Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  “Sweet Jane,” he says gently. Now I know he’s playing a part. It’s even been scripted for him, as his next words prove: he’s probably been reciting his speech all day. “I pray you be mindful of your duty and accept this sovereign honor that God has seen fit to bestow on you. There is, I know well, no one more fitted by descent, learning, and religion for it, and it is clear that God has designated you to be the savior of His faithful people.”

  I stare at him in astonishment. If a donkey had spoken, I could not be more surprised.

  “The crown is not my right,” I repeat.

  “Think,” Guilford goes on—his father is watching him closely. “Think on the good you can do for the true Church, and think also of what would happen to those of our true faith if the Lady Mary were to come to the throne. If you refuse the crown, you will be responsible for their fate. Think on it, Jane!”

  God chooses the strangest instruments, for Guilford’s words strike home with more impact than I could ever have imagined. The Duke is looking at him with new admiration. Possibly Guilford said more than he was told to say, but it was enough to plant a doubt in my mind. The assembled courtiers appear to be collectively holding their breath, waiting on my response.

  I struggle to collect my thoughts. I am wavering at the prospect of true Protestants suffering persecution for their faith, as they will surely do under Mary’s rule; the prospect makes my heart quail. My husband is right: I hold their fate in my hands.

  What shall I do, Lord? I am praying inwardly. I am unfitted in every way for this high honor, which is not mine by entitlement, but I fear for Thy elect if I refuse it. Direct me, show me, I beg of You, what I must do.

  “I must pray for guidance,” I say, and fall to my knees.

  Although my eyes are shut, all must witness the struggle taking place within me. But the battle is quickly fought and won: I understand the Divine Will now. The true faith must take priority over a doubtful title. It is my duty to be its defender—there is no other course I can take. It is a bitter cup, but I must drink it; my fateful decision is made. Northumberland looks on approvingly as I open my eyes and call on God to be my witness: “If what has been given to me is lawfully mine, may Thy Divine Majesty grant me such spirit and grace that I may govern to Thy glory and service, and to the advantage of the realm.”

  With a great effort I rise to my feet, mount the dais, and sit down on the throne, gripping the velvet armrests.

  The Duke bends to kiss my hand, his relief—and his irritation—evident. Looking down on his bowed head, I feel a wave of revulsion, and it is all I can do not to snatch my hand away. I resolve that, at the earliest opportunity, I will rid myself of the hated Dudleys.

  Coolly I nod my acceptance of the Duke’s homage and watch him retire, making way for the next in the long line of lords and officers seeking to offer their allegiance. It gives me a frisson of pleasure to see Guilford on his knees before me. From now on, I decide, he will treat me with courtesy and respect, or I will send him away.

  My father glowers as he bends his head and mutters under his breath, “A fine dance you have led us all, madam!” My mother, waspish in victory and determined to have the last word, is standing at my elbow.

  “Queen you may be,” she whispers, “but you’ll not forget your duty to your parents. And after today’s sorry performance, I look to see some improvement in your conduct. You have shamed us all.” Strangely her sharp tongue has lost its power to move me. I realize I am now in a position where I may choose to ignore it, and it dawns on me that queenship will have one advantage at least—that of keeping my parents, and particularly my mother, at a safe distance. And let them dare gainsay me!

  But this is small compensation for the unsettling feeling in my bones that, however good my reasons, I have done wrong in accepting a crown that can never rightfully be mine. I fear I have been imprudent, but it is too late now. I have made the hardest decision of my life. I have charted my course and must now stick to it, whatever tempests threaten, and however my conscience troubles me. I will endeavor to be a good and merciful queen, and a champion of the true faith.

  It feels strange to be sitting in my high seat and listening to my—yes, my—privy councillors acquainting me most deferentially with the arrangements for my state entry into London, which is to take place tomorrow. Although it is customary for a new monarch to go in procession through the city streets to be acclaimed by his or her subjects, my councillors feel that, with the Lady Mary still at large, the proclamation of my accession, followed by my reception at the Tower of London, shall be sufficient for the present. Northumberland says the Tower is the safest place for me, and the council too, just now; and of course it is traditional for a sovereign to lodge there prior to being crowned.

  I do not question these arrangements: it seems as if it is all happening to somebody else and does not concern me. Nor do I dare ask what will happen to the Lady Mary when they catch up with her. If they catch up with her. For if Mary succeeds in reaching the coast, she could take ship to the Emperor’s dominions and there raise an army in support of her claim, a Catholic army that might well be used to force this kingdom back to obedience to Rome. The very thought keeps me true to my chosen path.

  It is late now, and after such a momentous day I feel drained.

  “My lords, I will retire now,” I announce, surprising myself and, clearly, my hearers with the ring of authority in my voice.

  Guilford stands up with the rest. His constant presence at my side throughout these past hours has irritated me, yet I realize that, short of being unpardonably rude to him in public, there is nothing I can do about it.

  “Allow me to escort you to your chamber, madam,” he says courteously, making his obeisance with a flourish. The hair flopping forward over his face does not quite conceal the glint of lust in his eyes. Doubtless he finds the prospect of bedding the Queen of England stimulating. Northumberland and his Duchess are watching me closely, as is my mother. Well, I am learning to dissemble. I will give them no cause for criticism.

  “I thank you, my lord,” I reply coolly, giving Guilford my hand. Together we walk past the bowing lords of the council, as the doors of the state chamber are flung open for us. Beyond them, Mrs. Ellen is waiting.

  “Your Majesty,” she says with a formal curtsy that startles me.

  “Attend me, please,” I respond gratefully. I turn to Guilford. “I beg you to excuse me, my lord, but I am weary beyond measure after this long day’s business. I bid you good night.” The doors behind us are still wide open, and the lords are beginning to spill out of them. Guilford has no choice but to acknowledge defeat: he will not risk the shame of his wife’s rejection being made public. He bows again and kisses my hand.

  “Good night, madam,” he says, meekly enough, but his expression is petulant.

  Queen Jane

  THE THAMES AND THE TOWER OF LONDON, 10TH JULY 1553

  Soon after midday the flotilla of barges draws away from Syon steps. Ahead go those bearing the privy councillors and the chief officers of the royal household, whilst the state barge emblazoned with the royal arms of England brings up the rear. I am seated in its cushioned and canopied cabin, the curtains tied back so that my subjects can get a good view of their new Queen. My gown and headdress are in the Tudor colors of green and white, embroidered with gold thread and encrusted with jewels that glitter in the blazing afternoon sun. Beside me sits Guilford, dazzling in a suit of white satin trimmed with gold and silver. He is holding my hand and rather overacting the part of attentive husband. If he bows his head again when I speak to him, I think I will scream. But even his presence cannot make this real.

  Behind us sits my mother, clad in crimson velvet and perspiring heavily. She has been designated my trainbearer on this great occasion. I can sense from her pursed lips and rigid bearing that she is still mightily displeased with me, but this is the least of my worries.

  I am, I have to admit, nervous, because the news from the city is not
good. This morning, the royal heralds proclaimed me Queen in three places: by the Eleanor Cross in Cheapside, on Tower Hill, and outside Westminster Hall. But the people received the news in silence, stony-faced. The Duke has sent bands of armed guards into London to deal with any disturbances, yet this does not prevent some naughty fellows shouting out from the riverbank that it is the Lady Mary who should be queen. For this, they will later be sentenced to have their ears cut off and stand in the pillory. It is not an auspicious start.

  As the barges glide downriver, I see more clusters of people along the shore, but there is no cheering. The mood is hostile, and most stare insolently at me or gawp incredulously. I feel intimidated by their silence and antipathy and dare not wave or even acknowledge them by a nod of the head. The journey seems endless, and with relief I see the great white bulk of the Tower looming in the distance.

  “Nearly there,” says Guilford unnecessarily. “You should put on your chopines now.” I reach for the three-inch-high clogs at my feet; I have been told I must wear them to give me height so that I can be seen by those at the back of the anticipated crowds. I begin to wonder if there will be any crowds at all.

  As the barges pull in toward the Court Gate at the Tower, the cannons along the adjacent wharf salute me with a deafening report. Assisted by Guilford, I alight from my barge, my mother holding up my heavy train, then take my place beneath a canopy of estate borne by six waiting peers. Followed by the lords of the council, I walk in procession through the Tower precincts, which, to my utter astonishment, are packed with people, all craning their necks to see me. Even more amazing, some are actually cheering!

  “God save Queen Jane!” they cry, throwing their bonnets in the air. “God save Your Majesty!”

  Heartened by this, I press on, smiling, although my knees feel weak and my heart is pounding.

  At last, the entrance to the palace is in sight. Here, the elderly Marquess of Winchester, Lord High Treasurer, waits with Sir John Bridges, the Lieutenant of the Tower, to receive me. The Marquess falls creakily to his knees to present me with the great keys of the Tower, but before I can take them, Northumberland, standing nearby, snatches them up and himself places them in my hands. His action is blatantly symbolic, as if he himself confers upon me the privileges of sovereignty. I bridle inwardly—his arrogance is breathtaking!

  But there is no time for feeling indignant, for I am now being escorted up the stairs into the White Tower, the massive keep built by William the Conqueror to guard the city of London. We proceed to the presence chamber, where a vast throng of noblemen and ladies fall on their knees as I enter. Among them, I glimpse the pretty face of my sister Katherine; she is with her young husband and his father, Pembroke. As I seat myself on the throne, my lord father and Northumberland approach me and, kneeling, officially bid me welcome to my kingdom.

  These formalities completed, at the Duke’s bidding I lead the court upstairs to the Norman chapel dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. Here I am supposed to give thanks to God for my accession. Yet, as I kneel on my cushion before the altar rails, I find I cannot pray, for my thoughts are in too great a turmoil. I try desperately to recapture the sense of conviction I felt when I accepted the crown, when I believed I would be God’s instrument in saving His faithful, but it eludes me now, when I most need it. How can I give thanks to God for this crown to which I have no true title? It would be dishonest, and He is never deceived. And while I compound my sin, He might turn His face against me. Indeed, my inability to commune with Him now might be the first indication of His disfavor. I know in my heart that I have wronged the rightful heiress, the Lady Mary. I feel bereft and alone; without God to sustain me, I cannot bear this burden.

  Yet I must, I must, for the court is rising to its feet and there are further ceremonies over which I must preside. Promising myself that, as soon as I am alone, I will kneel and crave forgiveness and guidance, I resolutely compose myself and lead the way back down to the presence chamber. Here I sit enthroned again, flanked by Guilford and, at my own request, Mrs. Ellen, who henceforth is to be my chief lady-in-waiting. Next to her stands a family friend, Mrs. Tilney, who will also attend me from now on.

  Now the Marquess of Winchester and other lords advance, bearing on velvet cushions the crown jewels, brought up from the Tower vaults for the occasion. I stare at the crown, that same crown that was worn by my late great-uncle King Henry, who had it made, having decided that the diadem worn by his predecessors was insufficiently magnificent for his greatness. His crown is set with the jewels taken from that earlier crown of the Plantagenets; they wink and glisten in the light of scores of candles.

  I panic. This is not mine! I have no right to it, whatever anyone says. To accept it is to court disaster, I am sure of that. So when the Marquess lifts the crown and makes to place it on my head, I recoil.

  “My lords,” I say firmly, though I am shrinking inside, “this crown has never been demanded by me or anyone acting in my name.” I place some stress on the word my, looking pointedly at Northumberland. “It is not your place, my lord of Winchester, to offer it to me or to set it on my head. I tell you, I will not wear it, for it is not mine.”

  The Duke frowns and looks exasperated, but Winchester—who is, after all, a practiced diplomat—ignores the substance of my words.

  “Your Grace may take the crown without fear,” he says avuncularly. “I merely wish to see how it becomes you, and if it fits.”

  I am aware of Northumberland and my parents glaring at me, and my courage fails me. I nod, and Mrs. Ellen steps forward. She removes my headdress and unbinds my coiled and plaited tresses. The Marquess now places the crown on my head, and the courtiers break out into hearty applause. Again I feel faint and grip the arms of the throne to steady myself. It is done, for better or worse.

  Winchester is speaking, but I pay him little heed, so I’m not sure if I actually heard him say that he means to order another crown for Guilford. Later, alone in my apartments with Mrs. Ellen, I discover that I did hear aright, and I am perturbed and displeased. How I wish I had been in a fit state at the time to make it plain to all that I have no intention whatsoever of making Guilford Dudley King.

  I sit at the center of the high table, toying with my food. All around me, at this banquet given in honor of my accession, lords and ladies are animatedly chattering, apparently enjoying themselves, while I, the focus of it all, feel detached and unreal. Guilford, on my right, is bored with playing the devoted husband and pays more attention to his mother, who sits on the other side of him, flashing the occasional frosty look in my direction.

  To my left sits Northumberland. His outward good humor seems forced; he looks strangely deflated. Perhaps he feels less in control of the situation than he could wish. The Lady Mary is still at large, and if she flees abroad before Lord Robert Dudley catches up with her, it will almost certainly mean war. But my father warns that England’s depleted treasury cannot bear the expense of defending the realm from invasion.

  “If the Emperor does choose to lend the Lady Mary his support, we will all very likely be doomed,” he predicts gloomily.

  I have decided to put myself in God’s hands; I will not give way to my fears. But the Duke cannot hide his anxiety. He had expected me—I make no doubt—to be docile and easy to manipulate, a willing tool in his hands; it must be disconcerting for him now to discover that I am nothing of the sort. I am determined not to be governed by him and have resolved to start as I mean to continue. He must not be allowed to go on believing that his rule will continue indefinitely, for I mean to declare myself of age and be rid of him and his whole family at the earliest opportunity. Kings before me have attained their majority at my age, fifteen—King Edward did—so there is no reason why the Duke should rule in my name. He must know that I mean to assert my authority and do what is right and needful.

  The noise in the dining chamber has reached a babel when a messenger from the Lady Mary is announced. A hush falls as the Duke beckons the man to c
ome forward and takes from him a letter. After breaking open the seal and perusing it rapidly, my lord rises to his feet, his dark brows beetling.

  “Your Majesty, my lords and ladies, you shall hear what the traitor Mary has to say.” He reads the whole defiant letter aloud. After lamenting the death of her dearest brother the King, the Princess writes that no one can be ignorant of the provisions of the Act of Succession. Then, using the royal plural, she continues:

  It seems strange that, our brother dying, we had no knowledge from you thereof. We had conceived great trust in your loyalty and service, but nevertheless, we are not ignorant of your consultations and the provisions you have forced through. We understand that political considerations may have moved you to act thus, so doubt not, gracious lord, that we take all your doings in gracious part, and will remit and fully pardon them. Wherefore we require and charge you, for that allegiance which you owe to God and to us, that you cause our right and title to this realm to be proclaimed in our city of London and other places, as our very trust is in you.

  The silence that greets these words is broken only when my mother and the Duchess of Northumberland begin lamenting how Mary had obviously been warned in advance of the plan to apprehend her, and wondering who got word to her.

  “Of course,” Northumberland declares, “we will ignore her outrageous demands. How can we proclaim her Queen when Queen Jane here is already acknowledged the rightful ruler?” He turns to me. “Rest assured, madam, my son Lord Robert will track the Lady Mary down and take her prisoner. I assure you, she is a lone woman who has no friends in this realm and poses no serious threat to your throne. And now, I pray you, my good lords and ladies, continue with the feasting.”

 
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