A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  But our gracious Queen Elizabeth has now seen fit to deprive us both of that honor. It is humiliating beyond words, and of course I cannot speak of it to anyone at court, but must go about with my head held high, and my pride in the dust. For my sister, it is worse, for people do not now disdain to call her “Crouchback Mary,” even to her face.

  Of course, Elizabeth cannot banish me from her presence—even she has to have some regard for the proprieties—so she has made me one of the ladies of her presence chamber—a lesser honor, one that does not rank me as a princess of the blood, denies me the precedence that is my due, and keeps me at a distance from her.

  “Lady of the Presence Chamber, if you please! You are her heir!” my mother exploded when she heard the news. Yet, shocked as she was, she was the voice of reason, telling me that I must not take it personally. But I did, and I still do. Elizabeth is resolved to eclipse me utterly. I have to put up with catty remarks about my lack of religious principle—which I dare not answer as I would, because she is the Queen—or about my pale, blond looks, which Elizabeth is now pleased to openly compare unfavorably with her own red curls, now done up in the most fantastical styles, and made-up face. Where my skin is fair, hers is sallow, even swarthy, so she sees fit to mask it with a paste made up especially for her, the recipe of which she will confide to barely a soul. Indeed, she likes to pretend she shows to the world her natural complexion!

  She has hated me all along. She has dealt me a very public insult—and it hurts, as she fully intended. It has certainly diminished my standing at court. I know what people have been saying: they are not so eager to pay their addresses now, or so nice as to lower their voices when giving their opinion that this demotion means Elizabeth is determined to name someone else in my stead—Mary, Queen of Scots, perhaps—or marry and get a child of her own, although there’s no sign of that happening, and privately I doubt it ever will. One reason, of course, is not far to seek, in the person of that son and grandson of traitors, Guilford’s brother, Lord Robert Dudley, whom she loves inordinately. Lord Robert, who would be a king, so the gossips say. He has a wife living, so it cannot be, but that does not silence the rumors.

  Yet not everyone is as demoralized as I about my prospects. Since returning to court, I have renewed my old friendship with Jane Dormer, who is now being courted by the Spanish ambassador, the Count of Feria. He assures me that his master, King Philip, is ready to put all his weight behind my claim to the succession.

  “For your ladyship is the hope of Christendom,” the count effuses, “the hope of Catholics everywhere.”

  This makes me feel slightly guilty. My conversion to the Catholic faith was to a degree a pragmatic one, made when I was very young to please Queen Mary and further my chances of being named her heir. Truly there are aspects of Catholicism that appeal to me—as they appeal, I feel sure, to Queen Elizabeth, who favors the high ritual and ceremonial of her childhood, and insists on keeping jeweled crucifixes—which some Protestants regard as graven idols—on the altars in her chapels. Thus, converting was not difficult for me, and outwardly I have practiced the old religion ever since. But inwardly I remain inclined toward the Protestant beliefs instilled in me by my parents, and recently, now that it is safe to do so, I have been on the brink of recanting my Catholicism. But if King Philip, with all the might of Spain behind him, is ready to put pressure on Elizabeth to name me her heir, then I must show his ambassador that I remain staunch in the faith and am the most suitable Catholic claimant.

  Playing this role is not as dangerous as it might seem, for the Queen has said she will not make windows into men’s souls, and that she will tolerate Catholics so long as they make no trouble for her. She is unlikely to object to my going to Mass and wearing a rosary on my girdle, as long as I draw no overt attention to myself.

  “The French are backing the Queen of Scots, of course,” the Count of Feria tells me. “She is married to the Dauphin, and her father-in-law King Henri relishes the prospect of England coming under French rule. He has already quartered the arms of England with those of France on her armorial bearings. Thus it is unlikely that your Queen will ever countenance the Scottish Queen’s succession, and besides, Mary was not born in England, which I gather is a legal prerequisite for succeeding to the throne.”

  “And that leaves you, Lady Katherine, as the strongest claimant,” Jane Dormer chimes in.

  “That has long been my understanding,” I say. “But I fear it will be hard to bring Her Majesty to acknowledge me as her successor.”

  “King Philip will know how to persuade her. He wants to marry her, isn’t that so, Gomez?” Jane confides, fluttering a flirtatious glance at the elegant, handsome count.

  “He is seriously considering it,” the count reveals. “And you will be his security in case she does not bear him a child.”

  So the rumors are true: as soon as one sister is dead, Philip begins pursuing the other. It has long been whispered at court that Elizabeth worked her wiles on him from the first, and that he was mad for her all the time he was wed to Queen Mary. Now, as ruler of a great and mighty kingdom, he must surely have much influence with her. It may be that the Fates are working in my favor.

  There is another who clearly believes my prospects of a throne are high. To my astonishment, my lord of Pembroke appears before me one day, bows his black head, and says he would speak to me in private. I invite him into my lodgings, and send my maids away. Then I seat myself in my gilded chair and keep him standing, savoring the turning of the tables between us. He is come as a supplicant, I do not doubt.

  “I am aware that you do not think well of me, Lady Katherine,” he begins, his face inscrutable, “but I am sure that you understand the realities of politics. I may tell you that my wife and I were delighted to have you as our daughter-in-law, and deeply sorry when circumstances dictated that your marriage should be declared null.”

  “I too was very sorry, my lord, when I was cruelly parted from my husband, then deposited at night, and abandoned in the dark, at my father’s house,” I say. I have wanted to call Pembroke to account for that for more than five years. “My lady mother was shocked.”

  He looks uncomfortable. He was expecting to treat with the meek little bride he had known, not a young woman conscious of her royal status. “I apologize if my boatmaster was overzealous in interpreting my orders,” he says stiffly. “But my lady, I would make it all up to you. That is why I am here. My son Harry remains unwed. I am come to reunite you both. With your consent, you shall be wedded again, and bedded this time. You have my word on it.”

  I had not expected this. I try to recall the happiness I shared with Harry, and the agony our parting caused me. Then I remember how Harry shunned me afterward, and feel only indignation. And I think of Ned, dear, beloved Ned, and the love that is between us, and feel a sense of irony. Once I would have given all to be reunited with Harry, but now that he can be mine for the taking, I do not want him; while Ned, whom I want as much as life itself, and more than any crown, is all but forbidden me, because the Queen almost certainly would not consent to our marrying. Life is not fair!

  Pembroke’s dark brows furrow. He sees my hesitation.

  “I pray you, Lady Katherine, think on this carefully. Much hangs upon it. The Spanish ambassador approves the match, and he has his finger on the pulse of affairs. Spain may do much for you, you know.”

  “And you, my lord, have your sights once more on a crown for your son, and a dynasty of Herberts sitting on the throne!” I cannot resist saying.

  He bristles. “I do not deny it! What man would not? But this would be to your advantage too, remember.”

  “The Queen may marry and bear children,” I remind him. “That would put paid to my chances of ever succeeding her. And when I am no longer of use to you, will you have my marriage annulled again?”

  “I understand your anger,” he says, glowering. “Verily, you have every reason to speak thus. But what good can it do us both? This match woul
d be an advantageous one from all points of view.”

  “And what of Harry? What does he say? He has spent the past five years avoiding me.”

  “On my orders,” Pembroke barks, losing patience a little. “He is a dutiful son and he does my bidding. But I have put this to him and he is eager for the marriage.”

  “Then I will think on it,” I say, knowing what my answer must be.

  Under cover of darkness I seek out Ned. Our meetings these days are few and furtive. We dare not be seen too much together, and have taken to sending each other messages through the good offices of his sister Jane, who is now also serving Queen Elizabeth. Ned does not lodge at Whitehall, but at Hertford House, his stately London residence nearby in Cannon Row, Westminster. I have visited him there twice now, in secret, with Jane. But tonight we are hiding in an alleyway at the end of the Stone Gallery. It is freezing, and Ned has wrapped his thick cloak around us both. He senses at once that something is amiss.

  “What is it, sweetheart?” he asks, seeking my lips.

  I kiss him, then the tears start. “Pembroke came to see me today. He wants me and Harry to remarry.”

  “God’s blood!” Ned explodes. “Well, you don’t have to say yes, so why the distress?”

  “It’s not as simple as that,” I sob. “The Spanish ambassador approves, and Spain is backing my right to be named Elizabeth’s successor. Pembroke has much influence too, and he will throw all his weight behind me if I marry his son. Sweet Ned, I do not want this marriage, but I think it may be the price of the succession.”

  Ned releases me, his face shadowed under his hood, but I do not need to see it to know that he is hurt and angry.

  “Dear Ned, it is you I love!” I cry, desperate. “I cannot bear the thought of going back to Harry now. Once, I would have rejoiced to do so, but those days are long gone. I want to marry you!”

  He clasps me to him again and covers my face with hungry kisses. “Listen! You don’t have to marry Harry. Just dissemble and pretend to be considering the proposal seriously. While they are in hope of a favorable answer, they will do all the more for you. It’s called politics, my sweet innocent!”

  I stop weeping. This is sensible advice, and I shall take it.

  “In the meantime,” Ned says, “here is something to cheer you. Jane has come up with a plan. She thinks that we should get your lady mother and mine to go with us to the Queen and urge her to let us marry.”

  “That is a good idea!” I breathe excitedly. Both duchesses are formidable women, and if anyone can persuade Elizabeth to give her consent, it is they. “Do you think they will agree?”

  “We can but ask them,” Ned says. “But Katherine, I must know: what is more important to you? Me—or the succession?”

  “You, of course!” I tell him. “Did you really need to ask?”

  When next I see Jane Dormer and the Count of Feria, at a court banquet, the count draws us into a window embrasure away from the other courtiers, and speaks of Pembroke’s proposal.

  “This marriage would please my master, King Philip, for the earl is a powerful man and can do much to advance your cause,” he says.

  “I am not averse to remarrying Lord Herbert,” I lie, “but I must think carefully on the matter. What happened before, you understand, was … most distressing. I have to know I can trust the earl.” That was a masterpiece of diplomacy, I think to myself.

  “Of course, dear lady, of course. But if you will take a little well-meant counsel, as from a father, you will put your trust in the judgment of others wiser than yourself, and weigh well the advantages this marriage will bring. And Lord Herbert is an admirable young man. I have heard that you were happy with him once.”

  I curse myself for confiding in Jane Dormer. “It is five years ago, sir, and we were very young. We have both grown up since then, and that too I must take into account.”

  “Alas, my lady, I fear that personal considerations must give way to high policy when marriages such as this are put to making,” Feria says. I am beginning to be irritated by his assumption that a woman has not the brains to think these things through for herself.

  The count senses my impatience. “Do not think I am unsympathetic, or insensible of your reduced circumstances at court,” he says gently.

  “I am much grieved by it,” I tell him. “Our new Queen bears me no goodwill.”

  Dormer nudges me. “Change the subject!” she mutters. I look across to where the Queen sits beneath her canopy of estate, with Lord Robert Dudley leaning proprietorially on the back of her throne. She is watching me, and her expression is hostile. I have been making it too obvious that I am speaking of serious matters, and with the Spanish ambassador at that.

  “May I have the pleasure, my lady?” asks Feria, and leads me out to where the gentlemen and ladies are tripping across the floor in a basse dance. But the Queen’s cold eyes are still upon me.

  In the weeks before Christmas, I encounter several lords and councillors eager to compliment and court me. Feria is doing his work well; or it may be that Pembroke has put it about that my chances of being named heir are better than people have been led to believe.

  Mindful of the Queen’s hostility, I take care not to be seen too much with Feria. When we meet, our exchanges are hurried and confined to pleasantries and his reassurances that he is doing everything he can on my behalf. Then one day he comes upon me as I am walking along the cloister that surrounds the Preaching Place, my arms full of evergreens collected in the marshy wilderness of St. James’s Park.

  “Greetings, my lady! May I have a word?” He bows with a flourish. “There is no one here to listen.”

  “Even so, I must be careful,” I tell him. “But pray speak, sir.”

  “I have been waiting to hear from you on the matter of your marriage,” he says. “I would not want to put pressure on you, but the matter is important.”

  “I appreciate that,” I say, “but I have to be sure in my mind that I am making the right decision.”

  “Of course. All I ask is that you do not marry without first seeking my advice.”

  “I will not,” I promise, knowing I may not be able to keep my word.

  “The most important aspect of your position, as I am sure you are aware, is not your marriage but your religion. You are the hope of Catholics everywhere, particularly in England, where they fear they will find it increasingly difficult to practice their faith. I know it cannot be easy for you, maintaining this stance in Queen Elizabeth’s household, but I beg you also, do not think of changing your religion without my consent. Believe me, King Philip understands your predicament, and the temptation to take the easier course and convert to the reformed faith.”

  I agree to that also, then bid him a hasty farewell, saying I will be missed if I don’t return soon.

  He believes me sincere. He little realizes that I cling only to the pretense of Catholicism now in order to retain the support of his master.

  I ponder on what might happen if I did declare myself a Protestant. King Philip would abandon me, and Feria, that is certain. But not Pembroke. And indeed, several lords on the council would surely favor a Protestant heiress. But the Queen has made it clear that she would regard any heir, Protestant or Catholic, even a child of her body, as her rival. Therefore, for the time being I lose nothing by staying a Catholic.

  I am wondering if word of all this plotting of my marriage has reached the Queen, because out of the blue comes a blunt order, personally conveyed to me by Sir William Cecil, her Secretary of State, and the man who has her ear and mind more than any other.

  “My lady,” he says, his long, thin face impassive, his all-seeing eyes hooded and guarded. “I am commanded by Her Majesty specifically to remind you that, considering who you are, you must not marry without her consent, on pain of the most severe penalties.”

  It is a heavy blow, considering what is afoot with Ned and me, and it leaves me utterly dismayed. I have been hoping—as we both have, stupidly, it seems—t
hat Elizabeth will look kindly on our proposed marriage if it is put before her by our mothers in a persuasive and diplomatic manner. But now I begin to fear that might be a vain hope. Have Ned and I come under suspicion? But how? We have been so careful …

  “I am Her Majesty’s to command,” I stammer. “I have no thought of marrying.” I could wish the lie unsaid, but it is too late. The words are out. And now it occurs to me that the Queen might never permit me to marry anyone. It is a horrible prospect, and I need reassurance that I am not to be condemned to a life of chastity.

  “Has Her Majesty any match in mind for me?” I ask.

  “No, madam, she has not,” Sir William replies in a rather final tone, and, sketching a bow, departs before I can ask any more questions. After he has gone, I fall to bitter weeping. My heart is Ned’s, and Ned’s alone. He is my hero, my life and joy. I do not want marriage for its own sake—I just want him.

  But wait! There must be a very real prospect of my gaining the throne one day. Only Elizabeth stands in the way, and there are many who do not regard her as the rightful Queen, because she is baseborn and a Protestant. Her crown has been insecure from the first. Then again, she might die young, or marry and succumb to the perils of childbirth—if, indeed, she ever marries. I do not wish her any harm, that is God’s truth, but the prospect of becoming Queen still excites me greatly, and it has come to seem like natural justice, after what happened to Jane. I only ask for what is mine by right. I acknowledge that Elizabeth has the prior claim, by law. I speak no treason.

  All the same, the Queen’s disfavor is evident, even now, at her coronation. Instead of being in a place of high honor, as I was at Queen Mary’s, I am relegated to the shadows, and might be a commoner for all the notice that is taken of my royal status. Clad in the same red velvet I wore five years ago, I find myself seated among a bevy of ladies in a chariot that follows far behind the Queen’s litter. Ahead of me, mark you, ride dozens of ladies of the court on horses with red velvet saddles—and by rights, I should be at the head of them! Once in the abbey, wearing my coronet and a long train, I walk two by two with my fellow attendants as we process in the distant wake of the Queen. Oh, the insult!

 
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