The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “Your mother herself declared her innocence before God at her trial,” Kat went on. “What more can I say? They just made an occasion to get rid of her. Master Cromwell had his reasons, I suppose. But little of it made sense to me. Elizabeth, you must never doubt that your mother was a good woman, nor that she loved you very much. Cherish her memory, child, but learn to dissemble. To speak of her as you did to the King was rash and dangerous, and we are paying the price of it now. But our punishment could have been far worse, remember that.”

  “I will, dear Kat, I promise,” Elizabeth said, feeling greatly cheered. “I will never mention my mother’s name to anyone but you again.”

  “My lady, a messenger has come! He has something for you!”

  When the Queen’s missive arrived, it was high summer and the King, ignoring his infirmity and his bad legs, had gone to Boulogne to fight the French. Elizabeth had been watching out for a messenger for days, and when one cantered into the courtyard at Hatfield and she heard Kat calling her, she pattered down the stairs as fast as she could and grabbed the rolled parchment he handed her with scant ceremony.

  For several long months now, she had languished in exile. Kat had sent good reports of her to the Queen, and had stressed her dutifulness, and Katherine had spoken up for her, but there had come no word from the King, no reprieve.

  Elizabeth felt as if she were pining away; her banishment was becoming unbearable. Without her father’s favor, she could not live.

  I have tried my best, she told herself. I have worked hard at my lessons—Master Grindal told me he’s known no finer scholar—and I’ve tried to behave impeccably. Why is there no word from my father? Does he not love me anymore? Have I forfeited his love forever?

  Her life in the shadow of his displeasure was arid, devoid of comfort. It was like being deprived of the sun.

  Kat had come upon her moping, sitting dejectedly on a window seat and drumming her heels against the wooden paneling.

  “Come now,” she said briskly. “Stop wasting your time. If you’ve nothing to do, find a book.”

  Elizabeth raised plaintive, tragic eyes to her.

  “Don’t look at me!” Kat cried in exasperation. “You brought this on yourself, child. Perhaps it will teach you never to be so rash again as to speak your mind in front of the King. Wiser fools than you have done so and not gotten off so lightly, so be grateful we’re both safe here, instead of in the Tower.”

  “Shouldn’t I write to my father and beg his forgiveness?” Elizabeth asked. “Then perchance he will summon me and all will be well. I do so want all to be well.”

  “Bide your time,” Kat counseled. “Your father is in France and busy with the war. Wait until he returns. He may be in a different frame of mind then, especially if God grants him great victories.”

  But Elizabeth was too sunk in misery to heed such comfort. At length, unable to bear it any longer, she had sat down at her desk and composed a letter to her stepmother, explaining that she dared not write directly to her father, and entreating Katherine to speak once more for her.

  My exile is most painful to me, she wrote. I thank you for all your intercessions on my behalf, and beg you to pray just one more time for His Majesty’s sweet benediction on his humble daughter. She read this over, then added, And tell him I beseech God to send him a good victory over his enemies, and soon, so that Your Highness and I may rejoice in his happy return.

  Now, days later, her fingers were trembling as she unrolled the scrolled parchment that she had received in reply. It bore the Queen’s seal. With Kat at her elbow, Elizabeth scanned the page quickly, hardly daring to hope.

  “He has relented!” she cried ecstatically. “My father has relented, and he has said I may go to Hampton Court to keep the Queen company. I knew the Queen would be my friend. It is she whom I must thank for this, I’m sure of it! Oh, I am so relieved and happy!”

  Kat embraced her, concealing her dismay as best she could. For these few months, fraught as they were, Elizabeth had been entirely hers again. Now, once more, she must share her with that interloper, the Queen—for thus did she regard Katherine Parr. Then again, she could not but rejoice that Elizabeth had been restored to her father’s favor, and that the anxious weeks of exile were over.

  Elizabeth’s return to court was not as joyful as she had anticipated. Katherine greeted her warmly enough with outstretched hands, but her hazel eyes were shadowed with worry. The King had entrusted her with the government of the realm during his absence, and she now found herself faced with a more deadly peril than the French forces that he was confronting.

  “There is plague in London,” she said fearfully. “We must leave Hampton for Enfield, and take the Prince with us, as a matter of urgency.”

  Enfield was a palace Elizabeth knew well, for she had stayed there on several occasions. At least this time she would be in residence with the court.

  While she and Kat were making ready, the Lady Mary came to her chamber. Elizabeth noticed that Mary was holding herself unusually stiff and aloof. After long weeks of separation, she saw subtle changes in her sister that she had not been aware of before. Mary looked older; there were fine lines about her eyes, and she appeared a little faded in her bright finery.

  The sisters embraced.

  “I am pleased to see you back at court,” Mary said. “I trust your banishment has taught you discretion and wisdom.” Her manner was faintly disapproving.

  Elizabeth did not want to discuss the reason for her exile. That matter was best left alone.

  “I hope so, Sister,” she said quietly.

  As Kat left the room, her arms laden with chemises and stockings, Mary seated herself in the only chair. There were things she felt she had to say.

  “I have not been able to forget what you said to the King our father,” she began.

  Elizabeth looked at her, startled.

  “It’s not true that your mother was innocent,” Mary said vehemently, the words tumbling out. “I have no doubt whatsoever that she was guilty as charged. She was a ruthless woman who injured many, myself and my sainted mother included. She was quite capable of playing the King false, I promise you. My advice to you, Sister, is to forget you ever had a mother like that.”

  Elizabeth caught the note of obsessive grievance in Mary’s voice. She knew instinctively that it would be unwise to provoke her further by arguing with her.

  “Forgive me, Sister, but I had heard otherwise,” she said simply.

  “Then you heard wrongly,” Mary retorted. Her voice grew shrill. “She was evil, that woman. She urged the King, again and again, to send me and my mother to the block. She had me sent to wait upon you when you were a baby, and she told those that had charge of me to beat me for the little bastard that I had become. How could you think such a one innocent?”

  “I am very sorry for your afflictions, Sister,” Elizabeth whispered, aware more of the need to be diplomatic than of the desire to defend her mother. “They were not of my making, nor my desire.”

  “How could you think her innocent?” Mary persisted. Her thin lips were pursed with resentment. Elizabeth had never seen her like this, so fervent, so driven.

  “I heard things,” she answered, then grew a touch defiant. “The whole world does not think my mother guilty.”

  “Who said these things to you?” Mary demanded to know.

  “I forget,” Elizabeth said firmly.

  “Oh, you are clever,” Mary cried. “You are like her, you can twist words. But she was not so discreet. The whole world knew of her malice; she did not trouble to hide it.”

  “Sister, I bear you no malice,” Elizabeth hastened to reassure her. “I am ever mindful of your kindness to me.”

  “I daresay, but you are her daughter,” Mary said.

  Elizabeth dared not trust herself to answer. Instead, she moved to the window and stood there looking out, her back to Mary. Suddenly, she realized her sister was sobbing, and when she turned, she saw that Mary had buried h
er face in her hands.

  “Forgive me, Sister!” the older girl cried. “It is unkind of me to visit my hurts on you. You are but a child and have yet to learn from your indiscretions.”

  Elizabeth hastened over and hugged her weeping sister. Her newfound happiness had been too dearly won to be jeopardized by them falling out.

  “It’s all right, Mary,” she soothed. “I forgive you. And believe me, I have learned from my indiscretions. I intended nothing unkind against you, I promise.”

  “We will speak no more of our mothers,” Mary said. “It would be better to let the subject alone, if we are to stay friends. And believe me, I am your friend, and I hope you will be guided by me.” In a rush of affection, she embraced Elizabeth again.

  Kat, returning, stared as she saw them thus. Mary hastily dabbed at her eyes with her kerchief and bade them good day, not wishing to be seen crying by an inferior person. Hurrying toward the sanctuary of her own apartments, she found her mind in turmoil. How could she have been so thoughtlessly cruel to an innocent child? She should not have made Elizabeth the butt of her own inner miseries and frustrations. But was her sister such an innocent as she seemed? Was that disarming candor genuine or feigned? Anne Boleyn, after all, had been a great dissembler, so why should Elizabeth not take after her? And who else might she take after? Was that face, glimpsed in profile as she bent to embrace Mary, similar in feature to both Anne’s and the King’s? Or was it the very image of Mark Smeaton? In Mary’s fevered imagination, stoked over so many bitter years, it was a question unanswerable.

  He was home! Their father was home, in England, to the joyful acclaim of his subjects, for he came in victory, having captured Boulogne.

  “God willing, the days of this kingdom’s greatness are returned, and this triumph will be the first of many,” the Queen said fervently as they waited for the King at Leeds Castle, a short ride from Dover. She well knew what this vanquishment of his ancient rival must mean to the aging King.

  “Amen to that,” Mary replied. “God must surely be smiling upon us, for the plague has safely abated too, which gives us further cause for rejoicing.”

  Dressed in their finest clothes, the King’s daughters were standing behind the Queen and the young Prince beneath the gatehouse arch, watching the colorful cavalcade with its fluttering banners approach. Although he was meant to be on his dignity, in his plumed bonnet and crimson satin robes, Edward, at nearly seven, was practically jumping up and down with excitement, while the Queen, smiling, forbore to restrain him.

  Elizabeth knew that she had Queen Katherine to thank for the fact that she was here at all on this joyful day. What a difference that sweet lady had made to all their lives. But despite her stepmother’s calm and reassuring presence, her heart was fluttering wildly. How would her father receive her?

  And there the King was, dismounting heavily, large and magnificent in his gorgeous clothes, swaggering with success, and enfolding his wife in a bear-like hug.

  “You have done so well, sir!” she cried.

  “I have missed you, Darling!” he muttered thickly, kissing her heartily on the lips. “And you, my children…How well you all look.”

  Edward bowed and Mary and Elizabeth curtsied as their father addressed them.

  “I am delighted to see Your Majesty in such good health,” Mary told him as he raised her. He kissed her on the forehead.

  “You look very well yourself, Daughter,” he told her.

  Then it was Elizabeth’s turn. The moment she had longed for and dreaded had come, and she bent her head low as she knelt before the King. He put one finger under her chin and tilted it upward.

  “And you, Bessy, are you pleased to see your father?” he asked. His expression was unreadable.

  “More than I can ever say, sir,” she answered wholeheartedly. “I am so proud of having such a father. It was a marvelous victory.”

  The King smiled; it was gratifying to bask in the praise of his womenfolk, especially this fiery girl who was so like him. But he was not letting Elizabeth off the hook quite yet. His face resumed its impassive expression.

  “I trust you are now come to your senses,” he murmured.

  “Oh, yes, sir,” she said fervently. “I am so deeply sorry to have offended Your Majesty.”

  “Then we will say no more about it,” he declared magnanimously, and raised and kissed her lovingly. Elizabeth felt a heady sense of relief. He had accepted her back into his special favor, and her cup of happiness was full.

  “My Lady Mary, how enchanting,” smiled Sir Thomas Seymour as they came face-to-face in a gallery. He sketched an elaborate bow and smiled dazzlingly, revealing very white teeth.

  Mary saw his flattery for what it was, but was nonetheless moved by it. He really was so handsome: the dark, mocking eyes, the full lips, the trim beard, the chiseled cheekbones. A very proper man, she thought, tall and muscular. For one dizzying moment, she tried to imagine what it would be like to have such a man make love to her, and failed abysmally, her heart pounding.

  “It is a pleasure to see you back at court, sir,” she replied; to her embarrassment, her cheeks felt hot. The blush did not escape Sir Thomas’s notice. Here’s a virgin ripe for the taking, he thought to himself. Outwardly, he continued to observe the courtesy due to her.

  “I trust Your Grace is in good health,” he continued.

  “I am very well, sir, thank you,” she said, and forced herself to move on. She dared not be seen passing any more than brief pleasantries with this man who had the reputation of being such a rogue with the ladies.

  “How could the Queen ever have loved him?” she asked herself primly, but in her heart, and her stirring body, she knew the answer.

  “Sir Thomas Seymour is returned to court,” Henry said, apparently carelessly, watching for Katherine’s reaction.

  “I trust his tour of duty was successful,” she said, betraying neither by look or gesture that the news meant anything to her. Inside, however, her heart was beating just that little bit faster. She must not think of this man. He was forever forbidden to her. She must love her husband: that was her bounden duty. And she did love Henry, she could say that with truth. It was just that she was not in love with him.

  “He has done well,” the King said, still watching her. “Now we have a fresh task for him. He is to be made Lord High Admiral.”

  Another duty that will keep him away from court, thought Katherine. And from me.

  “I make no doubt he will live up to Your Majesty’s good expectations,” she said aloud.

  Henry nodded, apparently satisfied.

  Sir Thomas Seymour bowed low before the King and Queen, having just received the news of his promotion. It struck Katherine that he looked more dashing than ever.

  “I am greatly honored, Sire,” he declared.

  “Serve us as well on the high seas as you have in the embassy, and you will give us cause to bestow further honors upon you,” Henry said, extending his hand to be kissed and thus intimating that the audience was at an end.

  Now it was Katherine’s turn. The fleeting brush of Thomas’s lips upon her hand was electrifying, but she kept her gaze steady and inclined her head as regally as she could, all too aware of the scrutiny of her husband enthroned by her side.

  “Good luck, Sir Thomas,” she said, wanting to drink him in with her eyes but not daring to look on his beloved face for too long.

  “Your Majesties!” He bowed again, then paced backward from the dais and was gone. In Katherine’s breast, relief mingled with longing. She had thought herself over her lovesickness; now she knew differently, yet she was resolved once more to suppress it and do her duty. And Henry needed her. Since his return from France, he had become an old man; he had attempted too much, and was now paying the price, with his bad legs worse than ever. They stank dreadfully when she replaced the bandages, yet she took care never to recoil or reveal her distaste. Infirmity alone was humiliating enough to Henry, whose prowess in jousting and sports had
once been legendary. But that was hard to believe, looking at him now. Constant pain made him difficult, even dangerous, yet she told herself that his life had not been easy, and reminded herself that he had ever been a kind and loving husband to her. She had not wanted to marry him, had wanted Tom, madly, passionately, but there had been unexpected compensations. Love came in many guises—so much had surprised her. She could never betray Henry, she knew that.

  “This,” said a smiling Master Grindal one day, entering the schoolroom with a pleasant-faced man of about thirty, “is Master Roger Ascham, my former mentor and our greatest Greek scholar.”

  “Oh, Master Ascham! I have heard of your fame,” Elizabeth exclaimed, rising to acknowledge his bow. “You are more than welcome.”

  Roger Ascham looked at her with admiration. So this tall, elegant young lady, with the flame-red hair and earnest, heart-shaped face, was the Princess whose erudition was already highly renowned and celebrated among academics throughout the land and even in the universities.

  “It is truly an honor to meet you, my lady,” he said.

  “Master Ascham has joined the Prince’s teaching staff, to assist Dr. Coxe and Dr. Cheke,” Grindal explained.

  “I have the honor of teaching that noble imp calligraphy,” Ascham added, “but I really came here to see for myself this wondrous paragon of learning. If you would allow me the privilege of looking at some of your excellent work, my lady, it would make me the happiest man alive!”

  Elizabeth found herself basking delightedly in his admiration, and willingly she showed him her Greek and Latin translations, her commentaries on Scripture and the classics, the historical works she was reading, and even samples of her embroidery. Ascham devoured them all with his eyes, appraised them to the minutest detail, quizzed her on her knowledge, then pronounced her the best scholar he had ever met.

  “And may I ask how old you are, my lady?” he inquired.

  “I am eleven,” Elizabeth told him.

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