The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


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

  “It will be an honor to serve you, my Lady Elizabeth,” said the governess.

  Lady Bryan beamed. She had no idea of the pain and resentment that burned in Elizabeth’s breast, or of the tears that threatened to spill, two days later, as her charge waved her good-bye, standing in the doorway of the great hall.

  I am alone, Elizabeth thought. There is no one but a stranger to care for me now. She stiffened her young shoulders and resolved that she would bear life with this newcomer as best she could.

  As soon as Lady Bryan’s litter had disappeared down the London road in a cloud of dust, Mistress Champernowne turned to Elizabeth and smiled kindly.

  “Let’s walk in the gardens,” she said brightly. “It’s such a fine day. Why don’t you fetch a ball. We can play some games, if it pleases you, my lady.”

  Elizabeth looked at her in wonder. Lady Bryan had never suggested such a thing; of course, she was much older than Mistress Champernowne, and imagining that stately lady, skirts and sleeves flying, throwing or kicking a ball was so hilarious that she could not suppress a giggle as she ran to her chamber. And the game was so much fun, with the two of them laughing and panting as they raced across the greensward, chucking the ball at each other and failing, more often than not, to catch it. The new governess had so much energy for one of her years; she was not even above crawling through the rosebushes to retrieve the prize, much to Elizabeth’s astonishment and admiration.

  Out of breath and still in high spirits, they sank onto a bench in a sunny arbor.

  “My Lady Elizabeth,” said Mistress Champernowne, “will you do me the honor of calling me Kat? It’s so much shorter and friendlier than Mistress Champernowne, and Kat is the name by which I am usually known in my family.”

  “Kat,” repeated Elizabeth, “Yes, I should like to call you Kat—Kat!” She giggled again. “That’s a funny name, Champernowne.”

  “It’s an old Devon name,” said Kat, “and an old family. Did you know that we are cousins, related by marriage, my Lady Elizabeth?”

  “Are we?” asked Elizabeth, delighted. “How?”

  “Through your lady mother’s family,” Kat said carefully.

  Elizabeth was pleasantly astonished, but she said nothing. For a long time now, she had preferred never to mention Anne Boleyn. It was easier for her to forget that she had ever had a mother, and therefore not to wonder about how she had come to her terrible end, and the gruesome details of that end. Nor had Lady Bryan and the other members of her household spoken of Anne since that dreadful day when Elizabeth had been told she had been put to death.

  But Kat knew nothing of that, although she was of course aware that the subject was a highly sensitive one; and she had her own strong views about Anne Boleyn, her kinswoman, and about the man who had sent her to her death. Not that she could voice them to his daughter, of course, or to anyone for that matter, but she was determined that, one day, Elizabeth should find out the truth. And if that was to happen, Anne Boleyn’s must not be a forbidden name.

  For the present, however, that could wait.

  “Come,” Kat said, “it will soon be dinnertime. I’ll explain how we are related when we sit down.”

  Elizabeth was charmed. Already she was feeling a sense of affinity with her new governess, and a dawning affection—much to her surprise. There was something warm and reliable about Kat Champernowne. Dared she hope that this kinswoman was someone who would truly love her, and not leave her?

  Almost immediately, Elizabeth received a summons to Hunsdon, a dozen miles away, to visit her sister Mary.

  “Since Lady Bryan has left, I felt it meet that the Lady Elizabeth should be with someone she knows and trusts for a time,” Mary told Kat Champernowne soon after their arrival, unaware of the rapport that Elizabeth had instantly struck up with her new governess.

  “That was most kind of Your Grace,” Kat said, thinking how generous Mary was in her consideration for Anne Boleyn’s child. It cannot be easy for her, she thought.

  But Elizabeth found life at Hunsdon stultifyingly boring. Although she loved her sister, there was little there for a four-year-old girl to enjoy. Mary did play with her, but she also required her to attend frequent interminable services in the chapel, and expected her to spend long hours at her private devotions. Elizabeth would fidget with impatience as the devout Mary knelt, a still, rapt figure, at her side, and Kat would frantically press a finger to her lips to keep the child quiet.

  As they processed out of the chapel after Mass one day, Elizabeth asked, “Why do they ring those bells?” Mary looked shocked.

  “Have you not been taught, Sister?” she asked, frowning. “The bells signal the elevation of the Host.”

  “Father Parker says that it’s wrong to have bells at Mass,” Elizabeth said, quite innocently.

  Mary looked fretful. She knew of Father Parker slightly by repute, for he had been Anne Boleyn’s chaplain, and she suspected he was one of those dreadful Reformists.

  “It is very wicked of him to say such things,” she said firmly. “The bells signify the holiest moment in the Mass. Come with me.”

  Taking the child’s hand, she led her back into the empty chapel, to the altar rails.

  “When the priest holds up the bread and the wine before the people,” she explained, “he does it to show that a miracle has taken place, for during Mass, as Our Lord promised at the Last Supper, the gifts of bread and wine become His very body and blood, given for us for the redemption of our sins.”

  Elizabeth looked doubtfully at the altar, bare now except for its white damask cloth, rich frontal and golden crucifix.

  “But how can that be?” she asked. “They are still bread and wine. I have tasted them.”

  Mary was appalled. What had they been teaching the child?

  “But that is the miracle!” she exclaimed. “When they are consecrated, they still look like bread and wine, but they become the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. I’m surprised that Father Parker has not explained this to you. It is our Faith.”

  Elizabeth forbore to say that Father Parker had said something rather different: She guessed that Mary would be cross if she did. She was more concerned about drinking wine that was really blood, and eating bread that was supposed to be flesh. It didn’t sound very nice, nor did it make sense to her. But then a lot of things didn’t make sense, like wicked witches weaving magic spells, King Perceforest being turned into a bear, and his Princess Zellandine sleeping for a hundred years. Elizabeth was beginning to suspect that such stories might be made up. But with the Mass it was different, for if Mary and nearly everyone else she knew—people who were quite old enough to know—said that a miracle took place during the Mass, they must be right, and she, Elizabeth, must believe it.

  Mary went straight to Kat Champernowne.

  “I am horrified that the child is so ignorant,” she reproved. “Were you not aware? As for Father Parker, he appears to have failed signally in his duty. Pray assure me that Elizabeth at least knows her catechism and the Lord’s Prayer.”

  “She does, madam,” Kat said. “And I am sorry if I have been remiss, truly sorry. I genuinely believed the chaplain had instructed her fully.”

  “Not fully enough, I fear,” Mary rejoined. “You must speak to him urgently upon your return. In the meantime, my own chaplain will school her rigorously in what she should know. She has no mother, and I feel responsible. I am determined to see that she is guided in the right way. For now, I suggest you keep her at her prayers awhile, for the good of her soul.”

  “Yes, madam,” said Kat meekly, dipping a curtsy.

  But when Mary had left Elizabeth’s chamber, Kat, believing that there were more ways than one to God, and having something very important in mind that morning, kept Elizabeth at her devotions for only a short time, summoning her restless charge from her prayer desk after just a quarter hour.

  “I think we will have a story,
” she said, “a story about a saint, as it is Sunday. I will tell you the one about Saint Ursula, because it is a special one for you. You see, you were born in the Virgins’ Chamber at Greenwich, which is hung with tapestries telling the story of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins.”

  Elizabeth settled at Kat’s feet. She loved stories.

  Kat had chosen this one for a purpose.

  “Saint Ursula was a British princess, and her father arranged a marriage for her,” she began, “but she wished to remain a virgin, so he and her betrothed agreed to allow her three years of grace in which to enjoy her virgin state.”

  “What’s a virgin?” Elizabeth asked.

  “A lady who is unmarried, pure, and virtuous,” Kat told her. “So Saint Ursula spent that time sailing the seven seas with ten other noble virgins, and each of them had with them a thousand maidens.”

  “It must have been a very crowded ship!” observed Elizabeth.

  Kat smiled. “Indeed it must. But after making a pilgrimage to Rome and having lots of adventures, their vessel was blown by strong winds up the Rhine River to Cologne in Germany, where in those days the people were wicked pagans and did not believe in God. Seeing that Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins with her were Christians, they tried to make them give up their faith, and when they did not, they put them all to death.”

  Elizabeth was quiet for a moment, recalling that she had heard those words before.

  “All of them?” she asked, after a few moments when her thoughts had been elsewhere.

  “All.” Kat paused. “Hundreds of years later, their bones were found, and all were made saints by Holy Church.”

  “How…,” faltered Elizabeth, “how were they put to death?”

  Kat had been building up to this moment. It was better, she had reasoned, that Elizabeth learn this from her than from someone who believed in Anne Boleyn’s guilt.

  “Their heads were cut off with a sword as, one by one, they were made to kneel.”

  “That’s horrible,” said the child.

  “Ah, but I expect they didn’t feel a thing. It would have been very quick,” Kat reassured her.

  Elizabeth turned a tragic face upward to look at her governess. Kat stroked her hair and gazed into the girl’s dark eyes.

  “Is that—is that what they did to my mother?” Elizabeth asked.

  “It was, child,” Kat said, still stroking her hair. “Poor soul, she died very bravely. And she could have suffered no pain, for it was all over in a trice.”

  Elizabeth was silent again.

  “She did bad things,” she muttered in a low voice.

  “No, she did not!” Kat said firmly. “It was said that she had been unfaithful to the King, and that she had plotted to kill him. But I am sure those accusations were made up by her enemies in order to get rid of her, and that they made such a clever case against her that your father the King believed it.”

  “Who were they?” Elizabeth asked.

  She’s wise as an owl, thought Kat. “Some that were about the King at the time.” Kat was not going to mention the name of Master Secretary Cromwell, for Cromwell was still the King’s chief adviser and already, she feared, she had said too much.

  “And were they telling the truth?” Elizabeth had already had drummed into her, mainly by Lady Bryan and the Lady Mary, the importance of telling the truth.

  Kat knew she had to be very careful: What she said next would be crucial to Elizabeth’s future well-being and peace of mind, but it must be said in such a way as to invite no criticism were the child ever to repeat it.

  “A grand jury thought they were,” she said, “and the peers of the realm found Queen Anne guilty. But there were many who said that it was all just an excuse to get rid of her.” That much was true, and no one could dispute it.

  Elizabeth, however, was unsatisfied.

  “So you don’t think my mother did those things?” she persisted.

  “So help me God, I do not,” Kat whispered. “But I would get into terrible trouble for saying that, so you must never repeat my words. My lady, your mother was innocent, of that I am convinced. Never forget it.”

  “I will never forget it,” Elizabeth declared solemnly. “But it was wrong to put her to death when she was innocent.”

  “Sometimes, child, innocent people have to die. And kings, who have the power of life and death, have to make harsh choices. I am sure that His Grace your father felt he was doing the right thing at the time. You must not blame him.”

  “I wish I could tell him he was wrong,” said Elizabeth with passion, but then, seeing the look of fear on Kat’s face, she hastened to reassure her. “I promise I will not, truly I do.”

  “Bless you, child,” Kat breathed. “Come now, let’s go and play ball. I’m sure we’ve allowed long enough for your prayers!”

  “Your Majesty,” declared Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, suave and black-browed with a pointed beard, “the Lady Elizabeth, she is so very pretty. A credit to Your Majesty.”

  “Hmm,” grunted the King, distracted by the pain in his leg; the abscess was getting worse, and he knew he would soon need to have it lanced. It was so frustrating for a man such as he, who had shone in the lists and excelled at every sport, to be confined indoors through increasing infirmity, and it made his temper vicious. He was rapidly running to fat also, which was slowing him down; ever since that witch had cuckolded him, and impugned his manhood, he had overindulged at table—and would have done the same in the bedchamber, had he been capable of it. Then too, he was still smarting at being rejected as a suitor by the young Duchess of Milan, whose seductive portrait had spurred him to cast off his mourning garments and ask for her hand.

  “Tell His Majesty,” the impudent young minx had said, “that if I had two heads, one would be at his disposal.” How dare she! Was he not the greatest match to be had in all Europe? But no matter. There were other princesses. Perhaps he should consider the one in Cleves—what was her name…?

  “I have never seen a child so forward,” Chapuys was saying. Henry looked across the presence chamber to where his younger daughter was gracefully pirouetting and dipping in a ronde, and realized the truth of the ambassador’s words. Elizabeth was growing up to be very pretty, and spirited as well; she was not his daughter for nothing, nor Anne’s too, he grudgingly conceded. She had her mother’s vanity and flirtatiousness, and her capacity to charm, even at this young age; and those black eyes…He could never forget those inviting black eyes, was damned never to forget them…

  Someday, he thought resolutely, he must find Elizabeth a husband. For all her bastard status, there would be suitors aplenty ready to forge an alliance with her father. Until then, she could be dangled as a carrot—a very pretty carrot, who would, he guessed, prove in due course to be quite a handful for any man.

  The matter was shelved, though, for Henry was too preoccupied with his marriage negotiations and the discovery of another nest of traitors. After the Easter celebrations were over, Elizabeth went back to Hunsdon with Mary, and there she was once more constrained by her half sister to behave decorously and attend to her devotions. She chafed at the strict regime imposed on her, for she seemed to be constantly on her knees or plying her needle. How she hated sewing! The tedium of it!

  Kat reined in her rebellious spirit, but also spoiled her, smuggling sugary comfits into the schoolroom, reading her the most fascinating stories, giggling with her at silly jests and pompous officials, yet all the while imposing her own gentle forms of discipline.

  Kat’s lessons fascinated her. Elizabeth soon discovered that she loved learning, and proved an eager pupil. Each day she would be up bright and early, racing through her prayers and her breakfast so that she could hasten to the schoolroom and learn more about the enticing wide world that was opening up before her.

  Kat taught her numbers using an abacus, and set her little problems to solve.

  “If I have five cherries and eat two, how many have I left???
?

  Elizabeth counted on her fingers.

  “Three!” she said quickly.

  “Good,” smiled Kat, impressed at the child’s ability.

  Kat taught her to form letters, having her trace rows and rows of them in a copy book. Soon, Elizabeth was able to write her name, and after that it was only a matter of time before she was scribing simple sentences.

  Kat told her stories of the kings and queens who had been her forebears; she particularly loved to hear about William the Conqueror winning the Battle of Hastings, and Queen Philippa successfully pleading for the Burghers of Calais, but best of all was the tale of how Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry the Seventh, had vanquished the wicked Richard Crookback at the Battle of Bosworth and thus become the first Tudor King. Elizabeth shuddered to hear how Richard had murdered his little nephews, the Princes in the Tower, and was of the opinion that he had met the fate he richly deserved. How she admired her victorious grandfather!

  One day, Kat unrolled a map.

  “This shows the British Isles,” she said. “This part here is England, this is Wales, and this is Ireland. Your father the King rules all three.”

  “And what is this part?” asked Elizabeth, pointing to the top of the map. She was always anticipating the next part of the lesson.

  “That is Scotland, and it is ruled by your cousin, King James the Fifth. Now, across the sea—see here, the English Channel—is France, and your father is King of France too, by right of blood.”

  “My father is a mighty prince!” enthused Elizabeth.

  The next chart Kat produced showed the heavens, with the planets revolving around the earth. There was another too, with gaily colored signs of the Zodiac.

  “See, here is yours, my Lady Elizabeth,” Kat said. “You are a Virgo. Clever but modest, and virtuous of course.”

  “Virgo,” repeated Elizabeth. “Does that mean I’m a virgin, like Saint Ursula?”

  “Bless you, child, it does for now, until you marry,” Kat replied, smiling.

 
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