The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I by Alison Weir


  Later, after she had willingly pleasured him, and he had paid his debt to her in return, they lay together at peace, exchanging gentle words and light, replete caresses. Lying curled up in the crook of Robert’s arm, her head on his shoulder, Elizabeth was glad that she had not succumbed to his pleas, and thoroughly relieved that there could be no risk of her being with child. What was more, to her great surprise, she had enjoyed tonight’s love-play more than ever before, had felt a deep physical pleasure and a release that had had her clinging to Robert as a drowning man clings to a rock.

  He was gazing down at her, his eyes warm and appreciative.

  “Well, my lady? When is the wedding?”

  Elizabeth let him wait for a heartbeat. “As soon as I can extricate you from the negotiations with the Queen of Scots,” she told him.

  “And when will that be?”

  “Sweet Robin, I am not playing games this time,” Elizabeth assured him. “This is high politics and I must await the opportune moment.”

  Robert shifted onto his back, staring up at the carved canopy of the tester bed. “More waiting! I trust it will not be for long this time.” There was an edge of impatience to his voice. “Who is it that you mean the Queen of Scots to wed?”

  Elizabeth sat up, clasping her arms about her knees. She knew this was a time for honesty. “If I tell you, it must go no further. It would jeopardize everything.”

  “You know you can trust me,” he assured her.

  “It is Lord Darnley.” She threw him a wicked smile.

  “Darnley? Good God!” Robert exclaimed.

  “Yes, Darnley. And Randolph reports that smitten, brainless Mary wants to marry him. She instructed Melville to approach his mother, Lady Lennox. Cecil says that Melville is all for it.”

  “Has Mary ever met Lord Darnley?”

  “No, but she likes the fact that he is of the royal blood of England and the noble blood of Scotland, and she has heard reports of how pretty he is, and what nice manners he has.”

  “The fellow can’t even grow a beard,” Robert sneered.

  “But by all the accounts she has heard, he is a lusty youth, and his scheming mother has long been in good hope that Mary will condescend to marry him.”

  “She has been in and out of the Tower enough times on that account,” Robert said. “My head spins just thinking about it.”

  “Lady Lennox is a great intriguer,” Elizabeth growled, “and a troublemaker to her soul. The earl, her husband, persuaded me to ask Queen Mary to restore his estates in Scotland, but now I fear that if he goes north to treat with her he will intrigue for the marriage, and I don’t want that happening just yet, so I have written again to Mary, demanding that she refuse him entry to her kingdom. That should make her all the more determined to favor the Lennoxes. In the meantime, my Eyes, you are the cover for my true intentions.”

  “But—Darnley!” Robert said again. “I pity the woman who marries that vicious boy.”

  “Only a fool would do so,” Elizabeth observed, looking at him slyly.

  “I know your game,” he told her. “Give Mary Darnley, and he will destroy her.”

  “That’s exactly what I thought,” she replied. “But it is a dangerous matter and I must needs keep a cool head. A marriage between Mary and Darnley would unite two claims to my throne. Some would say that I am mad to consider it. But I believe that neither of them has the brains—or the means—to pursue their claims to a satisfactory conclusion. And Darnley is trouble, and weak with it. Mark my words, if those two wed, disaster will ensue and distract Mary from coveting my throne. Trust my judgment, dear Eyes.”

  Robert sighed. “Very well, then, I will be patient a little longer.”

  “The best things in life are worth waiting for,” Elizabeth pronounced, already regretting having mentioned marriage. But what else, at such a moment, could she have done? She was running out of favors!

  Robert grinned. “You will not be disappointed, my Queen. I have been told that I couch a lance well.”

  “And who has told you that?” Elizabeth demanded in mock anger.

  “Legions of fair ladies,” he teased her, and got a pillow thrown at him for his bragging. “Help!” he cried, pulling it over his head. “Mercy!”

  Elizabeth laughed. “You are a rogue, my Eyes!”

  Suddenly Robert grew serious. “I never thought we would be like this again, or that you would finally consent to wed me,” he said. “This has been the happiest night of my life.”

  “I was to have bestowed on you a slightly different honor,” Elizabeth said. “That was why I came. That, and to put things right.”

  “A different honor?” he murmured. “I don’t understand.”

  “I came to tell you that I have decided to raise you to the nobility as Earl of Leicester.” She smiled. “And I am not trifling with you this time.”

  Robert whooped with elation. “My God, I thought you would never do it!” he cried.

  “Shhh, you’ll have the whole palace awake!” Elizabeth reproved him, giggling.

  “Thank you, Bess. Thank you!” He took her hand and kissed it avidly. “This means so very much to me. Especially after my father lost his title and all his honors, and people have pointed the finger, saying that I am unworthy of your love and favor. This—and what you have confided to me this night—sets all to rights. I do declare that I am the luckiest man on Earth.”

  She was beginning to wonder if this time she had gone too far to turn back. “Yes, but Robin, you must understand why I have come to this decision. On the face of it, it is to make Queen Mary think the more of you, and make you a husband fit for a queen. Which queen we will not say!”

  “I care not why you have done it, Bess, save it renders me more worthy of you. Tell me truly: will that day surely come when we two can be wed? Do you mean it this time?”

  Elizabeth kissed him, not even daring to contemplate the future. “After tonight, who could mistake my meaning?”

  The presence chamber in St. James’s Palace—that noble residence King Harry had built for Anne Boleyn, who never lived to see it completed—was thronged with courtiers and dignitaries. There stood Melville, delaying his departure once more at Elizabeth’s request, so that he could report to his queen how gallantly her ardent suitor had borne himself at his ennoblement, and how fine a husband he would make for her.

  Elizabeth’s gown, encrusted with jewels, sparkled in the candlelight and dazzled everyone. Glittering like an icon, she rose from her throne as Robert, attired in robes that did sufficient justice to a future king, knelt on the dais before her. He was playing his part well, conducting himself with the greatest dignity and gravity, but she could not help remembering him naked in bed with her the night before, and she was smiling when they handed her the ermine-lined mantle. As she lifted it onto his shoulders and tied the golden cords, she could not resist tickling his neck. He looked up at her, startled, and their eyes met for a second, yet hers were now impassive as she arranged the gold collar of his earldom on the mantle. But she had seen Melville raise his eyebrows, and knew he had observed the caress.

  After the ceremony, as Robert received the congratulations of his fellow peers—several of whom could hardly wait to see him packed off to Scotland—Elizabeth beckoned Melville.

  “How like you my new creation?” she asked.

  “A fine lord, madam,” Melville replied. “But methinks you would prefer to marry him yourself.”

  “Not at all,” she said. “I look upon him merely as a brother and a friend. An old friend—we were children together. It is for his loyalty and his princely demeanor that I offer him to Queen Mary. And yet I think you like yonder long lad better!”

  Her gaze rested on young Lord Darnley, glowering in a corner. That sulky youth had burning aspirations to be king of Scots; he hated Robert, and he certainly hated watching his rival being groomed to supplant him. If looks could have killed, Robert would now be lying dead on the floor.

  Melville looked at
Darnley with distaste. “No woman of spirit would choose such a man,” he muttered. “He is more like a woman with his beardless lady face.”

  And would suit your queen very well, Elizabeth thought. They would make such a pretty pair. Brainless, both of them! Aloud, she said to Melville, “Attend me in my chamber. I would show you my treasures. And you, my lord of Leicester,” she said to Robert, “and you, Sir William, come with us.” Robert and Cecil followed them into her lodgings and even through to her bedchamber. This invitation into the holy of holies was a signal honor for Melville.

  Elizabeth took from a cabinet a miniature of Queen Mary and kissed it affectionately. “See how I love your queen, my cousin,” she said, placing it back in the cabinet beside a small package inscribed in her familiar hand: My Lord’s picture.

  “May I see that one?” Melville asked.

  “It is a private thing,” Elizabeth declared, wishing that she had thought to remove it earlier.

  “It would be a great honor to see something that is clearly very precious to Your Majesty.”

  Reluctantly, Elizabeth unwrapped the package to reveal an exquisite miniature of Robert looking exceptionally debonair. It was the best likeness of him ever made, and she treasured it.

  “This would be the perfect gift for my queen,” Melville declared.

  “Ah, Sir James, I would that I could let her have it, but alas, I have no copy,” Elizabeth demurred.

  “But Your Majesty has the original,” he pointed out. Robert was smirking behind his back. Cecil looked as if he had swallowed gall.

  “All the same,” insisted Elizabeth, “I do not wish to part with it. You may tell Queen Mary that, in the process of time, she will get all that I have, and I will send her a beautiful diamond in token of my love for her.”

  She would not meet Robert’s eyes for fear that she might laugh aloud.

  Before Melville left for Scotland he was surprised to find Robert Dudley, the new Earl of Leicester, bearing down on him determinedly.

  “Sir James, I must say this to you.” Robert glanced over his shoulder to see that no one was within earshot. “I am not worthy to wipe the shoes of the Queen of Scots.”

  Aye, thought Melville, but you are worthy of doing as much—and more, if gossip could be believed—for the Queen of England.

  “You do not want this match, my lord?” he asked.

  Robert shrugged. “It is my belief that my secret enemy, Sir William Cecil, thought up and plotted it, to get me out of the way.”

  “I think your queen too is a great dissembler,” Melville confided, “but I must tell you that she has agreed that commissioners from both kingdoms should meet at Berwick to discuss the marriage.”

  “Then it seems I must cultivate a taste for haggis,” Robert said lightly. “But tell me, Sir James—is it true that you have been paying visits to the Spanish embassy?”

  It was true, and for a moment the normally urbane Melville was nonplussed. “A courtesy visit, nothing of importance,” he said after the slightest pause.

  “It could not have been to try to revive negotiations for Queen Mary’s marriage to Don Carlos?” Robert persisted.

  “I should have thought that your lordship would have been pleased to hear that it had.”

  “And so I would have been,” Robert said, “save that it is never going to happen. Don Carlos is now so far gone in madness that there can be no question of his marrying anyone.”

  “So I was informed when I inquired after his health,” Melville fenced. “But if your lordship can keep a secret, I can tell you something that may be of great advantage to you.”

  Robert’s eyes lit up. “I can keep a secret,” he said.

  “Queen Mary has her eyes on another suitor,” Melville told him. “But I am not at liberty to say who it is. I tell you only to set your mind at rest. She will not have you. That I can promise.”

  Soon afterward Mary gave the Earl of Lennox leave to enter Scotland.

  The commissioners had met at Berwick. The Earl of Moray, bastard half brother of Queen Mary and leader of the Protestant Lords of the Congregation, had demanded assurances that Queen Elizabeth would settle the succession on her dear sister if Mary agreed to marry the Earl of Leicester. The English deputation refused to confirm that she would do so—or more likely did not know. Moray lost his temper, and the meeting ended in acrimony.

  Back in England, Robert was doing his best covertly to whip up support for the Darnley marriage. He knew that Elizabeth was given to changing her mind, and he was determined to preempt her.

  Some weeks later a letter arrived from the Scottish lords, informing the Queen that Mary would not agree to marry the Earl of Leicester unless Elizabeth promised to name her as her heir.

  “What in Heaven do we reply, madam?” Cecil asked.

  “We say nothing,” Elizabeth answered. “Mary will never accept Robert, even if he comes with a crown. No, she wants to marry Lord Darnley, and as he is my subject, she must be a suitor to me for my consent.” She smiled at the prospect of Mary in a suppliant role. It would compensate for the Scottish queen’s insulting rejection of Robert.

  “May I suggest that Darnley be permitted to join his father in Scotland, to whet the Queen of Scots’ appetite?” Cecil proposed, a gleam in his eye.

  “That is a capital idea!” Robert enthused, clearly delighted to be out of the running—and no doubt plotting another royal wedding closer to home, Cecil thought.

  “Certainly a marriage with Lord Darnley would pose less of a threat to us than one to a great Catholic prince,” Elizabeth said thoughtfully. “But for the present, he must remain here. Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. Let Mary ponder on what she is missing!”

  The air was crisp and cold but invigorating as Elizabeth and Robert galloped out in the early morning dark for their usual ride. Christmas was approaching. The baked meats were even now being prepared in the royal kitchens. Men had gone to the woods to fell the Yule log. The choristers and children of the Chapel Royal were busily rehearsing carols and a new motet written by Thomas Tallis, one of the gentlemen of the chapel, and making a divine noise in the process. But only the servants had been stirring as the two cloaked figures left the palace by a wicket gate.

  They raced across the park, on ground hard with frost, and made for the chase beyond.

  “I love being out at this time, when few souls are abroad,” Elizabeth said as they slowed to a trot by a stream.

  “I love being alone with you,” Robert said, extending a hand and squeezing hers.

  They trotted on for a mile or so in companionable silence, enjoying the beauty of the winter dawn. But then …

  “I don’t feel well,” Elizabeth said suddenly. “Robin, I have to get to a privy, soon.” She wheeled her horse and cantered back toward the palace, barely making it in time to avoid disgracing herself in public.

  By now she was very ill indeed. Repeatedly she vomited, or suffered a looseness of the bowels, and when she was not in the privy she was lying shivering in her bed, complaining that she was freezing to death. But her forehead was burning up. The doctors, having prescribed an infusion of blackberry leaves, stood around looking worried and helpless until she shouted at them to go away. It was Kat and Kate Knollys who soothed her, making her take sips of the revolting brew, chafing her hands and mopping her brow.

  Mercifully, just in time for the twelve days of merrymaking, Elizabeth was soon back on her feet.

  “For a time, madam, you had us sore afraid,” Cecil confessed.

  “Don’t say it, William!” she warned, but there was no deterring him now.

  “Madam, I would be failing in my duty if I did not pray God to send some man whom it will content you to wed. Otherwise, I assure you, I have no comfort in living.”

  The Bishop of Salisbury, standing nearby, added his voice. “Your Grace, I must tell you how wretched we have been, not knowing under which sovereign we would live, should something evil befall your precious person. I trust
that God will long preserve you to us in life and safety!”

  Elizabeth was about to say something tart in response—this was all a bit dramatic, she felt—but there was no mistaking the relief and sincerity in both men’s faces. “I thank you, my lords,” she replied. “I promise I will give due thought to the matter in this coming year. But for now, let us make merry, for Christmas is upon us!”

  1565

  Paul de Foix, the new ambassador sent by the Queen Mother of France, made an extremely elegant bow. The French were very good at these things, if not at much else. As she extended her hand to be kissed, Elizabeth noted that Cecil was hovering hopefully nearby, and that Robert was frowning, doubtless feeling beleaguered by all the recent talk of the Archduke Charles renewing his suit. She suspected that he would not be pleased when he heard what Paul de Foix had come to say, because her spies had told her that Queen Catherine was determined to thwart the ambitions of the Habsburg Emperor, France’s great enemy.

  She smiled at the ambassador’s elaborate courtesies, and the smile stayed fixed on her face as he proposed his young master, King Charles IX of France, as a suitor for her hand, impressing on her the very great honor His Majesty was bestowing by offering her his most sacred person—a king, no less! Which would have been all very well had Elizabeth not heard that Charles’s most sacred person was a pimply fourteen-year-old dwarf with knobbly knees.

  “Do not marry him, Bess!” cried her woman fool—engagingly called Ippolita the Tartarian—capering across the floor on her short legs. “He is a boy and a babe!”

  Robert laughed out loud.

  “Be off with you,” Elizabeth snapped at the fool, but with a twinkle in her eye as she turned to the bristling Foix. “Take no offense, monsieur, she is a scamp who should know her place! But she has a point. Sensible as I am of the honor done me by His Majesty, I fear I am too old to marry him. I think not of now, for I am only thirty-one, but of the future. I would rather die than be despised and abandoned by a younger husband, as my sister was. Why, the age gap between us is so wide that people will say that your master has married his mother!”

 
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