A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  She does not berate us, or beat us with her cane, as I fear for a moment she will, as we scramble to our feet and stand there flushed, aware of our disheveled state. Instead she bids us put on our shoes and follow her back to the house immediately, then goes striding ahead.

  “Fear not, sweetheart,” Ned says. “We have done no wrong. We will be married, I swear it. My mother will agree, I have no doubt, and when I get to court, I will obtain the Queen’s permission. Be strong! All will be well, you’ll see.”

  ——

  We stand before the duchess in the great hall. She sits regal in her high-backed chair, like a queen sitting in judgment, with a keen-eyed Jane standing behind her—and she comes to the point straightaway.

  “Tell me, Ned, what are your intentions toward Katherine?”

  “I love her, my lady,” he tells her, taking my hand, and I thrill to hear the pride in his voice. “We have reached an understanding. We wish to marry, when it shall please you and the Queen.”

  “So, my son would have another Grey bride. It might please me, but it may not please Her Majesty,” the duchess says. “You might be wise to forget all about it.” I tremble at that, yet I sense she would be delighted if this marriage came to pass.

  “You know that you risk angering the Queen by this entanglement? And that she might be angry that it has gone so far without her sanction? She has no child of her body to succeed her, and many look to Katherine as her heir. But Katherine is a Catholic, and Mary is unlikely to countenance her marrying a Protestant, for a wife must be subject to her husband, and the Queen’s chief concern is to preserve the Catholic faith in England. So it is not a good time to be thinking of marriage. The answer would be no, however kindly Her Majesty might look on both of you.”

  “I will wait for as long as I must to make Katherine my wife,” Ned vows, and turns to me. “It will be worth it, my lady, will it not?”

  “I would wait forever for you, my lord,” I declare.

  Soon, it seems that we might indeed wait forever. Ned goes off to court, leaving me to mope at Hanworth without him, driving poor Jane crazy with my need to speak ceaselessly of my beloved—although mostly she encourages it. The days turn into weeks, and still I languish bereft, surviving from letter to letter. I have those letters under my pillow; they are creased from constant reading and the kisses I cover them with. Ned writes so lovingly, so ardently; I can hear his voice murmuring the tender words.

  There is no point in remaining in the country anymore. I cannot bear being at Hanworth without Ned. Jane is better, and we have prolonged our excuses for too long. And so we return to court. Here, Ned and I see each other only infrequently, for neither of us wants to be thought in any way disloyal to Queen Mary. We have to be content with furtive embraces snatched in secluded corners. And, more often than not, someone is coming.

  KATE

  November 1483; Middleham Castle, Yorkshire

  It was a hard winter, and the wind whistled around Middleham like a vengeful boggart, but that was the least of their troubles. Daily, the Queen and Kate looked for news from the South. It was frustrating, and frightening, being immured here in Yorkshire, not knowing what was happening.

  There had been messengers, riding lathered and weary up to the castle from time to time. They brought news that Henry Tudor’s fleet had sailed but was driven back toward Brittany by a great storm. On that day, Kate had gone to the chapel with Queen Anne and her brothers, and they all thanked God on their knees for His mercy and grace.

  Next they heard, the King had proclaimed Buckingham a traitor and a rebel, but that had not deterred the treacherous duke from raising his standard and marching south toward the River Severn, clearly aiming to meet up with other traitors in the West and South. But the King had put a price of a thousand pounds on his head now, and advanced from Leicester at the head of a great army.

  Kate was desperate to know what was happening, but Anne had withdrawn into herself. The cold weather, the constant damp, and the drafts had made her cough worse, and she looked pale and weary. She was at her happiest when helping Edward with his lessons or telling him stories by the fire. Then she became much more animated. But at other times, she would not discuss the present situation. True daughter of the Kingmaker that she was, she said she would face with courage whatever came. But her anxiety was graven in new lines on her pale face for all to see.

  ——

  For ten days, gales swept vengefully over the troubled kingdom, then the weather settled and a wintry sun came out, bringing in its wake another messenger sporting the white boar badge. There had been no battle, he said; there was no need for one. The gales had done the King’s work for him. Buckingham’s men had deserted, and the duke had sought refuge in the Forest of Dean, where one of his tenants betrayed him. After that his rebellion collapsed.

  “He was taken to the King at Salisbury, madam,” the messenger told the Queen. “Henry Tudor had again attempted a landing at Plymouth, but once he heard of Buckingham’s capture he fled back to Brittany as fast as he could.”

  “And Buckingham?” Anne asked.

  “The King came to Salisbury with his army, and the duke was tried and sentenced to death. He begged an audience with King Richard, but it was denied him, for there were fears that he might try to assassinate His Grace. Then the duke suffered execution in the marketplace.”

  Anne and Kate crossed themselves.

  “God be praised that the King my lord is safe,” Anne said. “Are any other traitors to be put to death?”

  “Six, I believe, madam,” the messenger answered. “But the word is that many will be attainted when Parliament meets after Christmas. Madam, the King requests that you now repair to London with the Lord John and the Lady Katherine.”

  Anne was quiet on the journey south; once more she had torn herself away from Prince Edward, who was to remain in the North as his father’s nominal representative. Yet as they passed through the towns and villages of Yorkshire, the Queen put on a brave smile, and nodded and waved graciously to the people who flocked to see her, cheering heartily. But when the little procession moved farther south and approached London, the people came more often to stare sullenly, or to call out against King Richard and ask what had become of the sons of King Edward.

  KATHERINE

  November 1558–January 1559; Sheen Priory, Westminster, and Whitehall Palace

  The Queen, overburdened by her tragedies, is in a decline, God save her, and has little need of my services now, wanting to be tended only by her oldest and most faithful servants. She has given Mary and me leave, with her blessing, to visit our mother, which is why we are now at Sheen, lodging with my lady and our stepfather, Mr. Stokes.

  My mother has always been an indomitable woman, but her health is not good these days, and I grieve to see her strong constitution failing. It is hard to see mortality encroach on one’s parent, and to find that the roles are reversing, with her now leaning on me, instead of the other way around. It is against Nature, this tragic reversal, yet I am glad to be a strong arm and support for my lady, for she has softened in these last years—and her life has not been easy.

  My lady often likes to reminisce. It is one of the few pleasures left to her, and I indulge her by listening. She invariably harks back to the days of her youth and my grandmother, King Harry’s sister. “They called her a paradise, and she was. You have seen her portraits, so you’ll know what I mean. You have her sweet nature as well as her pretty face, and I daresay you will break a few hearts in your time.”

  I have sat here for so long and I can be silent no longer: I have to break it to my lady about Ned and me. Arch-intriguer and ambitious as she has been, her teeth are now drawn, and this time, I know, caution will be her watchword.

  “Ho-ho, my girl, what is this?” she cries with her old asperity. “Looking to wed, are ye? You have been previous!” But I can tell she is delighted all the same, for she does not reprove me further for proceeding so far without her sanction. Nor di
d I fear she would, for she was once content enough to have Ned betrothed to Jane, and she has long been fond of him. Her father was his godfather; and even after Jane was wed to Guilford, my lady continued to call Ned “son” whenever they met.

  “Madam my mother,” I urge, “this marriage is so precious to me that I beg it be handled carefully. I would not wish to prejudice a happy outcome. You see, I am in good hope that very soon our cherished dreams will be fulfilled, and in the happiest of ways.”

  “Wherefore spring these hopes?” my lady presses.

  “Ned writes that the Venetian ambassador says openly that when the time comes, I will be able to claim the crown unopposed, for Queen Mary—who distrusts and hates the Lady Elizabeth—favors my succession. My lady, will you help us?”

  “Aye, Katherine. I owe it to you, after all that has happened. But now I must rest. We will speak further about this later.”

  It is a frosty November morning. My lady is still abed—she sleeps in late these days—and Mary and I, warmly cloaked and pink-cheeked, are for the stables to feed titbits to our mares and see them cozily blanketed in their stalls. Beyond the courtyard wall we hear the trundling of carts making their way to the City of London, and the clip-clop of hooves. Then another sound breaks the peace of this early hour—the distant toll of church bells.

  I look at Mary. “What’s that?”

  She claps a hand to her mouth as the chimes ring nearer and louder, and are taken up by other bells nearby; they will have been ringing already across the City and in outlying parishes, and soon they will be tolling out their heavy news throughout the land of England.

  My hour, I believe, has come.

  We go back into the house and change our clothes, putting on black out of respect for Her Majesty. I kneel with my mother and all our household in the chapel, praying for the repose of the soul of our beloved Queen Mary; and I shed tears for that kind lady. Yet all the while I am bursting inside with excitement and the pressing urge to hasten to court and claim what is rightfully mine. For now I am Queen at last, and all the power and glory that were so quickly and cruelly snatched from Jane are to be mine. And Ned will be mine too! There is no one to forbid it. And Elizabeth, and Pembroke, must bend the knee to me. I cannot wait for my reign to begin.

  Yet the decent formalities must be observed, both here at Sheen and at St. James’s Palace, where Her Majesty lay at the time of her death. The council must be allowed a space to convene. The events and processes leading to my proclamation will unfold in God’s good time. I steel myself to wait patiently for the lords to attend upon me, or for a summons to court.

  By midmorning I am in a frenzy of anxiety. Surely I should have been sent for by now? I cannot keep still, but keep pacing up and down my chamber, wringing my hands. I must know what is going on.

  In recent weeks I have heard talk that the courtiers were abandoning the dying Queen and making for Hatfield to wait upon the Lady Elizabeth, anticipating that she would soon succeed. Well, they will soon learn that they have miscalculated; and if Elizabeth thinks to profit by their support and deny me my rightful title, she must think again. Yet I will be merciful to all, even her. My reign will begin not with accusations and ill will, but in a blaze of glory and acclaim. And I will find her some good husband to keep her under control.

  In the end I can bear the waiting no more. Wrapping myself again in my cloak, I tell my mother I am for St. James’s Palace, and order the barge to be made ready for me, summoning my maids and urging the boatmaster to make haste.

  When we alight at last at Westminster, I see that huge crowds of people have gathered there. Surely I should have received a summons earlier, or some word from the Privy Council? But maybe they did not know where to find me. I push my way through the press of people, desperate to get to St. James’s; and then I espy a herald stepping up on a mounting block and unraveling a scroll of parchment.

  Surely it is strange to proclaim a monarch before that monarch has even been informed of her own accession?

  “Hear ye, hear ye, good people!” the herald cries. “Elizabeth, by the grace of God Queen of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, sends greetings to her beloved subjects and bids me read you Her Majesty’s most excellent proclamation.”

  Elizabeth, by the grace of God? How can this be? It should be I, Katherine, by the grace of God—as Queen Mary intended. This is wrong, all wrong—there has been some grave mistake! Someone should tell the herald!

  But no, he is reading from the scroll, crying aloud: “Because it hath pleased Almighty God to call to His mercy out of this mortal life, to our great grief, our dearest sister of noble memory, Mary, late Queen of England—on whose soul God have mercy—and to bestow upon us, as the only right heir by blood and lawful succession, the crown of the kingdom of England, we do, by this our proclamation to all our natural subjects, notify to them that they be discharged of all bonds and duties of subjection toward our sister, and be from this day in nature and law bound only to us as to their only sovereign lady and Queen; promising on our part our love and care toward their preservation, and not doubting on their part but they will observe the duty which belongs to natural, good, and true loving subjects.”

  There is more, but I do not hear it. The crowd has erupted in such a roar of joy and approbation that the herald’s final words are drowned, and all around me there is cheering and praise for Elizabeth, “Great Harry’s daughter,” as at least one reveler calls her.

  “God be praised, that’s an end to the burnings!” a fat goodwife next to me cries. “The dread days of Queen Mary are over, and we’ll have a world of blessings with good Queen Elizabeth!”

  “There’ll be bonfires and merrymaking aplenty tonight!” someone else calls. And suddenly, above the deafening hubbub, all the church bells of London are pealing out in celebration, and everywhere around me people are hugging and kissing each other, and even weeping for gladness. I am jostled and pushed by unheeding, ignorant citizens. This is not what Queen Mary intended! Even before she is cold, she is betrayed. How did Elizabeth bring this to pass?

  The fat woman turns sharply to me. “If I were you, dearie, I’d get rid of those black weeds and that miserable face. You should be giving thanks for our new Queen.”

  “I feel a little faint,” I lie, desperate to be gone from here.

  “Oh, sorry, love, I didn’t realize. Do you need a helping hand?”

  “No, I’ll be all right,” I manage to say, and blindly retrace my steps to the waiting barge. It is too late for me: Elizabeth has proved too clever an adversary, and she has the love of the people on her side. And I am not too stupid to realize that, given the rapturous reception that news of her accession has prompted, few are ever likely to support me as a rival for her crown.

  Our horses are draped in black caparisons down to the ground. Our mourning clothes are sumptuous but somber, as are my thoughts as I ride in procession behind Queen Mary’s hearse toward Westminster Abbey, where she will be laid to her rest, and take part in the lavish obsequies ordered by Queen Elizabeth. Listening to the soaring requiem Mass—a service soon to be outlawed—and sitting beside my sister Mary as the funeral meats are served at the banquet that follows, my heart simmers with resentment.

  For already Elizabeth has made plain her dislike—nay, her hatred. Barely had the ink dried on her accession proclamation than she made her position very clear, and suddenly there was a cold draft blowing in my direction from the throne.

  Elizabeth is twenty-five and has never married, so has no child to succeed her; and she has already declared that she means to live and die a virgin. Most people at court think it a bluff, or just maidenly modesty asserting itself. They little know her, for she can be as coarse and foul-mouthed as any sailor. But the fact remains that she is as yet unwed, with no heir of her body. And therefore she plainly sees me as a rival.

  Queen Mary never went so far as to change the Act of Succession in my favor, which is why Elizabeth was indisputably her
lawful successor. Under that same Act, I, by law, am still Elizabeth’s heir—and thereby a threat.

  We both know why Elizabeth does not feel secure on her throne. It is well known that Catholic Europe regards her as a bastard, a heretic, and a usurper, and wants her set aside for a Catholic queen. That in itself is enough to keep her awake at night, but she is extraordinarily sensitive on the subject of her marriage too.

  She is disposed to flirt politically with this prince and that, as well as with her courtiers, and in particular Lord Robert Dudley; but she is in no hurry to wed and give up her freedom. “I will have but one mistress here and no master!” she is fond of saying. Nor is she eager to have children. I myself watched her flare up when Mistress Astley, her Chief Lady of the Bedchamber, suggested—as none else has dared—that having a child of her body to succeed her would bring her great joy.

  “God’s teeth!” Elizabeth cried. “Do you think I could love my own winding-sheet?” And in her eyes, for that one unguarded moment, I could see fear. I suspect the matter goes very deep with her.

  Yes, she is reluctant to wed and bear heirs to continue her line, but she must still name a successor, for what would happen if she were to die suddenly? By law, I should succeed Elizabeth, as I am next in blood, but has she acknowledged me? Nay, she would as soon turn Catholic.

  It is my right; yet for all my desire to become Queen, I would not intrigue for her throne, on my word of honor, not though many are fawning upon me and paying me flattering addresses. I have seen too much of what happens to traitors.

  How do I know she hates me? It has been made plain to me in so many ways. Not being named heir is bad enough, but when Elizabeth added insult to injury, she put me in the most difficult and embarrassing position. Under Queen Mary, despite my youth and inexperience, I was a Lady of the Privy Chamber, later promoted to the bedchamber, and as such one of Her Majesty’s most honored and intimate servants, as befit my rank and royal status. And by a further act of that Queen’s kindness, my poor misshapen sister Mary was similarly elevated.

 
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