The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “Come to bed,” Kat pleaded. “You will need all your strength for tomorrow.” She alone understood the dread in Elizabeth’s heart. Strong men had quailed when committed to the Tower; this girl’s mother had died violently there. It had been an ordeal for Elizabeth to visit the place at the time of her sister’s joyous reception. How much worse would it be for her on the morrow?

  “Think you I can sleep?” Elizabeth asked, her eyes haunted.

  “Just rest, I beg of you,” Kat beseeched her.

  She lay there, wide awake, willing sleep to come, but it proved elusive, as she had feared it would. She could not stop her mind wandering in perilous directions, conjuring up images of scaffolds, blocks, axes…would they behead her with a sword, as they had her mother? She imagined what it would feel like, walking those last few steps to death, knowing that in minutes she would be facing eternity. She had always feared that if she once crossed the threshold of the Tower as a prisoner, she would never emerge alive. Tonight, she must pray for her soul, for she was almost certainly going to be taken there on the morrow.

  When they came for her in the morning, she was hollow-eyed and disoriented, a wraith in her severe black gown and hood. She had disdained to put on the finery that was her usual garb these days, thinking it made her seem vain and worldly; simple clothes would emphasize her youth, her innocence, her purity—and of course, none knew that she had no right to sympathy on that last count.

  There were two of them this morning: my lords the Marquess of Winchester and the Earl of Sussex, important nobles both, and her friends in happier times. Now they had assumed grave, business-like countenances, but she thought she could detect a certain reluctance in their manner.

  “Madam, we are come to conduct you to the Tower,” Winchester said. His words, expected though they were, chilled her.

  “The barge is waiting,” Sussex told her, “and you must come without delay, my lady, for the tide tarries for nobody.”

  “May I know what is charged against me?” Elizabeth asked.

  The two lords exchanged glances. Winchester swallowed.

  “There are no charges against you, madam,” he informed her. “You are being taken for questioning.”

  “I am innocent!” Elizabeth cried, her distress shocking to see. The men blenched, embarrassed and awkward in the face of womanly tears. “I beg of you, my good lords, wait for the next tide. I am ill prepared…”

  “Madam, we cannot,” Sussex said miserably.

  “Then let me see the Queen and plead my case,” she begged.

  “The Queen will not see you, you have been told that,” Winchester reminded her.

  “Then at least let me write to her,” Elizabeth beseeched them, desperate to delay the inevitable moment of departure. If only she could contrive to miss the tide, that would ensure her another blessed day of freedom.

  “I cannot permit that,” Winchester said.

  “A word,” Sussex murmured, tugging at the Marquess’s sleeve, and the two men retired to the inner chamber, leaving Elizabeth breathless with hope.

  “Maybe we should agree to what she asks,” Sussex was saying.

  “It will probably do her more harm than good,” Winchester opined.

  “My lord,” Sussex reminded him, “remember that we are in the presence of a lady who might one day become our queen. Dare we refuse her request? It might rebound on us in the long run.”

  Winchester thought for a moment.

  “You may have the sow by the right ear,” he agreed. “Let her write.”

  When they returned to the outer room, Sussex fell to his knees before an astonished Elizabeth. “You shall have liberty to write your mind,” he told her, “and as I am a true man, I will deliver your letter to the Queen and beg an answer, whatever comes of it.”

  Elizabeth could not sufficiently express her gratitude. It was a blessed relief to know that she had at least one friend on the council, and it afforded her a glimmer of hope.

  “If ever I am in a position to do you favor, my lords, do not hesitate to ask it of me,” she assured them, and then sat down to compose the most important letter she had ever written.

  Knowing that she was pleading for her very life, she poured out her heart. She reminded Mary of her promise never to condemn her without first having heard what she had to say in her defense. She remonstrated against being sent to the Tower without just cause, for she deserved it not. She protested before God that she had never plotted, counseled, nor abetted anything injurious to the Queen. She begged that she might plead her case in person with Mary before she was committed to the Tower.

  Do not condemn me in all men’s sight before the truth be known, she begged, her handwriting becoming more sprawling as her quill flew over the page and her desperation increased. She even referred to the Admiral, claiming that he would not have suffered death if he had been allowed to speak in his defense before his brother the Protector. I pray God that evil persuasion will not set one sister against the other, she declared. Kneeling in humility, as she put it, she craved but one audience with Mary. “I am innocent of any treason,” she insisted, “and to this my truth, I will stand in to my death,” she concluded.

  At last, the letter was finished. It wasn’t very tidy, for she had crossed out phrases and added words here and there in her frenzied determination to ward off a terrible fate. Then something struck her. The last sentence ended at the top of a fresh page. Once the letter was out of her hands, her enemies could forge her handwriting and add anything they liked in the space that was left. But she would not give them the chance. Taking up her pen again, she drew bold lines, diagonally, across the blank part of the paper. At the very bottom, she wrote: I humbly crave but one word of answer from yourself. Your Highness’s most faithful subject that has been from the beginning, and will be to mine end. After this, she signed her name, with its customary elegant flourishes, and sat up straight, laying down the quill. She had done her very best; the matter was in God’s hands now.

  “Have you finished, madam?” Winchester and Sussex had been waiting somewhat impatiently.

  “Yes, my lords,” she told them.

  “Well, we have missed the tide.” Winchester sighed. “The river will now be so low that it would be dangerous to attempt getting past London Bridge. Those piers are perilously close together.”

  “The next favorable tide will be around midnight,” Sussex informed them.

  “I do not think that we should take the Lady Elizabeth under cover of darkness,” Winchester considered. “Some fools might take it into their heads to attempt a rescue. Better to wait until tomorrow morning.”

  “That would be much wiser,” Sussex agreed. “It is Palm Sunday and we can make the journey while everyone is in church. That way we avoid any likelihood of demonstrations on my lady’s behalf.” He turned to Elizabeth, whose face was registering the deepest dismay. She wanted the people to see her taken to the Tower; she wanted them to voice their displeasure. Her plight must be known, so that protests could be made.

  “I will take your letter to the Queen now,” Sussex said.

  Sussex quailed before Mary’s anger. She would not look at him.

  “You delayed carrying out my orders for this?” she cried. “You allowed yourselves to be suborned by that cunning and devious girl?”

  “Your Majesty, she pleaded with us most piteously,” he told her. “It would have taken a heart of stone to refuse her.” Too late, he realized what he had said: that Mary herself must have such a heart. The Queen was frowning darkly.

  “Such a thing would never have been tolerated in my father’s time,” she snapped. “I wish he could come back, if only for a month, and give you, who are supposed to be my councillors, the rebuke you deserve! Now go, and see to it that there is no further delay.”

  Elizabeth looked out her window. The dismal Sunday morning, with its leaden skies and teeming rain, mirrored her despondent mood. There could be no more delaying tactics. Very soon, they would come for
her. How had her mother conducted herself on that fateful day they had taken her to the Tower? Kat had spoken of her courage, but also of her wild veering from tears to laughter. Elizabeth knew herself to be perilously near to such hysteria. She must be brave, and remember that she was a king’s daughter—and that she was innocent.

  “Madam, it is time,” Winchester said, opening the door to her chamber. “We must make haste.”

  Elizabeth straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath.

  “The Lord’s will be done,” she said. “If there is no remedy, I must be content with that.”

  Surrounded by guards, they led her, with Kat and the royal servants following, down the stairs and out into the gardens. The rain was lashing down so heavily that Elizabeth’s velvet cloak and black gown and hood were soon soaked through. As they hastened between formal flower beds and along the water gallery that led to the river, she kept looking up at the palace windows, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen and attract her attention. But Mary, it seemed, had no inclination to watch her prisoner being taken away. The unfairness of it all struck Elizabeth deeply.

  “I marvel much at the nobility of this realm,” she declared, looking accusingly at Winchester and Sussex, “who meekly suffer me to be led into captivity, and to Lord knows what else, for I do not.”

  Sussex bent his head to her.

  “Not a few members of the council are sorry for your trouble, my lady,” he murmured in a low voice. “I am myself sorry that I have lived to see this day.”

  Elizabeth stared at him, her eyebrows raised in surprise, but there was no time to answer, for they had reached the jetty and the barge was waiting. She was directed to sit in the cabin, along with the lords and her attendants, and as soon as they had settled themselves on the cushioned benches and the curtains had been drawn, the rain-drenched oarsmen pushed off, and they were on their way downstream. The Thames was turbulent, and Kat looked distinctly queasy. Elizabeth normally enjoyed the unpredictability of river craft and the motion of the tides, but today, on this dreadful day, she too felt sick as the barge rocked and bucked on the strong currents.

  Suddenly, the swell of the waves increased, and the boat began to rear and plunge. There were frantic shouts from outside.

  “We must be nearing the bridge,” Winchester said uneasily. He rose, staggered, and made his unsteady way out of the cabin. As he disappeared, the boat seemed to rise up of a sudden, hover in the air, and then crash down. In the cabin, they could hear the slap of water across the prow of the barge, and the curses of the oarsmen as the master shouted orders. Kat was whimpering in fright. Even Elizabeth began to fear that they would sink. They were being tossed helplessly in the tempest, and might at any moment crash against the massive piers that supported London Bridge.

  “Turn back!” she heard Sussex yell.

  “No, make for the shore,” Winchester ordered.

  “Too late!” roared the master. “Sit down!”

  Unable to bear the suspense and the fear any longer, Elizabeth thrust her head through the curtains. Gusts of rain spattered in her face. Above her loomed the bridge, dark and menacing; below her, the remorseless waves. The boat was perilously near to the piers, it was going to founder on them, they would all drown…but no. There was a sudden rush as the current violently and suddenly swept them through, and within seconds their vessel emerged on the other side of the bridge, where the water, although choppy, was calmer. There were cries of relief and the odd invocation of thanks to Our Lady, and then the oarsmen recommenced their steady rhythm.

  But ahead loomed the great threatening bulk of the Tower. Elizabeth watched in mounting dread as they drew nearer to the forbidding stone fortress and could see the cannons on the wharf—those same cannons that had announced her mother’s death. There was the White Tower rising beyond the huge curtain walls, and below those walls, the watergate, the massive, barred wooden doors of which were gradually grinding open to admit the Tower’s newest prisoner. Herself.

  This way her mother had come. And she was still here, her bones rotting under the chapel floor.

  The barge was slowly turning toward the gate. In panic, and still shaking from the ordeal of shooting the bridge, Elizabeth suddenly got up and threw open the door to the cabin. The lords stared at her wild eyes and trembling lips.

  “I beg of you, my lords, allow me to enter this place through any gate other than this,” she cried desperately. “For I know that many have passed through it and never come out again.”

  Winchester and Sussex looked at her with compassion, knowing that they could not help her in her distress. She tried once more.

  “Such a gate is not fit for a princess to enter,” she protested. “I will not use it!”

  “You do not have a choice, madam,” Winchester told her.

  Elizabeth stood there glowering, clutching at the door handles to steady herself, the rain running in rivulets down her face. She looked the image of misery, with her damp hair plastered about her temples, the defeated slump of her shoulders and her clothes soaked through. The Marquess, a chivalrous man, took pity on her.

  “Here, Madam, take my cloak,” he offered, unclasping it and handing it to her, but she pushed it away.

  “No!” she sobbed. “Leave me alone.”

  They had almost reached the watergate. There, on the privy stairs, stood the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Bridges, a well-set man with a broad face and an avuncular manner, waiting to receive his prisoner. Behind him, solid and impassive, were drawn up six Yeomen Warders.

  The boat bumped against the landing stage, the oars were raised, and the securing rope was thrown over the bollard on the jetty. Winchester and Sussex leapt ashore, their feet splashing in the water that had pooled on the paving stones.

  “Come, my lady,” Sussex beckoned.

  Elizabeth stood defiantly by the cabin door. She had decided that she was not going anywhere, that nothing would make her move from this last bastion of safety.

  “Nay, my lords,” she said, shivering. “I do not intend to get my shoes wet.” She glared at the Lieutenant and his men.

  “Madam, in the Queen’s name, I command you to come ashore!” Winchester shouted above the wind. “You must obey.”

  Slowly, reluctantly, Elizabeth balanced herself along the passageway between the oarsmen and placed a tentative foot on the landing stage.

  “Here lands as true a subject, being prisoner, as ever landed at these stairs!” she announced in a loud but shaking voice. “Before Thee, O God, do I say this, having no other friend but Thee alone. O Lord, I never thought to come in here as a prisoner.”

  Her voice broke again as she crept nearer to the steps. She looked at the waiting men, willing them to take pity on her. “I pray you all, good friends and fellows, bear me witness that I come in as no traitor, but as true a woman to the Queen’s Majesty as any as is now living; and thereon will I take my death!”

  She was near to collapsing now, and tears were mingling with the raindrops on her hectic cheeks. Some of the warders moved forward impulsively and threw themselves on their knees before her. “God preserve Your Grace!” they cried. The Lieutenant frowned and barked an order, at which those who had broken ranks quickly rose and returned to their places shamefacedly.

  “Madam, you must come with me,” Sir John Bridges said.

  Now Elizabeth’s courage did fail her. She was going to die in this place, she knew it. The prospect was so terrible that she was unable to take a step farther. Her legs would support her no longer, and she sank down on the wet stairs, great shudders racking her body.

  “You had best come out of the rain, madam,” Sir John said gently, reaching a hand down to her.

  “It is better sitting here than in a worse place!” she wailed, ignoring it. “For God knows where you will take me!”

  “You may have no fear on that count,” he assured her. “You are to lodge in the palace, where rooms have been prepared for you.”

that where my mother lodged?” she sobbed.

  “I believe so, madam,” he told her.

  “I cannot go there,” she told him. “It would be torture to me.”

  “They are the most comfortable rooms available, and meet for Your Grace’s high estate,” Bridges said patiently.

  “Comfortable they may be,” she flung at him, “but for my mother they were an antechamber to the scaffold!”

  Her attendants were climbing out of the barge now. Kat moved to go to her, her face working in distress, but Sir John stayed her with a gesture. One of Elizabeth’s grooms burst into tears. She looked up sullenly, accusingly. The youth flushed and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

  “I thank God I know my truth to be such that no man can have cause to weep for me,” Elizabeth declared.

  “Then you must take comfort from that, madam,” said Sir John, once more offering her his arm. “Come now, let us go into the warm. A fire has been lit for you.”

  She looked at him, summoning the courage to go with him, then slowly rose to her feet. Skilled in dealing with men and women facing imprisonment, torture, or death—not a month ago he had attended Lady Jane Grey on the scaffold, much to his distress—the Lieutenant tucked her hand under his arm and led her slowly up the stairs.

  The little procession wended its way through the outer bailey to the royal palace, a complex of ancient buildings that lay between the White Tower and the River Thames. There, Sir John escorted his prisoner through seemingly endless chambers and galleries until they came to the Queen’s lodgings and the rooms that had been prepared for Elizabeth—a great chamber, bedchamber, and privy.

  Elizabeth was startled at their splendor, although clearly they had not been used for many years: There was a closed-up, musty atmosphere, as if dust had been left to gather, and here and there patches of damp. But the friezes of classical motifs were beautiful, as were the intricately patterned floor tiles and the gilded battened ceilings. The furniture was sparse, and obviously not that which had once graced these rooms, but it was well polished and adequate for its purpose.

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