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


  The trees were in bud and a light March breeze in the air when Cecil brought Elizabeth a letter bearing the Queen of Scots’ seal. She read it with mounting horror.

  “God’s death!” she swore. “Rizzio has been murdered.”

  According to Mary, Darnley and many of the lords who had once opposed him had burst in upon her as she was having supper with Rizzio and a few friends. There was an unseemly brawl, with Mary’s very life threatened. One conspirator had even rammed a chair into her belly—and she six months gone with child. Darnley held her fast as the lords dragged a frantic Rizzio from her presence and stabbed him to death, fifty-six times. Mary then found herself a prisoner, for the lords had gotten Darnley on their side by promising he could rule in her name, but she persuaded him—with truth, no doubt, given what Elizabeth knew of these turncoats—that they had no intention of keeping their word. Together, she and Darnley escaped, and now, thanks to the support of the loyal and trusty Earl of Bothwell, she had reasserted her authority and the traitors were in flight. But it had been a close thing.

  Elizabeth shuddered; in fact she could not stop trembling. That a queen, answerable only to God, should be disparaged and threatened thus was scandalous, and treason of the highest order. She too was a queen. What would it take to make her lords plot against her in such a way? Not that she could imagine it, for she ruled by their love, but it was a salutary warning. You did not take these things for granted. She had been right all along not to marry. Darnley’s base example proved that. But arrogant fool that he was, he’d been a mere pawn in the conspirators’ hands. What had happened proved that Mary was isolated and vulnerable—and that made Elizabeth feel vulnerable too.

  Loudly, she voiced her horror at the way Mary had been treated. She attached her miniature of the Scottish queen to a chain and wore it at her waist to proclaim her solidarity with her dearest sister. She told Silva, “Had I been in her place, I would have taken my husband’s dagger and stabbed him with it!” Seeing his aghast expression, which clearly told her that he believed her capable of it, she hastened to add, “Of course, I would never do such a thing to the Archduke!”

  She wrote to Mary; there was a new kindness between them. She wished her dear sister a happy hour (Heaven knew, the poor woman had few enough of them), praying that God would send her only short pains when she bore her child. “I too am big with desire for the good news,” she concluded—and meant it.

  Still feeling vulnerable, she sent one of her ladies to summon Robert, with a message complaining of his unkindness. As she had hoped, he came to her, full of apologies, and they made up their quarrel, as with the many preceding that one, but during his absence a distance had grown between them.

  “Never again will I permit you to leave my side,” Elizabeth declared.

  “I am yours to command,” Robert answered formally, still smarting from having had to apologize for what she had done—or, rather, not done.

  “God’s blood, Robin, must you be so stiff with me?” she exploded.

  “I am your devoted servant, you know it,” he answered, with more warmth than he felt.

  She sighed. “I want more than that, and you know it.”

  “All I ask is that you show the world that you hold me in some esteem,” he replied.

  She promised that she would. She assured him that she would never humiliate him publicly again. She kept him once more at her side, showed him the same favor as of old, and did her best to cease flirting with her other admirers; not very successfully, for she was born to it. All the same, they did not fall into their old easiness with each other.

  In April, unable to bear the situation any longer, Robert craved leave to visit his estates in Norfolk.

  “Is this how you repay me for my favor?” Elizabeth challenged him.

  “Bess, I must go. Pressing business calls me, otherwise I would not leave you for the world.” But his words lacked conviction. She let him go.

  No sooner had he arrived in Norfolk than a letter from her caught up with him. He read it, appalled. What had he done to deserve such a stinging, vicious rebuke? He had never meant to offend her. Surely the coolness between them was as painful for her as it was for him, and she, like he, welcomed the respite. Did his long service and years of devotion and loyalty count for nothing? He had tried, God, he had tried, just to find his way back to how it had once been between them, and those heady days of love and glory. But he was beginning to think it might be impossible to recapture that. If you had to try so hard, maybe the moment had gone. And maybe Elizabeth knew it too. He was so grieved that he wanted to crawl into a cave, or even a tomb—somewhere, anywhere, he could find oblivion.

  Then a fresh summons came. The Queen commanded his return to court. He went with a leaden heart, not knowing what to expect, and not daring to hope. But hope, as it proverbially does, sprang anew when he was informed that she would receive him in private, and it leapt for joy when she stretched out her hands, her eyes full of tears. This time, he would not be the one doing the apologizing.

  “The Queen of Scots has had a fair son,” Elizabeth announced. She had emerged from the council chamber, visibly trembling. “Cecil told me.”

  “An heir to Scotland,” Robert said. “I am glad for Queen Mary, poor lady. She has suffered much.” And to think that the child could have been his! He could have been father to the future King of Scots. He felt the usual pang when he thought of his childlessness. He would give much to be the father of any child, king or not.

  “Yes, I rejoice with her too, of course,” Elizabeth said, but her tone implied the opposite.

  “What is wrong, Bess?” Robert asked, though he knew the answer.

  “For all her troubles, Mary has triumphed,” she said. “And she has done the one thing that it seems I cannot do, for I am of barren stock.”

  “That’s nonsense!” Robert retorted. “Do you not think you are being a little dramatic and self-indulgent? As for your being barren, that has yet to be proved.”

  Elizabeth opened her mouth to protest, but he silenced her by putting a finger on her lips. “Hear me out,” he said, folding his arms around her. “There is no reason why you should not bear a child, an heir to England—only your baseless fears, which you can overcome if you put your mind to it. You are a normal woman. Your courses come regularly, you know how to feel the pleasure that betokens conception.”

  “Is this another ploy to get me to marry you?” Elizabeth asked, eyeing him warily. Such talk made her feel decidedly uncomfortable. It was not seemly for a man to say such things to her, even Robin.

  “Nay, I but seek to reassure you, Bess,” he said tenderly. “There is no ulterior motive, no agenda, just the kindness that has been between us of late, thank God.”

  She kissed him back—a brisk, affectionate kiss, not a passionate one. “Thank you, but leave it, Robin. I do not want to think about it.”

  That August the Queen led the court on a progress through Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. Robert pressed her to be his guest at Kenilworth, and plans were made for her visit.

  “Madam, is this wise?” Cecil warned. “People are saying that your arrival at Kenilworth will presage an announcement of your betrothal to my lord of Leicester.”

  Elizabeth looked alarmed. “Of course it does not.”

  “But that is what people are saying.”

  “That settles it. I will not go.”

  Robert protested loudly when she told him of her decision. “Just because you are visiting me does not mean that you are going to marry me,” he complained, with only a touch of wistfulness in his voice. “You were planning to stay with Cecil, but no one suggests that you have designs on him.”

  “That’s a silly analogy,” she muttered.

  “Do come!” he pleaded. “Prove the world wrong! Besides, I want you to see the improvements I have made to the castle. I promise you, you will be lodged splendidly and well served. And the dreaded word ‘marriage’ will not be mentioned once!”

&nb
sp; Elizabeth thought about it for what seemed an endless minute. “You’ve persuaded me!” She smiled. Let the world go hang itself. What did she care about what people were thinking?

  The visit to Kenilworth was a great success, even if it did disappoint the ever-hopeful gossips, but when Elizabeth returned to London afterward, she found Parliament in a recalcitrant mood. She was in desperate need of money, but her treacherous Lords and Commons refused to approve any new taxes until she had heeded their petitions and resolved the weighty—and most urgent, they stressed—matter of the succession.

  “How dare they dictate terms to me!” she stormed in council. But when she recovered her aplomb, she sent a message to Parliament to say that, on the word of a prince, she would marry. The Lords and Commons had heard this before, too often, and sat tight.

  “I will never allow Parliament to meddle in such a matter,” Elizabeth fumed. “I need those taxes for the good of my people, and these fools are obstructing me. They should vote them freely and graciously.”

  “If Your Majesty were to marry, you could spare yourself all this aggravation,” Cecil pointed out.

  “Don’t you think I am aware of that, my Spirit?” she retorted, then sighed, slumping in her chair in defeat. “Very well. I will write to the Emperor, telling him that I will accept the suit of the Archduke.”

  Cecil almost ran to fetch paper, pen, and ink, before she changed her mind.

  Parliament was duly informed of the Queen’s resolve to marry; but until the Emperor responded to the Queen’s letter, she could not reveal whom the fortunate suitor would be—or even that there was a specific fortunate suitor in view. When next she heard, the Commons wanted to send a deputation to wait upon her, to beg her to name her future husband, and her successor should she die childless.

  “It is insupportable, what they ask!” Elizabeth said hotly.

  “Madam, they want only the future security of the realm,” Cecil pacified her.

  “That is a matter for me to determine. God’s blood, they would never have been so rebellious in my father’s day.”

  “Your Majesty should at least consider receiving the deputation,” Robert urged.

  “No,” she said mutinously.

  “Madam, the Lords support them,” Cecil persisted.

  “They would never dare!” she spat. But they did. They added their weight to this new petition.

  “Norfolk, you and your kind are traitors!” Elizabeth declared, narrowing her eyes at the duke as he sat stony-faced at the council board.

  “Madam, they but have your good, and England’s, at heart,” Robert declared. It was unheard of for him to defend Norfolk.

  “Robert, you are as bad as the rest of them!” she cried. “The whole world might have abandoned me, but I had thought that you, of all people, would not do so.”

  “I would die at your feet!” he swore hotly.

  “What has that to do with the matter?” she shouted, and stormed out of the council chamber straight—almost—into the willing arms of Silva, who was in the antechamber waiting to speak with Cecil. Elizabeth was beside herself, distraught that Robin had failed to support her stand. Villainy, pure and simple!

  “I am so angry with my councillors,” she raged, “and with my lord of Leicester most of all. What do you think, Ambassador, of such ingratitude in one to whom I have shown so much favor that my own honor has been compromised? I am determined to dismiss him and leave the way clear for the Archduke to come to England.”

  Silva, to whom this was manna from Heaven, clucked soothingly.

  “My nobility are all against me,” Elizabeth went on plaintively, “and my Commons refuse to attend to any business until I agree to their demands. I do not know what these devils want!”

  “It would be an affront to Your Majesty’s dignity to agree to any compromise,” Silva said, his tone oozing with sympathy.

  “Yes, but I have no choice,” she rejoined bitterly. And that was the problem, of course. She could not do without Parliament.

  At length she gave in. She summoned a delegation from Parliament to wait upon her, but, she insisted, the Speaker was not to be of their number. She would do all the talking; she had prepared one of her special speeches for the occasion. And once she had her Lords and Commons cowering on their knees before her, through the sheer force of her steely gaze, she erupted in righteous ire.

  “Unbridled persons in the House of Commons have plotted a traitorous trick,” she said sternly. “I am not used to demands being made on me to name my successor, and you, my Lords, have acted rashly in supporting the Commons in this nonsense. Was I not born in this realm? Were not my parents? Whom have I oppressed? How have I governed? I will be tried by envy itself. I need not use many words, for my deeds do try me. I have sent word that I will marry, and I will never break the word of a prince, for my honor’s sake. And therefore I say again, I will marry as soon as I can, and I hope to have children, otherwise I would never marry.”

  She paused. Having admonished them, she would appeal to their reason and understanding. “None of you has been the second person in the realm, as I have, or tasted of the practices against my sister. There are some now in Parliament who tried to involve me in their conspiracies back then.” She paused to let that sink in, and was gratified to see a few looking nervously at each other. “Were it not for my honor, their knavery would be known.” Several pairs of shoulders slumped in relief. “I would never place my successor in that position. My Lords and Commons, the succession question is full of peril to the realm and myself. Kings were wont to honor philosophers, but I would honor as angels any that, when they were second in the realm, did not seek to be first!”

  They looked chastened at that. Some were clearly sympathetic at the thought of their queen being placed in such a difficult position—and all on their account too. Elizabeth glowered at them. “You are impertinent to summon me thus; it is for me, your Prince, to decide who should follow me; it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head. I hope that the instigators of this trouble will repent and openly confess their guilt.”

  Perceiving the ripple of consternation that trembled through the kneeling ranks of men before her, she decided that it was time to remind them what she was made of (she had not forgotten the recent experiences of the Queen of Scots). “I care not for death,” she went on. “All men are mortal, and though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage as ever my father had. I am your anointed queen. I will never be by violence constrained to do anything. I thank God I am endowed with such qualities that, if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live anyplace in Christendom.”

  Her eyes scanned the faces of the Lords. She had scored a victory there, she thought. But the Commons looked mutinous still. They had heard her out in sullen silence. Sure enough, just days later there were more calls in Parliament for her to accede to their petitions.

  Elizabeth had had enough. “Tell the House that it is my express command that they proceed no further in their suit, but satisfy themselves with our promise to marry.” That galvanized the Commons to an uproar, and provoked accusations that the Queen was attacking the lawful liberties of her subjects. Still the members would not vote for a subsidy, and soon Elizabeth realized, to her consternation, that they had her well and truly cornered. What had started out as a plea for her to marry or name her successor had rapidly turned into a war of words over the rights and privileges of the sovereign and Parliament.

  “Madam, I urge you to give in,” Cecil pleaded.

  “Very well.” Her lips were tight, but she knew when she was beaten, and had no wish for a showdown over the wider issue. “Tell the Commons that they may have a free debate about the succession, and that I graciously remit one-third of the tax I requested.”

  The Commons were so gleeful at their victory that they approved the bill for the subsidy without even waiting to discuss the succession. But when the bill was laid before Elizabeth for signature, she was angered to see that her
promise to marry had been enshrined in its text. Picking up her quill, she scrawled in the margin: “I know no reason why my private answers to the realm should serve as a prologue to this bill; neither do I understand why such audacity should be used to make an act of my words.” And when she dissolved Parliament, she glared at both Houses and said frostily, “Beware how you prove your prince’s patience, as you have done mine! A more loving prince ye shall never have!”

  “I won,” she said afterward, beaming at Cecil.

  “I think Your Majesty is mistaken,” he replied. “The succession is not settled, the marriage is not concluded, dangers may ensue, and there is general disquiet about the future. Parliament’s concerns are real, as are mine.”

  Elizabeth stared at him, poised to utter a tart retort, but she was not such a fool that she could not ingest the truth in his words, and the retort died on her lips. She had the grace to look chastened.

  1567

  It was a bitter February morning, the sky brooding and gray. Elizabeth ordered the fire made up and mulled wine brought, and was playing her virginals, with Robert accompanying her on the lute, when Cecil made an unexpected appearance.

  “News from Scotland, madam,” he announced in a grim voice, as Elizabeth looked up, startled. “Darnley is dead. The house he was staying at in Edinburgh has been blown up and destroyed to the very foundations.”

  “God in Heaven!” exclaimed Robert.

  Elizabeth was speechless. She had known there was bad blood between Darnley and Mary, and between Darnley and the nobles whom he had betrayed after Rizzio’s murder, but never had she dreamed that it would come to this.

  “It is murder, no less,” she whispered. Then, in a stronger voice, “Is it known who is responsible?”

  “There are many rumors, madam. Some say the Earl of Bothwell.” Elizabeth knew Bothwell as the only Scottish peer who had refused bribes from England. She had thought him an upright man; could she have been wrong? Power, or the hope of it, corrupted even the best. She had seen it happen with her own eyes.

 
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