The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  Elizabeth was impressed with this fair-haired, fork-bearded gentleman with sharp, intense eyes and a large hooked nose. He exuded integrity and strength. Instinctively, she felt she could trust him. And that was proved later that day when, shortly before he left, she ventured to broach with him the subject of the Admiral.

  “I need your advice, Master Cecil,” she said as they strolled together in the long gallery admiring the portraits that hung there. He waited for her to go on. “You will remember that, in our letters, we mentioned my Lord Admiral in passing. Lately, he has offered his help in exchanging my dower estates for others.” She did not mention that those other lands were to be near Sudeley. “And he has offered to help Master Parry make economies in the running of my household.”

  Cecil, who had heard much that he did not like about the Admiral, and scurrilous rumors linking the rogue’s name to Elizabeth’s, immediately smelled a rat. The Protector had dismissed the rumors as mere gossip, but Cecil himself privately suspected that Elizabeth had indeed been compromised in some way, and was determined to protect her. Should anything happen to King Edward—God forfend—then Elizabeth was the Protestant hope for the future, and because of that, he, Cecil, was prepared to lay down his life for her if need be.

  “May I offer you some advice, my lady?” he asked. “Do not allow the Admiral to interfere in your financial affairs. It would not be wise. I do not judge him the most reliable of men.”

  Elizabeth was silent for a moment.

  “Why do you say that?” she inquired.

  “I work for his brother.” Cecil smiled. “He knows him better than any other, and he has not as yet entrusted him with any political office. Neither did your esteemed father, King Henry. Who am I to question the wisdom of two such eminent statesmen?”

  Elizabeth said carefully, “Yet the Admiral is at the center of affairs, it would seem.”

  “He likes to think he is,” Cecil replied, “but his greatness is largely in his own mind. It would not be wise to become too embroiled with him, my lady. I assure you, I speak purely for your own good.”

  “I thank you for your advice,” Elizabeth said, relieved, yet a little downcast all the same.

  When William Cecil had gone, she pleaded a headache and went to bed early, needing to think. She felt weary of it all, weary of her seesawing emotions, weary of thinking up strategies to ensure that the marriage could go ahead, weary of all the intrigue and furtiveness. And now it appeared that the Admiral was not all that he seemed.

  Leave it, she thought. Leave it to God—and the council. She could only marry the Admiral with the latter’s consent, she saw that clearly now. So let the Admiral approach the council and let them decide her fate. If they said no, she would not defy them. Having escaped danger once, so recently, she had no mind to court it again.

  In the middle of December, Kat arrived in London to oversee the ordering of Seymour House for Elizabeth’s stay. There, she found in residence Lady Tyrwhit, a distant cousin of Queen Katherine. Kat took an instant dislike to the woman, a sour-faced, middle-aged matron who looked as if she had a permanent smell under her nose—and an insufferable snob too.

  “Who are you?” she inquired haughtily after Kat had been announced.

  “I am the Lady Elizabeth’s governess,” Kat bristled, “and I am come to make all ready for her.”

  “Oh, yes, I remember you now. Well, I shall be gone soon. My husband being at court, I am invited to spend Christmas at Somerset House with the Duchess.” She eyed Kat closely, her light blue eyes narrowing.

  “You do know what they are saying about the Lady Elizabeth and the Admiral?” she asked.

  Kat was instantly on her guard. “What are they saying?” she barked.

  “That a marriage is in the air,” Lady Tyrwhit told her. “He has kept on the late Queen’s maids-of-honor in his household, and people are concluding that it is for my Lady Elizabeth’s benefit. There is much talk that he will soon be paying court to her.”

  “It’s mere nonsense, this idle gossip,” Kat declared firmly, although inwardly she was rejoicing at this welcome evidence of the Admiral’s intentions. “She cannot marry without the council’s consent.”

  “Exactly,” Lady Tyrwhit emphasized. “But there is talk of clandestine arrangements…it’s probably just a rumor, as you say. But I thought that, as her governess, you should know what is being bruited, so that you can be on your guard.”

  “I thank you,” muttered Kat through gritted teeth.

  She was heartily relieved when Lady Tyrwhit packed her bags and left two days later, then dismayed, only hours after that, to receive a summons to Somerset House. There, in a palatial room with carved pillars and a battened ceiling picked out in gold, the Duchess Anne awaited her, granite-faced, imperious, and extremely angry.

  “I am hearing things that concern me greatly,” she began in her overbearing way, keeping Kat standing before her. “There is unsavory gossip at court and in the City about my Lady Elizabeth and the Admiral.”

  Kat felt a chill of fear. Who had talked? More crucially, what had they said?

  “What gossip?” she asked.

  “That he was overfamiliar with her when she was in the Queen’s household. That you encouraged it—”

  “That is not true, madam!” Kat interrupted, indignant.

  “Silence!” thundered the Duchess. “I have not yet finished speaking. I am told that you encouraged this familiarity simply by not doing enough to put a stop to it. Do you deny that?”

  “I was worried. I went to the Queen and asked for her help,” Kat protested. “But she did not take it seriously, and neither should you, madam, for it was all innocent.” And may God forgive me the lie, she prayed.

  “Mrs. Astley,” hissed the Duchess, “I may as well tell you that a lot of people are taking it seriously. Servants have talked, and as a result, the Lady Elizabeth—the King’s own sister—has become the subject of common gossip. It is said that you left her and the Admiral alone together in her bedchamber.”

  “There were one or two occasions when he came early, and I was not aware he was there, but he would not heed me when I begged him to desist,” Kat explained defensively. “That was when I spoke to the Queen.” But the Duchess was implacable.

  “I heard rather differently. It strikes me, Mrs. Astley, that you are not worthy to have the governance of a king’s daughter!” she hissed. “I have decided that another shall have your place. Now go, for the sight of you offends me.”

  Kat turned, her eyes blurred with tears of anger and shame, and almost ran from the Duchess’s presence, knowing that this terrible woman, being the Lord Protector’s wife, did indeed have the power to remove her from her post. She was shaking with the unjustness of it, and with dread in case the Duchess carried out her threat. She could not bear the thought of being torn apart from Elizabeth, who was as flesh and blood to her, and the very focus of her existence.

  Worse than that prospect, though, was the realization that they were all in danger. If any hint of what had really gone on ever got out, their enemies—and to be sure, the Duchess was one—would pounce. Then it would be the Tower, and the block, and no mercy shown.

  Back at Seymour House, Kat brushed aside the servants who came asking her for instructions. She was too agitated to listen to them, being consumed with an overwhelming need to get back to Hatfield. If she could entrench herself there, she thought irrationally, she could preempt disaster. Elizabeth, she knew, would never consent to being deprived of the woman who had been like a mother to her since early childhood.

  Grabbing a few things, she stuffed them into a bag and shouted for the grooms to harness the horses to a litter. Then she hastened out of the house.

  On the journey north, she had time to reflect. She saw that she had been wrong in urging Elizabeth to marry the Admiral. She should never have meddled in such a dangerous matter. It was true, she should have been firmer at Chelsea, but she had had her reasons for dithering—shocking as the
y seemed to her now, for she was painfully aware that she had allowed her jealousy of the Queen and her infatuation with the Admiral to color her judgment. And then when she had tried to put a stop to the frolics, it had been too late. Maybe she was even indirectly responsible for Elizabeth’s fall from grace.

  The Duchess was right, she wasn’t fit to have the care of a king’s daughter—but the Duchess, of course, didn’t know the half of it. No one should ever know that, Kat vowed. But what of the Dennys? Would they talk? And that midwife? Yet why should they? If no one suspected anything, no one would ask any questions. And even if they were tempted to reveal anything, they risked censure or worse for having concealed the truth. Elizabeth’s secret was safe, quite safe, she was sure.

  “You are back early,” Elizabeth said, embracing Kat. Then she saw her governess’s face. It looked…haggard, haunted. “What is wrong, dear Kat?”

  “There is gossip in London, about you and the Admiral,” Kat blurted out.

  Elizabeth paled. “What gossip?”

  “There is talk of your marriage,” Kat told her. “He has rashly kept the Queen’s maids in his household—to wait on you, when you are his wife, it is said. I fear he has been most indiscreet.”

  “Did you hear anything else?” Elizabeth asked. Her frightened eyes met Kat’s.

  “No, nothing more,” Kat said briskly. “But what I have heard has convinced me that now is not the time for you to think of marriage with the Admiral. Without doubt, such a thing will not be possible until the King comes of age. It is clear as day that the Lord Protector and the council would never suffer you to marry my lord. Therefore, child, it would be better if you did not set your mind on this marriage, seeing the unlikelihood of it.”

  Elizabeth relaxed a little.

  “Fear not, Kat,” she said. “I had already come to that opinion myself. I have thought long and hard on it, and I am well aware of what is at stake.”

  “I thank God for your good sense,” Kat told her, feeling somewhat calmer.

  “Do not worry, I will stick to my resolve,” the girl assured her.

  Yes, but will I? Kat asked herself. I had so wanted this for her. For us all.

  “Maybe it would be prudent not to go to London after all,” Elizabeth said. “Give the rumors time to die down. If I stay here at Hatfield, unwed and living a virtuous existence, that should give the lie to them.”

  “I think that might be for the best,” Kat agreed.

  “So are you feeling better now that we have agreed on that, my dear governess?” Elizabeth asked.

  “Somewhat amended,” Kat lied. Any minute, any day, the order for her dismissal might come. She did not have it in her heart to tell Elizabeth that. And anyway, she was hoping and praying she would never have to, that the Duchess would relent and spare her the agony of being parted from her beloved charge.

  CHAPTER 15

  1549

  On the eve of Twelfth Night, Kat Astley and Thomas Parry sat by the fire sharing a pitcher of mead.

  “I wonder when the Admiral will press his suit,” Parry said. “I have noticed that there is much goodwill between him and Her Grace.”

  “I know that well enough,” Kat replied, “but I dare not speak of it anymore.” Haltingly, painfully, she explained about the Duchess’s threat. “All the same,” she added, “I have a great affection for the Admiral, who has ever been very good to me, and is the most magnificent lord, you must agree; and I was so pleased when I learned he wanted my lady for his wife.” Her eyes brimmed with tears. “I wish her his wife of all men living!” she sobbed, burying her face in her hands. “I am sure he might persuade the council if he tried.”

  Parry awkwardly reached over and patted her hand. “You’re too taken with a handsome face, Kat,” he said, not unkindly. “No, let me finish. I’m not so sure about the Admiral now. He has tarried too long in this matter, and that is why people are talking. Thanks to his tardiness, the Lady Elizabeth’s reputation is blotted. And only the other day, I heard someone saying that he had treated his poor wife cruelly and dishonestly.”

  “Tush! Tush!” Kat cried. “I know him better than you do, or those that speak evil of him. I know he is eager to marry my Lady Elizabeth, and she knows that well enough. He loves her well, and has done for a long time. I must tell you that the Queen was jealous of the Admiral’s affection for my lady. She confided to me that she found them together in an embrace. That’s why Elizabeth was sent to Cheshunt.”

  Parry’s jaw dropped.

  “So the rumors are true?” he asked, visibly shocked. “There was some undue familiarity between them?”

  Seeing his reaction, Kat was horrified at herself for having said too much. She wished she had bitten her tongue out; it would be her downfall, she knew.

  “I cannot say any more,” she said fretfully. “I will enlarge on this another time. Thomas, you must promise never to repeat to anyone what I have told you.”

  “I won’t,” Parry said. “You know that.”

  “Promise me!” Kat urged.

  “I won’t say anything,” he repeated.

  “Say ‘I promise,’ do,” she begged.

  “Very well, I promise I won’t repeat what you told me,” he declared.

  “That is as well,” she told him, “for if this got out, Her Grace would be dishonored forever, and utterly undone.”

  “I would rather be torn apart by wild horses,” Parry assured her.

  The Admiral stood before his brother, simmering with anger. How dare Ned summon him here like an errant schoolboy?

  The Protector was brief and to the point.

  “I am told that you have spoken of visiting the Lady Elizabeth at Ashridge,” he said accusingly.

  “Is it now illegal to visit one’s stepdaughter?” the Admiral sneered.

  “The word is that you hope to marry her,” Ned said coolly.

  Seymour laughed mirthlessly. “I? Marry Old Harry’s daughter? You must take me for a fool.”

  “A fool who retains his late wife’s maids so that they may serve a new bride. A fool who has made inquiries as to the Lady Elizabeth’s fortune. A fool who, if rumor speaks truth, chased after her when the Queen was alive. Shall I go on?”

  “It ill becomes you, the Lord Protector of England, to heed common gossip,” the Admiral retorted. “And that’s all it is, gossip.”

  “Often, little brother, there is no smoke without fire,” Somerset reminded him. Then his manner turned glacial. “I warn you, Tom, if you go anywhere near her, I will send you to the Tower.”

  “I’d like to see you try,” Tom flung at him, then stamped out of the room. “I’ll see you in Hell first!”

  “Lord save us! The Admiral is in the Tower!” cried Kat, running through Elizabeth’s apartments as if the devil were at her heels.

  “No!” faltered Elizabeth, rising to her feet, pale with shock. She had been working on a translation with Master Ascham, recently returned from Cambridge at her request to further her studies, and he too looked shaken by the news.

  “Where did you hear this?” he asked Kat.

  “John, my husband,” she said, breathlessly. “He went to London on estate business, and he heard it bruited there. People are talking about nothing else. As soon as he had the story, he raced back here as fast as he could. Oh, what is to become of us?” She could not contain her distress.

  “What happened?” Ascham pressed her.

  “It seems the Admiral was involved in a plot to overthrow the Lord Protector, a very dangerous and foolish enterprise, from what I hear. But that was not all. Three nights ago, he broke into the King’s bedchamber at Hampton Court, intending God knows what mischief.”

  “But how did he get past the guards?” Ascham interrupted.

  “It is said he had a forged key to the door from the privy garden. But the King’s dog, a good guard dog, barked loudly, and before the Yeomen of the Guard came running, the Admiral shot the dog dead with his pistol. They arrested him on a charge of at
tempting to murder the King.”

  “That’s preposterous,” Ascham commented. “If he wanted to usurp his brother’s place as Lord Protector, he would wish to preserve the King’s life, surely. Unless, of course, he was plotting to marry the Lady Mary and seize the throne. But she is a Catholic, so that is unlikely.”

  While they talked, Elizabeth had sat there silently, desperately trying to take in the news and calculating how it might affect her. At the same time, she was aware of a great void where her grief for the Admiral should be. For if these charges were to be proved true, he was a dead man, this man who was to have been her husband. Surely she should be in terror for him, beating her breast and weeping her heart out. But no. Suddenly, in the light of what had just happened, she saw him as a rash, shallow fellow who cared for nothing and no one but himself, and who had brought her nothing but troubles. Suddenly, she recognized her feelings for him as mere infatuation.

  Her terror now was all for herself, for if they interrogated the Admiral, as they surely would—not to mention those who had had dealings with him—her own name might well be dragged into the mire with his. And it was clear there was far more to his schemes than she had ever suspected.

  “He did not intend to marry the Lady Mary,” she said. “He meant to have me. I thought it was because he loved me.” Her voice broke. “And now I see he might have compassed a greater treason through that marriage.”

  Kat wrapped loving arms around her, but Elizabeth would not be comforted.

  “They will question us,” she said bleakly. “We must be prepared.”

  “It may not come to that,” Ascham said, without much conviction.

  “I fear it will,” Elizabeth insisted. “We must all stay firm and admit nothing.”

  The next day, Elizabeth and Kat were passing through the great hall when they heard the clatter of many hooves approaching. Seconds later, to their astonishment, Thomas Parry crashed through the main door, his face puce, his bonnet askew.

 
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