Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  At two o’clock, the rain is still falling as the hind is finally brought down, and we all dismount onto the muddy ground for the kill. The poor beast lies there in a puddle, wounded in the flank, its belly heaving and its rolling eyes glassy with fear. The huntsmen stand around, restraining the snarling, snapping hounds.

  My father places a large knife in my hands. Its blade is of chased steel, long and cruel.

  “Jane, yours is the privilege today,” my lord announces. “See that your hand does not falter.”

  I grasp the knife. I have been told that I must plunge it deep into the animal’s breast, yet now that the moment has come, I barely have the will or strength to do so. I am shaking so much that I cannot hold the blade steady.

  “Look sharp, girl!” barks my mother. Her eyes are glittering with excitement and bloodlust. For her, this is the supreme moment of the chase, and I am spoiling it. “Get on with it!” she shrieks.

  I have no choice. Screwing my eyes tight shut, I raise the knife with both hands, pray vehemently to God to guide me true, and plunge downward into the yielding, breathing flesh. When I dare to look, I see that the wretched hind is writhing in its death throes, and that great spatters of blood are on my skirts. I stare in rigid horror as the chief huntsman seizes the knife from my hands and administers the coup de grâce, putting the beast out of its misery.

  But worse is to follow. A few more slashes of the knife and the hind’s entrails, steaming and bloody in the damp air, are spilling out onto the wet ground.

  “Now you shall be blooded, Daughter!” my father cries, his voice tense with excitement, as if the killing and the brutality have given him some strange rush of pleasure.

  I stand motionless, frozen. I have taken the life of one of God’s innocent creatures, and I cannot believe that I have done so, that I have been an accomplice in this butchery. I am utterly diminished by my actions. It is one thing to know that this broken hind’s carcass before me will provide meat for the table tomorrow, another to know myself responsible for its agony. Yes, it would have died anyway, whoever made an end of it, but I am certain that I shall never forget how it felt to pierce that living body, knowing that the stroke I dealt would be fatal.

  My father roughly shoves me forward, and when I still do not move at his bidding, he pushes me to my knees before the bleeding mess that had only minutes before been a living deer; then, seizing me by the arms from behind, he thrusts my hands into the warm, gaping wounds, draws them out all bloody, and smears them across my face.

  “There!” he roars triumphantly. “The Lady Jane is a fully fledged huntress now.” The company breaks into applause, but before I can stop it, the bitter bile has risen into my mouth and I am vomiting on the mud, hot, unbidden tears streaming from my eyes.

  My mother angrily swoops on me and pulls me upright.

  “Control yourself,” she growls, delivering a stinging slap across my cheek. “How dare you let us down! Pull yourself together. Can’t you see that everyone is looking at you? What sort of undutiful behavior is this? I tell you, girl, it will never do in this world to be so squeamish. God’s blood, what am I to do with her?”

  “Calm yourself, my dear,” soothes my father, ignoring my distress. “I have no doubt that Jane will learn useful lessons from this day’s work. And if not, and she shows us up again in like manner, she knows what the consequences will be.” Shooting a menacing glare at me, he strides off to where his horse is tethered.

  The company remounts and turns for home. Shivering and still blood-spattered, I follow on White Lady, my hands almost frozen to the reins. I console myself in the knowledge that, after the first blooding, there is usually no other. Yet I know too that the weekly hunting expedition will remain a recurring nightmare, and several nights during the following week I wake up screaming in memory of the horror and the suffering of that poor animal.

  Frances Brandon, Marchioness of Dorset

  BRADGATE HALL, NOVEMBER–DECEMBER 1544

  Henry and I are in bed, and as usual, after the excitement of the hunt, we take our pleasure in each other. My lord is a lusty, vigorous lover and can sometimes couch a lance two or three times a night, but tonight I am in a disgruntled mood and cannot enjoy it. This is the fault of that stupid child, who made such an exhibition of herself at her blooding today.

  I am also brooding on that remark of Henry’s about Jane not being a boy. Considering how virile he is, how energetically we couple together in bed, and the measures I have taken to ensure conception, it is surprising that my womb has failed to quicken these past four years and more.

  Lying sleepless in the feather bed, my body revealed in its nakedness by the cast-off covers, I notice that I am becoming stout. I have ever had a fondness for rich food and good wines, and now I realize that such self-indulgence has its consequences. By day, good corsetry and tight lacing can disguise a thickening waist, flabby stomach, and heavy, drooping breasts. But at night, by candlelight…

  Peering across the bed, I realize that Henry too is awake, and that those too-pendulous breasts are having their customary effect on him. Perhaps, I reflect, a voluptuous figure is a good thing after all.

  But there is no time for thinking. He lunges at me.

  This time, our coupling bears fruit. By Christmas, I know that I am to have another child. We are both praying that it will be the longed-for son. Oh, and I must remember to send a yuletide gift to Anna, the Gypsy woman, in gratitude for her charm.

  BRADGATE HALL, JULY 1545

  I am once more in labor, God help me. This time the pain is far worse than I have ever experienced before, and the midwife is clearly worried. She has even bade Mrs. Zouche send for the chaplain, just in case, which is not exactly what I want to hear. In fact, when I am not crying out in my agony—my noble resolve to bear my suffering in silence broke hours ago—I am terrified out of my wits.

  Indeed, I am now beyond caring whether I bear a son or daughter, or even whether the babe is dead or alive. My contractions are coming every minute or so, and they are of such deadly severity that I cannot help thrashing about on the bed and fighting off those who would help me, screaming at them to go away. So intense and violent are the pangs that, at their height, I forget that I am giving birth and use all my ebbing strength to yell.

  “Jesus! Jesus help me!” I cry, again and again.

  My lord has been summoned from the mews, where apparently he has been soothing his anxiety for me by inspecting a newly acquired pair of falcons. He strides into the birthing chamber, where of course no man has a right to be, but we are now long past such niceties.

  “How does my lady?” he asks fearfully, this big man, who is utterly out of place here. I glimpse his face, taut with worry. It is common for women to die in childbed—oh, dear God!—and Henry is plainly terrified that he will lose not only his longed-for son and heir, but also his wife and helpmeet, and, perhaps more pertinently, for I know my Henry, his claim to kinship with the King.

  “She is not doing very well, my lord,” the midwife says in her country burr. “The babe is too slow in coming. The head is crowned, but there seems to be some obstruction preventing the rest of the body from being born.”

  Henry groans. “Is there nothing you can do, for the love of God?”

  “There is, my lord, but it is a dangerous procedure and may cost the lives of both my lady and the child.”

  “Help me! Help me!” I yell. I feel as if I am being torn apart.

  “Is there no other way?” Henry’s voice is harsh.

  “We can wait upon Nature, my lord, but my lady is weakening by the minute, and time may be running short.”

  I scream again. Someone must help me!

  “What does this procedure entail?” my lord asks.

  For answer, the midwife draws, from her voluminous bag, a long iron rod with a large hook at one end. I catch a brief sight of it and close my eyes in terror. I hear Henry’s shocked intake of breath.

  “The hook is passed into the womb, s
ir, and one tries to pull out the babe.” She pauses. “It’s a last resort, sir. And it can cause some damage to one or both.”

  My lord visibly wrestles with himself for one moment more, then, as I screech out again, he nods.

  “Do it,” he orders.

  It is over. I lie half-conscious on my bloody, sweat-soaked bed, aware only that my worst agony has ceased and that I can now sleep. I swooned in pain at the moment when they dragged the child from my body and thus knew no more for a time. At least I am still alive.

  I am lying on my back now, knees drawn up, thighs still apart. There is a soreness and aching in my woman’s parts, yet it is nothing compared to the torment I have just suffered. At the foot of the bed, the midwife is busy with cloths and a bowl of water, and I feel the soothing comfort of being soaped and clad in clean linen. Presently, my limbs are laid straight and I am rolled from one side to the other so that my bedclothes can be changed. Now, barely half-aware, I am covered by sweet-smelling sheets and blankets, my hair is brushed from my face, and I am left to rest.

  It is morning, and I wake, fully restored to my senses. The horrors of yesterday seem to belong to the realm of dreams, but I know that I did really suffer that agony and am quite resigned to being told that my infant did not survive the ordeal. Yet, turning gingerly on the mattress to get more comfortable, I am astonished to see that the great wooden cradle is there beside my bed. A soft snuffle suggests that something must be in it. The hour is still early, and I am entirely alone, so there is no one to ask what sex the baby is.

  I have to know. Testing my strength, I raise myself up by inches, somewhat painfully, as I am sore down below and every movement seems to make it worse. Damn it, I must have torn during the birth, which means that it will take me far longer than usual to recover. My head is swimming with the effort. But before long, gritting my teeth against the pain, I manage to lean across and peer into the cradle.

  What I see lying there makes me cry out in shock. My child is a misshapen, deformed hunchback—there is no mistaking the fact. What is almost worse, I soon discover, after the women have come running, is that it is another girl.

  We name her Mary, in honor of the Lady Mary, who has kindly consented to be godmother, but I want nothing to do with the child. Not only is she an offense to the eye, but she has likely also put paid to any hopes I have of ever bearing Henry a son. When I shakily rise from my childbed to be churched after ten days of lying-in and begin to walk slowly around, I realize that something is wrong inside me. I feel as if my womb is about to slide out of me or be expelled from my body like some grotesque infant. The physicians tell me there is nothing they can do, and that I will have to live like this, perhaps indefinitely, uncomfortable though it is.

  I have not said anything to Henry, although surely he must notice that something is amiss. Lying on my back in the marital bed, I find that doing my duty is not too painful, but the pleasure has gone, and I fear I will never again be able to conceive. Modesty and shame prevent me from telling anyone else of my malady, and I am determined never to discuss the matter with my lord. While he still has hopes of me, I can rule him.

  But my temper is now on a shorter fuse than ever before. I know I have always been inclined to sharpness, but I find it impossible to quell the anger I feel at the hand that life has dealt me, I, who should have raised a quiverful of strong sons to delight our old age. Nor have I time or affection to spare for our older daughters, both of whom irritate me unreasonably with their idle prattle and childish concerns, so I snap at them and lash out in resentment more than was my wont.

  Everyone puts my evil humor down to the shock I have received and the whims women have when their milk is drying up. The hunchback has been given over to the care of a nurse, who has been told in no uncertain terms to keep her out of my sight. I will not have her brought up with her sisters or afforded an education like theirs. We will keep her close hidden here at Bradgate, so that the world at large may not discover how God has cursed us.

  GREENWICH PALACE, SEPTEMBER 1545

  I have returned to my duties at court. The Queen has guessed we have suffered some dread misfortune and is driving me mad with her unlooked-for sympathy. I politely rebuff her well-meant overtures, but I cannot help being withdrawn and bitter. She has even noticed that I walk and sit with some discomfort, but she is fortunately too well bred to persist in her solicitous inquiries after my health. She has also observed that I am less patient than usual with my subordinates in her household and gently reproved me for it.

  Much more gratifying than this cloying concern is that, of late, she has taken to questioning me closely about Jane’s welfare and education and seems more than ordinarily interested in the child.

  “I should be pleased if you would summon Jane to court to stay with us for a time,” she bids me. “I long to hear for myself how she is progressing with her lessons.” This is a signal honor, and an opportunity not to be missed to bring Jane once more to the attention of the King. Who knows what might come of it? Perhaps Jane is already singled out for special favor.

  I must stress to her that much hangs upon her good behavior at court. She must do everything in her power to please the Queen, and if by chance she should meet with the King, she is to impress him—if possible—by her mien, her decorum, and her learning.

  My lord is most gratified to hear of Her Majesty’s kind invitation. He and I spend a fraught evening drilling into Jane instructions as to what she must and must not do at court. Fortunately, she is well grounded in courtesy, but we are determined to ensure that she misses no chance to get herself noticed.

  Of course, the ignorant chit does not seem to appreciate the significance of this visit, although I suppose we can hardly blame her for that, since she is unaware of our great plans for her future. Like all girls of her rank, she has been told that her father will one day arrange an advantageous marriage for her, although naturally we have forborne to name the one who we pray will be her prospective bridegroom.

  It does not escape me, however, that a slightly mutinous look is on Jane’s face when we have finished reciting our commandments. Plainly, she resents being instructed in her duty. That must be stopped.

  “Look at the Queen like that, and she will dismiss you at once, I make no doubt!” I thunder. “God’s blood, will the child never learn humility?”

  “Heed your mother, Jane,” Henry says wearily, clearly not wishing to become any more involved than is strictly necessary. He has given up a whole evening’s gambling to deliver this lecture and is impatient to be gone.

  “I will do my best, sir,” Jane replies, but I begin to mistrust her meekness.

  Lady Jane Grey

  WINDSOR CASTLE, AUTUMN 1545

  Windsor is an old castle, too drafty for habitation in the winter, but in the warmer months it is a fine residence. The Queen is fond of taking her ladies for picnics in the Great Park, and as we sit on the grass beneath a fluttering, gay silken canopy, she tells us tales of Herne the Hunter, whose ghostly presence is said to haunt the woods here. This is the third afternoon this week that we have come to this place—Her Majesty wants to make the most of the last warm days of the year.

  Most mornings see me closeted with her for an hour in her private chamber, our two heads bent over my copybooks and translations. Her Majesty is kind to praise my work.

  “I’m impressed to see you so advanced for your years, Jane,” she has said more than once. “Rest assured, I shall do all in my power to bring your talents to ripe fruition.” I bask in this unaccustomed approval.

  The Lady Mary is also in attendance on the Queen, although the Lady Elizabeth, having quarreled most impertinently with her father the King, has been sent away to repent her disrespect. I know the Queen is concerned about her, for His Highness’s anger shows no sign of abating.

  I am sorry not to have the company of the spirited Lady Elizabeth, because the Lady Mary is nowhere near as entertaining a companion. She is as old as my mother and talks endl
essly of the Virgin Mary, the blessed saints, and God’s will. Her disapproval of the King’s religious reforms is plain, although she dare not criticize openly. It seems to me that she is living in the past, and I pity her, since it is futile. Everyone knows that the Pope in Rome is no better than the Antichrist, and the Lady Mary is foolish to think differently. As my lady mother says, you cannot put the clock back.

  It is odd because the Lady Mary behaves in many ways like a nun, yet when evening comes, she loves to sing, play, and dance, and her clothes are of the richest fabrics. She affects bright colors and a profusion of jewelry and looks like a princess to me. But one evening, I heard a lord mutter behind me, “She looks like an overdressed, overstuffed doll.” And when gentlemen are present, she is always awkward and blushing in their company. Yet she makes no secret of her great desire to be married and have children; she loves children inordinately and is godmother to many, including my poor baby sister. Of course, at twenty-nine, the Lady Mary is an old maid, and far too old to be married. Nor will the King allow it, I am certain, since although her bastard status has debased her value in the marriage market, my mother says he will not consider any husband of less than royal rank, and there are no takers. Of course, a woman must have a husband, so her future looks bleak.

  The Lady Mary therefore lavishes love and presents upon her younger siblings and her godchildren, and on me too, now that I am come within her circle. She says I am pretty, a gifted child, an accomplished child, and strokes my cheek. I feel sorry for her, but I am stiff and ill at ease in her company. I cannot warm to her, although I wish it could be otherwise.

 
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