The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “Mrs. Astley and Mistress Parry may remain with you, madam,” Sir John said. “Your other servants will be housed downstairs. The warders will admit them as necessary.”

  “I thank you, sir,” Elizabeth whispered, watching him select a key from the heavy ring he held in his hand. The lords bowed and followed him out. As that key turned in the lock, with awful finality, Sussex suddenly began to weep.

  “Let us take heed, my lords, that we go not beyond our commission,” he warned. “For she is the King our late master’s daughter, as well as the Queen’s sister. Let us deal with her in such a way that we will be able to answer for it in future, for just dealing is always the best course.”

  “My lord speaks truth,” Bridges said softly.

  “Aye,” Winchester agreed. “Perform your office lightly, my Lord Lieutenant.”

  Left alone with Kat and Blanche, Elizabeth listlessly explored her rooms. The first thing she did was try the door at the far end of her bedchamber, but of course it was locked. Where did it lead? she wondered. If these two rooms had been Anne Boleyn’s presence chamber and state bedchamber, as seemed likely, would she not have had other privy apartments? Were they behind the door? Her mind conjured up images of dusty, bare rooms, faded splendor, adorned now only by cobwebs and patches of mold.

  “My mother was lodged here,” she whispered to Kat.

  Kat put an arm around her, visibly upset by the events of the day.

  “She was, my lamb—at least, before her trial. Lady Lee, that was with her in the Tower, told me that after it she was moved to the Lieutenant’s lodging. So she could not have been here for long.”

  “The decoration is very fine,” Elizabeth commented.

  “It would be,” Kat said. “These rooms were done up for her coronation, three years earlier. When she came here as a prisoner, she said they were too good for her.”

  “They are good enough for me,” Elizabeth retorted with something of her old spirit. She moved to the mullioned window. The casements had been secured. The window looked down upon a courtyard surrounded by walls, with the river beyond.

  “Did they think I would try to escape by the window?” Elizabeth asked, trying in vain to undo one of the catches. “It’s a long drop.”

  “Obviously they are taking no chances,” Kat observed. “Prisoners have escaped before. There are lots of tales.”

  “I’m more concerned about having no fresh air,” Elizabeth muttered. “These rooms are stuffy—they need airing. I shall complain to Sir John.”

  She looked around her again, at the walls, bare plaster beneath the blue-and-gold frieze, the fire crackling in the stone hearth, the serviceable oak table and benches, and tried to imagine how the room would have looked at the time of her mother’s triumph.

  This place made her shiver. It was like having a ghost standing just behind her. It had been surprisingly easy seeking out memories of her mother in the lush, leafy paradise at Hever, Anne’s former home; but here, where she had met her fate, the very stones spoke of tragedy and doom.

  “I don’t like it here,” she told Kat. “Did the Queen think to add to my miseries by shutting me up in this, of all places?”

  “I don’t like it much either,” Kat agreed, “but just remember that it could be much worse. You could have been shut in a dungeon.”

  The first night was terrible, at least to begin with. Lying in the dark, horribly aware of where she was, Elizabeth’s imagination kept invoking the most terrifying images of her likely fate, and when she did sleep fitfully, her dreams were of pain and blood and death, so real that she awoke with a jolt, sweating and panting in fright. It was a blessed relief to hear the gentle snoring of Kat and the even breathing of Blanche as they slumbered on their pallets on the floor.

  It was then that she became aware that there was another presence in the room, a presence barely perceptible in the dim glow of the dying embers of the fire. There it stood, dark and still at the foot of her bed, a woman, by the shape of it, a woman in a French hood like a halo, her face shadowed in the gloom.

  It was strange that she did not feel frightened, even when she realized that the figure before her was not of this world. Indeed, she recognized it, as her thoughts went winging back to Hever, to that visit to the Princess Anna, all those years ago, when—she was sure of it—this same figure had appeared to her in a similar manner. She had felt comforted then, and she did now, and to her dying day she would believe that this was her mother Anne come to give her comfort and strength in her ordeal. Anne, the one person who would understand what Elizabeth was suffering now. The bonds of love, she reflected, as she willed Anne’s shade to linger some while longer, must be stronger than death.

  “My lady mother?” she whispered. The words felt strange on her tongue. The figure did not move, but there was a kind of recognition, she felt—or, rather, hoped; and then the apparition began to fade, until she could see it no more and began wondering if she had dreamed the whole thing. But the sense of having been comforted and fortified with renewed courage was strong in her. She knew it would give her the wherewithal to face what lay ahead.

  Sir John proved accommodating about the windows, sending men at once to free the casements. He was unfailingly courteous and respectful. And he wasted no time in inviting Elizabeth to dine with him each evening in his lodging. Grateful as she was to be escorted every night through the palace precincts to his comfortable half-timbered house, her visits were something of an ordeal, for it faced Tower Green, where there still stood—ominous and sinister—the scaffold that had been erected for Lady Jane Grey’s execution.

  Why had it not been taken down? Elizabeth wondered, with great trepidation. Was it because they expected it to be used again? And was she to be the next victim? Were they so certain that they could prove her guilty?

  On the second evening, over the roast partridge and stewed plums, she could not stop herself from asking Sir John about it.

  “I have received no orders,” he said. “With her marriage to the Prince of Spain fast approaching, I am sure Her Majesty has more important things on her mind than ordering the dismantling of that scaffold.”

  Elizabeth hoped he was right. Nevertheless, she could not rid herself of the dread conviction that the scaffold had been kept in place for her, and every time she saw it, the horrible thing, she began to tremble.

  The Lieutenant’s lodging itself was a place of sadness and doom for her. She never forgot, as she supped on good, wholesome fare and exchanged intelligent conversation with Sir John and Lady Bridges, that the last acts in her mother’s tragedy had been played out in the rooms above her head. She could see their latticed windows whenever she approached the house, and was painfully aware that those windows looked out directly onto Tower Green. If she had braced herself to look out, Anne could have watched her scaffold being built.

  “Lady Lee said that the carpenters who built it kept them awake all through those last nights with their hammering and banging,” Kat told her. Since their arrival in the Tower, Kat had not been exactly forthcoming with confidences about Anne, for she did not wish to add to Elizabeth’s present distress: They had to be coerced out of her. Yet Elizabeth felt she had to know the truth about her mother’s fate, that in some way it would give her courage to deal with what was happening to her now.

  Very little was happening, in fact. There had been no interrogation, no visits from the council. Elizabeth wondered if they were trying to wear her down with the agony of suspense. Well, she thought tartly, that will get them nowhere. I am as innocent now as I was on the day I came here.

  But was she truly innocent? she asked herself as she paced along the wall-walk, a privilege that had been accorded her for her recreation. It was almost as much of an ordeal as her visits to the Lieutenant’s lodging, for from the walls she could see the river, busy with its craft, and people unheedingly enjoying their freedom. Looking away, and pacing ahead of the five attendants on whom Sir John had insisted, she asked herself if it had
been treason not to inform the Queen of the letters she had received from Wyatt. Had it been right to ignore them? Yet what could she have done? They would only have accused her of conspiring with the man: The fact that he had written to her at all would have been all the evidence they needed to bring her down. So yes, she had done the best thing. Whether it was the right thing was another matter.

  She was calmer now. She had wept and stormed a lot those first few days in the Tower, but as it gradually became clear that her enemies were in no hurry to hasten her to her death, she began to feel stronger. She was eating better too. Her servants were permitted to go out and buy food for her, and to prepare it themselves.

  “There is less risk of poison that way!” she told Kat with grim humor; but seriously, she did not think that any would attempt to get rid of her by underhanded means. In fact, apart from the lack of freedom and the ever-present fear of what might happen to her, her existence was fairly comfortable.

  Until Sir John Gage, Constable of the Tower, arrived.

  “You have allowed her to go out on the walls?” the Constable repeated, clearly alarmed.

  Sir John Bridges eyed his superior with disfavor. Gage had ever been one for sticking rigorously to the rules.

  “It was so that she might take the air, sir,” he explained.

  “I cannot allow it,” Gage declared. “The practice must stop. And I noticed that her windows were open. Who permitted that?”

  “I did,” Bridges said, a touch defiantly. “She has been very ill. She says she needs fresh air.”

  “Nonsense!” the Constable averred stoutly. “All this pandering to her must cease. She is a prisoner like any other.”

  “Prisoners of rank are usually allowed some privileges,” the Lieutenant persisted.

  “She is no ordinary prisoner!” rapped Gage. “She is the Queen’s sister, and my orders are to keep her straitly. She is not to communicate with anyone, do you hear me? No walking on the walls or leaning out of windows to attract attention.”

  “She does not—” Bridges began.

  “And she is not to write any letters,” interrupted Gage. “I trust you have not given her writing materials?”

  “I saw no harm in it,” the Lieutenant replied, bristling.

  “For God’s sake, man! She is suspected of treason. If she plots mischief from here, our necks will be at risk. You must take them away. See to it!”

  Elizabeth felt quite sorry for Sir John as he stood before her, embarrassed and clearly unhappy, and told her that she was to lose her privileges.

  “The Constable has his orders, I fear,” he told her. “I cannot gainsay them, much as I would.”

  “I understand,” she said evenly, but inside her heart was sinking. She could not believe that this new severity emanated solely from Sir John Gage’s fussiness and determination to interpret the rules as strictly as possible. She was convinced that there was a more sinister reason for it. Others would have been questioned by now, she was sure. What of Courtenay, that spineless fool? Had he said something against her? Was this withdrawal of privileges but a prelude to something far worse?

  She watched Sir John collecting her paper and pens.

  “Now I am truly a prisoner,” she said.

  “I will do what I can for you, madam,” he assured her.

  When he had gone, she fought back tears. How was she to occupy the long, dragging days with no walks, no means of studying? And she would stifle here with the windows shut.

  A key turned in the door and Kat was let in, puffing and blowing.

  “The cheek of it!” she fumed, her face puce. “The soldiers at the gate made us hand over the food we bought in the market. For security reasons, they said. Security reasons my eye! Those common rascal soldiers have taken it for themselves, I’ll warrant.”

  Elizabeth rose, fear channeled into anger. How dare they!

  “Go now, to Sir John Gage, and say that I sent you,” she commanded, “and make a complaint to him on my behalf.”

  “I’ll tell him!” Kat warned.

  Bravely, she clung to her resolve when faced with the stern stare of the Constable.

  “Don’t you frown at me, woman,” he rapped.

  Kat shrugged. “It’s your men who are doing this,” she said boldly.

  “By God, for your impertinence, I could put you where you will see neither sun nor moon!” he threatened.

  “May I appeal to your chivalry then, as a knight?” Kat asked craftily, suppressing her fury at being spoken to thus. “The Lady Elizabeth fears that someone will poison her. That is why we, her servants, go out to buy food and prepare it for her. She needs to eat well in order to build up her health. Will you deny her even this?”

  The Constable thought for a while.

  “Very well,” he said at length. “But if anyone tries to smuggle any messages in with the food, it will go harshly with them.”

  “Do you take us for fools?” Kat retorted. “We wish to preserve our mistress, not add to her danger. But I thank you anyway for this small kindness.”

  So they continued to buy food as usual, only Elizabeth could not eat it, so full of dread was she.

  “Take it away,” she would say as Kat brought dish after dish of savory-smelling delicacies to tempt her.

  “You must eat, for the sake of your health!” Kat remonstrated with her, but Elizabeth waved her away.

  “What point in preserving my health when I am to be sent to the scaffold soon?” she moaned. Being treated more harshly had crushed her spirits.

  “You don’t know that!” Kat cried. “Do not even think about it. If they were going to proceed against you to that end, they would have done it by now.”

  “They are gathering evidence,” Elizabeth said flatly. “They are looking for the means to convict me. Lady Jane’s scaffold is still there. I shall be next, I tell you.” Her voice rose with hysteria.

  “Pull yourself together!” Kat commanded. But Elizabeth could not. Some days she could barely drag herself from her bed, so dispirited and scared was she.

  What will happen to me? she kept asking herself. When will they come for me? Every tap on the door had her shaking in terror. Daily, she expected to hear the dread summons to the block. Despairing, she could think of nothing but how she would feel walking those few short steps, kneeling down in the straw, being blindfolded…And then the blow, the cold steel slicing into her neck. Would there be much pain? Or would it be over before she knew anything about it?

  The ax featured large in her nightmares, waking and sleeping. She had heard awful tales of bungled executions, which now came back to haunt her. In her father’s reign, old Lady Salisbury had gone to the block for treason and been butchered by an inexperienced headsman. There were stories of people suffering several chops of the ax before their heads were severed. She could imagine the blood bubbling in her throat, the incomprehensible agony, the awareness of being mortally wounded, like an animal laid low.

  But wait! Her mother had been spared the ax, hadn’t she? Her father had sent to France for a skilled swordsman. Even in death, Anne had had the best. The kinder, quicker death. That was it. She would beg the Queen to let her die by the sword. It was all she could think about.

  She grew thinner and paler. Her eyes were shadowed, tormented. Kat and Blanche looked at her anxiously, fearing that she was slipping away before their eyes. Sir John Bridges too noticed the state she was in when he came daily to inquire after her health. He knew she was taking little sustenance, because for days now she had made excuses not to join him for dinner.

  “She is suffering from being cooped up in those rooms without fresh air,” he warned the Constable. “Sir, I fear she will become very ill if you do not help her.”

  Sir John Gage frowned.

  “I have my orders,” he stated.

  “Yes, but will the Queen thank you if she dies in your care?” Bridges pointed out.

  Gage had to admit that she would not. “Very well, then. She may walk around in
the old Queen’s apartments. You may open them up. But the windows must be kept closed, mind you.”

  Sir John shook his head. It was not enough, he knew, but it was something.

  Elizabeth watched, light-headed from lack of food and sleep, as the Lieutenant unlocked the door in the bedchamber. As she had expected, the rooms beyond were layered in dust and shrouded with cobwebs. The air was heavy, stale; it made her cough a little.

  Surely her mother had not been here? No one had refurbished these gloomy rooms for decades. They boasted no friezes, no fresh paintwork, no gilded ceilings. Instead, there were faded and cracked wall paintings, in blue and vermilion, depicting ancient kings and angels, and the cracked, faded tiles on the floor bore imprints of leopards and fleurs-de-lis. Here and there lay a broken stool, a battered old chest, but otherwise the rooms were bare. The windows were caked in grime, so there was no point in trying to see out. Kat wrinkled her nose; this place smelled of dead things.

  “It was fresh air I wanted, not must and decay,” Elizabeth said bitterly to the Lieutenant. “I can hardly breathe in here. Let us go back, I pray you.”

  As the door shut on the deserted chambers, she threw herself on her bed.

  “If I don’t have some fresh air, I will die,” she wept.

  “I will do what I can,” Bridges told her.

  “There is a walled garden at the side of my house,” he told her when he returned not half an hour later. “Sir John Gage has given permission for you to use it whenever convenient, on condition that the gate remains locked and an armed warder is in attendance.”

  Elizabeth felt somewhat heartened at this news. Would they really be looking to her health and comfort in this way if the Queen was seeking her death?

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