The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “I would I had never been born, for we are all undone!” he cried, wringing his hands. “You may have these back, my lady!” And so saying, he tore his chain of office from his neck, pulled the signet ring from his finger, then threw them on the floor and dashed toward the stairs that led to the chamber he shared with his wife. Elizabeth stared after him gaping; Kat clapped her hand over her mouth and whimpered.

  Almost immediately, in the open doorway, there appeared a group of finely dressed gentlemen. Elizabeth, collecting her wits, recognized them as members of the council. At their head was William Paulet, Lord St. John, Great Master of the King’s Household, and behind him there was…Oh, no, she thought. Her face visibly fell when she saw Sir Anthony Denny, stiff-faced in his somber black; he, more than anyone, she feared. With him was Sir Robert Tyrwhit, husband to the late Queen’s cousin, of whom Kat had spoken so disparagingly—Kat, who was now gazing at their visitors in mute horror.

  Remembering her rank, Elizabeth drew herself up to her full height and clasped her hands composedly at her waist. Belatedly, the councillors bowed.

  “Gentlemen, greetings,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

  “Your Grace, I fear we can take little pleasure in the task before us,” Lord Paulet told her, watching her closely. “You will have heard, I expect, that the Admiral is in the Tower on a charge of high treason. It is our sorry duty to question all those who have had dealings with him. We must crave your cooperation, for some are members of Your Grace’s household.”

  “My house is at your disposal,” Elizabeth told him. “Will you sup before you begin?”

  “I thank you, madam, but we stopped at an inn on the road. We must proceed as soon as possible, and begin with Your Grace. Is there somewhere Sir Robert and Sir Anthony can talk with you in private?”

  “The schoolroom is empty,” Elizabeth told him, her spirits plummeting further. “Mrs. Astley here will see that we are not disturbed.”

  “I wish to question Mrs. Astley myself in the meantime,” Paulet told her. “There are guards with us who will ensure we are not interrupted.”

  Elizabeth’s heart began thumping. Guards? She looked hard at Kat, as if steeling the governess to discretion, but Kat seemed frozen with fear.

  “Please use the parlor,” she told Paulet.

  “My lady,” said Sir Anthony, indicating that she should precede him and Sir Robert to the schoolroom. “Please lead the way.” Elizabeth turned toward the stairs, marveling that her legs could still carry her.

  Seated at the table before the mullioned window, she hoped she looked the picture of youthful innocence in her demure blue velvet gown, blue being the color of virginity, and unbound copper tresses, her loose hair betokening not only royal rank but the maiden state. Denny and Tyrwhit—a thin-faced, unsmiling ferret of a man, huddled in his furs—took the chairs opposite. How much did Tyrwhit know? she wondered. Had Denny betrayed her already? If so, why go through this charade?

  “Tell us about your relationship with the Admiral,” said Denny without preamble.

  “He was a kindly stepfather to me while I was in the Queen’s household,” she said.

  “Too kindly, if rumor speaks truth,” Sir Anthony replied, gazing at her fixedly. “I am told that he led you to indulge in unseemly behavior.”

  Elizabeth made herself smile.

  “The Admiral has a wicked sense of humor,” she said. “He was always jesting. I was but a child, and he played silly games with me.”

  “It is said that these games got out of hand,” Denny said.

  “Yes, that was what Mrs. Astley thought, mistakenly, of course, but you see, she has always been overprotective of me.” She smiled wryly. “She even complained to the Queen, but Her Grace wisely made little of it. She knew these games were but harmless sport, with nothing evil intended. She used to join in herself sometimes.”

  “I see,” said Sir Anthony, who saw a lot more but forbore to say anything compromising. Changing tack, he asked, “Has the Admiral ever proposed marriage to you?”

  “He wrote to me suggesting it, late last year. I did not reply. I was waiting for him to approach the council. For my part, I was resolved to be guided by the council in all things.”

  “Did he ever speak to you of overthrowing the Lord Protector?” Denny inquired.

  “Never,” said Elizabeth.

  “When he proposed marriage”—this was Tyrwhit—“did he ever hint that he proposed to make you Queen?”

  Elizabeth looked suitably startled. “No,” she said.

  “I think you know more than you are willing to tell us,” Tyrwhit persisted.

  “You are mistaken, sir,” Elizabeth protested. “I have told you what I know, and will answer any other questions you have to the best of my ability.”

  “Robert, I pray you allow me to continue this initial investigation,” Denny said. “Time presses, and there is Master Parry to be interrogated.”

  Sir Robert rose, his chair scraping the floor. “Of course,” he said. “My lady.” He sketched a bow and left the room. The door clicked shut.

  “Now, madam,” said Sir Anthony, turning to Elizabeth, “you and I have matters to discuss.”

  Elizabeth said nothing. The silence was punctuated by a log crackling on the hearth.

  “I promise you that I have not betrayed you,” he told her, shifting in his seat. “If anyone reveals what really happened at Cheshunt, I will say that I was there and that all you suffered was an intermittent fever. The only other people who know the truth are my wife, Mrs. Astley, and the midwife who attended. I do not think the midwife poses a risk—she was brought blindfolded to the house. My wife will say as I instruct her. That leaves Mrs. Astley. If she admits anything, I will dismiss it as nonsense, and suggest that she has cracked under questioning and is making it up. I was at Cheshunt at the time, after all, and my testimony will carry greater weight than hers.”

  “Why are you covering up for me, Sir Anthony?” Elizabeth asked, astounded. He looked gravely at her.

  “My lady, although I cannot but deplore your fall from grace, I served your father and I serve your brother. I am loyal to the House of Tudor, and I am a devout Protestant, like yourself. You are King Henry’s daughter, and should any evil hap befall King Edward, those who follow God’s word will look to you as the preserver and defender of true religion within this realm. So I will say nothing to place you in jeopardy. For my brethren on the council, I cannot speak. Some would bring you down—they are not very farsighted, I fear. So it is up to you now. You must shift for yourself as best you can.”

  Gratitude welled up in Elizabeth’s heart. She would never have expected to find such a staunch ally in this correct and unbending lawyer.

  “I can never thank you sufficiently,” she said, weak with relief. “And I hope you do not think too unkindly of me. I was but fourteen, and inexperienced in the ways of the world.”

  “It is those who have had the care of you that are to blame,” said Sir Anthony sternly. “And now, I must return to London. Make no mistake, you are not out of danger yet. Use your mother wit to escape it. I wish you well.”

  He rose and bowed, still stiff and awkward in her presence, then was gone before she could utter further words of thanks.

  When Elizabeth returned to her privy apartments, she found them deserted apart from two maids who were standing there looking rather frightened, and Blanche Parry.

  “I’ve been looking for you, my lady,” she said, in her lilting Welsh voice. “Everyone is summoned to the great hall.”

  “Then we had best go down,” Elizabeth told her.

  Sir Robert Tyrwhit had gathered the whole household together. Striving to stay calm, Elizabeth took her seat on the dais, and when the last stragglers had come scurrying in, he stood beside her and addressed them all.

  “I am to tell you that the Lord Admiral has been committed to the Tower on a charge of high treason,” he began in
his reedy voice. “He has plotted to overthrow the Lord Protector, his brother; he intrigued to marry his ward, the Lady Jane Grey, to the King; and most heinous of all, he schemed to take the Lady Elizabeth here to wife, and purposed to rule the kingdom himself.”

  There were gasps and murmurs of shock and disapproval. Sir Robert held up his hand. “All here will be questioned. If you know nothing of these high matters, you have nothing to fear. But there are some among you who have acted rashly. Mrs. Astley and Master Parry have been arrested and taken to London by Sir Anthony Denny for interrogation.” Elizabeth flinched, aghast at this news, then forced herself to look impassive, even though she was near to tears.

  “In their absence,” Tyrwhit continued, “the council has deputed me, Sir Robert Tyrwhit, to take charge of the Lady Elizabeth’s household. You will take your orders from me now. That is all. You may disperse to your tasks.”

  As the servants scattered in their several directions, murmuring fearfully of what they had heard, Sir Robert turned to Elizabeth.

  “I regret to inform you, madam, that Mrs. Astley and Master Parry are being committed to the Tower,” he told her in a low voice. Elizabeth found she could not speak. She buried her face in her hands and let the tears run through her fingers, staying there weeping silently for a long time, with Sir Robert standing impassively by.

  “I beg of you, set them free, they are as innocent as I am,” she sobbed at length.

  “I’m afraid I cannot do that,” he replied. “And their innocence, like yours, is yet to be proved.”

  “I was under the impression that it was guilt that had to be proved,” Elizabeth said sharply, dabbing at her eyes. “Have they confessed anything?”

  “I think you should rest, madam,” Tyrwhit said, ignoring her question. “I will talk with you again when you have composed yourself.”

  Reluctantly, Elizabeth rose.

  “Attend to your mistress,” he instructed Blanche Parry, who was hovering at the edge of the dais.

  “I go now,” said Lord Paulet, pulling on his gloves. “Are you content to remain here in charge of this investigation?”

  “Yes, my lord.” Tyrwhit nodded.

  “Do your best to obtain more evidence of treason; I make no doubt you will find it here. The Protector wants a watertight case before he sees his brother executed.”

  “How far am I to press my Lady Elizabeth?” Tyrwhit wanted to know.

  “As far as you like. Let her stew for a while,” Paulet advised. “Leave her be for a day or so, give her time to consider. I am sure she has much to tell us.”

  “And if she incriminates herself? She is His Majesty’s sister, after all.”

  “That will depend. If she admits to the alleged immorality, or even to compassing marriage, then persuade her to lay the blame on her servants, Astley and Parry. But if you uncover evidence that she was a party to the Admiral’s treason, then the law must take its course. The council would have no alternative but to enforce it, if justice is to be served.”

  Sir Robert pulled at his beard, frowning. “And the penalty?”

  “Death by beheading or burning,” replied Paulet with a grim look.

  Elizabeth tried desperately to concentrate on her books, but she was aware that not far off, her people were being interrogated, one by one. Those servants who attended her were subdued, nervous, and clearly frightened to enter into conversation with her. Only Blanche Parry, dear, faithful Blanche, seemed happy to keep her company. Blanche had stayed with her throughout the past two days, sleeping on a pallet in her chamber, serving her meals and acting as her tire-woman. Of course, Blanche was not Kat—no one could ever replace Kat, whom she was missing and fretting about dreadfully—but her presence was a calming one.

  It was strange that Sir Robert had not summoned her back for questioning. Since they had spoken in the great hall, she had not seen him. She had remained in her apartments, going through the motions of daily life and expecting any minute to be called to his presence, but he had sent no word. That worried her. Only by talking to him could she divine any sense of what people were saying about her—and this she was desperate to know. Surely, if anyone had said anything against her, he would have asked her about it. Surely he would. It was the not knowing what was happening that was eating at her.

  In the end, she could bear the suspense no longer.

  “Go to Sir Robert,” she ordered Blanche, “and tell him that I have remembered certain matters that I forgot to tell Sir Anthony Denny. Hurry now.”

  An hour later, there was a knock on her door, and Sir Robert entered.

  Elizabeth remained seated and bestowed on him a regal nod.

  “Madam, you have something to tell me?” he inquired.

  “Yes,” she said. “I recalled that I wrote several letters to the Admiral about everyday matters. One was to ask for his help in recovering Durham House from the Lord Protector. And then I remembered that, when Mrs. Astley went to London, she heard gossip that the Admiral hoped to marry me, so she wrote to him asking him not to visit me for fear of suspicion.”

  “Is that all, my lady?” Tyrwhit asked, a touch irritably. “I think you must have more to tell me.”

  “In truth, sir, I cannot think of anything else,” Elizabeth said innocently.

  “Madam, think of your honor, and the peril that might ensue from your failure to disclose pertinent facts. You are but a subject, and bound by the laws of this realm. We know that the Admiral behaved dishonorably toward you and that Mrs. Astley did little to prevent him—rather, she seems to have encouraged him. What a meddlesome woman she is. Look, madam, if you will be open with us about what happened, no blame will attach to you. All evil and shame will be imputed to Mrs. Astley and Master Parry. His Majesty and the council will take into account your youth, and be merciful.”

  “Mrs. Astley and Master Parry did nothing evil or shameful,” Elizabeth replied firmly, determined to protect her servants. “I will not accuse them falsely just to please you.”

  “Madam, I do see in your face that you bear some guilt,” Tyrwhit challenged.

  “Then you must have something wrong with your eyesight, sir,” Elizabeth retorted spiritedly. “I have nothing to confess to you, for there is nothing to confess.”

  “But there was some secret understanding between you and the Admiral that you would marry?” Sir Robert persisted, ignoring the jibe.

  “There was never any such understanding,” Elizabeth stated.

  “Did Mrs. Astley suggest that you consider such a marriage seriously?”

  “No,” she lied. “And I would never consider marrying anyone without the express consent of His Majesty and his council; nor would Mrs. Astley or Master Parry have expected me to marry the Admiral without such consent.”

  Sir Robert looked at her, sitting there so self-possessed and calm. Oh, you are a clever one, he thought. Yet you will not best me in the end.

  “Well, we shall talk of this more anon,” he said, preparing to leave her. “Astley and Parry are being questioned in the Tower, even as we speak, so no doubt we shall have a great deal to discuss at our next meeting.”

  “I doubt that very much, sir,” Elizabeth declared defiantly.

  The next day, Sir Robert was back. Maddeningly, he did not say if he had had word from the Tower. Elizabeth was in an agony of suspense, wondering what was happening in that fortress of ill repute. She had never visited the Tower, so she could only imagine it, but knowing what had happened to her mother there, and to Katherine Howard, she always thought of it as a horrible place where lives were snuffed out and dreadful tortures applied. The Admiral was languishing there now, and she had lain awake all last night wondering what was happening to her dear Kat and good Master Parry…She feared that their interrogators would not be so nice in their methods of questioning. And was poor Kat shivering in a dank dungeon? She could not bear to think of it. It was all she could do to keep her own head in the face of this danger.

  Sir Robert sat down at t
he table, uninvited. Elizabeth closed her book slowly.

  “Come on now, madam, let’s have the truth,” he said. “Confess that you agreed to marry the Admiral.”

  “I cannot confess to something I never did,” she pointed out.

  “He seems to think you were willing,” Tyrwhit offered.

  “He was ever in hope,” she said. “I did not encourage him.”

  “But you did consider the matter.”

  “I talked about it with Master Parry and Mrs. Astley after Parry had visited the Admiral in London, but as a possibility only.”

  “Yet you approached the Admiral and asked him to lend you his London house.”

  “He is my stepfather,” Elizabeth said. “My own house was taken by his brother, my Lord Protector. I did not know who else to ask for help with finding accommodation. I but wanted to be able to visit my brother the King at Christmas.”

  “Hmm,” murmured Tyrwhit. “You have a good wit.”

  “I have need of it, when you twist everything I say,” she retorted.

  “I am trying to help you,” he said. “You are young. No one will blame you for behaving rashly. It is the Admiral whose guilt we seek to prove.”

  “Then you must ask elsewhere, for I was not a party to it,” Elizabeth declared.

  It had been going on for a week now, and she had not broken under the pressure of questioning, or betrayed her servants. Still she did not know what was being said about her in the Tower, but the fact that Sir Robert kept going over the same ground with her gave her hope that neither Kat nor Parry had revealed too much.

  Sir Robert was becoming increasingly irritated; it was clear that he really believed she was concealing something. Today he looked haggard and peeved.

  “Do you know what people are saying about you?” he asked. “They are saying that you also are in the Tower because you are with child by the Admiral.”

  “How dare they!” Elizabeth cried, shocked into an outburst. This was far too close to home for comfort. “These are shameful slanders!” It grieved her that the people should think ill of her.

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