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

  “And will you leave your door unlocked for him at night?” he ventured, desire rising in his eyes.

  “Why would I do that?” she asked lightly. He bent to kiss her, but she moved away.

  “All this,” he said, indicating the sumptuous apartment, almost at a loss for words. “Most people at court would kill to have this favor at your hands. How can I thank you?”

  “I will think of a way!” She gave him a frolicsome smile.

  Later, Cecil stood before her, his face grave.

  “Madam, I must beg of you again, do not encourage Lord Robert. He is a married man, and tongues are wagging.”

  “Let them wag,” Elizabeth said. “I have nothing with which to reproach myself.”

  “Madam, I cannot put this strongly enough. Your reputation is at stake here. It is said—forgive me—that Dudley is your lover, that you often visit his rooms alone, and worse.”

  “That is a vile calumny!” she seethed. “I enjoy his company. That is all.”

  “Madam, the Spanish ambassador sees Lord Robert as a threat to negotiations for your marriage to the Archduke.”

  “William, I am attended at all times by my ladies. I am careful of my honor. Let those who impugn it dare say so to my face! I am relying on you to make the truth plain. Lord Robert is a faithful friend. He has a way with him that I much like. If I see him often, it is because he is my Master of Horse. You cannot deny that he is zealous in the performance of his duties, or that he is marvelously talented when it comes to arranging entertainments and jousts. God’s blood, why should I not enjoy the company of such a one?”

  “There is no reason, clearly, madam, so long as it is just friendship, but again, I do urge you to be circumspect,” Cecil enjoined her.

  “I assure you, William, that I value my good name as much as my soul. And I will be the judge of what is circumspect.”

  Elizabeth’s door remained firmly locked at night, but by day there were plenty of opportunities for seeing Robert—and for flirting and more. They rode out together and hunted whenever possible; in the evenings, they often played chess or gambled at cards or dice.

  “You always beat me,” Robert would groan.

  “I am the Queen!” Elizabeth laughed. “Of course I should win. But I gave you a fair fight.”

  Sometimes they enjoyed lively debates on religion and philosophy, or danced in the Queen’s spacious privy chamber. There was a daring new dance from Italy called La Volta, which she could never perform in public because it allowed too much physical contact with a male partner. The dance had been condemned by several shocked preachers as the cause of much debauchery, and even murder, but behind closed doors, with only her ladies and musicians present, it thrilled her to have Robert lift her high in the air, one hand placed firmly on her busk below her breasts, the other on her back, with his muscular thighs supporting hers as she descended.

  Always she wanted his touch, his attention, his admiration.

  “Do I look well in this gown?” she asked him one day. It was of forest-green velvet, but she thought its bunched skirts made her look fat.

  “You would look better without it!” Robert said boldly, winking at her, at which she slapped him.

  “Go to!” she sniffed. “I asked if I looked well in it?” She was determined to have an answer.

  “Not as well as in other gowns,” he told her.

  “That is what I thought,” she said. “I will have it altered.”

  On another occasion she was having her period.

  “I feel lousy,” she complained, needing reassurance, “and I look terrible.”

  “You look beautiful to me, Bess,” Robert said, kissing her hand. It was all she needed to hear.

  When St. George’s Day came, she made him a Knight of the Garter, and thrilled to see him looking so tall and splendid in his velvet robes. The other peers selected for the honor—the Duke of Norfolk and the earls of Rutland and Northampton—looked down their disdainful noses as Dudley knelt before the Queen, hauteur in every bone of his body. Were good looks and a fine seat in the saddle all it now took to secure the highest order of knighthood that Her Majesty had to bestow?

  Elizabeth ignored them. She cared little for their opinions. She gave Robert a fine mansion, the Dairy House, at Kew, and other lands, along with grants of money. She kept him constantly at her side. In light of these visible signs of her favor, there was frantic speculation that she would marry him. Courtiers came flocking, seeking Robert’s patronage, bringing him gifts, hoping he could secure them favors and preferment. He reveled in it all.

  “I see you are become very popular,” Elizabeth observed to him one day, as they walked through the grounds of Greenwich Palace toward the bowling alley.

  “If I am, it is because you have made me so,” Robert answered. “I would be nothing without you.”

  “You mean much to me, Robin,” she replied, “but take care. I will not have you rule me.”

  “I would never presume to do so,” he said. She sensed that he was riled, and she was right. He could not contain himself. “But I wish that you esteemed and trusted me sufficiently to give me some high office—maybe a seat on the Privy Council,” he went on.

  “Do you not ride high enough as my Master of Horse, Robin? I would have you know that it suits me to keep you where you are, an influential presence at my court and in my counsels. You are my eyes, ever watchful on my behalf. Yes, I like to think that, and I shall call you my Eyes, because you are—and because yours are very fine!”

  Robert forced a smile. It was no compensation, she knew, for not being raised to any formal political role. She could not explain that her decision was for his own good. Aware that her nobles thought him an upstart who had got much above himself, she knew it was wiser not to advance him further just yet. But there were other ways in which favor could be shown.

  That night, Robert was awoken by his servant.

  “What time is it?” he groaned, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

  “One o’clock, sir. The Queen has commanded that you attend her.”

  The Queen! Was this yet another late night summons to discuss some matter of state that was troubling her? Surely it was too late for that. Or—and he hardly dared hope—was she summoning him to her bed at last? He all but leapt to his feet and hastened to dress.

  Mistress Astley admitted him to the royal apartments, her face wearing its usual mask of disapproval, and led him to a small paneled closet where Elizabeth sat writing at a table of mother-of-pearl. As he entered and made his courtly bow, she looked up, laid down her quill and smiled.

  “Robin, my Eyes! Forgive my late summons. I find I come more clearly to decisions in the middle of the night, and I would have your advice on the proposals of marriage I have received. Thank you, Kat. That will be all.” Kat withdrew with a vicious swish of damask skirts. The door closed reproachfully behind her.

  Robert’s eyes met Elizabeth’s, and they both started laughing.

  “She does not like me,” he said.

  “She would not approve if Our Lord himself descended from Heaven and began paying court to me,” Elizabeth said. “Be at peace, Robin. She is like a mother hen protecting her chick. She sees all men as predators.” And had every reason to do so, she realized.

  “I trust you tell her that my intentions are honorable,” he said.

  “Indeed I do, but I tell her nothing about mine!” She smiled.

  “You will pray tell me, though,” he pleaded.

  “Not tonight, sweet Robin. We must get down to business,” Elizabeth said. “The business of my marriage. Of all my advisers, your opinion is the one I would most appreciate.” There was a faint flush on her cheeks.

  “You might not like it, Bess.” Robert took a step closer to her, near enough to catch the faint scent of rose water and marjoram that she always carried with her.

  “Don’t tell me, you think I should have accepted Philip!” she countered.

  “You think that I, of all peopl
e, would advise that, my Queen? No, of course, I see you but jest.” He grinned.

  “But what is your advice, dear Eyes?”

  Robert bent and pulled her to him, clasping her in his arms. “That you marry me,” he said boldly, staring searchingly into her eyes and seeing there a response that reflected surprise, desire—and something less welcome. Was it a flicker of fear?

  Again Elizabeth had the feeling that she was melting into this man who was almost her lover; he was pressed so close to her that she could feel his urgency through the stiffened fabric of their clothing. She had not expected him to be so bold, and the sudden reaction of her heart—and, to her surprise, her body—had left her breathless with need. How easy it should be to give in to it. But she had learned long ago to have mastery over herself, and she knew well that lust could overcome all sense of reason. She must conquer it, therefore, and remember why she could never again compromise her honor—especially with a married man.

  She kissed Robert gently on the lips, then drew back in his arms—and now it was his turn to look surprised. Oh, he was aptly nicknamed “Gypsy”: his eyes were so dark and beautiful, like deep pools of desire. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse. “Robin—bonny, sweet Robin—if I meant to wed, and could follow my heart, I would choose you before all others. But it cannot be.”

  Robert let her go. His heavy-lidded eyes were now cold with disappointment. Elizabeth felt a constriction in her chest, like her heart breaking.

  “You have a wife,” she said.

  “She is dying,” he reminded her.

  “But she yet lives, and until you are free, there can be no talk of marriage between us.”

  “But if I were free, then you would consider it?”

  “There would still be difficulties, Robin.”

  “We can overcome them, Bess. What you need is a strong man to support you, a firm Protestant, one who is unfettered by foreign ties, and who is devoted to your interests. One who truly loves you. I am that man. Can you not see it? Which of those foreign princes you dangle like puppets can offer you all those things?”

  “Do you truly love me, Robin?” Elizabeth asked, sidestepping the question.

  “With all my heart,” he replied, holding her gaze. “Did you need to ask?”

  “Nay, but I wanted to hear you say it!” She laughed. “As well as all the other things.”

  He pulled her into his arms again. “I love you, Bess. I am in love with you.”

  “With me or my crown?” she teased.

  “Oh, with your crown, most definitely!” he riposted, then his face grew solemn. “Now it is your turn.”

  “Ah, sweet Robin, how could you doubt it? I love you as I have loved no man.”

  “Even there you are ambiguous!” he protested. “For all I know, you have loved no man!”

  A shadow crossed Elizabeth’s face. She disengaged herself and sank down into her chair. He had inveigled her into a corner, and now she had no choice but to tell him the truth. She realized that she owed it to him.

  “There was someone once,” she said. “I was very young. Surely you have heard talk of it. He was my stepfather.”

  “Thomas Seymour, the Lord Admiral,” Robert said. “I too was young when I heard the rumors. I gave them no credence.”

  “For that I thank you,” she replied. “It was a terrible time. He was a turbulent, dangerous man, and I was an innocent girl of fourteen. He took advantage of my naïveté.” She had been utterly infatuated with the handsome charmer, a rogue if ever there was one. She knew that now, but she had not had the wit to know it then. And he, Seymour, the new husband of her stepmother, Katherine Parr, had thought she was her mother’s daughter and ripe for the plucking.

  “What do you mean?” Robert asked, a trifle sharply.

  “He would come to my room before I was up and tickle and slap me as I lay abed. Kat complained of it to Queen Katherine, but she made little of it. She had married the admiral within weeks of my father’s death. She threw propriety to the winds, for she was in love with him and blind to his failings. But her eyes were opened when she came upon us one day. I was in his arms and we were”—she paused—“kissing. My innocence had been no proof against his determination. And she was so horrified, poor Queen Katherine, that she sent me away, for my own protection, as she told me. Then she died in childbirth. I have felt guilty ever since.” Of the disarray in which Katherine had found the pair of them, and the awareness that, had she burst in only moments later, matters would have advanced to a shameful conclusion, Elizabeth could not speak, even to her Eyes.

  “But you were a child,” Robert said gently, kneeling by Elizabeth’s chair and taking her hand. “The admiral took advantage of you. That was doubly wicked of him, for you were a princess also.” He was wondering how significant that pause had been, when she told him about the Queen coming upon them.

  “Aye, and it was high treason to marry me, let alone try to seduce me. I knew that. So did he—or he should have. Later, as you remember, when he attempted to seize power from his brother, the Lord Protector, he was arrested. My servants were put in the Tower and I was interrogated. They tried to make me confess that I had agreed to marry him without the permission of my brother, King Edward. They were brutal and spared me nothing. They even locked up poor Kat in a dark cell. It went on for days, the questioning. But I had nothing to confess. In the end they let me alone. By then, though, there was much gossip about me. The things people were saying! It horrified me, and I did not know what I could do to stop it. That was when I began wearing plain colors and sober attire, as became a virtuous Protestant girl, so that all who saw me would think I could not possibly have stooped so low. I was fifteen then, and on the day the admiral went to the block, my interrogators were watching me, eager to see me betray by some sign or weakness that I had loved him.”

  “And did you?”

  “No.” Elizabeth shivered. “I gave nothing away. It was ten years ago, but I can still feel the horror and fear I felt at the time.”

  Robert put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her tightly. “My poor, poor Bess. I had no idea the admiral treated you so dishonorably, and you an innocent. I hope he did not take advantage of you.”

  “Did he seduce me, you mean?”

  “Aye, that too.” He was watching her closely. “Your silence tells me all,” he said at length.

  “I told you nothing,” Elizabeth retorted.

  “You did not need to.”

  “Oh, Robin, I cannot speak of it!” She was agitated now. She had revealed too much already. “I was just fifteen!”

  He kissed her then, long and deeply, his fingers tenderly tracing her back, then burrowing into her neck as he tilted her head to accommodate him. “Tell me,” he said after he had let her go. “I love you. You can trust me. Do you think it matters to me what happened ten years ago, apart from the fact that it distresses you still?”

  Elizabeth relaxed. She took a deep breath. “It happened once. That was all.”

  “Did he force you?”

  “Nay, but I did not intend that things should go so far. Before I knew it, they had.”

  “And what was so terrible about it?”

  “Nothing—at the time. It was only later, after he died. Robert, I cannot explain. It felt as if a corpse had made love to me. In memory, the act became repulsive, horrible. And I thought that this must have been how my father felt after my mother was beheaded, and Katherine Howard. That someone you have held in your arms and known intimately is now a thing of horror.” She shuddered at the thought.

  But this was not the only reason why she shrank from intimacy. She had heard, horrified, how her beloved stepmother Katherine Parr had suffered in childbed. She was safely delivered, and yet her stepmother had died. The same thing had happened to an earlier stepmother, Jane Seymour; to Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth of York; and to several noble ladies she had known. She could not bring herself to tell Robert how much she feared it happening to her
; the fear went too deep. Even if she found the courage to conquer it, she knew that giving herself to a man could lay her kingdom open to the loss of its queen, with civil war likely to follow.

  “This is why I do not wish to marry, why I play what Cecil is now calling ‘the marriage game,’ ” she said aloud.

  Robert had listened patiently, holding her close as she poured out her fears. Now he was quiet for a space. “In time your fears may subside,” he said at last. “I will not press you, I promise. There are other ways of giving and receiving pleasure. Let me help you. Let me show you how to relax.” He bent his lips to hers again, his hand straying up her stiff stomacher to the breast beneath. She tensed and gently pushed it away.

  “Give me time,” she murmured, hating herself for denying him.

  Lying in bed wakeful that night, she regretted having said so much to Robert. She felt exposed, and somehow belittled by his knowing her closest secrets. Thank God she had not told him all.

  She asked herself what she did want of him. His body, yes, so long as it should not possess her own. His hand in marriage—no. She might be jealous of his wife, but she liked the fact that he was safely married. She could enjoy his company, and more, without having to lose her independence or commit herself to him in any way. But what if Amy did die? Robert was not a man to take no for an answer. For him, it was all so straightforward. As he saw it, she had fears, he would conquer them. For Elizabeth, nothing had ever been that simple.

  Without marriage, she was woefully aware, he was vulnerable, his position equivocal. He knew, as well as she, that the wolves at court were waiting to pounce and devour him. She, the Queen, was all that stood between them.

  Why could she not be as other women? She loved to flirt, she loved the attentions of men. What was wrong with her, then? Why could she not forget the horrors that had touched her life in childhood? Were they truly at the root of her fears? If that were so, she thought, with a sense of desperation, there was probably no hope of her ever overcoming them. They were rooted too deep.

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