Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

And so Master Ascham has arrived at Bradgate, and there is no one to receive him, for they are all out hunting. All except me. I stayed behind, reading by the fire.

  “Master Ascham.” I smile, stretching out my hands in welcome. “It is a pleasure to see you again. Do come into the parlor—it’s warm in here.” I lead the way, calling for refreshments as I pass the bowing steward, and while we are waiting to be served, we exchange courteous pleasantries. All the time, however, I can sense that Master Ascham is regarding me speculatively.

  “Did you not wish to go hunting with your mother and father?” he asks, once we are alone. I pour some wine, thinking how gentle his tone is, how inviting of confidences. It would be easy to unburden myself to him.

  I pull a face. “I loathe hunting. No, I was happily absorbed in a book and wanted to finish it. Have you read it?” I pass him the leatherbound volume of Plato’s Phaedo. He looks at it in astonishment.

  “You prefer this to a jaunt in the park?”

  “Infinitely,” I reply with feeling. “Their sport is but a shadow to the pleasure I find in Plato. Poor souls, it seems to me that they do not know what pleasure means.”

  Ascham is grinning at me. “And how, madam, did you come to this true knowledge of pleasure at such a tender age?”

  “You are mocking me, sir.” I blush.

  “My apologies, my lady,” he says, bowing. “I am not joking. Tell me, what chiefly drew you to it, this knowledge of what pleasure is, seeing that few women and not many more men have arrived at it?”

  “I will tell you a truth, which perhaps you will marvel at. One of the greatest benefits God ever gave me is that He sent me—who has such sharp, severe parents—so gentle a schoolmaster as Dr. Aylmer. If it were not for him, I think I should go mad.”

  I break off, biting my lip. What am I saying, to this man who is merely an acquaintance? What will he think of me for speaking so disloyally of my father and mother, or being so forgetful of the consideration due to a guest?

  “I do apologize, sir,” I say humbly. “I fear I have said too much. This is no kind of talk for a social occasion, as my lady mother would no doubt remind me.”

  Dr. Ascham leans forward and lifts my chin. His eyes are so kind.

  “You can talk to me, my Lady Jane,” he says gently. “I will respect your confidence. Sometimes, if our minds are disturbed or troubled, it helps to unburden ourselves.”

  I hope my gratitude is evident in my face. I have needed to unburden myself for so long. I take a deep breath.

  “You will think me undutiful, I am sure, but I cannot help myself.” My words are tumbling out now, in an impassioned torrent. “You see, Master Ascham, when I am in the presence of either my father or my mother, whatever I do—whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else—I must do it, as it were, as perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yes, sometimes with nips, pinches, slaps, and other ways, which”—I can feel myself blushing—“I will not name for the honor I bear them.” I shiver. He is watching me closely. He must guess how deeply I have been humiliated.

  “I am so unhappy,” I continue, with increasing vehemence, “that I think myself in Hell; that is, until the time comes when I may go to Dr. Aylmer, who teaches me so gently and so pleasantly, and makes learning so enjoyable, that I think of nothing else whilst I am with him. But when I am called from him, I start weeping, because whatever else I do seems to land me in great trouble. That, sir, is why my book gives me so much pleasure. Compared to it, all other pleasures are but trifles and troubles to me.”

  I bend my head so that he shall not see the tears in my eyes, but they have not escaped his notice, for he covers my hand with his.

  “I am so sorry,” he says. “I would I could do something to help you. Yet under the law, parents are entitled to discipline their children as they think fit, and there are those who would not account yours unduly harsh.”

  There is an uncomfortable silence. Sympathy is not enough, but he can do nothing, and we both know it. So he clears his throat and changes the subject.

  “You are indeed fortunate in your tutor, my lady. It has always been my opinion that learning should be made easy and agreeable, and that unkind punishments should form no part of it. I believe it is the tutor’s role to encourage, not to force, although I know there are many who disagree with me. Go to any grammar school, and you will see the boys beaten until they know their lessons.”

  “Well, sir, you have the right of it. Learning should be an adventure.” I have now recovered my composure.

  “Would you do me the honor of showing me some of your work?” Dr. Ascham asks. Delighted at his interest, I fetch a pile of papers and books and lay before him some of my translations from the Greek.

  “These are your own work?” he asks admiringly. “They are excellent.” Then he asks me several questions in Greek, to which I make answer. “Madam, you are faultless!” he exclaims.

  An hour passes in such stimulating exchanges, until the sounds of the returning hunting party can clearly be heard beyond the latticed windows.

  “My Lady Jane, would you do me the honor of corresponding with me?” Master Ascham asks, rising. “I should gain infinite pleasure from exchanging letters with so brilliant a princess.”

  “The honor will be mine,” I reply, deeply touched and flattered. To have this great scholar speak to me in such a way, with gentleness and understanding, warms my heart. “How shall I write to you? In English, Latin, or Greek?”

  “All three!” He grins. “But I shall discuss that with Dr. Aylmer. How I am looking forward to your letters. I have scholarly and learned friends abroad who will be amazed to learn of your achievements. You are an example to your sex. Now, I believe your parents have returned. I shall impress upon them how well you have entertained me. Perhaps that will win you a small reprieve from their unkindness.”

  I smile, happier than I have been for a long time.

  BRADGATE HALL, SPRING AND SUMMER 1550

  Master Ascham has been as good as his word. With the approval of my parents, and the aid of Dr. Aylmer and Dr. Harding, who has been promoted to household chaplain, Master Ascham has instituted a correspondence through which I have had the great honor of becoming acquainted with some of the finest minds of our age. Letters now pass among Bradgate, Brussels, and Switzerland, where religious reformers such as the celebrated Henry Bullinger profess themselves honored to write to a mere girl. They flatter me with descriptions that make me blush, calling me a shining luminary and an ornament of the Protestant religion! I tell myself that this is mere literary conceit, but secretly I am basking in it. Yet on another level, the praise they give me only makes me resolve to try harder and be a better Christian, and a truer Protestant. I cannot possibly be worthy of all this praise, but I can try my best to merit it.

  They send me treatises to read, which we discuss afterward in our letters, and I have asked for help with learning Hebrew, because I want to read the Old Testament in its original texts. In all my dealings with these worthy men, I strive to remain modest and self-effacing, always thanking God for my erudition; and as I acknowledge faith to be God’s gift, so I acknowledge my little learning.

  As the months pass, I grow in confidence and understanding. Aylmer says he has noticed the change in me. He says I have benefited greatly from my discourse with these learned men. At his prompting—and no doubt with an eye to my future—he asks Henry Bullinger to send me a copy of his famous treatise on matrimony, so that I can translate it from Latin to Greek. Dr. Aylmer peers over my shoulder as I am writing.

  “Jane, I do not think that among all the English nobility for years past there has been a single person as devoted to learning as yourself. Not only are your translations excellent, but your music and needlework are in every respect as good as your scholarship. If you were to marry the King, as your friends hope, you would make a truly noble, Christi
an queen.”

  “I am not such a paragon as you think, Dr. Aylmer,” I protest. “No one can be as perfect as that.”

  “Ah, Jane”—he smiles—“if you have a fault, it is that you are too dogmatic in your opinions. Perhaps you should make allowance sometimes for the frailties of others, or accept that people might not always agree with you.”

  “I cannot do other than my faith tells me to do,” I say, startled by his criticism.

  “Then you must keep it in mind that not every tenet of faith is set in stone. You are young, child, and the young are often dogmatic. Wisdom and moderation are said to come with age, but looking at the world today, I have my doubts about that. Just remember what I have said and learn to temper zeal with charity.”

  “I am sorry for my faults. I will try to improve. I do not wish to displease you or anyone, but my life is not easy. In fact, I feel I am leading two lives. In one, I am the learned correspondent of great men, who praise me beyond my merits. In the other, I am the ill-tempered, despised daughter of parents with unrealistic expectations, whose cruelty is at times unbearable.” I cannot help my tears. “I am in an earthly prison, and in this earthly prison I pass my days as if I were dead, whereas you, Dr. Aylmer—you are alive, not in captivity.”

  Aylmer’s face is taut with compassion.

  “I have been unfair,” he says, shaking his head. “You have enough burdens without my adding to them. Let us hope that you will soon make a glorious marriage. Then, I make no doubt, your life will be much happier.”

  “God, let it be so,” I pray.

  OXFORD, AUTUMN 1550

  I rise from my curtsy to the King, who nods solemnly at me. He has grown taller, more angular, and, if anything, more majestic in his manner. Behind him stands the Earl of Warwick, beaming jovially.

  “Welcome to Oxford, Cousin,” says the King in his high-pitched voice, which shows no signs of breaking yet, although he, like me, is now thirteen. I step backward to join my parents and sister. This is Katherine’s first visit to court, and my mother’s hawklike gaze is upon her as she in turn makes her obeisance. My youngest sister, Mary, who is only five years old, has been left at home with her nurse. I doubt my parents will ever permit her to attend the court.

  The King addresses my father. “I trust you had a good journey, my lord.”

  “We made good time, Your Majesty, I thank you. I trust Your Majesty is enjoying his progress.”

  “Well enough, my lord. We have been most loyally received everywhere, and it is gratifying to find that our subjects are in general obedient to our laws governing religion.”

  “His Majesty is looking forward to the jousts tomorrow,” puts in Warwick.

  “I would prefer to be taking part rather than just watching them,” complains Edward, suddenly an adolescent boy rather than a king.

  “Now, Your Majesty knows that that would be unwise. Were any accident to befall you, which God forbid, there would be nothing to prevent the Lady Mary from succeeding to the throne and restoring the popish faith.”

  Edward frowns, once more the King. “I daresay you speak truth,” he sighs. “I would I could reform my sister’s opinions. She is the most obstinate lady.”

  He turns again to my parents. “We hope very much that you will join us for the sport tomorrow.”

  “With pleasure, Your Majesty,” replies my father, recognizing dismissal and retreating backward, bowing low, toward the door, with us following in his wake.

  The next morning, my mother comes to my chamber in a flurry of excitement.

  “Jane! The King wishes you to sit beside him in the gallery overlooking the tiltyard while he watches the sport. This is wonderful news! Now, you must look your best; none of this dowdy black and white! Mrs. Ellen, the gold damask, if you please, and she can wear it with the ruby pendant that Queen Katherine gave her.”

  I stand patiently as Mrs. Ellen fetches the gown and begins to dress me, but eventually I dare to protest. “Madam, the King prefers ladies to be soberly attired. Would it not please him more if I were to dress modestly?”

  “Pshaw! You cannot appear at court garbed as a nun. We’ve been through all this before, and I don’t want to hear it again. I’ve had a good deal more experience with the court than you, and I know how a lady is expected to appear. Now stand still and let Mrs. Ellen lace up that bodice.”

  I dare not gainsay her further.

  The knights in their polished armor and plumed helms thunder at full speed toward each other, lances couched. As they clash across the wooden palisade, the watching crowd cheers itself hoarse. My fingers tensely grip the window ledge of the gallery, where I am sitting with His Majesty and a small group of favored courtiers.

  “He’s down! Sir Robert’s down!” cries the King, as one rider crashes to the ground.

  I lean farther forward. “I hope he is not hurt, sir,” I breathe.

  “I don’t think so.” Fortunately, the unhorsed knight is getting to his feet. He waves to the spectators and earns himself a round of applause. Meanwhile, the victor of the joust, Sir James Knollys, is approaching the gallery on his steed and doffing his helm with a flourish.

  “Yours be the honor, my Lady Jane,” says the King, handing me a golden arrow to present to the knight.

  I rise, blushing.

  “For your valor, sir,” I say, handing the trophy to Sir James, who takes my outstretched hand, kisses it, and bows in courtly fashion.

  “My thanks, fair lady,” he cries. “I am honored indeed!”

  I sit down, abashed by such public attention, as he rides away.

  The Marshal of the Joust is already consulting the names and shields on the Tree of Chivalry at the far end of the lists to see who will next enter the contest. Beside me, King Edward is fidgeting in his chair.

  “I would it was me out there,” he says. “My father was a great champion of the lists—they would not have gainsaid him. But I—I am forever condemned, it seems, to be a spectator.”

  “That is a shame, sir,” I venture. “Could you not insist on taking part? You are the King and must be obeyed.”

  “Ah, Jane, how little you know.” He sighs. “They won’t let me joust in case I get killed. Then the Lady Mary would be Queen, and imagine what that would mean.”

  He looks glum. It’s proving to be an uncomfortable afternoon, in more ways than one. My leather corset is tight and restrictive; it has not yet molded itself to my developing figure, and I sit rigid and stiff-backed on my stool beside the King’s cushioned chair, wishing I could properly breathe. Next to me, His Majesty sits morosely watching the joust and no longer seems to notice that I am here, or the presence of Lady Mary Dudley on his other side. If he does speak at all, it is only to comment on technical points to the young gentleman who stands behind us. Once or twice I catch the twinkling, admiring glance of this fair-haired Irishman, Barnaby FitzPatrick, whose blue eyes keep appraising me appreciatively behind his master’s back. I smile at him uncertainly, unsure whether it is proper to return a young man’s look. To be on the safe side, I try to keep my eyes on the tournament. I am all too aware of my mother, seated not far off, watching me with an eagle eye.

  When the interval comes and refreshments are brought in on gold platters, the King turns to me. “I recognize that pendant. It was my stepmother’s. Master John painted her wearing it. She was a good woman. I miss her.”

  “I too, Your Majesty,” I say wistfully.

  “Her husband, however, was a foolish and dangerous man.” Edward’s voice is colder now. “He was a traitorous schemer. He killed my dog.” I cannot be sure which he regards as the worse crime. “Do you know he was plotting to have us betrothed?”

  “I—I had heard something of the sort, sir,” I say warily.

  The King looks at me uncertainly. “Several people consider it a good idea,” he declares in a lower voice. “I mean, that you and I should marry. My tutors have spoken well of it and tell me it is the dearest hope of many of our reformed faith. They offer
numerous good reasons for such a match, and perhaps they are right. What do you think, my Lady Jane?”

  Astonished that he should broach such a subject, I am struck dumb until I realize that the hopes of many people depend upon my answer.

  “I—Your Majesty,” I say earnestly, “I will do whatever you and my parents wish. I have been told that I will one day make a very good marriage, but I never thought to look so high. Sir, I am your good servant, and I know my duty.”

  “We all know our duty, Cousin,” Edward says severely, “but what of our personal inclinations?”

  “Your Majesty does me too much honor. I scarce know what to say—” I break off, unsure of what he wants me to reply.

  “What I mean,” says the King, coming to my rescue, “is, would it please you to marry me and become Queen of England?”

  “Your Majesty need not ask.” I feel my cheeks grow hot. “It is the greatest honor any lady could wish for, and more than my desire.”

  There is an uncomfortable pause. Have I said too much? My mother is watching us intently from her place nearby. I can tell she is desperate to know what we are saying.

  Edward sighs. “Unfortunately, I cannot ask it of you. For state reasons, I am betrothed to the Princess Elisabeth of France, and my councillors are of the opinion that those state reasons override all other considerations. But I wish you to know that, were I just Edward and you just Jane, I would prefer to marry you. We accord well together and have similar views. The Princess is a Catholic, and I will have to change her opinions. God send she does not prove stubborn. Kings,” he adds sadly, “cannot make their own choices. I wished you to know that.”

  “I understand, sir.” I am startled—is this an end to all my parents’ grand schemes?—and strangely relieved. I have a feeling that marriage to this cold, haughty, insensitive youth would be no easy life. And I have no wish to be Queen of England, although I would have embraced it if God had shown me that my duty lay that way.

  “Oh, one thing more,” says the King, wiping cake crumbs from his mouth and reaching for his goblet. “This conversation is to remain privy to ourselves only.”

 
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