Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  I no longer care that I am to be left widowed and destitute. Henry means less than nothing to me now. He forfeited all rights to my love and loyalty on the day he issued an ultimatum to Wyatt. At thirty-seven, I am still a handsome woman, and a lusty one at that, and I did not hesitate to inveigle my young master of horse into my bed. It was my way of having my revenge on Henry, but it also provided me with the comfort of another human body, and a means to ward off the night terrors that have beset me these past weeks.

  Adrian came willingly enough and has proved a considerate and inventive lover. But tonight, as on the past three nights, his presence in my bed hardly registers.

  Instead of turning to him hot with desire, as I did before last Thursday, I lie here punishing myself with remorse. I have been a harsh mother, when I could have been kinder and more understanding. I can see it now, with the benefit of hindsight and the clarity that follows misfortune and grief. What crucifies me especially is the knowledge that there is no way in which I can make reparation to my daughter, no way that she will ever be able to extend to me the forgiveness that I crave. I can only pray for God’s mercy.

  The young man beside me is now asleep. He is distressed by the tragedy that is overtaking me, but blessedly distanced from it. I envy him his oblivion.

  I know some are criticizing me for having returned to court, and perhaps it does look as if I am thinking only of my own future. But the Queen is my cousin, my own flesh and blood, and I had thought to soften her heart by my presence, which I hoped would call to her remembrance the plight of my poor child. But she has not condescended to notice me. I have waited hours, jostled by hosts of petitioners, for her to come forth from her apartments, bound for chapel or presence chamber, only to have her pass by me unseeing. I have tried to send messages begging for an audience, but none of my erstwhile friends will deliver them. I have even thought of throwing myself on my knees in the Queen’s path, but I know it would do me no good. The bitter truth is that I understand why Jane has to die.

  I know that sleep will elude me tonight. Carefully I slide out of bed, put on my nightgown, take the candle, and make my way to the chapel. Here, on my knees before the altar, where a flickering lamp bears witness to the ever-constant presence of God, I immerse myself in prayer as never before, beseeching the Almighty to pardon my grievous faults and sins of omission, and to give me the strength to return to Him with a good and ungrudging heart the daughter that He gave me.

  Queen Mary

  WHITEHALL PALACE, 11TH FEBRUARY 1554

  It is quiet in the palace tonight, as if the world is holding its breath until the morning. I lie wakeful, my thoughts in a turmoil. It goes against all my convictions to send Jane to her death. If I could issue a reprieve, I would. But too much is at stake, I fear: the respect of my advisers, who suspect me of harboring womanish scruples when it comes to punishing traitors; the scorn of Renard, who would never trust my word again; the obedience of my subjects, who might attempt further liberties if I do not assert my authority; and, above all, my marriage to Prince Philip, for which I am longing with all my heart and soul, and which will bring so many benefits to England.

  I am discovering that it is no easy thing to be a queen, and not for the first time I find myself wishing that I were a simple country goodwife with a houseful of children instead.

  But there is no point in wishing. I must go on my knees and ask God if He will work yet another miracle for me and turn Jane, at the last, to the true faith. Then I will be able to spare her and will do so gladly, for, converted to the Catholic religion, she could no longer be a figurehead for my enemies.

  Dr. Feckenham has his instructions.

  Lady Jane Dudley

  THE TOWER OF LONDON, 11TH FEBRUARY 1554

  In my bedchamber in the Tower, I am sitting in my nightgown, writing my last testament:

  If justice is done with my body, my soul will find mercy with God. Death will give pain to my body for its sins, but my soul will be justified before God. If my faults deserve punishment, my youth at least, and my imprudence, were worthy of excuse. God and posterity will show me more favor.

  Wearily I lay down my pen. There is silence all around me. I climb into bed, expecting to lie awake for hours, as I have done these past nights. Why should I sleep? There will be sleep enough for me after tomorrow.

  My belongings lie parceled up and stacked in the corner by the desk. Mrs. Ellen knows the names of those to whom she must distribute them and has promised to do so faithfully. My clothes for tomorrow, and my prayer book, are all that are left of my worldly possessions.

  How strange to think that, nine hours from now, I will leave this world and cease to exist. So little time. I cannot lie here any longer. I must use these remaining hours for my devotions. Then I can rest for all eternity.

  THE TOWER OF LONDON, 12TH FEBRUARY 1554

  I fell asleep at my prayers, but not for long. Dawn is just breaking when I awaken, stiff and disoriented, with a vague sense that something is badly wrong. The notion is fleeting, for grim reality intervenes. My execution is less than four hours away. The knowledge fills me with dread. Everything seems unreal, as if I am dreaming it.

  Mrs. Ellen arrives, her face taut with sadness and fatigue. Clearly she has not slept much either. We bid each other a quiet good morning, knowing that nothing is good about it. Then, with trembling fingers, Mrs. Ellen pulls on my lawn chemise and helps me to dress in the black kirtle with the low, square neckline, and the high-collared velvet gown that goes over it, the clothes I wore for my trial. She then plaits my hair and coils it high on my head before securing the black veil and hood.

  We kneel together to pray.

  An unexpected knock on the door signals the arrival of Sir John Bridges. I am alarmed: it is not yet seven o’clock. Surely it is not time yet?

  Sir John looks embarrassed. “Madam, I regret to tell you that the Queen has sent an order requiring you to submit yourself to examination by a panel of matrons, to ensure that you are not with child. If you are found to be, your life will be spared, since Her Majesty cannot sanction the killing of an innocent babe.”

  I look at him in astonishment. “Sir John, I have not seen my husband since November, and then not alone. I know I am not with child.”

  “I am sorry, but the Queen’s command must be obeyed. If there is even the possibility of a pregnancy, you would be spared the ax. Her Majesty is giving you every last chance of life.”

  “Then I must submit,” I say dejectedly. “But it will be a waste of time.”

  I lie on my bed, skirts pulled up, legs splayed, unable to believe that this last indignity is being forced on me almost at the hour of trial. Around me stand four sober and discreet matrons, all experienced mothers and grandmothers. They probe gently inside me and press my stomach. They ask me questions: When did I last lie with my husband? When were my last courses? Are my breasts tender? They are kind with me, and conscientious in their duty, but this is an invasion I could well do without at this time, and as I predicted, it is all for nothing. I am not with child.

  Having smoothed down my skirts and tidied myself, I ask to see the Lieutenant.

  “Have they taken Guilford yet?”

  “No, madam, but they will soon.”

  I take up my place at the window, as I promised I would do, and presently see some men emerge from the Beauchamp Tower. It is Guilford, under guard. With a tear-streaked face, he looks up at me and lifts his hand in a forlorn salute. I smile wanly at him.

  “Go with God,” I mouth. Whether he understands, I cannot tell, but he seems to be making an effort to control himself. Waiting for him near the White Tower is a group of young men, amongst whom I recognize several of his friends. Not so long ago he was roistering with them in the taverns of London, an immature youth with no cares in the world, eager to prove himself a man. Now they are come to support him in his last hour. I watch the sad little procession as it makes its way on foot toward Tower Hill and out of sight. Inwardly I am beggin
g God to give Guilford the courage to make a good end.

  It is now that I force myself to look across to the scaffold on Tower Green. It has been draped with black material and strewn with straw, but there is no sign of the block. As yet, the green is deserted. Sir John has told me that, as my execution is to be held in private, attendance is by invitation only, and that the numbers have strictly been limited. They are probably all at Tower Hill just now, watching Guilford being beheaded, I expect. And when that is over—which cannot be long now, I pray—it will be my turn. It is the waiting that is so hard.

  Two men come into view, hastening toward Tower Green. They are wearing black velvet gowns, long white aprons, and black masks with slits for their eyes. The one in front carries an ax. I know that he is the executioner, and that my hour is upon me.

  My eyes widen in horror, for they are bringing back the cart bearing Guilford’s body. I can see his torso wrapped in a bloody sheet, and beside it a round object swathed in a red-stained cloth. As the cart passes, I cannot restrain my tears. He was a shallow youth, but there was some good in him, and he did not deserve this.

  “Oh, Guilford! Guilford!” I sob. “Oh, the bitterness of death!”

  A crowd of people is advancing on Tower Green. There is little time left. I pick up my prayer book and try to concentrate on the passages I have marked for my final devotions. But as the words dance before my eyes, I hear footsteps on the stairs, and the door swings open.

  “It is time, my lady,” says Sir John Bridges gently. Behind him stands Dr. Feckenham, who is gazing at me with deep compassion. Holding tightly onto the Lieutenant’s arm, for my legs suddenly feel weak, I descend the stairs and walk out of the Gentleman Gaoler’s house, followed by Mrs. Ellen and Mrs. Tilney, both weeping silently into their kerchiefs. But my eyes, thankfully, are dry, and I progress slowly and, I hope, with dignity, toward the scaffold. I am determined that the onlookers—amongst whom I recognize privy councillors and noblemen who once sat at table with me—will be impressed by my composure.

  At the foot of the scaffold steps I catch sight of the waiting coffin, lying on the grass, and falter for a moment. Dr. Feckenham whispers, “Have no fear, Jane. I will be with you to the end, and God is with you forever.” This gives me the courage to mount the steps, leaning on Sir John’s arm, and then stand alone, grasping the rail, facing the crowd. There is a respectful silence as I speak.

  “Good people, I am come hither to die, for by law I am condemned to the same,” I say in a voice that sounds clear and steady in the crisp air. “My offense against the Queen’s Highness was unlawful, as was my consent to it; but touching the procuring and desiring of it by me, I wash my hands in innocence before God, and in the face of you, good Christian people.”

  I pause. My heart is pounding so fast that I can barely catch my breath, and my head is swimming. With an involuntary shudder, I wring my hands and continue, “I pray you all to bear me witness that I die a good Christian woman.” I look at Dr. Feckenham as I say this, knowing he will understand the significance of my words. He smiles sadly back.

  “And now, good people, while I am alive, I pray you assist me with your prayers.”

  I turn again to the Abbot, pointing to a marked page in my prayer book. “Shall I say this psalm?” I ask him, then wish I had not, for he is clearly too distressed to answer me.

  I wait awkwardly for a few moments, then hear him whisper, “Yes, Jane.”

  At this, I kneel and recite in English the nineteen verses of the Miserere mei Deus. When I have finished, I rise and put my arms around the priest, kissing him on the cheek, marveling that my last comfort in this world should come from a Catholic.

  “I beseech God that He will abundantly reward you for your kindness towards me,” I say fervently, then add, with my usual tactless honesty, “although I must needs say that it was more unwelcome to me than my instant death is terrible.”

  His old eyes are full of love. We understand each other well.

  The formalities are almost completed. It is time to prepare myself.

  The Executioner

  TOWER GREEN, 12TH FEBRUARY 1554

  It never fails to get to me, every time I officiate at an execution, how it starts out dignified, with all these ceremonies and protocols, as they like to call them, and then quickly turns into a gory bloodbath. Happens every time, although I pride myself I’m that good at my job that the poor buggers don’t suffer in the way they do under some ham-fisted headsmen. Worst case I ever heard of was poor Lady Salisbury, back in the old King’s time. The chief executioner was off sick, and his stand-in hadn’t had no experience. Chased the old girl round the block, he did, chopping this way and that. Made a bloody mess of her.

  It don’t do to get too sentimental about this job, though. It is, after all, just a job. Well, no, of course, it’s more than that. Hanging’s easy, and I’m handy and quick with a disemboweling knife, but there’s an art to beheading people, and I’m a master, if I say it myself. I’ve topped a good few in my time and done it well. And I’ve seen all sorts go to the scaffold, from great ones like the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland to humble folks as have got themselves caught up in lost causes, such as this rebellion that they’ve just put a stop to. God, we’ve been rushed off our feet with hangings these past few days.

  And now this. Two of them to dispatch this morning. That poor lad who couldn’t speak for blubbering. A sorry end he made. But this execution is different. I ain’t never had any like it. This one’s nothing but a slip of a girl, just a little kid. Gave me a jolt when I saw her; all sweet and demure, walking along in her black dress. Couldn’t say boo to a goose, let alone commit treason. And to hear the Lieutenant talk—although naturally, he don’t give too much away—he thinks she’s innocent too. Seemed quite upset about it, actually, and told me to make it quick. Well, if there’s anyone who can do that for her, it’s me.

  You’ve got to admire her courage. I see all sorts face death, and for one so young, she’s pretty calm and brave. No howling or struggling. I suppose it’s because she’s very religious, so Sir John says, and believes she’s going straight to Heaven. I wish there were more like her. A lot of them go out crying and screaming for mercy.

  The Lady Jane takes off her gloves and hands them to her women. She turns to the Lieutenant and gives him her prayer book. He looks stricken, poor sod, and he’s having to struggle to control himself. I’ve never seen him like this before: he’s usually a tough one, is Sir John. Does his duty proper, even if he might not like it.

  The two women are now beginning to unlace the girl’s outer gown. I step forward and ask if she needs any help with undressing.

  “No, sir.” Her voice is surprisingly steady. “I desire you to let me alone for now.” And she stands there while they take off the gown, and the hood, and the veil. When she’s left in her kirtle and bodice, she starts shivering, poor kid. It won’t be for long, though: soon, she’ll be past feeling the cold.

  One of the women steps forward with a kerchief to bind round the Lady Jane’s eyes. They throw their arms around each other and the woman starts kissing her and sobbing. If she goes on like this, we’ll have to prize the girl away. But no. The Lady Jane gives her a last kiss and steps back. This is too much for the poor woman, who has to turn her back to hide her distress.

  Scaffold procedure requires me, at this point, to kneel down before the prisoner and ask her forgiveness for what I am dutybound to do.

  “I give it most willingly,” the Lady Jane tells me, and hands me a purse that the Lieutenant gave her containing part of my fee. The other part is my usual perquisite, the prisoner’s clothing. It’s a good gown, the one she took off, and will fetch a fair bit of money, like the kirtle she’s wearing. When everyone’s gone, we’ll strip it off her.

  My assistant, young Will, has been standing in front of the block, which his long apron has hidden from the prisoner’s view. He always does this, as we’ve found that the sight of it often makes the condemned mo
re jittery. But now it’s time for the lad to stand aside. The block is low, only ten inches high, and it has a scooped-out hollow for the chin. The girl stares at it.

  “Please to stand there on the straw, my lady.” I point to the space in front of the block. The Lady Jane steps into position and kneels at my nod. She’s shaking uncontrollably, poor little soul, and I think to myself, dear God, are we all to be accomplices in butchering a child? Christ, I’m not comfortable with this. But where’s the choice? What can I do about it? I’m not the one who makes the decisions. I’ve just got a job to do and a reputation to maintain.

  “I pray you dispatch me quickly,” the girl says fearfully in a low voice. “Will you take it off before I lay me down?”

  “No, madam. When you are ready, stretch out your arms.”

  It’s time. The people watching fall to their knees on the grass, out of respect for the passing of a soul. For a long moment the Lady Jane looks her last on the world, then takes the kerchief from her attendant, who has stopped crying now, and ties it round her eyes. Thus blindfolded, she holds out her hands to grasp the block.

  She’s too far away from it. She’s groping wildly.

  “Where is it? Where is it? What shall I do?” she cries, panicking. The poor child is leaning forward, flailing her arms in desperation. “What shall I do?” she sobs. “Where is it?”

  I move forward quickly, but the priest is there before me. He takes her hands and gently guides them to the block. Breathing heavily, she lays herself down as best she can, pressing her chin into the rough wood and arching her shoulders to support herself.

  Sir John gives me the nod. I am startled by the pain in his eyes—I’ve never seen him looking like that. Then he stares straight ahead.

  The Lady Jane is lying there, finishing her prayers. She ends, like many do, with the words that Jesus spoke on the cross.

 
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