The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘He picked them himself, your Majesty,’ the envoys told her, looking justifiably abashed.

  Elizabeth stared at the flowers again. She knew exactly why he had sent them. But did he think that a few dying blooms would soften her resolve and bring the might of England crashing over the Channel to his aid?

  Nevertheless she wrote thanking him for the sweet flowers that his dear fingers had touched, promising him that no present was ever carried so gracefully. In fact she had carried it just for the time it took to get back to her privy chamber.

  Shimmering in a gown of gold taffeta, she entertained the French envoys to a lavish banquet in a great pavilion with windows of real glass and a roof decorated with suns and stars, erected for the occasion. There followed feasts, masques, pageants and triumphs, as well as several council meetings at which the marriage was repeatedly debated.

  At length Elizabeth summoned Anjou’s commissioners.

  ‘I must tell you that I am still concerned about the age gap between Monsieur and myself,’ she informed them. ‘I also fear that, were I to wed him, it would give unwelcome encouragement to English Catholics. Above all, I do not wish to become involved in a war with Spain. I should prefer to make an alliance with France rather than a marriage.’

  The men before her appeared crestfallen. ‘Your Majesty,’ their spokesman said, ‘we are not empowered to do anything other than conclude a marriage treaty.’

  ‘I am sorry, but I have spoken,’ Elizabeth declared, not without sympathy.

  She did relent and take them with her to Deptford as guests of honour when she went to dine with Francis Drake on board his ship The Golden Hind, in which he had come home safely the year before after completing one of the most epic voyages ever made. Sailing around the world had been a tremendous feat, as he was only the second man to have done it – and he had stolen a lot of booty from Spanish ships during his three-year odyssey. Elizabeth liked the hearty, plain-spoken Drake, and – although she made the appropriate noises of outrage when King Philip complained about her pirates making away with his treasure – she was secretly cock-a-hoop about the gold that he had brought her.

  The feast hosted by Drake on the deck of his brave galleon was sumptuous, with course after course of rich and succulent dishes, redolent of spices, sugar comfits and subtleties, and wine overflowing; people were saying that there had never been anything like it since King Harry’s time. Elizabeth clapped loudest of all when the ship’s crew appeared in Red Indian costumes with great head-dresses of feathers, and danced in a circle before her, giving strange whoops. She wanted to hear all about the New World and the many strange lands they had visited, and sat enraptured for four hours as Drake recounted his adventures for her, spicing them up with many pungent sea-dog’s expressions, which made her laugh.

  Afterwards, in the cool spring moonlight, he escorted her around the ship, and she was delighted to find herself bunching up her skirts and scaling ladders, and leaning over the forecastle looking down on the snout below and the black waters of the Thames.

  ‘I was told, yer Majesty, that King Philip wanted me put to death for piracy,’ Drake chuckled as they crossed the main deck and rejoined the company.

  Elizabeth nodded to one of her guard, who handed her a sword that she had commanded to be brought to the feast. ‘So should I use this to cut off your head?’ she joked, making a clumsy attempt to swing it through the air, causing some of her courtiers to duck nervously.

  ‘Depends whether I’m guilty or not!’ Drake laughed.

  ‘I think that you deserve a knighthood,’ she declared, and summoned one of the Frenchmen to perform the ceremony for her, the better to rile King Philip. He would be hopping with fury when he heard, all his Spanish dignity forgotten!

  Beaming with delight, the newly knighted Sir Francis Drake presented the Queen with a map of the great voyage and his personal diary of his adventures. As she thanked him, her golden garter slipped off, whereupon one of the envoys, seeing it lying on the planks in her wake, asked if they could have it for their master, Anjou.

  ‘No!’ she smiled. ‘I need it to keep my stocking up.’ But when she returned to Greenwich she relented and sent it to him after all. Then, keeping up the pretence that she had had a change of heart, she authorised the commissioners to draw up the treaty of marriage.

  ‘But it must be endorsed by Monsieur himself!’ she insisted, leaving the Frenchmen to depart for home disappointed and disgruntled.

  Anjou did not come to England to append his signature – his proxies could do it, and he clearly felt he had better things to occupy his time – but by and by it became obvious that he was now even more desperate for money. Elizabeth was moved to send him a loan, and a letter with it assuring him that, although her body was her own, her soul was wholly dedicated to him. Let him make of that what he would!

  She was enraged, therefore, when she heard that his interfering mother was up to her usual trickery, trying to make him wed a princess of Spain. If that happened, all Elizabeth’s careful, tortuous diplomacy might be gone to waste! There was no overestimating the fickleness of the French.

  ‘Go to France, good Moor,’ she commanded Walsingham, ‘and tell them that I really do mean to have the Duke. But try to negotiate an alliance that does not involve marriage.’ Walsingham went, dragging his steps. The task seemed impossible, especially when Elizabeth sent after him a deluge of instructions, telling him to do first one thing and then quite another.

  ‘He writes urging you to forget about the marriage,’ Robert said. ‘He is right, you know. I urge you to take his advice.’ Hatton was nodding sagely.

  ‘And I urge you to stop meddling, my lord,’ Elizabeth said, tart.

  ‘Madam,’ Burghley intervened, shaking his head, ‘Sir Francis is at the end of his tether. He writes that he would repute it a great favour to be committed to the Tower, unless your Majesty grows more certain of your intentions. He warns that, instead of the looked-for amity from the French, you will be the object only of enmity, and he will be much discomfited. King Henri, he says, is adamant that there will be no alliance without a marriage.’

  Elizabeth replied, as she had done many times before when cornered, that she would think on the matter, making it plain that the discussion was at an end. Think she did, but still she bombarded Walsingham with conflicting orders. In the end, he wrote an exasperated letter telling her plainly that she would have to make up her mind.

  So he wants me to marry Anjou after all! she concluded. I thought he opposed the match. He made enough fuss about it.

  When, finally, a fraught Walsingham returned home, she was waiting for him.

  ‘Well, you knave!’ she chided. ‘Why have you so often spoken ill of Monsieur? You veer round like a weathercock!’

  ‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘had you been in my place, trying to interpret your commands and keep the French sweet, you would have come to wish that your Majesty would take the Devil himself as husband, so long as you made up your mind!’

  It seemed to Elizabeth that there was now danger on every side. Intelligence reports told of hidden priests and secret agents furtively doing their utmost to subvert her rule. She gave her orders to Burghley and Walsingham. Houses were searched, people hunted down and arrested, and draconian new laws passed. There were arrests, interrogations and hangings. She found herself – much against her will – forced to sanction torture, so terrified was she of plots to kill her and overthrow all she had worked for. To add to her burdens, when King Philip heard of the treatment meted out to his fellow Catholics in England, he threatened war.

  It was at this critical juncture that Anjou, hopeful of obtaining English support against the brutal Spanish presence in the Netherlands, came a-courting once more. At news that he was actually on his way to Richmond, Elizabeth felt her heart leaping – unexpectedly, for she had thought that her feelings for him had died. She chose a fine house for him in the palace precincts – being November, it was too cold for pavilions – and hersel
f supervised the furnishing of it, taking pleasure in every last detail.

  Anjou had matured into solid manhood since she had last seen him, and his greeting was more assured. She liked this grown-up Monsieur even better than the fledgling version, and welcomed him with genuine affection. Very soon they fell into their old intimacy. When Elizabeth showed him around his house, she even joked that he might recognise the bed. It was the one on which he and she had once tumbled, giggling, then looked at each other in realisation that something more serious might have been going on between them. How she wished now that she had been able to give in to that impulse. But never mind: he was back now, and who knew what might happen?

  She gave him a golden key. ‘It fits every door in my palace,’ she revealed.

  ‘Is that an invitation, Madame?’ he asked, his eyebrows raised mischievously.

  ‘It signifies that the doors of England are open to your Highness,’ she smiled.

  Anjou gave her in return a diamond ring of great price, with which she was inordinately pleased, even though it had probably been bought with her money. It was the thought that counted, after all, and thank goodness they were finished with wilting flowers. He even attempted to slip the ring on her betrothal finger, but she resisted him, firmly placing it on the other hand. ‘That must wait!’ she laughed.

  They were back to being adoring sweethearts. He was once more her Frog and she his Divine Goddess. She had thought to have kissed goodbye to love and all its pleasures, but now she felt rejuvenated and the future no longer seemed bleak and lonely.

  ‘You are the most constant of my lovers,’ she told Anjou (forgetting Robert’s twenty-three years of devotion, and the thirteen years in which the Archduke Charles had waited for an answer), at which Monsieur touched his lips to her hand most fervently. ‘I shall call you Francis the Constant,’ she beamed.

  She took delight in showing him around Richmond Palace, that fairy-tale fantasy that had been built by her grandsire, Henry VII, to glorify the Tudor dynasty and adorned with pinnacles, domes, oriel windows and a plethora of royal badges wherever Grandfather could have them crammed in. She led her Frog through the maze of galleries and loggias framing gardens that were beautiful in all seasons; she danced him through the vast great hall, their footsteps echoing in that cavernous space.

  She would not – could not – attend to any business; all she wanted was to be closeted with her Frog in her privy chamber, where they spent so many exciting and quite glorious hours. She knew that there was much gossip about them, that people were speculating as to what they did there, and that it was even being said that she brought Monsieur breakfast in bed. Anjou fuelled this talk by loudly declaring that he longed day and night to be in Elizabeth’s bed, to show what a fine gentleman he could be. The court echoed with suppressed giggles.

  Elizabeth had not forgotten that her subjects in general were against the marriage. She had Anjou accompany her to a service in St Paul’s Cathedral, so that everyone could see how gracious and debonair he was, and made a point of kissing him in front of the entire congregation. But public opinion remained divided. The French thought that the marriage alliance was as good as sealed, but many Englishmen scoffed and said that the Duke was only after one thing, and that was money.

  Anjou grew uneasy. He had been here in England for some weeks and nothing had been decided.

  ‘I would pledge myself to you, my constant Frog,’ Elizabeth murmured one day, as she lay in his arms, fully dressed, on the bed in his house.

  ‘Then do so, ma chérie!’ he urged. ‘Make a public declaration of your intentions!’

  ‘I cannot say anything publicly yet,’ she said.

  ‘Do not make a fool of me!’ he pleaded. For all his ardent courtship, she knew that he wanted the treaty signed as a matter of urgency, as his money, even the sum that she had loaned him, had all but run out.

  She was not ready to make a decision. She wanted him, yes – whether she wanted him enough to marry him was another matter entirely – but she did fear provoking her subjects. Not wanting to hurt or alienate Anjou, she staged a little charade for his benefit. She asked him to walk with her in the gallery at Whitehall, having commanded Leicester and Walsingham to be in attendance at a discreet distance. They had been the most vocal opponents of the marriage, so their presence would serve to give credence to what she meant to say.

  She had been advised that the French ambassador would try to see her at this time (and she had a good idea what he was going to ask), and sure enough, as if on cue, he entered the gallery.

  ‘Your Majesty, Monsieur,’ he addressed her and Anjou, bowing low. ‘Madame, we meet by a happy chance, for I have been instructed by my master to hear from your own lips your intention with regard to marrying Monsieur here.’

  Elizabeth was ready with her answer. ‘You may write this to the King, that the Duke of Anjou shall be my husband.’ Then she turned to a delighted Anjou and boldly kissed him on the mouth, drawing a ring from her hand and placing it on his finger. ‘This I give you as a pledge, my lord.’

  Anjou looked deliriously happy – with love, triumph, or at the prospect of money, it was hard to tell. Hastily he gave her one of his rings in return, and vowed his undying adoration, kneeling in what looked like ecstasy and covering her hands with kisses.

  ‘Now we may consider ourselves betrothed, the promise given and rings exchanged before witnesses,’ Elizabeth declared, trying to look as delighted as a woman just betrothed should. She summoned her courtiers to the presence chamber, where, standing in front of her throne, she announced the happy news to them as Anjou beamed exultantly at her side, already dreaming of his coronation in Westminster Abbey and the gold that would soon be coming his way. But Leicester, Hatton and some of the Queen’s ladies were seen to be weeping.

  The announcement of the marriage sparked an immediate sensation at court. People were amazed that the Queen had finally decided to take a husband – and about time too! Church bells were rung. In his sickbed, laid up with gout, old Burghley cried, ‘Praise the Lord!’ Some of Elizabeth’s courtiers leaped for joy; others, detesting the French and fearing the Catholics, wore their sorrow like a cloak. The mood in London was subdued.

  By nightfall – it had not even been twelve hours since she gave her promise – Elizabeth was regretting what she had done. She had said more than she intended, she insisted, listening anxiously to the sounds of carousing and celebration going on around her in the palace. Long after the merrymaking had ceased, she sat up, pensive and doubtful, surrounded by her ladies, the incredulous targets of her laments. Some, catching her mood, were in tears at the prospect of their mistress making this terrible mistake.

  ‘What will become of us?’ they wailed. ‘The King of Spain will make war on us for this.’

  Elizabeth hushed them testily, but she knew that their fears were well founded. What had she been thinking of? She had betrothed herself before witnesses, just to keep the French on her side and Monsieur on the boil, and there was no going back now. She could not sleep for worrying about it. Of course, she told herself, the French King would refuse the terms she offered him, releasing her from her promise. But what if he did not? Well, she would just have to make impossible demands; it would not be the first time, after all. And if that did not have the desired effect, she could be certain that Parliament would veto the marriage. So she was safe. Or was she? Had she foreseen all contingencies?

  Her feelings for Anjou now seemed insubstantial beside her reluctance to proceed with their marriage. She saw them, in the dark reaches of the night when stark truths rear their fearsome heads, for what they really were: an illusion born of the vanity of an ageing woman. They were feeble, illusory fantasies compared with the love she had cherished for Robert these twenty years and more. Anjou had fed her conceit; he had brought some long-needed excitement and gaiety into her life. But truth to tell, she was growing weary of the ritual courtship dance, the extravagant compliments, the pretence that this was true love.
In fact she wanted nothing more at this moment than for him to go away.

  She lay there wakeful until the late winter dawn broke, then stood wilting like a rag doll as her women dressed her. She felt ill, as if she would faint. When Anjou came to her she almost collapsed into his arms.

  ‘I am very worried, dear Frog,’ she confessed. ‘I spoke out of passion yesterday, not wisdom, and if I endure two more such nights as the one I have just spent, I will be in my grave. You must not think that I do not love you. You must know that I want to marry you more than anything I have ever wanted in this life. My affection for you is undiminished. But I have been forced to the conclusion that I cannot marry you at present. I must sacrifice my happiness for the welfare of my subjects.’

  She felt Anjou stiffen in dismay before he relinquished her. She saw him swallow as he stood, cold-eyed, before her. ‘I am utterly saddened and disappointed,’ he said in a strangled voice. ‘And now, forgive me, I must leave you in order to compose myself.’

  He went, fuming, seething with humiliation. Had ever man been treated so contemptuously? She would not marry him after all. She meant to make him wait indefinitely, with no hope of a happy outcome. There would be no coronation, no money, and when this got out he would be covered in ignominy because of her rejection. He could wave goodbye to glory in the Netherlands too! All his careful courtship, all that romantic charade, had been for nothing!

  Very well. He too could play games. If he could not get English gold by marrying the Queen, he would make her pay to get rid of him!

  Seeing that the English Jezebel was intent on sealing a marriage alliance with his enemies, the French, King Philip began making friendly noises, offering to forgive her past transgressions against Spain. Elizabeth saw that she was now in a strong position, especially as far as France was concerned.

  King Henri read the long list of demands she had sent him. Outrageous! He could not possibly consent to any of them.

  He had rejected her demands out of hand! The marriage negotiations could now be considered terminated. Consumed with relief, Elizabeth thanked God for her deliverance, and felt that a celebration was called for, save that it would not have been appropriate, with the matter so sensitive. Because there was Anjou, glowering, having been told by the French ambassador what her terms had been. ‘Mon Dieu!’ he was heard to exclaim. ‘I cannot believe the lightness of women, or the inconstancy of these islanders.’

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