Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  By the middle of the night, Queen Katherine was showing signs of great distress, so the midwife gave her a strong dose of some physic that sent her into a deep sleep, through which her contractions continued sluggishly. As dawn broke, however, the drug wore off, and she woke to worse pains than before, so sharp that she screamed loudly each time the agony began, calling on Our Lord and begging Him to take the pain away.

  “Jesus!” she cried again and again. “Help me, help me!”

  The screaming went on for hours. I, weak from lack of sleep and sobbing in fear, was sent from the room and sat huddled in the Admiral’s arms outside. He was trembling too, and to my astonishment I looked up to see tears falling down his cheeks. At one time, when the torment behind the closed door became unbearable, he bade me go down on my knees with him and pray to God to aid the poor Queen, so dear to us both. Never have I prayed so hard.

  But the Admiral was in a worse case.

  “I have been a bad husband,” he sobbed. “I never realized till now how much she means to me. Please, dear God, spare her life. Let me make it up to her. Give me another chance.”

  I felt I should not be hearing such things, which were private between a husband and wife, and that he should not be saying them in front of me. But plainly he was too unhappy to care who witnessed his outpourings. I’m sure he’d forgotten I was there.

  “Dear Lord,” I prayed fervently, “take this cup from her. Send her a safe delivery. I beseech Thee, do not take her from us.”

  The screaming continued, unabated.

  Mrs. Odell is at her wit’s end and no longer bothering to hide it.

  “My lord,” she cries, “with the Queen writhing and shrieking on the bed, it’s impossible to talk sense to her or even attempt an examination. Her pains are almost continuous now, so it cannot be long, and it is time for her to push out the babe, but Her Majesty is too far gone to heed my bidding, and her strength is failing. I fear she has wasted much of it on screaming. This is a bad sign.”

  The Admiral leaps up. “Let me talk to her.” He disappears into the bedchamber, the midwife at his heels. Five minutes later he emerges, shaking his head, and sits with his face in his hands.

  An hour passes, and there is no change. The Queen’s distress is terrible to hear.

  “My lord,” says Mrs. Odell, “this case calls for firm intervention. So far, I have held back out of respect for the Queen’s rank. I’ve begged her to let me examine her in order to check the babe’s progress, but she will not allow me. She doesn’t even hear me.”

  “Mistress,” says the Admiral, “you must assert the authority of your profession. I command it.”

  “I will need all the assistance I can get.”

  So I am called back into the birthing chamber, which is fetid with the stench of sweat and blood. The Queen lies on her disarranged bed, her hair damp and tangled, her face drawn with suffering. She sees nothing; she is withdrawn to a place where we cannot reach her. Her cries are mere moans now, for her strength is failing.

  I am called upon to bathe her hot brow and watch in shocked fascination as Mrs. Odell instructs Lady Tyrwhitt to take one of Katherine’s legs, and Lady Lane the other. They try to cooperate, but the Queen, despite her failing strength, manages to kick them away.

  “Hold her fast!” commands the midwife, perspiring visibly, for this is one patient she dare not lose. The ladies, struggling, raise their mistress’s legs so that Mrs. Odell can examine her.

  “Your Majesty,” she shouts, “I can feel the baby’s head, almost ready to be born. Madam, you must push hard, now!”

  By some miracle, the Queen hears her and, summoning her remaining reserves of energy, does as she is bidden.


  Straining, Katherine complies. The violence of the actual birthing horrifies me—has every woman to endure such agony? But then the child thrusts its tiny, wet head into the world, and the rest is easy. I am conscious that a wondrous miracle has taken place.

  There is a blessed silence. Outside, the Admiral must be wondering what is happening, but I cannot tear myself away to tell him.

  The infant lies, blood-smeared and apparently lifeless, at the foot of the bed. The Queen has slumped back exhausted on her pillows, apparently neither knowing nor caring if it lives. For her, the dreadful pain has ceased, and that is probably enough for now.

  Mrs. Odell takes one look at the crumpled little face, already turning blue, and moves quickly. She deftly snips the umbilical cord, cleans the mouth and nostrils of mucus, lifts the child by its feet, and slaps it hard on the back. No response. She lays it down and kneads its tiny chest with both hands. And then—oh, joy—it gives a tiny mew and begins to breathe, the healthy pink color returning to its cheeks.

  Wrapping the infant in a fine cloth, Mrs. Odell lays it beside its mother.

  “Your Majesty, you have a beautiful baby daughter,” she announces.


  Both parents are so relieved that mother and child have come through their ordeal safely that the sex of their infant is of little moment to them. Of course, the Admiral had wanted a son, but when he sees his little girl lying in her mother’s arms in that joyful moment of reunion, his face is suffused with love and pride, and I feel a pang, knowing it was not thus with my own parents when I was born, and that their disappointment in my sex is still a cross they bear. But the Admiral is sanguine, confident that sons will follow, and that this little maid will make a grand marriage to increase her father’s fortunes.

  The Queen is delighted with her daughter and thrilled with her lord’s reaction to the child.

  “I am so at peace with the world, Jane,” she declares on the day after the birth, “that I want nothing to mar our happiness.” Contentedly she lies there in her flower-filled bedchamber, recovering her strength and giving thanks to God for His manifold blessings.

  As for me, I think the baby is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen. I sit gazing for ages at her as she lies snuffling, blinking milky blue eyes at me. Indeed, she can’t do much else, since, according to custom, the midwife has ordered that she be swaddled to ensure that her limbs grow straight. Tightly bound and wrapped in a rich crimson damask shawl, she lies in her vast oak cradle. A young girl has been employed to rock it, but she often finds that I have usurped her place, for I love nothing better than to sit by the babe, crooning to her, and I hasten there as soon as my lessons are over. A wet nurse has also been taken on, a wholesome village girl whose own baby died at birth, for naturally a queen should not suckle her own child. A wife’s duty is to provide her husband with sons, and breast-feeding, so Mrs. Ellen says, will prevent her from conceiving again. I cannot imagine Her Grace welcoming another pregnancy so soon, not after the ordeal she has just suffered in childbed, but the midwife has assured us that things will be easier next time.

  I cannot help but fear that the Queen’s child, like so many other newborns, might not survive infancy. No one has said as much, but within hours of her birth the Admiral summoned the household chaplain, who quickly baptized the sweet angel and named her Mary, in honor of the Lady Mary. Her Grace has just received a letter from the Lady Mary, who hastened to write and heal the rift between them as soon as she learned of Katherine’s pregnancy, and agreed to be godmother. Now, if the poor babe should die, at least her soul will be safe.

  The Queen did not attend the baptism; custom does not require it, but she would have been too weak anyway. Then the days passed, and still she did not recover her strength. Today she is sick, and to my utter heaviness, Mrs. Odell has just come to the Admiral to warn him that there is grievous cause for concern. Her Grace is suffering from childbed fever.

  “What is that?” I ask fearfully.

  “My lady, it is a condition that affects many new mothers during their lying-in period,” Mrs. Odell says. “Sadly, there is nothing anyone can do but wait for the fever to reach its climax, and pray.”

  The Queen has been in a delirium for
several days now, God save her. She barely knows her child, nor any of those around her. Whenever the Admiral comes near, she shrinks from him, and after hearing her tormented ravings, we are all distressed to realize that she is brooding over some real or imagined infidelity of his. This puzzles some of the ladies.

  “I have ever thought him a devoted husband,” whispers Lady Tyrwhitt.

  “And I,” says Lady Lane, shaking her head. But Lady Herbert, the Queen’s sister, says nothing, and I think I can guess why. I fear that the suspicions I had at Chelsea—that the Admiral and the Lady Elizabeth had somehow offended the Queen—are confirmed when Katherine keeps muttering the name Elizabeth. The ladies think she asks for her stepdaughter and debate whether they should send for her.

  “Best not,” says the Admiral, when asked for his opinion. “I heard only recently that the Lady Elizabeth has been unwell herself.”

  “So did I, my lord,” says Lady Herbert, fixing him with a glacial look. Their eyes lock in a brief, tense moment. The other ladies are staring at them.

  “It is unlikely that the Lady Elizabeth is fit to travel,” the Admiral continues, his voice dropping like a stone into the silence. He turns his back and returns to his wife’s bedside.

  “Is the Queen going to die?” I ask him later, after he has made yet another fruitless attempt to offer comfort to his wife.

  He looks at me with pity; his eyes are heavy with unshed tears, defeated. Mine must be red from weeping.

  “We should put our trust in God,” he says, covering my small hand with his large one. There is little hope in his voice.

  On the fifth day of her fever the Queen briefly becomes lucid, although she is still hot and shivering.

  “I feel so ill, I believe I cannot live,” she tells Lady Tyrwhitt in a weak voice.

  “Nonsense, madam!” replies Lady Tyrwhitt, a shade too briskly. “I see no signs of death in you. The fever will soon pass.”

  But Katherine is not listening. She has retreated to some twilight world in which she hovers between dreams and reality.

  “I saw them together,” she murmurs fretfully, “there, on the bed. Oh, my lord…”

  I think Lady Tyrwhitt has heard only the last three words. “I’ll get the Admiral,” she says, rising.

  Seeing how it is with his wife, my lord tenderly takes her hand, smiling sadly down upon her, then looks startled as she grips his fingers with surprising force and exclaims, “Lady Tyrwhitt, I am not well handled by this man. He cares not for me, but stands laughing at my grief.”

  “My lord, she is delirious,” cries Lady Tyrwhitt, seeing his stricken face and looking intensely embarrassed. “Pay little mind to what she says! She knows not what she is talking about.”

  “Sweetheart, I wish you no hurt,” the Admiral says gently, turning to the Queen and stroking the damp hair back from her brow.

  “No, my lord, I think so,” she answers with some bitterness, “but you have given me many shrewd taunts.” And she turns her head away from him.

  “I cannot bear much more of this,” he says despairingly. “What can I do? Shall I lie beside her and comfort her?”

  “I think that would be a great solace to you both,” says Lady Tyrwhitt gently, whereupon we ladies tactfully withdraw to the far corner of the chamber, bend our heads to our needlework, and converse quietly among ourselves.

  Behind us, the Admiral lies down on the bed and takes his wife in his arms, murmuring private words of love without regard for the presence of others nearby. We cannot hear what is being said, but we are aware that, for an hour or more, the Queen continues to pour out her grief and bitterness.

  Later in the day the crisis passes, but although the fever subsides, it leaves Katherine drained and all but lifeless. While she sleeps, we pray for a happy outcome. In her cradle, little Lady Mary Seymour slumbers soundly.

  Two days pass, without improvement. The Queen, drifting in and out of sleep, knows that there is little hope of recovery. At the suggestion of the chaplain, she makes her will and, when it is drawn up and witnessed, asks the Admiral to bring their daughter to her. As he sits on the bed with the baby cradled in his arms, the Queen stretches out a feeble hand to touch the downy little head and whisper a last blessing. Tears are running down her cheeks, and I can only imagine how she must feel to be saying her final farewell to her child, this child she longed for so much.

  “God keep you, my husband,” she whispers. “It is His will that we must part. But I hope we shall be reunited in Heaven.”

  “Don’t leave me, Kate,” sobs the Admiral, his shoulders heaving.

  “Jane, come here.” I can barely hear the fading, beloved voice. I lean over the bed to receive the whisper of a kiss on my forehead, then fall on my knees weeping, as this dear lady, who has been as a mother to me, bestows a fond last look on her lord, squeezes his hand, and passes to her eternal rest. I have lost my beloved protector.

  The chapel looks dark and sinister, hung with black cloth that has hastily been embroidered with the royal arms of England quartered with those of the Parr family. Mourning cloths are also draped over the altar rails, and stools and cushions have been provided for the more important members of the congregation.

  First in the funeral procession are the officers of the Queen’s household, carrying their staves of office; they are followed by the Herald of the House of Somerset in his richly colored tabard. Then comes the lead coffin, borne on the shoulders of six black-clad stalwarts, and behind it, the chief mourner, myself.

  I must look a diminutive figure in the midst of all this somber pageantry. I wear a gown and hood of black banded with purple, the colors of royal mourning, and my long train is borne by a maid of honor. I carry a prayer book and keep my eyes downcast. The Queen’s six ladies-in-waiting come after me, leading a procession of ladies, gentlemen, yeomen, tenants, and members of the late Queen’s household.

  One person is, of course, absent, for etiquette precludes his attendance. Racked with grief and, perhaps, remorse, the Admiral has kept to his chamber today. He is not expected to parade his sorrow in public at the funeral, which is why I, as the senior lady of rank here at Sudeley, am chief mourner.

  I stand stony-faced and dry-eyed as the coffin is set down on trestles before the altar rails and remain so while the psalms are sung and the service performed. It would be undignified to cry, but indeed, even were I able to let myself go, I would have no tears left to flow. They have all been spent in private.

  I try to concentrate on Dr. Coverdale’s sermon, but tragic thoughts of the dear Queen we have lost, and her motherless babe, keep intruding. When he has finished speaking, and the coffin is lowered into the open vault beneath the altar pavement, I think that I could never feel more miserable than I do now. The household officers break their staves of office and cast them in after the coffin to signify the ending of their service to the Queen; then it is all over, and my heart is as dead as a stone.

  “Oh, Mrs. Ellen!”

  I am cradled on my nurse’s lap, crying on her shoulder as if my heart will break. It is late evening, and the mourners have either ridden home or gone to bed; as soon as I could, I escaped to Mrs. Ellen’s chamber.

  “I cannot bear it! I miss her so dreadfully.”

  “It’s always hard, my pet, to lose someone you love,” says Mrs. Ellen, stroking my hair. “It takes time to come to terms with it.”

  To be truthful, my tears are as much for myself as for her whom I have lost.

  “I dare not think what my life will be like without her. I have been so happy here. I like the Admiral, but I do not think my parents will allow me to remain here now that the Queen has died.”

  “No, child, it would not be fitting,” says Mrs. Ellen sadly, “not without a lady of rank present to act as your chaperone. And more’s the pity, because I have been happy here too.”

  “Lady Seymour could chaperone me,” I venture.

  “I doubt your parents would agree to that, Jane. Lady Seymour is getting on in
years and keeps mostly to her rooms—you know that. What’s more, she doesn’t have the social standing of the late Queen, which I’m sure was one of the chief reasons why your parents placed you with the Admiral.” Mrs. Ellen sighs. “I see nothing for us but to go home.”

  “I don’t want to go home,” I sob. “This is my home now.”

  “You have to go home, child, if your parents command it. You are all of eleven years old.”

  I wonder inwardly what will become of the Admiral’s plans to marry me to the King, but of course I cannot discuss them with Mrs. Ellen because I have had to keep them a secret. If only my marriage could be brought forward—then I might not have to go home, or not for long, anyway. Yet in truth, I have little hope of the Admiral’s chances of success in arranging my marriage to the King, and even if he did, I should have to wait three years before the Church would permit us to live as husband and wife.

  Thinking this through, I am calmer, though still emitting the occasional sob as I lie in Mrs. Ellen’s arms. But my passion is spent, and with it my desperation. If they insist, I will go home without complaint, however miserable it makes me. After all, I couldn’t feel much more miserable than I do now.

  “I have written to all my friends and acquaintances to inform them of this dire loss,” says the Admiral a week after the funeral, as we sit at dinner with the late Queen’s ladies and a few remaining guests. “I have also sent a letter to the Lady Elizabeth.”

  He does not reveal what he said in it, nor do I ever find out if he receives a reply.

  “I am concerned about what is to happen to you, Jane,” he tells me for the fifth time. I am not so green that I don’t realize how valuable an asset I am to him. “I have written to your father to ask if you might remain with me. I have told him I believe you to be sufficiently mature to order your own affairs.”

  If only that could be so, I think.

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