A Royal Scandal

Chapter 4 : Suspicions Aroused

The Queen seemed to see nothing wrong in all this. She may still have regarded her step-daughter as a child. She raised no protest when she heard that the Admiral would pull apart Elizabeth's bed-curtains and 'make as though he would come at her', causing her to shrink back giggling into the bed to avoid being tickled. The Admiral said it was harmless, and the Queen believed him. Mrs Astley, however, was not so sure; and she was concerned about her charge's reputation.

One day, when the Admiral chased Elizabeth out from behind the bed-curtains where she had hidden with her maids, the lady-in-waiting spoke to him, and said there had been complaints about his behaviour and that 'my lady was evil spoken of', presumably among the servants. The Admiral answered that he would report to the Lord Protector 'how I am slandered,' but Mrs Astley insisted she herself must always be present whenever he entered Elizabeth's bedchamber, and made certain from then on that she was.

Early in March 1548 Katherine Parr discovered that she was at long last to have a child. Both she and the Admiral were delighted. At thirty-six she was, by the standards of her time, well into middle age and rather old to be having a first child. Nevertheless, she seems to have enjoyed good health throughout most of her pregnancy.

The romps continued. Sometimes the Queen even joined in. At Anne Boleyn's old manor of Hanworth that spring, Katherine accompanied her husband to Elizabeth's room on two occasions and joined in the tickling. While still at Hanworth, the Admiral chased Elizabeth through the gardens; when he caught her, he took shears and cut her black mourning gown into strips, while the Queen, laughing, held her still. After Elizabeth fled indoors, Mrs Astley asked in horror what had happened to her. Elizabeth would only reply that 'it could not be helped'.

Her infatuation with the Admiral was becoming quite obvious. A concerned Seymour, to divert suspicion from himself, told Katherine he had recently seen Elizabeth, through a gallery window, 'with her arms round a man's neck'. The Queen was shocked, and sent for Mrs Astley, who advised Katherine to question the girl herself. She did so, but Elizabeth burst into tears and denied that such a thing had ever happened, begging her step-mother to ask all her women if it were true. She had little opportunity for such things, as she was hardly ever alone, and the only men who came into contact with her, apart from servants, were her elderly schoolmaster and the Admiral.

The Queen's suspicions were aroused. If Elizabeth was telling the truth, her husband must be lying. Suddenly everything made sense: the morning romps, Elizabeth's behaviour, Mrs Astley's tight-lipped disapproval. Katherine did not think that the affair had proceeded beyond a mere romp, but she realised that her husband was in pursuit of Elizabeth, and knew that he was the kind of man who would seduce her if the opportunity presented itself. It was therefore imperative that she take some action to protect the girl, who was, after all, under her roof and in her charge.

The Queen sent for Mrs Astley and confided her suspicions to her, telling her to 'take more heed, and be as it were in watch betwixt the Lady Elizabeth and the Admiral'. Mrs Astley was relieved that Katherine was now in command of the situation, and to know she did not suspect it to have progressed very far. Later that day she told Sir Thomas Parry, who was in charge of Elizabeth's financial affairs, that 'the Admiral had loved the Princess too well, and had done so a good while', but his bluff was about to be called. Parry, too, promised to be watchful.

When, in April, Katherine came upon her husband and Elizabeth together – in what circumstances we do not know - her happiness was shattered. In May, mindful of her duty to protect her step-daughter, she sent Elizabeth to live with Mrs Astley's sister and her husband, Sir Anthony Denny, at Cheshunt. Elizabeth was deeply upset. She told Mrs Ashley that she had 'loved the Admiral too well', and that the Queen was jealous of them both. Before her departure, she had one last painful interview with Katherine, who is supposed to have said, 'God has given you great qualities. Cultivate them always, and labour to improve them, for I believe you are destined by Heaven to be Queen of England.'

When she arrived at Cheshunt, Elizabeth was told by Mrs Astley that the Admiral would have married her, if he had had the chance, rather than the Queen. Elizabeth asked how she knew that, whereupon Mrs Astley told her 'she knew it well, both by herself and others'. Before very long, it was common knowledge, and caused further grief to Queen Katherine; what was worse, however, were the rumours that were beginning to spread regarding Elizabeth's relationship with the Admiral.

There were tales of illicit meetings, criminal intercourse, even of a child born in great secrecy. Such tales, most of them fabrications, probably originated in servants' gossip at Chelsea. It would be another year, however, before the government took them seriously and the storm broke.