Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  Thank goodness the girl appears modest and keeps her eyes downcast unless she is spoken to. It annoys me that, when someone addresses her, she answers boldly, with a steady, disconcerting gaze. Fortunately, the Duke has not conversed much with her, otherwise he might be concluding, and with good reason, that she is not as biddable as she looks! But she will bend, she will bend to my will, and it will do her good in the long run, for she must soon, God willing, submit to the rule and instruction of a husband. Is this what the Duke has come about?

  The table has been cleared, the cloth removed, and the girls dismissed to bed, along with the servants. We and our guest retire to the parlor with a flagon of the best burgundy.

  “Madam,” says the Duke, “there is a matter of great weight that I must discuss with you.”

  I glance at Henry and read in his face that he already knows what this is about. My irritation rises, for I feel myself at a disadvantage. These men have already made an important decision without me, I am sure. Well, I will not give it my blessing until I have scrutinized it from all angles.

  “I am going to tell you something of vital importance, which you must not divulge to anyone,” Northumberland continues. “The King, I am saddened to say, will not live out the summer. What we have to ask ourselves is, do we want the Lady Mary to succeed him?”

  I think of the frail boy at Greenwich, once his father’s pride and joy and the surety for the future of the Tudor dynasty. We knew he was seriously ill, but not that the end would come so soon.

  “I am grieved for His Majesty,” I say slowly, “and for England.”

  “Yes, for England,” echoes the Duke. “It is for England that I fear. I cannot sleep at night for worrying what will befall this fair land when Edward is gone—and what will happen to us.”

  “Us?” I ask, surprised.

  “Yes, us. For we have all been accomplices in establishing the Protestant faith in this realm, particularly your husband here, madam. Do you really think the Lady Mary will show favor to us when she is Queen?”

  “She has always been most friendly towards me and my family, despite our differences in religion,” I point out. “I am, after all, her cousin.” While you, my lord, are not. I smile sweetly.

  “Ah, but she will require you, like everyone else, to change your religion when she comes to the throne,” Northumberland pursues relentlessly. “She will not tolerate any Protestants in her court. And if you refuse, what price kinship and friendship then? Madam, you have not dealt with her as I have; you do not know how stubborn she can be, how fixed in her opinions. She is a fanatical Catholic and regards the rest of us as heretics. Your husband here, my lady, has been one of the chief promoters of the reformed faith. How will she deal with him? With me? If we do not recant our beliefs, she will put pressure on us. First, we will fall from favor, then we will go in fear of our lives. And,” he adds meaningfully, “our property.” A shrewd thrust, that. Well, he knows that my lord and I, like many others of the nobility and gentry, have grown rich on the pickings from dissolved abbeys, priories, and chantries. “Mary will give it all back to the Church of Rome.”

  I shudder. With sudden clarity, I perceive what a calamity the death of the King will be. Yet, as I struggle to control the rising panic, I am also aware that, of the three people in this room, Northumberland has the most at stake. Clearly, he is scaremongering in the hope of gaining support. Being of the same royal blood as Mary, I cannot quite believe that she would treat unkindly me and my family. Yet it is indeed true that my lord has vigorously supported Northumberland—and Somerset before him—in the sweeping religious reforms of this present reign, and there might well be cause for concern there.

  When it comes to religion, I must admit in my heart that my faith is not deep-rooted. I was brought up a Catholic until, influenced by Katherine Parr’s circle, I secretly flirted with the reformed faith, but with no great conviction. Then after King Henry’s death, I was happy to proclaim myself a Protestant: I needed no persuading. And if it comes to it, I will have few qualms about converting back to the religion of my childhood, if the law requires it of me; after all, we all pray to the same God. But I fear my husband is of another mind entirely.

  “Mary will never make a Catholic of me or my daughters,” he is saying. “I am as committed as yourself, my lord, to the Protestant cause. And I suggest you now tell my lady wife what you have in mind.”

  Northumberland clears his throat and turns to me.

  “I have been studying the late King Henry’s will and the Act of Succession, as well as other records, and it is clear that the Ladies Mary and Elizabeth are legally bastards. In the normal way of things, bastards are incapable of inheriting titles and property as a lawful heir would inherit. The Crown is regarded as property in that sense by many judges; I have taken legal advice on this. Thus,” he goes on smoothly, “it might be possible to pass over their claims to the succession, and in that case, madam, the rightful sovereign of England would be yourself.”

  Well, I had worked that out already. I shiver with anticipation, and something else less pleasant. Myself, Queen of England! The glory and riches of England to be mine…But would I want to bear the burdensome weight of government? I like my life the way it is: I enjoy many comforts, much leisure for sport, and the privileges of high rank without too much responsibility. True, I am ambitious and, yes, greedy (I freely admit it), but my freedom and a degree of privacy are just as precious to me, and my acceptance of the crown would deprive me of both. Moreover, could I, a woman in a man’s world, control my councillors and advisers? And, of course, Northumberland, who would be reveling in the role of queenmaker, and competing for ascendancy, no doubt? I shake myself inwardly. Of course I could rule—I am a match for any man. But would I want to? Would I not be happier remaining as I am, a private person?

  The Duke is watching me intently, studying my face. “Does the idea appeal to you, madam?”

  “No, it does not.” I have barely needed to think about it.

  “I thought as much,” he answers, with a significant look at my husband.

  “You have both discussed this,” I accuse them. Henry looks uncomfortable, but Northumberland smiles.

  “Some sounding out was necessary, madam. The success of my plan is vital for the future of England and our faith, and it is essential that we are all of one mind.”

  “It’s vital for your own surety too,” I point out, with a touch of malice.

  “Naturally,” he agrees, unruffled. “But to be plain with you, madam, I had not laid any plans to put Your Grace on the throne. You are not well known by the people, and it is doubtful they would support your claim against that of the Lady Mary, whom they obstinately revere, if only because she is the late King’s daughter.”

  “So what is your plan?” I demand.

  “I believe, madam, that the future security and welfare of this realm and the Church of England lie in the hands of the next heir, your daughter, the Lady Jane. No, no, hear me,” he urges, as I make to interrupt him. “Should you renounce your claim, the Lady Jane could become Queen. She is young and pretty, which is ideal for my purpose, and she is biddable. Above all, she is famed, not only in England, but throughout Europe, for her learning and her love of the true religion. I have no doubt that, given the right kind of persuasion, the people would accept her as their sovereign.”

  “Think on it, Frances,” chimes in Henry. “Our daughter as Queen of England; a new dynasty on the throne; us three as the power behind it. It is a wise choice.”

  “It is the only choice,” declares Northumberland with feeling. “There is no other. Not if we are to survive.”

  “I agree with you, my lord,” I tell him, “and I cannot deny that I am ambitious for my daughter. This is indeed beyond my wildest expectations for her, and I will offer her my wholehearted support and loyalty if it comes to pass. But I must ask you two things.”

  “My lady?”

  “First, this is a course fraught with dangers. We ha
ve our daughter’s safety to think of. I take it you have thought it through and planned for every contingency?”

  “We have discussed everything,” says Henry.

  “No, my lord, let me explain to your good lady,” puts in the Duke reassuringly. “Madam, I have planned this down to the last detail. When the King dies, his death will be kept secret for as long as possible. Soldiers will be dispatched to take the Lady Mary into honorable custody, and, if necessary, the Lady Elizabeth. I assure you, neither will be harmed, simply placed under house arrest at some secret location, where they will be well looked after. Only then will the King’s passing be made public and your daughter proclaimed Queen. Many lords will support us because they too fear a Catholic resurgence. I have no doubt that the people of England will quickly come to see the wisdom of my plan, and even if they do not, there are strict laws for dealing with those who spread sedition or incite riots. Does that set your mind at rest?”

  “It seems infallible,” I say, with grudging admiration. “But I must also ask you what advantage there is in this plan for you, my lord Duke.”

  “Great advantage, madam, but not only for me. The House of Suffolk will benefit more. But remember, madam, this plan cannot go ahead or succeed without me. I control the court, the government, the militia, and, above all, the King. What I am proposing—to seal our success and mutual advantage—is an alliance between our two families, to be cemented by a marriage between our children.”

  Well, he couldn’t be more candid than that. As for a marriage between our children—the advantage will all be his. He might be a duke, but his father was a traitor, while our daughter is of royal blood. It’s as plain as day: Jane will be Queen, but Northumberland plans to rule England through his son, her husband.

  “I have five sons,” he tells me. “John, Ambrose, Harry, and Robert are all married. Only Guilford is unwed, and it is he whom I am proposing as a bridegroom for the Lady Jane. He’s a virtuous boy, and only a year older than she. He’s his mother’s favorite, and a dutiful son. He will make an excellent consort.”

  “I daresay,” I respond wryly. I know for a fact that the Duchess has spoiled that boy, but no matter. He’ll meet his match in Jane—if we agree to the marriage. Just now, there are more pressing issues to discuss.

  “I must be certain,” I say, “that Jane’s title to the throne is sound. It will be, won’t it? It will be a legal title?”

  “Of course,” the Duke answers, but he does not meet my gaze.

  “And you would wish Lord Guilford to become King Consort?”

  “Naturally. Who could contemplate a female sovereign ruling without recourse to the guidance of her husband?”

  “Who will be subject to the guidance of his father,” I add, smiling.

  Northumberland is immediately on the defensive. “Madam, with respect, I know how to govern this realm. These young people as yet lack the wisdom of age and have little experience of life. My aim is to guide them until they are capable of ruling unaided—with your help, of course, and that of my lord here. Once Jane and Guilford are steering a safe course, they will have no further need of us, but I am sure they will not forget those who launched them upon it, and thereby I see for us all a glorious future crowned by a peaceful and prosperous old age.”

  “God willing,” I say.

  “God,” he retorts, “helps those who help themselves, madam. Now, what say you? Will you give Jane this chance to fulfill her destiny?”

  Why should I hesitate? The glory of a crown without the burden of one. There is no question in my mind now as to what I should do.

  “I am with you,” I declare. “I give my consent. I will waive my right in favor of Jane.” Both dukes beam at me triumphantly, but the smile soon disappears from Northumberland’s face as he hears what I have to say next. “I have but one condition. I do not want the marriage consummated until all is assured. Your plan, my lord, might fail; nothing is certain in this life. And an unconsummated marriage can be annulled with little difficulty. It’s merely a wise precaution, in case anything goes wrong. I’m sure you can understand that we have to protect our own interests, and our daughter’s.”

  Henry is staring at me in admiration, but Northumberland is clearly riled.

  “I fail to see what can go wrong, Madam,” he says stiffly.

  “I have every confidence that all will go as planned,” I reply. “You seem prepared for every contingency. But I feel that caution should be our watchword. We should not be too precipitate. I too want to be prepared for every eventuality.”

  Ah! I have him there.

  “Very well,” he agrees, his reluctance plain to see. “The consummation will wait until the crown is on Jane’s head.”

  “There is one small matter,” Henry says, a little later.

  “Yes?” asks Northumberland.

  “We have for some weeks had an understanding with the Duchess of Somerset that Jane is to be betrothed to her son, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford.”

  “But they are not formally betrothed?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Good. Then break off your understanding. Say you have reconsidered. Young Hertford is a traitor’s son. The Lady Jane is far too good a prize for him.”

  “I agree,” I say. “One question, my lord. Why did you ask to see our younger daughter Katherine tonight?” I suspect that Henry already knows what Northumberland will answer.

  “Madam, I am seeking to retain the support of the chief men of the kingdom,” the Duke explains. “I believe the Earl of Pembroke to be stout in our cause. His son, you may be aware, has expressed an interest in the Lady Katherine. Should you agree to their marriage, we could bind Pembroke more tightly to us by ties of kinship.”

  I recall the bold young man in Westminster Abbey. A handsome youth, and a good match for Katherine. I look at Henry.

  “I have already given my consent in principle,” he says, somewhat abashed. “If you approve, my dear, we will go ahead.”

  “Well, it’s good of you to consult me,” I say tartly. “But as it happens, I heartily approve.”

  “Excellent!” cries Northumberland. “And now, if I may, a toast to the future?” He raises his goblet.

  “To the future,” we echo.

  John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland


  I smile as Guilford enters the room.

  “Be seated, my boy,” I say, appraising him as he sits opposite me at the table. Fair hair flopping over his eyes, full lips, elegant blue velvet doublet and breeches. He’s sixteen now, already over six feet tall, and long and lean with it. My wife says he’s graceful for a man, and good-looking.

  She is partial—he is too immature for his years in my opinion. His older brothers were men at his age. Of course, his mother has spoiled him, right from his infancy. She’s soft, and I suspect she has made sure that I don’t always get to hear of Guilford’s transgressions, of which I’m sure there are many. Oh, she reproves him, but she has as sharp a bite as a kitten. He runs rings round her, smiles charmingly, says he loves her when she’s angry, and gets away with murder. She doesn’t know the half of it. If she heard one whisper of what my spies have told me of Guilford’s activities, she’d collapse in horror.

  I know for a fact, because I had him followed, that last night my son frequented The Cardinal’s Hat, a notorious brothel in Southwark. I know that his friends paid for him to have a whore there, as he had spent all his money on drink. I suspect that this morning he is suffering from a sore head, at the least. God grant he has not got the clap or the pox.

  “I have something very important to tell you,” I say, watching him closely. “Last night, I dined with the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk. We discussed many matters of great consequence—among them, your marriage. It’s high time you wed, don’t you think?”

  “My marriage?” He is unprepared for this, of course. He looks shocked. I don’t know why this should be, because his brothers were all married off while t
hey were young; but then, of course, Guilford lives only for the moment.

  “Yes, your marriage,” I say, with some emphasis. “It’s high time. More than timely, if what I hear is true.” He has the grace to look both bewildered and embarrassed. “It has been arranged that you will marry the Suffolks’ eldest daughter, Lady Jane Grey. I saw her last night, and I am happy to report that she is a prize for any suitor, with her royal blood, her learning, and her comely appearance. You are a lucky young man, Guilford, luckier than any of your brothers. I hope you appreciate that.”

  “Er, yes, sir,” he stammers. “I’m sure I’ve seen the Lady Jane at court, but I…I can’t remember her.”

  “Is that all you have to say?” I ask, exasperated.

  “No, I mean, yes, no. I am most honored, sir,” he stutters, plainly reeling at the thought of what marriage will mean to him. The loss of his freedom, the responsibility of a wife, the likelihood that children will follow hard on the heels of the wedding night. No more jaunts to the stews of Southwark! It will do the boy a power of good. Of course, he’s not ready for it, and no doubt his mother will have something to say, but it will do him no good, as my mind is made up.

  “You’ll get used to the idea, Guilford. I did, when I was your age. We all have to. And remember, this marriage will bring you more status, wealth, and power than you can ever have dreamed of. The Lady Jane is a princess of the blood, a member of the royal House. What other youngest son, such as yourself, could hope for such a bride? I tell you, I have done well by you. It is the most brilliant match. And I have no doubt that, when Jane meets you, she will like what she sees. Remember, my boy, marriage has its advantages. I take it I need not spell them out.”

  I grin at him, watching the flush redden his cheeks. I decide to bait him by pretending in his innocence.

  “It’s all right, Guilford, you need not worry yet about that aspect of wedlock. For political reasons, which I will explain in due course, we have decided that you will not immediately consummate your marriage, but will wait until we deem the time to be right.”

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