Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  Some would reckon me greatly privileged to be employed in a house-hold such as this. Bradgate Hall has such a dramatic setting: it lies on the edge of Charnwood Forest and is enfolded on all sides by a rugged landscape with sweeping hills, granite cliffs, and rocky outcrops. Red deer roam its chases and deer parks, and buzzards and peregrines keep grim vigil from their high aeries.

  The mansion is a fine one, built in the early years of this King’s reign by the present Marquess’s father and improved more recently. It is famed far and wide for its riches and luxury; no effort has been spared to emphasize the Dorsets’ wealth and status. The great hall alone is eighty feet in length. Rich tapestries line the walls, cupboards groan under the weight of gold and silver plate, and jewel-colored armorial glass glitters in the tall windows. My lord and lady keep a large, bustling household, and the tables in the hall are laid each day for no fewer than two hundred persons. Extra places are always set, for the Dorsets like entertaining, and there are always guests of quality with their retinues; moreover, the laws of hospitality demand that any passing traveler be given food and shelter.

  When guests are present, the Marquess and Marchioness sit in exalted state at the high table on the dais, while those of us of lesser rank are seated, according to our degree, at the lower trestles set along the entire length of the hall. During meals, musicians play to us from the gallery, and a veritable army of servitors marches in with course after course of dishes that have been prepared in the teeming, sweltering kitchens that lie beyond the richly carved screens.

  On the rare occasions when they do not have company, the Dorsets’ meals are served in their summer or winter parlors in the east wing, but always with great ceremony. My lady is very conscious of her royal blood.

  It’s a privileged existence and I suppose I am lucky to enjoy it, coming from such an ordinary background, but it’s not what I came here seeking. I came because my vocation in life is to care for children. And now for one child in particular.

  Yes, it’s all grand and impressive, the life at Bradgate, but there are uneasy undercurrents here. I do not like the Dorsets much. My lady is proud and her heart seems cold; I know she is far above me in rank, but—and I’ve said it before—a mother is a mother, and I don’t think it’s natural to show so little affection toward your own babe. And Lord Dorset, he’s a man with an eye mainly to his own advancement, and she is entirely behind him. In fact, I think she is the driving force in the marriage. There’s a ruthlessness about them both. If I were not so attached to their daughter, I might think of leaving. But my heart is now utterly devoted to that sweet child, so that is no longer an option for me.


  My little Lady is now two years old and, since she was born, has lived almost entirely in the three tower rooms that comprise her nursery. On the top floor is her bedchamber, on the middle floor the room I share with the nursery maids, and on the ground floor a great chamber with a wainscot and mullioned windows. The furniture in these rooms is much older and more worn than the pieces in the private apartments, and there is little of it. Lady Jane sleeps in an oak tester bed with ancient painted hangings. Her infant prayers are lisped at a prayer desk within the window embrasure, her clothes and linen are folded in a huge chest by the wall, and her meals are taken at a plain trestle table spread with a white cloth, she seated—like the rest of us—upon a stool. The food is simple—boiled meats, boiled fish, boiled vegetables, and the inevitable daily rations of bread, ale, and pottage—and her mother has ordered that she is to eat it all up, every morsel.

  As soon as the dear child had hauled herself to her feet and was walking, she was provided with a circular wooden walker on wheels and allowed to set off at speed, gurgling and whooping with laughter, along the tapestried long gallery that runs the whole length of the east wing.

  “Watch me, Nellen!” she cries in glee, as she rattles along the wooden floor, cap dangling by its strings, red curls flying, cheeks rosy with effort. She has her own spaniel pup and is allowed to play with the cook’s daughter, Meg, a mischievous three-year-old. One day, Jane has the misfortune to clatter at full speed into her mother, as she and Meg come screaming with merriment along the gallery. Lady Dorset, who has brought some guests to view the family portraits that are displayed there, is furious and lands a stinging slap on Jane’s innocent cheek. The child registers surprise, then shock, before bursting into loud wails. I swoop on her, pulling her none too gently out of her walker, and carry her off, mumbling my excuses, terrified in case my lady’s anger provokes her to further severity.

  “There, sweeting,” I murmur, back in the nursery, as I bathe her poor inflamed cheek. “All better now.” The baby lip stops quivering, the tears dry on the tender skin.

  My lord is never so harsh. On the rare days when inclement weather keeps him indoors, away from his interminable hunting, he will spend the odd hour with his daughter in the gallery.

  “Catch!” he cries, throwing a cloth ball to her. Sometimes he lets her chase him in her wheeled contraption, she shrieking with laughter. Such occasions are rare, though, for the Dorsets are not people to allow rain, or even hail and snow, to interfere with their sport, and they are usually to be found outdoors, on horseback and surrounded by hordes of retainers and excited, yapping dogs. Jane, who spends most of her life in the nursery or the gardens, has therefore seen little of her parents during her infancy—far less than any other child I have had charge of.

  Lady Dorset’s visits to the nursery, although regular, are brisk and brief.

  “Make her stop sucking her thumb,” she will order. Or, when Jane was teething, “If she persists in that grizzling, she is to have no supper.” Jane has never been a difficult child and needs little chiding, but my lady seems determined to constrain her to a state of perfection such as few human beings have ever attained. Whenever she is in her mother’s presence, Jane is expected to stand still, remain silent, and behave in a dutiful manner with head bent and eyes lowered respectfully. If she is spoken to, she must answer meekly and clearly. My lady will brook no disobedience, and when little Jane displays some infant frailty, such as fidgeting in her place, or giggling when her dog piddles on the floor, the resultant smack is swift and sharp.

  The most painful incident, for Jane and for me too, occurred on the day when Jane, after the manner of many two-year-olds, bit young Meg during a scrap, and Meg’s father mentioned it to the Marchioness, who sent for us at once.

  “Mrs. Ellen, I do not wish to hear that my daughter is behaving like a savage,” she said coldly.

  “No, madam,” I replied, hoping that that would be an end to the matter. “I am sorry, madam. It will not happen again.”

  “You may be sure of that,” she answered grimly. “Jane, come here.”

  Hearing the angry tone in her mother’s voice, the child hid her face in my skirts, but Lady Dorset pulled her away, hauled her over her knee, tore up her petticoats, and administered a sound spanking that had Jane yelling in fear and pain. It was all I could do to stand there and watch, clenching my fists behind me to prevent myself from snatching her from her mother’s clutches. Then my lady stood her down.

  “If I ever hear that you have bitten anyone ever again, you will be beaten more severely,” she said sternly, wagging a finger. Jane said nothing, just sobbed and sobbed. Poor child, she is too young to understand what her mother was saying.

  “Take her away, Mrs. Ellen,” Lady Dorset commanded. “I do not wish to set eyes on that naughty girl again today.”

  I fled, angry that I had lifted no finger to spare Jane such punishment.

  Perhaps the Marchioness has never developed any natural bond of closeness with her child because the poor babe was not the boy she had hoped for—even though my lady is barely three-and-twenty, and more children will surely follow. But she has never shown Jane any open affection, nor, I am sure, does she question whether she has given the child cause to love her. Of course, it is the natural duty of a child to lo
ve and honor its parents, but my lady does not appear to see that there are two sides to the bargain, and I fear that, if there is any lack of love, she will blame Jane.

  Naturally, I do my best to protect Jane from her mother’s severity.

  “When your lady mother comes to the nursery today, Poppet,” I tell her, “you must curtsy and wait to be spoken to. Stand up straight, and don’t stare, because it’s rude.” This is as much as most people expect from a two-year-old, but Lady Dorset sets impossibly high standards.

  There comes a day when my lady arrives later than usual, just as Jane’s dinner is being put in front of her. The Marchioness seats herself at table, her eagle eye on the child. Jane takes a mouthful of fish.

  “Don’t like this,” she mumbles with her mouth full.

  “We must not despise what God gives us,” says her mother. “Eat it up.”

  Jane looks at her mournfully and begins pushing the food around the plate with her spoon.

  “Eat it!” commands my lady.

  Jane shakes her head, her big blue eyes brimming with tears.

  “How dare you defy me!” cries Lady Dorset. “Eat your dinner, or I will beat you.”

  Jane starts wailing loudly. I decide to risk the lash of my lady’s tongue.

  “Madam, let me try to persuade her.”

  “Persuade her? She must do as she is told. You are too soft with her, Mrs. Ellen.” She turns to the sobbing child. “Come here.”

  “My lady,” I intervene, “please allow her to calm down. She cannot eat while she is in this state.”

  “She has defied me and must be punished,” hisses her ladyship. “And you should know better than to contradict your betters. Remember your position in this household.” Rising, she grabs Jane by the upper arms, her angry fingers pinching the tender flesh, and pulls her from the chair.

  “You will not disobey me!” she warns, shaking her. “You will ask my pardon and then you will eat your dinner. Is that understood?”

  Jane is gulping in fear and beyond words.

  “Answer me!” Lady Dorset bellows, and when Jane remains mute and trembling, she slaps her on the cheek, twice. The child screams, and I make to go to her, but a scowl from my lady stops me dead in my tracks. I dare not provoke her further, for to do so might lead to my dismissal, and that would never do. Loving Jane as if she were my own flesh and blood, the prospect of being parted from her is unbearable, as is the thought of what her existence would be like without the protection of her doting nurse, for her mother’s harshness toward her seems to increase daily.

  I watch in silent misery, knowing myself powerless, as the Marchioness dumps her squealing daughter back on the chair, hands her the spoon, and orders her, “Eat!”

  And Jane does eat, her fish salted with the tears that are streaming down her face. Later, when Lady Dorset has gone, she is sick and spends most of the afternoon asleep in my arms, exhausted by distress and nausea.

  “Jane’s education,” my lady announces, “will be as good as, if not better than that afforded to the King’s daughters, the Lady Mary and the Lady Elizabeth. She will be made familiar with the classical works of the ancients, as well as history, mathematics, theology, and the Scriptures. She will learn the languages that are advantageous to her future role in life. At the same time, we shall engage dancing and music masters. You yourself, Mrs. Ellen, can teach her embroidery. We must not neglect the traditional feminine arts. And Jane must be schooled in the ways of the court. She must be taught perfect manners, how to dress like a princess, and how to carry herself like one. The importance of her high birth must be drummed into her. She is born to great things.”

  It all seems a shade too burdensome for such a tiny little girl. Looking at Jane’s pointed, heart-shaped face, with its freckled nose and earnest, dark-browed eyes, I wonder if she will grow up to be a beauty. That is not a requirement of the greatest importance in marriages of state, but it helps. I’ve heard that the King, in his search for a foreign bride, has insisted that he see her first before committing himself.

  Lady Dorset is determined to help Nature along.

  “Something must be done about those freckles, Mrs. Ellen,” she demands. “We must search out a remedy.” We’ve already tried several lotions and pastes, but nothing has worked so far.

  “Her good feature is her hair,” declares my lady. “It’s the same Tudor red as the King’s.” Yet she complains that Jane’s is frizzy and unruly, and it is true that it does not submit happily to being scraped back under a cap. In my humble opinion, it should be left to fall free, a wavy cloud of auburn flying in the wind. But my lady would never agree.

  “Jane is very small for her age,” she says. “She’s too skinny. It gives her the appearance of being delicate, which she most certainly is not.” Lady Dorset has good cause to know this, for it has been made abundantly clear, on the occasions when the Marchioness has had cause to pull Jane over her knee and chastise her protesting, wriggling body, that this child is strong and healthy. She is also highly intelligent, and much advanced for her age, but although my lady values erudition in girls, she sees Jane’s precocity as undue forwardness, which must be discouraged.

  “A clever maiden is no great asset in the marriage market,” she declares. “We must cultivate sufficient modesty to overcome this handicap.”

  “Indeed,” I agree, but unlike Lady Dorset, I shall not be too rigorous. She is right that it does not become a maid to be too saucy and forward, but I have no desire to break Jane’s spirit.

  Lord Dorset paid one of his rare visits to the nursery today. Like most fathers, he has little to do with his daughter. He pats her on the head, calls her his “winning little filly,” and makes his escape. He is quite happy to leave the rule of her upbringing wholly to his wife, until such time as Jane reaches marriageable age, when she is between twelve and fourteen. Then he will no doubt suddenly find her most interesting for the advantages that she can bring him through a nuptial alliance. I pray God that he thinks also of her welfare and happiness when it comes to choosing a husband.


  “The acquisition of virtue,” my lady tells me, “is as much the product of education as of upbringing.” Jane is not yet three, but already her mother has given her a hornbook to hang around her neck on a ribbon. On its smooth wooden surface is written, in beautiful black script, the alphabet, simple numbers, and the Lord’s Prayer, and Jane is expected, with my help, to learn them all. I think myself fortunate that my father had me tutored in letters, so that I can help her with her lessons.

  Every day, we sit together and I go through them with her, repeating everything over and over so that, when the summons comes from Lady Dorset at five o’clock, the child will be able to recite her lesson without making any mistakes, because if she does, her mother will certainly deliver a stinging slap. It has happened before, for much lesser crimes. Today, we are late. We hurry along the gallery to the winter parlor, where my lady is waiting, Jane’s little legs running at twice the pace of mine to keep up. We are late because I made her go over her lesson just one more time, so that she will be word-perfect for her mother. As we enter the chamber, Jane is clutching her hornbook and holds it before her as she reads aloud, her tiny finger tracing the letters carved into the smooth wooden surface. Lady Dorset nods and dismisses us. She cannot find anything to criticize; nor does she offer any praise.

  Young as she is, Jane is already well-grounded in religion. Outwardly, the Dorsets conform to the Catholic doctrines authorized by the King after he had made himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, but privately—and I must speak carefully here—I believe that they, like many other people, have secret sympathies with those who wish to reform the Church, and even, I suspect, with those who promote the teachings of Martin Luther and his Protestant followers. Luther dared to attack the very sacraments of the Church, and in England today it is dangerous to express such heretical views. People are burned at the stake for doing so. The King is a grea
t one for tradition in matters of religion, for all he has broken with the Pope—or the Bishop of Rome, as we have had to call him since our gracious sovereign took his place as Head of the English Church.

  Jane has been taken to Mass since her infancy and is now familiar with the Latin rubric of the service, although I doubt she understands much of what it means. She has been taught to revere Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to pray to the saints to intercede for herself and others. She has even had explained to her the miracle of the Mass, wherein the Host, at the moment of elevation by the priest, becomes the very body and blood of Our Lord Jesus. Like all little children, she accepts these teachings without question and has conceived a proper and dutiful love for her Creator. I believe she is set to become a devout little person.

  “The King’s Grace,” announces my lady jubilantly, on a cold January day, “has married the Lady Anne of Cleves at Greenwich. I am summoned to court to pay my duty to the new Queen and am honored in being appointed one of the great ladies of her household.”

  That very afternoon, the whole household gathers in the courtyard to watch as, nobly attired in a splendid gown of red velvet and swathed in furs, she climbs into her coach, ready to depart for the south. Lined up behind are two chariots for her ladies-in-waiting, her maids, and two pages.

  “How beautiful my lady is!” Jane whispers in awe. “I want to look just like her when I grow up.”

  “You will, my little beauty, you will,” I assure her, patting her head.

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