The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Elizabeth wrote to Dudley, thanking him for his gift and his desire to do her service. Her letter was the first of many. Soon, they were in regular correspondence, he lavish with his compliments and protestations of loyalty, she more reticent yet promising much, building bridges that she might, one day, wish to cross. She came to look for his letters, to thrill to his extravagant compliments, and to enjoy composing replies that he might take which way he would. There was no harm in it, she told herself. A mild flirtation—it added spice to her often dreary days.



  May God help us, Calais is lost!” Cecil cried in a rare passion, bursting into the closet where Elizabeth was checking over Parry’s accounts.

  “Lost?” she echoed, shocked.

  “It fell to the French at the beginning of January, after they mounted a surprise attack,” he told her.

  “I cannot believe it,” she whispered, crestfallen. “Calais has been in English hands these two hundred years and more.”

  “Aye, and it was the last bastion of our territories in France,” Cecil added. “Its loss must be a terrible blow to the Queen.”

  “But it is her fault!” Elizabeth declared. “It was she who embroiled us in this war, just to please her husband the King.”

  “Yes, she must bear the blame,” he agreed. “She has to live with that. And I’ll wager the King lifted no finger to save Calais.”

  “Surely Her Majesty will send troops to retake it?” Parry asked.

  “Alas, my friend, I doubt this realm can bear the cost,” Cecil answered. “By all accounts, the treasury is bankrupt. The country has never been weaker in strength, money, men, and riches. It makes me ashamed to be an Englishman.”

  “And the burnings go on apace,” Elizabeth added. “The priests rule all. The realm is exhausted, our people out of order.”

  “I’ve even heard the Queen accused of being a traitor to her own country,” Cecil revealed.

  “And now we have a plague of influenza,” Parry added. “Just to add to our troubles. I’ll warrant it’s been sent by God to punish the Queen for her sins.”

  “What remedy is there?” Elizabeth asked rhetorically.

  “The people are looking to Your Grace,” Parry told her.

  “That’s as may be,” Cecil said hastily, “but there is further news, and you will not like it, my lady. The Queen again believes herself to be with child.”

  Elizabeth stared at him, horrified, then did a rapid calculation.

  “But the King has been gone six months!”

  “My contacts at court tell me that Her Majesty wished to be sure before making any announcement.”

  Elizabeth was incredulous.

  “Can it really be true? Or is she misled yet again?”

  “Maybe it is time for a visit to court, madam,” Cecil suggested.

  The needle flew in and out with speedy precision. At last, at last, thought Elizabeth with satisfaction as she snipped the thread and held up the tiny garment, which completed the layette she had hurriedly made as a gift for the Queen. It was her pretext for visiting court.

  She arrived in February, attended by a great train of lords and ladies, and Mary received her graciously once more. Her belly was clearly distended beneath the unlaced stomacher, but she looked ill, drained, and hollow-cheeked.

  “I trust that Your Majesty is in good health?” The conventional courtesy sounded all wrong.

  “I am a little tired,” Mary replied, “but that is to be expected in my condition. It will not be long now. Soon, I will be taking to my chamber to await the birth.”

  “I shall pray for a happy outcome for Your Majesty,” Elizabeth promised.

  She showed Mary the layette, the minute white garments, beautifully stitched and embroidered. The Queen was touched, impressed by the delicate workmanship.

  “I thank you from my heart,” she said warmly, “especially as I know how much you hate sewing!” They exchanged mutual smiles, Elizabeth trying not to stare at her sister’s ravaged face.

  “You will stay for the birth?” Mary pressed her.

  “That is what I have come for, madam,” Elizabeth told her. And to see if there really is a birth, she thought.

  Days later, at the beginning of March, Mary went into seclusion, attended only by her waiting women and midwives, and the whole court held its breath and waited to see what would happen next.

  There was no child. Inwardly triumphant, Elizabeth could not bear to face the Queen and witness her grief. Two months they had waited, two long months, until the Queen had finally given up hope. Now, sunk in a black depression, ill and feverish, she rarely emerged from her apartments.

  “What they thought was a child is in fact a dropsy,” the Countess of Sussex confided to Elizabeth.

  “I fear for Her Majesty,” Elizabeth said. “She has lost everything that mattered to her. And now it is whispered that she cannot live long.”

  “She has made her will,” Frances confided. “My lord my husband told me.”

  “Did she name me her successor?” Elizabeth asked, instantly alert.

  “No, madam, she did not. She was still expecting to be delivered, so she bequeathed the kingdom to the heirs of her body.”

  Elizabeth sighed. “She must resolve this sooner or later—especially now, with her being so unwell.”

  “She is not so ill that she cannot interest herself in the fate of the wretched heretics,” Lady Sussex muttered. “Seven were burned in one fire at Smithfield this week. And it goes on, and on, with no end in sight.”

  “We can only live in hope,” Elizabeth said, her meaning deliberately ambiguous.

  She presented herself before the Queen, who looked beaten and ill. Elizabeth commiserated with her. Then she begged for leave to retire to her own house.

  “Go with God,” Mary said, kissing her.

  “I hope to find Your Majesty much amended when next we meet,” Elizabeth replied, and would have bent in her curtsy but for the Queen sister stopping her with a hand on hers.

  “I know we have had our differences, Sister,” she said, “and that there are some between us that can never be mended. Yet I have valued your support at this most difficult time”—she struggled to stem the ever-ready tears—“and I pray most sincerely that we may be better friends from now on.”

  “That is my earnest desire too, madam,” Elizabeth said. They embraced, sisters and rivals, against whom the stars had conspired from the first, for the last time.

  Elizabeth now knew that nothing but the Queen’s life stood between her and the throne. She was therefore resolved to use this quiet time at Hatfield to prepare for her great destiny. She spent many hours closeted with Cecil, making plans, compiling lists of the people who would serve her, and drawing on all the lessons she had learned from her studies, her books, and her experiences to make ready for the formidable task that lay ahead of her.

  The Duke of Feria came to Hatfield to see her, sent especially for the purpose from Spain by Philip.

  “The King my master presents his compliments, Your Highness, and wishes me to express his goodwill,” the Duke said, bowing low.

  What, Elizabeth thought, no browbeating of me to marry Savoy, or anyone else for that matter? I was being buried alive with pressure to take a husband! What a change of tune!

  Then suddenly it became clear. Philip knows that Mary is not long for this world, she realized. He is extending his friendship to me, sovereign-to-sovereign. For Philip, like she herself, had expectations of a crown: His father the Emperor was known to be dying, and he would soon be King of Spain.

  “My master wishes you to know that he is a friend to you,” Feria continued, “and hopes that he might in time become more.”

  Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. What could the ambassador be saying? Surely Philip was not proposing himself as a husband for her when his wife was still alive and reigning? Yet what else could she construe that remark to mean? It would certainly explain why the dreaded n
ame of Savoy had not been mentioned. But marry Philip? Never!

  “Tell your master the King from me that I am much pleased to see Your Excellency and gratified by his kindness and favor to me,” she said aloud. “I am ready and willing to do his pleasure if it is at all in my power.”

  Feria was not done yet.

  “There is a rather delicate matter I must broach, Highness. If, by happy chance, you ever find yourself in a position of power, my master seeks an assurance that you will remain true to the Catholic faith.”

  Elizabeth was on her guard. “Were it not for the fact that I know he means well, I should reprove your master for raising such a prospect,” she said lightly. “The Queen still lives—may she long do so; it is treason for a subject to predict her death, therefore I may not discuss it.”

  Feria was impressed despite himself. Bowing himself out, he was struck by how deftly Elizabeth had handled that. To be sure, his master would have his work cut out dealing with that lady, and all Europe too, to boot!

  As autumn drew in, Cecil grew worried. There was no doubt that the Queen was dying, yet by all reports, she had still refused to name her successor.

  “You may yet have to fight for your throne!” he warned Elizabeth.

  From his estate in Norfolk, Lord Robert wrote urgently, saying much the same thing, and offering to raise his tenantry if need be. Already, he was in correspondence with his friends at Philip’s court. “The King wishes this kingdom kept in the hands of a person in His Majesty’s confidence,” he told Elizabeth. “That person is yourself. You may be sure of his support.”

  “The moment approaches, Your Grace,” Cecil said. “Prepare yourself. It cannot be long now.” Elizabeth thrilled to his words. She would be ready when the moment came.

  Not knowing how much time they had, Cecil and Thomas Parry wrote urgently to the commander of the northern garrison at Berwick, who in turn appealed to the northern lords and gentry to support Elizabeth.

  Ten thousand men stand ready to maintain her royal state, title, and dignity! the commander wrote back only days later.

  As news of the Queen’s illness spread, letters began arriving at Hatfield, letters from all over the land, from lords, knights, gentlemen, even yeomen, assuring Elizabeth of their staunch support, which they offered to back up by force if need be.

  “I will never forget such kindness,” she told Cecil and Kat and the others, tears in her eyes. “And I will repay it whensoever time and power may serve.”

  Then the courtiers began arriving at Hatfield, like rats deserting a foundering ship. All were come to pay court to the rising star and obtain her favor. When, having thanked them for their goodwill, she bade them return to St. James’s Palace to attend the Queen, they begged to stay. Soon, the house was bursting at the seams with visitors, and newcomers had to be sent to find lodgings in the village. Yet still they came, a steady stream of well-wishers and self-seekers.

  They were followed, in November, by the Master of the Rolls and the Controller of the Royal Household, sent to Elizabeth by the Queen herself. These two gentlemen bowed very low and looked grave. For a moment, Elizabeth thought they had come to tell her she was queen. But no.

  “Her Majesty’s condition is deteriorating rapidly, Your Grace,” the Master of the Rolls informed her. “The Counsil is praying daily for her recovery, but to little avail. Indeed, it is obvious to all that she cannot last long, and this being so, my lords have persuaded her to make certain declarations concerning the succession. Madam, she has named you her heir, asking only that you will maintain the true religion and pay her debts.”

  Elizabeth walked over to the window, staring out unseeing across the park. It was coming, and soon, the moment for which she had long been preparing. In a matter of days, she would be queen. Her great battle for survival was almost over. She could not quite believe it.

  Then she recalled Mary’s condition requiring her to maintain the true religion. Well, she would do that! She would accept that condition, and even swear to it if need be. For Mary had not specified which religion. For now, it would be wise to dissemble. Another answer answerless was called for!

  “I am humbled by Her Majesty’s favor,” she said, bowing her head. “Pray my lords, convey to her my assurance that, when God calls me, I will do all that is needful for the salvation of this kingdom.”

  “We will,” the Controller promised. “And now all that is needed, madam, is for the council to confirm your right. I am sure there will be no difficulty.”

  “In the meantime, I shall pray for the Queen’s Grace’s restoration to health,” Elizabeth said.

  “That would take a miracle, madam,” he replied, with the Master sadly nodding his assent.

  Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, one of her faithful friends at court, sent her a brief message. You shall know, when you receive from me a sacred token, that your hour has come, it read. The promise in his words brought home to her just how near the throne was, and she blessed him for his forethought.

  When I see it, I shall know, she thought. I shall know beyond a doubt that I am queen.

  The Duke of Feria, finding no reason to stay at court, and mindful of his master’s orders to cultivate Mary’s successor, wended his way once more to Hatfield, where Elizabeth entertained him to dinner. He was struck by the new air of authority about her, yet dismayed to see the palace alive with young folk, courtiers and many whose religious views were suspect.

  “Heretics and traitors,” he muttered to himself. “Blatant self-seekers! Could they not have waited until the breath had left the poor Queen’s body?”

  Was he imagining it, or was Elizabeth a little less friendly than she had been before? He hoped he was mistaken, for her behavior was faultless. She congratulated Philip on his long-awaited accession to the Spanish throne. She sparkled enough at dinner, and kept Feria laughing with her witty conversation—but there was a brittle edge to her mirth. Then, when the hippocras and spices had been brought, and the cloth drawn, she grew serious.

  “I should like you to express to King Philip my appreciation for all he has done for me,” she said to the Duke, “and tell him that I look forward to being his friend in future. Tell him too that while the French hold Calais, they will never have my friendship.”

  Was she sincere? To Feria, her words sounded too glib, too rehearsed. He sensed that there was a deep intelligence at work here, an intelligence that even the wisest of men might not be able to divine. She might promise much on the surface, but she should never be trusted.

  “His Majesty will be overjoyed to hear that, madam,” he said formally, then added, so that there should be no mistake about it, “After all, Your Grace will owe your crown to him, for it was his persuasions that led to the Queen naming you her heir.”

  “Not so, my lord!” Elizabeth exclaimed with some passion. “I will owe my crown not to Philip, but to the attachment of the people of England, to whom I am much devoted, and the Queen herself knows that in her heart. Vox populi, vox Dei, remember: The voice of the people is the voice of God!” Seeing that he was offended, she added, “But I am grateful to the King for his efforts on my behalf, naturally.”

  Feria was determined to press his point. “His Majesty has also made your marriage his concern, madam.”

  Elizabeth smiled, tossing back long hair into which threads of diamonds had been laced, and pressed her elegant fingers against her cheeks.

  “I know he wanted me to marry the Duke of Savoy, but to be candid with you, I have seen how my sister has lost the affection of her people as a result of making a foreign marriage—and I mean no disrespect here, for you must yourself be aware of that and will appreciate that I myself do not wish to make the same mistake.”

  Seeing his crestfallen face—had he really been about to broach the subject of her marrying Philip?—she leaned forward and gave him an arch look. “I might,” she giggled, “marry the Earl of Arundel. He keeps mooning about here, making sheep’s faces at me!”

  Feria was a
little shocked at her levity. Seeing his expression, Elizabeth’s smile faded.

  “Take no offense, my Lord Duke—it does me good to enjoy a little jest, and Heaven knows, there have been few opportunities for jesting in recent years.”

  “I am aware of that, Highness,” he said quietly. There was a pause.

  “Mine has not been an easy path to the throne,” Elizabeth reflected, “and I am not there yet. I do not count my blessings before time. But when I think of what has been done to me during this reign, I feel highly indignant, for I have been under suspicion for most of it—for no cause, mind you—and even in danger of death. No, it has not been easy.” Her eyes were flashing.

  “But I have been fortunate in my friends. Cecil, for instance—I presented him to you earlier. I have already appointed him my secretary, for his wisdom and his fidelity.”

  “A wise choice,” Feria conceded. Heretics and traitors all, he was thinking as Elizabeth enumerated the men whom she had chosen to serve her. At the same time, he could not help but admire her perspicacity and her incisive cleverness. She knew exactly what she was doing and what she wanted; he could not doubt that she would be a strong ruler. And she had the Tudor charm too, as well as the Tudor duplicity. She is her father all over again, he reflected.

  When Mary woke briefly from her long stupor, Susan Clarencieux was there, watching by the bed. The faithful woman’s eyes were brimming.

  “Do not weep for me,” the Queen murmured. “I will not need tears where I am going. And my dreams—so vivid they are—seem to offer me a foretaste of Paradise. There are little children, like angels, playing sweet music for me, giving me more than earthly comfort.” In her drifting consciousness, they were the children she had longed for but never had, the children her empty arms had ached to cradle.

  The priests came to celebrate Mass by her bedside.

  “This is my greatest comfort,” she told them, joyfully receiving the Host.

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