Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Princess in the Tower

by Barbara Kyle

Princess Elizabeth, age 14
They came for her at dawn.

Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was twenty years old. For three weeks her bitter half-sister, Queen Mary, had kept her a prisoner in a remote corner room of Whitehall Palace. Music and laughter from distant banqueting rooms had reached Elizabeth faintly, like echoes of the life she had lost. It was March, 1554.

The men who came for her were Henry Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, and William Paulet, the sixty-year-old Marquis of Winchester. They led her out into the cold spring rain and took her down the Thames toward the Tower. Terrified, Elizabeth sat shivering in the barge. She was sure she was on her way to die.

Sir Thomas Wyatt
She had been arrested at her country home at Ashridge, and when they had brought her into London she had seen the grisly evidence of her sister’s justice in the wake of Sir Thomas Wyatt's failed rebellion. Gallows heavy with decomposing rebel corpses stood at every one of the city’s gates and in the market squares. Body parts of rebels who had been hanged, drawn and quartered were strung up along the city walls, a nightmare vision of dismembered arms and legs, the stench making the street dogs howl.

London Bridge
The river, squeezed between the viaduct’s twenty huge arches, roiled in treacherous rapids, and the bargemen squared their feet wide, preparing to "shoot the Bridge." Elizabeth gripped the gunwale to steady herself. The barge rocked and pitched in the angry water as it tumbled through the cavern of the stone arch. The barge shot out the other side, wallowing in the confused currents, jolting Elizabeth’s neck and knocking her knee against the hull.

Reaching the Tower, she implored the lords not to take her in by Traitor’s Gate. "I am her Majesty’s true subject," she said, "no traitor."

In fact, the tide was with her. The low water made it impossible to enter by Traitor’s Gate, a water gate. Instead the bargemen were rowing for Tower Wharf.

Tower of London

Queen Mary I
As Elizabeth's escort walked her into the Tower precincts she glimpsed, across the courtyard, the scaffold on Tower Green. Just weeks ago her cousin, Lady Jane Gray – queen for nine chaotic days – had stumbled up the steps of that scaffold. Trembling, she had groped in confusion for the block on which to lay her head and the Queen’s executioner had brought his axe thundering down. Pitiful, bewildered Jane, just seventeen years old. Yet Wyatt's rebels had not fought in her name but in Elizabeth’s. How much more cause, then, did Mary have to hate Elizabeth?

Mary’s hate was a deep well that Wyatt’s treason had merely topped up. Its wellspring had been Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, despised by Mary for supplanting her own mother, Catherine, as their father's queen. Mary’s years of suffering before coming to the throne all stemmed from Anne. Now, as Queen, she was going to make Anne’s daughter pay.

The place Elizabeth was taken to was not a dungeon or a filthy cell but a fine room in the ancient royal palace in the Tower's inner ward. This was the very place where her mother, condemned by the king her husband, had been lodged before he had executed her. Elizabeth had been three years old. Later, she had heard the tales of her mother’s reckless courage in those days. Knowing that the axe of an English executioner sometimes hacked two or three times to finish his grisly job, Anne had demanded that an expert French swordsman be imported to make one clean cut.

Now, Elizabeth tried to muster her mother’s courage. She believed she would be the next to die . . .

But she was not executed. Two months later, reluctantly bowing to the people's love of the Princess Elizabeth, Mary released her, but kept her under house arrest at the moldy old "palace" of Woodstock for almost a year.

In 1558 Mary died, childless after a failed and unhappy reign, having been virtually abandoned by her husband, Philip II of Spain.

Elizabeth ascended the throne at age twenty-five. She ruled for forty-three years, one of England's wiliest and most successful monarchs.

Elizabeth I


My novel, The Queen's Captive, opens with Elizabeth taking that terrifying barge journey to the Tower. It's the third book in my Thornleigh Saga which follows a middle-class English family’s rise through three tumultuous Tudor reigns during which they make hard choices about loyalty, duty, family and love.

The most recent book in the series is The Queen's Exiles.

For information about all my books, please visit my website:

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