Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir


  I have heard Anne Boleyn’s name mentioned before, but only in whispers or corners, and I do not know who she was, or what happened to her that was so dreadful. I would love to interrupt and ask about her, but I dare not chance a rebuke—or worse—from my mother.

  “Of course she remembered,” my lady is saying, “and that accounted for her wildness and weeping under questioning. And of course she denied it all, but the sworn testimony of the witnesses was enough to prove that she lied.”

  “Have they tried her?” Mrs. Ellen asks sadly.

  “No. The King had her banished to Syon Abbey, and she stayed there over Christmas.”

  “I heard as much.” Mrs. Ellen nods. “Is she still there?”

  “No.” My lady pauses. “A week ago, Parliament passed an act of attainder declaring her a traitor and depriving her of her life and all her titles and possessions. Last Friday, although she resisted frantically, she was taken by barge to the Tower of London, and there, on Monday, her head was taken off by the executioner.”

  I gasp. This is horrible, horrible, worse than the nastiest nightmare. Her head was taken off. How? And why? She had been very naughty, but surely not naughty enough to have her head taken off. I feel sick. Would there have been a lot of blood? I hate blood. When I cut my finger, it bled a lot, and hurt too. It must hurt an awful lot to have your head cut off. Much more than cutting your finger. So there must be lots more blood. And what happens to you when your head is cut off? You must be dead.

  I am shaking with the horror of it. I am also crying, although I do not realize it. Mrs. Ellen, whose face looks white, kneels down beside me and holds me close to her. She looks up at my mother.

  “She is too young to understand, my lady! It is too much for her to take in.”

  My mother looks at me as I stand sobbing. There is no softness in her as she stands there in her gorgeous furred gown and bejeweled hood. She has been angered by the Queen’s affront to her blood.

  “Jane,” she says sternly, “you have been born into a family of the royal House. People in our position lead public lives. We have power, rank, and wealth, but we also have duties and obligations, and as women of this family, we must be above reproach. If a noblewoman or queen sins as Queen Katherine has done, she sets her husband’s very inheritance, his titles, lands, and riches, at risk. In this case, the succession to the throne itself has been disparaged, for if the Queen had borne a child to one of those traitors she sinned with, she could easily have passed it off as the King’s, and that could have led to a bastard of base blood sitting on the throne of England. A wife must keep faithful to her husband, and adultery in an aristocratic woman is a vile crime and is rightly punishable by death.”

  I do not know what adultery means, but I know what death is. As soon as I was old enough to ask what the tombs in the church were for, it was explained to me. The chaplain told me that, when God decides that a person’s time on earth has ended, He summons them before His dreadful judgment seat. If they have been good, He sends them to Heaven, where they may dwell forever in bliss with Our Lord Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, and all the saints and angels. But if they have been wicked, they are sent to Hell, to suffer for all eternity. The chaplain has told me all about what awaits sinners in Hell, and I know it is true, because in one of the churches in Leicester there is a horrid wall painting that I dare not look at for fear of seeing the cruel devils tearing the flesh of the damned with their pitchforks. Mrs. Ellen says I must not think about that picture, and that my sins are not so bad as to deserve eternal damnation, and if I am a good girl and say my prayers and keep the Commandments, and receive absolution for my sins, I will go straight to Heaven.

  Mrs. Ellen told me that most people die of illness or old age, or a mishap, like Sam the thatcher, who fell off his ladder and broke his neck. She told me that brave soldiers die in wars, and that for most people death is just like going to sleep; but surely no one should be deliberately killed by having her head taken off, especially when she hadn’t done much to deserve it.

  It was the King, my great-uncle, who had ordered that the Queen must be killed. Kings can do whatever they like—I know that. I have also been taught that they are above ordinary people and must be obeyed. I have never met the King, but I have heard many tales of him, and his portrait hangs in the great hall. He is a big man, a giant in his gorgeous clothes, with a fat tummy and a red beard, standing with his hand on his hip and his legs apart. He looks frightening, grimacing out of the picture, as I imagine an ogre might look. Perhaps he is an ogre. He had the Queen’s head taken off. But perhaps he is sad now, and wishing he hadn’t done it.

  I am feeling a bit better now, although I still want to ask lots of questions, because there is much that I don’t yet understand. But my mother is preparing to depart.

  “I leave it to you how much you elaborate to the child,” she is saying to Mrs. Ellen as she pauses by the door, “but for the love of God, bid her be discreet. If ever she should go to court, we don’t want her disgracing us with embarrassing remarks.”

  When she has gone, Mrs. Ellen starts tidying the room, putting my toys away before supper. I sit on the floor with Katherine, helping her to dress her cloth Polly doll, all the while thinking of the terrible death of the Queen.

  “Let’s put Polly to bed,” pipes Katherine, getting up and toddling toward the miniature cradle standing in the corner. She tenderly lays down the doll and covers her up, tightly.

  “Not over her face.” I force a smile. “She can’t breathe.”

  “Bedtime for you too, Katherine,” says Mrs. Ellen. The nurserymaid leads a protesting Katherine up the stairs.

  Mrs. Ellen closes the toy chest, smooths her apron, seats herself in her chair by the fire, and takes up her mending.

  “You must not dwell on what has happened to the Queen, Jane,” she tells me.

  “It’s horrible.”

  “Horrible, but necessary, I daresay. She had been very silly and very wicked. She must have known the risks she was taking.”

  “But what had she done wrong?”

  Mrs. Ellen folds Katherine’s tiny smock, the tear in it hardly visible now. Her stitches are so minute you can hardly see them.

  “Come here, child, and stand at my knee.” She beckons, and I go to her, resting my hands on the soft holland cloth of her apron.

  “Mrs. Ellen, how did they cut off the Queen’s head?” I am bursting to know, yet fearful of the answer.

  “With an ax, Jane.”

  “Like the ax Perkin cuts the logs with?”

  “Like that, but bigger and sharper.”

  “Did it hurt?”

  “I’m sure she didn’t know anything about it. It’s a very quick death.”

  I pause. I want to ask another question, but I know it’s not polite to talk about naked people.

  “Why was the Queen in bed with her cousin?” I venture at last.

  “I expect because she considered herself to be his wife. Married people are allowed to sleep in the same bed.”

  “But she was married to the King. You can’t be married to two people at once, can you?”

  “No. But I have heard that Dereham said she had promised in front of others to marry him, and people consider that to be as good as a marriage itself. The Queen insisted she had never done so, but she must have been lying, for folk heard Dereham call her ‘wife,’ while she called him ‘husband.’”

  There is still something I do not understand.

  “But why did they go to bed together”—I feel my cheeks going red—“without any clothes on?”

  Mrs. Ellen does not answer at once. She thinks for a bit, then says, “Listen, child, God decrees that, when a man and woman marry, one of their duties is to have children. It is a sin to have children outside marriage, so marriage has been ordained by God so that children can be born and brought up in a godly manner and have a father and mother. Do you understand?”

  I nod.

  “Good. The Scriptures tell us that G
od made men and women differently. Their bodies are different. The husband plants a seed from his body inside his wife. Inside the tiny seed is a complete person, and it grows inside its mother’s womb, which is in her tummy. It stays there for nine months, then it is born. Now, to plant that seed, the husband and wife have to take their clothes off, otherwise it would be difficult.”

  “Don’t they mind?” I ask, my face afire.

  “Not at all. God has made it a pleasant business, although He has ordained that it be lawful only in holy wedlock. Now the Queen was unfaithful to the King because she received seed from other men. Thus she committed a terrible crime. She endangered the blood royal. That is treason, and the punishment is always death.”

  I remember something.

  “Did Anne Boleyn have her head chopped off too?”

  “Mercy me, how sharp you are!” cries Mrs. Ellen. “Yes, she did, my dear, and for much the same thing, but it must not be spoken of. It was a dreadful business, and a matter of too great grief to His Majesty and your parents.”

  “But who was Anne Boleyn?”

  “She was the King’s second wife, the mother of the Lady Elizabeth, your cousin.”

  I have heard a lot about my cousin Elizabeth. She is four years older than me and lives in her own palace with a lot of servants. She hardly ever goes to court because she is busy at her lessons. She is an uncommonly clever girl, my mother says.

  “The Lady Elizabeth must be very sad about her mother’s head being cut off,” I say. “Is the King a kind father to her?”

  Mrs. Ellen pats my hand. “At first, I heard, he could not bear the sight of her. She was only two when her mother died, and she was left in the care of her governess. When she grew out of her clothes, there was no money to buy new ones, and Master Secretary Cromwell did not like to trouble the King. But then Queen Jane took pity on the poor motherless child and brought her back to court, and her other stepmothers were also kindly towards her, and to the Lady Mary too, the King’s daughter by the first Queen Katherine. Now the Lady Elizabeth is well received at court whenever she visits there. She never speaks about her mother, it is said. Perhaps it is best that way. And she adores her father, the King. But Jane, you must remember, these matters must never be spoken of outside this room. Do you heed me?”

  “I heed you, Mrs. Ellen,” I say, all solemn.

  In the small hours of the night, I wake up screaming, bringing Mrs. Ellen rushing in, all frowsty from bed and carrying a lighted candle.

  “There now,” she soothes, cradling me in her arms, “it was just a bad dream.”

  It had been a bad dream indeed. It had been so real that I woke up expecting to see the Queen’s headless body, with blood streaming from its ragged neck, stumble blindly through my door.

  Frances Brandon, Marchioness of Dorset

  HAMPTON COURT PALACE, JULY 1543

  There is a great throng in the holyday closet leading to the chapel royal, and it is unpleasantly hot. Here we all are in our damasks and velvets, perspiring profusely and marveling at my royal uncle’s irrepressible optimism. For today, His Majesty is marrying his sixth wife.

  Standing beside my lord at the front, I press a handkerchief to my nose to blot out the stink of sweat. Only a foot or so away from us stands the King, resplendent in cloth of gold, and the woman he is taking in holy matrimony—Katherine Parr, Lady Latimer. The nuptials are being conducted by that toady, Archbishop Cranmer, and among the guests are the highest in the land.

  The new Queen is no giddy girl like Katherine Howard, but a mature woman of thirty-one, russet-haired and comely, yet no beauty. Good seat on a horse, though, and an old friend of mine, being but five years older than I. Her two previous husbands were old men, to whom she bore no children, so she is well qualified to look after my ailing uncle. Whether he will get sons on her is another matter. The whisper goes that he is now so infirm with his huge bulk and diseased legs that he is no longer capable of getting a filly in foal, for all that he still goes out of his way to act the stallion, with his magnificent suits and thrusting codpieces, larger than any other man’s. But what he really desires, I suspect, is the soothing companionship that only a woman can give him. A nurse in his twilight years. And in Katherine Parr, with her quiet, kindly ways and her famously erudite mind, I believe he will find what he seeks.

  It is well known at court, however, that Lady Latimer has not always displayed such gravity. Last year, after Lord Latimer died, she fell in love with the Lord High Admiral, Sir Thomas Seymour, younger brother of the late Queen Jane. These Seymours, upon whom I am now bestowing a gracious smile, are an ambitious, upstart breed. The eldest brother, Edward, Lord Hertford, has risen to power sheerly by virtue of his sister bearing the King a son, and he is now one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. And I make no doubt he will retain that eminence, being uncle to the future King.

  The ambitious Sir Thomas is plainly jealous of his brother. He resents his power and influence and makes no secret of his opinion that Lord Hertford, who is noted for his high ideals and penny-pinching ways, should do more to advance his younger brother. But the truth is that Sir Thomas, for all his dark good looks and persuasive charm, is a volatile, untrustworthy schemer, plainly unfitted for high office at court. Lord Hertford knows it, and the King knows it. Nonetheless, the young buck is seen as a goodly fellow, and he has been appointed Lord High Admiral so that his impulsive, adventurous spirit may be put to good use.

  Sir Thomas was not in love with Lady Latimer, we all knew that, but he had certainly realized that she was a rich widow with a good reputation, who would make a desirable wife for any aspiring nobleman. It was also obvious that she was ripe for the picking. And no doubt he thought that, after being married to two old men, she would appreciate having a lusty young one in her bed.

  It was only two months ago, when Kate—or rather, the Queen, as I must shortly call her—and I were sitting in her lodgings at court, that she told me herself how she had fallen so wildly for Thomas Seymour.

  “I had to fight him off—he would barely take no for an answer, Frances,” she confided. “And I…well, I wanted him. What woman wouldn’t? He’s so handsome and charming. But when he realized I wasn’t going to let him have his way with me, he spoke of marriage. Oh, Frances, you can’t imagine how happy I was. After two old graybeards, to whom I was nurse rather than wife, I was to have a young and virile husband. And then the King made known his interest, and Tom told me he had no choice but to withdraw. Soon afterwards, he was sent abroad on a timely diplomatic mission, and then His Majesty began to press his suit in earnest.”

  He’s no fool, my uncle. Unlike Kate, poor, virtuous matron, who was beguiled by the blandishments of a self-seeking scoundrel.

  “When the King proposed marriage to me,” Kate went on, “I was reluctant to accept. I did not want the burden of queenship. Truly, I feared it. With respect, Frances, for I know he is your uncle, His Majesty has not had a happy matrimonial career.”

  “You speak truth there. But it has not all been his fault.”

  “No, no,” she hastily agreed. “But revere him as I do, as my sovereign lord, I did not love him as I love—loved—Tom. God forgive me, but when the King asked me to marry him, I told him I would rather be his mistress than his wife.”

  Her reluctance was understandable. The position of queen consort in this realm has indeed become fraught with hazards. It is now high treason for a woman with a dubious past to marry the King without first declaring that she has led an impure life. And once she is married to him, she must take care that, like Caesar’s wife, she remains above suspicion. With two of my uncle’s wives having gone to the block already, few ladies at court aspire to the honor of becoming his queen.

  Yet here Kate is, standing by my uncle, receiving the congratulations of their guests, and merrily clasping his hand as he leads the way from the chapel, he staggering manfully on his ulcerated legs, broad and magnificent in his gem-encrusted short gown and feathered bonnet, with
Katherine, a diminutive figure in crimson damask, leaning on his arm. In the privy chamber, where the wedding banquet is laid out ready, bride and groom are smiling broadly, in high good humor, extending their hands to be kissed as the lords and ladies, like so many peacocks, bob up and down before them.

  “My Lady Dorset, we are pleased to welcome you,” says the new Queen as I rise from my curtsy. “I should be grateful if you would attend me tomorrow. I have need of ladies like yourself in my household.”

  “I feel highly honored, Your Majesty,” I say, as my husband looks on approvingly.

  “Frances will have you well organized, Kate,” chimes in the King, smiling. “Quite a formidable lady, my niece!” He grins at me as he says this, and I laugh.

  “Your Majesty is too unkind,” I retort. I have a great affection for my uncle, whose character is in so many ways like my own. I know that many people are terrified of him, but he has always been kind to me, and I believe that, because I deal with him directly and approach him in the right way, I bring out the best in him. I can remember him as he was in the years before he was soured by constant matrimonial trials and his fears for the succession, and I can still detect something of that golden, athletic younger man beneath the layers of flesh and the puffy, ruined face.

  The King invites us to accompany him on the hunt tomorrow, then moves off with his bride to circulate among the other guests. I suddenly find myself next to Anne of Cleves—still smelling a trifle high—who greets me in her deep guttural English and glances humorously in the direction of the royal couple.

  “A fine burden Madam Katherine has taken upon herself!” she murmurs.

  “I’m sure she will cope,” I say, tart. “His Majesty thinks very highly of her.”

  “As he did of the late Queen, and most of the ones before her,” retorts Anne. “Excepting, of course, myself.” She smiles. “But I am not complaining. And I am delighted that my dear brother has found happiness at last.” It is an open secret that Madam of Cleves was not exactly displeased at being so unceremoniously dumped by the King. She did well out of it financially and now leads a comfortable life that is mercifully free from court intrigue. And she kept her head!

 
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