Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  “It does seem suspicious, madam,” my comptroller agrees.

  “The Emperor’s ambassador tells me that Northumberland has taken over the Treasury and begun hoarding huge sums of money.” I twist the rings on my fingers in agitation. “Now I receive this invitation from the Duke to attend a masque to be performed at court at Candlemas. All he tells me is that the performers are a group of very talented children, and that I might be amused by their antics. It beggars belief: the King might be dying, yet all he can write to me is of mummeries!”

  “I beg of you, madam, do not accept.”

  “Oh, but I must, my friend, I must,” I insist firmly. “For all my reservations, I must see for myself how my brother is. He may have fallen grievously into error, but I was ever fond of him. And I am next in line to the throne, never forget that. I should see for myself how matters stand.”

  “It may be a trap.”

  “Fear not, I will take with me a goodly entourage—shall we say one hundred stout knights and their ladies? And we shall go very publicly in procession through London. I know I may say without vanity that the people love me, if only because I am my father’s daughter. I am sure they would suffer no harm to come to me.”

  “I admire your courage, madam,” says Sir Robert sincerely, “but my mind will not be eased until you return safely home again.”

  I smile at him affectionately. He has served me faithfully and well for years.

  “I appreciate your concern, Sir Robert, and will take good care of myself, trusting in God and Our Lady to protect me. Now, I must have my gear packed. The Duke writes that he has arranged for me to stay in the former priory of St. John at Clerkenwell”—I sigh—“another great religious house turned over to secular use. Well, I am sure I will at least be lodged comfortably.”

  I make my ceremonial entry into London, and the people turn out in large numbers to greet me and pour blessings on me. Northumberland himself receives me most cordially at Mile End and escorts me to Clerkenwell.

  “A fine day, madam,” he observes, riding by my side.

  “Unusually fine for the season,” I agree.

  He bends toward me. “I regret that His Majesty is too unwell to receive Your Grace today,” he murmurs. “May I suggest that you come to Whitehall tomorrow? He will be better then, I hope.”

  I have no choice but to concur.

  The next day, at the palace, I am astonished to find Northumberland and the whole privy council waiting to receive me, bowing low as I approach. This, more than anything, convinces me that my poor brother is indeed dying. Of course, they are anxious to court favor with their future sovereign, no doubt hoping that such excessive courtesy and demonstrable goodwill will erase any bitter memories of the cruel way in which they relentlessly persecuted me in the past.

  Nevertheless, I wait three days to see the King. By this time I have heard the latest worrying rumors that are circulating at court and am more than ever persuaded that he cannot last long. I am also deeply troubled by allegations—admittedly made by those who have no love for Northumberland—that the Duke is poisoning His Majesty. But why, I ask myself, would he do such a thing? It would be madness. He has far more to gain from keeping Edward alive, for he must be aware that he has nothing, or worse, to hope for from me. Indeed, I have already made up my mind that John Dudley will receive short shrift when I ascend the throne: the man is a heretic and a traitor, and it galls me to have to show courtesy toward him. But the time will surely come when a reckoning must be made.

  On the fourth day, I am relieved to hear that His Majesty is well enough to receive me. Nothing, however, not even the wildest rumor, has prepared me for the sight of my brother lying weak and wasted in the vast state bed. Northumberland has just informed me that he is on the mend, but how could I ever believe it now?

  “Good sister, it is kind of you to come,” says Edward in a tired, cracked voice, extending his hand to be kissed. I kneel by the bed and put my lips to his fingers, trying not to wrinkle my nose at the putrid smell coming from him. The poor boy looks mortally ill, and I am grieved to see it, remembering his youth and that, for all his wrongheaded opinions, he is my brother. For a short while we converse, touching only on safe matters, and avoiding contentious ones such as his health or our religious differences, but before long Edward closes his eyes.

  “I cannot talk further,” he mutters. “I…must…sleep.”

  “Sleep well, sir,” I whisper, and quietly leave the room, tears blinding my eyes.

  “His Majesty looks dreadfully ill,” I say accusingly to Northumberland.

  “Your Grace speaks truth,” he answers smoothly. “He has good days and bad days. He seemed better this morning, but I fear that any excitement overtaxes and exhausts him. I regret that I have had to cancel the children’s masque. I hope Your Grace is not too disappointed.”

  “Not at all. My concern is for the King my brother. What do his doctors say?”

  “They say he will recover, given time.” The Duke’s face is impassive, impenetrable.

  “And do you believe them?”

  “I am in their hands, madam. They are the experts.”

  “Doctors have been known to be wrong before.”

  “Madam, we have had several opinions, and all concur. I can do no more. We must be patient.”

  I do not believe him—I am no doctor, yet I can see my brother is dying. But there is nothing more to be said.

  “Very well, sir, I will return to Newhall tomorrow.” I wait for him to find some excuse for detaining me at court, but he merely bows.

  “I hope you will keep me informed of the King’s progress,” I say.

  “Of course.” I know he will not keep his word.

  I had thought, when I came to London, that I was walking into a trap, and perhaps I was. If so, I foiled my enemies by coming so publicly and so staunchly attended. I leave with the distinct impression that the wily Duke had invited me as part of another plot entirely, and that he has not finished with me yet.

  John Dudley,

  Duke of Northumberland

  GREENWICH PALACE, KENT, MARCH 1553

  In my closet at Greenwich, I sit alone, deep in thought. There is no escaping that God will soon call the King to Himself, and it is obvious that a radical solution to the problem of the succession is called for, if I am to survive. And, of course, the Church of England.

  So far, I have been cautious. In February the King enjoyed a period of remission from the consumption that is eating away at his lungs and felt fit enough to open Parliament in person. There was, however, much furtive comment about how ill he looked. Somehow I managed to allay the fears of both Lords and Commons and convinced them—and, for that matter, the King himself—that His Majesty is in truth convalescent from a serious illness. Wiser souls at Westminster might have read something sinister into the announcement that the King had, at fifteen, now attained his majority and would henceforth assume personal control of the government of his realm. But I, who know the real state of the boy’s health, have merely placed sovereign power in his hands to lend legality to the plans forming in my mind. I know well that he is in no fit state to govern and that he is happy to delegate everything to his faithful servant—me. It should be no matter, therefore, to persuade him to agree to my scheme for preserving the Protestant religion—and, of course, my own power.

  But the time is not ripe for that yet. To all appearances, Edward is getting better. With Parliament dissolved, the court has moved to Greenwich, where the healthful air is known to be beneficial to invalids. His Majesty believes that, given a few weeks here in the springtime, he might soon be his old self again.

  I, however, am preparing for the worst. I have before me a copy of the late King’s will as well as the scroll on which is enshrined the Act of Succession of 1544, brought to me by the Master of the Rolls. I scrutinize both, looking for loopholes that will justify my plans, but find none. If it were merely a matter of altering King Henry’s will, it would be simple enou
gh: the wishes of a deceased sovereign hold no force in law, and the will could be overridden by another written by Henry’s successor. But an act of Parliament can be altered only by another act of Parliament.

  Of course, Parliament could be summoned again to debate the matter, but the King, worn-out by his state duties last month, has returned exhausted to his bed to recover his strength and is certainly too weak to open a new session. Either his absence or his appearance would give rise to the panicky rumors I have worked so hard to avoid by issuing reassuring bulletins on His Majesty’s health. I need time now to plan carefully for the future—my future—and more time for those plans to be put into effect. Yet I have only to look at the King to see that time is running out.

  It is essential that the public, and even the council for the present, be kept in ignorance of His Majesty’s true state of health for as long as possible. The last thing I want now is Mary’s supporters rallying to her cause. Fortunately, I believe I have been successful in lulling her into a sense of false security.

  As it is, I fear that when I lay my plan before Parliament, it will meet with such opposition as to ensure that it never becomes law.

  The only course open to me, therefore, is to act independently of Parliament. The King’s consent to my proposals should be sufficient to quell any protests. Such a course might not be entirely lawful, but too much is at stake to pay heed to legal niceties.

  I read over the will and the act for the third time. The old King’s intentions are clear: after Edward come Mary and her heirs, then Elizabeth and hers, and after them the heirs of Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor. That means her surviving child, Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, and Frances’s daughters in turn.

  It is plain enough, but I dare not contemplate the consequences to myself, or to England, if the Lady Mary succeeds. The Catholic faith would certainly be restored as the official religion of the kingdom, and the Church of England would once more come under the dominion of the Pope in Rome. Protestants in England would be regarded as heretics, and I should not be surprised if Mary brought back burning as the punishment for heresy. She is obsessed with her faith, and no doubt desirous of being revenged on those who have persecuted her for it. My own destruction is assured.

  Mary must, therefore, never succeed, and I am confident that I can make my fellow councillors see the sense of that. I know I have enemies among them, but even they must realize what Mary’s accession will mean for them—they have all supported me in my battle against her Mass. And while the King has great reverence for his father’s memory and might have scruples against changing his will, he is a zealous champion of the reformed faith and will desire to safeguard all his good work.

  What of Elizabeth then? She is a dark horse, and I do not trust her. She rarely comes to court, and when she does visit the King, she appears meek and pious, but I am not fooled. Beneath that dutiful mask, I have no doubt, lies a devious and dangerous character. I would not like to tangle with Elizabeth—she has no worth for my purposes. No, what I require for the success of my plans is a candidate who is young and malleable; someone who will submit without complaint to my guidance and rule and comply with what is required of them. Elizabeth is not that person.

  There is justification for passing over Mary and Elizabeth, since both were declared bastards when their mothers’ marriages were dissolved, and no bastard can sit on the throne. But they are popular with the people on account of being King Henry’s daughters, and I must tread carefully.

  If I manage to exclude Mary and Elizabeth from the succession, that leaves Frances Suffolk, a Protestant to be sure, but even less likely than the princesses to be meek and biddable. She would certainly never submit patiently to my tutelage. Nor would there be any need for her to do so, for she is thirty-six and quite capable of ruling autonomously.

  But if my Lady Suffolk could be persuaded to waive her right to the succession in favor of her eldest daughter, the Lady Jane Grey, then all would fall into place.

  GREENWICH PALACE, APRIL 1553

  Lying in his sickbed at Greenwich, the King is restless and fretful. Whilst striving to accept God’s will, he plaintively wonders aloud why He has chosen to inflict such suffering upon His faithful servant, and why, when His Majesty has done so much to promote the true religion, and there is still so much left to be done, He has decided to cut down His most devoted son in the first flower of his youth.

  For it is as plain as day that, whatever the rest of us may say to reassure him, the King has guessed the truth.

  “I know there will be no reprieve for me, my lord,” he tells me, fixing me with those cold, impenetrable eyes. “You can stop pretending. Comfort yourself in the knowledge that I am strong in my faith and can face death with courage and patience.”

  In truth, death stalks him through every waking hour. It is apparent in his wasted limbs, his labored breathing, his racking cough, and in the vile, stinking sputum he hawks up, which was until recently greenish yellow, but is now increasingly streaked with bright blood. Yet, for all his brave words, the fear of death haunts his dreams, so that he lies wakeful yet weary, fighting off sleep, while complaining that he is too tired to make the necessary preparations for the salvation of his soul.

  “What is hardest to bear, my lord,” he whispers, “is the knowledge that, once death has done its terrible work on me, all that I have striven for will be undone by my misguided and wrongheaded sister. It sickens me to think of an England returned to the Roman yoke, bedeviled once more by popish superstition and corruption; an England whose people will have scant hope of Heaven, but may face everlasting damnation. It is unbearable to contemplate.” But contemplate it he does as he lies there, hour after hour, his book lying unread on the counterpane, and the warm sun streaming in through the mullioned window.

  I leave him to his terrible preoccupations so that I can mold him to my purpose when he is sufficiently demoralized. Sitting by his bedside, I speak mainly of state affairs and the grievous condition of his health, taking care to hint at the horrors that will engulf us under Mary’s rule; this has the gratifying effect of heightening the King’s fevered anxiety. Like a dog with a slipper, he worries around the problem constantly.

  “What remedy is there?” he cries. “Should not Parliament be summoned to approve a new Act of Succession, passing over the Lady Mary and giving the throne to the Lady Elizabeth, my sweet sister Temperance, who is a loyal Protestant?”

  I take my time answering, as though considering the matter. “Parliament might not agree to set aside the Lady Mary,” I warn, frowning. “If they pass over the Lady Mary, they may, on the same grounds, pass over the Lady Elizabeth, for both have been declared baseborn.” I pause to let this sink in. “Permit me time to think on this, sir. There may be a better way forward.”

  Thus I play on his fears. Perhaps he suspects I have some scheme in mind. No matter. By the time I have finished with him, he will be grateful for it. I just pray that God grants me time to bring my plans to fruition, for I fear that the King is not long for this world.

  Lady Jane Grey

  DORSET HOUSE, APRIL 1553

  Katherine and I stand before our parents in the great chamber at Dorset House.

  “We have sent for you,” my lady begins portentously, “to tell you that we have invited His Grace the Duke of Northumberland to dinner here tomorrow, and that he has asked for you both to be present.”

  My lord adds, “It is essential that you conduct yourselves in a manner befitting your rank and make a good impression on His Grace.”

  “Yes, sir, yes, madam,” we reply, almost in unison. There follows a silence, as if some question needed to be asked and answered.

  “That is all,” says my mother. “Oh, and Jane—dress appropriately.”

  “Something is going on,” I observe as we climb the stairs to our rooms.

  “What do you mean?” asks Katherine. She is a pretty, docile twelve-year-old, but not very perceptive.

  “The Duke is coming t
o dinner. Why? He wants us there. Why? To inspect us for some reason. I tell you, I smell a rat.” I know it could not be anything to do with my mooted marriage to the King, for the King is ill, probably far too ill to wed. Anyway, how could that involve Katherine?

  “But why should he be interested in us?”

  “That’s what I should like to know.”

  Northumberland is his most urbane and charming self at table. He compliments my mother on her cook’s efforts, discusses sporting pursuits at length with my father, and even condescends to speak to us girls, inquiring about our academic progress and our accomplishments. Katherine speaks up for herself in a pleasing manner, but I am more guarded. I dislike the way his smile never seems to reach his eyes. He is all falsity. I am sure he senses that I do not like him.

  I am afraid, but I do not know why.

  Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk

  DORSET HOUSE, APRIL 1553

  If it’s a marriage he’s after, Jane might be a great prize by virtue of her birth, but she has little else to offer any suitor. At fifteen, she’s small for her age and slightly built. There’s not much bosom beneath that stiff corset, I’ll wager, and her hands are positively childish, while her complexion is still marred by those wretched freckles. Her only good points are her lips, which are full and cherry-red, her dark eyes, and perhaps her hair, which tonight she is wearing loose about her shoulders. It is the mark of our royal heritage, that hair: all the Tudors have it. It’s Jane’s greatest asset.

 
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