The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “What can I do?” Mary asked, reluctant to be discussing matters of state when she and Philip could be talking of love.

  “Send them into exile, to places where they can be kept under supervision,” Philip advised. “Send Elizabeth to Brussels, where my father’s agents can keep watch on her, and Courtenay to Rome, where His Holiness the Pope can be relied upon to be vigilant.”

  “I like that proposal,” Mary said, considering. “But exiling Elizabeth now, at such a sensitive time, could provoke another rebellion. My spies tell of discontent across the land.” Her brow furrowed. She had heard of the upsurge in Elizabeth’s popularity, heard and deplored it, but reality had to be faced.

  “Gardiner wants you to disinherit her,” Philip said, “but I told him that, in that case, should any terrible chance befall Your Majesty, the King of France would press the claim of his daughter-in-law, the Queen of Scots, and the last thing I want to see is an England ruled by the French. My father and I would lose all the advantages we have gained through this marriage.”

  “If I died there would be civil war, make no doubt of it,” Mary said bleakly. “The heretics would espouse the cause of the Lady Elizabeth. The only remedy is to marry her to a Catholic prince faithful to Your Highness. There was some talk of the Duke of Savoy.”

  “Steady as a rock, and an excellent choice,” Philip replied thoughtfully, pulling at his golden beard. “But before any decision is made, I would meet with this sister of yours. I must confess, I am curious to meet a lady who has been the subject of so much controversy.”

  “Meet Elizabeth?” Mary echoed, mortified. She could not bear the thought of Philip contrasting her own faded looks with the youth and vigor of her sister; could envisage Elizabeth working her wiles on Philip—whose susceptibility to attractive women she had heard of, much to her distress—and him bending his ear to her cause.

  “No,” she said, instinctively and abruptly, so that he looked at her in surprise.

  “Why not?” he asked. “We will make no decision as to her future until after your confinement, but I do feel she should be brought back to court so that I can keep an eye on her until then.” And, he thought to himself, it would be wise to establish a good working relationship with Elizabeth just in case she ever does become queen. Her grateful goodwill for his rescuing her from prison would surely prove the basis for such a rapport.

  “I don’t want her here,” Mary said, becoming agitated. “She makes trouble wherever she goes.”

  “According to her jailer’s reports, her conduct has been impeccable lately,” Philip reminded her. “She goes to Mass regularly and behaves like a good Catholic. With our son due to be born soon, she cannot pose any threat to you now, madam.”

  “Her conversion was mere expediency,” Mary sneered. “I do not believe it was sincere for one minute.”

  Philip was thinking that, even as a furtive Protestant, Elizabeth would be preferable to Mary, Queen of Scots, any day. “Bedingfield’s reports would suggest otherwise,” he said aloud. “Come now, let her be brought to court. I will see that she has no opportunity to make trouble. You need not concern yourself overmuch with her.”

  “Very well,” Mary agreed reluctantly, her heart plummeting. All her instincts screamed that bringing Elizabeth back would cause her nothing but trouble; yet she was unable to refuse Philip anything.

  “And Courtenay: He shall go into exile,” Philip decided, glancing at her for approval.

  “That too,” she conceded, resting her head on the back of her chair and closing her eyes. Let Philip deal with it all. He was right. She should not bother herself. But Elizabeth, back at court? She could not bear the thought.

  It was April again, and the buds green on the trees; Elizabeth had now been incarcerated at Woodstock for nearly a year, and the arrival of spring had left her in an agony of restlessness. She was aching to be free, to be gone from this hateful place.

  And then, quite suddenly, her prayers were answered.

  “I am commanded by the Queen to escort Your Highness to court,” Bedingfield informed her. She squealed with delight, clapping her hands for joy.

  “At last! At last!” she cried. “This is what I have beseeched God for.”

  Then she noticed Sir Henry’s face, which remained grave.

  “You are to remain under guard, madam,” he warned her.

  “No matter,” she sang, her spirits soaring. “I will have a chance to prove my innocence at last, once and for all!”

  She was barely aware of the gusting winds that rocked the litter alarmingly as they proceeded toward London, leaving Woodstock behind. She was overjoyed to be out in the world, to be breathing different air. She took enormous pleasure in seeing houses and villages and people, the colors of the spring flowers, the young lambs grazing in the fields.

  But then the blasts became so savage that even Elizabeth grew fearful. Unable to bear the violent flapping of the litter’s curtains, she tied them back, but then had to endure the wind buffeting her face.

  “Can we not seek refuge in some manor house?” she yelled at Bedingfield, who was struggling to keep his horse from rearing.

  “No, madam!” he shouted. “My orders are to stop only at the places that have been arranged. We must press on regardless.”

  A sudden gust swept Elizabeth’s hood out the window, leaving her hair streaming, its pins askew. A groom brought the hood back to her, but it was impossible to set herself to rights in the litter, so the procession halted briefly while she alighted, crouched in the shelter of a hedge, hastily plaited and bundled up her hair, and pinned the hood firmly into place.

  “I daresay I look like a scarecrow!” she fumed as she returned to the litter. “What would the Queen think if she could see me? Really, Sir Henry, you could have more care for me and find us a decent shelter from this tempest!”

  “I have my orders, madam,” he repeated miserably.

  Word of Elizabeth’s coming had gone before her, and as had happened a year earlier, the people, defying the wind, came flocking to the roadside to welcome and cheer her. On the last morning, as they left the George Inn at Colnbrook, she was delighted to see a large company of her own gentlemen and yeomen waiting to salute her, and would have gone over to greet them and express her thanks had not Sir Henry hurried her into the litter and made her draw the curtains.

  By and by, they approached Hampton Court. Elizabeth was thrilled to see once again the familiar red-brick palace rising majestically on the banks of the Thames. How she had longed to be back at court—and now she was really here, ready to take up her proper place in the world once more.

  She had thought that they would process through the base court to the grand processional stair that led to the royal apartments, so she was discomfited to find that they were being directed to a privy entrance at the rear of the sprawling palace. The guards uncrossed their pikes, and she was conducted through the arched door and up winding steps to the royal apartments.

  Here, the Lord Chamberlain was waiting to receive her. He bowed and explained that she had been assigned an apartment near to those of King Philip and Cardinal Pole.

  “The servants you have brought may stay with you, madam,” he explained, “but you are not free to leave your rooms until the Queen’s pleasure be further known.” That much was evident from another pair of guards who stood, halberds raised, outside the door.

  Elizabeth turned to the waiting Sir Henry, whose responsibility for her was now at an end.

  “Farewell, Jailer,” she said impishly. “I hold no grudge against you. You were but doing your duty. I make no doubt that you are glad to be relieved of your responsibilities.”

  “God Almighty knows that it was the most joyful news that I had ever heard,” he told her fervently. “Believe me, I wish you well, madam.”

  Elizabeth bent forward and whispered in his ear. “If ever I have the power to have any prisoner sharply and straitly kept, Sir Henry, I will send for you!”

  She smiled wi
ckedly and watched him depart, escaping with heartfelt relief, no doubt, to the council chamber. Then she turned and went into her lodging, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that she was to be housed in a degree of splendor.

  Blanche, who was allowed to come and go as she pleased, soon put paid to Elizabeth’s hopes of pleading her cause to Mary.

  “The Queen has gone into seclusion to await the birth of her child, my lady,” she informed her disgruntled mistress.

  “Then why am I here?” Elizabeth asked. “Surely it was the Queen who wished to question me. Had it been the council, they would have sent a deputation.”

  Such a deputation arrived the following afternoon, much to her surprise and concern.

  “Madam,” Bishop Gardiner said, bowing, “the Queen has taken to her chamber and cannot see you just now, but she is convinced that you have much to confess to her. If you would have an audience with her, you must tell all to us first. I assure you that, if you do confess, Her Majesty will be good to you.” The old man suddenly fell to his knees. “I beg you, submit to the Queen!”

  This was not what Elizabeth had been hoping to hear. She had returned in high hopes of a successful meeting with her sister. Was she still suspected of treason? Had she really only been brought back to court as a prelude to being consigned once more to the shadowy grasp of the Tower? That was unthinkable. She must stay strong and not betray such fears.

  “I am innocent and therefore have nothing to confess,” she declared firmly. “Better for me to lie in prison for the truth, than to be abroad and suspected by my prince. In yielding, I should confess myself an offender toward Her Majesty, which I never was, and the Queen and the King would thereby ever afterward conceive an evil opinion of me.”

  She stood indignant and proud. The lords began murmuring among themselves, wary of angering her further.

  “I will convey your words to Her Majesty,” Gardiner said, rising to his feet.

  “I tell you, madam,” the Bishop said, “nothing further is likely to be obtained from the Lady Elizabeth.”

  Mary, resting on her bed, hands crossed over the huge mound of her belly, grimaced and tried to raise herself. Her ladies came hurrying to help her.

  “I marvel that she should so stoutly stand by her innocence,” she said bitterly. “Well, she shall not be set at liberty until she has told the truth. She will remain here under house arrest.”

  King Philip, who had been standing by the window, looking out over the privy garden, came over to her bedside.

  “Let me talk to her,” he said. “I should very much like to meet her.”

  “It would do no good, my lord,” Mary told him jealously.

  “Nevertheless I insist,” he said, adamant.

  “The decision is mine,” she faltered. “I am the Queen, and she is my sister.”

  “And I am your husband,” Philip said challengingly. “I command it.” His blue eyes were icy, beautiful but cold.

  “Very well,” Mary capitulated, with great reluctance. “I see I cannot dissuade you.”

  “My finest robes, Blanche,” Elizabeth ordered. “That is what the Lord Chamberlain said. The Queen has commanded me to put on my finest robes and prepare to receive the King. And I too would look my very best, for much depends on this meeting.”

  He was married to her sister, but Philip, she knew, was an experienced and handsome man of twenty-eight, and he must be not only curious about her but also susceptible to feminine charm, if rumor spoke truth. She must dress to advantage, and present herself at her most beguiling…

  She had few outfits with her—much of her wardrobe had been left at Ashridge—but she had brought one court dress, packed in the hope that she would one day have occasion to wear it. It was of white damask beaded with pearls and had a low, square neck, cut wide on the shoulders; it showed off her small breasts and slim waist to perfection. She would wear her red hair loose, as a royal virgin.

  Thus attired, she sank into the deepest of curtsies when the door opened late that evening and the King was announced. A well-set, brown-haired man with a pointed gold beard strode into the room. He was much shorter than she had expected; he owned the famous jutting chin of the Habsburgs, and his eyes were chilly, but he greeted her courteously, nonetheless, and himself raised her to her feet. She smiled at him, and in that moment, the cold eyes took fire and began regarding her appreciatively, raking up and down her person…

  King and princess they might be, but in that moment they were both aware of being first and foremost a young man and a young woman alone together. Elizabeth had been deprived for so long of male admiration that she responded involuntarily to the King’s admiring scrutiny. The shock of lust that coursed through her loins was as unexpected as it was delightful. She was careful, though, to remain outwardly calm, and bent her head demurely so that Philip should not see the triumph in her eyes and the flush in her cheeks.

  “So you are the lady who has been causing such an uproar,” he said, in heavily accented Latin.

  “It was never my intention, Your Majesty,” she replied in her own eloquent and fluent Latin. “I assure you, I have been greatly slandered by my enemies. I am innocent of the things that were alleged against me.”

  He stood unspeaking, regarding her closely. She ventured a peek from under her eyelashes, then, seeing that some dramatic affirmation was called for, threw herself to her knees in front of him, taking care to lean forward sufficiently to expose as much of her bosom as was seemly above the low-cut gown.

  “As God is my witness, I never intended any harm to the Queen my sister,” she cried, shaking her head so that the burnished red tresses swung about her shoulders. “But no one believes me, and for well above a year now I have lived in the awful knowledge that everyone thinks ill of me, and it is so unjust.” The tears that now welled up were genuine, but she arrested their flow. No man was at ease with a weeping woman, though a hint of distress might melt the hardest heart.

  Looking at her, and marveling at how different from her sister she was, Philip could now understand why Mary had not wanted him to see Elizabeth. For the young female kneeling before him was slender and charming, and if she was not conventionally beautiful with her thin face and hooked nose, she had an undefinable allure about her that inspired the most erotic thoughts in him. What would it be like to take this girl to bed and do with her as his fantasy led him? Nothing like the ordeals he had had to endure on the matrimonial couch, that was certain!

  Was she as innocent as she claimed? He did not know and, frankly, no longer cared, but he wanted her friendship at the very least.

  “I believe you, Princess,” he said at length. “Do not distress yourself further.” Suddenly, his strong hands were grasping her forearms and he was pulling her to her feet. In her relief that it was going to be all right—after hearing his words, she could not but assure herself that all would now be well—she felt light-headed; swaying slightly, she nearly lost her balance and, righting herself, fell gracefully against his chest.

  Instantly, there was that frisson between them, a frisson she had known once before, all those years ago, with the Admiral. A feeling of recognition, of her bones melting, of desire fueled by physical closeness—and there was no feeling like it. She felt alive again in that instant, gloriously alive, and desired.

  Yet it was she who pulled away. He was the King, and married to her sister. There was no question of anything ever being between them, and the rational part of her mind bade her be glad of it. For in the course of her long seclusion, she had discovered that the most important thing to her in life was freedom: the freedom to come and go as she pleased, to make her own choices, and not constantly to have to submit to the will of others. Such freedoms did not come with marriage—indeed, any close entanglements with the opposite sex. Better by far to be satisfied with the sweet, heady pleasures of flirtation and courtship than to commit herself further to any man. What she loved was being admired, being wanted, being pursued—but she did not think sh
e wanted ever to be caught.

  “I beg your pardon, sir,” she apologized, standing back.

  “I would be a friend to you,” he said.

  “Your Majesty does me too great a kindness,” she replied. “Forgive me if I am overwhelmed. I am not used these days to being listened to and heeded.”

  “One day, I hope, you may have the chance to repay me with a similar friendship,” Philip said softly. The edge to his voice told her that there was more to his meaning than mere politics.

  “If I can ever be of service to Your Highness, I shall not hesitate,” Elizabeth replied and swept another low obeisance, feeling that she had played a good hand by winning Philip over.

  The Queen’s child was due any day now. Early May, the doctors had said, but when the middle of May arrived without any sign of a birth, they tugged at their beards and said that, yes, they had miscalculated, and that the babe would surely come later than expected.

  Mary remained in strict seclusion, and in another part of the palace, Elizabeth too was confined to her rooms, for she was still under guard. Yet isolated as she was, she could sense the undercurrents of tension that were pervading Hampton Court. Thanks to Blanche, an avid listener to gossip, she was aware of the foreign ambassadors, waiting to send news of the birth to their respective governments; of the courtiers, laying bets as to the sex of the infant and speculating as to why the Queen had been so wrong about her dates; and of the King, anxious to see his son safely born and to be away to war. For him, a single hour’s delay seemed like a thousand years.

  But the days turned into weeks, and it was now nearly June. Looking at his wife, Philip was certain that her belly had shrunk a little, and a terrible suspicion came upon him, which he dared not voice, for she was by now so dejected that she spent much of her time sitting on cushions on the floor with her knees drawn up to her chin, staring at the wall. He wondered that a gravid woman at her stage could manage such a position, but again he kept his fears to himself. He was beginning to doubt that this pregnancy would have a happy outcome, and was even starting to speculate that his wife was not pregnant at all but suffering from some female malady. In which case, it was of the utmost importance that her rift with her sister Elizabeth was immediately healed, and that he be recognized as the one who had brought about a reconciliation and the restoration of Elizabeth to her proper place in the succession.

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