The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  “Are you sure we cannot persuade you, madam?” Paulet persisted.

  “Very sure,” Elizabeth said firmly. “And now, gentlemen, you have exhausted my strength. I must rest. I pray you leave me in peace, and bid you farewell.”

  Shaking their heads, the lords left the chamber. After seeing them out, Kat returned.

  “They’ve gone,” she said in a relieved voice.

  “I’ll wager they’ll be back,” Elizabeth predicted. “They’ll pester me until I give in.”

  “I’m not so sure,” Kat opined. “They seemed uncertain of their ground. I heard them saying something about dealing with the Lady Mary first. I didn’t like the sound of it.”

  Elizabeth felt a stab of alarm. “Neither do I,” she said. “For when they have dealt with the Lady Mary, for certain they needs must deal with me. We must be on our guard. I think, Kat, that it is time for another relapse.”

  That evening, there was an urgent knocking at Elizabeth’s door.

  “It’s me, Master Parry, with important news!” a voice cried. Kat put down her sewing and hastened to admit him, as Elizabeth, who was sitting up in bed reading, clutched her shawl tighter about her.

  “Lady Jane Grey is proclaimed queen in London!” Parry cried, breathless. “I had it from a merchant who stopped at the tavern on his way north. She has gone in state to the Tower to await her coronation.”

  “How dare they!” cried Elizabeth, fiery with indignation. She found herself feeling fiercely protective of Jane, whom she was certain was an unwilling accomplice in all this. Quiet Jane, who loved nothing better than to be left alone with her books and her studies. “It is quite clear that Northumberland married his son to poor Jane so that he could place them both on the throne as his puppets. He has a taste for power now and doesn’t wish to give it up. It is madness! I know the English people—they will not accept it. A monarch cannot be forced upon them.”

  “Many are muttering against it,” Parry told her. “There was some cheering at the Tower, but mostly the people are angry. They do not know the Lady Jane, but they love the Lady Mary.”

  “Well, that is something,” Elizabeth said grimly. “And what news of the Lady Mary?”

  “Supposed to be in Norfolk still, madam. She was summoned to court but it appears she was warned off, because she suddenly fled to her estates in the eastern shires.”

  Had Cecil gotten word to Mary too? Elizabeth wondered. Strange, after what he had said to her all those years ago about supporting a Protestant succession. But perhaps it had been someone else. Or perhaps his admirable principles extended to championing the lawful heir, whatever her faith.

  “What shall we do?” Parry was asking plaintively.

  “Nothing,” said Elizabeth decisively. “We lie low here—I shall lie low literally—and wait upon events. That seems to me the safest course.”

  There followed several anxious days in which there was no news. Elizabeth was desperate to know what was happening, and sent Parry daily to the tavern in the village to see if he could pick up any gossip, but the locals had nothing to add to what he had already heard.

  John Astley was of the opinion that the council had too much on its hands to worry about Elizabeth for the moment.

  “You may be right,” Elizabeth said cautiously. The Astleys and Master Parry were closeted in her bedchamber; they were the only members of the household who knew her sickness was diplomatic. “And I have no intention of drawing any attention to myself.”

  “The longer this goes on,” Parry said, “the more likely it is that the Lady Mary is managing to elude them. For if they had taken her, we would have heard by now.”

  “Indeed,” Elizabeth said cautiously. “But let us not count our chickens yet.”

  “There is talk in the village that large numbers are rallying to the Lady Mary’s banner,” Master Astley reported the next day. “I know not if this is true, but there may be some substance to it.”

  Elizabeth curbed a surge of optimism.

  “Pray for a happy outcome!” she enjoined them all. “This is in God’s hands now.”

  It was just over a week since the Lady Jane had been proclaimed queen when Kat came hastening into Elizabeth’s privy chamber with her husband and Master Parry hot on her heels.

  “The Lady Mary has been proclaimed queen!” she cried. Elizabeth shot up out of her chair, and a smile spread across her face. There could not have been better news!

  “In London?” she asked excitedly.

  “Yes, and in all the shires! There was a proclamation made in Hertford this morning.”

  Elizabeth thrilled to hear this. The right line restored, and herself once more next in the succession. She was suffused with a great warmth toward her sister, who had, through her courage and presence of mind, made this possible. And she was boundlessly grateful too to God, who had shown His hand in the cause of truth and justice.

  “The whole country has rallied to Queen Mary!” Parry declared. “Northumberland is taken—he was apprehended in Cambridge after his army deserted him—and his sons too. He is now in the Tower, and his fate all but certain.”

  “The usurper Jane is there too,” John Astley added. “Although whether she will suffer death for her treason is doubtful.”

  “She is very young,” Elizabeth said, recalling the slight, red-haired child she had last seen at Chelsea, and remembering how rashly she herself had behaved when she was Jane’s age. She felt pity for Jane, that poor innocent tool, who had been led unwillingly into treason and might now pay the price for it.

  “I’ll wager she had no choice in the matter, and that it was all Northumberland’s doing,” Kat put in. “He’s the one who should suffer for it, not that poor girl.”

  “I know my sister will be merciful,” Elizabeth said. “She has a kind heart, especially where children are concerned, and Jane is not much more than a child.” She paused for a moment. “Queen Mary. It has a ring to it, yet it seems strange that a woman should rule.”

  “Strange indeed,” Astley commented with feeling, “and unnatural, a woman holding dominion over men.”

  “In my experience, a lot of wives do that,” Parry grumbled drily.

  “I am sure she will be guided by her councillors,” Astley said. “A woman’s role is to obey and serve.”

  “Not if she can help it,” muttered Elizabeth mischievously. The men frowned.

  “The Queen will marry, of course,” Kat said. “She must marry, because she needs a son to succeed her.”

  “Isn’t it a bit late for that?” her husband queried. “Her Highness is thirty-seven, rather old for bearing children.”

  “Little you know,” retorted his wife. “At least she must try.”

  “Her marriage will bring one advantage,” Parry observed. “Her husband can offer her guidance and make decisions for her.”

  “That in itself might be fraught with problems,” Elizabeth stated thoughtfully. “If she marries a foreign prince, he might interfere too much in the affairs of the realm. Yet if she marries an Englishman, his rule might raise jealousies and factions. And think: As queen, she will wield dominion over her subjects, yet how is she to reconcile that with the obedience that a wife owes to her husband, who is her lord and master? That is a question unanswerable.”

  “It is indeed,” replied Parry, impressed by Elizabeth’s acute logic.

  “It will take all her wit to solve it,” she said. “Yet what is of greater concern, to me and to many, is what will happen to the Protestant Church in this realm. The Queen, as we all know, is a staunch Catholic.”

  “Is it too much to hope that she might extend tolerance to those of the new religion?” Parry wondered. “After all, she has been under constant threat for practicing her own faith these past years.”

  “My sister is stiff in her opinions,” Elizabeth said. “Still, she has come to the throne on a tide of popular approval. She will surely wish to retain the goodwill of her Protestant subjects.”

  “Or
she might see that approval as a mandate to return England to the old faith,” John Astley pointed out.

  “You are shrewd, sir,” Elizabeth commented. “Well, we will soon know, and we must pray for a happy outcome. For my part, I shall play it cautiously, and I urge you all to do the same. It may be possible to hunt with both hare and hounds in this matter. Now, if you will excuse me, I must write to Her Majesty, congratulating her on her happy accession. And then we must go to London to greet her, without delay, so hurry and make ready! All other considerations aside, this is a joyous day!”

  The royal cavalcade had just come into sight, and Elizabeth, waiting on the road to Wanstead, spurred her horse. Behind her rode her close attendants and two hundred mounted men, all clad in the Tudor livery of green and white. She knew she looked impressive in the saddle, straight-backed in her pure white raised-damask gown, her red locks loose about her shoulders.

  She had not seen Mary for five years now. Her sister had spent the greater part of Edward’s reign immured in the country, fighting her interminable battles with the King and council over religion. Elizabeth had expected her to look older—Mary was, after all, middle-aged now—but she was quite unprepared for the sight of the Queen’s prematurely lined face.

  At first, the impression she got was one of magnificence. Mary had always had a penchant for lavish dress, but today she looked truly majestic. Her gown was of purple velvet, her mantle of crimson lined with ermine, and she sparkled with jewels. As a virgin and a queen, she wore her red hair loose too, but closer up you could see that it was finely streaked with gray. And her face, with its heavy brow, piercing, wary eyes, blunt nose, and thin, pursed lips, looked haggard and tired in the cruel August sunlight.

  But there was no time to reflect on her sister’s changed appearance. The Queen must be greeted, and with suitable deference. With a graceful arching movement, Elizabeth dismounted from her horse, then knelt in the dusty road, head bent.

  “Sister!” Mary’s deep, gruff voice exclaimed as she too dismounted and hastened toward Elizabeth. Grasping her by the hands, she raised her, embraced her, and kissed her, nor would she let go of her hand as she spoke to her.

  “It is a great pleasure to see you,” she said, smiling with genuine warmth. “I am delighted that you came to meet me.”

  “I rejoice in Your Majesty’s glorious accession and great good fortune,” Elizabeth told her, returning the smile. “None is more overjoyed than I to see you triumph over your enemies.”

  Mary was so elated by the universal acclaim that had greeted her victory that she was willing to forgive all but her most deadly enemies. In this expansive and merciful mood, she was also prepared to overlook Elizabeth’s unfortunate religious views and the scandal that had attached itself to her name four years ago—having herself experienced the impact of that rogue’s charm, she was inclined to believe that Elizabeth had been more sinned against than sinning—and to suppress her disturbing suspicions about the younger woman’s paternity. Nothing must be allowed to mar these heady days of rejoicing. All the same, as she moved on to greet and kiss Mrs. Astley and the other ladies in Elizabeth’s train—many of them noblewomen who had joined it en route—she could not but be aware that, next to her radiant, simply garbed, nineteen-year-old sister, she herself looked old, worn, and overdressed. And she did not want her subjects to see her in that light, for she was aware that she must be perceived not only as being equal in health and strength to the great task ahead of her, but also as a great catch in the marriage market, and capable of bearing the heirs that were essential for a Catholic succession.

  Side by side—Mary, despite her misgivings, had insisted—the sisters rode into London at the head of the great procession, preceded only by the Earl of Arundel carrying the shining sword of state. At Aldgate, the Lord Mayor came bowing low, offering the mace of the City, with a loyal speech of welcome. Mary returned it to him with grateful thanks for his faithfulness and homage. Then the trumpets sounded and the long cavalcade slowly moved forward, through streets packed with happy, cheering people, waving, clapping, and weeping with joy. Houses had been hung with banners and streamers and bedecked with flowers, and everywhere you could see placards painted with the words, VOX POPULI, VOX DEI—the voice of the people is the voice of God.

  “God save the Queen!” the citizens cried. “God save Great Harry’s daughter!” “Jesus save Her Grace!” And sometimes, amid the joyful din, Elizabeth heard her own name shouted aloud. Of course, it was but natural: Until the Queen bore a child, she was next in line to the throne, the people’s hope for the future. She thrilled to their greetings, basking in their approval—a thing so fickle, she was well aware, but something to be assiduously courted and cherished.

  In the distance, the guns on the Tower wharf boomed a salute. On her left, Mary was nodding and graciously raising her hand in acknowledgment of the people’s acclaim. Behind rode the Lady Anna of Cleves, grown rather fatter than when Elizabeth had last seen her, waving enthusiastically at the crowds. Then came the great ladies of the realm, the lords and gentlemen, the foreign ambassadors and the officers of the royal household—more than a thousand persons in all.

  By and by, they came to the drawbridge that led to the great gate of the Tower, where the Queen was to lodge for the next fortnight. Here, the noise of the guns was quite deafening, drowning out the loyal oration given in the Queen’s honor by a hundred well-scrubbed children. Mary smiled in acknowledgment, then proceeded across the bridge and into the fortress, her sister reluctantly following.

  As the vast bulk of the mighty Tower loomed above her, Elizabeth knew a moment of panic. She had never been to this place before and did not want to enter it now. Yes, she knew it was a royal palace before all else, but since two queens had been beheaded here, the Tower had acquired a more sinister reputation. She shuddered, thinking of how her mother must have felt when she arrived on that long-ago May afternoon, accused of treason. Of course, Anne had not come in triumph through the main gateway, but by the watergate, where traitors were brought by barge. Kat had told her that.

  She must not dwell on Anne’s fate now, she told herself. This was a happy, joyful occasion, and it must not be overshadowed by morbid thoughts. Yet she could not stop herself from wondering whether sad little Jane Grey could hear all the cheering from the place where she was being held prisoner. The poor girl must be quaking in her shoes at the thought of what might happen to her, although Elizabeth knew, because Mary had told her, that the Queen was resolved to be merciful.

  The inner bailey was packed with spectators, but Elizabeth’s eyes were immediately drawn to the four prisoners who knelt on a grass sward near the gateway. She knew them all. Foremost was the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, now eighty, who had been accused of treason by Henry VIII but spared the block because the King had died before he could sign the death warrant; he had spent the whole of Edward’s reign in the Tower. There was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, whom Mary had once hated for supporting the annulment of her mother’s marriage; but Gardiner, another staunch Catholic, had shown his mettle by resisting the religious reforms of Protector Somerset, and thus ended up in prison. Behind him knelt Somerset’s widow, the once proud Duchess Anne, an old friend of the Queen’s; she had been shut up here after her husband’s execution. And lastly, a young man, Edward Courtenay, in whom flowed the royal blood of the Plantagenet kings of England. He had been a prisoner since childhood, when his family had fallen foul of King Henry.

  The four prisoners, still kneeling, lifted their hands and begged for the Queen’s mercy. Mary’s eyes filled with tears. “These are my prisoners,” she declared. “They must be set at liberty.” Then she dismounted and walked over to them, raising and embracing each in turn. When they had been joyously reunited with their relations and friends, the Queen and her entourage proceeded to the palace that adjoined the White Tower, where Mary could take her ease for a space before embarking on the monumental task of ruling her kingdom.

  As s
he followed Mary, reining in her frisky white palfrey, Elizabeth’s eyes strayed unwillingly to the east, and the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. There lay her mother’s mortal remains—hurriedly coffined in an arrow chest, Kat had said, since no other provision had been made for them on that terrible day seventeen years ago. And in front of the chapel, a greensward, innocent looking and peaceful in the brilliant sunshine. It had been there that the scaffold had stood…

  Elizabeth jerked her head around quickly, unable to bear the sight of it anymore. She would avoid this place in future, she promised herself. Mercifully, the royal apartments faced the river, so she had no need to come this way again.

  For Elizabeth, expecting the Queen to keep a splendid court like their father’s, the ensuing weeks brought some disappointments. The treasury was all but empty, and Mary could not afford to be lavish, but she did insist on ceremony, and she was happy to indulge her love of music, dancing, and drama.

  “The people expect it of me,” she told Elizabeth. “They like display and magnificence. That was why our father was so popular. But I have not the means to pay for such spectacles as he put on. And as an unmarried lady, I must be circumspect and have a mind to decorum.”

  “I do miss the masques of my father’s day,” Elizabeth complained to Kat after having sat through yet another morality play. “But the Queen says she has no money to lavish on such extravaganzas. At least they are staging Ralph Roister Doister next week. I saw it performed at my brother’s court, and it is well worth seeing. I could not stop laughing, because the characters are constantly at cross purposes.”

  “The Queen never lacks for money when it comes to dressing sumptuously,” Kat observed, starting to brush Elizabeth’s hair.

  “In my opinion, she overdresses,” Elizabeth said. “She changes too often, and she wears too many jewels. Her tastes are Catholic, of course.” She was aware that her own plain attire stood out—an overt statement of her supposed virginity and her Protestant faith—among the peacock finery worn by the ladies of the court.

 
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