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


  “Welcome to England, monsieur,” she said in perfect French. “I trust you have had a good journey.”

  “Your Majesty, I would have braved tempests to see you,” Anjou replied, his voice velvety and deep. “And now that I am here, I am so, so glad that I came, for I see that reports of your beauty do not lie; in fact they do not do justice to the fairest of queens.”

  This was better than she had ever expected, she thought later, seating herself across the table from him and dipping her fingers into the rose water in her finger bowl. What was more, as the conversation and the drinks flowed—fine wine for him, good English watered beer for her—she discovered that she and Anjou had much in common. They both loved literature, poetry, music, dancing, hunting, and long walks outdoors. She found to her delight that they shared a sense of humor and a sharp wit. She was delighted that he deferred to her at every turn and seemed eager to pay her the most flamboyant compliments. Above all, he spoke most tenderly of their coming marriage and the joy he knew that he would find in her. He could not wait to live in England, he declared.

  She was no fool, nor did she delude herself. She knew that such talk did not normally proceed from so short an acquaintance, and that much of it was pure courtesy and—it had to be admitted—ambition. But there was something else too, a rapport on which much could be built. She found herself looking forward enormously to nurturing the liking that had been born that night.

  As the wine sparkled in the candlelight, and the servitors silently came and went, bringing golden plates laden with exquisite food, Elizabeth sent up a silent prayer of thanks to God, who, in the late summer of her life, and with Robert lost forever, had sent her this prince. By the end of the evening, she was telling herself that she had never seen a creature more agreeable to her.

  She said much the same thing to her councillors and her ladies. She told Simier that she was captivated, overcome with love.

  “I have never found a man whose nature and actions suited me better!” she declared.

  “And monsieur is as delighted with Your Majesty as Your Majesty is with him,” Simier told her, which gladdened her heart no end.

  “I am pleased to have been able to get to know him,” she enthused. “I am much taken with his good looks, and admire him more than any man. For my part, I will not prevent his becoming my husband.”

  There were more trysts in the pavilion, the very secrecy adding spice to the affair. Anjou proved an ardent suitor, pressing passionate kisses on her lips and drawing her tightly into an embrace that left her in no doubt of his desire for her.

  “I shall call you my Frog,” she announced, making him laugh.

  “Why Frog?”

  “It is what the English call the French. In your case it is a great compliment. And you leapt like a frog across the Channel to see me.”

  “And would leap into your bed,” he said with the boldness that she loved.

  “No, my Frog, you must be patient,” she chided, but she was loving it all: the banter, the innuendo, and the promise of passion to come. It was the breath of life to her.

  They exchanged gifts: jewels, books, and silver-gilt cups.

  “I will love you forever, my golden Queen,” Anjou vowed.

  “And I will make you a true and faithful wife,” Elizabeth promised, “and love you until death parts us.”

  She went about the court with a broad, beatific smile on her face. Most of her courtiers knew the reason for it, and laughed behind their hands, but Elizabeth ignored them. Only Robert looked on balefully, sickened and shamed at what he had heard, on good authority, of what went on in that bloody pavilion. But he could do or say nothing, because officially Anjou was not in England. Most of the councillors were staying away from court as often as their duties permitted, to avoid being asked awkward questions. Robert had to content himself with cursing the French under his breath.

  Robert had always loved literature and verse, and enjoyed a reputation as a great patron of letters. He had in his household a young poet, Edmund Spenser, a talented fellow who had come on the recommendation of the Sidneys. Spenser took pleasure in reminding Robert how Anjou’s courtship of the Queen was the talk of London and had scandalized the Puritans. Then Robert found out, to his horror, that Spenser, his own protégé, had circulated a satire, Mother Hubbard’s Tale, which was less than flattering to Anjou, Simier, and—Heaven protect him—Elizabeth herself. When he heard that she had read and publicly—and very hotly—condemned it, he was deeply mortified, and packed the foolish, hotheaded boy who had caused all the trouble off to Ireland.

  Elizabeth guessed that Robert had nothing to do with Spenser’s offensive libel, but she let him stew for a while. She ignored the chorus of disapproval on the part of those who hated the Anjou marriage. She was enjoying her secret affair too much to pay them any heed. She decided to arrange a court ball, so that Anjou could see how well she danced.

  “My poor Frog must stand behind the tapestries,” she told him. “You will be able to see the dancing through the gaps.” Having had him smuggled in before the guests arrived, she showed off immoderately for his benefit, joining in many more dances than usual, executing dramatic leaps and twirls, and even smiling and waving in the direction of the tapestry. The court reverberated with silent mirth.

  Two days later Robert asked to see her in private. He was dismayed to find her so cool toward him, but he persisted in his mission nonetheless.

  “Madam, I am in great grief at the thought of this marriage,” he blurted out.

  “Do not think to sway me with that,” Elizabeth retorted. “I have had enough criticism from your camp.”

  “I apologize for young Spenser,” Robert said. “It was done without my knowledge.”

  “I know,” she replied. “But you would echo the sentiment.”

  “I am not the only one,” he declared.

  “I do not want to hear it!” she snapped. “You should consider the weal of this realm and the happiness of your queen!”

  “I think of nothing else,” he averred, his blood up.

  “Then you understand nothing.”

  “I have your welfare at heart,” he protested angrily.

  “As you did when you married that woman?” she flung back. “No, my lord, I want none of your concern, so let that be an end to it.”

  “I shall leave court,” Robert threatened, wounded to the heart.

  “Is that a promise? Just go!”

  He emerged from their meeting very distressed, and went to arrange for the packing of his gear and the saddling of horses. All he could hope for now was that Parliament would vote against the marriage.

  At the end of August, Anjou broke it to Elizabeth that he had to leave on the morrow. A bosom friend had been killed in a duel, and he was needed in France. Understanding the urgency, Elizabeth placed a fine ship at his disposal, and tried not to imagine that he might be making an excuse to abandon her.

  She spent the last night of his visit lying wakeful and fretting, and in the morning Simier, come for his usual audience, told her that Anjou had done just the same.

  “Monsieur was sighing and moaning all night, and hauled me out of bed at an ungodly hour to tell me about Your Majesty’s divine beauty. Then he swore a thousand oaths that, without hope of seeing Your Majesty again, he cannot live another quarter of an hour!”

  Tears sprang to Elizabeth’s eyes. He did love her, her Frog. How could she have doubted it?

  She went, disguised, to see him off from the great gatehouse at Greenwich, where waited the boat that would take him down to his ship at Dover.

  “You are the jailer of my heart and the mistress of my liberty,” he told her as he folded her in his arms, making her shiver with pleasure and misery at the thought of parting. They kissed tenderly, and soon he was gone from her sight. From Dover he wrote her three letters expressing his devotion in the most heartrending terms, and soon afterward three more arrived from Boulogne.

  I am desolate without you, she read,
and I can do nothing but wipe away my tears. I kiss your feet from the coast of the comfortless sea. He had signed himself the most faithful and affectionate slave in the world, and enclosed in the packet a pendant formed as a little flower of gold with a frog crouching on it, which opened to reveal his miniature portrait.

  She wept at that. She was in turmoil, all the worse for the fact that it could not be expressed, since his visit was a secret. She could speak of her sorrow to Simier, but with everyone else she had to maintain a smiling countenance. The one man to whom she might have unburdened herself was lost to her, sulking at Wanstead. For want of any human comfort, she found herself writing verses, which she entitled “On Monsieur’s Departure.” When she read them over, she realized that they expressed exactly how she felt.

  I grieve and dare not show my discontent;

  I love, and yet am forced to seem to hate;

  I do, yet dare not say I ever meant;

  I seem stark mute, but inwardly do prate.

  I am, and not; I freeze and yet am burned,

  Since from myself another self I turned.

  My care is like my shadow in the sun—

  Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,

  Stands, and lies by me, doth what I have done;

  His too familiar care doth make me rue it.

  No means I find to rid him from my breast,

  Till by the end of things it be suppressed.

  Some gentler passion slide into my mind,

  For I am soft and made of melting snow;

  Or be more cruel, Love, and so be kind.

  Let me float or sink, be high or low;

  Or let me live with some more sweet content,

  Or die, and so forget what love e’er meant.

  Anjou had instructed Simier to finalize negotiations for the marriage, but by now the great swelling of opposition to it in London had spread to the shires. The Spanish ambassador feared that there would be a revolution in England if the wedding went ahead. Leicester’s nephew, Sir Philip Sidney, even had the temerity to write Elizabeth a letter in which he reminded her of the horrors of the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve and the perfidy of the French; Anjou’s own mother, he begged to remind her, was the Jezebel of their age, and her son would be wholly unacceptable to Elizabeth’s Protestant subjects.

  Elizabeth cried tears of rage when she read it. By God, his uncle had put him up to this! Robert, though, was beyond reach of her temper, so she bawled out Sidney and banished him from court. But there was no trace of her fury and inner turmoil when she returned to London after her summer progress and went in procession through the City in a bid to win over her dissenting subjects. So radiant and gracious did she look on her fine Spanish horse, smiling and raising her hand in greeting, that the people marveled and fell to their knees as she passed, honoring and indeed worshipping this veritable goddess who had come among them, and calling down on her a thousand blessings. The Virgin Mary might have been banished from English churches, but the Virgin Queen had now taken her place in the minds of loyal Englishmen.

  Elizabeth was appalled therefore when a scurrilous pamphlet against her coming marriage, written by one of those damnable Puritans, John Stubbs, appeared on the streets of London and threatened her very precious popularity.

  “This must be suppressed,” she demanded, banging her fist on the council board.

  “Without doubt,” Burghley agreed. “We cannot allow such offensive language against monsieur.”

  “Or the House of Valois,” Walsingham added. “ ‘Rotten with disease and marked by divine vengeance for its cruelties,’ ” he read aloud. “As for the assertion that the duke is eaten by debauchery, that is an outright calumny.”

  “I mean to punish the perpetrator severely, so that our allies the French see how we deal with those who cause such offense against them,” Elizabeth declared. “Publish a proclamation condemning this pamphlet as lewd and seditious, and have all copies confiscated and burned. Then have a preacher go to Paul’s Cross to assure my people that I have no intention of changing my religion when I marry. He must say that I have been brought up in Christ, and will live and die in Christ.”

  When the people heard, they shouted out their thanks and appreciation, but they resented the criticism of Stubbs, whose words had awakened their ingrained distrust of the French. Alarmed, Elizabeth consulted her judges, and ordered that Stubbs be arrested and hanged for sedition, along with his publisher and his printer.

  “But madam, sedition is not a capital crime,” Burghley protested.

  “Then they shall have their right hands cut off, and be sent to prison,” she decided. She took care to remind the people of her renowned clemency by pardoning the elderly printer, but declared that she would rather have her own hand cut off than mitigate the sentence against Stubbs and his publisher.

  She was watching from a window when the two unfortunate men were brought to a scaffold erected in front of Whitehall Palace. When the executioner brought down his cleaver and struck off the offending hand that had written the pamphlet, Stubbs took off his hat with his left hand, cried out, “God save Queen Elizabeth!” and promptly fainted. Elizabeth was angered to see looks of sympathy and disapproval on the faces of the silent crowd. She felt gravely shaken. She could not bear to think that she had forfeited the goodwill of her subjects.

  With this very much in mind, she prorogued the Parliament that had met to conclude the marriage treaty, asked her councillors for advice, and predictably plunged them into a heated debate. Robert and Hatton had mustered five of their colleagues to argue against the marriage, and Burghley had enlisted four others who were in favor of it. In the end the councillors had to ask Elizabeth to open her mind to them as to her own inclinations.

  “Madam, we lay this before you, as you seem not to be pleased with any person or any argument that appears to be against the marriage,” Burghley explained.

  Elizabeth had already realized that it would be folly to go ahead with the treaty in the face of opposition from her councillors and her people. But it came to her that in not going ahead, she would probably be saying farewell to her last chance of marriage and motherhood, and to the dismay of all the men seated along the council board she suddenly burst into tears. It was the fault of those who had set out to wreck the negotiations! she sobbed. They were to blame!

  “I marvel that you, my councillors, should think it doubtful whether there would be any greater surety for me and my realm than to have me marry and bear a child to inherit and continue the line of Henry VIII,” she wept, glaring daggers at Robert. “I see that it was foolish of me to ask for your advice, but I had anticipated a universal request made to me to proceed in this marriage. I did not want to hear of any doubts!” She broke off there, too distressed to go on, having envisaged the empty, barren years ahead, and herself alone, advancing into old age without ever having known the consolations of wedlock and children. She really had meant to commit to marriage this time; she had done her best to conquer her fears of the nuptial bed and childbirth, even though they threatened at times to overwhelm her—and all for nothing!

  How could Robert have done this to her? He had made his choice and married where he would, so why had he tried so forcefully to prevent her from doing so? Was she not entitled to some happiness too? Anjou had been more than ready to make concessions; she could have loved him, she told herself, yea, and made a success of the match. But Robert had made it his business to suborn many who would have been in favor of it, and inflamed public opinion, she was sure. Her heart burned with resentment. She would not, could not, look at him, this man who had betrayed her more than once, and in so doing denied her the kind of happiness permitted to the meanest of her subjects.

  She sat there weeping, the paint on her face blurring and streaking as the tears fell. Her councillors did not know whether to approach her, offer comfort, or withdraw. In the end they slunk away, deciding it was best to leave her be for now, and summoned her ladies to attend her. To
a man, they felt uncomfortable about what had happened. Even those who had supported the marriage felt guilty about placing their mistress in a situation where she’d had to choose, especially after she craved their advice. Robert could not have felt worse, yet he was still convinced that he had done the right thing for Elizabeth, and for England, in opposing this marriage.

  Much arguing and deliberation followed, not to mention recriminations, and in the morning Elizabeth was surprised when the councillors asked to see her again. To their relief, they were told that she was dancing galliards, her usual morning exercise, and were pleased to find her in control of herself once more, with no trace of the emotional storm of the previous afternoon.

  “Madam,” said Burghley, “we are come to tell you that we are ready to offer you our wholehearted support in furtherance of the marriage with monsieur, if it shall please you.”

  “Well, this is a change of heart on the part of some of you,” she said, looking pointedly at Robert, who would not meet her eye.

  “We have been moved to it by Your Majesty’s obvious desire to have issue, and because you have made it plain that you want the duke for a husband,” Burghley explained.

  “I marvel at those of you who were against the marriage!” Elizabeth reproved, her tone sharp. “Had it not been for your eloquence, the majority would have been content for it to proceed.”

  No one dared to say anything. At length Burghley broke the silence. “Will Your Majesty promise to give us an answer?”

  “I will, after I have thought on it,” she consented at length, “but I think it not meet to declare now what my decision will be.”

 
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