Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  One evening, the Queen summons me and takes from a drawer a printed book, bound in the finest tooled leather. On the title page is written “Prayers and Meditations, collected out of Holy Works by the Most Gracious and Virtuous Princess, Katherine, Queen of England.”

  “You wrote this, madam?” I breathe in wonder.

  “I did.” She smiles. “And His Majesty approved it.”

  I look at her in awe. That a woman should have written a book, much less have it printed for everyone to read, is astounding.

  “This is a marvel,” I declare.

  “It was a labor of love,” says she, “and if it brings some small comfort to God-fearing souls, then I shall be content.”

  The King enters the chamber, and although I am used to seeing him now, I am still abashed and tremulous in his presence. As we sink into curtsies, I notice that he does not look well today; in fact his countenance is gray, although he seems cheerful enough.

  “No ceremony, Kate. I see you are showing our great-niece your book.”

  “I am, sir.”

  “And what do you make of it, Jane?”

  “I think it is a wonder, Your Majesty, that a woman could be such a clerk as to write a book.”

  “Oh, Her Highness doesn’t just write books,” he retorts with a twinkle, “she debates the points with me beforehand, then steals my arguments! Indeed, I am sorely beset. It is wearying to have a doctor for a wife.”

  Queen Katherine laughs.

  “It is because I would not presume to boast greater knowledge than Your Majesty,” she protests. “I merely desire to test my arguments against one who is a far better theologian than I.”

  “Hmmm,” sniffs the King, settling back into his chair. “You are a flatterer.”

  The Queen sits down on the opposite side of the fire. I stand there, unsure whether I am welcome to stay.

  “Sit down, sit down,” says His Majesty, waving me to a stool.

  “Would you like Jane to play for you, sir?” asks the Queen. “She shows great promise.”

  “Aye. Fetch the lute from over there, child. What will you play?”

  Aware of the honor being done me, I falter, “Whatever pleases Your Majesty.”

  “Play what you know best.”

  I seat myself, thinking rapidly. Then inspiration comes. I begin to strum, and as I start to sing, the King joins in with a high tenor voice:

  As the holly groweth green, and never changeth hue,

  So am I, e’er hath been, unto my lady true.

  Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy,

  Though winter blasts blow never so high, green groweth the holly.

  As the song finishes, the Queen claps her hands. “Bravo, both of you! That was well sung and played.”

  “You like that song, Jane?” asks the King.

  “I like it very well, sir.”

  “And do you know who wrote it?”

  “I believe it was yourself, Your Majesty.”

  “Zounds!” he exclaims. “Now I will never know your true opinion of it.”

  “Oh, but it is a superb composition, Your Majesty!” I cry.

  He smiles, well pleased at my sincerity. Then suddenly the smile fades and his broad face turns an alarming shade of purple. His hands start flailing about, clutching at his throat, and he crumples forward in his chair, emitting strangled little sounds.

  The Queen flies to his side, her face fraught with consternation. She grabs his shoulders and tries to raise him upright.

  “Sweet Heaven!” she gasps. “Jane, help me.”

  I leap to assist, putting all my weight beneath one of his shoulders, but the King is so heavy and bulky that we cannot shift him sufficiently to see his face in the light or check his breathing. What if he dies? I ask myself, and perhaps the Queen is thinking this too, she looks so frightened. But he is not dead, he is groaning helplessly, so I run to the guards outside the door. Soon my great-uncle is being carried to his bed, and the doctors are summoned.

  I can see that the Queen is greatly worried, but she maintains her composure and asks me to play something soothing while we wait to hear the physicians’ verdict. I am still strumming when they come to tell her that His Majesty has had a seizure, but is now conscious and able to take some physic. He has been bled to expel the evil humors from his body, and his urine has satisfactorily been tested. He is now, they declare, in the hands of God, and if he rests and partakes of a simple diet, he might well make a good recovery.

  All the court entertainments are canceled, and the Queen finds that her calming presence is constantly required at her husband’s bedside. Ill, bored, and frustrated, he needs her diverting company. There is nothing for it—I must return home. While I am relieved that my great-uncle is recovering from his alarming malady, I cannot help grieving that my happy idyll with the kind Queen is at an end, at least for the present.

  I realize that I hate and dread the prospect of going home.

  Frances Brandon, Marchioness of Dorset


  The King’s recovery has been slow. On Christmas Eve, he was still confined to his chamber, and the yuletide season—usually the occasion for lavish feasting and merrymaking at court for twelve festive days—was set to be a quiet affair. The Queen dismissed her married ladies to their homes, and that is how I came to be back here at Bradgate, where we now keep Christmas.

  I am worried about the Queen and voice my concerns to Henry late one evening as we share a cup of spiced wine in our chamber.

  “She sits with the King and ventures to dispute with him on religious matters,” I tell him. “Some of the things she says are quite controversial, but His Highness does not seem to notice. She says he enjoys these disputes, for they keep his mind lively. But I have heard talk that the Catholic faction at court, especially Bishop Gardiner and Lord Chancellor Wriothesley, have expressed concern that the Queen is openly infecting the King with heretical views.”

  “And is she?”

  I nod and lower my voice. “I fear so. She is often in the company of my good stepmother, the Duchess of Suffolk, and the Seymour brothers—did you know Tom Seymour was back at court?”

  “She’s not so foolish as to dally with him?” says Henry, incredulous.

  “Oh, no. But you may guess for yourself what kind of opinions they hold. Rabid reformists, if not Protestants, one and all. And there are others of her ladies, in particular my Lady Dudley and my Lady Lane, who bring in certain books, which are kept in a locked cupboard in the Queen’s closet. Sometimes she and those two ladies read them privily. Of course, none of us would betray her—as both you and she know, I’m sympathetic to her views—but she takes a fearful risk.”

  My lord looks alarmed. “I’m all for reform too, and I think that much of what Luther preached made sense. I’m also heartened to see that the Seymours have influence over the Prince. Mark me, when the King dies, things will change, and probably for the better. But that’s in the future. What I’m concerned about is the present. If the Catholic faction moves against the Queen, others will fall with her, or at least come under suspicion. Look to yourself, Frances. Don’t go near those books. If anyone asks, you know nothing about them.”

  “I’m not a fool,” I say tartly.

  By February the King has recovered somewhat, and I am back at court, where there is a further alarm in store.

  My good stepmother, the young Duchess of Suffolk, comes flustered one day to the Queen’s apartments, plainly in great anxiety.

  “Your Majesty, there is evil talk. The woman, Anne Askew, who is in the Tower accused of heresy, has named you in a signed confession.”

  “Sweet Jesu!” Katherine rises to her feet, much agitated. “But I swear I have had no dealings with her. It must be my enemies who have made her say such a thing.”

  “What shall we do?” asks Lady Lane, her face dark with terror.

  “We can do nothing,” says the Queen shakily, “unless we want to draw attention to o
urselves. We can do nothing but wait for them to accuse us.”

  Yet no accusations are made, and the rumor we heard is soon proved false, for when Anne Askew’s confession is printed and circulated, it contains no reference whatsoever to the Queen. We can only surmise that the false tale was put about by those who seem poised to destroy her. From now on, the Queen is more watchful and on her guard. There will be no more banned books smuggled into her apartments, I will swear to that.

  Lady Jane Grey


  Katherine and I are enjoying an unexpected respite from lessons. Dr. Harding, poor man, is confined to his bed with an evil humor of the stomach, having, it is thought, partaken of too many eels at dinner last night. Much better than that is the absence of our lady mother, who is in attendance on the Queen at Whitehall. The weather is hot and humid, and this morning Mrs. Ellen is content for us girls to spend our free time in the brick-walled gardens that surround Dorset House. Katherine weaves daisy chains and draws pictures, while I prefer to curl up under a tree with my lute and a book. It is heavenly here in the sunshine.

  After dinner, Mrs. Ellen gets ready to visit her sister, who is married to a prosperous butcher and lives with him in a fine timbered house in Smithfield.

  “Take us with you!” clamors Katherine.

  “Yes, please do!” I entreat. “We have nothing to do. Take us out!”

  “Very well,” agrees Mrs. Ellen. “I’m sure Bessie will be delighted to welcome you. She loves children and, having none of her own, will no doubt make much of you.”

  As it is such a fine day, we walk to the city, attended by a manservant. We are wearing light silk dresses, but we are sweating in our long sleeves and full skirts. Thankfully we have been excused from wearing our hoods and enjoy the sensation of our long hair flowing freely down our backs in the breeze. It is good to be out on an excursion on such a day, and we revel in the sense of freedom that it gives us.

  Our walk takes us through the Holbein Gate, which straddles the main thoroughfare that runs through the rambling collection of buildings that are Whitehall Palace. North of Whitehall are the gardens and orchards that belong to Westminster Abbey, and at Charing we stop to admire the cross erected by King Edward I in memory of his beloved Queen Eleanor.

  “It’s such a romantic tale,” says Mrs. Ellen. “The King brought the Queen’s body back from the north where she died, and everywhere they stopped on the journey, he raised a cross like this to his dear Queen.”

  “The chère reine. You see—Charing Cross!” I say, eager to show off my knowledge.

  Katherine is quite entranced. A man standing nearby smiles at our reaction.

  “They say that, from the top, you could see where her body lay in Westminster Abbey,” he tells us.

  As we walk on, I say that’s impossible, but Katherine prefers to believe it.

  “I doubt that the King took the trouble to climb to the top and cling on to the spire,” I say, giggling. “Nor that he could look through the abbey walls to see the body lying there. Use your head, Kat, you silly goose.”

  “But it’s a lovely story,” she protests.

  “Leave it, Jane,” reproves Mrs. Ellen. “You are undoubtedly a clever girl, but a little humility would not go amiss. And I should warn you that your lady mother has complained that you are less biddable of late, and that she intends to deal strictly with any willfulness.”

  I stand chastened and am instantly full of remorse. I beg Katherine’s forgiveness, and she kisses me.

  We walk on along the Strand, past the magnificent houses of the nobility, the Hospital of the Savoy, and St. Clement Danes Church, and so come to Fleet Street. Farther along, we enter the city by Ludgate. Here, the prosperity of the citizens is evident in the tall, imposing houses of the merchants, the numerous shops displaying goldsmiths’ work and other luxury goods, and the velvets and silks that adorn the backs of the rich burghers and their wives.

  The old Gothic cathedral of St. Paul lies before me at the crest of the hill, and at its side Paul’s Churchyard, where there are many bookstalls. I am keen to linger and beg Mrs. Ellen to buy me a penny chapbook telling the story of Palamon and Arcite, those doomed lovers. Resignedly she obliges, knowing it is her only way of dragging me from the place.

  We now pass the great Barbican, the fortified gatehouse set in the city wall.

  “Are we nearly there?” asks Katherine. We are quite tired. It seems as if we have been walking for miles.

  “Nearly,” says Mrs. Ellen. We have left the city center, yet there are still crowds of people about, and they are all thronging in the same direction. Among them are street vendors and hawkers.

  “Whither are all these people bound?” Mrs. Ellen asks a pieman.

  “Why, they’re all bound for Smithfield, of course, mistress,” he tells her.

  “To a tournament?” inquires Mrs. Ellen hopefully. What a fine spectacle that would be!

  “Naw!” he scoffs. “For the burnings.”


  “Aye. The heretics, Anne Askew and John Lascelles.”

  Mrs. Ellen looks appalled. I recall her telling me that she had once witnessed a burning in her youth and never wanted to see another.

  “If we hurry, girls, we may miss it,” she says, “but my sister’s house overlooks Smithfield, and I know no other way to it than the one we are following. If we hasten, we may get there before the burnings start. I do not want you children witnessing such a sight. Come, come, let’s press on.” She grasps us firmly by the hands and pushes through the crowds.

  I feel sick. I know that burning at the stake is the punishment for heresy, but, having once singed my finger in a candle flame, I can guess that it must be a horrible way to die, and I do not want to witness it.

  Katherine is also trembling and apprehensive. She is only six, and this is no place for one so young. She is begging to go home.

  But it is too late for that. The mob surges forward into Smithfield, eager to witness the spectacle. Clinging to each other, we are swept along by this tide of people, unable to resist or turn back, frightened of being suffocated. Jostled and punched, we are thrust nearly to the front and discover to our horror that the press of people is such that there is now no hope of escape.

  “Stay together, girls!” cries Mrs. Ellen. “Don’t let go of my hands, do you hear?”

  In the middle of the field stand two stout wooden stakes with iron chains hanging from them. Nearby are heaped great piles of fagots. The man who must be the executioner wears a leather mask and apron and carries an unlit torch. A fire burns in the brazier behind him. I shiver at the sight. Opposite, seated on a bench, well away from the stakes, sits the Lord Mayor of London with his aldermen and sheriffs, and two bishops, all come to witness the executions.

  “Girls, I advise you both to close your eyes or turn your backs, if you can, when the burnings begin,” urges Mrs. Ellen fearfully. “This is a sorry state of affairs—goodness knows what your lady mother will say.”

  “Excuse me,” says a fat woman pressed close to us. She is poorly dressed in homespun and has a red face with rolls of chins beneath it. “They should watch, them young ’uns. Lossa people brung their children, so they can see what ’appens to these wicked ’eretics. That’s why they make a public example of ’em.”

  “That’s as may be. I did not ask for your opinion,” snaps Mrs. Ellen. “A burning’s no sight for children, and these are gentle-born. They know what heresy is. And some of us do not rejoice in the sufferings of others. We did not choose to be here, but there is no hope of getting through this crowd.”

  The woman shrugs. She’s really only interested in what’s about to happen in the field.

  “Nice weather for it,” observes a man behind us. “Not much wind.”

  “Better for ’em,” says his wife. “Are they using gunpowder this time?”

  “Dunno. Hope so, for the poor buggers’ sake. Here, we ought to see if we can buy a copy of her last confes
sion afterwards. There’s a man over there selling them.”

  “You’ll be lucky if he’s got any left by then.”

  “Yes, specially as it was got from her by torture, or so they say. I ’eard that Lord Chancellor Wriothesley ’imself turned the handle of the rack when she refused to answer their questions.”

  The truth of this statement is made manifest as the cart bearing Anne Askew and John Lascelles makes its way slowly through the sea of people, and Anne is lifted out, none too gently, tied to a chair, and carried to the stake, her arms and legs hanging uselessly. Thin and pale from long months in prison, her face is drawn with pain, and she seems almost to be cheerful at the prospect of reaching the end of her sufferings. She looks a gentle, kindly, homely person.

  “Is she really bound for Hell, as all heretics must be?” I ask Mrs. Ellen.

  “Well, child,” she replies carefully, “they say that suffering the flames here on earth gives a heretic a foretaste of what hellfire is like and so makes him or her repent before it is too late.”

  “And if they do, is the fire put out?”

  “Not always. It is often too late. And I have not heard that many do recant.”

  I can understand that. The pain must be so great that one would not be able to think of anything else.

  The executioner is chaining Anne Askew, still on her chair, to one stake. The man Lascelles is already secured to the other, and some soldiers are piling fagots around him. Soon, the pile reaches his waist. Fagots are heaped around the woman in a similar manner. The man is weeping in fear, but she is calm and her eyes are turned heavenward. By all appearances, she believes she is bound for God.

  “What has she done wrong?” asks Katherine.

  Mrs. Ellen stoops down. “She is a wicked Protestant. She has rejected the miracle of the Mass.”

  Katherine looks puzzled. She has again forgotten what the chaplain taught her. Mrs. Ellen explains, “This woman has denied that the bread and wine become the actual precious body and blood of Our Lord at their elevation by the priest. She believes they are merely symbolic.”

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