The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  She felt the vomit rise in her throat. She stood up suddenly, covered her mouth with her hands and fled to the privy, where, retching horribly, she voided her breakfast down the stone chute. Then she stood trembling, trying to compose herself; and that was how a concerned Kat found her.

  “Hush, hinny,” she soothed, folding her distressed charge in a warm embrace. Elizabeth tried to push her away, not wishing Kat to see her lose control, but the grief and horror were overwhelming, and, forgetting that she was a big girl of eight who was too old to cry like a baby, she sought refuge on her governess’s shoulder and howled. And as she held the sobbing, shaking child, Kat could feel her unbearable pain, and a tear slid down her own cheek.

  After that, Katherine Howard’s name was never mentioned again. Neither Kat nor Elizabeth wished to risk a recurrence of that painful scene. Aware of how deeply the knowledge of the late Queen’s fate must have affected her charge, Kat sought to divert Elizabeth from morbid thoughts of death with merry stories, games of hide-and-seek, and even a snowball fight when the weather was sufficiently severe. They toasted muffins by the fire, played skittles in the gallery, and sang songs, with Elizabeth picking out the tunes on her lute or her virginals.

  “You are getting so good at your playing,” Kat complimented her. “In fact, you have proved such an apt pupil in every way that I fear I can teach you little more. I think, child, that the time has come for you to have a tutor.”

  “But I like you teaching me,” Elizabeth protested.

  “And I like teaching you,” said Kat, “but I have exhausted my poor supply of knowledge. I should tell you that I have written to His Majesty to ask if you may share the Prince’s lessons.”

  “You have?” Elizabeth was delighted. She had an unquenchable thirst for learning, and also a great desire to spend more time with her brother, whom she saw all too infrequently. “Will I go to court?”

  Kat smiled. “No, my little lady, you will ride over to Ashridge or Enfield, whenever the Prince is in residence. He is about to begin some elementary lessons, and it would be enjoyable for you both if you were sometimes to be taught together.”

  Elizabeth was considerably cheered by this, and spent the next weeks in a fever of expectancy, longing for her father to respond to Kat’s request.

  “Why is he taking so long to agree?” she grizzled.

  “I expect he has a lot on his mind just now,” Kat answered. She did not repeat what her sister Joan had written to her: Joan was married to one of the gentlemen of the King’s privy chamber, Sir Anthony Denny, and she had confided to Kat that His Majesty was sunk in a deep depression, and painfully troubled by his bad leg. Kat knew, therefore, that she could not expect a speedy answer. It was, indeed, May before the letter came.

  “Good news! You are to go to Ashridge next week to begin lessons,” a happy Kat told an ecstatic Elizabeth. “There is a condition. You are to be careful with whom you come into contact before visiting the Prince, and if you have been exposed to any contagion, you must stay at home.”

  “Yes, yes, of course,” agreed Elizabeth, barely listening. “My father must think I am very important to merit learning with the Prince.”

  “Of course he thinks you are important!” Kat laughed. “You are his daughter.”

  “And I must have new gowns!” trilled Elizabeth, executing a lithe, joyous dance step.

  “Hold on a moment!” chuckled Kat. “You’re going to lessons, not revels!”

  “But I should look my best,” the girl insisted, admiring her slender hands.

  “I do declare, the man who marries you is going to have to be mighty rich!” Kat jested.

  “I shall be rich,” said Elizabeth. “I’m the King’s daughter. And I’m not going to get married.”

  “Of course you are,” Kat said, shaking her head. “All noble girls marry. It is a woman’s duty to marry and have children. It is what God created us for.”

  “Then why aren’t you married, Kat?” Elizabeth asked impishly.

  “I had a suitor once,” the governess said, a touch wistfully. “My father chose him for me. He was a nice boy, but he died. Now my father is too old and infirm to find me a husband, and I do not have much opportunity to meet one here, but still I hope one day to be married.”

  “If you do, you must never leave me,” Elizabeth declared. “Your husband must come and live here.”

  “I’ll tell him,” smiled Kat. “When I meet him.”

  Elizabeth lay in her bed, wide awake, staring at the dying embers of the fire. She couldn’t understand why all Kat’s talk of marrying disturbed her so much. She supposed it had something to do with that naughty thing Kat had told her about some weeks back, the thing that married people did, and that Katherine Howard had done with those wicked gentlemen. The thing that people had accused her mother of doing with a man not her husband.

  She tried to imagine what Kat had meant by men being born crested, but all she could think of was that curious tiny appendage she had glimpsed when her little brother had had his clouts changed in babyhood. Was it that which a man had to put into that unmentionable place down there, to make a child? That was silly, it was far too small, and anyway, Elizabeth was absolutely certain that she didn’t want any man ever doing such a rude thing to her. The remedy, of course, was never to marry. But what if her father chose a husband for her, like Kat’s had? Would she dare gainsay the King?

  She would, she told herself defiantly. For it was not just the unseemly aspects of the business that repelled her. There was something more, something darker and more sinister, something all bound up with the horror of Queen Katherine’s beheading and her mother’s. They had both died for doing that naughty thing. And there was another reason to fear too, for had not Queen Jane died bearing a child? Having a child was also the consequence of having a man put his crested bit inside you. So if you let a man do that to you, or—worse still—if he forced you, you might die, one way or another. It did not bear thinking about.

  No, resolved Elizabeth, turning over and shutting her eyes firmly, “I will never marry.”

  Elizabeth was amazed by the change in her brother the Prince. Gone was the chubby infant she had last seen—when was it?—eighteen months before, and in his place stood a slim, five-year-old boy, not yet breeched, but bearing himself in very manly fashion in his long-skirted velvet doublet.

  “You are welcome, Sister,” he said solemnly, inclining his head precociously as Elizabeth swept a deep curtsy. “May I present Dr. Coxe, our tutor.”

  A lean, middle-aged man wearing an owlish look and a black clerical gown and bonnet stepped forward, bowing.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, this is a privilege,” he said. “I have heard exceptional reports of your learning, and I make no doubt that you will exercise a beneficial influence on your brother the Prince.”

  They seated themselves at a table laden with books, parchments, pens, and inkwells.

  “I think you will find you have little to fear from me,” said Dr. Coxe. “Learning should be a pleasure, and beating it into my pupils is not my way, although I know that many tutors hold by it, especially in our grammar schools. No, Your Graces, I prefer the carrot to the stick. We shall embark on a splendid adventure together.”

  Elizabeth enjoyed the lessons, for they were longer and harder than those that Kat had set her, and she relished the challenge. Dr. Coxe was a good linguist, and under his guidance, her grasp of foreign tongues improved. Soon, she was reading simple Latin texts and translating short French poems. But it was the religious instruction that really fascinated her, for Dr. Coxe had an inspired zeal for this subject.

  “We attain Heaven through our faith in Jesus Christ,” he declared. “That is all that is needed for salvation. You must love Him with all your heart and believe in Him as your Savior.”

  Edward nodded, his heart-shaped face serious.

  “My governess says we must do good deeds in order to get to Heaven,” Elizabeth said. “Like giving alms to the poor, or v
isiting the sick.”

  “Most edifying,” said the tutor, “but not necessary for our salvation. We may be justified through faith alone.”

  Elizabeth wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, and she was certain that Edward didn’t know either, as he sat there looking rather lost, and Dr. Coxe was so carried away by the force of his arguments that he failed to notice. But after that, she tried very hard to love God more and more. It was difficult, though, because really she loved her father the best, and Kat.

  On another occasion, Dr. Coxe opened a large, exquisitely bound book that he had brought to the lesson.

  “This is the Holy Bible, lawfully in English for the first time, and there, on the title page, you see your father the King, presenting the Word of God to the clergy and the people.”

  The children looked at it in awe.

  Dr. Coxe reverently turned a few pages and read aloud the tale of Adam and Eve.

  “And that,” he concluded, “is the story of the Fall of Man.”

  “What did the serpent look like?” Edward asked fearfully.

  “Like a big green snake!” Elizabeth said, her eyes full of mischief.

  “Your Graces, the serpent was the devil himself, sent in disguise to tempt the woman. She chose to disobey the Lord out of her own free will, and because of her weakness, she and Adam were cast out of the garden.”

  “I would not have disobeyed,” said Elizabeth spiritedly.

  “No, my lady,” said Dr. Coxe, “but you are an unusual example of your sex, for it is well known that women are generally weak and frail creatures, who, like Eve, can lead men into sin.”

  “I am not weak and frail!” Elizabeth declared, a little indignant.

  “I would never presume to say so, my lady,” blustered Dr. Coxe. “But there are generally good reasons why God has set men above women, to hold dominion over them. And that is because of the sin of our mother Eve.”

  Katherine Howard had been weak, Elizabeth thought. But other women she knew of had had strong characters. What of Cleopatra? Brave St. Katherine, who had stood up to the heathen Emperor and risked a cruel death? And Isabella of Castile, who had led armies into battle and conquered the heathen Moors? There were many more alive today, she suspected, who would prove as indomitable, given the chance, and it occurred to her to wonder why it was that God had ordained that men should be the superior sex. Was it just because Eve had led Adam into sin?

  “That’s probably a made-up story,” she said, shocking herself and Dr. Coxe.

  “Heavens, child, do you question the Scriptures?” he exclaimed. “That is a wicked thing to do! Of course it is not made up.”

  “But how can God make a woman out of a rib?” Elizabeth asked, determined to argue her case.

  “God can do anything He pleases,” frowned the tutor. “And you would do well to pay heed to wiser and more experienced heads than yours. God made woman in all her imperfection to serve and obey man. That is the way of the world. Now let us read the story of the Flood.”

  “Girls are silly,” said Edward smugly. Without hesitation, Elizabeth stuck her tongue out.

  “Enough!” thundered Dr. Coxe. “That is no way for royal children to behave.”

  “No, it is not, Sister,” said the boy severely. “I am the Prince, remember.”

  “Then you should be wise enough to know that girls are not silly,” retorted Elizabeth. Edward made a face.

  “The Flood, if you please,” Dr. Coxe reminded them.

  “I feel sorry for my brother,” Elizabeth told Kat as she prepared for bed. “He’s so serious. He has no sense of fun. Do you know, he hardly ever smiles.”

  “Poor little boy, I fear he is already overburdened with the knowledge that he will one day be King,” Kat observed.

  “You are right,” said Elizabeth.

  “I am sure that Lady Bryan and Mistress Penn do their best for him,” Kat soothed.

  “That is true, but he is surrounded by ceremony, and he has little freedom. Those about him are always telling him he must follow our father in greatness.” Elizabeth was mentally contrasting the relative liberty that she herself enjoyed with the strict protocol surrounding her brother, and the easy affection that lay between her and Kat with the formality and deference with which Edward’s attendants treated him.

  “The King has his reasons, of course, but that poor child is overprotected,” Kat opined.

  “He does have friends to play with and share lessons with. There are several boys of good family in his household. Including Barnaby FitzPatrick, who is his whipping boy. Barnaby’s nice.”

  Elizabeth was very fond of the young Irish lad. He was older than his master, and full of the charm of his race, and Elizabeth enjoyed sitting beside him at lessons and showing off her talents. Barnaby would tickle her under the table when Dr. Coxe was not looking, his smile impish beneath the unruly dark curls. Edward, she noticed, rarely joined in any horseplay, but gravely and diligently gave his full attention to his studies, frowning when his companions got up to mischief.

  “Come and play, Brother,” Elizabeth invited him one day when the tutor had dismissed them for the afternoon.

  “I wish to read my book,” he said. He had learned to read early, and was very advanced for his age, she had noticed.

  “You can read your book anytime,” she wheedled. “It’s warm outside and we could run races in the park.”

  “Good idea, my lady!” smiled Barnaby. “How about me teaching you to fence, sir?”

  Edward shook his fair head.

  “My father the King would not allow it,” he said sadly. “It would be too dangerous. I might get hurt, or killed, and then he would have no heir.”

  “Every gentleman must learn swordsmanship,” Barnaby said.

  “You could teach me,” suggested Elizabeth, her eyes twinkling.

  Barnaby chuckled.

  “You, a girl? My apologies, my lady, but it would not be seemly.”

  “Seemly be damned!” retorted Elizabeth wickedly. “Come, we shall fence!”

  They raced to the park, Edward’s nurses following at a discreet distance. Barnaby produced two blunted swords and taught Elizabeth the correct stance, feet turned outward, one hand on hip, the other holding forth her weapon. Then he demonstrated thrusting, parrying, and feinting. Elizabeth found it exciting and exhilarating, and performed very creditably. Edward watched with longing eyes.

  “I wish I could have a go,” he said wistfully.

  “You can, sir!” said Barnaby.

  “Why don’t we go behind those trees over there?” Elizabeth suggested. “They won’t be able to see us then.” She nodded briefly in the direction of the nurses, who were watching anxiously from a distance.

  “Yes!” agreed Edward, with more animation than she had yet seen in him.

  Once shielded from view, Barnaby went over the drill again, this time with the Prince as his pupil.

  “Garde!” the little boy cried as Barnaby diplomatically let him take the initiative, and the contest commenced.

  “Bravo!” cried Elizabeth, clapping her hands. Edward’s fair face was flushed with pleasure. He danced across the grass, thrusting and slashing the air as he went. They were all enjoying themselves so much that they did not notice Mistress Penn and her acolytes approaching.

  “Stop!” that lady roared. “What are you thinking of? You’ll have us all in the Tower.”

  The three children froze.

  “I am so sorry, mistress,” drawled Barnaby. “I meant no harm. It was just a bit of fun.”

  “My brother the Prince should be learning to fence,” Elizabeth said defiantly.

  Edward said nothing but fixed a glacial stare on his nurse, which she ignored.

  “All in God’s good time, and the King’s,” said Mistress Penn. “His Highness here is not even breeched. And, my Lord Prince, you know very well that you are not allowed to take risks. When the time comes for you to learn to fence, you will be taught by an expert swordsman, who wi
ll ensure your safety.”

  Elizabeth frowned. Barnaby’s mouth opened in protest, but he was quickly silenced by the nurse’s next words, which were addressed to a scowling Edward. “You have been disobedient, sir, and I fear that Barnaby here must pay for it.”

  Barnaby groaned.

  CHAPTER 7

  1543

  The green court gown was heavy with its elaborate sleeves and long train, and the pearl-encrusted border of its wide square neckline was cutting uncomfortably into the skin on Elizabeth’s slender shoulders, but she was determined to ignore these things, for today she was one of the chief guests of honor at her father’s wedding.

  Beside her in the gilded splendor of the Holyday Closet of the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court, the Lady Mary stood solemnly watching the ceremony. Her gown was of tawny damask with rich crimson velvet oversleeves; like her, the score of lords and ladies here today were all magnificently dressed, and all—following the King’s lead—were in a jovial, holiday mood.

  Elizabeth watched as Archbishop Cranmer placed the bride’s fine-boned hand in her father’s giant paw and pronounced them man and wife. She had met Katherine Parr only a few times, but she liked her enormously and was glad she would be having her for her latest stepmother.

  The King turned to face the congregation, happiness and jubilation plain to see in his face, and led his new wife through the bowing line of courtiers to the gallery beyond, and thence through the state apartments to the privy chamber, the guests following, laughing and jesting. The processional route was lined with members of the court and household, all jostling for a view of the new Queen.

  She was not pretty as such, Elizabeth reflected, as she watched a smiling Katherine nodding regally to the left and right, but she had a comely face framed with auburn hair, and her manner was gentle and dignified.

 
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