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

  “Her guilt is established beyond doubt,” Burghley declared, and the commissioners clearly saw their duty. But before they could pronounce Mary guilty, a letter arrived posthaste from Elizabeth, who had been racked with uncertainty and unable to sleep. The court must be adjourned to London, she commanded, where it would reconvene in the Star Chamber at Westminster.

  Dutifully, the commissioners returned south, leaving Mary at Fotheringhay in ignorance of her fate. But when they assembled in the Star Chamber and came to debate what was to be done with her, they found themselves subject to constant interference by the Queen.

  “I would to God Her Majesty would be content to refer these things to them that can best judge of them,” Walsingham muttered. Elizabeth was stalling again, he suspected.

  There was no other possible verdict. With only one voice dissenting, the judges found the Queen of Scots guilty of entering a treasonable conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth’s life, and of imagining and compassing the Queen’s destruction.

  The penalty, under the act, was death. But the court did not presume to pass sentence. That would be a matter for the Queen and Parliament.

  Elizabeth was distraught. The outcome she feared above all had come to pass, and now she was faced with the most difficult decision of her life. Must she really give the order for her sister monarch to be put to death? Mary, like herself, had been hallowed by God; her person was sacred. Who was she, Elizabeth, to do violence upon her equal, even if the law did demand it?

  She fretted and wept, tossing and turning in her bed. Was this not the most cruel decision to impose on her, whose own mother died by the sword, and who had so narrowly escaped such a fate herself? She knew, none better, what it was like to live in terror of the summons to the scaffold, to imagine the deadly slicing of the blade. It was dreadful enough having to send another cousin, Norfolk, to the block; but he had not been a sovereign ruler.

  If she did what she was being pressured to do, what would the world think of her? Would she be reviled for acting outside the law? Would her Catholic subjects unite and rebel against her? Would Philip of Spain be moved to send his armada once the deed was done? Would the French, whose queen Mary had once been, be so incensed that they would rally in her cause, and perhaps even unite with Spain against her, Elizabeth? And what of the Scots? Mary’s son, James VI, now twenty, and brought up by Calvinists, had abandoned the cause of the mother he had not seen since infancy, having been raised to believe that she had betrayed and murdered his father. He too looked to have the succession of the English crown, and feared on that account to offend Elizabeth. But even he might dredge up some filial feeling if Mary were put to death.

  Elizabeth felt as a hare must feel when the hounds are gaining ground upon it. She could no longer rationalize her thoughts, and her sense of good judgment seemed to have deserted her. If only God would vouchsafe her a sign showing her the right thing to do.

  All her instincts were screaming that she must let Mary live. And yet … and yet … Mary had shown no scruples at all when it had come to plotting her own death and the seizing of her throne. She had intrigued to that end all her adult life. The shadow Mary had cast these past nineteen years had darkened the lives of all Elizabeth’s loyal subjects; she had been a focus for, if not the authoress of, conspiracy after conspiracy. She had sat there in her northern fastnesses like a great black spider, weaving an ever-widening web of treason and danger. And if she was allowed to live, she would not cease, that much was certain. Her sense of entitlement to the English throne was too deep-rooted. Elizabeth knew Mary would remain a magnet for her enemies and a constant source of trouble and anxiety.

  These were the thoughts that kept her awake at night and plagued her by day. She knew not how to resolve the conflict within herself. She wished that her councillors would stop putting her under duress and bullying her. She wished that Robert were here to counsel her, although she knew what he would say, so there was no comfort to be missed there.

  It was the thought of Robert that kept her going. He had won a great victory at Zutphen, where both young Essex and Sir Philip Sidney had distinguished themselves. The heroic Sidney had been wounded—not badly, it was reported. Elizabeth had been touched when told that, lying wounded and parched on the battlefield, he refused water and gave it to a dying soldier nearby, saying, “Thy need is greater than mine.” She had written to commend him for that, expecting to receive him when he returned a hero. But then came the tragic news that this brilliant young man—the best of courtiers and a great soldier and talented poet—had died. His death came hard on the heels of those of his parents, Elizabeth’s old friends, Sir Henry and Lady Mary Sidney. Her grief for all three left her even more emotional. She ordered the court into mourning, and ordered that Sir Philip, that flower of English manhood, be accorded the honor of a state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

  Meanwhile, a demoralized Robert failed to capitalize on his victory. His men began to desert him, for he had well-nigh impoverished himself in the cause of Dutch independence, since the meager funds Elizabeth had provided were not nearly enough. It was obvious that his venture was doomed to ignominy and failure, and that his health could not sustain a winter of futile campaigning. When he asked for leave to come home, Elizabeth did not demur. In fact she was overjoyed at the prospect.

  When Parliament finally sat, she took care to stay well away at Richmond.

  “Are you not coming up to Whitehall as usual, madam?” Burghley asked. “We are to debate the fate of the Queen of Scots, a problem of more weight, peril, and dangerous consequence than any of the other business that will be laid before Parliament.”

  “I am loath to hear about that foul and grievous matter,” Elizabeth replied, frowning mutinously. “I would have small pleasure in being there.”

  But her staying away made no difference. As she had expected, the Lords and Commons demanded Mary’s head. Elizabeth was not pleased to find a deputation of them waiting on her at Richmond with a petition to have a just sentence on this daughter of sedition, as they put it, followed by a just execution. Yet they were so patently concerned for her own safety and the security of the realm—even warning her not to accept gifts of perfume, gloves, or food, for fear of poison—that she could not find it in herself to be angry with them.

  “I have never entertained any malice toward the Queen of Scots,” she told them. “I have had great experience and trial of this world. I know what it is to be a subject, to be a sovereign, to have good neighbors or evil willers. I have found treason in trust and seen great favors little regarded. I grieve that one of my own sex and kin should have plotted my death. I wrote to Queen Mary myself, promising her that if she confessed all, I would cover her shame and save her from reproach, but she continued to deny her guilt. But even now, if she truly repented, I would be inclined to pardon her.” She saw dismay in the faces of many of the deputation.

  “You have laid a hard hand on me, that I must give directions for her death,” she continued, her voice taut with emotion. “It is a grievous and irksome burden to me. We princes are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world. It behooves us to be careful, just, and honorable in our proceedings. All I can say is that I will pray and consider the matter.”

  “Delay is dangerous, madam,” one gentleman ventured.

  “I know that,” she told him. “But I vow to you now that I will do inviolably what is right.” And God grant me the wisdom to know what that might be, she prayed to herself.

  In the end, fearing to anger her loving subjects, she gave in.

  Mary had been informed of the sentence passed on her, although she was given no inkling of the agony of mind that Elizabeth had suffered before finally agreeing to bend to Parliament’s will. Elizabeth forced herself to read the letter her cousin had sent, thanking her for the happy tidings that she was to come to the end of her long and weary pilgrimage. I must remind you, Mary had ended, that one day you will have to answer for your charge, and I desire that
my blood be remembered in that time.

  This reduced Elizabeth to torrents of weeping, and she was in a very fragile state of mind when, at last, Robert returned home. She threw herself into his arms when he obeyed the summons to come to her chamber and clung to him as a drowning man clings to a branch.

  “Thank God! Thank God!” she cried. “Oh Robin, how I have missed you!”

  “Well, I do declare,” he said, smiling tenderly, then disengaging himself and kneeling to kiss her hand. “Never since I was born did I receive a more gracious welcome!”

  She looked at him lovingly. He had aged in the year he’d been away, and looked slightly shrunken. His beloved face was etched with more lines, and he carried himself stiffly. She wondered if he was still suffering stomach pains.

  “How does my queen?” he asked.

  “That can wait,” she told him, knowing that if she unburdened herself to him, the floodgates would open. “More to the point, how are you, my Eyes?”

  “Well enough,” he said. She let it go. There would be time for talking and healing, please God. She would fetch him the best doctors in the land if he needed them, aye, and pay for them.

  He gave her the brief facts of his final days in the Netherlands, but she could see that the long journey had tired him, and reluctantly let him go to get some rest.

  In council the next morning Burghley and Walsingham expressed genuine pleasure at having Leicester back. They would! Elizabeth thought venomously. They wanted his support for what was to come, knowing that she placed a high value on his opinions. Sure enough, Robert added his voice to theirs, and at a private supper in her chamber that evening he went creaking on his knees and begged her to have Mary’s death warrant drawn up and sign it.

  “You really have no choice, Bess,” he pleaded. “It is only of you and this blessed kingdom that I think.”

  The next morning Elizabeth announced that she would have the sentence on Mary publicly proclaimed. But that night she did not sleep at all, fearing that she had committed herself to the inevitable consequence of doing so. She groaned inwardly when, just before dinner, the French ambassador came seeking an audience and beseeched her to show clemency toward the Queen of Scots.

  “Matters have gone too far for that,” she told him. “This just sentence was passed on a bad woman protected by bad men. If I am to live, Queen Mary must die.” She was holding to her resolve—just.

  Parliament sent another deputation urging her to have the sentence carried out. But now she showed herself distracted and undecided. “Clearly it has been decided that my surety cannot be established without a princess’s head. It is grievous that I, who have pardoned so many rebels and winked at so many treasons in my time, should be forced to this proceeding against such a personage. What will my enemies say?” she shrilled. “That for the surety of her life, a maiden queen was content to spill the blood even of her own kinswoman? I should have cause for complaint if any man should think me given to such cruelty, when I am guiltless and innocent! Nay, I am so far from it that, for my own life, I would not touch her! If other means can be found, I would take more pleasure than in anything under the sun. I pray you, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer answerless.”

  She was barely existing, hardly eating, and troubled by nightmares of severed heads and bloody axes. She found herself dwelling more on her poor mother than she had for years, and resolved that no queen should go to the block by her hand.

  Burghley, Walsingham, Hatton, Robert, and the rest repeatedly used all their powers of persuasion to make her do what her people—and Parliament—expected of her. They were relentless. If she had thought that Robert would spare her, she’d been badly mistaken. He was as firm as his fellows.

  “If you do not order this execution, you will lose all credibility,” he warned her.

  “And men will say that the weakness of your sex is clouding your judgment,” Burghley added, severe.

  “Had I been born crested, not cloven, you would not speak thus to me!” Elizabeth retorted hotly. “It is nothing to do with the weakness of my sex! It is about doing what is right!”

  For all her misgivings, the sentence was proclaimed early in December, and in London there was a huge outburst of rejoicing. Bells pealed for joy and the sky that night was lit up with the glow from a hundred celebratory bonfires.

  Burghley laid the death warrant, drafted that day by Walsingham, before Elizabeth. “For Your Majesty to sign,” he said, in a voice that brooked no opposition.

  “Not yet, good Spirit,” she told him. “Give me time.”

  “Parliament has spoken, madam. It has ratified the sentence. You must face the inevitable.”

  Walsingham was equally adamant, as were Robert and all her other councillors. “Sign! Sign!” was all they kept saying to her. Then she had to fend off the Scottish and French ambassadors, who were both urging her to show mercy. How could she refuse these two friendly kingdoms?

  Out of the blue came a letter from Mary’s son James, who had become King of Scotland when she was forced to abdicate nineteen years ago. James had the temerity to tell her: King Henry VIII’s reputation was never judged but in the beheading of his bedfellow. That infuriated Elizabeth. Her father had been duped, the victim of evil men. Mary, in contrast, was a murderess and traitor who would have had her royal cousin assassinated. There was no comparison, none at all!

  “He is making a token protest, that is all,” Robert opined. “He is more concerned about securing the succession than saving his mother’s life. He writes that honor constrains him to insist on her being spared. That sounds a bit halfhearted to me.”

  “But some of the lords of Scotland are now threatening war on England if I have her executed,” Elizabeth said anxiously.

  “Be minded of what their ambassador said, madam,” Burghley put in. “He said there is no sting in this death. And he should know.”

  It was the most agonizing decision of her life. She knew—and God knew it had been made clear to her often enough—where her duty lay, but could not bring herself to order Mary’s death. The stress this caused affected her so profoundly that she feared she might go mad. She felt so alone, for everyone else was pressing her to sign the warrant, but as the weeks passed she began to run out of excuses and grew weary of reciting her objections. Her soul’s quietness had flown away. She was constantly on the verge of tears; she lost weight, as she could not eat; sleep came only fitfully, and she was plagued by the headaches that had manifested themselves so often, and increasingly viciously, in recent weeks. She felt ill, and dared not admit it to anyone, in case it appear that old age was encroaching and she was losing her grip on affairs. What was she to do?


  Christmas had come and gone, and Elizabeth hardly noticed. Still playing for time, she authorized Burghley to prepare a new warrant from Walsingham’s original draft, and it was duly drawn up and given into the safekeeping of her secretary, Davison. She told herself she did not mean to use it, but in fact resentment was building in her against Mary, who had caused her all this anguish on top of plotting her death. She found her resolve hardening.

  Then the Scottish ambassador, James Melville, came to her once more, pleading for Mary’s life.

  “There would be no need for Your Majesty to order her execution were she formally to renounce her claim to the throne in favor of her son. King James is a Protestant, so he would never become a focus for Catholic plots against you.”

  Ha! she thought. But he would attract malcontents and those who—even now—wanted a man on the throne; inevitably a faction would form around him. She had never forgotten how her sister’s self-seeking courtiers had deserted her for the rising star, herself. Besides, she had not yet named anyone as her successor, and never would, for these reasons. The very idea put the fear of God—and treason—into her.

  “By God’s passion, that would be cutting my own throat!” she flared. “No, by God! Your master shall never be in that place.”

; “Then, madam,” persisted Melville, trying, not very well, to suppress his anger, “will you please consider delaying the execution, if only for one week.”

  Elizabeth had worked herself up into a frenzy. “Not for an hour!” she shouted.

  Her bad temper was further fueled by a message from King Henri of France, telling her that he would deem it a personal affront if she put Mary to death.

  “Now that is the shortest way to make me dispatch the cause of so much mischief!” she growled. Yet still she would not sign the warrant.

  “Is it not more than time to remove that eyesore?” Burghley asked testily, when next the fate of the Queen of Scots was debated in council.

  The others grunted their exasperated assent.

  “She has been at the center of every conspiracy against Your Majesty!” Walsingham reminded Elizabeth, who was grimacing at the head of the board.

  “No!” she said again, and kept on saying it.

  Later, after she had left the room following yet another outburst of distress, Robert stayed behind with his colleagues. “She will not do it unless extreme fear compels her,” he told them.

  “Then let us put about some rumors to frighten her and harden her resolve,” Hatton suggested. “Spread it around that the Spaniards have invaded, or London is on fire, or the Queen of Scots has escaped.” The others nodded in assent, the gleam of conspiracy in their eyes.

  The rumors, ignited in the most volatile places, caught hold like Greek fire, prompting widespread panic throughout the kingdom, and resulting in men donning their armor in case of invasion and guards posted on the main roads. Still Elizabeth was immovable, knowing there were no real threats to justify the hysteria. But when the council informed her they had arrested and questioned the French ambassador in connection with a plot against her life that almost certainly involved the Queen of Scots, they swept away her fears of provoking the French by executing Mary.

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