A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  Her Majesty’s bounty has extended to me too, for she has bestowed on me the most generous pension of eighty pounds a year, which has made me financially independent. And, because my mother is much preoccupied with settling her own affairs, and consumed with sorrow as well, the Queen has charged her loyal friend, the Duchess of Somerset, to keep a watchful eye over Mary and me. Her Majesty, seeing the poor, downcast case in which we languish, has judged it neither fair nor fitting to keep us with her at court. For my part, I can no longer abide the poisonous atmosphere of that hateful place, where all has turned to tragedy and others rejoice in the fall of my house. And so I and my sister Mary go to lodge with the Duchess of Somerset’s family at Shelford Priory, near Nottingham. I go willingly, thankfully.

  The duchess, who was born Anne Stanhope, is the widow of Edward Seymour, the late Lord Protector, who was brother to Queen Jane. Her Grace is a strident woman, a high-nosed snob with the pride of Lucifer, and ceaselessly ambitious for her children, of whom she has nine yet living. Still, she is a kindly guardian, and content to leave Mary and me to our own devices, so long as we do not disturb her peace. The duchess herself was a prisoner in the Tower for two years following her husband’s execution, and was liberated only last year by Queen Mary, so she relishes her freedom, and cannot bear any constraint upon it.

  Summer comes with heartening news: my mother is appointed Lady of the Privy Chamber to the Queen, and soon afterward Mary and I are commanded to put off our mourning and join her there, to serve Her Majesty once more. I go reluctantly. I am still grieving for Jane, still yearning for Harry, still mourning my lost hopes of a crown. The way I am feeling, it matters not where I am or what I do. I struggle to perform my duties, but my mother tells me it will do me good to concentrate on something other than my grief, so I do my best to give satisfaction to the Queen, hard though it is for me.

  The Lady Elizabeth is in the Tower. It is a great scandal. The talk is that she was secretly involved in Wyatt’s rebellion, and will shortly be accused of treason and sent to the block, going the way of her mother. That rouses me a little, but I am in no mood to gloat over an enemy brought low: I can only feel for her. Yet the investigation drags on and on, and still the council does not proceed against Elizabeth. Next we hear, she has left the Tower and been moved under house arrest to Woodstock, where the Queen—who has no love for her sister these days—means to keep her out of mischief.

  Gradually, as I reaccustom myself to the routine of Her Majesty’s daily round and my duties, I begin to take pleasure in small things once more. My dogs, for example—they have been my one comfort through all this. And there are others. Sometimes, when there are festivities at court, we are allowed to leave off our regulation black or tawny gowns and borrow finery from Her Majesty’s own wardrobe. It is while trying on a selection of elegant beaded or beribboned dresses with some giggling maids of honor that I learn to smile again, and begin once more to enjoy the camaraderie that exists in the privy chamber and the maidens’ dorter: the merriment, the music, the sweetmeats, and the endless games of cards and dice.

  In July, feeling in slightly better spirits, I am present with my mother and sister in Winchester Cathedral when Queen Mary marries Philip of Spain amid magnificent celebrations. I watch Her Majesty vow herself, enraptured, to the fair but cold-eyed prince, and observe them together at the great feast in Wolvesey Palace that follows. She looks ecstatic, he reserved and correct, and plainly disdainful of English customs. I notice his eye alight with interest on statuesque Magdalen Dacre, one of Her Majesty’s ladies, and then flicker away again, with fleeting distaste, to his royal wife. I feel sorry for my mistress, for she has expected so much from this marriage. But she sits there in her purple cloth-of-gold gown, a look of bliss on her face, seemingly unaware of anything amiss.

  I see Harry among the laughing, jesting guests, and want to weep because he does not seem to notice me. I’ve heard he has been appointed to serve the new King. He is on his way up, I think bitterly, unhampered by an unsuitable marriage. I could even feel envy for Queen Mary, but when I look at that stiff young man who is now her husband, I wonder how he will deal with his aging wife’s innocent devotion. And when, later, I hear the cruel gossip about the wedding night, I can feel only indignation on behalf of my kind mistress.

  ——

  My true restoration to life and happiness is down to Lady Jane Seymour, the Duchess of Somerset’s daughter. Jane and her sister Margaret are both maids of honor to Queen Mary, and I first met them when I joined the Queen’s household. The elder, Margaret, is haughty like her mother, and I could never take to her; but Jane is a fair, ethereal-looking, and merry maiden of thirteen, a year younger than I. After ten minutes in her company, I felt I had known her all my life. She is gentle and warm with me, and enfolds my poor lost soul in kindness. Before long, I realize I have made a true friend.

  Soon, I find myself spending most of my free time with Jane Seymour. She is one of only two unmarried daughters left in her family, and disgruntled because of it. She fears she will never escape her mother’s clutches, for she is delicate in frame and in health, and deemed too frail for the duties of matrimony. And yet matrimony is all that she thinks of.

  “Ah, but I do dream that one day some great lord will ask for me and persuade my mother to give her consent,” she sighs, as we kneel in our nightgowns, gossiping on her bed. “In truth, I long to bed with a man!” And she collapses into giggles. I am touched that she deems me worthy of her trust and friendship, and glad to have someone to confide in, although there are some things of which it is painful to speak.

  “It is my constant desire to be reunited with my husband,” I confess haltingly.

  “I’m sure the Queen will permit it, in time,” says Jane, her smile kind. “Cheer up, do! We shall be very merry now that we are gossips, my good Kate!” Then her face falls. “Forgive me—I did not think. In my pleasure at having you here in the privy chamber, I had forgotten that you have so much to be sad about. How very insensitive of me. Do say you forgive me.”

  She is irrepressible, like a puppy, and seems mature for her years, for she has been well-educated and has even had her Latin poetry published in Paris—I am much impressed by that. Intrepid Jane must always be the leader, always the one who makes the suggestions. “We shall go riding today!” she tells me, or “We shall practice our dance steps—I will teach you how to do a very stately pavane!” And I, by dint of having been a younger sister always in the shadow of an elder, and not much minding what I do, am content to follow, sadly wishing myself with another Jane in another time. Alas, it can never be, and sometimes the sense of loss is unbearable.

  “Do not overtire yourself, Lady Jane,” my mother often admonishes. “The duchess would not wish it.” But Jane ignores her. She is a strong character and very willful. “I am perfectly well,” she mutters under her breath, but then she will pant heavily as we climb the endless palace stairs, or sink onto a bench after racing through the gardens. I know not what is wrong with her, and do not like to ask. Apparently she has always been delicate, right from birth. “I was not expected to live,” she told me once, “but look at me now!” And she twirled before me, her wide skirts flaring out from her too-thin waist. Then she began coughing. “I’m all right, really I am,” she choked.

  As the weeks pass, and the dark days of tragedy recede into the distance, and I learn that life goes on and that the human spirit can still find much to enjoy in it, I come to value Jane’s friendship. At last there is someone who understands me, for the Seymours too have known tragedy.

  Jane is a true daughter of her house. She and her family burn to restore the Seymour family to greatness, and all have big ambitions. Jane speaks often of her eldest brother, Lord Edward, who was once betrothed to my sister Jane. She sounds as ambitious for him as she is for herself. She longs to see their father’s titles and honors restored to him.

  “It is a pity our families were not allied by marriage,” she says. “I would
have rejoiced to have you as a sister.”

  “But we are more than sisters,” I tell her. “You are my heart’s friend, and it shall ever be so!”

  I receive astonishing news. My mother has remarried, at the advanced age of thirty-eight. Many think it quite shocking that she has condescended to wed her Master of Horse, Mr. Stokes, but I suspect he has long been her lover. It has caused a stir, of course, for he is far below her in rank.

  But I’ve always liked Mr. Stokes. Although he’s not wealthy, and has debatable dress sense, he’s amiable and loyal, and he has ever been kind to me and my sisters, so for these reasons alone I have no objection to the marriage. At least my mother now has someone to comfort her and distract her mind from her terrible losses. (Would that I had the same!) And the Queen, bless her, has received them both at court, confounding the gossips and those who audibly whispered “Traitor!” whenever my mother showed her face. In time the scandal will die down, as all scandals do, and I think Mr. Stokes will prove himself an admirable stepfather.

  I am promoted! I am advanced to be Lady of the Bedchamber, and my sister Mary also. That ranks us both among Her Majesty’s closest and most trusted attendants. I am with her when she triumphantly announces her pregnancy; when she grows ever heavier with child, and euphoric with anticipation; and, at the eleventh month, when she is finally told, to her grief, that there is to be no babe after all. I see the cold-eyed Spaniard shake his head in exasperation and abandon her to fight his interminable wars. I am there too when the old heresy laws are revived and the burnings of Protestants begin. Shuddering, I hear terrible tales of the heroism of men and women chained to the stake to die a cruel death; and I observe with concern the Queen’s increasing fanaticism, and her deafness to those who care how rapidly this persecution is destroying what is left of her popularity.

  Like many in this kingdom, I am horrified by the burnings. Sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the kindly mistress who has been so warm and generous to my family, who loves babies and is godmother to so many, and is loved by all who know her well, with the driven crusader who demands this persecution. Queen Mary insists she does it in hope of saving the souls of heretics by giving them a taste of eternal hellfire. It is a kindness to them, she says. She is sincere in her convictions.

  My enemy, the Lady Elizabeth, comes back to court much humbled and subdued after her year’s imprisonment in the Tower and at Woodstock. Whether she ever was involved in Wyatt’s rebellion, neither I nor anybody else could ever say, and certainly not the Queen’s Council, for she was perhaps shrewd enough to cover her tracks. In the end they could prove nothing against her, and King Philip sued for her to be received once more into favor. It’s said she practiced her wiles on the King, and I can well believe it. And so she was reconciled with the Queen, to all appearances, but I know for certain that Mary will never trust her again. Her Majesty has accorded my mother and my cousin, the Countess of Lennox, precedence before her sister, and I can well imagine what the Lady Elizabeth thinks of that!

  Elizabeth’s prevarication and insincerity cannot but contrast most unfavorably with my new zeal for the old faith, which continues to delight Queen Mary. This is reason enough for Elizabeth to hate me; I know she regards me as a traitor to the new religion. It must gall her to see the Queen showing me favor—me, the Catholic heir.

  KATE

  October 1483, Lincoln

  The court was lodged at Lincoln Castle, on its way south, when there came the shocking news that the Duke of Buckingham had openly repented of supporting King Richard—“the usurper,” he had called him—and was rallying under his banner all those with a grievance against their sovereign. There had already been an uprising in Kent, quickly suppressed by the Duke of Norfolk, but Henry Tudor was said to be in league with Buckingham and gathering an invasion fleet in Brittany.

  There was no question now of Kate staying with the court. The King was adamant that his wife and family go to Middleham, which was strongly fortified. With Buckingham on the Welsh Marches, and reports that the Wydeville exiles were arming and the South was in ferment, he insisted they would be safer there.

  “I myself will travel back to London with the court, to deal with the rebels,” he said, his voice harsh. “Just let me get my hands on that traitor Buckingham!”

  John, somber-faced, sought Kate out. He was to remain with the King, of course, for his sword might be called upon in the coming conflict.

  “My father the duke is immovable as a rock,” he said. “He is set on this other betrothal. I told him I’d never consent to it, but he would not listen. Don’t look so crestfallen, sweet Kate. All is not lost, believe me. I will never cease to oppose him, and they cannot make me say the words that bind me to another.”

  For a moment Kate knew despair, and she clung to him, but a quick kiss was all they had time for, since she had to help the Queen’s ladies to pack. As she ran back to the royal lodgings, she was oppressed by the thought of the arid weeks of separation from John stretching ahead drearily, endlessly … Who knew when they would meet again—and if he would prevail over his father?

  The court was tense, waiting for Buckingham to strike, and Kate sensed hostility mounting against her father the King. Every time she espied him, he looked more troubled, his brows permanently furrowed. His face was marked with cares, tense and haunted. She had put it all down to anxiety over Buckingham’s treachery, but then she began overhearing the gossip.

  That was nothing unusual in a court, but this was different. It was pernicious, damning, and nothing less than treason.

  She first became aware of what was being said when, descending some stairs, she overheard two guards talking below.

  “Some say those poor princes have died a violent death,” a voice said, sounding as if it reveled in the imparting of such terrible news.

  “How?” asked another.

  “It’s the common fame that they were silenced so as to make Old Dick safe on his throne.”

  “He ordered it, then?”

  “That’s what people are saying.”

  Choking back tears, Kate fled back up the stairs, locked herself in her room, and flung herself on the bed, weeping as if she could never stop. But there was worse to come. Later, as she was smoothing down her skirts and washing her heated face, she heard voices in the outer chamber. She recognized them as belonging to two of the Queen’s ladies, Alice Skelton and Elizabeth Bapthorpe.

  “I despair for those poor innocents,” Alice was saying. “And there’s many in the court—and the town—that are shedding tears over them. I’ve even seen grown men crying when their murder is spoken of.” Kate had a sudden, disturbing vision of Lord Stanley weeping.

  “It’s an atrocious crime,” Elizabeth replied, “and the King should be brought to account for it.”

  “If he intended to court popularity on this progress, he should have thought twice before doing away with his nephews,” Alice said. “Mark me, we’ll see many desert him when Buckingham makes his move.”

  “The whole world is talking about these rumors,” Elizabeth observed, “so you’re not going to tell me the King hasn’t heard them. And if they’re not true, why doesn’t he do something to stop the gossip? He must know it can’t be doing him any good.”

  “How would he do that?” Alice wondered. “I’ll wager he can’t produce those boys alive. Come, let’s hasten with this mantle. The Queen is waiting.”

  “Surely she’s heard the rumors too?” said Elizabeth.

  “She must have. But she keeps her own counsel. You never know what she is thinking.”

  “She’s a loyal wife.”

  “Yes, but not a happy one, I think …”

  Their chatter faded away, and soon Kate realized she was alone. She was hugging herself in her distress, unable to fully assimilate the implications of what she was hearing, and with a hundred questions teeming in her head. What was worse was that, for the first time, she found herself doubting her father, and that felt like the wors
t kind of treachery.

  She felt the need to unburden herself to John. He was close to the King and knew something of state affairs.

  He was delighted to see her, and walked with her into the bailey, where they braved a stiff autumn breeze to sit on a low stone wall. Fortunately, the weather had kept most people indoors, so they were alone for a time.

  “What is wrong, my darling?” he asked at once, taking her hand.

  “I have heard terrible rumors …” She could not bring herself to say more. It was as if giving voice to them would make them true.

  John’s fine features grew serious. “There are many rumors. Buckingham and his friends have seen to that. But I would not give them any credence.”

  “These rumors are about my father … and the princes that are in the Tower.”

  John was silent for a moment. Then he said, “You must not believe them for a moment. They are wicked lies, put about by Buckingham and his fellow traitors to bring down the King. The princes live yet, I would stake my honor on it. Your noble father is incapable of doing them ill, whatever some may say.”

  “I pray he will refute these rumors.”

  “I dare say he will.”

  “He should show the princes to the people,” she persisted.

  “Would that be wise?” John wondered. “In the wake of the late conspiracies to free them, the King might have had them moved secretly elsewhere, and it would not do for Buckingham’s supporters to find out where.”

  “I had not thought of that. So you think I should not worry about the rumors?”

  “No, my sweet Kate, you should not.” And he leaned forward and kissed her lips. “I will miss you desperately when you are gone,” he murmured. Feeling much happier, Kate forgot who might be watching, and for a few moments they were oblivious to anything but each other, until the approach of distant voices made them spring apart, giggling.

 
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