The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “I regret that will not be possible,” Bedingfield revealed. “My orders are that you are not to write or receive any letters. However, I myself will inform the council of your complaint. Now, Mrs. Astley, I must ask you to leave.”

  Kat threw her arms around Elizabeth and bade her a tearful farewell.

  “Words fail me,” she wept. “We have gone through so much together…We have survived the Tower…And now we are to be cruelly parted!”

  Elizabeth disengaged Kat, grasped her hands, and held her gaze.

  “Hold fast!” she counseled, blinking back her own tears. “Find somewhere to stay in the village, and then I shall have the comfort of knowing that you are nearby. With God’s help, I shall soon be cleared of these false charges, and then we will be reunited. Be brave!”

  Kat nodded, sniffed, and dried her eyes. Elizabeth watched her go, weeping silently, then allowed Sir Henry to lead her to the upper floor, where she was to be kept in captivity. Her critical eye roved over her new surroundings. An obvious effort had been made to provide some of the comforts due to one of her rank. In her bedchamber, there was a tapestry, so ancient that it could have been salvaged from the old palace, but fine; an oak buffet on which a few items of plate were displayed; and a great tester bed. At least the furniture was good: She recognized pieces from Hatfield, and even some stuff that must have been provided by the Queen.

  “Look at that ceiling, my lady,” exclaimed Blanche Parry, trailing behind. “Lord knows when that was done.”

  The vaulted ceiling of the outer chamber was painted blue and adorned with gold stars, much in the fashion of the previous century. The walls had been hung with painted cloths to hide the bare plaster, but for all the fire burning in the grate and May sunshine, the room was chill, for the windows were narrow and set deep into the thick stone walls. The only advantage of this dismal place, as far as Elizabeth was concerned, was that there was virtually nowhere an assassin could hide.

  As Blanche began their unpacking, Sir Henry was fussing around, rattling keys in doors and becoming very agitated.

  “Three of these locks don’t work,” he complained to the two guards who were accompanying him. “See if you can get the keys to turn.”

  “It’s useless,” they told him after much jangling and cursing.

  “Have a locksmith summoned,” he ordered testily. “And get two more men to keep watch.”

  “I am not going to run away, Sir Henry,” Elizabeth told him sharply, having watched the exchange.

  “I have my orders,” he told her. “And perhaps I ought to make everything quite clear now, madam, if you would be so good as to sit down for a moment.” Indicating that she should take the only chair in the room, he elected to stand before her, feeling that it gave him greater authority. He was annoyed to find himself slightly in awe of this slender, naughty—nay, dangerous—girl.

  “The Queen has stipulated that you are to be treated in such good and honorable sort as may be agreeable to her honor and her royal estate,” he announced, a trifle pompously. “Mistress Parry apart, you are to converse with no one out of my hearing. You may walk in the gardens or the orchard, but only with myself in attendance. Thomas Parry will continue to look after your finances; I am informed that he arrived earlier but has gone off to seek a lodging in the Bull Inn, although I fear that might prove a marvelous place to make mischief in, tut tut.”

  “Mischief?” echoed Elizabeth.

  “Gossip!” fretted Sir Henry. “And the possibility that traitors might seek him out. You never know who might be lurking around the corner. I shall have to keep an eye on him.”

  “Parry is trustworthy,” she said.

  “So trustworthy that he and the woman Astley ended up in the Tower not many years back, I recall,” Bedingfield reminded her. “No, I see the need to be vigilant. And your other servants will be watched and searched, in case they attempt to carry messages, so do not think, madam, to attempt any contact with your friends.” His tone was disparaging.

  “Now, as to domestic arrangements. You are forbidden to have any canopy of estate above you when you dine.”

  That is the least of my concerns in this godforsaken place, Elizabeth thought.

  “Your laundry will be searched for hidden messages,” Sir Henry continued. “Any book that you read will first be subject to my approval. And if you have any requests, they must be forwarded to the council.”

  “May I breathe?” Elizabeth asked defiantly.

  Bedingfield ignored her.

  “Supper will be ready soon,” he said. “I hope you will honor me with your company.”

  “I am rather weary,” she said, “and not very hungry. I think I will have an early night.” After all, what else was there to do?

  “I want some of my books,” she said. “Cicero, my English Bible, and my Latin Psalms.”

  Sir Henry looked alarmed, wondering what pernicious influences such books might contain. He supposed that the Psalms were all right, but he knew nothing of Cicero, whoever he was, and as for an English Bible…

  “I doubt Her Majesty would approve of an English Bible,” he told her. “You may have the Psalms.”

  Elizabeth flounced off, fuming.

  “I need more maids about me,” she demanded.

  “That is not permitted. One should be sufficient. I have my orders.”

  “I want a tutor, so that I can practice conversing in foreign tongues,” was her next request. “I fear my skill at languages has grown rusty of late.”

  “The council will never agree,” Sir Henry said.

  “Could you not engage one yourself?” she asked mischievously.

  “That would be out of the question,” he told her. “All persons coming into contact with you must be vetted. I have my orders.”

  “I should like a pen and some ink,” she said. “I wish to write to the council.”

  “I will pass on your request,” Bedingfield answered.

  “No need to wait for that,” she told him. “You can read what I write before it is sent.”

  “Madam, I am marvelously perplexed by your constant demands,” he confessed, looking distressed. “I fear I cannot agree to this.”

  “Don’t tell me—you have your orders!” she said, making a face.

  “That is unfair. Would you have me gainsay them?” he challenged.

  “I would have you use your own good sense!” she retorted. “At least let me send a message to the Queen my sister. Just a short message. Please.”

  “I have my orders,” he repeated.

  “You are like a parrot!” she cried, irritated beyond courtesy.

  “Madam, bear with me, I beg of you. I am myself unable to grant your desire or say nay. Everything must be referred to the council. Believe me, I shall do for Your Grace what I am able to do.”

  After the first few weeks, her sense of being in danger dissipated. There were no terrors for her here, just endless boredom and monotony. Nor was there any news from court; Bedingfield would not discuss what was going on in the outside world, so she had no means of knowing if a date had been set for the Queen’s wedding, or even if it had already taken place. Nor were there any letters, for she was not permitted to send or receive any; she particularly missed Cecil’s witty missives, and his wise insights into affairs.

  Her worst enemy was frustration, and her sole pleasure lay in baiting Bedingfield. As her fears for her life faded, she grew indignant that she was being kept in confinement when nothing had been proved against her. And as she could not remonstrate about this with the Queen or the council, she took out her vexation on their instrument, the luckless Sir Henry. He, for his part, was determined to obey his orders to the letter, and remained impervious to her whims and her tantrums.

  Even her customary fondness for walks in the garden had palled, although they at least provided some respite from the tedium of her days, but the security measures upon which Sir Henry insisted drove her to desperation. One day, after watching him patiently unloc
k and lock six pairs of gates in turn, she lost her temper and screamed at him.

  “You jailer! You do this only to taunt me!” Of course, it was an unfair accusation, but she was too angry to care. Sir Henry, stung by her outburst, fell to his knees before her.

  “Madam, I am your officer, appointed by the Queen to take care of you and protect you from any injury. I hope you will agree that I have been a kindly guardian, and that I have accorded you the proper courtesies.”

  Elizabeth’s anger cooled in the face of his earnestness.

  “Be at peace, good man,” she said wearily. “I grow tired of being a prisoner. I am young, I want to be out in the world, enjoying its pleasures, not shut up here with so many rules and restrictions. Can you not understand that? Or have you forgotten what it is like to be bursting with energy and zeal for life?”

  Sir Henry had never felt the way she described, so he was at a loss for what to say to her.

  “I counsel you to have patience,” he begged.

  Patience? How could one be patient when one was unjustly incarcerated?

  Idly, she gazed out of her window, willing the hours to pass, willing her captivity to end. The worst thing about it was that its continuance proclaimed her guilty in some way, as plainly as if it had been cried in every market square. She realized, of course, why Mary distrusted her so, but there were laws in England, and they were there to protect the innocent. Or so she would have thought. If only she could have five minutes—just five minutes—with Mary, to plead her case.

  Struck for the hundredth time by the unjustness of her confinement, she took from her finger a ring and, using the sharp edge of the diamond, began carving words in a spidery hand on the thick glass of the window.

  “Much suspected of me, nothing proved can be,” she wrote, and then added, “Quoth Elizabeth, prisoner.” Sir Henry frowned when he saw it, but said nothing.

  With the summer came a return of her old sickness. Her face and body swelled up, and she felt feverish. Worst of all was the black depression that lay like a pall over her normal feisty spirit.

  Sir Henry, summoned, looked down on her with some sympathy as she lay in her bed.

  “I wish to be bled,” she said weakly. “The evil humors must be released from my body. I pray you, send for the Queen’s physicians, Dr. Owen and Dr. Wendy. They have treated me in the past, and I trust them.”

  “I will pass on your request to the council,” Sir Henry said, embarrassed to be in her presence when she was in bed clad in nothing but a shift, and anxious to leave the room.

  “While I lie here suffering?” she whimpered, enraged that he was putting his infernal orders before her health, but she had not the strength to protest further. Besides, Sir Henry had fled.

  A week later, back came the council’s unfavorable reply, and following soon upon it, a local doctor whom Sir Henry had summoned.

  “I would rather die than see him!” she declared, her fury belying her obvious weakness. “I am not minded to make a stranger privy to my body. I see I shall just have to commit it to God!” And so saying, she folded her hands on her breast, as if in prayer, and lay there in the attitude of a tomb effigy.

  Driven near to despair, Bedingfield hastened away to write yet another of his seemingly endless succession of letters to the council. By the time Dr. Wendy and Dr. Owen arrived, Elizabeth was very poorly indeed.

  “She must be bled immediately,” they pronounced, alarm in their faces. Sir Henry stood by while it was done, averting his eyes when Elizabeth pulled up the bedclothes and exposed a slim foot and ankle to the barber surgeon; yet he had not missed the look of triumph on her face when the royal doctors appeared, a look that proclaimed her the winner of this round in their endless sparring match.

  This was not her only victory.

  “The council has approved your many requests to write to Her Majesty,” Bedingfield announced tightly, coming to pay his daily respects one morning toward the end of the month. “Writing materials will be brought to you.”

  “Good,” said Elizabeth, much recovered now, and determined to stress to Mary how unfairly she had been treated. When paper, pen, and ink were set before her, her words flowed passionately across the pages, pouring out her grievances in detail and giving voice to her anger and frustration. When the letter was finished, Sir Henry took one glance and flung it on the table.

  “You cannot send this, madam!” he protested. “The Queen is certain to be offended.”

  “I am offended,” she cried, “at being treated like a traitor, without trial or condemnation!”

  “Nevertheless, you cannot send this as it is. I insist you tone it down.”

  He was implacable, so she had no choice but to rewrite the letter. Sir Henry read it and nodded approvingly.

  “That is much better,” he said, and went off to find his sealing wax. As soon as he had gone, Elizabeth quickly substituted her earlier version, folded in exactly the same way. When Sir Henry returned, he sealed and stamped it without another thought.

  Bedingfield stood before her, his face tragic.

  “I cannot understand it,” he said plaintively. “I have received a reprimand from the council for allowing you to send such a disrespectful and rude letter to the Queen. I cannot understand it. I read your letter…”

  “You did, Sir Henry,” Elizabeth said sweetly. “And I had rewritten it at your behest.”

  “Now, if it had been your earlier version,” he said, “I could have understood it. But there we are. You are forbidden to write to Her Majesty again.”

  “I am very sorry for it,” Elizabeth said, not minding too much, for she had said what she wanted to say to Mary, and felt better for it; surely it was Mary’s pricking conscience that had goaded her to anger? “I suppose I may write still to the council?”

  “Oh, no,” said Sir Henry hurriedly. “I’m sure they mean that you are forbidden to write to the Queen and the council.”

  “Does it say that?” Elizabeth asked, nodding at the missive in his hands.

  Bedingfield hurriedly scanned it. “No, it only mentions the Queen, but, of course, it must apply to the council too.”

  “That is just your assumption!” she accused him angrily. “You cannot prevent me from writing to the council without specific instructions. I will be cut off from the world if you do that. Why, it would leave me in a worse case than the lowest prisoner in Newgate!”

  “I am sorry, madam, but I must keep to the spirit, rather than the letter, of my orders,” Sir Henry insisted.

  “Then I see I must continue in this life without all worldly hope, wholly resting in the truth of my cause!” Elizabeth stormed, bursting into passionate weeping. Incapable of dealing with her when she was in such a state, Sir Henry made a hasty exit, leaving Blanche Parry to comfort her mistress.

  “I have some good news, madam,” Bedingfield said meekly four days later. “The Queen herself has clarified matters. You may write to the council whenever you wish.”

  “I am glad of it. I knew you were mistaken,” Elizabeth told him. She hoped her outburst had done some good. The Queen must be convinced of her innocence; otherwise, she would have kept her in the Tower. Or was Mary still keeping her confined in the hope that some new evidence against her would come to light? If that were so, she might be here forever…she had to plead her cause!

  She wrote to the council that morning, begging for an audience with the Queen. She dared to hope that this time her request would be granted. But days went by with no response.

  “The council is busy just now,” Bedingfield told her. “There are but days to go until the Queen’s wedding. They have much to occupy them.”

  “Is the Prince of Spain here in England?” Elizabeth asked curiously. Half of her was pleased for Mary, that she had at last found a husband; the other, less loyal, part of her feared that Philip would quickly sire an heir on her sister, and so deprive her, Elizabeth, of her place in the succession. She did not know how she would bear that.

p; “He is expected any day,” Sir Henry told her. “He might even have arrived by now.”

  More time went by. Still no answer. Elizabeth began to fret.

  “They have all gone to Winchester for the wedding,” Bedingfield informed her. “I daresay you will receive a reply when they return to London.”

  “Don’t tell me that the council will transact no business in Winchester!” Elizabeth countered. “Or are they all busy making floral garlands for the bridemaids?”

  What she really wanted was a chance to speak to Mary while the Queen was still in a euphoric mood over her marriage; that way, she might be more tenderly inclined to lenience and compassion. But the twenty-fifth of July, the date appointed for the royal wedding, came and went, and still, days later, there was no letter from the council.

  Elizabeth grew sullen and resentful in her anxiety. She came to believe that this Philip, this Catholic Spaniard, this known friend to the dreaded Inquisition, had further poisoned Mary’s mind against her. What else was she to think?

  She went to Mass. She had long taken care to attend regularly, hoping that it would go well for her with the Queen as a result, but now, when prayers were asked by the chaplain for Queen Mary and King Philip, she could not bring her lips to form the words. Bedingfield saw it and reported her omission to the council. Another black mark against her.

  Mary lay in bed, watching the summer moonlight streaming through the open casement. Beside her, Philip—her Philip, her darling, her joy—was breathing evenly. This marriage had certainly brought its manifold political advantages, but to her personally, privately, more than she had ever dreamed of. Her young, personable husband was courtesy itself, in bed and out of it, and paid her the most considerate attentions. He had been gentle with her on their wedding night, endlessly patient with her inexperience and maidenly modesty. The pain had been great, but she had borne it with queenly fortitude, and now, after several weeks, she found that paying the marriage debt was much easier. She was even beginning to enjoy it a little, although of course she could not tell Philip that; what happened in the marriage bed was never referred to by either of them. Her part, as she understood it, was to lie still, submit to his attentions, and pray for an heir. She was managing, she thought, rather well. Just let her get pregnant, and then that constant thorn in her side, her sister Elizabeth—if she was her sister, of course—could go hang herself.

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