The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “That is outrageous!” Elizabeth cried angrily. “How dare this fellow presume to name me in this calumny!”

  “Indeed, indeed,” Sir Thomas agreed. “You will be gratified to learn that he and the priest were arrested, and that under questioning it became clear that they were acting entirely of their own accord.”

  “So why did the council see fit to acquaint me with this wickedness?” Elizabeth asked. “It is nothing to do with me!”

  “They say that they but wish you to know the whole circumstance, so that it might appear how far these men abused Your Grace’s name.”

  “In truth,” she replied, “how will the Queen ever trust me if foolish men bandy it about so wantonly and treacherously? I must write to her and let her know that I am sensible of her position.”

  For she did fully understand now why Mary saw her as a threat. Even if she herself was loyal and true, there would always be those who would seek to conspire in her name—that much was becoming clear. Yet was this not, in part, Mary’s fault? If her rule had been popular, and there had been none of these terrible burnings, or the enforcement of her religion, there would have been no need for any man to rebel or rise against her. The only way to keep the throne safe was through the hearts of the people. Of course, Elizabeth could not say as much to the Queen, but she did attempt to reassure her as eloquently as she could of her own loyalty.

  Whatever others suggest or compass by malice, she wrote, I know well that Your Majesty should rest in the sure knowledge that I am true; so that the more misty clouds obfuscate the light of that truth, the more my honest thoughts should glisten and dim their hidden malice.

  All she could hope for was that, as she now understood and sympathized with Mary’s position, Mary would understand and sympathize with hers.

  Elizabeth was ill that August, laid low with jaundice and attacks of breathlessness. Missing Kat’s homely ministrations, she suffered miserably in the heat, unable to read or concentrate on anything for very long, and wishing she were well again so that she could go out riding or for the long walks she so much loved.

  She was convalescent, and still chafing against her inactivity, when Sir Thomas came to her in September and informed her that Courtenay was dead.

  “He died in Padua,” he related.

  “Of what cause?” Elizabeth asked curiously.

  “Of a fever, following a fall,” Pope said.

  “There was perhaps more to it than that,” Cecil revealed later when they had a few moments alone together. “More of human help than divine, or so they say. There is talk of poison and assassins. His death stood to benefit both England and Spain, and certainly it has removed the threat of a Plantagenet claimant making a bid for the throne.”

  “And scheming to marry me,” Elizabeth added. “Think you the rumors are well founded?” Her eyes were anxious. “Because, if so, I fear I will be next.”

  “They would never dare,” Cecil declared. “Not while King Philip is your protector. He has no desire to see the Queen of Scots on the throne. That would not suit Spain at all. So calm your fears.”

  “Courtenay was a frivolous young man of little substance,” Elizabeth recalled, breathing deeply to ward off the breathless attack that fear had provoked. “I cannot pretend I am not relieved that he is dead, may the Lord forgive me. I have grown weary of my name being linked to his. God has once again shown His justice.”

  And God again showed His justice the next month, when Mary was moved to free Kat from prison. Again, Elizabeth welcomed her faithful servant with open and loving arms, again they wept on each other’s shoulders, bitterly regretting the wasted months of separation and anxiety.

  Clearly, the tide had begun to turn again, and evil had once more been averted. That the Queen was of the opinion that Elizabeth no longer needed to be kept under surveillance was made plain when Sir Thomas Pope announced his imminent departure.

  “I shall be sorry to lose such a good friend,” she told him sincerely.

  “And I, madam, am loath to leave. I have enjoyed my time here,” he replied, bowing low. Then, mounting his horse, he was off, cantering down the road back to London.

  Watching him go, Elizabeth wondered if she was free at last of the intrigues and perils that had surrounded and threatened her these past few difficult years. Somehow, she could not quite believe it.

  “The Queen has summoned me to London,” she told Kat that November. “I am to come in some state, for she has an important matter to discuss with me.”

  “I wonder what that can be?” Kat looked suspicious.

  “Mayhap she wishes to talk of the succession,” Elizabeth opined. “With the King gone so long, and her health so uncertain, she cannot be in hope of an heir of her body.”

  “Let us pray she has come to her senses at last,” Kat said fervently. “You deserve to be honored as her successor. And I shall see to it that you go to court looking every inch the part.”

  Soon, the bed was heaped with gorgeous fabrics and rich gowns, and Elizabeth was raking through her jewel chest searching out her finest pieces.

  “I shall summon my tenants,” she declared. “I shall have two hundred gentlemen to attend me, and all shall wear new velvet coats.”

  And so, regally attired in dark green velvet furred with squirrel, which set off her burnished red tresses to perfection, she rode through London, bowing to left and right to acknowledge the joyous welcome of the people. At Whitehall, the Queen received her graciously, raising and kissing her, and led her into her privy closet, where delicious sweetmeats and hippocras had been left ready.

  Elizabeth was struck by how prematurely aged and melancholy Mary had become. Certainly she had been overburdened by the cares of state and plagued by ceaseless plots, yet Elizabeth was sure that the King’s absence had more to do with it than anything else. Mary was pining, that much was clear, had been pining for fifteen months now, and there was no end to it in sight.

  As soon as the pleasantries had been exchanged, the Queen came to the point.

  “His Majesty has found a husband for you,” she said.

  Elizabeth stared at her, shocked.

  “In view of the recent conspiracies—none of which, we know, were your fault—both he and I feel that it would be best for you to be married to some trusty Catholic prince who can be relied upon to be loyal to both England and Spain. Such a prince is the Duke of Savoy.”

  Elizabeth was appalled.

  “Madam, I have little inclination to marry at all,” she said quickly.

  Mary smiled faintly. “Neither did I, Sister. I too experienced the same maidenly reluctance, yet when it came to it, I discovered that all my fears were unfounded.”

  If only you knew, Elizabeth thought. Aloud, she replied, “I do not fear marriage, madam. Rather, I am resolved to live out my life in the state of virginity, as a single woman.”

  “But that is unnatural,” Mary demurred. “All women need the fulfillment that marriage can bring. You cannot live like a nun! And besides, princesses like us must marry for reasons of state. The King and I have been very happy…” Her voice trailed off, and she looked anything but happy.

  Elizabeth was desperate. The idea of marriage was distasteful to her for pressing reasons. When she came to the throne—and now, in her mind, it had become when, not if—she had no mind to share power with any husband; she would have but one mistress in her realm—herself—and no master. She had seen the unhappy consequences of her sister’s marriage, and did not want any repetition of them. Moreover, how could she, as queen, rescue England out of the clutches of Rome if she were married to one of the greatest Catholic princes in Christendom? Then there was the thing she had vowed she would never submit to again, the bed thing, with its terrible risks of pregnancy and death. She prided herself now that she was above wanting it. Once bitten…

  She could not marry Savoy; she would not!

  “I cannot consider it! I would rather die!” she burst out, finding, to her dismay, that she was
weeping. “I am not a well person,” she protested. “Your Majesty does not know all of it, but I assure you that the afflictions suffered by me are such that they have ridded me of any desire for a husband.” There! She had gone as far as she dared.

  Mary looked at her robust, healthy sister sitting opposite and was at a loss for words.

  “Afflictions?” she repeated. “What afflictions?”

  “Female afflictions,” Elizabeth said shortly.

  Mary reached across tentatively and touched her hand.

  “I am your sister as well as your Queen,” she said. “You can tell me, woman-to-woman.”

  “I cannot, for shame,” Elizabeth replied, hanging her head so that Mary would think she was blushing. “Suffice it to say, I know for sure that I am not capable of congress with any man. So I beg you, madam, do not force me to this marriage.”

  Again, Mary was nonplussed. Was this yet another of Elizabeth’s tricks? Could she believe it?

  “I am sorry to hear that,” she said gently. “It may be that this is a problem that can be remedied. Have you consulted a physician about it?”

  “I need no physician to diagnose what I know to be true!” Elizabeth declared. “I beg of you, madam, do not press me further. The matter is too painful to me.”

  She sounded genuinely upset, and so Mary deemed it wise to leave all discussion of the marriage for the time being.

  “I am sorry to see you so distressed. We will talk further of this another day,” she said. “Now if you wish to retire, I have had Somerset House made ready for you.”

  “I thank Your Majesty for your kindness,” Elizabeth said, dabbing at her eyes with her kerchief. Then, making her obeisance, she thankfully withdrew, relieved to have deferred the matter of Savoy for the present. For one terrible moment, she wondered if she had gambled too far—and that Mary might insist that she be examined by the royal doctors or a panel of matrons, who would surely find that she was no virgin at all, and might even discover evidence of her pregnancy, for all she knew. Yet she reasoned that the danger of that was slight, counting on Mary’s innate prudery and reticence regarding such matters. And Mary had been sympathetic, had not pressed the matter. At the very least, Elizabeth had bought herself some precious time in which to figure out what to do next in order to wriggle out of consenting to this marriage. But how much time?

  It was clear how the wind was blowing by the number of lords and ladies who came to pay their respects to her at Somerset House over the next few days, Elizabeth noticed. Among them was Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, whose husband had ever been a friend to Elizabeth, especially in the dark days when she had been a prisoner in the Tower. Frances was a striking redhead and so like Elizabeth in looks, they could almost have been taken for twins. Elizabeth warmed to her so readily that the pair of them were soon bosom companions, and the Countess’s visits frequent and prolonged.

  Elizabeth wondered whether she might confide in this new friend. She had told the trusted members of her household—Kat, Ascham, Parry, Cecil, and Blanche—how fearful she was that the Queen would force her into marriage with the Duke of Savoy, and their reaction had at once heartened and dismayed her.

  “You must resist it!” Cecil had enjoined her. “The Queen’s health is poor; it cannot be long now. The good people of this country have put their trust in you, and look to you to deliver them from this persecution. Marrying the Duke would be a recipe for disaster. If all excuses fail, you must escape abroad, and hold yourself in readiness to return when the time comes.”

  “Abroad?” Elizabeth exclaimed.

  “William speaks truth,” Ascham said. “It is wise advice, and you would do well to heed it.”

  “But how?” she had asked.

  “The French ambassador would be only too happy to help.” Cecil smiled. “His master would do anything to discountenance this pro-Spanish government.”

  “But I cannot approach him directly,” Elizabeth pointed out. “My every move is watched.”

  “And I carry no weight,” Cecil added glumly. “I am persona non grata with the Queen and council, and an unknown as far as foreign courts are concerned.”

  “I could write a letter to Monsieur de Noailles,” Elizabeth suggested.

  “Too risky,” Cecil said.

  “What is needed, madam, is some loyal person of consequence who could approach the ambassador for you,” Roger Ascham deduced.

  “Alas, there is no one,” she replied. “And anyway, I must think on the matter. It would be a drastic step, leaving this kingdom.”

  This morning, however, she had received a personal note from the Queen, saying it was her pleasure that Elizabeth give her an answer without delay with regard to marrying the Duke. There was no doubt about it: She was being pressed into agreeing to the match.

  And now, sitting opposite her in the great chamber, was the young Countess. Dare Elizabeth ask her to be an intermediary to the French ambassador?

  “I would do anything in my power to assist you!” the Countess declared when Elizabeth said she craved a favor, one of great import.

  “You must first swear to keep this matter secret,” Elizabeth said gravely. “It is a high matter of policy, involving the Queen herself, and your involvement would incur some risk to yourself. If that is unacceptable to you, then we will say no more of it.”

  “Dear madam, I have said I would serve you, in any matter, and I stand firm in that!” Frances declared passionately.

  Elizabeth relaxed.

  “Then this is what I want you to do,” she said.

  “I cannot agree to it,” de Noailles said. “The Lady Elizabeth’s place is here, and she should not be contemplating such a desperate step. She should remember what is at stake.”

  “But she is being forced into this marriage!” the Countess protested, her face white and agitated beneath the dark hood of the cloak she had worn to conceal herself on this late-night expedition to the French embassy.

  “On no account must she leave England!” the ambassador said with finality. “She must tell the Queen that she does not consent to this marriage.”

  “She has done that, but the Queen is putting pressure on her.”

  “Then she must resist. She cannot be forced into it.”

  “I do not think you understand, monsieur. It would be dangerous for her to displease the Queen.”

  “And even more dangerous for her to attempt an escape. Even if she succeeds, she will put her chances of attaining the throne in jeopardy.” De Noailles was adamant.

  “I am disappointed in you, sir,” retorted the Countess with spirit. “I had thought to find you ready to assist a lady in distress. But if you will not help me, then I must make shift for myself. I am sure the King your master will heed my request if I lay it before him in person. He will grant her a refuge.”

  The ambassador looked at her, astonished.

  “I beg of you, madam, do not do this,” he pleaded.

  “My mind is made up. You will not dissuade me,” she answered. Gathering her cloak about her, she swept out of the room, passed furtively through the door of the embassy, looking from left to right in case she was seen, and disappeared into the night.

  “Does anyone know why the Countess of Sussex took it upon herself to go to France?” the Queen asked her councillors. Most of them looked blank.

  “Our intelligence is that she has lately returned from that land,” Cardinal Pole supplied. “It seems strange that she went there without first seeking a safe conduct from Her Majesty here. Nor does she have any connections in France, nor any reason to go there, which seems odd.”

  “I am credibly informed that she had visited the Lady Elizabeth frequently before her departure,” Mary said. “Which is why I smell a rat.”

  “Shall we have her questioned?” Lord Hastings suggested.

  “She has been questioned already,” Pole told him. “She insists her trip was made purely for private purposes, but when asked what they were, she seemed unable to say
for certain.”

  “My advice is to keep an eye on her, madam,” Paget said. “It may be that her journey was innocent. But since the Lady Elizabeth may be concerned, you never know.”

  Elizabeth stood before Mary. The privy closet was chilly despite the burning brazier, the weak December light fading.

  “I have summoned you here to have your answer as to whether or not you will marry the Duke of Savoy.” The Queen, swathed in furs, opened the conversation.

  Elizabeth fell to her knees. Resist, they had said; resist with all your might. That was her only alternative now, after the French ambassador and the King of France had insisted she remain in England.

  “Madam, I crave your indulgence, but I cannot marry him,” she declared. “Your Majesty knows why.”

  The Queen blushed faintly. “Such matters may be remedied,” she said decidedly. “I will send my physicians to you.”

  “Madam, I beg of you, no!” cried Elizabeth, panic mounting.

  Mary’s anger flared.

  “Why do you thwart me at every turn?” she shrilled. “You are my heir, God help me, yet at times it seems you are more my enemy.”

  “I am Your Majesty’s most assured friend,” Elizabeth protested hotly. “My feelings about marriage have no bearing on that.”

  “Your marriage is an affair of state, negotiated to the advantage of this kingdom—my kingdom!” Mary pointed out. “Do not defy me in this most important regard.”

  “But madam—”

  “Enough!” Mary snapped. “You know that I have the power to disinherit you? Or put you in the Tower, or even send you to the block?”

  Gathering all her courage, Elizabeth outfaced her.

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