The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “I thought I would find you in the vicinity, my lady,” he called in greeting. “I came in haste to warn you. You’ll have heard the news of Parliament.”

  “I know that England is officially returned to Catholicism,” Elizabeth said, reining in her mount and looking behind her. Her attendants were a long way off.

  “Aye,” he said grimly. “And it is now forbidden to criticize the Mass or own the Book of Common Prayer. There are uprisings in London, and do you wonder? They are vandalizing the churches and attacking priests.”

  “Soon it will be too dangerous to practice our faith.” Elizabeth shivered.

  “Many are fleeing abroad,” Cecil told her. “They are probably the wise ones.”

  Something more was troubling him. She could read it in his face.

  “What bothers you, old friend?” she challenged. He liked her directness.

  “Something I have to tell you,” he sighed. “You should know that your father’s marriage to Queen Katherine, Her Majesty’s mother, has been declared valid by Parliament; that Act makes the Queen legitimate…”

  “And myself still a bastard.” Elizabeth laughed bitterly. “Am I to be disinherited then?”

  Cecil did not answer immediately.

  “No, Parliament would not agree, but the Queen had asked if it were possible,” he revealed. “I thought you should be aware of that. Know thine enemy—it’s prudent to do so.”

  “So she still distrusts me,” Elizabeth said, shaken by this news. Did Mary hate her that much? She had not realized it.

  “You can hardly blame her,” Cecil commented. “She knows as well as you do that you go to Mass on sufferance, and that in your heart you adhere to your faith. She wants a Catholic succession—that’s why she would disinherit you.”

  “What can I do?” Elizabeth asked him.

  “Bide your time,” Cecil counseled. “Put not a foot wrong. Keep going to Mass. God will understand.”

  That evening, as they sat at supper in the presence chamber, Mary leaned over to Elizabeth and pressed a small package wrapped in silk into her hand.

  “For you,” she said, her eyes glinting.

  “I thank you, madam,” Elizabeth replied, surprised and pleased at this apparent mark of favor. “That is most kind of Your Majesty.”

  Her smile faded when she opened the tiny gold diptych and saw inside the miniatures of King Henry and Queen Katherine.

  “It has an eye and chain so that you may wear it at your girdle,” Mary said, eyeing her closely.

  “I am humbly grateful,” Elizabeth forced herself to say. Had Mary shouted her triumph from the rooftops, she could not have made her meaning plainer. For if Katherine’s marriage to their father had been a true one, then Anne Boleyn’s had been no marriage at all. That was the message this gift brought. A message confirming and underlining Elizabeth’s bastardy. And she was expected to wear it, and proclaim thereby to the world her flawed status.

  Never! she thought. It would go in the drawer with the coral rosary.

  Renard took the proffered stool and seated himself gratefully by the brazier in Mary’s linenfold-paneled closet. It was late evening and the Queen looked weary, he thought, sagging almost in her carved oak chair.

  “My master the Emperor would know your answer to his son’s proposal,” he said gently. “He has written to Your Majesty’s council but received no reply. He grows impatient, I fear.”

  Mary did not speak for a while. She was thinking of the handsome man in the portrait, the man who made her heart flutter in her maiden breast, the man who was to assist her in her great task of returning England to Rome, and fretting because she knew he could never love an aging virgin such as she was.

  “I thank the Emperor for suggesting a greater match than I deserve,” she said at length. “However, I am not sure that my subjects will accept a foreign prince as their king, and I do not yet know if my council will give assent to the marriage. Then I fear that, with all his cares and responsibilities abroad, the Prince will have little time to spend in England, and I can hardly leave my realm for long periods. And I know there are fears that he will involve us in his own wars. Then—and I know we have talked of this before—he is only twenty-six years of age. A man of twenty-six,” she pressed on, blushing, but determined to make her point, “is likely disposed to be amorous, and such is not my desire, not at my time of life. I have never harbored thoughts of love. So you see, I cannot possibly make up my mind quickly.”

  Renard bestowed on her his most avuncular smile.

  “Madam, hear me out. Prince Philip is so admirable, so virtuous, prudent, and modest as to appear too wonderful to be human,” he declared extravagantly. “Far from being young and amorous, His Highness is a prince of stable and settled character. If Your Majesty accepts his proposal, he will relieve you of the pains and labors that are rather men’s work than the concerns of ladies. His Highness is a great prince to whom your kingdom could turn for protection and succor. Your Majesty would do well to remember that you have enemies: the heretics and malcontents in your realm, the French, and the Lady Elizabeth. All would rise against you if they had the means.”

  Mary seized upon this opportunity to deftly change the subject.

  “I am happy to report that the Lady Elizabeth no longer has the means, at least in one respect,” she informed Renard. “I spoke with Courtenay last week, and he confided to me that he has never had any wish to marry her, as she is too great a heretic. I told him he could never look to have me, which I fear somewhat offended him, so I offered to find him a suitable Catholic bride, but he declined. I am hoping he will go abroad, and I have made that clear to him. He just makes mischief in this realm, and now that I have turned him down, he may make more. Look.” She handed Renard a sheaf of pamphlets.

  “This is outrageous!” he exclaimed, looking them over rapidly and reading scurrilous and obscene assertions about Philip’s morals that were in part too close to reality for comfort, and were doubtless based on information obligingly provided by that rat of a French ambassador.

  Renard collected himself hastily. “These are intended purely to blacken Prince Philip’s name, which would be to Courtenay’s advantage. Make no matter of them, madam, for none of these calumnies is true.” He stroked his beard. “What concerns me more is Courtenay’s claim that he does not wish to marry the Lady Elizabeth. I do not believe it. She has shown him marked favor and is often in his company. I see their friendship as a threat to Your Majesty.”

  “I have thought of a solution,” Mary said suddenly. “Elizabeth shall be found a Catholic husband abroad. That will curb her ambitions.”

  The day was crisp and clear, and Elizabeth was exhilarated by the wind gusting past and fanning out her long hair as she spurred her horse in the hunt. Ahead, the Queen was forging forward in the midst of her favored courtiers, the ever-present Renard galloping at her side. There were wild shouts as the quarry was sighted and cornered, then everyone reined in their steeds as Mary dismounted for the kill.

  Elizabeth sat in her saddle watching impassively as blood spurted from the throat of the terrified deer. As its pounding heart stilled, and the courtiers cheered, she was suddenly conscious that the horseman next to her was Courtenay. He seemed unaware she was there, so she tapped him lightly on the arm.

  “Madam.” He nodded, his manner correct and formal, then turned away.

  Elizabeth cared not a fig for Courtenay; in fact, she despised the posturing fool, but she had enjoyed flirting with him and had also been mischievously willing to fuel the rumors about them, if only to discountenance the Imperial ambassador. But she was damned if she was going to let her once ardent suitor treat her so discourteously.

  “Why so distant, my lord?” she challenged.

  “I should not be seen with you, madam. We are watched,” he said stiffly, looking at Renard.

  “We have been watched for weeks,” she retorted. “It never bothered you before, even when wagging tongues had us married!”
  “I would not now presume so far,” he muttered.

  “Rumor has it that you presumed farther and were spurned,” she said softly. “Really, my lord, you are too fickle, and cruel to one whom you were supposed to love.”

  The visage he turned to her was ugly; he was looking at her as if he despised her.

  “Did I say I loved you, madam? I forget. Maybe it is your fantasy, for I am of no mind to mate with a heretic, nor one who has fallen so far from the Queen’s favor. I value my place in the world. Now, if you will excuse me.”

  His words came like a slap in the face. She was speechless as she watched him riding off. Suddenly she wanted to be away from it all, away from the intrigue, the backbiting, the rumors, the suspicion, and the ever-present sense of impending peril. Her position at court was becoming increasingly dangerous, she realized, but it was also blindingly clear that she was no longer held in esteem in high places. Had she been, Courtenay would never have dared to behave toward her in such an insulting fashion.

  Out of the blue, she found herself longing for the peace and tranquillity of Hatfield, longed to be back there with Kat and Ascham and Parry, to immerse herself once more in that familiar domestic existence. As they rode back toward the palace, on an impulse, she steered her horse alongside the Queen’s.

  “Your Majesty, may I have leave to retire from court?” she asked plaintively.

  Mary frowned.

  “Why?” she demanded.

  “I am weary of the court, madam, and wish to be in my own house.”

  “No,” said the Queen. “I cannot allow it.”

  “But madam—”

  “I said no!” Mary barked. “Let that be an end to it.”

  Dispirited, Elizabeth fell back.

  “What was that about, madam?” Renard inquired, leaning sideways in his saddle toward the Queen.

  “She wants leave to retire to Hatfield,” Mary told him, her lips pursed. “Does she really think I could let her go? Once there, she would be free to scheme against me. No, I want her here, where I can keep an eye on her.”

  “Very wise, madam,” Renard observed. “I saw her in conversation with Courtenay earlier. I am convinced she is plotting with him and Monsieur de Noailles against Your Majesty. Again, madam, I urge you to send her to the Tower, where she can make no more mischief.”

  “No,” Mary said, looking obstinate. “I prefer to keep her here. And if Courtenay is intriguing with her, he will soon tell his mother about it, for he now confides everything to her. And his mother will then tell me, for we have been good friends for years. We have only to sit and wait.”

  “The Queen is betrothed!” Kat said, coming upon Elizabeth as she sat desolately embroidering a bookbinding in her bedchamber. “She is to marry the Prince of Spain! It’s all over the court.”

  Elizabeth rose to her feet, the binding forgotten.

  “She’s made up her mind at last. I had hoped she would turn him down.” She had no doubt that Mary was making a calamitous mistake.

  “So had a lot of people, if you keep your ears open and listen to what many are muttering,” Kat said.

  “In truth, I fear for this realm,” Elizabeth said with conviction. “This prince will bring the Inquisition to England. He is no friend to Protestants. And he may drag this impoverished land into his ruinous Habsburg wars. Surely the people will not stand it.”

  The people would not. There were riots and violent protests. They would not have a Spaniard for their king, nor see England become a minor possession of the Empire. This Philip, they feared, would rule harshly and ruthlessly, for were not all Spaniards like that? Who had not heard the dread tales of his cruelties and his bloody way with heretics? The Queen must be mad even to consider such a marriage.

  But, her word once given—hesitantly, almost painfully—the Queen was deeply committed.

  “I will wholly love and obey the Prince,” she vowed to Renard. “I will do nothing against his will, and if he wishes to take upon himself the government of my realm, I will not prevent it.”

  “Nothing must stand in the way of this great alliance,” Renard insisted. “But there is still Lady Elizabeth. I fear she poses the greatest threat. She is your heir, her heretical views are known, and those who oppose this marriage may seek to set her up in your place. Madam, you must neutralize her, either by committing her to the Tower, or by deferring to her as the heir to the throne, with courtesy and favors. That way you might just ensure her loyalty and support—but I doubt it.” He shook his head. “I would prefer the Tower.”

  “I cannot imprison her,” Mary declared. “That would be unjust, as I have no grounds. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to show friendship to her. I cannot trust her, nor can I forget the injuries her mother inflicted upon mine, God rest her. Yet I prefer to let things stay as they are for the present, with the added proviso that anyone seeking to visit her at court first obtains my permission. That should put paid to Monsieur de Noailles’s mischief.”

  Hating herself, Elizabeth walked along the gallery to the chapel. It was Sunday again, and she was on her unwilling way to Mass. At the doorway, the Queen waited, her ladies standing behind her. As Elizabeth approached, Mary ignored her. Instead, she turned to her cousins, the Duchess of Suffolk and the Countess of Lennox, and signaled to them to follow immediately behind her to the royal pew.

  Elizabeth stood rigid as a statue, aghast and humiliated. The Queen had publicly snubbed her. She, the heir to the throne and second lady in the land, alone had the right to follow Her Majesty into chapel, taking precedence over everyone else. But Mary had, in one devastating gesture, thrown doubt on her status and shamed Elizabeth before the watching courtiers. There they stood, smirking behind their hands, whispering and staring. It was not to be borne.

  All Elizabeth’s instincts told her, once more, that she was in danger and should leave court as soon as she could. After Mass, she sought out her sister and knelt before her. Again, she begged leave to retire to her estates. Again Mary refused.

  When Elizabeth saw a grave-faced William Cecil waiting in her great chamber one morning in November, she knew he brought bad news.

  “I obtained leave to see you on the pretext of estate business,” he explained. “But I really came to tell you that Lady Jane Grey and her husband have been tried and condemned.”

  “But she is only sixteen!” Elizabeth cried, shocked. “She is younger than I. And I had thought the Queen was ready to be merciful.”

  “Oh, I think she is,” Cecil assured her, “but she cannot be seen to be in public. The word from my contacts here at court is that the trial was but a formality to please the Spanish ambassador, who wants Jane executed, and is no friend to you, madam, as I am sure you know.”

  Elizabeth felt faint and panicky. Her heart was pounding, her palms sweating. “They do not really mean to execute Jane, then?”

  “I doubt it,” Cecil replied. “My information is that the Queen intends to leave her in the Tower until such time as she herself has an heir. Master Renard is not too happy about that, but they say the Queen is determined to spare the girl. After all, she didn’t want the crown; it was forced on her. So she is no traitor. No, it’s not the Lady Jane that Her Majesty has to fear. It is others plotting on her behalf, because that foolish young lady, unlike yourself, madam, is showing herself to be still a staunch Protestant. So she may yet be the focus of another plot to make her queen. So many people are angry at the prospect of the Spanish marriage, there’s sure to be more than one hothead who will risk his neck to declare for her.”

  “So she is not yet safe,” Elizabeth said, her heart thumping in her breast. “And neither am I, William! I too might be the focus of a Protestant plot. I have not been overzealous in embracing the Roman faith, and I have made it clear I go to Mass under duress. So if the Queen can condemn a girl of sixteen, who is her own flesh and blood, to death, then she can condemn me. And something tells me that, if Renard had his way, she would.”

p; “Calm yourself, madam,” soothed Cecil, putting a tentative arm around her shaking shoulders. “It is believed by most people that Jane will not die. Her life is safe. Even though some are pressing for her death, the Queen is a merciful princess, and just.”

  “I pray that you are right,” Elizabeth told him, her eyes clouded with fear. She knew that she herself could no longer count on the Queen’s affections and merciful nature. Suddenly, the world seemed an even more dangerous place to be in.

  As soon as Elizabeth entered her lodging at court, she saw the letter that had been pushed under the door. Warily, she stooped to pick it up.

  “What is that?” asked Kat, coming in behind her, her face lively with curiosity.

  “I don’t know,” Elizabeth replied, her heart heavy with foreboding. Warily, as if the letter were contaminated with poison, she broke the unstamped wax seal.

  The signature at the bottom of the brief note—which was followed by the words Burn this, for the love of God—was unfamiliar to her.

  “It is from a Sir Thomas Wyatt,” she said. “He claims he writes to me out of love for the Queen and this realm of England. He desires to prevent the Spanish marriage, for he has traveled in Spain and seen what the Inquisition has done there.”

  “Sir Thomas Wyatt?” Kat interrupted. “There was a poet called Sir Thomas Wyatt. His family was close to your lady mother’s; his sister attended her on the scaffold. There was talk that this poet was at one time in love with your mother, and a rival with King Henry for her love.”

  “I have read some of his poems,” Elizabeth said. “He wrote much of love. Were they written for my mother?”

  “Some of them were, I believe,” Kat told her. “They must have been, as they were no longer circulated at court after she died. This must be his son.”

  “It’s a pity he did not inherit his father’s eloquence,” Elizabeth observed. “This is clumsily written.” Her eyes scanned the letter. “He says he has friends in high places who are committed to using force, if necessary, to prevent the Queen from marrying Prince Philip. He names Courtenay, Monsieur de Noailles…”

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