The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  The King smiled sadly at her and patted her hand.

  “I have never had a wife more agreeable to my heart than you, Kate,” he said quietly. “You are the light of my eyes, the staff of my old age. I and my children have much for which to be grateful to you. And you will doubtless be pleased to hear that, when this new act becomes law, Mary and Elizabeth will be reinstated in the succession after Edward.”

  The Queen’s amiable features lit up with joy.

  “Oh, sir, you can surely understand what this will mean to them both.”

  Henry, basking virtuously in her approval, went on, “I intend the throne to descend to the heirs of my body, and not to the Queen of Scots, my sister Margaret’s granddaughter. Her I mean to marry to Edward, and not all the Scots from Jedburgh to Inverness will stop me. Scotland will be mine, and the Crowns will be united.”

  “Will that not mean war?” Katherine asked.

  “It may,” said Henry grimly. “But let us face that in due course. In the meantime, I intend that my daughters will have the right to succeed me, in turn, after Edward, and after them, the heirs of my sister Mary, the Brandons and the Greys. But it will never come to that. Edward will marry and have children, and I may even find a husband for Mary.”

  He smiled at his wife. “And Elizabeth too, if God spares me that long.”

  “Elizabeth is telling anyone who will listen that she will never marry,” Katherine confided.

  Henry chuckled.

  “Maidenly modesty, eh? Most fitting. She’ll change her mind in a few years when the itch comes upon her!”

  “Sire!” exclaimed his wife, reddening. “For shame! Seriously, my lord, I think she is resolved on the matter.”

  “Well I’ll unresolve her,” laughed the King. “She’s far too young to make up her mind on such a matter. We’ll give her time to grow out of it. Marriage is a woman’s natural state. Just wait until she sees a lusty man she fancies!”

  The Queen smiled.

  “Regarding Your Majesty’s daughters,” she said, “does restoring them to the succession mean that they are to be legitimated?”

  Henry frowned.

  “Nay, Kate. That would open up a nest of vipers, to be sure. They are both the fruit of unlawful unions, and I will not undo what I have already done. Yet I am the King, and if I wanted to put my bonnet on a pole and name it my next heir, I could do it. Thus I can place my bastard daughters in the line of succession.”

  “Your Majesty’s wisdom is, as ever, faultless,” Katherine flattered him.

  Henry leaned back in his chair, satisfied that he had chosen the best possible course.

  “I am to be restored to the succession?” Elizabeth was so speechless with astonishment and delight that she forgot respectfully to address her father by his due title. He had taken the opportunity of breaking the good news to her and Mary at a private supper in the privy chamber, with only the Queen and Archbishop Cranmer present. The tablecloth had been removed, the servants had withdrawn, and they were all partaking of sweet wafers washed down with the spiced wine known as hippocras.

  Mary’s eyes were brimming with tears. Looking at the two sisters, Queen Katherine felt like crying with joy herself.

  “Yes,” the King replied magnanimously, “but only after Edward and his heirs. Then, Mary, it will be you and your heirs, and after you, it will be Elizabeth.”

  “And my heirs, Sire?” Elizabeth asked.

  “Naturally. But rumor has it, young Bessy, that you do not intend to take a husband, so in all likelihood you will have no heirs.” The King winked at her.

  “That is so, sir,” Elizabeth said in all seriousness. She had thought a lot more about marriage lately, now that she was within eighteen months of reaching marriageable age, and even more about its rather alarming crested and cloven aspect, and it still seemed to her that the state of matrimony had no advantages at all, and indeed, much to be said against it.

  “Hmm,” Henry murmured, pulling his beard. “We will see about that in time to come.”

  He was thinking that someday, and that day not too far distant, Elizabeth’s budding charms would wreak havoc among men. She already knew well how to play the coquette, as Anne had, God curse her. Anne…He had been young then, young and in the vigor of his manhood. And she had spurned it. All those wasted years of longing…He pulled himself up. He was married to Kate now, and must forget Anne. He had been trying to forget Anne for years. His good mood dissipated.

  The Queen and the Archbishop were endeavoring to hide their smiles. Mary was preoccupied, trying to digest the momentous news and hardly daring to ask the question that was burning in her mind.

  “Sire,” she began nervously, her voice coming out as a croak. “Does this mean that Your Majesty intends to declare us trueborn?”

  “Alas, I cannot do that, Daughter,” the King answered, “for I was never truly married to your mother, nor to Elizabeth’s, as His Grace of Canterbury here will confirm.”

  Cranmer rose quickly to the occasion.

  “Indeed, Your Highnesses. The marriage to the late Princess Dowager was expressly forbidden by Scripture—Leviticus, chapter eighteen, verse—”

  “Yes, yes, we know all that,” interrupted the King.

  “And as for the Lady Elizabeth’s mother,” Cranmer hurried on, “there was of course the consanguinity caused by Your Majesty’s previous, er, um, relations with her sister.”

  “Indeed,” cut in Henry, embarrassed. “So, my Daughters, you understand the position.”

  “Yes, Sire,” said the sisters in unison, both looking uncomfortable and unhappy, although in Elizabeth’s eye there was a question.

  “Pardon me, sir,” she said, innocently enough, “I thought I had been declared a bastard because my mother, Queen Anne, was executed for treason.”

  As Mary stifled a gasp, Katherine’s face registered dismay, and Cranmer looked as if he would rather be anywhere else. No one, these eight long years, had ever dared mention Anne Boleyn’s name, still less her beheading, to the King.

  Henry rested his steely gaze on his younger daughter.

  “Did you indeed, Elizabeth? Did no one ever explain otherwise to you?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Well, someone has been greatly remiss,” he observed darkly. “You should know that my union with your mother was no true marriage. It was dissolved before her death. That is why you were declared baseborn.”

  “But if my mother had not committed treason, sir, surely you would have stayed married to her?” Elizabeth inquired with precocious insight. She knew she was venturing into a quagmire, but for the sake of her mother’s memory, and the injustice that she was sure had been done her, she felt compelled to pursue the matter. And her father had answered her question, after his fashion.

  “Enough!” Henry banged his fist on the table and everyone jumped.

  “Your mother was a traitor,” he snarled. “She betrayed me with five men, one her own brother, do you hear me? And she plotted my death! Would you still have had me stay married to her?”

  “Sir,” ventured the Queen nervously, clutching his sleeve, “the child is distressed…” Shocked tears were spurting from Elizabeth’s eyes.

  “As well she might be,” he roared, “having a mother like that!”

  “She was not like that!” cried Elizabeth, goaded beyond circumspection.

  Henry stopped raging and stared at her. Mary got up suddenly, curtsied, and ran softly from the room, almost weeping. The Archbishop’s hands were clasped as if in prayer, his head bent. Katherine looked at Elizabeth in distress. The girl’s face was white, her cheeks wet.

  “What did you say?” the King asked quietly. His tone was menacing.

  “Sir, I know my mother was innocent,” Elizabeth faltered.

  “And who told you that?”

  “I heard it from several people…servants…ladies,” Elizabeth lied, hoping fervently that her father would not guess it had been Kat.

  “Then you heard w
rongly,” the King barked decisively. His blue eyes were ice-cold, but Elizabeth pressed dangerously on.

  “I’ve heard it said that Master Cromwell took occasion to get rid of her, sir, and that he made such a good case that you had to believe it.” At least that sounded diplomatic.

  “This is arrant nonsense,” Henry growled. “Was I a puppet, to be manipulated by others? That woman was as guilty as sin. I knew her well, never forget it.”

  “I cannot believe it! She was innocent!” Elizabeth wailed, bursting afresh into noisy tears. Katherine made to go to her, but the King’s firm hand on her shoulder kept her in her place.

  “Then you must have leisure in which to think on the matter,” he decreed ominously. “You will be banished from court for your impudence. You will go to Hatfield tomorrow, with Mistress Champernowne, and you will not be allowed to return until you have arrived at proper regard for the truth. Do you understand?”

  Elizabeth was weeping copiously, her body racked with shuddering sobs.

  “Do you hear me?” her father thundered.

  “Yes, sir,” she mumbled.

  “Now go!” he commanded. She fled from the chamber.

  “My lord,” Katherine ventured later that night, when they were alone and seated before the fire in their bedchamber. “Forgive me for interfering, but might I speak up for the Lady Elizabeth?”

  Henry grunted, glowering. He was still angry, and had called a halt to the supper party as soon as Elizabeth had left. The Archbishop had made his grateful farewells, and the Queen had then steadied her nerves by drinking a large goblet of Rhenish. The King was sipping his in silence, staring broodingly at the leaping flames.

  “I cannot think what you can say in her defense, Kate,” he huffed. “She dared to contradict me, and to question my justice.”

  “Sire, may I be candid with you?” Katherine pleaded.

  “Well?” the King asked petulantly. “Speak; out with it.”

  Katherine took a deep breath. “She is a child, Sire, and it must be difficult for her, coming to terms with what happened to her mother, however just it was. She has listened to servants’ gossip and taken it for the truth. You cannot blame her for wanting to believe the best of her mother.”

  “Ah, but Kate, if she believes the best of her mother, then she has to believe the worst of me, her father. Believe me, I was justified—”

  “Of course you were, Sire, the whole world knows that. Yet she wants to think that you were misled, but that you acted in good faith.”

  Henry regarded his wife through narrowed eyes.

  “Are you saying she believes me a fool, Kate?”

  “Nay, Sire, Heaven forbid. As you said, you knew her mother well. Obviously, the charges were entirely credible.”

  “Now you go too far, Kate,” the King accused her, scowling. “A sorry thing it is when my daughter and my wife accuse me of sending an innocent woman to the block. I tell you, she was guilty. And yet you dare to question my justice!”

  “Never, Sire!” cried Katherine. “I did not say I believed her innocent, only that a ten-year-old child believes it. And I pray you to consider her youth, and the fact that it is her mother of whom we speak.”

  “Nevertheless, she must learn her lesson,” stated the King harshly. “And there’s an end to the matter.”

  Katherine looked crestfallen. She sank into her chair and toyed with her empty goblet, thinking she might do well to refill it.

  “You mean to be kind, Kate.” Henry’s voice was gentler now. “But you meddle in matters that do not concern you. Oh, come,” he said wearily, seeing her face, “you are a kind and gentle soul, darling, I know that. Ever the peacemaker. I tell you, it will not harm Elizabeth to cool her heels at Hatfield for a space and reflect upon her outrageous behavior. I may be her father, but she must learn how to address her sovereign, and never to gainsay or question him.”

  “Yes, Sire.” Katherine smiled weakly and reached for the decanter.

  Elizabeth was being jolted along the frosty road that led to Hatfield, a mournful Kat at her side.

  “I do wish the King had given us more time to prepare for this,” Kat had moaned as she bustled about Elizabeth’s apartment, chivvying the maids to pack and look sharp about it. “I’ve all your gear to pack, the house won’t have been aired, and I’ll wager it’ll be freezing, as the fires can’t have been lit for weeks.”

  Elizabeth was too sunk in misery to care. Banished from court, banished…The dread words were beating a pattern in her head. She barely noticed the freezing draft that flapped the leather curtains of the litter. She could not forget what the King had said, and not only his harsh words banishing her from court. He had been adamant about her mother’s guilt, and worse still, he had accused Anne of betraying him with five men—and one of them, shockingly, her own brother. She had not known about that, had in fact assumed that Anne had had only one alleged partner in crime. But her own brother? Could it be true? She felt sick at the thought. Surely it was very, very wrong to do that act with one’s brother? It was bad enough doing it with four other men. Had Anne been that wicked? Her father had been adamant about her guilt.

  It seemed as if her carefully nurtured image of her wronged mother was about to crumple like a house of cards. That was more than she could bear, and suddenly, she found she could contain herself no longer.

  “Kat,” she said, turning a tragic face to her governess. “The King—he said my mother betrayed him with five men, and that one was her own brother.” Her voice trailed off…She could say no more, or she would lose control of herself.

  Kat could see the despair and misery in Elizabeth’s eyes. All she had known up till now was that her charge had offended the King and been ordered to Hatfield in disgrace; a regretful Lord Hertford had been sent to confirm it. More than this Kat had been unable to extract from a tightlipped Elizabeth, and there had been no time to seek out the Queen, even if she had wanted to.

  But now things were beginning to be clearer. She curled a consoling arm around the girl’s thin shoulders.

  “Comfort yourself, child. That is what was alleged against your mother. But as I have told you, I firmly believe that was not the truth of it.”

  “Which is what I told my father,” Elizabeth cried.

  “You did what?” Kat was horrified.

  “I said she was innocent,” Elizabeth explained. “I did not say you had told me. He asked where I had heard it, and I said I’d heard the servants gossiping.”

  Kat slumped in her seat. Her heart was pounding fit to burst, and her whole body was atremble.

  “Dear Lord, I would get into terrible trouble if the King found out I had told you your mother was innocent,” she gasped.

  “I know that,” Elizabeth protested. “I took care to protect you. He did not press me further, so I am sure you are safe. But I must know what happened, Kat. I must.”

  “Very well, but you must never repeat what I am about to say,” Kat warned. “Unless you want a new governess, that is.” She was not jesting.

  “I promise I will not,” Elizabeth vowed.

  Kat relaxed a little.

  “Your mother was accused with five men, so much is true,” she began, “and one was her brother, Lord Rochford. It was his own wife who laid evidence against him. He had never loved her, and she was vilely jealous of his natural affection for his sister. My belief is that she did it out of spite, after Master Cromwell offered her a bribe. Certainly, she was looked after very generously when it was all over. All the other accused men except one were gentlemen of the King’s Privy Chamber; the fifth man was Mark Smeaton, a musician of the court. That caused a huge scandal, I can tell you. People were wondering how the Queen could have stooped so low, but of course, she hardly knew him, and anyway, she was too proud to have thus demeaned herself. Believe me, I spoke to those who knew her.”

  “So you think Lady Rochford lied?” Elizabeth asked, praying there would be no room for doubt.

  “Indeed I do,??
? said Kat grimly. “A nasty woman she was. She abetted Katherine Howard in her crimes, and was executed for her pains.”

  “Executed?” echoed a startled Elizabeth.

  “Aye, just after her poor young mistress. Lady Rochford had gone mad under questioning, and so the King had to pass a special Act of Parliament allowing him to execute lunatics. But they say she was sane enough when she went to the scaffold. I say she got what she richly deserved for having borne false witness against her poor husband and your mother.”

  “Was there not a great scandal about that too?” Elizabeth wanted to know. “I mean, the thing that Lady Rochford accused my mother of.” She could not bring herself to describe it.

  “Well, some people pretended to be shocked, but I think most just found it hard to believe. It was as if Master Cromwell was grasping at anything he could think of to get rid of Queen Anne. As for that charge of plotting to kill the King, well, that was utter nonsense. She was—how do I say this?—not popular, and without the King to protect her, her enemies at court would have tried to bring her down. So why should she wish to do away with her protector? It would have been folly, and she was no fool.”

  “So you think she was innocent of all the accusations?” Elizabeth urged.

  “I do, my lady, I do,” Kat declared. “Four of the accused men protested her innocence, and theirs, to the end. Only Mark Smeaton confessed, but that was under torture, I’m sure.”

  “Torture?” Elizabeth exclaimed, with a shudder. She knew what torture was.

  Kat paused. Elizabeth was still quite young. Was she ready to hear the brutal details of what was believed to have happened in Master Cromwell’s house?

  “Master Cromwell had him put to the torture,” she said carefully. “They say the pain was so great that he would have said anything to stop it.”

  “What did they do?” Elizabeth was wide-eyed with horror.

  “They tied a knotted rope around his eyes and kept twisting it,” Kat told her, hoping that this would not prove too much for her charge to stomach.

  “Oh, the poor wretch,” Elizabeth said, feeling a little sick. “No wonder he talked. I would have talked.”

 
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