The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “Do not remind me.” Katherine shuddered. “I nearly died for it. Elizabeth, are you happy that England is now a Protestant kingdom?”

  “I am happy, madam.” Elizabeth’s smile was genuine. “For me, it is the true road to salvation, the way in which I, all unwittingly to begin with, was brought up. But I fear the outlawing of the Catholic Mass will cause great grief to my sister Mary.” She was thinking that it had been long since she had seen Mary.

  “The Lady Mary must conform like everyone else,” said Lady Herbert sharply. “She cannot gainsay the King’s will.”

  “She is very devout,” Elizabeth pointed out.

  “But misguided,” the Queen added, folding her napkin. “In truth, I feel sorry for her, even though I know she must be made to see that she is in error.”

  “The council might let her alone,” Elizabeth wondered. “After all, she can do little harm by practicing her faith in private.”

  “Never underestimate her,” Katherine warned. “She has the friendship of the Emperor, her cousin, and he is the champion of the Catholic faith in Europe. He is a mighty prince, and if he so wished, he could lead an army into England and force us to accept the Roman faith. Fortunately, he is much occupied with driving back the Turks from his dominions.”

  “I do not think my sister would wish to invite any foreign invader into this kingdom,” Elizabeth said. “She is too loyal to the King our brother, and loves him very much. And anyway, all she really wants is a husband and children. She is not interested in politics.”

  “She may have to be,” Lady Herbert said. “I doubt they will let her continue to have her Mass. After all, it will soon be illegal.”

  “We must pray for her,” Katherine said. “And now, since we are all finished, perhaps a little music before we retire. Elizabeth, will you play your lute for us?”

  It was a Friday evening in May, and after an unusually cold spring, Elizabeth and Kat were basking in the first warm weather of the year, sitting under a cherry tree and sunning themselves in the beautiful gardens that swept down to the Thames. Elizabeth had laid aside her book, Sir Thomas Elyot’s A Defence of Good Women, which, for all its appeal, made for rather dry reading on such a glorious day. Her hood lay beside her on the grass, and she was wondering whether to waken the softly snoring Kat when she espied the Queen leaving the house and hurrying in the opposite direction between the railed flower beds before disappearing behind one of the lush privet hedges that bisected the gardens. There was that in Katherine’s determined step which told Elizabeth that she was embarked upon something rather important.

  She thought no more of it until three nights later when, having undressed for bed and doused her candle, she stood gazing out of her window at the night sky, recalling things her father had told her, long ago, about the stars. There were many of them visible tonight, and the moon was almost full. Elizabeth opened the casement and sniffed the fresh, scented air, breathing it in sensuously.

  Then suddenly, there was the Queen, below her on the path, walking purposefully in the same direction she had taken three days earlier. Even more startling was the fact that Katherine had put off her mourning gown and was wearing a becoming one of a lighter shade—indeterminate in the moonlight—with a very low, square neckline.

  Within seconds, she had disappeared from sight, but Elizabeth stayed at her window, watching. Her vigilance was soon rewarded, for the Queen did not tarry wherever she had gone, but quickly emerged from the trees in company with what was unmistakably a man. A tall man with a confident gait. They were talking in lowered tones, and even laughing in a hushed way as they approached the house. Elizabeth, astonished, recognized Thomas Seymour, the new Lord Sudeley, the man who had so recently proposed marriage to herself, and she was quite shocked to see him put an arm around Katherine’s shoulders and pull her to him; then he bent and kissed her full on the mouth.

  Something stirred in Elizabeth at that moment, something that was not altogether related to the shock of witnessing an entirely unexpected and also very intimate gesture. She could not see Katherine’s face, but in the moonlight she could make out the way in which she was pressing her body against the Admiral’s in an attitude of willing surrender. Maybe it was that, or perhaps it was the masterful way in which he had stolen the kiss, but suddenly Elizabeth knew what it was to desire a man; and with this knowledge came a bleak sense of loss, for this could have been hers, had she had the sense to heed Kat’s advice.

  The unexpected, unfamiliar heat in the pit of her stomach and her female parts was overpowering. Her budding breasts tingled. Young as she was, she recognized her body’s response as desire. She found she was breathless and shaking, and there was a strange wetness between her legs. When she looked down, there was blood dripping on the floor.

  Although the sight of it shocked her, she knew it for what it was, had been expecting her monthly courses ever since Kat had told her about them last year. Yet all the same she was a little horrified, and her tired mind was playing tricks. Desire…and blood. The two were inextricably linked in her consciousness, for by some strange coincidence, the one had come with the other.

  Yet there was more to it than that: There were memories too, unhappy memories. A man and a woman might desire each other, but the result was often a baby, born in a gush of bloody fluid—she knew this because she had heard women talking about it. And some women died of it. Her own grandmother Elizabeth of York, and her stepmother Jane Seymour—both had perished in childbed. And desire might lead also to another kind of death. Her father had desired her mother, and her mother had met a bloody end, as had Katherine Howard, another victim of desire, illicit in her case. And now, like all women, she, Elizabeth, must bleed every month, and when she came to satisfy her own desires—Kat had been most explicit—there would be more blood, and pain, at least on the first occasion. These thoughts chilled her intensely.

  But she had resolved never to marry, hadn’t she? If she did not marry, she could avoid facing a bloody penetration or a bloody childbed, or worse. But then she would also have to forsake any chance of knowing that sweet melting tenderness she had just witnessed between the Queen and the Admiral, and which she herself, in her innocence, could only imagine. It was, perhaps, a small price to pay to feel safe, she reasoned, once the fleeting moment of arousal had gone and no longer had the power to sway her thoughts. Restored to sanity, she could only marvel at how easily she had forgotten herself. Now she must attend to more pressing practical matters.

  They had gone, those two below her window, and the garden was empty. An owl hooted. She would forget what she had seen; she would not betray the woman who had been her kind benefactress, and she would not dwell on what might have been. Stuffing her chemise between her legs, she hastened barefoot to the chest in her bedchamber to find the linen clouts that Kat had laid there in readiness.

  On subsequent nights, Elizabeth saw the lovers again, usually around the same time, making their way toward the house. A discreet investigation of the gardens suggested that the Queen admitted the Admiral by a little wicket gate in the wall. Occasionally, Elizabeth heard him leave in the small hours of the morning. On these occasions, he would be alone, hastening toward that gate.

  She told no one. It was, she thought, fiercely protective of Katherine, no one’s business but theirs.

  But Kat, too, had also been looking out of the window, and—more worldly-wise than Elizabeth—had drawn her own conclusions. Surely the Queen should be more mindful of her honor! How could she indulge in such light behavior so soon after King Henry’s death, and with a man so far below her in rank? And how dare she presume to dally with Sir Thomas Seymour, whom Kat had earmarked for Elizabeth? Was this just a flirtation? Or was it something of far greater import? In either case, it could have serious consequences for all concerned, and that would surely put paid to Kat’s plans for her charge.

  Kat’s good resolutions immediately went out of the window. Sick with jealousy, she imagined herself confronting the Qu
een with what she knew, or denouncing her to Elizabeth for what she was, or even reporting her shameful goings-on to the council. But of course, she reasoned, this affair could not remain secret for long. Already, Kat had heard servants gossiping—it was impossible to keep anything secret in a great household. Exposure would come soon enough, that was certain. Kat need do nothing. It was better that way.

  Two days later, making her way to the linen store, Kat caught the tail end of a murmured conversation between two of the Queen’s chamber women, and was shocked at what she heard.

  “Mark my words, they have been wed this past week!” one said. “I’ve made the bed, and seen evidence of it.”

  “You don’t say!” gasped the other.

  “Who has been wed?” Kat, advancing into the closet, demanded to know.

  “Um, no one you know, Mrs. Astley,” the first woman faltered, clearly dismayed. She and her companion picked up their bundles and hurriedly left.

  Kat’s heart was racing. Surely they had been talking about the Queen? She was convinced of it. Married? To Lord Sudeley? How had they dared, with the old king not in his grave four months? Oh, there was going to be an epic scandal about this! And she, Kat, would make the most of it.

  Kat had taken to making occasional expeditions into London to buy books for Elizabeth in St. Paul’s Churchyard and to gaze at the jewelry on sale at the fine goldsmiths’ shops in Cheapside. Sometimes she would go by chariot, at other times she walked, following the curving course of the river. On one of the latter occasions, she was returning through St. James’s Park when she by chance encountered the Admiral.

  “Well, if it isn’t the gatekeeper!” he greeted her mischievously, but his eyes were regarding her shiftily, she felt. She alone had been privy to his secret ambitions regarding her young lady; did he guess that she had lately heard gossip about him and the Queen?

  “Good day, my Lord Admiral,” she said, ignoring the jibe and resting her basket on a bench.

  “A very fine day, Mrs. Astley,” he said. “I am just come from the palace.” He indicated the red-brick pile of St. James’s behind them. “I needed some air. My Lord Protector’s apartments are a little heated!”

  He smiled ruefully. Kat decided she would make him feel even hotter.

  “I have looked to see you at Chelsea, sir,” she said. “I thought you would be pursuing your suit to the Lady Elizabeth.”

  “Ah, that,” he said, looking uncomfortable.

  “I had heard it said by many that you would have my Lady Elizabeth to wife,” she went on, her tone tart. She had heard nothing of the sort.

  “Nay,” he replied sheepishly. “I will not lose my life for a wife. I did speak to the council, but it cannot be.” He lowered his voice. “I will let you into a secret—I am promised to the Queen.”

  Kat could barely contain her anger.

  “From other rumors I hear, you are past promising, and married already!” she retorted.

  The Admiral smiled, but his eyes were still wary.

  “Do not heed idle gossip, Mrs. Astley,” he said, then bowed and walked off, striding back in the direction of the palace.

  Kat stood staring after him, simmering, painfully aware that all her hopes for Elizabeth were about to be dashed.

  Elizabeth, summoned to the Queen’s privy chamber, was surprised to find the Admiral standing behind Katherine, who rose from her chair and greeted her stepdaughter with a kiss on the cheek.

  “I have something to confess to you,” she said, without further preamble. “I have married the Admiral.”

  “Married the Admiral?” gasped Elizabeth.

  “Yes, my dear,” Katherine said evenly, reaching for her new husband’s hand and looking up at him devotedly. He smiled back, revealing white teeth beneath his full lips. He really is very handsome, Elizabeth thought. I cannot blame him if he has looked elsewhere for a wife. I did refuse him…

  “When I visited the King yesterday, I told him all, and begged his forgiveness for having remarried without seeking his permission,” Katherine went on. “He has taken it very kindly, and promised publicly to give us his blessing.”

  “Not so my brother the Protector,” said the Admiral, grimacing. “He is furious with us. Or rather, his good lady is. She has just realized she will have to yield precedence to the wife of her despised brother-in-law, and she is much offended and put out.” He grinned.

  “I do hope that you will be as kind to us as your brother the King has been, Elizabeth,” the Queen said, a note of pleading in her voice.

  “In faith, I know not what to say, save I am glad for your happiness,” Elizabeth replied. It was true, she was glad, for by the glint in Katherine’s eyes and the soft flush on her cheeks, she could tell that her stepmother was indeed happy, but it was too soon, this marriage, almost indecently soon. Was not the Queen newly widowed and supposed to be mourning the late king?

  “I fear we have caused a terrible scandal, marrying so soon after your father’s passing,” Katherine said, her cheeks flushed. “There were many looking askance at me at court, I assure you. It was not a pleasant experience. It was pointed out to me, rather brutally, by the Lord Protector that, if I had proved to be with child so soon after the King’s death, none could be sure whose child it was, and the lawful succession—and the King’s title—would thereby be impugned. But we did not marry until the beginning of May, so his calculations are born of malice, not logic.”

  “I thought that widows had to wait a year before they could marry again, madam,” Elizabeth said, unable to stop herself. “It would perhaps have been better to defer marrying until then.”

  “If I had had time to wait that long, believe me I would have done so,” Katherine avowed passionately. “But I am no longer young, I am thirty-five, Elizabeth, and I yearn to have a child while I still can. I would not have you think that this marriage proceeds from any sudden passion. For as truly as God is God, my mind was fully bent to it when I was at liberty to marry that other time…before I was overruled by a higher power. And I mean no disrespect to your father, child. He was a good lord to me. But I have seized this chance of happiness, and all I can say is—well, God is a marvelous man!”

  Her face was radiant, her joy tangible. Elizabeth smiled. She would not, for the world, spoil the Queen’s happiness. She bent and kissed Katherine again.

  “You have my blessing too, madam—and my lord.”

  Watching her, Tom thought how much like her mother she was becoming. Save for that red hair and Old Harry’s nose, she was Anne Boleyn to the life. Give her a year or two, and she’d have men slavering over her.

  He looked down fondly at Katherine. There were faint lines beneath her eyes. She had spoken the truth: She was indeed no longer young. But she was still comely, she was his wife for better or worse, and he loved her. He did truly love her.

  Elizabeth thought the scandal had blown over until she received Mary’s letter.

  You must come to me at once and lodge here at Hunsdon, her sister commanded, and you must understand the urgent necessity to remove yourself from that household without delay. I am outraged to learn that the scarcely cold body of the King our father has been so shamelessly dishonored. However, as I do not wish to offend the Queen, who has been kind to me, you must use much tact in this matter of your removal, so as not to appear ungrateful. But you must not allow yourself to be exposed further to such wickedness, nor be seen to condone it.

  “What am I to do, Kat?” Elizabeth wept. “I do not want to leave. I am very happy here. I love the Queen, who has shown me so much affection, and I like the Admiral. How could I abandon them?”

  “I think you would do well to heed the Lady Mary,” Kat urged her, grateful for an unexpected ally. “I must confess, I had misgivings when you told me you had given this marriage your blessing. Elizabeth, your father the King was but lately dead; you must see that it was ill timed, to say the least.”

  Elizabeth looked uncertain.

  “Yes, it was too soo
n,” she agreed. “I did think so. But apart from the fact that they did not wait a decent interval, the Queen and the Admiral are lawfully wed. It’s not as if they are living in sin. And I have been so happy here that I will not say anything against their marriage. Truly, I wish them well, and I will stand up to my sister and tell her. Tactfully, of course.”

  “Is that wise?” Kat asked. “I am only considering your reputation, you understand. I make no judgment against the Queen and the Admiral.”

  “Dear Kat.” Elizabeth smiled, curling an arm around her. “You are ever thoughtful on my behalf. I do understand your concern, but I tell you it is needless. I will write to my sister tonight. I will dissemble and tell her that all is well with me here, that things are not quite as she perceives them, and that I will wait to see how matters turn out. Is that not the best course? After all, neither Mary nor myself has any power to change what has happened. We must make the best of what we cannot remedy.”

  “Very well,” said Kat, knowing herself defeated, and trying to still a small sense of dread.

  “Since the Admiral came to live here, this has been a much happier house,” Elizabeth observed to the Queen. She had feared to begin with that it would be as if a serpent had invaded Eden, but after two weeks spent getting to know her new stepfather, and experiencing the positive impact he was making on all their lives, her worries had been dispelled. “Life is more exciting, we laugh a lot—”

  “And we are full of joy!” finished Katherine. “In faith, we have not stopped making merry. Every day has seemed like a holiday. And I will never weary of it.”

  “Everyone speaks highly of the Admiral, madam,” Elizabeth said. “He is affable to all, and not one whit condescending, even to the least of the servants. They all love him.”

  The Queen smiled. They were sitting companionably at a table under a peach tree on the lawn overlooking the river, enjoying a picnic. Picnics, Katherine had declared, were her favorite way of dining, and she had ordered a veritable feast: The table was laden with silver plates of chicken, game, pasties, peas, and fish, with Elizabeth’s favorite candied fruits to follow. Beneath the trees, at a discreet distance, a musician sat softly strumming a lute. A gentle breeze stirred the air, which was heady with the scent from two hundred damask rosebushes. Elizabeth was consumed with a sense of well-being. Life was good, and already she understood that to be aware of happiness when you were actually feeling it, and not just in retrospect, was to be happy indeed.

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