A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  Ned is often with me during these vigils. We welcome the chance to be so constantly together, but we both wish it were in happier circumstances. Sometimes we seize the opportunity to bed together, but those stolen hours are short, because we are both aware that time is running out for Jane, and we want to be with her while we can.

  I seem always to be fighting tears these days; and in my grief at the inevitable parting to come, I almost forget my fears about my condition. The prospect of motherhood, with all its terrible consequences, has become a remote one. And if Ned now seems preoccupied, and not quite so loving, I put it down to his concern for his sister. And then I find out that it is due to something else entirely.

  ——

  Entering our bedchamber one morning, I happen to glance at the table and see a document lying there. It bears the Queen’s seal. Of course, I have to read further, and soon wish that I had not done so, for the paper is a safe conduct, signed by Elizabeth herself, requesting the King of France to let pass without hindrance her faithful servant, Edward Seymour, to Paris and other parts of the kingdom of France, as he goes about his lawful business in her service.

  Paris? France? Lawful business? What is this about? In a fury of agitation, I race around the house looking for Ned, and find him in the courtyard, inspecting a new mare. He looks up startled as I dismiss the grooms, then his face falls as I thrust the safe conduct at him.

  “What is this?” I cry, like a wounded animal.

  “I had to apply for it. I had no choice. I was going to tell you, Katherine, but I could not face it, what with Jane being so ill and you being so worried about, well, you know …” He makes to embrace me, but I fend him off. “I did not wish to add to your burdens,” he says desperately. “This mission has been thrust upon me. I did not seek it!”

  “What mission?” My blood is up. I have no cause to be reasonable.

  “I am to go to France on diplomatic business, which is a great honor and a sign of the Queen’s favor, and may lead to further advancement, which can only benefit us, sweetheart. And I am also commanded to go to Paris as companion to Mr. Secretary’s son, Thomas Cecil, while he completes his education. In truth, Katherine, I am as dismayed as you at the prospect of our being parted so soon, but I know—”

  “While he completes his education? And how long will that be?” I rage, tears streaming down my cheeks.

  “Hush, my love, do not weep so. I cannot bear it!” Ned blusters. “Listen, please: the date of my departure is not yet fixed; there are arrangements to be made. For all we know, Her Majesty may change her mind and I will not go at all. You know how changeable she is. So please, I beg of you, dry your tears. I would not leave you for the world, of my own choice. But if the Queen commands it, I have no choice. You must understand that.”

  I subside into his arms, unable to bear any bad feeling against him for long. I am weeping uncontrollably, desperate at the prospect of his being gone from me overseas for an indefinite time, for even the short days and weeks between our meetings are misery to me; and because it has occurred to me that he may secretly wish to be gone, away from the tangled mess that our lives have become. Then I regain control and administer a silent reprimand to myself for having such uncharitable thoughts about the man who is holding me tightly and murmuring his love into my ear. This is his career, and it is important. How could I be so unfair to him?

  Jane is dying: we all know it. I watch helplessly as she slips from us, meekly and patiently, too weak even to mouth a farewell. I see Ned sobbing openly as he kisses her dead hand, holding it as if he can never let it go.

  The Queen orders a magnificent funeral, and commands her ladies and chief household officers to attend. Clad in heavy black once again, and weeping in the privacy of my hood, I walk behind the stately bier with two hundred other mourners, up the long nave of Westminster Abbey, retracing the path I trod only fifteen months ago when my lady mother was buried here. And it is beside the tomb Stokes commissioned, with its serene sculpted image of her in her coronet and robes of estate, that Jane Seymour is laid to rest. My eye alights on the Latin inscription on my mother’s monument, and soon I cannot see for tears, for it moves me immeasurably:

  Nor grace, nor splendor, nor a royal name

  Nor widespread heritage can aught avail;

  All, all have vanished here. True worth alone

  Survives the funeral pyre and silent tomb.

  And I think of these two, my mother and my friend, and those others I have loved and lost, now dust in lonely graves.

  Without Jane to look out for us, Ned and I have small hope of seeing each other. The interval allowed for mourning over, I am commanded back to the privy chamber, where my black gown draws little comment, as the Queen always insists her ladies wear black or white so as to appear insipid next to her own peacock finery. Meanwhile Ned tidies up Jane’s small affairs and undertakes his duties elsewhere in the court.

  Our need for each other is such that we cannot long bear to be apart. I beg Mrs. Leigh to replace Jane as our go-between. She consents with reluctance, if only because she is moved by my evident distress. Twice in the week after the funeral, Ned and I, a touch embarrassed, meet in Mrs. Leigh’s chamber at Whitehall, she making it available, and herself scarce, looking to see there is no one watching, of course.

  It adds spice to our coupling, this secrecy; we time our trysts for when the Queen’s ladies are about their allotted duties and busy in the privy chamber. Our lovemaking is always hurried, and usually we dare not undress completely for fear we may be interrupted.

  Then Mrs. Leigh comes to me. “If it please you, Lady Katherine, my mother is ill and I crave leave to go down to the country to be with her.”

  “Of course,” I say, my heart sinking. “I pray you find her amended.”

  Mrs. Leigh thanks me most warmly and departs. I never see her again.

  Our meetings now are few and far apart. When we do meet, anxiety mars our reunions, for I am still unsure whether I am with child or not, and I am loath to confide my fears to Ned. My courses are regular, but still scanty, and I could swear my stomach is rounder. Whether these signs betoken I am with child I cannot say, but they trouble me deeply. Yet I do not say anything, as I hate to spoil our brief times together.

  Then comes the awful day when Ned breaks it to me that he is soon to depart for France.

  “Tell me truly, Katherine,” he urges, “are you with child?”

  “In faith, I do not know,” I sob, devastated at the imminence of our parting. “I bleed a little each month and I have put on weight, but I am so hungry and keep eating, so that is not surprising. I fear I am very ignorant of such things. I wish there was some wise woman I could ask, but I dare not.” And I burst out crying again. I am afraid that if I go on this way, always distressed and weeping, Ned will be glad to leave me. And with the width of the English Channel between him and Queen Elizabeth’s wrath, should she discover our secret, I am sure he will be very glad to be in France. But he surprises me.

  “If you are with child,” he says distractedly, “I will not leave you to face the Queen.”

  Mrs. Ellen, my old nurse, has come out of retirement to replace Mrs. Leigh, and seems very glad to be back in my service. Inevitably I soon find myself confiding in her. Without hesitation, she agrees to pass messages between Ned and me, and after a few days she tells me he wishes to meet me opposite his house, by the old canopied fountain in New Palace Yard, in front of Westminster Hall. I hasten there at once.

  There is no one about as I approach the octagonal fountain. I am early, and Ned is nowhere to be seen. I make to sit down on the low stone rim, but without warning I find myself engulfed by the most terrible sensations of anguish and despair, similar to those I experienced on the water stairs at Baynard’s Castle all those years ago, but far worse. I fear I am drowning, submerged by powerful waves of desperation and horror. I am going to faint …

  “Katherine?” Ned is suddenly before me, steadying me as I sway.

/>   “I must get away!” I gasp. “I cannot stay here! Help me!” He grabs my arm and drags me away, over to Westminster Hall, where I slump in the porch, trying to steady my breathing. Once the dreadful sensations have dissipated, I look fearfully over at the fountain.

  “Now,” Ned says, alarmed, “try to calm down, and tell me what all that was about. Are you ill, my love?”

  “Nay, I was affrighted.” I tell him about the horrors I have just experienced. “Truly,” I say, “I did not imagine what I felt. That fountain is cursed; maybe something bad happened there once. Did you not feel anything?”

  “Nothing at all. You must have imagined it, sweeting; you have been overburdened with troubles lately.”

  “I know I did not,” I insist, “and I am never going near that fountain again.”

  Several lawyers are going in and out of Westminster Hall, where the courts sit, and some glance at us curiously. We are very exposed here.

  Ned looks anxious. “We should not be seen together. Listen, I have received orders to go to France in two days. I know this news is as unwelcome to you as it is to me.” He sounds formal and stiff, as if warding off another storm of weeping on my part. But I am frozen in misery, knowing myself powerless against the might of the Queen and her ministers.

  Ned regards me with concern. “I will send letters to you by the common packet,” he says. “I will entrust them to my servant Glynne, whom you may depend on. And I will leave money with you, in case you prove to be with child. If you tell me it is so, I will not depart the realm. But you are not certain yet?”

  “I am not sure,” I say dully, “but Mrs. Ellen says I could not be pregnant and still have my courses. I pray she is right.”

  “So do I,” Ned agrees fervently. “Well—I must go then. But if it proves otherwise, my Katherine, send for me at once. I will not tarry abroad; I will defy the Queen and come home to support you.”

  “I cannot face you going from me,” I mumble.

  “It will be hard for us both.” He shrugs with a helpless gesture. “I would we could lie together before I leave, but how could we manage it?”

  “I do not think I could bear it,” I tell him, “for then I could never let you go.” I have felt like that every time we have bedded together: the pleasure has always been marred for me by the awareness that a parting inevitable as death must follow—and that was when we had some prospect of seeing each other again in a matter of days or weeks. But this parting will be worse, for we have no idea when we will be reunited. I am bowed down by it, burdened by a heavy sense of loss, and by the fear of pregnancy that yet nags at me. Was this what those terrible sensations at the fountain presaged?

  “You are punishing me for leaving you,” Ned protests. “That is unfair and cruel. Would you have me defy the Queen and face ruin?”

  “Nay, nay,” I say wearily. “Forgive me, my dear heart. I know you are not to blame.”

  Ned holds me close and our mouths meet. His body moves against me, and I can feel mine responding. Yet even at the height of desire, we are looking out for eavesdroppers. And with desire unsatisfied, we tear ourselves apart and go back to our separate lives, knowing it will be a long time ere we will behold each other again.

  KATE

  1484–55, Raglan Castle

  News from court filtered through only slowly; often it was days old by the time the royal messengers reached Raglan. The King wrote that he had now designated Lincoln his heir, and Lincoln was now practicing for kingship, presiding over the Council of the North and the royal household at Sheriff Hutton. How she wished she could be there, with her brother John and her royal cousins—and her dear love!

  As Christmas approached, Kate felt especially homesick. They would be preparing for the twelve days of revelry at Westminster—and she would not be there to enjoy them. Her father and stepmother would be facing their first Yuletide season without the prince, and that would go hard with them, she knew. And then came a letter that really upset her: Queen Anne was ill, her father wrote. The doctors were concerned. He would keep her informed.

  In the early spring, Richard Herbert came visiting again. He had been to London, and William and Kate were eager to hear all about it. For her, it was a tenuous link with all that she held dear, and she hoped he might have tidings of the Queen. But the news he brought was not the news she wanted to hear.

  “It was being said in the City, a few days after Epiphany, that Her Grace had fallen extremely sick,” Richard reported. “I am sorry to be the bearer of sad tidings, my lady.”

  Kate felt near to tears. Anne was very ill, but no one had summoned her, not even her father, unless another letter was on its way. She longed to go to her stepmother, and even had the wild idea of taking a horse and riding full speed into England.

  She found it impossible to make conversation and excused herself, leaving the men to their wine and their desultory talk. It being a cold night, a heavy curtain had been drawn across one end of the parlor, to conserve the heat from the fire, and after she had closed its folds behind her, she heard Richard speaking in a low voice.

  “I didn’t like to say too much in front of your wife, William, but there is more to this business of the Queen, and I think you should know it.”

  William grunted. “You’d better tell me, then.” Kate stood very still in the darkness beyond the curtain, hardly daring to breathe.

  “There’s no chance of the Queen bearing another child. It’s said the death of the prince broke her last year, poor woman, and that she’s been in a decline ever since. But the King needs an heir, and it seems he would marry again.”

  “He has an heir, the Earl of Lincoln,” William pointed out.

  “Like all men, he wants an heir of his own body,” Richard Herbert said. “And it seems he now lusts after his own niece, the late King’s daughter Elizabeth. She and her sisters were at court for Christmas, and there’s talk about her all over the City. It’s said King Richard made her appear in the same apparel as Queen Anne, which set tongues abuzzing. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

  “It’s disrespectful to the Queen, at the very least,” William agreed.

  “God knows what that poor lady made of it. I know what everyone else did. It’s being widely bruited that the King anticipates her death and is bent on marrying Elizabeth. Some even speculate he will divorce the Queen in order to marry the girl. It’s said he has sufficient grounds, because he never obtained a proper dispensation for his marriage, even though he and Anne Neville are close cousins.”

  Kate almost put her hands over her ears. She could not bear to hear more of this—this treason!

  “But his own niece!” William was scathing. “That’s disgraceful.”

  “He is said to be motivated by political concerns. Believe that if you will. But think of it in practical terms, brother. Over a year ago Henry Tudor vowed to wed Elizabeth of York to make good his weak claim to the throne. But if King Richard were to marry Elizabeth himself, that would scupper the Tudor’s plans.”

  William chimed in: “The King had all his brother’s issue declared illegitimate. How then can marrying Elizabeth make good anyone’s claim? And even if she were trueborn, she cannot confer any title while her brothers live.”

  “If they live!” Richard interjected, and Kate began to tremble.

  “Well, we’ve all heard the rumors,” William murmured. “But there’s no evidence that the King has had them killed.”

  “Is there not? Why has he not exhibited them alive? God knows, he has cause enough for doing so. And wanting to marry their sister—it’s a tacit acknowledgment that that precontract story was a load of nonsense. He knows his title is unsound, so he seeks to bolster it by marrying the true heir—and in doing that, he effectively admits that her brothers are dead!”

  Kate thought she might faint, hearing such cruel, hard-nosed logic. It had brought all her buried fears about her father crawling to the surface.

  “There’s more to this than politics, I hear,??
? Richard Herbert continued. “The girl herself is said to be willing, and the King, according to the gossips, is pursuing her for her own sake. She is very beautiful. But when his determination reached the ears of the people, he was castigated for it. No one wants or approves of this marriage. It is condemned unanimously as unlawful and incestuous.”

  “Is it unlawful?”

  “I’m no canon lawyer, brother, but I have heard of uncles marrying nieces before. No doubt if enough money changed hands, a dispensation might be obtained. But I tell you who will be put out by the news—Henry Tudor! He must be shitting his nether hose.”

  “This would all explain a letter my mother received from him a week ago,” William ventured slowly.

  “Your mother had a letter from Henry Tudor?” Richard was shocked.

  “They correspond from time to time, purely on domestic matters. You’ll remember, Dick, that she was as a mother to him when he lived at Raglan as a child, and he has an enduring fondness for her. His letters come via merchants, under a false name, but there is nothing treasonable about them, I assure you. I read them all.”

  “Even so, some might deem it treason, this correspondence,” his brother muttered. “I’m surprised at you for allowing it.”

  “There are no royal spies here at Raglan,” William said. “We’re pretty isolated.”

  “You’re married to the King’s own daughter, man! Are you a fool?”

  “She knows nothing of this. I do not involve her in my affairs, and my loyalty is not in question. But I have digressed. In his letter, Henry Tudor spoke again of marrying our sister Maud.”

 
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