The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  Hertford was nonplussed. If Anne, his wife, were here, she’d put Tom firmly in his place on this matter, but Anne was not here, and he himself hated confrontations or unpleasantness.

  “I regret to say that the late king did not nominate you to the council, Tom,” he said unwillingly.

  “What?” roared Tom. “I’m the new king’s uncle, just as you are, and I have a right to be on it.”

  “I’m afraid all the lords are appointed and the councillors sworn,” Hertford said, arranging his features into an expression of regret.

  “I’ll not take no for an answer!” Tom exploded. “You have no right to exclude me.”

  “The council’s decision is final, Brother, and I cannot change it,” Hertford explained, reining in his own temper.

  Tom clenched his fists and thrust his face close to his brother’s.

  “You think to keep me from power,” he hissed. “This stems from you, for you have ever been jealous of me. Don’t delude yourself, I know who is behind my exclusion. But I warn you, I will have my rightful share in the governing of this kingdom, if I have to resort to murder or treason to do it.”

  “Such vain and misguided threats do your cause no good,” Hertford pointed out, edging backward. “In forming the council, we but followed the wishes of the late King. Blame him for not naming you.”

  “Oh, you are clever, hiding behind Old Harry’s skirts,” spat his brother, grinning nastily. “But you will regret your scheming. I will have the power that is rightfully mine in this land, more than you could ever dream of, and when I do, then beware, Brother. Yours will be the first head to topple.”

  “You are upset, Tom, that’s the only excuse I can make for you,” Hertford said. “In the name of charity, I will forget what you have just said; but I am beginning to see that his late Majesty showed great wisdom in not nominating you to the council. This kingdom needs cooler heads than yours. Think on it.”

  “Oh, you have given me much to think on!” retorted the Admiral.

  “My uncle Thomas is back?” the young King repeated.

  “Yes, Sire, he craves an audience,” Lord Hertford said, “but I have told him you are busy with state affairs.”

  “Let him come in,” the boy commanded.

  “Your Majesty, that would not be wise,” his uncle warned. “He is a foolish fellow, and you do not have time to waste on him.”

  “Am I not the king, Uncle?” Edward piped up resentfully. “May I not decide for myself whom I should receive?”

  “In the fullness of time, Sire,” Hertford said smoothly. “For the moment, Your Majesty, although wise beyond your years, is a child, and reliant on the counsel of those wiser and more experienced than yourself.”

  “I am the king!” snapped Edward, spiritedly.

  “And I, Sire, am at the head of the council appointed by Your Majesty’s late lamented father, King Henry, to govern this realm during your minority. Your father would have wished you to defer to my judgment. I’m afraid I must insist on your cooperation.”

  Edward sulked. Being king wasn’t anywhere near as enjoyable as he had anticipated. He had expected to be such a one as his father, feared and obeyed by all, but now found himself hemmed about with all sorts of rules and restrictions. He must attend to his lessons even more diligently than before; he must not neglect his devotions, but must demonstrate the virtue and piety expected of someone who had been hailed by his subjects as the new David or Samuel; he must hold himself aloof from even his friends and remember who he was; he must not risk his life jousting, since the stability of the kingdom depended on his survival. He must always keep in his mind the image of his august sire, and seek to be like him in every way. Now, it seemed, he could not even grant an audience unless he first obtained the council’s, or rather his Uncle Hertford’s, permission.

  “I will leave you to your books, Sire,” that uncle said now, bowing obsequiously and backing out of the royal presence. Edward scowled.

  The Admiral was angry, but his fertile mind grew busy with plans. Ambition was festering in him, and if he could not make his fortune from court offices or royal patronage, then he was determined to do so by contracting an advantageous marriage. He was well aware that the King’s two unmarried sisters were the most eligible ladies in the land. Marriage to the King’s sister would bring him prestige, power, and wealth, and it would be a smack in the face for that weaselly brother of his.

  But which sister to choose? He didn’t need even to think about it. Mary might be the next heir, but the unlikely prospect of a crown could not compensate for her being a dried-up spinster who was probably desperate to get a man in her bed, and was probably of little use to him there anyway.

  No, it would have to be Elizabeth. She was thirteen now, of marriageable age, and reportedly spirited and pretty, although he hadn’t seen her about the court for some time. He would marry Elizabeth. The prospect of bed sport with such a young bride, the daughter of King Harry by that provocative flirt Anne Boleyn, made his loins quiver.

  But how to approach the matter? Perhaps a letter to the young lady herself, who would surely be flattered by the attentions of so experienced a man? Perhaps he should send it, unsealed, to her governess, with a covering note. That would be more appropriate.

  Kat stared at the letter. Fortunately, she was alone in the chamber she shared with her husband, tidying away their clothes, when the messenger brought it to her.

  She read it again. I beg you to let me know, the Admiral had written to Elizabeth, whether I am to be the most happy or the most miserable of men. The cheek of the man! How dare he presume so far? And what of his onetime pursuit of the Queen, who would be free to marry him once a decent year of mourning had elapsed?

  Yet when you thought about it, the Admiral was a fine specimen of a man, bold, dashing, charming, and daring. Most women would be overjoyed to have him as a husband, even allowing for his vanity and impulsiveness. But Elizabeth was not most women. She was a king’s daughter and her marriage would be a matter of state, sanctioned by the council. Moreover, she had often said she had no wish to marry.

  But he was a most desirable match. Together, he and Elizabeth would make a handsome, spirited pair. He was just the kind of man Kat wanted for Elizabeth. Truth to tell, Kat was a little in love with him herself, had been for a long time. John Astley was a good, kindly husband, there was no denying that, but he had not the power to make Kat’s heart flutter as Sir Thomas did. Of course, Sir Thomas would never look at Kat in that way, she was far too old, but it would be exciting to live in close proximity to such a man. And married to my Lady Elizabeth, he would be living in close proximity, and Kat could worship him from afar, happy in the knowledge that her beloved Elizabeth was enjoying him in reality. Oh, it would be the most desirable match!

  Sighing, Kat sat on her bed, debating whether to show the letter to Elizabeth, or whether to reply herself. In the end, prudence won, and she sat down at her table, pen in hand, and informed the Admiral that, if he wished to press his suit to the Lady Elizabeth, he must first obtain the council’s permission.

  “No,” said Lord Hertford immediately.

  “But why?” blustered the Admiral, surveying the hostile faces of the councillors.

  “Because the Lady Elizabeth is one of the best matches in Europe, as well as a valuable political asset,” his brother explained. “One day, in the not-too-distant future, we will wish to arrange an advantageous marriage for her.”

  “She is of the blood royal and cannot be wasted on a mere knight,” John Dudley, a big bull of a fellow, pointed out, dark brows furrowed. “Even if he is the King’s uncle. You must see that, man.”

  “Forget her, Sir Thomas,” Archbishop Cranmer said smoothly. “There must be many young ladies whose families would be glad of an alliance with the Seymours. You may have your pick, I am sure.”

  The Admiral shot them a withering look and, gathering the remnants of his dignity, bowed and flounced out of the room.

  Eli
zabeth unsealed the letter that Kat had handed her, read it, and stared at the words, torn between outrage at the fellow’s boldness and nervous excitement.

  The messenger, handing over the letter, had told Kat that his master had taken her advice and done as she asked. He did not say whether the council had agreed to the match, but surely, Kat reasoned, Sir Thomas would not be so rash as to approach Elizabeth without that sanction?

  “The Admiral craves my hand in marriage,” Elizabeth said.

  Kat’s heart leapt, yet she forced herself to be cautious.

  “Does he say that the council has approved his suit?” she asked.

  Elizabeth scanned the page again.

  “No.”

  “So are we to assume that it does?” Kat wondered.

  “We may assume what we like,” Elizabeth said, “yet I will not marry him. Neither my age nor my inclination allows me to think of marriage.”

  “But you are thirteen,” Kat pointed out. “Girls younger than you have been happily wed. And the Admiral is such a fine figure of a man, and one of great courage. Will you let this chance slip by?”

  “Yes,” said Elizabeth dogmatically. “I have resolved never to marry. But I will write him a kind letter and put him off by saying that I need at least two years to mourn the death of my father before contemplating marriage. He will not wait that long for me.”

  “My lady, forgive me, but you are a fool!” protested Kat.

  “I would rather be a single fool than a wedded traitor,” Elizabeth retorted. “We have no proof that my lord has obtained the council’s blessing on this match. And anyway, I enjoy my virgin state and intend to keep it.”

  Kat shook her head in frustration.

  “It’s unnatural, this not wanting to marry. All girls want a husband, so why should not you? And if it’s the marriage bed you fear, why, I can assure you, too much fuss is made about that. There’s nothing to worry about.”

  “I have said I do not wish to marry!” Elizabeth flared, her dark eyes blazing with anger. In a temper, she was her father to the life. “Why won’t you believe me? Don’t you think I know my own mind?”

  “You are very young,” Kat rejoined, “and your opinions will change, believe me! Listen to someone who is older and wiser. Marry the Admiral—you will hardly find a more desirable husband.”

  “No,” said Elizabeth, through gritted teeth. This unsettling business had reawakened all her old fears of marriage. She did not think she could ever submit to that state. She did not know why, but the idea filled her with a kind of horror…

  Permit me, my Lord Admiral, to tell you frankly that, though I decline the happiness of becoming your wife at this present time, I shall never cease to interest myself in all that can crown your merit with glory, and shall ever feel the greatest pleasure in being your servant and good friend.

  “God’s blood!” the Admiral roared, crushing the letter into a tight ball. “Am I doomed always to be frustrated in my desires?”

  “What is the matter, my son?” asked old Lady Seymour, come to see what all the shouting betokened.

  “She’s refused me!” her son muttered. “The frigid little minx has refused me.”

  “Which frigid little minx, dear?” his mother inquired.

  “The Lady Elizabeth,” he growled.

  “Well, my son, you should not have looked to have her in the first place,” a surprised Lady Seymour reproved. “She is not for you, and you might have known that she would turn you down. She is a very prudent young lady.”

  She sighed.

  “You were ever the rash one, Tom. Just think things through before you act impulsively. Find yourself a nice noble wife, dear, one with a good dowry, and then settle down. Marriage with a good, steady woman is what you need. And not before time either.”

  “Yes, my Lady Mother,” the Admiral said, sighing and rolling his eyes.

  The servant, a fellow called John Fowler, came to take the King’s plate away.

  “A gift from the Admiral, Sire,” he muttered, pressing a purse of coins into Edward’s hand while keeping an eye on Dr. Cheke, who was seated at the far end of the room marking the boy’s translations. Edward looked up gratefully.

  “That is most kind of my uncle,” he said. “Would that I could do him some service in return.”

  Fowler pretended to think.

  “Sire, I am sure you could,” he said, repeating the words he had rehearsed. “The Lord Admiral says he has heard men marveling that he is not yet married. He himself wishes to marry, as I myself have heard him say many times, but he has not yet found a suitable bride. Would Your Majesty be content for him to marry?”

  “Yes, very well content,” replied the King.

  “Would Your Grace like to suggest a lady?” Fowler asked.

  Flattered at being approached regarding so adult a matter, Edward thought about it for some minutes.

  “How about my Lady Anna of Cleves?” he said at length. “No, wait—I would that the Admiral marry my sister Mary, to change her opinions. It is my wish that she embrace the true Protestant faith, as all loyal subjects are being required to do.”

  “I will convey Your Grace’s recommendation to my master,” Fowler replied, bowing. “He will be grateful for Your Grace’s advice.”

  Edward nodded, feeling magnanimous.

  “No again,” said Hertford, “and for the same reason. Look, Brother, neither of us was born to be a king, nor to marry a king’s daughter. We should both thank God and be satisfied with what we have, and not presume to advance ourselves further. I know for a fact that the Lady Mary herself would never consent to such a marriage.”

  “How do you know?” the Admiral retorted. “Look, all I seek is the council’s approval for this marriage, and then I’ll win her in my own fashion.”

  “Have I not said no?” Hertford almost shouted. “I warn you, do not pursue the matter further.”

  “I see you are no friend to me, Brother,” sneered Tom, “and that you are determined to thwart me at every turn. Well, I’ll see you in Hell before I give in to your malice!”

  “Your Majesty, I have told the Admiral of your wise suggestions as to whom he should marry,” Fowler said carefully, surreptitiously placing another purse of gold coins beside the King’s charger. “But he has said that there is one whom he loves more than the Lady Anna and the Lady Mary. What would Your Majesty say to a marriage between him and the Queen?”

  “I should approve of it,” declared the boy without hesitation. “In time, of course. My dear stepmother is but newly made a widow.” His impassive face betrayed no grief at the memory of his own recent loss.

  “I will tell the Admiral, Sire,” Fowler promised.

  Queen Katherine stood with arms outstretched in the great entrance porch of Chelsea Palace. For all that she was a widow of just six weeks in a somber mourning gown and hood of black satin banded with purple velvet, she looked cheerful enough, and was clearly thrilled to be greeting her stepdaughter.

  “My Lady Elizabeth! How I have missed you!” she cried, enveloping the girl in a soft, sweet-smelling embrace. “And Mrs. Astley, you are most welcome. Do come within.”

  She led the way into the airy red-brick house, through a high-beamed hall with tall oriel windows, and up a grand processional stair to the private apartments, where she showed Elizabeth into a luxuriously appointed suite of rooms adorned with precious tapestries, costly carpets, and fine furniture. Bowls of daffodils stood on the oak tables and chests, and there were bright green velvet curtains at the latticed windows.

  “Mr. and Mrs. Astley are to have the chambers below,” the Queen said. “There is a connecting spiral staircase.” Kat tried to look grateful, but so sick was she with jealousy that she could hardly bear to look at Katherine.

  “Madam, I am so bounden to you for the care you have taken, and for these beautiful rooms,” Elizabeth said delightedly, kissing her stepmother.

  “It is my pleasure,” Katherine told her warmly. “Now I will
leave you to settle in.”

  Alone with her governess in the beautiful apartment, Elizabeth danced for joy.

  “Are we not lucky, Kat? Oh, I feel happy again!” she cried. “Happier than I have been for a long time.”

  Kat struggled to stifle her own feelings.

  “I pray you will stay happy,” she said brightly, resolving to suppress her animosity toward Katherine Parr once and for all.

  Later, at dinner, which was served in the Queen’s privy chamber with only Elizabeth and Lady Herbert, Katherine’s sister, at table, they ate fish in a piquant sauce, followed by Elizabeth’s favorites, candied fruits and custards, and discussed the latest news from court. Elizabeth was thrilled to find herself being treated as a grown-up, allowed to join in the adults’ conversation and offer her opinions.

  “I hear that Lord Hertford has been named Lord Protector,” the Queen said.

  “Or rather, he has made himself Lord Protector,” Lady Herbert put in, helping herself to some salt. “But of course, we should not be referring to him as Lord Hertford now, should we?”

  “I beg your pardon. He has been created Duke of Somerset,” the Queen explained to a puzzled Elizabeth. “Many have been advanced in rank to mark the King’s coronation. John Dudley is now Earl of Warwick, and Sir Thomas Seymour is become Lord Seymour of Sudeley.”

  Her smile wavered momentarily. He had not tried to see her, nor sent any message. She could not suppress her disappointment. But of course, it was early days yet—he would not wish to intrude on her mourning, nor compromise her honor; he was an upright man, clearly capable of great sensitivity. But if she could just set eyes on him again…or receive one word…Her heart was filled with yearning. She had waited so long for him.

  “It is marvelous to see the reformed faith openly embraced at last,” Lady Herbert said. “Do you remember how we hid our English Bible and went in fear of discovery?”

 
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