Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  “Farewell,” says Lady Dorset to the assembled throng, as the chamberlain hands her a basket of refreshments for the journey and a fur rug to keep her warm.

  Lord Dorset is ready with the stirrup cup, which he hands to his wife. She takes it, then leans forward and kisses him on the lips. He murmurs something I do not catch, and they smile. Then my lady remembers she has a child.

  “Be a good girl, Jane,” she says.

  “Good-bye, my lady,” answers Jane.

  “And God keep you,” I whisper.

  “God keep you,” Jane repeats. The Marchioness nods her approval, then she is away, the coach trundling out of the courtyard. Beside me, Jane stands waving decorously to her mother until the vehicle is through the gatehouse and out of sight. There is no answering wave.

  During my lady’s absence, Lord Dorset bestirs himself to spend some time with his daughter. He quickly gets bored with hearing her read, so he decides to teach her to ride.

  “I’ll make a huntress of her before long, Mrs. Ellen,” he promises.

  I follow the pair of them to the stables. In the end stall, ready saddled, is a plump, dappled pony, the dearest little creature imaginable, and ideally suited to a novice rider.

  “Her name is Phoebe,” my lord says, beaming.

  Jane extends a tentative hand and pats the pony’s mane and nose.

  “Beautiful Phoebe!” she exclaims.

  My lord lifts Jane on the pony’s back, and she sits there gripping the reins, a big smile on her face. As we watch, a groom takes the bridle and leads the pony into the courtyard, where he walks it round and round to enable Jane to get used to the motion of its gait. The child is in her element.

  “Watch me, sir!” she cries to her father as she passes us, red curls bouncing and skirt spread wide across the animal’s flank.

  “Well done!” calls Lord Dorset. “She’s doing well,” he says to me.

  “If I may be so bold, my lord, you should let her ride regularly,” I venture.

  “A capital idea, Mrs. Ellen! She shall ride each afternoon, for the space of an hour. I will see to it.”

  And see to it he does. Unless the weather is foul, Jane is out there daily on her pony, being put through her paces, learning to trot and jump, and to keep a straight back in the saddle. She loves it, and it is pleasing to see how well she and Phoebe accord together. The riding lessons also give Lord Dorset an opportunity to get to know his daughter better, and it is gratifying to see him praise her for her prowess.

  “Why, it’s Diana the Huntress!” he says, smiling, as Jane emerges in her new miniature riding habit and feathered bonnet, which he himself ordered for her. “Today, Daughter, you can come out riding with me.”

  “Oh, sir,” I say, alarmed, “I beg of you, take care. The countryside around her is dangerous. The rocks and cliffs…”

  “Stop fretting, Mrs. Ellen, the child will be safe with me. Won’t you, Jane?” And he trots off on his mighty steed, leading Jane by the bridle. Sure enough, they are back two hours later, she rosy-cheeked and exhilarated, he jubilant, smiling down at her. Then I catch the pained look that briefly shadows his eyes, and I know for a certainty that he is regretting, probably for the thousandth time, that his little girl is not a boy.

  My lady is gone a month before we hear any word from her, but news from court travels fast, even to these remote parts, and gossip is rife within the household. I am obliged to remind the servants and the nurserymaids to hold their tongues in Lady Jane’s presence, yet I am sure the child has picked up something of what is going on. After all, we were chattering excitedly about the new Queen’s arrival a few weeks ago, and now we do not mention her.

  Everybody in the household, if not in the whole of England, has heard by now that the King’s fourth marriage is going the way of the other three, and if His Majesty were an ordinary man, doubtless they would be laughing at his lack of success in the matrimonial stakes. There is much chatter and speculation—a lot of it bawdy—about what has gone wrong this time, when he’s barely been wed five minutes, but I do my best to ensure that Jane hears none of it. To be truthful, I do not know much myself—nobody does, really—and not until Lady Dorset returns do I learn a little more of the strange goings-on at court.

  It is now March, and my lady is home. As her coach clatters into the courtyard, its leather curtains tied back, my lord summons the household to attend on her and receive her. But when the Marchioness dismounts from the coach to greet her husband, regal in a velvet cloak over a damask gown trimmed with furs and a bejeweled French hood, I notice that she looks pale and ill, while Lord Dorset is showing himself uncommonly solicitous in his welcome. As she raises her arms to embrace him, her cloak falls aside, and immediately it becomes clear why she looks unwell. Jane notices the change and shrinks fearfully into my skirts; later, when we are back in the nursery, she asks, “What has happened to my mother, Nurse? Why does she look so fat?”

  “Bless me, what a bright child it is!” I smile at the nursemaid. Jane stands mute, urgent to know more.

  “Your lady mother is with child again,” I tell her. “That is all. There’s nothing to worry about. God willing, you will have a baby brother soon, to become Marquess of Dorset after your father.”

  Jane takes this in wide-eyed. “Why can’t I be Marquess of Dorset?”

  I laugh at that. The very idea! “But, Jane, you are a maid, and maids do not become marquesses. So we must pray that your lady mother has a baby boy.”

  Jane thinks about this. “That’s not fair.”

  “Oh, you are old-fashioned!” I answer, chuckling. “It is God’s will. We females are the weaker sex, and only men are fitted to rule. That is why you cannot be a marquess, and why you have to obey your father in all things.”

  Jane seems to accept this. Forward as she is, she is still a young child and usually accepts unquestioningly what I tell her. She is more concerned about what is happening to her mother, bless her. If only the Marchioness deserved such devotion.

  “When will the baby come?” Jane whispers.

  “By the look of her, sweetheart, the baby will come in high summer.” That can mean little to the child—she has as yet no sound concept of time. “You must pray for your mother every day and ask God to send her a happy hour and a lusty boy.”

  “I will,” Jane says fervently. Then, unexpectedly, she looks me straight in the eye and asks if the Queen is going to have a son too.

  I get up abruptly.

  “Time for your hornbook,” I say.

  This afternoon, I found out a lot more about what’s been going on at court of late. Jane and I had returned from our usual afternoon walk, then I settled her to some rather untidy embroidery in her bedchamber before going downstairs. Then Mrs. Zouche, one of my Lady Dorset’s women, came by with a jug of wine and asked me if I’d like to share it while we both got on with our mending. Mrs. Zouche is chamberwoman to my lady and tends to her wardrobe. There is always something to be sewn, and today she was mending a tear in one of my lady’s court gowns.

  There we were, Mrs. Zouche and I, sitting by the nursery fire, getting confidential. Mrs. Zouche has been at court with my lady, and we passed a pleasant hour discussing the latest gossip.

  “I’m delighted to be back here, I can tell you,” she declared. “A couple of months at court is as much as anybody can stand. All those great lords and ladies, jostling for place. And the backbiting—you wouldn’t believe! Then I was on the go from start to finish, making sure her upstairs was well turned-out with all those changes of clothes she insists on. Mind you, I did get to see the King a lot. Never seen a man wearing so many jewels. But the size of him…he’s put on even more weight since I last saw him.”

  “Did you see the Queen?” I wanted to know.

  “No, not sight nor sound of her.” She lowered her voice. “She’s been sent to Richmond. It looks like he’s trying to get rid of her.”

  “But why?”

  “It was all round the court the day a
fter the wedding. The King made no secret of the fact that he had no liking for her. No one could remember him saying such things about any of his other wives, even Anne Boleyn.”

  “What did he say?” I asked avidly, biting off my thread and shaking out Jane’s mended chemise.

  “When Master Cromwell asked him how well he liked the Queen, His Majesty said he now liked her a lot worse than before. She was not fair, like Queen Jane, and she had evil smells about her. Worse still, he said he took her to be no maid. He told Master Cromwell that he had felt her breasts and other parts and believed other men had known her, and this being so, he had neither the will nor the courage to consummate the marriage.”

  I gasped at such brutal candor. “Is it true, do you think? What he says of her?”

  Mrs. Zouche shook her head and took a sip of wine. “No one believes it, if only because the Queen is patently so innocent and appears to think there is nothing amiss. Lady Rutland told my lady in my hearing that she and the other ladies-in-waiting were amazed when Her Majesty praised the King for his solicitude. The Queen said that, when he came to bed, he always kissed her, took her hand, and bade her, ‘Good night, sweetheart.’ And then, every morning, he kissed her and said, ‘Farewell, darling.’ Lady Rutland and the others could not believe their ears, for the Queen seemed to expect no more than this. Then Lady Edgecombe said she thought Her Grace was still a maid, but Queen Anne said no, how could she be when she slept every night with the King? The ladies told her there must be more than that, if she is to present us with a duke of York. But the Queen wished to hear no more and said she received as much of His Majesty’s attention as she wished.”

  I laughed. “Can any woman be so ignorant? Perhaps she’s no fool.”

  “I think she did say it in all innocence. But now she is left all alone at Richmond Palace, whilst the court is elsewhere. It must be obvious even to her that he is neglecting her. There is even talk that he will put her away like he did Queen Katherine. It is also said”—and here Mrs. Zouche lowered her voice still further—“that his eyes have lighted upon another.”

  “Who?” I asked, surprised, refilling our beakers. Is yet another poor woman to be burdened—in some ways literally—with the favor of the King?

  “The Duke of Norfolk’s niece, Katherine Howard. A very little girl, only about fifteen, but pretty enough to stir an old man’s loins. It seems the Catholic party are pushing her forward in order to crush the influence of the reformers, who have made headway since the King decided to marry this Protestant Queen.”

  “Will he really think of marrying her, this little girl?”

  “Most people think so. His Majesty will have his way, as ever. But do not divulge a word of what I have told you to anyone here. My lady would have a fit if she heard me gossiping like this. She will not brook any disrespect to her kin, especially the King.”

  I assured my friend of my discretion, and then our talk moved on to other matters. Suddenly, there was a scratching noise outside in the stairwell, and getting up to investigate, for we thought it might be a mouse, I noticed that the door was slightly ajar. Opening it, I found young Jane kneeling there, clearly surprised in the act of eavesdropping.

  “You bad girl!” I scolded, my anger spurred by concern about what she might have overheard, rather than indignation at her naughtiness. “You will go to bed right now and stay there for the rest of the day.” Jane’s lower lip trembled, and she turned without a word and went up the stairs.

  I looked at Mrs. Zouche. “I hope to God she didn’t hear all that.”

  “Or that she doesn’t repeat it,” replied Mrs. Zouche. “My lady would kill me if she found out I’d been saying such things in the Lady Jane’s hearing.”

  Chastened by the thought, we turned our talk to other, less contentious matters.

  Later in the evening, I look in on Jane. She is wide-awake, and in her eyes I can detect both surprise and puzzlement.

  “I’ve come to say good night,” I tell her. “Would you like a drink, Jane?”

  She sits up in bed, still looking at me in that disturbing way, and again I wonder just how much she overheard this afternoon. Her next words confirm my worst fears.

  “Why does the Queen smell, Nurse? And why did the King feel her all over? That’s horrid. If I were Queen, I should not allow it. Can the King send her away because she smells bad?”

  I sit down beside her on the bed.

  “You should not have been listening, child. But since you were, and you heard things that were not fit for a little girl’s ears, I shall do my best to explain. The King does not like the Queen, I hear. Perhaps she does smell. If so, it’s because she doesn’t wash very often. And it may be that the King will send her away, but it won’t be because she smells bad. He will have to find a good reason for it, and because he’s the King, he will.”

  That seems to satisfy Jane. Fortunately, being so young a child, her mind is soon concentrated on something else. She asks me no more about the matter, and I congratulate myself on having deflected her more embarrassing questions.

  “Now, Jane, we must never say anything bad about the King, whom God has sent to rule over us; it is wrong to do so, and we might be punished for it. You must promise that you will not repeat what you have heard today, to anyone. Will you do that?”

  “I will,” she says solemnly. “I promise.”

  “Then good night.” I tuck her in and kiss her. “God bless you.”

  It is midsummer, and my lady is close to her time, when we hear that the King has had his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled; and for her eager compliance—which I hear he found rather unflattering—she has been rewarded with fine palaces and a handsome annuity, as well as the dubious privilege of being able to call herself His Majesty’s dearest sister. Next thing we hear is that, within a month of the marriage being dissolved, our besotted monarch has married Katherine Howard, whose buxom charms he cannot refrain from caressing, even in public.

  I try to explain what has happened to Jane, as we sit in the garden making daisy chains.

  “You see, Poppet, the King’s marriage to the Lady Anne was not a proper marriage, and therefore the Archbishop of Canterbury has said they are free to part and can marry other people.” I omit, of course, to say what a proper marriage is and desist from making any reference to the Lady Anne’s personal hygiene and His Majesty interfering with her person. But Jane’s mind is keen.

  “Couldn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury have made the Lady Anne wash?” she asks solemnly, which makes me rock with laughter. My, my. The things this little maid utters! She’s a sweet pip with the sharpness of the lemons that come to the kitchens from Spain, and she never ceases to amaze me.

  Lady Dorset did not return to court to wait upon the new Queen because she was great with child. Instead, she has been bustling about the house, rearranging rooms here, or ordering new furnishings there, and driving us all to distraction with a constant stream of instructions.

  “It’s the nesting instinct,” observes Mrs. Zouche. “She’ll be brought to bed shortly, you mark my words.”

  Despite the upheaval in the house, I love this time of year, when summer holds sway. It is cool indoors, with all the casements open, and the rooms smell sweet, scented with the fragrance of the fresh rushes on the floors. No longer do the great fires roar up the chimneys; instead, the hearths are decorated with great displays of flowers. The gardens are full of color, alive with growing things, and there is the promise of a good harvest to come.

  With little fuss, Lady Dorset bears another daughter. Her labor lasted through the night and gave her little trouble.

  I take Jane to see her new sister on the day after the birth. We find her lying in the cradle by their mother’s bed.

  “Her name is Katherine, for the Queen,” says the Marchioness. It must be plain to Jane that her mother looks tired and disagreeable, due, no doubt, to the disappointment of not having borne a son. Nevertheless, this new infant is beautiful, lacking altogether
the crumpled appearance of most tiny babies. She is fair, with enormous blue eyes and a sweet, angelic-looking face. Jane clearly thinks she is wonderful and seeks to cheer her mother.

  “She’s better than any boy,” she announces, but the effect is not what she had anticipated.

  “Take her away,” snaps my lady, “for she talks a lot of nonsense.” I hurriedly usher Jane out of the room.

  “It’s all right,” I soothe, seeing her dismay. “You meant well. Your lady mother is just tired and not herself. Now come upstairs, and we’ll get on with sewing that pretty nightgown for Lady Katherine. And perhaps I can find some marchpane comfits in my coffer.” Thus consoled, Jane begins to skip happily along the passage, then remembers that a well-bred girl such as herself should comport herself with decorum and slows her step, continuing at a more stately pace. My heart aches for her: so toward, and yet so young. And so unloved by those who should care for her most.

  Lady Jane Grey


  Today I am four years old. Mrs. Ellen wakes me up at six o’clock and bids me to my prayers. I kneel at my prie-dieu and ask God to make me a dutiful, virtuous child and to bless my parents, but all the time I keep thinking of the day that is to come, and what my lord and lady have ordained for me. Now that I am a great big girl, I am to take my meals with them at the high table in the great hall. This is a very grown-up thing, but it is also frightening, because there are so many rules of courtesy I have to remember that I am sure I shall forget some of them and so make my lady mother wrathful. She is often angry with me, even though I try my best to be good, but Mrs. Ellen has told me lots of times what I must and must not do. I must not speak during the meal, unless anyone speaks to me. I must never, never yawn, belch, pick my nose, wipe my fingers on the tablecloth, or, worst of all, let go a fart. And I must above all remember that each meal is like the Last Supper, so I must eat with as goodly manners as if I were in the company of Our Blessed Lord Himself.

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