The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  “He can learn. He is well educated, extraordinarily handsome, and has a natural civility.”

  Elizabeth recalled the tall, fair young man whom she had seen about the court. He seemed a trifle weak-faced for her taste, not dark and dashing like…She pulled herself up. She had trained herself to forget the Admiral.

  “He is too naïve and ignorant of the court and society,” she pronounced dismissively.

  “Bishop Gardiner likes him well,” de Noailles observed.

  “That’s no recommendation!” Elizabeth laughed, but really, she knew, it was no laughing matter, because the hard-line Catholic bishop now enjoyed great influence with the Queen.

  “Of course,” de Noailles murmured, lowering his voice, “you yourself could marry Courtenay. It would be a marriage tailor-made for our times: the mingling of Tudor blood with Plantagenet blood, Protestant with Catholic.”

  Elizabeth looked at him coolly, well aware of what he was hinting at.

  “I have no mind to marry,” she told him.

  The ambassador looked disbelieving. “I think you are jesting with me,” he said.

  “I was never more in earnest!” Elizabeth retorted and walked on briskly, leaving him astonished.

  She sought out William Cecil, on whose advice she had come increasingly to depend, and found him in his lodging, helping his servant to stow away his belongings into a battered old traveling chest.

  “You are leaving court, William?” she asked sharply.

  Cecil turned a resigned face to her.

  “Yes, my lady. There is no place for me here anymore. My Protestant views are too well known, and it is remembered that I served the former government.”

  “But you will continue to serve me, I hope?” Elizabeth replied.

  “Of course, madam. It will be my pleasure.” Cecil smiled. “In fact, I am off to Hatfield this afternoon to arrange for the chimneys to be repaired.”

  “I rejoice to hear it,” Elizabeth told him. “Some of them are badly cracked.”

  “I did tell your steward to put the work in hand, madam, but I fear he has been dilatory.”

  “And I have not been there to prod him!” Elizabeth smiled. “Anyway, William, I have not come here to talk of chimneys. I need your advice. The French ambassador is suggesting that I marry Edward Courtenay.”

  Cecil raised his eyebrows. “I thought the Queen had plans in that direction.”

  “She does,” said Elizabeth, absentmindedly picking up and folding a shirt. “So why should de Noailles propose him for me?”

  Cecil frowned. “I fear there can be only one reason. My lady, this is not just a ploy to get you a husband. It smacks to me of treason!”

  “Aye, and to me too,” Elizabeth replied. “Yet I do not wish to forfeit the friendship and goodwill of the French King. I simply said I had no wish to marry.”

  “A clever reply,” Cecil approved. “Never commit yourself.”

  “I don’t intend to,” she smiled. “Had you heard that Cardinal Pole is also in the running to wed the Queen?”

  “Cardinal Pole? They’ll suit each other very well.” William chuckled. “They could spend all night saying their prayers!”

  He turned to her, the smile fading.

  “This Edward Courtenay,” he said. “He is not for you.”

  “Do you think I would have him?” Elizabeth retorted with a grimace.

  “Not for one moment,” Cecil said, grinning. “Just take my advice and go carefully in this matter. You are dicing with treason if you ever give any appearance of approving such a match.”

  “I will take care, dear friend,” Elizabeth assured him.

  “My Lady Elizabeth!” Courtenay sketched an elegant bow.

  They had met on the orchard path, coming from opposite directions. Elizabeth had been enjoying a long walk in the bright sunshine, attended by Kat—now very grand in her new role as lady mistress and companion to the Queen’s heir—and the bevy of maids who had been appointed to serve her.

  “Lord Edward.” Elizabeth smiled. This was not the first time that Courtenay had waylaid her. “I trust I find you well.”

  “It is Your Grace’s health that is more precious,” he replied. He was rapidly learning the ways of the courtier after his many years in the Tower.

  “I am all the better for seeing your lordship,” she told him, returning the compliment. He really was a likable fellow, for all that he seemed so much younger than his years.

  “Then, my lady, I hope it will please you to hear that the Queen has graciously consented to restore to me the earldom of Devon.” He had clearly been bursting to tell her.

  Elizabeth gave him an arch look. “If rumor speaks truth, my lord, she has a mind to advance you much further than that.”

  Courtenay’s expression turned furtive. He offered her his arm and steered her farther along the path, out of earshot of her women.

  “May I speak plainly, madam?” he asked.

  Elizabeth nodded. “Of course.”

  “Monsieur de Noailles has told me that the Queen’s Grace is set on marrying the Prince of Spain,” he confided.

  “Monsieur de Noailles is getting a little ahead of himself.” Elizabeth smiled. “I do not think anything is certain yet. The Queen blushes every time marriage is mentioned, and it is all her councillors can do to get her to talk about it. I know, for I’ve heard them grumbling.”

  “Ah, but we do not know what is discussed in secret,” Courtenay persisted. “I believe the ambassador has many spies, and that he knows things we do not.”

  “That’s as may be, my lord,” Elizabeth said, a trifle sharply. “All that matters to me is Her Majesty’s happiness.”

  “I think her singular desire is to marry Prince Philip,” Courtenay declared. “As for myself—well, my heart is set elsewhere.”

  “May I know the name of the lady,” Elizabeth inquired pleasantly.

  “It is yourself,” he breathed, looking at her amorously.

  Elizabeth pretended to be overcome with maidenly confusion.

  “Why, my lord,” she said, pressing a hand to her cheek, “I know not how to answer you…I am flattered, I assure you, but I need time to take this in. I had no idea, really.”

  “I hope you do not think me presumptuous,” Courtenay asked anxiously.

  “No, I—I am just surprised,” Elizabeth simpered.

  “I do not think the Queen will refuse her permission,” he said brightly.

  “Permission for what?” Elizabeth asked.

  “For us to marry,” he said, beaming eagerly. Poor boy, she thought, he must still be a virgin, having been locked up all those years. But marry him?

  “Let us not think of that yet,” she counseled hastily. “I must ponder on it. I had determined, you see, to live a single life.”

  “There are many good reasons why we should marry,” Courtenay urged. “We are both of royal blood, so we are near equally matched; we are of meet age; and I am in love with you, my lady.”

  Elizabeth turned away so that he should not see her smile. Poor fool, he had no idea what being in love was. To him, it was mere courtly protocol. But there was something more behind this, she suspected.

  “Did Monsieur de Noailles suggest this marriage?” she asked.

  “Yes, it was he who encouraged me to press my suit,” the naïve young man replied. “He said that our union would have King Henri’s backing.”

  “Indeed it would,” Elizabeth said. “However, much as you love me—and I am flattered that you do—I think we should wait awhile and test our feelings for each other.”

  “I hope you will not be a cruel mistress,” Courtenay pleaded.

  “I could never be unkind to so ardent a suitor,” Elizabeth told him. “And now, my lord, we must adjourn our talk, for the dinner hour approaches and I must make ready. Farewell.” She extended her hand, which Courtenay, dropping hastily to one knee, seized and kissed.

  “What was all that about,” asked Kat, eyeing his retreating ba
ck suspiciously.

  “Oh, another of my many proposals of marriage!” Elizabeth laughed. “Unfortunately, this one is in earnest, courtesy of the machinations of the French ambassador.”

  “I trust you turned him down and sent him off with a flea in his ear!” Kat bridled.

  “I played along with his little fantasy,” Elizabeth told her, looking mischievous. “I told him I would think on it, and dissuaded him from rushing off to ask for the Queen’s blessing. After all, he’s supposed to be her suitor. Nothing can come of it, I promise you.”

  Courtenay was clearly the man of the moment. Everyone expected the Queen to marry him.

  Elizabeth’s friends could talk of little else, and her privy chamber became a forum for gossip.

  “The courtiers are flocking to him, greedy for his patronage,” Parry said. “They kneel when they address him. Imagine!”

  “The nobles are cozening him with rich gifts,” John Astley put in. “My lord of Pembroke has just presented him with some fine steeds.”

  “What use will they be, since he hasn’t yet the skill to ride one of them?” Elizabeth smirked.

  “He has the skill to ride women, we hear,” Kat muttered.

  “What did you say?” Elizabeth pulled Kat around to face her. Kat looked at Master Parry, who reddened.

  “Saving your pardon, my lady, but it is being bruited about the court that my lord Earl is making up for lost time in the stews of Southwark.”

  Elizabeth smiled. “I’ll warrant the Queen doesn’t know that,” she said.

  “I hope he has the wit to be discreet,” Astley said. “Really, the man is insufferable, giving himself all these airs and graces. He’s already boasting about the splendid suit he will wear for his coronation.”

  Elizabeth’s smile faded. So much for his being in love with me, she thought. Not that she felt anything for Courtenay, but his overt maneuvering to marry the Queen was surely evidence that his protestations by the river had been purely self-seeking. It surprised her but it stung. How insulting to be jilted thus!

  “And the Queen has given him a ring that belonged to King Henry,” Kat was saying. “It was worth sixteen thousand crowns.”

  “It sounds as if she is seriously thinking of marrying him,” her husband opined.

  “My sister could not be such a fool,” Elizabeth declared, with a touch of bitterness. “He is shallow and empty, and she will soon see through his flattery.”

  Alone in her bedchamber that night, still prickling from Courtenay’s swift change of heart, Elizabeth looked into her mirror, seeking to salve her wounded vanity. Of course, Mary was the Queen, and a much grander match than one who was just heiress presumptive to the throne. But how could Courtenay compare Mary to her? The face that was gazing back at her so intensely was far more youthful and beautiful than the Queen’s, and surely a wonderful prize for any man…But not for Courtenay, she thought grimly. She was saving herself for someone far better than he…If, that was, she could ever find a man worthy of her rank and her love; a man for whom she would be willing to surrender her freedom; a man who could persuade her that marriage was worth the risks…

  “My Lady Elizabeth!” Courtenay swept off his hat and bowed low. The courtiers in the gallery stared.

  “Well met, my lord, at last,” Elizabeth said sharply, pausing to glare at him haughtily. “Tut, tut! I have been hearing disquieting rumors that your love is given to another, whose name I dare not speak.”

  Courtenay had the grace to look abashed.

  “Pay no heed to rumor, madam. My heart is yours and ever shall be.”

  “Ah, but is mine yours?” she answered softly, smiling mischievously, then continued on her way, leaving him gawping disconcertedly after her.

  Queen Mary gazed at the portrait of the young man in elegant black, whose manly pose—hand on hip—showed off to advantage his trim physique and muscular legs in their silken hose. Philip of Spain had dark brown hair, large, soulful eyes, a straight nose, very full red lips beneath a lighter brown mustache, and the prominent Habsburg jaw, which was not quite disguised by his short, neat beard.

  What was it that attracted one person to another? Was it purely looks or bodily attributes, or was it something of character that was revealed in a person’s face? Why was it that Mary, whose senses had never yet awakened to a man’s touch, yet who had cherished romantic dreams of all her many suitors, should have taken one look at Philip and felt her insides melting away? For he was beautiful in her eyes, the very embodiment of all that was desirable in the masculine form. And having taken that look, then drunk her fill, she was lost.

  Renard was watching the Queen closely. Her reaction to the portrait was obvious, and more than he could ever have anticipated.

  “Madam?” he said gently. Mary collected herself and smiled radiantly.

  “Yes, Simon, I like what I see,” she said.

  “He is the finest match in Christendom,” Renard pointed out. “He is the heir to a huge empire compassing much of Europe and stretching even to the Americas. He is famed for his wise judgment, his good sense, his sound expertise in government, and his moderation.”

  “Looking at him leaves me in no doubt of all that,” Mary said, “but forgive me, I must ask this. My ambassadors abroad have sent other reports that he is cold and cruel.”

  Renard shook his head ruefully.

  “They have been misled by the Prince’s enemies,” he declared. “He is not cold. He loved his late wife, and when she died in childbirth, he was grief-stricken.” Since then, he had been living with a mistress, but Renard refrained from telling Mary that. Such things were regrettable, but not unusual. It was the way of the world: Great men married for duty and bedded their mistresses for pleasure.

  “As for being cruel, madam, I can only think that your ambassador was of the new religion and offended by witnessing what follows upon those great acts of faith over which the Prince has sometimes presided.” Mary had heard much of these acts of faith—autos-da-fé, they called them, the long religious ceremonies staged by the Spanish Inquisition, at which large numbers of heretics and lapsed converts were exhorted to recant and perform acts of penitence; those who refused would be sentenced and handed over to the secular authorities to be tortured and burned at the stake immediately afterward.

  “As a good daughter of the Church, Your Majesty knows that such punishment is a heretic’s last chance of salvation,” Renard continued. “Thus, far from being cruel, His Highness has shown himself most merciful in his zeal for the Inquisition.”

  “Of course,” Mary agreed. “And he would be just the helpmeet I need to persuade this godforsaken realm to return to the true faith. Yet I have one other reservation, I fear.”

  “Tell me,” Renard encouraged her.

  A slow flush infused the Queen’s cheeks. “The Prince is but twenty-six, and I am thirty-seven. He might feel he is too young for me.”

  Renard laughed dismissively.

  “The age gap is a trifle, madam. His Highness is an old married man with a son of seven! And he is as eager for this marriage as you are. You have only to say the word.”

  “I don’t know…” Mary sounded doubtful and confused. “Believe me, I am inclined to this marriage, but I fear my council’s reaction. I am aware that many still cling privately to their heretical beliefs, and there are many too who would resent my taking a foreign prince as my husband. The English are very insular, Simon, and suspicious of foreigners. Some of them even think the French have tails!”

  “Now, that I can believe!” he chuckled. “But I would counsel that you broach the matter gently.”

  “I cannot broach it at all,” Mary said, her blush deepening. “I cannot face discussing such a delicate matter with so many gentlemen.”

  “Then I will ask my master the Emperor to make a written approach to them,” Renard said soothingly, wondering how on earth Philip would fare when it came to more intimate matters. “He will be tactful and accommodating, rest assured.”
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  “I’m not sure…,” Mary said again. “This is all too…too—”

  “What is it you fear?” Renard asked softly, regarding her sympathetically.

  “It is marriage itself,” Mary confessed, hardly daring to meet his eyes. “I have never felt that which is called love, nor have I ever harbored voluptuous thoughts. My father King Henry proposed many suitors for me, but nothing came of it, and in truth, I never thought much of marrying until God was pleased to raise me to the throne. I assure you, as a private individual, I would not desire it. But…” Her eyes strayed to the portrait and lingered there. “That is why I must leave it all to the Emperor, whom I regard as a father.”

  “I understand, madam,” said Renard avuncularly. “My master will do as you wish.”

  Elizabeth entered the council chamber white-faced and nervous, knowing full well why she had been summoned. There they sat, in a line along the far side of the table, these hard-bitten, influential men, with many of whom she was well acquainted. Some were staunch Catholics, some had gladly reverted to the old religion, while others, she knew, paid mere lip service to it, but all were desirous of keeping their places, which was why they were ready to turn on her now.

  As she seated herself in the chair facing them, the Lord Chancellor, Bishop Gardiner, frowned at her, bushy eyebrows furrowing above his big nose.

  “Madam, you should know that Her Majesty is becoming less tolerant of those who persist in heresy,” he began, “and she is particularly angered by your own failure to attend Mass.”

  “My lords, I had understood that Her Majesty had made it clear she would not compel or constrain men’s consciences,” Elizabeth stated, determined to hold her ground.

  “That is her position until Parliament determines upon the matter,” Gardiner conceded. “But is it her hope that her subjects—and above all her heir—will embrace the true faith as fervently as she does.”

  “We understand that the Queen has several times asked you to attend Mass with her, but that you have refused,” the old Duke of Norfolk, her great-uncle, barked at her. Age had not softened his martial manner.

 
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