Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Mrs. Ellen looks at me in alarm. I know her thoughts are with Mrs. Ashley. And what of Elizabeth herself? Will her wit and her courage avail her now?

  By all reports, the pile of incriminating depositions against the Admiral mounts daily, and I fear there can be little doubt of his malevolent intentions toward his brother, or that he is a danger to the realm. There is much talk of his impertinent plot to marry the Lady Elizabeth, and it is even known that he was scheming to marry me to the King; they say he meant to rule through us, as the power behind the throne, and I can well believe it, although I find the very idea shocking. I feel so used, as if I myself had never mattered to him, and I wish my name were not being bruited about so shamefully by the gossipmongers, for I have done nothing to deserve it.

  Lady Seymour plans to take me to Wulfhall, the family seat in Wiltshire, to escape the gossip and the scandal, but we are still at Seymour Place in London when my father’s messenger arrives and seeks me out.

  “My lady, the Marquess commands you to make ready with all haste and return with me to Bradgate. My lord has told me that, this very day, the Admiral was taken to the Tower of London. He says this is no place for you to be.”

  He turns to Lady Seymour, who has dissolved into heartrending sobs. Poor old soul, she had not known that her son had been sent to the Tower.

  “I am truly sorry to bring you this news, madam,” says the messenger. “I wish I could give you further tidings, but I only know what my lord has told me. He is at court just now, but he wishes the Lady Jane to return to her mother in Leicestershire. I should be grateful if you could give orders for her gear to be packed ready for her departure.”

  With a great effort, Lady Seymour recovers herself and summons Mrs. Ellen, who hears the news with an obviously heavy heart. She must guess how sorrowful I feel at the prospect of being returned to my mother’s care, but there is no gainsaying my father—nothing that anybody can do. I cannot compromise my birth, my blood, or my marriage prospects by remaining in the household of a suspected traitor, nor can I risk my family’s honor being tainted by association with him.

  My face set, I stumble blindly upstairs to my chamber, where the maids are already dragging out chests, garments, books, and other possessions, the detritus of the happiest year of my life. My belongings lay on the bed, looking pathetic and out of place. Dr. Aylmer comes in to see what all the commotion is about, and when I lift my face to tell him, he sees my tragic expression and spontaneously takes me into his arms and hugs me.

  “Fear not, Jane,” he says. “I will be with you, and we will have our theology, philosophy, and literature as consolations.”

  “I don’t think I can bear it,” I whisper against the woolen hardness of his chest, feeling uncomfortable at this unaccustomed contact with a man, yet still appreciating his strength and warmth.

  “God never sends us tests He thinks we cannot bear,” soothes Aylmer, “and remember, we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles. You must go home now, but another place is waiting for you. Think on this. In the meantime, you are a princess of the blood, and you must frame your mind towards marriage, accepting the path that God means you to follow. I doubt not that many others before you have railed against their fate, but that they made the best of what destiny brought them. And you must do likewise. Now, hadn’t we better pack your books?”

  BRADGATE HALL, JANUARY 1549

  “So you’re back,” says my mother, eyeing me appraisingly. “You haven’t grown much in the time you’ve been away, although you’ve got a better color, and you’re beginning to fill out.” Her eyes fall on my budding breasts, just apparent beneath the smooth black velvet of my bodice. “I see you’re still wearing those somber clothes,” she sniffs.

  “It is out of respect for the late Queen.”

  “Christ, child, court mourning ended two months ago! You must change, put on something more becoming. Doubtless your insistence on going about garbed like a papist nun had some bearing on the Admiral’s failure to arrange your marriage. The King took one look at you, I’ll wager, and changed his mind.”

  “Nay, my lady,” I answer defiantly, “I fear the Admiral exerted less influence over His Majesty than he liked to think.”

  “He was a fool,” says my mother with feeling.

  “But I think he will pay dearly for it. What will they do to him?”

  “What they do to all traitors, I expect,” she answers grimly. “He will lose his head.”

  “Then I am sorry.” I falter, for truly I had grown rather fond of the Admiral, who was always kindly and funny and never uttered a harsh word to me. The prospect of him kneeling at the block, waiting for the blow to fall, is too horrible to contemplate, and I wince.

  Suddenly my lady’s hand is gripping my shoulder, shaking me.

  “Don’t waste your sympathy on the likes of him,” she hisses. “He is best forgotten. Your father regrets ever having become involved with him and has laid evidence against him before the council. Now you must put all this behind you and frame yourself to obedience and virtue.”

  I lower my eyes.

  “Off to your room, child. I have things to do, and you will need to help Mrs. Ellen unpack.”

  She turns away to her writing table. She has not seen me for weeks, but she has already forgotten that I am here.

  At night, I cry myself to sleep. It is not often that I give way to tears of self-pity, but it seems that my life stretches out before me as one long, unending tunnel of misery. Nothing has changed. I doubt my lady even missed me that year I was away. I know it is my duty to love my mother, but at this moment I can feel only hatred for her, and it is a terrible feeling, for I know I must be displeasing God by my undutiful thoughts. So I lie awake, praying for help and understanding, and wishing beyond reason that I could be back at Chelsea in the tender care of the Queen. But, alas, those days are gone forever, and I do not think I shall ever be as happy again.

  BRADGATE HALL, MARCH 1549

  News from London takes several days to reach us, but my father writes regularly from court, so we are kept abreast of events. He tells us that there is enough evidence to send the Admiral to the block, but that the council is staying its hand because it is deeply disturbed by reports of his relations with the Lady Elizabeth. I am shocked to learn that, although Elizabeth is being held in the comfort of her house at Hatfield, her servants, including Mrs. Ashley, have been sent to the Tower for interrogation. Poor Mrs. Ashley, she is not a strong character, I fear, and I tremble to think how she will fare.

  My lord writes that Mrs. Ashley has confessed to scandalous goings-on at Chelsea, such as might lead God-fearing persons to suspect that the Lady Elizabeth is no longer as pure as she should be. My mother asks me if I knew anything of this, but I say truthfully that I saw nothing and keep my own counsel about my suspicions.

  Now, even the Lady Elizabeth herself has been subjected to rigorous questioning, and she only fifteen years old. My father says she has given away nothing, nor said anything to incriminate herself and the Admiral. He writes that the council gave up in the end, realizing that the little minx, as he puts it, is too clever for them. Yet she remains under a cloud of displeasure and is to stay away from court and live in retirement. Before long I hear, to my great satisfaction, that she is ostentatiously attiring and conducting herself as a virtuous and sober Protestant maiden in an attempt to redeem her tarnished reputation.

  But the Admiral does not get off so lightly.

  My lady comes to my room one morning with a letter.

  “You must prepare yourself for ill news, Jane,” she says. “Parliament has passed an act of attainder against the Admiral, condemning him to lose his life and possessions, and three days ago his head was struck off on Tower Hill.”

  I feel sick. Involuntarily my hands go to my throat, as I shudder to contemplate what it must be like to meet such a dreadful death. I remember the Admiral as I knew him, a big, vital man, full of life and vigor. Now he has been cut down, literally, in his prim
e. At night, I find my sleep is haunted by nightmares similar to those I suffered in my early childhood after learning of the fate of Katherine Howard.

  By day, my prayers are all for poor little Lady Mary Seymour, the baby daughter of the Queen and the Admiral, who is now orphaned and penniless, as a result of her father’s attainder. I hear she has been consigned to the care of my stepgrandmother, the Duchess of Suffolk. I shall miss her sorely, the sweet child.

  And now there is covert talk of another baby, a baby that the Lady Elizabeth is rumored to have borne the Admiral in secret, and who was destroyed by agents of the council. I cannot believe that the Lady Elizabeth, who is so clever in many ways, could have stooped to such immoral and stupid behavior. Surely, in this case, the rumors are unfounded. I cannot credit them and am consumed with pity for my cousin, whose life, like my own, has been so cruelly turned around. Even if she had been seduced by the Admiral, the fault was his alone, for she was little more than a child at the time, and he not a man to be gainsaid. It doesn’t seem fair that she should suffer for another’s wrongdoing, but then life is not fair. That is a hard lesson I have already learned.

  John Dudley,

  Earl of Warwick

  ELY PLACE, LONDON, AUTUMN 1549

  Looking in my mirror, I see a bull of a man with cold black eyes. Not a handsome face, but then vanity has never been one of my vices. I’m a soldier first and foremost, with a talent for strategy that has served me well both in the field and in the council chamber. Some call me ruthless, and looking at me, you might well believe it, but I prefer to see myself as a pragmatist, for whom the end justifies the means.

  I am ready now, ready to meet my guests, and I am soon seated at the head of the table in the richly appointed dining hall in Ely Place, my palatial London residence, regarding the soberly dressed noblemen and bishops around me with a shrewd eye. I believe I can trust them all.

  “So, gentlemen, we are of one accord,” I say. This is not the first of our discussions; we have met before, and I have spoken with each man privately, so I am sure I can be candid.

  Every eye is upon me.

  “We are agreed, then,” I declare. “We want the Lord Protector replaced. His insufferable arrogance has alienated not only the King, but also many of his councillors.” Several are present, among them Archbishop Cranmer and the Earls of Arundel and Southampton, and I nod in their direction.

  “Furthermore, he has pursued disastrous wars with Scotland and France. Far from covering England’s name with glory, these wars have impoverished and humiliated her. And his callousness in sending his brother to the scaffold is viewed by many—and by you yourselves, as you have told me—as nothing less than foul fratricide.” I pause for effect. “And as if this is not enough,” I thunder into the hush, “Somerset has angered numerous lords who might have been his friends by opposing the sensible policy of enclosing agricultural land, and by allowing his offensively liberal views to prevail in all aspects of government. It is enough. Somerset must go!”

  “Somerset must go!” echo several voices. “Aye! Aye!”

  I hold up my hand for silence.

  “What England needs now,” I tell them, “is a firm hand, wielded by someone who will stand up to the Lady Mary, who has continued obstinately to uphold the Catholic religion. She still insists on celebrating Mass in the face of repeated censures and threats by the government, which she ignores, knowing that, if things get too hot for her in England, she can always appeal to her cousin the Emperor for aid. This is not to be tolerated!”

  “Nay! Nay!” The response is unanimous.

  I stand up and lean forward, resting my hands on the table.

  “We need a ruler who will steadfastly maintain and promote the Protestant religion. One who is sufficiently experienced in a military capacity to ensure that England’s security, and her reputation in Europe, are protected from any Catholic threat.”

  “Aye! Aye!”

  They look questioningly at me.

  “But who should that ruler be?” The speaker is my good colleague, the Marquess of Dorset. No great politician, but loyal and well versed in intrigue, and a useful ally to have, given that his wife has a claim to the throne, and that they have three marriageable daughters with rich and valuable Tudor blood in their veins.

  “We must give that due consideration,” I reply, but in my view there is only one man in England who can do all these things, and that is myself.

  “It should be yourself, my Lord Warwick,” Dorset declares, and is enthusiastically and flatteringly echoed by a dozen voices.

  “I see you are all of the same mind, gentlemen,” I say. “I am gratified that I can count on your support.”

  “We pledge it,” they assure me.

  “I am grateful.” I sit down. “Now, our first task is to plan when and how the Lord Protector should be removed.”

  Later, when the rest have gone, Dorset and I share a flask of hippocras before the dying fire.

  “I know what people say about me,” I muse. “That I am the son of a traitor. But I’ve never let the injustice of my father’s execution prevent me from being loyal to the Crown. Fortunately, I’ve fared rather better than my father. And I got where I am today on the strength of my own abilities.”

  “You’ve done very well,” acknowledges Dorset. “Master of the Horse, Lord High Admiral, privy councillor. There’s none more influential on the council.”

  “I thank you, my lord. And I have been blessed in my wife and children. Of the thirteen she’s borne me, seven yet live.”

  “And five are handsome, strapping sons,” says Dorset wistfully. It’s well known that he has been disappointed in his expectations of a male heir. “You are lucky, sir, that God has so blessed you, and that your children have found favor with the King and his sisters. We all noticed how, when she was at court, the Lady Elizabeth and young Robert were inseparable.”

  “Yes, God has been bountiful. But this is no time to be complacent, Henry. I have my enemies too, and they are only too happy to go about smearing my reputation.”

  “What man has not risen to power without making enemies?”

  “I know my reputation for toughness is not entirely undeserved. I am aware that many of the men who are pleased to call themselves my friends are simply scared of crossing me.” I smile. “Of course, at times it has been necessary to use a degree of, shall we say, intimidation when building up alliances, but I have taken care to temper this with bonhomie and open-handedness.”

  “Any man who would rule must display a certain ruthlessness,” observes Dorset. “Bonhomie on its own never won battles.”

  “Never underestimate the power of calculated bullying and veiled threats! It’s my conviction that, when it comes to politics, a tender conscience can be an inconvenience. Somerset has a conscience, an unfashionably liberal one, and look where it’s got him. He’s arrogant too, although that’s no bad thing in a ruler, almost a necessity. I too can be arrogant, and to far deadlier effect, but when it comes to laying my quarry, I can pile on the charm at will. Unlike Somerset, I am not burdened with scruples. What has to be done has to be done. Let them call me greedy and ruthless and accuse me of looking only to my own interests. Every man worth the name does the same, especially those of us who inhabit the court.”

  “If something stands in your path, you must eliminate it, by fair means or foul,” says Dorset, looking me straight in the eye.

  “Indeed.” I smile grimly. We both know that I intend to be the supreme power in England. By God, no one is going to stop me, and Dorset means to back the winner. He knows I have the young King in my hand, thanks to a policy of calculated friendliness and deference, and that with his confidence in my pocket, I am unassailable. Let none dare offend me, for they will find me a dangerous adversary.

  We are prepared to use force, but when it comes to it, Somerset puts up only a weak show of resistance. He knows he is no match for me.

  Now he is a prisoner in the Tower, and I am Lord
President of the Council and the effective ruler of England.

  Lady Jane Grey

  BRADGATE HALL, JANUARY 1550

  Outside the window the landscape is white, hidden under a blanket of snow. A horseman, swathed in furs, is riding through Bradgate’s main gate into the courtyard. I watch as the steward hurries out, clicking fingers at stableboys and greeting the unexpected guest.

  It is Master Roger Ascham.

  I knew he was expected. Dr. Aylmer, in joyful anticipation, told me a week ago that he would be coming.

  “Sadly, Jane, it is not in the happiest of circumstances,” he confided. “Master Ascham wrote to me that he was weary of the Lady Elizabeth’s service, the backbiting and intrigues in her household, and the resentment of her treasurer, Parry, who went behind his back to poison the Lady Elizabeth’s mind against him. It is as well, he says, that her formal studies had come to an end on her sixteenth birthday, since, if he had not been quick to resign, he would certainly have been ignominiously dismissed. For the Lady Elizabeth believed all Parry’s lies.”

  “That is a shame,” I said. “I thought her to be intelligent and astute. Yet once her opinions are set, there is no moving her.”

  “Poor Master Ascham returned to Cambridge,” Aylmer continued. “His intention was to resume his studies. But almost immediately—such is his fame—he received a letter offering him a post as secretary to England’s ambassador in Brussels. He was delighted to be afforded such an opportunity and accepted at once, thinking it would alleviate the sadness caused by the Lady Elizabeth’s betrayal. But listen to this! When I told your parents of his imminent departure abroad, they invited him to visit us here beforehand, to enliven us all with his wit and learning.”

  “And was that at your prompting, sir?” I asked mischievously.

  “Oh, yes; they’d never have thought of it themselves,” he replied, his eyes twinkling with merriment.

 
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