A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

  Ned fumes. “He isn’t coming.”

  “He promised,” Jane says plaintively. “He seemed genuine.”

  “What shall we do?” I ask.

  “We dare not wait any longer,” Jane says. “Stay here, both of you, and I will go and find another minister to marry you.”

  We protest, fearing the danger of her being discovered, but she is adamant, and before we can deter her, she is gone, her black cloak flapping behind her. And so we are alone at last in Ned’s bedchamber.

  We stand awkwardly, unaccustomed to this new intimacy. Then Ned crosses the distance between us and draws me to him. I shiver.

  “You are cold, sweetheart,” he murmurs, holding me against his breast. Our two hearts are thumping so hard you can almost hear them.

  “I am frightened,” I say. “Frightened that Jane will be caught. Frightened that our marriage cannot take place …”

  “Hush now,” Ned gentles me. “You should not always think the worst.”

  “I have had good reason to all my life,” I reflect. “Are you not afraid?”

  “Of course,” he confesses. “Many might call us mad even to contemplate what we are doing this day. But I want you, Katherine, and I am prepared to risk all to have you. I love you.”

  Instantly I am opening my mouth to his, running my hands over his back and shoulders, and feeling faint with longing. He is going to be mine, this glorious, wonderful man whom I have adored for so long, and once I am lawfully his, nothing, not even the Queen, can come between us.

  Within half an hour a breathless Jane returns with a plump little cleric with fair, freckled skin, a red beard, and a long black gown furred with lambskin such as the Calvinists wear in Geneva; she’d found him in St. Margaret’s Church by Westminster Abbey. Easily persuaded by the ten pounds offered by Ned, he professes himself willing to join together two young and eager lovers in holy wedlock. He asks no questions as to our identity, although he must realize from our surroundings and attire that we are nobly born—yet neither does he give us his own name, nor don any surplice.

  Jane helps the minister to prepare for the ceremony, and he tells her she is as comely an acolyte as he’s ever seen. It breaks the tension a little.

  “Pray stand here, facing the window,” he commands, opening his Book of Common Prayer. We take our places, side by side, with Jane standing behind us, and the nuptials begin.

  Ned produces an elaborate gold ring and places it on my finger as we make our vows, then the minister pronounces us man and wife, and the service is over. We have done it! We are wed—at last!

  Jane takes the minister downstairs, pays him his fee—since Ned does not have enough money—and shows him out of the house, and while she is gone I share another loving embrace with my husband and admire my ring. It is cunningly crafted with a spring that opens up five gold links engraved with a poesy Ned has composed specially for me. Delighted, I read the delicately engraved verse:

  As circles five by art compressed show but one ring to sight,

  So trust uniteth faithful minds with knot of secret might,

  Whose force to break, but greedy Death, no wight possesseth power,

  As time and sequels well shall prove, my ring can say no more.

  Though disquieted a little by the mention of greedy Death, I thrill to read of the secret might of the knot we have just tied, and Ned’s acknowledgment of the trust and fidelity that have bound us all these long years. This ring, like the one he gave me at our betrothal, is symbolic of the power of the marriage bond. It makes it all—this strange day, the anonymous minister, the furtive ceremony—seem real.

  Jane returns and attempts a little celebration. She has brought wine and pours it into three goblets. “A toast to your bridal!” she says. “I have longed for this day, to see you both happily wed. May every happiness be yours!”

  We clink goblets and drink, then Jane presses us to take some food.

  “I could not eat a thing,” I confess, having other, more pressing bodily needs on my mind. Ned stands silent beside me.

  Jane smiles. “I perceive you are ready for bed. I will wait downstairs,” she says, and leaves us alone.

  Oh, the joy of lovers becoming one flesh! We consummate our marriage most heartily, and maybe more passionately than most, but first there is fumbling! I have brought no night gear with me, my lord’s has not been laid out, and we have no attendants to help us take off our layers of winter clothing.

  “I will be your tirewoman, sweetheart,” Ned chuckles, tugging at the laces of my gown as I pull off my hood and hastily don my wifely coverchief. Soon it is all I am wearing, everything else having been cast on the floor—girdle, gown, kirtle, quilted petticoat, fine lawn smock—as my love and I, warmed by the wine singing in our veins, divest each other of all our clothes. Ned is undressed first, but I am not long after; he pulls me naked onto the bed where he has flung himself, and we fall into each other’s arms, and I know at last what it is to lie skin to skin with my beloved between cool, crisp sheets.

  We cannot have enough of each other, and take our pleasure again and again, rolling over and over on the feather mattress, so that sometimes I am on my back on one side of it, and then I am straddling Ned on the other! All the time we are murmuring the sweet words that lovers say when they are intimate. It is as far removed from those innocent fumblings with Harry as the sun from the moon. Had I ever dreamed there could be such joy in this world?

  Never did two hours go so fast. Only once do we leave the bed, to get some wine, and then we hasten back, unwilling to waste time. Later, I look up, flushed and dewy with sweat, and see that the weak November sun is high in the sky.

  “Oh, no, I must fly!” I wail, devastated, for I had not dared to dwell on the inevitable parting.

  “Good God, the time!” Ned cries, leaping from the bed. “Let me help you, sweet wife.” I rise and run unashamed to him, clinging to his body for one last embrace, and then we force ourselves apart and drag on our clothes, and Ned makes a very creditable job of assisting me into mine.

  “There,” he says, pulling on his doublet over his rumpled shirt and fiddling with the buttons. “You look very fine. No one would ever suspect what you have been doing!”

  “For shame!” I chide, but despite my jesting I am dying inside and finding it hard to stem my tears. “When shall we meet again, my husband?”

  “As soon as it can be arranged,” Ned assures me. “Jane will help us, you may depend on it. Kiss me, my love.”

  We race downstairs, where, the tide being up, an anxious Jane has hailed a wherry. Ned kisses me one final time, then I tear myself away and climb into the boat. When I look around, Ned is at the top of the river stairs, waving farewell, his face wistful; then he turns and disappears back into the house. The boatman pulls out into the river and rows downstream to Whitehall. And at eleven o’clock precisely, neat and prim as a Lady of the Privy Chamber should be, I am seated at table with the Lord Comptroller.


  1484, Raglan Castle

  Life, for Kate, settled into a routine. Early Mass; household tasks; learning to supervise the servants under the kindly guidance of the Countess Anne; presiding with William at table, if he was at home, for his responsibilities often took him around the countryside, rallying support for the King; spending endless hours sewing and gossiping with the dowager, or listening to the castle minstrel singing the old bardic songs; and taking supper at the board before retiring to bed with her lord, who invariably claimed the marriage debt.

  Rarely, as she had anticipated, were there guests. Just the occasional traveler begging a night’s hospitality, and sometimes William’s bastard half brother, Richard Herbert, come visiting from his home in Herefordshire. He was a bluff, hearty, feet-on-the-ground man with the dark Herbert looks, although his hair was graying because he was much older than William, having been the child of his father’s misspent youth. Kate always looked forward to his dining with them, because he was a witty raconteur, and much l
ivelier company than her husband.

  William, though, was more communicative these days. Here at Raglan he was among his own people, people he had known all his life. When he rode out, they came running to see him and called down blessings on him, for he was a good lord to them; and because of that, they were polite to his English wife—if a little wary of her because of whose daughter she was. But Kate set herself to charm them with her winning ways and spirited chatter, and soon she was a familiar figure in the village that clustered behind the castle. She and Mattie—who was married now and sported her goodwife’s coif with pride—would take a small escort of soldiers and go down to the weekly market that was held at the village cross. And sometimes they would go into the little church dedicated to St. Cadoc, a Welsh prince who had become an abbot and been canonized, far back in the mists of time, although local folk spoke of him familiarly, as if he were still living among them.

  Kate thought the church pretty enough, and she was intrigued to find inside it the tombs of some ancient lords of Raglan. Pembroke, who had enlarged and beautified it, was not among them: his broken body had been laid to rest at Abergavenny, William had told her. She wondered if someday she herself would lie here, and the thought chilled her. She could not bear to think of spending the rest of her life in Raglan, or leaving her bones in Wales for all eternity.

  The countess proved herself a staunch friend. When Kate miscarried, in blood and fear, her first child, early on in her pregnancy, it was Anne Devereux who calmed her and sat with her, holding her hand until the pains were over, herself wrapping in a cloth and taking away the tiny, unformed morsel of humanity that would have been her grandchild. After that, relations between the two women grew close, and they began to share confidences.

  It was Anne who told Kate the truth about William’s past. One autumn afternoon, as they sat together embroidering an altar cloth for the church, she began reminiscing about her departed lord, Pembroke.

  “We loved each other well, more than most.” She smiled wistfully. “When he knew he was to be executed, he could not bear to think of me in the arms of another man, so in his will he exhorted me to take the order of widowhood—and so here I am, my dear, not particularly devout as a nun should be, but consecrated to the memory of my true love.”

  “Were you content to do it?” Kate asked, thinking that it must be hard to give up all prospect of loving again, knowing that never more would you lie with a man’s arms about you and his seed in your belly.

  “Yes, I was content, and I am still,” the dowager said. “No one ever could match Pembroke. He was strong and brave and respected, and he loved me well.” She paused, remembering. “William is not his father,” she observed sadly, then held up a hand to still Kate’s ready, well-meant protest. “Nay, I am his mother, and I may speak the truth about him. He was very young when he had to take on his father’s responsibilities and offices; too young. King Edward had a fondness for him and was ready to treat him as well as he had Pembroke, as long as he served him staunchly. But William wasn’t up to it—he himself knew it, and he wasn’t interested anyway. As a young man, he cared only for hunting and hawking. The family fortunes and influence began to decline; Henry Tudor was snatched from Raglan; better men were brought in to shoulder the burdens. King Edward gave William the odd commission, and took him to France when he went to war, but he knew he couldn’t depend on him. Then the blow fell.”

  “The blow?” Kate’s needle was poised in midair.

  “The Queen and her party were behind it; we all thought that. She wanted her son, the Prince of Wales, to be influential in these parts. She wanted the rich lands of Pembroke for him. So she persuaded the King to dispossess William of his earldom. He wasn’t deprived of it as such, but he was forced to surrender it in exchange for the much poorer earldom of Huntingdon. What could he do? He had no choice but to agree. And you could see the King’s point of view. William hadn’t been very successful at ruling in south Wales. I can still see what was written in the King’s letter: he said the exchange was being made for the public weal, restful government, and the administration of justice in these parts. The message could not have been plainer.”

  “How did William take it?” Kate found she was feeling sorry for her husband. To have been deprived of that great inheritance, that proud earldom borne by his father, must have been so humiliating. She could see why her father had not told her the whole story, for he could not have done so without making some criticism of her future husband.

  “He was bitter, as you may imagine,” the countess told her. “But he has been more than compensated by King Richard, who has been good to him. He has given you to him, and that alone is a great blessing!” She smiled and patted Kate’s hand. “And William is much more diligent these days, and effective at his duties too. He works hard in the King’s service. Maturity has made a great difference to him.” She leaned forward, and Kate could smell the faint scent of lavender. “You do not love him, do you?”

  The question took Kate unawares, but Anne’s expression was sympathetic.

  “I try,” she said. “I know it is my duty.”

  “Give it time,” the countess said kindly. “I think you will do very well together.”

  “I hope so,” Kate said, and half meant it. Her life here had not been as bad as she had anticipated. It had its good moments, especially in the company of the countess, Richard Herbert, and Mattie of course, and little Elizabeth was a delightful scamp. Even William had been unexpectedly kind after she lost the babe, ordering choice foods for her comfort and gruffly telling her not to worry, there would be another child soon. There were no horrible rumors about her father in Raglan, and she had almost lulled herself into accepting that there had never been any substance to them anyway; only a faint, nagging anxiety remained, and that she refused to dwell upon. Yes, life was tranquil, and even pleasant at times. Yet she spent her days feeling no more than half alive, an exile in a strange land—and knowing that the chief part of her heart lay somewhere in England, wherever John lived and breathed.


  December 1560–March 1561. Whitehall Palace;

  Greenwich Palace; Hertford House, Westminster

  There follows a strange time, when I live outwardly as a maid and privately, when it can be managed, as a wife. If it were not for Jane, Ned and I could never be together, but she is indefatigable. When her brother visits her at Whitehall or Greenwich, no one remarks on it, of course; but they do not know of the stolen hours we regularly spend making frantic love in Jane’s little closet off the maidens’ dorter, with her on watch in case anyone should come. And it is nothing unusual for me to accompany Jane on her visits to Cannon Row, where Ned and I tumble into our naked bed while she waits downstairs and keeps the servants at bay.

  And the Queen suspects nothing, I am sure. She is as sharp with me as ever—no mother-daughter affection to be seen!—and yet I am still accorded the deference due to my royal status, and the court still buzzes with speculation that I might soon be elevated further, and the question of the succession thereby settled.

  We have taken Mrs. Leigh into our confidence, Jane and I: she now knows the truth, and I am touched to find that she is glad for me, and never looked to see me so happily settled in wedlock. I am sure as can be that I can rely on her discretion, for she is a good woman who has given me faithful service.

  Six days after our marriage, during one of our trysts at Whitehall, Ned gives me a hundred crowns for my keep, and a deed of land worth a thousand pounds, made over to his “dear and well-beloved wife.” How I rejoice to see myself described thus.

  He also gives me something very precious to him: a tiny book bound in red velvet that was owned by his father, Protector Somerset. There is a lump in my throat when I open it and find a faded inscription addressed to Ned: The day before my death, from the Tower. Choked, I add my own name, and lay it in the little silver casket in which I keep my personal papers and jewels.

  I fear the unthinkable has
happened. I have had only a light show of blood for the second month now. At first, never having been very regular in my courses, I thought it but the result of all the anxieties and joys I have swung between lately; but now I find my breasts are slightly swollen, and I am uncommonly tired. God help me, I think I may be with child.

  Some might regard me as exceptionally naïve, enjoying carnal copulation and not anticipating its natural consequences. But I had thought that all would be resolved with Her Majesty before long; that, in a short space, Ned would have found powerful patrons to support us, and the need for secrecy would be over. Now I am not so sure, for we are too mired in fear to confess what we have done, and Ned has to go very carefully in this matter. One false move and we may be lost. We certainly will be lost if what I fear comes to pass, and someone does not help us soon.

  When we three—Ned, myself, and Jane—are next alone together, in his bedchamber at Hertford House, Ned, who seems a little withdrawn tonight, asks if aught ails me.

  “You look weary, sweetheart.”

  “I am worse than that!” I burst out. “I fear I might be with child!”

  If ever I saw a man blanch with fear it was then.

  “Are you sure?” An inane question, but one which, I have heard, is often asked by gentlemen at such times.

  “Not yet,” I tell him. “There are certain tokens, but I may be mistaken. I pray that I am.”

  Jane is brisk. “If you are pregnant, there is no remedy but for us to make it known how the matter stands with you.”

  “I agree,” Ned concurs. “We must trust to the Queen’s mercy. We will have no choice.”

  We have to face it: Jane is fading away. The illness that has been consuming her for years has finally extinguished even her ebullient spirit, and she has grown weaker by the day. When she finally takes to her bed, I obtain leave from the Queen to go to Hertford House to nurse her. She is deteriorating fast, and it agonizes me to see it. Jane and I are kindred spirits in so many ways, united in our love for Ned, so I take up my sickroom duties willingly, tenderly caring for her in her tragic decline, sitting with her while she dozes in the afternoons, or talking away the night hours when sleep deserts her.

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