The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

  ‘This is why I do not wish to marry, why I play what Cecil is now calling “the marriage game”,’ she said aloud.

  Robert had listened patiently, holding her close as she poured out her fears. Now he was quiet for a space. ‘In time your fears may subside,’ he said at last. ‘I will not press you, I promise. There are other ways of giving and receiving pleasure. Let me help you. Let me show you how to relax.’ He bent his lips to hers again, his hand straying up her stiff stomacher to the breast beneath. She tensed, and gently pushed it away.

  ‘Give me time,’ she murmured, hating herself for denying him.

  Lying in bed wakeful that night, she regretted having said so much to Robert. She felt exposed, and somehow belittled by his knowing her closest secrets. Thank God she had not told him all.

  She asked herself what she did want of him. His body, yes, so long as it should not possess her own. His hand in marriage – no. She might be jealous of his wife, but she liked the fact that he was safely married. She could enjoy his company, and more, without having to lose her independence or commit herself to him in any way. But what if Amy did die? Robert was not a man to take no for an answer. For him, it was all so straightforward. As he saw it, she had fears, he would conquer them. For Elizabeth, nothing had ever been that simple.

  Without marriage, she was woefully aware, he was vulnerable, his position equivocal. He knew, as well as she, that the wolves at court were waiting to pounce and devour him. She, the Queen, was all that stood between them.

  Why could she not be as other women? She loved to flirt, she loved the attentions of men. What was wrong with her then? Why could she not forget the horrors that had touched her life in childhood? Were they truly at the root of her fears? If that were so, she thought, with a sense of desperation, there was probably no hope of her ever overcoming them. They were rooted too deep.

  She would not think about it any more. It was too distressing, dwelling on what she could not change. As sleep was eluding her, she fell to wondering if her mother had loved her father. God knew, he had pursued her passionately, by all accounts. He had even broken with the Church of Rome to have her. So how then – and Elizabeth had asked herself this many times before – could he have signed her death warrant and sent her to the scaffold? It could only have been because he was tricked into it by her enemies. That was what Kat and others had told her. Her father and her mother had been betrayed; both had been the victims of an evil plot.

  It still grieved her that she could not clear her mother’s name. Surely, if evidence could be found to show that Anne had not been guilty of adultery, incest and treason, she could now move her councillors to agree to the reversal of the judgement against her.

  Then, as the first light of dawn was breaking over the silent palace, it came to her what she must do.

  In the morning, as was her custom, she said her prayers, kneeling on the padded stool in her closet, surrounded by rich hangings of cloth of gold. Then, removing into her study, which was draped in similar splendour, she sent for Robert. Her manner was brisk and authoritative; there was no trace of the vulnerable Elizabeth who had unburdened her shameful secrets in the dark watches of the night.

  ‘Robert, my Eyes, I have an important errand for you that I do not wish to entrust to anyone else,’ she told him. He looked grateful for that, having at first appeared nonplussed at the change in her. ‘I wish you to go to the Tower,’ she went on, ‘to the Records Tower, where they keep the documents relating to state trials. I want you to bring me the papers relating to Queen Anne, my mother.’

  Robert frowned. ‘Is this wise, Bess?’ he asked. ‘The charges against her and the witness depositions may distress you. Besides, your councillors have advised against raking them up, and with good cause.’

  ‘Robert, if you had the opportunity of clearing your father’s name, would you do it?’

  ‘Of course. But I know I could not. His crimes were too public. None could deny that he did his best to overthrow Queen Mary.’

  ‘No, and so my hands are tied,’ Elizabeth said. ‘I am sorry for it. But my mother’s so-called crimes would of necessity have been committed in secret, and I have heard there was doubt about them at the time. I want to see what proofs were offered. I owe it to her memory to seek out the truth, if only for my own satisfaction and peace of mind.’

  ‘Then I will go at once,’ Robert capitulated. ‘But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

  ‘Thank you, my Eyes,’ Elizabeth smiled. ‘Before you go, I thought I should tell you that I am turning down the Archduke Charles. I will write to the Emperor to tell him that I prefer to remain single. If you see me being especially nice to Baron Breuner, it is only to sweeten the pill.’

  And to lead the poor man on into thinking you may change your mind, thought Robin as he bowed himself out and went in search of a horse.

  When he had gone, Elizabeth summoned Kat, and the two of them went walking in the gardens, the Queen striding ahead to keep out of earshot of the ladies trailing them at a discreet distance.

  ‘Kat, my father courted my mother for many years before they could wed,’ she began. ‘I have often wondered how she kept his interest keen while fending him off – for that is what she did, surely?’

  Kat gave her a speculative look. ‘To what tends this, Bess?’ she asked. ‘Are you looking for advice on how to keep Lord Robert interested? It strikes me you don’t need it!’

  ‘Kat, you presume too much!’ Elizabeth exclaimed, flushing.

  ‘Aye, but you want frankness when it suits you, Bess.’ Kat frowned. ‘If I speak out of turn it is only for your good, my sweeting. No one else would dare to do so, so please take it in good part. And please be careful where Lord Robert is concerned.’

  Elizabeth was on the verge of taking umbrage, but thought better of it. She slipped her arm through Kat’s. ‘It is I who should be begging your pardon, old friend,’ she said. ‘I know you mean well. But I would like to hear about my mother. It strikes me that I could take a page out of her book in the playing of this marriage game, and I am not talking about Robert Dudley.’

  Mollified, Kat’s face broke out in a broad grin. ‘Well, most people believe that she held your father at bay for all those years, but it wasn’t quite like that. A lady who had served her told me that she had done so at first, when he was bent on making her his mistress, but then he decided to marry her, and it was he who resolved to lay siege to her no more. The truth was, he could not have risked a scandal.’

  ‘That makes sense,’ Elizabeth observed. ‘But how did they keep that flame between them burning?’

  ‘Who knows what happens between a man and a woman in private?’

  ‘Mayhap the very fact of holding off fed it,’ Elizabeth suggested hopefully.

  Kat gave her a curious look. So that’s how it is, she thought.

  Robert laid the bundle of yellowing papers before the Queen.

  ‘These are from the Bag of Secrets, as they call it,’ he said. ‘It is the place where they keep all the documents relating to treason trials. The Records Tower is in much disorder, but they knew where to find these.’

  ‘Thank you, my Eyes,’ Elizabeth said, and waited. This was something she must do alone. Robert raised his eyebrows, read her mood, bowed and left.

  She untied the tape. There were not as many papers as she had anticipated. Steeling herself, she opened out the top one. It was the indictment against her mother. She read it, knowing what to expect, but horrified all the same. Charge after charge of adultery with different men, and of incest with her own brother. How her mother had seduced him with her tongue in his mouth. How could they have known that? And then the charge of plotting the King’s death. As if her mother, who had not – it had to be acknowledged – been popular, would have contemplated killing the only man with the power to protect her from her enemies! But it was all there, in revolting detail, and it would have been laughable had it not had such tragic consequences. Cromwell had gone to a lot of trouble
to make a case against her mother and blacken her character.

  She drew out the next document. It was the findings of the grand jury of Kent, who had decided – unanimously – that there was a case against Queen Anne. A similar document detailed the same findings from the grand jury of Middlesex. Next she found a list of the peers who had given judgement at the trial. Among them was her grandfather, the Earl of Wiltshire. The verdict had again been unanimous. He had condemned his own daughter.

  There was little else. No witness depositions, no summary of the evidence. Nothing to prove her mother guilty – or innocent.

  She felt her anger and frustration mounting. There must have been something. The blood of a queen could not have been shed without good cause. Surely her father had been shown sufficient evidence to convince him that Anne should be committed to the Tower and beheaded? There must have been statements on which the charges were based, proof enough to persuade both those grand juries and the peers at the trial. Unless all the evidence had been lost – or destroyed.

  She did not want to think that there had been deliberate destruction – that those dreadful charges had been based on lies, and that her father had colluded with his advisers in a shocking miscarriage of justice. Yet – and she had to face it – the evidence could have been so scandalous that it had been thought best to erase it from the records, as disparaging to the King’s honour.

  She summoned Kat Astley, and laid the papers before her.

  ‘Kat, you told me years ago that my mother was innocent. But there are no proofs here either way.’

  ‘Bless me, Bess, why are you raking this up now?’ Kat was shaking her head as her eyes scanned the documents. ‘Why do you question what I told you? Your mother was innocent.’

  ‘But how do you know? And how can I prove it?’

  ‘Some of the charges were clearly false. There was talk about it – furtive, of course – and some said that they were just an occasion to get rid of her. She was supposed to have committed adultery when she was barely out of childbed, which is the last thing a woman who has just been delivered wants to think about; but of course, it was a man who dreamed this up, and he was in a hurry. If Cromwell hadn’t brought her down, she’d have done the same to him – or so it was whispered. I also heard that she had not been where they said she was when some of the acts were committed. What’s more, no woman was accused with her. She could not have had all those lovers in secret without the help of at least one of her ladies. She was a proud woman, too clever to risk that kind of exposure.’

  Elizabeth had tears in her eyes. ‘Thank you, Kat, for setting my mind at rest on that score,’ she breathed. ‘And my father? Did he collude in bringing her down?’

  ‘It was Thomas Cromwell, first and foremost. Katherine Parr, God rest her soul, once told me that she had spoken with Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador. He told her that Cromwell had admitted to him, face to face, that he had thought up and plotted the affair of Queen Anne. Cromwell feared your mother. He was a clever man, a very devil. He could have persuaded the King that black was white. Whatever proofs he showed your father would have been convincing ones, you may be sure of that. And if they are missing now, well, he probably anticipated that someone in the future would spot the flaws.’

  Elizabeth was suffused with relief – and other, mixed, emotions. Her mother was clear of all the charges, she knew it for certain now, but it grieved her that she would never be able to prove it. And Anne, God rest her, had died in vain, innocent of the crimes of which she was accused. How must it have felt, knowing you were to suffer a terrible death for something you had not done?

  Now her tears did flow as she sat staring at the blur of those fatal papers on her desk, and Kat, relapsing into her old way, drew her to her bosom and soothed her.

  Seated beneath her gorgeous canopy of estate in the presence chamber, with the River Thames flowing majestically past beyond the impressive expanse of latticed windows to her left, and a warm summer breeze caressing her from the open window, Elizabeth laughed as Robert bent forward and murmured something outrageous in her ear. They were openly warm together now, much to the delight of the gossips at court – and the fury of Cecil. But Elizabeth cared nothing for that. Let Cecil stew. She was too busy enjoying Robert’s courtship; it was the breath of life to her, a glorious game in which she had the mastery and this magnificent man was her supplicant. Of course there was more to it than that, but for the present she would think only of each precious moment and the thrill it brought. The future could take care of itself.

  Her face changed when she saw a man in black being ushered into her presence chamber. She straightened in her throne as he approached and bowed low. What now?

  ‘Your Majesty,’ he said, with an elegant French accent, ‘I bring heavy news. My master, King Henri, is dead. He was terribly injured in a tournament when a lance pierced his eye, and the doctors could not save him, for all our prayers.’

  ‘God rest his soul,’ Elizabeth said piously, appalled to hear of Henri’s terrible end, but relieved that the lecherous, aggravating man would challenge her title no more. ‘His sufferings must have been dreadful. I will write without delay to Queen Catherine to condole with her in her sad loss.’ By all accounts Henri had been constantly unfaithful while his dowdy, dumpy Italian wife was continually pregnant. No doubt she was relishing her widowhood.

  ‘I thank your Majesty.’ The ambassador bowed again. ‘I am come also to announce the accession of the most Christian King, Francis II.’ A sickly, spotty, sullen teenager, Elizabeth had heard, who was too young and feeble as yet to exercise sovereign power. Catherine de’ Medici would be seizing her advantage, make no bones about it!

  ‘We shall write also to congratulate his Majesty on his accession,’ she said graciously.

  That afternoon, in council, she was less composed.

  ‘The Queen of Scots is now queen of France also,’ she fumed, ‘and would be queen of England if she had her way. No, you needn’t remind me, my lords, I know that the Catholics think she should be. But King Henri, though he proclaimed her thus, was ever a realist; he would not break the terms of the peace treaty. Queen Catherine is more of a threat. She has no love for me, and she is the power now at the French court. If she allies with the powerful Guises, Mary’s uncles, they may do their best to overthrow me.’

  ‘That is not the only danger,’ Cecil continued. ‘Mary’s mother, as regent in Scotland, is aware that the Protestant lords there detest her because she is a Catholic. Naturally we support them in their desire to rule Scotland themselves and overthrow the old religion. But what if these two queens of Scotland and France unite against us with the aim of placing Mary on our throne, which they may very well do? That would make England a satellite of France and put paid to the ambitions of the Protestants in Scotland.’

  ‘The answer is to make mischief for the French,’ Elizabeth declared, thinking fast. ‘And for me to take a husband who will give their King some trouble!’

  Twenty pairs of male eyes turned on her in astonishment. Cecil sat up eagerly, like a dog waiting to be given a juicy bone.

  ‘Does your Majesty have someone in mind?’ he asked, not quite concealing the fervency behind his question.

  ‘A Scotsman, the Earl of Arran,’ Elizabeth said. ‘He is Queen Mary’s heir until she bears a child, and he is a Protestant. His name has been mentioned before as a possible suitor, and there can be no doubt that the Scottish lords who rule there would favour the match. We are all upholders of the true religion, and a marriage between Arran and me would unite England and Scotland as never before.’

  ‘And if anything should befall the Queen of Scots, which God forbid,’ Cecil said, struggling to keep his face impassive, ‘then your Majesty would succeed to the throne of Scotland.’

  ‘Exactly,’ Elizabeth beamed. ‘We are one in spirit, William. And with my backing, the Scottish lords could triumph over the Queen Regent. I have been told again and again that Queen Mary is content to leave others
to govern her kingdom for her. She has been in France since childhood and has been raised to be its Queen. I hear she likes fine clothing and music; she will play her part gracefully.’

  ‘I agree, Madam. A ruler she is not,’ Bacon said. ‘She can have hardly any memory of Scotland. A barbaric land, I have heard, and not to be compared with France, where she has grown up.’

  ‘What she wants is to be queen of England,’ Cecil said. ‘That is her chief aim in life, by all accounts. Scotland seems not to be important to her.’

  ‘Indeed, my Spirit,’ Elizabeth agreed, smiling at her new name for Cecil. ‘But we will show her that my crown is not hers for the taking. I will invite Arran to England.’

  She knew that Robert would react like a child deprived of a treat. She must make him realise that this projected marriage was but an arrow to pierce the heart of her enemies. But she would enjoy flirting with Arran, if only to spite her empty-headed rival, Queen Mary.

  A clerk entered the room and passed Elizabeth a letter. She read it and smiled, for more flirting was now in order. ‘I should tell you, my lords, that Prince Erik of Sweden will not take no for an answer. He is coming in person to woo me!’

  ‘That will put the cat inside the dovecote,’ Sussex observed.

  ‘He is a Protestant, and therefore a most welcome suitor,’ Elizabeth said, thinking that Robert would now be even more jealous. ‘I look forward to raising his hopes.’ (If nothing else, she added to herself.) ‘But what we really need is an alliance with the Emperor and King Philip against the French. My lords, I will charm Arran to keep the Scots sweet and unsettle the Italian woman in France, and I will play the adoring virgin with the Swede, but first I intend to see Baron Breuner and tell him that I am reconsidering my decision about marriage with the Archduke Charles.’

  Elizabeth hunted, banqueted and danced her way through her first summer progress, an extended journey through her kingdom during which she could see and be seen by her subjects, and save money by accommodating herself and her court in the houses of her nobles and foremost citizens. During the months of July and August she was in high spirits as her great procession made its unwieldy way along the road from Eltham Palace to Dartford, Cobham and Nonsuch, and the people came flocking to greet her, calling out blessings upon her and bringing humble, touching gifts.

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