Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  My father rambles on about the frailty of women, taking ages, as usual, to get to the point. Even my mother is tapping her foot with impatience.

  “The King’s will, my lord!” she interrupts sharply.

  “Yes, the will. Of course. Well, at the end of December, His Majesty made further provision for the succession, and the position has therefore changed slightly. Now, should the lines of his three children fail, the crown would pass to the heirs of His Majesty’s younger sister, Mary, your late grandmother. That means that, if Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth were all to die without issue, your lady mother here would be Queen.”

  I gasp. The prospect is astonishing. In fact, it is terrible. And my father, who has just voiced his disapproval of female rulers, must inwardly be deeply irked at the prospect of my mother becoming Queen. Presumably he thinks he would rule through her, although I cannot imagine her allowing that to happen. Nor can I bear to contemplate what life would be like with my lady on the throne. To me, the perfect queen would be like Queen Katherine, kind and gracious, and it is hard to envisage my mother being like that.

  My mother rises and already seems to have a regal air about her. She addresses us sternly.

  “You will both remember in future that you are the daughters of a possible future queen, and you will conduct yourselves accordingly. I will be even less ready now to tolerate any disrespectful or undutiful behavior. Our royal dignity must be preserved at all times.”

  “Yes, my lady,” we say in unison, eyes downcast.

  “Never forget it. This is a great honor for our House, for His Majesty has, in our favor, set aside the stronger claim of the Queen of Scots, who is the grandchild of his elder sister, my aunt Margaret. He has declared that he will never allow England to be ruled by Scotland.”

  “We pray, of course, that the Prince will grow to maturity, marry, and raise many sons,” my father says, casting a meaningful look at my mother. “Likewise the Ladies Mary and Elizabeth. We must not anticipate therefore that your mother will ever ascend to the throne, since it is not likely to happen. It is honor enough for her to have a place in the succession.”

  It is only later that, as I am at my prayers, it dawns on me that, should my mother die, then I, her eldest child, must be next in line for the crown.


  Katherine is drawing a picture and I am reciting some Latin verbs for Dr. Harding when we hear the church bells solemnly tolling in unison outside our window. Soon afterward, my lady comes unbidden to the schoolroom. As we scramble to our feet, I notice that her face is pale and sad.

  “Forgive the interruption, but I have news of the heaviest import for us all,” she announces. “His Majesty the King has departed this life.”

  She sinks onto the settle, clearly moved by the news.

  “When was this, my lady?” asks Dr. Harding.

  “He died at two o’clock in the morning three days past, at Whitehall,” she tells us. “At the last, he was beyond speech, but he managed to squeeze Archbishop Cranmer’s hand to signify that he died in the faith of Jesus Christ. His passing has just been announced today, and the young King’s accession proclaimed.”

  I am sorry to hear of the old King’s death. I know he could be terrifying and cruel, but he was always kind to me. The realization that I will never see him again makes me want to cry. But as my mother is clearly striving to control her tears, so must I.

  “There will be no more lessons today,” she declares. “Jane and Katherine, repair to Mrs. Ellen, who will see you are decently clad in mourning garments. Then go to the chapel and pray for the safe passage of the King’s soul to Heaven.”

  Somber in our black velvet gowns and hoods, we kneel in our pew, hands folded, listening to the chaplain intoning a requiem Mass for our departed sovereign. Our parents have already hastened to the court to pay their last respects to his body and to ensure that they are kept abreast of all that is happening in the corridors of power.

  We now have a new ruler in England, but it is not the new King, Edward VI, for he is too young, at nine years old, to govern the realm himself. Instead, the late Queen Jane’s brother, Lord Hertford, is to be Lord Protector until His Majesty comes of age. My father says that Hertford is to be assisted in his duties by a regency council, which will include Archbishop Cranmer and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, who my lord says is one of our most experienced politicians and military commanders, for all that his father died a traitor at the beginning of the late King’s reign. When I was with the Queen, I heard these men being privately referred to as secret Protestants, and I wonder if our late King was aware of this. Did he choose them on purpose, foreseeing that England itself might one day turn Protestant? I doubt it, as he was quick to punish heresy. But I remember Queen Katherine predicting that, once his father was dead, Prince Edward would embrace the new religion, for he has been brought up and governed by men who are zealous reformists; and with Lord Hertford in power, I should not be surprised if we are all now commanded to become Protestants. And that, I believe, can only be a good thing.

  My mother and I go to the Queen, to offer her comfort. She was not present at the King’s deathbed and is now, according to custom, confined to the seclusion of her apartments for a period of mourning.

  “I last saw him on the day before he died,” she tells us. “He summoned me to his side and said that it was God’s will that we should part.” Her voice breaks. It is obviously painful to her to relate what passed between them. “He said he thanked God for allowing him to die in the arms of so faithful a wife, and he ordered his councillors, who were present, to treat me as if he were living still. I couldn’t speak for weeping, and he waved me away. I don’t think he could bear to witness my distress. He never asked for me again. And he did not, poor soul, die in my arms.”

  I am sure she mourns the King most sincerely. From what I’ve heard, she did not want to marry him, but he proved, in the main, to be a kind and indulgent husband.

  “I did not expect to miss him so much, but I do,” she confesses. “Shut up here all day, I have leisure to think on my loss and to wonder what I should do now.”

  “I am sure that you should stay on at court, madam,” ventures my mother. “The young King is surrounded and governed by men, so I am sure he would welcome a little motherly tenderness.”

  Motherly tenderness? I think, surprised. I did not realize my lady knew of such a thing.

  “Do you think they would let me see him very often? I doubt it,” ponders the Queen. “Anyway, there can be no question of me remaining at court, since I can’t stand that insufferable Lady Hertford with her barbed tongue, who will doubtless become even more insufferable now that her husband is Lord Protector. Beyond that, I am weary of the court, weary of the ceremony, the intrigues, the very falseness of life here. I crave some freedom.”

  “But where will you go, madam?” asks my mother.

  “Fortunately, Frances, the King has left me a wealthy woman. He has also bequeathed me that fine, redbrick palace that faces the Thames at Chelsea. I have a fancy I may retire there. Having had three aging husbands and been a dutiful wife to each, I think it is time I pleased myself!”

  “High time!” agrees my lady.

  But I can hardly hide my sadness. No more visits to court for me—without a queen in residence, there will be no call for ladies to go there. And no more pleasant sojourns with dear Queen Katherine. Unless, of course, she invites me to stay at Chelsea….

  “How did the King and the Lady Elizabeth take the news of their father’s death?” my mother asks.

  “Alas, poor children, they collapsed in tears when the Lord Protector broke it to them,” the Queen relates. “My Lord Hertford said he was hard put to it to console them, but finally he was able to persuade the Prince to sit in the chair of estate to receive the homage of the privy councillors. Poor little boy, he’s only nine.”

  Her Grace adds that there was also weeping in Parliament when his late Majesty’s demise was
announced there, and on the streets of London, through which the King’s body was carried yesterday, amidst great pageantry, on its way to Syon Abbey, where it rested overnight before being conveyed to Windsor for burial beside Queen Jane.

  “And you, Frances—what are your plans now?” asks the Queen.

  “Well, madam, I shall serve our new King in any way I can,” my lady replies. “Otherwise, I shall look to my daughters’ upbringing, perform my charities, help run the estates. Life goes on.”

  “It does, indeed,” sighs Queen Katherine.

  Mrs. Zouche comes hurrying into the nursery apartments to see Mrs. Ellen. She can barely contain herself.

  “My dear, you will never believe what I have heard. People are saying that, when the King’s coffin was placed in the chapel at Syon, it burst open, and blood and other matter seeped out onto the pavement, causing a terrible stink.”

  “How frightful!” exclaims Mrs. Ellen.

  “That’s not all. When men came to repair the coffin—imagine, what a terrible job—they had a dog with them, and the dog licked the King’s blood off the floor.”

  Mrs. Ellen shudders, and I feel sick.

  “The prophecy,” says Mrs. Zouche. “You remember the prophecy?”

  “I don’t think…” Mrs. Ellen says uncertainly. Katherine and I are agog.

  “Well, in the days when the King was determined to marry Anne Boleyn, a friar publicly warned him that, if he persisted in his wicked course, he would be as Ahab in the Bible, and the dogs would lick his blood.”

  “Then it would appear it has come true,” whispers Mrs. Ellen.

  “I fear so, yet some in London dismiss it as popish nonsense, and some deny that the coffin burst at all.”

  “It was probably just a coincidence,” says Mrs. Ellen, with a sharp nod in our direction. “Those papists will say anything to disparage the late King’s reforms.”

  “Soon they will have to hold their tongues,” Mrs. Zouche tells her. “Only this morning, my lady was saying that the country is going to turn Protestant, and that the Mass will be banned. She seems very pleased about it.”

  “She and his lordship will follow whatever faith is in fashion, I think,” observes Mrs. Ellen tartly. “Power is more important to them than religion. And don’t forget, her ladyship is often with the Queen. I think we can guess where she gets her ideas from.”

  “From what my lady was telling me, those ideas are held by many now at court, from the Lord Protector down. And the young King’s tutors have seen to it that he is hot for the new religion.”

  And I too, I think. Anne Askew’s burning first made me question my faith, and then Dr. Harding’s teaching made me see that a lot of what I had been told about religion was lies. I cannot believe any more in the miracle of the Mass, since it is against all reason. And I do not see why we should have to ask the Virgin Mary and the saints to intercede for us when we can pray directly to God. I also believe that the Bible should be available in English for all to read and interpret. These beliefs, I realize, make me a Protestant. And, in the eyes of the law, a heretic.

  For some time, and for obvious reasons, I have kept these opinions strictly to myself. But, listening to the conversation between Mrs. Zouche and Mrs. Ellen, I have hopes that the time will soon come when I can be honest and open about my beliefs.

  The Lady Mary


  As I emerge from the chapel, there is a letter waiting on the table. I pick it up and look at the seal, which bears the Seymour arms. Is this a summons to court from the Lord Protector?

  It isn’t. My poor eyesight has again deceived me. It’s from his brother, Sir Thomas Seymour, who was created Baron of Sudeley in the distribution of honors that preceded the coronation. What on earth could Lord Sudeley want with me?

  I open the letter and read it with amazement, for it contains a proposal of marriage. This is staggering. I barely know the man, although I have heard much of his reputation, and I hardly think he is fitted to aspire to marriage with one of the royal House, such as myself. The barefaced daring of the man! And he says nothing of having obtained the council’s permission to approach me. He must surely know that he cannot marry me without its sanction.

  I don’t like this. I could be compromised by it. My honor, my reputation, stained. Yet in some strange way I am excited at the notion of such a man paying his addresses to me. I have carried my virginity like a burden for many a long year, yearned for marriage and the love of a good man, and above all for children. Has Thomas Seymour looked at me and found me desirable, or is he merely ambitious to be wed to the heiress presumptive to the throne? I cannot deceive myself: it is far more likely to be the latter.

  What do I know of this man? He’s the younger brother of the Lord Protector and Queen Jane, of blessed memory, and uncle to the King. I suppose he thinks that qualifies him to approach me. At one time, he was said to be bent on marriage to Queen Katherine, before the King my father came along and put paid to it. The court grapevine had it that it would have been a love match, yet she was a rich widow and it would have been a great marriage for him, so I’m not so certain. Then he spent much time abroad, on diplomatic missions and undertaking various duties as Lord High Admiral. He’s never held any high political office, though. My late father, God rest his soul, didn’t trust him. He called him a rash adventurer.

  The notion of marrying such a man makes my poor flesh tingle. Sir Thomas is a handsome fellow, with dashing dark eyes and boundless charm. Most women, I imagine, would be easy prey. And I too; yes, I think I would, if I were not my father’s daughter and the heiress to England.

  I must write at once and refuse his proposal. And yet, and yet…my pen stays poised in my hand. I am thirty-one, and I am desperate to be married. I cannot imagine what it must be like to bed with such a man. I dare not imagine it, although I suspect I might enjoy the experience, once I had overcome my extreme shyness and modesty. Yet, once again, policy compels me to reject a suitor, even though in my innermost heart I might wish to accept him. And he has been most impertinent and presumptuous to propose marriage in so underhand a fashion to a princess of the blood.

  Resolutely I write my rebuff: a brief, formal note to say that it would be unseemly for me to consider marriage so soon after the death of my beloved father, and that when I do so, I am determined to be governed by the decision of my brother the King and his council.

  There, it is done, I have done the right thing, the only thing. But I fear that, when I am alone in my bed at night, I might feel rather differently about the matter.

  I am on my knees in the chapel, praying to Our Lord to turn the hearts of those who have banned the Mass in this kingdom. The prospect of having to live without the consolation of my religion is utterly intolerable to me; how could God allow such a wicked thing to happen?

  But God has allowed many wicked things to happen. He does it to test us. As my sainted mother used to tell me, we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles. And God knows how many troubles I have had to face in my life. The years spent forcibly parted from my mother, that witch Nan Bullen’s vindictiveness and cruelty, the unkindness of my father, and my own craven submission to him. Yet for all that, I loved him, and I miss him now that he is gone.

  And now my little brother is King. He has been brought up by heretics, and I fear that his soul is irrevocably lost. I grieve for him, as I grieve for this realm of England, which is being inexorably steered toward perdition and ruin.

  “Grant me strength to bear it, O Lord!” I pray, gazing up in rapture at the painted stone statue of Our Lady with the Child in her arms, which stands in its niche above the altar, flanked by two stained-glass windows depicting the Annunciation and the Assumption. “Give me the strength to bear all my trials!”

  The serene features of the Virgin smile tenderly down at me. As I gaze in adoration, ecstasy floods me. With the help of the blessed Mother of Christ, I know I can bear all my trials, because right is on m
y side, and I follow the path of the true faith.

  Five weeks have passed since I turned down Lord Sudeley’s proposal, and not a word from him. Today, however, there is another letter. It’s from my sister, Elizabeth, who is now living with my good stepmother at Chelsea. Astonishingly, she writes to tell me that she has also received a proposal of marriage from the Lord Admiral, but has turned it down, telling him that neither her age—she is thirteen—nor her inclinations allow her to think on marriage, and that she wishes to be left to mourn our father a full year or more before contemplating it.

  So it was pure ambition, after all. If he couldn’t get the second in line to the throne, he’d try for the third. Oh, the perfidy of men! What a fool I was to think he could ever have desired me for myself, poor, thin, ailing creature that I am. And how well Elizabeth has dealt with him.

  “I made him wait a week or so for a reply, good sister,” she writes. “I told him he must permit me to decline the honor of becoming his wife. Some honor that would be!”

  Something tells me we have both done wisely in rejecting the Admiral. Whatever his schemes are, they are underhand and colored purely by self-interest. I think I have just had a lucky escape.

  Queen Katherine Parr


  The Lord Admiral stands before me. I have not seen him since long before the King died, so I am unprepared for the impact of his virile good looks. Tall and debonair, with an easy grace, he stoops to kiss my hand, and I suddenly feel as if I were drowning. It was like this when he came a-courting before, but that was four years ago, and much has happened in the meantime. I am now a wealthy royal widow, and guardian of the Lady Elizabeth, and I am beginning to enjoy being free of the constraints of court life, not to mention the intrigues and the backbiting.

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