The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  Henry frowned as he took his place on the dais for the feast. He sat there, enormous in his jeweled doublet, a feathered hat perched on his balding, graying head, obviously fuming, as his narrow eyes raked over his courtiers. The presence chamber was quiet; instead of the usual hum of conversation, he could hear muffled coughs, the odd sniff, and stifled whispers. He espied his daughters, regarding him with anxious eyes from their places at the end of the high table. They, like he, had been let down. They had been expecting a stepmother, he a wife he could love. He felt like exploding.

  Where was that villain Cromwell? He should be here! And here he was, all smiles and affability, entering the room late, after his sovereign. But discourtesy was the least of it, Henry thought.

  Cromwell’s eyes met those of the King, and his smile faltered and died. The court collectively held its breath, looking from one to the other. Elizabeth, who missed little, realized at once that Master Cromwell had in some way offended her father. So that was why the King was in a bad mood. Things were beginning to make sense.

  “We missed you on our return, Master Secretary,” Henry said ominously, his voice tight.

  “I crave Your Majesty’s pardon,” answered Cromwell smoothly. “I was dressing for the feast. I was unaware until an hour ago that Your Majesty had returned.”

  “We returned, Master Secretary, because there was nothing to stay in Rochester for.” The King’s voice was icy.

  “Is Your Majesty saying that the Princess Anna was not there?” asked Cromwell. The courtiers were devouring every word.

  “Oh, she was there, Master Secretary, she was there.”

  “That is a relief, Sire,” babbled Cromwell. “And how does Your Majesty like the Queen?”

  The King leaned forward menacingly.

  “I like her not. I like her not!” The last words were spat out staccato. “She is nothing so well as she was spoken of, by you and others. And if I had known as much before as I know now, she would never have come into this realm!”

  He sat back in his chair, looking like a lion about to pounce on its prey.

  “What remedy, Master Cromwell? What remedy?”

  Cromwell looked like a man who had just been punched.

  “Sire, the contract has been signed and agreed. There might be difficulties…” Looking at his master’s face, he added quickly, “But I will look at it carefully and see if there is a way out.”

  “You had better find one,” said the King. “You got me into this pass, and you are going to get me out of it!”

  When Cromwell had scuttled off like a whipped cur, Henry nodded at the minstrels. They began to play, and the courtiers thankfully resumed their conversations in a subdued fashion. Elizabeth felt uncomfortable. This was not the happy New Year’s Day revelry she had anticipated, and she now feared she might not be getting a new stepmother after all. Nor could she understand why, for the Princess Anna had looked so lovely in her picture. What did her father not like about her?

  She realized that the King was grumbling to the Duke of Norfolk, who sat at his left.

  “Poor men can marry the woman of their choice,” Henry was saying plaintively, “but princes must take as is brought them by others. Whom can men trust?”

  “Your Majesty is ill served,” observed the Duke, shaking his head in sympathy. “No doubt about it.”

  “Indeed I am,” agreed Henry sadly. “But must I needs put my neck in the yoke? What remedy is there?”

  “We must hope that Master Cromwell will find one, Sire,” soothed the Duke. Elizabeth was surprised to see his thin lips curl in a furtive smile.

  The next day, the court moved to Greenwich, regardless of the fact that no one now knew whether or not the royal wedding would be taking place there. The King had left the feast early on the previous evening, and no one had seen him since, while Master Secretary Cromwell had gone to ground somewhere.

  Before they departed, Elizabeth paid a farewell visit to her brother Edward, who was to leave shortly for Hertford Castle. She had seen him several times over the past days, and he now knew her and greeted her enthusiastically.

  “Lisbeth!” he shrieked as she entered the room, and he ran with arms outstretched to embrace her. Imperious he might be on occasions, but he was also an adorable toddler, and her heart swelled with love for him.

  His attendant, a woman, curtsied. Elizabeth stopped. It was Lady Bryan.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, you are most welcome,” she said composedly.

  “I thank you.” Elizabeth nodded stiffly. She still felt the pain of her former governess’s desertion. “I came to see my lord the Prince.”

  Lady Bryan recognized the snub.

  “I will send Mistress Penn in,” she said, and withdrew.

  “I am going to Greenwich,” Elizabeth told Edward, cradling him on her lap. “I came to say farewell. I must hurry. God grant that we shall meet again soon, sweet Brother. And God keep you until then.”

  A kiss, a curtsy, and she was gone. She did not see the tear run down the little boy’s cheek as the door closed behind her.

  “The King’s wedding is going ahead tomorrow,” Kat said excitedly, coming into Elizabeth’s chamber. “I heard some courtiers talking.”

  “Will I be going?” asked Elizabeth, looking up from her book. “I could wear my new blue gown.”

  “I’m not sure, my lady,” Kat replied uncertainly. “You must wait to be summoned.”

  “I hope I am,” the child said. “It’s Twelfth Night tomorrow. There will be feasting and revels. I do so want to be there!”

  She waited, fretting. The hours passed. Nothing happened. The King did not send for her.

  Elizabeth was bitterly disappointed to discover, late the next morning, that the wedding had already taken place, in a private ceremony in the chapel.

  “Never mind,” said Kat, “the good news is that you are to attend His Majesty in his presence chamber this evening. There will be a masque and dancing and the usual revelry for Twelfth Night.”

  Elizabeth clapped her hands in glee. This was what she loved best…

  “The blue gown, I think,” said Kat, smiling.

  The King, flushed with fine wine, sat glowering at the masquers, who were nervously performing a piece in which Hymen, the God of Marriage, was blessing the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice and encouraging them to be fruitful. Young girls of good family in flowing white robes were trilling in praise of nuptial bliss while weaving in and out in an intricate dance.

  Elizabeth thought the players were enchanting and the singing beautiful, but she was equally interested in the new Queen, who sat stiffly beside the King, her angular face set in a smile that did not reach her heavy-lidded eyes. She was not much like her picture, Elizabeth thought, and her outlandish German gown was frightfully unflattering, and lacked the long train that was de rigueur at court. Worse still, worse than the deep, guttural voice with which Anna had greeted her on her presentation the previous day, was the unsavory odor of unwashed linen and stale fish that the Princess carried everywhere with her. Yet she was amiable enough, and seemed well disposed toward her new stepdaughters, so Elizabeth steeled herself to overlook that, wondering only what her father, that most fastidious of men, would have to say about it.

  He certainly did not appear very pleased with his new bride, and that unfortunate lady now looked plainly terrified, as well she might, for Henry’s good manners—stretched to the limit these past days—had finally failed him, and no one could be in any doubt that he was in a very bad temper indeed. Contrary to his normal fashion, he had not applauded the masquers once, and consequently they had played to a silent court.

  Hymen was now addressing His Majesty, reminding him of the joys to be had in the marriage bed. Elizabeth couldn’t understand much of what he said, but her father didn’t seem very pleased by it; in fact, he looked anything but joyful.

  After the masque had ended and the relieved players had fled the chamber, the King’s jester, Will Somers, tried to raise a
smile by telling some jokes, but Henry still sat with a face like thunder, eyes narrowed. Somers rashly decided to take advantage of his fool’s immunity and plunged on.

  “Are we keeping you from your sport, Harry? Go to it, man, delay no longer! Take your sweet bride to bed and swive her lustily!”

  The King banged his fist on the table, and everyone jumped.

  “Enough!” he snarled. “Hold your tongue, Fool. Remember, the Queen and the ladies are present.”

  He waved Somers away and signaled to the musicians once more.

  “Play!” he commanded.

  The music began, a lilting melody with a lively drumbeat. Henry surveyed his courtiers with a jaundiced eye.

  “What ails you all?” he barked. “Up, up, dance!”

  Several gentlemen rose hastily, bowed to their ladies, and led them onto the floor. Elizabeth was tapping her foot in time to the music, praying that someone would ask her to dance, when she saw the King turn to the Queen, a malicious twinkle in his eye.

  “Will you do me the honor, madam?” he asked.

  Queen Anna looked perplexed and turned to her interpreter, the stately German matron standing at her elbow, for enlightenment.

  “Madam, the King wishes you to dance,” frowned the matron disapprovingly, as if this were a most outlandish and immoral request. Henry glared at her.

  Anna’s face fell, and she spoke in a low voice to the interpreter.

  “Your Majesty, the Queen does not dance,” announced that lady virtuously. “We do not have dancing in Cleves.”

  “By God, she will dance!” Elizabeth heard her father say irately. “Get that dragon out of my sight!” As the woman was escorted, protesting, away, he turned to Anna.

  “Up!” he commanded, rising. There was no mistaking what he meant. The Queen rose and allowed herself to be led out. It was true, she could not dance, and the courtiers held their breath as she stumbled, fell in and out of step, and trod heavily on the King’s toe. He winced but said nothing as he lumbered heavily across the floor. At last, the dance drew to its embarrassing close, and the King handed his red-faced bride back to her seat.

  “We will retire now,” he announced, and the whole court rose to its feet. Anna’s ladies followed her out, and the King and his gentlemen went after. As he left, Elizabeth heard him muttering to the Duke of Norfolk, “I tell you, my lord, if it were not to satisfy the world and my realm, I would not do what I must this night for any earthly thing!” And he stumped out of the chamber.

  After that, Kat hurried a sleepy Elizabeth away to bed, fearing she might overhear more bawdy talk and speculation among the courtiers.

  Elizabeth had seen lots of letters written by grown-ups, so she knew what to write. She dipped her quill in the ink and scribed slowly and laboriously in her clear, childish script.

  Permit me to show, by this letter, the zeal with which I respect you as Queen, and my entire obedience to you as my mother. I am too young and feeble to have power to do more than send you my felicitations at the start of your good marriage. I hope that Your Majesty will have as much goodwill for me as I have zeal for your service.

  That sounded well, she thought, and it might move Queen Anna to invite her back to court. She was enjoying her sojourn at Hertford, that pleasant red-brick palace nestling on the banks of the River Lea, as well as the company of her little brother, for it was rare that they were lodged in one place together, but she had had a prolonged taste of court life and she was desperate to return there.

  Kat entered the schoolroom.

  “What’s that you’re writing, my lady?” she inquired.

  “A letter to the Queen,” Elizabeth replied imperiously.

  “To the Queen?” Kat was astonished. “Let me see.” She read the letter carefully, twice.

  “I’m not sure that you should send this,” she said.

  Elizabeth looked crestfallen.

  “But I so want to go to court,” she said plaintively. “Please, Kat.”

  Kat thought for a moment.

  “Very well,” she said reluctantly. “I suppose there’s nothing in it that could give offense. Seal it and I’ll have it sent.”

  Elizabeth spent the next few days excitedly anticipating her return to court. She looked forward to the feasts, the revels, the chance to wear her fine clothes, and the lords and ladies praising and complimenting her. She resolved to win the love of Queen Anna, unpleasant odors or not, who would surely use her influence with the King so that Elizabeth could be given her own apartments at court. That would be wonderful!

  What happened next therefore came as a shock.

  “You have received a letter from Master Secretary Cromwell,” announced Kat, entering her chamber. Elizabeth jumped up excitedly, then checked herself, for Kat’s face was grave.

  “What does it say?” she cried.

  “I hardly know how to tell you, child,” Kat said, her voice sounding unusually emotional. “He writes, I am commanded by the King to say that he will not hear of your coming to court to attend upon the Queen. I am to tell you that you had a mother so different from this woman that you ought not to wish to see her.”

  Elizabeth burst without warning into noisy tears, shocking to Kat, for this child was usually so composed, so contained.

  “What does he mean?” she sobbed.

  “I would not take it too seriously,” Kat soothed. “This is a difficult time for His Majesty. By all reports, he is not happy with the Queen.”

  “But what does he mean, I had a mother so different from this woman that I ought not to want to see her?” Elizabeth had ceased crying now, but her face was tragic and perplexed.

  Kat sat down at the table next to her and pushed away the copy book. She took the child’s hands in hers and held them tightly.

  “Elizabeth, your mother was a charming lady. She was not beautiful, but men found her very attractive. Your father the King pursued her for seven years, which must give you some idea of how fascinating she was. Accomplished too. Everything she did, she did gracefully—she could dance, sing, embroider, write poetry, play the lute and virginals, and as for intelligence and wit—well, she shone. She was slim and poised and always elegantly dressed, for she had a way with clothes and could make much from a little. You are very like her in many ways. Already I can see that.”

  Elizabeth smiled weakly, avidly drinking in this information about her mother. She had not known these details, and yet in some strange way, they were familiar to her. She could just remember a gorgeously attired lady, smelling of rosewater, running with her through a corridor or tying a pearly bonnet under her chin. There were other vague, less comforting, images, too, but they lay just beyond her recall now, no matter how hard she tried to summon them up. They were all she had of her mother, those memories, but now she could flesh them out from Kat’s revelations.

  “The King is right,” Kat went on, “Queen Anna is so different from your mother. In no way could she hope to conform to his ideals of womanhood, God help her. So my impression is that the King is feeling very sorry for himself, having married such a lady. He would never admit it, but he is probably remembering how much he was captivated by your mother, and who knows, he may even regret putting her to death. I do not believe he will ever love another as much as he loved her.”

  She patted Elizabeth’s hand.

  “So that is almost certainly why he says you should not wish to see the Queen. Calling her ‘this woman’ is not complimentary, and it appears he would rather you did not associate with her.”

  “But he could mean that Queen Anna is good, and my mother was bad, and that is why he doesn’t want me to see her, because I am not worthy.”

  “I hardly think so, having read this,” Kat said. “Sweeting, I knew that letter would hurt you, but I think it reflects your father’s own unhappiness. Do not set any store by it. Come, I have something to show you.”

  Kat rose and led an intrigued Elizabeth up the stair that led off her chamber and spiraled up to the at
tics above. Here there were dusty, unused rooms leading one into another. The first two that they entered were bare, but the third was filled with the detritus of past occupants of Hertford Castle. On an old settle lay two fraying cushions embroidered with designs of monkeys and butterflies, their colors faded with age. A threadbare tapestry and a scorched carpet lay rolled up on the floor. There were ancient chests, broken stools, bits of dented armor, and a curious horned headdress festooned with cobwebs hanging on a peg. Elizabeth reached out for it. She could see that the material had once been very fine.

  “Don’t touch,” warned Kat. “It’s filthy, and it will probably crumble to pieces if you do.”

  “I’ve never seen a headdress like that,” Elizabeth said.

  “It’s very old,” Kat said. “Long before our time. I’ve seen similar ones on effigies in churches. Many of your ancestors lived here in the past, so it may have belonged to one of them. In fact, most of these things were probably royal possessions at one time or other.”

  She looked about her. “I can’t think why someone doesn’t clear this place out. I’ve only been up here once before, when Sir John wanted something stored away. I suppose I shouldn’t have, but I poked about, and it was then that I found something very interesting.” She picked her way over to where a stack of framed pictures lay propped against a wall. Elizabeth followed, bursting with curiosity, while Kat began looking through the paintings. The first was a likeness of a man in armor, dulled with time; the second a portrait of a pretty young woman in a brown velvet gown and hood with a rich collar around her neck; she had golden hair, a round face, and a demure expression.

  “Who is that?” Elizabeth asked.

  “That is the late Queen Katherine, the Lady Mary’s mother. It must have been done when she was a girl, before her looks faded and she put on weight.”

  Elizabeth could not help feeling sorry for that pretty girl. She knew how her father had put away his first wife and banished her from court for her stubbornness. Of course, he had been absolutely right to do so, but all the same, it was poignant to see this picture of a young lady who must have been so thrilled to be his Queen, and whose life had turned out to be so sad.

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