The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  “Well, she looks like the queen she is,” Kat said. “It is expected of her.”

  “The people would love her whatever she looked like,” Elizabeth observed, “if only because she is our father’s daughter and of the true Tudor line. And she will keep their love because she is determined to be merciful. Tonight, she told me that only Northumberland is to suffer death for the late conspiracy. The Lady Jane is to be spared, although she must stay in the Tower. She is lodged in the Gentleman Gaoler’s house with every comfort.”

  “She’s a fortunate young lady,” Kat said. “I hope the Queen is not being too merciful for her own good.”

  “She could hardly have executed the whole council.” Elizabeth smiled grimly. “All of them were involved in it. But she needs those experienced statesmen—rascals the lot of them—to help her rule. So she has pardoned them all.”

  “She is a good lady at heart,” Kat said, “and I am glad she seems well disposed to you.”

  Mary had given much evidence of that. Whenever she appeared in public, which was often during these early weeks of her reign, she insisted that Elizabeth be in the place of honor at her side, and invariably held her hand. Sometimes, it was quite obvious that the cheers were as much for Elizabeth as for the Queen, but if Mary noticed, she gave no sign. All was harmonious between the two sisters—until the third Sunday in August.

  The previous Sunday had seen Mass celebrated, by the Queen’s decree, in the chapel of St. John the Evangelist in the White Tower for the first time since King Henry’s day. Mary had emerged with tears in her eyes, having given thanks that she was now, at last, free to practice her faith openly again, and she had been gratified to see so many courtiers at the service. Yet she was sad not to see her sister among them.

  On the following Saturday, as they sat together on the dais sipping wine after a very amusing evening spent watching Ralph Roister Doister in the presence chamber, Mary turned to Elizabeth.

  “It would make me so happy if you would come to Mass with me in the morning,” she said.

  Elizabeth looked uncomfortable.

  “Your Grace, I fear I cannot. I am of the reformed faith.” She fingered the little gold book at her girdle; it contained the fervidly Protestant prayer composed by her brother on his deathbed. Mary had been given a similar gold book, but disdained to wear it. Instead, while permitting Edward to be buried according to the reformed rite, she had ordered a private requiem Mass for his soul, to be celebrated in her own chapel.

  Mary frowned. “Sister, I fear you have been brought up in error. I care too much for you to see you given over to heresy. Will you not open your mind a little and join me in worship?”

  “I wish I could say yes, madam, truly I do,” Elizabeth said, looking distressed. “It grieves me that I cannot be of one mind with Your Majesty on this issue.”

  “It grieves me too,” Mary said. “You are my heir, and it is unthinkable that my heir should be of the reformed faith.”

  “Might I, with respect, remind Your Majesty that, during our brother’s time, you were under great pressure to abjure your faith?” Elizabeth asked. “You followed your conscience and stood firm. Having been through that, can you not appreciate my position?”

  “Yes, but mine is the true faith, and I was right to defend it,” Mary declared. “It is my dearest wish that my people return to the Catholic fold. It is for this, I believe, that God sent me a victory. I am to be the instrument through which His will is to be accomplished.” Her eyes were shining, and Elizabeth recognized the fervency that made it impossible for Mary to brook any views other than her own, a fervency that might make her dangerously intolerant.

  “So you see,” the Queen was saying, reaching over and squeezing Elizabeth’s hand, “it is very important to me that you at least attend Mass. Who knows, you may derive some spiritual benefit from it? And God may turn your heart.”

  “Alas, madam, what can I say?” Elizabeth replied. “The last thing I wish to do is offend you, but I cannot betray my faith.”

  Mary’s manner chilled. “Will you at least give the matter some thought?” she persisted.

  “I will,” Elizabeth promised, saddened by the rift that she had opened. “And now, madam, I beg leave to retire. I promise I will pray for guidance.”

  Mary nodded, unsmiling. “Good night, Sister,” she said.

  Elizabeth curtsied low and made her way out of the chamber, the lords and ladies bowing as she went.

  Simon Renard, the new Spanish ambassador, watched the young woman leave. He had been standing behind the Queen’s chair, and when Elizabeth had gone, he leaned forward, sure of Mary’s ear. As the representative of her beloved mother’s country and a staunch Catholic, the suave and clever Renard—a handsome and experienced diplomat and intriguer—had quickly charmed his way into the Queen’s confidence. Already, she had taken to consulting him even before her own councillors.

  “Majesty,” he said quietly. “Forgive me, but I could not help overhearing your conversation with the Lady Elizabeth.”

  Mary turned to him, clearly upset by Elizabeth’s response to her request.

  “I fear for her soul, Simon,” she said.

  “Do not trust her,” he replied. “She is full of enchantments, and knows well how to manipulate people.”

  “She seems sincere enough in her beliefs,” Mary said. “Of course, she has been corrupted from her youth, and her mother was a heretic, but I think that in this matter she is ruled by genuine scruples of conscience.”

  “Madam,” Renard said patiently, “you are goodness itself, too good to see faults in others. Do you know why your sister will not go to Mass? It has nothing to do with scruples, I am sure, but everything to do with her wanting to be seen as the Protestant heir, the hope of those who would obstruct Your Majesty’s sacred duty.”

  “No, my friend, I cannot believe that of her. She has shown herself utterly loyal and supportive these past weeks.”

  “Think on it,” Renard persisted. “Those clothes she wears—are they not the habit of a Protestant? Yes, they are simple, but they are worn for effect, and since all the other ladies are nobly attired, they stand out. Does it not occur to you that that is deliberate? She is very clever, your sister. If I may offer my humble advice, command her to go to Mass. You are the Queen, and she is bound to obey you.”

  Mary shook her head. “I am loath to constrain her. This is, after all, a matter of conscience. I should prefer to cozen her gently, so that she comes to the true faith of her own free will.”

  Renard sighed. “Madam, I will pray that she responds to your kindness. Forgive a hardened cynic if he fears it will be wasted.”

  “We shall see,” Mary told him, sighing. “I will pray for a happy outcome.”

  The following Saturday, Elizabeth received a summons to the Queen’s privy chamber. Knowing what was to be asked of her, and unhappy after a week in which relations between her and Mary had been slightly less warm than hitherto, she approached in trepidation. But Mary smiled and raised her from her curtsy with her former affection.

  “I am sorry I have not had much time to spare for you,” she began. “I have been with my council for most of the time. There is an overwhelming amount of state business to attend to, and many great matters to discuss.”

  She moved to the prayer desk that stood near the window and looked up at the ornate crucifix that hung on the wall above it. “There has hardly been time even for my usual devotions, but God will understand, I make no doubt. After all, some of it is His business.”

  She turned, a regal figure in crimson silk and cloth of gold.

  “It is of religion that I wish to speak to you. Have you thought on my request?”

  “I have thought of nothing but, madam,” Elizabeth told her, with a heavy heart.

  “All I ask is that you accompany me to Mass,” the Queen said. “Your absence has been noticed. There are those who would have me command you, but I should prefer you to come of your own free will.”
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br />   “Alas, madam, my conscience cannot permit it,” Elizabeth declared, looking genuinely distressed.

  “Sister,” Mary said sternly, “I know that in our brother’s time many were constrained to heresy. You were at an impressionable age, too young to know your error. No, hear me out.” She stilled Elizabeth’s protest with a raised finger. “I must tell you that I am resolved to restore the Mass and bring England back in penitence to obedience to Rome. However, it is not my intention to compel or constrain my subjects’ consciences. What I hope for is that they may be brought to the truth by God working through learned and virtuous preachers. And to this end, if you are in agreement, I will provide some good doctor to give you instruction, so that you may learn the truth about the Catholic faith.”

  Elizabeth felt trapped. She could not accept. Conscience apart, the people must know her to be a champion of the reformed faith. Yet she was painfully aware that, if she wanted to keep the Queen’s love and goodwill, she must agree at least to take instruction. But the thought was anathema to her.

  “I cannot,” she said at length. “Forgive me, madam.”

  “I am disappointed in you,” Mary told her, and turned away.

  That disappointment soon showed itself in public. There was no more standing at the Queen’s side on ceremonial occasions, no holding of hands, no affectionate embraces. And those like Renard, who loved Mary and distrusted Elizabeth, made sure that the reason for the rift was soon openly known.

  Alone in her chamber with Kat, Elizabeth wept.

  “I was so happy,” she sobbed. “Happy to be back at court at last, and to have the Queen’s favor and the people’s love. And now she has placed me in this intolerable position and I am made to seem her enemy, who wished her nothing but good.” She blew hard into her kerchief.

  “Why not just go to Mass?” Kat suggested. “Go through the motions. The Queen will be delighted, and will receive you back into favor.”

  “And be a hypocrite?” Elizabeth asked, stung. “Once the pretense is adopted, I shall have to keep it up. And what of those who will not compromise their faith? What will they think of me? Did you hear they were demonstrating in London, and someone threw a dagger at a priest who had been sent to celebrate Mass in Saint Paul’s? Many people bitterly resent the changes that are being made. I am their only hope for the future, and if I am seen to be attending Mass, they will be bereft.”

  There was a tap on the door, and Blanche Parry entered.

  “My lady, the French ambassador is without and asks to see you,” she said.

  Lifting her eyebrows, Elizabeth rose, dabbed at her eyes, and hastened to her mirror. No, he would not see that she had been crying. She straightened her French hood, pinched her cheeks, smoothed her black skirts, and stood back to admire herself. “This is going to be interesting,” she murmured, opening the door to the outer chamber.

  When she appeared, tall and dignified in her black damask gown, the ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, bowed flamboyantly. Elizabeth had observed him about the court over the past weeks, and had concluded that he was clever, wily, and no friend to her sister. Indeed, he had supported Northumberland’s bid to make Lady Jane Grey queen.

  “Ambassador, welcome,” she said, extending her hand. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

  “Madame, it is so gracious of such an excellent and beautiful young lady as yourself to receive me,” de Noailles declared. His teeth gleamed whitely through his neat beard as his dark, saturnine face creased into a smile. Elizabeth knew flattery for what it was, yet she still thrilled to it, and acknowledged it graciously with a slight upturning of the lips.

  “It has come to my knowledge that the question of religion has become a sword between Her Majesty and yourself,” the envoy continued smoothly. “That is most regrettable. The problem is that the Queen, while inclined by nature to be tolerant, is under the influence of the Spaniards, and you know how zealous the Spaniards can be when it comes to matters of faith. I need not mention the Inquisition…”

  Elizabeth hid another smile. It was no secret that the French and the Spanish, those two great European rivals for power, cordially hated each other, and were at pains to play each other off in a bid to secure the friendship of England. Indeed, for decades, for this very reason, the kings of England had played a clever game, one small David between the two great Goliaths of France and Spain, forging alliances and breaking them in order to rein in the power of these mighty Catholic kingdoms. De Noailles’s blatant maneuvering was hardly unexpected.

  She waited for him to continue.

  “My King wishes me to assure you of his friendship,” he went on. “There are those in France who would prefer not to see the English throne occupied by a queen whose family connections understandably led her to look kindly upon Spain and all its doings, however repugnant they may be to the rest of us. And I am sure you yourself, madame, find your position very difficult. With France behind you, you will be stronger.”

  What was the man proposing? That with French backing, she set herself up as a rival to her sister? She would not be such a fool.

  “Thank your master for his kindness,” Elizabeth said aloud. “If I ever need it, rest assured I shall call on him.”

  “You may need it sooner than you think, with Monsieur Renard dripping poison into the Queen’s ear,” de Noailles said. “Madame, you are young and beautiful. The people love you. The love they have for the Queen will soon evaporate when she forces them to accept the Catholic faith. Then France will be ready to champion your cause.”

  “Is not your King a Catholic too?” Elizabeth asked innocently.

  “Yes, but he has no desire to see England allied with Spain,” de Noailles stated, revealing the steel beneath his courtly exterior.

  “I will remember that, Ambassador,” Elizabeth said, extending her hand again to show that the interview was at an end.

  “Go carefully,” warned Kat, when he had gone. “He is virtually inciting you to commit treason.”

  “Is he?” Elizabeth asked impishly. “I thought he was assuring me of French support in my quarrel with the Queen over the Mass. And I committed myself to nothing.”

  “Madam,” Renard said urgently, “make no mistake, that villain de Noailles is deliberately cultivating the Lady Elizabeth’s friendship with a view to setting her up in opposition to yourself. I have seen them in converse together about the court. They are as thick as thieves.”

  “I cannot believe that my sister would be disloyal to me,” Mary said, dismayed.

  “She has been disloyal in this matter of the Mass,” Renard pointed out. “She is a heretic and she is intriguing with your enemies. Her popularity is a threat to your security.”

  “My people love me!” Mary cried, shocked. “That is preposterous.”

  “Ah, but how long will that love last when this present mood of elation has passed?” Renard asked. “All governments become unpopular at some stage. It is the nature of power—you cannot have the approval of the people in everything you do. But waiting in the wings to make mischief is this sister of yours, who is clever, ambitious, and sly.”

  Mary slumped in her chair and sighed.

  “I have to admit,” she confessed wearily, “that despite my loving behavior toward her, and the fact that I have tried to feel for her as a sister should, I cannot love or trust Elizabeth. I can never forget that she is the daughter of the Concubine, the woman who ousted my sainted mother from my father’s affections. Every time I look at her, I see Anne Boleyn, and I remember the misery that woman caused me. Is my mistrust and dislike down to my own fantasies, or is Elizabeth really a threat to me?”

  “You should trust your instincts, madam,” Renard said with conviction.

  “I will take your advice, dear friend,” the Queen assured him.

  They were now at Richmond Palace, and the Queen had made public her determination to restore the old faith, and her resolve not to force her subjects into compliance. Nevertheless, Protestan
t clergy were forbidden to preach, which prompted many to defy the Queen’s decree and then found themselves committed to prison. Archbishop Cranmer, who had pronounced Mary’s mother’s marriage to King Henry invalid, was among them. There were violent protests in London, and many Protestants deemed it wise to flee abroad.

  There was much talk of the Queen’s marriage. The word at court was that she was considering Prince Philip of Spain, son of the Emperor Charles V and one of the most ardent champions of Catholicism in Europe.

  “The English will never accept it,” Elizabeth told an anxious de Noailles as they strolled by the Thames at Richmond. “Not so much because he is a Catholic, but because he is a foreigner.”

  “Such a marriage would be a perpetual calamity for all Christendom,” de Noailles said vehemently. “But fortunately, it is not the only match under consideration. Bishop Gardiner is pushing for the Queen to marry Cardinal Pole.”

  Elizabeth stared at him.

  “But he is to be our new Archbishop of Canterbury. And surely he has taken vows of celibacy?”

  The ambassador shrugged.

  “The Pope, I am sure, would be most accommodating. The Cardinal would make an excellent choice, for he has the royal blood of your Plantagenet kings in his veins.”

  “I doubt he is willing,” Elizabeth said. “I heard that the Cardinal counseled the Queen to stay single. To me, that would seem the safest choice, but I fear she would never agree.”

  “She wants a Catholic heir,” de Noailles reminded her. “As for a husband for her, there is always Edward Courtenay, whom Her Majesty freed from the Tower. He comes from a great Catholic family, and he too is of the old royal blood.”

  “But he is just twenty-seven!” Elizabeth remarked.

  “The same age as the Prince of Spain, I believe,” the envoy chimed in.

  “And he has been shut up in the Tower for years. It is said he cannot even ride a horse.”

 
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