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

  A second marriage proposal had come, on behalf of the Archduke Ferdinand, younger son of the Holy Roman Emperor.

  “It would be a prestigious match, madam,” Cecil said hopefully. “The Emperor might be a Catholic, but he is the most powerful ruler in Europe, and with his backing England would be much more secure, especially against threats from France.”

  “France and the Empire are enemies on principle, and ever will be.” Bacon smiled.

  “It is an offer worth considering,” Sussex put in. “It was the Emperor who ruled Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and God knew how many other states. He was uncle and ally to King Philip.”

  “Do you think my people will approve of my marrying a Catholic?” Elizabeth asked. “When Parliament sits, England will turn Protestant. It is never easy to reconcile religious differences. I suppose there is no question of the Archduke changing his faith?”

  “The Emperor would never permit it!” Bacon observed.

  “His ambassador seems to think that Your Majesty will end up being guided by Ferdinand in matters of religion,” Cecil said drily.

  “His ambassador may think again!” she retorted.

  “A compromise on religion might be reached with the Archduke,” he said, “but never with King Philip. You do realize, madam, that the new religious settlement will be a bar to your marrying King Philip and prevent you from maintaining the pretense that you are considering his offer? He will never consent to it when he hears that you have broken with Rome. He is the greatest champion of the old faith in Europe.”

  “But we need Philip’s goodwill and friendship.” Elizabeth sighed. “Before I consider this new proposal, I will see Feria.”

  Feria arrived with hope in his eyes, delighted that this infuriatingly contrary queen had at last come to her senses.

  “Alas, my Lord Count,” she said, dashing that hope, “I have to tell you that I cannot marry His Majesty because in his eyes I am a heretic.”

  “Madam, madam, do not distress yourself,” Feria hastened to reassure her. “I promise you, neither His Majesty nor myself regard you thus. We do not believe you will sanction these bills that are now before Parliament.”

  Elizabeth’s eyes gleamed. “Count de Feria, I am a committed Protestant, and I will never change my views.”

  Feria’s face changed; his tone was lofty. “Then, I fear, Your Majesty is right to see the difficulties. My master will not change his religion for all the kingdoms in the world.”

  “Then much less would he do it for a woman!” Elizabeth answered, tart, and ended the interview.

  Elizabeth was now in Robert’s company every day; often he attended her in his capacity as her Master of Horse, accompanying her when she went riding. At other times he attended her because she wanted him to. She was now openly quoting his opinions on political and religious matters, which left Cecil spluttering with rage. He was appalled to realize that Dudley, who still held no political office (and never would if he, Cecil, had anything to do with it), might grow influential in matters of state, just because he had the Queen’s ear. But it pleased Elizabeth to have Robert at her side constantly, and late at night, when she, wakeful as usual, was working and wont to summon her advisers from their beds to give her their opinions, he was called often to her privy chamber. With her women and footmen dismissed, and she in the unadorned and strangely becoming black gown she liked to wear when she was not on display, they could be alone. Inevitably, matters of state led to matters of the heart, and to kissing and fondling—and Elizabeth drawing a halt. She wanted Robert, but she feared having him more. And she dared not—just dared not—risk becoming pregnant. She could not go through that again.

  Headily involved with him as she now was, for he filled her thoughts and her senses, her wits had not entirely forsaken her. She knew that she was insecure on her throne, and that any scandal could topple her; her enemies were legion, and already, in spite of the phalanx of yeomen of the guard and gentlemen pensioners whose duty it was to protect her, she lived in fear of the assassin’s dagger or the poisoned cup. A queen must be above reproach; she knew that, none better. So she and Robin kissed and clung and became entwined, but that was all she would permit. It left them both breathless, and him aching for more.

  “Madam,” Kat fretted, “it is said you are visiting Lord Robert’s chamber by day and by night. There is talk.”

  “Not since that one time, when you were just outside, and I have done nothing wrong,” Elizabeth protested.

  “Not according to the gossips,” Kat persisted. “Madam, he is married. People say you are waiting for his wife to die so that you can wed him.”

  “How dare they!” Elizabeth shouted. “I have no wish to marry any man. I have said it countless times. Why does no one believe me?”

  “Because they think it is mere maidenly modesty, madam.”

  “They can’t have it both ways—am I a modest maiden or Lord Robert’s whore?”

  “Madam,” Kat cried in distress, “I say these things only for your good. You have your reputation to consider. Remember what happened before.”

  “How could I forget?” Elizabeth snarled. “Enough, Kat! Just go. I have papers to deal with.”

  She read Philip’s letter. It was kindly put, but to the point. He regretted the fact that they could find no common meeting ground, but hoped that, with good friendship, they could maintain their alliance.

  She was dumbfounded, therefore, to learn that, with unflattering promptitude, he had announced his marriage to the French king’s daughter. Feria, who imparted the news, feared that Elizabeth might fall into a frenzy.

  “An alliance with France, our common enemy? He cannot!” she stormed. “He was negotiating to marry me!”

  “But Your Majesty turned him down.”

  Elizabeth was so angry that she was barely rational. “He kept me waiting before he proposed. He wasn’t even prepared to give me more time to think about it. Obviously he was not as much in love with me as either of us seemed to imagine!”

  “In love?” Feria did not remember saying the word. Esteem had been mentioned, and affection, but what had love to do with royal marriages? She was laughing at him, surely—or trying to save face.

  “My master understood that Your Majesty was unwilling to accept his proposal,” he said. “He means no slight to you. He will remain as good a brother to you as before, and render you any service in the matter of your marriage.”

  “You have mishandled this, Count,” Elizabeth fumed. She regretted her decisive curtness at Feria’s last audience. She had wanted to keep Philip in hope for some time to come. Feria had taken her at her word, and now Philip was allied to France. She was heartily relieved when Feria was immediately recalled to Spain and replaced with a new ambassador, Bishop de Quadra. Just to be on the safe side, she instructed her ministers to treat for peace with the French.

  Elizabeth was enjoying some flirtatious sparring with Robert in her presence chamber when Bishop de Quadra was announced. Robert was leaning down and whispering something naughty in her ear, for which she tapped him playfully with her fan. Her face was flushed as she turned toward the bishop, whose expression was taut with disapproval. He was a portly man of middle years, urbane and cultivated, she had been told. Wily too, if she was any judge of men, and a gossip, it was already rumored. He had brought with him a dark-visaged, dapper man whom he introduced as Baron von Breuner, the Imperial envoy. Both men stiffened at the sight of Robert standing so close to the Queen’s chair of estate, but the baron remembered his manners, bowed, and presented a letter from the Emperor.

  Elizabeth’s face did not change as she read it. His Imperial Majesty very much regretted that he could no longer press the suit of his son, Ferdinand. Instead he was offering her his younger son, Archduke Charles.

  She had known this was coming, known—thanks to Cecil’s far-flung spy network—the Emperor had just found out that Ferdinand had gotten himself secretly, and unsuitably, married; known too that some o
f her advisers believed Charles of Habsburg to be malleable and ready to convert to the Protestant faith if she accepted him.

  “I thank his Imperial Majesty for deeming me worthy of another of his sons,” she declared. “However, although my subjects continually exhort me to wed, I have never set my heart upon, nor wished to marry, anyone in the world.” She glimpsed Robert Dudley’s studiedly inscrutable face—and then there came into her head, unbidden, another also, almost as dark, and handsome too. Worms’ meat now, these ten years … Thrusting the horrible thought from her, she smiled. “But I might be persuaded to change my mind, for I am but human.”

  “The Archduke may agree to leave the Catholic Church,” the Bishop de Quadra said. His smile was strained, for had he not just seen with his own eyes proof that this heretic queen standing before him was the licentious harlot she was reputed to be?

  “Ah, my lord, I would rather be a nun than marry, so it might be for nothing,” she said mischievously. The bishop’s expression was skeptical, as if he was trying—and failing—to imagine her in a convent. But poor Breuner looked utterly perplexed at this turn of events. He had come bearing a great and honorable proposal, far beyond—in Catholic eyes at least—the merits of one who was a bastard, heretic, and usurper, and was clearly puzzled as to why Elizabeth had not said yes thrice over, with appropriate enthusiasm, and preferably in an attitude of supplication. She decided to unsettle him further. “I have heard that the Archduke has an abnormally large head, which rather concerns me.” Breuner squirmed visibly.

  “Nay, madam,” Quadra reassured her. “He is a most personable gentleman, all that Your Majesty could wish for in a husband. His portrait is on its way to you from Vienna.”

  “I have had no faith in portrait painters since Holbein misrepresented Anne of Cleves, and misled my father into marrying her,” Elizabeth said dismissively.

  “A sad case, madam, to be sure, but this portrait is very lifelike, as the baron here can attest.”

  Elizabeth knew that she had to play for time. While the Emperor was in hope of her as a daughter-in-law, he would not be hostile to a Protestant kingdom. “Hmm,” she murmured. “I fear, good sirs, that I can never marry unless it is to a man of worth whom I have seen and spoken to. Maybe the Archduke could come to England? Would the Emperor agree to it?”

  Quadra frowned. “Madam, assuredly he would send him out of love for Your Majesty, but not on approval, as it were. He would not risk his son being publicly rejected, and thereby humiliated.”

  “It is an unusual request, madam,” Breuner protested. Elizabeth was aware of that. It pleased her to make difficulties. They could only prolong negotiations and keep the Emperor sweetly disposed toward her in hope of an alliance.

  “He could come in disguise,” she suggested brightly.

  “That would be contrary to custom, and his dignity,” Quadra sniffed.

  “Madam, I know the Archduke,” said Breuner, who was clearly tiring of this nonsense. “He will not agree to come until a marriage contract has been signed.”

  “Then I must think on the matter,” Elizabeth promised, and dismissed them.

  Later, in council, she faced her lords. “I will take your advice and wed,” she told them, “but only on condition that I can see and know the man who is to be my husband before accepting any offer of marriage.” That should prolong things indefinitely, she thought, pleased with herself.

  “So Your Majesty is seriously considering the Archduke?” Cecil asked, brightening.

  “No, William. I am ‘considering.’ And I am in no mind to marry at all for the present. God, with Whom all things are possible, might change my mind in the future. I will write to the Emperor myself, explaining the situation, so that he shall not be offended. And I will charm and flatter the baron, and let him live in hope.”

  There now arrived at court a Swedish envoy armed with a marriage proposal from his master, Prince Erik. The desire of men was the breath of life to Elizabeth, even if their approach was through diplomatic channels. It pleased her inordinately to be the object of such speculation; and she loved, and thrived on, being courted. How she was enjoying herself! She was even more thrilled when the Swedish envoy presented her with the ardently hopeful Erik’s gifts: gorgeous tapestries, fine ermines—and his portrait. It was then that her face almost fell. That slack mouth! Those spindly legs! But she praised it loudly, within earshot of Breuner, who was most put out.

  Erik, for all his physical deficiencies, was the perfect suitor. Unlike King Philip and the Archduke, he sent her passionate love letters, which she made a point of reading aloud to her courtiers when Breuner was in attendance. Oh, she reveled in teasing the man! The courtiers sniggered, enjoying the pantomime. The Swedish envoy began to look uncomfortable, fearing that he had made himself and his master appear ridiculous.

  In council, all frivolity vanished. “Prince Erik must undertake to forsake his country entirely if I agree to marry him,” Elizabeth insisted, “because I will not leave mine for any consideration in the world.”

  “Madam, he is his father’s heir, in line for the throne,” Cecil said.

  “Then turn him down,” Elizabeth said. “King Philip was his father’s heir when he married my sister. He was always itching to be off back to Spain. We don’t want another such as he.”

  “A wise decision, madam. And all is not lost. We have today received envoys from the Duke of Saxony and the Duke of Holstein, each of whom seeks Your Majesty in marriage.”

  “We will consider both proposals in good time,” Elizabeth replied, already planning yet another campaign of deferral.

  Cecil’s sigh was heartfelt.

  To Elizabeth’s amusement, two rival courtiers were determined that she would choose a husband much closer to home. She found it hard to stop herself from laughing when the middle-aged Earl of Arundel took it upon himself to come a-courting. He was flabby, awkward, and unprepossessing, and she had always thought him rather silly. He was at least twenty years older than her, a widower with grown daughters, but now here he was, paying his addresses somewhat breathlessly, like any young buck.

  “Madam, ye need a good man to assist ye,” he told her. “Why bother with yon furriners? A pox on ’em all. What Your Majesty needs is a good stout Englishman to bed with ye.”

  Stout was the word, Elizabeth thought. She knew, with mounting dread, what was coming.

  “Aye, I’ll not beat about the bush, madam. If ye’ll have me, I’ll do right by ye. My line goes all the way back to the Norman conquest, and I am rich, and willing to put all my wealth at Your Majesty’s disposal. And I can offer ye a goodly palace to lodge in when the fancy takes ye. Ye love Nonsuch, that I know well.”

  Offer her Nonsuch? She herself had leased it to Arundel. But no matter. It was all she could do to keep a straight face.

  “My lord, I thank you for your offer. I will think on it.” And, hiding her smile behind her fan, she dismissed him.

  Then there was the tall, lithe, gallant, and handsome Sir William Pickering, who had served Elizabeth faithfully during Queen Mary’s time, before he was forced into exile. On his return she had spent hours closeted with this old, good friend, catching up on news, enjoying the easy pleasures of companionship with such an attractive man, and toying with the idea of a flirtation with him. In gratitude for his loyalty, and the inconvenience he had suffered on her behalf, she assigned him apartments in the palace. But now she became aware that her courtiers and councillors alike were gossiping about them and fawning over Pickering, who was living in hope, and that Robert was jealous. The black looks he was casting in his rival’s direction suggested that he thought hanging, drawing, and quartering too good for him.

  Pickering had never married, but he had no distinguished ancestry, only his diplomatic skills and his popularity to commend him—and his fine library, which Elizabeth secretly coveted; but these were not nearly enough for her to consider marrying him. She watched in amusement as he swallowed the gossip whole, gave himself ai
rs and graces, appeared at court in increasingly magnificent—and ruinously expensive—suits of clothing, and hosted elaborate dinners over which he presided like the royalty he desperately desired to be. Elizabeth’s attendants told her that bets were being laid in London that Pickering would soon be King.

  Not to be outdone, Arundel also began swaggering—or rather, waddling—around the court in new finery. He gave costly jewels to the Queen’s ladies, begging them to sing his praises in her ear. He seized every opportunity to belittle and disparage the ignoble Pickering. He even challenged him to a duel, but Pickering declined to accept on the insulting grounds that Arundel was the weaker man. The court held its sides and rocked with mirth.

  Not so Robert Dudley.

  “How can you encourage those buffoons?” he complained.

  “It pleases me to do so,” Elizabeth replied, enjoying teasing him.

  “Pleases your vanity, you mean, as you have no intention of accepting either of them.”

  “At least they are free to offer me marriage,” she taunted, popping a sweetmeat into her mouth.

  “You said you would never be married, and that it mattered not that I was.”

  “Ah, but I might change my mind!” She laughed gaily. “Poor Robin. I am cruel to you. I beg your forgiveness. Do not glower at me like that, especially as I have a surprise for you. Come with me.” Helping herself to another sweetmeat, she rose and led him along the privy gallery to a fine suite of apartments that she’d had furnished especially for him. His jaw dropped when he saw the gilded friezes, the exquisite tapestries, and the fine furnishings with which they were adorned. There was nothing lacking here that any prince could desire, but what was more, a door to her own bedchamber led off them.

  Robert stared in wonder. His mind was racing ahead of him. “Does this mean what I hope it does?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

  “It means nothing!” Elizabeth said playfully, and tapped him with her fan. “I could not have my sweet Robin cramped in that evil lodging.”

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