The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “Then, madam, without reserve, I do declare that you have a formidable—yes, formidable—intelligence way beyond your years. Your mind, it is so—so acute. I have never known a lady with a quicker apprehension or a more retentive memory. You have a masculine power of application. Continue as you have begun, and you will become the equal of men in learning.”

  Elizabeth was ecstatic to hear such praise. She had no false modesty and knew she was a good scholar; Dr. Coxe and Master Grindal had often told her so. But to learn that she was considered to be brilliant, and from someone as celebrated as Master Ascham, fired her with such elation that she could have kissed him.



  The painter was Flemish; Elizabeth had not caught his outlandish name. He had set up his easel in the presence chamber, and she was watching him setting out his charcoal and chalks. Today, he was to draw the Prince’s likeness. The King was present too, come to satisfy himself that his son’s pose was sufficiently regal. He had seated himself on the throne beneath the canopy of estate; behind him, the arms of England were emblazoned on a richly embroidered backdrop.

  “Edward, come and stand by me,” Henry commanded. “Here.” He positioned the seven-year-old boy at his right hand, and himself ruffled up the plumes on his son’s bonnet. “Your hand on your dagger like so,” he instructed.

  “Yes, sir,” Edward replied obediently in his cold, formal way. This was a big day for him, and he was conscious of the need to emulate his august sire in his stance and his royal manner.

  “Now stay like that,” the King ordered, then heaved himself out of his chair and departed to his privy apartments. His son remained very still, gazing straight ahead, as the artist sketched his portrait.

  Mary had explained to Elizabeth and Edward that, when all the likenesses had been taken, the painter would incorporate them into one big picture.

  “It is to be an official state portrait of our father and his heirs,” she announced proudly, “and it will hang in the gallery at Hampton Court.” Elizabeth was thrilled that she herself was to be included—it was now her right, no less, of course—and was looking admiringly at herself in the burnished silver mirror. The new cloth of gold damask looked very well, she thought. Thus attired, no one could doubt her importance, or her royal status. And the red velvet hood and sleeves set it off very nicely…

  “Sister!” Mary sounded exasperated. “Cease your daydreaming. The Queen bade me ask you to attend her briefly before your sitting. You will find her in her privy chamber.”

  Elizabeth sped off as fast as her long court train would permit. She found Katherine seated at a table with a painted wooden jewelry casket open before her.

  “Elizabeth!” She smiled. “I wanted to see you all dressed up for the painter.” She regarded her stepdaughter admiringly. “You look very fine,” she declared as Elizabeth preened. Then Katherine hesitated.

  “There’s another reason for my summoning you,” she said. “I wanted you to have this.”

  She held out a delicate gold chain with something hanging from it. Taking it, Elizabeth saw that it was a finely wrought A.

  “It was your mother’s,” the Queen said. “It is fitting that you should wear it.”

  “But my father the King—”

  “This is between ourselves,” Katherine interrupted firmly. “I found it among the jewels I inherited from my predecessors. I can never wear it, and rightly it ought to go to you.”

  “Madam, I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Elizabeth said, kissing her stepmother. It was what she had always wanted, a proper keepsake of her mother.

  She clasped the chain around her neck, aware that the last flesh that it had probably touched was Anne’s. So absorbed was she in the gift that it took a while to dawn on her that the Queen was not wearing her court finery, just a simple green silk gown with a stand-up collar and jeweled girdle.

  “Is that what you will be wearing in the picture, madam?” she asked in surprise.

  “I am not to be in the picture,” Katherine told her.

  “Not to be in it?” echoed an astonished Elizabeth.

  “No,” the Queen said equably. “It is to be a picture of the Tudor dynasty, with the very likeness of Queen Jane, who bore the King his heir.”

  “But you must be in it!” Elizabeth insisted with passion. “It is unthinkable that you are being left out.”

  “Rest assured, I am content,” Katherine said truthfully. “The King has assured me that no slight is intended, nor would I have imagined any. And that excellent artist, Master John, painted my portrait last year, so there is no need for another one just yet.”

  Elizabeth left the room thinking how strange it would be to see the late Jane Seymour occupying the Queen’s place in the picture, as if she were still alive and had survived to see her son grow up. What power her father had! It was almost as if he were resurrecting his late wife from her grave, and could play tricks with time like a magician or a god!

  Yet when the finished painting was finally displayed, it was not just the image of Jane Seymour that disconcerted Elizabeth and her sister Mary.

  Of course, the King himself dominated the composition, gazing majestically from his throne, one hand on the shoulder of his son, who stood at his knee. Beside them, looking demure on her stool, sat Queen Jane, eerily large as life.

  Edward, unnaturally composed for a child of his years, was looking up at her image. Elizabeth wondered what he made of it. He never spoke of his mother; of course he had never known her, and now he gave no sign of being moved at being brought face-to-face with her picture.

  Mary, however, was frowning. In the painting, the canopy of estate, the throne on its rich Turkey carpet, and the three central figures were placed between two sets of richly ornamented pillars. Beyond the pillars, on either side, stood the King’s daughters. Mary suspected that their father had had them both positioned beyond the pillars to set them apart from the legitimate heir, who occupied the place of honor beside their father, and to remind everyone who looked on the picture that, although the King had restored his daughters to the succession, he still regarded both as base-born: Positioning them outside the magical inner circle proclaimed to the world their bastard status and set them apart from the King and his trueborn heir. To Mary, the symbolism was hurtful and demeaning. Yet to Elizabeth, marveling at the rich detail and the faithful representation of herself in this, the first portrait ever painted of her, it was simply a wonderful picture.

  The King was peering at the panel, well satisfied with the work he had commissioned. Here, at last, was the Tudor dynasty captured for posterity. Then he leaned forward, scrutinizing the figures, until they came to rest on that of his younger daughter. His eyes narrowed.

  Elizabeth held her breath. He had noticed. She had prayed he would not, had hoped that the detail would escape him. She knew she shouldn’t have worn the pendant, but she had felt that doing so would proclaim to the world that she was proud to be Anne Boleyn’s daughter. So she had daringly put it on for the sitting. Afterward, she had immediately regretted the impulse, and had tried to seek out the painter and ask him to alter his sketch. But he had gone away, she knew not where.

  She had seen immediately, to her relief, that the A was not very clearly delineated in the finished picture. Pray God her father would not notice it. She began to tremble.

  But Henry turned and smiled at her.

  “It’s a good likeness, Bessy!” he pronounced.

  Behind him, Queen Katherine’s eyes met hers.

  “His Majesty’s sight is not what it was,” she whispered. “Be grateful for that, you foolish girl!”

  That summer, Elizabeth, who was now nearing twelve and becoming more aware of the interplay between the sexes, began noticing that her beloved governess was spending more and more time with John Astley, a gentleman of the court. She gave it little thought to begin with, but then she realized that Kat’s step was sprightlier, her cheeks rosier, and her manner more
lighthearted on the days when Master Astley came upon them in the gardens, almost as if by chance. These meetings grew more frequent, until Elizabeth began to suspect that he was trailing them on purpose.

  But why? Why should he seek out Kat, who was quite content and getting rather plump? Perhaps it was because they were related, and both cousins to the Boleyns. That would explain it.

  Elizabeth liked John Astley. A warm, hearty man, he always had a very kind word for her, and it was nothing to do with her being the King’s daughter, for she had noticed that he was the same with all children.

  “Hello, my little gillyflower!” he would cry whenever they met, his familiarity belied by a sweeping bow. And with Kat, he was consideration personified.

  “Is it too hot for you here?” he would ask anxiously, should the sun be beating down relentlessly on their chosen bench. “Let me carry those books,” he would insist. “Allow me to get you some cordial; it would be my pleasure,” he might declare.

  Kat basked in all this attention, although she always pretended that Master Astley was really being a bit of a nuisance.

  “It’s him again,” she would say, sighing, as they watched the fellow approaching, predictable as the dawn.

  “Are you in love with Master Astley?” Elizabeth asked when she was alone with Kat. Surely it was not possible—Kat was far too old for such things. Heavens, she was forty-five!

  “The very idea!” cried Kat, blushing furiously. “I like him well, that’s all. And he is going to join your household, to help Master Parry with his accounts.” Thomas Parry, a distant relation of Blanche Parry, was Elizabeth’s cofferer, a rotund, amiable fellow who loved nothing more than exchanging the latest gossip with Kat.

  John Astley had been working with Thomas Parry for no more than a fortnight when Kat sat Elizabeth down in the schoolroom one afternoon and said she had something important to tell her.

  “Although it shouldn’t affect you too much, my lady,” she said. “You see, Master Astley and I are going to be married.”

  “Married?” exclaimed Elizabeth. “But…”

  “I know, you don’t have to say it, my lady—you think I’m too old. Let me tell you, child, no one is ever too old to find happiness. No one ever paid court to me like this when I was young, and now that I have the chance to know true wedded bliss at last, I’m going to seize it with both hands!”

  There was no mistaking the joy in her eyes and her voice. Maybe forty-five wasn’t so old to wed after all, Elizabeth reflected…But then she felt a stab of alarm.

  “I hope this will not mean your ever leaving me,” she said sharply. “I could not countenance it if you were to go away.”

  “Fret not,” Kat soothed, taking her hand. “Master Astley is to assist me and Master Parry in the running of your household.”

  “Oh, I am so relieved!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

  “You know I could never leave you,” Kat declared fervently. “Not even if the King himself were to ask for my hand!”

  That brought on a fit of the giggles in Elizabeth.

  “That is very naughty!” she gasped. “The very idea!”

  Kat chuckled.

  “The King has consented to us marrying in the Chapel Royal, and the chaplain has agreed,” she went on excitedly. “All that remains is for your ladyship to give us your blessing.”

  Elizabeth preened. She liked being reminded of her own importance. And she also liked people being grateful to her.

  “As long as you promise to stay with me, Kat, I will give it,” she said graciously. “And as long as I can be your bride-maid!”

  “Of course!” cried Kat, ebullient with happiness.

  “I shall have to have a new gown,” Elizabeth reminded her.

  “Naturally!” Kat enthused. “And I too—I am the bride after all!”

  They laughed again.

  And that was how Elizabeth, wearing a cream gown sprigged with crimson and green flowers, came to follow Kat to her marriage, to the sound of pipes and shawms merrily announcing the arrival of the bride.



  The time for laughter did not much outlast the New Year of 1546.

  Elizabeth, excitedly looking forward to the festivities at court, had fortunately remembered to make a special present for her father, for which, afterward, she was to be very glad.

  Henry looked at her elegant translations, into Latin, French, and Italian, of the Queen’s soon-to-be-published devotional book, Prayers and Lamentations of a Sinner, and was visibly moved. His daughter had gone to all this trouble for him; she must have spent hours and hours working on this gift.

  “I thank you, Bessy,” he said, his voice thick with emotion, as he raised his faded-blue brimming eyes to hers. Dammit, he was becoming sentimental in his old age, was too easily moved to tears. But then, he was not a well man, he thought peevishly, and was becoming increasingly prone to moments of weakness.

  “Would Your Majesty like to play a game of Primero?” Elizabeth was suggesting eagerly. Her father had aged a lot lately, and looked ill; she hated to see it, and was anxious to cozen him out of his melancholy mood.

  “It lasts a long time,” Mary, standing nearby, said doubtfully, “and might tire our father.”

  “I am tired all the time,” confessed Henry sadly. “I waste so much time sleeping. And time is of all losses the most irrecuperable, for it can never be redeemed. I tell you what, my daughters, I will sleep a little now, and later you shall join me for a game of backgammon.”

  A few days later, the King shut himself up in his rooms, and even the Queen was forbidden to enter.

  “I am glad you are to share lessons with me again, Sister,” Edward said.

  “It’s only for a short time, while Messire Belmaine is in England,” Elizabeth said, seating herself decorously at the table in the schoolroom at Ashridge.

  She was surprised to discover that she was happy to be back at this familiar nursery palace and away from the court. With her father’s health so precarious, the court had become a dreary and threatening place. She had become aware of bad undercurrents, of the various factions jostling for power, eager for the King to make his will and die, like vultures waiting for rich pickings from a corpse. She could not bear to dwell on their ill-suppressed anticipation.

  Edward watched her with interest. He was genuinely pleased to see her; she was lively company, not like their sister Mary, who was forever telling her beads or adjuring him to virtue. As if he needed telling! With vigilant tutors like his, he had no choice but to be virtuous.

  “I hear you correspond with Master Ascham,” Edward said enviously as they waited for the new French tutor to arrive.

  “He has been my mentor for nearly a year now,” Elizabeth told him. “He writes the liveliest letters from Cambridge. When I come again, I will bring some to show you.”

  “It is good to have you here at Ashridge,” Edward said. “How long will you be staying?”

  “Three months,” said Elizabeth, concerned as to what might happen while she was away from the court for so long. But there was no time to dwell on that, for here was Messire Belmaine, bustling into the schoolroom, looking for all the world like a crow in his austere black robes. He greeted them respectfully, then began arranging his books and pens on the table.

  “It was once a monastery, eh, zis house?” the little man asked, looking about him.

  “It was before my father the King dissolved it,” Edward told him.

  “Ah, he is a great man, King Henry,” Belmaine enthused.

  Edward’s tutor, Dr. John Cheke, appeared.

  “Do you have everything you need?” he asked the Frenchman.

  “I could not have asked for a warmer welcome,” Belmaine told him.

  “You must tell the Prince about your travels in Switzerland,” Cheke said. Elizabeth noticed the two men exchanging what appeared to be significant looks.

  “It will be my pleasure,” said Belmaine.

  “You admire
my father, then?” Edward asked him after Cheke had departed.

  “Indeed, my Lord Prince. He is a great reformer of the Church.”

  “Master Cheke is hoping that my father will sanction further reforms,” Edward said.

  “We are all praying for it,” Belmaine said fervently.

  “Tell us about Switzerland, sir,” Elizabeth put in, determined not to be ignored any longer.

  “Ah, Switzerland.” Belmaine sighed. “It is the cradle of true faith.”


  “I met many of God’s elect there, and learned many wise doctrines,” Belmaine went on.

  “Who are God’s elect?” Edward wanted to know.

  “Those whom He has chosen to save.”

  “Surely, if we believe sincerely and follow His word, then we will all be saved,” Elizabeth said. That was what she had been taught and what she firmly believed.

  “Forgive me, madame, but only those souls to whom God extends His mercy can become His elect.”

  “So some people are destined for salvation whatever they do?” she persisted. “That does not make sense to me.”

  “The ways of God are inscrutable,” Belmaine observed.

  “How do you know if you are one of the elect?” Edward asked.

  The tutor thought for a moment.

  “You would perhaps become aware that God was making special efforts to rescue you from the spiritual apathy to which we are all inclined,” he explained.

  “I know God has rescued me,” Edward announced.

  “Brother, how can you know?” Elizabeth asked sharply. “How can any of us know in this life if we will attain Heaven?”

  “I must be one of God’s elect,” Edward persisted, “if I am to succeed my father and lead the English Church.”

  “The English Church is a Catholic Church,” Elizabeth pointed out, “and if I am not mistaken, Messire Belmaine, these doctrines that you preach are those of Jean Calvin of Geneva, are they not?”

  “You know of Master Calvin?” Belmaine asked, impressed.

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