The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  “I agree, madam,” Renard said, “but despite the lack of evidence, we must be pragmatic. You cannot allow her to go free.”

  “Nor do I wish to,” Mary said quickly. “Yet I cannot be seen to be keeping an innocent person in the Tower. My councillors wish to marry her abroad, but given that she is still under suspicion of treason, that would be too dangerous a course, I fear. No, I shall consult them again. But one thing I must know, Simon. Will the Emperor consent to the Prince coming here now?”

  “The Emperor will understand your difficult position, madam, and accept that Your Majesty cannot resort to tyranny to achieve your ends. He has decided to take a practical view, and has written that the alliance between our two kingdoms is so important that nothing must be allowed to stand in its way. I am to tell you that the Prince is even now preparing for his departure. He will soon be here.”

  Mary’s eyes lit up with joy.

  “Praised be God! My prayers have been answered!” she cried.

  “You know that there have been demonstrations against the marriage in London?” Renard asked gently.

  “They have been dealt with,” Mary said sharply, the smile vanishing. “Some of my subjects do not know what is good for them, I fear. The rest, I am glad to say, rejoice for me, and for England.”

  “As do I, madam”—Renard smiled—“and His Highness too. I hear he is an eager bridegroom.” He hoped that sounded convincing.

  Mary blushed deeply.

  “I trust he will not find me wanting,” she said humbly. Looking at her faded, tired face and thin, flat-chested body, Renard could have wept for her.

  CHAPTER 18

  1554

  There is no justification for keeping the Lady Elizabeth in the Tower!” Sussex said, barely concealing his anger. “Let her return to court, madam.”

  Mary, seated in her cushioned chair at the head of the council table, quelled him—and those who were about to support him vociferously—with a look.

  “It would not be honorable, safe, or reasonable to receive my sister at court,” she said. “My pleasure is that she be held under house arrest at some secure place in the country where she can be kept under surveillance.”

  The councillors did not risk arguing with this, for it was clear that Mary had made up her mind. Only Gardiner looked satisfied.

  “Has Your Majesty considered where?” Arundel asked.

  “I was going to ask among you, my lords, if any man here is willing to be her custodian,” the Queen said hopefully.

  There was a prolonged and deathly silence. Then Sir Henry Bedingfield stood up.

  “I will take on the honor of this responsibility, madam,” he announced.

  Mary looked at him gratefully. She knew him to be a loyal man, conscientious and reliable, and with a rigid sense of duty. Unimaginative, though, and a bit of a plodder. She would hardly have noticed him but for one thing: His father had been her mother’s jailer during the last years of her life, and he too had been a stickler for the rules. With this proven example behind him, Sir Henry was an ideal and obvious choice.

  “It would seem that a readiness to ensure the safekeeping of royal ladies runs in your family, Sir Henry,” she said with a smile. The little man puffed out his chest with pride and bowed chivalrously to her.

  “It will be my privilege to serve you thus, madam,” he replied in his high, fretful voice.

  “I make no doubt that my sister will get no satisfaction if she tries her mischievous tricks on you, sir,” the Queen told him. “You will not be swayed by her caprices, I am sure.”

  “Never!” he agreed fervently. “Although I fear that mine will not be an easy task.”

  No, it will not, the other councillors thought, looking at him thankfully, glad to have been spared this unwelcome responsibility.

  “I have decided that the Lady Elizabeth will be lodged at the old palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire,” Mary said. “You will escort her there as soon as is convenient.”

  Hearing the tramp of scores of marching feet approaching, Elizabeth sped to her window. There, in the courtyard below, she saw rank upon rank of soldiers falling into line, and before them, mounted on horses, Sir John Bridges and Sir Henry Bedingfield, whom she knew slightly by sight; he was a member of the council, she was certain.

  Terror filled her soul. She could not breathe. This was it: They had come for her. Her death was imminent!

  “Kat!” she cried in panic. Kat came running.

  “Have they taken down the Lady Jane’s scaffold?”

  “I know not,” Kat replied.

  “Yes, they have,” Blanche, overhearing, chimed in. “It was dismantled yesterday.”

  Elizabeth caught her breath. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she gasped.

  Then the threatening possibilities of her situation struck home again.

  “Look!” she pointed. Kat and Blanche looked down at the ranks of soldiers.

  “They have come for me,” Elizabeth wailed, nearly hysterical, and icy fingers of fear gripped Kat’s heart. When Sir Henry Bedingfield was finally announced, she was cradling Elizabeth in her arms, determined to protect her from whatever lay ahead.

  Sir Henry bowed. Elizabeth could barely breathe.

  “My lady,” he declared loftily, “I am come to escort you to a more comfortable place of confinement, to the royal palace of Woodstock. There, I am to be your guardian, by order of the Queen’s Grace.”

  So it was not to be the scaffold, Elizabeth thought feverishly. They were planning to hide her in the country and do away with her by stealth. She must beware the poisoned cup, the suffocating pillow…If they could not get rid of her by fair means, they would do it by foul. Which was why they had chosen this insignificant—and therefore disposable—fellow to be her keeper.

  “If the murdering of me were secretly committed to your charge too, would you see to it that those orders were carried out?” Elizabeth challenged him, with a desperation born of panic.

  Sir Henry’s jaw dropped; he was clearly shocked.

  “I would most certainly not,” he declared, bristling. “I am a man of honor. And the Queen’s Majesty, you may be assured, would never stoop so low. She is an upright lady. She has even provided an escort of soldiers so that you may be protected from attacks by Catholics. I should warn you that feelings are still running high in the wake of the late rebellion.”

  “Don’t delude yourself, Sir Henry,” Elizabeth snapped. “Those soldiers are there to prevent any Protestants from rescuing me.”

  “That is also true,” he conceded, unruffled. “Now have your women make ready, madam. I do not wish to delay our departure. I have my orders.”

  That was a phrase that Elizabeth was to hear repeated many times over the coming months, until she was fit to scream whenever Sir Henry uttered it. For the moment, however, she had not his measure, nor he hers, and so they confined themselves to gentle sparring. That theirs was never going to be an easy relationship became apparent as soon as the barge that would convey them to Richmond, the first stop on their journey, pulled away from the Tower and the watching Lieutenant and assembled warders. Sir John had bowed low at her departure, and assured her of his friendship. Mercifully, that tyrant of a constable was nowhere in sight, the craven bully!

  Bedingfield, who had intended to carry out the transfer of his prisoner as discreetly as possible, was horrified to see crowds lining the riverbanks.

  “What are they all doing there?” he asked incredulously. “Who told them of your coming today?”

  “How should I know?” Elizabeth replied, nodding graciously in either direction and basking in the cheering shouts of the waving onlookers.

  “Someone must have talked,” Sir Henry fretted. “Close the curtains!”

  “I cannot, I need air!” Elizabeth protested. “I feel faint!”

  “It is quite warm today,” Kat added helpfully. Indeed, it was unseasonably hot for April.

  Sir Henry knew when he was defeated.

  ??
?Very well, then,” he conceded, “but you must not acknowledge the people.”

  Elizabeth meekly concurred and just sat there, inclining her head and smiling. Sir Henry looked at her suspiciously.

  “You should keep your eyes modestly downcast,” he told her.

  “Are those the Queen’s orders?” she asked provocatively, leaving him at a loss for words and desperate to wipe the smug smile from her face.

  Suddenly, there were deafening reports of cannon fire.

  “Oh, my God, what is that?” Bedingfield leapt to his feet with such urgency that the barge rocked alarmingly.

  Elizabeth laughed.

  “It is coming from the Steelyard,” she told him. “I think the German merchants there are letting off a salute in my honor.”

  Sir Henry was outraged.

  “Good God, how dare they? Bloody Protestants, the lot of them, I should imagine. This is not supposed to be a triumphal progress, madam. Remember that you are still a prisoner.”

  “I doubt that you will let me forget it,” Elizabeth answered wryly.

  “There will be repercussions from this, I am sure,” he told her fretfully. “The Queen will be angry.”

  Elizabeth’s merry mood dissipated in an instant. She saw with clarity what might happen: Mary, convinced by these demonstrations, that she, Elizabeth, was even more of a threat to her throne than she had envisaged, deciding that enough was enough. Mary, signing her death warrant…

  “Close the curtains,” she said abruptly to Kat.

  It felt strange to be in Richmond Palace, where once she had delighted in being at court, in happy ignorance of what the future held. Of course, it was pleasant, after two months in the Tower, to stay in more congenial surroundings, but Elizabeth was still full of fear when she thought of what might happen to her. For all Sir Henry’s protestations, they might yet send an assassin secretly to do away with her. It might even be tonight, especially after what had happened this day…

  When the genial Lord Williams, who was traveling with them as second-in-command to Sir Henry, bade her good night after supper, she clutched at his sleeve.

  “Pray for me,” she begged him, her eyes wild, “for this night I think to die.”

  He looked at her compassionately. Poor girl, she had endured much, and undeservedly so, he believed.

  “You need have no such fears, my lady,” he soothed, his sincerity shining forth. “You are safe with me.”

  But still she could not sleep. Despite the assurances of Bedingfield and Williams—decent men, she was certain—her life might still be in danger. Look at what had happened to those poor Princes in the Tower, back in wicked King Richard’s reign. They had disappeared, never to be seen again, and rumor had it that they had been suffocated as they slept, the poor innocent children. She too might disappear, if her enemies had their way; and if they were determined enough, neither Bedingfield’s vigilance nor Williams’s would serve to protect her.

  So it was with a heavy heart that she climbed into the waiting litter the next morning.

  “This is a bit dilapidated,” Kat complained crossly. “Couldn’t you find any better for my lady, Sir Henry?”

  “I regret not,” he told her, swinging himself into the saddle. “Come, make haste. Onward!”

  It was the same story in every town and village that they passed through. Word of her coming had winged ahead, and everywhere, to Sir Henry’s distress, the people were waiting for her, calling down blessings on her name, throwing flowers at her litter and clapping enthusiastically as she was carried by.

  “God bless Elizabeth!” they cried. “Long live our princess!”

  The soldier riding beside her litter leaned down in his saddle.

  “They love you, my lady!” he declared delightedly. She looked at him quizzically; it had been her experience that friends could be found unexpectedly anywhere, even among her jailers.

  It occurred to her now that the people’s love and loyalty might help her to escape her doom. Never before had the power of public opinion been brought home so forcibly to her, and she realized, with a great lifting of her spirits, that this popular acclaim could prove to be one of her most powerful weapons. She would use it to her advantage, she promised herself.

  “Tell them I am being drawn like a sheep to the slaughter,” she said, and the soldier discreetly relayed the message to a group of people standing outside an inn. As word spread, there were cries of “Shame!” and loudly voiced protests. Sir Henry, hearing them, could not understand why the people were so angry, and spurred his horse on so that they could get away quickly, but Elizabeth felt heartened and a little reassured.

  At Windsor, they stayed in the comfort of the Dean’s house, where Elizabeth was treated with every courtesy. In the morning, crowds were lining the streets as she made her departure, and as they rode through Eton, the scholars threw their caps into the air and cried, “Vivat Elizabetha! Vivat! Vivat! Long live Elizabeth!” Tears came to her eyes when she heard it. She had not realized she was held in such devotion.

  Sir Henry was deeply unhappy and worried. In every village now, they were ringing the church bells in Elizabeth’s honor, and the good country folk would come bearing gifts—cakes, fruit, or flowers, usually.

  “Any who ring bells will be sentenced to the stocks!” the harassed Bedingfield proclaimed, but as soon as he had gone on his way, the offenders were released. “And madam, you are not to accept any of the gifts.” He was concerned in case there were messages concealed in them. One never knew what the French ambassador would get up to next!

  But the people ignored Sir Henry’s strictures. They tossed their offerings into the litter, or thrust them into the hands of servants, until Elizabeth was surrounded by an abundance of gifts.

  “God save Your Grace!” the villagers cried.

  “These people are clearly remiss in matters of religion,” Bedingfield fumed to Lord Williams.

  “You cannot punish everyone who demonstrates affection for the Lady Elizabeth,” Williams told him, secretly delighted by the demonstrations.

  “No, but I should dearly like to,” Sir Henry muttered.

  Lord Williams was also somewhat disturbed in his mind. If the people were so devoted to Elizabeth, it was best to treat her well and with deference. So when, on the third night, they came to his mansion at Rycote, he held a great banquet in her honor, having secretly sent ahead to summon his neighbors to attend.

  “Isn’t this going rather too far?” Bedingfield said sniffily as he regarded the laden table, the seat of honor placed next to the host’s, and the waiting guests. “Have you forgotten that the Lady Elizabeth is the Queen’s prisoner?”

  “She is also the Queen’s heir,” Williams replied, “and we would do well to remember that.”

  At that, Sir Henry forbore to complain further; he simply sat stiffly through the meal, a specter at the feast, unable to enjoy the delicious food or the sparkling conversation. But Elizabeth made the most of the occasion, talking merrily with the guests and wolfing down the fancy fare. It was an all-too-brief escape from the frightening reality of her situation.

  “I have been marvelously well entertained,” she told Lord Williams at the end of the evening. “I thank you, and I am sorry that you are coming with us no farther.” They were to press on without him to Woodstock on the morrow.

  Williams caught the note of fear in her voice.

  “I am certain that all will go well with Your Grace in the end,” he told her, “and that you fret needlessly. Remember, if I can do you any service, I will be happy to perform it.”

  “It is comforting to know that you will not be far off,” she answered.

  There were even crowds at the gates of Woodstock, Sir Henry noted with irritation. Thank God they were nearly at their destination.

  Elizabeth peered out of the litter as the gates closed behind them and craned her neck to see ahead. She had never been to Woodstock, for it had fallen into disuse early in her father’s reign. Looking ahe
ad, she could see why, for the old medieval palace, which lay north of the remains of the moat, was grim and decayed. As they drew closer, she could see crumbling and cracked masonry, broken windows, weeds, and encroaching creepers. It looked the ideal setting for a murder.

  “Am I to lodge here?” she cried in dismay.

  Sir Henry slowed his horse until her litter drew level with him.

  “No, madam, the palace is uninhabitable. Lodgings have been prepared for you in the gatehouse.”

  So horribly fascinated had Elizabeth been with the palace that she had failed to notice the gatehouse. It looked as old as the house, but was clearly in better repair.

  “It seems far too small,” she observed petulantly, and indeed it was.

  There were just four rooms, two up, two down. She had never lived in so cramped a place.

  “Where are my servants to lodge?” she demanded to know.

  “They must shift to find accommodation in the village,” Bedingfield told her, himself dismayed at the prospect of living in such close proximity to his difficult and unpredictable prisoner.

  “That is not at all convenient,” she informed him.

  “Those are my orders,” he said heavily. “Mistress Parry may lodge with you to look after your personal needs.”

  “What of Mrs. Astley?” Elizabeth cried, the dismay on her face mirroring that on Kat’s.

  “She is forbidden to stay here,” he told her. Both women gasped in dismay.

  “I cannot be parted from her,” Elizabeth insisted.

  “I have my orders,” Bedingfield replied. “Mistress Parry alone is to attend you. Mrs. Astley must find lodgings elsewhere.”

  “May she visit me?” Elizabeth asked sharply.

  “I fear not, madam. I have my—”

  “I shall write to the Queen!” Elizabeth interrupted him.

 
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