A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  Her Majesty dismisses the rest with a regal nod, and sinks back into her cushioned chair at the head of the long table. She is taut with agitation.

  “Madam,” Cecil begins, “may I remind you, again, that you are as yet unwed and without an heir?”

  “You never cease reminding me, William,” she retorts wryly. “I tell you, I am already married to a husband, and that is the kingdom of England.”

  “The kingdom of England is not going to give you an heir.” Cecil smiles. They have had this conversation before—countless times. His smile, though, is fleeting. “It is my duty to remind you that, until you bear a child, the Lady Katherine is your rightful heir, according to the Act of Succession passed in your father’s time.” He himself would have championed Katherine’s cause, had indeed tried to help her, but now things have gone too far, and he has had to abandon her, even though he knows she has the best claim. In truth, he likes not this business, and while he is doing what he knows the Queen expects of him, he is aware that the long-term consequences might be serious. Because all he wants is for this interminable problem of the succession to be settled—and he fears it is less likely than ever after this. Yet he dare not appear to be supporting the Lady Katherine now. Without her, though, who shall succeed the Queen?

  “Never!” Elizabeth glares at him. “I will not have that strumpet follow me on the throne.”

  “I agree, it would be most unfitting, especially now that she has disgraced herself. Her illicit pregnancy is a sure sign that God does not approve of her succeeding. But the Act of Succession provides that if you, madam—Heaven forfend—die without issue, the crown must go to the heirs of your father’s sister Mary, late Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk. That means her granddaughters, Lady Katherine and Lady Mary Grey. Failing them, what is to be done about the succession?”

  “I will name my heir, when I am good and ready!” Elizabeth snarls. “As I said, I may yet decide to wed and have an heir of my body.” Cecil, that astute man, is aware of her biting her lip. He knows how overmuch she fears marriage and childbirth.

  “No one will rejoice more at that than I,” he replies smoothly, “but until that happy day, the Act remains in force.”

  “I’ll not have Lady Katherine as my successor! I cannot abide the sight of her.”

  “Some would use the persuasive argument that she is a Protestant, born in this kingdom—unlike Mary, Queen of Scots.”

  “A Protestant? Bah!” Elizabeth bangs her fist on the table. “She trims her sails to the wind. She was a Catholic when it suited her, when she thought it would win her a crown. Her conversion in my sister’s reign was purely self-seeking. Since then she has been all things to all men.”

  “Might I remind Your Majesty that you too had to make a pretense of conforming to the old faith?” ventures Cecil. “Those were dangerous times. And I have no doubt that the Lady Katherine had in mind the fate of her sister, who was the focus of Protestant ambitions. Standing so near to the throne, she really had no choice—not when Queen Mary was burning Protestants.”

  “That’s as may be,” Elizabeth mutters, not prepared to be mollified. “But she should have reverted to her faith when I came to the throne. There was no threat then. Instead, she began dallying with the Spaniards.”

  “Maybe she felt she was being unjustly treated,” Cecil says bravely. “You had, after all, forbidden her to marry, and a Spanish match was in the offing.”

  “To court it without my blessing was nothing less than treason,” the Queen fumes. “And now this misalliance with Hertford. God only knows how long that was going on. Mayhap that dalliance with Spain was a cover for it. I tell you, William, I will never name her my heir, especially now. And you would do well to consider where your loyalty should lie! Methinks you would be her advocate.”

  Cecil ignores the barb. “But Your Majesty must of necessity name someone, and soon. All this uncertainty does nothing to bolster your throne, which is, I need not remind you, less than secure, what with the Catholics all over Europe calling you a bastard, a heretic, and a usurper, God confound them. Some, may I remind you, would prefer the Queen of Scots.”

  Elizabeth looks at him sharply. “Over my dead body! A Catholic and a foreigner, who has already quartered my royal arms with her own and proclaimed herself Queen of England.”

  “I agree with Your Majesty entirely. She is the last person who should rule here. But if you repeal the Act, who else is there? The Earl of Huntingdon?” It is an old joke between them, for the earl, despite having a distant claim to the throne, is known to have no desire to occupy it, and could expect little support anyway. “So we are back to Lady Katherine. I must say I do not share your view that she has designs on your throne. She wants only to be named your heir presumptive.”

  “Pah! She has been a thorn in my side from the first. What of those Spanish plots to carry her off? I would remind you that Lady Katherine was going about my court flaunting herself as the Catholic heir, and then suddenly King Philip was plotting to abduct her so that he could wed her to his son and set them both on the English throne, as a means to restoring the old faith here. And good-bye, Elizabeth! She was involved, make no mistake. She went to the Count de Feria, by God, and told him she knew I did not want her to succeed me. It was tantamount to giving her consent to the abduction.”

  “If I may say so, Your Majesty—and you will remember that I expressed my views at the time—it was a mistake at the beginning to downgrade her to the presence chamber. She had held higher rank with honor in Queen Mary’s time, and she had done nothing then to deserve such a slight. Some might think she had every right to make a fuss and air her grievance.”

  “Time has proved me right,” says the Queen grimly, toying with the great jewel at her breast. “I have been nourishing a serpent in my bosom. Katherine is ambitious, no doubt about it. She wants my crown. She has never ceased to plot against me with the Spaniards. I’ve marked her toadying to Philip’s ambassadors, cozening their support with her wiles. Then there was that talk of her marrying the Scottish pretender, Arran, and so uniting the thrones of England and Scotland. Again, good-bye Elizabeth! And now this marriage to Edward Seymour. I would not put it past those knaves beyond seas and north of the border to have engineered it to discountenance me.”

  “I hardly think so, madam. Indeed, that marriage has put paid to any intriguing with the Spaniards and the Scots,” Cecil soothes. “Seymour has no claim to the throne, so you can set your mind at rest there.”

  “I still believe there is more to this,” Elizabeth persists, gnawing her lip in anger. “If the Lady Katherine cannot have my throne one way, she means to have it by another. Once she bears a son, bastard or not, there will be a clamor for me to name her as my successor. And as that boy grows to manhood, there will be those who ask why England cannot have a king to rule it, instead of a weak and feeble woman, and there will be plots against me. No, don’t look at me like that, my Spirit! I know you think it against Nature for a woman to wield dominion over men. It would not surprise me if you yourself were behind this!”

  Cecil is shaken, but he has weathered more turbulent storms. “I confess I was of that opinion at one time, but Your Majesty’s wisdom and greatness have proved me wrong. And I swear before God I never meddled to make this marriage. As for the child, the lords of England will never agree to a bastard succeeding: they have too much respect for the laws of inheritance. You may rest well assured on that point.”

  “Hmm. As I say, have the lieutenant question the Lady Katherine. Have him ask for her marriage lines. And have Mrs. Saintlow questioned soon; she was privy to this, I’ll wager. Even if there is no conspiracy proved, we must take all possible steps to establish that there was no marriage. As you say, if the child is born a bastard, it cannot pose a threat. Destroy any evidence, if you must, even if it bears the signature of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. And if there was a treasonable conspiracy …”

  “I think Your Majesty will find that there
was not,” Cecil interposes.

  “If there was,” Elizabeth continues unheeding, “we will have to think carefully about what is to be done with my fine Lady Katherine.”

  KATE

  October 1485, Westminster Palace

  It seemed very strange to be back at Westminster, and for a moment at the water stairs Kate felt overcome by grief and loss, and had to steel herself to walk on. How often had she walked through these gardens, these magnificent halls, this labyrinth of a palace? It was hard to credit that another king ruled here now. Almost she could believe she would see her father seated on the dais in the White Hall, with Queen Anne beside him. But they were gone now, and Henry Tudor reigned. She was glad when she and William reached the lodging assigned them. She did not want to meet the man who now called himself King. She could not trust herself to be civil to him. But for him, her father would be alive now, and hastening to welcome them in honor.

  It had been expected that William, one of the peers of the realm, would receive an invitation to attend the King’s coronation. Wives, of course, were not invited. So far, Henry had shown no sign of making good his promise to marry Elizabeth of York; thus, with no queen, there would be no ladies at the coronation.

  Kate, desperate for some pleasant diversion, had pleaded with William to take her up to London with him, but he had said no. Always it was the same excuse: she must not draw attention to herself. Since learning of her pregnancy, he had allowed her to go no farther than the village. At Raglan, she was inconspicuous, and in time people in the wider world might forget she existed. That seemed to be his hope.

  But then had come the King’s letter. William was commanded to bring with him to Westminster the Lady Katherine his wife. No reason was given. Henry Tudor wanted to meet her, it seemed.

  That confounded William. Why did the King want to see Kate? How could she be of any importance to him? Or was it just sheer curiosity on the part of a man who wanted to meet the tyrant’s daughter? He went on and on about it, fretting and fuming. He fussed too about her condition: was she up to traveling? It was a long way to London. Maybe they should offer her pregnancy as an excuse for her not to go? In the end he ordered a new horse litter, plumped out with cushions; and it was in that, with William riding beside her, and an escort afore and behind, that Kate made the journey—with the leather curtains closed, so that none should see her. And for her it was no hardship at all, because every mile took them farther into England. Even though so much had changed for the worse since she was last here, she was glad to be back in her native land.

  She must keep to their lodgings, William insisted, and not go abroad. People might recognize her; it was best not to draw attention to herself. So she stayed, resentful, in the two rooms they had been allocated: fair chambers, well appointed, but by no means luxurious, and nothing like the apartments she had been used to occupying.

  Two days after their arrival, the summons had come, and William and Kate were ushered into the King’s presence. William had made her wear a subdued gown of green cammaca: good quality, but nothing that suggested royal pretensions, and the color was that of the Tudor livery.

  Kate’s first impression was that Henry Tudor looked more like a clerk than a king. He was in his study, standing behind a desk piled with parchments, papers, and scrolls, and rummaging through them with a frown on his face. He did not look up as they entered. They made their obeisances, Kate most unwillingly, and a thin voice said, “Rise.” She found herself facing an unimpressive man in his late twenties. He was tall and lean, with wiry reddish hair that was already thinning, and his gray-blue eyes looked out suspiciously from an angular face with a sharp, prominent nose and thin lips. He smiled, revealing decaying teeth, and seated himself.

  “Welcome to Westminster, my lord, my lady. I trust you had a good journey and that you are comfortably lodged.”

  “Yes, I thank Your Grace,” William said. He had told Kate that he would do the talking. On no account was she to open her mouth unless the King spoke to her directly.

  “I have summoned you today for two reasons,” Henry said. “First, my lord, to confirm you in your earldom.” William bowed again, expressing his gratitude profusely. Kate could sense his relief. He had fretted about that, as he fretted about everything else, fearing that the King would decide to confiscate his title after all.

  “Second, there is a matter with which you might be able to help me, my lady,” the King went on, and Kate was aware of William tensing beside her. She swallowed, being unsure how to respond, and worried that her hostility might be apparent. But William dived in.

  “You must answer the King’s Grace, my lady.”

  “Yes, sire,” she said. Henry Tudor was looking at her speculatively, his eyes darting down to the barely perceptible mound of her stomach. He too would be aware of whose grandchild she carried. Her hatred of him hardened.

  “This is a sensitive, secret matter,” he said. “My lady, I want your word that it will go no further than this room.”

  “Yes, sire,” she said again, trying to keep her voice dispassionate.

  “You are with child,” he said. “Pray be seated. This may take a while.” He indicated that she should sit on the polished wooden settle before the fire, and sent a clearly unwilling William to wait without. Then he sat down beside her, keeping a respectable distance between them.

  “My lady, you may be aware that gossip about the sons of King Edward has flared up again,” he began. “It is bruited in London that they died a cruel death by order of the usurper.” He regarded her sternly. “Madam, I must ask you: what have you learned privily of this matter?”

  This was the last subject she would have expected the Tudor to raise with her. But she collected her wits, hoping she might learn something herself. “I know nothing, sire,” she told him.

  “Your late father, the usurper Richard, never spoke of the princes?”

  She wanted to refer to her father as King Richard in her reply, but thought better of it. Suppressing her anger, she answered, “No, sire, never in that respect.”

  Henry regarded her suspiciously. “You were aware of the rumors of their deaths?”

  “Yes, sire. But I always set little store by them, seeing that they were just rumors. I imagine I know no more than anyone else.” She was surprised at her own boldness.

  “You ‘imagine.’ But what do you know!”

  “I heard that the princes were alive last year,” she revealed, then wished she hadn’t said it.

  “From whom?” Henry barked.

  “My lord of Lincoln told me they still lived.”

  “And how did he know that?”

  “He said he believed it, sire. He was at the center of affairs and I assumed he was well informed.”

  Henry frowned. “I do not think so. Madam, I myself had it on good authority, two years ago, that the princes had been murdered. They are not in the Tower now, so I believe that to have been the truth.”

  He had given away too much! If they were not in the Tower now, and he was quizzing her like this, he did not know for certain that the princes were really dead. And he was looking for proof that they were, because without it, his hold on the throne must be tenuous indeed, and he could not rely on their sister being the true heir to the House of York. If the princes yet lived, they might rise up at any minute—from the dead, as it were—and claim his throne! And he, by vowing to marry their sister, would himself have endorsed their legitimacy. He did not know where they were. Oh, she saw his dilemma very clearly now! There was some justice in this world.

  And there was something else too. They are not in the Tower now. Had she cause to hope that they had not been murdered?

  “Has a search been made for their bodies, sire?” she ventured.

  “Yes, and will be made again. Assuredly, they will be found. But I thought your father might perhaps have offered some explanation of their disappearance to you,” Henry said.

  “No, sire, he never spoke of it. And I never belie
ved the rumors because I did not think my lord my father capable of such a deed. There is no proof of murder, is there, sire?”

  Henry threw her a sharp look. “The shedding of infants’ blood is a dreadful matter,” he pronounced. “It is the foulest of crimes, and I will have the truth!”

  “Sire, I would like to know the truth too,” she said quietly.

  He looked hard at her. His eyes were cold and calculating. “So you have nothing else to say to me?”

  “No, sire. I am sorry.”

  He dismissed her, commanding her again to say nothing of their conversation to anyone, and she went away, her knees trembling. She knew she had made an enemy, but he had been one already, given who she was. She had revealed herself to Henry Tudor, much as he had given himself away to her, and no doubt he thought her defiant and provocative; well, she had been, deliberately: she would not let him drag her father’s name in the mud by his hateful insinuations. She’d had to speak out. Yet she thought he had believed her when she said she could not help him.

  KATHERINE

  August 1561, Tower of London

  I cannot complain about my treatment. I have been here but six hours, yet already Sir Edward Warner has given me permission to take the air in his garden, a privilege he tells me I am permitted to enjoy daily, for an hour in the afternoons. Of course, I must be attended by armed warders, as today, but it is a relief to know that I will not be shut up all the time. And so here I am, looking up not at prison walls but at God’s glorious blue sky. The garden is so pleasant, with its flowers all in glorious bloom and its shady, rustling trees. For a space, just a little space, sitting in here on the stone bench, my heart feels a touch lighter.

  But now I must return to my prison, and my spirits are once more crushed, and I am a very sorrowful woman for the Queen’s displeasure, even though a good dinner is being laid before me. Certes, it would be small hardship to be a prisoner here, but for my terrible fears as to my likely fate.

 
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