Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  “How can you tell?” asks the Queen.

  “You can’t get your finger between his neck and the rope!” says the King, laughing, sparking more mirth. I smile politely.

  Mary is frowning slightly. “I don’t understand it.”

  “What does well hung mean? Surely you know, my lady?” asks my mother.

  Mary shakes her head.

  “I truly believe she hasn’t a clue,” smirks His Majesty. “Let’s try you on another, Daughter. What is the difference between a husband and a lover?”

  “I—I don’t know,” replies Mary.

  “About four hours!” mutters the King with a smirk, provoking squeals of laughter. I am still lost, and Mary looks no more enlightened.

  “I regret that the meaning entirely escapes me, sir,” she says.

  “Then I give up,” he retorts. “It’s a comfort to know that my daughter here is so virtuous that she is innocent of any bawdy language.”

  He turns to my lady mother, his expression growing serious again.

  “How are the Lady Jane’s studies progressing, Frances? Kate here has told me something of them.”

  My mother is only too eager to tell him about all the fine plans she is hatching with the Queen for my education and makes much of the fact that it will be similar to that of Prince Edward and the Lady Elizabeth.

  I stand mute, listening, unable to fully believe that I am not only in the presence of the King and Queen, but also witnessing the easy and amiable relationship between them. The lack of formality, the relaxed atmosphere, and the way the King condescends to joke and laugh with us like any lesser mortal amaze me. It’s hard to reconcile this jovial old man with what I have heard about His Majesty in the past; I know that he is not always so merry a companion. My mother once said there are days when his bad leg so pains him that he is like a baited bear, and there are also tales of him boxing the ears of his councillors when they displease him, or losing his temper at any slight impertinence. This is the terrifying monarch who had two of his wives beheaded, yet here he is, before my very eyes, a jolly and caring father sitting with his wife and daughters, discussing domestic matters as any other father would, and drawing the rest of us into this charmed circle to put us at our ease.

  All too soon, the idyll is over. The King has a council meeting to attend and bids us a hearty farewell, planting a robust kiss on Queen Katherine’s mouth. Soon afterward, it is time for us to go home, but before I leave, the Queen draws Mrs. Ellen aside and begins speaking to her in a low voice. As she does so, I notice her glancing in my mother’s direction. My mother is deep in conversation with another lady and does not notice.

  Mrs. Ellen looks startled and briefly shocked, but she quickly recovers.

  “My lady is most diligent in the matter of the Lady Jane’s upbringing, Your Majesty,” I think I catch her saying.

  “But is she overharsh?” The Queen’s voice is not so subtle. I can hear her clearly. My mother chats on in ignorance that she is being discussed. I pretend to study the portraits on the walls.

  “She is strict, madam, like many parents.”

  The Queen is silent for a moment. “I charge you, Nurse, to look to the child,” she commands. “She is a good girl, but she does not appear to be a happy or confident one. I hope I am mistaken in my suspicions. If so, I beg you to forgive me.”

  “I assure Your Majesty that I have always done all that I can to ensure the Lady Jane’s happiness,” Mrs. Ellen says quietly.

  “I can well believe it.” The Queen smiles. “And now you must go, or the tide will be against you.”

  “I like the Queen,” I tell my mother as she walks with us across the sloping gardens to the landing stage where the barge is waiting. “And His Majesty too.”

  My lady is not listening.

  “Mrs. Ellen, I have noticed that Jane’s posture is poor. She stoops too much, and she will get rounded shoulders or a hump if she goes on doing it. I suggest you put her in a corset.”

  “With respect, madam,” replies Mrs. Ellen, “she is too young for a corset.”

  “Nonsense!” retorts my lady. “I had a corset at her age. It was made of leather with iron stays.”

  “Oh, no, my lady, please don’t make me wear a corset!” I cry. “I will stand up straight, I promise!”

  “Be silent, girl!” hisses my mother.

  “Madam, I beg of you to remember that Jane is just a child,” says Mrs. Ellen.

  “Mrs. Ellen, you must remember your position. You set a bad example to the child by defying me. You are too lax with her, too quick to take the easy option. It is my duty, as her mother, to bring her up properly. I should not have to explain myself to you, but I cannot have her appearing at court with a stoop. You will order a corset from my tailor and see that she wears it. Now, farewell, Jane. Be a good girl.”

  I kneel on the grass for her blessing and then, when she has gone, turn to Mrs. Ellen with tears in my eyes.

  “It’s all right, my lamb,” she says, putting her arm around me. “I’ll order that corset, as your lady mother says. But you make sure you stand up straight in future, then she’ll never know you’re not wearing it.” She smiles at me. “It will be our little secret.”

  “Mrs. Ellen, I do love you. Much more than I love my mother.”

  “Mercy, child, what a thing to say! It’s your duty to love your mother well.”

  “Yes, I know that, but I don’t love her as much as I love you,” I say stubbornly.

  “You mustn’t say such things,” Mrs. Ellen reproves. But she looks pleased and happy, all the same.

  Later, watching the late-afternoon sunlight reflected in the rippling water as the barge glides back to Dorset House, I wish with all my heart that Queen Katherine might one day take it into her head to invite me back to court. Thinking of her infuses me with a lovely, warm glow. I feel as if I truly love her, even after so short an acquaintance. She has a rare kindliness and gentleness about her. I know too that she likes me, and I have a strong feeling that she will look out for me in the future. After all, look what she has done for the King’s daughters. She made them a proper family. I should love, one day, to be a member of her household. Nothing would be more congenial than living under the protection of that serene and compassionate lady.

  BRADGATE HALL, NOVEMBER 1544

  And so my education begins in earnest. Dr. Harding is a pleasant but firm young man, thin-faced and balding already under his skullcap. He is zealous for learning and inspires me to be the same. His speciality is languages, and as I am blessed with a good aptitude for foreign tongues, he is teaching me Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and even Greek. I learn quickly, and he is gratified by this and praises me often. My parents receive regular reports on my progress, and they must be satisfied, for they never say anything about them.

  Each day a writing master attends the household, and under his tutelage I master the intricacies of the newly fashionable italic script. I read anything and everything—the books I am set, many of them classical works, and others that have been given to me.

  Then there is religious instruction.

  It’s a sunny autumn day, but the fire in the little schoolroom next to the winter parlor is raked up high as usual, and poor Dr. Harding is sitting there perspiring in the fur-lined woolen gown and tunic he put on in anticipation of its being colder. But his mind is on other things.

  “I have brought something very special to show you, Jane,” he says, “but if I show it to you, you must promise to keep it a secret between us and not tell anyone you have seen it, because if you do, I would get into serious trouble.”

  “I would never tell, Dr. Harding,” I promise, eager to see what it is that must be kept secret. He reaches into his scrip, draws out a large book in a fine-tooled leather binding, and opens it to the title page.

  “This, Jane, is the Bible in English, newly translated by Master Coverdale. I think you will derive great pleasure and joy from reading it.”

  “Why would y
ou get into trouble for showing it to me?”

  He sighs. “It is only recently that the King has permitted the English version of the Bible to be read. Now there are English Bibles chained in all the churches, by His Majesty’s order, but women are not allowed to read them.”

  “Why not?” I ask, a little indignant.

  “Only priests or men may interpret the Scriptures.”

  “But I can read this,” I say, pointing to the story of Adam and Eve, “and I fully understand its meaning.”

  “Of course you can, Jane,” soothes Dr. Harding. “But who is to say that the King is wrong?”

  He turns to the New Testament. “I promise you shall read it, Jane, because through study of the Scriptures, we discover the eternal truths. Let us look first at the Gospels.”

  We are absorbed in our reading when we hear footsteps. As Mrs. Ellen opens the door, Dr. Harding hurriedly moves the Bible onto his lap, under the table, and pulls toward us the history book we should have been studying.

  “Dinner is ready, Jane,” says Mrs. Ellen.

  In the afternoon we read some more from St. Matthew. This is the first of many enjoyable secret sessions with Master Coverdale’s Bible, and I am so grateful to Dr. Harding for allowing me the privilege of such instruction. Soon, I am coming to know and love the Scriptures and gain enormous pleasure and comfort from them.

  I am passionate too about music, which is a trait of the Tudor family, but which bypassed my mother. However, because a court lady needs such accomplishments, I receive tuition on the lute, harp, and cithern and can strum many tunes.

  “You play with some skill,” my music master tells me. He is old and fat and smells of onions. Sometimes I remember that Katherine Howard, when she was only eleven, engaged in naughty dalliance with her music master, and I shudder at the image that conjures up.

  “Play for me, Jane,” my mother will say, coming into the schoolroom of an afternoon. She sits listening intently, then she nods and gets up to leave. There is never any praise. It is a great sadness to me that my mother looks for nothing beyond an ability to coax a fashionable tune out of a lute, and that she has no understanding of why I want to do a great deal more than that.

  “You spend far too much time at your music,” she complains. “You should spend more time gaining other accomplishments.” She therefore allocates just a half hour each day for musical practice, which, for me, is never enough. I know it is useless to complain, so I go behind my lady’s back, trying to snatch moments in which to indulge my love of music.

  “But my lady, Jane is musically gifted,” says Dr. Harding in protest.

  “That’s as may be,” she retorts, “but much good it will do her. No woman was ever taken seriously as a composer of music, or as a singer.” And that is that. She will brook no further argument.

  One thing that she is particular about is dancing lessons.

  “It is essential that a young lady who will one day be an ornament of the court be able to dance,” she says importantly. She is proud of her own grace and skills. And so, each afternoon, with the household consort of musicians playing in the gallery, I practice my steps up and down the great hall, dancing lively branles, high-stepping galliards, or stately pavanes.

  With the regular round of prayers, lessons, meals, and needlework, my days are crowded. Happily, I enjoy the regime that has been ordained for me and am gratified to be continually occupied. Learning new skills and acquiring knowledge is an exciting adventure, and for the first time I know real happiness.

  From time to time, my mother comes home from court. The Queen had need of her there most of the summer, when His Majesty was away fighting in France, but now she is back at Bradgate for a space, and we are all on our mettle.

  Today, she has canceled afternoon lessons.

  “One of the chief obligations of a great lady is to dispense charity,” she tells me and Katherine. “Today I am going to distribute alms to our poorer tenants on the estate, and you girls will benefit from coming with me. It will make you aware of how fortunate you are in life and teach you your Christian duty.”

  Mrs. Ellen helps us on with our cloaks and gloves, then puts on her own outdoor clothes, and we follow my lady across the hall to the kitchen, where several baskets, each covered with a clean cloth, are waiting on the scrubbed trestle. We help to carry the baskets to the waiting coach and climb in for the short journey.

  “This is Widow Carter’s cottage,” says my mother, as the coach comes to a standstill outside a mean hovel at the foot of the cliff. “Her husband was our shepherd, but he died ten years ago. I gave her some work in the laundry, but she’s bedridden now.”

  My mother leads the way into the cottage, and I reel from the stench of unwashed flesh, stale urine, and frowsty old woman. Katherine hangs back, but my lady grasps her arm firmly and pulls her forward. I am trying not to breathe too deeply.

  “We have brought you some food,” my mother says.

  The old crone in the dirty bed tries to sit up, mumbling her thanks, but my lady raises her hand.

  “I come in Christian charity, mistress,” she says, “and I have brought my daughters to profit by my example. May God bless you.”

  “Thankee, my lady,” gasps the old woman.

  “I’ll send one of the maids to help tidy the place,” my mother promises, and places the basket on the table. She sweeps out and we follow gratefully.

  The next call is less harrowing, for we are taking some old baby clothes to the coachman’s wife, who has just given birth to twins. We admire the babies, who lie sleeping peacefully in the one cradle, and go on to our final destination, a cottage set a little way into the woods. Its inhabitant is a black-haired woman who seems quite able to look after herself. A pot of stew bubbles on her hearth, and there are dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and a pile of logs in the corner. The place is warm and quite clean.

  “A little something for you, Anna,” says my lady, handing over the basket.

  “And I’ve something for thee in return,” says the woman. Her accent is strange, foreign-sounding, and her tone implies something mysterious. She hands my mother a screw of paper, which doesn’t look like much in return for the provisions she has received.

  “Pretty girls they are, my lady,” she says in her odd voice.

  “Yes,” says my mother. I notice that Anna is not as deferential as most people are to her, and that my lady does not seem bothered by this. “Thank you,” she says to the woman, and hurries us out without giving the customary blessing.

  “Madam, is that lady ill?” I ask, as the coach trundles homeward.

  “No, Jane. But she has done me a service and I must repay it.”

  “What did she do?” I ask. Katherine is lifting the leather curtain and peering out at the passing scenery. She is not interested in the strange woman.

  “That is none of your business,” says my mother, which leaves me wondering for a little while. But soon we are home and it is time for supper, after which Katherine and I play skittles in the gallery. I have forgotten all about Anna and the mysterious favor she did for my mother.

  There is one activity that I loathe, and that is the weekly family hunting party, for which all lessons are canceled. I am a nervous rider, but every week I am made to follow the chase, hanging on for dear life as the adults, racing forward and farther ahead, whoop and halloo from their mounts as the quarry is sighted and takes flight. Later, always, there is the stomach-churning moment when the poor beast is brought down and savagely ripped to death. My lady never fails to snap angrily at me for my lack of enthusiasm and my squeamishness and wonders aloud for the umpteenth time why I have not inherited my parents’ love of blood sports.

  “It must be,” she declares, “that you are being deliberately undutiful.”

  “I am sorry, my lady,” I say, but there is no help for me. I cannot bring myself to love the chase.

  There comes a day I shall never forget.

  We have just returned from the we
ekly ordeal of the chase when my father rounds on me impatiently.

  “You’re far too timid, girl!” he snaps. “You’ll never make a huntress at this rate. No stomach for it, have you?”

  I hang my head as he rants on.

  “God, why weren’t you born a boy?” he growls. I say nothing, but his words grieve me. I know it is a great disappointment to my parents that they have no son.

  “Well, by God, Jane, you will learn to hunt,” declares my lord. “I think it’s time you were blooded. Yes, we will have you blooded next time.”

  “No, please,” I whisper. I know, for I have seen it before, that this is a terrible ritual, and although all of noble blood must endure it, it is horrible both for the poor beast and for the young person forced to take part. I am certain that I will faint dead away when the dreadful moment comes, for I could never bear to see a dumb creature suffer and want no part whatsoever in causing it pain.

  “I entreat you, sir. Let me be excused now,” I beg. “I have an ache in my stomach.” My mother overhears; she is in no mood to be lenient.

  “Shut up,” she orders.

  “My lord, the child is unwell,” says Mrs. Ellen. “She is sick at the thought of blood,” she adds lamely. But my father merely looks at her as if she were mad.

  “This is ridiculous,” he says. “Of course she will be blooded. And love it, I swear. You are both being foolish to make so much fuss about so little a matter.”

  So I am for it. On the appointed day, dinner comes and goes, and afterward Mrs. Ellen helps me change into my russet velvet riding habit with its jaunty plumed bonnet. Shuddering in dreadful anticipation of the ordeal before me, I make my way to the stables with the other riders and mount my dappled mare, White Lady. Then I sip from the proffered stirrup cup and obediently trot off in the wake of my parents. Soon, we are cantering through the dramatic parkland, with its sweeping hills, rocky crags, and splashing streams.

  Our quarry today is a beautiful red hind, young and vigorous; she leads us all on a merry dance through the chase and into the open countryside beyond. But storm clouds are gathering. The blue winter sky darkens and it begins to rain heavily, drenching us all to the skin in minutes. My parents and their followers seem unbothered by this, but I am growing colder by the second in my saturated clothes. I could not feel more wretched, especially when I remember what is to come.

 
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