The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘Madam, there are many good reasons for letting the law take its course. There can now be no doubt that she plotted against your life, and we at last have evidence for it that can be produced in court. While the Queen of Scots lives, she will be a focus for Catholic rebellion. Her death will clear the way for a Protestant succession. The French have long since abandoned her cause, and King Philip can have no worse intentions towards us than those he already has.’

  Elizabeth still looked distressed.

  ‘Think of your people,’ Burghley said kindly. ‘They are unsettled and fearful after recent events, and a prey to rumour-mongers. At least let your Council debate the matter.’

  ‘Very well,’ she agreed, fearing that she might be hounded into a corner from which there was no honourable escape.

  Her fears proved well founded. Her councillors, every man of them, wanted Mary in the Tower.

  ‘No!’ she protested, appalled. ‘I will never consent to that.’ It would have been too redolent of her mother’s fate, and her own traumatic imprisonment in that grim place.

  Other strongholds were suggested, but she vetoed them all.

  ‘What of Fotheringhay Castle?’ Walsingham wondered. Elizabeth considered. Fotheringhay was a good choice. It was the seat of her ancestors of the House of York, and well away from the capital; it also boasted ranges of royal apartments, and above all it was a secure stronghold.

  ‘The apartments have hardly been used for a century,’ she recalled, ‘but they were still sufficiently palatial when I visited twenty years ago, even if they were somewhat musty and threadbare. Yes, Francis, Queen Mary shall go to Fotheringhay.’

  ‘And there she will be tried?’ Walsingham persisted.

  Elizabeth paused. ‘I agree that there is every justification for it. But the Queen of Scots is a foreigner who is not subject to English law, and in truth, as an anointed sovereign, she is answerable to God alone for her deeds.’

  ‘But Madam, the question of your right to try her under the Act has already been laid before a panel of lawyers, who have debated the matter at length, and they have advised me that you may legally prosecute her. So are you now ready to give the order?’

  The faces of the men ranged along the table were implacable, determined. They had cleared the way for this prosecution and were determined to press ahead with it. She felt an icy tingle of fear at what she was being forced to do.

  ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘I authorise you to appoint commissioners, good men and true. Three dozen should be more than sufficient, for I will have justice seen to be done. And, William, you, Francis and Christopher are to be of their number.’

  As if she had not suffered enough pressure, she received a letter from Robert. I urge you to allow the law to take its course, he wrote. It is most certain that, if you would be safe, it must be done, for justice craves it beside policy. His words left her weeping. She felt alone, utterly alone. This was what it was to be a queen.

  The court assembled. Mary haughtily refused to acknowledge its competence to try her and, threatened with being tried in her absence, declared that she was no subject and would rather die a thousand deaths than acknowledge herself to be one.

  Informed of this, Elizabeth wrote to Mary herself, her tone chill and peremptory. You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. It is my will that you answer the nobles and peers of my kingdom, as if I were myself present. At that, Mary capitulated, and the hearing commenced. She defended herself eloquently, but even she, accomplished intriguer that she was, could not rebut the evidence laid against her.

  ‘Her guilt is established beyond doubt,’ Burghley declared, and the commissioners saw their duty clear. But before they could pronounce Mary guilty, a letter arrived post-haste from Elizabeth, who had been racked with uncertainty and unable to sleep. The court must be adjourned to London, she commanded, where it would reconvene in the Star Chamber at Westminster.

  Dutifully the commissioners returned south, leaving Mary at Fotheringhay in ignorance of her fate. But when they assembled in the Star Chamber and came to debate what was to be done with her, they found themselves subject to constant interference by the Queen.

  ‘I would to God her Majesty would be content to refer these things to them that can best judge of them,’ Walsingham muttered. Elizabeth was stalling again, he suspected.

  There was no other possible verdict. With only one voice dissenting, the judges found the Queen of Scots guilty of entering a treasonable conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth’s life, and of imagining and compassing the Queen’s destruction.

  The penalty, under the Act, was death. But the court did not presume to pass sentence. That would be a matter for the Queen and Parliament.

  Elizabeth was distraught. The outcome she had feared above all had come to pass, and now she was faced with the most difficult decision of her life. Must she really give the order for her sister monarch to be put to death? Mary, like herself, had been hallowed by God; her person was sacred. Who was she, Elizabeth, to do violence upon her equal, even if the law did demand it?

  She fretted and wept, tossing and turning in her bed. Was this not the most cruel decision to impose on her, whose own mother had died by the sword, and who had so narrowly escaped such a fate herself? She knew, none better, what it was like to live in terror of the summons to the scaffold, to imagine the deadly slicing of the blade. It had been dreadful enough having to send another cousin, Norfolk, to the block; but he had not been a sovereign ruler.

  If she did what she was being pressured to do, what would the world think of her? Would she be reviled for acting outside the law? Would her Catholic subjects unite and rebel against her? Would Philip of Spain be moved to send his armada once the deed was done? Would the French, whose queen Mary had once been, be so incensed that they would rally in her cause, and perhaps even unite with Spain against Elizabeth? And what of the Scots? Mary’s son, James VI, now twenty, had been brought up by Calvinists, and had abandoned the cause of the mother he had not seen since infancy, having been raised to believe that she had betrayed and murdered his father; he too looked to have the succession of the English crown, and feared on that account to offend Elizabeth. But even he might dredge up some filial feeling if Mary was put to death.

  Elizabeth felt as a hare must feel when the hounds are gaining ground upon it. She could no longer rationalise her thoughts, and her sense of good judgement seemed to have deserted her. If only God would vouchsafe her a sign showing her the right thing to do.

  All her instincts were screaming that she must let Mary live. And yet … and yet … Mary had had no scruples at all when it had come to plotting Elizabeth’s death and the seizing of her throne. She had intrigued to that end all her adult life. The shadow she had cast these past nineteen years had darkened the lives of all Elizabeth’s loyal subjects; she had been a focus for, if not the authoress of, conspiracy after conspiracy. She had sat there in her northern fastnesses like a great black spider, weaving an ever-widening web of treason and danger. And if she was let to live, she would not cease, that much was certain. Her sense of entitlement to the English throne was too deep-rooted. She would remain a magnet for Elizabeth’s enemies, and a constant source of trouble and anxiety.

  These were the thoughts that kept Elizabeth awake at night and plagued her by day. She knew not how to resolve the conflict within herself. She wished that her councillors would stop putting her under duress and bullying her. She wished that Robert was here to counsel her, although she knew what he would say, so there was no comfort to be missed there.

  It was the thought of Robert that kept her going. He had won a great victory at Zutphen, where both young Essex and Sir Philip Sidney had distinguished themselves. The heroic Sidney had been wounded, not badly, it was reported. Elizabeth had been touched when told that, lying wounded and parched on the battlefield, he had refused water and given it to a dying soldier nearby, saying, ‘Thy need is greater tha
n mine.’ She had written to commend him for that, expecting to receive him when he returned a hero. But then came the tragic news that this brilliant young man – the best of courtiers and a great soldier and talented poet – had died. His death came hard on the heels of those of his parents, Elizabeth’s old friends, Sir Henry and Lady Mary Sidney. Her grief for all three left her even more emotional. She ordered the court into mourning, and ordered that Sir Philip, that flower of English manhood, be accorded the honour of a state funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral.

  Meanwhile, a demoralised Robert had failed to capitalise on his victory. His men had begun to desert him, for he had well-nigh impoverished himself in the cause of Dutch independence, since the meagre funds Elizabeth had provided had been not nearly enough. It was obvious that his venture was doomed to ignominy and failure, and that his health could not sustain a winter of futile campaigning. When he asked for leave to come home, Elizabeth did not demur. In fact she was overjoyed at the prospect.

  When Parliament finally sat, she took care to stay well away at Richmond.

  ‘Are you not coming up to Whitehall as usual, Madam?’ Burghley asked. ‘We are to debate the fate of the Queen of Scots, a problem of more weight, peril and dangerous consequence than any of the other business that will be laid before Parliament.’

  ‘I am loath to hear about that foul and grievous matter,’ Elizabeth replied, frowning mutinously. ‘I would have small pleasure in being there.’

  But her staying away made no difference. As she had expected, the Lords and Commons demanded Mary’s head. Elizabeth was not pleased to find a deputation of them waiting on her at Richmond with a petition to have a just sentence on this daughter of sedition, as they put it, followed by a just execution. Yet they were so patently concerned for her own safety and the security of the realm – even warning her not to accept gifts of perfume, gloves or food, for fear of poison – that she could not find it in herself to be angry with them.

  ‘I have never entertained any malice towards the Queen of Scots,’ she told them. ‘I have had great experience and trial of this world. I know what it is to be a subject, what to be a sovereign, what to have good neighbours or evil willers. I have found treason in trust, and seen great favours little regarded. I grieve that one of my own sex and kin should have plotted my death. I wrote to Queen Mary myself, promising her that, if she confessed all, I would cover her shame and save her from reproach, but she continued to deny her guilt. But even now, if she truly repented, I would be inclined to pardon her.’ She saw dismay in the faces of many of the deputation.

  ‘You have laid a hard hand on me, that I must give directions for her death,’ she continued, her voice taut with emotion. ‘It is a grievous and irksome burden to me. We princes are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world. It behoves us to be careful, just and honourable in our proceedings. All I can say is that I will pray and consider the matter.’

  ‘Delay is dangerous, Madam,’ one gentleman ventured.

  ‘I know that,’ she told him. ‘But I vow to you now that I will do inviolably what is right.’ And God grant me the wisdom to know what that might be, she prayed to herself.

  In the end, fearing to anger her loving subjects, she gave in.

  Mary had been informed of the sentence passed on her, although she had been given no inkling of the agony of mind that Elizabeth had suffered before finally agreeing to bend to Parliament’s will. Elizabeth forced herself to read the letter her cousin had sent her, thanking her for the happy tidings that she was to come to the end of her long and weary pilgrimage. I must remind you, Mary had ended, that one day you will have to answer for your charge, and I desire that my blood be remembered in that time.

  This reduced Elizabeth to torrents of weeping, and she was in a very fragile state of mind when, at last, Robert returned home. When he obeyed the summons to come privily to her chamber, she threw herself into his arms and clung to him as a drowning man clings to a branch.

  ‘Thank God! Thank God!’ she cried. ‘Oh Robin, how I have missed you!’

  ‘Well, I do declare,’ he smiled, tenderly disengaging himself and kneeling to kiss her hand. ‘Never since I was born did I receive a more gracious welcome!’

  She looked at him lovingly. He had aged in the year he had been away, and looked slightly shrunken. His beloved face was etched with more lines, and he carried himself stiffly. She wondered if he was still suffering stomach pains.

  ‘How does my Queen?’ he asked.

  ‘That can wait,’ she told him, knowing that if she unburdened herself to him the floodgates would open. ‘More to the point, how are you, my Eyes?’

  ‘Well enough,’ he said. She let it go. There would be time for talking and healing, please God. She would fetch him the best doctors in the land if he needed them, aye, and pay for them.

  He gave her the brief facts of his final days in the Netherlands, but she could see that the long journey had tired him, and reluctantly let him go to get some rest.

  In council the next morning Burghley and Walsingham expressed genuine pleasure at having Leicester back. They would! Elizabeth thought venomously. They wanted his support for what was to come, knowing that she placed a high value on his opinions. Sure enough, Robert added his voice to theirs, and at a private supper in her chamber that evening he went creaking on his knees and begged her to have Mary’s death warrant drawn up and sign it.

  ‘You really have no choice, Bess,’ he pleaded. ‘It is only of you and this blessed kingdom that I think.’

  The next morning Elizabeth announced that she would have the sentence on Mary publicly proclaimed. But that night she did not sleep at all, fearing that she had committed herself to the inevitable consequence of doing so. She groaned inwardly when, just before dinner, the French ambassador came seeking an audience and beseeched her to show clemency towards the Queen of Scots.

  ‘Matters have gone too far for that,’ she told him. ‘This just sentence was passed on a bad woman protected by bad men. If I am to live, Queen Mary must die.’ She was holding to her resolve – just.

  Parliament sent another deputation urging her to have the sentence carried out. But now she showed herself distracted and undecided. ‘Clearly it has been decided that my surety cannot be established without a princess’s head. It is grievous that I, who have pardoned so many rebels and winked at so many treasons in my time, should be forced to this proceeding against such a personage. What will my enemies say?’ she shrilled. ‘That for the surety of her life, a maiden queen was content to spill the blood even of her own kinswoman? I should have cause for complaint if any man should think me given to such cruelty, when I am guiltless and innocent! Nay, I am so far from it that, for my own life, I would not touch her! If other means can be found, I would take more pleasure than in anything under the sun. I pray you, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer answerless.’

  She was barely existing, hardly eating and troubled by nightmares of severed heads and bloody axes. She found herself dwelling more on her poor mother than she had done for years, and resolved that no queen should go to the block by her hand.

  Burghley, Walsingham, Hatton, Robert and the rest repeatedly used all their powers of persuasion to make her do what her people – and Parliament – expected of her. They were relentless. If she had thought that Robert would spare her, she had been badly mistaken. He was as firm as his fellows.

  ‘If you do not order this execution, you will lose all credibility,’ he warned her.

  ‘And men will say that the weakness of your sex is clouding your judgement,’ Burghley added, severe.

  ‘Had I been born crested, not cloven, you would not speak thus to me!’ Elizabeth retorted hotly. ‘It is nothing to do with the weakness of my sex! It is about doing what is right!’

  For all her misgivings, the sentence was proclaimed early in December, and in London there was a huge outburst of rejoicing. Bells pealed for joy, and the sky that night was lit up with the glow fr
om a hundred celebratory bonfires.

  Burghley laid the death warrant, drafted that day by Walsingham, before Elizabeth. ‘For your Majesty to sign,’ he said, in a voice that brooked no opposition.

  ‘Not yet, good Spirit,’ she said. ‘Give me time.’

  ‘Parliament has spoken, Madam. It has ratified the sentence. You must face the inevitable.’

  Walsingham was equally adamant, as were Robert and all her other councillors. ‘Sign! Sign!’ was all they kept saying to her. Then she had to fend off the Scottish and French ambassadors, who were both urging her to show mercy. How could she refuse these two friendly kingdoms?

  Out of the blue came a letter from King James, who had the temerity to tell her: King Henry VIII’s reputation was never judged but in the beheading of his bedfellow. That infuriated her. Her father had been duped, the victim of evil men. Mary was a murderess and traitor who would have had her royal cousin assassinated. There was no comparison, none at all!

  ‘He is making a token protest, that is all,’ Robert opined. ‘He is more concerned about securing the succession than saving his mother’s life. He writes that honour constrains him to insist on her being spared. That sounds a bit half-hearted to me.’

  ‘But some of the lords of Scotland are now threatening war on England if I have her executed,’ Elizabeth said anxiously.

  ‘Be minded of what their ambassador said, Madam,’ Burghley put in. ‘He said there is no sting in this death. And he should know.’

  It was the most agonising decision of her life. She knew – and God knew it had been made clear to her often enough – where her duty lay, but could not bring herself to order Mary’s death. The stress this caused affected her so profoundly that she feared she might go mad. She felt so alone, for everyone else was pressing her to sign the warrant, but as the weeks went past she was beginning to run out of excuses, and was weary of reciting her objections. Her soul’s quietness had flown away. She was constantly on the verge of tears; she lost weight, as she could not eat; sleep came only fitfully, and she was plagued by the headaches that had manifested themselves so often, and increasingly viciously, in recent weeks. She felt ill, and dared not admit it to anyone, in case it be thought that old age was encroaching and she was losing her grip on affairs. What was she to do?

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