Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  The executioner now ties a gray cloth bag around the condemned woman’s neck. “That’s the gunpowder,” says the man behind. “It’ll make a swift end of her.”

  A collective sigh rises from the crowd. It fades to a hush as the fagots are lit, and I hear a light crackling and the voice of a priest reciting the prayers for the dying.

  I do not want to look, but I am compelled to. My eyes are riveted to the stakes, as if I have no choice in the matter. Beside me, Mrs. Ellen has bent her head in prayer, and Katherine has buried her face in the nurse’s skirts, clutching to her tightly. But I watch unflinching as the flames leap up. The man screams as his clothes catch fire, but Anne Askew sits impassive in her chair, seemingly oblivious to the gathering conflagration. Then she too begins writhing in the fire, but her agony does not last long. The gunpowder soon explodes in a ball of blinding light and acrid smoke, and when the smoke clears, it is obvious that the hideous mass of charred flesh and bone that it has left in its wake is no longer a living creature. I can hardly bear to look, yet still I force myself to. At the other stake, the man has slumped forward, moaning piteously, as the fire does its dreadful work. Before long, the two bodies can hardly be glimpsed behind high, hot walls of flame. There is a sickening stench of roasted meat.

  Some people in the crowd are jeering at the heretics, others shouting encouragement to them in their ordeal, some even cheering them on. A few eyes are closed in prayer, but not many. As I turn my head away, unable to look at the grisly scene any longer, I espy food vendors making their way round the back of the crowd, and men hawking chapbooks about the two heretics. Beside me, Katherine is whimpering in fright, as Mrs. Ellen cradles her close to her skirts. The flames are still roaring.

  Soon, there is nothing left to see, and the executioner begins raking over the piles of bones and ashes. As the crowd disperses, we make our way around the field to Mrs. Ellen’s sister’s house. There, we two girls are made a fuss of and given watered wine to drink, but I cannot rid my mind of the terrible scene I have just witnessed, nor forget the incredible courage of the woman Askew, who did not even cry out in the agony of her death throes.

  Then an unbidden thought occurs to me. She was so strong and steadfast in her faith that she was prepared to die for it. For a seemingly little matter, the matter of the bread and wine, she was willing to embrace a horrible death.

  A tiny voice speaks at the back of my mind. To believe that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Our Lord during the Mass is not logical. It is an act of faith. It makes more sense to see these elements as symbolic, doesn’t it? And who knows for certain what is the truth of the matter? Who can daresay one person is right and another person is wrong?

  I pull myself up. I am horrified at the way my thoughts are tending. I am teetering on the brink of heresy. Were I to speak my thoughts aloud, I too might find myself standing chained to a stake in the middle of Smithfield.

  Yet the notion is now fixed in my mind that the miracle of the Mass, as it is called, is against all reason, like the fairy tales and legends I was told as a young child. And yet people are forced to believe it. If they make so bold as to say they do not, they will surely suffer as Anne Askew did.

  Her faith shames me. I have never until now thought too deeply about the meaning of the Mass, and I have a dreadful feeling that I will never think the same way about it after today. Surely, if human beings are prepared to endure such a terrible death, theirs must be a faith worth dying for, mustn’t it?

  But I am not the stuff of which martyrs are made. I believe I would never have Anne’s courage, nor perhaps her strength of faith, were I ever to be asked to declare and defend my opinions. But today has left me with much to think about, much that is essential to my spiritual well-being, and I am full of uncertainties where—up till today—I have only been accepting. I can only comfort myself in the certainty that God knows the secrets of all hearts, and in the hope that there might one day come a time when men and women can openly and without fear proclaim what they believe.


  Oh, joy of joys! My mother, having learned that Dr. Harding is still sick and not likely to recover for another few days, has obtained the Queen’s permission to bring me to Whitehall. So here I am, and Her Majesty herself is overseeing my studies.

  Each morning, as before, I go to her chamber and she sets me some work. Most of it is translating, or reading, passages from holy books. Then I must practice my music or help the ladies-in-waiting with their tapestry. My tasks completed, I wait on the Queen as required, before joining the maids of honor in the maidens’ dorter at night, where we are all strictly supervised by the Mother of the Maids, a formidable matron who will brook no talking or giggling after the candles are doused.

  The Queen is working on another book, The Lamentations of a Sinner, which takes up much of her time, and when she is not in her private closet, she can be found with the King, whose bad leg is now causing him such discomfort that he can barely walk, and who sometimes has to be carried around the palace on a velvet-padded chair by sweating attendants. The pain does not improve his temper, which has been less congenial in recent months, but the Queen’s serene presence and practical kindness always soothe him, and he gives thanks to God repeatedly for having sent him at last a virtuous wife conformable to his heart.

  But there are things going on in the Queen’s household that disturb me. The ladies seem to be tense and overwatchful, and conversations sometimes cease abruptly when I enter a room. Once, as I was sitting reading silently in the gardens, I overheard two women speaking indiscreetly behind a hedge. I am almost certain that it was Lady Suffolk and Lady Lane, but I cannot be sure since they were talking in low tones.

  “You-know-who wishes she could express some grief at Anne Askew’s death, but she dares not, since she knows it is now more perilous than ever to hold such views,” said one.

  “I’m frightened,” answered the other. “If her enemies could furnish proof against her, even her rank will not save her, for the King is hot against heresy, and she and her friends have been careless in their talk.” The voices faded away into the distance and I sat alone once more.

  I am sure they must have been talking about the Queen, but I cannot believe that anyone would wish to harm her. Her reputation as a God-fearing woman is widespread, and even though she enjoys nothing better than arguments about religious doctrine with the King and certain bishops and divines, I have never heard her utter any views that are too controversial.

  They are having another debate this evening. Along with my mother, I am attending Her Majesty as she sits with the King in his chamber. I am bent to my needlework, and they are chatting amiably with Bishop Gardiner, a hawk-nosed, self-opinionated cleric whom I have never liked. This is one of my great-uncle’s bad days, but I can tell that he is making an effort for the Queen’s sake.

  After a time the talk turns to religion, and the mood darkens perceptibly as Her Grace ventures to exhort the King to proceed further with his religious reforms.

  “Although Your Majesty has banished the monstrous idol of Rome,” she tells him, with ill-concealed vehemence, “you should now seize the opportunity to rid the Church of England of every last vestige of popery.”

  I am astonished at her forwardness, and His Highness’s expression shows that he plainly resents being instructed in his duty by a mere woman. He leans forward in his chair, wagging a finger at her.

  “Madam,” he says severely, “it is a wife’s duty to learn in silence of her husband at home. As you yourself have written in your book.” The Queen goes red in the face; I believe she is more angry than chastened. The Bishop looks on complacently. He is a stern Catholic and would probably like nothing better than to see her discountenanced or worse, I suspect.

  “Look to your sewing, child,” my mother mutters under her breath.

  Rashly, the Queen persists with her arguments.

  “Sir, you are right in all you say, but I u
rge you again to consider purging this Church of all Romish harlotry!”

  “Enough, madam!” snaps the King, and there is an uncomfortable silence. I am startled, for never before have I heard him speak so harshly, and it alarms me. Fortunately, within a short time he reverts to his usual genial self, having deftly changed the subject, inquiring of the Queen how the Prince is progressing with his education. Her Majesty answers equally amiably, apparently not one whit disturbed, and harmony appears to have been restored, for the King looks as lovingly as usual upon his wife and speaks gently to her. Soon it is time for us to leave, and as she rises, he kisses her hand.

  “Farewell, sweetheart,” he says, smiling benignly.

  The Queen asks me to remain to tidy some embroidery silks that I have accidentally knocked to the floor in a tangle. The King ignores me as I kneel by her vacant chair, hurriedly raveling spool after spool, and continues conversing with Bishop Gardiner. His Highness is by no means as mollified as he made himself appear to be.

  “A fine hearing it is when women become such clerks,” he grumbles, “and a great comfort to me in my old age to be instructed by my wife.”

  “But Your Majesty excels all the princes of this and every other age in learning, as well as many doctors of divinity,” soothes the Bishop. “If anyone knows what is best for this realm, it is yourself. Sir, you know how much I esteem Her Majesty, but if you will pardon my forwardness, I must confess that I do think it unseemly for any of your subjects to argue with you as impertinently as she has just done. It is grievous to me to hear it. I fear also that those who are bold in words will not scruple to proceed to acts of disobedience.”

  The King nods, looking sorrowful. “You speak truth, my Lord Bishop,” he sighs. “I must take a firmer line with Her Grace.”

  Bishop Gardiner, obviously emboldened by His Majesty’s response, presses home his advantage. “Sir, I fear there may be more to this than meets the eye. There is some talk…I am sure it is nothing, but one would wish to be reassured that all is as it should be.”

  “What are you talking about, Bishop?” interrupts the King testily.

  “To be plain, sir, I have heard things that suggest all is not as it should be in the Queen’s household. It may well be mere rumor—it probably is. But I believe I might be able to put those rumors to rest, were I not deterred by the Queen’s powerful faction. Your Majesty, may I speak plain?”

  The King looks up, his face stony. “You may.”

  “Sir, I wish it were otherwise, but I suspect that the Queen entertains some heretical ideas. Things I have heard her say, and things that others have reported of her and her household, lead me to the conclusion that she believes in doctrines that can only bring about the ruin of the righteous government of princes such as yourself. Such doctrines propound that all things ought to be held in common; they reject the divinely appointed order that ought to exist in any civilized society. Such opinions cannot be tolerated in one so near the throne.”

  Kneeling there, holding my breath in horror, I notice that the Bishop has deftly changed his tune. Having first insisted that the rumors are probably baseless, he is now speaking as if the Queen’s heresy is an established fact. Clever, because he has covered himself if his accusations prove false. He can say, it was just a rumor…I could not let such a matter rest.

  The King is frowning—whether at the Queen’s perfidy or Gardiner’s outspokenness it is hard to say, but it is clear to me, as I crouch in the shadows behind the chair, my presence apparently forgotten by both men, that he is angry. But Gardiner forges on, regardless.

  “Your Majesty may easily perceive how perilous a matter it is to cherish a serpent within his own bosom. Why, the greatest subjects in the land, defending those views which I suspect the Queen holds, would by law deserve death.” He pauses, perhaps thinking he might have overplayed his hand or gone too far. By the look on the King’s face, he probably has. He continues, somewhat breathlessly, “But I run ahead of myself. Forgive me, sir, this may all be an overreaction on my part to something that is entirely innocent. Yet we must be sure. I cannot act without Your Majesty’s sanction, because if I do, the Queen and her faction will destroy me. But if you will extend to me your protection, I will have discreet inquiries made.”

  The King sits silent, playing with his beard.

  “I take it you would not have spoken thus had you not had sufficient cause,” he says slowly. “I must think on this. We will speak further tomorrow. Attend me after Mass in the morning.”

  After the King and the Bishop have left the room, His Majesty heavily leaning on Gardiner’s arm, I scoop the tidied silks into a box and fly to the Queen’s apartments. My mother is the first person I encounter there, and I am dismayed to find that she is in no mood for confidences.

  “You’re late, Jane. How long does it take to pick up some silks? It’s way past your bedtime.”

  “But my lady…”

  “Go to the maidens’ dorter at once, or you will surely get a ticking off from the Mother of the Maids.”

  It is now or never.

  “But my lady, there is a plot hatched against the Queen!”

  My mother stops in her tracks, astonished.

  “What could a witless child like you possibly know of a plot against the Queen?” she asks suspiciously.

  In a rush, I relate what I have heard. My lady’s face betrays her increasing dismay.

  “On your oath, are you telling me the truth?” she asks vehemently, gripping me by the upper arms. “Because if you have made this up, or imagined any part of it, I will whip you as you have never been whipped before.”

  I meet her gaze, willing her to believe me.

  “I swear it is the truth, my lady.”

  “I am satisfied,” she says, relaxing her grip. “Leave this with me.”

  She disappears into the Queen’s bedchamber. A few minutes later, Her Majesty emerges in her nightgown, her russet tresses loose about her shoulders.

  “What have you overheard, Jane?” she asks gently but urgently. I relate what has passed, and when I have finished, she looks stricken.

  “Dear God,” she says, sinking into her great chair by the fire. “How has Gardiner found out where my sympathies lie? Who could have betrayed me?”

  “None of us who love you, madam, and revere the true faith,” says my lady with sincerity.

  “Then who?”

  “A shrewd guess on the part of your enemies?” my mother suggests.

  “They have no proof. They can have no proof!” The Queen’s voice betrays rising panic. “We got rid of the books when they were questioning Anne Askew.”

  “Indeed you did, madam,” my mother says. “I’m sure they were not discovered.”

  “Gardiner hates me,” mourns the Queen. “And Wriothesley. I wouldn’t put it past them to fabricate evidence against me.”

  I am bewildered by all this. Can it be that the Queen and my mother are both heretics? What else am I to think? Oh, but it is a chilling thought. No wonder Her Majesty is terrified. I would be frightened out of my wits were I in her shoes. I try to offer some comfort.

  “Madam, the King loves you,” I say, remembering the fat, jolly man who has often sat in this very room and joked with us. “He will not hurt you.”

  “Oh, Jane, I wish I could believe it,” she whispers. “You are a dear, kind girl, and you did well to come to your mother this night.”

  My lady is regarding me with something like affection.

  “Yes, Jane, I am pleased with you,” she says. Then she turns to the Queen.

  “Madam, your only defense at this time is to act the innocent and carry on as if nothing has happened.”

  “You are right,” Her Majesty replies, bravely composing herself. “And I must take care to conduct myself with greater humility towards the King. It may not be too late. His Majesty may be of a different humor in the morning.”

  Confirmation of my story comes quickly the next day, when two of the King’s guard arriv
e with a summons for the Queen’s sister, Lady Herbert, along with two of her friends and three of her ladies-in-waiting, among them Lady Suffolk and Lady Lane, to go before the privy council and be questioned. The women’s faces are white with fear, and as we wait in a fever of anxiety for their return, I notice that the Queen is trembling. After a tense hour or two, the door to the chamber opens and there they are, restored to us.

  “They let us go,” says a drawn Lady Herbert. “No charges have been brought against us.”

  “Yet,” adds Lady Lane ominously.

  “We were asked if we had in our possession any illegal books,” Lady Suffolk tells the Queen, “or if such books were kept secretly in Your Grace’s closet. Of course, we stoutly denied it.”

  “But they have searched our coffers, all the same,” chimes in Lady Lane, “just to make sure we were telling the truth. Fortunately, there was nothing there for them to find.”

  After this, life appears to continue as normal, with its daily round of lessons, periods spent waiting on Her Majesty, walks in the gardens in the fine summer weather, and the occasional court feast or reception.

  The King behaves quite normally, even affectionately, toward the Queen. If he really intends to move against her, he must be a brilliant dissembler. In turn, she takes great care to play the dutiful, submissive wife. Yet I notice that he persists in trying to draw her into arguments about religion, as if he would test her. Thankfully, she is not to be drawn and defers to him in every respect, taking care that her responses are as orthodox as he could wish for. He appears to be satisfied with them, and we all begin to relax a little, thinking that the moment of danger is past.

  I especially have been terrified for the Queen, who has been kinder to me than my own mother, and whom I love most dearly. Some of that terror is for myself, for what would my life be like without her? But I dare not voice my worst fears or ask anyone what might happen to the Queen if the King were to become convinced of her heresy. Only days ago I witnessed in Smithfield what happens to heretics, and I cannot bear to contemplate so vile a punishment being meted out to such a kind and gracious lady. God willing, it may never come to that, but I am so fearful for her that I can hardly sleep at night, but lie awake, weeping silently into my pillow, praying that Our Lord will protect the Queen, and that the danger is now past.

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