Mary Tudor paced her private rooms, a letter clenched tight in her fist. Was this some kind of jest? Or a trick, perhaps? She refused to believe the contents genuine – that was quite simply too outlandish to countenance. And yet…
She stopped pacing and smoothed the single sheet of paper to reread the words. Not that she needed to. She’d gone through this same routine times without number since the missive’s arrival nearly three days earlier. She did it again all the same, to reassure herself that she hadn’t simply imagined the contents.
It would do me the gravest honour if you would permit me an audience before you march on London. I bring with me an opportunity for us both to survive the current turmoil. Survive and, perhaps even prosper.
I will also bring with me someone whose fate, like ours, has been placed in precarious balance by the manoeuvrings of certain of those at court who should seek to control our dear brother’s successor.
Should you accept this meeting, I will arrive at Framlington three evenings hence from your receipt of this letter. Should you prefer continued enmity, send word with my courier and I shall abide by your decision.
Your loving sister,
Mary’s firsts impulse had been to dispatch the courier with a venomous rejection stinging at his ears, but something about the cautious phrasing tugged at her own curiosity. Who was the mysterious third party Elizabeth wished for her to meet? From her own spies at court, she suspected Elizabeth was alluding to their cousin, Jane Grey, and, if so, Mary was not of a mind to listen to anything either of them had to say. But then there was that knot of curiosity again: questions over how Jane might have absconded from her family’s grasp; questions how Elizabeth had come to be in her company; questions, if one came to it, of how Elizabeth herself should come to be anywhere near the environs of Framlington.
So Mary had not dispatched the courier with rejection, but with acceptance, and justified it to herself as practicality. She wished to know what Elizabeth and Jane might be plotting and, were they plotting against her, she wished for them to be where she could best deal with them. And that was, of course, a good and valid reason, but deeper down she knew it not to be the whole reason.
“Curiosity will be my doom,” she muttered to herself, taking back to the pacing, letter once more grasped in her fist.
It was on her next circuit of her rooms that the tap on the door came. It was coming on towards the third evening and Mary had set her most trusted ladies to be on the alert for new arrivals. That tap had heralded just such an arrival. Mary took a breath, drawing herself up fully and squaring her shoulders. Time to meet her doom, if doom it be.
Opening her door, she found Catherine Howard waiting. The young woman curtseyed as was proper and said, “Your visitors have arrived. Your sister and another woman.”
Mary nodded. “The other woman has revealed herself?”
Catherine shook her head. “She wears a cloak with a thick hood even despite the season.”
Mary nodded again, grimly. Yes, were she Jane Grey, absconding from her family’s machinations, she too would be wearing unseasonal clothing. “Where are they waiting?”
“In the council chamber. Only my father remains present with them, though the household guard are nearby.”
Thomas would be discreet about anything seen or heard, while the guard’s presence was a sensible precaution, although Mary doubted that Elizabeth or Jane would try anything at this meeting. This would be reconnaissance. Judge her defences. Strike later – if strike they would. “Then we shall see what my sister and her companion have to say.”
And with that, she swept down the corridor towards the council chamber. During the day it was a lively spot where much business was transacted as Mary prepared for her march to London, but at night the room was abandoned in favour of the lights and merriment to be found in the great hall. That was to the good. Few in her retinue would look favourably on Elizabeth’s arrival. Fewer still would see Jane’s presence as anything other than a threat.
At the entry to the chamber, Mary paused. Elizabeth and her companion were standing square in the centre of the grand room. Both looking demure and dressed for travel, although Elizabeth had already shed her travelling cloak to reveal her flame-red hair. She had half expected to hear her younger sister complaining at the delay in Mary seeing them, but Elizabeth was mute. Patient. So too her companion. It was hard to judge much in that quarter, for Catherine had described her travelling gear with precision: a thick and heavy woollen cloak disguised everything about her save her height which was small, even when standing next to Elizabeth.
Having learned all she might from simply viewing, Mary entered the chamber. Elizabeth looked up and offered a cordial if controlled smile.
“Sister, it is good to see you in such health.”
“And you as well.” Mary halted a few paces before her sister. “I was surprised to receive your letter.”
“And I was surprised to write it,” Elizabeth admitted. “And yet I meant every word.” She flicked a glance at Thomas and then at Catherine. “Should we…?”
“They remain,” said Mary firmly. “They will not speak of what occurs within this room to anyone. Thomas is my host here, Catherine my most loyal lady.”
Elizabeth nodded slowly. From her expression, lit by the last rays of the setting sun, Mary sensed her sister was weighing up the words. Judging if she too could trust the Howards. For a moment, Mary felt sure her sister would demur, but then there was a twitch of the shoulders and Elizabeth nodded again. “As you wish.” She gestured to her companion. “Permit me to present Lady Jane Grey.”
Jane drew back her hood and then offered Mary a curtsey. “My Lady Mary. My mother has spoken of you often, in glowing terms. It pains me that we stand now as we do.”
It was hard to know which part of that small speech surprised Mary more: the remembrance of her god-daughter, or that Jane was prepared to allude directly to the succession crisis and her position in it.
“These are difficult times,” she murmured.
“Difficult indeed,” Elizabeth agreed. “And yet, I think perhaps I see a way forward that would suit all of us and spare us considerable trouble.”
“How?” Mary asked bluntly. “If the rumours are to be believed, Dudley and others have determined that I am not to be queen and that, in my place should be you, Jane; leaving you, Elizabeth, further in the shadows. Possibly even to be killed off lest you pose a threat.”
“The rumours are true,” said Jane. “And please believe me that this is not a position I wished to attain. Were I to desire to rule, I should wish to rule as myself. But I know that my father and Dudley and the others have no intention to see any such future. They wish me to be their puppet and, more, to be married swiftly and produce an heir to secure their future.”
The sheer disgust in Jane’s words and expression made Mary chuckle despite herself. “Ah, the curse of the Tudors. Always in need of an heir and a spare and a spare besides!”
“And yet,” said Elizabeth, “we three are as smart and clever as any of them. They pit us one against another, whispering poison and keeping us from seeing the folly in these divisive tactics, but we see the folly all the same–for we are not the empty-headed dolls that they wish us to be.”
There was considerable truth to Elizabeth’s words. “What do you propose instead?”
“A pact,” said Jane.
“You propose a triumvirate?” Mary was derisive. “Remember your lessons, Bess! Only Caesar can rule. A triumvirate will always collapse and more war and bloodshed follows.”
Oddly, Elizabeth smiled at the rebuke. “I remember my lessons, Mary. I learned them well. Never in history has there been a chance for three women to do as I propose. Women have been cast as history’s schemers. Well, let us scheme. You are our rightful queen, no matter what our brother might have attempted on his death-bed, no matter what our father might have done in his lifetime.”
Mary actually found herself rocked back a pace. “You would accept me as your queen?”
“Of course,” said Jane. “It is your birthright, far more so than mine and more than Bess by virtue of your stature as elder.”
“This would seem to be all for my betterment.” Mary moved her gaze sharply between her sister and her cousin. “I see nothing for you, no reason for either of you to agree to this.”
Elizabeth offered a more conspiratorial smile in return. “It comes back to what you spoke of: the heir and the spare. The Tudor curse.”
Jane nodded. “In us you have two ready-made heirs who need not spring forth from some political union.”
“At this moment,” Elizabeth continued, “you have the will of the people with you, for they have no particular love for Dudley and his ilk. That will change, and change quickly, for the moment you are queen, you will be expected to marry and produce a child. You will be expected to cede your rightful power to the man you wed and that man will either be Dudley himself, one of his cronies or some foreign princeling. Whoever he may be, he will not find favour with the people and you will be a queen in name only.”
“Allow us to stand with you and you can avoid such a trap,” Jane picked up the thread. “You retain your power. You will the queen you were born to be and you will not be forced into a union for politics or any other reason.”
Mary stared at the two women standing before her. “You believe Dudley will permit such an arrangement to stand?”
“He will have to, lest a treason charge be in his future.” Jane paused and allowed a small smile to cross her otherwise grave face. “Truth be told, he knows such a charge to be in his future if he fails in his attempts with me, and be assured that if you do not wish to proceed with this plan, I intend to make good my escape. I will serve no-one’s ambitions but my own.”
Almost of their own accord, Mary’s feet set her to pacing once more. “And yet you would serve mine?”
“Your ambitions are what this country needs,” said Elizabeth. “We both see that. Don’t you?”
Mary turned in time to see Jane nod. “I am a Catholic. What if my ambitions are to see this country rejoin the church?”
“You will lose the people even faster than if you marry some lordly toadie,” said Elizabeth frankly. “Our father may have been wrong-headed in his break from the church. Our brother was wrong in all he said of the church, the Pope and of your devotions. But this country has always been uneasy with Rome. We are independent-minded and chafe at those who do not understand the spirit that comes from dwelling apart.”
Fury flashed through Mary at such plainly spoken words, but behind it came the recognition that her sister was not incorrect. She could picture what might happen were she to travel that route. Death. Martyrs. Discontent. She could be stubborn about it, of course: she was both her father and mother’s daughter and they had both been wilful and determined people who had, once upon a time, worked well as a team.
“We three might not always agree,” she murmured, pacing anew. “And we should have to constantly be upon our guards, for those against this pact will seize on any weakness.”
“But,” countered Jane, “if we do not make this stand now, they will simply find a new target. Your namesake from Scotland, babe though she is still, perhaps? Or perhaps they will find another cousin – or claim so. Better still should they find a suitable boy.”
Mary turned back to her conspirators. “Truth be told, I’m surprised Dudley went to you and not to some dressed up farm-boy.”
Jane inclined her head. “My father is of Dudley’s circle, otherwise I too would have expected such a move.”
Mary paced. The plan was fraught with difficulties. She knew her history. There had never been a regnant queen before and here were they, plotting that there should be two or perhaps three. Dudley’s circle would hate it, that was a given, but what would the other lords and dukes of the country feel? Would they even succeed? How great was Dudley’s support? She knew her own forces were not inconsiderable–but if it came to pitched battle, what then?
On the other hand, knowing the succession was secured without having to negotiate a marriage contract would smooth matters. She could rule and lead and not be beholden to anyone beyond her own household. Ambitious lords would still curry favour; foreign lords and princes would still seek alliances. She would be able to pick through the offers and requests and choose only the truly advantageous as opposed to the merely expedient. Elizabeth was right that she might not return England to the true faith, but she could see that the harsher policies against Catholics were overturned. Maybe, given time, people might return of their own accord. Set an example and the people followed. Force an example and the people rebelled – hadn’t she done that very thing in maintaining her faith in the face of Edward’s strictures and laws?
Her feet came to a halt before her visitors once more. “They say that fortune favours the bold. My ladies, this is a bold strategy that you have laid before me. When I received your letter, I thought it a jest, at best, but I see it now as a genuine path open to us, should we be so brave as to take it. And how could we not? I do not say that we should agree on everything for we three all possess the Tudor will and we all know our own minds, but we also have it in our hearts and minds to do what this country needs. And it needs not the ilk of Dudley and his schemers.”
“Then it’s agreed?” asked Jane.
“We have a pact?” said Elizabeth.
Five days later, Mary received word from London that what support Dudley had enjoyed by virtue of Edward’s favour was draining away as he scrabbled and scratched for an heir. Ten days later, she marched on London. Elizabeth at her right hand; Jane at her left. England would never be the same, and that was not a bad thing at all.