The Marriage Game by Alison Weir


  ‘I find it strange,’ said the Bishop, frowning, ‘that Master Secretary told me she was perfectly well, only the day before she died.’

  ‘What? Sir William said that?’ Elizabeth was stunned. It did not make sense.

  ‘Forgive me, Madam, he told me it was not true that she was ill, that she was very well, and taking good care not to be poisoned, for certain parties were plotting to kill her.’

  Elizabeth paled. ‘That is not true,’ she averred. ‘She had been ill for months. Lord Robert was very concerned about her. We knew she was dying – and Sir William knew it too. Why should he say that?’

  ‘I have no idea, Madam,’ Quadra replied, starting to look perplexed. The Queen’s reaction had seemed genuine enough.

  But Elizabeth was beginning to have a very good idea. And after she had dismissed the Bishop, she fell to some hard thinking. Cecil hated Dudley – and always had. That master of political intrigue would have done much to prevent her marrying Robert, and had made no secret of his fears that it might cost her the throne, and England its Protestant saviour, whom men now called the new Judith or Deborah. She had known that Cecil had been thinking of retiring on account of Robert, for others had told her. She’d known too that she had upset him by her lack of gratitude for the advantageous treaty he had negotiated. Yet, with her eyes dazzled by Robin through those long, spacious, enchanted summer days, she had been blind to Cecil’s misery.

  Now she was not so blind. The events of the past months had opened her eyes. She knew that few princes had ever had such a counsellor, and that William, her Spirit, was that rare being, one that put the needs of his royal mistress and his country before his own ambitions and desire for advancement. And yet she had almost cast him away.

  There was no talk of retirement now. From the moment Amy’s death had been announced, Cecil had been back where he was before, effortlessly in control of affairs. It was Robert whose star had been eclipsed, Robert who had ended up cast into the wilderness – and Robert who had returned a chastened man, his wings clipped.

  What game had Cecil been playing? He had known that Amy Dudley was dying; Elizabeth herself had told him, several times, and had kept him informed of the progress of Amy’s disease. And he himself had told her of rumours that Robert was plotting to kill his wife so that he could marry the Queen. Had Cecil lied to Quadra, that inveterate gossip, so that when the end came the finger of suspicion would point at Robert and so wreck his chances of ever becoming king? It might even have destroyed him, although Cecil would surely have seen his own deception merely as a means of protecting the Queen from herself and ensuring the future security of her realm.

  But there was something even more disturbing about what Cecil had told Quadra. The Bishop had definitely repeated that certain parties were plotting to kill Amy. Surely, surely Cecil had not meant to imply that she herself was involved? But what other accomplice would Robert have had? And if Cecil had wanted to protect her from the consequences of a marriage he deemed disastrous for her and her kingdom, why would he have as good as implicated her in the plot? No, she would not believe it of him. Quadra, that arch-intriguer, was stirring things up and putting his own construction on what Cecil had said.

  But then, unbidden, came another thought that chilled her to the very marrow. What if Cecil, seeing it as his sacred duty to protect his Queen from making what he most certainly would have regarded as a disastrous mistake, had made sure that Amy Dudley died before God claimed her, with the inevitable result that her husband was blamed for her murder? Was Cecil capable of such villainy? In truth, she would have thought not, for he had always been an upright and God-fearing man, but there remained a glimmer of uncertainty. In this case, would he not have been convinced that the end justified the means? Who knew what went on in that clever, complicated mind? And if he had done such a thing, it had all turned out as planned, and Robert’s chances of becoming king had been adroitly scuppered.

  She chewed and agonised over the mystery as she lay abed that night. Would Cecil have dared? Robert was, after all, the Queen’s favourite, and therefore should have been untouchable. But Cecil was a man who went about things in subtle ways. Long ago another subtle politician, Thomas Cromwell, had brought down Elizabeth’s mother. He had dared – and he had taken the most calculated risk, for her father, King Henry, had been a fearsome man, terrible to those who offended him.

  The next day she found herself looking at Cecil with new eyes, watching for signs that might betray his capacity for dark deeds, or his guilt and complicity in Amy’s death. Should she confront him with what Quadra had told her? She fretted about it for days, not sure that she wanted her worst fears confirmed, for she shrank from facing the possibility that her most trusted minister was capable of murder. But in the end she could contain herself no longer.

  ‘Stay awhile, William,’ she said, as the councillors were preparing to depart. There was nothing unusual in such a request, and when they had gone he sat down, waiting for her to open her mind to him, as she so often did.

  ‘Bishop de Quadra said an odd thing,’ Elizabeth began, and she repeated the conversation. Cecil’s face did not change. There was nothing in it that could be read as dismay or guilt. He seemed not the least bit perturbed.

  ‘I fear the good Bishop has given your Majesty a somewhat garbled version of what I actually said,’ he answered. ‘I was being sarcastic, for one thing. And I was telling him of rumours that worried me. He has misconstrued it all. What on earth did you think I intended?’

  ‘Forgive me, kind Spirit, I was merely puzzled,’ Elizabeth assured him, feeling immense relief. ‘It seemed a strange thing for you to say. But you have resolved it now.’ She smiled at him. ‘So you do think that Lady Dudley’s death was accidental?’

  ‘Indisputably, Madam,’ Cecil replied. There was no hint of dissimulation in his eyes or his voice.

  1561

  In the spring the court buzzed with fresh rumours about Robert Dudley. It was bruited that King Philip had promised to support his marriage to the Queen in return for England’s return to Rome. The result, predictably, was a fierce wave of anti-Catholic feeling. Again, Elizabeth suspected Cecil of fomenting a ploy to discredit Dudley, and this time, she told herself, she was probably right, for he knew that Robert had been intriguing with Bishop de Quadra to enlist Spanish backing in his campaign to win her hand.

  Robert was so dismayed at the rumours and backbiting that he began to speak of going abroad to live.

  ‘There is nothing for me here,’ he said dejectedly.

  ‘What of me?’ Elizabeth demanded, hurt at his easy rejection of all that they were to each other. Was she not sufficient compensation for everything he was obliged to endure?

  ‘You know I love you, Bess,’ he answered, his hand on his heart. ‘But you keep me at arm’s length. It is a ceaseless cruelty to me, for you have no idea how much I want you.’

  ‘Me, or my crown?’ she challenged. It was, by now, an old joke between them.

  ‘You,’ Robert said, his dark gypsy’s eyes glittering as he took her in his arms and closed his lips on hers, hungry, insistent. She gave herself up to the moment, then, remembering what he had said, pulled away.

  ‘But you are deserting me to go abroad.’

  ‘You do not want me, Bess – not in the way I want you.’

  ‘Give me a little more time,’ she pleaded.

  ‘I’ve heard that before,’ Robert sighed. ‘Bess, I am thirty next year. It is an age at which a man should be married and raising sons to carry on his name. But I am little better than your lap-dog, well groomed for your pleasure, always at your beck and call and offering unstinted devotion – but only when it pleases you. I want more than that. I want you as a man wants a woman. I want you as my wife.’

  Elizabeth gently touched his cheek. ‘I would not hurt you for the world, sweet, bonny Robin. Be patient with me, just for a little longer.’

  Robert grasped her hand. ‘How can I refuse you? But you know my l
ife here is becoming unendurable. Cecil is out to ruin me.’

  ‘I would never let him do that,’ she assured him.

  She knew what she would do. Robert had languished in the wilderness for too long. She would tip the scales once more. She would put an end to this alarming talk of going abroad.

  When, soon afterwards, the court moved to Greenwich Palace, Robert – to his delight and, it must be said, bewilderment – was assigned a sumptuous apartment next to the Queen’s. Gilded battens adorned the ceiling and tapestries in the antique style covered the walls; the fireplace and overmantel were of carved stone studded with painted Tudor roses, and on the floor there lay a costly Turkey carpet. It was a lodging fit for a king!

  ‘This is my reward for your patience,’ Elizabeth told him, when she joined him there moments after his arrival; he realised that she must have been waiting to hear that he had come. His servants, unpacking his gear, fell to their knees at her appearance. ‘I hope you like it,’ she said gaily.

  ‘Madam, I am overwhelmed,’ he replied, kneeling too, and kissing her hands.

  ‘Do not kneel to me,’ she commanded, raising him and dismissing his attendants. Then she drew him to the window, which overlooked the wide Thames. Below them there was a queue of barges waiting to unload a gaggle of well-dressed lords and ladies at the landing stage.

  Elizabeth smiled. ‘Do you know what room this is, my Eyes?’

  ‘No. I have not been in it before,’ Robert said, lightly brushing back a tendril of hair that had escaped from her black velvet cap.

  ‘It is the Virgins’ Chamber, and I was born here,’ she told him. ‘These were my mother’s lodgings.’

  ‘I fail to see why it is called the Virgins’ Chamber,’ he grinned, wishing to divert her from the sad subject of her mother.

  ‘Look closer at the tapestries. They tell the story of St Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins.’

  ‘Is there a message I am supposed to be getting?’ Robert asked. ‘Bess, you assign me these rich chambers next to your own; you say they are a reward for my patience. You raise all my hopes, then you talk of virgins!’

  Elizabeth had to laugh. ‘I assure you it was not deliberate! Now Robin,’ and suddenly she was all coyness, ‘I have gone so far, but I am a woman and will go no further. The rest is rather up to you.’ She looked at him. Her eyes were impenetrable – as was the rest of her, he thought, irritated.

  ‘Are you playing games with me again, Bess?’ he demanded to know. ‘And if I ask to bed with you, will you deny me at the last moment?’

  ‘I never deny you willingly,’ Elizabeth answered, and he almost believed it. Oh, she was maddening, infuriating – but, great God, he wanted her!

  He pulled her to him, enfolding her against his breast. She could feel his body stirring against her, and excitement rose in her too. He bent his face to kiss her.

  ‘Sweet Robin,’ she whispered against the roughness of his beard, ‘if I were a country maid, I would be yours. Nothing could please me more. But I am the Queen.’

  ‘But you have just intimated that what happens next is down to me!’ Robert complained. ‘I have asked you to bed with me. I have asked you to marry me. You will not agree to either. What do you want from me, Bess?’

  She felt him stiffen against her, and not with desire now. His whole body was taut with longing and fury. She knew what she was doing to him, and hated herself for it, but there was no remedy at hand. Except one.

  ‘Come to me tonight,’ she murmured impulsively, thinking that later could take care of itself. ‘There, I have said it. I was waiting for you to ask, but you harangued me instead.’

  ‘Dear God, I don’t believe it,’ Robert breathed, his mouth in her hair. ‘Do you really mean it this time, Bess?’

  ‘Do you doubt me?’ she countered, gazing up at him.

  ‘Would that I did not. You have tied me in knots. I never know which way to take with you. I had hoped that was your meaning when you said things were up to me – but you are the mistress of ambiguity at times!’

  ‘Once it is out that you have these rooms, people will talk,’ Elizabeth said. ‘We may as well do something to deserve it!’

  ‘And what will that something be?’ he asked, relenting and kissing her.

  ‘Now that would be telling!’ Elizabeth giggled.

  They lay abed, naked, in her chamber, the soft candlelight casting a golden haze on their skin. It was wonderful to feel Robin’s beloved flesh against hers. Ardently, their clothes discarded, he had swept her into his arms and tumbled her on the bed, covering her face with kisses; and she had twined herself around him. This time, after months of denying herself, she wanted him with her whole being; never before had she experienced such a sense of intimacy and freedom. She felt herself opening up like a flower, the need for completion urgent in her. She could do this, she knew it; she would not be afraid any more. And the consequences be damned!

  Robert slid his leg over hers, rough skin against smooth. He shifted closer, kissing her mouth, her eyes and her neck, murmuring unintelligible words of desire, his hands caressing, roving where they would all over her body. Excited beyond endurance, he mounted her and she felt him pressing against her, hard, urgent, insistent. In a moment, a little moment, he would breach all her defences.

  In a flash there came to mind the corpse-white dead faces of those who had loved and died for it: her mother, Katherine Howard and Thomas Seymour, their necks all bloody, their headless bodies crumpled below them; Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, faces twisted out of recognition with the pain of fatal childbirth; and Amy Dudley, who had known this very same flesh that was now assailing hers, lying broken and lifeless on the floor of Cumnor Place – Amy, whose lips were rotting in the rictus of decay, whose only caress now was from worms.

  ‘No!’ she cried, and with all her strength pushed Robert from her.

  ‘Oh, aah, Bess, what are you doing?’ he groaned, panting furiously as he slid away unsatisfied. ‘Never do that to me!’ The words came out as a gasp.

  ‘I could not help it,’ she wailed. ‘I was frightened. I felt you against me, and I saw – oh, God help me, I saw death in all its horrible guises. Oh my Eyes, tell me I am not mad!’

  ‘Not mad, but cruel,’ he flung at her, struggling into a sitting position and reaching for his clothes.

  ‘No, never, I could not be cruel to you. They came unbidden, those terrible faces with their dead eyes and all the blood …’ She was weeping bitterly now.

  Robert took a deep breath, then another. He laid a hand on her shoulder. Plainly this was no game.

  He felt helpless. He had no idea how to help this woman who was sobbing so heart-wrenchingly beside him on the bed. This woman whom he wanted so fiercely, for so many reasons. Love, he knew, was only a part of it, albeit a substantial one. But there was in him a driving need to confound his enemies, to show them that there was more to him than a queen’s pretty boy, and to emerge ascendant over them. The crown was now surely within his reach. He had been patient long enough, trusting that everything came to those who waited. Yet there remained just this one obstacle to be overcome, and he was suddenly no longer so sure that he could conquer it. Like a shoot creeping out from a seed in the soil, it began to dawn on him that he might never do so, and that Elizabeth’s fears were so deep-rooted that no man would ever vanquish them.

  He had never doubted that she would marry him in the end. There was that between them that could not be replaced by anyone else, however advantageous the match. But now, for the first time since Amy’s death, he began to wonder if his future might lie elsewhere, especially if he wanted to breed heirs of his body, for it was dawning on him that he might never get them from Elizabeth. And if he could not sire princes, then at least he wanted sons to carry on his name and inherit his wealth. But how, loving Elizabeth as he did, was he ever going to do that? He knew how jealous she could be. Were he even to flirt with another lady, he would risk his power, his property and everything he held dear.<
br />
  Feeling overwhelmed by it all, he let his hand fall from her shoulder. Elizabeth gave no sign that she had noticed, but she had, she had. She could not stem the tide of her tears; they kept rising as if from a bottomless well. She was racked with pain and guilt. It was bad enough that she herself had to bear these fears; but far worse that another, one so beloved, should suffer because of them. She did not think she could feel any more wretched than she did at this moment.

  Making a tremendous effort she fought to regain mastery of herself.

  ‘I am so sorry, Robin,’ she whispered, lying there looking very forlorn.

  He took her hand. ‘What can I do to help you?’ he asked.

  ‘I wish I knew!’ she blurted, and the tears welled again.

  ‘Have you consulted your physicians?’ he ventured.

  ‘No!’

  ‘You need to talk to someone. I am always here to listen, Bess, but I am no doctor.’

  She clasped both his hands. ‘Ah, Robin, you are more of a remedy for me than any physician could prescribe. If anyone can help me, it is you. Be patient with me. I will conquer myself, never fear. I just need time. And I could not bear it if you held tonight against me!’

  He took her in his arms at that. ‘Never, never,’ he soothed, trying not to betray his concern. ‘I will wait for ever, while there is hope that you will be mine one day.’

  ‘I am yours already,’ Elizabeth said. ‘And may yet be more to you. I do wish it.’

  He crushed her tightly to him at that, hope welling again in his heart.

  Robert sought out Bishop de Quadra. He had a deal to propose, and a bargain that he had no intention of keeping. It was not to his liking, but he was ready to do whatever was needful – anything at all – to marry Elizabeth.

  ‘My lord Bishop, you are known for a wise man,’ he said, hoping that flattery would smooth his path.

  The Bishop eyed him warily. ‘If I can be of service to your lordship …’ he murmured.

  ‘Certainly you can, if you would do your best to persuade King Philip to support my suit to the Queen. I am sure you both appreciate the advantages it will bring.’

 
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