Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  The procession is late. The crowd grows restive.

  “You know, the King agonized for weeks before signing the warrant,” my father tells us.

  “Doubtless my lord of Northumberland put much pressure on him,” my mother says.

  “Somerset is his uncle,” my lord reminds us. “He has already been constrained to send one uncle to his death. But the Duke warned him again and again that to show mercy would be unwise, and that he cannot permit such seditious traitors to flourish.”

  Suddenly the cry goes up: “He’s coming! The good Duke is coming!”

  It takes some considerable time to march the condemned man through the vast crowds assembled around the scaffold. The mood of the mob is angry.

  “If I were the Lieutenant of the Tower, I’d be worried in case my prisoner is snatched from his guards and spirited away,” says my father. “I wouldn’t put it past them.”

  Yet the little procession successfully pushes its way through the press of humanity, and Somerset mounts the steps to the scaffold. It is strange to reflect that a man who once wielded such power, and who even sent his own brother to his death in this same place, could be brought so low. A tall fellow in front shifts position, and I can see the wooden block, standing in the straw. I shudder again. What must the poor Duke be thinking as he looks upon it? How must it feel to know that, within minutes, you will be dead, your life severed at the neck? It is too horrible to contemplate.

  “Now, Jane,” my father is saying, “according to custom, a prisoner always makes a speech from the scaffold, preferably confessing his guilt and praising the King’s justice, and asking the people to pray for him.”

  Sure enough, the Duke has stepped to the rail of the scaffold and is holding up his hand to hush the crowd, but before he can open his mouth, the people begin yelling, “Reprieve! Reprieve!” as a small troop of soldiers can be seen approaching at a gallop across the Tower’s drawbridge.

  The Duke of Somerset stares at them disbelievingly. He must, poor soul, have prepared himself for death, have steeled himself for the final blow of the ax. His face registers shock and longing: he must desperately desire to live.

  We can see the headsman, sinister in his black hood, speaking to his assistant. The soldiers are nearly at the scaffold.

  “Reprieve! Reprieve!” the crowd is chanting, parting ranks to let the troop through.

  “My Lord Lieutenant, there is no reprieve,” announces their captain in a loud voice. “The Governor of the Tower thought it prudent to send reinforcements in case of any trouble. You men, surround the scaffold!”

  There is a furious roar from the crowd. The Duke looks as if he might faint; how terrible for him, having to face the renewed reality of death after having his hopes so cruelly raised. Yet in a firm voice he calls for the people to be quiet and delivers his prepared speech. Then he raises his hand once more.

  “I am the King’s loyal subject!” he declares.

  In all too short a time the grim formalities are dispensed with, and he kneels in the straw before the block. I have to close my eyes, I cannot watch, but beside me I can sense that my parents are tense with expectation. There is a pregnant silence, a sickening thud, then roars and screams of disapproval. When I dare to look again, heaving, shoving bodies are scrambling beneath the scaffold, and hands are frenziedly dipping handkerchiefs and cloths into the blood that drips through the boards, seeking a relic of their hero.

  “For sure, he is a martyr!” a man cries.

  “A true martyr for the Protestant faith!” another yells.

  I stand, nausea rising, unable to bring myself to look upon the mangled thing that lies on the scaffold. Around me, men and women are shouting and weeping in a frenzy. I swear that, at this moment, there is no more hated man in London than he who has supplanted the Good Duke—His Grace of Northumberland.

  WESTMINSTER ABBEY, APRIL 1552

  It is cool in Westminster Abbey. We have sat here in our privileged places near the altar waiting a long time for the arrival of the King. Today is St. George’s Day, and although, by law, saints’ days may no longer be observed in England, St. George is regarded as a national hero. He was certainly no papist priest or martyr, but a knight-errant who embodied the ideals of chivalry still held dear by the King and the nobility, and therefore it is thought right, and indeed patriotic, to celebrate his feast day.

  Spring is blossoming outside, but I am wearing my customary black, much to my mother’s evident disgust. Fortunately, by the time she saw me, it was too late to change. I am gratified to see that the abbey has been stripped of all its idolatrous Roman ornaments. Even so, it is still lavishly appointed by Protestant standards, but it is the greatest royal mausoleum in the land and houses the tombs of many kings and queens.

  My mother frowns at Katherine, who is simpering at a handsome youth sitting near us in the nave. This impudent young man is making sheep’s eyes at us both, and my mother nudges my father sharply, alerting him to what is going on.

  “I wouldn’t worry, my dear,” he murmurs. “That’s the Earl of Pembroke’s heir, Lord William Herbert. No bad catch for any young lady of good birth.”

  “He’s too cheeky by far,” snorts my lady, unbending.

  “It’s just his age. They’re all either moonstruck or randy as tomcats. I recall that I was the same. But there’s no harm in him eyeing up our girls. A young lord of his rank will know that it can go no further. Unless, of course, his father and I come to some agreement. How would that please you?”

  “For Jane?” asks my lady. I look at them, startled.

  My father bends his head close to my mother’s ear. “No, for Katherine. There’s a bigger fish to fry for Jane.”

  My mother silences him with a look.

  This brings to mind a conversation that took place between my parents a month or so ago, when we were all three taking our ease after supper in the winter parlor at Bradgate.

  My lady was harping on, as she does from time to time, about the likelihood of my marrying the King.

  “But you are forgetting, my dear, that he is still betrothed,” my father pointed out.

  “Betrothals can be broken, and often are,” she retorted. “Wait until he is declared of age, and then we’ll see. I haven’t given up hope. But to be plain with you, I can’t see Northumberland relinquishing power when the King comes of age. Not without a struggle.”

  “Oh, I don’t doubt he intends to remain chief minister, and who could blame him? We’d all do the same, given the chance. But even he must realize that the King has to grow up and come into his own. And if I know His Majesty, he’ll assert his authority sooner rather than later. He’s already growing restive at being subject to his councillors. Mark my words, he’ll be another such as his father, given his head.”

  “I’ll wager he’ll be even more of a fanatic than King Henry,” my mother declared. “My late revered uncle burned heretics, but mainly because they espoused beliefs that conflicted with his policies. With the son, policy takes second place to religious principles.”

  “Our daughter is of like mind, in case you hadn’t noticed,” said my father wryly, looking at me.

  “Oh, she’s just difficult for the sake of it,” retorted my lady testily, missing the humor. “I don’t know what gets into her.”

  Sitting here now, in the cool of the abbey, I reflect that it would be wonderful to be Queen, if only to be able, just once, to put my mother firmly in her place!

  The trumpets sound the arrival of the royal procession, and the entire congregation rises to its feet. The King passes along the nave, preceded by the Knights of the Garter, whose feast day this is. Edward’s slender figure seems engulfed by his blue velvet Garter mantle. He was unwell recently, and it was first given out that he was suffering from an attack of the measles; then they announced that he had smallpox. I conclude that, as his pale skin shows no sign of pockmarks, it must have been measles after all. His resumption of royal duties hopefully betokens a good recovery, but h
e still appears tired and seems to have lost some weight, although it is hard to tell in those robes. I’m sure his face looks thinner.

  Fortunately, the court is soon to leave Whitehall for Greenwich, where the fresh air will hopefully bring back some color into His Majesty’s cheeks. I know that many lavish entertainments are planned, and rumor has it that the King is to be permitted to tilt at the quintain—the nearest they will ever allow him to jousting in the lists. Then, from Greenwich, the court is to depart on a long summer progress, so that His Majesty can see—and be seen by—his subjects throughout the south and west of England. I fervently hope he will have recovered his strength by then.

  On my knees in the abbey, I pray that King Edward makes a full and speedy recovery. I do this not so much because I am fond of him—it is hard to be fond of one who is so detached and cold—but because it is unthinkable that the Lady Mary should ever come to the throne.

  John Dudley,

  Duke of Northumberland

  SALISBURY AND WINDSOR, SEPTEMBER 1552

  The progress is to be curtailed. The lords of the council inform me that, after carrying out what they describe as a punishing schedule of public engagements and lavish entertainments, the King’s health has broken under the strain. Fearing that His Majesty will not be able to go on, they have summoned me from London, where I have been attending to the business of government during the King’s absence.

  Arriving at Salisbury, I am shocked at Edward’s appearance. When he left on his progress at the end of July, he seemed restored to health, as robust as ever, and of good color. Now, just over a month later, he looks ghastly, thin and white, and even his lowlier subjects are beginning to comment on it.

  I bow deeply, trying to conceal my dismay. The implications of what I see are manifold, and I need time to think about them. For now, however, I put on my most avuncular manner, saying kindly, “I am most distressed to see Your Majesty so unwell.”

  “It is of little moment, my lord,” replies the King. He sounds weary.

  “Perhaps Your Majesty should return to London.”

  “I cannot disappoint these good people. Some of them have gone to great trouble and expense on my behalf. Kings should not give way to weakness.” He coughs.

  “They should when the welfare of their kingdom is at stake,” I tell him firmly. “If Your Majesty, by persisting on his progress, makes himself ill, then what of his duty to his people and to the true religion? Sir, your councillors are alarmed, and I too am concerned about your health. I must remind you that your heir is the Lady Mary. Now, for the sake of England and its Church, I beg you, go home and rest.”

  The other lords present add their pleas to mine, and the King, knowing himself defeated, gives in with good grace.

  “But please have our secretaries write to those we have disappointed and extend our heartfelt apologies for our absence,” he insists.

  “It shall be done,” I assure him. “And now you must set all cares aside, and lie down.”

  He looks relieved as he rises from his chair of estate and walks slowly toward his privy chamber. At the door, he pauses.

  “Thank you, my lords. I do confess I have never felt so ill in all my life.”

  We are at Windsor. Despite having rested and submitted to the attentions of a whole team of royal physicians, who all declare themselves puzzled by His Majesty’s illness, Edward shows no signs of recovering. In fact, his condition grows worse.

  Desperate for a remedy, I send to Italy to summon the eminent and renowned doctor and astrologer Girolamo Cardano to England to examine the King. Cardano duly arrives, consults the royal physicians, and disappears into the royal bedchamber, where he remains for the next hour.

  The doctors stand in a little group, keeping an eye on the door and conversing in low voices, so that I cannot hear what they are saying. Do they know more than they are telling? Are they too frightened to disclose their fears? Or are they reluctant to have their ignorance exposed?

  Dr. Cardano and I sit facing each other in my private closet, where the most secret business of the realm is conducted.

  “You may speak plainly,” I say in Latin, grateful that the Italian is fluent in that language. There is an ominous pause.

  “I am very impressed with the excellent virtues and singular graces of His Majesty, which can only be a gift from God,” Dr. Cardano begins. “I cannot say enough to commend him: he is such a worthy Prince, despite being so tender in years. For his mature wisdom, his wit, and his princely bearing, I have met few his equal.”

  “Yes, yes,” I interrupt, desperate for him to come to the matter in hand, “but what of His Majesty’s health?”

  Cardano’s smile disappears. “Such a paragon is too good for this world, I fear, my lord. I regret to inform you—and I cannot stress how deeply—that the King shows all the symptoms of a consumption of the lungs.”

  I feel as if cold fingers are streaking down my spine.

  “I must confess to you,” he continues, “that before I visited His Majesty, I took the liberty of casting his horoscope, even though I was aware that such things are not permitted in your country. I assure you, it was purely for the purpose of making a diagnosis. I saw therein the omens of a great calamity, and when I was admitted to the King’s presence, I observed unmistakable signs in his face denoting an early death. There is no cure for this disease. His vital powers will weaken, and he will die.”

  “How long?” I bark.

  “It is impossible to say with any certainty. Months, a year at most, no more.” He bows his head.

  I sit silent, digesting this terrible news. I feel I have aged ten years in a single moment. But this is no time for self-pity. I must safeguard my interests and pray for time. I tell the doctor, “The council will wish to be told the results of your examination. May I remind you that in England it is treason to predict the death of the King?” I smile meaningfully. “Say whatever you like, fob them off with platitudes, tell them that His Majesty needs a period of rest in order to recover, but I warn you, do not even hint at the seriousness of his condition. If you manage to allay their fears, you will be well rewarded and may congratulate yourself on having done me a signal service. Because what I need now—what this kingdom needs, and what the Church of England needs—is time.”

  Lady Jane Grey

  HAMPTON COURT, OCTOBER 1552

  After resting for several weeks at Windsor, the King has risen from his sickbed and traveled to Hampton Court for his fifteenth-birthday celebrations. My family and I are among the many lords and ladies attending a state banquet held in King Henry’s great hall with its magnificent hammer-beam roof.

  Because of our near kinship, my parents (and consequently myself ) are among the few people who have been made aware, to our sorrow, of the gravity of the King’s condition, and we have been sworn to secrecy. Until today, however, the reality of the situation was not brought home to me, but now, seated with my father and mother toward the end of the high table, I have a good view of His Majesty and am appalled to see him looking so ill, with sunken, flushed cheeks and swollen limbs. What is more, to judge from the furtive glances and alarmed expressions along the tables, others are shocked too. I watch my poor cousin as he toys with his food, leaving most of it, and from time to time I see him hold his chest with one hand and cough into a fine lawn handkerchief held in the other; once, I swear, I see that handkerchief come away spotted with blood. The King’s cough is harsh, racking his body, and it interrupts him every time he tries to speak.

  I turn to my lady and whisper, “Madam, I fear His Majesty is far more ill than I had expected.”

  “Hush!” she hisses fiercely. “You must not speak of such things here. Remember, we have been told by my lord of Northumberland, for the King’s sake, to act as if all is well. Very few people know how ill he actually is, and for very good reasons.”

  “But surely people notice? And surely the King himself realizes how sick he is?”

  “The Duke wants everyo
ne to believe that he is slowly improving. I hear that the King himself has been told he will recover in due course,” she murmurs. Poor, deluded soul, I think sadly. “Now, enough,” my mother adds briskly. “This is a festive occasion and should not be spoiled by mournful talk.”

  I cannot help but feel mournful, though. That poor boy. He cannot recover: it should be obvious to everyone, himself included. Death sits upon him as clear as day. He should be warned of it and, in charity, given time to prepare his soul.

  I am disgusted to see Northumberland carrying on as normal, sitting at His Majesty’s right hand, laughing and jesting. Already he is planning, for the King’s delight, a number of elaborate and costly entertainments for Christmas, which is probably the last Christmas Edward will ever see. My father says the Duke is also trying to hurry along negotiations for His Majesty’s marriage to Elisabeth of France, hoping no doubt that my poor cousin will father an heir before he dies, although my lord says that, looking at him, he doubts he would be capable of it. Yet Northumberland continues with his charade, intent on deceiving the world. It is even said that the Duke has made belated friendly approaches to the Lady Mary, with an all-too-transparent motive, and it is certain that he has banned the Lady Elizabeth—who is far too astute for his comfort—from visiting her brother. Without a doubt, he is playing for time and arming himself against several contingencies. But can the insensitive man not see that, by maintaining the fiction that the King’s illness is just a temporary indisposition, he is imposing an intolerable strain on Edward, who is plainly far too ill to be cooperating in all this deception?

  The Lady Mary

  NEWHALL AND WHITEHALL, FEBRUARY 1553

  “I don’t like this at all,” I confide to Sir Robert Rochester, the comptroller of my household. “Everywhere I go, and even in my own house, I hear rumors that the King is seriously ill; and yet from the court, and in particular from that villain Northumberland, nothing apart from this.” I wave the document that has just arrived. “I have sent letter after letter, begging to know the truth, and I am just fobbed off with extravagant pleasantries. Does it not occur to you, Sir Robert, that a year ago they were sending me threats? Now they seem to be falling over themselves to win favor with me.”

 
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