Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  “I also informed him,” the Admiral continues, helping himself liberally to some pigeon pie, “that I have retained the services of my dear wife’s maids of honor, so that you would be suitably chaperoned and attended.”

  “I do hope my lord father will agree, sir,” I say. Sad as this household is now, it is infinitely preferable to my home, which I can only envisage as a perennial field of conflict.

  “He has already replied.” Looking grim, the Admiral produces a letter and passes it to me. To my despair, it is a demand for me to be returned home. With mounting indignation and embarrassment, I read that I am too young to rule myself without a proper guide and, for want of a bridle, might take too much head and be forgetful of the manners and good behavior taught me by the Queen. My father knows nothing of me! In sum, I am to be restored to my mother’s care, to be framed toward virtue, sobriety, humility, and obedience.

  Remembering with a shudder what that will entail, I sit crestfallen, utterly wretched. I cannot—no, I will not—go back! I had thought to have put the misery of home behind me forever, and that I would in due time go from the Queen’s household to the King’s. But I know I have no choice: I am bound to obey my parents. It is my duty, and God will justly be displeased with me if I rebel against it.

  The Admiral is watching me speculatively, but I fear there is nothing he can do or say to make things better. He knows as well as I do—as, indeed, the world knows—that without the Queen his wife, he counts for little in the corridors of power. The King might be fond of him, but for the present the King is his brother Somerset’s creature, nothing more. I suspect there is now little likelihood of the Admiral being able to bring about the royal marriage he and the Queen planned. My parents too must be of this opinion, if they are ordering my return.

  The Admiral bends close to me. “Cheer up, little one. I shall refuse to let you go. I intend to write this very night to your father and assure him that His Majesty has said he will marry none other than you.”

  “Has he said that?” I ask, astonished.

  “Of course he has,” the Admiral replies, smiling broadly. “And if that is not enough, we will sweeten your father with a nice fat payment towards the price of your wardship. You wait and see—all will be well!”

  HANWORTH, OCTOBER 1548

  My parents are here! We have removed to Hanworth, which is more convenient for them than Sudeley, and the Admiral is receiving them downstairs now. I wait, trembling, in my chamber, with Mrs. Ellen—who is almost equally agitated—for the summons. Today my future will be decided.

  The quarter hours pass. I cannot settle to anything. It seems as if they have been talking for hours.

  “Someone’s coming!” says Mrs. Ellen. It is the summons, at last. It is all I can do to restrain myself from racing down the stairs, so anxious am I to find out what has been decided for me. But I take care to hold myself decorously as I enter the great chamber and make my curtsy, hardly daring to lift my eyes to my parents,’ in case I read my future in them.

  My lord and lady are alone, the Admiral having tactfully withdrawn.

  “Greetings, Jane,” says my father. He is wearing hunting leathers and a jaunty plumed cap. He seems cheerful enough.

  “God’s blessings on you, child.” My mother, seated in a high-backed chair and wearing a magnificent pink damask gown, is looking me up and down, no doubt to see if I have grown or been cured of my freckles. I cannot deduce much from her expression.

  “I am pleased to see you, sir, madam,” I reply dutifully.

  “Sit down,” says my lady, pointing to a stool at her feet. I sit, arranging my skirts neatly around me.

  “As I am sure you are aware, we have been discussing your future with my Lord Admiral,” my father says, “and we want you to know that we have accepted his offer to have you remain with him.” I bow my head in relief. I had not expected this.

  “I still have my doubts as to the wisdom of it,” my mother comments. “I should tell you, Jane, that we have been seriously considering an offer for you from the Lord Protector himself, for his son.”

  I am astonished, not only at this revelation, but also at my parents’ willingness to use me as barter in this way. If you can’t have the King, snare the Lord Protector’s son. Either will bring our family influence and greatness, although in different measures. It’s the way of the world, of course, but so cold, so calculating, and so dismissive of my feelings in the matter.

  “Sometimes one has to be realistic,” my mother continues. “We heard nothing from the Admiral on the matter of your marriage for a long time. We had doubts that he could keep his promises. I have to say that I am not yet convinced—”

  “We should accept Lord Sudeley’s offer, Frances,” interrupts my father. “As yet, the Lord Protector has given no firm indication that he is interested in an alliance with us. He hints shamelessly, but will commit to nothing.”

  I try hard to remember what the Lord Protector’s son looks like, but no image comes to mind. Perhaps I’ve never met him.

  “At least,” my father says, “the Admiral has given us a substantial sum as tangible proof of his good intentions. He also proposes that Jane remain in his household until she is of childbearing age. That will give him more time to arrange the marriage. Moreover, by then the King will have reached his majority and will be able to choose his own bride, and our matter will go forward more smoothly, God willing.”

  “Well, you must do as you think fit,” says my lady, tart. “But I agree, there is not much chance of us finding another suitable husband for Jane at this present time. I’ve had enough of the Protector’s delaying matters. I hope you are aware, nevertheless, that the Admiral has his own ambitions.”

  “Which ride with ours,” replies my lord. “He speaks sense, and I for one am prepared to give him another chance.”

  “You were ever easily bought, Husband,” my mother observes.

  “Sweetheart,” he replies with heavy irony, “the Admiral is hardly likely to have outlaid all this money to no purpose.”

  “So be it, then. I just hope that old Lady Seymour is a fit guardian for Jane. From what I’ve seen and heard here, she’s an ailing recluse.”

  “She is a virtuous lady, Frances, and must be used to governing a large household,” my father says firmly. “Jane will come to no harm under her rule, I am sure.”

  “Madam, she is a most pleasant and kind lady,” I venture.

  “Soft, I make no doubt,” my mother replies. “I hope she won’t spoil you.”

  They have gone. What a blessed relief. And they have left me behind, for which I thank God. It has been an anxious fortnight. The Admiral summons me and Lady Seymour to celebrate our victory with a cup of wine. I am strangely happy, despite the grief for the Queen that never leaves me and has me weeping into my pillow every night. I had never realized that it was possible to be both happy and sad at the same time.

  Troubles, however, never come singly. Within days, there is a disturbing rumor in the household. Mrs. Ellen, having got wind of it, sits me down and says she must tell me what is being said. I am bewildered at her urgency.

  “This is serious, child,” she tells me. “I am shocked to hear it being whispered around that the Lord Admiral’s true intention is to marry you himself.”

  “What?” He is far too old to think of such a thing, surely. He is forty-two! And the Queen his wife so recently dead!

  “Has he said anything at all to you that might indicate he means to wed you?” Mrs. Ellen demands.

  “Nothing,” I answer, astounded, thinking back hastily to his dealings with me over the past weeks, and finding nothing. But doubt begins to nag me. “Although, when I think about it, such a plan could explain why my marriage to the King goes forward so slowly. My lord has told me that it must now wait upon His Majesty coming of age, but…”

  “That could just be an excuse,” Mrs. Ellen finishes. She looks stern and worried. “Jane, if your parents knew of this, they would summon you ho
me at once.”

  “Please don’t say anything!” I beg. “It is, after all, just a rumor. That doesn’t mean to say there’s any truth in it.”

  “Yes, but you often find, child, that there’s no smoke without fire. I have a responsibility towards your parents, mind you, and I warn you, the first hint I get that that rumor speaks truth, I shall write to them. I should have no choice, for your honor would be compromised by remaining under this roof.”

  “Then I pray the rumor is false,” I say fervently.

  It is evening. The Admiral and Lady Seymour are entertaining a guest, a courtier friend of my lord’s, and I am to join them for supper. It is early yet, but I am impatient to be downstairs. Mrs. Ellen, who is to attend me, is not yet ready, but says I may go ahead.

  In soft slippers, I descend the great oak staircase. The door to the dining hall is ajar and I can hear voices. A mention of my name stops me short. They are talking about me.

  I know that eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves, or so Mrs. Ellen tells me, but I cannot resist stopping to listen, since there is no one to observe or reprimand me.

  By the sound of it, the Admiral is already a little drunk. He is slurring his words slightly.

  “Yes, there has been a silly tale of late that I shall wed her,” he is saying. “I tell you this but merrily!” He laughs. “Aye, merrily! But I have my eyes on a bigger fish.”

  A bigger fish? Whom can he mean?

  A footfall from above interrupts my listening. Clasping my hands decorously on my stomacher, I advance into the room to greet our guest.

  I lie sleepless in bed, thinking on what I have learned. Thanks be to God I am not, after all, the object of the Admiral’s matrimonial ambitions! But it is evident that he is pursuing an even more foolhardy scheme. Whom can he mean by a bigger fish but the Lady Elizabeth? Is he mad? She would not stoop to have him; nor, I am sure, would the Protector and the council allow it, which proves that it must be a stupid and wicked plan. I am beginning to realize that not all adults are as wise as they would have us children believe.

  HANWORTH, NOVEMBER 1548

  One of my greatest pleasures is playing with the Admiral’s baby daughter. Little Lady Mary is now two months old, and her rosy face breaks out in gummy smiles when I approach her cradle and say hello. I like nothing more than to take over from the rocker, gently lulling the baby to sleep, or making her wave her chubby arms in excitement as I play peekaboo or shake her gold rattle at her.

  Lady Seymour has come to the nursery today to make her inspection and question the lady governess and wet nurse as to her granddaughter’s progress. Satisfied that all is well, she sits by the fire sewing, rocking the cradle with her foot, while I kneel on the hearthrug, gazing at the sleeping infant.

  “These are dreadful times we live in,” she says tetchily. “All change, for change’s sake. I dread to think what the world will be like when this little one grows up. I thank God I won’t be there to see it.”

  I let her ramble on in this vein for a while. There is little I can say by way of an answer.

  “I know what my son is plotting,” she says suddenly. “I wish he’d desist. It’s dangerous meddling in these affairs. But he’s too headstrong by far. Won’t listen to me.”

  “I must do what my parents command,” I say defensively, feeling that in some way she thinks I am at fault too.

  “What are you talking about, child?” asks the old lady. “I wasn’t referring to that madcap scheme to marry you to the King. No, I’m talking about my son’s foolish ambitions concerning the Lady Elizabeth.”

  Her indiscretion alarms me, and I quickly look up to see who is within earshot. But fortunately we are quite alone, the nursery staff having taken advantage of our minding the baby and gone off to do tasks elsewhere.

  “The Lady Elizabeth?” I ask.

  “Aye. He wants to marry her, don’t you know?”

  Of course, I had guessed. But I am nevertheless shocked.

  Two weeks have passed, and the gossip is rampant. The Admiral’s schemes are now the subject of common speculation—I’ve even heard people talking about it in the street when I go with Mrs. Ellen to the shops in nearby Feltham. They say that the Admiral has launched himself on a headlong course toward disaster. Surely it is just a matter of time now before my parents take fright and recall me, which fills me with dread.

  This talk of marriage to the Lady Elizabeth is exceedingly dangerous. Even I know that it is high treason to marry a princess of the blood without the sanction of the council, so surely the Admiral must know it. But I fear he has made his intentions all too plain.

  People in this household are saying that the Lady Elizabeth can hardly be averse to the idea in view of what went on between them before.

  “What did go on between them?” I ask Mrs. Ellen.

  She hesitates. “Jane, this must go no further, because if it did, several people would get into trouble. There was some illicit dalliance between the Admiral and the Lady Elizabeth, when we were living at Chelsea. The Queen stepped in before it went too far and sent the Lady Elizabeth away. Now, it seems, the Admiral would like to revive his connection with her.”

  Of course. I had suspected as much.

  “Read this letter, Jane,” says Mrs. Ellen. “It’s from Kat Ashley.”

  Mrs. Ashley writes that her young lady has said she will not refuse the Admiral, if the Lord Protector and the council give their blessing.

  “If you ask me,” Mrs. Ellen says tersely, “the Admiral has no intention of asking for it. I’ve even heard it bruited about that he hopes to be in his brother’s place before very long. I fear it is only a matter of time before someone points a finger at the Admiral and accuses him of treason.”

  That is a terrible prospect.

  “Shouldn’t someone warn him of the danger?”

  “That one? He enjoys it, dicing with danger! Do you think he would listen? His mother’s already tried remonstrating with him. He told her to get back to her embroidery.”

  “But someone should do something…” I think of that dear little baby, sleeping innocently in her nursery. “For the Lady Mary’s sake.”

  “He won’t listen to the likes of us,” sighs Mrs. Ellen. “We can but pray that matters have not advanced so far, and that he wakes up to reality before it’s too late.”

  SEYMOUR PLACE, LONDON, JANUARY 1549

  All is in uproar; the Admiral has been arrested and is held for questioning by the council. It was true, I fear: he was plotting to overthrow the Protector, his brother. Yet the manner of his arrest was shocking.

  Lady Seymour, near broken in grief, sits in the great chamber, as her maid dabs her temples with lavender water, and tells the tragic tale, as she had it direct from her son, the Lord Protector. Nearly everyone in the household, from the chamberlain to the kitchen boys, has crowded into the room to hear it. I am on my knees at Lady Seymour’s feet, holding her gnarled hands tightly, in a vain attempt to comfort her.

  “It began when Fowler went missing,” she says. “You know, Fowler, by whom my lord sent money to the King from time to time. The Admiral told me he was worried because Fowler had not come back. In fact, the man had been discovered on his secret errand and taken before the council for questioning.”

  She shudders. “The next thing was that the Admiral himself was summoned by the Lord Protector. My own sons, both of them, and the one summoning the other! Tom was ever a hothead—he refused to go. He wrote back to say it was not convenient. Then he told me, only a few nights ago in this very room, that he felt a net was being tightened inexorably about him. He decided to take drastic action.” She pauses, breathless. “He took the reckless decision to seize the King.”

  “But how would he manage such a thing?” I gasp.

  “He had forged keys to His Majesty’s apartments, madam,” sniffs Lady Seymour, reaching for her handkerchief. “Fowler got them for him, in return for a substantial bribe. So he was able to enter the King’s lodging
s by stealth in the dead of night, with the intent to kidnap His Majesty. With such a valuable bargaining counter in his hands, none would have dared gainsay him.”

  There are tears in the old lady’s eyes, but she bravely presses on with her story. Some of the ladies are crying, others shaking their heads incredulously. I find myself weeping too; I was fond of the Admiral, for all his faults.

  “As ill luck would have it,” Lady Seymour is saying, “although the guards were asleep outside the door of the King’s bedchamber, His Majesty’s spaniel began barking furiously as the Admiral let himself quietly into the room and made to attack him. Stupidly, he shot it dead with his pistol, and after that there was no hope for him. The guards came running, and the King, who was horrified at the killing of his pet, ordered Tom’s arrest.”

  “But the King is a friend to the Admiral!” I cry. “He loves his uncle.”

  “He lifted no finger to save him,” whispers Lady Seymour. She bends her head to hide the brimming tears.

  How can this be? I ask myself helplessly. Surely the Admiral will be saved—his own brother and nephew would not condemn him? He has often said how close he is to the King. That must count for something.

  “But there is more,” says poor Lady Seymour. “At every opportunity Tom has voiced loud criticisms of his brother’s rule. He has even gone so far as to build up a following of his own, with a view to overthrowing the Protector. He offered bribes to many in an attempt to buy their support. He even kept a chart on his closet wall. I saw it there myself and wondered what it was for. It made no sense to me. But it was a list of the names of the men he had cozened and those whom he had yet to approach. To keep such a thing so openly—it beggars belief!”

  How foolish the Admiral has been. And how unthinking of the consequences of his rash and ill-considered actions.

  “Then there is the marriage he planned with the Lady Elizabeth,” continues Lady Seymour, shaking her head. “He boasted too openly about it. Now she herself, and her servants, are to be questioned.”

 
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