The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘If we keep the Queen of Scots in the north, as your Majesty suggests, we will be placing her at the heart of a region peopled by Catholic recusants,’ Cecil warned. ‘That could prove most dangerous.’

  ‘As I said, William, she will make trouble for us whatever we do with her,’ Elizabeth sighed. ‘Therefore I dare not leave her at liberty.’

  Well, she had done her best. She had arranged for Mary to be held securely in the north pending a hearing of her case in England, and appointed the faithful Sir Francis Knollys as her gaoler, much – she knew – to his distress and that of his wife, her dear Kate, whom she had insisted on keeping with her at court, hating the idea of being apart from her beloved half-sister. Knollys had asked, again and again, to visit Kate, or had begged permission for her to visit him, and his pleas had grown even more frantic when Kate fell ill. But then Kate had died, at the Queen’s side but far from her distraught husband – and all because of Elizabeth’s selfishness. She saw that now, as she had not at the time, and found it hard to forgive herself. It was a grief she would have to live with always. The expensive funeral she had arranged in Westminster Abbey had borne witness to her remorse.

  Before that catastrophe, the Scottish lords had produced a set of letters – ‘Conveniently found in a casket in the possession of one of Bothwell’s men,’ Cecil told the Queen – claiming that Mary had written them to Bothwell in the weeks leading up to Darnley’s death.

  Elizabeth read the transcripts. They contained shocking, foul proofs of adultery and murder, and it was at that point that her sympathy for Mary evaporated. And once the English commissioners had read this damning evidence, Mary’s fate was sealed. Again Elizabeth had been in an impossible position. The majority of her subjects hated and feared the Queen of Scots; the Scottish lords did not want her back in Scotland, and Elizabeth could not risk giving such a dangerous creature her freedom, for Mary would surely plot against her.

  The English tribunal, set up in York to hear Mary’s case, had its instructions. It found that nothing could be proved against her. The Scottish lords, who had attended with their helpful casket of letters, went home. Mary, to their relief, did not. She was to remain in honourable captivity as Elizabeth’s guest. Naturally there were protests from King Philip and other Catholic rulers, most of whom wanted Mary on the throne of England, for they saw her as the rightful Catholic claimant. All the more reason, Elizabeth knew, not to set her free!

  Yes, the realm had suffered turbulent upheavals, and Elizabeth had to face the sobering fact that she was alarmingly vulnerable to her enemies at home and abroad, and that her Catholic subjects might at any time rise against her, especially now that there was a Catholic claimant to the throne living in England. It was ironic that she, who had vowed many times never to make windows into men’s souls, had now been forced to the point where she must consider all Catholics potential traitors. And now there were rumours that Norfolk, the premier Catholic peer, had been scheming to marry Mary, to God knew what end. Elizabeth had sent Norfolk to the Tower after the rebellion, then set him free at the urging of Cecil and Robert, on the grounds that the Duke had been more fool than traitor. He was her cousin too, and had confessed himself in error. Now, in the wake of her excommunication, she wished she had kept him under lock and key.

  Cecil was bracing himself for yet another confrontation with his often difficult Queen, who was sitting at the head of the council board impatiently tapping her fan on the edge of the table.

  She was looking as strained as he felt, and no wonder. She had aged a little, he thought. She was thirty-seven now, and the years of troubles and responsibility had not been kind to her. Normally she took great care with her appearance when she went abroad at court or in public, and it was obvious that she used cosmetics to prolong the semblance of youth and loveliness; but today she was wearing the same old black dress that she had worn to council meetings for the past three days. It did her few favours. It did not matter to Cecil, who cared little for outward display; but he knew that Elizabeth cared passionately that men saw her as ever-young and the embodiment of beauty.

  What mattered to him was that her childbearing years were running out, and once again he was mentally girding his loins to enter battle with her on the subject of her marriage.

  ‘Well, William? What’s on your mind?’ she asked sharply.

  He sighed. ‘Madam, these recent plots and conspiracies, and the late northern rebellion, have been trying for us all. They have shown us how insecure your realm is. But it would be less so if your Majesty had a husband at your side and sons to succeed you.’ Warming to his argument, he went on, ‘Without an heir, Madam, you stand alone. You are unguarded, at risk from traitors, invaders and assassins. And if you die without heirs, there will be no bar to Queen Mary succeeding here. Everything you have worked for will be overthrown.’

  Once upon a time Elizabeth would have glared at him for venturing to bring up yet again the sore subject of her marrying, but she too had been shaken by the perils of the past months.

  She turned to Cecil now. ‘You speak truth, my Spirit,’ she said at length. ‘I agree, the matter is urgent. I should marry. The birth of a Protestant heir, especially a son, would put paid to Mary’s aspirations.’

  Cecil, Robert and the rest were looking at her in amazement. No resistance? No histrionics? Matters must indeed be desperate!

  ‘I am relieved that your Majesty has come to this decision at last,’ Robert said, as all eyes swivelled towards him.

  ‘Yes,’ she replied, glaring at him, ‘even though I am as averse as ever to the idea of marriage.’ She turned back to Cecil. ‘Who shall it be?’

  Robert suppressed his anger. She was playing with him again – with them all, for all he knew.

  ‘Shall we try to revive the match with the Archduke?’ Sussex asked.

  ‘We can send an envoy, but the Emperor has made it clear that he is no longer interested,’ Cecil said. ‘His son was kept dangling for too long.’

  ‘He is courting a fat Bavarian princess,’ Elizabeth sneered. ‘So much for his devotion to me!’

  ‘He has been kept waiting for an answer for eleven years,’ Robert observed. ‘I understand how he feels.’

  Elizabeth shot him a look aimed to pierce his presumption like an arrow.

  ‘In fact, there is a new proposal from France,’ Cecil announced. ‘King Charles has suggested a match with his brother, Henri, Duke of Anjou. He sees it as the cornerstone to a new alliance between England and France against Spain. And Madam, we need the friendship of France at this time, given that Spain supported the rebellion.’

  ‘You do not need to tell me that,’ Elizabeth reminded him. ‘How old is the Duke of Anjou?’

  ‘Nineteen, Madam.’ Cecil’s face was impassive. Robert was trying not to laugh.

  ‘Well I am too old for him,’ Elizabeth declared.

  ‘Not at all,’ Cecil soothed her. ‘Your Majesty’s beauty is renowned; no man could resist you. You have the gift of eternal youth.’

  Elizabeth ceased being tetchy and smiled. Such compliments, even from crusty Cecil, were the breath of life to her.

  ‘Shall I send Sir Francis Walsingham to France to discuss the matter?’

  Walsingham was Cecil’s protégé. He had a brilliant mind, huge ability and a severe Puritan outlook. These were qualities that not only commanded the respect of the Queen, but could prove useful to her, and she liked Walsingham for himself, for they were well matched intellectually and she knew that he was devoted to her. She had taken to calling him her Moor, on account of his customary black clothes and swarthy looks. Sir Francis had been placed in charge of Cecil’s spy network; he loathed Catholics, especially the Queen of Scots and the Spaniards. On that account alone, Elizabeth knew that she could trust him implicitly.

  Walsingham went dutifully to Paris, with instructions to say that the Queen welcomed the idea of a marriage to the Duke of Anjou, but that she could not change her religion, and would expect any husba
nd of hers to abide by the laws of England.

  When he returned, some weeks later, one look at his lugubrious face told Elizabeth that negotiations had not gone well.

  ‘The Duke is surrounded by priests, Madam,’ he reported, distaste in his tone. ‘He is adamant that he will never abandon his faith. But that is not the only reason why I would advise against pursuing this marriage.’ He coughed, clearly – for his was a strictly moral soul – not relishing what he had to say. ‘He is not a normal man. He is corrupt, like all the Valois. For one so young, he is notorious for his womanising, yet he also favours men. He is completely given to voluptuousness, and reeks of perfumes. If you had seen the way he dresses, the jewels, the rings … Well, delicacy prevents me from saying more.’

  ‘You have said enough, my Moor,’ Elizabeth reassured him, thinking that she could never take a husband whose vanity might lead him to see himself as her rival. As for his sexual proclivities …

  ‘But where does this leave us with the French?’ Cecil asked.

  ‘I will deal with that, good Spirit!’ Elizabeth smiled.

  She summoned Fenelon, the French ambassador. She took care to dress in virginal white, and made a great play with her fan, so as to appear both coy and demure.

  ‘Monsieur, you are most welcome,’ she told the gallant Fenelon, whom she much liked. ‘It is of marriage that I wish to speak.’

  ‘By all means, your Majesty,’ he answered eagerly. Was the plum to fall into his lap so easily? He was aware of how many had gone before him and failed.

  ‘Few have any idea of how much I have regretted staying single for so long,’ Elizabeth declared. Robert, standing nearby, drew in his breath.

  ‘Madame, I can help with that state of affairs,’ Fenelon hastened to assure her. ‘I would deem it a great honour if I could bring about a marriage between your Majesty and the Duke of Anjou.’

  ‘Ah, but I am too old for marriage,’ Elizabeth said sadly, ‘even though I have never received a proposal I liked better. The Duke is so much younger than me.’

  ‘So much the better for you!’ Robert joked. She laughed, but she had detected an edge to his voice. He was not getting any younger either.

  The interview ended with Fenelon assuring the Queen that her hand would be the greatest prize to which Anjou could aspire, and that he would do everything in his power to bring the negotiations to a happy conclusion.

  ‘We have France in our grasp,’ Elizabeth murmured to Robert after the ambassador had bowed himself out. ‘Pretend that you support the match.’

  ‘You can rely on me,’ he told her, resigning himself to yet another round of the game.

  The recent threats from foreign aggressors – from the Queen of Scots, the Spaniards and the Pope – had made all loyal Englishmen even prouder and more protective of their Queen. They knew how much she loved and cherished her true subjects, and many of them would have laid down their lives for her. That November, this upsurge of national fervour and affection gave birth to a new celebration, that of Elizabeth’s accession day. Bells pealed, thanks were rendered in every church for a queen who had delivered England from popery, and there were spectacular jousts at Whitehall, at which Elizabeth appeared garbed as Albion’s shining sun, and Astraea, the virgin goddess of justice.

  ‘This day should be observed every year!’ Robert declared, overcome by loyal fervour. Let England’s enemies see how much her Queen was loved!

  ‘It shall be, so my people wish it,’ Elizabeth said. Already she had heard people calling it the Golden Day, and her subjects’ observance of it touched her heart like nothing else, stiffening her resolve to stay wedded to her kingdom rather than taking a husband, and to be the mother of her people instead of having children of her own.


  Elizabeth’s heart was bursting with pride and gratitude as she fastened the mantle of nobility across Cecil’s chest. He was Baron Burghley now, as a reward for his manifold services to her. No prince, she kept telling everyone, had ever had such a counsellor. She was blessed in him, and in her other advisers. Cecil, Leicester, Sussex and Walsingham – these were the men who were now closest to her, especially now that Throckmorton had died and Bacon was ageing; and while they did not always see eye to eye among themselves, they were united in their loyalty to her.

  The new Baron Burghley and the Earl of Sussex were in favour of the Anjou marriage; Leicester, predictably, was not, although he saw the need for England to have a strong ally. He knew that the others thought he was still hoping to marry the Queen himself, but he was aware that the likelihood of that was receding day by day. If they wed, he knew, it would be almost as brother and sister. They were no longer young, and their desire for each other had burnt itself out. Yet even now he hoped to fan the embers.

  ‘You do not need to marry Anjou to obtain King Charles’s friendship,’ he told Elizabeth, as they rested by the fire one chill February evening. Elizabeth sat with a bandaged leg resting on a footstool. She had an ulcer that had been slow to heal, but it was much improved now.

  ‘Ah, but I am more bent to this marriage than I have ever been,’ she said. ‘I am sending an envoy to Paris to inform King Charles that I am ready thankfully to accept their proposals and treat with them. It is to be a secret for now, my Eyes.’

  And you will not go through with it, Robert thought. He pitied Walsingham, now resident ambassador at the French court, and the man who would have the task of keeping the negotiations afloat while the Queen blew hot and cold.

  He leaned forward impulsively and took her hand. ‘You would not consider me, Bess?’

  She smiled at him affectionately. ‘You deserve the laurel for trying, but no, Robin. Not now, at any rate. I have to be seen to be eager to wed Anjou.’

  Yet that did not stop her from openly flirting with the infuriating Heneage, and with a newcomer at court, the lawyer Christopher Hatton, whom rumour said had been advanced by the Queen after she had admired his accomplished performance – and his good looks – in a masque. He was strikingly, masculinely beautiful, a paragon in the tiltyard – and how he danced! Robert looked on in envy as Elizabeth twirled, dipped and jumped for Hatton’s benefit before the whole court. She was as slender as ever, lithe and supple now that her ulcer had healed – whereas he, Robert, had put on weight and was less impressive on the dance floor than he had once been. His jealousy surged when he heard her calling Hatton her Lids, just as she had called himself her Eyes. He much preferred it when she called the interloper her Mutton – she affecting to be a shepherdess, with Hatton as her sheep – although of course he would have preferred her not to call him anything at all. Certainly he, Robert, could think of a few choice names for him!

  Hatton bombarded the Queen with compliments and gifts. He made love to her with his dark, intent eyes. He wrote her eloquent love letters. He told her that to be absent from her was Hell’s torment. His wits, he declared, were overwrought with thoughts of her. Love me, he begged her. She was in her element.

  ‘Look at him jig!’ she enthused to Robert, as they watched the debonair Hatton leaping about the floor, a chain of fair ladies in his wake. He had eyes for none of them, she noticed with approval.

  ‘I can send you a dancing master who can do far better,’ Robert retorted sourly, unable to resist a barb.

  ‘Pish!’ Elizabeth shrugged. ‘I will not see your man. He does it only for a trade.’ And her eyes remained firmly fixed on the tantalising muscular physique of Hatton.

  ‘I am going to marry the Duke of Anjou,’ Elizabeth announced to her Council.

  ‘All things considered?’ Burghley asked.

  ‘All things considered, dear Spirit,’ she said firmly. Robert gave a snort of disgust, but she ignored him.

  ‘This will make the Pope’s malice vanish in smoke,’ Burghley observed. His voice was suffused with relief.

  ‘Is the Duke not too young to be married to your Majesty?’ one impudent councillor piped up.

  ‘How dare you speak to your Queen l
ike that!’ Robert flared, as Elizabeth flushed in anger. ‘Of course he is not too young for one so beautiful.’

  ‘So you had best keep your silly opinions to yourself,’ the Queen snapped.

  ‘I do beg your Majesty’s pardon,’ stammered the councillor, seeing his hopes of preferment and a dazzling career at court rapidly sliding away.

  ‘Do you think she will really go ahead with this marriage?’ Sussex asked later, when Elizabeth had retired.

  ‘Who knows?’ Burghley shrugged. ‘At least she is keeping the French friendly when we most need them.’

  An envoy from Queen Catherine duly arrived with a portrait of her son, a formal proposal and a long list of demands, none of which Elizabeth was prepared to concede. She looked at the portrait and saw a dark man with heavy jowls and an earring resting on his wide ruff – Catherine de’ Medici to the life (if you discounted the moustache), which was enough to deter any ardent bride. She was reluctant to proceed further, but the wearisome pretence must be kept up for as long as it served her purpose.

  Anjou was reluctant too. A report reached Elizabeth that he had publicly declared that he would not marry an old creature with a sore leg. He could probably have heard the resultant explosion in Paris, and Queen Catherine felt obliged to send a profuse apology for her son’s unforgivably rude words. Elizabeth, in turn, felt obliged to dance in front of Fenelon at every opportunity, just to prove that there was now nothing wrong with her leg.

  ‘I hope,’ she said to him, ‘that the Duke of Anjou will not have cause to complain that he has been tricked into marrying a lame bride.’ There was no question in her mind that she could ever marry Anjou now, the spoilt brat. Even so, his cruel remark had hurt.

  ‘The age gap does concern me,’ she was moved to confide to Lady Cobham, her close confidante since Kate Knollys’s death two years earlier.

  ‘Well, Madam, my advice would be not to press ahead with your plans,’ Lady Cobham agreed. ‘The great inequality in age concerns me too.’

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