Sir Robin Dudley, Master of the Queen's Horse, had broad shoulders and swarthy good looks, a dashing taste in doublets, and a great deal of personal charm. I was a young woman of only twenty-seven and I ought to have found him attractive.
Instead, I detested him.
He wasn't a kindly man, for one thing, and I appreciated kindness. The uncle and aunt who saw to most of my upbringing had so conspicuously lacked it.
And for another thing, Dudley came of a family so fiercely ambitious that his father and one of his brothers had lost their heads for plotting against their sovereign, and Robin once came near to plotting against her himself.
Queen Elizabeth knew this perfectly well, but remarkable individual though she was, in this respect she was the one who was conventional, while I was not. Dudley's masculine beauty entranced her and at twenty-eight, not much older than I was myself, she was not yet hard enough to have that handsome head and that muscular set of shoulders separated by the executioner's ax. She and Robin were not lovers, but he was still her favorite.
There were those who looked on her liking for him with a sentimental eye; for instance, Sir Henry Sidney, who had married Dudley's sister. Well, Sidney had the virtue of kindness but in him it sometimes went too far. As Sir William Cecil, the Secretary of State, once said to me in a private fit of exasperation, Sidney was too sweet-natured for his own good and every now and then his intelligence drowned in the sweetness like a wasp in a jam pot. "On this business of the queen and Dudley," Sir William said furiously, "Sidney is a simpleton."
The majority of the council members were not simpletons and they were anxious. My immunity to Robin's attractions was useful to them. For although I was outwardly just a Lady of the Presence Chamber, I also took a wage from Cecil for (among other tasks) keeping an eye on Sir Robin Dudley and reading his correspondence whenever I got the chance. As a way of earning a living, it sometimes hurt my finer feelings, but somebody had to do it, for Elizabeth's sake.
I should be honest, though. I owe Robin something. In 1560, eighteen months after Elizabeth took the throne, I came to her court as a widow with next to no money. My husband was dead of the smallpox, and I had a small daughter to rear. I entered the risky but remunerative world of spying through an errand that Dudley asked me to do, and because of that, I was thereafter able to pay for the clothes and education that would give my little Meg a chance in the world.
Then, in 1562, quite by chance, and without ever knowing it, he could be said to have saved a life that was dear to me. But for Dudley and his ambitious skulduggery, there would have been no royal inspection of the Tower treasury that March, and the result could well have been tragedy.
Elizabeth was no fool. She had forgiven Dudley for his scheming, but it had disturbed her deeply, all the same. What Dudley had done was to tell the Spanish ambassador that he wanted to marry the queen, but feared this would be such an unpopular move that there might be a rising. If so, would Philip of Spain oblige the lovebirds with an army, if in return they promised to bring England back to the Catholic Church?
We learned, much later, that good-hearted Sir Henry Sidney, anxious for his queen's happiness, had actually encouraged Dudley in this lunacy. It was the Spanish ambassador, Bishop de Quadra, who refused to take it seriously. It came to nothing. But it was not forgotten.
Sometimes, walking with her ladies, Elizabeth was more candid than she was even with her councillors, perhaps because we were women like herself. On that afternoon near the end of February, when she was strolling in the garden of Greenwich with me and Lady Katherine Knollys, she suddenly spoke of the matter. "My father would have had Robin's head for it," she said frankly. She rubbed a hand across her brow. Elizabeth was occasionally subject to violent headaches, and she had woken with one that morning. It had only just subsided. I sympathized, for I was sometimes a victim of the same malady. "But I was loath to lose my sweet Robin," she said, and then sighed.
I had never told Elizabeth what I thought of her sweet Robin but she knew, all the same. There was still a line between her golden-brown eyes, left there by the pain of the headache, but she gave me a challenging look.
"He is devoted to me," she said, "and devotion can make fools even of strong men. He will not be so foolish again, nor will Sidney. Though Sidney meant no harm; he was only trying to help, however misguidedly. Whereas Robin -- is ambitious."
Ambition could have much the same effect as devotion. Dudley was probably drawn to her as much by her royal power and the dream of sharing it, as by her slender, enigmatic person. Elizabeth, I thought, probably knew that, too.
Sir Henry came into the garden at that moment, as though Elizabeth had conjured him up by mentioning his name. She raised a hand in greeting and he stepped across the grass to join us, a neatly made man, not tall, but athletic in his movements. He had red-brown hair and a tidily trimmed auburn beard, and a liking for russet-colored clothes, which went with his coloring. He made his bow with grace, sweeping his tall hat from his head.
"Ma'am. Are you recovered, then? I heard that this morning you were unwell."
"I was. But yes, I am better now. I have been worried, however."
"Indeed? Can I help at all, ma'am?"
"Perhaps," said Elizabeth, but walked on for a while in silence, her long skirt, blue silk with little yellow fleur-de-lis embroidered on it, swishing gently on the scythed grass. Sir Henry fell in on one side of her while Lady Katherine and I walked on the other. Lady Katherine was there because she was Elizabeth's cousin and one of her closest friends and I was there because I was soon to leave the court for a while and Elizabeth said she would claim the company of her dear Ursula while she could.
A chilly wind blew up and died away before Elizabeth at length said: "I am worried because of that sorry business last year when Robin thought of asking Spain to further his matrimonial aspirations by force of arms."
Sir Henry went slightly pink with embarrassment.
"I much regret what he did," she said, "not least because he may have planted a seed that could one day grow. It has been much on my mind. De Quadra did not respond this time but nevertheless, would it not be wise to find a way of making sure that Spain thinks of England as a place too strong ever to attack?"
"There could never be any harm in showing England to be a strong and well-ordered realm," Sidney said carefully.
"Or a solvent one," said Elizabeth. "But we need subtlety. A parade of men and weapons could impress, but it's too obvious. De Quadra must not think we fear his master. We want a graceful hint, perhaps disguised as a pleasant occasion."
We were being invited to offer ideas. "A state banquet?" suggested Lady Katherine. "With costly entertainments and perfumed candles, and a full array of gold plate?"
"The good bishop has attended several of those already," said Elizabeth dryly. "On one occasion, I actually saw him weighing a gold dish in his hand, obviously wondering how pure the metal was. I half-expected him to wrap it in a napkin and steal it away to be assayed. Well, I have heard that Philip of Spain has had some of his gold plate melted down to keep himself out of debt..."
"Really?" said Sir Henry. "The council has not been told of that."
"It was a rumor," said Elizabeth. "Hearsay. But I suspect it's true, all the same. My own position is happier than Philip's and my gold plate is all it should be. Yet a sovereign could keep gold plate for show and still have an empty treasury..."
"But, ma'am," said Sidney, "your treasury is surely far from empty."
"That is true," said Elizabeth. "But De Quadra hasn't seen it." There was a pause, while we walked another ten yards. Then she observed in pensive tones: "A well-filled treasury is a sign that a ruler can pay and equip an army. Display the treasury, and one would not need to parade the army. Yes. I will speak to my Lord Treasurer tomorrow."
It was to be an informal royal inspection of the treasury in the Tower of London. The queen would be accompanied by Sir Robin Dudley, by his brother-in-law Sir Henry Sidney, by her favorite ladies, including Lady Katherine and myself, and by selected guests such as the French and Spanish ambassadors. There was to be no ceremony.
This meant in practice that Sir William Paulet, the treasurer, and Sir Richard Sackville, the undertreasurer, and a horde of minions spent days in advance in the Wardrobe Tower where the bulk of the treasure was housed, lining shelves with black velvet, burnishing choice items with soft cloths, arranging them on stands that would display them to advantage, and laying strips of blue carpet to provide Elizabeth with a pathway around the display.
It also meant that within the Tower enclosure, the informal escort for the royal party consisted of the lieutenant of the Tower, the gentleman porter, three yeomen warders, Sir William Paulet, Sir Richard Sackville, two gentlemen from each of their households, and two trumpeters, who went ahead to announce the queen's approach. There were a couple of page boys in attendance, too, to run errands, hold doors, and pick up anything that was dropped, and the whole business had been carefully rehearsed half a dozen times over the previous morning.
Rehearsal was needed, though, because the occasion was unusual. Having once been imprisoned in the Tower, Elizabeth disliked the place and rarely visited it, splendid though it was, and is. It would be better named the Towers, plural, for it contains any number of them. There's the White Tower, which is the keep in the middle; there are towers dotted all around the huge encircling walls and over the gatehouse; and there's the Wardrobe Tower, standing alone at the southeast corner of the keep. After a brief pause to take wine in the lieutenant's lodgings, and a side excursion, as it were, to inspect the queen's jewel house and admire her regalia and her personal gold and silver plate, we set about the serious business of the day, which began with the gold and silver bullion ingots in the basement of the Wardrobe Tower.
"Please take care on the steps, ma'am. They're steep," Paulet said anxiously. Paulet himself was elderly and had rheumatic joints. He didn't come down with us. Sackville, however, though middle-aged himself, was fitter and acted as guide. Flambeaux in wall sconces lit the way as we descended. Dudley, just behind the queen, kept a hand under her elbow. Sidney stepped down lissomely, but the French ambassador almost tripped, and muttered a Gallic oath under his breath, while short, dapper De Quadra murmured a warning to his colleague that the stairs were worn in the middle. The flambeaux threw misshapen shadows, which glided over the stone of the walls, and although the staircase was dry, there was a river smell about the place. It was cold.
I didn't like it any more than Elizabeth did. It reminded me too much of an earlier visit I had made to the Tower to see a condemned man. My work could send men to their deaths, and sometimes accusing faces appeared in my dreams. In some ways, I, too, needed to be harder than I was.
We crowded into a torch-lit underground vault where ingots of precious metal were stacked like firewood along one wall. Elizabeth, oh so casually, asked Sackville what the total estimated value of the ingots came to, and then repeated the answer in Spanish and French for the benefit of the two ambassadors, apparently out of courtesy but in reality to make sure they'd got it right.
Listening to this piece of dulcet political maneuvering, I thought, once again, how weary I was of intrigue and how glad I was that I would soon be on my way to France, free for a while to keep my nose out of other people's business. Indeed, I seemed lately to have lost my skill in investigation. I would gladly have left the court forever, except that I needed the money for my darling Meg. And if disenchantment with intrigue wasn't my only reason for going, well, the other was foolish and I wouldn't confess it, even to myself.
We climbed back to the daylight and up some more steps, easier ones this time, into a chamber where sunshine streamed through tall, slender windows to sparkle on the treasures so carefully arranged there. This was better. We moved along the azure carpet, marveling at spectacular sets of gold and silver plate, silver spoons with exquisite chasing, salts and candlesticks, gemmed boxes and figurines, ceremonial arms and armor...
Elizabeth had beckoned the ambassadors to her side and without any prompting from Paulet or Sackville was artlessly telling them the history of this and that, dropping in further references to the extraordinary value of the items.
"In an emergency, they would be sold or melted down, of course, but as you saw, our stores of bullion should make that unnecessary. We can keep these works of art and thereby honor the skill of the craftsmen..."
Dudley had drifted away from the queen and was talking to one of Sackville's gentlemen, commenting on a recent court scandal. "The girl was a perfect fool. There she was, as pregnant as a waxing moon, with no proof of her marriage because the so-called husband was abroad; she'd lost the document he gave her that acknowledged her as his wife; she didn't know the name of the clergyman who married them, and the only witness died last year..."
"I know who he means." Sir Henry Sidney had moved to my side. "Personally, I pity her. A silly girl -- but she was deep in love and I daresay she believed that she was married."
"I know who she is, too," I said. "And I pity her as well, even though I don't like her very much."
But Dudley clearly had no sympathy for her at all. As I said, unlike his brother-in-law, he was not kindly.
And because the girl who was so obviously not an object of his concern had once figured importantly in one of the intrigues that were so much a part of my life, the thought of her was like that descent into the treasury basement, bringing back insistent memories that I didn't want.
Once, I had had an alternative to this life of intrigue. The smallpox had killed Meg's father, my first husband, Gerald Blanchard, but I had married again. I had been in love and it should have been a good match, but a matter of conscience had forced us to part. Nowadays, I used my former married name, that of Mistress Blanchard, and I kept Matthew's wedding ring in my jewel box and wore instead the one Gerald had given me.
And that was that, I said to myself fiercely. I had made my choice. I was a wantwit even to think about Matthew these days. My life was here at court and although I was about to go away for a while, I knew I must return in due course and go on with my work and be grateful that I had it. Be content with that, Ursula.
"And here," said Paulet, leading the way to the next array of exhibits, "we have ceremonial weapons and mail. This corselet, heavily embossed, and inlaid with a pattern of enamel and gilding, is of German manufacture -- it was made in Nuremberg, to be precise -- and this one..."
The shelves and tables on this side were set out with ornamental breastplates and helmets, swords and curved Oriental scimitars, their hilts and scabbards all sparkling with gems. Sir Henry and I found ourselves in the company of Sir Richard Sackville. He was stiff in manner, and had an affected habit of using turns of phrase left over from the last century, but I liked him. He did not know of my work for Cecil and the queen (few people did; not even Sir Henry, who was so high in Elizabeth's confidence), but both he and Paulet knew quite a lot about my background, for they knew the man for whom Gerald had formerly worked.
"Since good Bishop de Quadra is among us," Sackville murmured, "we thought it wisest not to enlarge upon the means by which some of these objects came hence. But that corselet there may interest you, Mistress Blanchard." He pointed to the expensively adorned affair from Nuremberg. "Made in Germany it may have been, but it was ordered for the armory of the Spanish administration in Antwerp. It's one of two thousand corselets taken from thence by divers tricks and strategems, and brought across to England."
"Where are the rest of the two thousand?" inquired Sir Henry with interest.
"We shall see them as the last part of this visit," Sackville said. "Weapons of all kinds and a great store of gunpowder were also taken from that same Netherlands armory and brought hither, and they and the other corselets lie in the vaults beneath the White Tower. There was not room enough for them here." He smiled at me. "Mistress Blanchard may well know more of how they were brought out of the Netherlands than even I or Sir William Paulet."
"Really?" said Sir Henry. "I knew you had lived in Antwerp, Mistress Blanchard. Gerald Blanchard was in the service of Sir Thomas Gresham at the time, was he not? But surely you didn't spend your time there stealing gunpowder and corselets."
"I didn't steal them myself," I said. "But Gerald did."
Gerald and I had lived in Antwerp for a nearly a year, as part of Sir Thomas Gresham's entourage. Gresham was a financier employed by Elizabeth to improve her credit and raise loans for her abroad. He had interpreted this brief somewhat liberally.
"Gerald helped Gresham to -- er -- obtain weapons and armor and other valuables from the Netherlands and get them to England," I said. "Not always -- not even usually -- with their owners' knowledge or consent." No, we had better not let De Quadra realize where they came from.
"You must have had an exciting time in Antwerp," said Sir Henry, amused.
He was quite right. Gerald's work had included finding people who could be bribed or blackmailed into lending keys and forging requisitions in order to get valuables -- ingots, plate, armor, all manner of things -- out of storage. Sometimes, Gerald took temporary charge of the filched goods. More than once, we had had consignments hidden under the bed in our lodgings, awaiting a ship or a better hiding place until a suitable ship was in port. It had indeed been exciting.
I glanced around the display. The queen was now examining a sword with a spectacular hilt, encrusted with cabochon emeralds and rubies, and the French ambassador, in conversation with the lieutenant, had strolled back across the room to look once more at the gold and silver plate. With Sackville and Sir Henry still at my side, I followed them, wanting a second look myself. Sackville had jolted my memory. Yes, of course. That fine set of gold plate was one I had seen before. Gerald had taken me to see it aboard the ship that was to carry it illicitly away from Antwerp. And just before the smallpox struck, there had been another splendid consignment...I scanned the table and moved along it. But none of those items seemed to be on view.
"That isn't all the plate from Antwerp, is it?" I asked. "I take it that the rest is stored somewhere, like the corselets?"
"Oh no. We keep all the plate together, here," Sackville said. "It is so very beauteous. As you see, we have had stands made on which to set it out. Why do you ask?"
It had been two years ago. That particular consignment had rested, briefly, in our lodgings while Gerald checked it over. I had helped him, writing down a list of items as he dictated them, before he and the manservant we had then took them away to be stowed, not under anyone's bed, not that time, but under the floor of a rented warehouse. The rent had been paid for five years in advance and the agreement contained a clause forbidding the owner to enter the property until those years were up.
I could still hear Gerald's voice in my head, dictating that list. As a child, I had shared my cousins' tutor, and he had made a great point of training his pupils' memories. I could recite verse by the furlong, and carry a shopping list of thirty or more items in my head with ease, after hearing them told over just once. I could remember almost word for word what Gerald had said, and besides, I had seen most of the items myself.
Slowly, as near as I could, I repeated the inventory.
"Item, one full set of gold plate, value approximately ten thousand pounds, including twenty-four drinking goblets, marked with the badge of a noble Spanish house, set in cabochon rubies and emeralds.
"Item, a golden salt, two feet high, shaped as a square castle tower, with a salt container under each turret and spice drawers below. Decorated with the same badge, set in rubies. Value approximately twelve thousand pounds.
"Item, a silver salt, with a fluted pattern and a chased pattern of birds and leaves around the rim. There is a hinged lid in the likeness of a scallop shell, beneath which are four salt containers that may be lifted out. Value approximately three thousand pounds.
"Item, sundry small costly ornaments, total value approximately seven hundred pounds.
"They're not here," I said. "But they were among the things which Gresham, well, sequestered, with my husband's help. Was some of the treasure from the Netherlands broken up -- or melted down? Or sold?"
"One would hope not. Such exquisite artifacts should never be destroyed." Sir Henry was quite shocked.
Sackville, however, was nonplussed. "Mistress Blanchard, I have never seen the items you describe, nor found them on any list. When were they sent to England? On what ship?"
"Gerald was arranging for a ship at the time when he fell ill," I said. "Come to think of it..."
His illness had struck suddenly and from the moment when I first knew what it was, I had thought of nothing except him and Meg and how best to care for them. I had had smallpox as a child, without my complexion being much harmed, but I would take no risks with Meg. In frantic haste, I had arranged other lodgings for her and her nurse; and, thank God, neither of them caught it. I myself had stayed with Gerald, to nurse him and worry about him and at last to grieve for him. From then until now I had not thought, even once, about that hidden treasure. I hadn't even thought about it when I transferred Gerald's keys from his key ring to my own and noticed, vaguely, that the warehouse key, a distinctive affair in ornamental ironwork, was with them. I had meant to return it, but in the exhaustion and preoccupation of bereavement, I forgot. I was in England when I noticed the key again, and then trying to return it seemed like pointless effort.
It was only a key, after all. No one reminded me that it might unlock a treasure. Our manservant, John Wilton, had probably assumed that all arrangements for transporting the valuables were in hand. At least he had never mentioned it to me and I could not now ask him, for he, too, was dead.
The key was still on my ring; a souvenir of past happiness and nothing more.
"Come to think of it," I said again, "I doubt if those items ever left Antwerp. I expect they're still there."
I knew precisely where, too. When Gerald first rented the warehouse, he had shown it to me, and shown me the hiding place under the boards of the ground floor where, he hoped, not just one but a succession of consignments would rest. The first consignment had been the last, but I knew he had got it safely as far as the warehouse. It must still be where he hid it.
Well, it could stay there as far as I was concerned. I wanted no part of it. It was just another symbol of the intrigue of which I was growing so tired that even though France was now a country on the edge of civil war, and even though March was a terrible month for voyaging, I was prepared to travel there on family business just to get away for a while from plots and politics.
And to pass, perhaps, within a few miles of where Matthew de la Roche, my current husband, was probably living. Back it came, my longing for him, persistent and absurd.
I pushed it away. I would not try to see him and I didn't imagine he would want to see me. Matthew was gone forever and the sooner I accepted that the better.
Copyright © 2000 by Fiona Buckley
A Mystery at Queen Elizabeth I's Court Featuring Ursula Blanchard
A Mystery at Queen Elizabeth I's Court Featuring Ursula Blanchard
By the Queen's command, she carried a letter that could alter the course of history -- or eclipse her own future....
Eager for a respite from her role as handmaiden to Queen Elizabeth I, Ursula Blanchard agrees to travel to France to help her first husband's father bring his young ward home to England. But duty soon calls. Fearing that the pro-Catholic forces threatening to tear France asunder will spread to Protestant England, the Queen instructs Ursula to deliver a secret letter personally to Catherine de Médicis, offering to mediate the crisis.
Not only will the perilous journey separate Ursula from her young daughter, it will bring her closer to a man she can neither trust nor forget -- her estranged second husband, Matthew de la Roche, avowed Catholic and enemy of Elizabeth. As it becomes clear that someone seeks to thwart her mission, she realizes she can trust no one but herself, and that only she can uncover the truth hidden in the shadows of treason, greed, and desire that darken her way.