Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

And with that she rudely hurries from the room, to my utter mortification.

  The Duchess is clearly trying to control her temper. “Her behavior is most immoderate,” she hisses. “I wonder you do not whip her for her impertinence.”

  “Oh, I shall whip her, never fear,” I mutter.

  “I am beginning to wonder if she is beyond your control,” the Duchess says tartly. “My son has already come to me with a string of complaints about her undutiful behavior towards him. Did you know she has dared to refuse him her bed?”

  I had suspected something of the sort, judging by Lord Guilford’s petulant demeanor when he left Chelsea after his one and only visit. I did ask Jane about it, but met with a blank wall of silence: she said she had no idea why her husband was so out of humor.

  I assume an innocent air for the Duchess’s benefit. “You are certain this is the case?”

  “The marriage was consummated, there’s no doubt about that. Twice, in fact, I believe. But Guilford told me that Jane resisted him, and that she seems unaware that it is a wife’s duty to submit to her husband. Madam, it was your responsibility to ensure that she was prepared for marriage, and it appears that it was ill done, or not done at all.”

  I grow hot with fury. How dare this woman lecture me on my duty? I am just about to rebut the accusation when I recall something that may be significant. More than once on the bridal night I heard Jane cry out, and I remember thinking that she sounded more distressed than the occasion would warrant. Perhaps Guilford—young, inexperienced, and therefore unsure of himself—was overrough and insensitive with her. Of course, it was her duty to endure it, and I suspect that her sullen and unwilling demeanor that evening may have gone some way toward provoking her husband, but whatever my private opinion of Jane’s conduct, no Lady Northumberland is going to berate me for my supposed failings as a mother!

  “I will speak with Jane,” I say through clenched teeth, “but I have good reason to believe that Guilford is to blame for her reluctance.”

  “Guilford?” The Duchess is almost screeching. “Madam, how dare you blame your daughter’s shortcomings on my son, who has tried his hardest to win her love! He is in no way to blame—it is she who is at fault. You have only to recall the willful manner in which she flounced out of this room. Guilford has assured me that he has shown her every consideration. He does not deserve this unwifely treatment.”

  “Really?” I am on my mettle now. “Well, madam, from what I heard on the wedding night—and my lord and I were lying just along the gallery from their bedchamber—your son was repeatedly hurting our daughter. I heard her cry out, not just once, which might have been expected, but several times.”

  “I am sure you exaggerate. Guilford would not hurt her intentionally. He is a kindly boy.”

  I pull a derisive face.

  “This is insufferable,” the Duchess fumes. “You cannot even see what is under your nose—or you will not. Well, I must tell you that I have confided to the Duke my husband my concerns about the Lady Jane, and he has ordered that she is to come and stay with me at Durham House until she is summoned to her great destiny. Both of us think she needs framing to her new duties, and parents are often not the best people to do it, being too tender of their child’s feelings.”

  Even I, angry as I am, can see the irony in this: that I, who have ever been strict with my daughters—for their own good, mark you—should be accused of being too soft with them. If it were not so insulting, it would be laughable. Yet this is no light matter, and I am in a corner. Northumberland is all-powerful, and his word is law. Besides, a wife’s place is with her husband. I realize I have no choice but to let Jane go to Durham House.

  “Very well,” I say icily. “I will have her gear packed.”

  Lady Jane Dudley

  CHELSEA AND DURHAM HOUSE, 3RD–5TH JULY 1553

  There is a frosty silence as my mother and the Duchess of Northumberland wait for Mrs. Ellen to finish packing my traveling chest.

  “She will not need much,” the Duchess instructs. “I do not anticipate that her sojourn with us will be long.”

  “We’ll await you downstairs, Jane,” my lady says, escorting Her Grace of Northumberland from the room.

  Alone again with Mrs. Ellen, I throw myself on the bed and burst into a distraught passion of weeping.

  “If only you knew, dear Mrs. Ellen, what is in store for me!”

  My nurse hastens to comfort me. “Hush now, my lamb. Nothing’s as bad as all that.” But her voice betrays her anxiety.

  “I am forced to live with Guilford,” I sob, the words coming brokenly between shuddering storms of tears. “You could not imagine…”

  “Oh, but I can, pet, I can,” she says sadly. “Some men are like beasts. I’m not blind, Jane. I saw your bruises, and the blood on the sheets. I guessed he’d been rough with you.”

  “He’s an animal,” I say, weeping. “No, that’s unfair to animals. They but act instinctively. We humans are supposed to be rational beings, but he showed no finer feelings. And there’s no way out. I am bound to endure it.”

  Mrs. Ellen is weeping too. “Oh, my precious child—that you should be at the mercy of that callous, brutal youth—”

  “But there’s worse,” I cry, “far, far worse.”

  “In the name of God, what?” Sorrow gives way to alarm in her face.

  “They are going to make me Queen.” I sit up. “When King Edward dies.”

  Mrs. Ellen looks aghast.

  “This is Northumberland’s doing,” I continue, my tears subsiding as anger takes the place of sorrow. “Of course, I will resist it. I will not let them do this. I refuse to cooperate.”

  “But how can the Duke bring it to pass?” she asks, incredulous.

  “I do not know, save by underhand dealings and subversion of the law. And the law says that the Lady Mary should succeed her brother. She has the unassailable right. I know what her accession will mean, but I cannot be a party to depriving her of that right. And anyway, I should hate to be Queen. I am a private person. I do not want to live my life in the public glare, nor do I relish the burdens of sovereignty. Power and glory hold no attraction for me.” The unfairness of it all hits me forcefully. “Oh, Mrs. Ellen, why does God visit me with so many miseries? All I ask is to live my life in peace.”

  “It is not for us to question the will of God.”

  “I tell you, dear nurse, this cannot be the will of God. He would not permit such an unjust thing to happen.”

  I sit twisting my hands. There is much to be done if I am to be ready to depart with the Duchess anon. Mrs. Ellen makes a visible effort to pull herself together and drags out my gowns. I make no move to help her; ordinarily, when I am going away, I pack my own books and personal things.

  “I don’t want to go,” I say, breaking down again at the sight of Mrs. Ellen snatching clothes from pegs and presses. “I do not want to live with Guilford, or his parents. His mother hates me, and I fear his father. I cannot comprehend the sheer effrontery and awfulness of what they have all been plotting: I want nothing to do with it. I am no traitor.”

  There are no words of comfort that can still my raging heart. Mrs. Ellen knows that. She does not attempt to gentle me with trite platitudes; instead, she puts her arms round me and holds me tight for a space, neither of us saying anything.

  When she finally delivers me to the Duchess, I am still tearful and angry. Yet I dutifully kiss my mother farewell and kneel for her blessing.

  “Remember your duty,” she says briefly. Clearly there is no help to be had from that quarter.

  My mind in a turmoil, I meekly follow the Duchess to the splendid barge moored by the jetty; it will take us along the Thames to the Strand.

  Sitting in the barge, watching the sun-sparkled water lap by, I cannot speak. It is obvious that my mother-in-law is highly displeased with me, and I suppose I can understand why, for I have been unpardonably discourteous. Yet I am not, under any circumstances, going to be a party to treason.
I have resolved to resist becoming involved in their plots with every ounce of my being.

  On arrival at Durham House I am shown to my chambers, which overlook the river. They are dark, being paneled in old oak and having small, diamond-paned windows. On the wall is a portrait of Katherine of Aragon, who lived here many years ago, the Duchess says. The picture disturbs me: it is not just my awareness of that Queen’s staunch Catholicism that makes me uncomfortable; it is also the knowledge that I have been chosen as the instrument through which unscrupulous persons mean to perpetrate a great wrong against Katherine’s daughter, the Lady Mary. Even though I deplore Mary’s religious beliefs, I know for a certainty that her right to succeed her brother is just and lawful.

  Mercifully, Guilford is with his father at court, so I do not have to endure his company. But other trials are in store for me. In the evening I am violently sick again, and for the next two days I cannot keep even water down. I am in a very poor case, suffering painful and humiliating attacks of the flux, and ghastly stomach cramps. I even begin to wonder, yet again, if Northumberland and his insufferable wife are trying to poison me.

  On the third day, plainly alarmed in case I die whilst in her care, the Duchess sends me back to my mother at Chelsea.

  Here, in familiar and once-loved surroundings, I begin to mend.

  The Lady Mary

  HUNSDON, 4TH JULY 1553

  Sir Robert Rochester and I are sitting in the room that serves him as both office and study at Hunsdon House. I frown, peering shortsightedly at the two letters I hold in my hand.

  “My lord of Northumberland writes that the King my brother is getting better and suggests that I come to court to cheer him during his convalescence,” I tell Sir Robert. “Yet the Emperor’s ambassador informs me, in his letter, that His Majesty is thought to be at death’s door, and that I should under no circumstances come near the court. Now whom should I believe?”

  “I think Your Grace knows the answer to that question. I would not trust the Duke.”

  “I agree. I should like to see my brother, but if I go to Greenwich, I will be putting myself in a very vulnerable position. I am a lone woman, my health is not good, and I have little political influence and few friends there. But if I do not go, the Duke might smell a rat. And if the King is getting better, he might take my absence unkindly.”

  “I have heard,” says Sir Robert, who has his own friends at court, “that there are those on the council who are sympathetic to Your Grace, and those who might be reluctant to offend you at this time. On consideration, my advice is to go to court as you did before, attended by armed men and a great retinue. Then you will see for yourself how His Majesty really is, and you should also be able to assess how much support you can count upon. Remember, madam, if the imperial ambassador is correct, you would be wise to be at hand to claim the throne as the rightful heir.”

  “You speak sagely, old friend.” I smile. Dear Sir Robert: he has served me faithfully for years, and I know that his affection for me goes beyond mere duty. My welfare is always his chief priority.

  “Then take my advice,” he says firmly, smiling back.

  “I will. I shall summon my escort and leave for Greenwich today.”

  John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

  GREENWICH PALACE, 4TH JULY 1553

  De Scheyfve, the imperial ambassador, keeps giving me odd looks. Calculating looks. As if he knows something I don’t. Or knows something I don’t want him to know.

  Could it be that he has found out about the King’s device for the succession? And if so, who could have told him? The lords here are in the main an untrustworthy bunch, but they’re all in this with me up to their necks; should any fool betray me, I would hope that the rest would turn and savage him like wild dogs, but all I can do is pray that the ambassador’s price is less than the rewards any man hopes to gain when the Lady Jane is on the throne.

  But if de Scheyfve has got wind of my plan to seize the Lady Mary as soon as the King is dead, he might warn her. And that will not do.

  Time. It cannot pass quickly enough now. God, when will the boy die?

  I have written to the Lady Elizabeth, who is staying at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, informing her, as I informed the Lady Mary, that her brother the King is on the mend and invites her to court to bring him some good cheer.

  God forbid that my foxy lady is too clever for me. Elizabeth’s as sharp as nails and is more likely than her sister to suspect a trap. If she doesn’t come to court, I’ll have to send soldiers to drag her here.

  GREENWICH PALACE, 6TH JULY 1553

  Henry Sidney, that faithful friend since boyhood, is keeping vigil by the King’s bed. He’s been sitting there for a long time, heedless of the fetid air in the chamber, from which most of us cannot help but recoil when we enter. He is visibly grieving for his young master, the tears trickling unashamedly down his cheeks.

  Only one physician is in attendance, Dr. Owen. I fear it has been too dangerous to allow the rest access to the King. Owen poses the least risk, since he’s getting on now and his eyesight isn’t what it was. He served the late King Henry for years and has known His Majesty all his life, so his presence is a comfort to Edward. The good doctor has done what he can to make his patient comfortable, although his skills avail him little. I’m pretty certain he doesn’t suspect anything.

  I stand at the foot of the bed, looking down on the King. It’s as well old Henry can’t see his beloved son. Edward’s wasted body is covered with sores and ulcers. He can no longer eat, so his stomach is fearsomely distended, and he retches frequently. Most of his hair has fallen out, and his once-fair skin is blotched and discolored. He is a living corpse. Fortunately, his periods of lucidity are less and less frequent: he either sleeps fitfully or lies there rambling deliriously. No one can understand much of what he says, but we can make out enough to realize that the King is still fretting about the future of the Church he has established.

  “My lord,” whispers Dr. Owen. “In my opinion, His Majesty is in extremis. Do I have your permission to summon the other doctors to assist me in helping him die in peace? You will understand that I don’t want to shoulder the responsibility alone. Men are always too ready to point the finger in the wake of a tragedy, and I fear they might accuse me of malpractice or worse.”

  “You have my permission,” I say reluctantly, telling myself that it must be safe now for the doctors to see the King. Presently they file into the room, looking grave. They know they can do little for him save give him useless drafts and pray for his release. (As I pray for it—God, I do pray for it!)

  The physicians go through the motions of examining their patient, then withdraw to a corner to confer, looking like so many black crows in their somber gowns and bonnets. I watch them covertly and realize they are doing the same to me. I should dearly love to hear what they are saying, but their voices are too hushed. They are frowning, shaking their heads. Even if they do have their suspicions, they cannot prove anything. And, of course, it would be unwise for any of them to make wild accusations.

  They move again to the bed and make a great play of checking the King’s pulse and mopping his brow. They ask for a specimen of his urine. It’s a charade, because they can do nothing to help him. His breath is coming in labored gasps, and he keeps coughing up bloody sputum. It cannot be long now.

  Sidney is still weeping.

  “Dear God,” he cries, “let my master be taken before his sufferings become unbearable!”

  Edward stirs. Outside, a church bell strikes three o’clock. It’s a hot and sultry afternoon, and the room is stifling. The doctors fear that fresh air might bring with it noxious vapors, but young Sidney has had enough. Ignoring Owen’s protest, he goes to the casement and throws it open. Not that it makes much difference, for the air outside is so humid that the sluggish, clammy breeze that barely lifts the curtains offers little respite from the close atmosphere in the room.

  As I look out, the sky suddenly darkens. We’
re in for a thunderstorm, which is about to break any minute.

  Perhaps sensing this, His Majesty wakes. Henry Sidney hastens to his side and lifts a wine cup to his lips, but he cannot drink.

  “I thank you for your care of me, Henry,” he croaks feebly, and sighs deeply. “I feel so bad,” he falters. “I entreat God that He will deliver me.” Then, in a firmer voice, he prays aloud, “Lord, Thou knowest how happy I shall be to live with Thee forever; yet I would live and be well for the sake of Thy people.”

  He turns his ravaged face toward Sidney.

  “I am so pleased to see you near,” he whispers, and falls asleep again.

  It is nearly six o’clock. The storm has been raging for two hours, and His Majesty has awoken once more. Henry Sidney and Dr. Owen are seated on either side of the bed, while I maintain my position at its foot. We have been joined by Edward’s chaplain, who is quietly reading aloud words of spiritual consolation from the Scriptures. It is clear that Death is at hand, hovering in the shadows.

  The King makes an effort to speak, but cannot, for very weakness, yet he manages to whisper a last brief prayer. Weeping unrestrainedly, Henry Sidney takes the frail body into his arms and holds it close as Edward’s young life ebbs away.

  At length, the rasping breaths cease, and Sidney tenderly lays the inert form back on the pillows, closes the eyes, and folds the hands over the still breast. As he does so, there issues from the brooding skies above a mighty clap of thunder. In the weeks to come, ignorant folk, bred to superstition, will assert that the storm was sent by old King Henry, in anger at the setting aside of his will.

  The Lady Mary

  HODDESDEN, 6TH JULY 1553

  Early evening, and we are approaching the outskirts of Hoddesden when we see cantering toward us a messenger, soaked and spattered with mud. He says he has been sent by Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, one of my most loyal friends at court.

  “Turn back, my lady!” urges the messenger. “A trap is laid for you by your enemies. You are in great danger!”

 
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