The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  “Well, unless you tell us the truth, men will come to all manner of rash conclusions,” Tyrwhit said.

  “I have told you the truth,” Elizabeth stormed.

  For answer, he took a letter from his pocket. “The Protector sent this for you. In it, he urges you, as your earnest friend, to disclose everything you know.”

  “Which I have done,” she retorted. “But thank my lord anyway for his consideration. To be truthful, I am more concerned about the slurs on my honor that are bruited about, for they are shameful slanders. I will write to his lordship, desiring him to declare publicly that these tales are but lies, wicked lies about His Majesty’s own sister! I beg of you, Sir Robert, ask the Protector if I may appear at court, so that I may show the world that I am not with child.”

  “I will relay your request to the Protector,” Tyrwhit said, “but he will look more favorably on it if you were to admit that you and Mrs. Astley agreed that you should marry the Admiral.”

  Elizabeth sighed. “How can I do that? We never agreed any such thing, and Mrs. Astley would never have had me marry anyone without the consent of the King’s Majesty and the council. Sir Robert, I say this on my conscience, which I would not put in jeopardy, for I have a soul to save.”

  Tyrwhit, impressed despite himself, gave up for the moment. But he was to return, day after day, and try every tactic he knew of—persuasion, bullying, threats—to make Elizabeth confess. And every day, he found himself getting nowhere.

  Until the day came when a large scroll of depositions arrived from the Tower. Then his fortunes changed.

  When next Sir Robert came to her chamber, he had a triumphant look about him.

  “Read these, my lady,” he said, almost pleasantly, laying the parchments before her.

  Elizabeth read them. They were depositions made by Kat and Master Parry, and bore their signatures—in straggling handwriting that betrayed their turmoil and fear. Her heart began thudding, and she felt faint. They had revealed everything that had happened—the morning romps, in increasingly shameful detail, the Admiral’s shameless pursuit of Elizabeth, the cutting of her gown, the Queen finding them both in a compromising situation, Elizabeth’s banishment, and—more recently—the Admiral’s scheming to marry her. Mercifully, there was no mention of her lost child, but there was more than enough to ruin her reputation. Her cheeks burned with shame. She wished she could dissolve into a void. She could not catch her breath.

  “Sordid reading, my lady, is it not?” Sir Robert observed. He had been watching her closely.

  Elizabeth found her voice. “As you said, my lord, I was young, and swayed by a practiced rogue.”

  “Even so, you should have been mindful of your honor,” he rapped at her. “You are a princess of the blood.”

  “That I know, sir, and I was mindful, to my limited power. It was the Admiral’s conduct that was sordid, not mine. I committed no treason. There is nothing here that can incriminate me, for I never plotted or consented to marry the Admiral. Nor has Mrs. Astley committed any crime. She may have been foolish and indiscreet, but that was all.”

  “Oh, you are clever, madam,” Tyrwhit declared, maddened at her evasiveness. “But I will tell you this: I am still of the opinion that you and Mrs. Astley have more to tell us, that you have not revealed all you know. As for Master Parry, he is a worthless sort, a spineless man of straw. We shall certainly be hearing more from him.”

  A man of straw indeed, Elizabeth reflected bitterly, recalling how Parry had sworn he would rather be torn apart by wild horses than betray her. Yet she could not find it in her heart to condemn him. She knew it would matter much to him, making such a promise and then breaking it through fear.

  “How dare you malign him!” Elizabeth retorted, furious. “I dread to think how they extracted that confession from him.”

  “I assure you that very little pressure was required,” Tyrwhit revealed. “He and Mrs. Astley suffered a short spell in the Tower’s dungeons, then they were brought face-to-face. Oh, they talked! And they will talk again, mark my words. You all sing the same song, but you had obviously decided on the note beforehand. You will change your tune soon enough.”

  Elizabeth shot him a withering look. She could not rid her mind of her faithful servants, incarcerated in freezing, dark dungeons.

  “I shall require you to make your own deposition,” Sir Robert told her. “I will return tomorrow.”

  Elizabeth read over what she had written. Most of it merely confirmed what Astley and Parry had said. All she would admit to was knowing that the Admiral had desired to marry her, and that there was gossip about them. She declared that the rumor of her being with child was false, and asked for it to be publicly refuted. There! There was nothing here that could incriminate anyone. With her customary flourish, she signed her name, looked up at Sir Robert, and smiled sweetly, knowing that, despite everything, she had bested him.

  When he had gone, glowering, she wrote again to the Lord Protector, begging him to do all in his power to salvage her reputation and her good name. “I beseech you, my lord, to have my innocence publicly proclaimed,” she urged.

  It took no fewer than four letters in this vein before Somerset replied with an assurance that he would issue a proclamation declaring that the rumors were lies. And it was at this point that the relentless questioning ceased.

  “Is your investigation completed, Sir Robert?” Elizabeth asked mischievously, coming upon her tormentor and his disdainful wife in the gardens. It was a crisp, sunny morning, and she was taking her customary brisk walk.

  “My instructions are to proceed no further, since the Lord Protector is satisfied of your innocence,” he replied stiffly. His expression said that, even though the Lord Protector was satisfied, he was certainly not, but he forbore to say anything more.

  Elizabeth was filled with an overwhelming sense of relief. She was safe. Her secret was safe. But the relief was tinged with anxiety.

  “What of my servants? Are they not innocent too?” she asked sharply.

  “They are to remain in the Tower for now,” Sir Robert informed her, raising a hand to still her protests. “Do not fret, they are comfortably lodged. But to be plain with you, neither is fit to return to your service. Instead, on the council’s orders, my lady wife here is to act as your governess.”

  Elizabeth stared in dismay at the high-nosed woman beside him, who was now belatedly curtsying to her. She remembered Lady Tyrwhit from Katherine Parr’s household, and knew she had never liked her. Lady Tyrwhit had been one of those who, as the Admiral’s amorous interest in Elizabeth escalated, had grown increasingly disapproving of the girl. And Lady Tyrwhit had no doubt witnessed the Queen’s grief over the affair. Thus she was not likely to look kindly upon Elizabeth now. Nor did her glacial stare betray any warmth of character. Instead, there was overt hostility.

  “Saving your pardon, madam, but Husband, I have no desire to serve this young lady,” Lady Tyrwhit said boldly.

  “I am sorry, Beth, but the council has ordered it.” Sir Robert turned to Elizabeth. “I hope you will thankfully accept her, my lady.”

  Elizabeth was distraught. “Mrs. Astley is my governess,” she cried, “and neither she nor I has so demeaned ourself that the council should seek to replace her.”

  Outraged, Lady Tyrwhit retorted tartly, “Seeing you had Mrs. Astley for a governess, you need not be ashamed to have an honest woman put in her place!”

  “I want no other governess!” wailed Elizabeth, bursting into tears and running back toward the house. Once there, she locked herself in her bedchamber, threw herself on her bed, and gave way at last to a passion of weeping. And so she stayed, all day and all night, refusing food and drink, mourning the loss of her dear Kat.

  On the morrow, she emerged pale and red-eyed, and sought out Sir Robert.

  “I must tell you, sir,” she said shakily, “that I fully hope to recover my old governess.”

  “The love you bear her is to be wondered at,” Tyrwhi
t sneered. “In truth, if it were left to me, you would have two new governesses, for it looks as if you need them.”

  “I do not care what you think,” Elizabeth told him. “I have written to the Protector to express my dismay at your wife being appointed my governess, because people will say that I deserved to have such a one because of my lewd behavior, which is most unfair.” Her eyes brimmed with tears again. “And I have asked him, once more, to proclaim my innocence to the world, for he has not yet done so.”

  “I wish you joy of your requests,” Tyrwhit said with finality, and bent to his papers.

  He had accused her of being pert with him! The Protector had apparently lost all sympathy for her, and insisted that she have Lady Tyrwhit as her governess. And here the woman was, transferring her things into Kat’s chests, making Kat’s chamber her own, while poor Master Astley desolately removed his wife’s belongings to a meaner room in the north wing.

  Elizabeth now found that the only time she could be alone was at night, and even then Lady Tyrwhit locked her door and slept in the outer chamber, forbearing to join her husband in their marital bed. Not, Elizabeth told herself, that she could ever imagine them paying the marriage debt!

  Lady Tyrwhit’s supervision was relentless, and Elizabeth chafed under the oppressive new regime she devised, being confined to the schoolroom for hours on end, and being made to sew through the long evenings. How she hated that! Playing her lute or virginals was forbidden, as were dancing and riding out in the park. Elizabeth thought she would suffocate with the tedium. Even Master Ascham grew resentful at Lady Tyrwhit’s constant presence during lessons.

  “I have my orders,” she would say whenever he protested that there was no need for her to stay.

  Lady Tyrwhit’s presence in her life was bad enough, but Elizabeth was also worrying constantly about Kat, and missing her dreadfully. No one would tell her anything of what was happening in the outside world, and she was anxious Kat was being ill treated or pressed to reveal more. Already, she had cracked under pressure. Worst of all, Elizabeth had no one in whom she could confide. Master Ascham was constantly watched, so closely that she dared not even pass a note to him, and she was unable to write to Sir William Cecil, for it was impossible to smuggle out a letter, so vigilant were her guardians.

  Again and again she begged Sir Robert to petition on her behalf for Kat’s release, but he repeatedly refused. She began to wonder how long she could bear this existence. Her courses had dried up, she had begun to suffer appalling headaches, and there were days when she felt so nervy that she could not rise from her bed.

  Then there came the day—early in March it was, and the buds green on the trees—when Sir Robert summoned Elizabeth and her household to the great hall once more.

  “The former Admiral,” he announced, “has been attainted for treason by Parliament, and his life and all his goods are forfeit.”

  Elizabeth sat still in her high seat, breathing deeply, trying to master her pounding heart. Attainder, she knew, was the preamble to execution. The Admiral would die, as surely as night followed day. The man who had first stirred her senses, who had romped with her, kissed her, and briefly joined in the most intimate of all embraces with her, would soon be carrion for worms. She wished she could weep for him, but all eyes were upon her, and she must not betray by any gesture that she was affected by the news. Nor did she think she could weep; indeed, she wished she could feel more. There was only a dreadful sense of shock, and regret…and most of the regret was for herself. What a fool she had been.

  They were all dispersing now, and Lady Tyrwhit was there, as ever, at her back as Elizabeth rose to return to her apartments, her shoulders and her spirits drooping.

  “Well, he had it coming to him,” that lady opined as they reached the schoolroom. “It’s no more than he deserves.”

  “Perhaps if his abilities had been recognized and put to good use, he would not have needed to resort to treason to achieve his desires,” Elizabeth challenged her. “It was not just or fair that one brother had all the power, and the other none.”

  “Each to his desserts,” Lady Tyrwhit observed. “He was a scoundrel all his life. Especially to his poor wife.” There was no mistaking the venom in her tone.

  “He was ever kind to me,” Elizabeth pointed out, wondering why she felt impelled to defend the Admiral. Was it that she needed to defend her own conduct?

  “Yes, we know all about that!” retorted the governess.

  “You mistake my meaning deliberately,” Elizabeth accused her.

  “There is no excuse you can make for him,” Lady Tyrwhit said dismissively. And it was true, Elizabeth realized reluctantly.

  That night, she could not sleep, but kept tossing and turning, her mind in torment. To begin with, her fears were for Kat, for if the Admiral was now judged guilty of treason, might not Kat be convicted as an accomplice? And what would happen to her then? She was not of high rank, so beheading might be seen as too good for her. That left burning, which was the fate of female traitors. Elizabeth howled when she thought of that, pressing her face into her pillow so that no one should hear her.

  Eventually, she did drift off to sleep, but then she was troubled by a ghastly nightmare in which there floated before her, out of the mouth of Hell, bodies writhing in agony, lapped with flames of fire. Three had grinning, severed heads, suspended above bloody, ragged necks. Two were women, and to her horror Elizabeth beheld Katherine Howard, her pretty face livid with intolerable heat; the other she dared not look at, but she knew it for her mother. And the third—in her dream she was forced to open her eyes, and then she beheld the handsome visage of the Admiral, mouthing wordlessly at her, reaching out charred hands…

  She woke screaming, then stuffed the sheet in her mouth. Coming back to reality was almost as bad as the nightmare she had just experienced. She lay there listening—all she could hear was Lady Tyrwhit snoring in the next room. She relaxed a little. The woman had not heard her. Then she found herself weeping, weeping for the Admiral who had loved her with his body and set her afire with his kisses; for little Queen Katherine, who had sinned carnally and betrayed her marriage vows; and for her mother, of whose love she had been cruelly deprived, and who had been accused of the vilest crimes.

  All condemned to death for indulging in stolen love, for enjoying the sweetest of life’s pleasures. Living beings, full of vitality and life, capable of arousal and passion—yet all had found that it was such a small step from the warm tumbled bed to the cold ax and the grave. Elizabeth suspected that she would never again surrender to desire without fearing that it might have fatal consequences; would never again give herself to a man without remembering the fate of these three.

  “I have some tidings for you, madam,” Sir Robert said, a few days later. “Astley and Parry have been released from the Tower.”

  “Oh, that is good news!” Elizabeth cried. At least there was some light in this present darkness. “When will I see them again? Are they returning here?”

  Sir Robert looked uncomfortable.

  “I fear not, madam. The council will not allow it.”

  “I will write to the Protector,” Elizabeth said defiantly.

  “It will do you no good,” he warned her.

  “We shall see,” she replied.

  When she saw the horseman through her window, she hoped that he had brought a reply from the Duke of Somerset. But when Sir Robert entered her chamber and she saw his grave mien, she realized that he brought news of far greater import.

  His eyes never left her face as he delivered it, with Lady Tyrwhit and Master Ascham standing by, watching her too.

  “Madam, it is my heavy duty to inform you that yesterday, the Admiral died on Tower Hill.” There was a brief silence.

  “God rest him,” Elizabeth said simply, betraying neither by word nor expression her inner turmoil.

  “I trust he did not suffer too much,” Ascham said quietly.

  “Bishop Latimer reported that he
died badly—dangerously and horribly, he said. God had obviously forsaken him.” Elizabeth sensed that Tyrwhit was saying this in the hope of provoking her into uttering something rash and indiscreet.

  “Did he say aught of my Lady Elizabeth?” Lady Tyrwhit asked. He has briefed her, Elizabeth thought.

  “He did write a final message, scratched with the point of a lace on his shoe, but it was considered treasonable, and was destroyed,” her husband said. “It was a foolish thing to do when he was about to face divine judgment.” He shook his head. “His fate I leave to God, but he was surely a wicked man, and the realm is well rid of him.”

  Elizabeth turned her back on them and stared out the window at the snowbound gardens below.

  “He was a man of much wit and very little judgment,” she said quietly, knowing they were all waiting on her every word. Well, she would say no more, however traumatized and confused she felt. One thing she had learned from this whole sad and dangerous business, and that was that she must in future keep her own counsel and never betray her true feelings. It was a harsh lesson for one who was just fifteen years old.

  CHAPTER 16

  1553

  As the tall young woman pulled back the curtains and opened her window, the sun streamed in, burnishing her waist-length wavy hair. Her face was pale, her posture dignified. The severely cut black gown set off her slender figure to advantage, but its high-standing collar lined with fine white lawn and its lack of adornment suggested modesty and purity. There was a gravity about her that made her seem older than her nineteen years, and yet there was something of the coquette too. One only had to look at the way she moved her delicate hands with their long white fingers, vainly displaying them to advantage against the black stuff of her gown.

  She moved to the table and picked up a letter, and her intelligent face registered a frown as she reread it for the third time. She certainly could not go hunting until she had dealt with this, or decided how to deal with it. But what should she do?

 
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