The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  “That wouldn’t surprise me,” Kat put in.

  “He says he intends no harm to the Queen, that he and his friends are all devout Catholics but also patriotic Englishmen. He asks for my support.”

  “Don’t give it!” Kat cried.

  “Do you think me a fool?” Elizabeth retorted. “I’m in enough trouble as it is, and these are dangerous times. I shall burn this and forget I ever received it. In fact,” she added, beginning to pace up and down while wringing her hands in agitation, “I foresee much mischief brewing. I think I will fare far more safely away from court. I must get away. I am going now to the Queen, to ask once more for leave to go to one of my own houses.”

  Mary eyed her kneeling sister with suspicion.

  “Why do you wish to leave court?” she asked sharply.

  “I long for the peace of the country, Your Majesty,” Elizabeth replied steadily. “I weary of being constantly in the public eye here. I would resume my studies in quiet and contentment. In truth, I look for no more in life.”

  Mary sat silently, deliberating with herself. Should she let Elizabeth go? Was the girl truly a danger to her, as Renard insisted? Or was she sincere in her desire to lead a more private life? In truth, Mary would be happy to see the back of her, to be spared the sight of this constant thorn in her side, whose vibrant youth was such a contrast to her own fading looks and whose questionable paternity was a subject that occasioned Mary much concern.

  Suddenly, she could bear the sight of Elizabeth no longer. Her sister had caused nothing but trouble, and she would be happy to be rid of her.

  “Very well,” she said coldly. “You may go to Ashridge, as you desire. But I warn you, your present game is known. If you refuse to follow the path of duty and persist in seeking the friendship of the French and the heretics—no, I will not be gainsaid, I know what you have been up to—you will bitterly repent it.”

  “Madam,” cried Elizabeth, shocked, “I have never sought the friendship of the French nor allied myself with heretics. I am Your Grace’s true and loving subject. I would never conspire against you, never. I am a devout Catholic and will be taking priests with me to Ashridge so that I can enjoy the consolation of the Mass.”

  “I am told you have had secret meetings with Monsieur de Noailles,” Mary accused her.

  “Whoever told Your Majesty that wishes me ill,” Elizabeth protested. “It is not true. I have only ever discoursed with him where all the world may see us.”

  Mary looked unconvinced.

  “Madam,” Elizabeth continued, “I am most humbly grateful that you are permitting me to retire from court. I assure you that, while I am at Ashridge, I will do all in my power to please you and earn your favor.”

  “Hmm,” said the Queen. “You may go. I wish you a safe journey.”

  As soon as Elizabeth had risen from her knees and curtsied her way out of the room, Mary drew aside the curtain concealing the doorway to the inner closet, behind which Renard had hidden himself. He looked worried.

  “Your Majesty, I fear you have been overlenient with the Lady Elizabeth. You should keep her here, under your eye.”

  “I do not want her here,” Mary said firmly.

  “Surely you were not taken in by her playacting?” Renard frowned.

  “I was not,” Mary assured him. “Like you, dear friend, I believe she will bring about some great evil unless she is dealt with. But there is no proof, and my conscience will not let me proceed against her without any evidence.”

  “You will have her watched?” the ambassador urged, his face full of concern.

  “Naturally. I will have spies placed in her household,” the Queen said. “You need not fear.”

  “An excellent plan, madam,” Renard approved, relaxing a little. “And so that she does not suspect anything, may I suggest that Your Majesty takes leave of her in sisterly fashion?”

  Mary sighed.

  “I suppose I must,” she said. “Yet I can scarcely believe that she is my sister. She is no longer the sweet, winning child whom I so loved when my father was alive. I fear that vanity, heresy, and ambition have changed her. I can no longer think of her as my dear sister, but as a viper in my bosom.”

  “Holy Mother, give me the strength to go through with this marriage,” Mary prayed. “Make me a good wife, as you were, and intercede with your Son to grant me the blessing of children.” A tear came to her eye as she imagined herself—at long last—holding her own baby in her arms.

  She was alone in her closet, kneeling at her prayer desk, and so deep in prayer that she did not notice the door behind her opening slowly, or the soft patter of feet retreating. She heard the thud, though, and she smelled the dead dog before she swung around and saw it, lying there obscenely on the rush matting, its jaw slack, its eyes staring.

  Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle the scream, but when she saw how evilly the wretched cur had been mutilated, she began to whimper in fear. Its head had been tonsured, like a priest’s, its ears slit, while the rope pulled tightly around its neck was evidence enough that it had been suffocated.

  It was a warning, no less, a harbinger, perhaps, of more violence to come. Mary was in no doubt that the dog had been flung at her in protest of her impending marriage. She ran to the door and looked out—moments too late. There was no one there. In all her large household, there would be no hope of tracing the culprit.

  Sobbing, she hastened to seek out Renard.

  Elizabeth noticed that the Queen looked pale and drawn—nothing like a happy bride who was soon to be married. Her manner, however, belied her appearance, for it was warmer than it had been in weeks.

  “Rise, Sister,” she said. “God keep you on your journey.”

  Elizabeth remained kneeling. Encouraged by Mary’s kinder demeanor, she felt emboldened to make an appeal to her.

  “Your Majesty,” she said, “I beg of you not to believe anyone who spreads evil reports of me in my absence; and if you do hear such false and malicious reports, I pray you will do me the honor of letting me know, so that I can have a chance of proving them slanders.”

  There was such sincerity in her face and her voice that Mary was momentarily nonplussed.

  “I will do as you ask,” she said briskly, despising herself for being suborned by this clever sister of hers. “And before you go, I have New Year gifts for you.” From a lady-in-waiting, she took a warm sable hood and two fine ropes of glowing pearls, and presented them to Elizabeth. For a moment, their eyes met, then Mary looked away.

  “I thank Your Majesty most humbly for these beautiful gifts,” Elizabeth said, genuinely touched.

  Mary bent forward and quickly embraced her.

  “Go with God,” she said.

  The December wind was icy, and the journey northward arduous, but as she sat in the jolting litter, Elizabeth felt a little warmed by her sister’s affectionate farewell and the unexpected gifts. She must build on this, she decided, with increasing certainty of success, and as they neared Ashridge, she summoned a courier and ordered him to ride back to Whitehall.

  “She asks for copes, chasubles, chalices, and other ornaments for her chapel,” Mary told Renard thoughtfully.

  “Madam,” he urged, “do not be deceived. She but thinks to lull you into a sense of false security. I know her tricks.”

  “You still think her a hypocrite, then?” Mary asked. “I was rather hoping that she had indeed come to the truth.”

  “Your Majesty is too full of goodness to believe evil of others,” Renard purred, “but you cannot afford to relax your vigilance. She is devious, and thinks nothing of making a mockery of God.”

  “Nevertheless, if there is the tiniest chance that she is sincere, I must send what she asks for,” Mary declared. “It is for God’s service, after all.”

  Despite the freezing weather, and Kat’s protests, Elizabeth was taking her usual morning walk. Wrapped in a thick cloak and her new sable hood, and booted and gloved against the chill, she strode forth through
the park, her feet kicking up a sludge of decayed leaves and dirty snow. Kat, puffing and blowing, was struggling to keep up.

  “In faith, my lady, let us go back,” she begged. “I cannot feel my fingers, they are so cold.”

  “Soon,” Elizabeth promised. “But there is something I must show you first.” She was making for the shelter of the trees that lay ahead.

  “Can’t it wait till we’re back at the house?” Kat asked plaintively.

  “No. We are watched,” Elizabeth said in a low voice.

  “Watched?” Kat echoed.

  “Aye. Did you think the Queen would leave me here unsupervised to plot—as she fears—against her?”

  “But you would never do that!” Kat exclaimed.

  “No, I would not,” Elizabeth affirmed stoutly. “But others might do it for me. Look.”

  She thrust into Kat’s gloved hands a piece of paper.

  “Another letter from our friend Wyatt,” she muttered. They were now shielded from the house by the solid trunks of ancient oaks.

  Kat read it.

  “This is treason!” she gasped, her face draining of color.

  “I know,” said Elizabeth. “They want to marry me to Courtenay, and to what purpose? To unite the royal blood of Plantagenet and Tudor and place us on the throne. So much for Wyatt protesting he meant no harm to my sister.”

  “But four armies, ready to march on London?” Kat cried, appalled.

  “Shhh!” Elizabeth hissed, looking around her nervously. There was nothing, no one—just frost-shrouded woodland and the bare skeletons of trees.

  “The Queen must be warned!” Kat urged.

  “By whom?” Elizabeth asked. “By me? And how do I explain how I came by my information? I should have to produce this letter, in which Wyatt asks if I will act as their leader, with Courtenay. It will look as if I have encouraged them up till now, and it will give that fox Renard a pretext for urging the Queen to deal with me as a traitor. No, Kat, I have been here before, remember, with…with…”

  She could not say the Admiral’s name. He had been dead nigh on five years, and yet the memory of him, and the danger in which she had stood, still scarred her soul. Kat stared at her compassionately. She remembered all too well. She herself had been in the Tower.

  “No,” Elizabeth said, recovering herself, “I will not involve myself in any way. I will destroy this letter and keep my own counsel. There are hideous consequences when one intrigues against princes. My enemies would rejoice to see me condemned for treason. I have no intention of giving them that satisfaction.”

  She strode onward, leaving Kat struggling to keep up with her.

  “No, they can prove nothing against me,” she was saying, “yet still there is danger. These conspirators that Wyatt names—there is Sir James Pickering, whom I thought to be a true friend to me. Not two months ago, he came privily to me and asked for my views on the proposed marriage with Spain. Most pressing he was. But I would not be drawn, Kat. Then there is Sir James Crofts, another who has shown himself friendly of late.”

  They were heading deeper into the woods now.

  “I am going to need all my wits about me in the coming weeks,” Elizabeth went on. “I shall summon some of my tenants to the house, to come discreetly armed for my protection.”

  “Against whom?” Kat asked.

  “Against fate!” Elizabeth told her smartly, then halted suddenly and looked at the older woman.

  “You look cold, dear Kat,” she observed. “We should go back now.”

  “I thought you would never notice,” Kat muttered gratefully. “I am freezing, and I am all of a tremor too when I think of this conspiracy.”

  “You know nothing about it,” Elizabeth told her firmly. “And neither do I. In our silence is our safety.”

  They were nearing open ground now. Elizabeth stopped suddenly, placing a finger to her mouth.

  “Listen!” she whispered.

  Kat strained her ears. All she could hear was the wind stirring the branches above them, and the occasional cry of a bird. Then it came, a sound like a stealthy footfall on bracken, not far off. Her terrified eyes met Elizabeth’s alert ones.

  “Is someone spying on us?” Kat mouthed.

  “Assuredly,” Elizabeth replied, smiling grimly. “Hark, there it is again. But they would not have heard anything. We were over there. Our invisible stalker is coming from the opposite direction. Too late, I fear!” She laughed mirthlessly.

  “Eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves,” she said in a loud voice. “Fancy, Kat, spying on a lady and her companion! Are fashions and furbelows now matters of state interest?”

  With a look of devilment in her eyes, Elizabeth tossed back her hood and went striding home, her long red hair blowing behind her. A long way behind her, the watcher in the trees stood stamping his feet.

  CHAPTER 17

  1554

  The Yuletide decorations had been down for nearly three weeks when Sir James Crofts arrived at Ashridge.

  “I cannot see him,” Elizabeth said. “I am not well.”

  She was not lying. For several days now, she had suffered from bloating and feverishness, and her joints were aching fearfully. Her physician had diagnosed an inflammation of the kidneys and prescribed rest, so here she was, lying on her bed, fretfully bemoaning her condition and listlessly trying to read a book. The last thing she needed now was to be embroiled in the wild and wicked schemes of Wyatt and his friends.

  Isolated as they were, both by the bitter weather and by the Queen’s determination that her sister should have no opportunity to plot mischief with the enemies of the Crown, Elizabeth and Kat had been growing increasingly anxious for word of what was happening at court and in the outside world. There was no news of any date being set for the Queen’s marriage, and none—thankfully—of any uprisings or conspiracies; Elizabeth was beginning to wonder whether the whole plot had been just a fantasy on Wyatt’s part. But now here was one of the named conspirators, waiting for her in the great parlor.

  “He says it is urgent, my lady,” Kat said anxiously.

  “Tell him I am ill,” Elizabeth snapped. “No, wait. I need to know what is going on. Tell him I will be down as soon as I have tidied myself.” So saying, she heaved herself unsteadily off the bed, then sat down quickly, her head spinning. It was minutes before she could rise and make herself ready.

  “Come with me,” she said to Kat. “I want a witness.”

  One glance at her visitor’s disheveled appearance warned her that this was no social call.

  “Greetings, Sir James,” she said, and looked at him questioningly.

  “Madam, I have little time,” he said urgently. “The marriage treaty with Spain is signed, and the people are rising against it. The council has sent troops to put down a revolt in Exeter. Our scheme is still to go ahead, but Courtenay has betrayed us, and the Queen knows about our plans.”

  “Our plans?” Elizabeth echoed coldly.

  “Sir Thomas Wyatt has told us that you are privy to them, madam.”

  “I am privy to nothing, sir!” Elizabeth snapped. She knew that she must at all costs stay out of this conspiracy, or it could cost her head.

  “Forgive me, madam, but I was given to understand that you were with us.” Crofts looked frightened and embarrassed.

  “And who gave you to understand that?” Elizabeth demanded to know.

  “Wyatt himself, Madam. He is even now raising the men of Kent, for we have had to bring forward the date of our uprising. The Duke of Suffolk is with us, and I am now on my way to the Welsh border to raise support there. Indeed, I must hurry, because time is not on our side.”

  Elizabeth stared at him, her anger erupting. The presumption of the man!

  “Do you realize that what you are planning is high treason?” she asked him, looking dauntingly like her father in a rage. “Did it occur to you that, by coming here like this, you compromise my safety as well as your own? Your foolhardiness beggars belief!”
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  “I came in all loyalty to warn you,” Crofts protested. “Courtenay has told them that you are with us.”

  “He has what?” Elizabeth cried, horrified, noticing that Kat’s face was a mask of terror.

  “He has confessed that he planned to marry you and that Your Grace was—er, not unwilling,” Crofts told her, shamefaced.

  “I was never willing!” she declared hotly. “He had no right to implicate me, for I have never said I would marry him. And your loyalty, Sir James, should be to your Queen, not to me.”

  “My lady,” he protested, “I have your interests at heart, truly. Wyatt has sent me to urge you to go to your house at Donnington, which is securely fortified. You will be safer there. Believe me, madam, your safety is precious to all true Englishmen.”

  “I am going nowhere,” Elizabeth stated flatly. “I am ill. No, do not try to persuade me,” she said, lifting her hand to still his dissent. “I am the Queen’s loyal subject. I command you to leave this minute. I will not house a traitor under my roof.”

  Swallowing, Crofts bowed sketchily and fled. Minutes later, she heard his horse’s hooves thudding away into the distance. Exhausted, physically and mentally, she sank to the floor and rested her throbbing head against the cool plaster of the wall. Her thoughts were teeming, her emotions in turmoil. It would be known—Mary’s spies would see to it—that Crofts had visited her. Yet would her response also be known? Would Kat be seen as an impartial witness? And should she not, this very minute, write a report to her sister of what had taken place?

  But no, she dared not. Always, it was best to do nothing. The very fact that Sir James Crofts had visited her was compromising in itself. And anyway, the Queen already knew what was afoot.

  Wyatt—the absolute cheek of the man!—had sent a messenger, Sir William Saintlow, with a communication for Elizabeth.

 
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