The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘Madam, I would be failing in my duty if I did not pray God to send some man whom it will content you to wed. Otherwise, I assure you, I have no comfort in living.’

  The Bishop of Salisbury, standing nearby, added his voice. ‘Your Grace, I must tell you how wretched we have been, not knowing under which sovereign we would live, should something evil befall your precious person. I trust that God will long preserve you to us in life and safety!’

  Elizabeth was about to say something tart in response – this was all a bit dramatic, she felt – but there was no mistaking the relief and sincerity in both men’s faces. ‘I thank you, my lords,’ she replied. ‘I promise I will give due thought to the matter in this coming year. But for now, let us make merry, for Christmas is upon us!’


  Paul de Foix, the new ambassador sent by the Queen Mother of France, made an extremely elegant bow. The French were very good at these things, if not at much else. As she extended her hand to be kissed, Elizabeth noted that Cecil was hovering hopefully nearby, and that Robert was frowning, doubtless feeling beleaguered by all the recent talk of the Archduke Charles renewing his suit. She suspected that he would not be pleased when he heard what Paul de Foix had come to say, because her spies had told her that Queen Catherine was determined to thwart the ambitions of the Habsburg Emperor, France’s great enemy.

  She smiled at the ambassador’s elaborate courtesies, and the smile stayed fixed on her face as he proposed his young master, King Charles IX of France, as a suitor for her hand, impressing on her the very great honour his Majesty was bestowing by offering her his most sacred person – a king, no less! Which would have been all very well had Elizabeth not heard that Charles’s most sacred person was a pimply fourteen-year-old dwarf with knobbly knees.

  ‘Do not marry him, Bess!’ cried her woman fool – engagingly called Ippolita the Tartarian – capering across the floor on her short legs. ‘He is a boy and a babe!’

  Robert laughed out loud.

  ‘Be off with you,’ Elizabeth snapped at the fool, but with a twinkle in her eye as she turned to the bristling Foix. ‘Take no offence, Monsieur, she is a scamp who should know her place! But she has a point. Sensible as I am of the honour done me by his Majesty, I fear I am too old to marry him. I think not of now, for I am only thirty-one, but of the future. I would rather die than be despised and abandoned by a younger husband, as my sister was. Why, the age gap between us is so wide that people will say that your master has married his mother!’

  ‘Then, Madam, there is no more to say,’ Foix sniffed, mightily offended.

  Had this idiot no idea of how to play the game? Elizabeth flared. ‘Does the King of France have so little regard for me that he would drop his suit so precipitately?’ she cried. ‘I but wished to draw his attention to the difficulties that might have to be faced, so that he will understand why I cannot give him an answer at once!’

  Foix was suddenly all smiles again, and went on his way imagining the credit he would have in store with his terrifying mistress, Queen Catherine. Meanwhile, Robert was pounding after Elizabeth.

  ‘What are you playing at now?’ he growled, manoeuvring her into a closet where they could be private.

  ‘My usual game,’ she replied, wrenching herself free. ‘And you have no right to be angry with me, Robin. I need to keep the French friendly. I do not want them making an alliance with the Scots. Surely even you can see what would happen if Charles were to marry Mary.’

  ‘Even me? That was uncalled for,’ Robert protested.

  ‘Well I do wonder sometimes! It might have occurred to you that I do not want the Emperor thinking that his son is the only contender for my hand.’

  ‘Yes, yes, I see your reasoning,’ Robert replied testily. ‘But if you were to marry me – as you promised – there would be an end to all this diplomatic posturing, and it would not matter what the Emperor, or anyone else, thought.’

  ‘Oh, but it would – and I would lose my trump card, which may prove to be my only means of keeping other princes friendly.’

  Robert’s face fell as he took in the full implication of Elizabeth’s words. God’s blood, she was not reneging on her promise? She could not, not now, after all that she had said.

  ‘There are surely other means,’ he said hoarsely.

  ‘Yes, but not ones I wish to deploy just now,’ she said gently. ‘At present the advantage is mine. I would keep it a while longer. That is all.’

  ‘So you have no intention of considering this latest proposal?’

  ‘What do you take me for? A cradle-snatcher? Come, Robin, it’s a man I need. On the word of a prince, I will not marry the French King.’ And with that she danced out of the room.

  ‘I have told Monsieur de Foix that I must consult with my lords on the matter,’ Elizabeth told her councillors. Most of them were openly hostile to the French proposal. Only Robert, curiously they thought, seemed in favour. There really was no accounting for the man’s reasoning.

  ‘The Habsburg match is more feasible,’ Cecil pronounced.

  ‘The French one is more prestigious – a king as opposed to an archduke,’ Robert countered.

  The others raised their voices in protest, but Cecil said nothing.

  ‘Madam, saving your presence, King Charles will follow the usage of his forebears and spend himself consorting with pretty girls, rendering useless all hopes of an heir,’ Sussex pointed out. Robert gave him a look that said plainly that he would have quite liked to render Sussex useless for opposing him.

  Elizabeth quelled them all with a rap on the table. ‘Enough, my lords. We must pretend to entertain the proposal – for now.’

  Robert groaned, but she ignored him and sent for Foix to attend her in her privy chamber, where they remained closeted until late in the evening. Robert was seething when she joined him in bed that night.

  ‘What in Heaven did you find to talk about all that time?’

  ‘Oh, he was very charming,’ Elizabeth related, secretly enjoying his discomfiture. ‘Of course I had to sit there listening to lengthy eulogies on his master’s precociousness and his most unusual maturity! King Charles has declared himself to be in love with me – primed by his mother, no doubt. I have agreed to an exchange of portraits, and even hinted that I might permit King Charles to visit me secretly …’ She smiled at the thought. ‘You do realise I might have to keep this up for months?’

  Robert lay back, barely containing his frustration. She was stalling again, he was convinced of it. He felt like weeping – or throwing something at her, preferably something she held precious.

  Elizabeth snuggled down beside him. ‘It will all be an act, my Eyes. I’ll not have him – ever! And in the meantime I will spin things along with the Archduke, and keep the Emperor warm. With France and the Empire competing for England’s friendship, we can all relax for a while.’

  Well, perhaps you can, thought Robert.

  Darnley had finally been granted permission to go to Scotland, with the caveat that he was not even to think of proposing marriage to the Queen of Scots. He had hastened north at the speed of lightning, not giving a second thought to Elizabeth’s command when the Scottish crown hovered glittering within his reach.

  The Queen laughed aloud when Cecil showed her the latest reports from Edinburgh. ‘By God, Mary is besotted! She thinks him the lustiest man she has ever seen. Her nobles are spitting fire!’

  ‘They do not want a Catholic king,’ Cecil observed, which was putting it mildly. ‘A Catholic queen is bad enough.’

  ‘Ah, but this Catholic king comes with a claim to my crown,’ Elizabeth said. ‘How can she resist him?’

  ‘He is a liability, Madam,’ Bacon reminded her. ‘He is spoilt, unstable and ambitious.’

  ‘An ideal match for my dear sister,’ Elizabeth beamed. ‘You will see!’

  But then Cecil showed her a new letter from Mary, demanding that Elizabeth recognise her claim to the English succession.

  ‘No,’ E
lizabeth declared stoutly. ‘Tell our good sister that, if she consents to marry my lord of Leicester, I will promote her claim behind the scenes here.’

  Robert was staring at her. She quelled him with an imperceptible shake of her head. ‘Say that I cannot allow her claim to be examined,’ she went on, ‘nor will I publish it until such time as I myself am married, or have made known my resolve to remain single – the one or the other I mean shortly to do.’ She would not look at Robert.

  Some days later there arrived a report from Thomas Randolph in Edinburgh. The Queen of Scots had wept to hear Queen Elizabeth’s message. She had used evil speech of her. But it barely signified because in truth she was in love with Darnley. She had even nursed him through an attack of measles.

  ‘Measles!’ Elizabeth echoed, as her councillors smiled. ‘How touching! And how foolish and unmaidenly.’

  ‘There is more,’ Cecil said. ‘She wants to marry him. Her lords are against it; they think such a marriage would lead to their utter overthrow.’

  ‘Then we must pray that my dear sister pays heed to them,’ Elizabeth concluded piously. God grant that Mary did the very opposite!

  On an early spring day in March the Queen heard the clatter of horseshoes on the path below her window at Windsor. Pushing aside the tapestry curtains, she rose from the great ornate bed where she had been luxuriating after a long night of love-play with Robert (who had departed an hour or more ago), and hastened to open the casement, leaning out to see who was there.

  ‘Good morning, sweet Robin,’ she called, seeing him below beneath a chestnut tree, mounted on a fine steed. Quickly he doffed his feathered hat and bowed in the saddle – and then she saw that he was not alone. There was the Spanish ambassador, Guzman de Silva, gaping at her open-mouthed, before he hastily uncovered and bent his head too. Too late she realised why he had looked so astounded, for she had not thought to put on her nightgown, and the sheer lawn chemise she had worn – briefly – in bed left very little to the imagination. In fact, one really needed no imagination …

  She drew back, but it was too late. The damage had been done: she had revealed her intimacy with Robert, and much else, to the world – for that was what revealing it to the Spanish ambassador would effectively mean. It came to her that she had grown careless. Only yesterday, in a devil-may-care mood, she had summoned Robert to attend her as her ladies were engaged in the complicated business of robing her for the day – and she wearing only her nightgown. Under the shocked gaze of the speechless women, he had gallantly handed her the fine linen shift that she was to wear next to her skin, and she had kissed him. Soon, she knew, word of her indiscretions would be all around the court – as proved to be the case.

  She braved it out – worse had been said of her – and playfully tapped de Silva on the head the next time she saw him, and told him she was ashamed that he had seen her undressed, to which he responded chivalrously. But gossip was again rampant, and public opinion running high. She knew that some were saying she had best marry Robert and be done with it, to avoid any more occasion for scandal. And then occurred that outrageous incident in the tennis court.

  She was watching Robert playing against Norfolk, the two of them stripped to their shirts and breeches and looking – especially Robert – very pleasing indeed to the eye. Theirs, she knew, was only a surface friendship – they barely tolerated each other – and when, after the game, Robert drew a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his sweating brow, Norfolk’s face darkened. He was glaring at the handkerchief, and she recognised it as one that she had given Robert in one of their most intimate moments; it was edged with gold and silver embroidery, done devotedly by Kat Astley, and her initials could clearly be seen.

  ‘By God, you are too saucy, my lord!’ Norfolk spat. ‘How dare you impugn the honour of our lady the Queen? You deserve my racquet in your face!’ It was not impossible to imagine him carrying out his threat. The racquet was quivering in his hand.

  Elizabeth stood up. ‘Desist!’ she bawled. ‘My lord of Norfolk, you will not behave thus in my presence, or indeed at any other time when you are at my court. Touch my lord of Leicester in anger, and you will suffer for it, I promise.’

  Norfolk, aware that right hands had been cut off for drawing blood at court, mumbled profuse apologies, his face red with suppressed fury, and bowed himself from the tennis court. Robert came to her, voicing his thanks – although his expression showed that he would have preferred to settle things as men were supposed to do – but Elizabeth cut him short.

  ‘You were a fool to bring out that frippery and provoke him,’ she scolded. Then, in a murmur, she added, ‘We must be more circumspect in future.’

  Robert had no intention of being circumspect. He was determined to be the winner in this marriage game she insisted on playing. He was going to proclaim his intentions to the world, and then Elizabeth would have to remember her promise and dispense with all the other nonsense.

  To that end he gave a great feast, to which he invited many lords and ambassadors, and the Queen as guest of honour. Then he arranged a tournament for her entertainment, so that the whole court might see them together, presiding in the centre stand. Finally – the pièce de résistance – he invited a company of players to perform a comedy of manners in the Queen’s presence chamber. Elizabeth was all smiles – until she realised that the comedy was a play about marriage. She bit her lip as the buxom goddess Juno sang the praises of matrimony at great length, drowning out a very slight and unenthusiastic Diana’s advocation of chastity. She frowned ominously as great Jupiter, the arbiter of their dispute, gave his verdict in favour of marriage.

  ‘Very novel,’ Guzman de Silva said afterwards, as nymphs and satyrs danced with wild abandon around the room, hinting rather blatantly at the more private joys of wedlock.

  ‘Very!’ Elizabeth snapped. ‘But the theme is quite threadbare, I think.’

  That night she did not come to Robert’s chamber.

  He was still sleeping alone – and not by choice – when Sir William Maitland arrived in April to inform Elizabeth that the Queen of Scots had resolved to marry Lord Darnley.

  ‘Well, Sir William, I am astonished!’ Elizabeth exclaimed. ‘This is a strange proposal. I marvel at Lord Darnley’s disobedience. He is my subject and requires my permission to marry. That has not, as yet, been given.’

  ‘I am sorry that your Majesty is offended,’ Maitland said, his usual suave manner somewhat ruffled. Elizabeth suspected that he was none too pleased about the Darnley marriage either.

  ‘And I am sorry that my orders have been defied!’ she retorted. ‘And others will be too!’

  In council she issued a formal warning to Mary, stating that if she went ahead with this marriage, it would be perilous to the amity between them. ‘Tell her she can take her pick of my nobility,’ she ordered.

  And so it begins again, Robert thought resentfully, though he had to admire Elizabeth’s acting skills. None would have guessed that she wanted this match she was so indignantly deploring. But when the formal warning to the Queen of Scots was drawn up, and Robert was asked to put his signature to it, he refused; if he signed it, Mary might think he was the nobleman she was supposed to pick. And he did not trust Elizabeth.

  Cecil was looking remarkably complacent. Afterwards, when the Queen had withdrawn, Sussex confronted him.

  ‘You know, don’t you, that she has done this on purpose,’ he said. ‘All this display of outrage is a sham.’

  ‘If I did not know better, I would be wondering if her Majesty had sent Darnley north to tempt Mary into making a disastrous choice,’ Throckmorton said, his air of innocence not quite as convincing as he had intended.

  ‘Why would you think that?’ Robert asked, realising that diversionary tactics were called for. ‘Mary has chosen him because he has a claim to the succession. It strengthens her own claim to the English crown. No wonder her Majesty is angry – and justifiably concerned.’

  ‘The marriage also poses
a new Catholic threat to England’s security,’ Cecil interposed. ‘Think how our English Catholics will be encouraged by it!’

  God, he had a cool head, Robert thought admiringly. He and Elizabeth both. They were taking a risk – but a finely calculated one. Firstly, the Scots lords would never allow any Catholic intriguing in their Calvinist fastness; and secondly, he doubted that Mary and Darnley had the wits between them to take on the might of England.

  Throckmorton was dispatched north to command Darnley home and convey Elizabeth’s disapproval in no uncertain terms to Mary. Lady Lenox was bundled off once more to the Tower. And now that he was more or less out of the running as far as the Queen of Scots was concerned, Robert put pressure on Elizabeth to set a date for their wedding. Even Cecil, his former enemy, was encouraging him. Negotiations with France and the Empire had dragged on to no purpose – anyone could see that. The prize, Robert believed, was at last within his grasp.

  Elizabeth was looking strained as she took her seat at the head of the Council. While the French were demanding an immediate answer, Robert was manoeuvring her into a corner of her own fashioning, and she did not want to be there.

  They were all watching her: Cecil, impatient after years of what he was pleased to call dithering; Norfolk, fearful lest she throw herself away – as he would see it – on Robert; Sussex and others, weary of these constant debates about this marriage and that, and impatient to see the matter settled; and Robert himself, willing her, badgering her in fact, to declare her intention of having him.

  ‘Tell Monsieur de Foix that the answer is no,’ she said, and burst into tears. ‘It is you, my lord of Leicester, you, Sir William, and all of you, my lords, who have sought my ruin by scheming to get me married!’ she raged, jabbing her finger at each of them. They stared at her, astounded.

  ‘Madam, I would never force you to do anything against your will,’ Cecil protested, his voice gentle.

  ‘I beg of your Majesty, do not doubt my loyalty,’ Sussex pleaded, and others echoed him. Robert said nothing. He knew he had pushed Elizabeth too far, and now he was seeing for himself what it had done to her. A part of him longed to take her in his arms and comfort her, but the rest of him was suffering the usual exasperation at her fear of commitment. Was this yet another example of her endless procrastination?

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