Authors: Alison Weir
Tags: #Non Fiction
is dedicated to
my dear mother
and to Jim,
who has been a father to me.
It is also dedicated
to Samuel Marston
to mark his first birthday.
If my faults deserve punishment, my youth at least, and my imprudence, were worthy of excuse. God and posterity will show me more favor.
—Written by Lady Jane Grey in the Tower of London, February 1554
14TH NOVEMBER 1553
It is over. My trial has ended, and I am now back in the Tower of London, this place that was once my palace and is now my prison.
I am sitting on my bed, my fingers feverishly creasing the crewelwork on the coverlet. The fire has been lit and crackles merrily in the hearth, but I am shivering. I am now a condemned traitor, and all I can hear in my head are the sonorous words of the Lord President, sentencing me to be burned or beheaded at the Queen’s pleasure.
These are terrible words that every human being must tremble to hear, but especially terrible to me, who has spent only sixteen summers upon this earth. I am to die when I have hardly begun to live. That is appalling enough, yet it is not just the dying that I fear, but the manner of it. Suddenly I am hideously aware of the leaping flames in the grate, the prickle of gooseflesh on my neck, and am sickened by the normally comforting smell of woodsmoke. I want to scream. I am rocking in misery, hearing those words again and again, and unable to believe that they were really said to me.
Not my will, but Thine, O Lord. And the Queen’s, of course. I admit freely that I have offended grievously and deserve death for what I have done, but that my heart and will were bent to it, I shall truthfully protest to my last breath.
My last breath.
Yet she said that she believed me. The Queen did accept my explanation, and she told me—I remember it well, as a drowning sailor clutches at driftwood—that this sentence would be but a formality. She was clearly angry with me, but she was also pleased to say that my youth excuses much. She must know that the plot was not of my making, and that I was the instrument of others’ treasonous ambitions.
Dare I believe her? I have her promise, her royal promise, the word of a queen. I must hold fast to that when the panic threatens, as it does now, here in this tidy and peaceful room filled with homely things. I must believe in that promise, I must.
I lie down on my bed, gazing up unseeing at the wooden tester. I try to pray, but the old familiar words will not come. I realize that I am exhausted and drained of energy, my emotions shattered like shards of ice. All I want is to sleep and thus obliterate this horror for a time. But sleep eludes me, no matter how desperately I court it. Instead, for the thousandth time, I go over in my head how I came to be in this place. And in my tormented reverie I hear voices, clamoring to be heard, all speaking at once. I know them all. They have all played a part in shaping my destiny.
Marchioness of Dorset
BRADGATE HALL, LEICESTERSHIRE, OCTOBER 1537
My travail begins as I am enjoying a walk in the garden. There is a sudden flood of liquid from my womb, and then, as my maid runs for cloths and assistance, a dull pain that shifts from the small of my back to the pit of my stomach. Soon, they are all clustering around me, the midwives and the women, helping me through the great doorway of the manor house and up the oaken stairs, stripping me of my fine clothing and replacing it with a voluminous birthing smock of bleached linen, finely embroidered at the neck and wrists. Now I am made to lie upon my bed, and they are pressing a goblet of sweet wine to my lips. I don’t really want it, but I take a few sips to please them. My two chief ladies sit beside me, my gossips, whose job it is to while away the tedious hours of labor with distracting chatter. Their task is to keep me cheerful and to offer encouragement when the pains grow stronger.
And they do grow stronger. Less than an hour passes before the dull ache that accompanies each pang becomes a knifelike thrust, vicious and relentless. Yet I can bear it. I have the blood of kings in my veins, and that emboldens me to lie mute, resisting the mounting screams. Soon, God willing, I will hold my son in my arms. My son, who must not die early like the others, those tiny infants who lie beneath the flagstones of the parish church. Neither lived long enough even to sit or crawl. I do not account myself a sentimental person; indeed, I know that many think me too strong and hard-willed for a woman—a virago, my husband once said, during one of our many quarrels. But hidden within my heart there is a raw place reserved for those two lost babies.
Yet it is natural that this third pregnancy has often led me to revisit this secret place, to disturb and probe it gently, testing to see if past tragedies still have the power to hurt. I know I should forbid myself such weakness. I am King Henry’s niece. My mother was a princess of England and Queen of France. I must face the pain of my loss as I do my labor—with royal dignity, refusing to indulge any further in morbid fancies, which, I am assured by the midwives, could well be harmful to the child I carry. One must try to be positive, and I am nothing if not an optimist. This time, I feel it in my bones, God will give us the son and heir we so desperately desire.
Another hour passes. There is little respite between each contraction, but the pain is still bearable.
“Cry out if you need to, my lady,” says the midwife comfortingly, as the women fuss round me with candles and basins of water. I wish they would all go away and leave me in peace. I wish they would let some fresh air into this fetid, stuffy chamber. Even though it is day, the room is dark, for the windows have been covered with tapestries and painted cloths.
“We must not risk the babe catching any chills from drafts, my lady,” the midwife warned me when she ordered this to be done. Then she personally inspected the tapestries to ensure that there was nothing depicted in them that could frighten the child.
“Make up the fire!” she instructs her acolytes, as I lie here grappling with my pains. I groan; it’s hot enough in here already, and I am sweating like a pig. But, of course, she is aware of that. At her nod, a damp cloth is laid on my brow. It does little to relieve my discomfort, though, for the sheets are wet with perspiration.
I stifle another groan.
“You can cry out, madam,” the midwife says again. But I don’t. I would not make such an exhibition of myself. Truly, it’s the indignity of it all that bothers me the most, conscious as I am of my birth and my rank. Lying here like an animal straining to drop its cub, I’m no different from any common jade who gives birth. There’s nothing exalted about it. I know it’s blasphemy to say this, but God was more than unfair when He created woman. Men get all the pleasure, while we poor ladies are left to bear the pain. And if Henry thinks that, after this, I’m going to…
Something’s happening. Dear God, what’s going on? Sweet Jesus, when is this going to end?
The midwife draws back the covers, then pulls up my shift to expose my swollen, straining body, as I lie on the bed, knees flexed, thighs parted, and thrusts expert fingers inside me. She nods her head in a satisfied way.
“If I’m not mistaken, this young lad is now in something of a hurry,” she tells my anxiously hovering ladies.
“Ready now!” she crows triumphantly. “Now push, my lady, push!”
I gather all my strength, breathe deeply, and exhale with a great effort, knowing that an end is in sight. I can feel the child coming! I ram my chin into my chest again and push as I am instructed, hard. And the miracle happens. In a rush of blood and mucus, I feel a small, wet form slithering from me. Another push, and it is delivered into the midwife’s waiting hands, to be quickly wrapped in a rich cloth of damask. I glimpse its face, which resembles a wrinkled peach. I hear the mewling cry that tells me it lives.
“A beautiful daughter, my lady,” announces the midwife uncertainly. “Healthy and vigorous.”
I should be joyful, thanking God for the safe arrival of a lusty child. Instead, my spirits plummet. All this—for nothing.
Queen Jane Seymour