Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  Suddenly, I want to be outdoors. I was never one to sit at home reading or embroidering, which most girls of my rank are encouraged to do. For me, walking, riding, and hunting are essential. And I have had enough of this wretched, stuffy bedchamber.

  “My cloak!” I snap. I will defy madam midwife and go out, just for a short walk. With one maid in attendance, I brave the stairs and then, with increasing boldness, sweep out of the house, hoping that the midwife is watching disapprovingly from a window. Not that she would have dared to try to stop me.

  I thank God as I cross the outer court that I have suffered no injuries from the birth. I have known women left in great and lasting discomfort. But I am strong. I feel almost myself again.

  I am walking now in the shadow of the great gatehouse. At either end of the range facing me stand two lofty towers, built by Henry’s father, the second Marquess of Dorset. They make the Hall look imposing. Passing through the gatehouse, I turn away from the tiltyard on my left and enter a door in a wall on my right, which leads to a pretty garden where roses normally flower in summer. I sit for a while on a stone seat, enjoying the sharp autumn sunshine that lends a roseate glow to the red bricks of the wall and the manor house beyond.

  I am not left for long to enjoy my escape. Not five minutes have passed before I hear a horse’s hooves galloping along the approach that leads to Bradgate. Its rider wears green and white livery: the royal Tudor colors. Whatever news he brings will be important, that much is certain. I rise to my feet and hastily retrace my steps to the house, where I find that my lord has already summoned our household to assemble in the great hall.

  “This is news of great moment, Frances,” he tells me. “All must hear it.”

  We sit together on the dais, as the hastily convened ranks of ladies, gentlemen, household officers, grooms, pages, chamber attendants, kitchen staff, and servitors part to allow the King’s messenger to approach us. The vast hall, with its great oak-beamed roof and tapestried walls, is a-hum with expectancy; everyone, from the stiff-necked chamberlain to the lowliest potboy, cranes forward to hear.

  The mud-spattered rider drops to one knee before us. Although his words are meant for both of us, it is to me that he defers—me, the King’s own niece.

  “Good news, my lord and lady,” he cries. “The Queen is brought to bed of a fair prince, and all London—nay, all England—rejoices! His Majesty sends to tell you this joyous news, and also to have word, madam, of how you do yourself. He bids you come to court with my lord here as soon as you have recovered from your confinement.”

  I sink to my knees on the rushes, thanking God for this news that the kingdom has been eagerly awaiting for nigh on thirty years. After two disastrous marriages, and a cataclysmic quarrel with the Pope, my uncle, King Henry VIII, at last has a son and heir. The Tudor succession is assured, and the country is finally free from the threat of civil war. This is wonderful, but for me, beneath my outward jubilation there is a desperate sense of disappointment, of having been cheated of my own son, a son who was desired just as fervently as this prince has been, and not just because my lord needs an heir to inherit this title. Deep in my heart—and, no doubt, in Henry’s too—has long lain the unspoken, treasonous hope that fate might ultimately cheat the King of a male heir and so pave the way for a son of mine to inherit the throne. For my mother, Mary Tudor, daughter to Henry VII and younger sister of His Majesty, not only bequeathed me her royal blood, but also a claim to the very crown itself. Yet these desires must stay buried deep, for it is dangerous even to think of such things. The King has an heir, and we must rejoice.

  “God be praised!” I exclaim fervently, noticing with gratification that everyone else present has followed my example and knelt. “I shall write to the King’s Majesty at once and send our heartiest congratulations, along with a suitable christening gift for the Prince. What is he to be called?”

  “Edward, madam, because he was born on the eve of St. Edward the Confessor.” A fitting name, since St. Edward had once been King of England. I should have liked to call my own son Edward.

  “And how does the Queen, my good aunt?” I inquire, inwardly wondering why Jane Seymour, that pale, witless milksop, should have been favored by the Almighty with a son, while I deliver a useless girl.

  “She is well, my lady, and they say that, even after a long and dangerous travail, she was soon sitting up and writing letters announcing the glad tidings. The christening has already taken place. The King’s daughter, the Lady Mary, was godmother, and the godfathers are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. His Majesty, I can assure you, is the happiest man alive.”

  We dismiss the messenger, sending him to the kitchens for refreshment, and bid our servants return to their duties. As we leave the hall for our private chambers, the air is abuzz with excited comments about the momentous tidings. But as we mount the stairs together, Henry and I say nothing to each other of the matter. I cannot quite take it in, this news that the former Mistress Seymour, that prim-mouthed, two-faced trollop, has accomplished what the grand princess Katherine of Aragon and that great whore Anne Boleyn both failed to achieve: she has borne the King a healthy son. How I envy her: she has presented her husband with a male heir and so has ensured her future security and position as both wife and queen, as well as her place in my uncle’s affections. And I am furious at the injustice of it. Why can I bear only sickly brats and girls?

  And then the answer comes to me, quick as a flash of lightning. Maybe God sent our daughter for a reason, to bring a different kind of glory upon the House of Dorset. It seems to me that His will could not be plainer.

  “So, His Highness at last has a son,” I say. “And that son will one day, before many years are past, need a wife.”

  Henry regards me with a calculating look that tells me he understands my meaning perfectly.

  “Yes.” I smile. “I think you get my drift. There could be no more fit mate for the noble Prince Edward, don’t you agree, Husband?”

  Of course he agrees. He is as ambitious as I am. His desire for advancement and greatness is cruder than mine, but then, given our relative positions in life, that should not surprise me. I was born into the royal house; Henry has had to claw his way up the ladder of opportunity. I should remember, of course, that his great-grandmother Elizabeth Wydeville, a renowned beauty in her day, once snared herself a king, no less: King Edward IV, my great-grandfather. My husband takes after this grasping lady. He did not scruple to dump his previous well-born betrothed to make a more dazzling marriage with me, the King’s niece. And since then he has not ceased to scheme with me for the advancement of our house. Now, it seems, the very throne itself is within our sights.

  “I see it clearly,” he says. “You know that such a course would be fraught with dangers. The King is a proud man, ambitious for his dynasty. He will likely look abroad for a glittering foreign marriage for the Prince, one that will cement an advantageous alliance or win him new territory. He is a suspicious man too; were he to get wind of our scheme, he would think we look for a dead man’s shoes. I need not remind you, Frances, that it is treason to predict the death of the King. We would have to go very carefully.”

  “I do not doubt we could bring it off,” I tell him. “Or are you too fearful? I need to know you are with me in this, Henry.”

  “Of course,” he replies, admiration in his eyes. “Do you not think I would rejoice to see my daughter a queen? And with your courage and my caution, I do not doubt we shall play all our cards well.” Already the idea seems less outrageous. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Princes nowadays do not always marry foreign princesses: look at Elizabeth Wydeville, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour. None was of royal birth. But our tiny daughter has one great advantage over those exalted ladies: she is of sound stock. Tudor blood runs in her veins.

  Henry smiles his satisfaction and plants a light kiss on my lips.

  “You have done better than you think, my lady,” he says gently. “A
nd when you attend upon the Queen, you must keep your eyes and ears open, as I shall when I go to court, for we may be certain that the King’s Highness will soon be casting his eye around for suitable brides for his son.”

  My mind is now teeming with possibilities. All sense of disappointment has vanished.

  Pausing to open the door to our apartments, Henry looks back.

  “I think you are right, Frances. We should call this child Jane, in honor of the Queen. The Lady Jane Grey. It has a right royal ring to it!”



  Not three weeks after my little Lady Jane’s birth, we heard that the Queen had died. We had the details from the sweating and travel-stained messenger who had raced here to bring us the sad news. For seven days, he told our shocked household, she had lain ill, struck down with childbed fever on the day after the Prince’s christening. People at court were saying that those in attendance on her had overindulged her fancy for too-rich food, and since the King could deny nothing to the mother of his son, she was given everything she asked for, however unwise.

  “But there was a time when we thought she would recover,” went on the messenger. “After her confessor had administered the last rites, she seemed better. She even sat up in bed and conversed with His Majesty, who was greatly relieved. And he was able to gladden her heart with the news that, while she was ill, he had named her brother, Sir Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford. That evening, however, she suffered a relapse and lay delirious on her bed. The King was distraught and ordered the bishops to lead the clergy in a solemn procession through London to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where they offered prayers of supplication, beseeching Our Lord to spare the Queen’s life. But there was no improvement.”

  The man paused. My lord and lady waited, impassive, for him to go on, but some of his listeners were plainly fighting back tears. The Queen had enjoyed great popularity with the commons of England, who had hated Nan Bullen, that ill-starred witch who had magicked the King into loving her. And the thought of that poor motherless little Prince was enough to tug the strings of any heart….

  “The King,” the messenger continued, “canceled his plans to go hunting and remained at Hampton Court, since he could not bear to leave his wife in such a piteous condition. Then there was a slight improvement, and it was all round the court that the doctors had said to His Majesty that, if the Queen could last the night, they were in good hope that she might live. But that evening, the King was urgently summoned to her bedside, where he remained until the end, weeping and willing her not to die. We were all truly amazed that he, who is famous for his horror of illness and death, did not stir from his place. And truly, he has taken her passing in a most Christian manner and is minded to be both father and mother to the little Prince.”

  The tears were streaming down my cheeks by then. I have never had children of my own and carry the title Mrs. only as a courtesy of my status as nurse, but I have ever had a soft spot for the little ones, and I could not bear to think of that poor little boy, wrapped in cloth of gold and lying in his vast, decorated cradle, surrounded by pomp and luxury, yet deprived of the one thing that is vital to any child, a mother’s love. Even a prince may be pitied.

  By contrast, my lady has taken the tragic news impassively. I watched her as she stood there listening to the messenger, straight-backed and dignified in her crimson velvet. To look at her, you’d never think she herself was not long out of her childbed, for she’s as slender as before, and as energetic. Back in the saddle within a fortnight, she was. Of course, she’s said all the right things about the poor Queen, but it only goes skin-deep. She never had much time or sympathy for her. Still, what can you expect from a woman who’s handed her own infant to the wet nurse and barely taken a peek at her since? Oh, I know that the aristocracy are different, and that they consider it unnatural for a mother to rear her own child—I remember all the fuss when Nan Bullen wanted to breast-feed the Lady Elizabeth—but I’ve been employed as head nurse in three noble households now, and I’ve seen enough to know that most mothers love their babies and want to spend time with them. It’s the men who have imposed these harsh rules, insisting on wet nurses and rockers and the like, and I know why. It’s so that the milk dries up, and then they can breed more sons on their wives. And of course it would never do to have a mother get too attached to a child who is going to be sent away to be educated or be married off at an early age. It’s a terrible world we live in, to be sure. But I doubt Lady Dorset would share that view.

  Later, I happened to be in the kitchen. It’s my duty, as nurse to the Lady Jane, to oversee the preparation of food for the nursery and to ensure that the proper standard of hygiene is maintained. They are hot, noisy places, these great kitchens at Bradgate, but, coming from yeoman stock—my father sold his small farm and set up a successful merchant business in London—I feel at home here, bustling about in the bakehouse, the pantry, the larders, the buttery, and the servants’ hall, chattering and joking with William Yates, the master cook, and his legion of underlings and servitors. Here there are no airs and graces, just hard work and good comradeship, even if tempers do get a bit strained in the steam and the heat from the roaring cooking fires. The kitchens in any noble household are also the place where those who work learn the most about the lords and ladies who employ them, for servants are prone to relieving the tedium of their duties by gossiping about their betters, who are an endless source of fascination to them, and even by sharing information that should have been kept strictly private. In fact, I sometimes think that we servants know more about the lives of Lord and Lady Dorset than they do themselves!

  On this day the messenger, by now the merrier for several beakers of ale, became very confidential with Master Yates, and I overheard the most astonishing thing.

  “There’s a rumor,” he was saying, “that Master Secretary Cromwell is worried that the Prince might die in infancy, as so many do, and that he has already urged His Majesty to marry again for the sake of his people and his kingdom.”

  “And do you think the King will agree?” asked Master Yates.

  “The word is that he has already” was the reply, “and with the Queen not yet in her grave.”

  Perhaps, I thought, His Highness was thinking of that motherless infant…I sincerely hoped so.

  Two months have passed since then, and there has been no more talk of the King remarrying. Perhaps, after all, it was just a rumor. But Prince Edward, we hear, is thriving, which gives great satisfaction to the Marquess and Marchioness.

  “He has been given his own household,” says my lady during her daily visit to the nursery, which takes place just before dinner every morning, and affords her the opportunity to inspect her baby in its cradle and to give the staff instructions or reprimands, as her mood takes her. Yesterday she was complaining about Mrs. Mallory, the wet nurse I engaged, who apparently gave offense by failing to curtsy when the Marchioness entered the room. Last week the table had not been polished to her satisfaction. But today she is disposed to be talkative. And since I run this nursery, she will condescend to converse with me on matters that are within my remit, even if they do concern the King.

  “His Highness has issued the strictest instructions for the cleaning of the Prince’s rooms,” she tells me. “The walls and floors are to be washed down three times a day, so that the place is kept wholesome and free from infection. And all visitors are carefully checked in case they carry some deadly illness. When the Prince is weaned, his food will be assayed for poison.”

  She gives me one of her looks. I never know what my lady is thinking. Does she wish me to do the same in my own nursery? Or is she amazed at the King’s fastidiousness? She is a taxing mistress, and I cannot ever be certain that I give satisfaction. Yet my little Lady Jane is flourishing under my care. How could she not be—I love her as much as if she were my own and would gladly lay down my life for her, if needs must. Which is more than one can say for her own mother, who b
arely seems to notice her.

  “The King has appointed Lady Margaret Bryan as Lady Governess to the Prince,” continues the Marchioness. “She was nurse to the Lady Elizabeth and will have charge of Prince Edward until he is six and commences his education. My lord says that the King visits his son frequently and delights in his progress. He even involves himself in the smallest details of the nursery. He approves the baby clothes chosen for the Prince; he has appointed the right age for weaning him and suggested remedies for teething troubles.”

  Thank God I don’t have him or Lord Dorset poking their noses in here. Such matters are far better left to women. But of course, my lady would not see it that way. For her, the King, her uncle, is a paragon. She is so proud of him. In my humble opinion, which I take care to keep to myself, he is a monster. That’s treason, of course, but no less true for all that. Any man who can cut off an innocent wife’s head is a monster. I have no good opinion of Nan Bullen, but anyone with any sense could have guessed she was innocent, whatever else she was. They just made an occasion to get rid of her because she saw him for what he was and wasn’t good at keeping her mouth shut. Five men indeed! Living the life she did, with people always around her, she’d have been lucky to smuggle one man into her bedchamber. Only a fool would take such a risk and she was no fool. I shudder when I think of what happened to her. They say she was brave at the end. What must it be like to face the executioner, knowing yourself to be innocent of any crime?

  My life at Bradgate is one unending routine, but I heartily enjoy it nonetheless. Our nursery, which is housed in the tower of the east wing, flourishes on a rather humbler scale than Prince Edward’s, but it is clean and warm, and my little Lady is the pride and joy of all who serve her—that is myself, Mrs. Mallory, two rockers, and two serving girls. Already she has gummy smiles for us, her willing slaves. When I see her tiny heart-shaped face peeping out from under the covers, my own captive heart melts. She is a very forward child with a merry countenance and docile temperament. God be praised, she now sleeps through the night and does not trouble the wet nurse.

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