The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “I refused on the grounds of my conscience,” Elizabeth protested, “and if the Queen’s Grace insists on constraining her subjects to obedience, then why did she issue proclamations leading them to believe otherwise?”

  As soon as she had said it, she wished she could have bitten her tongue out. In her anger, she had allowed her customary caution to desert her and had gone too far, certainly. Yet she had but spoken the truth. What other answer could she have made?

  The lords’ faces were grim. Some were muttering to one another.

  “That is a rude and disrespectful response,” Gardiner told her, his expression severe, “and this council censures you for ignoring the Queen’s wishes, not only in this matter of the Mass, but also for repeatedly failing to heed her honest requests that you put aside your plain garb and don more suitable attire.”

  “Is it now a crime to dress soberly and modestly?” Elizabeth retorted tartly. “Forgive me, I did not know.”

  “You know very well why you wear those clothes, and it has nothing to do with modesty. You do it so that the Protestants know you for their friend, to the despite of the Queen.”

  Elizabeth took a deep breath. Angry though she felt, it would do her no good to antagonize these ill-disposed men further.

  “I should like to see the Queen and explain myself to her,” she said. “I pray you, ask her to grant me an audience.”

  Mary kept her waiting for two days before the summons came to attend her in the long gallery at Richmond. During that time, Elizabeth had had leisure to reflect on her situation and discuss it with Kat.

  “I fear that a compromise is called for,” she said. “Much as I wish to be seen as a friend to the Protestants, I dare not risk incurring the Queen’s wrath by openly adhering to my faith.”

  “There’s no point in putting yourself in danger,” Kat agreed. “The Queen started out by promising tolerance, but she seems to be changing her tune, and things can only get worse if rumor speaks truth and she does wed Prince Philip. Marry, we live in perilous times.”

  “We do indeed,” Elizabeth replied, her heart sinking at the prospect of the coming confrontation.

  “Do not trust her!” Renard warned, his eyes glittering in the flickering candlelight.

  Mary was disturbed by the vehemence in his tone.

  “She is my sister,” she said slowly, “and so far she has shown herself loyal. It is only in this matter of religion that she has fallen short.”

  “And there lies her treachery!” Renard declared. “That troublemaker, the French ambassador, is stirring up dissidents and heretics in a bid to discountenance my master the Emperor and prevent Your Majesty from marrying Prince Philip. The Lady Elizabeth is in league with him, I am certain. I have even heard it said that the papists are having their turn, but the Lady Elizabeth will remedy all in time.”

  “I cannot believe it of her,” Mary said, twisting her rings anxiously.

  “Do not underestimate her, madam,” the ambassador warned. “She seems to be clinging to the new religion out of policy to attract and win the support of the heretics.”

  Mary rose and walked to the latticed window. Below her, the wide, moonlit courtyard was empty. Most people in the palace would be abed by now, but she knew she herself would not sleep well tonight with this vexing matter of her sister on her mind.

  “You have evidence that she is intriguing against me?” she asked.

  “Not as yet,” Renard admitted. “Of course, I may be mistaken in suspecting her, but it is safer to forestall than to be forestalled. She is clever and sly, and possessed of a spirit full of enchantment. In my opinion, madam, she is so dangerous that she should be sent forthwith to the Tower, or at the very least away from court, for her presence here is undoubtedly a threat to Your Majesty’s security.”

  Mary stared at him.

  “You truly think she wishes me ill?”

  Renard shrugged. “She is ambitious. She might be persuaded to conceive some dangerous design, or others might do so in her name.”

  “I confess that the same considerations have been in my mind too,” Mary said. “I find it hard to believe that she would go so far, but I have no doubt there are others who would not scruple to set her up in my place if they could. But without any evidence against my sister, I cannot put her in the Tower. No, I will not.”

  She began pacing back and forth.

  “All would be solved if she consents to convert to the true faith. That is my earnest desire. And it is necessary too, for she is the heiress to the throne.”

  “Until Your Majesty has a son,” Renard said gently.

  Mary blushed.

  “When that happens, I shall not need to fear my sister anymore,” she observed. “But for now, I must do my best to bring her back to the fold and disappoint her heretical followers. I see her tomorrow. She has asked for this audience because she is clearly worried about her position. I, in my turn, shall use it to press home my advantage.”

  Elizabeth threw herself on her knees before the Queen. She had built up and up to this meeting, and now that the moment had come, she could not stop shaking, and was even near to weeping; the fact that it happened to be her twentieth birthday, and that there would be no merry celebration this year, only made her feel worse. The presence of the Imperial ambassador, a dark, menacing basilisk standing behind Mary’s chair, made her even more fearful.

  “Well, Sister,” Mary said, her face unsmiling, her eyes wary, “we both of us know why I have sent for you.”

  Elizabeth’s heart sank still further. It was not difficult to summon up a tear.

  “I see only too clearly that Your Majesty is not well disposed toward me,” she faltered, “and I can think of no other cause except religion. Yet I beg Your Majesty to excuse me on this issue, as I have been brought up a Protestant and was never taught the doctrines of the ancient religion.”

  Play for time, she had told herself.

  “I entreat Your Majesty,” she went on, “to arrange for me to take instruction from some learned man, and be given books to read, so that I might know if my conscience will allow me to be persuaded that way.”

  Mary’s face had lit up in joyful hope, but Renard was looking askance at Elizabeth, his eyes quizzical. She was in no doubt that he knew her to be insincere.

  “I am heartily gratified to hear that,” the Queen said. “You shall have your instruction, I promise it.”

  “I thank you, madam,” Elizabeth murmured, head bowed.

  “It is my dearest wish that you embrace the true faith,” Mary told her. “I assure you, Sister, that if you come to Mass, belief will surely follow. It is my pleasure that you attend the service in celebration of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary tomorrow.”

  Elizabeth fell back on a tried-and-tested excuse. She placed her hands on her stomacher and assumed an expression of suffering.

  “Alas, madam, I fear I am unwell. I am plagued by the most fearful pains in my belly.”

  Both Mary and Renard were frowning.

  “You are well enough to come here and plead your case,” Mary said firmly. “God must not be put off with excuses. I expect to see you there.”

  As Elizabeth emerged reluctantly from her apartments, with Kat and her ladies in tow, she was dismayed to see curious courtiers lining the gallery that led to the chapel. If it was bad enough having to attend Mass, it was even worse having people knowing about it, and some of those watching her with disappointment and disapproval in their eyes were of the new faith.

  “Kat, my stomach is aching so,” she said loudly, putting on an air of suffering and staggering a little. “Oh, oh.”

  She was still sighing when she saw the Queen’s procession approaching, and she moaned slightly as she dropped in a curtsy by the door to the chapel.

  “Good morning, Sister,” Mary said, raising her up. “I trust you are feeling better this morning.”

  “No, madam,” Elizabeth groaned. “I am ill.”

  Mary looked exasper

  “You will feel better when you are spiritually refreshed,” she said briskly and sailed on into the chapel. Elizabeth clutched desperately at her stomach with one hand and tugged at the sleeve of Susan Clarencieux, the Queen’s chief lady-in-waiting, as she passed.

  “Pray rub my stomach for me, Susan,” she groaned.

  Mrs. Clarencieux glared at her, well aware of the game she was playing.

  “Madam, we must take our seats, as the Mass is about to begin,” she hissed, standing back so that Elizabeth could precede her. Seeing no way of escape, Elizabeth walked slowly to her place, deliberately fiddling with the tiny gold book that she wore at her girdle, the one that contained the prayer of her brother Edward, and she was praying that those of the late king’s persuasion would take her gesture as a signal that she remained staunch in her faith.

  She had not been to confession, of course, so she could not receive the bread and the wine, and when the Host was elevated, she closed her eyes and bent her head, as if in prayer. But this was enough to satisfy the Queen, who embraced her warmly afterward and presented her with a costly diamond, a ruby brooch, and a rosary of coral. Elizabeth put that last object away in a drawer, determined never to wear it. Nor did she turn up for Mass the following Sunday.

  “She is dissembling, madam, the better to play her own game!” Lord Chancellor Gardiner thundered.

  “Now she shows herself in her true colors,” Renard chimed in. “Madam, you are harboring a serpent in your bosom, as I have warned you before!”

  Mary sent for Elizabeth.

  “I beg you, Sister, speak freely,” she urged. “You must say if you firmly believe what Catholics have always believed concerning the Holy Sacrament, that it becomes the actual body and blood of Our Lord at the moment of consecration.”

  Elizabeth paled. She swallowed, aware that Gardiner and Renard were watching her like hawks about to swoop, and sensing the danger in which she would stand if she gave the wrong answer. She must retain Mary’s sympathy at all costs, for there was much at stake.

  “Madam, I have seen the error of my ways,” she said, low, “and I have been planning to make a public declaration that I attended Mass because my conscience moved me to it, and that I went of my own free will.”

  Mary smiled and embraced her impulsively.

  “You gladden my heart with your words,” she told her. “Why, you are trembling! There is no need, Sister. All is well.”

  “I feared I had displeased Your Majesty,” Elizabeth said.

  “Not anymore,” Mary said warmly.

  Renard, watching Elizabeth depart, could barely contain his exasperation.

  “She is deceiving us all,” he told the Queen. “She failed to give a direct answer to your question.”

  “She is lying about her conversion,” growled Gardiner.

  Mary looked distressed.

  “You still think that, dear friends?” she asked.

  “I fear so, madam,” Renard answered. “She is a hypocrite. One day she knows nothing about the Catholic faith, the next she realizes she has been in error. She is clever, but not that clever. And Your Majesty, forgive me, is too trusting, and too ready to believe the best of everyone.”

  Bishop Gardiner hummed agreement.

  “It troubles me to think that, if I died before bearing a son, my throne would pass to one whose beliefs are so suspect,” Mary said slowly, twisting her rings again. “Indeed, it would burden my conscience too heavily to allow Elizabeth to succeed me, if you are right and she only goes to Mass out of hypocrisy. It would be a disgrace to my kingdom.”

  She sank down in her chair of estate, older doubts about Elizabeth surfacing in her troubled mind.

  “She is, after all, the daughter of one of whose good fame you might have heard,” she observed with irony. “One who received her just punishment.”

  “She has inherited too much of that lady’s character to make a good queen,” Gardiner observed. “I admit I was once taken in by her mother’s superficial charm, but I saw the light in time.”

  But Mary was not listening. She was wrestling with a particular worry that had festered in her breast for many a long year, and had lately been the cause of many sleepless nights. Now, with her other pressing concerns about Elizabeth, she could contain herself no longer.

  “I must tell you that I doubt she is my father’s child,” she blurted out, surprised at herself, for she had never voiced this to anyone in her life.

  Gardiner and Renard stared at her in astonishment.

  “Hear me out,” she said, a little breathless at her own candor. “I heard it said, many years ago, soon after the Concubine’s fall, that Elizabeth bore a resemblance to Mark Smeaton, the lute player who was accused of criminal relations with that woman. More than one person remarked that the child bore his face and countenance. And if that is true, then she is not my sister at all, still less the lawful heir to my throne.”

  “I heard those bruits too, but I fear they were mere malicious gossip, more’s the pity,” the bishop said. “I saw that fool Smeaton, and I couldn’t detect any resemblance. And she does have a look of Your Majesty’s late father, do you not agree?”

  “I wish I could see it,” Mary said.

  “It is impossible to prove or disprove paternity, so I counsel you not to go down that road, madam,” Renard put in. “I never saw King Henry or Smeaton, so I cannot comment, but these doubts are based only on rumors. There is no evidence, nothing solid on which to base any case for disinheriting her.”

  “That is what bothers me,” Mary said. “It does not allay my doubts, though.”

  “The best solution,” Gardiner said, business-like and practical, “is for Your Majesty to marry as soon as possible and produce an heir of your body. Courtenay is ready and willing, so what, madam, are you waiting for?”

  Mary winced at his bluntness, her blush deepening. She was remembering secret reports she had received concerning Courtenay’s expeditions to the brothels of London.

  “He is too young,” she said dismissively.

  “And he is in league with the French ambassador, who is plotting to marry him to the Lady Elizabeth,” Renard added. “And in this respect, as well as the other, she is greatly to be feared, for she has her eye on Courtenay, make no doubt. I fear too that, if you turn Courtenay down, madam, his friends might hatch some design to menace you and set up Elizabeth on the throne with Courtenay as her husband.”

  “I think you wrong Courtenay,” Gardiner protested. “He has not the wits to devise such a plot.”

  “That is what worries me,” Renard said. “He will be easily led by others. You are overfond of the boy, my Lord Bishop.”

  “We were many years in the Tower together,” Gardiner said stiffly.

  “I fear that has clouded your judgment,” Renard retorted dismissively. “No, madam,” he continued decisively, not giving the outraged bishop a chance to respond, “you must marry, and the Prince of Spain eagerly awaits your answer.”

  “The English people will never accept him as their master,” Gardiner blustered, determined to reassert his view. “Courtenay is the better candidate.”

  “No,” said Mary. “Enough, gentlemen. The matter is too delicate. I must go and pray for guidance.”

  As soon as the door had closed, Gardiner turned to Renard.

  “The Queen is a woman, and these matters are beyond her,” he said despairingly.

  “That is why she must marry, and soon, so that she can benefit from her husband’s wisdom and guidance,” Renard pointed out.

  “And bear children,” Gardiner added. “That will put my Lady Elizabeth’s nose out of joint! Her Majesty should marry Courtenay.”

  “Prince Philip would be the greater match,” Renard countered.

  Elizabeth had a megrim on the day of Mary’s coronation. It came on as she sat with a smiling and bowing Anna of Cleves in the chariot immediately following the Queen’s, so that she found herself waving at the crowds through a blindin
g blur of zigzag lines, and by the time she was seated in her place of honor in Westminster Abbey, one side of her head was gripped in a raging agony, and all she longed for was to lie down in a darkened room and have her forehead bathed in cold water. The soaring music, the Latin chants, and the blaring of trumpets were torture to her, as was the glare from hundreds of lighted candles. She had to keep her head down and her eyes closed, so that almost all she saw of the great ceremony was an occasional peep at her white damask skirts spread out upon the blue carpet that had been laid in the church, and the richly shod feet of those who passed in procession near her. Only once did she lift her aching eyes, and that was to see the crown placed on her sister’s brow. She was struck by the rapture in Mary’s face…

  Afterward, she had to sit with the Queen and the Princess Anna at the high table in Westminster Hall, where a magnificent coronation banquet was served. She winced as the Queen’s Champion clattered noisily into the hall on his charger and, as was his custom, challenged any man to dispute Her Majesty’s title. The sight of the food made her feel nauseous, and all she could get down herself were sips of wine.

  Hours later, after the cloths had been lifted and the tables removed, hippocras and wafers were served, and the Queen began to circulate around the hall, receiving the congratulations of her guests. Elizabeth leaned her aching head against the cool stone of a doorway, then suddenly de Noailles was beside her, his smile ingratiating.

  “I trust I find your ladyship in good health,” he said, bowing.

  “In faith, my coronet is too heavy,” Elizabeth complained, rubbing her hot brow. Renard, a faintly sinister figure in his customary black, was hovering nearby, she noticed.

  “Have patience, madam,” de Noailles counseled. “This small crown will soon bring you a bigger one.”

  “I do not understand,” she replied loudly, but Renard had gone. What will he report of me now? she wondered.

  William Cecil came rarely to visit her these days, for he was no longer popular at court and feared to compromise her, but one day, as she was riding in Richmond Park, she espied a familiar figure approaching on horseback.

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