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

  Cecil’s thoughts evidently ran the same way. “Bothwell helped Mary and Darnley to escape after Rizzio was killed. He helped her regain power. Since then it has been bruited that they are lovers. It is all too believable. Darnley had the French pox; he was recovering in the house that was destroyed. The next day he was to have resumed married life with Queen Mary.”

  If silences could be pregnant, then this one went to full term.

  “By God, you are not implying that Mary had him murdered?” Elizabeth burst out.

  “Far be it from me to repeat evil of a queen, madam, but that is what people in Scotland are saying—and saying very loudly.”

  “I will not believe it,” Elizabeth declared. All the same, she wrote to Mary, urging her to remember her honor and not look through her fingers at those who were said to have done her pleasure in the matter. She exhorted her, out of affection, she protested, to take her counsel to heart, and not to fear to proceed even against those nearest to her. Even Bothwell, was the implication.

  But Mary seemed frozen with an inexplicable inertia. When obscene placards naming Bothwell as Darnley’s assassin and Mary’s lover were plastered all over Edinburgh, she did nothing. When Darnley’s father brought a private prosecution against Bothwell for the murder of his son, Bothwell posted so many of his armed followers in Edinburgh that Lennox was too intimidated to attend court; and in the absence of his sole accuser, Bothwell was acquitted. Elizabeth was horrified. In compassion, she released a distraught Lady Lennox from the Tower, and asked herself for the umpteenth time why Mary was lifting no finger to pursue her husband’s killer.

  Each post seemed to bring worse news. Bothwell had gone so far as to abduct Mary and immure her in his castle at Dunbar on the wild Scottish coast not thirty miles from Edinburgh. Some said slyly that she had gone willingly. There were reports that he had raped her, but other intelligence asserted that she’d colluded. The next news was as explosive as the gunpowder that had blown up Darnley’s house: Mary had married Bothwell, not three months after the murder of her husband, and—this was beyond belief—in a Protestant ceremony, at his insistence.

  “And he is still the chief suspect,” Elizabeth commented grimly. “God’s teeth, what is Mary thinking of? I have sent to tell her that I am deeply perplexed because she has failed to bring Darnley’s assassins to justice, and has showered favor upon the one man whom common fame insists is guilty. I do declare that she has taken leave of her senses.”

  She remembered how she herself had reacted when Amy Dudley died. She had been in a similar situation to Mary. But she did not immediately marry Robert, the husband who was the chief suspect. Oh no, she had sent him from court until his name was cleared, and kept on resolutely refusing to marry him, at some cost to herself. But Mary—this was what she could not understand in a queen, and never would—had impulsively married the man widely reputed to have murdered her husband, and now all the world was baying for her blood, and how could she blame them?

  “I am ashamed of what she has done,” she fumed to Robert. “Moreover, Bothwell hates the English—he always has. If a remedy is not found, we will have an enemy on our doorstep. What worse choice could Mary have made, from our point of view, let alone hers?”

  The Scottish lords evidently agreed. Not a month had passed since the marriage when they took up arms against Bothwell, and after a brief skirmish Mary was taken prisoner and brought back to public humiliation in Edinburgh, where crowds had gathered to witness her paraded through the city. “Burn the whore! Kill her! Kill her!” they cried out. Elizabeth shivered when she heard of it. It was unbelievable that the Queen of Scots had been brought so low.

  Mary was imprisoned in a lonely castle in the middle of a lake, and there she miscarried of the twins conceived of rape. Elizabeth persisted in calling it that, because she would not have it said that a princess would stoop so low, but privately—and she would never have admitted this to anyone—she had her doubts. It was while Mary was lying abed, weak from loss of blood, that the Lords of the Congregation forced her to abdicate in favor of her infant son, who was now crowned as King James VI. Her dour half brother, the Earl of Moray, was appointed regent.

  “They have gone too far this time,” Elizabeth thundered, boiling with indignation. “It is not for subjects to imprison their queen! Whatever Mary did—and I can only deplore her failure to act when she should have—she is still an anointed monarch, to whom, by nature and all the laws of God and man, her people owe loyalty and obedience. It is unthinkable that a queen be divested of her authority.” Such treatment set a dangerous precedent, as she was all too aware.

  Robert and Cecil exchanged glances across the council board. They could both see how distressed Elizabeth was by this turn of events. Cecil even ventured to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder. She rounded fiercely on him.

  “You need not fear for me, good Spirit!” she declared. “I will fight for her release.”

  She did everything in her power. She sent Throckmorton to Edinburgh to work for a reconciliation between Queen Mary and her lords. She insisted on Mary’s restoration. Throckmorton was to demand that Darnley’s true killers be pursued and brought to justice. Above all, he was to make haste!

  Bothwell, however, had fled abroad. In Edinburgh the fanatical preacher John Knox was stirring up more hatred against Mary with his inflammatory sermons. Worse still, the Scottish lords resented Throckmorton’s interference. They would not let him see Mary. They even threatened to execute her, and warned that they would abandon the peace if England did not stop poking its nose into Scottish affairs.

  Elizabeth, infuriated, dashed off another letter to Throckmorton. “Ask them what warrant they have in Scripture to depose their prince? Or what law find they written that subjects may arrest the person of their prince, detain them captive, and proceed to judge them? No such law is to be found.”

  Robert tried to calm her. “Bess, heed me. It is vital to go carefully. Throckmorton writes that any attempt to rescue Queen Mary may well lead to her being put to death. And remember, these men are Protestants; they should be our allies.”

  “She would surely have been put to death if I had not intervened,” Elizabeth said firmly. “And allies or not, they are traitors to their queen.”

  “Then we must fight them, if need be,” he said stoutly, feeling profoundly grateful that it had not been his fate to marry the Queen of Scots. Even so, all his chivalrous instincts had been aroused by her plight.

  “Fight them?” Cecil echoed. “God grant it may not come to that. We should be coming to terms with them. A Protestant Scotland augurs well for peace in the future.”

  “I will not recognize the Earl of Moray as the ruler of Scotland,” Elizabeth insisted. “I will show him that I do not respect his authority by recalling Throckmorton.”

  Cecil sighed. “Madam, it will be an empty gesture,” he said. “Moray is in power in Scotland whether we like it or not, and the Scottish people do not want Mary restored.”

  “She is their anointed queen!” she cried. “We cannot just leave her there to languish in prison! You should have thought of a way to revenge her and deliver her! I mean it, William, I will declare war on the Scots, and you can warn Moray and his traitors that if they keep Mary locked up, or touch her person, I will not fail to avenge it to the uttermost.”


  “Hold your peace!” Elizabeth snarled. “Any person who is content to see a neighboring prince unlawfully deposed must be less than dutifully minded toward his own sovereign!”

  Cecil recoiled, stung. It was the first time she had ever accused him of disloyalty. But he collected himself and said evenly, “Madam, Robert is right. If you threaten the Scots with war, they might indeed carry out their threat to execute Queen Mary.”

  Elizabeth subsided at that. She sat there, her face puce, biting her thumb, a sure sign that she was distressed. Then she turned without another word to domestic matters, signaling that the subject was closed for the

  After she had gone, the councillors looked at each other in sympathetic collusion.

  “I would not take her displeasure too seriously,” Bacon said.

  Cecil sighed. “No, I thank you.”

  “For all Her Majesty’s protests, I doubt not that in her heart she likes this new order well enough,” Bacon observed.

  “Aye, she denounces Moray at every turn, yet she has no real intention of going to war,” Cecil concurred. “Even so, her behavior is wrecking years of successful diplomacy.”

  Robert had been regarding them all darkly. Now he spoke out. “She does not want people to think her prejudiced against Queen Mary. Above all, she fears that her own subjects might be emboldened by the example set in Scotland to do the same to her. She has not forgotten her quarrel with Parliament last year.”

  “I understand her fears,” Cecil said. “However, although she says she will never acknowledge Moray’s rule or King James’s title, she will in the end, mark my words. She knows she has not the power to change the situation in Scotland.”

  When Elizabeth was calmer, she turned with relief to a report sent by Sussex, whom she had dispatched to Vienna to inform her concerning the Archduke. Sussex wrote glowingly of Charles of Habsburg: he was tall, well-proportioned, cheerful, dignified, rich, popular, and well-educated. Like Elizabeth herself, he spoke four languages. In all, he was a paragon among men. There was nothing to mislike about him, Sussex enthused—except for the fact that he was refusing—absolutely, and very inconsiderately—to convert to the Protestant faith.

  She asked her councillors for their advice. Should she permit Charles to hear Mass in private, even though it had been made illegal in England? He had, after all, expressed a willingness to accompany her publicly to Anglican services.

  “It seems a fair compromise,” Cecil said.

  “Aye, indeed,” agreed Norfolk.

  “I am against it,” Robert declared, and was promptly seconded by several others.

  “Well you would be,” Norfolk sneered.

  The argument went on—and on—for weeks, while Elizabeth, delighted at this opportunity of stalling yet again, insisted that she could not make up her mind. Meanwhile, Robert had been paying Protestant preachers to fulminate against the marriage from their pulpits. In private, he never let up cozening the Queen with sweet words and artful persuasion.

  It all paid off. In the end she instructed Sussex to tell the Emperor that it was against her conscience and her policy of religious uniformity to allow the Archduke to practice his religion in private. Cecil, Norfolk, and Sussex were furious with Robert; and the Emperor was appalled at how things had turned out. It was some time before he could give thanks for his son having escaped the clutches of that fickle, willful, heretical usurper he had so nearly wed.

  “But you were right to reject him,” Robert told Elizabeth. “You have saved England from religious controversy and the threat of rebellion or even civil war. Remember how Thomas Wyatt rose against Queen Mary when she proposed to marry King Philip?”

  Elizabeth shuddered at the memory. Her suspected, mercifully unproven involvement in that rebellion had landed her in the Tower. She knew for a certainty that she had done the right thing in regard to the Archduke, for in so doing she had shown her subjects that she would never forfeit their love and loyalty, or allow the laws of England to be subverted.

  She smiled at Robin. There had been a subtle shift in their relationship of late. He had become more of a friend and supporter than a lover. Kindness had almost imperceptibly replaced passion. She knew he still longed to wed her, but she was aware also that he was more realistic about his prospects in that respect than he had once been. She loved him truly—he was all the world to her, and always would be—but she had to admit to herself that she was happier now that he did not ceaselessly pester her to surrender herself to him. It was some time since he had attempted to talk her through her fears of marriage. It was as if he’d reconciled himself to the fact that she might never overcome them.

  Yet sometimes she found herself on the verge of weeping at the remembrance of how things had once stood between them. That was gone forever, she knew, and in its place there was a terrible sense of loss that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her.


  Cecil was looking strained. The past year had been the most nerve-racking of Elizabeth’s reign. The trouble began when the Catholics of the North, who had stubbornly resisted the religious reforms of the past forty years, rose in revolt against her Protestant rule, which was only suppressed with great severity on the part of her generals. Norfolk, whose treachery had come as a lightning bolt from the sky, had allied with the northern Catholic earls—not so much on account of his faith as in determination to oust Cecil and Leicester from the council.

  King Philip, seizing the moment, had threatened war. Then Pope Pius V, outraged by reports of mass executions in the wake of the uprising, published a bull excommunicating Elizabeth. The Queen was outraged when she heard that Pius had released her Catholic subjects from their obedience to her and declared it no sin to assassinate her.

  “It is, effectively, an incitement to the Catholic faithful to mount what they would see as a crusade against you,” Cecil had pronounced, “and it is perhaps the most dangerous threat we now face.”

  Elizabeth sat stony-faced. If she had thought herself insecure before, she realized that her position was now even more precarious, and that she might never know a moment’s peace again in the wake of this new danger.

  It did not help that Mary Stuart was now an unwelcome prisoner in England. Two years ago Mary had escaped from Scotland with only the clothes on her back, and come into England seeking Elizabeth’s support, hoping that her dear sister would furnish her with an army to defeat her rebellious lords.

  “What shall I do with her?” Elizabeth now demanded of her council.

  “Surely Your Majesty will not do as she asks?” Cecil had said.

  “I’m not a fool, William!” she snapped. “She has claimed my crown; it has been her life’s ambition to sit on my throne, and she still covets it, if I am any judge of character. God knows, she never ceased demanding to be named my successor. Do you think I would give her the wherewithal to press her claim?”

  “A wise decision,” Cecil hastened to say. “But we still have to decide what to do with her.”

  “Whatever we do with her, she will make trouble for me,” Elizabeth said. “She is tainted by scandal; the Scottish lords insist she is an adulteress and a murderess, and she has never been cleared of that charge. Do you think that I, a maiden queen, could receive such a person at my court? I have my reputation to protect. So she must not come anyplace near where I am.”

  “Send her back to Scotland,” Sussex said.

  “But she is a sanctified queen who has been appallingly treated by her traitorous subjects and unjustly deposed and imprisoned,” Elizabeth declared, “and if she has never been cleared of the charges laid against her, neither have they been proved.” Of course, Mary was a brainless fool, marrying Darnley, alienating her nobles, subsuming herself to Bothwell, then arriving in England penniless and expecting her dear sister to provide her with an army.

  “If we keep the Queen of Scots in the North, as Your Majesty suggests, we will be placing her at the heart of a region peopled by Catholic recusants,” Cecil warned. “That could prove most dangerous.”

  “As I said, William, she will make trouble for us whatever we do with her.” Elizabeth sighed. “Therefore I dare not leave her at liberty.”

  Well, she had done her best. She had arranged for Mary to be held securely in the North pending a hearing of her case in England, and appointed the faithful Sir Francis Knollys as her jailer, much—she knew—to his distress and that of his wife, her dear Kate, whom Elizabeth had insisted on keeping with her at court, hating the idea of being apart from her beloved half sister. Knollys had asked, again and again, to visit Kate, or had begged permission for her to visit
him, and his pleas grew even more frantic when Kate fell ill. But then Kate had died, at the Queen’s side but far from her distraught husband—and all because of Elizabeth’s selfishness. She saw that now, as she had not at the time, and found it hard to forgive herself. It was a grief she would have to live with always. The expensive funeral she arranged in Westminster Abbey had borne witness to her remorse.

  Before that catastrophe, the Scottish lords had produced a set of letters—“Conveniently found in a casket in the possession of one of Bothwell’s men,” Cecil told the Queen—claiming that Mary had written them to Bothwell in the weeks leading up to Darnley’s death.

  Elizabeth read the transcripts. They contained shocking, foul proofs of adultery and murder, and it was at that point that her sympathy for Mary evaporated. And once the English commissioners had read this damning evidence, Mary’s fate was sealed. Again Elizabeth found herself in an impossible position. The majority of her subjects hated and feared the Queen of Scots; the Scottish lords did not want her back in Scotland; and she could not risk giving such a dangerous creature her freedom, for Mary would surely plot against her.

  The English tribunal, set up in York to hear Mary’s case, had its instructions. It found that nothing could be proved against her. The Scottish lords, who had attended with their helpful casket of letters, went home. Mary, to their relief, did not. She was to remain in honorable captivity as Elizabeth’s guest. Naturally there were protests from King Philip and other Catholic rulers, most of whom wanted Mary on the throne of England, for they saw her as the rightful Catholic claimant. All the more reason, Elizabeth knew, not to set her free!

  Yes, the realm had suffered turbulent upheavals, and she had to face the sobering fact that she was alarmingly vulnerable to her enemies at home and abroad, and that her Catholic subjects might at any time rise against her, especially now that there was a Catholic claimant to the throne living in England. It was ironic that she, who had vowed many times never to make windows into men’s souls, was now forced to the point where she must consider all Catholics potential traitors. And now there were rumors that Norfolk, the premier Catholic peer, had been scheming to marry Mary, to God knew what end. Elizabeth had sent Norfolk to the Tower after the rebellion, then set him free at the urging of Cecil and Robert, on the grounds that the duke had been more fool than traitor. He was her cousin too, and had confessed himself in error. Now, in the wake of her excommunication, she wished she had kept him under lock and key.

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