The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

“My tutor has told me something of his teachings,” Elizabeth revealed. “But I should warn you, sir, that they are considered heresy in this kingdom, and I therefore counsel you to beware your tongue.”

  “Sweet Sister, neither you nor I would report this gentleman for heresy,” Edward protested. “I was enjoying our debate. These ideas have an appeal for me.”

  “I too found the debate interesting,” said Elizabeth, “but it would be wiser to leave the matter alone. This is not Switzerland.”

  “I thank you for your wisdom, madame,” Belmaine said smoothly. “Now shall we proceed to the lesson? I am come to improve your French, and I think we should begin with a little conversation—about the weather, as that is what you like to talk about in England, other subjects being, er, forbidden, eh?” His smile was mischievous.

  The summer months passed quickly, bringing with them no ominous tidings, and soon it was time for Elizabeth to return to court and Edward to move to Hertford. Kat, who had enjoyed their peaceful stay at Ashridge, was downcast as she packed their gear. She did not want to go back to court. During the three years since the King had married Katherine Parr, Kat’s jealousy of the Queen had not abated.

  Edward was downcast too; he had grown used to his sister’s company and enjoyed the healthy competitiveness between them. When she came face-to-face with him at the great doorway on the morning of her departure, he looked so mournful that, abandoning protocol, she bent down and kissed his cheek.

  Struggling to control the tears that he would rather die than let fall, Edward took her hand.

  “I hate leaving this house where we have been so happy, dearest Sister,” he told her. “Write to me, please. Nothing could be more pleasing to me than a letter from you. And my Chamberlain tells me that, if this land remains free from plague, I may visit you at court.”

  “That would be wonderful,” Elizabeth said. “And I will write, I promise. Farewell, dear Brother. God keep you.”

  When Elizabeth arrived at Whitehall Palace, she was received at once by the Queen, who looked pale and drawn, she thought. And there was a subdued atmosphere in Katherine Parr’s apartments, as if her ladies were treading carefully, afraid to make a noise.

  “I have so missed you, madam,” Elizabeth said as she rose from her curtsy.

  “Believe me, I have missed you too, Elizabeth,” Katherine said. Her hazel eyes were weary, as if she had not slept, and she had lost weight: The crimson damask gown hung loosely. “I cannot tell you how glad I am to see you.”

  Something was wrong, Elizabeth guessed.

  “Are you well, madam?” she inquired.

  “Very well,” replied Katherine firmly, though her voice had a brittle edge to it. Clearly, she was not going to enlarge, but Elizabeth was determined to find out the truth.

  She sought out her cousin, Lady Jane Grey, who was being educated at court under the Queen’s auspices. Jane, a plain child with red hair and freckles, was only eight, and being therefore much younger than herself, would not normally have merited much of Elizabeth’s attention, but she was a formidably bright and observant little girl and might well know what had been going on.

  Elizabeth came upon Jane in the privy garden, where the Queen’s ladies were taking the air.

  “Come walk with me, Cousin,” she commanded. Jane fell obediently into step, for she was greatly in awe of Elizabeth, and soon they were out of earshot. Their talk, to begin with, was of lessons and family matters, but Elizabeth soon came to the point.

  “Is the Queen unwell?” she asked. “She does not look herself.”

  Jane looked furtively about her. Her solemn little face was troubled.

  “Bad things have been happening here, but all is better now,” she said mysteriously.

  “What has happened?” Elizabeth asked.

  “Did you hear of the burning of the Protestant heretic, Anne Askew?” Jane asked in a low voice.

  Elizabeth nodded, shuddering.

  “Well, the Queen’s enemies tried to accuse her of heresy too, and say that she and her ladies had been friends to Mistress Askew.”

  Jane looked about her fearfully. No one was nearby: the women were laughing and strumming their lutes some way off.

  “Please don’t repeat this, my Lady Elizabeth. You see, the Queen had offended the King—she argued with him about religion. I was there, and I heard it. She told him what his duty was…”

  Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up. She could not imagine anyone daring to instruct her father in religion, still less getting away with it.

  “Yes, it was foolish of her,” Jane said, registering her cousin’s expression. “But I think she got carried away by her opinions. And Bishop Gardiner heard her. He complained about her to the King. The next thing we knew, the soldiers came and searched her apartments.”

  “Searched for what?” Elizabeth asked.

  “Books,” Jane murmured, looking fearful. “Forbidden books.”

  “Oh, no! I trust they did not find anything?” Elizabeth was horrified. That anyone could have suspected dear Queen Katherine of heresy was unthinkable…The consequences might have been horrific. Her world rocked.

  “They found nothing.” Jane took a deep breath. “I think she had had some books, but she’d gotten rid of them when Anne Askew was put in the Tower. They tortured Anne Askew, you know, to make her talk. My mother said they wanted her to name the Queen.”

  “They?”

  “Lord Chancellor Wriothesley and Sir Richard Rich.”

  Elizabeth knew them both. They were of the Catholic party with Bishop Gardiner. And she had heard how the Lord Chancellor himself had turned the rack after the hangman had said enough was enough.

  “But she did not betray the Queen,” Jane was saying.

  “Was there anything to betray?” Elizabeth asked sharply.

  Jane looked at her and nodded, barely perceptibly.

  “I think so,” she whispered. “Promise you will never tell, but I think the Queen is a secret Protestant!”

  Elizabeth was only faintly surprised. Katherine, normally so discreet, had given herself away by a word here, a hint there.

  “So they couldn’t prove anything against her,” Jane went on, “but they persuaded the King to sign a warrant for her arrest anyway.”

  Elizabeth was shocked. They had tried to bring down the Queen! She had been unaware that she had come perilously near to losing yet another stepmother, and in the most dreadful manner: The penalty for heresy was death by burning.

  Jane suddenly became animated.

  “But then, one of the King’s councillors dropped the arrest warrant in a corridor, and I found it!” she said triumphantly.

  “You found it?”

  “Yes. Wasn’t that lucky? I didn’t know what to do with it, so I took it to the Queen.”

  “And what happened?” Elizabeth was desperate to know.

  Jane shivered at the memory.

  “She just started crying and screaming! We were all terrified, as she wouldn’t stop. You could have heard her all over the palace. The King heard her, and he came and asked what was wrong.”

  “What did he say?” Elizabeth interrupted.

  “Well, the Queen said she feared she had displeased him by arguing with him. She said she had done it to take his mind off the pain from his bad leg, and because she had hoped to profit by his wisdom. And he said, ‘Is that so, Sweetheart? Then we are perfect friends again.’”

  Elizabeth was living the moment with her cousin, imagining Katherine’s terror and fear, and her relief at being happily reunited with the King.

  “The next day,” Jane went on, “the Queen was feeling much better, and the King invited us all to sit with him in the garden. There we were very merry, as if nothing had happened, and then the Lord Chancellor suddenly appeared, with a lot of soldiers. We all thought that the Queen was going to be arrested after all, and I was so frightened. But the King got up and shouted at the Lord Chancellor, calling him a beast and a fool. The Chancellor just ran
away, and the soldiers ran after him. We all ended up laughing, but it wasn’t really very funny, not to begin with.”

  “My father himself must have signed the arrest warrant,” Elizabeth reflected, almost to herself. “But surely he would never have gone so far as to have the Queen arraigned for heresy. He loves her. I’ve heard him say he has never had a wife more agreeable to his heart. But she was lucky, being able to see him and plead her case.” Unlike poor Katherine Howard, she thought, or her own mother. If they had been allowed to defend themselves to the King, would they have been alive today? She pushed the thought away.

  “I am sure my father loves the Queen too well to let her die a horrible death,” Elizabeth continued, with more confidence than she felt; after all, the King had beheaded two wives already. “I’m sure he did it to test her. I cannot believe he meant to destroy her.”

  “I thank God she is still here,” said Jane fervently. “She has been most kind to me.”

  “And to me too,” said Elizabeth. “I am grateful to you for telling me this. I promise I will repeat it to no one. And now we should join the others.”

  Elizabeth and Katherine Parr were strolling through the privy garden that sloped down to the banks of the Thames. Behind them, the great red-brick palace of Hampton Court glowed in the mellow light of the late-afternoon sun. Their attendants trailed some way behind them, throwing balls to their little dogs amid much laughter.

  “The King is too ill to take the air today,” Katherine confided. “He is resting in his chamber. The reception for the French Admiral was too much for him, I’m afraid.”

  “Is my father going to die?” Elizabeth asked suddenly, her eyes full of fear.

  “We are all going to die someday,” the Queen said, “and you know we may not predict the King’s death. But I am very worried about his health, and I know he is too, for he has talked about the councillors he will appoint to rule in the event of a minority, as the Prince is only a child—but keep that to yourself, I beg of you. They are all new men, men he has raised up: Edward Seymour, Lord Hertford; Archbishop Cranmer; John Dudley, Viscount Lisle…” She reeled off a list.

  “None of them are of the Catholic faction,” Elizabeth observed, surprised.

  “You are perceptive for your years,” the Queen said approvingly. “Indeed, they are all men who wish to see the Church of England reformed. Some”—she hesitated—“would go farther…”

  “You mean they would have us all turn Protestant?” Elizabeth asked, in some amazement.

  “I wonder, would that be such a bad thing?” Katherine murmured, lowering her voice. “It may even be that His Majesty, in his wisdom, foresees it happening one day.”

  “But he has burned Protestant heretics!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

  “And he has burned Catholics too, for acknowledging the Pope,” her stepmother reminded her. “Bishop Gardiner’s Catholic party is out of favor now, and the Reformists at court, led by Lord Hertford, have the King’s ear. Hence his choice of men for the Regency Council.”

  The Queen led the way along the paved walk by the bowling alley. “For many people, I suspect, the new religion has become the path to salvation,” she said quietly. “Is it right that men should worship the graven idols of saints, or need intercessors to reach the ear of Our Lord? And is it credible that, in the Mass, a miracle takes place? We must be justified, and achieve salvation, through faith alone.”

  “That is what Master Grindal says, and Master Ascham,” Elizabeth said slowly. “I believe it myself, and I am not very surprised to hear you say it too, madam. But I have known for some time that such opinions are heretical, so I have kept mine to myself. I often wonder why it is that there are so many disputes over how mankind can achieve salvation. Surely each person should discover that for himself, through reading the Scriptures.”

  “Ah, Elizabeth, you are just thirteen and an innocent,” the Queen observed. “In this world, you must be one thing or the other; you cannot pick and choose each tenet of your faith.”

  “Ah, but how do we know which is the right path?” Elizabeth cried. “Maybe my father, in his wisdom, can see which way the tide is turning, or can envisage a golden age in which each must be free to abide by his conscience.”

  Katherine shook her head.

  “Such tolerance would endanger our immortal souls,” she said gravely. “There can be only one right path to salvation.”

  “But we all worship the same God!” Elizabeth declared, whirling around to face her stepmother. “Does it matter how? So long as we live godly lives and keep the commandments, the details are immaterial.”

  “So immaterial that men and women are prepared to burn for them,” Katherine murmured drily. “Never forget it. Tolerance is not a word in their vocabulary, nor indeed in mine, nor in any right-thinking Christian’s. Elizabeth, heed me: The saving of your soul must be the central issue of your life. Do not allow yourself to fall into error in the name of tolerance. There can be only one way to Christ. Think about it.”

  “I will, madam,” Elizabeth declared, slipping her arm through the Queen’s. “I am happy to be guided by you. But let us talk further when we are in private, for I hear the others catching up.” She bent, picked up a ball, and threw it.

  Elizabeth, dressed in her riding habit, was seated on her palfrey next to Mary, watching their father attempt to mount his horse. Even with the riding block raised, it was a wearisome and painful business for him.

  “God’s blood!” he roared. “Once upon a time I could leap into the saddle. Now it’s all I can do to get my foot in the stirrup.” He gritted his teeth and tried again. His daughters looked at each other anxiously. The Queen, already mounted and trying to calm her restive steed, looked distressed.

  “He should never have attempted this hunting progress,” Mary whispered. “He is not well.”

  “He dare not give up,” Elizabeth observed.

  Mary was struck by her insight. “No, you speak truth. I suppose he fears that if he gives in to his infirmity, he might as well take to his bed and never rise from it again.”

  “Don’t say that,” said Elizabeth sharply. Mary pursed her mouth. She too was afraid; what would the world be like when their father was no more?

  The King was at last seated in the saddle, and his small riding household were themselves mounting their horses. Then the cavalcade set off, leaving behind the cozy little manor house at Chobham for Guildford, where they were to lodge the next night in the former Dominican friary, which the King had recently had converted into a handsome royal lodging.

  But their progress was slow, and riding behind her father, Elizabeth could see why, for it was obvious that every jolt of his steed was agony to him. She was not surprised, therefore, when on their arrival at Guildford, Mary came to her and told her that the progress was being abandoned.

  “We are to retire to Windsor Castle,” she said, “so that our father can rest. They are saying he has a cold, but I don’t believe it.”

  “Can I see him?” Elizabeth asked anxiously.

  “No one is allowed near him,” Mary told her. “I begged the Queen, but even she has been barred from his chamber by the doctors.”

  Elizabeth stared at her.

  “Then he must be very ill,” she whispered.

  “We must pray for him,” Mary replied. “Come, Sister, come with me to the chapel.”

  Together, they knelt at the altar rails, where once the Black Friars had celebrated Mass. Mary raised her eyes in rapturous beseeching to the impassive image of the Virgin that adorned the altar, and Elizabeth tried hard to pray as devoutly as her sister, but disturbing images kept intruding. She kept thinking of her magnificent father, now ill, in pain and helpless in his bed and at the mercy of the royal physicians, whose cures were often revolting and painful, and rarely successful. She thought too of the waiting nobles, the ambitious Reformists, hungry for power, men who would rejoice in the King’s demise. The notion brought hot tears to her eyes, and she buried her face
in her hands to conceal the fact that she was weeping.

  Henry knew very well, although no one had dared tell him, that his days were numbered. No fool, he was aware that the remedies his physicians prescribed were useless, and that they could no longer do anything to delay the inevitable. He was not afraid, in fact he was content to go: So much that had been pleasurable in his life was now beyond his capacity, and that he could not bear. What mattered was that Edward’s succession should be a smooth one, and that the wily Hertford should not set himself above the other members appointed by the King to the regency council. Power, he was determined, must be shared among them. As for their religious persuasions, again, he was no fool. He knew which way the tide of opinion was flowing. Well, let them have their heads, these reformers. He would not be here to see it.

  There was a soft knock. The Queen put her head around the door.

  “How are you feeling, my lord? Can I get you anything?”

  He managed a weak smile. She was a good woman, and he had not been much of a husband to her. Doubtless after he had left this world she would marry Tom Seymour. Well, good luck to her. She deserved a proper man in her bed: He himself could not have had a more devoted wife or nurse, but that had been—mostly—all that had been between them. Although he was damned if he was going to allow that rogue Seymour to be anywhere near the regency council.

  “A cup of wine, if you please, Kate,” he said, content just to watch her moving about the room, doing his bidding. She looked very trim in her crimson gown. She thought he knew nothing of her secret conversion to the Lutheran faith, he reflected. Well, let her be. Let them all be. Kate, Hertford, Archbishop Cranmer, John Dudley, Coxe, Cheke, Ascham…heretics all. They would do well under the new regime. But not yet…not yet.

  “It’s going to be a sorry Christmas, Kate,” he said, taking the cup from her. “There’ll not be many disports for you and my children, with me lying here and everyone tiptoeing around as if I’ve died already.”

  Katherine winced.

  “Nay, Sweetheart, I but jested,” Henry assured her, then sighed. “I’ve a mind to close the court to visitors. There’ll be no revelry this year.”

 
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