A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

  It sounded, thought Kate, a fair exchange, and William Herbert’s readiness to agree to it proclaimed his loyalty. But that could not make her love him! She could never love anyone other than John; and at the thought of him, the tears welled again. She fought to hold them back.

  “It is in recent months that my lord of Huntingdon has proved his worth,” Richard told her. “He served as my Chief Justice and Commissioner of Array in south Wales during Buckingham’s rebellion, and he held the area for the crown against the rebels. For that, I have handsomely rewarded him, as he deserves, with high offices in Wales and made him my chief lieutenant there in Buckingham’s place. My daughter, your new husband is a virtual king in that country; he is my deputy, and as such enjoys much power and influence.”

  “I am sure the earl is a worthy man,” she said dully.

  “He is indeed. If he were not, I would not have made him secretary and chamberlain to your brother the prince. And his marriage to you will cement his loyalty. That is of prime importance, for I have need of men like him at this time. I will bestow you with a rich dowry and make a generous settlement on you both. Above all, Kate, you have an eager bridegroom! All that is wanting is your consent.”

  He regarded her with raised eyebrows. He was her father. He thought he had provided well for her. How could she refuse him?

  Anne knelt beside her. “It is an excellent match for you, Kate. You should be grateful to your father. It would be kind of you to show it.”

  “I am grateful for your care for me,” Kate said tearfully. “Do not think me ungrateful. But, oh sire, this is not the husband I wanted!”

  “Now you see what happens when young folks are let to follow their foolish hearts,” the King muttered to Anne. “It is good-bye to God, good order, and all. I was a fool myself to permit her to associate with Lincoln. I did warn her of the difficulties, and they are well-nigh insurmountable. I had no idea, Kate, that there was such goodwill between you both; and when Huntingdon showed himself willing, I thought you would be pleased.”

  When Huntingdon showed himself willing? Her father must have broached the marriage himself, must have offered her as security for the earl’s loyalty, for it would be a testing job holding Buckingham’s disaffected heartlands. And that generous dowry and settlement—well, it would have to be generous, wouldn’t it, to compensate for her bastard status? Because whatever the King said, his baseborn daughter was no great prize in the marriage market. The reaction of John’s father had shown her that. Come to think of it, she had never heard of any other royal bastards making a brilliant match. John was forever forbidden to her, and Huntingdon had been bribed to take her. The realization was like a leaden weight in her heart.

  “Some fathers would have beaten you for defying them,” Anne chided, taking her sullen silence for mutiny. “Be grateful yours is a kindly one. But kind or not, you must obey him. And think, Kate: you will be mistress of a great household. Raglan Castle is a fine and famous residence, I hear, built in a lavish style.”

  “But it is in Wales!” Kate sobbed, breaking down again. “It is far from you and my father and from—everything I hold dear. I would never see you …”

  The King spoke gently. “Kate, at some stage, every child must leave its father and mother and cleave to the spouse God has chosen for it. That is what Holy Scripture teaches us. You will have a husband to compensate, and children too, I pray. They will be your life. And you shall visit us at court, and mayhap my journeyings will take me into Wales. In the meantime, we can write to each other. Now, I ask for your consent to this marriage. Will you freely give it?”

  She knew herself trapped. If she was to retain her father’s love and goodwill, she must obey him and take this man he had chosen for her. To refuse would only arouse his ire, and anyway, she had no choice. A father’s word was law—as was the King’s.

  “I will,” she whispered, and again burst into tears.

  How she kept her composure as she curtsied and left the privy chamber she did not know, but once she had reached her own chamber she found herself shaking, her knees weak, her breast heaving. Resting her hot cheek against the cool stone of the window embrasure, she thought about what she had just agreed to, and realized she could never go through with it. Let the whole world condemn her for an undutiful daughter, but she would not marry Huntingdon! She could not. Nothing must be allowed to come between her and her beloved.

  Her blood—the blood of kings and princes—was up. She knew what she must do. She would enlist John’s help, and they would run away and marry in secret. She would give up everything. It was her only chance of avoiding the tragedy that would be her marriage. She must speak to him as soon as possible. He would agree, she had no doubt of it; he had said they were meant to be together. And once they were wedded and bedded, no one, not even the King, could part them!

  Mattie came in. Mattie would help her.

  “Why, mistress, whatever ails you?” her maid exclaimed, seeing her ravaged face.

  “I will tell you, but first, pray seek out my lord of Lincoln for me, and bid him wait for me at the fountain in New Palace Yard, for our happiness depends on it!” When Mattie hesitated, Kate cried, “Go!”

  Left alone, she splashed cool water on her flushed face, brushed her hair, smoothed down her blue gown, and clasped about her neck a three-stranded gold necklace hung with pearls—a coronation gift from her father. Then she paused to admire her reflection in the mirror, regretting that no amount of artifice could hide her reddened eyes. John would see at once that she had been crying, but no matter—that might be to her advantage, and would hopefully make him all the more willing to agree to her plan.

  She flung on her cloak, then sped down the stairs and through the palace, emerging at last into New Palace Yard. And there was John, already waiting by the canopied fountain. He appeared so tall and debonair in his great velvet cloak, his long locks framing his chiseled features, that it was painful to her to look at him.

  “I came at once,” he said. “What has happened?”

  “The King my father wishes me to marry the Earl of Huntingdon,” she told him, and burst into weeping afresh. After a pause, he took her in his arms, not caring who saw them, and held her until she quieted.

  “Tell me,” he said. And she did, pouring it out in a torrent as they sat together on the octagonal stone rim of the fountain, John watching her gravely, shaking his head.

  “In faith, I know not what we can do.” He sounded despairing. “Your father is the King: you must obey him.”

  “Could you get your father to speak for us?” she urged. “If he were to ask for me as your bride, I know the King would consider it well.”

  John looked down at his feet. “I have done all in my power to persuade my father to let me marry you. I have begged, cajoled, even lost my temper …” He fell silent.

  “There is a way we can be together,” she said. “We could elope and marry in secret! With the help of my maid, it could be done!”

  John gaped at her. “Are you mad?” he gasped. “Have you thought of what that would mean? We are not just any village Jack and Jill, but public persons of high estate: you are the King’s daughter, I his nephew. I am Earl of Lincoln and will be Duke of Suffolk in the fullness of time. And you, by the King’s decree, are the promised bride of the Earl of Huntingdon. Royal blood runs in our veins. Were we to run away together, the hue and cry would be after us within minutes, with all the hounds of hell on our heels. And even if we did escape that, and found a priest willing to defy the King and marry us, what then? Disgrace! Dispossession, if not worse, for me. Infamy for you. We would have nothing to live on. We could not survive. I would not do that to you.”

  She stared at him. She felt as if the whole world was crumbling about her. What John was saying made sense, but it was a rational response: his heart was not in it. And it sounded as if he thought more of disgrace and disinheritance than of her—while she, God help her, was ready to defy the world for him and risk all.
  She did not think she could ever feel any worse than she did at this moment.

  She looked at John bleakly. “Then there is no more to say. I am sorry if I asked too much of you.”

  “Kate …” he began, but already she was walking away.

  At the end of the month, Richard summoned his daughter and his future son-in-law to the White Hall, where the court had gathered for the betrothal festivities. Queen Anne gave Kate a new gown of dark red silk with a deep black falling collar and high cummerbund. Already the tailors and seamstresses had been set to work on her trousseau, and each day saw fresh bolts of luxurious fabrics delivered by London merchants.

  Kate wore no adornment save for her diamond-shaped sapphire pendant. Her hair hung loose down her back, as became a virgin. When the Queen escorted her into the crowded chamber, she was shaking so much that she thought her legs would give way. She saw the King seated on his throne beneath the rich gold canopy of estate; ranged around him were the chief lords of his kingdom, and among them she saw a white-faced Lincoln. She looked away, aware of him watching her. But here was her father, descending from the dais and taking her hand, smiling. She cast her eyes down modestly, but not before she glimpsed a man stepping forward, gorgeously clad in a low-belted gown of green velvet edged with fur. A pair of tan-booted feet presented themselves before her; a hand reached for hers. She looked up into the eyes of the man with the ferret face.

  How she recovered from her initial shock and revulsion she never knew, but she allowed him to lead her after the King and Queen into an antechamber where the betrothal contract had been set out on a table. John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln, waited behind it. He bowed courteously and raised his hand in a blessing. Kate tried to catch his eye, for he had shown himself her friend before, but he gave no sign of recognition or sympathy. Instead, once the King and Queen were seated, he went over the terms of the contract.

  “My lord, His Grace here provides that he will give with his daughter lands and lordships from the confiscated estates of the late Duke of Buckingham worth a thousand marks annually, and that these are to be settled on you and Dame Katherine here, and on the heirs of your bodies.” Kate suppressed a shudder at that, and tried not to think about the getting of those heirs; if she did, she knew, she would be in tears again. It should be the heirs of her body and John’s who would inherit her father’s bounty; if it had been, she would be rejoicing this day, not in misery. But John had abandoned her without a fight. She felt choked.

  The Bishop was droning on, listing all the financial benefits of the marriage: it registered that her jointure was to be lands worth two hundred pounds a year. The King had been more than generous. And there was more. “His Grace will bear the whole cost of the marriage,” Russell announced. “In return, you, my lord, are to take Dame Katherine to wife before Michaelmas.” The earl nodded his head in agreement, and bowed to the King. Richard smiled.

  Michaelmas. The twenty-ninth of September. She might have seven months of freedom left. Anything could happen in that time. She consoled herself with that thought as they proceeded to St. Stephen’s Chapel for the betrothal ceremony. Much of it passed her by. She would not listen to the words that bound her to the man beside her. She could hardly bring herself to look up at his pointed nose and wide-set slanting eyes, or to stand too near to him, for there was about him a whiff of stale sweat, as if his fine gown had been worn too often and too long ago. His shock of black hair seemed like an insult; it looked as if someone had put a basin on his head and snipped around it. It was a style years out of date, yet his rich robes marked him as having some pretensions to fashion. He was looking at her slyly, a gleam of possessiveness in his eyes. She could not bear to think that she was bound to this man, with his ferret face and his malodorous body, for life.


  November–December 1559; Whitehall, Sheen,

  Westminster Abbey

  My mother is dead, God rest her. She breathed her last at Sheen, with me, Mary, and the devoted Stokes at her side. Although she had been poorly for months, her final decline came suddenly, and there was barely time to summon us from court.

  I weep for my mother, and I weep even more bitterly for my dashed hopes—for her letter, that crucial letter, was never sent.

  Three days later the Queen herself summons me. It is with some relief that I escape from the black-draped house and my mother lying in her coffin on a bier in the chapel, covered with rich palls of damask and cloth of gold.

  I find Elizabeth dressed in deepest black, against which the whiteness of her unnatural complexion makes her look like a ghost. It is the first time I have been in her presence since that dreadful day I lost my temper with her. Although her manner is cool and watchful as ever, I can sense she is upset.

  “I weep with you in your sad loss, Lady Katherine,” she says. “Your mother was my beloved cousin and gossip.”

  “I thank Your Majesty for your kindness, which I confess I do not deserve,” I reply meekly, lowering my gaze.

  “We will not speak of that now,” she says, her black eyes cold as ever. “I brought you here to tell you that I have arranged for your lady mother to be buried in Westminster Abbey, as befits a princess of the blood, and that I will defray the expenses of the funeral.” I am sensible of this being a high privilege, and that the Queen is being uncharacteristically generous. Already she has a reputation for parsimony. She does not spend money unless she has to. So she must have thought very well of my mother to do this for her.

  I fall to my knees. “I thank Your Majesty for your magnanimity.”

  “You will have much to do, so you may depart the court now,” Elizabeth says, dismissing me. “You have our leave to return to Sheen.”

  I hasten away and look for Ned, only to learn from one of his friends that he has already left the court, bound for Sheen too, with the Queen’s blessing. Despite myself, I am touched, for Elizabeth knows that my lady regarded him almost as a son. Maybe there is in her some spark of kindness, that she has sent him to succor me and Mary in these dark days of bereavement.

  Ned caught the tide; I did not, so he is waiting for me at Sheen when I finally arrive there. Stokes greets me mournfully, weeping at my news, and Ned takes me openly in his arms, not caring that the duchess his mother and all the household officers and servants are standing by to see.

  “I came at once, sweetheart,” he murmurs. “You will not endure this alone.”

  My mother, being a staunch Protestant, would not have approved of prayers for the dead, so I fall wordlessly to my knees before her coffin. I cannot believe she is in there, that strong, tempestuous woman who has dominated my life; nor did I expect to feel so bereft at her loss. I comfort myself by imagining her being reunited with Jane and my father in eternal joy and peace, and weep afresh with the emotion of it all, burying my face in my hands.

  When I sit up, dabbing my eyes with my kerchief, Ned is sitting quietly beside me. He waits until I have composed myself, and gently escorts me from the chapel.

  We speak of my mother, the coming obsequies, and the Queen’s generosity, and then his face looks pained.

  “I heard of your confrontation with the Queen,” he says.

  “Everyone has, it seems. In truth, I could not help myself. I wish I had kept my mouth shut.”

  “So do I,” he mutters. “Not that what you said was untrue, but it can have done us no good.”

  “She was kind to us both this morning, after her fashion.”

  “She is a great dissembler! Nothing she does is without calculation. But even if she has relented toward you, you should beware of courting her wrath further at this time.”

  “You may depend upon that,” I assure him grimly.

  As soon as I get a moment to myself, I go up to my mother’s chamber and, trying not to look at the empty, stripped bed, search in the chest where she kept her private papers. And there I find the letter, as I had expected, written in a shaky hand. It is addressed to the Queen, and below the
lines I had read already, my lady had written: This marriage is the only thing I desire before my death, and it will be an occasion for me to die quietly. There is no more, and no signature. She died before she could finish or send it.

  Ned, the duchess, and Stokes are grouped by the fire when I enter; it is a cold evening, we are all huddled in furs, and Arthur and Guinevere are stretched out so close to the hearth that they are in danger of being singed by sparks.

  I show them all the letter. “Read this, I pray you. You will see that it was my lady’s dying wish that Ned and I be married. Should we not send this now to the Queen? She can hardly refuse, in the circumstances.”

  “Elizabeth is not well disposed toward you at present, Katherine,” the duchess says bluntly. “You spoke unwisely to her, I hear. That was foolish in the extreme, and it betrays a want of prudence. One should never say such things to queens, only tell them what they want to be told. My advice is to wait a while until tempers have cooled.”

  “But the Queen spoke kindly to me this morning, and I gave her an apology,” I protest.

  “The Queen has a long memory,” the duchess says. “I counsel you to wait.”

  “Mr. Stokes, what do you think?” I ask. Stokes was zealous in my cause: he will not abandon me now, and others value his wisdom.

  But for once he seems to be at a loss for words. “I cannot advise you, Katherine, until I know my lord’s mind in the matter,” he says finally. Bewildered, I turn to Ned, but his eyes are fixed on my stepfather.

  “What do you want to do about the letter, my lord?” Stokes asks.

  Ned does not look at me. “I will meddle no further in the matter,” he declares. “Burn the letter. In view of the late Spanish conspiracy and the Queen’s anger with Katherine, it could destroy us all.” And Stokes takes it from me before I can gainsay him and throws it into the fire.

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