The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Next to her, Philip was pretending to be asleep. He was praying that his dried-up spinster of a wife would soon be with child, so that he could in conscience abstain from her bed and perhaps, if he could contrive it, get back to Spain for a while. He hated it here in England, and he knew he was hated in return. As for his bride, he had done everything his father had exhorted him to, had shown every attention, even though he had had to shut his eyes and gird his unwilling loins when it came to storming that virginal fortress; he had gotten through it by thinking of his beautiful mistress in faraway Madrid.

  Well, the thing was done now; he had gotten used to his innocent, loving, submissive wife. One woman was much the same in bed as another, after all—except that this one thought it proper to lie rigid and unmoving while he was laboring away at his duty. Fortunately there were ladies aplenty at the English court, many of them willing…It had not taken him long to stray from the marriage bed. Still, he was there most nights, doing his best to get an heir, swallowing his distaste. This marriage might be made in Heaven as far as the future of the English Church and other political considerations went, but the price he was paying personally was dear in the extreme. To be frank, he thought, it would take God Himself to drink this cup. Dear Lord, I beseech You, let her conceive soon, he prayed fervently.

  “I shall write to the council again,” Elizabeth declared in August, when the Queen had been married for a month.

  “Wait awhile longer,” Bedingfield counseled.

  “No, this waiting is intolerable to me,” she defied him.

  “I cannot permit it,” he told her.

  “God’s blood!” she flared. “Their lordships would smile in their sleeves if they learned how scrupulous you are! I beg of you, please, write to the council for me. Make suit to their honors to be a means to the Queen’s Majesty for me and to consider my woeful case, for I have not received the comforting reply to my request that I had hoped for.”

  “Very well, I will write,” Bedingfield groaned, capitulating.

  “And while you are about it,” Elizabeth said, quickly recovering her composure, “ask them to make suit to the Queen, for very pity, to consider my long imprisonment—it is five months now, mark you—and either to have me charged with my supposed offense, so that I can answer for my conduct, or grant me liberty to come into her presence. Believe me, Sir Henry, I would not ask those things unless I knew myself to be clear before God.”

  Sir Henry was used by now to Elizabeth’s extravagant declarations, but the honest man in him had come to suspect that they were the fruit of frustrated innocence rather than the bravado of a villainess. To be plain, he wished she could convince the Queen of her innocence, for he was heartily weary of his responsibilities and would be happy to see the back of his troublesome charge.

  “If the Queen will not consent to see me,” Elizabeth was saying, “then I ask that a deputation of councillors be allowed to visit me, so that I can protest my innocence to them, and not think myself utterly desolate of all refuge in the world.”

  “I think I can remember all that,” said Sir Henry resignedly. “I’ll write to them now.”

  It was nigh on September before Elizabeth received a response, in the form of a letter from Mary herself to Bedingfield.

  “The Queen has spoken at last,” Sir Henry informed her. “An audience is out of the question. To be plain, she feels your complaints are somewhat strange. You may make of that what you will, of course, but she says you need not fear you have been forgotten, and that she is not unmindful of your cause.”

  “I know what game she is playing,” Elizabeth said slowly. “She is waiting until she is with child before she decides what to do with me. I will be less of a threat to her then.”

  “Remember that it is the Queen’s Highness of whom you speak,” Sir Henry reproved. “You should show more respect. To my poor understanding, this is a hopeful letter, and may presage better things for you.”

  “I wish I could believe you,” Elizabeth said doubtfully. “All I know is that I am cooped up here interminably, with no end to it in sight, no hope of liberty. My only pleasure is in my books, and many of those you have banned.” She glared at him. “Perhaps if I could have a copy of Saint Paul’s Epistles—even if you won’t allow me my English Bible?”

  “The Epistles you may have,” he told her, “but the English Bible never. The government is now proceeding more harshly against the reformed religion than ever before. Not only would possession of such a book be wrong, it would be mightily dangerous. If I were you, my lady, I should forget I ever owned a copy.”

  True to his word, he soon afterward brought her a copy of St. Paul’s Epistles in Latin. Reading them brought her some comfort, and she spent many hours making translations into various languages, then laid down her pen, wondering why she was doing this. Her life—nay, her youth itself—was being wasted; she could be enjoying herself, living it to the full, adorning courts and charming young gentlemen. Instead, she was immured here at Woodstock, shut up like St. Barbara in her tower.

  Dejectedly, she turned back to her book, seeking comfort from it, and after a time, wrote in the flyleaf: August. I walk many times into the pleasant fields of the Holy Scriptures, where I pluck up the goodly herbs of sentences, so that, having tasted their sweetness, I may the less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life. Then she lay down her head on her arms and wept hot tears of self-pity.

  “Great news, my lady!” Sir Henry announced one morning late in September. “The Queen’s Majesty is with child! England is to have an heir.”

  Elizabeth was aghast. She had not for a moment seriously envisaged Mary becoming pregnant. She was too old, too ailing, was she not? She herself had thought her place in the succession sure, unassailable; she had taken it for granted and looked forward to the day when she might, by God’s will, be crowned Queen and given the safekeeping of her realm and all her people—for already, she thought of them as hers. But she had been wrong on both counts. Was this not God’s will too, this promise of an heir born of the Queen’s body? And if He in His mercy saw fit to send Mary a son, what future was there for her, Elizabeth? A life in confinement, or lived under constant suspicion? Marriage to some safe gentleman or minor prince, followed by a yearly succession of children? She was utterly dismayed at either prospect. She saw, suddenly and very clearly, that the only safe place for her in the future was on the throne.

  For all her inner dread, outwardly she appeared calm. She was making a conscious effort to please Mary: She was going to Mass regularly, she had ceased bombarding the council with requests, and she had even curbed her relentless demands to Sir Henry.

  “That is wonderful news,” she said aloud. “I will pray God to vouchsafe Her Majesty a safe delivery and a healthy son.”

  “Amen to that,” replied Sir Henry, impressed by her reply. “And methinks that, when she has a son, the Queen will look more favorably upon you, my lady.”

  “When she has a son.” Elizabeth sighed. “That will be months away!”

  “In May, I believe,” Bedingfield told her. “Not too long to wait.” He did not tell her of another possible escape route: that the council and Parliament were discussing various prospective foreign bridegrooms for her. All too often, such proposals came to nothing, so why disturb her with them?

  Christmas was nigh. Sir Henry had ordered various delicacies, and the servants had been given permission to festoon the gatehouse with evergreens, but Elizabeth feared it would be a poor affair compared with the festive seasons she had enjoyed in the past. What would they do for revelry? Read St. Paul? The thought of the stately Bedingfield casting aside his dignity and romping around as the Lord of Misrule almost made her laugh out loud, although her mood was bitter.

  But there was further gloom yet to be cast over this Yuletide. Only days before Christmas Eve, Sir Henry came to her, his face grim.

  “Madam, I bring news of great import, which may affect you if you are not careful,” he told her. Elizab
eth laid down her pen and looked at him warily, shivers of her old fears shooting down her spine.

  “Last month, as I informed you, Cardinal Pole was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and England was received back into obedience to Rome,” he reminded her. “Now Parliament has reinstated the law against heretics, which means that those suspected of heresy may be examined and, if found guilty, burned at the stake.”

  Elizabeth frowned, giving a little shudder as the blood seemed to freeze in her veins.

  “But the Queen began her reign promising tolerance!” she cried, forgetting her resolve to hold her peace.

  “Times have changed,” Sir Henry said dolefully. “Her Majesty, I know well, hoped then that her subjects would of their own accord revert to the Catholic religion. Many did, but there were also many who did not, and who demonstrated and made riots against the new laws. Now the Queen is in hope of a son, England is reconciled with Rome, and she and King Philip are zealous to see the true faith established in this kingdom. My lady, I hold to that faith, and I am a true Englishman, but I do fear that this new law will unleash in this realm a persecution such as has been seen in Spain, and that it will also herald the arrival of the Inquisition here.”

  “Those are my fears exactly,” Elizabeth said, amazed that she and Sir Henry should for once be of one accord. “Believe me, I do not fear for myself—why should I, for I too am reconciled to the Roman faith and attend Mass regularly? But I fear for those who cannot in their consciences embrace that faith. Who should make windows into men’s souls? When it comes down to it, there is only one Jesus Christ. The rest is a dispute over trifles.”

  “I doubt that the Queen and Cardinal Pole would agree with you, madam,” Sir Henry said. “They might even construe such words as heresy. But fret not—I shall not repeat them. I have seen that you are faithful in your attendance at Mass.”

  “I am relieved to hear it,” Elizabeth told him, swallowing her fear.

  “I but wish to warn you to keep your own counsel on matters of religion,” Sir Henry went on. “I know you were brought up largely in the reformed faith, and I feared you might, through force of habit and custom, betray some affiliation with it that might be misconstrued, were the wrong ears to hear it.”

  “I thank you for your care of my safety,” Elizabeth said gratefully, then could not resist adding, “For once, it is welcome to me!”

  Even Sir Henry had to smile at that.



  The burnings have begun,” Blanche Parry whispered, a look of distress on her face. “I heard Sir Henry saying that a man was burned in Smithfield, and that soon afterward Bishop Hooper went to the stake in Gloucester. It sounded as if his sufferings were dreadful—I could not bear to listen. Oh, my lady, how could anyone do such a cruel thing to another human being?”

  Elizabeth made Blanche sit down on the settle beside her and took her hands.

  “They do it because, in giving the poor wretches a taste of Hellfire on earth, they think to make them recant at the last minute and so save their souls,” she explained gravely. “They do not think they are being cruel; they think they are doing a kindness. What is a short time in earthly flames compared with an eternity spent roasting in Hell? That is their logic. Yet it seems to me that those who order this—and I do not name names—have put mercy behind them. It is this new allegiance to Spain that has brought these cruelties.”

  “I do not understand such matters,” Blanche said sadly. “All I know is that I cannot rid my mind of what I just heard. It was horrible!”

  “Spare me the details,” Elizabeth said quickly. “I can well imagine.”

  Echoes of the public outcry against the burnings soon reached Woodstock.

  “The people are angry,” Sir Henry said. “There have been widespread protests, and seditious writings against the Queen and the council. Many offenders have been caught and put in the pillory.”

  With the country in ferment, and increasing numbers being sent to the stake, news and rumors flew fast. There were terrible stories of the sufferings of Protestant martyrs—for such they were now being called.

  “There’s no doubt that a lot of them are foolish, ignorant folk,” Sir Henry observed as he sat at dinner with his prisoner. “One couldn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer, another couldn’t name all the Sacraments, or so I heard.”

  “They need educating, not persecuting,” Elizabeth said. “Did no one think to give them instruction?”

  “The bishops and the Queen’s officers are zealous in their duty, and wish to be seen to be,” he told her. “They don’t ask too many questions. There was an awful case in Guernsey—I can hardly bear to tell you.”

  “Tell me,” Elizabeth commanded. She had to know. Forewarned was forearmed, especially as many people were aware of her own former open adherence to Protestantism, and doubtless there were many who suspected where her true convictions still lay.

  “It was a woman,” Sir Henry related, “and she was with child. Her labor had already begun when she was chained to the stake, and her babe was born as the flames were lit. The executioner threw it back into the fire.”

  “Oh, my God,” Elizabeth said. Behind her, Blanche, who was waiting at table, stifled a horrified sob.

  “Often the faggots are damp,” Sir Henry went on relentlessly, “and the burnings are prolonged. Far from condemning the suffering wretches, the crowds are angry on their behalf, and they do all they can to comfort and aid the heretics. It has gotten so bad that the council has ordered extra guards to be present at each execution to prevent this from happening.”

  “It seems to me that, far from stamping out heresy, these burnings may well be encouraging it,” Elizabeth commented. “Some people might conclude that the reformed faith must be worth dying for.”

  “I heard a rumor,” Sir Henry said confidentially, “—although whether local gossip can be relied on is another matter, for these tales often get quite garbled by the time they reach us here—that Bishop Gardiner is also horrified by the scale of the persecution, and has urged the Queen to use a kinder form of punishment, but she will not agree. It may not be true.”

  And it may well be, Elizabeth thought, recalling the fanatical gleam in Mary’s eyes whenever she spoke of her faith, and her single-mindedness. Yet surely the influence of her husband, King Philip, must be in part responsible for the burnings. It sounded as if the Queen was deeply in thrall to him—or besotted. Had she lost her wits so far as to risk losing the love of her people, which Elizabeth knew to be the most precious thing a sovereign can have?

  Later that evening, after Sir Henry had gone and the table was cleared, Blanche returned to help Elizabeth prepare for bed.

  “I could not speak earlier, my lady,” she said, “but when I went to the village today, the guard wanted us to stop for a drink at the Bull, and there, when he had gone outside to piss, I had a quick word with Master Parry. He said to tell you that there is now great hatred throughout the land for the Queen, that many are praying that her pregnancy will have a calamitous end, and that the people are looking to you, my lady, as their deliverer.”

  Elizabeth was deeply moved by this, and gratified; indeed, it offered a glimmer of hope that the love of the people, now forfeited by Mary, would turn to herself and somehow prove her salvation, despite the expected birth of a Catholic heir. But her natural caution quickly asserted itself.

  “That was unwise talk,” she said reprovingly. “I hope that none overheard it.”

  “Oh, no, my lady,” Blanche assured her. “We were alone in the porch. Master Parry had followed me out when I was waiting for the guard.”

  “That is as well,” Elizabeth said. “If such a thing were repeated openly, we would all suffer for it. I know I can rely on you to hold your tongue.”

  “I promise I will,” Blanche said, and took up the hairbrush.

  “My lord and dear husband,” Mary said tenderly, rising awkwardly from her chair as Philip entered her chamber. “It is a
pleasure to see you here.”

  The King bowed, thinking that his wife was looking drained and pale; doubtless she was suffering the strain of her pregnancy and was distressed at the tumult that had erupted in the wake of the burnings.

  “I trust I find you well, madam,” he said, taking her hand and kissing it.

  “All the better for seeing you, my lord,” she told him, gazing at him in adoration.

  “I came to tell you that I have made my decision,” he said.

  “You have?” Mary replied nervously. He recalled her terrible distress when he had first told her of his plans to leave England for the Low Countries to fight the French now that she was with child. How she had begged and pleaded with him to stay. The sight of her abasing herself thus had aroused only distaste in him; it had not in any way touched his cold heart. What had swayed him had been the council’s fears that, without him at her side, the Queen would pine away and die.

  “I have decided to remain in England until our son is born,” he told her.

  “Oh, that is joyful news!” Mary cried, her eyes shining. “You cannot know how much of a comfort to me your presence is. You have made me the happiest woman alive!”

  Philip suffered her grateful, cloying embrace, then disengaged himself and took the chair on the opposite side of the hearth.

  “I wanted to talk to you about your sister and Courtenay also,” he said. “This latest French plot to bring about their marriage…It worried me, even though it could not have succeeded. This kingdom will never be at peace till the matter of these two seditious persons is settled.”

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