Chapter 6: March 1559
I put my head in my hands. If even one more ambassador came through that door…I didn’t finish the thought.
“Your Majesty?” The voice, heavily accented, broke through a crystal silence.
Looking up, I gave a polite but not entirely genuine smile. “My lord, it is nice to see you.” The Spanish ambassador, Alvarez de Quadra, gave a sweet smile, and I asked, “What brings you here?” even though I didn’t want to know.
“Perhaps it isn’t the time for that just yet.” He gave a wry expression. “His Highness wishes to know how you are doing.”
“Well, I’m fine,” I responded, confused, “and I hope that His Highness is, too.”
“And there is a church…agreement, is there not?”
“Written by me,” I announced proudly. Obviously I had misjudged some muscle movements before, because he shifted his weight in disapproval. “But the House of Lords did make some edits. It was hard, my lord, to find a set of rules that would please everyone—or almost everyone—in the kingdom, but we did reach an agreement.”
“Well, His Highness was pleased to hear about it,” I doubted this, really, because Philip was a staunch Catholic. The ambassador took a deep breath, and time was ticking in anticipation. “Your Majesty Princess Elizabeth the Queen of England,” he began, and his use of my full title had my heart flipping, “the King of Spain, His most Catholic Majesty Prince Philip, wishes to offer you his hand in marriage.”
I sat in shock. I had seen this coming. It had been clear to me that Philip intended to propose to me, but it was so unbelievable when these things actually happened. It was as if something—Philip’s proposal—had been cloaked in a white sheet, and I knew it would come off soon, but when it finally did, the statue that was supposed to be an angel was actually a lion. It made a small amount of sense, but it didn’t fit right.
That was how I knew I couldn’t marry Philip. It didn’t fit.
“I am flattered, my lord, but I’ll need some time to ponder this.” I batted my eyelashes a few times and let out a warm smile.
He sat there for a few moments. “I am afraid I must go, then.”
Then he left, a movement so quick it baffled me, and I was alone with a predicament I didn’t know how to handle.
When I told my secretary about the proposal, he was ecstatic. “This is wonderful, Your Majesty!”
I stared blankly at him. “Certainly you don’t expect me to accept? He is a Catholic, he stood by and waited while Mary burned all those Protestants! I can’t marry him!”
“Your Majesty, he is a king. He has lands that make England look tiny and frail in comparison. If ever you need protection, he can provide it if he is your husband. England needs protection, power, and security, and King Philip has all these things.”
I won’t marry him, I chanted in my head. I won’t, I won’t, I won’t. “I would sooner use my own men and my own hands to protect my country than resort to the services of a man that my people hate.”
“They don’t necessarily hate—”
“My lord,” I said firmly. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation. “You’re a smart man; there were riots the last time Philip set foot on our shores. What do you think will happen if we try it again? To them, Philip is only a reminder of my sister, and I want nothing to do with her memory, even if it does mean better safety for us.”
His eyebrow arched. “How do you know you’ll get a better proposal than this? What if you’re stuck with a mere duke, a prince not even in line for a throne, because you rejected a king who could have given you all the power you wanted? You need a grand marriage to keep this throne, Your Majesty, and now is your chance to have one.”
I stood and paced the room, a thing I had done ever since I could remember in situations when I was thinking things over. “Maybe I want a grand marriage. Maybe I want as much power as I can squeeze from the man I marry.” I was not going to marry anyone, but the lie needed to be carried on like a barge over water. “Maybe I want those things. But I know for sure that I don’t want to marry the King of Spain. I can’t.”
There were few things I knew for sure, but one of them was this. I thought of Robin, his eyes like shiny pearls, and I knew there was no way Philip would be coming to England—not for me, not for anyone. He would stay planted right in Spain, and I would be in England where I belonged.
“Are you sure, Your Majesty? Don’t you need time to think a little—”
“I imagine Philip will be relieved that I’ve rejected him,” I interjected. “And you should be too, my lord. It’s only for the best.”
He stood so he was at his full height. “I hope you know what you’re missing out on, Your Majesty.” My secretary rose and left, and I was sure that I did, in fact, know what I was missing.
I was quite sure.
I leaned back in my chair, letting my tired arms rest on the chair’s own limbs. I had been reading, translating, reading, translating, all day. Translating script from French didn’t even feel like a hobby anymore; it felt like work.
“Uh, excuse me, Your Majesty.” Madge Russell’s young voice cut through the air, sharp and pointed. “Isn’t it about suppertime?”
Outside the window, the sky was clear blue, without a single cloud, which was the normal time for supper. But I didn’t want to get up. “It’s suppertime when I decide it’s suppertime,” I growled faintly. But her stomach was probably far past rumbling.
A few moments later, I rose from my chair towards the door, and short little Madge and the rest of them trailed behind like puppies trying not to yelp.
At the dining hall there was a crowd as thick as tree sap. It was as if I didn’t exist: they were eating already, drinking freely, laughing and dancing. The dinner was already set out, big round silver plates of large fowl and full goblets of ale. But when the crowd saw me the sober ones fell silent and bowed low. As soon as I sat, food was offered to me on shining platters.
“Your Majesty?” A rough voice floated through the air.
“Good Lord, I haven’t even touched the—oh. My lord.” I managed a tight smile. Now that Philip had proposed, even being near his puppet the Duke de Feria was unnerving. Stressful. It was hard to see him without going through all the pros and cons to the marriage I’d mapped out in my head the night before. We need an alliance, but Philip is Catholic. He’s a king, but the people don’t like him.
What did the arrogant king want me for, anyway? Only another throne to sit upon, and perhaps to bring England back to the “old ways”, but that was just off to the side. Still, he might try to put my citizens on the stake or under the axe for sharing their queen’s religion, and to me that was an insult beyond belief. Philip had a sharp eye and a smooth, convincing tongue, but he couldn’t get past me. He never would.
The Spanish ambassador forked a swan leg cautiously, as if he thought the whole bird would come back alive and chew on his arm. “How are you?”
My first thought was, I’m quite stressed, you can tell your precious Philip that, but other than that and the lack of sleep, I am feeling wonderful, but for once an idea didn’t come out of my mouth a fraction of a second after my mind had formed it. “Oh, I’m doing well. How are things in Spain?”
He swallowed a bite of that swan with a reddened face. Were the Spanish not used to spices? Surely the gardens there had plenty of cinnamon and paprika and ginger? “Philip tells me they’re doing all right in Spain. Says those Ottomans will be the death of him, but I fear he worries too much.” The Ottomans were the Turkish royals who were continuously conquering land near Spain. Philip had mentioned them once or twice when he’d visited England, but they didn’t bother me. My realm was a little island on the other side of the Continent. They’d have to get through Spain, France, Austria, and maybe even Scotland to find us, and it never occured to me that a group of Turks could accomplish that.
“Oh, he’ll be fine. He owns half the world, right? Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands.” The Habsburgs were conquerers themselves.
He nodded, and friendly smile crossed his face. “That’s what I told him.” A small exhale, looking around the half-lit room. “I guess kings are meant to always be worried.”
Queens are that way, too, I wanted to tell him, but for some reason, I kept my mouth shut. Maybe it was because I knew he, like any other man, thought queens were only meant to bend to their husbands’ will. Like horses, they weren’t supposed to have a mind of their own. They were only supposed to watch and listen.
The ambassador apparently expected me to speak, because he huffed and said, “Well. Have you thought about His Majesty’s proposal?”
Suddenly, we were interrupted by the French ambassador. “Hello, Your Majesty,” the tall, burly man said in a heavy accent.
“Monsieur.” I let him press his lips to my hand and felt his scratchy beard brush against my glove.
Sensing my cue, he spoke in French. I doubt he would’ve been able to keep up the English-speaking charade for long, anyway. English was not a common language on the Continent. It was all French, Italian, and Latin, and a few more if you had a highly educated king for a father. “King Henri told me to tell you—” he stopped, spotting the Spanish ambassador’s thin smile. He apologized quickly. “Je suis désolé! I didn’t know you were in the middle of something.” He looked pointedly at the duke, then turned back to me. “We can talk tomorrow, right?” It didn’t sound like a question, and this was reinforced by a quick bow, a farewell, and an exit. Just like a mummer.
To tell the truth, I had no idea why the ambassadors were behaving so strangely. Their realms were not at war, or even jostled by one another—they were not like Scotland and us, where peace was unlikely even at the calmest of times. It was odd for them to be at such unease of one another.
As de Feria rambled on about the quality of the food here in England, I recalled my sister, something I thought I’d never do. But the way he had begun to court me when he knew she was finished…it had sickened me. Now, I remembered just how he had treated the only woman he was supposed to love—he’d ignored her, convinced her to burn a chunk of her realm’s population and left the kingdom, and met her love with indifference—and I had to get away from his puppet, the Duke of Feria. I could not be around anyone affiliated with the king of Spain and his wicked ways.
I found the French ambassador. “Bonsoir, mon seigneur. Now, what was this about King Henri?”
“Done with the Spanish man, are you?” He didn’t say it rudely. “Well, His Majesty thinks we are on our way to peace between our two countries. He doesn’t want the war to last any longer, and he doubts you are any different.”
“Oh, I want peace,” I said, chuckling without humor. “I certainly couldn’t afford a lengthy war, even if I wanted it terribly.”
He nodded, and fell silent until we were surrounded by a cold fog made by a lack of speech.
“How are the feasts in France, then? I hear the dancing is quite fine.”
He smiled weakly. “They are fun, but I hear His Majesty attends them…not so often. He is getting old, you see, and he has better things to do. So the Queen will be the highest royalty at most events, and the king will come out only to joust. He loves jousting, and not even old age can keep him from putting on a layer of armor and doing what real kings do.”
“Does His Majesty not worry,” I wondered aloud, fearing I might be going too far, “what the Queen does when he is too ignorant to notice very much?”
“If you mean that the Queen may be infidélé, then rest assured she is not. Catherine de Medící is a rash and fearless woman, but she only breaks the rules that she believes need to be broken. She would not be unfaithful to the king just for the sake of it; she has children to raise, and there can be no doubt that any fruit she may bear is the King’s.”
I slapped away a drunk man who was hovering around me. “I know all this, sir,” I said truthfully. “But it seems odd that there has been no suspicion of it. The Queen’s enemies could alert the king of any possible affairs of hers just to get her out of favor for a while.” In the world I had lived in, with my father as king, a royal advisor needed only say the words “queen” and “unfaithful” in the same sentence, and the result would be a full search of her chambers. Wasn’t the French king the same way?
As if answering my very thoughts, the ambassador responded, “France is a very different world from this beautiful kingdom you have. Our king can see truth through all the gossip that surrounds him, because frankly,” he cracked a smile, “our nation would be chaos if he couldn’t. With us, the more the mouth wavers, the more it is essential that we can all tell the difference between a lie and the honest truth. Perhaps it is not so here in England.”
“Perhaps not,” I frowned.
His light skin glowed, directly in the path of the light shooting from the candle above us. “But that isn’t necessarily bad. England is a wonderful place that, I am certain, will be made even more exciting with the arrival of a new king.” He uttered the last phrase pointedly.
I expected him to ask the question everyone wanted an answer to—who is the closest man to winning you over?—but he didn’t. And I didn’t give an answer, for if I did, it would not just be carted off to a nearby village like an Irish pony but sealed on bright parchment and signed with a sharp quill. It would be sent to Spain on a ship where anyone could take it and read it through. Then, the whole world, the whole Continent, would know who I wanted everyone to think I intended to marry. My whole plan would either be ruined or publicized until people on faraway islands and large pieces of land we had no name for knew of my prospective husband. I would be expected to marry the man who carried any name I disclosed to the puppet of the King of Spain, and these expectations were ones I couldn’t meet.
“Sure, that may be true,” I replied. “But for now, aren’t we doing just fine?”
He smiled, and I could see his supposed wisdom behind his thick lips. He thought he was smarter than me, he thought that just because he had a face shriveled with wrinkles and had seen one more kingdom than I had, that he was invariably more knowledgeable. “Sure, for now. But everyone will respect your realm more when there is a strong king, a man who will lead it through the perils of war, at the front of it.”
“You may have a point.” I gritted my teeth at the lie. Wives ended up humiliated or dead, and I wished to prosper until I was all burnt out like the wax of a candle.
Your Majesty Prince Philip, King of Spain and Defender of the Catholic faith,
It is a great honor, that which you have offered me. I can only dream what it would be like to be the queen of such a prosperous kingdom as you have, and have you King of mine. But it seems we are just too different, in our beliefs and in our morals, perhaps, as well. This is no fault of yours, it seems to be that God simply does not see us as a fit pair.
I want you to always know that if it were different, I would certainly agree to marry Your Highness. But not now, not in this life certainly, and I wish you all the best in finding a bride who will suit your needs better than I ever could.
I do hope that we may remain good friends and good allies in spite of this decision.
“You wrote him a letter? When have you ever done that?” The voice was quite high-pitched to be coming out of a man, and rife with hysteria.
I tried to stay close to my Secretary of State’s back so if he fainted, I could catch him, but when he put a steady enough hand on the neutral paint of the wall, I relaxed. “I have never until now had an occasion where it seemed fitting to write a letter,” I responded, studying his face. “I figured it was better to have him read my own words on the matter than the twisted, prejudiced ones of the Duque de Feria. It’s better than rejecting the proposal verbally, you see.”
“That’s not really the problem.” His face was red. “The issue here is that you rejected him in the first place. He is a king, a king of a rather large empire, for that matter—”
“—who has powerful allies, too, and he is already familiar with England, so it won’t be difficult for him to assume the position I would ask of him. I know all this, sir! I will say this, and I will say it again and again until you believe it: I can’t marry King Philip. He may be the most powerful man in the world besides the Emperor, but he didn’t bat an eye when Mary was killing all those Protestants! He had absolute power over her, but he said nothing when it started, and he watched them burn. And in case you don’t remember what happened the last time he came here to England, I don’t think he will be received very nicely. You believe I am making a great sacrifice here, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t see it that way at all.”
“Who will protect us?” he asked pointedly. “When your ambitious little cousin decides that she will take your crown for herself, and the French assist her in this, who will you employ to help secure the borders? Who besides the man you just rejected can protect you from her, or from France? You think it is not a sacrifice, but you don’t know that the thing you may have sacrificed is your crown, even your life.”
I glared at him, letting my gaze settle into his amber eyes until he squirmed. “You think that will frighten me? I am not intimidated by Mary, nor am I scared of the French. I doubt that this will cause the loss of my throne, but if it does, then that is God’s decision and not mine.”
“So you’ll die a martyr, will you?” he sneered. “A martyr who was too foolish to realize that not everything is up to God! Sometimes you have to take things into your own hands, and better see what God intends for you!”
I stomped my foot against the dampening wood of the floor. “None of this! Your problems will not be resolved if you insult the only person who can solve them for you!”
“These aren’t my problems, they are yours!” His face was red, but apparently for a different reason than before.
“My lord, you will leave now,” I ordered coldly. He had gone too far, and by his face I could tell he agreed even though he would never admit it.
When he was gone, I turned my back to the door and sank into a chair. Why was this so hard? I didn’t want to marry the man. That didn’t mean I would die for it. But everything was dangerous for me now. My position was disputed and doubtful, and death was what some Catholics wished for me. But I was stronger than them, and I was going to keep my crown.
“So, that conversation didn’t go well?”
I turned to see Robin in the doorway with the flawless posture of someone who’d been on a horse far too long.
I let a sigh fall from my lips. “How did you know?”
“Well, there are two reasons why a man’s face would be as red as William Cecil’s was when he passed me in the hallway, and I am sure one of them is far from probable.”
“Lord Robert!” I cried, shocked. “You are too brash for your own good.”
He grinned, dazzling. “You act as if you’ve said nay a word against him.”
“He works for me, my lord. I won’t be harmed if I let a few foul words regarding him pass my lips. But you could acquire some enemies if you’re not careful about who you insult.”
Chuckling, he replied, “Or he might gain some. Really, I don’t have a problem with the man. It’s just unnerving to see that he’s been arguing with you.”
“Because I’m so fragile that I can’t take contradictions? Really, my lord, where have you been?”
“It is every man’s instinct to protect his Queen,” he said, eyebrows raised in a gesture that conveyed more wisdom than it did confusion. “I apologize if I offended you.”
“It’s all right.” A tingling feeling flooded into my stomach. “Perhaps I just need something to take my mind off of it. Can you get horses ready?”
He nodded and departed. The near-invisible figures that were my ladies-in-waiting giggled, and I wasn’t sure if this was from their own conversations or if they’d been eavesdropping and expected sexual tension. This was one of the downsides of having my Maids of Honor with me during meetings: they were young, inexperienced, and blew everything out of proportion.
When we got to the stables, there were horses for me, Robin, and also the Maids of Honor. The sun was shimmering with an afternoon glow, and there was a moderate breeze—a faint memory of winter. I felt an intense rush of bliss, and as Robin aided me in mounting my bay, Lepida, King Philip seemed to fade away until he was as small as one of the leaves off the trees in the distance. King Philip was a nobody, he wasn’t here with me and Robin, cantering into the distance until the stables were tiny dots and forgetting every droplet of a problem that needed to be addressed. He would never be a part of my life, he would never belong to England as I did; no one would.