The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “One day,” he mouthed.

  Days later, with the Queen’s blessing—given with more alacrity than was flattering, for it was obvious that Mary was glad to see the back of her—Elizabeth was on her way to Hatfield, happy to be riding northward to her own house. How the people came running to see her, crying her name and cheering from the roadside! So rapturous was their acclaim that she feared it would give great offense to the Queen and rebound on herself, so she sent her gentlemen among the crowds, with instructions to quiet and restrain them. Yet still the bells rang out in every parish to proclaim her coming, and she could not hide her delight.

  “This is some hope of comfort to me—as if appearing out of a dark cloud,” she told Roger Ascham, who had been given leave to accompany her to Hatfield and was riding by her side.

  But there were a few in her retinue who were not smiling. She knew who they were: servants who had been appointed by the council—spies, no less. She noted their set faces and leaned closer to Ascham.

  “Rest assured, Roger, we need to be on our best behavior even in the privacy of Hatfield. No one will come or go, and nothing will be spoken or done, without the Queen’s knowledge.”

  “You think so?” He frowned.

  “I know it!” She smiled grimly, bending to receive a posy from a little girl who had darted out from the crowd. “I will be watched, so we had best make sure we attend confession and Mass regularly. Is that not so, William?” She looked at faithful Cecil, her surveyor, who had come to meet her on the road and was riding on her other side. She was glad to see him again, this trusted friend of hers, who had always given her such wise advice as well as unstinting loyalty.

  “I should always counsel Your Grace to conform to the Queen’s wishes,” he said. “My constant prayer is for the preservation of Your Grace.”

  “Mine too!” Elizabeth added, grinning and lightening the mood, and both men laughed.

  Waiting for her at Hatfield was Kat, dear Kat, whom the Queen had now restored to her service. She flung herself into Kat’s waiting arms with scant regard for ceremony, and both women had tears on their cheeks when they drew apart. And Thomas Parry, brought back to his duties as her treasurer, was waiting also, bowing low until she raised him up and kissed him. There was so much to talk about—eighteen months of their lives to catch up on—and supper that night, which was served in the small parlor, was a private, merry occasion, attended only by Elizabeth and her closest friends. They were still there in the small hours, when the embers of the fire were dying and the room growing chill, although they were laughing so much that they did not notice.

  That night, Blanche Parry willingly relinquished her customary duties to Kat, who had performed them for so many years.

  “It is so good to have you back,” Elizabeth said for the hundredth time as Kat began brushing out her long hair. Kat had grown noticeably older and a little stouter. “I cannot tell you how much I missed you, and how I feared for you,” Kat confided. “There was a time…”

  “I know,” Elizabeth interrupted with a shiver. “Don’t let’s speak of that. It is over and done with. All I have to do now is keep my wits about me and stay alive. God will take care of the rest. The future is in His hands.”

  Elizabeth had not been at Hatfield three weeks when Thomas Parry came hastening to her, his face betraying fear.

  “I am just returned from the market, my lady,” he panted. “There is talk…talk of a plot to assassinate the Queen and set Your Grace on the throne.”

  “A plot?” Elizabeth went cold.

  “Aye. More than one, if rumor is to be believed. But all has been uncovered by the council.”

  Elizabeth started trembling. If she were to be implicated in these plots, she would not be given another chance, of that she was certain.

  “The craven fools!” she cried. “How dare these traitors conspire in my name? Do they not realize that they place me in the most terrible danger?”

  Any moment now, she realized, the Queen’s officers might come for her. She must preempt them: She must write and protest her innocence. She flew to her desk.

  I am Your Majesty’s most loyal subject, she protested passionately. I had nothing to do with these treasonable conspiracies.

  There was no reply. And after several agonized weeks of waiting, she realized there would never be. All she could conclude was that there was no evidence against her, or that no councillor was prepared to move against her.



  Elizabeth stared at the letter with its royal seal dangling.

  “She cannot mean it!” she cried.

  “What does Her Majesty say?” Cecil asked, looking up from his papers. He was rarely away from her these days—almost constantly in attendance as not only her surveyor but also her unofficial secretary and counselor.

  “She wishes me to marry King Philip’s son, Don Carlos,” she told him, her face registering distaste. “He’s ten years old, for God’s sake, a hunchback, and mad to boot!”

  “He is a good Catholic,” Cecil said wryly.

  “Such a good Catholic that he tortures children, servants, and animals!” Elizabeth retorted. “I heard he had bitten the testicles off a dog.”

  She began pacing up and down, so great was her indignation.

  “This is the Queen’s revenge! She has been plotting this for a long time. She wants me out of the country and safely married in Spain, as she thinks that I will then pose no further threat to her. Well, I will not consent to it, and I shall write and tell her so. She cannot force me to marry a madman!”

  “Well said!” Ascham smiled from the end of the table.

  “She will not marry him,” Mary told Cardinal Pole. “She alleges he is mad.”

  Pole considered awhile, deliberating, while the Queen waited. Good man that he was, his understanding of political affairs was not as acute as Gardiner’s had been. She missed Gardiner, dead these six months, and she missed Philip even more. He had been gone for far too long, and she ached for his presence. He would know what to do with Elizabeth, and whether to take her alleged involvement in these recent plots seriously. But Philip’s letters had become fewer and fewer, and at Christmas he had summoned the last members of his household from England. Mary saw that as ominous, but she dared not voice her fears in case they became reality. What if she never saw him again? She would pine away and die, she knew it.

  “Your Majesty is set on this marriage?” Pole was saying.

  “Indeed I am,” she told him. “By removing my sister bodily from this realm, I will rid myself of the chief cause of all these recent disturbances.”

  “Has Your Majesty considered that any plan to send the Lady Elizabeth out of the kingdom might provoke insurrections on her behalf?” Pole asked. Really, this problem of the princess had to be resolved, he knew, for it was proving a distraction from the great work of restoring the faith in England. “She is popular, and has given no cause for offense.”

  “Her very existence offends me!” Mary cried shrilly. “How do I know she is not plotting against me? Her name has been at the center of all those half-baked plots. And there is that traitor, Sir Henry Dudley, skulking in France and raising a force with a view to overthrowing me, and the French are backing him. Their aim, I have no doubt, is to put my sister on the throne.”

  “Again, we have no proof that she is involved,” the Cardinal pointed out. “Her past experiences will have taught her that it would be foolish in the extreme—indeed, fatal—to involve herself in any treasonable conspiracy.”

  “Nevertheless, this protest against the marriage with Don Carlos—could it be that she disdains to go to Spain because she has hopes of my throne?”

  “That is mere speculation, madam, and again, there is no proof.” Pole was growing weary of Mary’s obsessive suspicions.

  “She was at Somerset House until February, and that was when we first heard of the traitor Dudley’s activities,” Mary recalled. “I want that house searched, a
nd any papers found there examined. We may yet find something to incriminate her.”

  “Very well, madam.” Pole sighed. “I will give the order. But I warn you that you may end up looking rather foolish.”

  “I will risk that,” Mary snapped.

  In May, the Queen’s officers arrived at Hatfield.

  “We have orders to arrest Katherine Astley,” they informed an aghast Elizabeth.

  “No,” she whispered. This was as unexpected as it was awful. What did it herald? The beginning of some new calamity? Would the Queen never trust her, nor those she loved?

  “No!” wailed Kat.

  “Where are you taking her? What has she done?” Elizabeth demanded.

  “Our orders are to convey her to the Tower for questioning,” the Captain said.

  “But why?” Elizabeth persisted, wrapping her arm tightly around the weeping Kat.

  “The council wish her to be examined about certain papers that were found in Somerset House,” he informed her.

  “Papers?” Elizabeth echoed.

  “I know nothing of any papers!” Kat cried. “I have done nothing wrong!”

  “No, but they think to use you to trap me,” Elizabeth muttered. “They dare not move against me because I have the King’s protection, but they would if they found aught against me. Be careful what you say in case it is misconstrued and twisted into treason. They remember that you talked once before under questioning. They think to make you do it again.”

  “Come now!” the Captain commanded, and Kat was hustled out to the waiting litter, looking back desperately over her shoulder.

  The papers, it seemed, were merely a pretext. As far as Kat could tell, there was nothing in them to incriminate herself or anyone else. But she was so distressed that she could not think straight, and her interrogators were relentless in their questioning.

  “Tell us again. Did you or the Lady Elizabeth know anything about Sir Henry Dudley’s conspiracy?”

  “No!” Kat protested for what seemed like the thousandth time.

  “Has either of you had any contact with the traitor Dudley?”

  “Never. We are both loyal to the Queen, and the Lady Elizabeth’s love and truth is great in regard to Her Highness. If she thought me lacking in my allegiance, I am sure she would never see me again.”

  She was not believed—she had protested their innocence too loudly, it was felt—and after several days, she found herself cast into the Fleet Prison, with only rats and mice for company in her damp, fetid cell. There she gave way to despair. If they could treat an aging woman thus, how far might they proceed against her beloved Lady Elizabeth?

  Back at Hatfield, Elizabeth endured an agony of suspense, wondering what they were doing to Kat and praying for her return.

  Her hopes were raised when, in June, Lord Hastings and Sir Francis Englefield, loyal councillors both, came to see her.

  “Madam, we are come to extend the Queen’s apologies for the removal of your servant Mrs. Astley,” Sir Francis said. “However, her arrest was necessary because her conduct might have exposed Your Grace to the manifest risk of infamy and ruin.”

  “My lords, what are you talking about?” Elizabeth demanded. “Mrs. Astley is as loyal to the Queen as I am myself, and she loves me so well that I know she would do nothing to my injury.”

  “That is yet to be established, madam,” Hastings said, “but in token of Her Majesty’s goodwill, she has sent you this diamond ring, saying she knows you to be so wise and prudent that you would never wish to undertake anything to her prejudice.”

  “Indeed I would never,” Elizabeth said firmly. “But I am concerned about my servant. I trust she is well housed and fed?”

  The men exchanged uneasy glances.

  “Don’t tell me—she is in a dungeon!” Elizabeth snapped. “Well, that will be remedied at once. I will give you money to pay for a better lodging for her, and for food to be sent in. Until, of course, she is released, which should be forthwith, for she has done nothing worthy of reproach.”

  “Let us hope that she proves herself an honest woman,” Englefield said piously.

  “It is for the State to prove that she is not,” Elizabeth reminded him.

  “They can get nothing out of the woman Astley,” Cardinal Pole said.

  Mary frowned. “I had hoped she might be of use,” she confessed. “Of course, it is really my sister whom I would like questioned, but that is not possible.” Not without Philip’s approval, Philip, who was clearly susceptible to Elizabeth’s wiles. Mary would do nothing without his sanction.

  “I would have had her consigned to the Tower, but for the fear of reprisals,” she said aloud. “I have sent a fast courier to the King asking for his advice.”

  No need to wonder what that will be, Pole thought. And he was right.

  “His Majesty wills that I send a kind message to my sister,” Mary told him just days later. “He urges that I use loving and gracious expressions to show her that she is neither neglected nor hated, but loved and esteemed by me.” Her voice was bitter. If only Philip had so great a care for her own feelings. “And he says I should invite her to court.”

  “A sound suggestion,” Pole commented. “His Majesty shows great wisdom. Better to have the Lady Elizabeth here, under your eye, than free to plot sedition at Hatfield.”

  “I thank Her Majesty for her kind invitation, but regret that my domestic duties here preclude me from accepting,” Elizabeth told the royal messenger. “Perhaps I may reconsider when my servant, Mrs. Astley, returns.”

  It was a bold message, and afterward she sought out Cecil and told him what she had said.

  “I wonder if I should have been so provocative,” she murmured.

  “Having done nothing wrong, you have every right to express indignation,” Cecil told her. “They will prove nothing against Mrs. Astley, of course. They have only proceeded against her because they dare not proceed against you, madam. That is transparently clear. So calm yourself, for you are in no danger, and neither is your good Mrs. Astley.”

  “You speak sense,” Elizabeth said. “If it were not for your wise counsel, I do not know what I should do.”

  The next thing was the arrival of the elderly Sir Thomas Pope, a genial Catholic gentleman, whom the Queen had appointed governor to her sister.

  “I am not so stupid that I do not realize he is here to keep an eye on me,” Elizabeth told Cecil. “Since when have I needed a governor?”

  “He is here for your protection too,” Cecil advised her. “His vigilance will prevent your enemies from accusing you of any subversion. If I were you, madam, I would make him welcome.”

  “I will take your advice, old friend,” Elizabeth promised.

  With Sir Thomas Pope came a widowed gentlewoman, Mrs. Cox, sent by the Queen to replace Kat. She was the image of moral rectitude, pious, sober, and chaste, yet amiable and willing, but Elizabeth refused to allow her to perform Kat’s duties.

  “Blanche Parry will undertake them,” she informed Mrs. Cox. “We are used to each other, and she served me well when Mrs. Astley was absent before.”

  Mrs. Cox nodded meekly and dipped her curtsy, but she saw to it that she was a constant presence in Elizabeth’s life; there she would be, at mealtimes, in the gardens, in the gallery, and in the parlor of an evening. Elizabeth bore her presence with fortitude, remembering that what Cecil had said of Sir Thomas Pope also applied to Mrs. Cox.

  Sir Thomas she liked. He was a learned man, a man of law who had founded a college at Oxford, and his intellect was lively. He made an entertaining dinner companion, and when Master Ascham was present, the conversation was stimulating and witty.

  “Did you know I used to be a friend of Sir Thomas More?” he asked her.

  “I did not,” Elizabeth replied. “I know there was a great stir when my father, King Henry, sent him to the block.”

  Sir Thomas sighed. “That were a pity, whatever the right of it. He was a marvelously learned man, with a merry sp
irit, and a great one for educating girls, too.”

  “Ah, then I cannot but approve of him!” Elizabeth smiled.

  They talked some while of Sir Thomas’s plans for his new college, at which he became very animated.

  “Shall you admit ladies?” Elizabeth provoked him.

  “The very idea!” He chuckled.

  “Ah, but if you did, my lady here should be first in line!” Ascham put in admiringly.

  “Then I must eternally regret that our rules prevent me from having the pleasure of enrolling you, madam,” Pope said chivalrously.

  On another occasion, the talk turned to entertainments.

  “I hear you enjoy drama,” Sir Thomas said to Elizabeth.

  “I love nothing better than a good masque or play,” she told him.

  “Then with your permission, we shall stage one here!” he promised, and thus it was that she and her household came to enjoy rousing performances of that old favorite, Fulgens and Lucrece, and the poet Skelton’s famous old-fashioned interlude Magnificence.

  “My father used to speak of this play,” an appreciative Elizabeth told Pope. “He loved the way the political evils pitted their wits against the political virtues.” Sir Thomas smiled approvingly.

  “Next week, we shall put on a masque,” he announced. “Will Your Grace do us the honor of dancing in it?”

  “I should love nothing better!” she declared, recalling the heady days of her childhood, when she had thrilled to the masques at court. The only thing to mar her pleasure was her continuing worry over the absent Kat.

  In July, there were graver matters than masques to discuss.

  “I am instructed by the council to inform Your Grace of a most disturbing incident,” Sir Thomas said, looking distressed.

  Elizabeth seated herself. “Tell me,” she said sharply, wondering what new trouble was afoot.

  “A schoolmaster called Cleobury, from Suffolk, recently took it upon himself to impersonate Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon,” Pope related. “And he made a priest in Huntingdonshire proclaim from his churchyard that Queen Mary was dead, and that Your Grace and your—forgive me, I am only quoting what is written here—beloved bedfellow, Edmund Courtenay—heavens, he couldn’t even get the Earl’s name right—were now Queen and King of this realm.”

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