The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘Do it,’ she heard him say, and there was a heavy thud, then another, and then a crash as two burly grooms shouldered the door open. Burghley and Walsingham stood waiting outside, compassion in their lined faces.

  She stood up shakily. Even in extremis, she was conscious that she had her dignity to preserve.

  ‘Very well,’ she said, hoarse and bitter. ‘I see I must patiently endure my grief.’ And with a supreme effort, she stepped through the doorway to begin living again.

  In his will, Robert had left her a beautiful diamond and emerald pendant and a rope of six hundred perfect pearls. She wore the pearls when George Gower took her likeness for the Armada portrait, in which she was gratified to see that she appeared more like an icon than a queen of flesh and blood.

  She did not attend the funeral at Warwick, where Robert was laid to rest beside his beloved noble imp in the exquisite Beauchamp Chapel of St Mary’s Church. She spared barely a thought for the anguish of his grieving widow, who had found herself saddled with debts of fifty thousand pounds, half the sum being owed to Elizabeth herself. The month after Robert’s death she took back Kenilworth, and ordered Lettice to auction off all his possessions in his other houses. She was not surprised when the impoverished widow took another husband in a scandalously short time.

  What really hurt Elizabeth was that, amid the victory celebrations, Robert’s death passed almost unnoticed. No poets lauded his virtues, and the court mourning she insisted on was observed resentfully. The only person who really seemed to be grieving for him was herself.

  He would barely recognise her now, she thought. His death had aged her and mantled her in melancholy. She had run the gauntlet of conflicting emotions – ecstatic joy and desperate sorrow – and she was spent. It was as much as she could do to put on a smiling face in public.

  In November, her grief still raw after two months, she went in great state to St Paul’s Cathedral for a special service of thanksgiving for the greatest English victory since Agincourt. She rode in a sumptuous canopied chariot drawn by two white horses, and her gown – the most splendid of the three thousand she owned – was of white satin encrusted with gold. Such a glittering procession had not been witnessed since her coronation thirty years before, and the people ran to see her as she passed, crowding behind barriers hung with blue cloth.

  ‘God save your Majesty!’ they cried in joy.

  She bowed to left and right. ‘You may well have a greater prince, but you may never have a more loving prince,’ she declared to them, her voice filled with emotion. Her father would have been proud of her this day, she thought, as madrigals and ballads and pageants enlivened her way through London’s festive streets. And her mother – surely Anne Boleyn would be rejoicing in Heaven now, knowing that she had cause to be proud of the daughter she had left disparaged and bastardised!

  At the west door of the cathedral the Queen alighted and fell to her knees, thanking God in full sight of the crowds. Then, to the sound of the soaring anthem Sing Joyfully, composed by William Byrd, one of the gentlemen of her Chapel Royal, she proceeded into the great church, which was hung with captured Spanish banners. After the sermon had been preached, she read out a prayer she had herself composed, then addressed the congregation, enjoining them all to give thanks as she did for their glorious deliverance. Her words were received with a mighty shout of acclaim and loving voices wishing long life to her, to the confusion of her enemies. She wished – how she wished, the ever-ready tears not far from flowing – that Robert could have been here to share this triumph with her.

  Her fame had spread far and wide. She was the Virgin Queen, Eliza Triumphant, her Sacred Majesty, a goddess on Earth whose praises were sung by princes and poets all over Christendom, and even – wonders would never cease – by the Ottoman Sultan and the Pope himself! People were saying that there had never been such a wise woman as Queen Elizabeth. God Himself had destined her to rule as absolute and sovereign mistress of her people, and this victory over the Armada was a signal manifestation of His divine will. He had kept her and her people safe, intervening in England’s hour of need to preserve them all from harm. The threats from abroad were no more. The Anglican Church was stable, the Catholics quiet or in retreat, the people contented and confident. The marriage game was long at an end – although, by God, she wished she had it all to play again – but Elizabeth knew that she could now move forward and build on this peace, so that in time to come Englishmen would look back with pride on the golden age that had been her reign.

  Epilogue: 1603

  They had at last persuaded her to go to bed, helping her up from the cushions on which she had stubbornly lain, hoping to ward off death. She was sixty-nine years old, and she knew that the time was nigh for her to meet her Maker and give account of herself.

  She was not afraid; she had done her best these forty-five years, and been blessed in her councillors and her captains. But they were all dead now – Burghley, Walsingham, Hatton, Drake … and Robin, of course. It was fifteen years now since she had looked upon her beloved Eyes. A new generation had taken their place, and the world seemed full of younger people. She knew that many of them were impatient of living under an ageing queen who hated change and new customs, and looked to her successor, whom she still had not named, but who would undoubtedly be James of Scotland. No fool, she knew that Robert Cecil, Burghley’s brilliant son, who had become her chief minister in his place, had for years been paving the way for James’s smooth accession, and no doubt a horse was already saddled, waiting to carry a messenger to Edinburgh with the news of her passing. They would take the coronation ring from her finger, and soon it would be shown to James as proof that she was dead.

  The last years of her reign had not been happy ones. Bad harvests, vain attempts by her arch-enemy Philip – now dead himself – to send a second and then a third armada, factions squabbling at court, and then Essex. She still had no regrets about signing his death warrant. After all her favour shown to him, he had insulted her, wrangled with her – more than patience and her royal dignity could bear – and then risen against her, or – so he claimed – against those who misruled in her name. It did not take a genius to see through that. She could not bear to think of the day when he had returned without leave from Ireland and burst in upon her as she sat in her thin chemise, her grey hair and wrinkles laid bare to his shocked gaze, the great charade of youthfulness exposed as the fraud it was. Sweet England’s pride was gone, men said after the popular Essex had perished on the block, yet she could feel nothing but relief, for all that she had once looked upon him as the son she never had. He had been too rash and dangerous to be allowed to live.

  But there had been good times too. England had flowered in many ways. Great houses – some built in the shape of the initial E as a compliment to herself – stood as testimony to the spirit of the age over which she had presided; drama and poetry had flourished. Elizabeth had taken particular pleasure in the plays of Mr Marlowe and Mr Shakespeare, especially the latter, whose Twelfth Night and King Henry the Fourth had recently been performed at court. She smiled even now at the memory of Falstaff, that great buffoon! She had bidden Mr Shakespeare write a play in which Falstaff fell in love – and he had obliged with The Merry Wives of Windsor.

  It gladdened her heart that she had finally vindicated her mother’s memory. Lord Hunsdon, her cousin, had brought to her attention his protégé George Wyatt, grandson of the poet Thomas Wyatt, who had once loved Anne Boleyn from afar. The younger Wyatt had a fund of information about Anne, lovingly collected over many years from his family and people who had known her. Elizabeth asked Hunsdon to bid Wyatt write a memoir of her mother, one that would proclaim Anne’s innocence to the world. And so he had begun. And when Hunsdon died, Archbishop Whitgift, the Queen’s great friend in her later years, had become Wyatt’s patron at her request, and it was under his auspices that the work was continued. One day, Elizabeth knew, it would be published, and posterity would at last know the truth.
  But it would not be in her lifetime. After striving for so long to ward off Death, she was now ready to go. It was not her desire to live or reign longer than was good for her subjects. It was the greatest measure of her love for them, the love she had carefully nurtured and cherished since youth. They might have mightier and wiser princes reigning over them, but she was certain they would never have any who loved them better than she did.

  Whitgift was here now, praying at her bedside as she drifted in and out of sleep. There were others kneeling in the bedchamber too. She felt the Archbishop gently take hold of her hand, and was comforted. She turned her weary head almost imperceptibly towards her bedside table. On it stood a little coffer, inside which lay Robert’s last letter and the jewels and pearls he had given her. These were all that she had of him now. But soon, soon, if God was good – and she had no reason to think that He would be lacking in mercy – they would be reunited in that Heaven in which there was, praise be, no giving or taking in marriage.

  She felt herself slipping away; the drone of Whitgift’s voice was becoming fainter. She turned her face to the wall, and drifted off to a place where none could reach her, dreaming of herself and Robert, young again, locked in each other’s arms, playing hide and seek in the privy garden, and racing their steeds across the broad green breast of England, Elizabeth’s red tresses flying out bravely behind her, her eyes shining with joy.

  Presently her ladies leaned over her to see if she was asleep, and found that eternity had beckoned and that she had gone from them, mildly, easily, like an apple falling softly from a tree – and sweet England the poorer for it.

  Author’s Note

  This novel is based closely on the historical record, although I have taken a few liberties. Conversations that took place over two or three meetings have in places been shown as taking place in one. Minor facts have been tweaked. Quotes have sometimes been taken out of context, or put into the mouths of others. Even so, they are accurate in spirit.

  The use of language in a historical novel is always a challenge. Here I have made extensive use of the recorded sayings and exchanges of Elizabeth I and the people surrounding her, although I have modernised their words slightly in places, so that they remain accessible and in keeping with the narrative.

  I have also made creative use of many of the legends associated with Elizabeth’s reign: Drake playing bowls before the Armada, Raleigh spreading his cloak before Elizabeth; Lord Hunsdon drawing his dagger on Dr Burcot; and Elizabeth dancing around the cherry tree outside the Old Mitre Inn, although in the legend it was with Sir Christopher Hatton, not Robert Dudley. But, strange as it might seem, Elizabeth really did visit the Tower to ensure that all was in order for Norfolk’s execution.

  No one knows for certain why Elizabeth was reluctant to marry. There were probably a number of factors. The horror of her mother’s fate, Katherine Howard’s execution and that, seven years later, of Thomas Seymour, the divorces and matrimonial controversies within her own family, the deaths of two stepmothers in childbed, and her sister Mary I’s disastrous union with Philip of Spain all probably contributed. In this novel I have taken a psychological view based on Elizabeth’s own statements on marriage. She is on record as saying that she hated the idea of it for reasons that she would not divulge to her twin soul. And it is true that, at the age of eight, she informed Robert Dudley – as he recalled later – that she would never marry.

  I believe that Elizabeth had an aversion to marriage for three reasons. First, having witnessed the breakdowns of several marriages within her own family, she did not see it as a secure state. Second, as she told Dudley, the man she probably loved more than any other, she had no intention of sharing sovereign power: ‘I will have but one mistress here and no master!’ Third, and most importantly, in Tudor times a monarch was regarded as holding supreme dominion over the state, but a husband was regarded as having total dominion over his wife. A queen regnant was still a novelty in England: Mary I had made an unpopular marriage with Philip of Spain, who, expecting to play the traditional authoritarian husband, had chafed against his wife’s attempts to assert her regal authority. Elizabeth had no intention of embroiling herself in such an impossible relationship. ‘I am already married to an husband, and that is the kingdom of England,’ she was fond of declaring. She solved the dilemma over her marriage by taking a courageous decision, revolutionary for her time, not to marry or have heirs. Nevertheless, as ‘the best match in her parish’, she exploited her marriageability, using it as a weapon to the advantage of her realm.

  She might not have married, but was she the Virgin Queen she claimed to be? The debate has been raging since the 1560s, and scurrilous rumours were rife throughout her reign, fuelled by Elizabeth’s own behaviour, which was often condemned by her more sober subjects as scandalous. She would allow Leicester to enter her bedchamber to hand her her shift while her maids were dressing her. She was espied at her window in a state of undress on at least one occasion, and in old age she had a French ambassador squirming in embarrassment for two hours during a private audience by wearing a gown that exposed her wrinkled body to the navel.

  Yet many ambassadors, at the behest of prospective royal husbands, made enquiries as to whether or not the Queen was virtuous, and in every case they concluded that she was. She herself could not understand why there should be so many racy tales about her, or claims that she had borne bastard children.

  ‘I do not live in a corner,’ she told a Spanish envoy. ‘A thousand eyes see all I do, and calumny will not fasten on me for ever.’ A French ambassador who knew her well claimed that the rumours were ‘sheer inventions of the malicious to put off those who would have found an alliance with her useful’. Perhaps most tellingly of all, in 1562, when Elizabeth believed she was dying of smallpox and was about to face divine judgment, she spoke of her notorious relationship with Robert Dudley and swore before witnesses that nothing improper had ever passed between them. It is unlikely that she would have jeopardised her immortal soul by telling a lie at such a time.

  As a historian, I believe that Elizabeth I was in all probability the Virgin Queen she claimed to be, technically at least – the evidence we have strongly suggests that she indulged in some intimacies with Dudley. However, in the prequel to this novel, The Lady Elizabeth, I explored the possibility that Thomas Seymour had actually seduced the adolescent Elizabeth, and that she had miscarried of the child that resulted. The ‘what if’ aspect of history is always fascinating, and there is some contemporary gossip on which to base this theory – had there not been, I would not have developed this storyline. I know that some readers took issue with it, but having written it in the first novel, I feel obliged to remain with it in the second, and so in The Marriage Game, Elizabeth has reinvented herself as the Virgin Queen, and her aversion to marriage stems largely – but not wholly – from the Seymour scandal of her youth.

  I think that that scandal contributed crucially to Elizabeth’s resolve never to marry. It is intriguing to find that most of the men with whom she later became involved were dark and dashing, even a little dangerous, like Seymour. But in reality she kept a tight rein on her emotions on hearing of his death, so we have no way of knowing how deeply it actually affected her. I do not believe that she gave herself fully to Robert Dudley; the evidence suggests that their private relationship was much as it is portrayed in this novel. But I think there is enough to show that Elizabeth’s fears of marriage and sex were deep-seated, and I have developed that theme in this novel.

  In 1604, after the Queen’s death, Leicester’s son, Robert Dudley, claimed that his parents had actually been married. Douglass Sheffield testified that the wedding had taken place before witnesses in 1573 at Esher, but her statement could not be supported because all the witnesses were dead. This was probably a ploy to secure an inheritance for Robert Dudley, even though Leicester had only ever referred to him as his ‘base son’, and both he and Douglass had married other people after they parted. So i
t is likely that they were never married at all.

  George Wyatt’s memoir of Anne Boleyn was never finished, hence there is no dedication to a patron. There is also no direct evidence that Elizabeth I asked him to write it, yet he implies that important persons encouraged him, and certainly no less a personage than John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, the close friend of the Queen, was one of them, replacing an earlier anonymous patron who had died; I have speculated that it might have been Lord Hunsdon. Thus it is possible that Wyatt’s sympathetic defence of Anne, written in response to Catholic calumnies, reflects Elizabeth’s own views.

  I should like to thank my agent, Julian Alexander, and the historian Sarah Gristwood for reading the first draft of this novel, and for their very helpful and encouraging advice. Warm thanks are especially due to my editors, Anthony Whittome and Susanna Porter, for creative suggestions that have undoubtedly made this a better book. Thank you, Anthony, for commissioning this book and for so many fruitful and enjoyable editorial sessions.

  I am grateful also to the production team at Random House, especially Phil Brown, and to Rose Waddilove in the editorial department. Thanks also to Jocasta Hamilton, Publishing Director of Hutchinson, for her kind support, and to my publicist, Philippa Cotton, for her sterling efforts on my behalf.

  Finally I want to thank my amazing husband Rankin for being my mainstay and constant support while I was writing the novel – and indeed, all my books so far!

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