The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  Elizabeth was being rowed along the Thames on her way to visit and inspect the royal docks at Deptford, near Greenwich, at the same time as Master Appletree, a fowler, was shooting from his boat, hoping to bag something for his dinner. Like lightning a shot from his gun flashed past not six feet from where Elizabeth was sitting and passed straight through the brawny arm of one of her oarsmen, who shrieked and danced most pitifully in agony.

  As his fellows leapt to help and staunch the blood, and the royal barge rocked dangerously, the Queen herself rose and swiftly clambered along the gangway to comfort the injured man, patting him on the shoulder and bidding him be of good cheer, for she would see that he never wanted for anything. Then she ordered that the terrified Appletree be fished out of his boat, arrested and tried. Condemned to be hanged, he was brought out some days later, shaking with fear, to the gallows that had been set up on the riverbank by the stretch of water where he had committed his crime. He was weeping pathetically as the hangman placed the rope around his neck. But then a shout came, ‘Hold!’ It was a messenger with the Queen’s most gracious pardon.

  ‘I meant only to teach him a stern lesson,’ she explained to Robert afterwards. But the episode left her more conscious than ever of the frailty of human life, and strengthened her resolve to marry Anjou.

  Simier came running to tell her, gesticulating wildly in delight. The Duke had arrived!

  ‘Monsieur came early this morning and woke me up, demanding to see your Majesty. I explained that you were still asleep, but in vain! He was so eager to greet you that he insisted on going himself to wake you up and kiss your hand. I dissuaded him, of course, and put him between the sheets. Would to God, I thought, that it was by your side!’

  ‘You are a bad man, Simier. I will not have such naughty talk!’ Elizabeth’s smile belied her words.

  It had been arranged that she would dine privately with Anjou at sunset in the pavilion. She dressed with especial care. Her gown and stomacher were of silver damask, her huge puffed sleeves embroidered with gold, her kirtle of crimson silk. Her skirts over the stiff farthingale were fashionably wide, her waist tiny, as convention – and her whalebone corset – dictated. At her breast she wore her bejewelled pelican pendant, symbolising her role as a mother to her people – and, hopefully, the future heirs to England. On her elaborately bewigged head was a chaplet of roses and pearls. Thus gorgeously attired, she stole out of the palace with just one of her ladies in attendance, and sped on light feet down the gravel paths and across the verdant lawns.

  What would Monsieur be like? She had heard unsettling reports that he was a misshapen dwarf, hideously scarred and disfigured by smallpox. Yet his portrait had shown a young man with pleasing features and none of those defects. Of course, artists flattered their sitters, it was well known. But with so much riding on that image, what was the point of such a deception? Well, she would soon know.

  The elegant young man who rose at her coming and made a deep obeisance was small in stature, as she had been warned, but he was definitely attractive in a uniquely Gallic way, with the dark hair and eyes that had always appealed to her in men. His nose was straight, his lips full and his eyes warmly regarding her with no hint of dismay at her being so much older than he. Yes, his skin was pitted in places, but not that you would notice much. There was a look of the young Leicester about him, she decided – and even a resemblance to Thomas Seymour, that villain who had first captured her heart. But she would not think of him now, not when this paragon of manhood was standing before her and gallantly stooping to take her hand and kiss it.

  ‘Welcome to England, Monsieur,’ she said in perfect French. ‘I trust you have had a good journey.’

  ‘Your Majesty, I would have braved tempests to see you,’ Anjou replied, his voice velvety and deep. ‘And now that I am here, I am so, so glad that I came, for I see that reports of your beauty do not lie; in fact they do not do justice to the fairest of queens.’

  This was better than she had ever expected, she thought, seating herself across the table from him and dipping her fingers into the rose-water in her finger-bowl. What was more, as the conversation and the drinks flowed – fine wine for him, good English watered beer for her – she discovered that she and Anjou had much in common. They both loved literature, poetry, music, dancing, hunting and long walks outdoors. She found to her delight that they shared a sense of humour and a sharp wit. She was delighted that he deferred to her at every turn and seemed eager to pay her the most flamboyant compliments. Above all, he spoke most tenderly of their coming marriage and the joy he knew that he would find in her. He could not wait to live in England, he declared.

  She was no fool, nor did she delude herself. She knew that such talk did not normally proceed from so short an acquaintance, and that much of it was pure courtesy and – it had to be admitted – ambition. But there was something else, too, a rapport on which much could be built. She found herself looking forward enormously to nurturing the liking that had been born tonight.

  As the wine sparkled in the candlelight, and the servitors silently came and went, bringing golden plates laden with exquisite food, Elizabeth sent up a silent prayer of thanks to God, who, in the late summer of her life, and with Robert lost for ever, had sent her this prince. By the end of the evening, she was telling herself that she had never seen a creature more agreeable to her.

  She said much the same thing to her councillors and her ladies. She told Simier that she was captivated, overcome with love.

  ‘I have never found a man whose nature and actions suited me better!’ she declared.

  ‘And Monsieur is as delighted with your Majesty as your Majesty is with him,’ Simier told her, which gladdened her heart no end.

  ‘I am pleased to have been able to get to know him,’ she enthused. ‘I am much taken with his good looks, and admire him more than any man. For my part, I will not prevent his becoming my husband.’

  There were more trysts in the pavilion, the very secrecy adding spice to the affair. Anjou proved an ardent suitor, pressing passionate kisses on her lips and drawing her tightly into an embrace that left her in no doubt of his desire for her.

  ‘I shall call you my Frog,’ she announced, making him laugh.

  ‘Why Frog?’

  ‘It is what the English call the French. In your case it is a great compliment. And you leapt like a frog across the Channel to see me.’

  ‘And would leap into your bed,’ he said with the boldness that she loved.

  ‘No, my Frog, you must be patient,’ she chided, but she was loving it all: the banter, the innuendo and the promise of passion to come. It was the breath of life to her.

  They exchanged gifts: jewels, books and silver-gilt cups.

  ‘I will love you for ever, my golden Queen,’ Anjou vowed.

  ‘And I will make you a true and faithful wife,’ Elizabeth promised, ‘and love you until death parts us.’

  She went about the court with a broad, beatific smile on her face. Most of her courtiers knew the reason for it, and laughed behind their hands, but Elizabeth ignored them. Only Robert looked on balefully, sickened and shamed at what he had heard, on good authority, of what went on in that bloody pavilion. But he could do or say nothing, because officially Anjou was not in England. Most of the councillors were staying away from court as often as their duties permitted, to avoid being asked awkward questions. Robert had to content himself with cursing the French under his breath.

  Robert had always loved literature and verse, and enjoyed a reputation as a great patron of letters. He had in his household a young poet, Edmund Spenser, a talented fellow who had come on the recommendation of the Sidneys. Spenser took pleasure in reminding Robert how Anjou’s courtship of the Queen was the talk of London and had scandalised the Puritans. Then Robert found out, to his horror, that Spenser, his own protégé, had circulated a satire, Mother Hubbard’s Tale, which was less than flattering to Anjou, Simier and – Heaven protect him – Elizabeth herself. When h
e heard that she had read and publicly – and very hotly – condemned it, he was deeply mortified, and packed the foolish, hot-headed boy who had caused all the trouble off to Ireland.

  Elizabeth guessed that Robert had had nothing to do with Spenser’s offensive libel, but she let him stew for a while. She ignored the chorus of disapproval on the part of those who hated the Anjou marriage. She was enjoying her secret affair too much to pay them any heed. She decided to arrange a court ball, so that Anjou could see how well she danced.

  ‘My poor Frog must stand behind the tapestries,’ she told him. ‘You will be able to see the dancing through the gaps.’ Having had him smuggled in before the guests arrived, she showed off immoderately for his benefit, joining in many more dances than usual, executing dramatic leaps and twirls, and even smiling and waving in the direction of the tapestry. The court reverberated with silent mirth.

  Two days later Robert asked to see her in private. He was dismayed to find her so cool towards him, but he persisted in his mission nonetheless.

  ‘Madam, I am in great grief at the thought of this marriage,’ he blurted out.

  ‘Do not think to sway me with that,’ Elizabeth retorted. ‘I have had enough criticism from your camp.’

  ‘I apologise for young Spenser,’ Robert said. ‘It was done without my knowledge.’

  ‘I know,’ she replied. ‘But you would echo the sentiment.’

  ‘I am not the only one,’ he declared.

  ‘I do not want to hear it!’ she snapped. ‘You should consider the weal of this realm and the happiness of your Queen!’

  ‘I think of nothing else,’ he averred, his blood up.

  ‘Then you understand nothing.’

  ‘I have your welfare at heart,’ he protested angrily.

  ‘As you did when you married that woman?’ she flung back. ‘No, my lord, I want none of your concern, so let that be an end to it.’

  ‘I shall leave court,’ Robert threatened, wounded to the heart.

  ‘Is that a promise? Just go!’

  He emerged from their meeting very distressed, and went to arrange for the packing of his gear and the saddling of horses. All he could hope for now was that Parliament would vote against the marriage.

  At the end of August Anjou broke it to Elizabeth that he had to leave on the morrow. A bosom friend had been killed in a duel, and he was needed in France. Understanding the urgency, Elizabeth placed a fine ship at his disposal, and tried not to imagine that he might be making an excuse to abandon her.

  She spent the last night of his visit lying wakeful and fretting, and in the morning Simier, come for his usual audience, told her that Anjou had done just the same.

  ‘Monsieur was sighing and moaning all night, and hauled me out of bed at an ungodly hour to tell me about your Majesty’s divine beauty. Then he swore a thousand oaths that, without hope of seeing your Majesty again, he cannot live another quarter of an hour!’

  Tears sprang to Elizabeth’s eyes. He did love her, her Frog. How could she have doubted it?

  She went, disguised, to see him off from the great gatehouse at Greenwich, where waited the boat that would take him down to his ship at Dover.

  ‘You are the gaoler of my heart and the mistress of my liberty,’ he told her as he folded her in his arms, making her shiver with pleasure and misery at the thought of parting. They kissed tenderly, and soon he was gone from her sight. From Dover he wrote her three letters expressing his devotion in the most heart-rending terms, and soon afterwards, three more arrived from Boulogne.

  I am desolate without you, she read, and I can do nothing but wipe away my tears. I kiss your feet from the coast of the comfortless sea. He had signed himself the most faithful and affectionate slave in the world, and enclosed in the packet a pendant formed as a little flower of gold with a frog crouching on it, which opened to reveal his miniature portrait.

  She wept at that. She was in turmoil, all the worse for the fact that it could not be expressed, since his visit was a secret. She could speak of her sorrow to Simier, but with everyone else she had to maintain a smiling countenance. The one man to whom she might have unburdened herself was lost to her, sulking at Wanstead. For want of any human comfort, she found herself writing verses, which she entitled ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’. When she read them over, she realised that they expressed exactly how she felt.

  I grieve and dare not show my discontent;

  I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;

  I do, yet dare not say I ever meant;

  I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate.

  I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned,

  Since from myself another self I turned.

  My care is like my shadow in the sun –

  Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,

  Stands, and lies by me, doth what I have done;

  His too familiar care doth make me rue it.

  No means I find to rid him from my breast,

  Till by the end of things it be suppressed.

  Some gentler passion slide into my mind,

  For I am soft and made of melting snow;

  Or be more cruel, Love, and so be kind.

  Let me or float or sink, be high or low;

  Or let me live with some more sweet content,

  Or die, and so forget what love e’er meant.

  Anjou had instructed Simier to finalise negotiations for the marriage, but by now the great swelling of opposition to it in London had spread to the shires. The Spanish ambassador feared that there would be a revolution in England if the wedding went ahead. Leicester’s nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, even had the temerity to write Elizabeth a letter in which he reminded her of the horrors of the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve and the perfidy of the French; Anjou’s own mother, he begged to remind her, was the Jezebel of their age, and her son would be wholly unacceptable to Elizabeth’s Protestant subjects.

  Elizabeth cried tears of rage when she read it. By God, his uncle had put him up to this! Robert, though, was beyond reach of her temper, so she bawled out Sidney and banished him from court. But there was no trace of her fury and inner turmoil when she returned to London after her summer progress and went in procession through the City in a bid to win over her dissenting subjects. So radiant and gracious did she look on her fine Spanish horse, smiling and raising her hand in greeting, that the people marvelled and fell to their knees as she passed, honouring and indeed worshipping this veritable goddess who had come among them, and calling down on her a thousand blessings. The Virgin Mary might have been banished from English churches, but the Virgin Queen had now taken her place in the minds of loyal Englishmen.

  Elizabeth was appalled therefore when a scurrilous pamphlet against her coming marriage, written by one of those damnable Puritans, John Stubbs, appeared on the streets of London and threatened her very precious popularity.

  ‘This must be suppressed,’ she demanded, banging her fist on the council board.

  ‘Without doubt,’ Burghley agreed. ‘We cannot allow such offensive language against Monsieur.’

  ‘Or the house of Valois,’ Walsingham added. ‘Rotten with disease and marked by divine vengeance for its cruelties,’ he read aloud. ‘As for the assertion that the Duke is eaten by debauchery, that is an outright calumny.’

  ‘I mean to punish the perpetrator severely, so that our allies the French see how we deal with those who cause such offence against them,’ Elizabeth declared. ‘Publish a proclamation condemning this pamphlet as lewd and seditious, and have all copies confiscated and burned. Then have a preacher go to Paul’s Cross to assure my people that I have no intention of changing my religion when I marry. He must say that I have been brought up in Christ, and will live and die in Christ.’

  When the people heard, they shouted out their thanks and appreciation, but they resented the criticism of Stubbs, whose words had awakened their ingrained distrust of the French. Alarmed, Elizabeth consulted her judges, and ordered that Stubbs be arre
sted and hanged for sedition, along with his publisher and his printer.

  ‘But Madam, sedition is not a capital crime,’ Burghley protested.

  ‘Then they shall have their right hands cut off, and be sent to prison,’ she decided. She took care to remind the people of her renowned clemency by pardoning the elderly printer, but declared that she would rather have her own hand cut off than mitigate the sentence against Stubbs and his publisher.

  She was watching from a window when the two unfortunate men were brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of Whitehall Palace. When the executioner brought down his cleaver and struck off the offending hand that had written the pamphlet, Stubbs took off his hat with his left hand, cried out, ‘God save Queen Elizabeth!’ and promptly fainted. Elizabeth was angered to see looks of sympathy and disapproval on the faces of the silent crowd. She felt gravely shaken. She could not bear to think that she had forfeited the good will of her subjects.

  With this very much in mind, she prorogued the Parliament that had met to conclude the marriage treaty, asked her councillors for advice, and predictably plunged them into a heated debate. Robert and Hatton had mustered five of their colleagues to argue against the marriage, and Burghley had enlisted four others who were in favour of it. In the end, the councillors had to ask Elizabeth to open her mind to them as to her own inclinations.

  ‘Madam, we lay this before you, as you seem not to be pleased with any person or any argument that appears to be against the marriage,’ Burghley explained.

  Elizabeth had already realised that it would be folly to go ahead with the treaty in the face of opposition from her councillors and her people. But it came to her that in not going ahead, she would probably be saying farewell to her last chance of marriage and motherhood, and to the dismay of all the men seated along the council board she suddenly burst into tears. It was the fault of those who had set out to wreck the negotiations! she sobbed. They were to blame!

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