The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “It is treason to speak of the death of the Queen,” Cornwallis reminded him.

  “It is indeed, but we have to face facts. If that young lady becomes queen—which is possible, as Her Majesty is no longer young and not in the best of health—then she can hardly be expected to look with favor upon those who did not treat her kindly. And clearly, she is not feigning this. Go and see for yourself.”

  “We’ll take your word for it,” Sir Edward said. “And I agree, we should treat her with care. Let us aim for just six or seven miles a day. That shouldn’t tax her strength too much.”

  “I blame the doctors,” Howard said, frowning. “Telling us she was well enough to travel, then scurrying off back to court. Now look at what we have to cope with.” He nodded toward the litter. Elizabeth had thrust her head out between the curtains and she was being violently sick, with that dragon of a nurse holding her shoulders and clucking in sympathy. Vomit dribbled down the side of the carriage. The men turned away in distaste.

  Their progress was slow. Elizabeth lay in a trance-like stupor, her face bloated and drained of color, her hands working in distress, and every few miles, Kat would shriek for the procession to halt because her young lady was about to throw up again. At the places where they sought shelter for the night—discreet inns, or the houses of men of proven loyalty to the Queen—the councillors had to carry Elizabeth to her bed, so weak was she. Terror had prostrated her, terror and genuine bodily suffering, so that she could barely keep down sips of wine or boiled water. She grew thinner daily, her dull, heavy-lidded eyes staring out over high, gaunt cheekbones, her shoulder blades painfully outlined above the low square bodice of her gown.

  Mercifully, they were nearing London by then.

  “Not long now,” the councillors nervously assured themselves.

  “Pray God she gets there alive,” Howard said fervently.

  “In faith, I fear for her life,” Sir Edward confessed. “She is so ill.”

  “I have never relished an official duty less,” Cornwallis commented.

  “Is there any news of the Lady Jane, I wonder?” Elizabeth murmured to Kat as they sat in the private chamber of an inn on the Great North Road, eating their dinner—or rather toying with it, for Elizabeth could eat nothing, and was in fact finding it hard to maintain an upright posture at the table. Kat looked stricken. She had hoped that Elizabeth would not ask that question.

  Elizabeth took one look at her face and felt faint again. Terror pierced her like a knife.

  “She is dead,” she said. “You do not need to tell me.”

  “I overheard the councillors talking,” Kat told her. “In your weak state, I thought it best not to tell you just yet.”

  “I cannot believe that my sister went so far as to order her death,” Elizabeth whispered, trembling. “She had promised mercy.” She thought of her poor little cousin, whose only crime had been to be born with Tudor blood in her veins. It was terrible to think that that bright young girl was dead, that she had been done to death in so brutal a manner, and she not yet eighteen.

  “Events conspired against the Queen’s good intentions, I fear,” Kat observed mournfully.

  “And against me too,” Elizabeth added, her voice full of fear. “Am I to be next?”

  “You have committed no treason,” Kat pointed out.

  “Neither had Jane,” Elizabeth said. “She was the tool of ruthless fools who rose in her name. As they rose in mine too. I am as much of a danger to Mary as Jane was, and that is why I fear for my neck.”

  She was becoming agitated once more. Kat seized her hand.

  “Calm yourself,” she urged. “Jane had been proclaimed Queen; she accepted the crown, knowing it was not hers by right. Your cases are different. Do not give in to your fears. There was evidence enough against her. There is none against you. Hold fast to that.”

  “I shall have to,” said Elizabeth, trembling.

  Presently, they came to Highgate, a village on the northern heights overlooking the City of London. As their destination grew nearer, Elizabeth somehow found the strength to confront what lay ahead, and the determination to outwit her enemies. She felt a little better. That night, snug in a comfortable bedroom in the house of a Mr. Cholmley, a man zealous in the service of the Queen yet chivalrous to his unfortunate guest, she even managed to partake of a little broth.

  The next morning, she was better still. The color was returning to her cheeks, and she did not wobble so much when she walked the few steps to the privy. When she looked in her mirror, however, she could see that her face was still somewhat swollen, her stomach yet a little bloated. But those things, she reasoned, might play to her advantage. With the beginnings of returning physical strength there had come a resurgence of hope. At heart, she felt stronger: She was girding herself for battle.

  It was advisable, she felt—and it would not be difficult, considering that her recovery was by no means complete—to maintain the semblance of illness. Today, they would enter London, and she knew that if she could win the people’s sympathy, her position would be more secure. She was, after all, the heir to the throne, the young, Protestant heir who might well stir the imaginations of all those citizens who had rioted and demonstrated against Mary’s Catholic reforms. And she had done nothing wrong, had committed no treason. No one could prove anything against her.

  “I’ll wear the white damask gown,” she told Kat. “No jewels. And some of the borax and egg-white paste, to whiten my skin. I want the people to see me looking wasted and ill.”

  Supported by Kat, she looked like a ghost as she made her painful way toward the waiting litter.

  “Leave the curtains open,” she commanded. “I am feverish and need some air.”

  “Is that not unwise?” Lord William queried. “Your Grace should keep warm.”

  “I want them open,” Elizabeth said firmly, and there was a look on her face that brooked no argument. She was determined that the people should see her.

  “Very well, madam,” Howard agreed. “To Whitehall!” he cried, and the procession set off down Highgate Hill.

  Elizabeth’s heart was thumping with relief. She had feared she would be taken straight to the Tower, and had not known how she would face it. Instead, she was going to Whitehall, where she might have a chance of pleading her case personally with the Queen. All was not yet lost. And as she was borne through the narrow streets of Westminster, and saw recognition, admiration, hope, and sympathy in the many inquisitive faces that peered into the litter, she felt heartened. She would survive this, as she had survived the scandal of the Admiral: She felt sure of it.

  The lodging assigned to her was isolated from the rest of the court, and outside it stood two stalwart Yeomen of the Guard, who crossed their pikes behind her as soon as she had proceeded through the doorway.

  “So I am to be held prisoner?” she asked of Lord William, her frightened eyes belying her haughty tone.

  “You are to remain in your rooms,” he told her.

  “I have done nothing to merit such treatment,” she protested. “I wish to see my sister the Queen. I pray you, Lord William, to request an audience for me.”

  “I regret that will not be possible,” he said stiffly. “Her Majesty will not see you until you have been examined by the council in regard to your recent conduct.”

  Elizabeth was beginning to feel faint again. The long journey, the trek through the palace, the shocks following upon her arrival, and her own weakness had exhausted her. As soon as Lord William had gratefully departed, she sank down onto a settle and wept.

  “Come now, my lady, these rooms are not so bad,” Kat said, trying to achieve some semblance of normality in the midst of impending tragedy.

  It was true: They were hung with two small but fine tapestries and a few paintings, and in the inner chamber there was a handsome oak bed adorned with a rich coverlet and velvet curtains. There were pallet beds for Kat and Blanche, and a prayer desk stood in one corner, adorned with a silver cruc
ifix, while in the outer chamber, cold chicken and wine had been set out on the table. The apartment had its own privy, in a curtained recess in the wall, and its mullioned windows overlooked a garden.

  Blanche Parry was already unpacking the chest that contained Elizabeth’s clothes.

  “Why don’t you lie down for a bit, my lady?” she suggested.

  “I think I will,” Elizabeth agreed wearily, taking a sip of the wine. There was nothing more she could do now until the council summoned her, so she might as well make herself as comfortable as possible.

  Yet she had not been lying on her bed for ten minutes when there came a sudden clatter and banging from above her head.

  “Good God, what’s that?” she grumbled. “I want to sleep.”

  Kat, sewing in the chair by the fire, looked up. The noises persisted, then after a time the room gradually began to fill with the strong aroma of fish.

  “God’s blood!” Elizabeth swore. “What is going on up there?”

  Kat frowned.

  “Shall I go and find out?” she asked. “I could ask the guards.”

  She went to the outer door and opened it. The two men standing there looked at her suspiciously.

  “Don’t worry, we’re not trying to escape!” Kat said tartly. “I merely wish to know who occupies the rooms above us.”

  One man looked puzzled and pulled at his beard. The other thought for a moment, then said, “It’s the Countess of Lennox, mistress.”

  Kat knew the Countess of Lennox, the former Lady Margaret Douglas, who was King Henry’s niece and the Queen’s own cousin. A spirited, ambitious woman, she had caused much trouble in the past with her illicit love affairs and constant intriguing. She was close to Queen Mary, a staunch Catholic, and consequently no friend to Elizabeth.

  “Has the Countess taken up cooking?” Kat asked wryly. “It seems as if she has her own kitchen up there.”

  “Yes, one of the rooms was converted only last week,” the guard told her, warming to this amiable-looking woman with the droll sense of humor. “She’s that important, is my lady, that she gets her own kitchen and cooks. The rumor is”—he thumbed his nose—“that she’s to be named the Queen’s heir.” His fellow guard frowned, and suddenly the man realized just who he was talking to.

  “But the Lady Elizabeth is the Queen’s heir,” Kat declared.

  “I’m only repeating what I heard,” the guard excused. Then he straightened up, aligned his pike, and stared straight ahead.

  Kat hurried back to Elizabeth and reported what she had heard about the Countess having a kitchen installed. She said nothing of the rumor that the guard had mentioned: Elizabeth already had enough to contend with. Kat was praying there was no truth in it.

  “The Countess hates me,” Elizabeth commented. “I’ll wager she knew I was coming and has done this on purpose, to annoy me. God only knows how we’ll get any sleep.”

  “They can’t cook all night!” Kat assured her. But they did: It seemed that the Countess had an insatiable appetite for food and desired to eat more or less constantly. After three days of noise and smells, Elizabeth knew for a certainty that she had wagered correctly, and that it was all for the purpose of discomposing her. What with her malady, her fears, and the disturbances upstairs, she did not think she could feel much worse.

  But she was wrong.

  “Madam,” sighed an exasperated Renard. “What more proof of her complicity in the rebellion does Your Majesty need? The traitor Wyatt has admitted that she responded to his messages; copies of letters she sent to you have been found in the French ambassador’s postbag, and it is certain that the whole enterprise was undertaken to set her on the throne. If you do not seize this opportunity of punishing her, you will never be safe!”

  Mary ceased her pacing and regarded him unhappily.

  “She has committed no overt act of treason,” she said, “and our law does not provide for those who have merely consented to treason to be put to death. All the same, I cannot but agree with you. As long as my sister lives, I have no hope of seeing the kingdom at peace. As time has proved, her character is just what I have always believed it to be.” Her voice was bitter.

  “Then have her indicted for treason, madam!” Renard urged.

  “No.” Mary was adamant. “It would be inadvisable to proceed against her at this stage. My councillors fear that to do so might provoke another rebellion. She is popular, you know.” She sniffed contemptuously. “But I for one am convinced of her guilt. All that is needed is proof, and to that end, I have ordered the council to question her.”

  “A wise decision, madam.” Renard beamed approvingly. “And one, I make no doubt, that will provide a solution to the problem.”

  Elizabeth stood stony-faced in front of the fireplace as Lord Chancellor Gardiner and eighteen other privy councillors filed into her chamber.

  “Madam,” Gardiner, black-browed and severe, began, “we are credibly informed that you were a party to the late rebellion, and the Queen’s Majesty has commanded us to uncover the truth.”

  Elizabeth faced him steadily.

  “I am innocent of that charge,” she declared. “I have done nothing against the Queen. I am Her Majesty’s loyal subject and sister.”

  “The traitor Wyatt, under questioning in the Tower, has told us that you sent him messages,” said Sir William Paget.

  Elizabeth permitted herself a wry smile. “I can well imagine what form that questioning took,” she said, “for otherwise he would not have invented such falsehoods.”

  “Do you deny that you sent copies of your letters to the French ambassador?” Sir George Cornwallis barked.

  “I do. But what has that to do with the rebellion?” Elizabeth asked, genuinely puzzled.

  “It shows you to be in collusion with him. He was helping to plot your marriage to Courtenay. The rebels would have overthrown Her Majesty and set you and Courtenay up in her place.”

  Elizabeth flared.

  “I have never said I would marry Courtenay,” she snarled. “As for the rest, I had no involvement in any such plot, even though I was supposed to be so nearly concerned.”

  “You lie,” Gardiner accused her. “Do not imagine that we are cozened by your dissembling. I warn you, madam, if you do not admit your guilt and throw yourself upon the Queen’s mercy, you will incur the severest penalties.”

  Frightened though she was, Elizabeth held her ground.

  “I have done nothing worthy of reproach,” she insisted. “I cannot ask mercy for a fault that I have not committed. Is that what you would have me do?”

  The councillors looked at each other doubtfully. Some of them were there on sufferance; they were thinking that the Queen might not long outlive her coming marriage, and that Elizabeth would soon be their sovereign lady. Thus they were reluctant to offend her.

  “I need only to come face-to-face with the Queen my sister to convince her of my innocence,” Elizabeth declared. “I pray you, once more, to crave an audience on my behalf.”

  “That is out of the question,” Gardiner said briskly, knowing how Mary would react to such a request. “The Queen is soon to depart for Oxford, and it is her pleasure that you be taken to the Tower while the matter is further tried and examined.”

  His words came like a slap in the face. The Tower…She was to go to the Tower, the place she had always dreaded, as a prisoner suspected of treason. Just as her mother had, all those years ago. And Anne Boleyn had not left it alive, had instead suffered the agonies of confinement and faced a terrible death. What else could her own imprisonment portend but a similar fate? For in Mary’s refusal to see her and removal to Oxford, she divined something ominous. Her fate had already been decided, she was certain. These interrogations were but to provide them with pretexts. Look at what had happened to Lady Jane Grey. Had Jane’s execution been but a prelude to her own?

  The fear that consumed her left her near speechless, but she battled desperately to control, it, knowing that she must defend
herself. She had to do something to escape the terrible fate that was in store for her. Shaking, she found her voice.

  “As God is my witness,” she swore to the lords, “I deny any involvement with the traitor Wyatt. I am altogether guiltless, I swear it, and I trust that the Queen’s Majesty will be a more gracious lady to me than to send me to so notorious and doleful a place.” Her words ended on a sob.

  “Those are the Queen’s orders,” Gardiner said grimly, backing toward the door, and the other councillors hastily bowed themselves out after him. Some, she noticed, had kept their caps and bonnets low over their eyes. Are they so shamefaced? she wondered. Or do they not wish me to know who they are? How insolent not to remain uncovered in my presence, the presence of the heir to the throne!

  But then it occurred to her that she might not remain heir to the throne for very much longer, might soon be nothing but a convicted traitor whose life, titles, and goods were forfeit. At that, her courage deserted her, and she sank weakly to the floor.

  She was still there four hours later, sobbing piteously, with a distraught Kat powerless to console her, when four of the lords returned.

  “Our orders are to dismiss all Your Grace’s servants except for Mrs. Astley and Mistress Parry,” Cornwallis informed her.

  “So I am expected to shift for myself?” Elizabeth cried woefully.

  “No, madam, they will be replaced by such as are proven to be faithful to the Queen’s Majesty,” he informed her. At his words, six dour-faced, soberly attired men and women entered the room. “They will accompany you to the Tower in the morning.”

  Elizabeth could not answer him.

  It grew late, and very dark. Kat, who could not still her own trembling, offered to light candles, but Elizabeth, still crouched on the floor, shook her head. Then, around midnight, flickering lights outside lit up the gloomy chamber. Fearfully, Elizabeth rose, uncurling her numb limbs, and limped to the window, peering out at the gardens below. There were drawn up rank upon rank of white-coated soldiers. All detailed to guard one defenseless girl, she thought bitterly.

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