"Forrester captures the sights, smells, and dangers of Tudor England and tells a gripping story."Philippa Gregory, bestselling author of The Other Boleyn Girl
He keeps a secret that could destroy England...and his family
1566. When Catholic rebelsdriven by revenge and zealotrykidnap the family of William Harley, Clarenceux King of arms and herald to her majesty, it will test his love and loyalty.
In exchange for his wife and daughter's release, they demand the one document that has the potential to topple Queen Elizabeth and thrust England into a civil war. Will Clarenceux sacrifice queen and country to save those dearest to him, or will he let them die at the hands of his enemies for the good of the nation?
Sacred Treason (Book 1)
The Roots of Betrayal (Book 2)
The Final Sacrament (Book 3)
Praise for James Forrester
"A winner for any reader who loves historical action-packed novels."Kirkus, starred review
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Wednesday, February 19, 1567
The boy's shoulders were tense with cold as he stood on duty near the King's Gate. Although it was almost dark he could still see the high wall running along the left-hand side of the street. The flickering glow of a torch lit the nearest stretch of brickwork. On his right, the palace rooftops loomed black against the frozen sky. Two servants came out of the shadows, walking into the palace. One caught his eye but did not acknowledge him. Three weeks had passed since he had come to court, supposedly to finish his education, and already he was regretting his father's decision.
He rubbed his hands together, and blew on them. Tucking his fingers under his arms for warmth, he ran the toe of his shoe over the smooth surface of a small patch of ice. The air smelled of frozen earth, with traces of burning pitch from the torch. He felt hungry as well as cold. When he was older he would buy himself some gloves, he vowed, and never have to stand with such chilled fingers again.
He started to walk across the width of the gatehouse, whistling snatches of a tune he remembered his mother singing. He wondered if his parents were well. He thought of them talking about him back home in the village-about how proud they were that he was in the queen's service at Whitehall. That image sweetened him and saddened him at the same time, for he knew how shocked they would be if they could see the way he was treated. Dick Venner regularly shouted at him as if he were his master, even though Dick was only a year older. It was Dick who was responsible for teaching him the ways of the court, and it was Dick who had beaten him with a wooden rod when he did not bow low enough to a Polish nobleman.
The sound of horses approaching at speed broke into his reverie. A moment later he saw their shapes come out of the darkness. There were four of them, their eyes great black beads in the torchlight, their heads glistening with sweat. Two men dismounted, both out of breath; one took the reins of his own horse and those of the other man. The latter was short and thin. The boy noticed the fine cut of his clothes; but even by torchlight he could see that the riding cloak was splattered with mud, the black silk doublet beneath it similarly besmottered. The man had a crease between his eyes so that it seemed like he was permanently frowning. His head was covered by a black skull cap-but he was not that old, only in his midthirties. He seemed distant from his companions. The two who remained mounted bade him farewell and departed; his companion led the two horses away to the stables.
"Boy, take me to Sir William," the man said between short breaths.
Sir William. One of the first things that Dick Venner had taught him was that there was only one "Sir William." Other men might be called "Sir William this" or "Sir William that"-but there was only one plain "Sir William." He was Sir William Cecil, the queen's Principal Secretary, and the most powerful man in the government: in fact, the most powerful man in the whole kingdom. He was also reputed to be the most intelligent. Normally the boy would not have known where Sir William was, but on this occasion he did. Sir William had rushed to court two days ago, when terrible news had arrived from Scotland. The rumor among the other boys was that Lord Henry Stewart was dead. Many messages had been delivered since then-one almost every hour. Sir William had barely left the queen's side in all that time.
The boy bowed politely. "With all respect for your lordship, Sir William has given instructions that he is not to be disturbed, except for messengers coming from Sir William Drury."
The small man with the skull cap looked directly at him. "Do you not know who I am?"
The boy stood firm, though inside he was quaking. "No, my lord."
"My name is Francis Walsingham. Sir William is my patron. I have news for him that will turn his hair gray. Now..." Walsingham reached forward and grabbed the boy's ear in his right hand and twisted it. "Take me to him, without delay."
"Mr. Walsingham, sir, he has already received the news about the Scottish-"
"TAKE ME TO HIM!" shouted Walsingham, pushing him toward the side door that led through into the privy palace.
Tears came to the boy's eyes, but he blinked them back as he led the way along the covered corridor behind the Lord Chamberlain's house. The route took them into a whitewashed corridor, through another door, out into the cold night again, and along a path between the mass of irregular buildings that formed part of the old palace. They passed the busy figures of servants, gentlemen, cooks, and clerks in the near darkness. In some places torches lit the route. Where it was dark, he felt his way, running his hand along the wall. He led Walsingham through to the great court and along one side of it, and under an arch into the stone gallery that ran between the privy palace and the privy garden. Finally, after hearing the heels of Walsingham's nailed boots ringing out behind him against the flagstones of the gallery for about fifty yards, he came to the entrance, lit by a wall-mounted metal lantern. He took the ring of the door handle, turned it, and entered, and after closing it again behind the visitor, went up a flight of stairs to the first of a series of antechambers.
He had expected to see two guards here, men who should have been on duty outside the closed door to the privy palace. But there was no one. He turned to Walsingham to explain that he was not allowed beyond this door.
"Open it," snapped Walsingham before he could speak. The boy turned the handle and pushed the door open.
The chamber had large gilded beams in the high ceiling, with red and blue painted decoration between them. The colors were clearly visible in the light of six burning candles that hung in the center of the room. There were warming tapestries too, the figures on them like mysterious onlookers from the shadows. A fire was burning on a hearth-but there was no one to be seen.
"Lead on," ordered Walsingham, his boots thudding on the floorboards.
At that moment the door at the far end of the chamber opened and a man in purple ecclesiastical vestments entered. He looked surprised to see them.
"Your Grace," said Walsingham, bowing. The boy also bowed low.
"Walsingham, you cannot go in," said the bishop in a deep voice. "The queen and Sir William will not be disturbed. Besides..." He looked down at Walsingham's mud-spattered clothes and filthy shirt, "her majesty will not approve of your apparel."
"I am not looking for her approval. Sir William will not forgive me if I delay."
"But will the queen?" The bishop looked Walsingham in the eye. "Never mind. If it concerns Lord Henry Stewart, you're too late. They've already heard it. Drury has been sending letters at regular intervals, and others have hastened here directly from the north."
"My news is of quite another order. But what is this about Lord Henry? I have been away."
"A sorry tale, but one that I fear was inevitable. He has been murdered-killed in the grounds of his house at Edinburgh. No one knows who is guilty and it seems the Scots queen has not arrested anyone, which leaves the finger of blame pointing at the lady herself."
The boy looked at Walsingham. The crease between his eyes seemed even deeper.
"Then I have all the more reason to speak to Sir William immediately," he said.
"I have already told you-"
"Lead on," commanded Walsingham, putting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Thank you for your information, my Lord Bishop; thank you."
He pushed the boy toward the oak door, and went through to the next antechamber. This was better lit. More tapestries, another hearth, a servant piling fresh logs on the embers. The beams were similarly gilded, with deep blue azurite decoration and stars in the depicted firmament. Two gentlemen ushers were at the far end. One was doing the rounds, lighting candles; the other was listening at the door. The one at the door turned, alarmed, when he heard Walsingham enter.
"Do you have nothing else to do?" asked Walsingham, his voice self-consciously loud. "Get you hence!"
The usher, astonished at Walsingham's arrogance, moved and Walsingham boldly marched up to the door and opened it. The boy stood back, nervous about intruding on the royal presence. He wanted to return to his cold station at the gate but Walsingham grabbed the scruff of his doublet and steered him through into the queen's great chamber.
It was a huge room, with a high, gilded ceiling and wide, gilded walls, as large as any room the boy had ever seen: as big as the largest great hall known to him. He wanted to look up and gaze at the spectacle, for the whole room seemed to be encased in gold, but his attention was commanded by the sudden lack of noise. More than thirty men were here, standing or sitting, and the talk had died abruptly. They all looked at Walsingham. Some were gentlemen and knights of the royal household; others were lords and courtiers identifiable as such by their lavish silk and satin doublets, fine ruffs, and embroidered hosen. Two or three men were wearing gowns, being men of the law or of the Church.
Walsingham did not stop but kept walking, still pushing the reluctant boy before him. Two men-at-arms looked startled, uncertain whether to stop them.
"Announce me," he said loudly. To a man-at-arms he ordered, "Open the door."
"Do you realize what you are doing?" called a man's voice nearby. Another shouted, "Show some respect!" A third man stepped in front of Walsingham and told him, "You cannot do this, Walsingham. We are all waiting our turn." A fourth man added, "The queen is with Sir William; she does not want to be disturbed."
A tall, exquisitely dressed lord approached; he was wearing a black velvet cape embroidered with gold and silver thread. "Look at the state of you, Walsingham," he chided. "For your own good, I suggest-"
"For your own good, my Lord Chamberlain, be out of my way," retorted Walsingham, pushing past those who stood between him and the next door.
"For your own good, you are still wearing your sword," snapped back the Lord Chamberlain, his eyes meeting Walsingham's.
Walsingham stopped, unbuckled his sword, and without a word, thrust it at the boy. Then, staring at the Lord Chamberlain, he spoke to the boy. "Go through that door and announce me. Now!" Again he ordered the guards, "Open those doors."
The guards looked at one another. One nodded. Together they opened the doors. The boy, scarcely able to control his nervousness, handed Walsingham's sword to one of them, who accepted it without a word. Then he tiptoed into the queen's chamber, with Walsingham hard behind him.
The room was dark and vast, almost as large as the great chamber, with just two points of light in the far corner. The boy found himself moving as if in a dream, entranced by the strange riches around him and the sense of being in a forbidden place, as if he were in Heaven or the Underworld. He wondered whether it was treason to enter the queen's presence without permission. He feared it was. Maybe he would be sent away in disgrace. A chamber clock chimed the sixth hour and he stopped outside; a great bell also chimed six times.
The two lights were a pair of candles on a standing iron frame beside the glowing fire. He could see two figures: a seated woman in a scarlet-colored gown, and a slightly portly gentleman who moved uneasily across the line of light. The boy was halted in his tracks by the man's voice.
"Who the devil comes here at this time? Who are you who dares come in here?"
The echo of the voice died away.
"Announce me," hissed Walsingham.
"My lord, your Royal Majesty," said the boy, who had never been allowed anywhere near the queen before, and had never been told how to address her or her Secretary. His courage failed him. He faltered, and fell silent. Dick Venner had advised him that, "If you see the queen, bury your forehead in the ground." He now followed that advice, and went down on both knees, and spoke to the floor. "Your Grace," he began, not knowing how to address a man more important than a bishop, "this is Mr. Walsingham, who...who comes on urgent business."
Walsingham stepped forward. "I would speak with you alone, Sir William."
The boy could not believe what he had just heard. Even though he knew little about etiquette, he understood that Walsingham had just shown huge disrespect to the queen. He heard a rustle of silk skirts and slow footsteps. He dared not move but remained pressed to the floor.
"What did you say?" said the queen. Her voice was that of a young woman but more clipped, controlled. The boy sensed Walsingham slowly go down on his knees.
"Tell me, Mr. Walsingham, what business brings you here to speak to our Secretary who is with us in a private audience? We are conscious of your lack of tact, which is sadly habitual. We are all too well aware of your rudeness and your clumsiness of manner, but no matter what you think you are doing, we still expect you to act like a gentleman. Speak, or we will have you whipped out of this room."
The boy did not dare to move. He hoped the queen would overlook his presence. Maybe he could slide away when Walsingham left without her even noticing him?
"Your Majesty," said Walsingham, "given that I must speak, and urgently, would you permit me to tell Sir William the grave news-that Clarenceux is dead."
The queen turned to Cecil. "Clarenceux King of Arms? Is that news sufficient to disturb us?" She turned back to Walsingham. "Do you not realize the gravity of the situation? A prince of the royal blood has been murdered. Lord Henry Stewart might have been a drinker and a philanderer, not to mention a stupid young man, but he was of the royal blood, and now he is dead, killed by whom we know not. What is the death of a herald in comparison? Are you going to interrupt my privy meeting to tell me one of my cooks has died?"
She glared at him. Walsingham met her gaze, then bowed his head. "Ask Sir William, Your Majesty."
Cecil had regained his seat and was sitting, leaning forward, looking down at the infinite space before his mind's eye.
Cecil took his time. "Your Majesty, I have something to tell you. Something of even greater gravity than we have been discussing. But the boy should not hear it."
"What disrespect is this?" demanded Elizabeth. "Walsingham blasts in here-a man who is not even a peer of the realm and therefore has no right to demand access to my presence-he marches in here, without so much as a dignified word of greeting and demands to speak in private with you. His excuse, if you can call it that..." She did not finish the sentence but addressed Walsingham directly. "The heralds are members of my household, as well you know. If the death of one of them concerns anyone, it concerns me. Now speak quickly. You will explain this fully, here and now."
"The boy," repeated Sir William.
The boy was staring at the floor, not daring to look up. He heard the queen walk closer to him until the hem of her skirt was in front of him. "Do you have a face?" she asked.
He looked up and saw her bright red skirts trimmed with cloth-of-gold fanning out from her narrow waist in a wide circle around her ankles. "I am sorry, your Royal Majesty, I heartily beg you-"
"Shhh, enough," she said. "Get to your feet."
He rose as quickly as he could. He saw a very white cheek lit by the distant light of the candle, the rest of her face in silhouette. He noted the reddish-brown of her hair and the string of pearls around her neck. Her sleeves were close fitting to her arms.
"Let us walk to the door," she said.
He walked unsteadily, too conscious of himself. "Stop," she said gently. She came up close behind him, put her hands on his shoulders, and whispered in his ear, "You have done the right thing. It was wise to let Mr. Walsingham through. We know he has our best interests at heart. What is your name?"
"Cleaver," he said, not daring to turn around. "Ralph."
"We will remember you, clever Ralph. We will ask Mr. Edwards to give you a gift in the morning. Now go, and close the door behind you. Tell those outside we are not to be disturbed again."
Ralph turned awkwardly, keeping his head down, and bowed to the queen. He left the chamber.
Elizabeth waited until the door had closed. Then she took a deep breath and walked back to the glow of candlelight where Sir William was seated. Walsingham was now standing beside him, leaning over the gout-stricken man, whispering to him.
"Do not whisper, Mr. Walsingham," she said. "It is bad manners. Worse-you are likely to arouse our suspicions." She paused. "We are owed an explanation at the very least. We would also like to know what you are discussing so quietly. What news do you have for our Secretary-and therefore for us?"
"Your Majesty," said Walsingham, straightening himself, "I have to tell you that there was a fire at Thame Abbey on Monday, two days ago, which engulfed part of the monastic buildings. Mr. Clarenceux was inside. I watched, I waited, and I prayed-but he did not leave. My men and I attended the building all afternoon and all night, fighting the fire and preventing it from spreading, but no one inside was able to escape the flames. The heat was too intense. Yesterday morning the refectory was a mass of charred and smoking ruins. We searched the underground drains from the monastery and found a girl there, sheltering from the blaze, and she confirmed that Clarenceux had not left the building."
"You are sure?" asked Cecil. "Absolutely sure?"
Walsingham nodded. "There was no way out of it-no way anyone could have survived it. I had the place surrounded and my men could not get within thirty feet of the walls because of the heat."
The queen took her seat beside the fire. "We know that you and Mr. Clarenceux were not close. You and your men let our herald die. Is that not nearer the truth?"
"No, Your Majesty."
"You were there, guarding the abbey, by your own admission. You stopped Mr. Clarenceux escaping. It suits you well that he is dead, does it not?"
Walsingham stiffened. "No, Your Majesty, I most earnestly assure you that that is an unfounded accusation. It is true that Mr. Clarenceux and I had our differences, but in the manner of his death, he showed himself to be most loyal, and utterly undeserving of any criticism I have laid at his door over the years. I can explain my past view of him. In serving you, Your Majesty, I must presume some individuals are guilty until I know otherwise. I must sometimes be suspicious even where there is apparent loyalty. In trying a man in court we may presume him innocent, but in investigating a crime we must hold everyone potentially guilty. Mr. Clarenceux was a maverick, and came close to treason on more than one occasion, but ultimately he proved himself innocent."
"It is easy to apologize to the dead, Mr. Walsingham. And to see one of our servants do so is distasteful to us. We tend to wonder why the apologizer did not prove as apologetic in life." She addressed Sir William, seated in his red fur-trimmed robe. "Does your gout permit you to tell me whether we should trust Mr. Walsingham? You use it as an excuse to sit in our presence, but we will not let you keep treason from us."
Sir William chose his words carefully. "Your Majesty, Mr. Walsingham has my utmost trust, as you know from the number of his reports that I have laid before you. He is a man who loves nothing more than to uphold your security."
"In that case you will understand why we are most concerned that, when we asked him to explain the meaning of this herald's death, he said that we should ask you. What secrets are you keeping from us, Sir William? If he is trustworthy, what does he mean by telling us to ask you?"
Cecil sighed. He was used to laying traps for other people, and not used to being caught in one himself, especially not one set by a woman-and a younger woman at that, for Elizabeth was not yet thirty-four. But he was wise enough not to let it show and not to let himself be hastened into saying something he would later regret. He had not survived the calamitous accession of the late Catholic queen, Mary, and made his peace with her, witnessing the execution of his friend the duke of Northumberland and the duke's daughter, Lady Jane Grey, only to stumble now.
"Your Majesty, I must crave your indulgence, and your forbearance. I must speak about the succession."
"You know that we have forbidden that. To any of our subjects."
"I have not forgotten. I also know that you would rather face an unpalatable truth than have it kept from you."
"You know us well, Sir William. Speak truly."
"William Harley, the late Clarenceux King of Arms, was a man of the old religion. Like most people whose business harks back to the past, to heraldic achievements and rituals of ancestral respect, he did not wish to break with Rome. Nor did he wish to see the churches desecrated and their monuments defaced, the tombs uprooted and the monasteries and chantries demolished, their ancient manuscripts burned-"
"Sir William, we must caution you. We are the Supreme Governor of the Church and we intend to exercise our rights in that capacity as freely as our father did. We will stand by those Acts by which corrupt monastic houses were abolished. They were passed for the good of the soul of the kingdom."
"Your Majesty, I was merely illustrating what Mr. Clarenceux felt in his heart. I was not moralizing. You need to understand that even a royal officer might be nostalgic, and loyal to other things as well as your royal person. And please, if I may, let me speak without another warning as to the succession. There are no other men in this realm of yours who have worked so assiduously for your safety as the two of us here now. Mr. Clarenceux has long been the subject of our attentions in this regard-for more than three years, in fact."
The queen looked at the figure of Walsingham in his filthy clothes, standing not far from Cecil's chair, then back at Cecil. "Very well, go on."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. The date to which I refer was in December in the sixth year of your reign, 1563. An old man called Henry Machyn, a merchant taylor living in the parish of Little Trinity, gave Mr. Clarenceux a chronicle. That chronicle contained the key to finding a document which touched upon the matter of your succession. To be specific, the document in question relates to the circumstances of your birth. It is a marriage agreement between your mother, the late Queen Anne, and Lord Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland-"
The queen could not contain herself but spoke with passion. "My mother never married Lord Percy!" She rose to her feet. "What you are describing is nothing more than a rumor which came to my father's ears. Do not presume to tell me I should believe such lies."
Cecil was alarmed by her sudden use of the first person. "Your Majesty," he said gently, "I suspect you have never been told the full circumstances of your mother's death."
Elizabeth stared at him. She saw the beard, the expression of warmth in his eyes, and recognized the integrity of a loyal subject. She resumed her seat.
"Thank you, Your Majesty. You need to understand this. Originally your father decided to divorce your mother, not to have her tried for treason. I myself have copies of the letters sent home by the Ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, Eustace Chapuys, who was very well informed. I also heard this from those who were at court at the time. Some of them are still alive-it was only a little more than thirty years ago. The grounds that your father chose for the divorce were that your mother had previously agreed a marriage with Lord Percy."
"No!" exclaimed the queen, but her protest was one of unwilling belief, not disbelief.
Cecil went on. "The information came from your father himself. There is independent verification too. In 1527, when your father arranged his marriage to your mother, the permission from the Roman pontiff carried a special provision. It stated that the marriage would be valid even if she had previously conducted a betrothal with another man. The reason for that provision was that she had confessed to your father that that was exactly the case. She had been betrothed to another man. Therefore the pontiff agreed to sanction your parents' marriage with just one condition."
"One condition?" repeated Elizabeth. "Tell me."
"That the earlier marriage had not been consummated."
Elizabeth sat motionless, thinking. Both men watched her intently. She rose to her feet and walked toward the fire. "You are now going to tell me that my father discovered that the earlier marriage had been consummated."
"He found many people ready to attest that it had been. But you also need to know what happened next. When your father declared that he would divorce your mother on the grounds that she had been previously married-which would, in law, have been a valid reason for divorce-he made a terrible mistake. For no one had considered you, Your Majesty. The law as widely understood and articulated in an Act of 1484, Titulis Regis, rendered the situation thus: because your parents had both been married before to other partners, and because they had subsequently married in secret, you would be-well, you do not need me to speak the word."
"Say it, Sir William. Say it as cruelly as you can. ‘Your parents' marriage was void.' Tell me I am a bastard. Commit that treason-if you dare! Remind me that my father killed my mother for incest and adultery. My father severed my mother's head from her body. Do you not see that I will burn with the memory of that fact every day of my life? It is as if my father cut me in two as well. I will never be whole."
Cecil took his time. "I am deeply sorry, Your Majesty, but I have to-"
"And another thing," said the queen. "Titulis Regis was repealed. It has been cut from the statute books. No trace of it exists any longer, except in certain old chronicles that we have yet to destroy. It does not apply."
"Your Majesty," replied Cecil, "it is not the Act of Parliament itself that is crucial but the law that that Act clarified. Edward the Fifth was deposed because of illegitimacy even before the Act was passed. But you have not understood my main point. When it became apparent that the king was making public the prior matrimonial alliance of your mother, together with the consummation, lawyers hastened to give him advice. They told him that he should not do this. By that course of action, they informed him, he would render you illegitimate and incapable of occupying the throne. That would leave your Catholic sister, Mary, as the sole potential heir to the throne. They advised him to find another way to end the marriage, namely those charges for which your mother was eventually tried. The king, your father, was given a simple choice: to let your mother live in a divorced state and have you declared the child of an illegal union; or to concoct heinous and false charges against your mother and execute her for treason, thereby allowing you to remain a lawfully conceived daughter of the king."
"Lies!" shouted Elizabeth. "Though it pains me to recall the fact, my father had me declared a bastard anyway, at the time of my mother's death. If he contrived to have her executed to save me, why then kill my mother and bastardize me?"
Cecil looked at Walsingham. He took a deep breath. "Your Majesty, I am bound to speak the truth to you. There were those at court who wanted your mother disposed of and who wanted the king to recognize your Catholic sister as your father's only legitimate offspring. Thomas Cromwell in particular hoped that, by making your parents' marriage null and void, he would force your father to re-legitimize your sister Mary, and make her his heir. Cromwell cited certain just and lawful impediments at the time of your parents' marriage. He meant, of course, the marriage of Lord Percy and your mother. It makes no sense, but your mother was killed for adultery which, according to Cromwell, she could not have committed, not being properly married to your father."
Elizabeth brooded. Neither Cecil nor Walsingham could see her face. They heard her slow footsteps as she moved away, and heard the rustling of her dress.
When she spoke, tears were heard in her voice. "I never believed the lies they said about my mother. I always believed my father was misled, and that he killed my mother as a result of his fear, his gullibility. You cannot know what it is like-to fear all the time, all the time-never to know who is plotting against you until it is too late. My father's offense was one of ignorance, I believed, not malice to my mother. But I often wondered why she forgave him on her deathbed, for everyone tells me that she did. At her trial she denied every charge laid against her and then, just three days afterward, as she faced death, she prayed for my father-her killer-and called him a gentle prince, and forgave him, and urged no one to speak against her fate. She said her death was lawful-even though she knew that the charges against her were lies and contrary to her plea." Elizabeth paused and wiped her face again. "And he betrayed her anyway." She made the sign of the cross. "Now I can see. She was told, wasn't she? She did it for me. She reconciled herself to my father at her execution, for my sake. She pretended that all those accusations were true-to save me."
"That is my understanding, Your Majesty," answered Cecil quietly. "Your mother's sacrifice was the last thing left to her. Through her death, she saw she could save you. And even though Cromwell betrayed her, she did save you. Everything would have turned out as she hoped, had it not been for one problem. Despite her final speech and confession, there was documentary proof of her previous marriage. It passed from Lord Percy at his death to the man who conducted his funeral, Henry Machyn, an ordinary man. Machyn gave the document to Mr. Clarenceux. That is the problem we face now. At the time of his death, Mr. Clarenceux had possession of that proof."
Elizabeth's mood shifted instantly from one of regret and sadness for her mother to one of cold alarm. "Then where is it now?"
Cecil looked at Walsingham. "I too would very much like to know."
Walsingham looked reluctant to speak. But he had no choice. "Mr. Clarenceux went to Thame Abbey two days ago supposedly to hand the document over to a Catholic conspirator. As Sir William is aware, he gave us prior warning. I was greatly alarmed and had a large number of men standing guard. But as I watched, the building burst into flames-with Clarenceux and his Catholic contacts inside. There was nothing we could do. There were explosions. We formed a chain to bring water from the fishponds to fight the blaze, but the refectory and everything inside it was lost in the intense heat. It was when I heard the explosions that I knew that the fire was not accidental. Clarenceux had led his contacts there to destroy them. The girl whom we found confirmed these things."
Elizabeth was silent. "And the document? The supposed proof?"
"Mr. Clarenceux certainly took it into the abbey. But there were two other people with him, besides the girl: a gentleman by the name of John Greystoke and a woman, whom the girl informed me was called Joan Hellier. Both must have perished in the flames. I presume the document was destroyed with them."
"Presumption is not enough, Mr. Walsingham."
Sir William broke the uneasy silence that followed, shifting in his chair and wincing with the pain in his foot. "I can say nothing about the document but I can say something about the late Mr. Clarenceux. He may have been a supporter of the old religion, but he was not a revolutionary. He did not want to use that document to further the Catholic cause. If that had been his plan, he could certainly have done so to good effect. But he refused. He came to me recently; he was distraught. Seeing the danger, I insisted that he surrender the document to me rather than risk it falling into his enemies' hands. He would not. I told him he had no other option but to bring the business to a final conclusion. It now appears that he has done exactly that. That is why I too presume he took the document into the fire with him."
Walsingham spoke. "A message was taken to Clarenceux in the abbey by the girl just before the fire. It was a date, the thirtieth of June last year-but what it signifies, I do not know."
The logs on the hearth crackled. "We need to know," Elizabeth said, walking around the back of Cecil's seat. "We want to know everything-what happened, whether this man was loyal or a traitor. We must know if that document has been destroyed. Interrogate anyone who had dealings with him-anyone to whom he might have slipped it before he climbed onto his heretical pyre."
"Your Majesty, it will be done," said Walsingham, looking at Cecil. "To that end I shall now take my leave of you, with Your Majesty's permission."
"You have it."
Walsingham bowed and left the chamber.
The sound of the door closing echoed away. Elizabeth walked back to the fire. "We see that he remembers his manners when taking his leave." She resumed her seat and sat in thought. "Sir William, it is not just the document we need to know about. It is the truth-the whole truth. We feel naked. No matter what clothes we use to adorn this royal body, the truth makes us feel that we are open to the view of all our subjects. ‘The queen is this, the queen is that.' We cannot escape their suspicions, their name-calling, their disrespect. We can pretend that lies do not touch the woman inside us, but the truth-the truth strips us of all defenses and leaves us exposed. If this document is indeed reflective of what happened all those years ago, and we are illegitimate, then we have no right to rule. The truth in time will overwhelm us, and we will be destroyed, clinging to our crown for the sake of our own personal safety. But we do not believe it. We believe we have a right to rule, and we believe that our rule-though it be sometimes affected by our weaknesses-is that of God, and that people trust us to rule in the eyes of God. You must find out whether our self-belief is justified or not."
"You are England's ordained queen; no one can doubt that," Sir William replied carefully. "Moreover, you are your father's only surviving child. No one can doubt your right to rule-neither for dynastic reasons nor in the name of God."
"Every Catholic in England doubts it. Our cousin Mary doubts it. Her late husband Lord Henry Stewart doubted it."
"Ah, yes. Lord Henry. We will need to send someone to the Tower to tell his mother. My wife knows her. I will ask her to perform that duty."
Elizabeth approached Cecil. "You are avoiding our question, Sir William. Perhaps we did not express it sufficiently clearly. Tell us, in truth, did our mother marry Lord Percy?"
Sir William felt as if he had been struck in the chest. Words failed him. He tried to force himself to tell the queen what she yearned to hear, but then he looked up at her and could not bring himself to lie.
"I believe so."
Elizabeth was silent for some seconds. "It exposes our humanity, does it not?"
"I do not know what you mean."
Elizabeth closed her eyes. "It reveals our fears and anxieties so clearly, and so fully. A political life is one of an intensified conscience, in which all the worries of the painful day and the tumult of the soul are thrown together, and we have to exist between them, from moment to moment. We despair, Sir William. A man can be a king in every way but a woman who is expected to perform the functions of a king...no. She has to bear the twin weights of her womanhood and the crown which she is not physically capable of bearing. She has to be ruthless where a man would be ruthless, strong-minded where a king would be stern-and yet she has to be a woman too. A king can have children and remarry if his wife dies in childbed, but can a queen make that same reckless decision? We think not. That is why we despair."
"Your Majesty, do not despair. On your shoulders England's salvation rests. If you despair, then England despairs. In churches they will despair of the righteousness of their faith. At sea, mariners will despair of the safety of their vessels. Merchants will despair of the fairness of their trade. I cannot counsel you as to what passed between your mother and Lord Percy. However, I do know this. Your reign is founded on hope, not despair. You are the hope of the kingdom-and without you and your faith in yourself as well as in God, England will lose its way."
"Then let us hope that that part of the past which suddenly causes us so much grief and doubt was consumed in the flames with Mr. Clarenceux. For, as we surmise, if it still exists, it is no longer in his hands, but in those of a Catholic rebel. And then our private doubts will become public fears, and we will be called an impostor queen-without just right or divine grace. And then..." She paused and looked at Cecil in the candlelight. "Then our father's destruction of our mother will have been nothing but selfishness-the cruel machinations of his ministers-and her self-sacrifice will have been in vain."
"Your Majesty..." Cecil began, instinctively trying to reassure her. But he had nothing more to say. She had just said it all.