Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  “Of course, sir.” The last thing I would do is tell my parents. I am quite happy to let them go on thinking that my marriage to the King is a possibility. At least that will deter them from looking about elsewhere for a husband, which will in turn buy me precious time before I submit to the bonds of wedlock.


  The masque goes on interminably. Although the Earl of Oxford’s players are among the best to be found and provide a lavish spectacle with wonderful costumes and scenery, I cannot enjoy it. A throbbing headache torments me, and although I often suffer thus with my monthly courses, they are not the cause of it this time. A weariness and lassitude portend that I am, as Mrs. Ellen would say, “coming down with something.”

  Trying not to betray my discomfort, and fighting my urgent need to sleep, I look surreptitiously along the high table to see if any other guests are showing signs of boredom. Our hosts, Lord and Lady Willoughby, great landowners in this part of Essex, are sitting there with bright smiles on their faces, nodding appreciatively in time with the music. After leaving Oxford, my parents took us to stay at the houses of several noble acquaintances, before settling in for two months as guests of their friends, the Willoughbys. In a couple of days we will be returning home, much, I suspect, to our hosts’ secret relief, and this splendid banquet and entertainment have been arranged to mark the end of our stay.

  Between Lord and Lady Willoughby sits the Lady Mary, who has ridden over from her house at Newhall to grace the proceedings as guest of honor. She too seems to be enjoying herself, but it is hard to tell if she is happy. The Lady Mary is thirty-four and looks much older. There are lines of disappointment and sorrow on her face, a few gray streaks in her red hair, and she is as thin as ever. Everyone knows that life has not been easy for her, especially during the last few years; she has fought a bitter, ongoing battle for her Mass, and although she is misguided in her beliefs, she must have suffered greatly through it. I have heard it whispered that, earlier this year, she was on the point of escaping from England to seek shelter with her cousin the Emperor, but was deterred at the last minute by friends who warned her that, should the King die without heirs, her chances of succeeding to the throne would be severely jeopardized if she was not in England. So here she is, still defying her brother and the council.

  Although she knows that my family is of the reformed faith, the Lady Mary greeted us warmly enough today. She might deplore our conversion as much as we do her obstinacy and error, but her sense of kinship is plainly strong, and when she raised my mother, her cousin, from her curtsy, she kissed her affectionately. “How do you, my Lady Dorset? Well enough, I hope. And this is your daughter, Lady Katherine, is it not? She is a fair maid, I declare, favored with beauty. May the blessed saints guide her, for earthly comeliness can lead to earthly temptations. And this of course is Lady Jane.”

  Although she kissed me on both cheeks and has shown great courtesy to me since, I sense a certain chill from her. Perhaps she is aware of how much I deplore her for adhering to the Roman faith and insisting on clinging to the old, discredited ways, when we have all been shown a new and truer way to God. I watch her as she sits there, absorbed in the masque, a spare, stiff-backed little woman who is dressed gaudily and extravagantly, as I would expect a Catholic to be. She is too openly emotional, too quick to burst into laughter at the antics of the players. And too ready to burst into tears, or so my mother says. I have seen for myself how she dwells far too much upon the past, forever making embarrassing references to her “sainted mother,” or brooding on remembered hurts. She peppers her conversation with allusions to her faith—to “Our Lady” or “the blessed saints”—as though she is unaware of the King’s wishes or the demands of the law. It seems to me she goes out of her way to provoke those of us who have embraced the true religion.

  At last the interminable evening ends, and we make our way back to our lodgings.

  “The Lady Mary has invited us to visit her at Newhall when we leave here the day after tomorrow,” my mother announces as we cross the courtyard. I stifle a groan.

  The next morning, I awake with a high fever and know little of what is happening until three days later, when I am myself again, although much weakened. Mrs. Ellen has been tending me and is obviously pleased to see me making a recovery.

  On the fourth day, I am better still, although as yet unfit for travel.

  My lady mother looms beside the bed. “I am glad to see you improved, Jane. I think you should get up for a bit. We have delayed our departure for Newhall because of your illness and cannot keep the Lady Mary waiting any longer. I’d like to see you ready to travel in the morning.”

  “But, madam,” protests Mrs. Ellen, “the Lady Jane is still quite weak. It will be two days at least before she can travel.”

  My lady looks at me with narrowed eyes. “She looks healthy enough to me. I don’t believe in mollycoddling children. Now, Jane, get up, have something to eat, and prepare yourself for the journey tomorrow. We really must move on.”

  After she has gone, I slide slowly out of bed and stand up. My head is spinning and Mrs. Ellen has to hold me steady to stop me from falling. I sink into a chair by the fire, and she hastens to put a shawl round my shoulders, then brings me some warming pottage. As I spoon it up, she sits watching me.

  “You don’t want to go to Newhall, do you, Jane?” she asks perceptively.

  “No. It is a Catholic house. And I don’t think the Lady Mary likes me very much.”

  “I understand that. But, Jane—you wouldn’t pretend to be ill just to avoid going there, would you?”

  “No, I would not,” I say truthfully. “I am indeed feeling poorly. But I also know my duty to my parents.”

  “I never doubted it,” she says, smiling. “Yet I could tell your lady mother had her suspicions. Now, eat that up—it’ll do you good.”

  I am still weak and light-headed when we climb into our coach in the morning, having taken our leave of Lord and Lady Willoughby. And as the unsprung vehicle trundles off on the dirt track that passes for a road, bound for Newhall, I sit there fighting the rising nausea and longing for my bed.


  Newhall is impressive! It’s a vast perpendicular palace with a five-hundred-foot-long façade, beautiful oriel windows, and spacious courtyards. My great-uncle Henry VIII owned it, and improved it, so my father says, at enormous cost. It was he who set up the colorful royal arms above the entrance door, and thanks to his bounty, the palace boasts luxurious royal apartments, a fine long gallery, and a tennis court.

  I cannot but marvel at the splendor in which the Lady Mary lives, although I know that she is the heiress presumptive to the throne and a great magnate in her own right. Yet I am shocked at the all-too-obvious reminders of her popish beliefs that taint the beauty of the house. There are even statues of saints in the chapel, which must offend any good Protestant, never mind flout the law. I am relieved therefore when my parents decline, politely but firmly, to attend Mass, because it means that I must follow their example. Nevertheless, I take care not to offend my good hostess and plead illness as an excuse.

  “She breaks the law with impunity,” my mother observes to my father. Almost the entire household is in the chapel for compline, and we are at leisure in the privy chamber. Katherine and Mary have gone to bed, but I have been allowed to stay up for a little.

  “I don’t know why the council let her get away with it,” my lord replies, draining his goblet.

  “The King has to be careful,” my lady points out. “He knows he risks the wrath of the Emperor if he takes any proceedings against his sister.”

  “He has put a great deal of pressure on her,” my father observes.

  “It is not enough. She is his subject, like the rest of us. That she should have her Mass is intolerable.”

  “I fear for the Lady Mary,” I say.

  “You do right to fear for her,” says my father with feeling. “She is courting the gr
avest danger.”

  “I didn’t mean that. I fear for her soul. She is in peril, and she doesn’t seem to realize it. And she is imperiling the souls of all the folk in her household. I wish she could come to an understanding of the truth.”

  “She was ever obstinate, like her mother,” my lady retorts.

  “Someone should point out the error of her ways,” I persist.

  “Many have tried,” my father says drily. “Even threats haven’t moved her. Let her go to perdition, I say. It’ll be her own fault.”

  I am shocked at his flippancy. “In charity, someone must show her the way,” I insist.

  “Are you suggesting that you yourself could succeed where others have failed?” my mother asks, grimly amused.

  “If it were to save her soul, yes, I could try.”

  “You? A girl of thirteen, to preach doctrines to a princess of thirty-four, no less? The very idea. As if she would listen to you. She would see it as gross presumption.”

  “You just keep out of it, Jane,” my father instructs. “You mean well, but there may come a day when we need the Lady Mary’s favor, so it would not do to prejudice her against us now.”

  “Very well, sir,” I say, but inwardly my heart burns with zeal to bring the Lady Mary to the light.

  The next day, I am following Lady Anne Wharton, one of Mary’s ladies, through the empty chapel on my way to the royal lodgings, which lie beyond it. I am startled as Lady Anne stops and curtsies to the altar, on which is set what Catholics call the Blessed Host: the bread and the wine used in the Mass.

  “Why do you curtsy? Is the Lady Mary in the chapel?” I look about me, fearing that I have neglected to show the proper courtesy to the Princess.

  Lady Anne frowns. “No, madam. She is not here. I make my curtsy to Him that made us all.”

  I cannot help feeling shocked at such blatant papistry, and at the dangerous ignorance of this poor woman. “Why? How can He be there that made us all, when it was only the baker who made Him?”

  It is Lady Anne’s turn to be shocked. “My Lady Jane! That is blasphemy, to so denigrate the Sacred Host. Have you no respect?”

  “I meant no offense, my lady,” I protest. “But I am of the belief that no miracle occurs in the Mass. The bread and wine remain just that, and only when the priest blesses them do they become symbolic of Our Lord’s sacrifice.”

  “May God have mercy on you for your heresy!” she cries, and hurries me out of the chapel, as if I should contaminate it simply by being there.

  The Lady Mary is not in her apartments. Later, I meet her in the gardens, walking her dogs; she is wrapped in a fur-lined velvet cloak against the cold wind. Her ladies trail behind her.

  “My Lady Jane,” she says, extending her hand. Her manner is decidedly cooler than when we last met. As I make my obeisance, I realize that Lady Anne has probably told her what I said in the chapel. “I trust you are quite recovered now,” the Lady Mary continues. Her voice is frosty.

  “I am quite well, Your Grace. I hope to resume my lessons soon.”

  “You are well taught, child. But too well taught for your own good, and those who have had the rearing of you have much to answer for. Remember, a little knowledge is an unwise thing. And a little humility never goes amiss.”

  I would like to speak out, but I dare not. My father’s injunction has stayed with me. So I bow my head meekly. “I am Your Grace’s most humble cousin.”

  But the damage is done, and the rest of our visit passes in a rather strained atmosphere. Yes, I was unpardonably rude: even though I had the right of the matter, I should have held my tongue. I don’t know what demon gets into me these days. I was never so hot with my passions and my opinions when I was younger, but now I feel so strongly about things and surprise even myself! Mrs. Ellen says it is something to do with my age and that I must learn to temper my strong views and curb my tongue.

  “Remember, there are two sides to every argument,” she tells me.

  “But when it comes to faith, there can be only one,” I insist. “There is only one way to God, of that I am convinced.”


  The plague known as the sweating sickness has returned, as it does most summers. People are dying in the stinking streets of London, and the wealthier subjects of the King have fled to their country houses to escape the contagion. We are therefore at Bradgate, where my parents occupy themselves through the long summer days with hunting and entertaining. One of their guests is my lady’s young stepmother, Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. She arrives swathed in mourning, bringing news of great import.

  Some years before I was born, on the day Anne Boleyn gave birth to the Lady Elizabeth, my grandfather Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, married this Katherine Willoughby. She was then a great beauty, half-Spanish—her mother had been one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting—and only fourteen years old. My grandfather was then forty-eight, but he was besotted with her. The new Duchess later became one of Katherine Parr’s ladies, which was how I got to know her well, and also a staunch Protestant. Before my grandfather died, she bore him two sons, Henry and Charles, my stepuncles.

  Now the Duchess is at Bradgate, in great grief. Her two little boys, successive but fleeting Dukes of Suffolk, have both died of the sweating sickness. She weeps in my mother’s arms in the parlor. She cannot find the words to tell of her tragedy.

  “They succumbed within days of each other,” she sobs at length.

  My parents’ eyes meet over her shaking shoulders. This news, terrible though it is, is of great significance to them, for my mother is now her father’s only remaining heir and, as such, inherits his title and wealth. As her husband, my father may hold that title in her right—which means that they are now Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, raised to the highest echelon of the peerage.

  As soon as poor Lady Suffolk has retired for the night, my lord calls for wine to toast his advancement.

  “Who would have believed it?” says my lady delightedly. “Not that I do not mourn my little brothers. But God moves in mysterious ways, and always for a purpose.”

  My father pours the wine and hands round the goblets. Even Katherine gets one.

  “To their graces the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk!” he cries.

  We drink the toast.

  “You know what this will mean for us all?” my lady says to Katherine and me.

  “Will you have to wear coronets?” Katherine asks.

  “Yes, but only on state occasions,” says my father, smiling.

  “Dukes and duchesses take precedence over all other ranks of the nobility at court,” my lady explains. “We will enjoy many privileges there. We will be entitled to lodge in one of the most comfortable apartments, to have more servants attend on us, and to keep more horses in the King’s stables.”

  “And I believe we’ll also get a bigger daily ration of bread, ale, fire-wood, and coal,” chimes in my lord, grinning broadly.

  “Most important of all,” continues my lady, ignoring him, “is the likelihood of our enjoying greater influence with the King and with his Grace of Northumberland. And for that reason, Husband, I think we should take ourselves to court without delay. I hear His Majesty has removed to Richmond.”

  “We should leave at once,” he agrees. “First thing in the morning. Have our chests packed now.”

  “What of Lady Suffolk?” I ask.

  “Oh, dear, I had forgotten…,” says my mother. “Not to worry. She can stay here as long as she likes. You can look after her, Jane.”

  They have been back at court a week, and I am wilting under the strain of having to console poor Lady Suffolk when the messenger arrives.

  “Our lady mother is ill,” I tell Katherine, after reading my father’s letter. “They thought it was the sweating sickness at first, and it was feared that she would succumb within hours.”

  “Poor Mother!” cries Katherine, concerned.

  “Fortunately not. It’s just a low fev
er. But I am summoned to Richmond to help tend her and cheer her convalescence.”

  “You might see the King,” Katherine says, her eyes shining with excitement.

  “I might.”

  “Can’t I come?” she asks wistfully.

  “No, sweeting, I’m sorry. My lord writes that you must play the hostess in my absence.”

  She looks crestfallen.

  “And you must look after Mary too. We can’t leave her all on her own.”

  I embrace my sister. “If I could stay here, I would. I have no taste for court life. But I am commanded and must go. I have no choice.”

  “I would I could change places with you.”

  “So do I!” I say fervently.

  Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk


  It is October, and I am perfectly recovered, ready to enjoy my new status as Duchess of Suffolk. With the arrival of colder weather, the sweating sickness has abated, and the councillors and other nobles have returned to court. At last Henry and I begin to enjoy the privileges of our ducal rank and can revel in the deference shown us, and in our new prominence at court feasts and state occasions. We are closer to the King than ever.

  Others, also, are enjoying the benefits of advancement within the peerage; the Earl of Warwick, plainly determined to consolidate his power by rewarding his supporters, has had the King make several new creations. William Herbert, that was Queen Katherine’s brother-in-law, is Earl of Pembroke; William Paulet is Marquess of Winchester; and Warwick himself is made Duke of Northumberland to ensure his seniority above his colleagues. Others have received knighthoods.

  Henry says that the Duke of Somerset, the former Lord Protector, who was released from the Tower some time ago to serve his King once more (albeit in a humbler capacity, and provided he cooperates with the new regime), sees in this distribution of honors a move by Northumberland against himself, since his has been of late a lone voice of protest against John Dudley’s rule.

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