A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  After a sleepless night, she questioned Mattie after Mass, as they broke their fast over bread and ale.

  “I reprimanded Sir James Tyrell for his treatment of you,” she said. “But I wondered … Did he say anything to you about that journey he made to London?”

  “He just said he had to go to the Tower to collect stuff from the Royal Wardrobe. I can’t recall him saying anything else—oh, he said it would be a fast ride: four days each way. I remember that because I was counting them on my fingers.”

  The Tower. He had been to the Tower. The realization sent shivers of ice down Kate’s spine. But again—where else would he have gone, with instructions to collect things from the Royal Wardrobe, which just happened to be housed in the Tower? His presence there did not mean that he had murdered the princes.

  This is becoming an obsession, Kate thought. Yet still there were so many unanswered questions, not the least of which was why her father had not shown the princes to the people and given the lie to the rumors that were destroying his reputation.

  Again she told herself that there would be an honest reason for his not having done so. What if the boys had died natural deaths? Disease was rife in London, especially in the hot summer months, and the elder prince had not been well. Given the widespread rumors, if her father announced now that one or both princes had died through illness, no one would believe him.

  She was going round and round in circles with her arguments. Was she imagining a mystery where none existed? Did the princes still live in the Tower, as John had insisted? She wanted desperately to believe it.

  Fetching writing materials, she stayed in her chamber setting down everything she knew in note form. She wrote of the rumors that were damaging to the King; the likelihood that Buckingham had known the truth about the fate of the princes, although he was dead and could not talk; that Bishop Russell had more or less said they lived yet; that Tyrell had been at the Tower, and more …

  She recorded how both Brother Dominic and Bishop Russell believed that her father had been determined to seize the throne from the first, although neither of them had actually accused him of murdering his nephews. She noted how the Bishop dismissed the precontract story, yet said her father had chosen to believe it. But that did not make him a child killer. And apart from the rumors, which could have been started by any of his enemies, and the fact that no one had seen the princes since July, ten months ago, there was no evidence at all that he had destroyed his brother’s sons.

  She had to know the truth about the precontract. Gathering her papers together, she tied them up with a length of hair ribbon and locked them in her chest, where they would be secure. It would not do to leave such contentious writings lying around, for she could not bear the thought of her father finding out what she was doing. She had already overstepped the mark with her questions as it was.

  Locking her door behind her, just to be on the safe side, she made her way around the vast warren of the castle, hoping to find Bishop Stillington, the man who had laid evidence of the precontract before her father. She knew him by sight, a plump, aging, high-nosed cleric who seemed to be always hovering in the King’s wake. By great good fortune, she ran into him in the chapel.

  “God’s blessing on you, Lady Katherine,” he said unctuously. “You are a little late for Mass, I fear.”

  She curtsied. “No, Father, I heard Mass earlier. It is you I seek.”

  “I?” He smiled. “If I can be of any service to such a charming young lady …” She found his manner ingratiating.

  “Yes, Father. Something troubles me,” she said. “Something I overheard.”

  “Tell me, child,” Stillington said, ushering her to a pew. “Tell me all about it.”

  Kate assumed an air of innocence. “Father, I know well that my father became King because the young King Edward and his brother were found to be illegitimate. There was something about a precontract …”

  The little Bishop’s smile had slipped somewhat. He looked uneasy. “Yes, my child, there was, and your father’s title has now been confirmed in Parliament. What can possibly be troubling you?”

  “I overheard two men—I know not who, they had their backs to me—saying there was no precontract and that it was a false tale used as a pretext for my father to take the throne. In faith, I was very upset to hear such talk.” She was making, she felt, a good job of playing the damsel in distress.

  Bishop Stillington appeared discomposed for a moment, then collected himself with an effort, assuming again his urbane manner of moments before. “That is a foul calumny, my lady!” he declared. “I wish you had marked the men who said it, then they should have been dealt with as they deserved. Even so, they were only repeating idle gossip.”

  Kate tried to look relieved. “I am glad to hear you say that,” she said. “I thank you for your words of comfort. That lady—Dame Eleanor Butler, was it?—what happened to her?”

  “She died long ago,” the Bishop said firmly. “And now, if you will excuse me, I must attend on the King your father.” And he sketched the sign of the cross over her and departed. She sat there awhile, thinking that he was not a man she would trust; certainly he had not wanted to talk about Eleanor Butler.

  When she looked up, William, her betrothed, was standing in the doorway, watching her in that disconcerting way he had. “Good day, my lady,” he said stiffly, bowing. “I have been looking for you. We are summoned to wait upon the King’s Grace.”

  ——

  Richard was seated in his closet, clad in deepest black, his only jewel the ruby and jet brooch with the drop pearl that he customarily wore on his hat. He looked shrunken, diminished by grief, his face a mask of sorrow; his voice was hoarse and his manner distant. Yet he welcomed them kindly enough, and embraced and kissed Kate.

  “I have some good news for you both, which shall be a comfort to us all,” he said. “I have decided that you are to be wed before I leave this, my castle of care.”

  Married now! Kate knew her distress must be visible in her face. She had thought it would not be for months yet. Desperately, she tried to compose herself, aware that everyone—her betrothed, her father, and his courtiers—was looking at her.

  “Bishop Stillington has consented to perform the ceremony in the castle chapel,” the King was saying. “Given the circumstances”—his voice faltered slightly—“it will be a small wedding. But never fear, Kate, we will feast you as becomes a bride, and make merry, eh?” He gave her a weak smile, which she tried to return. She thought: In his grief, he has forgotten that I love another, and that this news of my wedding can only grieve me.

  “Afterward, you will ride with the court to Durham, and thence to York,” the King informed them. “I should like to keep Kate with me for just a little longer.” He looked at her wistfully, and it was all she could do to keep from crying. “But then you must go into Wales, and guard it for me, William; guard it loyally. The Tudor skulks in Brittany, and who knows what mischief he is plotting!”

  “I am Your Grace’s man unto death,” William declared, bowing.

  “You will be well rewarded, I promise it. Kate, my child, the Queen is waiting to assist you with your wedding attire. Go to her now.”

  Kate dipped in another curtsey. William was giving her that look again, and there was a hint of lust in his eyes that had not been there before.

  Emerging from the Queen’s lodgings, weary of trying to look pleased with the fine fabrics that had been displayed before her, and of standing still while the tailors pinned them on her, Kate turned urgently to Mattie.

  “Go seek out my lord of Lincoln,” she directed her. “Bid him be in the chapel at midnight, as you love me.”

  Mattie looked at her, comprehension dawning. “So that’s how it is,” she said. “You are to be wed, yet you are still seeing your young lord. Have a care, mistress!”

  “I love him!” Kate said brokenly. “This will be the last time, I vow it. After that, I will belong to my husband and my life will be
over. But I swear he will never have any pleasure of me!”

  KATHERINE

  September 1560, Whitehall Palace

  The court is an in uproar, and no wonder! Lord Robert Dudley’s un-cherished wife has been found dead, her neck broken, at the foot of a flight of stairs at Cumnor Place, near Oxford. Such a scandal has not erupted in a long time. It is all over the court, and no doubt will soon be all over Christendom too; and the word on everyone’s lips is “murder.” Tongues wag ceaselessly, and suspicion centers on Lord Robert, but fingers point secretly—and sometimes not so secretly—at Queen Elizabeth. The Dudley scandal is so sensational that it seems she may never recover from it. There is even talk that King Philip is urging her to wed Lord Robert in order to discredit her, so that he will then be able to press my claim to the throne.

  But he does not know Elizabeth! I would wager a fortune on her never having allowed Robert Dudley to pass beyond caresses; and I saw for myself how dismayed she was, not only at Amy Dudley’s death, but at the realization that Lord Robert was now a free man. Him she loves: I do not doubt that; but she will never surrender her body or her autonomy as Queen.

  Yet there remains talk of my marrying the Archduke Ferdinand or—horrors—even Don Carlos. Bishop de Quadra returns to that theme whenever we meet, and I smile and profess myself flattered, yet remain noncommittal, telling him that he must seek my sovereign’s permission for my marriage. Maybe he knows I am stalling—and goodness knows, I have good reason to do so! Because at last, at long last, there is hope for my sweet Ned and me.

  Only yesterday Sir William Cecil approached Ned and informed him it had been noticed that he sought me out whenever he came to Whitehall. Ned was much alarmed, for he feared Mr. Secretary was about to forbid him to see me again. But no! He asked Ned if there was goodwill between us—but Ned was so afraid of our being parted that he said there was no such thing.

  Cecil told him he knew of the Spanish plot to marry me to the Archduke or Don Carlos. Ned could not hide his astonishment when Sir William said he would like to forestall that plot by arranging my marriage to a loyal Englishman. But, he added, as he saw now that there was nothing between us, he would forbear to pursue the matter further. “And good day to you, sir,” he had ended.

  Ned did not know what to do. He feared a trap, that Cecil’s words were a lure to ensnare him into admitting that there has been talk of a marriage between us, against the Queen’s express wish. So he detained Cecil and told him that he had long admired me from afar and should be honored to marry me, if it were the Queen’s pleasure. And Cecil said he would be our friend and speak with Her Majesty! We could not have a better or more influential advocate! At last I can dare to hope that our long wait will soon be over.

  Days, then weeks, have passed—and nothing, no word, no sign from Mr. Secretary. When I saw him this morning, he merely nodded courteously and hurried on, his arms full of scrolls. I am going mad with frustration, desperate to know if he is still our friend, and if he has spoken to the Queen on our behalf.

  And now there are fresh rumors, that the Scots want me as a bride for the Earl of Arran, another imbecile who is Queen Mary’s heir, unless she bears a son. Perchance the lords of Scotland see this marriage as a means of uniting the two kingdoms, in the event of both Mary and Elizabeth dying childless. They say de Quadra has bet a hundred crowns that it will come to pass. Well, they can negotiate all they like, but I will not have the lunatic earl, nay, not even if the Queen herself commands it—which she will not, I am certain.

  There is talk too—will it never cease?—of another Spanish bid to entice me away to Spain, by means of some loyal Catholic English gentleman acting for King Philip. What especially vexes me about these continual plots to marry or carry me off is that I, the person most concerned, am never consulted! It’s true: my royal blood is a curse.

  But now some good news! Against all expectations—although some say it is because she is at present vexed with my rival, the Queen of Scots—Her Majesty has suddenly decreed that I be restored to the post of Lady of the Privy Chamber that I had held under Queen Mary. And she has received me there today, right graciously, in the presence of Bishop de Quadra.

  “I look upon the Lady Katherine as a daughter,” she tells him, raising me from my curtsey and embracing and kissing me. For an instant the Bishop looks as amazed as I, but we both recover ourselves quickly.

  “Now that she is an orphan, I am considering formally adopting her,” the Queen continues, smiling at me—although her eyes remain cold. I can barely express my thanks. What game is she playing at now?

  I am not surprised when, later, after I am dismissed from my new duties, which are little more than to bear the Queen company when she wants it—which I suspect will not be often—de Quadra is waiting for me.

  “Any feeling between Her Majesty and yourself, Lady Katherine, can hardly be that of mother and child!” he observes with a smile. “Methinks she is making much of you in order to keep you from intriguing with the likes of me and the Scots.”

  “Do you think it might presage my being acknowledged heir?” I ask, unable to restrain my exhilaration at the prospect.

  “Who can say?” The Bishop shakes his head. “Knowing this Queen, it could mean anything. I will make some inquiries.”

  ——

  Two days later de Quadra is waiting for me again.

  “I have spoken with Sir William Cecil,” he tells me. “I asked him if the favor shown you by the Queen heralds any particular announcement. He took my meaning immediately. The answer is no. Her Majesty, he said, is of the opinion that Henry Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon, who is descended from the old royal blood of this realm, has a greater claim than yourself. I asked him if Her Majesty would consider naming you as her successor, but he said by no means, because the English always run after the heir to the crown rather than the wearer of it.”

  It seems I must settle for a compromise: marriage, rather than the throne. For me, the choice is an easy one. I would rather have my sweet Ned than be the greatest Queen crowned.

  KATE

  May 1484, Nottingham Castle

  John was waiting for her in the chapel. She could see him in the shadows beyond the dim light cast by the single lamp on the altar, signifying the eternal presence of God. He came and clasped her hands, gazing into her eyes without speaking, then his arms went around her.

  “You are sure about this?” he breathed in her ear, threading his fingers through her hair.

  “Never more,” she whispered. “But we cannot be together here.”

  “No, but I have found us a place.” He smiled at her: she loved his smile; it was open and boyish, and it always made her melt. He took her hand and kissed it. “Before we go there, my love, there is something I want to do, something important.”

  He led her to the altar, with its golden crucifix and the statue of the Virgin with her Babe, and stood there beside her, still holding her hand and looking into her eyes.

  “Hear me, Kate. I will give you my promise. I, John, take thee, Katherine, to be my true lady before God, and I vow I will love you always, until death and beyond.” She looked at him wonderingly, tears starting in her eyes, for she was overcome by the awe of the moment.

  “Now you, sweetheart,” he said. “Your turn …”

  “I, Katherine,” she swore, “take thee, John, to be my true lord in the sight of God, and hereto I pledge thee my love, until death and beyond.” The words came strong and clear, impelled by the conviction that whatever was to come, this was her proper wedding, even without any witnesses to make it valid.

  And then, hand in hand still, they crept out of the chapel, through the sleeping castle and along a dark stone passageway lit only with one dying torch in a wall bracket. At the end of it, John unlocked a door and led Kate into a small chamber sparsely furnished with a tester bed hung with green curtains. And it was in that bed, presently, that they lay together; and it was as if God had sent His angels down to smile upon them an
d hallow their union.

  KATHERINE

  October 1560, Whitehall

  My bosom companion, Jane Seymour, has been at court with me through all the late tortuous shifts of fortune, solidly supporting me and Ned, and going back and forth between us, passing messages, notes, and love tokens, and helping to arrange snatched meetings, which are few and far apart, for we know now that we have been watched by Mr. Secretary Cecil.

  But Jane is not well. Her cheeks, once rosebud pale, are now flushed with an unhealthy hue; her gowns hang loosely upon her; and there is blood on her kerchief when she coughs. She gets out of breath easily these days, and suffers terrible sweats at night.

  Jane loves Ned more than any other human soul; and it is her dearest wish to see him well and happily married.

  “There could be no better wife for him than you, my dear Katherine,” she tells me, hugging me fondly. “I will do all I can to help you two achieve the happiness you deserve. God knows, you have waited long enough for it!”

  “The time is now right, at last,” I say. “There was never a better moment to press for Her Majesty’s consent.”

  Ned frowns. “Will there ever be a right moment? I fear she will never give that consent. We have to be realistic. Look at the way she keeps her many suitors dangling—this waiting could go on for years!”

  Jane is thoughtful. “Why not present the Queen with a fait accompli?” she suggests. “Marry in secret now, then throw yourselves upon her mercy. If the thing is done, she must relent.”

 
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