A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  I smile down upon him. “I like both you and your offer, my Ned, and I am content to marry with you, be the consequences what they may.”

  “When?” he asks eagerly, rising to his feet.

  “As soon as possible!” I laugh. “Next time the Queen’s Majesty leaves the palace!”

  “Then it shall be done,” he agrees, embracing and kissing me. “And now we must be formally betrothed.” He summons his sister, and when we three are together, he takes my hand in his and puts a ring on my finger. It is set with a pointed diamond, a glittering stone of unfathomable depths, which represents power and protection, its greenish hue the color of life, beauty, and constant love. Now, we join hands, and Ned vows to take me, Katherine, as his wife. It is done. We are promised.

  We agree that as soon as the Queen leaves for the good hunting to be had at Greenwich or Eltham, either Jane or I will get word of it to Ned, and then we shall come to Hertford House. We cannot have long to wait, as Her Majesty has already said she means to depart within the week, and I am almost trembling with anticipation, knowing that the consummation of all my hopes is near at hand.

  “I will seek out a minister to marry you,” Jane undertakes. Her zeal for us is touching; of course having her brother married to one who might be Queen will be the answer to her family’s prayers. Yet I know she loves me for myself.

  “The minister must be a Protestant,” Ned insists, looking questioningly at me.

  “Of course,” I say. I have now decided where my spiritual allegiance truly and properly lies.

  “And I myself will stand witness,” Jane adds.

  “There must be two, I am certain,” Ned says.

  “Who can we trust?” I ponder.

  “One of your maids?”

  “I suppose it will have to be. Mistress Coffin is a chatterbox, so not her. Mistress Leigh is discreet, and she is loyal. I will ask her, although not until the day itself.”

  “Good. And as soon as I hear from you, I will send my servants out of the house,” Ned promises.

  “I cannot believe this is happening, and that we are to be wed at last,” I say, suffused with happiness, which is all the more precious for having been so hard won.

  “It is an answer to all my prayers,” Ned declares, and clasps me to him.

  KATE

  June 1484, Raglan Castle

  It had been a weary, seemingly endless journey, and Kate lost track of the inns and monastic guesthouses in which they had stayed. Pontefract, Nottingham, Tamworth, Worcester, Gloucester, Monmouth, and countless other towns and villages had all passed in a blur. She’d been so sunk in misery and increasing homesickness that she had paid little account to the vast, spectacular landscapes, the cathedral spires, or the distant mountains of Wales that could now be seen more clearly in the distance. A man on a chain of fast horses could have covered the distance in less than six days, but because she and William had with them a train of retainers, and carts and packhorses loaded with their belongings, it had taken them almost twice as long, and William, despite his new riches, had grumbled at having to pay so much for accommodation along the route. He himself would gladly have slept under a hedgerow, wrapped in his cloak, he told her crossly, implying it was all her fault. And he barely ventured a word to her unless he had to.

  He really was the most unattractive of men. Well, no matter! She had Mattie with her, and Mattie could talk for England!

  But they had left England behind them now and crossed the mighty Severn into Wales, that strange, alien land she was now to inhabit. And it was a poor land, and an oppressed one—anyone could see that. The countryside was scattered with ruined buildings and slighted castles; the towns lay wasted and broken down, having clearly suffered devastation at some time in the past; the people looked ill-fed and resentful; and only a few thin cattle grazed in the empty fields.

  “It was Owen Glendower’s revolt that brought them to this,” William said suddenly, bringing his horse up beside Kate’s as they rode past a ruined monastery standing stark and blackened, its treasures plundered. “It was a brave bid for independence, but it brought the land to ruin, and after Henry IV crushed the rebels, every English king was resolved that never again should the Welsh have an opportunity of rising against their rule. They were determined to teach them a hard lesson, that rebellion brings only destruction and misery.”

  “But Glendower’s revolt was long ago, wasn’t it?” Kate asked, shocked at what she was seeing.

  “Eighty years ago. But he united the Welsh behind him. They are a proud people, and refuse to be conquered. They hate us. But they have paid a bitter price for their resistance.”

  “How do they live?” Kate asked.

  “Meanly. Do not try to extend charity to them when you are lady of Raglan. They will not thank you for it.” William’s mouth set grimly. “And never go beyond the castle precincts without my permission and an armed escort. The countryside is not safe. I dare not risk your being taken hostage: the King would never forgive me; and even if you are not abducted by those who would overthrow their lords and masters, there are gangs of dispossessed men roaming the moors and wastes who would not hesitate to commit rape and murder. So heed my warning, my lady!”

  On the afternoon of the tenth day they at last caught sight of Raglan Castle in the distance. It was truly impressive: a massive, majestic fortress of reddish-gold stone that held a commanding view over the wide, undulating green countryside and distant hills.

  “Look yonder!” William called, suddenly more animated than Kate had ever seen him. “Raglan lies ahead! Nearly there now.” His men gave a little cheer.

  Unusually talkative for once, he told her that the castle had been built fifty years before by his grandfather, an ambitious but loyal Welsh gentleman called William ap Thomas; his father, the great Earl of Pembroke, had converted it into a palatial mansion and made it impregnable. “He wanted a seat that would reflect his power,” William explained. “As indeed it still does.”

  “How did your father come to be called Herbert?” she ventured, hoping to prolong the conversation by showing some interest.

  “He chose the name himself,” William said. “He felt an English name would do more for him than a Welsh one. After that, the Welsh called him Black William. It did not bother him. He was the King’s man, through and through.”

  They were nearing the fortress now. The approach road led up through patches of woodland to an ornately battlemented gatehouse, and Kate could now see that what had looked from a distance in the late afternoon sun like reddish stone was in fact a blend of purples and browns. The castle was huge and formidable, surrounded by a mighty curtain wall intersected by six strong hexagonal towers, the whole dominated by a great keep. She would be safe here. She doubted that anyone could breach those defenses.

  “That is the Yellow Tower,” William said, following her line of vision and pointing to a lesser keep, tall and octagonal, that stood solidly outside the walls to their left, surrounded by a wide moat. “It was built for defense, but there are spacious chambers in there, which are kept for guests. And that range of lodgings to the left of the gatehouse, where you can see the shields carved in the stone, is where our apartments are. They are handsomely appointed.”

  They were. Raglan was like a palace inside. “It is the greatest castle of our age,” William said proudly, and Kate had to agree. Even Middleham, luxurious as it was, was not so fine; and beside such modern splendor, Westminster Palace itself seemed old and outdated.

  Her new home was built around two vast courtyards, with a great hall and chapel in the center, each boasting a wondrous fan-vaulted roof. William had mentioned guests, but Kate thought it unlikely that they would be entertaining often, with the countryside so hostile roundabouts. She wondered if there were local lords whose wives were disposed to be friendly.

  The apartments she was to share with William were up a grand stair that led off the south court, where a fountain spouted jets of water. Their great chamber was m
agnificent, the parlor next to it small and intimate but sumptuous. Beyond it was a gallery hung with tapestries and armorial bearings. The Herbert lions on their blue and red ground, surmounted by the family crest of a green wyvern breathing fire, were prominent everywhere.

  William was a different man on his home ground. He took pleasure in showing her the castle, and it was obvious that his household officers and servants admired him. Seeing this more expansive side of him, she found herself liking him more, although she was certain that she could never feel love or desire for him. There was not that in him to inspire it.

  He presented her to the other women in his life. His mother, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, the former Anne Devereux, was the sister of Lord Ferrers and a strong-willed old lady full of character, who clearly ruled the castle. She had taken holy orders in widowhood, like Kate’s grandmother, the Duchess Cecily, and wore nunlike black robes and a wimple with a chin barbe. She greeted Kate warmly, promising to do all she could to assist her in her new duties as chatelaine, and assuring her that everything would be ordered for her comfort. “We shall make merry together!” she said, a twinkle in her eye. Not for Anne Devereux the austere rigor of a conventual routine, as Duchess Cecily had imposed at Baynard’s Castle; judging by the rings on her fingers and her plump figure, she enjoyed life’s pleasures. And she evidently doted on her granddaughter.

  Elizabeth Herbert was six years old. William had never mentioned his first wife, so Kate thought she must favor her, as she resembled him not at all. Elizabeth was fair, with more than a look of the Wydevilles; We are cousins, Kate realized, through the Hautes. She was prettily pale, with ash-blond hair, and dressed in a simple gown with a garland of daisies on her head. She curtsied formally at her father’s bidding.

  “This is your new mother,” he said. It was a daunting prospect to Kate, having a stepdaughter thrust upon her when she herself was only fourteen, but she anticipated already that the Dowager Countess would continue to care for the child. That would be the best arrangement; and Kate would play the part of a big sister.

  As she lay down exhausted in her soft, richly curtained bed that first night at Raglan, she reflected that life in this great castle might not be as terrible as she had imagined, although still it seemed to her a gilded prison, the symbol of her bondage, isolated as it was in this wild and dangerous land. There was Mattie’s wedding to plan for, and a household to run; she had much to learn, she knew, and with the help of the Dowager Countess, she meant to make a success of it all; and in time, God willing, there might be children—already, William had started quizzing her as to whether his nightly labors had yet borne fruit. Her days would be busy and full of distractions, and for that she was grateful.

  KATHERINE

  December 1560; Whitehall and Hertford House,

  Westminster

  I have barely been able to contain myself these past days. My betrothal ring, now hanging on a chain concealed beneath my clothing, is a constant pressure on my heart. Yet at last comes the longed-for announcement that the Queen is departing on the morrow for Eltham, followed by the command that we, her servants, are to make ready to accompany her.

  Fate has been kind to me. Jane and I were going to plead illness as an excuse to stay behind, but this very day, I have developed such a bad toothache that my face has swollen up. I can with all conscience say to the Queen that I am unwell. And Jane too is ailing, although sadly that is no new thing, and it is now generally acknowledged within the privy chamber that she is delicate and needs special consideration. She will plead that she is not feeling well enough to travel.

  We go together to the Queen, I with a kerchief tied around my face, and ask to be excused from our attendance upon her on the morrow. She looks at us sharply, with those piercing black eyes, but there is no denying that we both look poorly, I with my puffed-up cheek, and Jane with her hectic visage.

  “Very well,” she says, probably relieved to be spared my company for a space. “You have my permission to remain behind. We will not be gone long, just a matter of days.” Long enough! I think gleefully.

  Back in her closet, Jane scribbles a note to Ned, telling him to expect us early the next morning. Now everything is set, and all we have to do is wait.

  After the Queen departs, in a great procession and amid much bustle, I stay in her deserted apartments until all is quiet, my mind feverish with agitation. What I am about to do is dangerous and probably rash; but my love for Ned is stronger than my fear of Queen Elizabeth. Still, I am filled with a sense of dread, fearful in case we should be discovered.

  It is early, not far past seven o’clock, and I am being laced into what will serve as my wedding dress: a square-necked black velvet gown that shows off my breasts to advantage; it has a tight bodice and a wide, round skirt, and sleeves slashed with white silk; an elaborate ruff is tied around my neck.

  I pick up my white French hood with the gold-and-gem braiding, wondering whether to put it on: a bride should go loose-haired to her wedding, as a sign of her virginity, but I dare not even hint to the world what my purpose is today, so I hand it to Mrs. Leigh and she places it on my head. I have decided that it would be wiser not to involve Mrs. Leigh in my wedding plans: the fewer that know of them, the better, and the minister can serve for a second witness. And so, when she is done, I dismiss her.

  I am determined to dress as becomes a wife after the ceremony, even though I can only do so for the short time I am with Ned in private—that time of which I have dreamed these many years. Opening the little chest in which I keep my jewels, I draw out a coverchief, a triangular-shaped piece of linen that I have fashioned, hemmed, folded, and pinned to make a cap; this I will wear to show that I am a virtuous married woman. I put it in my pocket.

  Jane arrives, looking pretty but too thin and pale in crimson velvet, and now the hour is upon us. Filled with a curious mixture of misgivings and anticipation, and giggling nervously, I slide my betrothal ring onto my finger and pull on my gloves with shaking hands. Then we wrap ourselves in our cloaks and pull our hoods down well over our faces.

  I have visited Ned’s London house several times with Jane, and usually we come by river, as the main entrance is through a water gate on the Thames, but this morning the tide is out. Speed is essential, for we dare not be missed, so we hurry along the privy gallery, patter down the stairs, and slip out of the palace into a small courtyard. There is hardly a soul about, just a couple of workmen repairing a window. It is freezing, and the wind is bitter.

  It feels strange to be abroad unaccompanied. All my life, whenever I have ventured out into the world, I have been attended by a maid, at the very least, and I am sure that the same could be said of Jane. Yet here we are, two lone gentlewomen, out on our own and embarked upon the most daring and perilous adventure. No wonder my legs feel as if they are about to collapse under me.

  We pass through a small door in the wall to the frost-rimed orchard, and so hurry southward to the riverbank, where at the edge of the sands there is a narrow pebbled path that leads to the river stairs of Hertford House. It is unlikely that anyone will spot us, because only a few servants remain to take care of Whitehall, yet still I look about me furtively, and in some terror, as we hasten on our way. Jane too is watchful and wary, ready to shield me if she sees anyone who might know us.

  When we approach Hertford House, I look up; there is a movement at an upper window, and then I catch sight of my beloved looking anxiously out of another, over the gateway. As soon as he sees us, he waves and disappears. We are here! We have done it!

  Suddenly a man emerges from the house and tries to push past us, but Jane is too quick for him.

  “Barnaby!” she exclaims as I pull my hood close about my face. “Whither go you?”

  “On some business of my lord,” he replies sullenly, and hastens away.

  “Learn some manners!” she calls after him. And quietly, to me: “Now where is the minister? He should be here.”

  As she watches for his
approach, Ned himself opens the front doors, looking tense but splendid in a fine suit of cloth of silver and a jaunty cape of sage-green velvet. He smiles and opens his arms; and I run to him. We remain locked together for a long, breathless moment before he breaks away, embraces his sister, and closes the front door behind us. We are alone in the withdrawing chamber.

  “You got rid of the servants,” Jane says.

  “Yes, I sent those I trust least on lengthy errands, and the rest have been told to take their leisure and remain belowstairs until after they have eaten their dinner. So we have a good three hours.”

  “We ran into Barnaby,” his sister tells him.

  “A graceless oaf,” Ned smiles. “He is delivering a letter to my goldsmith in Cheapside. He will think nothing of your coming here.”

  “We have to be back at Whitehall for dinner at eleven, or the Lord Comptroller might become suspicious,” Jane tells him. “Is the minister here?”

  “No, he is not,” Ned frets. “I’ve been looking out for him. Hopefully he will arrive soon. Come up and take some refreshment while we wait.”

  We ascend to his bedchamber, which overlooks the river. It was through its mullioned window that I had glimpsed him earlier. My eyes are drawn at once to the grand four-poster bed with carved posts, elaborate wooden reliefs, and a solid tester; it lies there waiting for us, made up with the finest linen, its rich counterpane folded back ready … Ned’s eyes meet mine. He has seen me looking at it, and his gaze is warm.

  I notice a book lying open on a chest by the bed.

  “I was reading, or trying to,” he says. “I’ve been up since six, making all ready. I could not settle to anything until I knew you were safely here. I even went for a walk, as I could not sit down. Katherine, Jane, help yourselves to some food.”

  He waves us to the laden sideboard, spread with platters of cold meats and cheeses, manchet rolls, bowls of almond comfits, and flagons of ale. Yet none of us can fancy a mouthful. Ned is distracted, pacing the floor between the sideboard and the window, looking again and again to see if the minister is in sight. I pour some ale and sip it, feeling increasingly dispirited. Where is the man?

 
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