The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘Many are hopeful,’ she answered dismissively, being in no mood to wrangle with him. Robert had just entered the lists and she could not take her eyes off him. As the contestants charged, she stood there, riveted.

  ‘Maybe you are thinking of an alliance nearer home,’ Quadra said softly.

  ‘I am considering several options,’ Elizabeth replied, clapping vigorously as Robert unhorsed her cousin, Lord Hunsdon. ‘Bravo!’ she cried. ‘Bravo, my Eyes!’

  Baron Breuner was watching jealously from his vantage point a little further along the gallery. As soon as he decently could, he requested an audience.

  ‘Your Majesty, it seems there is no point my staying in England,’ he said, his expression conveying that there was much point if she would only come to her senses. ‘You do not want to marry my master the Archduke. Your heart is given to another.’

  ‘I will be the judge of where my heart is bestowed,’ Elizabeth said coolly, her good mood evaporating. If Breuner left England, Robert would be blamed for it. She was well aware that he was already viewed by everyone as the reason why she would not commit to any of her suitors. Cecil had warned her, more than once, that she was casting away her advantages because of him – and he was not the only one complaining.

  When Robert came to her that night he was livid – but not with Breuner.

  ‘Norfolk goes too far! He told me – he actually said to my face – that he would do all in his power to bring about your marriage to the Archduke. I answered that he is neither a good Englishman nor a loyal subject who advises the Queen to marry a foreigner.’

  ‘Then I must be a traitor to my own throne, for I have contemplated it many times,’ Elizabeth said wryly. ‘But contemplated is all there is to it, and just now I do not want to think of importunate foreign princes, or their importunate ambassadors. God’s blood, Robin, do not frown so! Norfolk is a fool. Leave me to deal with him. You and I have better things to do.’

  She smiled and held out her hand.

  Breuner was still at court, all smiles now, for some mysterious reason – and Bishop de Quadra was in a high good mood when next the Queen granted him an audience. He could barely wait to tell her his news.

  ‘The Archduke Charles is shortly to set out for England, Madam.’ He might have been informing her of the Second Coming. ‘All your conditions have been met, and soon you will see him face to face.’

  Elizabeth hardly needed to pretend to be disconcerted. ‘But I understood that the Baron was leaving England, and that he would not press his master’s suit further.’

  ‘I must apologise for him, Madam. He gained the wrong impression, that your heart was set on another.’

  She toyed with the rings on her elegant fingers, feeling as if she had been ambushed. ‘Bishop, my heart is set on no one. I am not contemplating marriage at present. Of course, I might change my mind when I see the Archduke.’ It was as unlikely as the Second Coming, but the Bishop might not appreciate such honesty – or the analogy.

  She was pleased, though, to see that she had ruffled Quadra’s feathers. It would serve him right for his presumption. ‘Madam,’ he said testily, ‘you have all but invited him for your inspection.’

  ‘No!’ she snapped. ‘I said only that I wished to meet him and get to know him, and that I could never marry a man I have not met. Others have put their own construction on my words.’

  ‘Madam,’ Quadra spluttered, ‘I have it on good authority, from one of your own ladies, no less, that some reluctance to commit to marriage is expected of English ladies, and that you do but wait to be teased into an answer.’ Steam might at any moment issue from the Bishop’s ears, Elizabeth thought, suppressing a giggle. It was plainly beneath his dignity to have any truck with teasing.

  ‘Members of my household often say such things, and with the best of intentions,’ she countered, ‘but they have never done so on my authority.’ She was enjoying this immensely.

  ‘Then I have been made to look a fool,’ Quadra stuttered. ‘I do not pretend to understand your Majesty.’

  ‘Good Bishop, I hardly understand myself!’ Elizabeth beamed.

  One dark winter evening Elizabeth was sitting at a desk in her privy chamber, engrossed in translating a passage from Tacitus, when Cecil came to her, his face grave.

  ‘Madam, before we go into council, I must warn you that my spies are reporting dangerous gossip about Lord Robert. It is being bruited, not just in England but also abroad, that he means to poison his wife so that he can marry you.’

  ‘That is a wicked lie!’ Elizabeth flared. ‘Anyone who believes it is a fool, as Robert would be if he ever contemplated such villainy. But he is not, thank Heaven. He is too religious a man ever to think of such wickedness. Even so, were he to murder his wife, suspicion would immediately light upon him, and the hue and cry would be out. And I,’ she cried, warming passionately to her theme, ‘would I be so foolish as to marry him after that? They would say that I had been his accomplice, and it would cost me my throne. Who is spreading these stupid rumours?’ She was almost tempted to commit murder herself.

  ‘Bishop de Quadra for one,’ Cecil said. ‘He is the most inveterate gossip, and I suspect he reports every piece of idle chatter in his dispatches. That may be why this talk has spread beyond your Majesty’s realm. Challoner, our man in Brussels, forbore to commit details of the rumours to paper, they are so foul. He hastened to assure me he knew they were false.’

  ‘I should hope so!’ Elizabeth fumed, then sighed deeply. This had all gone too far. ‘What remedy is there, my Spirit?’

  Cecil eyed her wearily. ‘Marry, Madam – and soon. That would put an end to all the tales.’

  Elizabeth threw him an exasperated look.

  ‘I will deal with this my way,’ she insisted.

  She responded to the speculation by appointing Robert Lord Lieutenant and Constable of Windsor Castle. She took to praising his loyalty to herself and his zeal for the reformed faith. Let the world see that she had no cause to be ashamed of her Eyes! Her open favour would give the lie to the malice of her enemies. It had already enabled Robert to secure court posts and other offices for many of his friends. Now, in anticipation of his elevation to greater things – rumours or no rumours – people thronged more greedily than ever to obtain his patronage, and an eager faction formed around him in the expectation that he would soon be king.

  Elizabeth knew that most people underestimated Robert. He might strut like a peacock in gorgeous plumage, but he had a fine mind, and he was hot for the Protestant cause. It had taken time, but many were beginning to see him as the champion of the new religion, and theological tracts were already being dedicated to him. It was known too that it was not mere jealousy that set him against the Archduke: he abhorred the prospect of England being tied to a Catholic power, or allied in any way to Spain, and many applauded him for that, even if they did not like him.

  Elizabeth watched Cecil watching Robert. She knew her Spirit too well to suspect that he too was animated merely by personal jealousy. No, he saw Robert as a threat to her chances of making a good political marriage, and to the stability of the realm. He was so obviously taking care to be especially courteous and affable to Robert, but she knew that he was hand in glove with Norfolk and would bring the favourite down if he could. In December, however, Norfolk went too far, and publicly accused Robert of poking his nose into state affairs, where it most definitely was not wanted or appreciated. Elizabeth had had enough. She banished the Duke to the north to serve as Lord Lieutenant on the Scottish border. Let him simmer for a while in the wastes of Northumberland, and reflect where his arrogance had brought him!


  The Archduke Charles had not come after all. Someone had warned him that it might prove a humiliating exercise, and his father the Emperor would not allow him to expose himself to that. In December, a disgruntled Breuner had left England; and two months later, very reluctantly, Duke John went home, Elizabeth having most courteously turned down Erik of
Sweden. Most people believed that the way was being cleared for the Queen’s marriage to Lord Robert. Now there were not just rumours that he meant to poison his wife; there was also talk that he would divorce her. The consensus was that he would get rid of her by some means.

  The truth was that Amy Dudley’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Elizabeth found herself facing the fact that Robert might soon be a free man – and that he would waste no time in pressing his suit. She felt she ought to be exhilarated at the prospect, but in reality she saw herself cornered. Whatever Robert said or did, he could not purge her of her fears of what marriage would mean for her.

  God be thanked, the trouble with the French and the Scots was at an end. The Queen Regent of Scotland had died, the Protestant lords had seized power, and the French had sued for peace.

  ‘William, I want you to go to Edinburgh in person to negotiate a treaty with the Scottish lords,’ Elizabeth instructed Cecil. Her other councillors looked dubious. What was the matter with them? Were they wondering what she would get up to without her Spirit’s restraining influence? Things had certainly come to a pretty pass!

  Cecil seemed to be entertaining the same concerns. In fact he looked alarmed. ‘Is it really necessary that I go?’ he asked. ‘Randolph is a good agent. He can deal with this.’

  ‘There is no more skilled negotiator than you,’ Elizabeth insisted. Cecil did not argue, but when the meeting ended he waited until the others had left.

  ‘Madam, I must ask. The banishment of my lord of Norfolk is preying on my mind. Does the idea of my going to Scotland proceed from Lord Robert?’

  Elizabeth bridled. ‘God’s death, William, it is my idea, and you know it is a sound one.’

  ‘You will not make any decision over your marriage while I am away?’

  ‘You mean, am I going to do away with Lady Dudley and hasten Robin to the altar?’

  Cecil was perturbed by her levity.

  ‘It is no light matter, Madam. You know what people are saying, and you do nothing to discourage it.’

  ‘What, that Robin and I have had five children in secret? I read that report. I hope the woman is behind bars now.’

  ‘Madam, we can lock up as many offenders as we can catch – and we might as well lock up the whole court in the process – but that will not stop the rumours. Only your Majesty can give the lie to them.’

  ‘God’s blood, are you saying I am not circumspect? Or that I set a lewd example?’

  ‘Madam, I know that you are without reproach. But others see what they want to see. You associate with Lord Robert, a man fouled with rumour. He could bring the realm to speedy ruin were you to marry him.’

  Elizabeth lost patience. ‘You fear only for your influence, William, and that colours your opinions. Now get ye gone to Scotland and stop fretting. I am the one who rules here, and I can manage without you for a few weeks.’ She was being unfair to Cecil, she knew, for he had never put his own concerns before the needs of the realm, but she was sick to the teeth of his constant vilification of Robert. She couldn’t wait to see the back of him.

  Cecil went, unhappily, to Edinburgh. There, setting his worries aside, he negotiated a masterful treaty that gave Elizabeth everything she wanted and more. The Scots and the French had agreed peace terms. Most importantly, they would recognise Elizabeth as queen of England. Mary Stuart would stop quartering the arms of England with her own, and – God be praised – had undertaken to cease calling herself by Elizabeth’s title.

  The threat of war had receded. Elizabeth now stood triumphant in the eyes of Christendom.

  Robert was peevish.

  ‘Cecil has not secured the return of Calais,’ he grumbled, ‘or made the French reimburse you for all the money you have outlaid fighting them in Scotland – money England can ill afford.’

  ‘By God, he has not!’ Elizabeth concurred. Cecil’s criticism of Robert still rankled. ‘I will write and remind him of his duty.’ Let Cecil feel the draught of her displeasure. He would soon stop complaining.

  That was the only blot on the landscape of that glorious summer, her second as queen. Elizabeth basked in the golden sunshine, giving herself over to pleasure and love, and Robert was never far from her side. By day they rode and hunted through countryside baked brown in the heat, Robert stripped of his doublet and Elizabeth wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat to protect her fair skin; in the evenings they danced galliards, laughing as they leapt high in the air, or made music together, strumming ballads on lute or gittern; and at night they lay rapt in each other’s arms. Ambassadors from politically amorous foreign princes still crowded the court, but it was plain to all that the Queen had eyes only for one man. And now the whispers were louder than ever: ‘Wanton! Adulteress! Harlot!’ But Elizabeth stoutly ignored them. She did not blench when Bacon, earnest to protect her reputation in Cecil’s absence, ventured to protest that Lord Robert was ruining the realm with his vanity.

  ‘Even the mean folk in the villages cry out against him, Madam,’ Bacon persisted, ‘and there is much grudging on the part of your nobles to see him held in such special favour, and – forgive me – the little regard in which your Majesty appears to hold marriage.’

  ‘How dare they say such things!’ Elizabeth exploded, incandescent with fury. ‘I have nothing wherewith to reproach myself!’

  ‘Madam,’ replied Bacon, never faltering, ‘I would be failing in my duty if I did not report what is being said. I know your Majesty will do what is best.’

  ‘Oh, we will, we will, my Lord Keeper, never fear,’ Elizabeth retorted, wishing all gossips at the bottom of the sea.

  But there was no escaping the rumours. Cecil heard them, even in Edinburgh, and hastened to write to his Queen: ‘It is my constant prayer that God will direct your heart to choose a worthy father for your children, so that the whole realm will have cause to rejoice and bless your seed.’

  ‘Pah!’ snorted Elizabeth when she read this, and when Cecil returned to court after his long, hot journey south, and all the councillors greeted him with effusive congratulations on his fine diplomacy, she showed herself cool and distant. She would not utter one word of thanks or praise.

  ‘Madam,’ murmured Sussex, appalled, ‘he has negotiated a great peace. Will you not show him some mark of favour?’

  ‘No,’ said Elizabeth glacially. ‘He has displeased us.’

  Robert showed himself gleeful at Cecil’s discomfiture. He was busily courting Bishop de Quadra, hoping to secure Spanish support for his own promotion in opposition to Cecil. Elizabeth had told him to say that she needed a swordsman to counter her scribes.

  Cecil, painfully aware that he had been away too long, knew exactly what was going on. No longer did Elizabeth linger to talk with him after council meetings; she seemed to want to avoid him. Not only had she shown absolutely no gratitude for his hard bargaining in Edinburgh, she would not even defray his expenses! Worse still, she had actually boxed his ears when he complained. With a heavy heart he could only miserably conclude that Robert Dudley had made the most of his rival’s absence, and that matters had moved on apace between Dudley and the Queen. He was sickened to find that gossip about them was livelier and more blatantly suggestive than ever. Talk of Dudley obtaining a divorce was rampant.

  Elizabeth seemed to have been seized with a kind of madness that had addled her judgement. She made no attempt to preserve discretion. She visited Robert openly at the Dairy House at Kew, and it was being said that they spent long evenings there alone together. God only knew what they were getting up to.

  Elizabeth loved the Dairy House; it was the one place where Robert had never lived with his wife. Elizabeth had made it clear to him, on bestowing the property, that it was out of bounds to Amy. She wanted to be able to call there unannounced, without running the risk of being confronted by Amy’s woeful, sickly face.

  One balmy summer evening, when Elizabeth returned from Kew late at night, her cheeks hectic and flushed, her eyes shining, Cecil was waiting for her. At
that moment the Devil, complete with his pitchfork, would have been a more welcome sight.

  ‘Madam,’ Cecil said, bowing, and looking lugubriously unlike the Devil, ‘a word, if I may.’

  There was a time when she would have seen him immediately.

  ‘Not now, William,’ she answered, fanning herself, determined to put him in his place. ‘I have just enjoyed a splendid evening at Kew. Do you not agree that Lord Robert has so many praiseworthy qualities? He has been most helpful in the matter of the Imperial alliance, and he has a good command of affairs in Europe. I am firmly of the opinion that he is deserving of further honours. That would be most fitting, would it not?’

  Cecil gritted his teeth. Dudley had no business to be advising the Queen on politics. ‘Praiseworthy qualities, loyalty and hard work in your service should indeed be rewarded, Madam,’ he said pointedly. Inwardly he was alarmed. Such honours might be a preamble to making Dudley king – and then what would befall Cecil? And the Queen herself?

  He sought out his fellow councillors. All, to a man, deplored the Queen’s failure to take a husband.

  ‘She will brook no master,’ sighed Sussex, thinking how complicated things could become when women got above themselves.

  ‘She means to use her marriage only as a bargaining tool,’ said Bacon.

  ‘It seems it is of little use to contemplate a foreign marriage alliance,’ said Cecil gloomily, ‘because I fear that she has already decided to marry Robert Dudley. Gentlemen, the situation is becoming desperate. Bishop de Quadra has warned me to expect a palace rebellion by Dudley.’

  ‘Well he exaggerates everything,’ Sussex observed, although the prospect of the Gypsy rampaging through the corridors of Whitehall was really rather worrying. ‘But,’ he added cheerfully, ‘I have also heard it muttered that there are those who have had enough of queens and want to see her Majesty and Lord Robert clapped in prison.’

  ‘Scaremongers,’ Cecil sighed. ‘I would that Lord Robert was there, though. His influence is too great, and it is pernicious. But what is the alternative to her Majesty? The next in line is also a woman, be she Katherine Grey or Mary Stuart. We have the prospect of petticoat rule ad infinitum! And I for one am weary of it. In truth, gentlemen, I am considering tendering my resignation. I may recall Sir Nicholas Throckmorton from Paris to replace me as Secretary.’

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