Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  “That is as may be, but my mind is made up,” I declare firmly. “I will not have the blood of an innocent child on my hands.”

  I dismiss Renard forthwith. My head is aching and I cannot face more arguments. He is doing his best to wear me down, but I am resolved to stand firm. If what he says about Suffolk proves to be true—I will order the Duke to be watched—then I will double the guards on the Tower. But it is not in my nature to be cruel, and until that happens, I will allow the Lady Jane what freedom I can. Perhaps Renard is right and Tower Hill is too accessible. It might be wiser not to take any risks.

  Lady Jane Dudley

  THE TOWER OF LONDON, DECEMBER 1553

  The air is bitingly cold, but I am enjoying myself. It is exhilarating to wander at will about Tower Hill, browsing among the stalls of the street vendors, or watching the constant traffic along the Thames. My guards stand a little way off, chatting and laughing.

  Guilford, they tell me, is allowed similar outings, but we are no longer allowed to meet. The government will not run the risk of two convicted traitors, husband and wife, plotting an escape. Being unable to see Guilford does not bother me, although I do feel some spark of pity for him, shut up in the freezing Beauchamp Tower in the depths of winter. Mrs. Partridge reports him broken in heart and spirit by the thought of the death sentence hanging over him.

  The promised pardons have not yet been granted, but it is surely too soon to expect them. There is much unrest at the prospect of the Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip, and on Tower Hill I hear rumors that the people will rebel against it. I pray God they do not do so in my name.

  When I return to my lodgings, I find Sir John Bridges waiting for me. He bows courteously, but his kindly face is grave.

  “Madam, I regret that these walks outdoors must cease,” he says without preamble. “The council wishes you kept out of the public eye just now. There are good reasons for this, but, as I am sure you can appreciate, I am not at liberty to discuss them.”

  I am crestfallen. My little outings were such a joy to me, an unexpected favor. Now I am to be cooped up in my prison again, and the prospect is hardly bearable. I fear that this is a bad sign, a step backward in the direction of more rigorous incarceration, not forward toward my promised liberty; and it may betoken that my pardon could be rescinded as easily. As I gaze miserably at Sir John, there is a pounding in my head, and the world shifts. To my horror, I realize that I cannot see him properly: it is as if part of my vision is blocked off. Shocked and shaking, I sink into a chair, blinking and trying to focus my eyes. But the blind spot stays there still.

  “Madam, are you ill?” he inquires, plainly concerned at my distress.

  “I cannot see properly!” I wail. Mrs. Ellen and Mrs. Partridge hasten over and peer into my eyes.

  “There is nothing to see,” says Mrs. Ellen, shaking her head. They are all crowding around me now, solicitous and comforting, but my terror deepens as the blind spot explodes in a pattern of brilliant, zigzagged lines, which dance and flicker across my vision. I feel sick and dizzy and cannot face sipping the ale they are offering me.

  I am made to lie on my bed. The cold winter light hurts my eyes, so Mrs. Ellen draws the curtains. It is half an hour before the frightening disturbances fade, leaving me tremulous and drained. No one can offer any explanation for them until Mrs. Tilney returns from visiting Mrs. Underhill.

  “Why, it’s a megrim you’ve got, my lady,” she tells me. “I suffer from them myself. They’re unpleasant, but harmless. My mother had them on and off for years, but lived till she was sixty. You’ll probably get a nasty headache, but it’ll soon go.”

  I only half-believe her and lie here weeping. She is right about the headache, which comes on soon afterward. It is the worst I have ever had, and I feel utterly wretched. Nothing exists beyond the pain, and several times I vomit into a pail held by Mrs. Ellen, who never leaves my side, but sits patiently wiping my brow with a cool, damp cloth.

  In the morning, I am miraculously restored to health, much to my amazement, but two days later I suffer another megrim, and then two more in the space of a week. Sir John, out of concern, summons a physician, who confirms Mrs. Tilney’s diagnosis, but admits there is little he can do.

  “These things sometimes seem to coincide with the female courses,” he explains. “Are you menstruating at present?”

  “I am not.” In fact, I have not seen my courses since I came to this house a prisoner.

  The doctor looks at me with pity. “It is also a fact that megrims occur when a patient is inordinately troubled, or of an anxious disposition.”

  All of us know the heavy sentence I am under. “I suffered the first megrim immediately after being told that my outings had been curtailed,” I say quietly.

  He shakes his head sadly and summons the Lieutenant. “My professional opinion, sir, is that this young lady is under immense strain and that it is making her ill. She needs good food, fresh air, and peace of mind. Of course, it is not my place to advise you, but if I were in your shoes, I would see my duty clear.”

  “I will write to the council at once,” Sir John promises.

  The megrims have ceased, and I thank God for it. And I have Him and the Queen’s Grace to thank for once again being able to breathe in the open air and walk on the crisp, frosty grass of the Lieutenant’s garden. I can stay out of doors here until my fingers are blue, if I please, before reluctantly returning to warm myself before Mrs. Partridge’s great fire.

  My circumstances have improved, but I remain somewhat dejected. I am sixteen and shut away from normal life. I have my books, but I have now read them all several times and have not the means to order more. I am listless, in need of something I cannot put a name to. It might be freedom that I desire, but it feels as if there is something else lacking, something more fundamental. One day, when this is all over, I should like to go and live in the country, perhaps at Bradgate, which seems now to belong to another life, a life I took so much for granted. How strange it would feel to go back now.

  I wonder what it would be like to be married to a good man who could love me, cherish me, and protect me from all the misfortunes that life can bring. Someone who would be willing to encourage my intellectual interests and be a kind father to my children. It occurs to me suddenly that I would like to have children one day.

  It is all a fantasy, of course. I am married to Guilford, and he too has been promised a pardon. He has no part in my dreams, yet I am tied to him for life and there is no way out. I expect that, after our release, we may learn to rub along together, both softened by this great ordeal. At least he is no longer as arrogant and unfeeling as he once was.

  But neither of us has yet received our pardons, and I cannot help but wonder if they will ever arrive.

  Thinking of Guilford, I call to mind the inscriptions he told me he had carved. In a mood of melancholy and despair, I take example from him and, using my silver paper-knife, chisel one of my own Latin verses into the plaster of my bedchamber wall, for the benefit of posterity:

  To mortals’ common fate thy mind resign;

  My lot today tomorrow may be thine.

  I hope for light after the darkness.

  I lay down my knife, my arm aching with the effort of carving, slump on my bed, and fall to weeping.

  Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk

  SHEEN, SURREY, 22ND DECEMBER 1553

  “What’s that letter you are reading?” I inquire of my lord.

  “It’s from Edward Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, that was in the Tower from boyhood, and who was a suitor to the Queen.”

  “What does he want?” I ask, surprised.

  “It seems he’s angry at his rejection by Her Majesty. He tells me he has thrown in his lot with Sir Thomas Wyatt.”

  Wyatt, a Protestant gentleman of Kent, has already been in touch with my lord; he has set himself up by stealth as the leader of those who oppose the Spanish marriage. Last month he wrote to Henry telling him that he co
uld rally many people to his cause, if need be, and begged my lord to join forces with him. Prudently, Henry refused.

  “Courtenay writes that during the past weeks Wyatt has enlisted enough support to convince him and others that a popular rising against the marriage would not only be feasible, but would probably be successful too.”

  “For God’s sake, don’t get involved!”

  But Henry ignores me. “The Earl says here that their plans are well advanced. There are to be four simultaneous risings on the same day, Palm Sunday, which will fall on the eighteenth of March next year. Wyatt will lead the men of Kent, Sir James Crofts those of Hertfordshire, and Courtenay and Sir Peter Carew the men of Devon.”

  “And what of the fourth uprising?” I ask, fearing the answer.

  “Courtenay writes that they want me to lead it. I am to raise the men of Leicestershire.”

  “If you do, you’re a bloody fool!” I cry.

  “Listen, Frances,” says Henry patiently. “It’s a sound plan—”

  “Like Northumberland’s was?” I interrupt furiously.

  “Much sounder. Listen, and hear me out. The four armies will march on London, overthrow the Queen’s treacherous advisers, then force her to repudiate the match with Philip of Spain. Courtenay stresses that no harm is intended to Her Majesty, and that he and all the other leaders are her most devoted subjects. There is no element of treason in this plan.”

  “My lord, are you telling me that you are planning to engage in a rebellion against the Queen, when our daughter is yet languishing in the Tower under sentence of death? You are mad.”

  “This is not against the Queen, Frances. It’s a demonstration by her loyal subjects against the man she proposes to marry.”

  “And you think she’ll make the distinction when your armies are converging on London?” I snap. I am beside myself. “God, Henry, you are a fool. Can’t you see that Courtenay’s real aim is to marry the Queen himself? And as for Wyatt, I have my own suspicions about him.”

  “And what are they, pray?” His voice is cold, faintly patronizing.

  “I’ve no proof or evidence to go on. Call it female intuition, or what you like, but I fear that Wyatt has some hidden agenda of his own.”

  “Nonsense, Frances. Your imagination is running away with you.” He turns to face me. “I’m sorry, my dear, but I will not be deterred. I will not bow the knee to the Prince of Spain.”

  SHEEN, 22ND JANUARY 1554

  My husband comes storming into our bedchamber, his face working in distress.

  “We are betrayed!” he shouts.

  I dismiss the maids who have been preparing me for bed and go to him, trembling.

  “Who?” is all I can trust myself to ask.

  “That fool Courtenay. Yesterday, he confessed all to Bishop Gardiner and begged the Queen’s forgiveness.”

  “The bastard!” I spit. “I always knew he had no backbone.”

  “Yes, but I think someone talked long before he did. Four days ago, the council sent a force to occupy Exeter, as if they had wind of the planned rising in the west country. Carew is lying low, by all accounts, and Sir James Crofts has fled to Wales.”

  “What news of Wyatt?” I did not want Henry to involve himself in this rebellion, but now that he has, I can only pray it will be successful.

  “When last I heard, he was at Allington Castle, raising the men of Kent. The messenger who came to me is on his way there as we speak. I gave him a fresh horse.”

  “What will you do now?” I do not trouble to conceal my anxiety. One false move, and we are all finished.

  “We act at once. I have asked Wyatt to come here. If the rising is to achieve its aims, we must strike now.”

  SHEEN, 23RD JANUARY 1554

  Sir Thomas Wyatt has arrived at Sheen. He is young—too young—and personable, with an open, eager face and a black, pointed beard. There is no mistaking his sincere zeal for his cause: he is a driven man, committed to seeing the thing through to the bitter end.

  Yet I fear it will be an end more bitter than I imagined, for I have just discovered, to my horror and disbelief, that my lord still cherishes dreams of establishing Jane on the throne. And she but lately sentenced to death!

  Although I had heard with my own ears the Queen’s assurance that Jane would be safe, the news of that sentencing hit me like a cannonball. My own daughter, my very flesh and blood—sentenced to death. God knows, I am not a sentimental woman, and I have not loved her as I should, often finding fault with her, when perhaps there was none to find. I could not help myself. But when I heard those dread words that were spoken to my poor child, something awoke within me, the mother’s instinct to protect that has lain dormant all these years beneath layers of bitterness and frustration. And there it was, staring me in the face, the realization that my own daughter is in the Tower, a condemned traitor who might face death at any moment. My daughter, whom I bore of my body, not just a pawn in a political or dynastic game whom we could use to our advantage. And ever since then, I have hated myself for blighting her short life—which may soon be cruelly cut short—with my disappointment and my ambition. As God is my witness, I have wept for her, poor innocent; me, who has ever prided myself on my disdain for those who give way to such displays of emotion. And I have resolved that, if it be in my power, none shall do further harm to her.

  “But making the Lady Jane Queen was never under discussion,” points out Wyatt.

  “Nor should it be!” I insist hotly. “It is unfair and unjust to involve Jane. Has she not suffered enough? Is she not in sufficient peril?”

  “So you would prefer to see this Catholic queen married to the fanatical Prince of Spain, and the Inquisition burning heretics in England?” Henry shouts. “Because, I tell you, my dear, that is what will happen if we do not act now to prevent it.”

  “So you would risk our daughter’s life?” I persist in alarm. “Have you forgotten that she lies in the Queen’s custody under sentence of death? And that she knows nothing of what you are plotting? My lord, this is folly of the worst sort—can you not see it?”

  Wyatt intervenes. “I should say that my own preferred plan is to depose the Queen and replace her with the Lady Elizabeth, who is said to be committed to the reformed faith. That alone would justify Mary’s removal.”

  “My daughter is utterly committed to the reformed faith,” butts in my lord. “She has never hidden the fact, unlike the Lady Elizabeth, whose beliefs are a matter for conjecture. I tell you both that our best hope for the future lies in Jane.”

  “No!” I cry. “You have no idea of what you are doing. You did not face the Queen—I did. Make no mistake, she will not be as well disposed to mercy a second time.”

  “There will not be a second time!” my husband snaps. “Now, my lady, I suggest you hold your tongue. These are fears for children. This time our plan is watertight, and within weeks, mark you, our daughter will be back where she should be, and we will be the power behind the throne.”

  “Within weeks we might all be lacking our heads!” I retort, bursting with anger and frustration.

  “Your lady wife perhaps has a point,” says Wyatt.

  “My lady wife is a woman, and like all women, she has to make unnecessary difficulties.”

  I catch my breath—this is intolerable.

  “She has more wisdom than you credit her with,” Wyatt contends. “It would be wiser and safer for all concerned if we back the Lady Elizabeth. Her claim is the stronger anyway.”

  “And if I will not support her?”

  Wyatt looks unhappy. “Then—then, my lord, we must abandon our plans. We have already lost much of our support, and without your help, I can do nothing.”

  “Aren’t you forgetting that overthrowing Catholic Mary is the whole point of the exercise?” Henry reminds him. “Are we not committed to that? And is it not preferable to replace her by one who is known to be a committed Protestant, rather than by one who is merely thought to be? Come now, Sir Thomas, f
ace the truth. It is my daughter who should become Queen, and it is only on that understanding that I will give you my backing. Without which, to be plain, you will surely fail.”

  Wyatt struggles visibly with his better self, and wins. “All right, my lord, I agree. But I warn you now, I have more misgivings about this plan than the other. The Lady Elizabeth has the better claim, and your daughter, as my lady here has pointed out, is in a highly vulnerable position. But, as you have made clear, the choice is really yours to make. Therefore, it shall be the Lady Jane. I will be content so long as this land is ruled by a Protestant monarch.”

  “Good.” My lord smiles. “I will send to the Earl of Huntingdon. He has already agreed to raise his tenants in Leicestershire.”

  “Then I will return to Kent to muster my forces,” says Wyatt.

  “I shall look forward to meeting up with you in London, after our victory.” My husband extends his hand. I look away in disgust.

  Later, we learn that the Earl of Huntingdon, having received Henry’s message, took it straight to the council.

  Mrs.Ellen

  LONDON, 25TH JANUARY 1554

  There are no restrictions on my movements. I come and go as I please, in and out of the Tower, so I am often out shopping, or visiting my sister in Smithfield. Thus I am in a position to keep abreast of what is going on in the world outside.

  The news is not good. The mood in London is tense, and rumor has it that the Kentish rebel, Sir Thomas Wyatt, is approaching the capital with five thousand men. People everywhere are apprehensive, and I have even seen panicked citizens packing up and leaving the city.

  I mingle with the crowd at Cheapside Cross as a herald reads out a proclamation by the privy council. My blood freezes as I hear the Duke of Suffolk’s name among those of the traitors who have been raising ill-disposed persons to Her Majesty’s destruction, and who have plotted to advance the Lady Jane and Guilford Dudley to the throne once more.

 
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