Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  I need no second bidding. Scribbling a quick note to the Emperor’s ambassador, I inform him that, as soon as I hear news of the King’s death, I intend to have myself proclaimed Queen. Then I wheel my horse around and ride like the wind through the night, making for my well-fortified house at Kenninghall in Norfolk. Once there, I shall summon my loyal tenantry of East Anglia to my support.

  John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland


  It is imperative to keep up the pretense that the King is still alive, even though rumors to the contrary have been buzzing around the court for several days. Meals are being delivered as usual to the royal apartments, and solicitous ambassadors are being informed that His Majesty is resting, but will receive them as soon as he is better. I don’t think de Scheyfve, for one, believes a word of it, but diplomatic etiquette forbids him to contradict me.

  The immediate problem is what to do with the King’s body. I need to keep his death secret for as long as possible, at least until we have apprehended the Lady Mary. Fortunately, she is even now on her way to court. Once she is in custody, I can have the Lady Jane proclaimed Queen without fear of Mary retaliating or drumming up support in her own favor, or even trying to raise an army.

  But the King’s corpse is still lying on his bed. It’s already begun to decompose in this hot weather, and it cannot be left where it is. A lying-in-state and a ceremonial funeral are out of the question at present; nor can I have the body secretly buried in Westminster Abbey, the sepulchre that his late Majesty requested, for fear of awkward questions being asked when his death is finally announced. And the last thing I want—which I fear my colleagues might demand—is an autopsy. Changing the succession is one thing, poisoning an anointed sovereign quite another; and the penalty for it is hanging, drawing, and quartering. Even my power and influence would not survive such a revelation.

  With the stink from the locked bedchamber becoming ever more noticeable in the anteroom, I realize I have to act quickly. It has proved necessary, and useful, over the years, to retain certain unsavory characters in my pay. I summon four of these ne’er-do-wells to my closet, admitting them pair by pair.

  To the first two, I say, “I will pay you twenty gold crowns each if you can find and bring to me the fresh corpse of a boy, aged about fifteen, with reddish yellow hair and of slender build. No questions will be asked, but mark you, there must be no sign of violence on the body. Have it nailed down in a coffin and hidden in the woods surrounding the great park beyond the palace. Then come straight to me.”

  “When do you want it, my lord?” asks one.

  “Tonight. Without fail.”

  To the second pair of ruffians, more brutish and slow-witted than the others, I give orders that the body resting in the royal bedchamber is to be sealed in lead and buried hastily, at dead of night, in Greenwich Park.

  “Oh,” I add, “and if you are wise, you will cover your noses with kerchiefs. There are twenty crowns each in it for you, payable upon satisfactory completion of the job, but your lives will be worth nothing if you tell a single soul what you have done. You will be marked men, I warn you.”

  And thus it comes to pass that his late Majesty, King Edward VI, is laid to rest in a shallow and unmarked grave in the great park, while the body of a murdered Deptford apprentice, embalmed beyond recognition, will later be interred, with great pomp, in the vaults of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, at the feet of the founder of the Tudor dynasty.


  All is going awry. The Lady Mary, I am informed, has flown the trap, and I realize I can no longer afford any delay in implementing my plans. I therefore summon the Lord Mayor of London, with his aldermen and sheriffs, and receive them in private.

  “My Lord Mayor, sirs, I have heavy tidings,” I announce. “The King’s Majesty, God rest his soul, has departed this life. On his deathbed, wishing to preserve the true Protestant religion in this realm, he drew up a new device for the succession and named his cousin, the Lady Jane Grey, as heiress apparent. Very shortly, gentlemen, she will be proclaimed Queen.”

  These are clever, successful men, wise in the ways of law and commerce; they are the bedrock on which the city of London has been built. But they are standing there looking at me blankly and uncomprehendingly.

  “With respect, my lord Duke,” says the Lord Mayor, “who is the Lady Jane Grey?”

  “She is the great-granddaughter of King Henry VII and the great-niece of the late King Henry VIII,” I tell them. “She is virtuous and well educated, and an ornament of the Protestant faith.”

  “What of the Lady Mary?” asks an alderman.

  “Yes, and the Lady Elizabeth? What of King Henry’s daughters? Don’t they have a better claim?”

  I make myself smile, suppressing my rising irritation and concern.

  “Both were declared bastards by King Henry, if you remember. The Lady Mary is a staunch Catholic, and the Lady Elizabeth’s persuasion is uncertain. But the Lady Jane is a firm Protestant, and zealous for the faith. This was his late Majesty’s overriding priority in changing his royal father’s will. I am sure that, when you see the Lady Jane, who is young, comely, and intelligent, and possessed of every feminine accomplishment, you will applaud His Majesty’s choice. There is none more fit to rule this land.”

  They are nodding now; some even look approving.

  “Two things, gentlemen,” I say, raising my hand. “You are sworn not to disclose any of this to anyone, lest the Lady Mary gets wind of what is afoot and appeals to the Emperor for aid. And secondly…” I pause for effect, frowning. “If it became known that any man had spoken ill of the Lady Jane—or Queen Jane, as we must soon call her—it should be accounted a great and treasonable offense.”

  There. I have them now. They will think twice before questioning his late Majesty’s provisions for the succession.

  The Lord Mayor steps forward. “Your Grace, I think I can speak for my brethren when I assure you of our unquestioning allegiance to the excellent Lady Jane as our future sovereign lady.”

  “Aye, aye!” echo the rest eagerly.

  Inwardly I congratulate myself. The first hurdle has successfully been negotiated.

  I now secure the Tower, the chief fortress in the kingdom, placing it under the control of a trusted associate, Lord Clinton, and order the execution of a number of Catholics imprisoned there, so as to deprive the Lady Mary of potential supporters. I have already sent my son Lord Robert Dudley off in hot pursuit of Mary, with instructions to take her prisoner and bring her without delay to London, where I will ensure that she suffers the same fate as that awaiting her friends in the Tower.

  Presently, Robert sends encouraging news of his swift progress northward. His next message, however, is less welcome. The Lady Mary, he informs me, was warned by some traitor of his approach and has managed to elude him. Dressed like a servant girl, she rode at full speed behind a guide provided by a local adherent of hers and has now, it is believed, reached Kenninghall. I pray God that Robert apprehends her before she has raised her supporters.

  It must have been de Scheyfve who sent word to Mary that the King is dead. How he found out, I have no idea, but at any rate she knows the truth now. That much is clear from a letter she has sent to the privy council, which has just been placed in my hands. Expressing herself in the most regal terms, she writes of her astonishment and indignation at our failure to inform her of her brother’s death or to have her proclaimed Queen and asserts her right to the crown. She concludes by commanding us all, on our allegiance to God and to herself, to have her accession announced forthwith.

  Instead, we have already ordered the Bishop of London to proclaim both Mary and Elizabeth bastards in his next Sunday sermon at Paul’s Cross.

  Even now, I still stay my hand when it comes to making public the King’s death. We have yet to prepare the ground for the Lady Jane’s accession, and for that I need more time.

Lady Jane Dudley


  I am reading in the garden when, late on this warm afternoon, the arrival of Northumberland’s daughter, Mary, Lady Sidney, is announced. Summoned by my mother to the great chamber, I am surprised to be greeted warmly, with a curtsy and a kiss on both cheeks, by this dark beauty with the dancing eyes, the wife of the King’s closest friend. I had thought I was persona non grata with the Dudleys.

  “Madam,” Lady Sidney announces grandly, “I am sent to bid you to come this night to Syon House to receive what has been ordered for you by His Majesty the King.”

  It is what I have feared, I am certain. Immediately I am on my guard. I step back.

  “I regret, my lady, that I have been unwell of late and am still too weak to travel,” I protest.

  But Mary is having none of it. “Madam, I’m afraid I must insist. It is necessary that you come with me, and your lady mother too.” Her tone has changed; it brooks no opposition. “Please hasten and make ready.”

  I flee to my chamber, trembling.

  “I cannot go,” I tell Mrs. Ellen distractedly. “You may guess what is about to happen. You know I want no part in it.” Of course, Mrs. Ellen knows of what I am speaking. She tries to soothe me, but fails miserably.

  I am so alone. There is no help to be had from any person. It is as if I am stepping off dry land onto a boat that is about to encounter swift rapids, and I will not be able to get off before disaster strikes, yet I am powerless to walk away. Set-faced, I stand silently shaking while Mrs. Ellen dresses me in a black velvet gown bordered with silver, then replaits and coils my hair and sets upon it a French hood banded with little diamonds and pearls. In the mirror, my face is white and my eyes look haunted. Ready now, I emerge from the safety of my bedchamber and descend the stairs, then allow myself to be led by Lady Sidney to the waiting barge that boasts the Dudley arms. The Suffolk barge departed minutes ago, I am told, bearing my mother to Syon.

  On the short journey upriver, neither of us speaks. It occurs to me that the only way to escape my fate is to leap into the murky water and let it sweep me away, out of the hands of those who would use me so iniquitously. But I do not do it. I am capable, it seems, of nothing. We disem-bark at Syon stairs and are escorted to the house by a chamberlain wearing the Dudley livery, who leads us to the deserted great hall, where we are asked to wait.

  Suddenly, the doors are flung open and the entire privy council, headed by Northumberland, files into the hall. Each man in his turn bows to me and Lady Sidney. I see undisguised interest and speculation in their faces. A hush descends as the Earls of Pembroke and Huntingdon walk toward us. To my unutterable dismay, they both kneel before me and, one after the other, kiss my hand with great reverence.

  How dare they so honor me? I am not the one to whom is due such fealty, nor am I worthy of it. I am wise to their purpose and will stand my ground. This must not be! Nevertheless, as Northumberland approaches and asks me to proceed with him to the presence chamber, a deep fear possesses me. They really mean to do this.

  My alarm increases as I am led to an empty throne, set upon a dais beneath a crimson canopy of estate. The chamber is packed with ranks of lords, ladies, and courtiers, all standing in order of precedence, all wearing black. As the Duke steers me through the throng, his hand in a vise-like grip on mine, I am dimly aware that people are making obeisances to me. My heart pounding, I see my father and mother, both smiling triumphantly in my direction; the Duchess of Northumberland, her thin lips slightly upturned at the corners; and Guilford, his handsome, dissolute features set in a knowing smirk.

  Panic mounts. An unpleasant jarring sensation in my head has me frantically looking for succor in what I know is to be my hour of trial. It passes, but leaves me feeling faint and shaky. With an immense effort of will, I try to steady myself, fearing that I will either pass out or even drop dead from fright in front of all these people. I pray for strength and guidance, and that God may reveal His will in this great matter.

  The thought strikes me that perhaps this is the path that the Almighty, in His usual subtle way, has chosen for me. Is it possible that I, a poor weak vessel, am destined to be His instrument? His ways of working out His purpose are so mysterious as sometimes to appear incomprehensible to mere mortals. But how can I know whether this business is the will of God or the work of the Devil? I am desperate to understand! I must hope and pray for a sign.

  I stand trembling at the foot of the dais as Northumberland wheels me round to face the company. There is a hush.

  The Duke speaks in ringing tones: “As Lord President of the council, it is my sad duty to proclaim to you all the death of his most blessed and gracious Majesty, King Edward VI.” He pauses to allow this momentous, dread news to sink in. That poor boy! How I pity him…. But now is not the time to weep. Few of those present look surprised, and I suspect that most have already heard or guessed of the King’s passing.

  Numb in my misery, I hear the Duke drone on, praising the late King’s virtues and giving thanks for his most Christian death. Then it comes: his late Majesty, in his wisdom, says Northumberland, devised a new will, which is to be enshrined in an act of Parliament, disinheriting his sisters and decreeing that whosoever takes them for his undoubted heirs is a traitor to both God and the realm.

  All eyes are now on me. To my horror, I see Northumberland turn toward me.

  “Be it known that His Majesty has named Your Grace as the heir to the crown of England,” he declares. “He has also appointed that your sister will succeed you in default of your lawful issue.”

  All are silent. I stand mute, in agonized turmoil, reeling from the impact of his words and unable to respond in any way.

  The Duke seems to take my silence for assent. He smiles. “Madam, your title has been approved by all the lords of the council, the great nobles of this realm, and all the judges of the land. There is nothing wanting but Your Grace’s grateful acceptance of the high estate that God Almighty, the sovereign disposer of all crowns and scepters—never sufficiently to be thanked by you for so great a mercy—has advanced you to.” He pauses, his smile becoming more strained as I remain apparently stupefied by my good fortune.

  “Therefore,” he concludes, “you should cheerfully take upon you the name, title, and estate of Queen of England, receiving from us the homage that will shortly be tendered to you by the rest of the kingdom.” Now he falls on his knees, followed by everyone else present in the chamber, until I am the only person left standing, looking down on rank upon rank of bowed heads.

  “Each one of us would willingly shed his blood for you, exposing our lives to death!” Northumberland assures me dramatically. But I cannot hear him properly. Waves of dizziness and nausea are engulfing me, and I crumple to the floor in a dead faint.

  When I open my eyes, I am still lying there. I realize, aghast, that not one person, not even my mother or my husband, has stirred to help me. Is this what being a queen will mean? I am alone, utterly alone, and will be so for the rest of my life. This realization is just too much to bear, and my composure breaks. Lying on the floor, I bury my head in my arms and fall to weeping piteously, great racking sobs tearing at my body. This is wrong, I know it! We must surely be damned to Hell for all eternity, I along with them, even though I am forced to be their accomplice in this evil.

  Northumberland is staring down at me without emotion. He clearly thinks me a foolish girl who does not appreciate her good fortune, but he makes no move to stem what, to him, and in these circumstances, must be an immoderate display of feeling. Perhaps he, and the rest, believe that I am suffering from shock after hearing of the death of my cousin Edward and trust I will soon remember that such loss of control is ill-bred and will compose myself.

  There is no point in crying if no one takes any notice. I am sobbing softly now and after a few minutes, realizing they have no intention of comforting me, I wipe my eyes and sit up. The Duke stretches out a hand to support me, and I rise s
hakily to my feet. I know now, with surprising clarity and moral certainty, what I must do.

  “The crown is not my right,” I declare in what sounds like a high, childish voice. “This pleases me not at all. The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.”

  There is a ripple of shocked excitement in the chamber. Northumberland’s eyes flash with anger. He cannot believe I have dared to defy him: a slip of a girl against a mighty duke. No doubt he thought he could deal with me easily and firmly.

  “Your Grace wrongs yourself and your House,” he cries stridently. My parents, looking as appalled as he, and embarrassed, weigh in also.

  “You are an ungrateful girl!” thunders my father, his face flushed. “Have you forgotten your duty to us, who have helped to order this for you? Not to mention your obedience to the will of his late Majesty, nor to the decision of your chief subjects here present?”

  “You will do as you are told!” spits my mother.

  “I must do as my conscience dictates,” I say firmly, determined to hold my ground in the face of their hostility and my fear and bodily weakness.

  “And do you think King Edward, of blessed memory, would have acted in an ungodly fashion in thus willing the crown to you?” asks the Duke in a voice that suggests he is making an effort to show patience with me.

  “He was ill, and not in his right mind, of that I am convinced,” I reply steadily. “And it appears he was overborne by others who look only to further their own ends.”

  The mighty Northumberland is visibly taken aback by my candor; I doubt that many people have ever spoken so plainly to him, and certainly not his fellow councillors. Yet here am I, a mere girl, who owes him the respect due to a father, insinuating openly that he is corrupt and self-seeking.

  My parents seem poised to swoop to the attack once more, their mouths open in protest, but suddenly, at his father’s nod, Guilford steps forward and lays his hand on my arm. I recoil at his touch, and the Duke frowns, but Guilford persists. Of course, he has a vested interest in my compliance, and no doubt the Duke has briefed him beforehand: how touching, the handsome young husband gently persuading his reluctant wife to do her duty.

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