The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “No!” repeated Elizabeth, more sharply this time, and turned away, making it very clear that the matter was to be spoken of no more.

  Kat would not give up so easily. At every opportunity, she extolled the Admiral’s charms and pressed Elizabeth to accept him as a suitor.

  “But he has as yet made no approach to me,” the girl pointed out.

  “Oh, he will, given the chance,” Kat assured her, indulging in the anticipated delights of life in the wedded couple’s establishment, with herself ordering all, delighting in their love for each other, rearing the children, weaving her secret fantasies about the Admiral, and growing old respected, honored, and needed.

  Elizabeth wished there were someone else in the household to whom she could turn for advice, but there was no one. She wondered if she could confide in William Cecil, but then thought better of it, for as the Lord Protector’s secretary, he might consider it his duty to inform his master of what might be afoot. Kat was right: She did need a protector, as armor against all the gossip and her deep-seated fear that the truth about her might come out. And she had accorded well with the Admiral—too well, she thought with an unwanted tremor of remembered pleasure—but that was firmly in the past now. She had found him compellingly attractive, and amusing company to boot. Given her bastard status, it would be a good match, perhaps the best she could hope for, since all past negotiations for a princely marriage for her had fallen down on account of her illegitimacy. On the other hand, she was now second in line to the throne, and greater than the Admiral might yet ask for her hand. Then, of course, she ran the risk that any other husband might discover that she was no virgin, and expose her sin to all the world. But then again, if she married Thomas Seymour, she would lay herself open once more to the dangers and miseries of pregnancy and childbirth, and that prospect terrified her.

  What to do? She found herself agonizing over it, day and night.

  “I have thought about the Admiral,” she said one evening to Kat as they sat at supper. In fact, she had thought of little else these past weeks.

  “And what have you thought?” Kat asked, not quite as nonchalantly as she had intended, for she was barely able to suppress her excitement.

  “That I might marry him, if he asks,” Elizabeth said carefully. “Might, I said. It would depend on several things. For a start, he has given no indication that he has any desire to wed me.”

  “Oh, he will,” Kat chimed in, spearing a piece of roast pork on her knife. “He loves you but too well, I know it. And he is the noblest unmarried man in this land.”

  “You may speak truth,” Elizabeth replied, considering. “But though he himself would perhaps have me, yet I think the council would not consent to it, for the council is ruled by my Lord Protector, and he is ruled by his wife, who hates my Lord Admiral for marrying the Queen. They will not let him marry the King’s sister and make himself even greater thereby.”

  Kat looked crestfallen. She had not thought of that.

  “You may be right,” she said reluctantly.

  “And it would be too dangerous to marry without the council’s permission, as the Admiral and the Queen did,” Elizabeth pointed out. “The Queen was not of royal blood. I am.”

  “You could wait until the King is declared of age, and then ask his permission,” Kat suggested optimistically.

  Elizabeth laid down her napkin and drained her goblet.

  “Kat, he is eleven. We would have to wait at least four years. Can you see the Admiral doing that? No, he needs sons to succeed him, and he will need to start breeding them soon.”

  She sighed. “Even were he to ask for me, I do not see that a marriage between us could ever be possible.”

  “There must be a way,” Kat said determinedly. She was not going to see her bright future blotted out.

  Elizabeth stood shaking, gazing down at the sealed letter in her hand. There was no mistaking that handwriting.

  “Well, aren’t you going to open it?” Kat urged. They were alone in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, and unlikely to be disturbed.

  With trembling fingers, the girl broke the seal and unfolded the paper. The words, scripted in black ink in spidery handwriting, danced before her eyes, and it was a moment before she could make sense of them.

  There were no words of love, just a formal salutation. It is convenient for princesses to marry, he had written, and better it were that they are married within the realm than in any foreign place. So why might not I, a man made by the King your father, marry you? If you were to honor me with your hand, I should be the happiest man alive. I await your answer with impatience. There was a flourishing signature at the end.

  “He has asked me to marry him,” Elizabeth said at length, breathing evenly to steady her pounding heart.

  “What did I tell you?” Kat cried jubilantly. “You must send him your answer with all speed.”

  Elizabeth looked at her aghast.

  “Answer? Are you mad?” she replied. “There will be no answer. I have no wish to appear too eager, and besides, he should have approached the council before proposing marriage to me.”

  “How do we know he has not?” Kat asked.

  “We would be fools to assume he has!” Elizabeth retorted.

  “But what will you do?” Kat cried, panicking lest her cherished plans fall through.

  “Nothing,” Elizabeth said. “Dear Kat, I know you want this for me, and to speak plain, I think I want it for myself, but if my Lord Admiral is keen enough, he will not be deterred by my silence. Mark my words, he will not go away!”

  Elizabeth lay tossing in her bed, wrestling again with her impossible dilemma. She remembered still the sweet pleasure and the excitement that the Admiral’s presence had aroused in her, and she yearned to feel it again, but fresher in her mind was the memory of fear and pain, the bloody miscarriage, and the specter of the Tower and the block.

  Marriage to the Admiral, however—a properly sanctioned marriage—might make her think differently. But would even that have the power to banish from her mind the terrors that were now associated with wedlock and childbearing? Dare she take the risk?

  William Cecil had written from the court. There was much in his letter about politics and social gossip, but Elizabeth’s eye was drawn immediately to his mention of the Lord Admiral.

  His ambition is plain for all to see, Cecil had written, apparently in passing. To my mind, he is an intemperate fellow who will meet a bad end.

  Was this some kind of warning? Elizabeth wondered. But how could Cecil know what had been going on? Unless, of course—Heaven forbid!—the Admiral had been indiscreet and rumors had spread. She shivered, then hastened to take up her pen.

  As to the Admiral, she wrote, after several lines deliberately devoted to responding to the other points in Cecil’s letter, I have ever thought him rash and given to foolish fancies.

  There, she thought. That should counter any speculative gossip.

  “We are to visit the court at Christmas!” Elizabeth announced excitedly. “The King my brother has summoned us. In truth, I feared His Majesty had forgotten me, for I had not had word from him in many weeks.”

  “That’s wonderful news, my lady!” Kat enthused.

  “But we are not to be lodged at Whitehall, for that would not be seemly, he writes. He is not married, so there are no ladies staying at court. We are to stay at Durham House on the Strand—my father left it to me, you remember.” Elizabeth was nearly bouncing with excitement. “Oh, it will be good to go to London again! I do hope my sister Mary will be at court too, for I have missed her sorely of late.”

  “But Durham House has been standing empty for ages,” Kat pointed out. “It will need cleaning and airing at the very least.”

  “Then let’s send Master Parry ahead with some of the servants to ensure that all is made ready,” Elizabeth suggested.

  “A good idea,” Kat agreed. She wondered if the Admiral would also be at court for Christmas.

  “I am sorry, my l
ady, but the Lord Protector has established a mint in Durham House,” Thomas Parry said dolefully, looking distressed. Elizabeth knew him to be an honest, decent man, even if he was a bit of a busybody, and although he could be hot-tempered with lesser folk, he was also a timid one. She doubted very much that he had made any protest about the appropriation of her property.

  “Did his lordship know that Durham House is mine?” she inquired.

  “Oh, no, my lady,” Parry said, twisting his bonnet in his hands. “He had no idea. He was most apologetic and asks Your Grace’s pardon. He regrets, however, that he must crave your indulgence for a while longer, because the mint cannot easily be moved, and certainly not in time for Christmas.”

  “It is no matter,” Elizabeth said. “I will find a lodging elsewhere.” But where? she wondered. Immediately, her thoughts strayed—as they often did these days—to the Admiral, and then it came to her…

  “We will ask my good stepfather the Admiral if he can help us!” she declared mischievously.

  Kat, sitting sewing by the fire, looked up in delighted surprise.

  “Master Parry, I pray you, go back to court, and ask the Admiral if he knows of any house that I can use during my visit to London,” Elizabeth went on.

  “Very good, madam,” muttered Parry, not relishing the prospect of another cold and rain-mired journey to London in the depths of December.

  “Master Parry!” cried the Admiral, clapping the Welshman on the back and steering him toward the warmth of the hearth. “You are most welcome. Take off that damp coat. Fowler! A towel for Master Parry, and hurry!” His man disappeared into the inner chamber.

  Parry was looking at his surroundings. The courtier lodging occupied by the Admiral overlooked the iron-gray Thames. It was one of the better ones, naturally, for my lord was the Protector’s brother and the King’s uncle, and it had its own privy. There was a buffet displaying silver plate and a portrait of the late Queen Jane, the Admiral’s sister, resplendent in gold damask. Parry thought her no beauty—too pale for his taste.

  The Admiral gave him a cup of wine and invited him to sit down.

  “What can I do for you, Master Parry?” he asked.

  “I come from the Lady Elizabeth,” Parry stated.

  “Ah.” The white teeth flashed in a grin. “I have been waiting to hear from her. I trust she is well.”

  “Much restored,” Parry said. “She wasn’t well for a long time. Fevers, you know.”

  “I was sorry to hear it,” the Admiral said, growing slightly impatient. When would Parry come the point?

  “Her Grace would visit the court for Christmas,” the Welshman told him. “Durham House, where she was to lodge, is taken by the Lord Protector for a mint. My lady has sent me to ask if your lordship knows any place she could lodge in London.”

  The clever little minx, thought Seymour. So this is her reply to my letter: a request for help. She commits herself to nothing, and keeps me guessing. He had to admire her cunning.

  “Master Parry,” he said expansively, “my own house, Seymour Place, with all my furnishings and household stuff, is at my Lady Elizabeth’s disposal whenever she needs it.”

  “That is a most generous offer, my lord,” Parry declared, impressed.

  “I have ever had a special affection for my Lady Elizabeth,” the Admiral said. “The late Queen, God rest her, thought very highly of her.” He sighed.

  Parry frowned slightly. If rumor spoke truth, his genial host had indeed had a special affection for Elizabeth—too special by far.

  “I should very much like to see her again,” Seymour said. “Perhaps, when she is next at Ashridge, I could visit her, since I have estates nearby.”

  “I am sure that Her Grace would be pleased to receive Your Lordship,” Parry told him.

  “When she comes to court,” the Admiral went on, “may I suggest that she asks my Lord Protector’s wife to help her recover her London house. That was left to her by the late King, was it not?”

  “Oh, aye,” Parry confirmed.

  “What other lands were assigned to her?” the Admiral wanted to know.

  Parry briefly listed them.

  “Has King Edward confirmed her title to them?” his host persisted.

  “Not as yet,” Parry answered, wondering what all this was leading to.

  “Well, a word of advice,” said the Admiral confidentially. “Her Grace might also ask the Duchess of Somerset to assist her in exchanging those lands for estates in the West Country, near to my castle of Sudeley. I myself will put in a good word on her behalf. Now how many servants does she have?”

  This was beginning to feel like an interrogation, Parry felt, doing a quick reckoning in his head.

  “Ten,” he said.

  “And how much does she spend on household expenses?”

  “Her Grace is careful with money, my lord. I myself keep her accounts.” He mentioned a few figures.

  “Ah, I think I can improve on those,” said the Admiral confidently. “I make various economies in my own household, and I should be happy to pass on the benefit of my experience, if it would help.”

  “I am flattered that your lordship should condescend to assist me,” Parry said sincerely.

  “Perhaps I should say that I am thinking ahead to a time when our two households may become one,” divulged the Admiral with a wink. Immediately, Parry understood and approved. To his mind, his young lady could not do better than match herself with the Admiral, a true gentleman to be sure, whatever people might say about him.

  As Parry’s horse trotted toward the gatehouse archway at Hatfield, he espied the Lady Elizabeth, wrapped in a fur-lined cloak, walking through the park with her dogs.

  “My lady!” he cried, pulling up and dismounting. Elizabeth waved and quickened her pace toward him, the dogs yapping about her skirts.

  “Well met, Master Parry! Did you see my Lord Admiral?” she called.

  “Aye, and he has been most accommodating. He says that Seymour House is at your disposal whenever you need it.”

  “That is uncommonly kind of him!” Elizabeth cried, clapping her hands. Her cheeks were flushed, and not just with cold or exertion. “I will write to thank him.”

  “His lordship spoke of more than lodgings,” Parry said.

  Elizabeth stared at him, a little breathless.

  “He did?” she asked.

  “He asked about your estates and your expenditure—I will explain all later. But he said this was against a time when your two households would be one. Do you take his meaning, madam?”

  “I know that the Admiral wants to marry me,” she said, happy to confide in Parry, whose loyalty and devotion were unquestionable.

  “In truth, my lady, you could not have a better offer,” the Welshman assured her. “He is a most kind and thoughtful gentleman, and has your true interests at heart. In my humble opinion, this would be a good marriage for you, if the council is agreeable, of course.”

  Elizabeth’s manner changed subtly.

  “If the council is agreeable,” she said coolly. “When that comes to pass, I will do as God shall put into my mind.”

  She turned and walked a little way off, rubbing her hands to keep them warm. She knew she was wavering in her resolve, and she could not understand herself. She loved the Admiral, did she not? She certainly basked in his admiration and enjoyed flirting with him. And she had been flattered as well as disturbed by his proposal of marriage. Yet when it came to committing herself, she found she could not do it. She blew hot, then cold. It made no sense to her. Mayhap the disastrous consequences of their one coupling had had a more damaging effect on her than she realized. Or was it that she knew in her bones that this marriage would never be allowed to take place—that she was courting danger even in contemplating it?

  She had been eager to hear of the Admiral’s response to her request. Yet as soon as Parry had pointed out the advantages of their marriage, her excitement had vanished and been replaced by fear—yes, that
was it, fear. And a touch of anger too, for she was beginning to suspect that the Admiral had put Parry up to urging her to accept his suit.

  Parry was still standing where she had left him, huddled in his cloak. She made her way back to him.

  “Who bade you tell me to accept the Admiral’s offer of marriage?” she demanded to know.

  “Why, no one, my lady,” Parry answered. “I merely gained the impression that my lord would make you a good husband. He is in earnest, you know. He even suggested that you exchange your dower lands for others that lie near his in the West Country.”

  “Did he indeed!” Elizabeth cried, outraged. “What does he mean by such a suggestion? Does he ask for my hand just to get his own on my property?”

  “I know not, my lady,” protested Parry, flustered, “but I am sure he looks to have you above all else.”

  “What else did he say?” Elizabeth asked suspiciously.

  “He suggested you make suit to the Protector’s wife for help in exchanging your lands and in recovering Durham House,” Parry ventured unwillingly.

  “I will not be a suitor to that insufferable woman for favors,” Elizabeth fumed. “When next you see the Admiral, you may tell him I will have nothing to do with her. And now I think you should go and tell Mrs. Astley all that transpired when you met the Admiral, for I wish to know nothing that she does not know. I cannot be at peace until you have told it all to her.”

  No one, she thought, as a chastened Parry remounted and rode off, must ever have cause to accuse her of secretly conspiring with the Admiral through her cofferer.

  Elizabeth returned to the house to find William Cecil waiting for her with some documents to sign.

  “I could not resist the opportunity of bringing them in person, my lady,” he said, bowing. “I have long wished to meet you.”

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