A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

  After her death, a bundle of papers tied with ribbon was found among her effects by her maid, who hid it in an old muniment chest beneath the family documents. Only this maid, who took her secret with her to her grave, fifty years later, knew that her beloved mistress had died without ever finding out the truth about her father, King Richard. And that caused the maid to weep even more. For she alone was aware that death had prevented the countess from obtaining the answer to a question that she believed would have settled the matter once and for all. And she alone had borne witness to her heartbroken mistress writing a few final words about her arrest—which had been kept secret, and would never be made public, out of respect for her widower—and then laying down her pen forever. It is believed that the countess’s papers were burned by Sir Owen Hopton in the reign of Elizabeth I.

  The countess was laid to rest in the parish church of St. Cadoc in Raglan, without ceremony. The earl, her widower, stood stony-faced throughout the funeral. He was not a well man, although he did not yet know it, for his disease was a silent one, and he was gathered to his forefathers just four years later. He was interred in Tintern Abbey, having chosen not to be laid beside his lady, whose name would soon largely be forgotten, for no monument was ever built to her memory.


  Then began my Calvary. Years under house arrest in a succession of remote places in the depths of East Anglia: Pirgo Park, Ingatestone Hall, Gosfield Hall … Always a prisoner, an unwelcome guest. Never allowed to speak to anyone but my guardians, and made to behave at all times as if I were still in the Tower.

  I wrote several times to Mr. Secretary, pleading to be reunited with my dear lord and my elder son, and begging him to intercede for me with the Queen’s Majesty. I recall the groveling words I wrote, my abject plea for the obtaining of her most gracious pardon and favor toward me, which, with upstretched hands and down-bent knees, from the bottom of my heart most humbly I craved.

  There was no reply.

  I lost my appetite and grew thin. I wished myself dead and buried.

  Just once was I permitted to write to Ned. It must have rent his heart to read my brave words, reminding him of the stolen hours we lay with joyful hearts as sweet bedfellows in the Tower, and assuring him we would do so again, I was certain of it.

  I wrote again to the Queen and Mr. Secretary, appealing to them to relieve me from my continual agony. They ignored my pleas, and I was so crushed with disappointment that I took to my bed, coughing and feverish. I wept ceaselessly. I vomited and brought up foul phlegm, and my guardians trembled in case I had consumption. They feared I might die in their charge.

  My cheeks grew pale, my cough more troublesome. My longing for my sweet lord and my son became a physical pain. I exchanged several secret letters with Ned, thanks to the ruses of my maids, receiving in return touching tokens of his devotion. But our separation was killing me.

  My cough grew worse. I developed pains in my chest. Eating so little, I grew thinner. At night I began to sweat; by day, I was sunk in lassitude. And when, late in the year of Our Lord 1567, I was moved, still a prisoner, to this house, Cockfield Hall in Yoxford, Suffolk, I was in a very poor state indeed.

  I am racked by another attack of coughing. In my mirror I see dull eyes, cheekbones high in a hectic face, hands near transparent, and a gown that is now much too big, hanging on bony shoulders.

  I feel my strength ebbing. I am now spending more time in bed than in my chair. My appetite has gone completely. My jailer’s wife, Lady Hopton, pays me anxious visits, asking after my health, while Sir Owen sends for the Queen’s own physicians to tend me. He will not let it be said that I died for lack of care in his house.

  I look at little Tom and feel anguish at the thought of him being left alone and motherless. Please God, I pray, do not let me die! I am but twenty-seven years old, and I need to live for my children, and for my love. I am convinced the very sight of Ned could make me well. And my little Edward … My arms ache for Edward.

  I have beseeched them to let him visit me. He is six now, and it is four long years since I saw him. But they say it is not possible. Does my sweet lord know how ill I am? Will I ever look on his face again? Just once is all I ask. Just a glimpse of him to take to Heaven with me. For I fear that is where I am bound, very soon. I keep recollecting what my sister wrote to me from the Tower: Trust not that the tenderness of your age shall lengthen your life, for, as soon as God will, go the young and the old.

  What did I ever do to deserve such trials? I but did what countless women do—I fell in love and married. Yet I am still being punished for that, and I know in my bones that the Queen will never release me now.

  This morning, when I cough, there is blood on my kerchief. I stare at it, disbelieving; here is my executioner. I sit up shaking, my heart pounding. Not me, oh Lord, please, not me!

  I sit there nervously on the edge of the bed, feeling like I am dying anyway, awaiting—and dreading—the next spasm. When it comes, there is another bright red streak: not as much as before, but still alarming. In a panic, I call Lady Hopton and she sends again for the physician.


  “What is wrong with me?” I ask the doctor.

  “It is phthisic,” he says gravely. “A disorder of the lungs. I prescribe rest and pleasant pastimes. Take the air, read books, do a little embroidery, or play cards.”

  “My lady will take no pastime,” Lady Hopton says. She has insisted on standing by through every consultation, like a jailer. What does she think I will do? Plot treason? I am a sick woman! All I want is to be well again. But I have no energy for anything. I can barely raise the pen to write this journal.

  Dr. Symonds is brisk. “Then give her asses’ milk and snails in shells to prolong life,” he orders, and my lady nods. He has not reassured me. I dare not ply him with more questions, for fear of what he will answer, for he spoke of prolonging my life. I am not such a fool that I cannot understand the implications of those words.


  January, in the year of grace 1568, comes in like a lamb. The parkland beyond my casement is still green, the bare trees unladen with snow. It is unseasonably mild.

  I have been confined to my bed for three weeks, too weak to get out of it. I am resigned now, ready and prepared for the inevitable end, and aware of the need to make a good death, to satisfy the world that I was a worthy and devout woman.

  I feel my strength ebbing. My women watch around the bed through the night hours as I ceaselessly recite psalms and prayers for the dying. I thank God I am going to Him with no malice in my heart. My last thoughts will be of my loved ones, Ned, Edward, and little Tom, who has crept beside me on the bed and snuggled into the crook of my arm, his face stained with tears. Young as he is, he is aware that something is badly wrong. Maybe someone has told him his mother is dying. He knows what death is.

  Dawn breaks. I realize I have been praying all night.

  “Madam, be of good comfort,” says Lady Hopton. “Your strength is a marvel to us all. With God’s help, you shall live and do well many years.”

  “No, no,” I tell her, “there will be no more life for me in this world. But in the world to come, I hope to live forever. For here, there is nothing but care and misery, and there is life everlasting.”

  I summon up every vestige of energy to pray some more, to ease my passage. My maids enjoin me to sleep a little, but there is no point. Soon, I shall rest in that endless sleep from which there is no waking.

  I start to feel myself slipping away.

  “Lord, be merciful unto me,” I murmur, “for now I begin to faint.”

  “She is cold,” someone says, and I feel the women rubbing my hands and feet.

  “My time has come,” I murmur weakly. “It is not God’s will that I should live any longer, and His will be done, not mine.” I kiss Tom’s sweet head, and someone carries him away. When next I see him it will be in Heaven.

  I call for Sir Owen Hopton. I want him to be able to report to
the Queen that I made an edifying end—and I have two final requests to make of him.

  “Good madam, how are you?” he asks, gazing down with pity on me.

  “I am going to God as fast as I can,” I tell him. “I pray you all to bear witness that I die a good Christian. And I ask God and all the world forgiveness for my sins.” I pause, breathless. “I beseech you, Sir Owen, to promise me this one thing: that you yourself, with your own mouth, will request the Queen’s Majesty that she forgive her displeasure toward me. I confess I have greatly offended her, but I take God to witness that I never had the heart to think any evil against her. And I entreat her to be good to my children, whom I give wholly unto Her Majesty; for in my life they have had few friends, and they shall have fewer when I am dead, except Her Majesty be gracious to them.”

  Sir Owen bows his head. “I will do it,” he promises.

  “Another thing, sir,” I whisper. “I desire Her Highness to be good unto my lord, for I know that my death will be heavy news to him; and I beg Her Grace will be so good as to send him his liberty to comfort his sorrowful heart.”

  Again my custodian nods, a touch reluctantly this time.

  I make a final effort. There is one last thing I can do for my love.

  “Sir Owen,” I say, “I ask you to deliver from me certain tokens to my lord. Give me the casket wherein my wedding ring is.”

  I take out the ring I had for my betrothal. The diamond is as glittering and unfathomable as it was on that day, eight years ago, when Ned first put it on my finger. “Good Sir Owen, send this to my lord. This is the ring that I received of him when I gave myself to him, and pledged him my troth.”

  “Was this your wedding ring?” my custodian asks.

  “No. This was the ring of my assurance to my lord. This is my wedding ring.” And I lay in his palm the five-hooped band. “Deliver this also to him, and pray him, even as I have been unto him a true and faithful wife, to be a loving and natural father to my children. And here is the third ring you must give him.” I bring forth the death’s-head memento mori. “This shall be the last token unto my lord that ever I shall send him. It is the picture of myself.”

  As I hand him the ring, I catch sight of my fingers. The nails have turned an ominous purple. My hour is upon me.

  I turn my eyes to the door.

  “He is come,” I say, and smile.

  Lady Katherine Grey was first buried in Yoxford Church, with the Queen affording her a lavish funeral. She was mourned by many Protestants who had hoped to see her acknowledged Elizabeth’s heir. Elizabeth expressed formal sorrow at her passing, but the Spanish ambassador observed, “It is not believed that she feels it, as she was afraid of her.”

  Ned outlived Katherine by fifty-five years. He did not remarry until 1596, his second bride being Frances Howard, daughter of Lord Howard of Effingham, the hero of the Armada. For years he fought to have his sons declared legitimate, but Queen Elizabeth remained obdurate. When she was dying in 1603, it was suggested that Katherine’s son Edward be named her successor. “I will have no rascal’s son to succeed me!” she retorted.

  Edward and Thomas, who were brought up to honor their mother’s memory, were finally declared legitimate the following year, by a statute of James I. In 1608, the priest who had married Katherine and Ned finally came out of hiding and testified to the legitimacy of their union. Edward, Viscount Beauchamp, died in 1612; his brother Thomas had passed away in 1600.

  In 1611, Ned’s grandson, William Seymour, made another misalliance with a lady of royal blood when he married Lady Arbella Stuart, the granddaughter of Margaret Douglas, Lady Lennox. Seymour escaped to France, but Arbella was imprisoned in the Tower and died there. Ned was still alive then. He heard the news of their elopement in the very room in Hertford House where he had married Katherine. He died in 1621, aged eighty-two.

  Under Charles I, William Seymour was restored to favor and created Duke of Somerset. He died in 1660. It was he who, on his father’s death, had Katherine’s remains moved to Salisbury Cathedral, where she was laid to rest with her husband in a great “Golden Tomb” with effigies of herself and her “sweet lord Ned,” with their two sons kneeling at either side.

  The Latin epitaph on the tomb describes Katherine and Ned as “Incomparable consorts, who experienced the vicissitudes of fortune, and at last rest together here in the same concord in which they lived their lives.”


  In telling this fictional version of the story of Lady Katherine Grey, I have adhered closely to the facts where they are known, although I have taken some dramatic license. For example, Katherine’s stormy confrontation with Ned over his flirtation with Frances Mewtas was acted out in letters; here, I have shown it taking place face-to-face. Much here is quoted from contemporary documents, and the letters are genuine; although some passages in Katherine’s letters have been used out of context, the sentiments relate accurately to the narrative. Archaic language has been modified to blend in with a modern text, although I have made use of many contemporary sources and idioms.

  The long-accepted view of the Suffolks as harsh parents has recently been challenged, but there is no credible explaining away of Lady Jane Grey’s own bitter testimony to that, as recorded firsthand by Roger Ascham, and at least one contemporary source records Jane being beaten and cursed when she resisted her betrothal to Guilford Dudley. New research undertaken by historian Nicola Tallis suggests that the traditional view of the Suffolks is correct. It is conceivable that a chastened Frances mellowed after Jane’s execution, as portrayed in this novel, and that Katherine and Mary never suffered the rigor and expectations that their parents imposed on Jane. I would question the theory that there has been a deliberate attempt down the centuries to blacken Frances’s character.

  Hester Chapman put forward the theory that Katherine’s head was so turned when she saw her sister made Queen that forever after her ambitions were focused on wearing a crown. Chapman believes that this is the only theory that makes sense of Katherine’s behavior, but I think she was a self-obsessed girl who let her heart rule her head. Her instincts were emotional rather than logical, and because of that, she ended up out of her depth, in deep trouble.

  Katherine was turned out of Pembroke’s house immediately after Mary I was proclaimed Queen. I have done my best to make sense of her religious persuasions and her dealings with the Spanish ambassadors.

  Confusion surrounds the date of Frances’s second marriage, to Adrian Stokes, and the number of their children, yet an Inquisition Postmortem of 1600 dealing with Frances’s estates gives the date as March 9, 1554, only weeks after Henry Grey’s execution, and records their only issue as a daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in July 1555 at Knebworth and died there in February 1556. This Inquisition is listed in Vol. 34 of the Calendar of State Papers: Domestic, Elizabeth I (www.british-history.ac.uk). (I am indebted to Nicola Tallis for this reference.) Various historians have questioned Frances remarrying so soon after the death of her first husband, citing a report of the Spanish ambassador, Simon Renard, who, in April 1555, mentioned a proposal that she marry a descendant of the House of York, Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, although he added that the earl was unwilling. Courtenay’s biographer, Horatia Durant, suggests that the marriage to Stokes, made over a year before, had been a well-kept secret, which is likely. William Camden, Elizabeth I’s earliest biographer, wrote that Frances remarried “for her security.” As Dulcie Ashdown says, Frances would have been aware that, as a widow, she was “a tempting match for an ambitious nobleman who saw in her a means to future power”; being in line for the throne, her position was potentially dangerous, so she may have regarded a speedy second marriage to a man with no pretensions as the safest option.

  As the law stood, Katherine was Elizabeth I’s heir, and many people supported her claim. I do not think she wanted to supplant Elizabeth, only to be acknowledged as her successor. To Elizabeth, though, she appeared a deadly rival whose very existence threate
ned her throne. If Elizabeth had had her way, Katherine would never have married. The Interludes in the book are there to show Elizabeth’s point of view; without them, she comes across as a cruel persecutor.

  Some sources state that Katherine was demoted from Lady of the Bedchamber (the highest rank) to Lady of the Privy Chamber, others that it was from Lady of the Privy Chamber to Lady of the Presence Chamber, and some even claim she was demoted upward from the privy chamber to the bedchamber! It seems that she was actually downgraded from the bedchamber to the presence chamber.

  The course of Katherine’s courtship by Edward Seymour, and his sister’s role in it, was much as it is portrayed here, and the account of their wedding day—and ‘night’—is based closely on their own depositions. Katherine’s love for Edward was the overriding passion of her life, and she remained staunchly faithful through every trial, until her death.

  Katherine was unsure for a time whether she was pregnant with her first child, and when she knew she was, she took pains to conceal it for as long as possible. During this period, she did come to fear that Ned had abandoned her, which was when she began to seriously consider remarrying Lord Herbert. His furious rejection of her is well documented.

  It was Lord Robert Dudley who revealed Katherine’s pregnancy to the Queen. There was no confrontation: Elizabeth ordered Katherine to be placed under arrest and taken to the Tower. Bess of Hardwick’s role in the affair—as Lady Saintlow (or St. Loe)—is recounted in the depositions taken after Katherine’s arrest.

  It is possible that William Cecil did take a broader view of Katherine’s marriage, and that he approved of her being named Elizabeth’s heir. He himself said, “I have been noted a favorer of my Lady Katherine’s title.” However, as David Loades points out in The Cecils (The National Archives, 2007), Cecil did not declare for Katherine’s succession when the Queen was thought to be dying of smallpox in 1562. Instead, he seems to have “favored an interim solution while further thought was taken”—which suggests he had doubts, although certainly he desired to see the matter of the succession settled. His inquiries persuaded him that Katherine’s union with Hertford was no more than a love match—he called it ‘that troublesome, fond matter’—and not part of a plot against Elizabeth, yet whatever his private feelings, he followed the Queen’s lead in punishing the couple.

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