England has had two famous and effective queens; both named Elizabeth, who ruled the island nation for over 50 years. The irony of the success of Queen Elizabeth I was the long held belief among men that women were incapble of effectively ruling a country. In no case was the importance of producing a male heir more evident than that of the infamous King Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father, who married six times in an effort to produce a son. Elizabeth I, the second daughter of Henry VIII, and her absolute refusal to wed and produce an heir, is the intriguing subject of The Marriage Game by Alison Weir.
The roots of Elizabeth's insistence on remaining “the Virgin Queen” during her reign was the result of witnessing her father's domination and ultimate cruelty to six wives, including the beheading of two. Although Elizabeth I was only a baby when her father had Anne Boleyn, her mother, destroyed by a French sword, Elizabeth was eight when Henry VIII had his fifth wife, Catherine Howard beheaded. Catherine's horrific screams as she was removed from the castle to the Tower of London remained imprinted on the young Elizabeth's mind. Even as a child Elizabeth was reported to have said that she would never marry and give a man the chance to usurp her crown.
Elizabeth's reluctance to wed serves as the foundation of Alison Weir's new novel The Marriage Game, which focuses on the queen's long love affair with her courtier Lord Robert Dudley and her duplicity in dangling the possibility of marriage in front of the princes of Spain, France, and Denmark. Throughout the novel Elizabeth skillfully flirts and hints at possible liaisons, all the while adhering to her promise to never wed. She became a master at manipulation through “the marriage game,” tormenting her friends and enemies in her never-endng promises to marry.
After refusing the offer of marrying King Philip of Spain, her former brother-in-law, Elizabeth declares to her former governess, “I will never marry.” (p.17) It is noted that she had been making this declaration since the age of eight, and when she is chastised by Lord Cecil for ignoring her duty to “look to the future security of the realm,” (p.17), Elizabeth is furious. Cecil chastises her further by saying, “Madam, marriage is your only surety. That you should wish to remain a maid is not natural.” (p.17)
The depiction of the steamy, but unconsummated, love affair between Robert Dudley and Elizabeth is Weir's interpretation of Elizabeth's fear of becoming pregnant on two counts. First, Elizabeth knows that as an unmarried woman, having a child would be disastrous as the queen. Second, she was deathly afraid dying in child birth as her last stepmother, Catherine Parr, had in 1548. Child birth was an extremely high risk proposition during the Renaissance.
The greatest fear that the British had during the Tudor period was the instability of the crown. This, of course, was due to the many times in their history when the country had been thrown into civil war over the royal succession. In fact, it was Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, who had defeated Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth to gain the crown. The ugly history of succession preyed upon the Elizabethan, and Elizabeth's lords begged her to a least name an heir if she would not wed.
Elizabeth's only viable choice as she aged was the son of her arch enemy, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth was forced to condemn for Mary's involvement in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Although he was raised as a Calvinist, James VI, who ascended the Scottish throne as an infant, was still the son of a Catholic, and his choice to succeed Elizabeth was far from a unanimous choice. Weir's depiction of the torment Elizabeth suffers in her decision to behead Mary is true to the historical accounts.
Alison Weir, a well-regarded British historian, best known for her work The Six Wives of Henry VIII, has written both historical and fictional stories of the Tudor period. Although she portrays Elizabeth as allowing Dudley into her bed frequently but stopping short of intercourse, Weir has also put forth the theory that Elizabeth had been seduced by Thomas Seymour, the husband of her father's sixth wife, to whom she may have born an illegitimate child. Thus, according to Weir, the “Virgin Queen” was no virgin when she had donned the crown in 1558.
Although the Tudors lived 500 years ago, they remain the most popular of all the British monarchs. Alison Weir has recognized this and has traded on it by writing their saga. Weir knows “her stuff” as an historian, and she is superb at putting forth plausible theories as to what could have happened rather than adhering to popular versions of history. If you are a fan of the Tudor period, The Marriage Game is a fascinating read.