A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

“Maud? But it was years ago that our father mooted that match.”

  “Aye, but the fact that Henry is reviving it now suggests he believes Elizabeth will marry the King and that he is casting around for an alternative bride. Maud might not be royal, but she would bring the Welsh rallying to his cause.”

  “We should avoid all dealings with this!” Richard snapped. “I trust your mother destroyed the letter.”

  “She burned it. But you know, she was a little torn. It was our father’s dying wish that the betrothal be revived, and she was loath to go against his wishes. But fear not, I made it plain to her that meddling in Henry Tudor’s marriage would be treason.”

  “Aye, it would. And so would any further communication with him at this time.”

  “I hear you. Will this marriage of the King’s go ahead?”

  “I know not, such is the outcry against it. But I’m told he is determined. He has shunned his wife’s bed, for obvious reasons, and if you believe the London gossip, has abandoned her to waste away. It’s said he complains of her barrenness, and voices his belief that she will die soon. Some say he can’t rid himself of her quickly enough.”

  Kate found all this impossible to credit. In her mind was a picture of her father and Anne at Middleham, loving and happy together. Her husband and his brother could not be speaking of the same couple. She remembered there had been some coolness between the King and Queen, but even that rode ill with these new allegations. She could not imagine her father being so cruel or callous. He was not like that. It seemed that knaves and fools were, as ever, ready to believe the worst of him.

  She could listen to no more. Tiptoeing away, she hastened up to bed, and wept into her pillow. When William came up soon afterward, he noticed that her cheeks were streaked with tears. But being a man of little imagination, he did not trouble himself to wonder what might have upset her.

  KATHERINE

  June–July 1561. Greenwich Palace; the Savoy Hospital, London; Wanstead and Beaulieu, Essex

  May God help me. I know for certain now that I am with child, and probably have been for some time, for my courses have dried up entirely and my belly is swelling. Since soon after that sad day when I bade a piteous farewell to Ned and watched his tall, elegant figure disappear into the dawn mist, I have had to instruct Mrs. Ellen to lace my stomacher ever tighter.

  “For pity’s sake, Lady Katherine!” she cries as I urge her to pull harder. “This cannot be doing the babe any good.”

  “It has taken no harm,” I declare, gritting my teeth and trying to breathe in even more. “I first felt it move a week ago, and it has not ceased since. In fact, it may have been moving before, but I thought I had wind.”

  “You cannot go on like this,” she warns, shaking her head in despair. “Go to the Queen. Confess what you have done. She will not harm a pregnant woman.”

  “Ah, but what will happen once the child is born?” I am quaking with fear at the prospect. Women who plead their bellies still face execution after the birth.

  “I do not know,” Mrs. Ellen admits, looking troubled.

  “I have no choice. I must conceal my condition for as long as possible, then feign illness so that I can leave court when I can hide it no more.”

  This is not my only pressing worry. There comes a day when I have an appointment with Mr. Secretary Cecil. It is of my seeking, for my allowance has not been paid. The matter is dealt with quickly and to my satisfaction, but I am aware all the time of Cecil’s appraising glances, and when our business is concluded, he sits back in his chair, folds his hands on his belly, and regards me evenly.

  “Lady Katherine,” he says, “it has come to my notice—and that of others—that you have a certain fondness for my lord of Hertford.”

  “I am fond of him, sir, for he is brother to the Lady Jane Seymour, for whom I grieve yet. We were all good friends.”

  “ ‘Friends’ is not how I would describe what has been reported to me,” he says. “I am advised that there is more between you than that. Indeed, your familiarity with the earl is increasingly the subject of comment, and I must warn you that it would be foolish to continue it without Her Majesty’s consent. Do you still say there is nothing between you?”

  “Nothing of which I should be ashamed!” I retort, wishing he had made himself as plain last year, and not tried to cozen us with false friendship.

  “Then there is something.” Cecil’s eyes are kindly, inviting confidences. “My lady, if there is anything that you should confess to the Queen’s Majesty, I urge you to do it now, and throw yourself on her mercy. I say this as a friend.”

  “I assure you, sir, there is nothing to confess,” I persist.

  “If there were, I should counsel you to avoid such familiarity in the future,” Cecil says.

  “There would be no need,” I declare.

  “Naturally, since Lord Hertford is in France,” the Secretary says smoothly. “I assure you his mission there is a necessary one.” And by that I know Ned has been sent there to get him away from me. Maybe the Queen knows everything, and it is all a plot to shame and discredit me.

  “Of course, his sister did say something about it,” I mumble.

  Cecil gives me a long look, but says no more. When I take my leave, I am trembling.

  I know there is gossip about me in the privy chamber. Conversations cease as I enter a room, and I catch the maids whispering and glancing in my direction. Then one day two of the ladies attendant on Her Majesty draw me aside.

  “Lady Katherine, forgive me,” says the gentle Lady Northampton, “but I have heard disturbing talk of great goodwill between you and the Earl of Hertford.”

  “Aye,” says pretty Lady Clinton, “and that is not all that is said.” Her eyes glance down briefly at my belly.

  “There is nothing between us!” I flare. “Even Mr. Secretary has spoken to me of these rumors, but I have reassured him that they are just rumors! I don’t know what all the fuss and ado is about.”

  “It is Mr. Secretary who has asked us to speak with you,” Lady Northampton reveals. “He fears he was unhelpful in his approach to you, and thinks that we, as women, might put the matter better. But my dear, he is assured by reliable reports that you and my Lord Hertford are more than mere friends, and he urges you to make a clean breast of all to the Queen.”

  “There is nothing to tell her!” I protest, my voice sounding shrill. “Lord Hertford is a good friend of my family, no more. My mother regarded him as a son after he was betrothed to my sister Jane. His mother was my guardian, and I was bosom friends with his sister. How could I not be close to him? The rest is lies, and I am astonished that people should believe them!”

  “Then forgive us,” Lady Clinton soothes. “We have spoken out of turn, and Mr. Secretary is clearly mistaken. Yet he did say we should warn you to beware of keeping company with the earl, so we felt we should do so.”

  I accept her apology graciously, thank them for their concern for me, and go on my way, but my breath is coming fast and uneven, and the child in my belly is squirming in what must be discomfort. I cannot endure it here at court much longer. I must get myself away!

  I have said nothing lately of my lord of Pembroke, but he has been hovering on the periphery of my vision for some months now, either paying me extravagant compliments or dropping heavy hints about how desirable a second marriage between myself and his son would be. In the wake of those threats of my being abducted by either Spain or Scotland, he thinks it would be seen by the Queen as a safe course.

  Pembroke is quite open about his ambitions. He wants a royal bride for his son, a bride with a good claim to the throne. He foresees a royal dynasty of Herberts regenerating down the centuries. And now that Lord Hertford is out of the way, that royal bride might welcome his son’s attentions once more. Harry, I must concede, has grown into a very personable young man; if I were not in love with Ned, or wed to him, I should welcome this match. But although it would once have been the answer to all my prayers, it i
s no longer.

  Now Pembroke comes again, imploring me to accept his son’s suit.

  “I cannot,” I tell him. “I must not marry unless the Queen approves it, and in truth I am not inclined to do so.”

  “May I remind you of something, my lady?” Pembroke asks smoothly. “When, all those years ago, I spoke of annulling your marriage to Harry—which was for political reasons only, I assure you—you both told me it had been consummated. Were that the case, the annulment would be worthless, and you would still be man and wife. Even the Queen could not dispute that.”

  I am chilled listening to his words. “It was not true,” I say. “We made that up so that we could be allowed to stay together.”

  “You were vehement enough about it back then,” he says, his eyes narrowing.

  “We were desperate at the prospect of being parted. I assure you, my lord, it was a lie.”

  “There is gossip that you love the Earl of Hertford these days. Perchance that is coloring your remembrances.”

  “It is only gossip,” I snap, “and I resent the implication, my lord.”

  “Then pray accept my apologies, my lady,” he says, bowing, and takes his leave. Yet I suspect he will not go away.

  The stomacher is tighter than ever. And, to my utter distress, although I have sent many letters addressed To my loving husband, I have had no word from Ned since he left England.

  The Queen still shows a great misliking toward me. Her manner is even sharper and colder than before. She will undoubtedly have heard the gossip; and if Cecil heeds it, she must too. Worse still, being in daily contact with me, does she suspect I am with child?

  Each morning finds me wan and weary. I do not sleep at night. I lie awake in terror lest Ned has abandoned me, praying that a message or letter from him will arrive soon. Does he love me still? Or have they ordered him not to communicate with me, or even intercepted his letters? I would not put anything past them. In truth, I have been such a mope that I could hardly blame Ned if he chose to abandon me.

  I resolve at last to write to him about my condition. He promised he would not tarry in France if I found myself with child, and assured me I should not face the consequences alone. Whatever his feelings for me now, I must hold him to that. This is his child too, and I am his wife.

  It is near midnight. I light my candle and find pen and paper. I am quick with child, I write, my handwriting straggly because I am trembling. I pray you therefore to return and declare how the matter stands between us.

  In the morning, I seek out Master Glynne and beg him to forward my letter to his master without delay. He takes it and bows, touching his cap, and disappears down the stairs. Then, as more days pass, I wait, and wait—and wait. There is no reply from Ned.

  Nor is that all. The latest talk is that my husband, having attended the coronation of the new French King, and seen all the sights, has tired of Paris, and is seeking new pleasures in Italy. It is said he has corrupted young Cecil with his idleness and dissipation, and that they have both been wallowing in filthy pleasures and spending like water the money provided by careful Cecil.

  My world collapses in ruins. Hope shrivels and perishes. To die in childbed would be a blessing.

  Weeping uncontrollably, I seek solace in the kind arms of Mrs. Ellen.

  “Hush, child, you should not give credence to rumors,” she counsels, stroking my damp hair back from my fevered brow. “And think: was your young lord ever given to fornication and the kind of life of which these rumors accuse him? Is it in character?”

  I have to admit it is not. “I was ever one to fear the worst,” I murmur.

  “Then pay the gossipmongers no heed! Their calumnies may be spread deliberately to discountenance you and drive a wedge between you two.”

  A little heartened, but not really reassured, I retire to my lonely bed. Even if Ned is true, I reflect miserably, I have a more immediate problem to solve.

  What am I to do? I am waxing ever greater with child, and time is running out. And if Ned really has forsaken me—for he has not replied to any of my letters—who can help me?

  Then one day, on my way to the privy chamber, I come face-to-face, after so many years, with Harry, my former husband. He bows courteously—how different from when we knew each other in our youth—and when he rises and smiles at me, I see how tall and comely a man he has become. He cannot compare with Ned, of course, but Ned has betrayed me, I am sure.

  I smile back, and we go our different ways. But later I fall to thinking. Desperate problems require desperate remedies. Pembroke, who has great influence with the Queen, wants me to marry Harry, and Harry, by the warmth in his smile today, is not averse to that. Were I to take him, I could have my revenge on Ned and find a father for my child.

  Yes, there are difficulties. I am wed to Ned. But that is a secret; Jane Seymour, the only witness, is dead, and I have no means of tracing the minister, who is unlikely to come forward and confess he married us in the face of the Queen’s displeasure. If I deny that the wedding ever took place, it would be only Ned’s word against mine; and sadly, I think he will not dare to make any protest.

  I make a decision, then change it. Then I make another, and waver about that too. I go round and round in circles, trying to anticipate how I would feel in every circumstance. Even if I can find the courage to repudiate Ned, dare I accept Harry’s suit? I am too far along in pregnancy for him ever to think the babe might be his. I can feel it kicking lustily now, can even see the bumps of its tiny hands and feet when they press against my belly. Yet I know Harry to be kind and chivalrous. If I tell him about my terrible predicament, he might help me. It is asking a great deal, though, expecting a lord of high rank to father another man’s child, yet I think Harry is rare among that breed, and that he would do it. The legal niceties could be sorted out, I am sure.

  The decision is made. I have no choice, I tell myself. I write to Harry. I say I am ready and contented to renew our acquaintance and look favorably on his suit.

  Back, by return, comes a joyful letter, accompanied by a miniature portrait of himself enclosed in a locket, and a ring set with a small sapphire, symbolizing fidelity. Harry writes that we must stand by our tale that our marriage was consummated, for there is the Queen’s consent to be obtained; he adds that he looks forward to our being reunited as husband and wife.

  The Queen’s consent! But will she give it?

  I am pondering my terrible dilemma when the order comes for me to attend Her Majesty on her annual summer progress; this year she is to visit her good subjects in Essex and Suffolk. Now I am trapped indeed. There is no good excuse that I can give, apart from feigning illness, and my courage deserts me even at the prospect of that, for the Queen has little patience with bodily weakness and is apt to lash out if she suspects one of us of malingering. And if she guesses the real cause of my “malingering” … well, I dare not think of it. Oh, dear God, what am I going to do?

  That there is gossip about me at court, I can well imagine. Even I, seeing myself going about the court now, would be asking questions about my big belly. And yes, I have seen people looking covertly at me, murmuring together, and—increasingly of late—avoiding me.

  Does the Queen herself suspect? Is that the cause of her displeasure? Surely not, or she would have taken me to task before now. I doubt she could have contained her wrath. No, I do not think she is aware of my condition, although she cannot be unaware of the gossip. Maybe she does not believe it, even of me. I may be safe for a little while longer.

  Yet Harry’s latest letter comes as a terrible shock, especially after the loving ones he has sent me, and all the thoughtful gifts. I tremble with mortification as I read it. Someone—God knows who—has obviously talked, and he is furious with me, aye, and indignant too, for leading him to believe I was chaste. He says I abused his trust to cover my whoredom and adultery, not to mention Ned’s knavery. He demands I return his letters and his presents, and storms:

  Do not think I will risk lo
ss of honor to lead the rest of my life with a whore that almost every man talks of. Through the enticement of your whoredom, you sought to entrap me with some poisoned bait under the color of sugared friendship. I thank God I am not touched by the loss of a few tokens and gifts that were got out of my hands by cunning, to cover your abominations, and his likewise.

  If I ever knew desperation, it is now. I am in terror lest Harry report my offenses, and crushed and shamed by his cruel condemnation. God knows, I am no whore; I have never given myself to a man not my husband, so it is wicked and unjust to slander me so. As for loss of honor, he should look to himself, for no true gentleman would treat me so despicably!

  I have to act soon. The Queen must not hear of my condition from Harry or his father. And clearly, others know of it now.

  On the night before the progress begins, Sir William Cecil hosts a farewell dinner for the Queen in the great hall of the hospital of the Savoy in London. The revelry continues long into the night, but I am bruised and smarting because of Harry’s letter, and so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open. The next day, we depart for the royal manor at Wanstead, and there, Ned’s brother Henry brings me a packet. A letter from my husband at last! But all it contains is a pair of gold bracelets, a gift from Paris with a brief note of greetings from him, sent weeks ago. There is no letter. At that, I let fall the pretty jewels to the floor, tumbling myself into despair. Dear God, let me have just one word from him, in response to my urgent letters! One little word of love, or better still, a message to say he is coming home.

  There are ladies in the court whom one could only describe as bitches. They are the ones who taunt me with gossip, or laugh snidely behind my back, encouraged by the Queen’s evident disfavor. And now, when I go abroad bravely displaying my new bracelets, they seem to have some new cause for laughter, and take great pleasure in telling me that I am not the only recipient of love tokens from Lord Hertford.

  “It seems he purchased a dozen of them!” they trill. And it is true, there are others sporting similar trinkets.

 
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