The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

Astonished, Elizabeth rubbed the sleep from her eyes. When she opened them again, the shape had gone. The room was empty.

  Her heart was pounding fearfully. Had she dreamed it? Or had it really been there? Of course it had, she had felt the cold, had woken up noticing the cold before she noticed the figure. It was strange, but she was no longer cold. The room was now temperate: it was August, after all.

  Elizabeth lay there wondering.

  “Mother?” she whispered, trying out the sweet, unfamiliar word on her tongue. The irresistible conclusion, the only one she wanted to believe, was that Anne Boleyn’s shade had come to her. But there was no answer.

  Elizabeth did not mention her experience to Kat or to the Princess. In the cold light of day, it all seemed like a dream anyway; or perhaps she had imagined it. Even if it had been her mother’s ghost, which she now doubted, it had surely come to convey how much Anne had loved her in life, and probably still did love her in the hereafter. The figure did not appear again, and nothing untoward happened during the rest of her stay at Hever, which tended to confirm those conclusions. The days flew by, she slept well, and all too soon she was curtsying farewell to the Princess Anna.

  “You must come again,” that lady told her. “Your visit has given me great pleasure. I hope you will think of me as your friend.”

  “I will,” declared Elizabeth fervently, extending her hand. But Anna ignored it. Bending, she drew the child into a warm embrace and kissed her.

  “Come back soon!” she said.

  Elizabeth did not see Anna of Cleves again until the New Year of 1541, when both were invited to Hampton Court to participate in the festivities.

  “At last, I am going to meet my new stepmother!” Elizabeth cried, dancing around her bedchamber with excitement. “I must have a new gown! Please can I have a new gown, Kat?”

  The tailor was sent for.

  “My, you have grown, my Lady Elizabeth,” he said, taking her measurements.

  “I am seven now,” Elizabeth told him. “Am I not tall for my age?”

  “Indeed you are,” he said, suppressing a smile. “And very pretty, if I may say so.”

  “You may,” she told him regally. “I am going to court, so you must make me a very fine gown.”

  “My lady, when I have finished it, you will outshine all the other ladies!” he told her, summoning his assistants. Elizabeth gaped in awe at the bolts of sumptuous fabrics being unraveled before her.

  “We must have an eye to cost,” said Kat, anxiously. “I am permitted a certain allowance…not always forthcoming in the past.” She grimaced, recalling what she had heard of Lady Bryan’s heroic efforts to make ends meet in the weeks after Anne Boleyn’s fall, when the King appeared to have forgotten his younger daughter. Since then, though, he had been fairly generous.

  The tailor bowed. He was aware of Elizabeth’s uncertain status.

  “How about this, Mistress Champernowne?” He showed her a dark green taffeta shot through with gold thread. The price he named was reasonable.

  “It will look ravishing against my Lady Elizabeth’s red hair,” he said.

  “It’s gorgeous!” cried Elizabeth, looking pleadingly at Kat.

  “Very well,” said Kat. “It is a special occasion.”

  And so it was that Elizabeth arrived at Hampton Court with the glorious gown packed in her luggage, along with gifts she had painstakingly—and reluctantly—embroidered for her father, her sister, her brother, and her new stepmother.

  No sooner had she arrived in the apartment assigned to her than the Lady Mary came to see her.

  “Welcome, Sister!” She smiled, noticing that Elizabeth had grown up somewhat since their last meeting, and shed her infant chubbiness. The girl who was curtsying before her carried herself very gracefully indeed, and there was a new pride in her. Yet she was, after all, still very young, Mary reminded herself, and would be in need of moral protection now that she had come to court.

  While Kat unpacked and organized Elizabeth’s gear, Mary sat on the window seat and listened to her sister’s news, which was mostly concerned with lessons, puppies, and what sounded like servants’ gossip.

  “And I went to visit Anna of Cleves at Hever,” Elizabeth said.

  “At Hever?” echoed Mary, startled. She looked at Kat.

  “The Princess was lodging there, madam, and it seemed most convenient.”

  Mary said no more, but pursed her thin lips. Sometimes, she doubted Kat’s wisdom. The less Elizabeth was told about her deplorable mother, the better.

  “Have you met our new stepmother, Sister?” Elizabeth asked.

  “I have,” said Mary carefully. “Her Majesty is looking forward to making your acquaintance.”

  “Is she beautiful?” Elizabeth wanted to know.

  “She is pretty,” said Mary. “I will take you to see her later. She has promised to send for us. In the meantime, you must change, and then we can go to the Chapel Royal for Vespers.”

  Prayers again, Elizabeth thought. Mary was always at her prayers. Elizabeth had said hers that morning and saw no need to say them again. But she dutifully suffered Kat to dress her in her second best gown, the crimson damask, and Mary to lead her along the interminable corridors that led to the chapel.

  The Queen’s chamber was brilliantly lit by myriad candles set in many-branched sconces, and a fire was crackling on the hearth. Musicians were playing softly in a corner. As Elizabeth and Mary made their obeisances, a diminutive figure detached itself from the bevy of ladies that thronged the room and came toward them.

  “Rise, my Lady Mary, my Lady Elizabeth,” said a childish voice.

  Elizabeth saw standing before her a plump little person, a very young lady, lavishly gowned and dripping with jewels. The new Queen had chestnut hair, haughty, heavy-lidded eyes, a generous, pouting mouth, and the sweetest puppy in her arms.

  “You are welcome,” she said, extending her hand to be kissed, and almost dropping the puppy in the process.

  “My Lady Elizabeth is eager to meet you, madam,” said Mary. Short as she was, she was taller than Katherine Howard and looked, Elizabeth thought, so much older. How strange to be older than your stepmother!

  “You are very pretty, Elizabeth,” said the Queen. She saw the child eyeing the puppy.

  “Would you like to hold her?” she asked, and lifted the warm, furry body into Elizabeth’s arms. Elizabeth espied the Princess Anna smiling at them.

  “We are about to practice our dance steps,” Katherine said. “You may both join in. Ladies, if you please! La Mourisque!”

  Elizabeth hastily put the puppy down. The women formed two circles, and the musicians struck up a rousing tune. Someone shoved a pair of castanets into Elizabeth’s hand, and suddenly she found herself in the midst of the dance, skipping first this way and then that, and meeting a different partner each time. It was at these points that she had to twirl about and click her castanets. It was all enormous fun, and she could not understand why, whenever she glimpsed Mary in the melee, her sister looked so disapproving. The little Queen was laughing happily, galloping about with gusto, and the ladies enjoying themselves hugely, when the doors were flung open and the King was announced.

  The dancers sank into deep curtsies, skirts fanning over the floor, as he limped into the room, a bulky great figure in a vast furred coat, leaning heavily on a stick. Elizabeth was alarmed to see him looking so old and ill, her mighty father who had always appeared invincible. Yet he was in ebullient spirits.

  “Rise, ladies!” he said, waving his hand in an upward motion and heading for the Queen.

  “How does my sweet Kate today?” he inquired, bending and kissing her full on the mouth. His eyes were devouring her.

  “I am well, sir,” she replied, “but happier for seeing you.”

  Elizabeth, waiting for her father to notice her, thought that the Queen’s words did not quite ring true. And she caught Mary looking at Katherine with ill-concealed disapproval.

  Henry, his arm p
ossessively around his young wife, was leading her toward the two chairs of estate on the dais. Elizabeth watched as they seated themselves, then saw her father reach out and caress the Queen, his fingers lingering on her cheek, her throat, her ample breast, which the low-cut bodice exposed almost to the nipple…Beside her, Mary stiffened.

  Katherine bent toward the King and murmured something. He smiled at her and chucked her under the chin, making her giggle. Suddenly, noticing his daughters standing waiting, he removed his hand from the Queen’s breast and beckoned. Mary moved to the center of the room and made a deep reverence, and Elizabeth followed suit.

  “God’s blessing on you both, my Daughters,” Henry said. “You are very welcome to court. We have great revels planned for this evening, which I am sure you will enjoy. And the Queen here”—he smiled intimately at Katherine—“is looking forward to getting to know you better, Elizabeth.”

  Katherine simpered, but it was clear that she was impatient to focus her attentions elsewhere. Elizabeth was fast realizing that her new stepmother was not really interested in her at all. And she suspected that Mary felt that too.

  But Mary would not be drawn. As they sat playing chess in Mary’s chamber the next day, Elizabeth ventured to voice her opinion.

  “I don’t think our stepmother cares very much for us,” she stated.

  “She is very young,” said Mary. “She has much to learn about being queen.”

  “She didn’t seek me out once last night,” said Elizabeth. “I tried to catch her eye, but she never looked my way. She only wanted to dance and show off.”

  “There were many people demanding her attention,” Mary said.

  “But I am the King’s daughter!” Elizabeth pointed out. “I am quite important, and she should not have ignored me.”

  “You may be quite important, but you need to learn some humility,” Mary reproved. “Sister, I am sure the Queen will send for us and spend some time with us.”

  “You don’t like her, do you?” Elizabeth persisted.

  “I did not say that, Sister,” Mary said sharply. “I hardly know her. And she is from a good Catholic family. I would rather have her as queen than one set up by the religious reformers, like the Princess Anna.”

  “But I like the Princess Anna!” Elizabeth said. “She sat with me for a long time last night. And she brought me a lovely present.” She lifted the jeweled pomander that hung from her girdle and admired it afresh. “And I enjoyed watching her dance with the Queen. I think our father should have stayed married to her.”

  “Hush!” hissed Mary. “You must not say such things. You will get into trouble. And if you move that queen there, you will lose it! Concentrate!”



  I wish we could have gone to court for Christmas,” Elizabeth grumbled, spearing a slice of roasted boar and staring at the mummers with scant attention. “We’ve hardly been there at all this year.”

  It was not possible, my lady,” Sir John Shelton said. Elizabeth did not miss the glance that passed between him and Kat. Something was afoot, and she was determined to find out what it was. At least that would liven up the proceedings. Watching a lot of rustics cavorting in the courtyard at Hatfield had nowhere near the appeal of the magnificent revels at court, and she had been crushed by disappointment when the anticipated summons had failed to arrive. It was now Christmas Eve, and she knew she could look for it no longer.

  “My father is ill, isn’t he?” she asked Kat suddenly. The governess, her homely face rosy in the torchlight, looked perturbed.

  “No, my lady, he is well, I believe,” she said. “We have not heard anything to the contrary.”

  “But something is wrong,” Elizabeth persisted, her sense of foreboding strong. “Why am I not to go to court this Christmas, when I went last year? Have I offended the King in some way?”

  “Not at all,” said Kat. “This has nothing to do with you, child.”

  “So there is something amiss,” Elizabeth insisted.

  Kat turned to Sir John.

  “I am going to have to tell her,” she murmured.

  “Wait,” he urged. “We have had no instructions.”

  “No,” said Kat, low. “The King has other things on his mind.”

  “What?” asked Elizabeth, who was listening avidly.

  “Come with me,” said Kat.

  Sir John shook his head. “Is this wise?” he asked.

  Kat frowned at him and steered Elizabeth firmly toward the open doorway of the palace. Sometimes, you had to take matters into your own hands. If you waited on orders from court, you might wait forever.

  Kat sat Elizabeth down on a bench in the deserted great hall. Everyone was outside enjoying the tomfoolery and the spit roast. The flames from the bonfire cast leaping lights on the tall, mullioned windows.

  Kat seated herself next to her charge.

  “You are right, Elizabeth,” she said, “something has happened, and when I tell you what it is, you will understand why you cannot go to court just now.”

  Elizabeth tensed. She had known it, her father was ill, or hurt, or even dying. She braced herself for bad news, and was surprised, therefore, when Kat said, “It is the Queen.”

  “The Queen? Is she ill?”

  “No, child, she is in disgrace. Worse than that, in fact. She is under house arrest at Syon Abbey. She has behaved very wickedly.”

  “What has she done?” Elizabeth could vaguely recall echoes of a similar conversation to this, many moons ago, its details misted by time.

  “She has been unfaithful to the King with two gentlemen. Well, hardly gentlemen, by their behavior. Do you understand what I mean?”

  “She—she let them kiss her?” Elizabeth asked uncertainly, remembering her father kissing and caressing his young wife.

  “No, more than that,” Kat said. “There can be much more than that between a man and a maid, more than you can ever have dreamed of, innocent and sheltered as you are, child.” Her voice sounded a touch wistful, as well as sad.

  “Men,” Kat went on, choosing her words with care, “are born crested, women cloven. You know, down there.” Elizabeth caught her meaning and blushed. Kat continued steadily, “To make a child, the crest must go into the cloven part, but such a thing is only sanctified within marriage. But the Queen, they say, has done it outside of her marriage, and has betrayed your father the King, to whom she should have been faithful.”

  “How could she?” Elizabeth’s mouth gaped, her eyes widened. It was bad enough imagining men and women doing such a peculiar thing when they were wed, still less wanting to do it with other people. As for her father doing it with the Queen, well, the very notion was shocking! Of course, Elizabeth had only the vaguest idea of what Kat had meant, but it sounded quite frightful and very immodest.

  “And she did this with two gentlemen?” the child asked.

  “I fear so,” Kat said.

  “At the same time?” Elizabeth wanted to know.

  “Bless me, no!” cried Kat. “It is a private thing. Always!”

  “And she is under house arrest for it?” Elizabeth asked fearfully. “What does that mean?”

  “It means that she is not in jail but being held prisoner in her lodgings,” Kat explained.

  “Will she have to stay there for a long time?”

  “Until the King decides what is to be done with her,” Kat said slowly.

  “You mean—they won’t cut off her head, will they?” Elizabeth asked in a small voice. She was trembling.

  “In faith, I do not know,” Kat told her truthfully. “We must pray for her.”

  Elizabeth’s quick mind was moving on rapidly.

  “These things the Queen has done wrong,” she said after a moment. “Were they the kind of things that my mother did, to deserve death?”

  “That’s what was alleged against her, yes,” Kat replied slowly. “But I do not believe it, and neither should you. I am convinced she was innocent.”

>   “But my father believed it,” Elizabeth said.

  “Oh, they made a convincing case against her, never fear. A lot of people believed the charges were true. But she defended herself stoutly at her trial, and as I told you, even her enemies ended up saying that an excuse had been made to get rid of her. But your father the King was not behind it, that I firmly believe. It was Master Cromwell, God rest him, who plotted to remove her and all her faction, since they stood in his way.”

  “He was an evil man!” Elizabeth burst out. She had been glad to hear, after the breaking of the Cleves marriage, that Master Secretary had gone to the block, accused of heresy.

  “Aye, but he paid the price,” Kat said. “He made a fatal blunder in bringing the Princess Anna to England, and thereby laid himself open to the malice of his enemies.”

  “He got what he deserved,” said the child severely. “He killed my mother.”

  “Do not dwell on it,” said Kat kindly. “It will do you no good. Pray for the Queen when you can, and for the repose of your mother’s soul. And for Thomas Cromwell, for it is your Christian duty to do so. In the meantime, let us enjoy Christmas. Life’s too short for moping!”

  “I fear I must break to you some grave news, Elizabeth,” Kat said suddenly. It was a freezing February morning and they had dragged the schoolroom table nearer to the fire; Elizabeth was now seated there, practicing forming italics with her quill pen. She had thought Kat somewhat subdued during the past hour, but had supposed that the governess was concentrating hard on marking her sums.

  Elizabeth looked up. Her pointed little face was questioning, apprehensive, and Kat braced herself.

  “The Queen was beheaded yesterday morning,” she said quietly. “She had been found guilty of treason by Act of Parliament, and sentenced to death.”

  Elizabeth could not speak. She was struggling to accept the fact that that plump, pretty young woman, who had giggled as the King stroked her breast, was no more; that her pert head had been brutally parted from her neck. There would have been pain, quick and sharp, and blood, lots of it. She could imagine the young Queen’s fear, her shrinking steps as she approached the block, her terror as she knelt down and waited for the ax to strike. Elizabeth shuddered. It was as if her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded all over again.

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