Lizzy Drake Interviews the Dowager Duchess Lettice from A Corpse in Cipher
The year for Elspet Stafford is 1513 and she is a young woman who is to be trained for court, to be a lady-in-waiting for Queen Catherine, Henry VIII’s first wife. Both a Stafford and of the Howard line, Elspet should have a promising start in court if she can keep out of trouble. The Dowager Duchess Lettice, the strong-headed matriarch of Ufford Manor, has been training her for the role, but the two women keep ending up entangled in murder and intrigue. I have asked Mistress Stafford to bring the Dowager with her as the two are nearly inseparable these days.
LD: Thank you Dowager Duchess, for joining us today. I was hoping Elspet would be with you, will she be along shortly?
DD: No, I think I’d better answer these questions for her.
LD: Are you quite sure, Lettice?
DD: Please don’t address me so informally, I am of high birth and must be respected as such.
LD: Of course, Your Grace, please forgive me. If Elspet Stafford won’t be joining us, shall I ask you the questions?
DD: Yes. You may proceed.
LD: Right then. Ah, when and where were you born?
DD: How dare you?
DD: A lady never reveals her age.
LD: Right. Yes, of course. Ah, well, could you tell us a little about your background?
DD: I was born, not a Duchess, as you may know, in Suffolk. I married into the title shortly after Henry VII came to the throne but the Duke died in battle not long after we were wed. I’ll not speak of the times before that, as they were very dark and I was too naive to appreciate the vileness of the pretender, Richard III and his evil kin. When the young Tudor came to the throne and married Elizabeth, we were all so excited. I was invited as lady-in-waiting to the young Queen. The stories she told about her uncle! Oh, your ears would wilt. Can you believe she was to marry him had Henry Tudor not claimed his rightful place on the throne?
LD: How interesting, but I think we are already familiar with the budding Tudor crown. Can you please tell us about your time in court when Catherine of Aragon was present? Before she married Henry VIII?
DD: Ah, Queen Catherine. Such a beauty and so very clever. You know she used to communicate to her father in cipher when her time became awkward in court. She was sent over to marry Henry VII’s first-born, Arthur, but she knew not a jot of English! She learnt very fast and she and I used to converse in very rough language for a while. She was a quick learner. When Arthur tragically passed, she was stuck at court with no money from her father and no support from the King. She had to use her wits and that’s when the cipher came about. That used to drive Henry VII to madness, though Queen Elizabeth secretly appreciated the resourcefulness of the woman. We were all so sad when she passed.
DD: No, silly girl, Elizabeth. Catherine is doing just fine, as we know, and not likely to move from her position by the king’s side.
LD: No, of course not. Who could imagine? So, have you and Elspet, I mean Mistress Stafford settled in Catherine’s court? I understand you’ll be going back very soon.
DD: Indeed so! I can hardly wait! I may be ancient in years, but I never tire of court. I know Mistress Stafford will be missing my son, Lord Ufford, but she needs to get some exposure to court life before she settles down and starts bearing children. You know, he hates it there? But that may just be because… well, we mustn’t discuss that here. I love the intrigue of court you know, and Elspet does too and just because we had that unfortunate incident at Ufford Manor she’s pulled inside of herself a bit more – it’s why I told her I’d take the interview for her. Today she’s flying her merlin in the fields outside Ufford Manor before she and Lord Ufford and their servants make the trip to London.
LD: Will Elspet’s merlin be going to court too? I understand there are some wonderful hunting parties.
DD: Most definitely. I may get my own hunting bird too and go with them.
LD: Oh? You still ride?
DD: Of course! Though they all run after me in a panic that I may fall and break my neck. I like to keep everyone on their toes.
LD: *leans in close* Is it true that you and Elspet are Queen Catherine’s spies?
DD: I don’t know what you are talking about.
LD: You know, the cipher you discovered. And the body… You know…
DD: No. You want to find a spy, speak to Thomas Howard, he has many.
LD: Right. Okay. Would you like to talk about how Elspet Stafford came to be in your household?
DD: Yes. Her mother, another one of these Howard girls, sent her to me when the child’s fiancé was killed in battle…
LD: Pardon my interruption, but he didn’t really die in battle did he?
DD: And she was sent to my household to train for court. Since then, she has grabbed the attention of the Queen who wishes her to serve in court as a lady-in-waiting, a wonderful position for her to advance her life.
LD: But she has made a new match for herself, isn’t that so? She has no need to mingle with men in court.
DD: I cannot comment.
LD: Well, Your Grace, it will be a short interview if you refuse to comment on the questions.
DD: I am getting weary, child. Best let this interview finish now.
LD: Thank you Your Grace, for your time. Please do pass on my regards to Mistress Stafford when you see her.
DD: I shall.
LD: I look forward to speaking with you again soon, maybe next time some more about your time in Catherine’s court after she married Henry VIII.
DD: Farewell, Mistress Drake.
LD: Goodbye Your Grace, thank you for your time.
Lizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing career in the genre.
When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.