. Ellen laced me into my yellow velvet gown with its neckline edged with delicate gold filigree beads and cutwork embroidery, its full skirts spread gracefully over a wide farthingale and a kirtle of crimson silk. She reproved me for fidgeting as she adjusted my oversleeves, clasped the chain of my scented pomander around my waist, and brushed my hair till it shone.

  “No hood today,” she decreed. “You must wear your hair loose, as becomes a maiden.”

  The effect in the mirror she held up was very pleasing, and I was thrilled that Lord Herbert—I could not yet think of him as Henry—would see me looking so fine on our first meeting.

  ——

  The day being warm, we had thrown open the parlor windows to let in the light, fresh breeze from the river. The long oak table had been spread with a crisp white cloth and laid with silver candlesticks and an array of gold plate laden with cold meats and raised pies, tarts both savory and sweet, and tall pyramids of fruit, with great ewers of Venetian glass full of good wine. There were bowls of sweet-smelling flower petals on the side table, and fragrant herbs scattered along the tablecloth.

  My mother bustled about in her silken gown, hectoring the servants to ensure that no small detail should be overlooked. My father, who had gone out hunting at dawn, had been sent upstairs to change into his noblest apparel, and was now sprawling elegantly in his chair, reading a book. For all his inclination to sport and pleasure, he does love learning and is exceptionally well read.

  Jane was reading too, huddled on the window seat. She was, as usual, in disgrace, having made her appearance in a black gown unadorned with any jewelry. It was only after some sharp words from our mother that she donned more festive-looking clothing, but that did not go far toward sweetening either of them.

  Our younger sister, Mary, was not to be present. I have not spoken so far of Mary, because she rarely has a part to play in my story. My parents hardly mention her, and on the day of my betrothal they announced that, at eight years old, she was too young to join the gathering. Even so, she is not too young to be advantageously betrothed to the aging and battle-scarred Lord Grey de Wilton, a friend of Northumberland. The truth is that my parents do not want poor Mary seen in public at all, with her poor little humped back and her stunted stature. They fear that people will point a finger and say that God is so displeased with the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk that he has not only withheld the blessing of a son, but has also cursed them with a misshapen daughter; or they will say that a twisted character must lurk in a twisted body, like that wicked crookback King Richard III, who had the poor Princes in the Tower foully murdered all those years ago.

  But there is nothing twisted or wicked about Mary. She is a gentle soul who strives to be as normal as Jane and I in order to please our parents. I have seen her holding herself as straight as possible, hiding her poor humped back under a shawl, oblivious to the pain it causes her. But my lord and lady mostly leave her to the care of Mrs. Ellen and the other nursery attendants. Anyone can see that, given the choice, they would prefer never to set eyes on poor Mary. But I am very fond of my little sister. I worry about her, knowing that I must soon leave her to go to my husband’s house. Yet I know that Mrs. Ellen will go on caring for her as lovingly as she always has. She is a sweet, thoughtful lady, very fair and very feeling, and sometimes—God forgive me—I find myself wishing that I had her for a mother. But to think such thoughts is sinful, for I know I owe my love and duty to the mother who brought me into the world.

  The truth is that I was so overwhelmed by the prospect of coming face-to-face with Lord Herbert that I gave my little sister barely a second thought.

  At midday, craning my neck out of the open window, I glimpsed the Earl of Pembroke’s barge, ornate and majestic, gliding slowly up the River Thames toward our landing stage.

  “Hurry! We must make haste!” my mother hissed.

  Needing no second bidding, I flew to the door, but then I felt a hand grip my shoulder and heard my lady’s voice again, saying, “Slowly! It does not do for a bride to be too eager. It is unseemly. And you do not want to look like a hoyden, running down to the barge with your clothing flying in disarray. What would the earl think?”

  I subsided into obedience, as I had done countless times before, and walked down to the jetty as sedately as a lady should, my hands folded over my stomacher, my eyes downcast, looking at the grass—although I was desperate to behold the face of my intended and assure myself that he was indeed as handsome as his picture.

  “You are fortunate, sister,” murmured Jane beside me, looking directly at our guests as we came to a demure standstill behind our parents. And it was then that I dared to raise my eyes.

  The Earl of Pembroke, a soldierly, black-bearded figure garbed in fashionable attire that was no less lavish than our own, was making his vigorous way along the gangway between the raised oars of his boatmen, and leaping onto the landing stage. Behind him came a stately woman in a stiff brocade gown, who could only be his wife, the countess. And then—there he was, my bridegroom, a slim young man with brown curls, wearing silver and blue silk, and his face was recognizably the face in my miniature. I caught my breath.

  But the painter, whoever he was, had lied. His brush had not been equal to its task. It had not captured the cornflower blue of Lord Herbert’s wide, dancing eyes, or the manly contours of his face, with its straight nose, broad cheekbones, and full red lips. It had not delineated his graceful figure or his long, muscular legs encased in white hose and soft leather shoes.

  There were introductions, I am sure, but I remember little of them except this glorious young man gazing down with sincere admiration into my eyes as he raised my hand to his lips and gently kissed it, warmly declaring himself well content with his beautiful bride. His father the earl was in a jovial mood, clapping him on the shoulder and saying how fortunate he was, and kissing my lips, saying I was even fairer than he had been told; then my father and mother welcomed their “son Herbert,” and everyone was congratulating us as we turned and walked back toward the priory for the betrothal ceremony, the toasts, and the cold meats.

  The day seemed more than sunny now: it had taken on a special radiance, its colors and hues brighter and sharper than I had imagined; it was as if the world was revealing itself anew because I was seeing it through the eyes of another. All through the afternoon, Lord Herbert and I observed all the courtesies of which our parents had told us to be mindful, but our eyes were saying much more. Our elders made very clear their belief that betrothed couples should be closely supervised, but later my debonair young lord contrived to speak to me in a quiet corner, saying that he fancied himself already in love, and could hardly endure the prospect of the empty days that must pass before we could be married. My cheeks burned at that, but my heart, my ardent, childish heart, was soaring.

  It was late, and my candle had burned down almost to the wick, but I could not sleep. I lay abed, reliving the events of that happy, merry day, recalling the converse I’d had with my Harry—as he had asked me to call him, saying it was how he was known in the family—and thinking of Jane, who had smiled upon me and wished me every joy in my betrothal. “For you are meant for marriage, Kat,” she told me. “You have a sunny, giving nature. I know you are going to be happy. Whereas I should like to be wedded to my books!”

  Poor Jane! I do believe she meant it.

  I had not eaten much of the feast provided by my parents. My head had been in too great a spin after looking into Harry’s eyes as we made our betrothal vows and swore to be true and faithful to each other forever.

  “I thank God it will be but a short time until we are wed, my fair Katherine,” he had whispered just before we said our farewells. “I long to make you mine!” His words, and the way he squeezed my hand as he said them, promised so much. I had been brought up
with horses, pet monkeys, and dogs, so I was not ignorant of physical things, but in that instant I began to realize that there was much more to human love than I could ever have dreamed. I blushed and just smiled; I had been brought up to be modest and discreet, and to regard all mention of such matters as proper only for the marriage bed. There was no way I could have conveyed to Harry how much I longed for him too.

  After that, I could not expect to sleep, for I had much to dream about while awake. And presently I realized that I was hungry, having eaten so little, and took to wondering if there were any of the leftover cold meats, or anything else, in the court cupboard in the great hall.

  I rose from my bed, donned my new nightgown—an expensive one with puffed sleeves and a high buttoned neck—and carried my candle down the curving stair that led to the hall. To my right the door to the parlor was slightly ajar, and I could hear voices. It was my parents, sitting up late as they often did, enjoying a drink by the fireside. I was about to go in, but stopped short when I heard something that disturbed me. I should have gone away then, I know, but I was ever a curious child, and did not pause to remember that eavesdroppers rarely hear any good of anything, especially themselves.

  “I hope Pembroke doesn’t waver.” It was my mother’s voice that had stopped me in my tracks. Waver? Why should the earl want to waver? Was it my marriage they were talking about? I held my breath.

  “He, waver? Not a chance,” my father said. “He’s bound himself now, and cannot get out of it.”

  “Oh, but he can. This agreement about the marriage not being consummated immediately. I don’t like it.” My heart began beating fast at that, and it would be pounding heavily before I was finished listening.

  My lady was strident. “I told you, you should have insisted on their bedding together on the wedding night, but instead you go and agree to the earl’s condition.”

  “But Katherine is young—she’s just twelve. He said he was being purely considerate of her age, which I rather liked him for.” My father sounded defensive.

  “Words! Fair, empty words! She’s old enough for wedding and bedding,” my mother snorted, as I shrank at her coarseness. “It’s clear to me that Pembroke doesn’t entirely trust Northumberland, and that he is sitting on the fence to see if my lord duke can hang on to power after the King dies. It’s well known that Catholic Mary has no love for Northumberland. She’d as soon hang him, given the chance. I wouldn’t give a groat for his prospects with her sitting on the throne.”

  The King—dying? He was but fifteen years old. I had heard he’d been ill, with measles or smallpox, but that he had recovered. He could not be dying, surely? It was too much to take in. As for the consummation of my marriage, I knew what that meant, but why shouldn’t it be allowed? Surely Pembroke would want to bind himself to us, who are, after all, of higher rank than the Herberts, and of royal blood to boot? Modest as I am, I have been brought up to consider myself and my sister Jane great prizes in the marriage market.

  “Northumberland will hold on, never fear.” My lord’s tone was confident. “The country was glad to turn Protestant under Edward. People will rally to the duke. It’s too late to go back to the old ways. Mary must understand that.”

  “I doubt it!” my mother interrupted, tart. “She’s spent most of his reign fighting for the right to have her Mass.”

  “But she has no support. Of course, the Catholics in the North will cleave to her, yet I doubt she’ll command much of a following elsewhere. It may be that His Majesty and Northumberland have some other plan in mind.”

  There was a pause, and once more I held my breath, in case my parents should discover that I was listening outside.

  “Do you know something that I don’t?” my lady asked at length.

  “I know nothing,” my father replied, not entirely convincingly.

  “But he is plotting something. If it affects us, I have a right to know. I am, after all, the King’s cousin, and in line for the throne myself after his sisters.”

  My father never could withstand my mother’s iron will, but what he said to her next I could not hear, only the sibilant hiss of a whisper. “For me?” I heard my mother exclaim.

  “Shhh! Walls have ears,” my father muttered, with more truth than he knew. “I know for a fact that one of our servants is in the pay of Pembroke, and have no doubt that the earl is aware that something momentous is afoot. He has Northumberland’s confidence.”

  “But is it to be me?” my lady persisted. Her tone was urgent.

  “In truth, I do not know what the duke is planning,” my lord murmured, so low that I had to strain to hear. “Only that he means to set her aside.”

  “But her right is enshrined in law …”

  “Acts of Parliament can be repealed.”

  “And you think Pembroke knows of this? That explains everything. It’s as I feared. He is pleased to ally himself to us, and thereby to Northumberland, but only for as long as the duke holds power. Pembroke means to hunt with the hare and the hounds, and if the hounds should by any chance win, he will have all the pretext he needs for breaking this marriage.”

  “That may be so,” said my father, “yet I think you are fretting in vain. Northumberland is strong, and he has the nobility and the country behind him.”

  “I do hope so, my lord. I do hope you are right. It’s a good match for Katherine. The child was much taken with Pembroke’s boy. I don’t want to see it broken.”

  I heard a rustling of silks as my mother rose from her chair, and I tiptoed back up the stairs, all thought of food abandoned. I could not have touched a morsel anyway, for my mind was in turmoil. Was my marriage in some way uncertain? Would it not even be a true marriage? I did not sleep at all that night.

  But now it is my wedding day, and as I stand here in my bridal finery, waiting for Mrs. Ellen to make the final adjustments to Jane’s train, and for my mother to clasp around our necks the priceless jeweled necklaces sent as wedding gifts by the King, I am still in torment. Whenever I think of my Harry’s handsome face, his loving countenance, and all the promise in his fair words, I dread to think that I might lose him, or that they will forbid us to become man and wife in the truest sense.

  But there is no more time to brood on this, for the trumpets are sounding and my lord my father, dazzling in white and gold, is waiting to escort us down the grand processional stair to the splendidly arrayed state apartments, through which we must pass toward the chapel. Durham House, where we have come to be married, is a palatial residence surrounded on the Strand side by a high wall buttressed by marble pillars. The guest chambers that have been allocated to us give onto the river, and the great hall and chapel overlook a wide courtyard. This is an old building, not much used these days, but I’ve heard that King Harry VIII’s queens once lived here. It is now the property of His Majesty’s sister, the Lady Elizabeth, who has graciously allowed us to use it for the celebration of our joint wedding. I have never met the Lady Elizabeth, but I know of her by repute as a great lady, and very learned. Jane was brought up with her for some years in Queen Katherine Parr’s household, and although they were never close—being two very clever girls, they were too competitive for that—Jane did come to admire Elizabeth; indeed, she speaks often of her wit and erudition.

  Sadly, the King cannot be here today. He has sent his regrets, and has generously commanded his Master of the Wardrobe to have the house refurbished in royal style, and to supply us with sumptuous wedding attire. These rich clothes that we are wearing, the cloth of gold and silver tissue, the damasks, the silks and velvets, the exquisite embroideries, are all the King’s gifts. And as I walk in procession, my hand resting on my father’s left arm, with Jane on his other side, through the great chambers of Durham House, I marvel at the magnificent display of King Edward’s great bounty: the exquisitely woven tapestries, some of them shimmering with gold thread, the Turkish carpets on floors and tables, the brand new hangings of crimson taffeta. The vast chapel, smelling of old, hallo
wed stone, is royally adorned too, and I am overawed by the rich jewel colors of the tall, stained-glass windows and the altar furnishings—but even more so by the sight of my smiling but pale bridegroom, who is waiting for me in a shaft of rainbow sunlight.

  I stare at Harry in alarm. He does not look like the robust young man who came to court me at Sheen. He looks ill, in truth, and thinner than I remember him.

  The binding words are spoken over us; we make our responses, and I swear to be true and loyal all my days, and to be obedient and amiable in bed and at board; and now the blessed moment comes: we are pronounced man and wife, and kneel together for the Bishop’s blessing. I have eyes only for Harry, whose hand is squeezing mine so meaningfully. But I cannot but notice his drawn face, and Jane’s visible unhappiness as she is bound to Guilford Dudley.

  But now here are our parents and guests, clapping and congratulating us, kissing me and Jane, and jocularly slapping our new spouses on the back. The Bishop beams as Harry ventures a chaste kiss on my lips, and I feel a great lightening of the spirits. Harry and I are wed now; surely no one can prevent us from becoming one flesh, as Holy Scripture enjoins.

  It is only at this moment—for I have been utterly enrapt by the ceremony—that I become aware of so many great lords among the company.

  “The entire Privy Council is here!” my mother breathes. “Are you not honored?”

  “Yes, indeed,” I stammer, overwhelmed that I should be thought so important, and hastily curtseying to the fine gentlemen. “I thank you all for coming, good my lords.” Their presence, not to mention the splendid display put on for the wedding, is making me feel dizzy with conceit. These marriages must indeed be important to warrant such honors. But why?

 
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