The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Mary too had seen the little Prince and said all the right words of congratulation, but alone in her chamber afterward, listening to the shouts and flurry outside that betokened hasty preparations for the christening, she felt like weeping. Her half brother’s birth had finally put paid to her long-cherished, albeit remote, hopes of succeeding her father.

  All my life, she thought, I shall remain nothing but the Lady Mary, I who was a princess but who am now a bastard without prospects. What can I look for in the future?

  She got up and walked unheeding to the window, looking down on the merry bustle outside. What man of rank would want her now, disinherited and debased as she was? It seemed that the husband and children for which she longed were to be forever denied her. Oh, the King had made various noises about betrothing her to this prince or that, but it never came to anything, and likely never would.

  She pulled herself up. One must be grateful for the consolations that God did send, she told herself severely. She had the love of her father, which had been restored to her, a good friend in her stepmother, and a child to care for in the person of her little sister, the most toward and engaging child one could wish for. And now there was this new baby to love. She must be contented with these things that God had vouchsafed her, and not look for more.

  It was late evening, and the air chilly. The palace was lit by hundreds of torches set in sconces on the walls. Hordes of people were gathering in the Base Court, each with a part to play in the christening of the Prince, be it in the procession or the ceremony itself. There were knights, squires, ushers, and members of the royal households; bishops, abbots, clerics, and choristers from the Chapel Royal; the King’s councillors, the ambassadors from foreign lands, and a chattering throng of great lords and ladies richly dressed in their peacock finery.

  Lady Bryan held on tightly to Elizabeth’s hand as she searched for the Queen’s brother, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, among the crowd. He was to escort Elizabeth in the procession.

  Elizabeth was wide-eyed, taking in all that was going on around her, and very conscious of being dressed in her best gown, the orange satin one. It was a little tight now around the bodice and sleeves, and Lady Bryan had had the hem let down, but with its gay green underskirt and matching French hood, it looked very fine, Elizabeth thought, and it showed off her red hair to advantage. Holding herself as a princess should, chin in the air, back straight, she followed her governess, nodding left and right at the courtiers, as she had seen her father do. Not a few of them smiled and bowed in return.

  My lord of Hertford was very grand, as was often the case with many new-made lords, and swept a flourishing obeisance to Elizabeth, doffing his lavishly feathered bonnet. With him was one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, reverently holding a tiny, richly embroidered garment, neatly folded, and a golden vial.

  “These you must bear to the Chapel Royal, my Lady Elizabeth,” the Earl explained. “They are the Prince’s baptismal robe and the chrism oil for his anointing. Do you think you can manage to carry them?”

  “Yes, my lord,” said Elizabeth solemnly, aware of the importance of her task.

  The lady-in-waiting carefully laid the robe across Elizabeth’s outstretched hands, then placed the vial on top.

  “She has no hand free to manage her train,” pointed out Lady Bryan.

  “Then I will carry her,” said Edward Seymour, bending to lift a delighted Elizabeth in his arms. He walked with her, she clutching her precious burdens, to the waiting line of dignitaries, and took his place at the rear, behind the peers.

  “His Highness the Prince approaches!” someone said, and the cry was taken up. Elizabeth twisted her head around to see the royal infant being borne toward them in the arms of the Marchioness of Exeter; a golden canopy supported by four lords was above their heads, and the long train of the Prince’s velvet mantle was carried by his nurse, Mistress Penn, who followed behind. After her came the Lady Mary with a great company of ladies. As the little procession approached, everyone present sank to their knees on the ground, then rose and took up their places in the procession, which was now about to enter the palace.

  Elizabeth felt very important indeed as she was borne along by Lord Hertford just ahead of the Prince, and she played her part well in the chapel, delivering a rather crumpled robe to Mistress Penn and offering the vial to the splendidly vested Archbishop of Canterbury, but by the time the long ceremony had ended, and a jubilant Te Deum had been sung, it was well after midnight and she was fighting a losing battle with sleep. As the procession made its way to the Queen’s apartments, where the royal parents were waiting to receive their newly baptized son, the Lady Mary gripped her somnolent little sister’s hand and kept her on her feet until such time as she could hand her back to Lady Bryan. The last thing Elizabeth remembered of that marvelous night, before she could keep her eyes open no longer, was her father weeping with joy as he cradled her brother.

  Queen Jane had looked radiant and well as she sat on her state bed receiving her guests, so Elizabeth was shocked to hear, two days later, that she was ill.

  “Her Highness has a fever,” Lady Bryan told her. “They say she has eaten too many rich foods.”

  The anxious concern in her governess’s face alarmed Elizabeth. She noticed that there was an ominous pall over the court: People were conversing in hushed voices, and no one was making merry anymore. This frightened her. She liked Queen Jane, who had been kind to her, and she knew that her father loved the Queen very much. She prayed to God that her stepmother would get better soon.

  But one evening, several days later, her sister Mary came to her.

  “The Queen our good mother is very poorly,” she said sadly. “Her confessor is with her, and our father the King.” Elizabeth’s spirits fell. She feared for the Queen, for her father, for herself, and for that poor little baby lying in his massive cradle. Was yet another royal child to be deprived of its mother?

  “Will she die?” she whispered.

  “We must pray she will not,” Mary replied, putting an arm around Elizabeth. “We must ask God to spare her life.”

  Elizabeth went immediately to her prayer desk and knelt down.

  “I’m going to ask Him now,” she said, and closing her eyes and putting her hands together, she began praying fervently.

  Behind her, Mary pressed a hand to her cheek. “Ooh, this tooth is giving me misery,” she groaned.

  “Cloves, madam, that’ll help,” said Lady Bryan.

  “I’ve tried that,” Mary said, clearly in pain. “Nothing works. I must bear it as well as I may. As my sainted mother used to say, we never come to the kingdom of Heaven but by troubles.”

  “A hot brick wrapped in flannel, held to the spot, will ease it,” Lady Bryan persisted, rising to her feet. “As for you, my Lady Elizabeth, it is time you were in bed. I will attend you presently, when you have finished your prayers.”

  Elizabeth woke to the sound of quiet sobbing. The dawn was just breaking as she slid out of bed and put on her nightgown. Holding her breath, she quietly opened the door to the antechamber. No one was there. The weeping seemed to be coming from beyond the farther door. Elizabeth lifted the latch.

  The Lady Mary and Lady Bryan, both already fully dressed, rose to their feet at once. Elizabeth looked from one tearstained face to another and guessed that something dreadful had happened. Mary came swiftly to her.

  “Sister, if we accept good things from God, then we must also endure the trials He sends us,” she said, holding Elizabeth close. “Alas, the good Queen has been taken from us.”

  “She has surely gone to Heaven, child, for she did many good deeds,” Lady Bryan assured her, dabbing her eyes.

  Elizabeth said nothing. She had lost control when her mother died, and she doubted that anything would ever hurt her as badly again, so she was trying not to cry. She was a big girl now, and must accept God’s will, difficult as it was.

  “The Queen made a good end. She died in her sleep, after rec
eiving the last rites,” Mary told her. “We have that consolation.”

  “I am so sorry she is dead,” whispered Elizabeth. “She was very kind to me. I will miss her.” Tears were threatening, but she would not give in to them.

  “We will all miss her,” echoed Mary, “especially our poor father.”

  “Where is he?” Elizabeth asked. Suddenly, she wanted the comfort of his strong arms, his powerful presence, his reassuring confidence.

  “He has gone from here,” Mary said. “He left for Windsor before sunrise. He would see no one, and wants to bear his grief alone.”

  Elizabeth felt doubly bereft. Two mothers had she lost, both in a short space of time, and her father had ridden away without even attempting to console her.

  Clutching Mary’s hand, Elizabeth entered the Chapel Royal. There before them, on a black-draped bier, lay the still body of Queen Jane, dressed in robes of state with her crown on her head and jewels at her throat and breast. Her hands lay crossed on her bosom; her eyes were shut forever.

  The sisters were wearing somber black mourning gowns and white hoods.

  “The white hoods signify that the Queen died in childbed,” Mary had explained.

  They knelt together through the solemn Mass, then when the priest and choristers had departed, they approached the bier. A faint odor of spices, masking something less pleasant, emanated from the body of the Queen, which had now been lying here three days; and when Elizabeth, lifted by her sister, kissed the dead woman’s white forehead, she found it as cold as the marble it resembled. Yet Jane Seymour looked as if she were merely sweetly sleeping. If only, Elizabeth thought desperately, if only she would wake up, then everyone would be happy again, and the King would come back. But she knew that the Queen would never wake up, that her soul had fled, and that, in some mysterious way, having the Prince had killed her.

  Appalled by the sweet scent of death, and realizing with dread that there were more perils in the world than she had ever imagined, Elizabeth buried her face in her hands to shut out the sight of the white, waxen face and tried very hard to pray.

  “How does the King?” Lady Bryan looked up as Sir John Shelton joined her by the roaring fire. It was November, and Sir John had returned to Hatfield as soon as the Queen had been laid to rest at Windsor. Elizabeth was lying on her belly near the hearth, pretending to be learning the letters inscribed on her horn book.

  “I fear he is in low spirits,” said the governor, “but by all reports, he has framed his mind patiently to bearing his loss. It is said he has also framed his mind to…” He leaned forward and murmured something in the governess’s ear. Elizabeth, straining to hear, caught the words “fourth time.”

  “And the Queen not yet cold in her grave!” Lady Bryan exclaimed. Oh, but she was cold, she had been very cold, before they ever laid her in it, thought Elizabeth, remembering with a shudder that marble body.

  “Master Secretary Cromwell was saying that it is his tender zeal toward his subjects that has overcome his sad disposition,” said Sir John. “He was referring to the matter of the succession. The life of the Prince is all that stands between stability and chaos in this realm, and you well know how many children die young. For the sake of all our futures, the King needs other sons—he himself has clearly recognized this. And, of course, there are advantages to be gained through a new marriage alliance.”

  Elizabeth wasn’t interested in marriage alliances. She was more concerned about her dear little brother, that sweet babe, who—like herself—now had no mother to love him. Was Sir John hinting that he was like to die? Please God, no—that would be more than she could bear.

  Her fears were immediately allayed.

  “At least the Prince is in good health, praised be God—a lusty child, I hear,” said Sir John. “And so he should be, for the King guards his health rigorously.”

  “Poor little lamb,” Lady Bryan murmured.

  “His Majesty has commanded that the walls, floors, and ceilings of the Prince’s chamber be washed down thrice daily, and that none who has been in contact with any infection may approach His Highness,” Sir John told her. “You can hardly blame him, in the circumstances.”

  “So who is His Majesty to marry?” Lady Bryan asked softly, returning to the topic of the moment and glancing at Elizabeth to see if she was listening. The child appeared to be absorbed with her ABCs.

  “Well, it was to have been a French princess, I heard, but the French weren’t of a mind to it. Apparently, His Majesty had told their ambassador that the thing touched him too near, and that he needed to see the lady before any contract was signed.” Sir John again leaned closer to the governess, so that Elizabeth had to hold her breath in order to hear what he said next. “He asked that suitable French ladies be brought to Calais so that he could meet them and get to know them a little before choosing. Well, the ambassador was furious. He said that the great ladies of France were not to be paraded like prize animals in a market. And then he dared to suggest”—Sir John was almost whispering—“that His Majesty might like to mount them one after the other, and keep the one he found most agreeable.”

  Lady Bryan gasped and clapped her hands to her cheeks, which had gone rosy pink.

  “Aye, you may well blush, my lady,” said Sir John, “and the King did too. I’ve never seen him so embarrassed. As you can imagine, he has somewhat gone off the idea of a French alliance. He is looking to Cleves…”

  Elizabeth was bored by this talk of alliances. Besides, she was puzzled. Why had Lady Bryan been so shocked? And why would her father want to mount the French ladies? That was what you did to horses—you mounted them. It was all very strange and beyond her comprehension. She stared at her horn book. The italic letters carved delicately into the wood danced before her eyes, unseen by their owner. She was too busy striving to imagine her father riding the French ladies, much as she would ride her hobbyhorse, round and round Calais. The images this conjured up made her giggle under her breath. Adults did the silliest things.



  Elizabeth hurried down the stairs to the great hall at Hatfield, wondering why she had been summoned there by Lady Bryan. As she neared the bottom, she saw her governess standing at the door, greeting a fashionably dressed middle-aged woman with dark hair and kind, doe-like eyes.

  “I had not expected you so soon,” Lady Bryan was saying. “Please bear with me.” Looking a little flustered, she reeled around to her charge.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, allow me to present Mistress Katherine Champernowne,” she said. The visitor executed a graceful curtsy, which Elizabeth returned in kind.

  “You are welcome, Mistress Champernowne,” she said politely.

  “I am honored, my lady,” replied the dark-haired woman. She had a gentle Devon accent, rounded cheeks, a slightly turned-up nose, and a hint of mischief in her face, while about her there was an air of refinement. Is she a friend of Lady Bryan? Elizabeth wondered, expecting to be dismissed now that the greetings had been exchanged. But that did not happen.

  “Refreshments will be brought to you,” Lady Bryan told the visitor, still sounding a bit nonplussed. “Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. My Lady Elizabeth, you come with me. We will be back presently.” Briskly, she led the way back up to Elizabeth’s chamber. The child was mildly curious, and completely unprepared for what came next.

  “I must tell you that Mistress Champernowne is to be your new governess,” announced Lady Bryan.

  “My new governess?” Elizabeth was startled. “But I have a governess. You are my governess.”

  Lady Bryan took a deep breath. “Not anymore, dear child, I’m afraid. I am to be governess to the Prince and rule over his new household. That is why Mistress Champernowne has been sent here.”

  Elizabeth could not quite take it in. For as long as she could remember, Lady Bryan had looked after her. In all but blood, she had been a mother to her, the person who had cared for her, nurtured her, comforted her, and disc
iplined her. All her life, Lady Bryan had been there, and now—it appeared—she would be there no more. It was unthinkable.

  “Has my father commanded it?” she asked.

  “He has, child,” Lady Bryan said gently.

  “It must be a mistake,” declared Elizabeth. “Send that lady away. She can look after the Prince. You stay here.”

  There was a short silence.

  “The Prince needs an experienced lady of rank to be his governess,” Lady Bryan said. “Long before you were born, I had care of your sister, the Lady Mary. Then you. Now I am commanded to Hampton Court to look after the Prince himself.”

  There was pride in her voice as she said it, and suddenly Elizabeth knew that this was not just the King’s doing but Lady Bryan’s own wish. Her brother was more important than she was—she was old enough to know it—and for Lady Bryan, this was promotion, and a great honor at that. Young as Elizabeth was, she realized that it would be futile to protest further; she must accept the situation. But it hurt, oh it hurt, for she was not only aware that her small world would never, ever be the same, but also shocked at the realization that Lady Bryan’s devotion to herself had not been entirely lacking in self-interest. Once again, the universe had shifted, as it had done violently when she had learned of the awful fate of her mother, and less so when Queen Jane had died.

  She was a big girl: She was four years old, and she would not make a fuss. She allowed Lady Bryan to take her hand and lead her downstairs to greet Katherine Champernowne; she bowed regally when the new governess sketched another curtsy, and even returned her smile.

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