The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


  “You mean I can’t be a Virgo after I marry?” The child was puzzled.

  “You will always be a Virgo, because you were born under that sign. But a girl ceases to be a virgin when she marries.”

  “Why?” Elizabeth persisted.

  “Because her virginity is something she must surrender to her husband,” answered Kat, not wishing to be too specific.

  Elizabeth, recalling that dreadful tale of Patient Grizelda, didn’t like the idea of surrendering anything to a husband. She had already decided that, when she grew up, she was going to do whatever she pleased and not let anyone order her about.

  Elizabeth was at her happiest in her dancing lessons. She had learned with ease the courtly steps of the ronde, the salterello, the allemagne, and the basse dance, could move slowly and with dignity in the stately pavane, and threw all her energy into rumbustious brawls and jigs, executing competent kick steps, leaps, and whirling turns.

  “Bravo!” the dancing master would cry, and Kat would clap, admiring Elizabeth’s gracefulness while reminding herself to curb the child’s vanity, for Elizabeth loved nothing more than to show off her skills. But Kat never quite succeeded, because already she was in thrall to the little girl’s vibrant charm, and anyway—she told herself as Elizabeth ignored yet another weak admonition to stop admiring herself in the mirror—a king’s daughter should have a certain air of confidence about her, especially one who bore the disadvantage of having been declared a bastard.

  Riding was another skill at which Elizabeth excelled. She quickly mastered her first pony and progressed to a docile palfrey. With grooms following and Kat at her side, she rode out every day, around the parks at Hunsdon, Hatfield, Hertford, Enfield, Elsynge, and Ashridge, the nursery palaces in which she spent her spacious childhood, lodging at each in turn, and vacating a house when it needed cleansing. She also liked to accompany Kat on long early-morning walks in the fresh air, whatever the weather, trying to match her stride to the governess’s when it was cold and they had to maintain a brisk pace to keep warm.

  The afternoons were usually given up to the learning of tongues.

  “It is important for a king’s daughter to know different languages so that she can converse with foreign princes and ambassadors,” Kat said. She blessed her own progressively minded father for having tutored her in French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch, so that she was able to impart the rudiments of these to her very able pupil. Elizabeth learned fast—she had the gift—and soon they were able to hold simple conversations in those tongues.

  One day, Elizabeth came upon one of her nursery attendants singing a song in a strange and lilting speech as she tidied the schoolroom.

  “What’s that you’re singing?” she asked the singer, a woman with fair, straw-like hair and cornflower-blue eyes, who was hastily dipping a curtsy.

  “It is an old Welsh ballad, my lady,” she answered in a beguiling, musical voice. “It is called ‘Carol Llygoden yn y Felin’—the mouse in the mill.”

  “It’s a merry song,” Elizabeth said. “Will you teach it to me?”

  “Oh, I don’t know, my lady,” the woman faltered. “I have my work to do.”

  “You must obey me,” said Elizabeth imperiously. “I am the King’s daughter.”

  “Yes, my lady, of course, my lady,” mumbled the other. “I’m sure it’s all right.”

  “Of course it is!” said Elizabeth. “It’s Blanche, isn’t it?”

  “Blanche Parry, if you please, my lady.”

  “Let us sit here.” Elizabeth drew Blanche to a window seat, and, hesitantly at first, then with mounting confidence, Blanche taught Elizabeth her song, line by line, until the child had it word-perfect.

  “I shall go and sing it to Kat!” Elizabeth cried, and hastened to show off her perfect rendering of the Welsh tongue to Kat.

  “I have learned a new song,” she announced. “I will sing it for you.”

  Kat seated herself on the settle, laying aside her hemming.

  “Now listen,” instructed the child. And she sang the Welsh carol, without faltering once, in a clear, true voice. Kat clapped in admiration when it ended.

  “Where did you learn that?” she asked, astonished.

  “From Blanche Parry,” said Elizabeth. “I want her to teach me more Welsh.”

  “That would be most fitting,” Kat pronounced. “Your grandfather, King Henry the Seventh, was half Welsh and descended from the ancient princes of Wales. He was born in Wales, at Pembroke, and the name Tudor, the name of your House, is Welsh. I will see that Blanche is granted an hour or two each week to teach you the Welsh language.”

  And that was what happened. Blanche was not the greatest of educators, but she was able to teach Elizabeth songs and poems, and their meanings. And during those hours spent together, Blanche conceived a great devotion for her vivacious young mistress, who was so interested in the history and traditions of a conquered people, and who was so friendly and kind.

  On the day Elizabeth gave her a red ribbon, which she thought would look pretty in Blanche’s hair, the woman was overcome and barely able to speak, and when she recovered her tongue, she fell to her knees.

  “I would serve you forever, my lady, so God spare me,” she declared fervently. Elizabeth smiled; Blanche’s response was so gratifying.

  “I will see to it!” she said. “You must stay with me.”

  “I will, I promise!” cried the Welshwoman.

  CHAPTER 4

  1539

  Whitehall Palace was thronged with people when the six-year-old Elizabeth and her small train arrived for the Christmas season. An air of happy anticipation filled the air, and it was not inspired solely by the coming festivities.

  “I cannot wait to meet my new stepmother,” Elizabeth declared as they followed the Lord Chamberlain to the apartment that had been made ready for her, one that overlooked the broad Thames meandering downstream to London.

  “Well, my lady, you will have to be patient because, from what I’ve heard, she is still in Calais waiting for a fair wind,” said Kat, opening a traveling chest.

  “There are so many ladies at court!” Elizabeth had marveled at their rich gowns, their bejeweled hoods, their air of sophistication.

  “The King your father will have invited them in honor of the new Queen,” Kat explained, unpacking chemises and nightgowns. “I’ll warrant he has already appointed some of them to her household.”

  “They say she is very beautiful,” Elizabeth said. “And I hope she is kind too.”

  “I’m sure she will be.” Kat smiled.

  The King, when he received his younger daughter in the presence chamber, was in high spirits.

  “Greetings, my Lady Bessy! Your sister Mary is already here, and your brother the Prince arrives tomorrow.”

  “I am very glad of that, sir,” Elizabeth said, delighted to be with her father again. “I cannot wait for him to come. I do not see him often, but I think of him a lot. And I have made him another shirt.” She pulled a wry face.

  King Henry smiled. “I am sure he will look well in it, however begrudging the effort to make it!”

  “Oh, but sir—” Elizabeth protested.

  “No matter. I recall that, when I was a boy, I chafed at being made to sit indoors scribing when I could have been practicing in the tiltyard or shooting at the butts. It was the same when I became King and found myself burdened with state business; all I wanted to do was go hunting—”

  He broke off, remembering those heady early days when he had been a young god in the saddle and in the bedchamber, when the world had seemed full of promise, and Kate and he had loved each other. That was before the Great Matter had blighted his life. Now Kate had been dead these four years, Anne too, God damn her, then Jane…and he was a fat, aging man who was contemplating marrying a fourth wife to provide more heirs for his kingdom, and hoping to find love just one more time before eternity claimed him.

  “We are two of a kind, Bessy,” he said ruefully. “We
do our duty against our greater desires.” Elizabeth thrilled to hear him say that.

  “I try to be like you, sir,” she said eagerly.

  Henry considered her, this fiery little flame-haired child, who had been born of his desperate lust for her mother, and conceived before their marriage.

  “You are like me,” he said. Indeed, she was so like him there could be no disputing that she was his daughter, although there were those who had cast doubts on that, in view of what had been proved against Anne later. But Elizabeth had much of him in her—and much of her mother too, he conceded, or rather, the best of her mother: It was becoming more apparent every time he saw her. She had Anne’s wit, her sense of humor, her strength of character, her inviting eyes…How they had bewitched him! Had she really betrayed him with all those men? He had to believe it. Yet doubts tortured him still. Would he never be free of Anne Boleyn?

  But Anne was no more. It was her daughter who stood before him, a daughter whom he had deprived of a mother. With justification, of course; he had been right to act as he had, entirely right. And now that lack would be rectified.

  “Will you be pleased to welcome your stepmother?” he asked.

  “Oh, yes, sir. I hear she is very beautiful.”

  “That is so, they tell me. Master Cromwell says she excels both the sun and the moon. And Master Holbein has painted her likeness for me.” He took from his bosom a tiny circular box of white ivory, carved like a rose just coming into bloom, and lifted the lid to show the child what lay therein. It was the picture of a lady with delicately lidded eyes, a faint blush on her creamy cheeks, and the hint of a smile on her red lips.

  “She is beautiful!” Elizabeth cried, thinking how gentle and kind the Princess looked.

  Henry gazed at the miniature.

  “Anna,” he breathed. “Anna of Cleves. God speed her coming!”

  The next day, the Lady Mary took Elizabeth to see their brother, Prince Edward, a solemn two-year-old whom they found seated on the floor of his opulent nursery, surrounded by building blocks, a miniature wooden dagger and shield, a gold rattle, a spinning top, a hobbyhorse, and a pretty white poodle, which, Elizabeth remembered, had once belonged to his mother, Queen Jane. His nurse, Mistress Penn, a homely woman with a white apron over her dove-gray gown, rose as the King’s daughters entered, and bobbed.

  Elizabeth curtsied low before the Prince, who looked up and fixed his ice-blue gaze on her. Beneath his wide-brimmed feathered hat and bonnet, his straight fringe was very fair, his round cheeks rosy, his mouth cherry red, and his chin tapering to a determined point. Mistress Penn lifted him onto her lap.

  “Say welcome to your sisters, my Lady Mary and my Lady Elizabeth,” she instructed.

  “Welcome, Lady Mary, Lady Lisbeth,” lisped the infant. He did not smile.

  “I have a gift for you, Brother,” said Elizabeth, holding out the finely stitched cambric shirt. Edward stretched out a fat hand to take it from her, studied it for a moment, lost interest, and handed it to his nurse.

  “I am sure he will look very fine in it, my lady,” smiled Mistress Penn.

  “May I hold him?” Elizabeth asked, seating herself beside the nurse and making a lap. The nurse lifted the infant carefully, and he settled contentedly into Elizabeth’s arms.

  “My Lord Prince is heavy,” the child said, relishing the warm closeness of the little body snuggled against her. “Aren’t you, Brother?”

  He raised steely blue eyes to her. Their father looked out of them.

  “Aren’t you going to smile for me?” prompted Elizabeth, pulling a face. There was a faint reaction, no more.

  “He’ll soon find his tongue, my lady,” predicted the nurse.

  Gently, Elizabeth tickled the Prince’s sides. He jumped in her arms and chuckled.

  “You’ve done well with him, my lady,” Mistress Penn remarked. “He’s a solemn boy and rarely smiles.”

  Edward was now beaming at Elizabeth. She beamed back and bent to rub noses with him.

  “May I hold him now?” asked Mary. The nurse passed Edward to her, and Mary seated him on her knee, crooning to him, caressing him, and hugging him tightly to her. The child bore this for a few moments before struggling to get down, much to her evident disappointment. He toddled over to his playthings and picked up the hobbyhorse; soon he was careering around the room on it, chasing an imaginary quarry.

  “When the Queen arrives,” Elizabeth said, “I hope we will all be able to live together at court.”

  Mary looked doubtful.

  “We must wait on the will of our father and our new stepmother,” she said.

  Just then, Edward drew to a halt in front of them.

  “Bow!” he piped imperiously. His sisters looked at him in surprise, hesitating.

  “Bow!” he repeated. “I’m going to be king, like my father!”

  Mary and Elizabeth rose, suppressing their smiles, and swept deep curtsies before him.

  “Rise,” he ordered them, in perfect imitation of King Henry. The sisters obeyed.

  “Now you may go,” Edward said. Mrs. Penn was shaking her head at his forwardness.

  As they left, Elizabeth took a rather sticky piece of marchpane from her pocket and pressed it into the nurse’s hand.

  “Give this to the Prince,” she whispered.

  Christmas had passed in a whirl of festivities, with everyone eagerly anticipating the coming of the new Queen. Now the New Year’s Eve revels were in full swing: The great hall at Whitehall was packed with people; candles flickered, the fire roared in the great hearth, dogs scavenged for scraps, and servants with ewers were passing about the room, topping up goblets. Elizabeth was enjoying herself hugely. The Lord of Misrule had demanded a forfeit of her, and she was commanded to kiss the ten most handsome gentlemen in the room. Everyone, her father included, roared with mirth as she selected first this man, then that, and, with eyes screwed shut, offered a puckered-up mouth to each. In the end, she was so helpless with laughter that she had to abandon the play for a space, holding her aching sides till she got her breath back.

  “What of me?” cried the King with mock indignation. “Am I not the handsomest man in the room?” Elizabeth, still breathless, ran to him and planted a big kiss on his lips. The courtiers clapped and cheered.

  “Of course you are, sir!” she panted.

  It was at that point that a messenger in the King’s livery entered and whispered in her father’s ear. Henry smiled broadly, drew himself to his majestic height, and raised his hand for silence.

  “Great news, my lords and ladies! The Princess Anna of Cleves is arrived safely in this kingdom and is even now at Rochester. What say you? Shall we await her formal reception before we behold our bride, or shall we ride to Rochester now, in the guise of an ardent suitor, to nourish love?”

  The company, flushed with wine, shouted their approval of the latter plan, and soon Elizabeth was standing at the front of the throng gathered in the palace courtyard to wave good-bye to the King and the eight gentlemen who were to accompany him.

  “The furs, Sir Anthony! My gift to the Princess! Did you remember them?” Henry cried as, swathed in sables, he hauled himself into the saddle.

  “I have them here, Sire,” smiled Sir Anthony Browne.

  The King grinned, clapped his bonnet down firmly on his head, and waved to his watching courtiers.

  “We will see you, one and all, very soon, then we will repair to Greenwich for the wedding. Farewell!”

  “God speed Your Grace!” the gentlemen and ladies cried. “Go to it, old goat!” Elizabeth heard someone mutter.

  “Can I come?” she cried impulsively as the King wheeled his horse around.

  “Not tonight, Bessy! I go to nourish love, and little girls might get in the way!” her father replied jovially, then he was gone, clattering through the palace gateway at the head of his train.

  CHAPTER 5

  1540–41

  No one knew when the King would return, so the Lord Chamb
erlain announced that the New Year’s Day revels would proceed as planned without him. Elizabeth spent much of the day in her chamber with Kat, both of them kneeling before the fire and labeling the gifts they would distribute that night.

  It was late in the afternoon, already dark outside, when Elizabeth clapped her hand to her mouth.

  “I forgot! I promised the Lady Mary I would join her in chapel for Vespers,” she exclaimed.

  “Don’t worry,” said Kat, looking at the hourglass. “If we hasten now, we won’t be late.”

  She fetched Elizabeth’s cloak and gloves, helped her to put them on, then escorted her down the spiral stair to the courtyard. The chapel lay opposite, and the glow of candles could be seen through its stained-glass windows. Mary would already be at her devotions.

  Elizabeth could hear hooves pounding on the hard ground, coming closer and closer. She and Kat stood back to give the approaching riders a wide berth. Through the gate they rode, trotting now, and Elizabeth was thrilled to see her father the King, back in time after all for the evening’s frolics. Thrilled, and then perturbed, because he did not look like a happy bridegroom. Indeed, his face was rigid with what appeared to be anger, and he seemed completely unaware that she was there. Glowering, he dismounted heavily, then stumped off toward his apartments, his long-faced gentlemen following at a safe distance as stable lads hastened to take the horses.

  Elizabeth and Kat looked at each other, stupefied.

  “Why does my father look so cross?” Elizabeth asked.

  “I cannot think,” replied Kat. “Hurry, my lady, we will be late for chapel.”

  Mary, on her knees, glanced up briefly in reproof as they hurried in, then quietly returned to her prayers. Elizabeth found it hard to concentrate and made the responses mechanically. Why had her father looked so fearfully angry?

  She felt a chill of apprehension. She had learned by now that when her father was angered, bad things happened. His wrath was far more frightening than most men’s, for it held the power of life and death. People had even died…She moved closer to Kat and clutched her hand.

 
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