Innocent Traitor

Prologue

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. Oh, God.

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.

Frances Brandon,

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