Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

  All these things I think I can remember, but there are more. Lots of dishes are served at table, but a child must not commit the sin of gluttony, and I am not supposed to choose more than two or three at a time. Eating too much rich food, Mrs. Ellen says, overheats the blood. And if I get a tummy ache from doing so, I must sit quiet in my chair and not make a fuss.

  I have been dancing up and down at my devotions and cannot eat my breakfast because of nervousness, so Mrs. Ellen stops tending to Katherine and tells me to leave it, as it is time to prepare myself for my great day. I stand still, stretching out my arms, as she dresses me in lots and lots of fine clothes—far too many for this warm day, I say.

  “But it is the custom, Jane. You must be properly attired to attend upon your parents. They have guests at table, and you must dress as beseems your rank. A lady does not complain, even if she is hot and uncomfortable.”

  First, Mrs. Ellen puts on me a long-sleeved cambric smock with cuffs embroidered in gold. Then I am made to breathe in as she laces the stiff bodice with a pointed front that flattens my tummy. On top of that goes the kirtle, an undergown of smooth, creamy silk, and over that a green velvet gown with a tight stomacher, a low, square neck that gapes on me, a big wide skirt, open at the front, and a long train. It has full, wide sleeves, and I have to hold out my arms so that Mrs. Ellen can hang a pair of fur oversleeves on top of them. Now she is fastening the clasp of the jeweled girdle, with its hanging pomander, at my waist. She brushes my long hair and plaits it, rolling the plaits into a knot at the back of my head. Then she puts on a coif of satin and cloth of silver, and on top of that, a round French hood with a black veil. Last come the jewels: a pearl drop on a chain at my neck, to match the pearl trim on the gown; a brooch on my breast; and three rings.

  I look at myself in the mirror. I am dressed exactly the same as my mother or any other great lady, and I look like a little woman. Then I remember with some dismay that I have to behave like one. In the tight, heavy gown, it won’t be difficult, for I can hardly move. I couldn’t possibly run about in it, and I will have to be careful not to trip over my train. Fortunately, I’ve had lots of lessons in walking with a train. And to keep my hood safely on the back of my head, I must keep my chin up.

  My mother chose all these clothes for me. She said she wanted me to look splendid, and to do justice to my House. I don’t quite understand what she meant, though I will do my best. But I hate these hot, heavy clothes and wish I didn’t have to wear them. How will I eat when I can hardly breathe? How will I eat anyway when I am so nervous about dining in the hall? Oh, how I wish I were wearing my ordinary plain gown and kerchief, running around the apple orchard with Meg, the cook’s daughter!

  Meg is here now to see me dressed up.

  “You look beautiful, Jane,” she says.

  “I’m uncomfortable,” I complain. I would I could be like Meg and not have to have lessons and be free to run about the fields instead with my hair flying loose, stealing apples from the orchard or paddling in the stream. But I am always being made to behave like a young lady. Meg is so lucky. Her mother might beat her when she’s naughty, but she cuddles her a lot to make up for it, and she often gives her little treats—warm tarts from the oven, or pretty ribbons, or—once—a sweet little kitten. I wish my lady mother was kind like that.

  “That’s a lovely dress,” Meg says, looking at it longingly; I am guessing that she would like to change places with me, and I should like to tell her that it’s much more fun being her any day.

  “Run along now, Meg,” says Mrs. Ellen. “Oh, and take those dishes to the kitchen for me, please, if you would.” Meg leaves, carrying the plates.

  Mrs. Ellen is looking me up and down. I can’t tell if she likes what she sees or not.

  “You look fit now to face the world, and your mother,” she tells me, and takes me and Katherine downstairs to greet our parents. We do this every morning, and I don’t always enjoy it because sometimes my mother scolds me for things I have done or not done. More often than not, she will find fault with me for some small thing, a strand of hair out of place, or a grubby fingernail, and she might give me a sharp pinch or tap and tell Mrs. Ellen off for being soft with me.

  At other times my parents are getting ready to go hunting or to receive important visitors, and they don’t really seem to want me or Katherine getting in the way. Their chamber reeks of dogs because the creatures are always at their heels. It’s a sickly, sour smell, and I can’t bear it, which is a shame, because I love this cheerful room, with the jolly blaze in its great stone fireplace, the brightly colored hangings, the polished furniture, and the portraits of my kinsfolk that I find so fascinating, especially the one of my great-uncle the King, which was painted when he was a young and handsome prince.

  We curtsy and stand, heads bowed, to receive our parents’ blessing.

  “Good morning,” says my lady.

  “Goo morning,” replies Katherine in her baby voice, and holds up her chubby hands. “Cawwy! Cawwy!”

  “Not now, sweeting.” My lady smiles. “You must stand up straight like a good girl.”

  “Good morning, my lord, my lady,” I say, trying to hide my fear of my mother, and watching her closely. She is beautiful, with copper brown hair and fair skin, and today she is wearing a gown and hood like mine, but in dark green velvet edged with pearls, and a tiny jeweled book hangs from her girdle. In her rich robes, she looks like a queen—an ice queen, cold and distant.

  “Jane.” Her voice is cool, and there is the usual note of reproof. “Come here.” She looks me up and down sternly and nods at Mrs. Ellen. “She will do.”

  Toward Katherine, my lady shows more kindness. She kisses her on her head, ruffling the fluffy, fair curls, and helps her make her shaky, giggling way across the carpet. Katherine can do no wrong. It’s always me who gets into trouble.

  But today, I think, I am in my mother’s good books, and I relax a little when she beckons me to stand before her and gives me a big book with a red leather binding. When I open it, I find it to be full of brightly colored pictures, lots of them shiny with gold paint.

  “It has stories and prayers from Holy Scripture, for your edification,” says my lord father, although I’m not sure what he means. “It once belonged to your grandmother, and I hope that very soon, Jane, you will be able to read the Latin words for yourself.”

  “Thank you, my lady, thank you, sir,” I say, as prettily as I can. I am thrilled by their rare kindness, and with their gift. There are not many books in the house, so I have never seen such beautiful pictures, and I am looking forward mightily to looking at them all and making up stories of my own about them. And I want to learn my letters more quickly than ever, so that I can find out what the real stories are.

  It’s time to go back to the nursery now. My mother is dismissing me.

  “Look that you behave at table at dinner!” she orders.

  “Yes, madam,” I reply. I return upstairs clutching my precious gift.

  It is ten to eleven, and Mrs. Ellen is bidding me wash my hands and tidy myself. She leads me down the great staircase once more, to the hall, where a serving man shows me to my place, which is at the high table on the dais, below the great gold salt, as befits a mere child. I stand behind my stool until my parents are seated in their high carved chairs, then the whole company sits down and our household chaplain says grace in Latin.

  In front of me is a silver charger, a knife and fork (which I know well how to use), a goblet of fine glass from a place called Venice, a little bowl of salt, and a damask napkin folded around a small manchet loaf. Fresh herbs and flowers are scattered along the tablecloth, and some silver finger bowls for washing our hands of grease. A servitor unfolds my napkin, which he kisses and lays across my lap. He then does the same for the old lord, one of our neighbors, who is sitting next to me. On my other side is Mrs. Zouche, who smiles kindly at me but does not say anything. Most of the people in the hall do not seem to have noticed that I am here.
  Suddenly, there is a fanfare of trumpets as the first course is carried in. There are lots of dishes that look and smell heavenly—we never have anything like this in the nursery, where the food is always plain. I choose some roast pork with an herb crust and raisin and cream stuffing, which is lovely, and from the next course I ask for a piece of carp and fig pie. While I am tucking in, my servitor keeps refilling my goblet with wine, which I am not at all used to without water, but I have added lots of salt to my food and got very thirsty, so I swallow great gulps of it. Before long, my head is feeling funny, and I badly want to go to the privy.

  There is no one to help me. Everyone is talking and eating, and the noise is so loud that they are shouting to make themselves heard. Mrs. Ellen is nowhere to be seen.

  What should I do? Panic races through me. Will I get into trouble if I leave the table to go to the privy? No one else has done so. Is it against the rules of courtesy? I cross my legs tightly and look urgently at Mrs. Zouche, but she just smiles at me again and turns away.

  I can’t hold out for much longer. I feel like crying. How terrible it will be if I wet myself in public. I cannot bear the thought of such shame and disgrace, or the punishment it will earn me.

  Suddenly, the whole company rises to its feet. I am startled. What is happening now? The surprise takes my mind off my discomfort for a moment, and I slide off my stool and stand up as well, though my head is scarcely above the table. The servitors are marching into the hall in a great procession, bearing with them, on its vast gold platter, a huge joint of fragrant, steaming meat. The old gentleman next to me sees my bewilderment and bends down.

  “It is the sirloin of beef! The most favored of English meats. We always stand to salute the sirloin, you know. It is a very old tradition.”

  I am bursting, but suddenly I see what I should do. I slide my feet apart beneath my heavy skirts and, as quietly and slowly as I can, relieve myself onto the rushes on the floor. Then I sit down, hoping that no one will notice the puddle that my skirts are hiding. Or, if they do, I pray they will think that one of the dogs did it, for many of them are in the hall, begging for scraps or lying under the tables.

  The relief is great; at last I can relax, and my fall from grace is not noticed. I gobble warden pears in red wine and nibble on marchpane cake. The steward orders the plates to be cleared and the spiced wine called hippocras to be served with wafers. I hardly have room for these, and my head is still muzzy when I stand for the final grace. My mother beckons.

  I make my way giddily behind the guests and curtsy to her, praying she will not notice my burning cheeks or discover my transgression.

  “You may go now, Jane,” she says. “Mrs. Ellen is taking you for a walk in the park, and then you will continue with your embroidery until it is time for supper. Afterwards, you must practice your dance steps for a while before bedtime.”

  “Yes, madam,” I whisper, dipping another bob. But I notice now that there is a nasty, telltale smell from my skirt hem and train, and so does she. She frowns. Quickly, she bends down and pinches the velvet between her thumb and forefinger, then sniffs her hand. I hang my head in shame. I dare not look at my lady. I know she is furious.

  Mrs. Ellen is hovering in the background. The guests are chattering happily; they have no idea what is happening.

  My mother beckons the nurse.

  “Take this child, wash her, and change her clothes,” she says very low, “then bring her to me in the great chamber, where I will teach her some manners.”

  Mrs. Ellen takes me by the hand. I follow her up the stairs and burst into tears. As she changes me, I tell her what happened.

  “Did you not think to crave leave to withdraw?” asks my nurse, sharp.

  “I thought I would get into trouble,” I weep.

  “Well, you’re in far more trouble now. And I too, I daresay. Now, you’ll do. We had best go and face the music.”

  In the great chamber my mother is waiting, straight-backed, frowning and forbidding.

  “Fortunately, Jane, your shame has not been exposed in front of the guests,” she tells me, her voice cold. “But really, you should know better, a great girl of your age. Why did you not excuse yourself?”

  Of course, my mother could never understand that I am so scared of her that I would put up with much to escape her displeasure. And she has forgotten that it is my birthday, and my first time at the high table. All that matters is that I should have known better.

  “You have behaved very badly,” she is saying, “and it is my duty to correct such behavior.”

  I stand before her, trembling, Mrs. Ellen behind me.

  “Prepare her,” commands my lady, reaching for her riding crop.

  Mrs. Ellen looks unhappy as she leads me to a bench, bends me over it, and lifts my skirts.

  “Jane, you have conducted yourself in a disgraceful manner,” my mother tells me. “I am shocked that a young lady of your age should do such a thing in company. In future, I hope you will remember your manners and your position in this household. I trust that this will serve to reinforce that remembrance.”

  I hear the whip swish through the air, then feel it lash the soft flesh of my bottom. I bite my lip, trying so hard not to cry, knowing in some strange way that to do so would please my mother. But as I wince under the fourth stroke, the tears burst through my screwed-up eyelids and I start wailing uncontrollably.

  “Stand up,” orders my lady. “Tidy yourself. Now, what have you to say?”

  “I am sorry, madam,” I sob. “Please forgive me.”

  “Pray to God for forgiveness. Now go.”


  Something awful has happened. I know it because I have heard hushed whispers in the household. People stop talking when I enter the room, and I can guess that whatever they are talking about is unpleasant.

  Soon, I learn what it is. I am repeating the alphabet to Mrs. Ellen when my mother comes into the nursery. We curtsy, then stay standing until my lady has sat down in the high-backed chair by the fire. Katherine is crawling around the room, babbling to herself, happily ignorant of the tension in the air.

  “I am sure you have heard about the Queen,” my lady says to Mrs. Ellen, “but there is fresh news, and the child may as well hear it, since it is an object lesson in what can happen to a woman who falls from virtue. Anyway, she is bound to find out sooner or later.”

  Mrs. Ellen looks at me unhappily. I realize she already knows something of what my mother is talking about. I fear I am going to hear something terrible. Over by the windowsill, Katherine is reaching up for a cloth ball, crooning to herself, lost in her own small world.

  “There has been a lot of gossip, and wild rumors multiply daily,” my mother begins, “but let me give you the truth, as I have it from my lord. Last November, after His Majesty and Queen Katherine returned from their progress in the north, certain accusations were made by mean persons concerning the conduct of the Queen, and an inquiry was made to discover if they were true. Unfortunately, they were. It seems that Her Grace was corrupted by her music master before she was even twelve years old, and that she later lived with her cousin Francis Dereham as if she were his wife. This all took place while she was being brought up in the household of her grandmother, the Duchess of Norfolk. Apparently, the servants testified. They had seen her naked in bed with Dereham in the maids’ dormitory.”

  I am astonished. What does corrupted mean? And why would the Queen want to be naked in bed with her cousin? How immodest of her! No wonder she is in trouble.

  My mother looks at me and frowns.

  “Pay attention, Jane. This is a lesson you must learn. You are four years old and big enough to understand. As if it were not bad enough that the Queen was unfit to marry His Majesty, she continued her immoral life after her marriage to the King, engaging Dereham as her secretary. Then, when she had apparently tired of him, she began a secret liaison with another cousin, Thomas Culpeper, a Gentleman of the King’s Pr
ivy Chamber. His Majesty was very fond of Thomas, which makes his conduct all the more disgraceful. With the connivance of that dreadful Lady Rochford—you remember, George Boleyn’s wife, who gave evidence that her husband had sinned with his sister, Queen Anne—the Queen arranged to meet Culpeper in her chamber at night, even on the progress. On one occasion, the King came to her door, expecting to lie with his wife, and was kept waiting while Culpeper made a hasty escape down the back stairs. Another time, Lady Rochford kept watch while the Queen received Culpeper in the privy!”

  In the privy? I am shocked. I know beyond question now that the Queen is a naughty lady who deserves to be punished. I would never let anyone come into the privy while I was using it. How rude!

  “That is disgusting behavior, my lady,” murmurs Mrs. Ellen. “It is scandalous that she should have so dishonored the King’s Highness!”

  “Indeed,” says my mother grimly. “When His Majesty was informed by his councillors of the truth of the allegations, he broke down and wept before them, then called for a sword to slay her whom he had dearly loved. My lord was there, and he wrote to say it was a pitiful sight to see one of the King’s courage brought so low. The upshot was that the Queen was placed under arrest at Hampton Court. She was in a terrible state, weeping and wailing, and once she managed to break past her guards and run towards the chapel, where the King was attending Mass, hoping to soften his heart by a personal appeal. She probably thought that her charms could save her. But she was caught and dragged back, screaming, before she could reach him.”

  “She is very young,” Mrs. Ellen says.

  “Yes,” agrees my lady, “scarce seventeen. But old enough to know right from wrong.”

  “Yet by all accounts, madam, she was never taught virtuous behavior. I have heard that her grandmother neglected her, and now you tell me that she was led astray by her music master when she was but a child. Yes, she has committed a grievous wrong, but is there no one to take pity on her? The poor girl must be in misery, remembering the dreadful fate that befell her cousin Anne Boleyn.”

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