Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  At present, I am not primarily concerned about the Lady Mary. I have a far more immediate and pressing worry, for I fear I am slowly being poisoned.

  The first symptom I noticed was my hair falling out. Not just the odd strand here or there, but great clumps that leave bald patches. Then I began suffering griping pains in my belly and lost my appetite. Now my skin is beginning to peel. Anxiously I recall what I have heard of King Edward’s terrible sufferings in the weeks before his death: his hair fell out, and his skin peeled. Of course, this could have been caused by the consumption that killed him, but there are other, more sinister rumors—rumors that accuse Northumberland of hastening the King’s death by arsenic poisoning.

  Could he be doing the same to me? Does he mean to be rid of me, troublesome thorn that I am, so that he can set Guilford up in my place, a more malleable puppet to dance to his tune? Surely even the Duke could not expect the people of England to allow it! Yet he is a frightened, desperate man, whose crucial schemes are in jeopardy, and I myself am causing him further problems. I am aware he was deeply displeased by my initial rejection of the crown, and that he has certainly resented my outspoken defiance expressed in several ways since. I know that he is angered by my categorical refusal to make Guilford King; he cannot be happy either about my more personal objections to Guilford as a husband. All in all, the Duke has got himself a bad bargain in exchange for setting me up as Queen, and he surely guesses what fate I have in mind for him once I am crowned. We are locked in a power struggle, middle-aged opportunist and untried girl, and we both know it. Hence I think it is not illogical to fear that Northumberland is trying to do away with me.

  I dare confide in no one. I am glad now that my involvement in state affairs is minimal, for it means that I can stay in my chamber for most of the day and have as little to do with the Duke as possible. At dinner, I take care to eat only from the same dish from which he helps himself, and I have all my food assayed by a food taster. In the evening, I send Mrs. Ellen down to the kitchens to supervise the preparation of my supper.

  Yet still my hair continues to fall out, and my skin to peel.

  Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel


  Long after the Queen has retired, a group of us, all members of the privy council, gather in my lodgings and sit drinking late into the night. Thrown together with these men in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Tower, I have become aware, during the past day or so, that some are of like mind to myself. A hint here, a muttered remark there, and here we all are, closeted together in secret, confessing our fears for the future.

  “I, more than most, have little reason to love Northumberland,” I say resentfully. “After Somerset fell, he had me imprisoned on the flimsiest of charges. I was utterly humiliated.”

  “Your lordship did regain his place on the privy council,” the Marquess of Winchester reminds me.

  “Aye, but at the price of my own integrity, I fear. I am asking myself—I, whose family can be traced back to the Conquest—how I could ever have allowed myself to become a tool of this upstart Dudley. And what concerns me is that the Duke is becoming infinitely more arrogant as the father-in-law of the Queen than he ever was as mere President of the Council.”

  The Earl of Huntingdon, in whose veins runs a thread of royal blood, and whom some secretly considered to be a viable alternative to the Lady Jane, although he is further in blood from the royal line, agrees with me.

  “I am even more worried about the influence of that blockhead Suffolk, who knows of little but horses and hounds,” he confides. “And I am certain I do not want Guilford Dudley as King.”

  The Marquess of Winchester heartily concurs. “It was that, above all, that convinced me that the Duke has gone too far. The whole scheme looks suspicious. This is less about preserving the true religion than about keeping the Dudleys in power.”

  “It’s just a transparent plot to put the Dudleys on the throne,” I growl. “We’ve all been hoodwinked.”

  “Who would you rather have on the throne then, Guilford Dudley or the Lady Mary?” asks Huntingdon.

  “The Lady Mary has the best and most rightful claim,” answers Winchester. “I always knew it, but when it came to approving King Edward’s device for the succession, I had my own skin to consider.”

  “As did we all,” I chime in, as anxious as he to exonerate myself from complicity in Northumberland’s plot. “And now might has prevailed over right.”

  “There is still no word of the Lady Mary,” says Huntingdon.

  “There will be soon, make no doubt, and it may not be what Northumberland wants to hear,” puts in Pembroke. “With every day that passes, his position grows more precarious. Until I know which way the wind is blowing, I’ll not let my boy consummate his marriage to Lady Katherine Grey. If the Lady Mary prevails, I’ll have it annulled.”

  Queen Jane


  Late in the morning, Northumberland himself brings a sheaf of documents for me to sign. He is obviously under some strain and makes a visible effort to appear his usual urbane self.

  “A slight problem, Your Majesty,” he begins, with what proves to be breathtaking understatement. “I learned last night that the traitor Mary is still at liberty, and it was decided in council this morning that Your Grace should dispatch orders to all your lord lieutenants in the shires, commanding them to defend your just title to the crown, and to assist you in the apprehension of the Lady Mary.”

  I nod, guessing that the situation is worse than he cares to disclose.

  “Very well,” I say, and put pen to parchment. Then I look up, innocent as pie, at the Duke.

  “Tell me, my lord, is it not possible for you to lead an army against my cousin? You are an experienced soldier, and ably fitted for the task.”

  He is astonished at my boldness, and momentarily at a loss.

  “Nothing would please me more, madam,” he stutters, “yet my duties compel me to remain here in London.” That’s a lie, I’m sure. He is frightened to leave the Tower, but of course he can’t admit it. “Today, madam, I have put in hand arrangements for a general muster of troops at Westminster, and my officers are busy even as we speak, recruiting more men. Every man is to have a month’s pay now.”

  It all sounds providential and grand, but I’m not stupid: I can guess he is only paying the soldiers handsomely in advance to ensure that they do not desert, should it come to civil war. And where, I wonder—considering the emptiness of my treasury—is the money coming from?

  Later, Northumberland returns with some councillors, beaming.

  “Two thousand men stand ready to defend you, madam, as well as the Yeomen of the Guard, who will remain here. I have placed at the army’s disposal thirty great guns from the Tower arsenal.”

  “Then we may sleep peacefully in our beds tonight,” I observe.

  “Indeed, madam. Furthermore, five warships are to patrol the coast of East Anglia to prevent the Lady Mary from escaping by sea.”

  “Is there further news of her whereabouts?”

  “Yes, madam. She is at Kenninghall still, where a few lewd and base persons have rallied to her banner. Yet Your Majesty has no cause for fear, since your army will shortly be ready to march into Norfolk to put down this rebellion.”

  I look directly into his eyes. Here is my chance to be rid of him.

  “And who will lead it?” I ask challengingly.

  “I suggest your lord father, madam.”

  “My father?” I echo. “Oh, no, my lord, I could not spare him.” And taking a handkerchief from my sleeve, I pretend to dab away a tear.

  The Duke does his best to reassure me. “Your father is the finest soldier I know. No other is as experienced. You may be certain he will deal with these rebels in no time and come safely home to you.”

  “No,” I say, putting my handkerchief away and sitting straight-backed. “You, my lord, are the best man of war in this rea
lm. It is you who should lead my forces.”

  Before Northumberland can open his mouth to protest, Pembroke, Arundel, Huntingdon, and Winchester all break out in a chorus of approval, which is most heartening to hear. The Duke looks staggered. Now he must know he is beaten. He must also guess, as I do, that they are beginning to turn against him. They too want him gone, and in a position to take the blame if things go wrong. Taken at the head of an army, in open rebellion against his rightful sovereign, what chance would he have? Whereas these lords left in the Tower could brazenly lie to absolve themselves from any willing part in his conspiracy.

  I suspect the Duke has deliberately lied to me and his colleagues as to the extent of Mary’s support. If he has so speedily mustered an army of two thousand men, her forces must be great: he would not need as many to put down a few yokels.

  “I am Your Majesty’s to command, of course,” Northumberland is belatedly saying, breathing heavily. “I will do as you ask.”

  “I thank you most humbly,” I reply demurely. “I pray you use your diligence and wish you Godspeed.” This victory to me, then, and it might well prove the crucial one.

  But Northumberland must have his revenge. Without consulting me, he announces almost immediately that I and my husband are to be crowned in Westminster Abbey a fortnight hence.

  I am outraged as I sit here, impotent, on my throne. Have I not expressly refused to make Guilford King? But the Duke is determined to ignore that, so anxious is he to secure his own position before his departure. Wait, I counsel myself. Just wait, and have patience. Soon he will be gone, and I will have more freedom to order affairs myself. The lords will almost certainly support me—witness how they did so today, to devastating effect—and I conclude that they must be as resentful of the Duke’s tyranny as I am. And there is always the possibility that his lordship may never return.

  Northumberland is still speaking. “Henceforth, any servant approaching either the Queen or her lord husband will do so on bended knee, and both will be addressed as ‘Your Grace.’” He turns to the throne and bows.

  “Your Grace,” he tells me, “an envoy has been sent in your name to your good brother the Emperor to announce your undisputed succession and to declare to him how the traitor Mary is bent on disturbing the peace of the realm.”

  I incline my head regally, whilst responding with a touch of sarcasm, “Let us hope that will be sufficient to deter the Emperor from aiding and abetting our enemies.”


  The next morning, I am aware of a buzz of activity in and around the Tower. Emerging from my chamber, I am informed that the Duke has ordered his troops to muster outside Durham House and is preparing to depart.

  Arundel approaches me, doffing his cap and bowing.

  “Your Grace, I would speak privately with you.”

  I lead him into my apartments and dismiss my two ladies.

  “You have news, my lord?”

  “Bad news, I regret, madam. We had tidings in the night that the whole of East Anglia has risen in support of the Lady Mary, and that the Earl of Derby has proclaimed her Queen in Cheshire. Even that Protestant troublemaker Sir Peter Carew has done the same in Devon. Worst of all, for my lord Duke, is the report that his son Robert, realizing he could not hope to apprehend the Lady Mary, himself proclaimed her Queen in King’s Lynn.”

  I feel faint and nauseous. Northumberland’s edifice is crumbling, unable to withstand the tempests, and God’s will is prevailing, despite the efforts of foolish, proud men to thwart it. And although I am shaken by the news, I am glad—glad to my soul—of the likely outcome. For, as the Almighty is my witness, I never wanted to be Queen. I have worn my dignity unwillingly and hated every minute of it, these last days in the Tower. Now, it appears, the treacherous charade is nearly over, and when it is, the hated Dudleys will receive just punishment, and I will happily relinquish my borrowed title and go home to Bradgate, there to live in peaceful obscurity with my books. That Mary will allow this, I cannot doubt: she is a merciful, kindly lady, and wise enough to understand that I consented to accept the crown only under unbearable pressure and with extreme reluctance. Heaven knows, there are plenty of witnesses who could tell her so. Thus, for myself, I have no undue concern.

  “Several councillors have fled,” Arundel is saying. “They left the Tower at dead of night.”

  “Ought we to leave too?”

  “Your Majesty is probably safer remaining here. It is hard to judge the mood of the people, and anyway, if you flee, you proclaim yourself guilty in the Lady Mary’s eyes. The day is not lost yet, madam.”

  “I thank you for your counsel, my lord. Will you remain?”

  “I will dissemble until the time is ripe for declaring my true allegiance—saving your pardon, madam,” he says candidly. “The Duke may yet prevail. If he does, you may count on my loyalty. But we must all look to our own necks.”

  “And the rest?”

  “They too will swim with the tide.”

  I smile to myself. Is there a man of principle among them?

  Shortly afterward, Northumberland arrives to receive from me his formal commission.

  “I bid you farewell, madam,” he says. “In a few days I will bring in the Lady Mary, captive or dead, like the rebel she is.” And, with a sweeping bow, he is gone.

  Northumberland and his eldest son, the Earl of Warwick, have left London at the head of their army, much to my relief. My advisers assure me that the Duke will be victorious: is he not, after all, the finest soldier in the kingdom?

  “I wonder if I might remain Queen after all,” I confide to Mrs. Ellen. “I am certainly resolved at least to behave like one until the outcome of the matter is known. After all, if God has called me to rule England and further establish the reformed religion here, I must not let Him down. I just pray that His will is evident in the events of the next few days, so that I may know my course is the right one.”

  “We are all in God’s hands,” Mrs. Ellen says quietly.

  The tension in the Tower is palpable. Several councillors have announced their intention of visiting their homes, there to wait upon events, but my lord father has persuaded them—not without difficulty—to stay. They do so with plain reluctance, for the news is not good for those who have thrown in their lot with the Duke. Mary has been proclaimed Queen in four counties now. Off Yarmouth, the crews of Northumberland’s warships have mutinied in her favor, and two thousand sailors have deserted and gone to join her at Framlingham, where a vast army is gathering around her. And how the people are flocking to Mary’s standard! Even that stern Protestant Bishop Hooper is urging his flock to support her. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the people of England will not bow to the ambition of John Dudley.

  Ashen-faced, my father turns to me.

  “Madam, the lords are restive. They whisper that yours is a lost cause. That damned Treasurer of the Mint—may God curse him!—has absconded with all the gold in Your Grace’s privy purse, and you may be sure that others are planning to follow him. I suspect that, even now, some of them are in touch with Mary’s supporters in London.”

  “Then we must pray that my lord of Northumberland is victorious,” I say drily. My father gives me a look; he has not missed the irony in my voice.

  Later in the day he is back, agitated.

  “Madam, this is beyond me. Two lords of the council have just been stopped by the guards whilst attempting to leave the Tower by stealth. None of us has the authority of Northumberland, and the number of waverers is increasing by the hour. Who shall prevent them if they are determined upon going?”

  “I will,” I declare, rising to my feet. I will not let them leave me to face the consequences of Northumberland’s folly alone. “Pray summon the privy council to attend me now.”

  There are several empty chairs. I rest a stern gaze on the men before me. Some meet my eyes, others look shiftily away. I know that I cannot rely on their loyalty, but I will do my best to ma
ke them take responsibility for what they have done. And to bring them to obedience, I must dissemble, and dissemble again.

  “My lords,” I say, “I thank you for coming so promptly. I have called you here to inform you that, in the absence of the Lord President, I myself, your sovereign lady and Queen, will assume the government of my realm. I will henceforth preside over all your meetings, and every order will be issued by me in person. I do assure you, I mean to rule as well as reign, with the guidance of Almighty God.”

  No one speaks, but some of the peers are regarding me with undisguised admiration. No one ventures to challenge my assumption of power—at least, not openly.

  “I propose,” I continue, “to write to the sheriffs of certain counties to remind them of their allegiance. I intend also to give audience to the Bishop of London, to ask him to use his sermon next Sunday to put our subjects in mind of their loyalty to us. But above that, my lords, I mean to ensure that the Protestant faith remains the religion of this my realm. I realize that my position is not yet as secure as it should be, but I shall pray God daily that, if it be His will, He will preserve me to carry out His work on Earth, so that the wicked superstitions practiced by the Lady Mary may never again blight this land.”

  I have said too much, I know; one day soon, my brave words, intended to keep these men with me and accountable, might well be regarded as treasonable. But what else could I do?

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