Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  It is a warm day, and the Queen has sent me on an errand to fetch some fruit cordial from the privy kitchen. The palace corridors are crowded and stink of sweat and old leather, and I am hard-pressed to weave my way through the usual throng of people. Suddenly an important-looking gentleman in a dark damask gown emerges from a doorway and collides with me. I know him from somewhere.

  “My pardon, young lady,” he says, doffing his bonnet, then goes on his way, obviously in a hurry. I notice that he has dropped a scroll, one of several he was carrying under his arm.

  “Sir!” I call after him, but my voice is lost in the noisy gallery. Then he is gone, swallowed up in the crowd, and I realize I have no hope of following him.

  The scroll is lying there on the floor, tied with red cord, with a seal attached. I pick it up, recognizing the Great Seal of England. It dawns on me that the man who just careered into me was no less a personage than the Lord Chancellor himself, Sir Thomas Wriothesley. I have seen him only once before, but I’m sure it was the same man.

  To judge by his lordship’s apparent haste, and the seal, what I hold in my hand must be an important document indeed. I must take it to the Queen. She will know what to do with it.

  The Queen unrolls the parchment, reads it, and utters a faltering cry.

  “Oh, no! No! Help me! Help me! Oh, please, God, help me!”

  Lady Lane picks up the scroll that Her Grace has let fall and scans it. She too bursts into tears, as the other ladies crowd round, begging to be enlightened. Lady Herbert, the Queen’s sister, snatches the document and reads it, her face growing pale.

  “I fear it is a warrant for Her Majesty’s arrest,” she says in a flat, broken voice. “It is signed by the King himself.”

  Nausea rises in my breast, as the ladies break into floods of tears and lamentations.

  “Compose yourselves!” cries my mother. “Look to Her Grace!”

  The Queen has begun to scream—harsh, piercing screams that echo through her apartments and probably beyond. She cannot stop herself: her self-control has collapsed in the face of an atavistic fear. Lady Lane and Lady Herbert hasten to calm her.

  My lady picks up the parchment from the floor, where it has fallen, and ushers us into the adjoining chamber.

  “The King has signed it,” she says grimly. “Her own husband. Only this morning I heard him bid her a loving good day before leaving to attend to state affairs. And now we know what he was attending to. He was signing this warrant that will commit Her Majesty to the Tower of London, just as he once signed two other such warrants for two other wives. Who now lie moldering in unmarked graves in the Tower chapel.”

  “And they were not guilty of heresy,” mutters Lady Suffolk. “They merely lost their heads.” The tears are streaming down her pretty face.

  “Will he burn the Queen?” I ask, fearful.

  My mother looks at me. There is more emotion in her face than I have ever seen there. She does not answer me, and Lady Suffolk continues to weep.

  The Queen is beyond reasoning. She lies on her bed, still screaming relentlessly—as if screaming will help. On and on it goes, until I have to cover my ears with my hands. When she has no voice left for screaming, distraught with terror, she gasps out her fears of the block, the ax, or—worst of all—the stake and the flames. She imagines she feels the cold metal on her neck, the dizzying horror of the slicing blade, the charring of her tender flesh, the unimaginable agony of the fire consuming her. Would he really go so far? Would he send his wife to her death? But we all know that he would; he has done so twice before and might readily, given sufficient grounds, do so again. But she cannot quite believe it.

  After a time, a terrible, long time, the poor Queen recovers her strength a little, but realizing that she is trapped, and that it is only a matter of time before the loss of the warrant is discovered and a new one is drawn up, she breaks into fresh shrieks, and nothing we say can calm her, although, God knows, we try everything in our power. I am so distressed that I cannot stop crying, so my mother, fraught with trying to quiet Her Grace, sends me out of the bedchamber. But I remain crouched on the floor, near the door, knowing that I might never have another chance to be near my beloved patroness.

  Evidently the Queen’s ceaseless screaming can be heard in other parts of the palace; before long, one of the King’s pages arrives, having been sent by his master to find out what is going on. His Majesty must indeed be puzzled by the to-do, for it is far too soon for the warrant to have been put into effect. I tell the page that Her Majesty is grievously distressed, although I am not certain of the cause, and he scuttles away. The next thing we know is that King Henry has sent his own physician, Dr. Wendy, a wise and experienced man, to attend to the Queen and stop her screaming. This is an encouraging and unlooked-for development, for surely His Majesty would not be so solicitous toward one whom he means to destroy?

  A little heartened, and with my tears dried, I return to the bedchamber.

  Dr. Wendy sees at once that the Queen is hysterical with fear and quickly discovers the cause, for the offending scroll is still lying there unraveled on a bench, and his eye is immediately drawn to it.

  Having read the dread words therein, he dismisses most of the ladies, who are still flapping about the Queen like a gaggle of shocked geese, and allows only Lady Herbert to remain. He does not notice me, small, silent, and unobtrusive behind the bed curtains.

  “Madam, you must listen and pay heed,” he says urgently to the Queen. “I have spoken with His Majesty, and he has confided to me that he has doubts about your opinions concerning religion. From what he has said, it is clear that Your Majesty’s enemies are playing on those doubts. They will bring you down if they can.”

  “I know it,” she sobs.

  “Your Majesty must conform to the King’s mind and will,” he insists, “and then you will surely find him merciful.”

  “I will do anything, anything,” she cries, “but I fear it will do me no good.” And she bursts into fresh paroxysms of weeping and wailing.

  “Listen, madam,” says Dr. Wendy firmly. “I am going to ask the King to come to you now. The rest is up to you.” Katherine barely seems to hear him. She is lost in her terror.

  As Dr. Wendy walks to the door, he espies me.

  “Cheer up, little maid,” he says kindly. “We’ll soon have Her Majesty feeling better.”

  “The King approaches!” cries Lady Lane. “He comes!”

  The women, who have returned to the bedchamber, cease their ministrations, and I rise shakily to my feet, yet still the Queen wails.

  “Your Grace, the King is coming to see you!” Lady Herbert shakes her sister. “Listen! This may be your last chance to appeal to him.”

  The Queen subsides into sniffing silence.

  “The King?” she croaks, but there is no more time for conversation, for His Majesty has appeared in the doorway, bulky and frowning. We all sink into deep curtsies, but he ignores us, visibly shocked at the sight of his wife’s ravaged face. Quiet now, but trembling in the wake of her outbursts, she sits up and makes to leave her bed, but he stays her with his hand.

  “Well, now, Kate, what is all this?” he asks not unkindly.

  “I fear that you have grown displeased with me,” she falters, breaking down again, “and that you have utterly forsaken me. Good God, sir, what have I done to offend you?” Her tears are flowing freely now, and there can be no doubting her sincerity. He is plainly touched by her candidly confessed fear of losing him and sets himself to comfort her.

  “Calm yourself,” he says, settling painfully into the chair by the bed. “Why should you have anything to fear?”

  “In truth, I know not,” the Queen whispers. “I can only sense that I have somehow offended Your Majesty, something I would not have done for the world.”

  “Is that so?”

  “Yes, my lord. I am your devoted and obedient wife and subject.”

  “Then calm down, Kate, and let us clear the air,” the Ki
ng says gently. “I would speak with you on a matter of religion. I must confess I have been desirous of resolving certain doubts about your opinions, madam.” He is watching her closely. There is no mistaking his meaning, but the Queen is more in command of herself now, and ready with her answer.

  “Your Majesty, if I have given cause for such doubts, I am truly sorry. I am just a poor, ignorant woman. But God has appointed you as Supreme Head over us all, and from you, next after God, I am content to learn.”

  It is a good beginning, but not good enough to mollify the King, who is evidently still smarting from having been lectured by Her Grace on that previous, fateful occasion.

  “In truth, Kate, it has not appeared so to us,” he says petulantly. “It has sometimes seemed that you are become a doctor, bent on instructing me.”

  “Oh, but Your Majesty has mistaken my purpose,” protests the Queen. “I admit I have said things that have been contrary to Your Majesty’s mind, yet you must be aware that I have always held it preposterous for a woman to presume to instruct her lord. If I have ever seemed to differ on religion, it was sometimes because I needed guidance from yourself, but more often because I wished to engage Your Majesty in a lively debate to take your mind off the pain and weariness you suffer by reason of your bad leg and looked to profit myself from your wisdom.”

  The King seems happier now, nodding with approval. It’s a marvel how well men respond to flattery.

  “I am but a woman,” continues Her Grace, “with all the imperfections natural to the weakness of my sex. If I am in error regarding religion, I pray Your Majesty will instruct me in the truth, and in future I promise I will never again presume to dispute with you, but will refer all matters of doubt and difficulty to Your Majesty’s better judgment, as to my lord and head.”

  The King is visibly impressed and positively preening.

  “Is that so, sweetheart? And tended your arguments to no worse end?” He smiles. “Then we are perfect friends again.”

  I am mightily relieved, as are all the ladies. But a small part of me is indignant on the Queen’s behalf, resentful that such an intelligent and learned woman should have had to abase herself so to appease the King’s pride. Yet I have to concede that it was cleverly done, for she has certainly saved herself from the machinations of her enemies.

  Her Majesty turns to me, her eyes gentle.

  “If you had not picked up that warrant and brought it to me, Jane,” she says, stroking my cheek, “I would not have had the chance to help myself. I cannot thank you sufficiently, and if it is ever in my power, I will return the favor.”

  I kneel and kiss her hand.

  “Just to have you safe is all I ask, madam. I rejoice in your restoration to favor.” And, I would like to add, I would give anything to attend on you at court forever. But I know my mother would never permit it, nor would the Queen ever contemplate taking me from my studies for so long, so there is no point in asking. In ten days, to my sorrow, I will return home. My only comfort lies in knowing that my mother will remain here.

  It is the following day, and we are in attendance on the Queen as she takes the air with His Majesty in the privy garden. My great-uncle is at his amiable best, as he and Katherine sit talking and laughing in the shade of an oak tree, while we are sunning ourselves at a discreet distance.

  But the trouble is not yet over. Her Majesty looks petrified when she sees the Lord Chancellor advancing in her direction, leading a troop of about forty guards and carrying another ominous-looking scroll in his hand. My heart pounds as panic mounts. I fear the Queen has been tricked. But the King sees her horrified expression.

  “You have nothing to fear, madam. Leave this to me,” he says.

  The Chancellor looks puzzled to see the King here; doubtless he expected to find the Queen forsaken and alone, not conversing in apparent harmony with her royal husband. When he sees the scowl on the King’s face, he starts quaking visibly; this is not turning out as he planned.

  “Well, my Lord Chancellor, what is the meaning of this?” asks the King menacingly, struggling to his feet.

  “Your Majesty, I am come as arranged—”

  “Enough!” roars His Highness. “You have done enough. And I want a word with you.”

  We watch fascinated as the King draws Wriothesley aside and starts berating him furiously.

  “Knave! Beast! Fool!” he shouts. The hapless Chancellor falls to his knees, trying to explain his actions, but His Majesty will have none of it and cuffs Wriothesley about the head, sending him sprawling with a well-aimed kick.

  “Get out of my sight!” he snarls, and stumps back to the Queen. Then he turns and grins at the sight of the Lord Chancellor, his dignity in tatters, scuttling back with his men to the palace as fast as their feet can carry them.

  For a moment, silence reigns. Then the King’s mouth twitches, the Queen giggles, and soon we are all convulsed with laughter, releasing the tension of the past hours.

  “I think I should be a suitor for him to plead his case with Your Majesty,” says the Queen charitably. Suddenly the King looks serious.

  “Nay, Kate, poor soul,” he says, laying his fingers tenderly on hers, “you little know how well he deserves such grace at your hands. On my word, sweetheart, he has been a very knave to you. Let him go.”

  She bows her head. The matter is closed. But she has learned her lesson, as have we all, and will in future devote herself entirely to her husband’s needs and comply with his will in all matters.

  BRADGATE HALL AND DORSET HOUSE, JANUARY 1547

  We have kept Christmas at Bradgate once more, for the court is closed. We are not supposed to say anything about it in public, but the King is dying. We have talked of little else all through the festive season, although behind closed doors of course.

  Normally, we celebrate yuletide with great festivity, but this year there is little cheer. The yule log crackles merrily in the hearth in the great hall, the house is bedecked with evergreens, and we exchange the customary gifts at New Year, but our joy in the holiday is muted, overshadowed by anxiety about what is going on at court.

  “It cannot be long now,” my father says. The servants have cleared the table in the candlelit winter parlor, and my parents are sharing the last of a flagon of wine. I sit reading in the window seat; they have probably forgotten I am here.

  “I wish we knew more of what is happening,” frets my lady. “I feel so out of things buried here at Bradgate.”

  “I think we should remove to London,” my father replies. “Open up Dorset House. Then we will be at hand if we are needed.”

  “I doubt the King will summon us.”

  “I wasn’t referring to the King. I was talking about the regency council.”

  “You think it will be that soon?”

  “Why else would they close the court? Many are named for the regency council, but Hertford is the Prince’s uncle. He’ll take charge, you’ll see, and he’ll be glad of those who will support him.”

  “We must show ourselves friendly to Hertford,” my mother declares. “The Prince being only nine, he is likely to be in power for some time to come.”

  “Yes, my dear. And with Hertford in control, the whole balance of power will shift. It’ll be an end to the Catholic party. Hertford’ll have the whole country turning Protestant, mark my words.”

  “I pray it will be so,” says my lady fervently.

  “Amen to that,” echoes my lord.

  After Epiphany we return to London, so that my parents can be at the center of events when the new King succeeds. My father visits Whitehall Palace almost daily but is not permitted access to the royal apartments. Even so, when he returns, he has important news, which he says has been imparted to him by his friends on the privy council, and Katherine and I are summoned to the great chamber to hear it. I am intrigued, as my father rarely sees fit to discuss weighty matters with his children, and I wonder, with a slight chill in my blood, if he will tell us that my great-uncle has at last pa
ssed away.

  My lord stands before the great stone fireplace, his greyhound curled at his feet. My lady sits upright and stiff in her chair, swathed in dark furs against the cold of the season. After we have made our curtsies, she indicates that we should be seated on the settle.

  “His Majesty, I am grieved to say, is failing fast,” my father begins. “There is no doubt that God will soon summon him to his eternal rest—although we must not speak of it openly, mind, since it is treason to predict the death of the King. But when he goes, the Prince will become King. However, he is only a child, and his father’s only son, and any mishap may befall him. Two years ago, His Majesty passed an act of Parliament settling the succession to the throne firstly upon Prince Edward and his heirs, secondly upon the Lady Mary and her heirs, and thirdly upon the Lady Elizabeth and her heirs.”

  I know this, because Lady Herbert told me it was due to the Queen’s kind influence that Mary and Elizabeth were restored to their rightful places in the succession, although the King stopped short of declaring them legitimate, maintaining his firm opinion that he had never been lawfully married to their mothers. The King, muttered Lady Herbert, liked to have things all ways.

  “We must all pray,” my father says piously, “that God preserves the life of the Prince and does not see fit to curse this kingdom once more with a female sovereign. You will have been taught, I trust, of the dreadful anarchy that ensued when the Empress Matilda asserted her claim to the throne in the twelfth century.”

  I nod, but inwardly I am puzzled. Dr. Harding has taught me that Matilda lost her crown through her pride and arrogance, not because she was a woman. Despite her sex, many men had declared for her, and my studies have shown me that women can be as brave, astute, and intelligent as men. What about Boadicea, who courageously took on the might of Rome? Or Queen Isabella, who governed Spain very wisely? Would a queen ruling over England really be such an evil thing? To me, there is no logical reason why a woman should not govern a kingdom successfully—after all, does not my lady mother govern my father? But I dare not say as much, so I tighten my lips and try to quell my rebellious thoughts.

 
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