The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “He pleads with me to get myself as far from London as I can, for my safety,” she told Kat. “My safety! He should have thought of that when he embroiled me in his schemes. Well, he shall have his answer.”

  She returned to the parlor, where Sir William was waiting. He looked up hopefully.

  “I pray you thank Sir Thomas for his goodwill,” Elizabeth said, “but tell him from me that I will do as I think fit.”

  Looking crestfallen, Sir William left hurriedly.

  There followed three days of waiting, wondering, and worrying. The strain told on Elizabeth, who again took to her bed.

  “You have a letter from the Queen,” Kat said nervously, rousing her from a fitful sleep on the fourth morning. Elizabeth struggled to sit up.

  “What does it say?” she murmured, striving to pull it open.

  It was a command to hold herself in readiness to return to court as soon as she was summoned. It was, Mary told her, for the surety of her person.

  “At least she says that my presence there will be heartily welcome to her,” Elizabeth said. “And if she truly suspected me of treason, she would not have sent this at all. But her meaning is clear. She does not trust me, and she wants me under her eye. And she desires an immediate answer.”

  She slumped back in the bed.

  “In truth, Kat, I feel so ill that I cannot go anywhere,” she moaned, raising her arm to shield her eyes from the light and thus ease her aching head. “In fact, on top of everything else, I think I have a cold coming on. My throat is sore and I feel shivery all over.”

  Kat pressed a cool, plump hand to Elizabeth’s forehead.

  “You’re burning up, my lady,” she pronounced. “It would be folly to get out of bed, let alone travel, in this weather. It’d be the death of you.”

  “But the Queen will think I am feigning illness,” Elizabeth groaned.

  “You would only be speaking the truth,” Kat told her. “Let her send her physicians if she will—they will corroborate it.”

  “Indeed, I have no choice,” Elizabeth replied. “Will you write for me?”

  “I don’t believe her,” Mary said, handing the letter to Renard. “It is clear that she is involved in this conspiracy. I am disgusted at her conduct.”

  “Bishop Gardiner believes she has been intriguing with the French too,” Renard said.

  “That would not surprise me,” Mary commented tartly. “In faith, I cannot believe she is truly my sister. No trueborn sister would be so false.”

  She moved farther down the gallery, wringing her hands. Suddenly, she found herself face-to-face with a portrait of Elizabeth in a pink gown, done a few years earlier. The young face stared out warily at her.

  “Take it down!” she said abruptly. “I cannot bear to look on her anymore.”

  “There is news from London!” Parry announced. Spurred on by an anxious Kat, he had ridden some miles to the nearest tavern and managed to return unchallenged.

  “Tell me!” Kat demanded before he had even shaken the snow from his cloak.

  “Wyatt and his friends have been proclaimed traitors. The Duke of Suffolk is among them—he declared for his daughter, as Queen Jane.”

  “The crass fool!” Kat cried. “He was lucky to escape with his head last time.”

  “It’s not his head I’m worried about,” Parry said, “but that poor girl’s. Shut up in the Tower, she has nothing to do with this.”

  “She cannot be other than innocent,” Kat pointed out. “The Queen must know that.”

  “Innocent or not, she has royal blood, and there will always be those who would raise her up as a Protestant rival to the Queen. As events have lately proved.” Parry was shaking his head.

  “The Queen is merciful,” Kat insisted. “She would not harm an innocent girl.”

  “Others might force her to it,” Parry warned. “That’s what people are saying. And there’s more. The Duke of Norfolk has been sent into Kent with an army to deal with Wyatt and his men. This is serious, Mrs. Astley.”

  “I will tell my lady,” Kat said, trembling. “Oh, what grievous tidings. I fear we are in terrible danger.”

  As more worrisome days passed, ominous with a dearth of news, Elizabeth’s condition did not improve; however, the malaise in her body was as nothing to the fever of anxiety in her heart. Her bed had become a sanctuary, a refuge from the perilous outside world. Cocooned between her sheets, she could believe she was safe from the Queen and the traitors alike. But early in February, a party of riders were seen approaching Ashridge.

  “Oh, my God!” Kat cried, hand to her mouth, as she peered from the window and recognized three privy councillors and two of the royal physicians. In a frenzy of fear, she hurried to Elizabeth’s bedside and roused her.

  “A deputation from the council…here, my lady. God have mercy on us!” she panted.

  Elizabeth blinked at her, uncomprehending at first. Then she was instantly awake, her head swimming, her heart pounding. The room swung violently and did not right itself for several seconds; blood pounded in her temples.

  “My nightgown,” she ordered weakly. “Help me put it on.”

  Kat fetched the black velvet robe and eased Elizabeth into it. Then she tidied the sheets around her and brushed her hair over her thin shoulders before smoothing her own skirts and walking slowly downstairs, bracing herself.

  The Steward had brought wine, which Elizabeth’s Chamberlain was serving to the visitors. The three councillors looked grim and purposeful, Kat saw; the doctors’ faces were grave.

  Lord William Howard, Elizabeth’s cousin, spoke first.

  “Mrs. Astley, we are come to see the Lady Elizabeth, to ascertain if she is well enough to travel to London.”

  “Why?” cried Kat, unable to stop herself.

  “The Queen’s Majesty has commanded it,” Lord William informed her. “Pray take us to her.”

  “She is abed and very ill,” Kat told him, her heart fluttering.

  “Nonetheless, we are commanded to see her,” he insisted.

  “Very well,” Kat said, pursing her lips, realizing that further argument would be futile. “This way, please.”

  Elizabeth appeared to be dozing when they entered her bedchamber, and she affected surprise at being awoken by her visitors.

  “My lords,” she murmured weakly. “Forgive me…This is an unexpected honor.”

  Ignoring her words, Lord William stared straight above her, fixing his eyes on her coat of arms, which was embroidered on the tester.

  “Madam, we are commanded by the Queen to determine if Your Grace is as sick as we had been led to believe,” he told her.

  “You may see for yourself,” she murmured. Her pallor looked genuine enough, Lord William thought, but of course much could be feigned by the clever use of cosmetics.

  “It is Her Majesty’s pleasure that you come with us to London,” Sir Edward Hastings informed her. “She has sent Dr. Wendy here, and Dr. Owen, to decide if you are well enough to travel.”

  Elizabeth began to tremble.

  “As you can see, I am ill,” she said. “I would know why Her Majesty has commanded me to London.”

  “It is in connection with the late rebellion,” Howard told her. “She would have you safe with her.”

  “Rebellion?” Elizabeth repeated. “What rebellion?”

  “Have you not heard? The traitor Wyatt, with seven thousand men, marched into London just a week ago, and would have taken the city had it not been for the courage of the Queen’s Majesty, who went to the Guildhall and, in a brave address, which I myself heard, rallied the Londoners to her cause.”

  “It was inspiring,” added Sir Edward. “It was as if King Harry had come among us again. Her Majesty was never more her father’s daughter.”

  “Thus, but with difficulty, the rebellion was suppressed,” Howard continued. “God be praised, the Queen is safe, and all her council with her, and the traitor Wyatt is in the Tower, along with the other conspirators.”
br />   “And the Lady Jane, who was proclaimed Queen by the rebels, is sentenced to death.” This was the third councillor, the stern-faced Sir George Cornwallis.

  “Sentenced to death?” Elizabeth’s whisper came out as a croak. An ice-cold tremor was rippling down her spine. She thought she would faint. There was no question in her mind but that she was being summoned to London to meet a fate similar to poor Lady Jane’s—nor in Kat’s either, evidently, for that good woman had just burst into noisy tears.

  “The Emperor has demanded it,” Lord William said. “He warned Her Majesty that Prince Philip would never set foot in England while the Lady Jane lived, for he would fear too much for his safety and for the security of Her Majesty’s throne.”

  “But the Queen was disposed to be merciful to the Lady Jane,” Elizabeth said tremulously.

  “In the wake of recent events, she cannot afford to be,” Lord William replied. He had no intention of telling the suspect young woman before him how her sister had agonized over signing the death warrant; how, indeed, she was doing everything she could to avoid having it put into effect. Even now, he knew, she was trying to persuade Jane to convert to the Catholic faith to save her life.

  Elizabeth was so consumed with terror that she was unable to speak further.

  “Our orders are to escort you back to London, if you are fit to travel, even if it means carrying you to court in the Queen’s own litter, which she has sent for the purpose,” Howard told her.

  “My lady is not fit to leave her bed, let alone travel,” Kat protested, her eyes red with tears.

  “That is for us to decide, mistress,” Dr. Owen said. “The Queen has appointed us to examine the Lady Elizabeth to determine the nature of her illness. Now, if you would leave us, gentlemen, I am sure that Mrs. Astley will prepare my lady.”

  Throughout it all, Elizabeth lay limp and listless. Mary, she was certain, was only having her examined in order to forestall her dying on the way to London; for if that happened, the Queen might be accused of having her sister’s blood on her hands. But once Elizabeth was in the capital, securely immured in the Tower and tried and condemned in a court of law, Mary could safely do what she liked with her, and the world could only applaud her for having rid herself of a traitor.

  So struck by fear was Elizabeth at this dreadful prospect that she was barely aware of the doctors’ hands on her body, prodding her gently through the thin lawn of her chemise; of pissing into a basin so that they could examine her urine, which they had poured into a tall glass bottle; of them taking a pulse, commenting on her pallor, and discussing which of the four humors was imbalanced in her body.

  “She is shivering, but her temperature is little raised,” Dr. Owen said.

  “She has watery humors, would you agree?” diagnosed Dr. Wendy.

  “Indeed. But between you and I…” He drew his colleague away from the bed and lowered his voice. “Most of her symptoms stem from a fear of just punishment. Yes, she is a little unwell, but she is shamming too. There is no reason why she should not return with us to London.”

  Kat was watching their faces anxiously. She did not like what she saw.

  “Well now,” said Dr. Owen, approaching the bed. “You have had a touch of the watery humors, my lady, affecting your kidneys, but nothing to worry about. In our opinion, if you use the litter that Her Majesty has so kindly provided, you are certainly fit to travel.”

  Elizabeth stared at him, horrified.

  “No!” she cried piteously. “I am not well enough.” Then she checked herself. “Of course I wish to obey the Queen’s Grace, as in all things, and be conformable to her commands. I am very willing to travel too, but not just yet. I fear my weakness to be so great that I will not be able to endure the journey without imperiling my life. I beg of you, sirs, grant me a few days’ grace until I have better recovered my strength.”

  Dr. Owen frowned.

  “There is nothing seriously wrong with you, madam,” he said.

  “Then why do I feel so ill?” she asked.

  “Might I venture to suggest that your malady is not of the body but of the mind?” he replied gently.

  “The aches and pains are real enough,” she retorted. “And I cannot stop shivering.” The shivering was only partly due to her condition, she knew, but in some irrational way, she felt that, by delaying her departure from the safety of Ashridge, she was preserving her life. Who knew, in a few days’ time, more of the truth might have come to light—they questioned prisoners in the Tower, didn’t they?—and her innocence made plain to the Queen.

  “I will confer with the lords,” said Dr. Owen, and he and Dr. Wendy went out. As soon as the door closed, Kat hastened to Elizabeth’s side and rocked her in her arms.

  “I will not let them take you!” she declared vehemently.

  “I fear you will not be able to prevent them,” sniffed Elizabeth. Her head was aching fit to burst.

  They remained in a close embrace, comforting each other as best they could, until Lord William returned.

  “We have heard the opinion of the doctors, madam,” he said stiffly, averting his eyes once more. “All excuses must be set aside. You must be ready to travel in three days’ time.”

  When they brought Mary news that Lady Jane’s head had fallen, the bitter bile rose in her throat, and she staggered into her closet, falling to her knees before the statue of the smiling Madonna.

  “What am I become?” she moaned, burying her head in her hands. “That I, who set out promising to be a merciful princess, should have shed the blood of an innocent—and my own blood at that! Oh, God, have pity on me, poor, miserable sinner that I am!”

  A hand touched her gently on the shoulder, and she turned a tearstained face to see the sympathetic eyes of Renard looking down on her.

  “Forgive the intrusion, madam,” he said. “I saw how painfully you took it. But it was a necessity. Yet, even so, still you are not safe on your throne. Two more heads must fall before you can know true peace of mind. Your Majesty knows to whom I am referring.”

  “Courtenay,” Mary said, swallowing, “and…”

  “The Lady Elizabeth,” he said softly. “These are the two people most likely to cause trouble in your realm. You have been strong in eliminating the Lady Jane. Now be strong again. Deal with this threat once and for all. And when these traitors have been removed, you need have no fear for your crown.”

  Bishop Gardiner was standing in the doorway, listening.

  “His Excellency speaks sense, madam,” he added. “By cutting off its hurtful members, you would be showing mercy to the whole commonwealth.”

  Mary looked anguished. It was one thing to execute her cousin, she thought—quite another to order the death of her sister. If, of course, Elizabeth really was her sister. I wish I could believe she wasn’t, she thought bitterly.

  “Wyatt must be questioned rigorously,” Gardiner was saying. “I feel sure he has much to reveal about the Lady Elizabeth’s involvement in his conspiracy.”

  “I will give the order,” Mary said queasily, knowing what it would mean for Wyatt. “What of Courtenay? Has he talked?”

  “He has been examined several times, but says nothing,” Gardiner told her. “I think he knows little. He has not the wits to conceal it, poor fool.”

  “What of the other rebels?” Renard asked. “The rank and file, I mean?”

  “Madam, you must not show weakness at this crucial juncture,” Gardiner urged, his beak-like face frowning in concern.

  “Some will be hanged, in London and in Kent, as a deterrent to anyone else who looks to conspire against us,” the Queen said resolutely, aware that if she showed any inclination to mercy, her advisers would put it down to womanly weakness. “The rest will be allowed to return to their homes.” She looked hard at Gardiner and Renard. “I trust that the result of all this bloodshed will be to establish my rule more firmly than ever and enable the alliance with Prince Philip to be concluded.”

  “God has will
ed it so, madam,” Gardiner said.

  “His Highness is even now making preparations to come to England,” Renard assured her.

  “Then these harsh measures have been justified,” Mary said slowly. “God indeed works in mysterious ways, gentlemen, but in the end I feel sure we shall see His church properly reestablished in England and the true faith fully restored.”

  “Amen to that,” said Gardiner.

  Wrapped up in her great cloak and sable hood, and leaning heavily on Kat’s arm, Elizabeth made her shaky way downstairs to the great hall, shivering in the face of the blast of cold air that enveloped her as she approached the open porch. She felt faint and weak, and could not control the involuntary shudders that kept threading through her body every time she thought, with dread in her heart, of what surely lay ahead for her.

  The councillors, somber in their black garb, waited by the litter, their faces set and stern. As Elizabeth descended the steps, her knees buckled, and it was all that Kat could do to keep her upright. To begin with, not one of the men moved to help her—they just stood watching. At length, Sir George stepped reluctantly forward to assist Elizabeth into the litter. She virtually fell, half swooning, onto the velvet cushions. As the leather curtains were drawn tight, to obscure her from public view, and the little procession began to move off, she was gripped by terror, with blood racing through her head, her heart thudding, her palms sweating, her bowels turning to water. She was going to die, here and now, she knew it, and the prospect made her panic all the more.

  Kat watched in horror as Elizabeth’s body suddenly convulsed in a mighty spasm and doubled up into a fetal position. There were no tears: It was clear that the girl could hardly speak.

  “My lady is ill!” she cried.

  The litter slowed to a halt and an irritated Lord William peered through the curtains. But he could see at once that Elizabeth was in a poor case, and hastened to confer with his fellow councillors.

  “I do not want her dying while she is in our custody,” he muttered. “When all is said and done, she is still the heir to the throne and King Henry’s daughter. And if the Queen were to die tomorrow…”

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