The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  Elizabeth turned to Robert. ‘Pull yourself together, old man. I am sending you to the Netherlands at the head of an army, to aid the Protestants there. I hope that cheers you!’

  Robert turned his ravaged face to her in amazement. ‘After all this time, you have consented to let me go?’ he asked, unable quite to believe her.

  ‘It is against my better judgement,’ she said briskly, ‘but I know that I can trust you, and that you are enthusiastic about the venture.’

  Robert’s eyes had lit up; she had known that this was the one thing that would rouse him from the torpor of grief. But yes, she had her qualms. His health was not good, and it was thirty years since he had seen action in the field. Warfare had changed in that time, and Parma was a great general. But she had made her decision not only for reasons of state, but also to divert Robert from his grief and restore his pride (and hers, if truth be told) in his manhood. Yet now that she had issued the order she would have given much to retract it.

  Robert’s spirits, however, had been revived by the prospect of trouncing the Spaniards. He would show those young bucks and gallants about the court what he was made of! He only wished that he was twenty years younger.

  Seeing him busily occupied with preparations for the coming campaign, Elizabeth found her heart sinking. She could not face the prospect of parting from him. Something strange was happening to her, and had been for a year now. As her monthly courses had visited her less frequently, her moods had become ever more variable, and her temper more volatile. She could not help herself. She was more emotional these days, more given to irrational outbursts. To her horror, she was becoming what she had always despised, a clinging woman – and the man she was clinging on to was Robert.

  In despair, she summoned him one night. She sounded pitiful, even to herself. ‘Do not go to the Netherlands and leave me,’ she pleaded. ‘I – I fear I will not live long.’ In truth, what she feared was that he would not live long, but she could not say that.

  ‘That’s nonsense!’ he retorted. ‘You have the constitution of an ox, and will outlive us all. Now, no more of this kind of talk. You know, none better, how much our English presence is needed over there. We will push back the Spaniards and then I will come home in triumph, and we will have a big celebration.’

  ‘Yes,’ she said, unconvinced.

  ‘Do not worry, Bess,’ Robert reassured her. ‘All will be well.’

  She was more cheerful after that. But how long this feeling would last was anyone’s guess. One night Robert found himself being shaken awake by a groom in royal livery who informed him that it was the Queen’s pleasure that he forbear to proceed with his military preparations until further notice.

  What the hell was she playing at? Swearing great oaths, he pulled on some clothes and went in search of his fellow councillors, desperate to enlist their support. He found Walsingham working late in his closet, and slumped down on the stool facing him.

  ‘Why, Robert, whatever ails you?’ Walsingham said, laying down his pen and dragging his mind away from implementing the latest security measures against the Scottish Queen.

  ‘I am weary of life and all,’ Robert blurted out, and related what had happened.

  ‘I shouldn’t worry too much about it,’ Walsingham said soothingly. ‘You know what our mistress is like. She may be of another mind in the morning.’

  And she was. She rescinded the order. Yet still she showed herself morose and irritable at the prospect of Robert’s impending departure. And so it went on for days. Then she had another gripe.

  ‘You are to be my Lieutenant General,’ she informed him. It was an insult. He had expected to be accorded the highest rank, Captain General; it was his right, and it served a practical purpose, for it commanded the greatest respect.

  ‘Why, in God’s name?’ he barked.

  ‘I do not want you seeking your own glory rather than my true service,’ Elizabeth said peevishly.

  He was speechless. ‘Any glory I win will naturally be yours,’ he countered, trying to control his anger at yet another affront to his integrity.

  ‘But the Dutch might not see it that way. And, my lord, you must never accept from them any title or role that implies my acceptance of the sovereignty of the Netherlands, for I do not want it.’

  ‘You can rely on me, Madam,’ he replied stiffly. Two could play at being formal. Her unfair assumption stung, and he felt that he must say something to counter it. ‘Your Majesty puts me on trial to test how much I love you, and you even try to discourage me from your service, but I am resolved that nothing in this world shall draw me back from my faithful discharge of my duty towards you – even though you seem to hate me, which touches me very nearly, for suddenly I find no love or favour in you at all.’

  Their eyes met, his wounded, hers filling with tears.

  ‘Oh Robin, I just do not want you to go!’ Elizabeth cried. ‘Forgive me my unkindness. No queen ever had a more loyal servant.’

  He stepped forward and drew her to him, gentling her against his breast. She had forgotten how good it felt to be in his embrace, and that made her weep even more.

  ‘Fear not, Bess,’ he murmured. ‘I will take care of myself and all your brave soldiers. We will come back safely to you, covered in glory, you’ll see!’

  The kindness between them did not last. As befitted the Queen’s commander in the Netherlands, Robert was to take with him a great household of one hundred and seventy persons, with his young stepson, the Earl of Essex, acting as his master of horse. But then it came to Elizabeth’s ears that that woman was going too, and insisting on transporting with her a great train of ladies and a vast amount of baggage – magnificent gowns, furniture, tapestries, even her carriages!

  ‘I did not send you to the Netherlands so that your wife could queen it over there!’ Elizabeth shouted. ‘Tell her to learn a little humility, or I will strip you of your command!’

  Robert bore her histrionics stoically; he knew that they proceeded from jealousy, and the fear of losing him. He asked a simmering Lettice to scale down her preparations – ‘This is war, and it is not meet that you keep great state,’ he told her – and hoped that she would comply. One never knew with her; she was always itching to defy the Queen, whom she resented as bitterly as Elizabeth resented her. He sighed, and reflected for the umpteenth time that it was not easy being caught between two warring women! And now the Queen was refusing to take any further interest in his preparations because Lettice was going with him.

  Finally he sailed, leaving his tearful sovereign behind – and immediately upon his arrival in the Netherlands ran into a problem. For the Dutch, so grateful to him for coming to their rescue, had arranged to send him on what amounted to a royal progress around their country, and were insisting that he consent to become their ruler, as Governor General.

  He thought he might see the fireworks from Holland when news of that reached Elizabeth.


  ‘How dare they?’ Elizabeth spluttered. ‘And how dare he accept!’ She was shaking with a fury such as her councillors had never witnessed.

  She dashed off a letter castigating Robert in the strongest terms for what she was pleased to call his childish dealing. ‘You have made me infamous to all princes!’ she ranted. ‘On the duty of your allegiance, you will stand down, and fail not to obey my command, or you will answer for it at your utmost peril.’

  Robert read her words with a heavy heart. He had believed – and still did – that he was acting in her best interests. He had sent William Davison, her secretary whom she had decreed must accompany him, back to England to tell her of the invitation to become Governor General, but Davison had been delayed by bad weather, and Robert had assumed that Elizabeth had voiced no objection. To be honest, he had wanted to accept the office. He knew now that he should have waited until he had heard from her himself, just to be sure that she was happy for him to do so.

  Instead, a distressed Davison wrote that Elizabeth had lectured him in
the most bitter and hard terms, refusing to let him speak in his or Robert’s favour. Never, to Robert’s knowledge, had she condemned a man before she heard him. He guessed that she was feeling the strain of his absence and the other worries that lay heavy on her shoulders. Walsingham wrote that she was daily becoming less able to bear any matter of weight, and his own brother, Warwick, informed him that her great rage against him had increased rather than diminished. She was even withholding pay from his soldiers out of pique.

  ‘Her blasts are always sharpest towards those she loves the best, God be thanked,’ Robert observed to Essex, sounding more confident than he felt.

  His colleagues on the Council were anxious lest Elizabeth take it into her head to recall him, for it would never do for the Spaniards to see the English divided. They used every effort to calm her down and pacify her, telling her that Leicester had acted for the best, but it took a messenger bringing news that he was ill to make her accept the situation.

  ‘He has offered to resign,’ Burghley told her, ‘but the Dutch have written begging your Majesty to reconsider. Madam, I will resign if he steps down, so God spares him to continue.’ It was not often that her Lord Treasurer gave her ultimatums.

  ‘Very well,’ she said, gritting her teeth, ‘he may remain as Governor General. But it must be made clear that he is not my deputy, and that he is in a subordinate position. He is a subject, not an equal prince.’

  Robert accepted with relief. He would have agreed to any terms. He was overjoyed therefore when Raleigh wrote that the Queen was speaking favourably of him. Thanks be to God, she is well pacified, and you are again her Sweet Robin. He had to smile at that, coming from Warter.

  England was still beset on three fronts. There was the danger from the Netherlands and from Spain, where Philip was amassing his great armada, having received the Pope’s blessing on his planned enterprise of England. Then there was the Queen of Scots, plotting away at Chartley.

  When Elizabeth told the Spanish ambassador, ‘I know all that goes on in my kingdom,’ she spoke the truth. For a trap had been laid for Mary, and the only people who knew about it were Elizabeth, Leicester and Walsingham; the latter’s secretary, Thomas Phelippes, an expert cipher breaker; and a turncoat priest, Gilbert Gifford, a double agent in Walsingham’s employ. Thanks to Gifford and Phelippes, Mary’s letters were being secretly intercepted and deciphered, and they made for very interesting reading. One had urged King Philip to invade England as soon as possible. Another had revealed details of a Catholic rebellion, planned to coincide with the invasion. Thanks to this intelligence, Walsingham’s spies were able to keep watch on the suspects.

  The trail led to an idealistic but rather silly young Catholic gentleman, Anthony Babington, who was clearly half in love with Mary, whose page he had once been and to whom he aimed to present the crown of England. He and his friends were blithely plotting the assassination of the Queen Elizabeth, and had even been so rash as to have their group portrait painted for posterity. Then Babington wrote to Mary asking her to approve the plan and the ‘tragical execution’ of the usurper.

  Walsingham and Elizabeth held their breath, waiting to see what Mary would do.

  ‘If this matter is well handled, it will break the neck of all dangerous practices for the rest of your Majesty’s reign,’ Walsingham observed.

  ‘I have every confidence in you, old Moor,’ the Queen smiled.

  Mary’s reply finally arrived. In it she unequivocally approved Babington’s plot and the assassination of Elizabeth. Phelippes deciphered her incriminating words and handed the letter to Walsingham, who saw that his secretary had drawn a gallows in one corner. Well satisfied, Walsingham took it to the Queen.

  The year before, Parliament had passed an Act providing for any wicked person of whatever rank or nationality – meaning, obviously, the Queen of Scots – suspected of plotting treason to be tried and put to death.

  ‘Can we now proceed against her?’ Walsingham asked.

  ‘Yes,’ Elizabeth agreed. She knew that she could not afford to take any other course.

  ‘Very well, Madam, I will gather the evidence and draw up an indictment.’

  Elizabeth was panicking. Not so much at the prospect of Mary’s imminent arrest, although she shrank from the notion of subjecting an anointed queen to trial (even if she had been forced to abdicate, Mary was still, in her eyes, Scotland’s rightful Queen). That was bad enough, and she was not entirely sure of the legality of it. Nor did she relish the prospect of the natural consequence of a guilty verdict, which was Mary dying on the scaffold, as Anne Boleyn had done; and she was resolved never to allow it. Her conscience would not permit it. But now such concerns had been swept out of her head, for Robert had written urging her to accept the crown of the Netherlands, assuring her that it would be the surest way of winning the war.

  ‘I dare not provoke King Philip!’ she cried, knowing that Mary’s arrest alone would be sufficient to do that – and that cold Spaniard already poised to send his armada against her.

  Her councillors soothed her, telling her that she was under no obligation or need to accept the Dutch crown. It was her decision entirely. When she was calmer, she regretted her outburst, and wrote to Robert, trying to explain her immoderate reaction. Rob, I am afraid that my wandering writings will make you suppose that a midsummer moon has taken possession of my brains, but you must take things as they come in my head. I do imagine that I still talk with you, and therefore am loath to say farewell, my Eyes, though ever I pray that God will bless you from all harm, and save you from your foes, and I send you my million and legion thanks for all your pains. As you know, ever the same, E.R.

  Robert smiled when he read this, a great warmth flooding his breast. It had taken seven months of storms and wrangling, but at last they were back on their old footing, and he was more relieved than he could say. He worried about Elizabeth, though, and he knew his fellow councillors shared his concerns. She was under so much strain that he feared it might break her. He wondered how the entrapment of the Queen of Scots was progressing. To think he might have married that dreadful daughter of debate, as Elizabeth had once called her!

  In August Mary was arrested while hawking with her guards on the Staffordshire moors. Already her fellow conspirators – fourteen of them – had been rounded up and cast into the Tower.

  When news of the arrests was announced, the bells pealed out in London and people danced and celebrated in the streets. In the Tower, Babington broke and confessed all, terrified of being put to the torture. His seven confessions incriminated Queen Mary and those others who had plotted with him to place a crown on her head.

  ‘Your Majesty must summon Parliament to deal with the Queen of Scots,’ Burghley said, determined to have the problem of this venomous princess dealt with once and for all.

  ‘I will think on it,’ Elizabeth said, stalling desperately. She knew that Parliament would insist on a trial and execution that it would expect her to sanction.

  ‘Madam, you cannot be seen to be wavering,’ Walsingham growled.

  ‘Your Majesty must proceed against her,’ Burghley insisted, his voice unwontedly stern. ‘You must be seen to be just. If the lesser conspirators are to suffer the punishment the law demands for their treason, as surely they will, then the chief conspirator should not escape.’

  ‘Very well.’ Elizabeth capitulated, feeling sick to her stomach. ‘I will summon Parliament.’

  Babington and the other small fry had been condemned to a traitor’s death. The agony facing them was unimaginable. They would be tied to hurdles and drawn by horses to the place of execution, for they had been deemed unfit to walk upon the earth; then each would be hanged by the neck, but they would not be allowed to choke to death, for before they passed into oblivion they would be cut down, and the butchery would begin. They would be castrated and disembowelled, have their hearts and entrails torn out, and all their vitals burned before their dying eyes. Only then would they be granted the mercy
of beheading, and after that their bodies would be chopped into quarters, and the quarters and heads placed on spikes in public places, grim warnings to other would-be traitors.

  ‘They plotted to murder me!’ Elizabeth cried, shuddering in horror at the thought of the cold steel or the poisoned cup that had so nearly been her fate, and she a queen too. It had been treason of the worst kind. ‘Is this sufficient punishment? I have heard that the executioner usually waits until his victims are dead before wielding the knife, but, William, I want a stern example made in the case of these traitors. Hanging, drawing and quartering is too good for them!’

  ‘Madam,’ Burghley said, wondering if she had ever seen a man being hanged, drawn and quartered, ‘rest assured that the executions shall be duly and orderly executed by protracting the sentence to the extremity of the pain, and in the sight of the people. There will be no mercy shown. Believe me, the manner of death will be as terrible as any new punishment could be.’

  Elizabeth looked doubtful, standing there gnawing her lip, but eventually Burghley persuaded her that the penalty provided for by the law was dreadful enough. And indeed the executions of Babington and six of his fellow conspirators were so uncommonly savage that the crowd turned away, sickened, and voices were raised in sympathy for the condemned.

  Elizabeth knew that she had made a grave misjudgement. More than anything else she feared to lose the love of her people. Immediately she sent orders to the Tower: the remaining seven traitors, due to die the next day, were to hang by the neck until they were dead before the executioner began his grim work. Soon the people, ever fickle, were baying for their blood, and that of the murderous Queen of Scots. Ballads and pamphlets were circulated demanding Mary’s head. Was not she the chief architect and focus of the late plot? Why should others suffer punishment and not her?

  ‘I shrink from proceeding against her, my Spirit,’ Elizabeth confided to Burghley, for Walsingham had no time for qualms, and Robert was of course abroad. ‘She is an anointed queen, as am I.’

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