The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  It had been some years since she had been in such a difficult dilemma. She thought back to that earlier time when she had faced danger. She had been lucky to escape so lightly, she knew, but it had been a close thing. She shuddered to think how her reputation had been all but ruined. Even after she had thought herself safe, that midwife had come forward with her lurid tale, and Elizabeth had thought herself discovered. Fortunately, most people had dismissed the woman’s story as far-fetched, and of course, she couldn’t be sure that it was the Lady Elizabeth whom she had attended. It all sounded most contrived.

  Elizabeth had suffered, though, and not only from grueling anxiety. Her courses had returned, but they were much more painful than before. She was cursed with megrims, stomach pains, and jaundice. Often, her many ailments had obliged her to take to her bed; things had gotten so bad that at length, the Lord Protector himself had sent the King’s physician to her. Thanks to his kindly ministrations, she had slowly recovered, although she doubted she would ever be as well as she had been before.

  In the end, the shameful gossip and the odious whispering had died down, and Elizabeth had firmly put the whole terrible business behind her, resolved to give lie to the rumors and to conduct herself in such a manner that no scandal should ever again attach itself to her name. And this she had accomplished—witness the somber clothes, as became a virtuous Protestant maiden, the laying away of her jewels, the pious observances in chapel, the frugality with which she lived, and the esteem in which she was now held at court and in the kingdom at large. The King her brother loved her; again she was his sweet sister Temperance. He corresponded with her regularly and looked forward to her visits, even though he still insisted on the strictest formality on the rare occasions when they were permitted to be together; and whenever he summoned her, she went to court splendidly attended, as the great magnate she was. Her only indulgence was her music, something she could not live without, and she never let a day go by without playing for hours on her instruments or welcoming musicians to her house.

  Kat bustled in, an older Kat, a touch stiffer in the joints since her sojourn in the Tower, but very firmly in charge of the household again. After promising the council never again to speak of any marriage plans for her charge, Kat had been restored to Elizabeth at the end of that terrible summer, although by then Elizabeth and Lady Tyrwhit had developed a grudging respect for each other. It was Lady Tyrwhit who, fond of collecting proverbs, had reminded Elizabeth of Cicero’s saying Semper eadem, which she now took for her motto, remembering that long-ago conversation with her father, whose memory she so revered. But Lady Tyrwhit could never have replaced Kat. Elizabeth had not forgotten their blessed and joyful reunion, both of them weeping on each other’s shoulders, mindless of rank and etiquette…

  “Is something wrong?” Kat asked, clearing away plates and cutlery from the table. Although the letter had arrived the night before, Elizabeth had told no one about it.

  “I think I have one of my headaches coming on,” Elizabeth said, folding up the paper and putting it in her pocket. Her headaches—often so bad that she could not see to read—were a legacy of that other time. But this time she was feigning.

  “Can I get you anything?” Kat was all concern. “A brew of feverfew?”

  “No, thank you. I think I will rest awhile.” Elizabeth went into her bedchamber and lay down on her bed. Then she remembered that she always had to have the curtains closed when she suffered a megrim, so she got up and drew them before lying down and taking out the letter again. At this rate, her head would be aching for real.

  The letter was from John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland and Lord President of the Council, the man who now ruled England in the name of the fifteen-year-old King. Northumberland had overthrown Somerset four years before, and sent him to the block some two years later.

  “There’s a kind of justice to it,” Kat had said. “After all, Somerset had his own brother executed. The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.”

  Kat rarely mentioned the Admiral, and when she did, it was with sadness. She had been smitten with the man, that much had become clear, but Elizabeth did not blame her. He had had a talent for making women respond to his charm. Her own feelings about him were still confused. She was sure now she had never truly loved him. Probably she had been merely infatuated, beguiled by the attentions of an older, attractive, and experienced seducer. Even now, remembering his dark good looks, she could still feel a thrill in her heart—a thrill that was tempered by sorrow and, yes, resentment, for Thomas Seymour had, through his foolish scheming, brought her nothing but trouble and pain. She had almost been brought down in his dramatic fall, her youthful folly threatening to implicate her in his rash grab for power. But he had paid for that, dearly, and she hoped he was at peace now.

  She still shuddered when she thought of the precariousness of her situation back then. But now, it seemed, she might again be in peril. She did not like or trust Northumberland, a cold, ruthless man, unscrupulous and greedy for power. His dismissive manner toward her, on the rare occasions she visited the court, had led her to suspect that he held her to be of very little account. He controlled the young King, and through him the country; he had no time for the King’s bastard sisters. The only thing she could admire about Northumberland was his staunch Protestant faith. There was no doubt that he would defend it to the death.

  The King her brother was another such. “The new Josiah,” they called him, and it was true. He was zealous in his faith, and he had been harsh to their sister Mary, constantly wrangling with her over her illegal celebration of the Mass in her household. Mary, it was rumored, had even tried to flee the realm. Were it not for the threats of her cousin the Emperor, the most powerful prince in Christendom, she would stand in the greatest peril indeed. Elizabeth had always taken care never to get involved in this interminable quarrel.

  Yet Edward let Mary largely alone these days. He was ill now, this strange, wise-beyond-his-years boy. It had begun last year with a fever that many attributed to measles or a mild attack of smallpox, but since then the King’s health had inexorably declined. He had not been seen in public for months now, and it was rumored that he was suffering from a fatal consumption.

  Elizabeth had begged, again and again, these past weeks, to be allowed to visit him, but Northumberland had steadfastly refused to allow it, ignoring her outraged protests.

  “I wouldn’t mind, but he allowed Mary to visit the King,” she had complained to Kat, and then dashed off another angry letter to Northumberland, demanding to see her brother. Again, the Duke put her off with excuses, much to her mounting chagrin. At length, she had ridden out determinedly from Hatfield, making for London, but the Duke’s men had met her on the road and ordered her to go back. Frustrated and angry, she had sent Edward letter after letter, but had received no reply.

  Her suspicions had mounted. If rumor spoke truth, and the King were indeed dying, why the secrecy? It was as if Northumberland were plotting something, she thought perceptively. Then, in May, had come the news that the Duke had married his son Guildford to Lady Jane Grey, and alarm bells began ringing inside Elizabeth’s shrewd head.

  “So he allies the Dudleys with the blood royal,” she fumed to Kat. “I mistrust his intentions. She was betrothed to Somerset’s son.”

  “I don’t understand why it bothers you,” Kat said perplexedly, thinking that Elizabeth was worrying over trifles. “Surely the Duke can marry his son to whomever he pleases?”

  Elizabeth shook her head at Kat in exasperation and sighed.

  “It has pleased him to marry Lord Guildford to a girl who is in line to the throne,” she explained.

  “But the Lady Mary is next in line, then yourself,” Kat said. “Your father passed an Act of Parliament decreeing it, and he made provision for it in his will.”

  “Yes, and who comes after us? The heirs of my father’s sister Mary. That means the Duchess of Suffolk and her daughter, Lady Jane.”

  “But the Lady Mary and yourself both come before her,” Kat pointed out, looking puzzled.

  “And we are both bastards, and in law, strictly speaking, we cannot inherit. Only that Act of Parliament, the work of our father, stands between us and the House of Suffolk.” Elizabeth got up and began pacing up and down. “A king’s will has no force in law. An Act of Parliament can be repealed. I hope I am mistaken, but I fear that the Duke has some sinister design up his sleeve.”

  Kat’s jaw dropped. “He wouldn’t dare?”

  “We shall see,” Elizabeth said grimly. “I would put nothing past him.”

  The letter had confirmed her worst suspicions. Northumberland had invited her to court, saying that the King was unwell and wished to see his dearest sister. How strange, she thought. He has been ill for months and I have been forcibly kept from seeing him. Why this summons now?

  Was Edward really dying? Had he asked for her, hoping she would reach his side in time to say a last farewell? If that were the case, she must go to him, her poor brother. Truly, her heart grieved for him; she was consumed with sorrow. To have shown so much promise, then been brought to this, so young—it did not bear thinking about.

  But supposing this was a trap set by Northumberland to snare her? She still thought it very odd that after months of preventing her from seeing the ailing King, the Duke was now summoning her to his bedside. And in that she smelled danger. Oh, what should she do?

  Kat came in, and seeing her wakeful, padded softly over and sat down, resting her cool hand against Elizabeth’s brow.

  “No fever, thank goodness. How are you feeling now, my lamb?”

  “Not good,” Elizabeth murmured, holding Northumberland’s missive beneath her skirts, crumpled in her hand.

  “Has it affected your eyes?” Kat asked. “Only there’s a letter come for you. Here.”

  She held out a folded paper bonded with plain wax. There was no imprint of a seal. Elizabeth raised herself on the bed and opened it. There were just a few words printed across the page: On no account go to court, if you value your life. There was no signature, and the handwriting was unfamiliar. Or was it?

  “Who is it from?” Kat asked. Elizabeth ignored her.

  “Kat, can you bring me my coffer—that one, on the chest,” she indicated. Frowning, Kat fetched it and placed it on the bed. Resting on one elbow, Elizabeth went through the papers it held, then extracted a couple and held them side by side with the note she had just received.

  “As I thought,” she muttered. William Cecil had done a good enough job of disguising his handwriting—good enough to deceive most people, but not her. There were too many similarities, but then perhaps that was intentional.

  “Oh, my head,” she groaned, stuffing all the papers back into the coffer, locking it and clapping a fist to her brow. “Can you get me some poppy syrup, please. I need to sleep.”

  “Of course,” Kat assured her, then paused. “What was in the letter? And what were you doing?”

  “Oh, nothing,” Elizabeth sighed. “Just looking up something Master Cecil had written. Boring estate business. All I need just now.” For this to succeed, she thought, even Kat—especially garrulous Kat—must be kept safely in ignorance.

  When Kat came to look in on her that evening, she was tossing and turning and complaining of severe pain in her stomach and head.

  “Summon the physician,” she moaned distractedly. When he arrived, brow creased in concern, she put on, she felt, the most convincing performance.

  “A summer ague, my lady,” he pronounced after testing her urine and feeling her pulse. “A disorder of the humors brought on by the heat.”

  What a load of nonsense, she thought, and wondered briefly if the man was worth his stipend. But, she reasoned, he was helping her, even if he was incompetent.

  She sighed a little and flung her arm across her forehead.

  “Will you write me a certificate?” she asked peevishly. “You see, I have been summoned to see the King, and I so wanted to go, but…” Her voice trailed off. “I want him to know that there is a good reason for my failure to attend him, especially as he is unwell himself.”

  “Oh, no, Your Grace must not go near the King,” the doctor counseled. “Judging by the reports I have heard of his condition, it would do neither of you any good. I will write a certificate now.” He turned and rummaged in his bag.

  “And will you kindly dispatch it for me?” Elizabeth wheedled.

  “Of course, my lady,” he said, scribbling.

  Elizabeth lay back on the pillows, satisfied that she had put off the danger for the time being.

  On the ninth day of July, Elizabeth received another letter from Northumberland. Kat brought it to her as she lay in her sickbed in her darkened bedchamber.

  “What does the Duke say?” she asked weakly.

  Kat broke the seal and briefly scanned the page.

  “Oh, my God,” she said in a choked voice. “The King is dead, God rest him.”

  “Dead?” echoed Elizabeth, swallowing. “Of what?”

  “A consumption of the lungs,” Kat whispered. “The rumors were true.”

  Elizabeth immediately regretted staying away from the court. Her brother had been dying, had needed her, and she had not been there. She saw in her mind’s eye fleeting images of a fat toddler imperiously clutching a gold rattle, a solemn child diligent at his books and his prayers, a young ruler sitting like an icon on his throne. Her little brother, the hope of his House. How her father would weep this day.

  Tears flooded her pillow as she tried to imagine her brother’s sufferings in his last days. Kat sat there stroking her hair from her temples, dabbing at her own eyes with a kerchief.

  Eventually, Elizabeth began to wonder what this tragedy would mean for her. Had her sister Mary been proclaimed queen, as was her right in law? And was she herself now the next heir?

  Rousing herself from her grief, she reread the Duke’s letter.

  “There’s something I mislike here,” she murmured. “He writes in haste, he says, to inform me of the King’s passing, which was three days ago, on the sixth. Three days ago, Kat.” Elizabeth sat up. “Why has it taken him so long to inform me?”

  “No doubt he is very busy,” Kat said uncertainly. “There will be much to do. And he has to make all ready for the new Queen, your sister.”

  “Did he delay in informing her as well?” wondered Elizabeth. “He cannot welcome her accession. He has given her much grief and clashed with her over religion many times these past years. I doubt she will be too forgiving. And then we shall see what happens to our fine Duke!”

  Kat stared at her. Elizabeth’s seemingly irrational fears were beginning to make sense. Suddenly, she understood why her young lady had taken to her bed.

  The next news, picked up by Parry in the tavern at Hatfield, was even more alarming. Mary had not gone to London, nor had she been proclaimed queen; instead, she was in Norfolk, raising an army, if rumor were to be believed. Hearing this, Elizabeth immediately staged a relapse, resolved to keep to her bed until she knew more.

  Her peace was disturbed by the arrival of a deputation from the council. Alarmed, she refused to receive them.

  “I am not well!” she declared.

  “But my lady, they are insisting,” a frightened Kat pleaded.

  Knowing herself bested, Elizabeth shrank down beneath the covers, pinched her cheeks to give them a hectic, fevered appearance, and lay prone. The lords filed in respectfully, acclimatizing their eyes to the gloom. Kat stood by the bedhead, for propriety’s sake.

  “We are sorry to find you so unwell, my lady,” Sir William Petre, the Secretary of State, said gently, peering at the bed. “I would that our business could wait, but I fear it is pressing.”

  “I am listening,” Elizabeth said listlessly.

  “My lord of Northumberland has been concerned about the succession. England does not want a Catholic queen. I speak of your sister, the Lady Mary, you understand. The ques
tion of bastardy was raised.” Petre gulped nervously. “I am to tell you that it was the late King’s will and desire that the Crown be left to his cousin, the Lady Jane Grey, who is trueborn and a stout Protestant.”

  Elizabeth was outraged. Little Lady Jane to be queen? No one would allow it. The people would not want it. Jane herself would not want it, surely. The King must indeed have been deranged in his last illness—deranged or suborned by Northumberland.

  “Parliament has settled the succession first on my sister and then on me,” Elizabeth reminded the lords, keeping her voice low for effect, and suppressing her fury. “The Lady Jane comes after us and her mother, my Lady Suffolk.”

  “With respect, Your Grace,” Petre continued, “in law, the Lady Mary and yourself are bastards, and King Edward set aside your claims in a device he signed on his deathbed, which is soon to be enshrined in an Act of Parliament.”

  “Then it has as yet no force in law,” Elizabeth pointed out.

  “That is true,” chimed in Lord Paulet. “Which is why we are here. My lord Duke offers you a million crowns to renounce your claim.”

  Elizabeth resisted the urge to sit up and scream at them. Scurvy knaves! she wanted to cry. You’ll not deprive King Harry’s daughters of their rights! But she curbed her temper.

  “A bribe?” she asked drily.

  “An inducement,” Paulet amended.

  “Call it what you will, I cannot accept,” Elizabeth told them. “Has my sister been offered a similar bribe?”

  “Not as yet.” Petre coughed nervously.

  “Then you must first make this agreement with the Lady Mary, during whose lifetime I have no claim or title to resign.” Reaching for her kerchief, she made a great show of mopping her brow. The lords looked at one another uncertainly.

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