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

  Her fame had spread far and wide. She was the Virgin Queen, Eliza Triumphant, Her Sacred Majesty, a goddess on Earth whose praises were sung by princes and poets all over Christendom, and even—wonders would never cease—by the Ottoman Sultan and the Pope himself! People were saying that there had never been such a wise woman as Queen Elizabeth. God Himself had destined her to rule as absolute and sovereign mistress of her people, and this victory over the armada was a signal manifestation of His divine will. He had kept her and her people safe, intervening in England’s hour of need to preserve them all from harm. The threats from abroad were no more. The Anglican Church was stable, the Catholics quiet or in retreat, the people contented and confident. The marriage game was long at an end—although, by God, she wished she had it all to play again—but Elizabeth knew that she could now move forward and build on this peace, so that in time to come Englishmen would look back with pride on the golden age that had been her reign.



  They had at last persuaded her to go to bed, helping her up from the cushions on which she had stubbornly lain, hoping to ward off death. She was sixty-nine years old, and she knew that the time was nigh for her to meet her Maker and give account of herself.

  She was not afraid; she had done her best these forty-five years, and been blessed in her councillors and her captains. But they were all dead now—Burghley, Walsingham, Hatton, Drake … and Robin, of course. It was fifteen years now since she had looked upon her beloved Eyes. A new generation had taken their place, and the world seemed full of younger people. She knew that many of them were impatient living under an aging queen who hated change and new customs, and looked to her successor, whom she still had not named, but who would undoubtedly be James of Scotland. No fool, she knew that Robert Cecil, Burghley’s brilliant son, who became her chief minister in his place, had for years been paving the way for James’s smooth accession, and no doubt a horse was already saddled, waiting to carry a messenger to Edinburgh with the news of her passing. They would take the coronation ring from her finger, and soon it would be shown to James as proof that she was dead.

  The last years of her reign had not been happy ones. Bad harvests, vain attempts by her archenemy Philip—now dead himself—to send a second and then a third armada, factions squabbling at court, and then Essex. She still had no regrets about signing his death warrant. After all her favor shown to him, he had insulted her, wrangled with her—more than patience and her royal dignity could bear—and then risen against her, or—so he claimed—against those who misruled in her name. It did not take a genius to see through that. She could not bear to think of the day when he had returned without leave from Ireland and burst in upon her as she sat in her thin chemise, her gray hair and wrinkles laid bare to his shocked gaze, the great charade of youthfulness exposed as the fraud it was. Sweet England’s pride was gone, men said after the popular Essex had perished on the block, yet she could feel nothing but relief, for all that she had once looked upon him as the son she never had. He had been too rash and dangerous to be allowed to live.

  But there had been good times too. England had flowered in many ways. Great houses—some built in the shape of the initial E as a compliment to herself—stood as testimony to the spirit of the age over which she had presided; drama and poetry had flourished. Elizabeth had taken particular pleasure in the plays of Mr. Marlowe and Mr. Shakespeare, especially the latter, whose Twelfth Night and King Henry the Fourth had recently been performed at court. She smiled even now at the memory of Falstaff, that great buffoon! She had bidden Mr. Shakespeare write a play in which Falstaff fell in love—and he had obliged with The Merry Wives of Windsor.

  It gladdened her heart that she had finally vindicated her mother’s memory. Lord Hunsdon, her cousin, had brought to her attention his protégé George Wyatt, grandson of the poet Thomas Wyatt, who had once loved Anne Boleyn from afar. The younger Wyatt had a fund of information about Anne, lovingly collected over many years from his family and people who had known her. Elizabeth asked Hunsdon to bid Wyatt write a memoir of her mother, one that would proclaim Anne’s innocence to the world. And so he had begun. And when Hunsdon died, Archbishop Whitgift, the Queen’s great friend in her later years, had become Wyatt’s patron at her request, and it was under his auspices that the work was continued. One day, Elizabeth knew, it would be published, and posterity would at last know the truth.

  But it would not be in her lifetime. After striving for so long to ward off Death, she was now ready to go. It was not her desire to live or reign longer than was good for her subjects. It was the greatest measure of her love for them, the love she had carefully nurtured and cherished since youth. They might have mightier and wiser princes reigning over them, but she was certain they would never have any who loved them better than she did.

  Whitgift was here now, praying at her bedside as she drifted in and out of sleep. There were others kneeling in the bedchamber too. She felt the Archbishop gently take hold of her hand, and was comforted. She turned her weary head almost imperceptibly toward her bedside table. On it stood a little coffer, inside which lay Robert’s last letter and the jewels and pearls he had given her. These were all that she had of him now. But soon, soon, if God was good—and she had no reason to think that He would be lacking in mercy—they would be reunited in that Heaven in which there was, praise be, no giving or taking in marriage.

  She felt herself slipping away; the drone of Whitgift’s voice was becoming fainter. She turned her face to the wall and drifted off to a place where none could reach her, dreaming of herself and Robert, young again, locked in each other’s arms, playing hide-and-seek in the privy garden, and racing their steeds across the broad green breast of England, Elizabeth’s red tresses flying out bravely behind her, her eyes shining with joy.

  Presently her ladies leaned over her to see if she was asleep, and found that eternity had beckoned and that she had gone from them, mildly, easily, like an apple falling softly from a tree—and sweet England the poorer for it.


  This novel is based closely on the historical record, although I have taken a few liberties. Conversations that took place over two or three meetings have in places been shown as taking place in one. Minor facts have been tweaked. Quotes have sometimes been taken out of context, or put into the mouths of others. Even so, they are accurate in spirit.

  The use of language in a historical novel is always a challenge. Here I have made extensive use of the recorded sayings and exchanges of Elizabeth I and the people surrounding her, although I have modernized their words slightly in places, so that they remain accessible and in keeping with the narrative.

  I have also made creative use of many of the legends associated with Elizabeth’s reign: Drake playing bowls before the armada; Raleigh spreading his cloak before Elizabeth; Lord Hunsdon drawing his dagger on Dr. Burcot; and Elizabeth dancing around the cherry tree outside the Old Miter Inn, although in the legend it was with Sir Christopher Hatton, not Robert Dudley. But, strange as it might seem, Elizabeth really did visit the Tower to ensure that all was in order for Norfolk’s execution.

  No one knows for certain why Elizabeth was reluctant to marry. There were probably a number of factors. The horror of her mother’s fate, Katherine Howard’s execution and, seven years later, that of Thomas Seymour, the divorces and matrimonial controversies within her own family, the deaths of two stepmothers in childbed, and her sister Mary I’s disastrous union with Philip of Spain all probably contributed. In this novel I have taken a psychological view based on Elizabeth’s own statements on marriage. She is on record as saying that she hated the idea of it for reasons that she would not divulge to her twin soul. And it is true that at the age of eight she informed Robert Dudley—as he recalled later—that she would never marry.

  I believe that Elizabeth had an aversion to marriage for three reasons. First, having witnessed the breakdowns of several marriages within her own family, she did not
see it as a secure state. Second, as she told Dudley—the man she probably loved more than any other—she had no intention of sharing sovereign power: “I will have but one mistress here and no master!” Third, and most important, in Tudor times a monarch was regarded as holding supreme dominion over the state, but a husband was regarded as having total dominion over his wife. A queen regnant was still a novelty in England: Mary I had made an unpopular marriage with Philip of Spain, who, expecting to play the traditional authoritarian husband, chafed against his wife’s attempts to assert her regal authority. Elizabeth had no intention of embroiling herself in such an impossible relationship. “I am already married to an husband, and that is the kingdom of England,” she was fond of declaring. She solved the dilemma over her marriage by taking a courageous decision, revolutionary for her time, not to marry or have heirs. Nevertheless, as “the best match in her parish,” she exploited her marriageability, using it as a weapon to the advantage of her realm.

  She might not have married, but was she the Virgin Queen she claimed to be? The debate has been raging since the 1560s, and scurrilous rumors were rife throughout her reign, fueled by Elizabeth’s own behavior, which was often condemned by her more sober subjects as scandalous. She would allow Leicester to enter her bedchamber to hand her shift to her while maids were dressing her. She was espied at her window in a state of undress on at least one occasion, and in old age she had a French ambassador squirming in embarrassment for two hours during a private audience by wearing a gown that exposed her wrinkled body to the navel.

  Yet many ambassadors, at the behest of prospective royal husbands, made inquiries as to whether the Queen was virtuous, and in every case they concluded that she was. She herself could not understand why there should be so many racy tales about her, or claims that she had borne bastard children.

  “I do not live in a corner,” she told a Spanish envoy. “A thousand eyes see all I do, and calumny will not fasten on me forever.” A French ambassador who knew her well claimed that the rumors were “sheer inventions of the malicious to put off those who would have found an alliance with her useful.” Perhaps most tellingly of all, in 1562, when Elizabeth believed she was dying of smallpox and was about to face divine judgment, she spoke of her notorious relationship with Robert Dudley and swore before witnesses that nothing improper had ever passed between them. It is unlikely that she would have jeopardized her immortal soul by telling a lie at such a time.

  As a historian, I believe that Elizabeth was in all probability the Virgin Queen she claimed to be, technically at least—the evidence we have strongly suggests that she indulged in some intimacies with Dudley. However, in the prequel to this novel, The Lady Elizabeth, I explored the possibility that Thomas Seymour had actually seduced the adolescent Elizabeth, and that she had miscarried the child that resulted. The “what if” aspect of history is always fascinating, and there is some contemporary gossip on which to base this theory—had there not been, I would not have developed this story line. I know that some readers took issue with it, but having written it in the first novel, I felt obliged to remain with it in the second, and so in The Marriage Game, Elizabeth has reinvented herself as the Virgin Queen, and her aversion to marriage stems largely—but not wholly—from the Seymour scandal of her youth.

  I think that scandal contributed crucially to Elizabeth’s resolve never to marry. It is intriguing to find that most of the men with whom she later became involved were dark and dashing, even a little dangerous, like Seymour. But in reality she kept a tight rein on her emotions on hearing of his death, so we have no way of knowing how deeply it actually affected her. I do not believe she gave herself fully to Robert Dudley; the evidence suggests that their private relationship was much as it is portrayed in this novel. But I think there is enough to show that Elizabeth’s fears of marriage and sex were deep-seated, and I have developed that theme in this novel.

  In 1604, after the Queen’s death, Leicester’s son, Robert Dudley, claimed that his parents had actually been married. Douglass Sheffield testified that the wedding had taken place before witnesses in 1573 at Esher, but her statement could not be supported because all the witnesses were dead. This was probably a ploy to secure an inheritance for Robert Dudley, even though Leicester had only ever referred to him as his “base son,” and both he and Douglass had married other people after they parted. So it is likely that they were never married at all.

  George Wyatt’s memoir of Anne Boleyn was never finished, hence there is no dedication to a patron. There is also no direct evidence that Elizabeth asked him to write it, yet he implies that important persons encouraged him, and certainly no less a personage than John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, the close friend of the Queen, was one of them, replacing an earlier anonymous patron who had died; I have speculated that it might have been Lord Hunsdon. Thus it is possible that Wyatt’s sympathetic defense of Anne, written in response to Catholic calumnies, reflects Elizabeth’s own views.

  I should like to thank my agent, Julian Alexander, and the historian Sarah Gristwood, for reading the first draft of this novel, and for their very helpful and encouraging advice. Warm thanks are especially due to my editors, Anthony Whittome and Susanna Porter, for creative suggestions that have undoubtedly made this a better book. Finally, I want to thank my amazing husband Rankin for being my mainstay and constant support while I was writing the novel—and indeed, all my books so far!

  This book is dedicated to the happy memory of

  Nick Hubbard

  and to his devoted wife, Jean,

  dear and beloved friends,

  and to their wonderful family,

  into which I have been warmly enfolded,

  Philippa, Dave, and Alice,

  Lizzie, Scott, and Sebastian.



  The Marriage Game

  A Dangerous Inheritance

  Captive Queen

  The Lady Elizabeth

  Innocent Traitor


  Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World

  Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings

  The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn

  Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

  Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England

  Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley

  Henry VIII: The King and His Court

  Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life

  The Life of Elizabeth I

  The Children of Henry VIII

  The Wars of the Roses

  The Princes in the Tower

  The Six Wives of Henry VIII


  ALISON WEIR is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Marriage Game, A Dangerous Inheritance, Captive Queen, The Lady Elizabeth, Innocent Traitor, and many historical biographies, including Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.



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



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