The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Yet he had to go carefully with Mary. There must be no suggestion that all was not well.

  “Why not send for Elizabeth?” he said gently. “I assure you that your fears about her are unfounded, and that she wishes you nothing but well. Receive her back into favor. She could be a support to you at this time, and her company could help to relieve the tedium of waiting.”

  Elizabeth’s company was the last thing Mary wanted just now, and she suspected that Elizabeth had used her wiles on Philip to bring him to this glowing opinion of her, but she was anxious to please him, for—much to her grief—he was going away as soon as this tardy infant was born, and she wanted to make sure that he had reason to come back to her.

  “If it pleases you, my husband, I will send for her,” she agreed, suppressing her forebodings.

  “I will have her summoned,” Philip said with one of his rare smiles.

  Elizabeth was astonished and afraid when, at ten o’clock that evening, the door to her lodging opened and there stood Susan Clarencieux, Mary’s chief lady-in-waiting. What could this betoken? she wondered. Had the Queen been delivered, and had Clarencieux, who had never been a friend to her, come to inform her and gloat over her displacement?

  “I am here to escort you to Her Majesty’s apartments,” Clarencieux said coolly. “She wishes to see you and hear you make answer for yourself.”

  Elizabeth turned pale. So Philip’s assurance had been premature. Mary still suspected her. And if she did not give a good account of herself, all unprepared as she was, it might go ill with her this night.

  Trembling, she turned to Blanche Parry.

  “Pray for me,” she muttered, “for I have no idea whether I will ever see you again.” Blanche looked at her tragically with tear-filled eyes.

  The lady-in-waiting was brisk.

  “There is nothing to fear, I am sure. The Queen is disposed to be merciful. I suggest you put on your finest clothes for the audience.”

  When Elizabeth was ready—she had laid aside the seductive white gown in favor of a high-necked crimson velvet one—Clarencieux held her torch aloft and led her down the stairs and across the moonlit garden to the Queen’s lodging. There, they ascended to the privy chamber, and when they were admitted, there was Mary, alone in the room, seated in her chair of estate, her graying red hair straggling over the shoulders of the loose robe she was wearing. There was little sign of any high stomach beneath it, and she looked older and very drawn, with deep lines dragging her mouth downward.

  Unsmiling, she extended her hand to be kissed, but Elizabeth, overcome with emotion at being in Mary’s presence at last, and seeing her sister so ravaged, threw herself on her knees, weeping uncontrollably. This was the Mary who had been a second mother to her in childhood, her Queen to whom she owed loyalty and fealty, whose mind Elizabeth’s enemies had poisoned. Things must be put right between them while there was still time, for Mary looked old and ill, and not only were there ties of kinship and allegiance to be mended, but there was also a pressing need for the older woman to look with kindness upon the girl who might yet be her successor.

  “God preserve Your Majesty!” she cried, tears streaming down her face. “Whatever people have reported of me, you will find me as true a subject of Your Majesty as any!”

  Mary turned away, breathing heavily. She waved Clarencieux out of the room, leaving only the two of them in the flickering candlelight. When she did speak, her voice was heavy with sarcasm.

  “You will not confess your offense, will you? You stand stoutly in your truth. Well, I pray God it may so fall out.”

  Elizabeth was stung. “If it does not,” she answered vehemently, “I desire neither favor nor pardon at your hands.”

  “Well,” Mary said, disappointed that Elizabeth had not denied her guilt more categorically, “since you so stiffly persevere in your truth, and will not confess any wrongdoing, are you saying that you have been wrongly punished?”

  “I must not say so, if it please Your Majesty, to you,” Elizabeth replied meekly.

  “But you will to others?” Mary pursued.

  “No, if it please Your Majesty!” Elizabeth protested. “I have borne the burden and I must bear it yet. All I humbly beseech is for Your Majesty to have a good opinion of me, and to think me your true subject, not only from the beginning, but forever, as long as life lasts.”

  The Queen said nothing. Instead, she rose stiffly and went over to the window. The casement was open to let in the balmy night air, and a soft breeze stirred the tapestry that hung nearby.

  “God knows if you are speaking the truth,” she murmured, turning to gaze fixedly at her sister.

  “I take Him for my witness,” Elizabeth said firmly. In that moment, her face was lit up in the glow from the candles and Mary could clearly see the outline of their father King Henry’s profile. There was no doubt of it, no doubt at all: It was him to the life. Good, honest woman that she was, she realized that she had deeply wronged Elizabeth with her baseless suspicions. Now, God be praised, it would be easier for her to do as Philip wished.

  Elizabeth was wondering why Mary kept staring at her, but suddenly she saw something that disturbed her. The Queen’s robe was gaping slightly, revealing the fine chemise beneath; yet for all that she was at full term, the swelling of her belly was hardly visible. Elizabeth was puzzled, but there was no time to speculate further, for Mary had moved swiftly toward her, holding out her hands and grasping Elizabeth’s in a claw-like grip.

  “I want to believe you, Sister,” she said, her eyes moist. “For the sake of the kinship between us.”

  “Then believe it, madam, for you have no cause to doubt it!” Elizabeth urged her. “I would never betray you nor wish you harm, I assure you.”

  “Then we are perfect friends again,” said Mary, attempting a smile. “And you shall be set at liberty forthwith, and take your place at court.”

  Elizabeth fell to her knees again and kissed the Queen’s hand most fervently.

  “You shall have no cause to doubt me, I swear it!” she vowed.

  When she had gone, her heart singing, away into the night, Philip stepped out from behind the tapestry.

  “A touching scene,” he observed. “You have her on your side now. There is no more need to fear her.” He walked to the table and poured himself a goblet of wine.

  “Think you not I can dissemble with the best of my race?” Mary retorted. “Yes, I have taken her back into favor. Yes, I may have wronged her. Maybe she was not as culpable as we suspected. But as for fearing her? I shall fear her to my dying day!” And she burst out in copious, noisy tears.

  “All the better then that you keep her under your eye,” Philip said coolly, sipping his drink. “But mind that you treat her with respect, if not affection.”

  Mary looked at him miserably. She was not a fool: She was in no doubt that Elizabeth was now under Philip’s protection, and that in some ways, she might be more important to him than Mary herself. Small wonder, she thought bitterly, for Elizabeth represented the future.

  Dear God, she prayed, when will my son be born?

  Elizabeth was not sure what to do next. The guards had been removed and the Chamberlain had told her that she might receive visitors, but few came, and she deemed it wise to keep to her rooms for the present. It was as well, because, due to the Queen’s prolonged confinement, the court had sojourned overlong at Hampton Court, and the palace was now fetid with the stink of overflowing privies and hundreds of sweaty bodies. On her few forays from her lodgings, Elizabeth witnessed scuffles and scraps between courtiers frustrated at being cooped up in such an atmosphere.

  Everything was in suspense, waiting on the Queen’s delivery. The business of the kingdom was at a standstill, the mood of the people ugly. The King rarely appeared in public, so embarrassed was he at the interminable delay and the whispers to which it was giving rise.

  June came and went; July—and the doctors said again that they had muddled the dates. The expressions worn
by the courtiers were deeply skeptical, Elizabeth noticed. Faces turned to her in expectation and hope. Inwardly elated, she ignored them; she dared do no else.

  One day, she looked out of her window and glimpsed the Queen in the privy garden. Mary appeared to be her normal slender self; there was obviously no babe inside her. Yet still the pretense was maintained that the birth was imminent.

  “It would take a miracle!” Elizabeth observed privately to Blanche, who, in the absence of her beloved Kat, had become her confidante. She knew she could trust Blanche, who was utterly devoted to her.

  “It is the judgment of God,” whispered the Welshwoman.

  “That’s as may be,” Elizabeth replied, ever practical, “but the continuance of this charade, to my mind, is a ploy to keep the people in hope, and thus in check.”

  “It cannot go on forever,” Blanche said.

  “No, it cannot,” Elizabeth agreed. “The Queen has been pregnant for eleven and a half months now.”

  “Is she ill?” Blanche asked.

  “I think not,” Elizabeth considered. “My belief is that she desired a child so much that she believed she was pregnant. Unless it was all a pretense, but that I cannot accept. My sister is too honest a lady.”

  “Whatever the case, I hope we can move from here soon,” Blanche said. “The palace is unbearable, what with the heat and the stink.”

  “I think there will be an announcement soon,” Elizabeth opined. “This cannot go on for much longer.” She was striving to suppress her inner excitement, for the abandonment of Mary’s hopes would mean the restoration of her own.

  There was no announcement, just the Lord Chamberlain telling her that the King and Queen had removed to the royal hunting lodge at Oatlands with their attendants.

  “Her Majesty desires me to tell you that you are absolutely free and may go where you will,” he informed her. His manner was far more deferential than hitherto, for it was now almost certain that the Queen would have no child, and the courtiers, who had reacted to this realization with pity or scorn, were according Elizabeth a new respect as the likely successor to the throne.

  She could go where she pleased? Her heart leapt in elation, for on hearing those words, she realized that she was, indeed, free at last.

  In August, the Queen summoned her to Greenwich to be present when Philip departed for the Low Countries. Elizabeth was gratified that Mary wanted her there, but put out when the Queen insisted that she travel by water rather than by road.

  She does not want the people showing their affection for me, she thought. And she wants me under her supervision, for she does not trust me.

  She was even more offended when she saw the ramshackle old barge that the Queen had sent to collect her. It had been patched up and painted, but it was still a sorry sight, and there were cries of “Shame!” from the riverbank, where hordes of common folk had gathered, as if in defiance of the Queen’s command, as soon as word of her coming spread.

  At Greenwich, she found her sister too busy to see her. In fact, Mary was making the most of her final hours with Philip. All too soon, the time passed, and when the moment came for his departure, she said her agonizing, tearful farewells in private, then stood stony-faced at the top of the great staircase, helplessly watching him descend and walk away from her and through the great doorway, bound for the waiting ship that would take him to Flanders. Until he was out of sight, she held on to herself, then when she could bear it no longer, she withdrew into her apartments and hastened to a window in the gallery, desperate for one last glimpse of her beloved. Following with the other ladies, Elizabeth watched her sister break into anguished sobs as she waved her kerchief at the distant figure on the departing ship.

  It did not do to give your heart to a man so entirely, she thought. Men did not value what they came by easily. Once you loved, you laid yourself open to pain. She would not make the same mistake as her sister, that much was sure.

  With Philip gone, the court was a gloomy place. It was as if it had gone into mourning. As if in reflection of the Queen’s desolation at being deprived of both her expected baby and her husband, its inhabitants had taken to wearing dark colors.

  “I suppose I must go about looking like a crow in these weeds,” Elizabeth grumbled, holding up her black velvet gown. “You would think the King had died.”

  “I mind there was a time when Your Grace liked to dress in black,” Blanche reminded her archly.

  “That was in my brother’s reign,” Elizabeth said dismissively. “We are all good Catholics now, and must dress the part. But I must say I do not relish looking like a nun.”

  “I do not think Your Grace would make a very good nun!” Blanche giggled.

  “I would be a very rebellious nun!” Elizabeth laughed. “I should certainly eat too much!”

  There was not much occasion for laughter these days. Occasionally, Mary would send for her, although clearly she did not delight in Elizabeth’s presence. She made it quite clear that she was extending her favor only because it was Philip’s desire that she should do so.

  “His Majesty has written again of you,” she would say. “He constantly commends you to my care, and requests that I be a gracious prince to you.” Her tone always implied that, but for Philip’s exhortations, relations between them would be far less cordial.

  And indeed, as Mary had feared, Elizabeth was proving a constant thorn in her side. Her youth and barely restrained vitality were in themselves enough to arouse the older woman’s resentment, but above all Mary could not bring herself to trust her sister, and must always think the worst of her. Then she would despise herself for it, and remind herself that Elizabeth was truly her own flesh and blood, to be loved as such. But she found that so hard, so very hard.

  “She hates me,” Elizabeth told Blanche. “When we meet, we exchange mere courtesies and discuss the weather. I know she is jealous of me, if only because I enjoy the favor of the King. And because I am her heir. I can understand it, of course: What man loves his own winding sheet?”

  “But Your Grace goes with her to Mass daily,” Blanche said. “That must please Her Majesty.”

  “Oh, yes, and I even fasted for three days for the sake of saving my soul,” Elizabeth reminded her, wincing at the memory of how ravenous she had been at the end of it. “Yet it avails me little. The Queen remains suspicious, Cardinal Pole is unfriendly, and the courtiers shun my company. But I have one friend at court. Master Ascham was recently appointed Latin Secretary to the Queen, and she has agreed that he may spend some time each week in study with me. I have so longed for some intellectual stimulation!”

  It was wonderful to see Master Ascham again, and it was clear, from the broad smile on his face when he rose from his bow, that he too was delighted at the prospect of resuming his tutelage of Elizabeth. But all too soon it became evident that their abilities were now evenly matched and that he could teach her little.

  “I marvel at your learning!” he told her. “Your mind is so well stocked.”

  “That is a miracle,” she told him, “since I was more than a year without the means to pursue my studies.”

  “Your understanding of Greek is better than mine,” he enthused warmly. “And I am struck with astonishment at how you grasp the political conflicts in Demosthenes. I never understood them so well. I might teach you words, my lady, but you teach me things!”

  Elizabeth beamed at him, drinking in his praise.

  Their sessions together were not always so lighthearted.

  “They have burned Bishops Latimer and Ridley,” Ascham told her in October, his face heavy with grief. “Two of the finest minds in the kingdom.”

  “Take care, Roger,” Elizabeth warned. “Even the walls have ears here. Your sympathy might be misconstrued for heresy.”

  He bent forward.

  “That would not be far from the truth,” he murmured. “I conform outwardly, but my heart is still wedded to the reformed faith. And yours too, I’ll wager, madam.”

  “Shhh!” Elizabeth hissed. “You’ll have us both fried! I am the Queen’s loyal subject, and I will not gainsay her on any matter.”

  “An answer answerless,” he observed.

  “I like your turn of phrase,” she smiled. “I will remember it for future use.”

  Her smile faded.

  “Did they suffer much? The bishops, I mean.”

  “Latimer died quickly,” he told her. “I had it from one who was there. But Ridley—his agony was terrible. It took him three-quarters of an hour to burn.”

  Elizabeth shuddered.

  “Cranmer will be next,” she said. Cranmer, that zealous Protestant, who had helped her father to break with Rome, who had declared Mary’s mother’s marriage null and void and her daughter a bastard. There would be no mercy for Cranmer.

  “In truth, I long to get away from the court,” Elizabeth confided nervously. “It is so treacherous and full of menace. The intrigue, the backbiting, I weary of it all. I feel too that I am here on sufferance, and I fear that, with an ill-chosen word or deed, I might quickly find myself in disgrace once more, or worse…” She was thinking, he knew, of the martyrs, the scores of brave men and women who had chosen a fiery death rather than recant their faith.

  “Take heart,” he murmured. “The people love you. Openly they speak of you as their savior, the one who will call a halt to this brutal persecution and pack the Spaniards off home.”

  “Me, with my little power?” Elizabeth asked with a sad smile.

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