The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  As it was Edward’s birthday, there would be no lessons today. Instead, the Prince’s long-cherished wish was to be granted. The King had agreed that he should start his formal instruction in fencing and horsemanship. The boys were chattering excitedly about these activities as they divested themselves of their doublets and tested the points of their blunted foils.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, pray be seated,” invited Dr. Coxe, indicating a high carved chair on the dais and pulling a stool up beside her. “We will have a good view of the sport from here.”

  “Am I only to watch?” Elizabeth asked, a little indignant. “Barnaby here knows I can handle a foil as well as any boy. He taught me.”

  Barnaby FitzPatrick, hearing her words, grinned.

  “That is very true, sir. The Lady Elizabeth might put all of us to shame.”

  “A girl, fencing?” Robert Dudley asked, raising a sardonic eyebrow.

  “You are impudent, sir,” Elizabeth told him haughtily. “I will show you. Fencing Master, may I be this gentleman’s partner?”

  Robert’s jaw dropped. She smiled at him sweetly.

  “We shall play to decide which is the better, boy or girl,” she declared.

  “But Your Grace cannot fence in those long skirts,” Barnaby pointed out. “Master Robert will have the advantage.”

  “Then let him!” Elizabeth laughed. Robert’s cheeks were flushed with annoyance.

  “Must I, sir?” he appealed to Dr. Coxe.

  “We cannot gainsay a lady, especially a King’s daughter,” the tutor told him with a satisfied grin. It would be good for this proud boy to suffer a little humiliation.

  The other young gentlemen having been paired off, the master demonstrated the correct stance and a few expert thrusts. “There are two kinds of swordsman. The duelist will rely on his skill with a rapier,” he explained, “while the athlete will achieve victory through his footwork. You must decide which you will be, gentlemen—and my lady!”

  “I will be a duelist,” Elizabeth stated, her eyes gleaming.

  “Then I must be also,” Robert muttered reluctantly.

  “Garde!” she cried and lunged forward, parrying thrust for thrust. Taken unawares, for he had not really believed in her boasts, Robert was unprepared for the determination of her assault, and found himself stepping backward and bumping inelegantly into the young Lord Hastings.

  “Parry!” he cried, recovering himself, but Elizabeth stood her ground determinedly. After some minutes of this, the master, seeing that the match was becoming dangerously competitive, called a halt.

  “A good first effort, Your Grace!” he cried, beaming at the Prince, who had also been giving a good account of himself.

  As they withdrew reluctantly to the dais, Robert, freed from the fear of being vanquished by a mere girl, said gallantly, “You were good, my lady.”

  Glancing sideways at the dark-haired boy, Elizabeth was surprised to read admiration in his expression.

  “I had a worthy opponent, sir,” she answered. Having proved her point, she could afford to be generous.

  She saw a lot of Robert Dudley during the week of her visit, for she was allowed to join the Prince and his noble companions for lessons. Robert did not shine in the schoolroom.

  “Why should I learn Greek?” he grumbled, taking advantage of Dr. Coxe’s temporary absence to lay down his pen.

  “So that you can be a Humanist and study the works of the ancients,” Edward told him.

  “I’d rather be out riding,” Robert said. He had a passion for horses.

  “I can understand that, for I also love riding,” said Elizabeth, “but I love learning too, especially history and languages.”

  “It’s all right for you, my lady, you are a girl and are not obliged to learn the things that a young gentleman needs to learn,” Robert said, a touch patronizingly.

  “I assure you, Master Robert, that I study the same things as you do!” Elizabeth retorted hotly.

  “What, geography, statecraft, and classics?” Robert asked.

  “Those things and more,” she told him proudly. “And I love every minute of it.”

  “How can you?” he groaned.

  “Shhh,” Henry Brandon hissed. “Dr. Coxe will hear us.”

  “He’s gone for a piss,” smirked Hastings. “Saving your pardon, my lady.”

  Elizabeth smiled. She liked hearing the boys’ earthy chat.

  “But Sister, you are not going to be king of England,” Edward pointed out. “Why should you learn such things when all you will do when you grow up is just get married and have babies, like all girls.”

  “I will not!” cried Elizabeth hotly. “I will never marry!”

  “Oh, yes you will,” the Prince said placidly.

  “Wait and see!” she challenged him.

  “If our father commands it, you will have to obey,” he told her smugly.

  “We’ll see about that!” she said spiritedly.

  “I’d like to see you try to defy him,” Robert said. The boys laughed.

  “He’d cut off your head!” yelled young Henry Brandon, then wondered why a hush had suddenly descended. Fifteen wary pairs of eyes looked uncomfortably at the red-haired girl sitting frowning at the end of the long table.

  “It’s all right,” said Elizabeth, quickly recovering herself. “Hadn’t we better get back to work? I think I can hear Dr. Coxe coming.”

  “Did you mean it, my Lady Elizabeth?” asked Robert Dudley, falling into step with Elizabeth as she set out on a brisk early-morning walk through the woods at Ashridge with Blanche Parry in tow. It was cold, and their breath was misty in the air. It was the last day of her visit.

  “Mean what, Master Robert?” Elizabeth asked.

  “What you said yesterday, about never marrying.” His eyes were unexpectedly sympathetic. “Would you really disobey the King if he ordered you to?”

  “I do mean it,” she said. “I would refuse. My father loves me. He would not force me.”

  Robert looked doubtful. “He might wish to marry you to a great prince or lord, for some good advantage to himself. You could not refuse then.”

  “I would, even if I were promised to the Emperor himself,” she answered vehemently. “I should hate to be married.”

  “My father says it is our duty to marry,” Robert told her. “He said he is arranging all our marriages for policy or profit.”

  “All?” Elizabeth inquired.

  “I have lots of brothers and sisters, some older than me,” Robert explained. “I suppose I too will have to marry someday. But not for ages yet—I am but ten.”

  “Me too,” said Elizabeth.

  “Well, in two years’ time,” he warned her, “you can be married.”

  “Not if I can help it,” she replied stoutly.

  “Why are you so afraid?” Robert asked.

  “I’m not telling you,” she replied.

  “I noticed you were upset when that stupid Henry Brandon joked about the King cutting your head off,” he ventured. “I can guess why. My grandfather was beheaded. My father says all the best families have a traitor among their forebears.”

  “My mother, Queen Anne, was no traitor,” Elizabeth said.

  “Neither was my grandfather,” Robert countered. “But he had made himself unpopular by raising heavy taxes for King Henry the Seventh, and when your father came to the throne, he wanted the people to love him, so he had my grandfather executed. Oh, don’t worry,” he added, seeing her face, “I don’t hold it against you or the King.”

  “I should hope not,” she retorted, and they walked on in silence for a space.

  “It seems we have something in common, then,” Elizabeth said at length.

  “More than that.” Robert smiled. “You like riding.”

  “I love it,” she replied.

  “Shall we ride out together?” he invited.

  “Yes!” she cried gleefully. “Let’s go now!” And she wheeled around and raced back toward the stables, with
Robert in close pursuit.

  CHAPTER 8

  1544

  Life at court was as wonderful and exciting as Elizabeth had dreamed it would be. It was colorful, busy, and noisy, all the things that life in the nursery palaces was not, and most marvelous of all was the privilege of being close to her father. He was the center not only of her universe but of everybody else’s too, massive, powerful, and magnificent. Everything revolved around him, and from him flowed an endless tide of patronage and favor. Elizabeth became used to seeing the hordes of petitioners who were constantly crowding the galleries and state apartments, all of them seeking place or preferment, or just the chance of a word or nod from the King at his daily coming forth in procession to chapel.

  As his daughter, she was herself courted and flattered. The courtiers curried favor with her, bowing and scraping as she passed. She reveled in the heady sense of importance that this gave her, she who, despite her bastard status, had always clung to the belief that she was still an important personage. Yet she was old enough now to sense the darker side of life at court, the insincerity, the vicious intrigues, the backbiting, the tensions and jealousies. And fear too…that was often palpable. How could it not be, when the King’s displeasure could mean imprisonment, ruin, or even death?

  But Elizabeth preferred not to dwell on those aspects, for they unsettled her too greatly. Fortunately, there were many splendid distractions, such as Katherine’s first Christmas as queen, which had been as wonderful as Elizabeth had anticipated, with lavish festivities at Hampton Court and the revels she so enjoyed; and her stepmother had been delighted with the linen coif that Elizabeth had painstakingly embroidered for her.

  In the New Year of 1544, however, the King’s bad leg laid him low.

  “Can I see my father?” she asked Katherine Parr. “I am worrying about his health.”

  “Not just now,” the Queen said distractedly, arranging and rearranging her beloved flowers. “He is not well enough to receive visitors.”

  “Will he get better?” the child inquired anxiously. Katherine recovered herself with an effort.

  “Yes, of course he will,” she replied briskly, displaying more confidence than she felt. “Wait a day or so, and then perhaps you may see him.”

  Katherine was as good as her word, but when, a week later, Elizabeth was at last admitted to the King’s chamber, she was horrified to see him looking so gray and drawn with pain, with his heavily bandaged leg propped up on a footstool. His appearance brought home to her forcefully the possibility of his dying, but she shied away from that unthinkable thought, unwilling even to imagine a world without her father in it. Surely day and night would cease following each other without him here to order everything! He could not die, he must not die! It was impossible.

  Trying not to wrinkle her nose at the sweet stink in the room, she sank into her deepest curtsy.

  “Up, Daughter,” the King said. “I am sorry I have kept you from me. I did not wish you to see me laid so low.”

  He shifted painfully in his chair, wincing as the agony speared through his calf.

  “The bone worked its way through,” he told her, grimacing. “It’s troubled me mightily since I had the cursed misfortune to fall from my horse all those years ago. And to make things worse, those wretched doctors are nagging me to restrict myself to a plain diet. They say I am grown too fat. Would you say that, Bessy?”

  “Never, Sire,” she said. “I would never presume so far.”

  “That’s what I told the knaves, that they presume too far! Hah! You’re a chip off the old block, eh, Bessy!”

  Elizabeth smiled. She loved it when her father called her Bessy and laughed with her. Then she felt sure of his love and filled with a blessed sense of happiness and security.

  “You are not to worry,” he told her. “In a few days I’ll be up and about again, sound as a bell. Now sit on that stool there and tell me what you have been learning lately.”

  “I’ve been studying Cicero,” Elizabeth said proudly.

  “Appetitus rationi pareat—can you translate that?” asked the King.

  “Yes, sir. Let desire be ruled by reason.”

  “It is a good maxim,” he told her, thinking it was one he could with profit have applied to himself in the days when he was pursuing her mother without thought for the consequences of his reckless passion. Oh, but he had been younger then, strong and virile, and had thought himself invincible. Now, he thought sadly, I am a wreck of a man, old before my time. May God preserve me until my little son is grown.

  “Saepe ne utile quidem est scire quid futurum sic,” he recited sadly. Elizabeth looked at him uncertainly.

  “Shall I translate that too, sir?” she ventured.

  “Yes, yes,” he said, managing a smile.

  “Often,” she said, choosing her words with care, “it is not advantageous to know what will be.”

  “Another truism,” the King observed, “and sadly apt too. He had a sound understanding, did Cicero.”

  “There is a saying of his that I especially like,” Elizabeth told him. “It is Semper eadem, always the same. I hope I shall always be that, unvarying in my love and duty to you, Sir, and to the Queen, and to my brother the Prince.”

  “I am glad to see you are such a dutiful child,” Henry said, reaching out his heavily beringed hand and patting her shoulder. “I was very impressed by your gift to the Queen. One day, you must make me a nightcap like it.” His eyes twinkled wickedly.

  “Oh, sir, I did not mean to neglect you!” Elizabeth protested in a fluster. “I merely wished to show my devotion to Her Majesty, who has been so kind to me.”

  “I but jested, Bessy!” Henry was grinning; his narrow blue eyes, sunk in creases of fat, were twinkling. “Of course you did, and I applaud that, for I know how much you hate needlework!”

  There was a tap at the door.

  “Come in, Kate!” the King called.

  The door opened and the Queen entered, carrying a covered silver bowl.

  “Some aleberry, sir, to tempt you,” she said, placing it on the little table by the King’s chair and handing him a small apostle spoon.

  “You are a good wife, Kate.” He smiled, avidly sampling the pudding.

  “What’s that, sir?” Elizabeth asked. The smell was mouthwatering.

  “Have you never had aleberry, Bessy?” the King asked, extending the spoon. “It’s a bread pudding of sorts, with fruit. Try some, here.”

  “It’s delicious,” his daughter said, thrilled to be sharing food in such a homely fashion with her father, who usually ate with great ceremony.

  “Have another spoonful,” the King offered.

  “You should be eating that yourself, sir, to build up your strength,” Katherine said, moving gracefully to the other side of the room, where she smoothed the coverlet on the bed and plumped the pillows.

  “You see how I am ordered about, Bessy,” Henry said ruefully. “Your good stepmother has forgotten who I am.”

  “Oh, but, sir, I never intended…,” Katherine cried.

  “I know, Kate,” he grinned. “Calm yourself, I but jested. Now help me up, I would lie down for a space. Elizabeth, you may finish that pudding.” He handed her the bowl and tried to lever himself out of the chair, gripping the arms to steady himself.

  “It’s no good,” he wheezed, sinking back into it, “I haven’t the strength.”

  “Shall I call your gentlemen, Sire?” the Queen asked, concern in her face.

  “No, Kate, do not trouble them. I will stay here rather than have them see me so weak. Elizabeth, you may go. Press on with Cicero—he will reward you manifoldly.”

  Elizabeth swallowed the last of the aleberry, made her obeisance, and slipped out of the room.

  “I think we will have cause to be proud of that young lady,” Henry told Katherine as the door closed. “We’ll make a doctor of her yet!”

  Katherine smiled and handed him a goblet of wine.

  “And Mary,” he went
on, “she’s conformable enough these days. You’ve done well with her, Kate.”

  “If I may venture to say so, sir, what Mary needs is a husband. If you could ever see your way to finding one for her…She is twenty-eight now, and so longing for marriage and children.”

  Henry frowned.

  “I have been meaning to. There have been discussions, negotiations…I fear that her bastard status is a barrier to a royal match, yet there is no courtier I would favor with her hand at present. But I will bear it in mind.”

  “Your Majesty is, as ever, most careful for your children,” Katherine observed, seating herself on the stool beside him and taking up her needle and thread.

  “I wanted to speak privately with you, Kate,” he said gruffly, and with uncustomary hesitation. “There is to be a new Act of Succession, to take account of our marriage and other things. My councillors thought it advisable.” He did not tell her that they had urged him to make provision for the succession out of fear that the Prince would succumb to a childhood illness, as many children did. They think I will not live long, he thought, although they dare not voice that concern, since predicting the King’s death was now high treason.

  Henry took a deep breath. What he had to say to Kate was humiliating in the extreme for one such as himself to admit to, but it had to be said.

  “The act refers to the possibility of our union being blessed with offspring,” he said. “I wanted to assure you that you need not fear my having any such expectations. I have not been much of a husband to you, and I doubt I will be again.”

  Katherine’s eyes filled with tears. She could easily guess what it had cost him to say that.

  “Of course you will, sir,” she hastened to reassure him. “You are ill and not yourself at all. And if your recovery takes longer than anticipated, well then, I am truly happy and contented as we are.”

 
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