The physical and mental abuse of children, and its consequences on young lives, is the chilling theme which runs through Alison Weir's study of the relationship between the four heirs.Scholars have recently claimed that early portraits of Elizabeth I show the text-book signs of a sexually- abused child. A still, watchful girl stares back at her onlookers in a provocative yet strangely disembodied pose, as if her emotions and her body had long since separated. Historians attribute the distress in her eyes to Edward Seymour, who became Elizabeth's stepfather when he married Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife and widow. The Privy Council's subsequent interrogations of Elizabeth's governess reveal that within weeks of the charming but ruthless Seymour marrying Parr he turned his attentions from his wife to his stepdaughter. What began as playful romps in Elizabeth's bedroom became more serious and unchecked until the pregnant Katherine Parr caught them in a clinch. Seymour's attempt to use Elizabeth as a pawn in his bid for the Protectorship was merely the last act in a series of betrayals.
Almost all the adults who had any power over the four children exploited it in unspeakable ways. Seymour apart, it is hard to decide which of them committed the greatest crimes. The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, for instance, the mother and father of Lady Jane, were parents too horrible to invent. The poor girl once confessed to a friend that every moment spent in their presence was torture: "whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go...I must do it...as perfectly as God made the world or else I am so sharply taunted...yea presented with pinches, nips, slaps and other ways which I will not name...that I think myself in hell." The Suffolks starved and beat Jane until she agreed to marry Guildford Dudley, and then forced her at knife-point to accept the crown. Once imprisoned, her usefulness was over; neither parent tried to communicate with her or plead for her life.
Death was a happy release for Jane from her "woeful days,'' as it was for her cousin Edward. The boy's Lord Protector until he came of age was the Duke of Northumberland, who made a mockery of the word "protector". When Edward was dying of consumption, Northumberland prolonged his life by feeding him arsenic, causing the boy unimaginable agony, while he plotted to seize the crown for his son, Dudley. Unfortunately for his calculations, Edward died too soon. Northumberland hid the body until its stench threatened discovery, then buried the corpse in a field, substituting at the right time a freshly killed look-alike in its place.
He also inflicted irreparable damage on the relationship between the three siblings, poisoning Edward's mind as well as his body, persuading him to disinherit his sisters. It was not difficult to stir up jealousy and paranoia among the three. During their father's lifetime the sisters had lived in poverty while their brother basked in glory as the favoured child. Anne Boleyn's relentless bullying of Mary ensured that her stepdaughter would resent Elizabeth forever. Elizabeth's relationship with her brother was no doubt coloured by their father's preference for boys. They were united against Mary's Catholicism yet, goaded by Northumberland, deeply suspicious of each other.
Alison Weir makes the point that child victims become adult oppressors, and her subjects' mistreatment forms an important backdrop to historical events. But beyond this she refuses to speculate. It would be interesting to know whether she considers the children's experiences made them more vulnerable to manipulation in later life. (Why, for example, did Elizabeth's favourites always have a touch of Edward Seymour about them?) But this is a small grumble compared to the immense satisfaction provided by Weir. She writes in a pacy, vivid style, engaging the heart as well as the mind. This, her fourth book on the Tudors, affirms her pre-eminence in the field.