Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  The King looks gray. His young face is disfigured by a grimace of pain, and his frail body is unnaturally bloated. The stench in the royal bed-chamber is worse than ever, as if he is rotting already, and it is all I can do not to clamp my handkerchief to my nose as I approach the bed.

  “Your Majesty, there is an urgent matter I need to discuss with you,” I begin.

  “Pray proceed,” croaks Edward.

  “Sir, I am very concerned about the succession. In the interests of preserving the true faith, would you not agree that it is the duty of a good and devout prince to set aside all considerations of blood and kinship where there is any risk of endangering the spiritual welfare of his subjects? Sir, I fear that, if a king were to do otherwise, after this life, which is short, he might be punished for it at God’s dreadful tribunal.”

  “I know that well, my lord Duke,” says the boy with feeling. “I worry about it constantly. The prospect of my sister Mary succeeding is even more terrible to me than my present sufferings and approaching death. It haunts my thoughts and robs me of the peace of mind that would allow me to prepare my soul in quietness for eternal judgment. God has given me this sacred trust, to lead my people to the true faith, and in abandoning them to a Catholic ruler, I feel I am betraying both Him and them. I am relieved to hear that you share my concerns.”

  “Your Majesty, the Lady Mary must never come to the throne.” I speak urgently and sincerely, my fears plain in my voice. There is no time for mind games now.

  “I know,” answers the King, no less urgently. “But my father and Parliament have so ordered matters that her accession cannot be avoided. She is my legal heir.”

  “She is a bastard, sir, and in law a bastard cannot inherit the crown. I have taken advice on this. Your Majesty has the power to disinherit her, and I pray you will do it. So much is at stake.”

  “You do not need to remind me, my lord. If there is any lawful way out, I assure you, I will take it.”

  “It requires only Your Majesty’s signature on a legal document.”

  “Then we shall have it drawn up.” Edward pauses, breathless. “Tell me, my lord, if the Lady Mary is removed from the succession, shall the crown go to my sister Elizabeth?”

  I answer smoothly. I am prepared for this. “Sir, she too is a bastard; if the Lady Mary is disinherited, the Lady Elizabeth must be also. Mark my words, as unmarried female sovereigns, one or the other of them would certainly marry a foreign prince and thereby surrender not only England’s independence but also all her ancient rights and privileges. Your Majesty should consider again and again. Kings owe protection to their subjects and must defend them from such calamities.”

  “Then who should succeed us? The Duchess of Suffolk? She is next in line after our sisters.”

  “It is a possibility, I agree. At least she’s a good Protestant, and she’s married to an Englishman.” I hesitate. “Shall I summon her?”

  “Yes, do. We would speak with her and see what mettle she has to carry on our great work.” He coughs painfully, hawking up phlegm, and waves me away.

  The Duchess rises from her curtsy and listens gravely to what the King is saying. I have warned her of what she is about to be asked, and together we have rehearsed her reply.

  “Your Majesty,” she says at length, “I must confess I have no wish to be Queen. I am a weak woman, unfitted for the task. With your consent, I hereby relinquish my claim.”

  “That leaves Your Majesty’s cousin, Lady Jane Dudley,” I say, after Lady Suffolk has withdrawn.

  Edward nods slowly. The afternoon’s discussions have exhausted him.

  “Since she married my son Guilford, I have come to know her better, and I can say with surety that she has matchless qualities that befit her, more than any other, for this high dignity. Your Majesty will doubtless recall the agreeableness of her conversation, and her zeal for religion. She has imbibed the reformed faith with her mother’s milk, and she is married to a loyal Englishman of wealth and probity. Your Grace, I know, has always held this excellent lady in affectionate regard.”

  “Indeed I have,” agrees Edward. “But while she certainly embodies all the requisite virtues, she is not of my father’s line.”

  “Sir,” I say severely, “you are bound by your duty to God to lay aside all natural inclinations towards your father’s House. Yet remember, the Lady Jane has Tudor blood by virtue of her descent from your grandfather, King Henry VII, and she was born in lawful wedlock, unlike your sisters. And there is a precedent for her succeeding in her mother’s lifetime, for did not that same King Henry VII, of blessed memory, succeed whilst his mother, who had the prior claim, was still alive?”

  “You speak the truth. My lord, I must confess I am beginning to like this proposal you have laid before me, for it seems to offer real hope for England’s salvation. But I am tired now and cannot discuss it further. I will think on it when I have rested. Attend me tomorrow morning to hear my answer.”

  I withdraw. In the anteroom to the bedchamber I encounter Edward’s closest friend, and gentleman of the privy chamber, Sir Henry Sidney.

  “How is my master, my lord?” he inquires anxiously. “He had a very bad night. He was in terrible pain.”

  “A little amended.” I smile. “Sir Henry, if you wish to do His Majesty a service, you can entertain him, when he wakes, by singing the praises of the Lady Jane Dudley, making much of the high esteem in which she is held by all for her character and her piety.”

  “Yes, my lord, of course.” He seems nonplussed at this request. Hopefully he will conclude that I am seeking some patronage for my daughter-in-law. Poor fool, he would never guess the truth.

  But the King needs little convincing. When I return in the morning, he has had himself propped up on the pillows and is once again, briefly, his father’s son.

  “Your Grace,” he announces, “we have decided to agree to your proposal that the Lady Jane should succeed us. Have our clerks draw up our will, or whatever document is required, and then bring it here for us to sign.”

  Inwardly jubilant, I hasten away to do my sovereign’s bidding. Later, I present him with a draft of his will, in which is enshrined the new order of succession: the crown is to be left to the Lady Jane and her heirs male. The King reads it over, sends for writing materials, and laboriously and shakily copies out the text in his own hand, signing it with a travesty of his usual flourish.

  “Praise be to God, we may now sleep peacefully in our beds at night,” I say fervently. “Sir, one thing: I want you to rest assured that, even though the Lady Jane is married to my son, in this matter my chief interest is in the welfare of Your Majesty’s realm.”

  “I know that well, my lord. We have both worked hard to establish true religion in this kingdom, and I know everything will be safe in your hands after I am gone. Now I can die content, in the knowledge that our labors have not been in vain.”

  But there are still the formalities to be dealt with. The Lord Chief Justice, the Solicitor General, the Attorney General, and all the lords of the council have been summoned to the King’s bedside to ratify his new will. There are protests from the judges that this document cannot overturn an act of Parliament, and that it is high treason even to attempt to alter the act’s provisions, but I firmly override them.

  “Obedience to the King’s will can never be treason,” I declare.

  “But this device, as His Majesty is calling it, has no validity in law,” objects the Lord Chief Justice.

  Edward’s bloated face flushes with fury.

  “Raise me! Sit me up!” he commands, his voice rasping. His attendants hasten to obey.

  “I will hear of no objections,” he tells the assembled lords sternly. “Make quick dispatch!”

  It is several days, however, before the final version of the will is signed by the King, and the councillors and judges give their unwilling consent to it. Even those who wish to see the Lady Mary dispossessed are doubtful this is the right way to proceed. But I suspect
that another concern lies behind the general antipathy: several lords are jealous of my power, but are too fearful for their own skins to oppose me openly. So I decide it is prudent to provide some indemnity for the future. I insist on the lords signing a second document, drawn up by me, in which they promise to support the future Queen Jane to the utmost of their power and undertake never at any time to swerve from this resolution.

  And there I have them.

  I am still concerned that the Emperor, on learning of the Lady Mary’s exclusion from the succession, will attempt to intervene on her behalf, and therefore, as a precaution, I swear all the lords to secrecy. Then, thinking that there is no harm in discreetly preparing the ground in England, I order that prayers for the King’s sisters are henceforth to be omitted from church services. Too late, I realize that this is a mistake, for it signals my intentions to the Emperor’s ambassador. Why else would the Emperor promptly send three special envoys to England merely to inquire after the King’s health? No, they have instructions to protect the Lady Mary’s interests, I am sure, and if it comes to it, they will probably make representations on her behalf and try to persuade me from my chosen course.

  I fear they are destined to failure and disappointment.

  I look down dispassionately at the living corpse on the bed. The King is in mortal agony, that is obvious, and his constant prayer is that God will think fit to deliver him from this torment and grant his speedy release to Heaven. His body, skeletally thin, has swollen up like a pig’s bladder: his stomach is distended, his legs bloated. His skin is turning a livid purple and black in places, and gangrene has attacked his extremities. His nails and hair have fallen out, and he can hardly breathe. Speech is now especially difficult for him.

  Mistress Rhys is looking pleadingly at me from the other side of the bed. She has just told me, in the privacy of my closet, that she can take no more of this.

  “I have done as you asked,” she cried, “and shut my ears to his pitiful cries. Why can you not leave him to die in peace? He’ll not last much longer anyway, so what is the point of prolonging his agony?”

  I nod at her. I have no further use for Edward now, or for this woman. I lead her from the bedchamber and back into the closet, where I hand her a heavy bag of coins.

  “For your services. Remember, not a word of this to anyone, or there will be consequences.”

  “Yes, sir,” she replies, suitably frightened, but obviously relieved to be free of her duties, and unable to conceal her eagerness to see how much is in the purse.

  “It is late. You may stay in the palace tonight, but you must leave at first light.” I summon one of my retainers. “Take this lady to her lodging. First door on the left in the outer court, third floor up.”

  I watch them leave. My man has his orders. Mistress Rhys has been assigned an attic room above an empty courtier apartment that is scheduled for renovation. The attic is clean but sparsely furnished, quite sufficient for her needs. But of course she won’t be using it for long. In the small hours of tomorrow morning, my precise orders will be carried out. Her body can then be disposed of under cover of darkness.

  The retainer has been told he can keep the purse. That should keep him quiet.

  GREENWICH PALACE, 2ND JULY 1553

  Despite my precautions, rumors that the King is dying have proliferated throughout the land. To avoid panic or alerting the Lady Mary, I issue regular soothing bulletins announcing that His Majesty is out of danger and recovering his health; I even say that he is taking the air in the gardens at Greenwich, or exercising in the galleries of the palace. These fool no one, I’m certain—a king must be visible to his people, and Edward has not been seen in public for months.

  Today I am furious to be informed that in London posters bearing prayers for the King’s recovery, which are normally requested only when a monarch is at death’s door, have mysteriously been nailed to a number of church doors in the city. Who put them there is anyone’s guess, but they have their effect. Before long, huge crowds are converging on Greenwich Palace, on foot or by barge, demanding to see their sovereign.

  I order the park gates to be closed and send a gentleman of the privy chamber to calm the crowd.

  “Go back to your homes!” he cries above the clamor. “His Majesty is resting. The air is too chilly to permit him to come out of doors and greet you today.”

  But the crowd will not disperse.

  “We want the King! We want the King!” the people chant, their mood growing uglier by the minute.

  “What shall we do?” The lords of the council are clearly frightened.

  “We will give them what they want,” I mutter grimly. I march into the King’s room and order his appalled servants to get him up and dress him in his rich robes. He protests feebly at such treatment, but I’m in no mood to be opposed. The mob outside could prove a danger to us all. So the wasted body is dragged from the bed, wrapped in a velvet gown and feathered bonnet, and propped up at the window, its head lolling forward, its eyes unable to focus.

  I can see in the people’s response their realization that he is doomed. They are struck silent, dismayed and shocked. After a short while they begin quietly drifting back to London. There will be no more hopeful bulletins.

  Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk

  CHELSEA, 3RD JULY 1553

  We were anticipating another quiet day enjoying the summer sunshine in the gardens, but there’s been a great hurrying and scurrying here at Chelsea this morning because the Duchess of Northumberland has unexpectedly arrived. Now we have kitchen staff flying in all directions to prepare fitting refreshments for her, whilst I, my green silk gown hastily smoothed, perform the part of hostess in the great chamber.

  Jane Guilford is a pale, insipid-looking woman whose mousy exterior belies her inner toughness and determination. I’ve known her for years, and I recall that, from childhood, she always aspired to greatness. Back in those days she was convinced, on the basis of a silly, unfounded rumor, that her grandfather Sir Edward Guilford was in fact the elder of the two Princes in the Tower, and therefore the rightful King of England. To utter such a claim during the reign of my late uncle would have been the direst folly, so Jane was obliged to keep quiet about it; whether she still believes such nonsense or not, I don’t know, but she certainly acts as if she were royally born.

  Marriage to Sir John Dudley, as he was then, was not the glorious match she thought was her due. Orphaned by his father’s execution, and adopted by Jane’s kindly father, he was no great prize, yet their marriage has turned out to be remarkably happy and successful, and his extraordinary rise to power has no doubt been ample compensation for his tainted blood. Their union has also been abundantly fruitful. I suspect that the Duchess’s frustrated ambitions are now focused on her son Guilford, who, by the grace of God, will soon be our King Consort, and, in the fullness of time, the founder of a royal Dudley dynasty.

  Very much on her dignity, the Duchess sweeps into the room and delicately kisses me on both cheeks. Inwardly I bridle: I cannot abide her presumption, for although we both enjoy the same rank, she is far beneath me by virtue of her birth. I wonder why she has come.

  “You are welcome, my good sister,” I say, beckoning to the steward to serve some wine. “I trust you will do us the honor of staying to dinner?”

  “That is most kind, but time is pressing, and I cannot.” The Duchess bestows on me a tight smile. I nod at the steward.

  We seat ourselves on either side of the fireplace, which, on this warm day, is filled with flowers. After inquiring about the health of my family, the Duchess asks if “our” daughter Jane is at home.

  “Yes, she is,” I tell her, “but she has not yet fully recovered her strength after her illness and usually takes a nap at this time. But if you wish, I will ask her nurse to fetch her.”

  The Duchess does insist, and within ten minutes Jane has joined us. I am not pleased to see that she is wearing one of her drab black gowns, with only a simple pearl
pendant, but at least she has not forgotten her manners, for she makes a pretty curtsy to her mother-in-law.

  The Duchess is regarding her with disapproval. I’m sure she is thinking, and quite rightly, that the girl could make more of herself. Nevertheless, her ladyship attempts a frosty smile.

  “I am come to tell you news of great import, my dear,” she says, “which will concern your mother also. It is my heavy duty to inform you that the King is dying. When God sees fit to summon him to His mercy, it will be needful for you, and the whole court, to go immediately to the Tower of London. You should know that His Majesty has named you heir to his realm.”

  Jane looks blank. Did she not hear aright? She stands there, staring at the Duchess and looking stupid.

  “Jane!” I bark. “Did you hear what Her Grace said?”

  “Yes, madam,” she replies, still looking bewildered.

  “Has the child taken leave of her senses?” asks the Duchess. “She appears to be dumbstruck. I said, Jane, that when the King dies, you are to be Queen and must remove to the Tower when you are summoned. It is customary for a new sovereign to stay in the palace there before being crowned.”

  “But that cannot be!” Jane has finally found her voice, and I soon wish she hadn’t. “The Lady Mary is the rightful heir, then the Lady Elizabeth, and then my lady mother.”

  “Not anymore,” the Duchess informs her. “His Majesty has set aside the claims of his sisters, and your lady mother has relinquished her own claim, so that you can succeed.”

  “The King has done this?” Jane cries in a rare passion. “He would never order such a thing. Rather it is my lord of Northumberland who has done it, in defiance of both Parliament and King Henry’s will! This is treason, my lady, and I want no part in it. Nay, I will not listen further!”

 
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