Though The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I is familiar territory for fans of Tudor history, historian and novelist Weir explores in detail the most fractious problem of the reign of the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I: royal marriage and the begetting of an heir to the throne. Shadowing Elizabeth’s every move is her beloved friend and would-be suitor Robert Dudley, the handsome courtier and son of traitors who captures her heart but never her hand in marriage. Much has been written about “The Virgin Queen,” scandalous rumors about an affair with stepmother Katherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Seymour, coloring the image of a vibrant young girl.
She is heir to the throne following the death of her rabidly Catholic sister, Mary Tudor, known as “Bloody Mary” for her brutality in cleansing the kingdom of “heretics.” A defiantly Protestant queen, Elizabeth is ever mindful of her people's favor as monarch, eschewing Catholicism without the need to torture subjects of that faith.
Religion is, therefore, a touchy subject when considering suitors from other countries. Elizabeth
is in no hurry to compromise her position as a Protestant ruler or a woman free to dictate her own terms. And dictate she does on a frantic merry-go-round of would-be suitors, a dance she perfects in the early years of her reign, even into her forties. Throughout the drawn-out negotiations that drive her council to distraction, especially Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth concedes then pulls back in a series of feints that fuel the desperate hopes of her advisors, only to turn to dust--until the consideration of yet another suitor for
Her Majesty’s hand in marriage.
At the heart of the novel is Elizabeth’s relationship with Dudley, who believes her promises of love but is never sure if she will actually marry him. Without noble title--a situation she gradually rectifies, perhaps out of guilt--and not free to marry again until the death of his wife (who eventually expires under a cloud of suspicion), Dudley’s conundrum is without solution.
Though she will have him by her side (and in her bed), the queen cannot overcome her grave doubts about marriage and the loss of autonomy it will entail: “She must be a queen first and a woman second.” It is the crux of her problem: marriage, even to her beloved Robert, will rob the queen of what she values most, the right to set her own course and that of England without interference. After years of wrangling with the queen over her marital intentions, both Elizabeth and Dudley are exhausted, the blissful days of youthful passion fleeing as affairs of state grow more dire, demanding definitive action lest enemies detect weakness in England.
With her extensive background as an historian and faithful adherence to historical records, I credit Weir with perhaps the most credible instincts when piecing together the private life of Elizabeth I. All the expected characters are present, acting out their historical roles: William Cecil, Francis Walsingham, King Philip of Spain, Mary, Queen of Scots, Lord Darnley, faithful servant Kat Astley and Robert Dudley, etc. But it is the queen’s conversations within her inner circle--with Dudley, Cecil and the Spanish Bishop De Quadra--that most intimately suggest the private torment of a woman fighting the tide of history, insightful chapters that capture Elizabeth in moments of profound uncertainty, vacillating between heart and mind, woman and monarch, the two never compatible.
Whether dictated by fear of childbirth or the desire to rule without the restrictions of a spouse, the queen’s nights are haunted by an inability to make a certain choice, even when the throne is threatened as she is felled by smallpox and other serious ailments. Never could a woman speak so loudly of her will to remain unmarried until time itself renders her no longer a candidate for wedlock, the price she pays her heart’s companion, whose ambition taints the trust his love inspires: “A queen must never be ruled by her heart.”