The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘He is a brave man,’ Robert murmured to Sussex.

  ‘Rather him than me,’ Sussex muttered. ‘I’m not sure what I’d fear more – her Majesty’s countenance, or the pincers!’

  Elizabeth was biting her lip and frowning. ‘Very well, Bishop,’ she said at length. ‘Show me.’

  The waiting barber-surgeon was fetched from the antechamber, and a chair was set on the floor. The barber-surgeon placed a cushion over its back, and the Bishop laid his head on it and opened his mouth wide. As Elizabeth looked on with morbid fascination, the barber-surgeon produced an alarmingly large pair of iron pliers, which he used to grip the offending molar. There was an excruciating crack, and the Bishop’s hands tightened on the arms of the chair, but not a sound did he make, even though the surgeon had to use some force to pull out the tooth before holding it aloft in triumph. His patient stood up rather shakily, wiped the blood from his mouth, and bowed to the Queen.

  ‘And now, Madam, will you let this fellow take out your own tooth?’ Robert asked.

  Elizabeth was about to refuse, but a vicious shaft of pain made her change her mind.

  ‘We will,’ she capitulated, and signalled to her ladies to follow with the barber-surgeon into her privy chamber, where the operation was finally performed with very little fuss.

  The tooth had gone, but the bad mood persisted. Even the best efforts of Ippolita the Tartarian and her fellow fools could not rouse Elizabeth, nor could the little black boy whom she kept in her privy chamber, dressed in wide breeches and a jacket of black taffeta and gold tinsel; he tried capering about in his usual comic fashion, and juggling balls in the air, but she regarded him listlessly.

  She had no excuse now to refuse to see her councillors, but when next she took her seat at the head of the board it was to find that they had united against her.

  ‘Madam, you must act to prevent the Duke of Anjou from leading a French army into the Netherlands,’ Burghley insisted. ‘I urge you to marry him now. We are of one mind on this.’

  Robert took it upon himself to speak for them all, as he did increasingly these days. ‘Your Majesty cannot afford any delays,’ he said bluntly. ‘I speak as a faithful and true subject when I say that there must be no dithering, no procrastination and no stalling. This marriage must go ahead. Our very security depends on it.’

  ‘Be silent,’ Elizabeth snapped, furious at his presuming to tell her what she must and must not do. As for faithful and true subject … he was one to talk!

  ‘My lord of Leicester speaks truth,’ Hatton ventured, only to have the Queen turn her head away. The meeting ended in stalemate.

  Robert tried a new tactic – or rather, redeployed an old one. He went home to Leicester House and took to his bed, feigning sickness. It was a ploy that had worked before, and he was confident that it would bring Elizabeth hastening to his side. But she stayed stubbornly away, and when he finally got bored of waiting and returned to court, her manner towards him was chilly.

  In August, still brooding on her councillors’ shortcomings, she departed on a progress to the eastern shires. It was when she was in Norwich Cathedral, being shown the shields of her Boleyn ancestors high above the chancel, that news was brought to her that Anjou had not only invaded the Netherlands but had accepted an invitation to become governor of the Protestant states and defender of their liberties against what was termed the ‘Spanish Tyranny’.

  She simmered all through the dinner that had been laid on in the cloisters, and when she got back to the Bishop’s palace, she exploded in rage.

  ‘You allowed this to happen!’ she shouted at her councillors.

  ‘Madam, we have been begging you to take some action!’ Robert protested.

  ‘It was not I who did nothing to prevent what has happened!’ she flung back. ‘Now I shall have to placate Spain. I will write a message of support to King Philip. In the meantime, send word covertly to Anjou that we would speak with him of marriage.’

  Her councillors released a collective sigh of relief.

  The progress was a great success. Wherever Elizabeth went, she drew the hearts of the people after her. She had the common touch that came so easily to her family. Fêted, complimented and adored, she returned to London in a much better frame of mind.

  Robert, however, did not enjoy a peaceful homecoming. There was Lettice, radiantly beautiful, her stomacher unlaced to accommodate her great belly, screeching yet again that she had been grossly slighted.

  ‘I am the Countess of Leicester!’ she declared. ‘I will not be hidden away as if I have done something wrong. My father is not at all happy at the way I have been treated. He wants a public wedding, to make all things secure.’

  ‘The Queen cannot break our marriage,’ Robert said.

  ‘I would not put it past her to try.’ His wife was beside herself. ‘Remember Katherine Grey! That is why my father is adamant that there must be a second ceremony, with all my kin present.’

  ‘Listen, sweetheart,’ Robert soothed, ‘even Elizabeth cannot overturn a lawful marriage.’

  ‘You think not? She has done it before. And she will not receive me, proof enough that she does not recognise me as your wife!’

  ‘Did you expect her to receive you?’ His patience was a little frayed now. ‘In her eyes, you displaced her. Give her time. She may yet thaw towards you. You must stay calm and think of the child. Once it is born, things may well be different.’ He doubted it, but he hated to see Lettice so distressed, and was prepared to say anything to calm her and have a quieter life. Was ever man so beset by two women? It was like living between Scylla and Charybdis!

  ‘You don’t help,’ Lettice sniffed.

  ‘I?’ Robert was startled. ‘What have I done?’

  ‘You are seeing Douglass Sheffield and your bastard. Don’t think I don’t know.’

  ‘It’s true,’ Robert admitted. ‘Of course I have seen her. She is bringing up my son, whom I love. You would not deny my right to be a father to him, surely?’

  ‘I have no quarrel with you seeing your son. For your sake, I would welcome him into our household and be as a mother to him. But I do not want you to see Lady Sheffield again.’

  Robert knew that he had to put Lettice first in regard to his seeing Douglass, even if she was behaving increasingly unreasonably these days. He did not want her upsetting herself at this time; a happy outcome to her pregnancy was important to them both. He was forty-six, after all, and needed an heir. His heart had leapt when she suggested bringing his son to live with them. Of course, it was the ideal arrangement – and it showed how generous-hearted his dear wife was, and how much she loved him even to think of doing this for him. Only a very special woman would suggest raising her husband’s bastard as her own.

  ‘Are you very sure about my bringing Robin here?’ he asked her, hoping he had heard aright. ‘As a peer of the realm, I am within my rights to demand custody of my son, and nothing would please me more than to have young Robin live here with us. Then I would have no need to see Lady Sheffield again, and can break off all contact with her.’

  ‘I meant it, my love,’ Lettice replied, brightening and holding out her arms to him, and he went into them, profoundly grateful to her for providing a resolution to a situation that had been troubling him for some time. More than that, he could never resist her.

  Lettice agreed that Robert should meet with Douglass one last time to make all plain to her. At his summons, Douglass came up to Greenwich Palace with young Robin, and he met her at the great gatehouse in the company of two of his servants, whom he had asked to act as witnesses.

  Douglass noticed that Robert did not kiss her after she alighted from her barge, although he hugged young Robin warmly, but she suffered him to lead her a little way through the gardens to a bench painted with the royal arms. There she sat, increasingly dismayed, as he revealed the purpose of their meeting.

  ‘I am releasing you from all obligations to me and the boy,’ he said. ‘I am offering you an annuity
of seven hundred pounds, and in return I want you to surrender custody of our son to me.’

  It was more or less what Douglass herself had envisaged happening one day, but even so she burst into tears. ‘No,’ she said.

  ‘I can give our son every advantage,’ Robert explained. ‘And you did say that you would send him to me.’

  ‘No!’ Douglass repeated. ‘He is my son too!’

  ‘You have no right to him!’ Robert shouted, losing his temper. Poor Robin was looking from one parent to the other, bewildered and about to cry.

  ‘It was understood between us that I should take him at some stage,’ Robert said, curbing his anger, and lifted the boy firmly on to his knee, as if he were taking possession of him. ‘Do you want to come and live with me, Robin? I will raise you as a gentleman and you shall have many pretty toys and fine sports.’

  ‘Yes, Sir,’ Robin piped uncertainly. He knew that his father was a great and powerful man, and feared him a little; he also loved him, more than he loved his mother, for to his young mind Robert represented adventure and excitement.

  Seeing them together, Douglass knew that her cause was lost.

  ‘Very well, he is yours,’ she said. ‘But on one condition. You will help me to find a husband. It is no easy thing for me to do.’

  Robert was ready to promise much in return for his son. ‘It will be easier now that you are unencumbered, and have a greater fortune. I will help, I promise.’ Already he had in mind the widowed Sir Edward Stafford, whose wife, Rosetta Robsart, had been a relation of Amy’s.

  ‘I pray you will, and I hope that I may see Robin from time to time,’ Douglass said, looking sorrowfully at the boy.

  ‘That can be arranged,’ Robert told her, knowing that it probably would not be. He felt a pang at depriving the boy of his mother, but Robin would soon be of an age to be taken from the care of women and handed over to tutors, and in the meantime Lettice would play a mother’s part. The child belonged with his father, who could give him the best start in life.

  ‘Thank you,’ Douglass said, her tone cool. ‘And when will I get my annuity?’

  ‘The first instalment is here.’ Robert handed her a bag of gold coins. ‘From next month it will be delivered to you by messenger. Now …’ He stood up and took young Robin by the hand. ‘Say goodbye to your lady mother.’

  ‘Goodbye, Mamma,’ the little voice piped up uncertainly. Douglass swooped on him and hugged him as if she would never let him go, covering his face with kisses. Then abruptly she put him from her, stood up and walked away, so that neither father nor son should see the tears streaming down her cheeks.

  Robin soon settled happily at Leicester House, with Robert spoiling him and Lettice lavishing her frustrated maternal instincts on him. She missed her children by Essex, especially Robert, the eldest boy, a bright, lively lad whose spirited character outmatched her own. She often wondered how they were faring without her in Burghley’s care. But here was little Robin, and because she feared that her own children would be pining for their mother, she was especially kind to him. She would sit for ages playing with the boy, or cuddling him to her as she rested on her bed, reading to him. As her pregnancy advanced she came to know a deep contentment.

  She was overjoyed when Robert told her that they were to be married again in a public ceremony that would please her and satisfy her father. Robert had no wish to alienate Sir Francis Knollys, a true Protestant like himself, and a good man, and he was gratified when the Knollys family turned out in force for the wedding at Wanstead, along with his own brother, Ambrose, and the Earl of Pembroke. It was a very merry occasion, and Robert knew that Elizabeth would have apoplexy if she could see them all toasting himself and Lettice and celebrating their union with a lavish feast.

  Just two days later – as if by design (which indeed it was) – Elizabeth and her court descended on Wanstead on their way back to London after the summer progress. Robert had been given abrupt (and not nearly enough) notice of the Queen’s coming and suspected that her visit was meant to be a test. Reluctantly, and speedily, he had packed off a furious Lettice, with Robin, to Leicester House, and ordered all evidence of the wedding to be cleared away. Then he set his mind to entertaining Elizabeth with his usual lavishness. He even commissioned a pastoral masque from his talented nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, in her honour, and Sidney worked through the night to finish it, as did an army of seamstresses stitching the costumes.

  ‘It is called “The Lady in May”,’ Robert told the Queen, as he showed her to the great chair that had been set in front of the stage. ‘It is about a lady who is being courted by rival lovers and must choose between them.’

  Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled wickedly. ‘I seem to have heard that somewhere before, my lord!’ she smiled.

  There was a reason for her good humour. For weeks now she had been exchanging love letters with the Duke of Anjou, and his extravagant compliments and promises of undying devotion had revived her flagging spirits. No longer did she feel rejected and old. She thought she might even grasp the sow by the ear and finally marry. She was forty-five years old, and knew that in all probability this really would be her last chance. The marriage would bring peace between England and France; it would allow her to do more for the Huguenots; and it would show Robert that she was not pining for him.

  Strong Protestant that he was – and not a little jealous, she hoped – he hated the idea of this union. The other councillors were in favour, however, and Burghley was so delighted at the prospect that he had turned romantic and was singing the praises of matrimony – and Anjou – at every turn. (Elizabeth wondered what his erudite wife, the stern-faced Mildred, made of this new Cecil, who suddenly seemed to have developed a talent for poetic turns of phrase, particularly in respect of the hymeneal couch and the pleasures that Psyche found with Cupid.) She could afford to ignore Robert’s protests – which, of course, he had no right to make – and anyway he owed her this marriage, since he had forsaken her for that woman.

  That woman, even as the Queen fumed, was brought to bed. Barred by her ladies, Robert could only pace up and down the gallery that led to her bedchamber, his nerves stretched taut by the screams that were issuing from within. What was going on, for God’s sake? He was desperate to know.

  Hours went by. He sat slumped on a window seat, drowning his fears in goblet after goblet of wine. The screaming had now abated to a low moaning – and then, suddenly, there was silence. He stood up, instantly sober, and began his pacing again. When would they tell him something? How dare they keep him in suspense like this?

  Losing patience, he rapped loudly on the door. Immediately it opened and he found himself facing the midwife, a formidable village woman, skilled at her craft and with a good reputation. Normally her manner was brisk and reassuring, but now she looked frightened, diminished … Then he saw beyond her to the maid with the cloth bundle. He did not even dare think what it meant.

  God forgive her, but when news reached Elizabeth that her adversary’s child had been stillborn, she rejoiced. At least she would not have to endure the agony of thinking that Robert’s son could have been hers.


  Anjou had sent an envoy, Baron Jean Simier, to finalise the negotiations. Elizabeth could not help taking to Simier at once. He had the dark good looks she so much admired; he was every inch the courtier, skilled in courtesy, compliments and flirtation – and he put all three talents to imaginative use when he was with her.

  ‘Your Majesty, I am come to prepare you,’ he sang, bowing low and doffing a hat with an outrageously large plume of feathers.

  ‘To prepare me?’ Elizabeth echoed.

  ‘Yes, your Majesty, to prepare you for my master’s frenzied wooing! He is dying of love for you. He languishes impatiently, longing for the day when he can behold your divine face.’

  Steady on, thought Robert, scowling behind the throne.

  Elizabeth beamed at Simier. ‘And we long to see the Duke too, and to welcome him to England. Y
ou may tell your master that I was very impressed with his portrait.’ The artist had left out the pockmarks, she’d noticed.

  ‘I will tell him much more than that, Madame; I will speak of your celestial graces and dazzling beauty. If there be perfection in flesh and blood, undoubtedly it is in your Majesty.’

  ‘Ah, my lord, methinks you are well named,’ Elizabeth teased. ‘You are a naughty monkey, and so I will nickname you! Of all the beasts, you are the most beautiful.’

  ‘Who exactly is she meant to be marrying?’ Sussex murmured, observing the banter between queen and envoy.

  Robert was about to utter a caustic reply when Simier clapped his hands theatrically and a servant staggered in with a rich casket that was clearly very weighty.

  ‘Your Majesty, I bring jewels worth twelve thousand crowns for your lords, as a gift from my master,’ Simier cried with a flourish. ‘They are a token of his good will and friendship.’

  ‘And a bribe to make us like the marriage,’ Robert muttered.

  ‘Well I like it better every day,’ Sussex whispered, ever ready to disagree with him.

  ‘How very generous,’ Elizabeth said, fluttering her eyelashes artfully at Simier. God, she was behaving like a skittish girl with her first lover, Robert thought. It was more than embarrassing.

  Over the next days he watched, cringeing, as she flirted outrageously with the Baron, and went out of her way to show how eager she was for the marriage. She held a glittering court ball in Simier’s honour; she had a masque performed for his enjoyment; she kept him constantly at her side; and she summoned him to talk with her – well, that was the official version of it – late at night. When Simier presented her with a gift from Anjou – a book with a jewelled binding – she went into transports of joy and declared she would keep it with her always. In return, she gave Simier gifts for the Duke: her portrait done in miniature and a pair of embroidered gloves.

  ‘One day,’ she told him archly, ‘I hope to give Monsieur many more fine and valuable things, but for now these must suffice.’

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