A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir


  She went out into the gardens by the river to get some air. And it was there that she espied someone she knew.

  “Pietro!” she cried, and the man reading on a bench by St. Stephen’s Chapel jumped in surprise.

  “Madonna!” he exclaimed, but he did not look very pleased to see her.

  She walked over to him. “We have come up to Westminster—my husband and I—for the coronation,” she told him. “I did not look to find you still at court.”

  “Is that so surprising, Madonna?” Pietro looked a little offended. “A man has to seek his fortune where he must. This new King much liked the poems I wrote in praise of his victory and his virtues. He has asked me to stay on.”

  “I understand, Pietro,” she said, although she could not help feeling a little taken aback at the speed with which the little Italian had turned his coat. Not so long ago he had been lauding her father’s accession. But then she supposed that he was just one of many who’d had no real choice but to switch loyalties.

  He was regarding her uncertainly. “Madonna, those things we spoke of secretly—you have not mentioned them to anyone?”

  “I have never spoken of them,” she assured him, not telling him she had written down all he had said. “Yet I still wonder about them, you know, those poor boys—”

  “It is dangerous even to wonder, Madonna. Everyone now says they are dead,” Pietro cut in, looking about him furtively.

  “Well, they would. After all, the King is to marry Elizabeth of York.”

  “So they say. It is said that he wished to be crowned first, as King in his own right, before sending for her.” No, Henry Tudor would not wish it thought that he owed his title to his wife! Kate knew a moment’s pity for her cousin: imagine being married to that dark, suspicious prince, the Tudor!

  “Elizabeth of York is at court now?”

  “So I heard, Madonna. The Queen her mother has charge of her, but is not in favor. Do not ask me why—it is a mystery.”

  Indeed it was, unless the King was wary of a future mother-in-law notorious for her meddling. Or maybe Elizabeth Wydeville knew more than was good for her.

  “Her son Dorset is returned from exile,” Pietro said, his eyes darting here and there. “The King confirmed him in his titles.” But it was unlikely, under the Tudor, that the Wydevilles would enjoy the power that was once theirs, Kate thought.

  She took a deep breath. “Your mention of Sheriff Hutton brought to mind the Earl of Lincoln. Is there any news of him?”

  “Not that I have heard, Madonna.” Pietro was definitely looking anxious.

  Kate felt another pang of anxiety for John. Had he fled abroad? Or was he near at hand? If only she could write to him. She did not mean to betray her marriage vows; she just wanted to ask him if the princes had been at Sheriff Hutton.

  She wondered if she dared approach the Queen Dowager. But Elizabeth Wydeville was in disfavor. Was it because the Tudor suspected she was withholding information about her sons, the princes? Did she know or suspect that they were not dead? That would explain why she had consented to leave sanctuary with her daughters the previous year. But Kate feared that any contact with the Wydevilles might be noted; and even though they were her kin, they might not want to know her.

  If anyone could help her on her quest, Kate thought, it was Bishop Russell. She asked Pietro if he was still in office as Lord Chancellor.

  “No, he was dismissed by the King. He went back to his diocese. And Bishop Stillington is imprisoned at York, sorely crazed.” No doubt for laying that dubious evidence of a precontract, Kate thought. The Tudor would not deal lightly with a man who had impugned his future Queen’s legitimacy.

  “Madonna, forgive me, I must go,” Pietro said awkwardly. “I have work to do.” He had been uncomfortable all through their talk. It was obvious he did not want to know her anymore, and her questions had certainly made him uneasy.

  INTERLUDE

  September 1561, Whitehall Palace

  Midnight, and Sir William Cecil is closeted alone with the Queen. Elizabeth often likes to conduct private business at night, and is wont to summon her unsuspecting ministers without warning, not caring that she rouses them from their beds. But Cecil has not yet retired, and he is as alert as she. He knows they have something of great import to discuss.

  The small paneled room is stuffy in the heat; only a tiny lattice stands open to the Thames. Somewhere outside, an owl hoots. There is no moon tonight.

  Cecil, sweating, has just handed his mistress the depositions of Lord Hertford and Lady Katherine. She reads them, frowning.

  “No discrepancies, I see. Do the other witness statements tally with these?”

  “Yes, they do. The groom Barnaby testified that he saw the Lady Katherine and the Lady Jane arriving at Hertford House that morning. Jenkin, another groom, saw them too, from an upper window, as did the cook, when they walked by the kitchen door. I have discharged all these witnesses, and only Mistress Saintlow remains in the Tower. I assure you, I should not like to tangle with that lady again: she is trouble! But I verily believe she can tell us no more.”

  The Queen’s eyes glitter in the candlelight. “Have her sent back home to Derbyshire to await our pleasure. I am not minded to dismiss her innocence so lightly, even if there is no proof against her.” She pauses. “So, my Spirit—what now? Shall we have the marriage declared no marriage?”

  “Not yet,” Cecil says thoughtfully. “You see, madam, Lady Katherine is about to be delivered, and of course many are lost in childbed, mothers and infants both. Dame Nature might solve the problem for us.”

  Elizabeth rests her gimlet gaze on him. “I trust, William, that you are not intending to give Dame Nature any assistance.”

  “I, Your Majesty?” He is a little shocked. “I but leave her to take her course. And if the Lady Katherine and her child survive, we will think again about what is to be done with them. I bear in mind that she is your kinswoman.”

  “Would that she were not!” fumes the Queen.

  KATE

  October 1485, Westminster Palace

  After Pietro had gone, Kate wandered along the paths between the fenced flower beds for a little while, but a stiff wind was building up, and she began to retrace her steps to the palace. William would be furious if he returned to their lodging and found her absent.

  As she turned into the passage that ran beside the chapel, she glimpsed the tail of a black gown disappearing into the cloister. Was it the person she had imagined following her earlier? She sped along the passage, but when she got to the cloister it was empty. Warily, she walked on, past the guards in their red livery, up the spiral stairs, and so to her lodging, seeing nothing out of the way.

  She lay down to rest, loosening the laces across her stomach, but her mind was agitated. Was she becoming too fanciful? Women in her condition did sometimes. She yearned for Mattie’s sound common sense, but Mattie was far away in Raglan; she had been suffering too much morning sickness to accompany her on this journey, and Kate had been obliged to bring with her mousy little Gwenllian, one of her Welsh maids. She’d chosen her because the girl was unobtrusive and gentle, but today she was not here because Kate had given her permission to go out and watch the procession; by now she would no doubt be joining in the revelry that was going on in the streets. The din of it could be heard distantly.

  Dusk fell. As Kate lit the candles she heard a scratching noise. What was that? It came again, from the keyhole. Someone was trying to open the door! Gingerly she pulled the key out, grateful that she had locked the door on her return earlier.

  She was conscious of the sudden silence outside. And then she heard footsteps, stealthy and barely audible, retreating in the distance. Someone had definitely been trying to break into the room. As soon as they realized someone was within, they had retreated.

  She sat on the bed, shaken, and tried to think about it rationally. She wished she had opened the door and challenged whoever it was, but the moment was gone now—and she
’d been too fearful anyway.

  What had they wanted? Had it been the person whose black gown she espied earlier? Had they come to search her room, or frighten her? She was chilled to her very marrow at the thought.

  Had someone been spying on her as she spoke with Pietro this afternoon? Surely no one could have been near enough to hear what was said, although if they had been … She had seen not a soul nearby, but she recalled that Pietro kept looking about him. Had he glimpsed someone? Was that why he had made his hasty excuse and left?

  If that person picking at the lock had gotten into the room, and she had not been here, what would they have found that was incriminating—or that could throw light on the mystery of the princes? There was nothing, surely … Ah, but there was: her papers! She flew to the table and lifted the lid of her casket—and there they were, undisturbed. She stood there, breathing heavily in relief.

  What should she do with them? The lock-picker would be back, as surely as night followed day, so she must find somewhere safe to keep them. They must never fall into the wrong hands. She looked at the traveling chest. It had a secret compartment, but that was easily opened—even a child could work it out—and the King’s spies would be skilled at such tricks. And they would search thoroughly too. There was nothing for it. She would have to keep the papers on her person.

  She set to work at once, stitching two white kerchiefs into a small bag, through the top hem of which a long ribbon could be threaded. That she tied about her waist, under her gown, with the papers inside it. That her waistline was expanding daily made no matter: she and William would be away from here soon. No one would ever suspect, she thought as she surveyed herself in the mirror. The heavy folds of her skirt concealed the slight bulge of the bag completely.

  The papers were safe now. And the Tudor’s henchman could search her chamber as thoroughly as he wished.

  KATHERINE

  September 24, 1561, Tower of London

  My labor began this morning as I lay abed. The midwife, a stout, no-nonsense body, had explained to me what the pains of travail would be like. I had also heard women’s tales about the agonies and perils of childbirth, and for a while I was inclined to dismiss them, for these pains were easily bearable. Only as the morning wore on did they become fiercer, and then the midwife bade me lie down on the bed and pull, when I needed to, on a length of thick-woven material she had tied tautly between the bedposts. Then she sent Honor off to fetch Holland cloth, hot water, bread, cheese, and wine, and herself laid ready the cambric swaddling bands and rollers, the tiny shirt and coif I had embroidered, the taffeta coat with satin sleeves, the little bib and apron, the lace mittens. An old oak cradle, provided by Sir Edward, was placed beside my bed and made up with sheets and a miniature counterpane of crewelwork. Then the midwife closed the window, drew the curtains together, and hung a sheet over the faded tapestry.

  “What are you doing?” I asked. “It’s so hot in here—I need some air.”

  “The air of the City is noxious and bad for your babe,” she told me, “and the child might be affrighted by the figures in the hanging. Best to be on the safe side!”

  Stifling and perspiring, I have labored for what seems like hours, my pains growing stronger all the time, until I have to acknowledge that most of the gossips spoke truth. It is all I can do not to cry out. But then comes a change, an overwhelming urge to push downward—and when I do so, I find that I push the pain away.

  “Nearly there!” the midwife pronounces, looking between my splayed legs. “I can see the head crowning.” And suddenly here he is—my son. England has a Protestant male heir at last.

  He is healthy, thanks be to God, and beautiful too. I cannot cease admiring him. When he tugs at my breast and blinks at me with his milky blue eyes, I am lost, my heart given over entirely. And it is a strange feeling, because I had thought I could never love anyone as much as I love Ned. Yet this is different, and I know now what women mean when they say they would lay down their lives for their children. It is a fierce love, a love that would protect at all costs, a love that is the complete negation of self for the tiny being who is utterly dependent on you for everything. And as I sit here in bed, my son in my arms, I vow he shall never suffer because of his parents’ offense. I will make sure of that. And I assure us both that when all this trouble is far behind us, my little one will be a king one day.

  Sir Edward Warner comes to see me. His face creases in a tender smile when he sees the swaddled babe lying contentedly beside me in his cradle.

  “Allow me to offer you my congratulations, my lady,” he says. “You have a fine boy there. I pray God give him long life and health. I have brought him a gift.” His voice is gruff as he places a silver rattle, which must have cost him a goodly sum, on the counterpane.

  “I thank you for your kindness, Sir Edward,” I say, touched. “It is a very pretty toy; he will love it. You are most generous.”

  I perceive some emotion working in the lieutenant’s rugged face.

  “To have a healthy son like yours is a great blessing from God,” he says. “My late wife bore me three boys, but they all died in infancy.”

  “I am sorry to hear that, sir,” I tell him, genuinely moved. Now that I am a mother, I find I am inordinately sensitive about harm befalling little children. In fact, I can now hardly bear to think of the princes.

  “I have married again this year,” the lieutenant tells me. “My wife and I—well, we live in hope.”

  “I will pray for you both, that your hopes are fulfilled.”

  “That is kind, my lady. I am painfully aware that my duty to the Queen’s Majesty requires me to be stricter than I would wish on occasion; but I want you to know that you have my goodwill, and that I will do all in my power to make your stay here as easy as possible.”

  “It gladdens me to know that,” I smile.

  “The midwife has asked me to engage a wet nurse and rockers,” Sir Edward continues. “My lady, I am minded to ask Her Majesty if she will graciously agree to a suite of rooms being appointed in my lodging here for you, the child, and your attendants, and I also intend to request that you be provided with the comforts of your rank. There may be a charge for such privileges, but if there is anything you require brought to you, you have only to ask.” I have heard that jailers and turnkeys supplement their fees by doing favors for prisoners, and that a man or woman can live well in prison, if they have the means.

  “I thank you, good Sir Edward,” I say. “But although I have some money of my own, I do not know how to get hold of it, shut up as I am here.”

  “That can safely be left to the Queen’s Council,” he tells me. “They will arrange everything. Would you like me to put forward these requests?”

  “Yes, indeed!” I exclaim, eager to be out of this miserable chamber, which is no place for my child—my little prince, as I am already calling him secretly. A suite of rooms in the Lieutenant’s Lodging! That is where Ned is held. We will be near each other.

  “We will see what Her Majesty has to say,” my good jailer is saying.

  “Sir Edward!” I call him back as he prepares to leave. “Does my lord know of the birth of his son?”

  “He does, my lady. I myself told him the good news, and he recorded it at once in his Bible, adding a prayer beseeching God to bless your child and to move the Queen’s heart to pity.”

  “And did he show himself joyful at becoming a father?”

  Sir Edward hesitates. “I am sure he felt it inwardly. But he seemed a little cast down, no doubt because he cannot see you or the child; and he observed that in human affairs, nothing is certain.”

  “A strange thing to say when a child is born.”

  “It is the circumstances, of course,” he replies.

  Why does Ned feel cast down? Inexplicably weepy, I lie fretting about it. Then I pick up my babe and hold him tight to my breast, marveling at his soft skin and downy head, his rosebud lips and milky blue eyes. How could anyone wish harm to such an encha
nting, defenseless creature? The whole realm should be rejoicing in the birth of such a prince! It is the one blessing the Queen has not bestowed on her people.

  But, insidiously, unwelcome thoughts fill my head. If I am to protect him, I must face the fact that there are those who would not see my son as merely an innocent, adorable baby, but as a deadly rival, young though he is. Thus did Richard III regard his nephews, though they were but children. And while I cannot believe the Queen could entertain one hostile thought against this little mite were she to meet him, we are both her prisoners in the Tower. What if they should take him away from me? What if I never see him again, and hear only rumors about his fate? It has happened before—and I am struck with terror lest it should happen again. I find myself brooding much upon the fate of the princes. I am desperate to know if they escaped, as Katherine Plantagenet believed. Could she still be alive? If she wrote with an adult hand in 1487, she would be very ancient now, so it is unlikely.

  I drift off to sleep, and find myself dreaming about her, as I have not done in years. In my dream, I see the girl in the blue dress, the one whose portrait I saw hanging in the old wing in Baynard’s Castle. I know it is her, the King’s daughter. She is young and beautiful, a fine dark lady. She seems to be reaching out to me once more, mouthing words I cannot quite comprehend. She is pleading with me, as she did before …

  I wake up suddenly. The dream was so real, more vivid than normal. It is night; the moon is up beyond my window. All is still.

  And then, once more, that strange shifting of the air, and a distant cry—

  Help me!

  Help us!

  I huddle, terrified, under the bedclothes. I wanted to believe I had dreamed what I’d heard before, but I am certainly not sleeping now. A dog barks. Has he heard the voices too? There they are again! Help me! Help us! The dog barks once more. Then silence.

  I poke my head above the covers and sit up, looking about me fearfully. Everything seems normal. Had I really heard them? Or am I so weighed down with troubles that I am beginning to imagine things?

 
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