The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

  “That isn’t what I came to show you,” said Kat, lifting out of the stack an unframed wooden panel. “This is. It’s your mother, Queen Anne.”

  She held up a half-length portrait of a dark-haired lady with merry, captivating eyes, high cheekbones, and a smiling mouth. She had on a low-necked black gown trimmed with pearls, braid, and fur. There were pearls edging her French hood and a rope of them around her slender neck. She also wore a jeweled pendant in the form of a B. On the chipped dark green background were painted, in gold, the Latin words ANNA BOLINA UXOR HENRI OCTA.

  Elizabeth stared, marveling. So this was her mother. She had never seen a picture of her, had only the dimmest memory, and had often wondered what she looked like.

  “It’s a good likeness,” said Kat. “I saw her several times.”

  Elizabeth was struck by the sitter’s resemblance to herself. The black eyes, the cheekbones, the pointed chin, the mouth. She was nearly all Anne Boleyn, she realized. Only her red hair marked her as a Tudor. And Kat had said she was like her mother in other ways. She could dance well, like Anne, and she had already mastered the lute and the virginals; her music master had told her she had a talent for it. Anne had been good at needlework too, and she had loved fine clothes and carried herself well. She had been clever, and Elizabeth knew herself to be clever too. Gazing at the portrait, she felt that she at last knew who she was.

  “Can I have this to keep?” she asked.

  “Oh, I don’t know,” said Kat, who was beginning to wonder if she had been wise to divulge so much.

  “Why not? No one else wants it.”

  Kat pondered anxiously for a minute.

  “Well, if you keep it well hidden, I suppose you may take it,” she said. “But no one must ever see it.”

  Elizabeth grabbed a grubby old painted cloth and wrapped it around the portrait. Then she hurriedly followed Kat down the stairs to her bedchamber, where she stashed the picture behind her bed.

  “No one will find it there,” she said.

  “They won’t,” Kat agreed. “That bed hasn’t been moved in years. It was probably built in this room.”

  Every night, for some time afterward, Elizabeth would get out of bed and look at her mother’s picture, and soon she had the features by heart.

  “That pendant my mother was wearing in her portrait,” she said to Kat one day. “Do you know what happened to it?”

  “No,” answered Kat. “All her belongings disappeared. After she was found guilty of treason, they were forfeited to the King. I don’t know what he did with them.”

  Elizabeth felt sad. She would have liked to have just one item that had been owned by her mother. If only for a keepsake, just to touch something that had once been Anne’s.

  Lessons over, Elizabeth grabbed her straw hat and ran out into the August sunshine.

  The great park at Hertford lay before her, green and golden in the heat, and she strode forth, a determined little figure in her cream-colored summer gown. Kat watched her from the schoolroom window, marveling at how fast her charge was growing.

  “Nearly seven years old,” she mused, “…going on twenty!”

  As she turned back to the table and began piling up the books, Sir John Shelton entered. He was clearly in some haste.

  “There’s a royal messenger below in the courtyard. They’re just taking his horse. We should go down.” Kat hurriedly popped the quills into a pot, smoothed her gown, and followed the governor.

  Elizabeth had just seated herself in the shade of her favorite oak tree and taken the first bite of her apple when she espied Kat running toward her and beckoning frantically.

  “Come, my lady! There is important news from court!”

  Elizabeth sprang to her feet, nearly choking on the piece of apple in her mouth, and ran toward the house.

  “What is it?” she called.

  “There is much to tell!” Kat said, putting an arm around her shoulders and hurrying her through the open doors of the great hall. There stood Sir John, handing a cup of ale to the messenger.

  Sir John bowed. The child looked at him breathlessly.

  “My Lady Elizabeth, we have received important tidings. First, the King’s marriage to the Princess Anna of Cleves has been dissolved upon the discovery that she was previously promised to another, and therefore not free to wed.”

  “Oh, the poor lady!” cried Elizabeth in some distress, but Sir John shook his head.

  “There is no need for pity, I assure you,” he said. “His Majesty has made a very generous settlement on the Princess. He has given her a handsome allowance, as well as Richmond Palace, Hever Castle, and Bletchingly Manor, and she is henceforth to be known as the King’s dearest sister.”

  “From what we hear, she is very happy with the settlement,” Kat put in, “so there is no cause for concern.”

  The messenger said, “By all accounts, the King wasn’t at all flattered by her eagerness to accept what he offered.” He grinned.

  “That will do,” said Sir John sharply. “You may go. There’s further refreshment to be had in the kitchens. I will convey the rest of the news to the Lady Elizabeth.”

  The man doffed his bonnet and left.

  Elizabeth was looking visibly relieved, but her ears had pricked up at Sir John’s words.

  “What other news, governor?” she asked.

  Sir John nodded at Kat.

  “We are to tell you that your father the King has taken another wife,” she said. “You have a new stepmother.”

  “Another wife?” echoed Elizabeth, doing some rapid counting. “That makes five wives that my father has had!”

  “Ahem, I’m sure His Majesty would take issue on that, my lady,” reproved Sir John. “The new Queen Katherine is his second lawful wife, after Queen Jane. You would do well to remember that.”

  “Are you not pleased to have a new stepmother—a proper stepmother?” put in Kat, seeing Elizabeth’s chastened look.

  “Who is my new stepmother?” asked the child.

  “Katherine Howard that was,” said Kat. “A niece to the Duke of Norfolk, and therefore your cousin, since her father was brother to your grand-dam on your mother’s side. She is said to be very pretty. She is certainly very young.”

  “When will I meet her?” Elizabeth wanted to know. “Are we to go to court?”

  “Not as yet,” Sir John told her. “But that brings me to the last piece of news. The Princess Anna has shown an interest in you; she has asked the King if you may visit her, and he has agreed. She has gone to view her new properties, and is even now lodging at Hever Castle in Kent. You are to travel there tomorrow for a few days’ stay. Kat here will go with you.”

  “How kind of the Princess!” Elizabeth exclaimed, surprised and delighted. Hever Castle might not be the court, but it would at least provide a welcome change of scene. There might be dancing and revels…

  Sir John beamed at Elizabeth. “Go and make ready,” he said.

  Elizabeth scampered off, planning her wardrobe for Hever. She had never been there, nor even heard of the place, but she was sure that the Princess Anna would keep a fine court in the castle.

  Sir John did not realize that she was still within earshot when he turned to Kat and asked, “Is it wise to let her go there?”

  “She knows nothing of the place, Sir John,” she heard Kat replying. “And why should she not go there? She must know of the lady her mother sometime.”

  Sir John grunted and said no more, but Elizabeth was left feeling strangely thrilled to be going to a house that was connected in some way to her mother. It made the prospect of the visit even more exciting.

  As the little cavalcade crested the hill, the castle came into view, a mellow stone pile nestling in its lush green valley. Elizabeth spurred on her palfrey, eager to embark on the joys of her stay, conscious that she was an honored guest, bestowing the favor of her presence on her hostess.

  “What do I call the Princess Anna now that she is not queen?” she asked

  “Your Highness, I should imagine,” said Kat, reflecting that it was becoming a new pastime, this thinking up titles for ex-queens. The first Queen Katherine had become the Princess Dowager, and Elizabeth’s mother had been stripped of her royal rank and had gone to the scaffold as plain Lady Anne Boleyn.

  With two men-at-arms riding behind, and three waiting women in attendance, Elizabeth and her governess clattered over the drawbridge and into the castle courtyard. There, before the open doorway, stood the Princess of Cleves, her household drawn up behind her. At Elizabeth’s approach, she swept a deep curtsy. Elizabeth noticed that she was wearing a green gown in the English fashion, and when she had dismounted and raised her former stepmother, she was relieved to find that the only odor that clung to her was a faint hint of roses mingled with that of cloves. A hint had perhaps been taken!

  “Welcome, Lady Elizabeth!” Anna smiled. “It is most kind of His Majesty to allow you to come here to me.” She spoke haltingly, but clearly she had been spending much of her time learning English.

  Elizabeth inclined her head regally and allowed the Princess to lead her into the castle. Here, on trestles in the hall, were laid out cold meats, raised pies and custard tarts, and a selection of candied fruits that made the little girl’s mouth water.

  “We have also a dish from Cleves!” Anna announced proudly later as they seated themselves at the high table, with Elizabeth in the place of honor. At Anna’s nod, two servants came forward. One poured wine; the other carried a platter piled high with what looked like a greenish white mess.

  “What is it?” Elizabeth was curious.

  “It is sauerkraut,” Anna said. “Cabbage with salt, with wine and juniper.” Another nod, and the servant spooned a generous amount onto Elizabeth’s plate. Elizabeth tasted it.

  “Very good!” she pronounced, enjoying the pickled taste.

  The Princess beamed. Kat, watching, was delighted that the visit had gotten off to a promising start.

  As they entered the long gallery, Elizabeth saw the portrait.

  “It’s my mother!” she cried impulsively, then clapped her hand over her mouth, realizing what she had said. She had long ago understood that her mother’s name was never to be mentioned publicly. But there in front of her was a portrait very similar to the one she herself had hidden away, only in this one, Queen Anne was holding a rose, had a gold filet across her forehead, and looked younger and more beautiful than in the other picture.

  The Princess looked dismayed.

  “I should have remembered!” she cried. “I had mean to have it replaced. I have been so busy make ready…”

  Kat came to her rescue.

  “No matter, Your Highness. The Lady Elizabeth has seen pictures of her mother. I think it is important that she knows something of her.”

  “Oh, yes,” said the Princess with feeling. “The poor child. And that poor woman.” She shuddered. “That is why I do something for the Lady Elizabeth. I cannot be a mother to her now—but a friend.”

  “Your Highness’s kindness is deeply appreciated,” said Kat. The two women exchanged sympathetic looks.

  Elizabeth was gazing at the picture, barely aware of their words. She was wishing that she could have it for her own.

  “She looks so beautiful,” she said.

  “It’s a fair likeness,” said Kat.

  “I was pleased to find it here,” Anna said. “No one would talk about her at court.”

  “They are too afraid of the King,” Kat said quietly.

  The Princess tactfully took Elizabeth’s hand.

  “Come. I have something else to show you.” She led the child along the gallery to a bedchamber. There stood a magnificent oaken bed, with the arms of England carved into its intricate design.

  “They tell me that this was your mother’s bed,” she said.

  Elizabeth’s heart leapt.

  “Why is it kept here?” she asked.

  “This was her home,” revealed Kat. “She spent her childhood here, and your father came here to pay court to her. Not that she would have him then: She kept him guessing for many years.”

  “But he was the King!” Elizabeth was shocked, but impressed even so.

  “Yes he was, yet in asking your mother to be his chosen lady, he was placing her above him, to be worshipped like an image on a pedestal, so to speak. She was the mistress of his heart, the one who held his happiness in her hands. It was ever so, in the game of love,” Kat said.

  “In Cleves it was not,” the Princess put in tartly. “There, the young ladies have always been made to marry the men their fathers chose for them.”

  “And here too, that is the custom,” said Kat. “But the King was already married. He could not ask the lady to be his wife. So he asked her to be his mistress.”

  “His mistress?” Elizabeth asked, running her fingers over the carvings. Her mother’s head must once have rested against them.

  “The one who ruled his heart,” Kat said, telling only half the truth. “As I am your mistress and rule you.”

  “And she refused? She was, how you say, a brave woman!” Anna declared.

  Elizabeth marveled also. Her mother must have been a remarkable woman; what power she had enjoyed! What daring!

  “Did my father love her very much, all that time?” she asked.

  Kat was silent for a moment, considering her answer.

  “He did. He thought of no one else. He made himself Head of the Church of England so that he could marry her, and in the end he won her.”

  After that, of course, things had gone badly wrong, so Kat resolved to divert Elizabeth from further questions.

  “Let’s find your bedchamber, shall we?” she said.

  “Ach, yes. Come this way.” Anna quickly took the hint.

  “Can’t I sleep here?” Elizabeth asked. She knew she would feel nearer to her mother if she slept in her bed.

  “I think this is the Princess Anna’s room,” Kat said doubtfully.

  “That is all right,” the Princess said amiably. “The Lady Elizabeth may sleep here. I will order it.” She beamed down at the little girl, who looked at her gratefully.

  “Now I want to show you the beautiful gardens!” Anna declared.

  Wherever Elizabeth went at Hever, there were reminders of her mother. Her memory was there in every room, every garden walk, every shady arbor. Many of the Boleyn family’s possessions had been removed by the King’s officers, but a few items had been left, such as the bedstead and the portrait, for—Kat thought—who would want such reminders of a fallen queen? Yet, even with the castle stripped of Anne’s belongings, it was easy to imagine her at Hever.

  “Did you ever come here when…when she was here?” Elizabeth asked Kat as they strolled through the glorious gardens that first afternoon.

  “Once,” Kat recalled. “It was very splendid then. I remember attending a great feast to celebrate the ennobling of your grandfather, Sir Thomas Boleyn, when the King made him Lord Rochford. There were dances and disguisings, and your mother was the center of attention. The young men were openly vying for her favors.”

  Elizabeth thrilled to hear this. How wonderful to be so popular, and to have people admire you.

  “Did she look very beautiful? Tell me what she was like,” she urged.

  “She was wearing a gown of dark blue silk, with pearls at her throat, and her hair was loose. It was very long and very dark, and I remember that there were little gems glittering in it. And she was laughing a lot…” Kat shook her head sadly, remembering that Anne had had very little cause to laugh in later years.

  “When I grow up, I am going to be like her!” Elizabeth announced. “I’m going to be beautiful, and wear silk gowns and have jewels in my hair!”

  Kat smiled. She was growing so fond of this vain charge of hers with her vivacious character and determined little face.

  Elizabeth had stooped to gather wildflowers. The sky glowed golden and hazy in the late-afternoon sunshine, and
there was a fair breeze. Kat stood for a moment relishing the peace and beauty of the place.

  “Come, young lady,” she said at length. “The Princess Anna will be arising from her nap, and we must tidy ourselves for supper.”

  Elizabeth was lying in her mother’s bed. The curtains had been drawn, and the candle blown out. The room was dark, but in the dimness she could make out the shapes of the chairs, the prayer desk, and the clothes chest that lined the walls; and there, on a peg, hung her cream gown, brushed ready for the morning. In the distance, the hoot of an owl broke the silence.

  The child could not sleep. The unfamiliar room, the strange house, the exciting discoveries and revelations of the day—all had unsettled her, and no matter how tightly she shut her eyes, or mentally recited her prayers, it was an age before she finally drifted off, and then she slept fitfully, or so it seemed.

  She wasn’t sure what awoke her. Probably the cold, for she came to her senses shivering. Then she became aware that she was not alone. There was a dark shape standing at the end of her bed.

  “Kat?” she whispered. But the figure did not answer or move. Its face was in shadow, indeed, the whole of its body was shrouded in the gloom, but it looked like a woman, and she felt, with the first stirrings of unease, that it was watching her. A pang of alarm gripped her.

  “Kat?” She spoke the name more insistently now, huddling the bedclothes around her, peering over the sheet with frightened eyes. The dark figure was still there, but it was too slender to be Kat, Elizabeth realized. She was beginning to wonder if it was a trick of the darkness or the shadow cast by a piece of furniture or the bed itself, when suddenly it held out its arms toward her. In that poignant gesture, there was supplication, yearning, and something else, something that was not frightening at all, but surprisingly comforting.

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