Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 4

'Bonny Sweet Robin'

The first evidence that Queen Elizabeth was becoming emotionally involved with Robert Dudley appears in a dispatch from de Feria to King Philip dated 15 April 1559. 'During the last few days', he wrote,

Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs. It is even said that Her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts, and that the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert. I can assure Your Majesty that matters have reached such a pass that I have been brought to consider whether it would be well to approach Lord Robert on Your Majesty's behalf, promising him your help and favour and coming to terms with him.

It was essential that Dudley be made to see the advantages of a continuing friendship between England and Spain.

Others, too, saw what was going on between the Queen and her Master of Horse, and soon the gossip spread to the courts of Europe. Paolo Tiepolo, Venetian ambassador to the court of Philip II, reported to the Doge and Senate: 'Dudley is a very handsome young man, towards whom, in various ways, the Queen evinces such affection and inclination that many persons believe that, if his wife - who has been ailing for some time - were perchance to die, the Queen might easily take him for her husband.'

On 10 May, Il Schifanoya observed, 'My Lord Robert Dudley is in great fwour and very intimate with Her Majesty. On this subject I ought to report the opinion of many, but I doubt whether my letters may not miscarry or be read, wherefore it is better to keep silence than to speak ill.' Clearly, the most scurrilous of rumours were already circulating about the affair, but that was hardly surprising, since Dudley was a married man. Many were scandalised that Elizabeth should show him such favour, not the least of them William Cecil, who saw in Dudley's ascendancy a threat to his own power. Already, Elizabeth was consulting Dudley on state affairs, and there are indications that he had influenced her to stand her ground against the bishops during the discussions that preceded the recent religious legislation. Certainly he was instrumental in the advancement of no less than twenty-seven of the higher clergy during the early years of the reign.

Naturally, de Feria was still cherishing hopes that the Habsburg marriage negotiations might bear fruit, but he admitted that it was not easy trying to negotiate anything with Elizabeth because she was so changeable. 'For my part I believe she will never make up her mind to anything that is good for her. Sometimes she appears to want to marry [the Archduke], and speaks like a woman who will only accept a great prince, and then they say she is in love with Lord Robert and never lets him leave her.' The ambassador suspected that Dudley might pose a far greater threat to the Habsburg negotiations than Arundel or Pickering ever had. Not that they were yet out of the running, for Elizabeth continued to flirt with both; she even timed her first interviews with Pickering to take place while Dudley was away hunting at Windsor.

Dudley's duties brought him into daily contact with her, and there were plenty of opportunities for their relationship to flourish. They rode out together most days since both of them shared a passion for hunting. He was cultivated, witty, charming and attractive: in fact, a stimulating companion. Elizabeth could relax in his company, and he, sharing the same mischievous sense of humour, knew well how to amuse her. He alone had the gift of teasing her without giving offence, and it was later said of him, by one of his friends, that he knew her 'better than any man'.

When she was with him, she was anything but discreet, making no secret of her affection for him. She spoke of him often and never missed a chance to praise his talents as a horseman or as an arranger of tournaments and courtly entertainments. She openly danced spirited galliards with him, leaping into the air 'after the Florentine style, with a high magnificence that astonished beholders'.

For someone who normally set a high value on the good opinion of her people, she appeared to care not a jot what they were thinking. But as she was to point out on several occasions, much of the more salacious gossip - such as the rumour that 'Lord Robert did swyve the Queen' -was unfounded, because she was attended round the clock by her ladies and maids-of-honour. Court etiquette was such that she was hardly ever alone, and there would have been very few opportunities for her to carry on a sexual relationship with Dudley without other people finding out. The few allegations that the affair had progressed this far were made only by hostile ambassadors who would believe anything of a Queen who had embraced heresy. Yet even de Quadra, whose spies were everywhere, could find no evidence of a sexual relationship and refused to believe the rumours.

On 23 April, the first St George's Day she celebrated as Queen, Elizabeth bestowed the Order of the Garter upon Dudley, and upon the three senior peers of the realm, the Duke of Norfolk - Dudley's great rival - the Marquess of Northampton and the Earl of Rutland. This caused bad feeling, for the three noblemen had for many years served their country in various capacities, while Dudley was the son and grandson of upstart traitors. His only qualifications for the honour were good looks and superb horsemanship.

Not long afterwards, Elizabeth granted him the 'capital mansion' known as the Dairy House at Kew, Knole Park in Kent, lands in Leicestershire and Yorkshire, and the first of several grants of money.

Before long, he was freely dispensing patronage to a growing clientele of his supporters at court, and although he had no official political role in the government, the Queen looked to him frequently for acivice. 'In the Privy Chamber', wrote one of his opponents, 'next to Her Majesty's person, the most part are his creatures, as he calleth them; and the rest he so overruleth that nothing can pass but by his admission.' Elizabeth fondly tolerated this situation, but never permitted Dudley to forget who was mistress and who was servant; there is no evidence that she ever allowed his advice to override decisions taken by her ministers. Nevertheless, many at court were suspicious of his motives and resentful of his over-familiarity with the Queen. Norfolk reviled him as an upstart, and many of the older nobility agreed with him. A lot of people thought Dudley a self-seeker who was professing love for the Queen only to further his own ambitions.

Yet there can be little doubt that the love between Elizabeth and Dudley was genuine on both sides. It endured through many storms until death intervened. There is no escaping the sincerity in Dudley's letters, the warmth of his addresses, nor his obvious concern for her welfare. With others he was usually haughty and reserved, but in the Queen's company he was congeniality itself. He was attracted to redheads, and enjoyed a sexual rapport with the Queen. It is also true that his feelings for her were not entirely selfless, yet she too was not above using him for her own ends. She certainly found him attractive physically, for she 'always took personage in the way of affection'. She admired his nerve, his sense of adventure and his robust masculinity. She could not resist the challenge of taming such a charmer and making him her creature. To her, he represented all that a man should be; his presence uplifted her spirits, and she declared it was imperative that she see him every day. In letters, he referred to himself as her 'Eyes', a nickname she had bestowed on him, and to which he alluded in his signature cipher of two lines above two circles.

For Elizabeth, Robert Dudley had one supreme advantage over all her other male admirers. He could not offer her marriage. With him, she had the best of both worlds. With his wife safely living in the country -Amy Dudley came rarely to London, and her husband's duties gave him leisure to visit her only infrequently - the Queen could enjoy all the advantages of male companionship without having to commit herself either to marriage, the loss of her independence, or the surrender of her body. As a single woman she could remain in control of the relationship, whereas a wife was subject to her husband's will. She could also preserve her carefully nurtured image as the Virgin Queen.

We do not know if at this stage Dudley entertained hopes that he would ever marry Elizabeth. If the ambassadors spoke truth, and his wife was indeed ill with a disease in the breast, then he may have foreseen a time when he would be free to offer himself as a consort to the Queen - an irresistible prospect for an ambitious man. For the present, however, he was content to bask in her favour, enjoying the benefits it brought, and knowing that he must retain it if he wanted his present prosperity to endure. Without the Queen's affection, he would be at the mercy of the noble wolves who were waiting to devour him.

Baron Breuner was so concerned about Elizabeth's regard for Robert Dudley that he felt obliged to inform the Emperor of it. Ferdinand, fearful of allowing his son to marry a woman with loose morals, instructed the ambassador to discover whether there was any truth in the rumours that had now reached Vienna. Breuner sent an agent to make discreet enquiries of Elizabeth's ladies, who conceded that their mistress 'showed her liking for [Dudley] more markedly than is consistent with her reputation and dignity', but protested that she had 'certainly never been forgetful of her honour'.

But Breuner was in for an unpleasant surprise. On 5 June, with the help of William Cecil and Roger Ascham, the Queen drafted a tactful letter to the Emperor, turning down the Archduke's suit. She admitted that marriage to him would have enhanced her prestige in the eyes of Europe, and thanked Ferdinand for his care for her welfare, but explained that 'When we reflect upon the question of this marriage and eagerly ask our heart, we find that we have no wish to give up solitude and our single life, but prefer with God's help to abide therein of our free determination.'

The next day, in a splendid ceremony at Windsor, Dudley was formally installed as a Knight of the Garter. Around the same time, de Quadra was telling King Philip and others that the Queen had given Dudley _ 12,000 to spend on himself; in fact, the money was to be spent on Irish horses for the royal stables.

Breuner was perplexed by Elizabeth's attitude towards himself: she had turned down the Archduke, yet she continued to show special favour towards Breuner. 'Although the Queen affects a certain strangeness, she is quite otherwise in conversation,' he told Ferdinand, and he began to hope that her rejection of Charles was not as final as it appeared to be. On 10 June, as the ambassador was being rowed along the Thames, enjoying the summer evening, the royal barge, followed by that belonging to the Lord Treasurer, glided alongside. The Queen was taking the air, and she invited Breuner to board the Treasurer's barge; then, as the two barges drifted along side by side, she played her lute for him.

Breuner was entranced, and even more so when he was invited to take breakfast with the Queen the next morning - a rare privilege. That evening, he was again a guest on her barge, a luxurious craft rowed by eight oarsmen and boasting a cabin adorned with an awning of crimson satin. Heraldic shields hung inside it, and the floor of the barge was strewn with fresh flowers. The Queen relaxed upon a cushion of clothof-gold. She was in a relaxed, teasing mood, 'very talkative and merry', and commanded Breuner to take the helm. Later, she 'of her own accord began to talk about the Archduke', asking many questions and giving the impression that she was still interested in him as a possible husband. However, she had not wavered in her resolve to see any suitor face to face before agreeing to marry him. When Breuner recited the arguments against this, she would not listen, and when he attempted to pin her down as to her intentions regarding Charles, she was maddeningly evasive. Yet so overcome was he at such signal tokens of her friendship and favour that he ended up assuring her that the Emperor would never break off the marriage negotiations.

Shortly afterwards, the court moved to Greenwich, the beautiful Thames-side palace where Elizabeth had been born, and here, on 2 July, in the Great Park, the City's trained bands enacted a series of military manoeuvres as the Queen watched from a gallery over the detached gatehouse, which stood on the site now occupied by the Palladian Queen's House. On 11 July, a tournament organised by Dudley took place, and he had also arranged a lavish picnic, which was served in several pavilions built 'of fine poles, decked with birch and all manner of the flowers of the field and garden, as roses, gilliflowers, lavender, marigolds and strewing herbs'. The summer entertainments also included masques commissioned by Dudley for the Queen's pleasure, and he and the Queen were to be seen out riding together nearly every day - so much so, indeed, that she had begun to neglect her state duties to be with him.

Whilst the court was at Greenwich, news arrived from France of the death of Henry II, who had been mortally wounded in a joust. The news caused consternation at the English court, because although Henry had promoted the claim of his daughter-in-law, Mary Stuart, to the English throne, he was too much of a realist to jeopardise the peace of Cateau-Cambresis by attempting to place her there by force. His son, Francis II, who was proclaimed King on 10 July, was, however, a weak and surly youth who was very much under the dominance of his sinister mother, Catherine de' Medici, and his wife's powerful uncles, the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine, who were all staunch Catholics and virtually ruled France. What alarmed Elizabeth was that the Guises and the Queen Mother were universally known to be hostile towards her. Furthermore, Mary Stuart's mother, Mary of Guise, was acting as regent in Scotland, although she was not popular there because she was of the old faith, and Scotland was at that time undergoing, under the direction of the militant Calvinist, John Knox, a radical reformation that would result in the establishment of a more rigorous and austere Protestant church than could be found anywhere else in Europe.

The English government feared that a two-pronged attack on England might be attempted by the French and the Scots, who were supposed to be allies. Although their friendship had become somewhat strained of late, that might not necessarily be to England's advantage. There were French troops in Scotland, and if they gained the upper hand there, they might decide to invade England from the north. What Elizabeth's advisers could not foresee, however, was that France would soon be so torn apart by religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) that she would have little inclination and insufficient resources to make war on England. Nor would the Scots be likely to support it, because many were in sympathy with the Huguenots and distrusted the Catholics who were in power in France. For the present, though, the Queen was sufficiently worried about her vulnerable situation to reconsider her position on marriage. If she could make mischief for the French, and so keep them occupied, she would, and when she heard that Francis II had boasted that he would have himself proclaimed King of England, she loudly declared, 'I will take a husband who will give the King of France some trouble, and do him more harm than he expects.' The man she had in mind was a thorn in the side of the French, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, and he had been mooted as a husband for Elizabeth as far back as 1543 by Henry VIII.

Until Mary Stuart bore a child, Arran was heir to the Scottish throne, and the Protestant lords in Scotland were in favour of a match between him and Elizabeth since both were 'chief upholders of God's religion' and their marriage would unite England and Scotland.

Arran was more than willing to fall in with this plan. Until recently, he had been a refugee in Switzerland, having fled there from the French, who feared the threat he posed to Mary Stuart's throne. At the beginning of July, Elizabeth had organised his escape, sending her agent Thomas Randolph, an expert on Scottish affairs, with instructions to smuggle him secretly to England disguised as a merchant. Soon, people were beginning openly to wonder whether Arran might be in England, and de Quadra was in daily expectation of an announcement of the Queen's betrothal to the Earl, whom he believed was 'something more than a guest'. In fact, Elizabeth was using her rumoured interest in Arran merely as a weapon against the French, and he did not arrive in London until the end of August.

To complicate matters, Erik of Sweden was still pressing for an answer, and had sent to say that he was coming to do his wooing himself. The personable - and Protestant - Erik was regarded in diplomatic circles as a serious threat to the Habsburg and Arran marriage plans: 'This is the man that hath given us many sharp alarms in our camp,' stated Randolph. 'This is he that breaketh our sleep and tieth oft our tongues.'

But what Elizabeth really wanted, and needed, was the protection of the Emperor and King Philip against French aggression, and, backed by Cecil, she set out to obtain this by deliberately reviving the Habsburg marriage negotiations, and then dragging them out for as long as it pleased her.

Meanwhile, the Queen was spending the season in a high good humour. Every summer, unless the plague threatened, custom decreed that English monarchs go on a progress through parts of their kingdom, staying in the houses of the great and seeing, and being seen by, the people. Such progresses were not mere holidays, but public relations exercises designed to promote the popularity of the sovereign. Queen Elizabeth delighted in going on progress, as we shall see, and on 17 July 1559 set out on the first of many, which took her to Eltham Palace, Dartford, Cobham and Nonsuch Palace, where she was lavishly entertained for five days by Arundel, who still fancied his chances as one of her suitors. One of the banquets he gave in her honour went on until three in the morning. Another banquet was followed by a masque performed 'with drums, flutes, and all the music that could be, until midnight'. When Elizabeth left Nonsuch for Hampton Court on 10 August, Arundel gave her a magnificent set of silver plate in a presentation cabinet. There were bets that she would announce their betrothal within a week or so, but those who laid them were to be disappointed.

It was during this progress that Elizabeth's relations with Dudley grew increasingly intense, and as their intimacy became more obvious, so too, proportionately, did the scandal surrounding their affair escalate. If Dudley had been unpopular before, he could now be accounted one of the most hated men in England. He was the target of envy and resentment, and his enemies, who affected to believe him capable of any villainy, however foul, made great political capital of his treacherous family background, the implication being that here was another of Northumberland's race, 'fleshed in conspiracy', poised to make his bid to rule England. So universal and enduring was the backbiting against him that even the Queen, when she was momentarily displeased with him, reminded him that his forbears 'had been traitors three descents'.

William Cecil was one of those who resented, distrusted and feared Dudley. He resented the hold he had upon the Queen, distrusted his ability to advise her on political matters, and feared the consequences of their affair. Dudley being a married man, his relationship with Elizabeth could only attract the worst kind of speculation. Were his wife to die of her rumoured illness, the Queen might marry him, and then - goodbye Cecil. Either way the throne would be undermined and the public wellbeing threatened. Cecil could not bear to contemplate a future with Dudley in power. Already, factions were forming at court, for and against the favourite, and that was a bad sign. To safeguard his own future, and those of Elizabeth and her realm, Cecil began to work in earnest for the Habsburg marriage.

To be fair, although he had many admirable qualities, and his loyalty to the Queen was never in doubt, Robert Dudley had a talent for making enemies. His haughty manner, transparent ambition and two- faced hypocrisy - he was not above maligning his 'friends' behind their backs - put people off. Most courtiers resented the fact that now, if they desired an audience with the Queen, they must first be supplicants to Lord Robert, who could - and did - demand his price. He could also be devious, and he invariably worked behind the scenes to abort any marriage negotiations embarked upon by the Queen. Failing this, he would openly try to discredit his rivals in Elizabeth's eyes, or raise objections on the grounds that a marriage alliance would not be beneficial to England's interests. Most people, however, saw through this, and concluded, quite correctly, that Dudley was looking to his own interests.' Were Elizabeth to marry, his ascendancy would be speedily overthrown.

It is a measure of her feelings for her , as she addressed him in their intimate letters, that Elizabeth, who normally cared deeply what her subjects thought of her, turned a blind eye to the hatred they expressed towards her favourite. Nor did she encourage him to court popularity among her people - she was too jealous of her own popularity to wish to share it. In fact, it pleased her to have him so dependent upon her, for such dependency virtually guaranteed his fidelity.

One of those not so enamoured of Robert Dudley, who feared for Elizabeth's good name and reputation, was her former governess, Kat Ashley, who had once gone to the Tower for aiding and abetting her mistress in her clandestine love affair with Admiral Seymour, and had good reason to fear the consequences of what was going on now. That August, Mrs Ashley took it upon herself to remonstrate with the Queen, and, on her knees, 'implored her in God's name to marry and put an end to these disreputable rumours, telling Her Majesty that her behaviour towards the Master of the Horse occasioned much evil speaking'.

Rather offended, Elizabeth retorted that, if she had showed herself gracious to Dudley, 'he had deserved it for his honourable nature and dealings'. It was beyond her how anybody dared object to their friendship, 'seeing that she was always surrounded by her Ladies of the Bedchamber, who at all times could see whether there was anything dishonourable between her and her Master of the Horse'. However, she went on defiantly, 'If she had ever had the will, or had found pleasure in such a dishonourable life - from which, may God preserve her - she did not know of anyone who could forbid her; but she trusted in God that nobody would ever live to see her so commit herself.

Mrs Ashley replied that the rumours were very damaging to Her Majesty's reputation, and confided her fear that they might alienate the Queen's subjects, or even provoke a civil war. Elizabeth shrugged this off. She commended Ashley for the devotion which had prompted her to speak out, but stated that she could not take a husband without first weighing all the advantages and disadvantages.

In that case, answered Ashley, should not her mistress distance herself from Dudley? Elizabeth responded with some emotion, protesting that she needed to see him constantly because 'in this world she had so much sorrow and tribulation and so little joy'.

Mrs Ashley or someone else reported the Queen's words to Baron Breuner, who believed that Elizabeth was telling the truth. But even though her remarks were widely reported, the rumours continued to flourish. Breuner believed that Robert Dudley's constant presence at the Queen's side was to blame - that, and the fact that he had a wife, 'a fine lady from whom he has always had nothing but good', whom he rarely visited.

The Emperor, in Augsburg, having also heard the latest disturbing rumours besmirching Elizabeth's reputation had instructed Breuner to undertake discreet but stringent enquiries to determine whether there was any truth in them. On 6 August, the Baron reported back:

I have employed as my agent a certain Francis Borth, who is on very friendly terms with all the Ladies of the Bedchamber and all other persons who have been about the Queen and have brought her up since childhood. They all swear by all that is holy that Her Majesty has most certainly never been forgetful of her honour. Yet it is not without significance that Her Majesty shows her liking for Lord Robert more markedly than is consistent with her reputation and dignity.

Indeed, for someone who had confided to Breuner that she was so beset by duties that she had not had time to think of love, she was doing little to dispel the impression that she was falling in love, or was already in love, with Dudley.

Later that month, Erik of Sweden sailed for England to woo his queen, only to be driven back by storms in the North Sea. Elizabeth immediately pronounced these to be a sign that God was protecting her, but Erik was undeterred. Soon afterwards, he put to sea again, only to encounter another storm which damaged his ships and obliged him to return home, battered, yet determined not to give up. To console himself, he wrote Elizabeth a series of passionate letters in Latin, in which he told her that, although 'Fortune had been harder than steel and more cruel than Mars', and prevented him coming through stormy seas to claim her, he would, at the first opportunity, hasten through armies of foes to be at her side, because her 'most loving Erik' was 'bound by an eternal love towards her'. However, as he had state commitments to meet just at present, he would shortly be sending his brother to England in the hope of having 'a favourable answer' to his proposal.

On 28 August, the Earl of Arran secretly arrived in London, and was smuggled into Cecil's house at Westminster, where he was to lodge. On the following day, he was granted a private audience with the Queen at Hampton Court, and two days later left for Scotland, escorted by Thomas Randolph. The plan was that he should lead the rebel Protestant lords there against the Queen Regent's government, and thus divert the Scots and French from turning their ambitious eyes towards England; all talk of a marriage alliance with Elizabeth had been abandoned, as she apparently was not impressed by the Earl personally. Arran's story was eventually to end in tragedy: he became insane, and never enjoyed the power and prestige that should have been his birthright.

It now appeared that the only foreign contender for the Queen's hand with any chance of success was the Archduke Charles.

Late in August, Elizabeth removed to Windsor Castle, where she spent her days riding and hunting in the Great Park, with Dudley never far from her side. In the evenings, they would sit together on a window seat, laughing and talking, or would play music and sing - a gittern given by Dudley to Elizabeth is now in the British Museum. They seemed not to care about the gossip that followed such open displays of affection, gossip that proclaimed them, at best, to be in love, or, at worst, to be sexual partners. It was even whispered that the Queen was pregnant by Dudley, although time, of course, gave the lie to that particular rumour. Cecil warned Elizabeth of what was being said and begged her to be more discreet, only to have her laugh in his face.

It was now clear that Arundel and Pickering could no longer be taken seriously as contenders for the Queen's hand, although both were still squabbling about matters of precedence. Robert Dudley's meteoric rise had left them totally eclipsed, and they now retired from the contest defeated, although not before Pickering had warned de Quadra that 'he knew [the Queen] meant to die a maid'. He lived on, unmarried and in declining health, until i$7S Elizabeth

was enjoying herself hugely with so many men dancing attendance upon her. At one point that autumn, there were a dozen foreign ambassadors at court, all hoping to win her friendship through a royal betrothal. How they would fare, commented Cecil sourly, 'God knoweth, and not I.' De Quadra was equally perplexed by the Queen's mercurial moods: one day she affected to be indifferent to the Habsburg marriage, the next she was discussing it as a serious possibility. In exasperation, the ambassador wrote to de Feria: 'Your Lordship will see what a pretty business it is to have to treat with this woman, who I think must have a hundred thousand devils in her body, notwithstanding that she is forever telling me that she yearns to be a nun and to pass her time in a cell praying. With her, all is falsehood and vanity.'

Early in September, de Quadra was visited secretly by Lady Mary Sidney, Dudley's sister and Elizabeth's most favoured Lady of the Bedchamber, who told the Bishop that now was the time to revive the Archduke's suit. He should ignore Her Majesty's apparent reluctance to discuss it, 'as it is the custom for ladies here not to give their consent in such matters until they are teased into it'. But Elizabeth might now be prevailed upon to give an answer within a few days. The Council would certainly urge her to do so - they were tired of all the delays and prevarication. De Quadra should rest assured that she, Lady Mary, would never say such things if they were untrue; in fact, she was acting with the Queen's consent. Elizabeth would never raise the subject of the marriage of her own accord, but there was no doubt that she very much wanted the Archduke to visit England.

De Quadra, unable to believe all this, sought corroboration from Dudley, who assured him that his sister was not lying. In fact, he himself would do anything to please King Philip, who had saved his life by securing his release from the Tower in 1554. Sir Thomas Parry, Elizabeth's Treasurer, also confirmed what Lady Mary had said, stating that the Queen 'believed the marriage had now become necessary'.

De Quadra could understand this: he was well aware of the threat posed by the French, and Lady Mary had told him of a plot by Arundel to poison Elizabeth and Dudley at Nonsuch Palace in August, expressing her fears for her mistress's safety. In fact, there had been no plot; it was an invention of the Queen's, conveyed to the Bishop as a practical joke. The Queen had also been the instigator of Mary Sidney's nocturnal visit to him, which was intended to prompt him into reopening the Habsburg marriage negotiations, a subject Elizabeth did not feel she could raise openly with him.

On 10 September, Baron Breuner, briefed by de Quadra, took a barge down to Hampton Court, whither the Queen had travelled from Windsor. Having anticipated a warm welcome, he was dismayed to find her in no mood to receive him. However, three days later, when Elizabeth had come up to Whitehall, de Quadra found her more amenable, although she was still protesting that she had no desire to marry the Archduke or any other foreign prince; she would only consider marrying someone she had seen face to face. It would be better if Charles did not come to England, because she could not commit herself, even indirectly, to marrying him.

'We are wasting words,' complained de Quadra. Her Majesty should begin with the premise that she had to marry someone, since that could not now be avoided. Then she should invite the Archduke to visit her; he assured her that she would not be committing herself in any way. The Emperor was now amenable to the idea - he, too, was eager for the marriage to take place - provided that matters could be managed in such a way as to spare Charles any humiliation should the Queen turn him down. Elizabeth wavered, then was silent for a moment.

'Shall I speak plainly and tell you the truth?' she asked. 'I think that if the Emperor so desires me for a daughter, he would not be doing too much by sending his son here without so many safeguards. I do not hold myself of so small account that the Emperor need sacrifice any dignity in doing it.'

De Quadra reported: 'By these words and her manner of saying them, I understood that she made no difficulty as to the conclusion of the business, but only in the procedure to bring it about.' One thing was certain: Elizabeth absolutely refused to invite Charles to England - it was not fitting for a queen and maiden to summon anyone to be her husband; she would rather die a thousand deaths. The Emperor must take the initiative. De Quadra assured her that there should be no difficulty in arranging that. Soon, the Queen was admitting that she would be delighted to receive the Archduke. She inquired what languages he spoke, and talked to the ambassador 'in a vastly different mood from her other conversations about her not wishing to marry'. De Quadra thought he had won the day.

However, when he asked if the Archduke's visit should be public or private, Elizabeth panicked, saying she would not be pressed further. The Archduke must do as he thought fit - she did not wish to become involved, and he must understand that she had not invited him. She kept repeating that she was not committing herself to marrying him; in fact, she had still not decided whether to marry at all. De Quadra dismissed her behaviour as 'nothing but ceremony. I do not believe that Lady Sidney and Lord Robert could be mistaken, and the latter says he never thought the Queen would go so far.'

Word of what was afoot quickly circulated around the court, and it was soon being said that Elizabeth would be the Archduke's wife by Christmas, although, as de Quadra drily observed, 'As she is a woman, and a spirited and obstinate woman too, passion has to be considered.' In his opinion, Charles should come at once: having seen him, the Queen would be unlikely to turn him down. Nor would she risk giving offence to the Emperor by doing so. On 2 October, the Bishop wrote to Ferdinand, urging him to send his son without delay.

At Whitehall that autumn, Lord Robert complained that the rooms allocated him were too damp because they were near the river. The Queen obligingly offered him a suite of apartments next to her own on the first floor, and tongues began to wag even more furiously than before. 'People are ashamed at what is going on,' shuddered de Quadra, but he, like most others, was making assumptions he could not substantiate.

The Duke of Norfolk was, according to de Quadra, 'the chief of Lord Robert's enemies, who are all the principal people in the kingdom'. Thomas Howard saw Dudley's constant presence at the Queen's side as an obstacle to the successful conclusion of any marriage negotiations, and openly criticised Elizabeth's 'lightness and bad government', warning Dudley that, if he did not abandon his 'present pretensions and presumptions, he would not die in his bed'.

Howard was the son of the poet Surrey, and the grandson of the third Duke, who had been the Queen's great-uncle and also the most implacable of Northumberland's opponents. His grandson was the premier peer in England, indeed, the only Duke in the peerage, and by virtue of his birth he expected to enjoy the favour and patronage of the Queen, and to be among her closest advisers. But with Dudley constantly in the way, that was never likely to be. Worse still, rumour had it that the Queen meant, one day, to marry Dudley. 'The Duke and the rest of them cannot put up with his being king,' commented de Quadra. Even though Dudley was married, the thought had crossed the Bishop's mind that he might be seeking a means whereby he might be freed from his lady so that he could marry Elizabeth - which was exactly what Norfolk and others feared.

At the beginning of October, John, Duke of Finland, the 'very courteous and princely' brother and envoy of Erik of Sweden, arrived in England, with the express purpose of concluding a marriage between his besotted master and Queen Elizabeth. That Elizabeth had made it perfectly clear that she was not interested seemed to have made no impression on Erik. Although Sweden was not a wealthy country, he was a Protestant, and he imagined that that was reason enough for Elizabeth to want to marry him.

Courtesy demanded that the Queen extend a warm welcome to the brother of a fellow monarch, and Dudley was sent to greet Duke John at Colchester, but the latter interpreted this as a sign that his mission had already been successful, and it required a great deal of tactful diplomacy on the part of the courtiers before he could be persuaded otherwise. Thereafter he showed himself impressed by the customs of England, and with its Queen, who showed him both friendship and favour, finding much to commend in this educated young man; soon there were speculations that she would marry him instead of his brother. Dudley was affability itself to the Duke - on the 19th he hosted a court banquet in his honour - but he cannot have welcomed his presence in England.

Duke John was flamboyant, and lavish with his gifts - even if they did consist of counterfeit coin - and his behaviour made Baron Breuner's hackles rise, obliging the Queen to exercise considerable ingenuity in keeping the two men apart. However, she was gaining immense satisfaction from the situation, and was proving more than adept at handling them. She would give a little, appear to be promising much, and then withdraw at the right tactical moment, leaving all concerned perplexed and frustrated. Then, just as they were ready to give up, she would show herself eager once more. It was a game that required a finely-tuned sense of timing, but one that she relished. And while she was dangling hopes of success before her suitors, she remained her own woman, free and uncommitted, whilst retaining the friendship of those princes who lived in hope.

'Here is a great resort of wooers and controversy amongst lovers,' wrote Cecil to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton that autumn. 'I would Her Majesty had one, and the rest honourably satisfied,' he told Sir Ralph Sadler. Apart from the Archduke Charles and Erik of Sweden, there was the King of Denmark, whose envoy was posturing about the court in a crimson velvet doublet embroidered with a heart pierced by an arrow 'to demonstrate the King's love for the Queen of England'. Nobody took him seriously, nor the continuing suits of the dukes of Saxony and Holstein. 'Her Majesty,' wrote de Quadra, 'is charmed by so many loose and flighty fancies.' However, out of the ten or twelve ambassadors competing for her favour, only those of Austria or Sweden had realistic hopes of success. Both were 'courting at a most marvellous rate'. They were also, within a short time and despite Elizabeth's efforts, trading insults and ready to do violence upon each other. Alarmed, Elizabeth forbade them to come to court at the same time, 'to avoid their slashing each other in her presence'.

De Quadra was worried in case Elizabeth accepted Erik rather than the Archduke, but the chief threat to the Habsburg alliance was nearer at hand. As John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, said, she might act as if she meant to make a foreign match, but she was really 'thinking of an alliance nearer home'.

Early in November, the French ambassador, Antoine de Noailles, was amused to see the Queen, flanked by Bishop de Quadra and Duke John, the representatives of her two foremost suitors, sitting in the gallery at Whitehall, watching Dudley, the man widely rumoured to be her lover, and her cousin, Lord Hunsdon, take on all comers at a tournament. Dudley did well, and de Noailles noticed how much this pleased Elizabeth.

Breuner was despondent. Thanks to Dudley, it seemed, the Queen was no longer interested in marrying the Archduke. Sadly, the Baron told her that there was no point in him staying in England. Elizabeth took offence at this, and was 'worried and peevish the whole day, giving no one a gracious answer'. She was aware that, if Breuner left, Dudley would be blamed for it. 'It is generally stated', wrote Breuner, 'that it is his fault that the Queen does not marry.' De Quadra, too, was complaining that Dudley was 'slackening in our business'. The favourite was now so hated that, according to Breuner, it was 'a marvel that he has not been slain long ere this'. Many people at court deplored Dudley's influence over the Queen and were concerned that Elizabeth was casting away a brilliant marriage because of him.

During November, the Duke of Norfolk confronted Lord Robert, warning him that he would do all in his power to bring about the Habsburg marriage.

'He is neither a good Englishman, nor a loyal subject, who advises the Queen to marry a foreigner,' retorted Dudley haughtily, whereupon Norfolk stalked off in a temper, though he had the support of Arundel and many other nobles.

When de Quadra told Elizabeth that the Archduke might be on his way, since all her conditions had been met, she answered that she was not contemplating marriage at present, although she might change her mind when she saw Charles.

The Bishop angrily pointed out that she had all but invited the Archduke for inspection, but she airily justified this by claiming to have only wished to meet him and get to know him in case she decided to marry at some future time. De Quadra, simmering with anger, repeated what Mary Sidney had said. Elizabeth replied that members of her household often said such things, with the best of intentions, but had never done so on her authority. Afterwards, de Quadra realised he had been made to look a fool, and prepared for the collapse of the marriage negotiations he had worked so hard to bring to a successful conclusion. 'I do not pretend to understand Her Majesty', he wrote, 'and I have given up all hope in her affairs.'

He also faced the prospect of Elizabeth marrying Robert Dudley, which would, he was convinced, be a highly unsuitable match, even if one discounted the rumour, communicated by 'a certain person who is accustomed to give me veracious news' and reported by the Bishop to Philip on 13 November, that Dudley had 'sent to poison his wife. Certainly, all the Queen has done with us and with the Swedes, and will do with the rest in the matter of her marriage, is only keeping Lord Robert's enemies and the country engaged with words until this wicked deed of killing his wife is consummated.' If rumour spoke true, then Dudley's resort to murder was extremely short-sighted, since suspicion would be bound to attach to him, and the Queen could then consequently never marry him for fear of being implicated in the deed. But de Quadra clearly believed them both capable of such a crime, and he could foresee ruin staring them in the face if they dared to marry.

Nor were the rumours confined to England. Sir Thomas Challoner, the English ambassador to the court of King Philip at Brussels, was so shocked at hearing the 'most foul slander' against his mistress, that he wrote to warn Cecil of it, without giving any details, since it was too offensive to be committed to paper. Challoner stressed that he knew the rumours were false, but urged the Queen to be more discreet in her dealings with men and to marry soon, 'for without posterity of Her Highness, what hope is left unto us?'

On 24 November, the Queen appointed Dudley Lord Lieutenant and Constable of Windsor Castle. He was already advancing his friends and supporters to influential posts at court, and was promoting himself as the champion of Protestantism. As such, he was hostile to the Spanish and inclined to favour the French. In his opinion, the English government should be at the forefront of the Protestant revolution, and should abandon the alliance with Philip. Yet although he had been elected to Parliament in January 1559, he had no seat on the Council, and those that did resented him meddling in high politics. Some, according to de Quadra, even muttered that they wanted no more women ruling over them.

Nevertheless, many Englishmen, wishing to court the favour of the man they believed might one day be their king, acknowledged Dudley as the leader and inspiration of the radical religious reformers, and a great number of devotional tracts were dedicated to him. There is no doubt that he was sincere in his beliefs: 'I take Almighty God to be my record', he once wrote, 'I never altered my mind or thought from my youth touching my religion ... I was ever from my cradle brought up in it.'

Around Dudley, a court faction had formed. Cecil, in a private memorandum, listed its members, who included Robert's brother-in- law, Sir Henry Sidney, his brother Ambrose Dudley, Sir James Croft, who had supported Elizabeth during Mary's reign, and John Appleyard, half-brother of Lady Dudley. Cecil was under the impression that his own position at court was becoming less and less secure as Dudley became more powerful. Ever cautious, he took care not to alienate Dudley, but behaved affably and courteously towards him. Behind the scenes, however, he was assiduously courting Norfolk, the favourite's bitter enemy, who had emerged as the leader of the anti-Dudley faction.

There were some ugly incidents. One ambassador wondered if England was so poor that none could be found to stab Dudley with a poniard, and it seems that there was a plot to kill him around this time, for two men - Sir William Drury, a soldier, and his brother Dru, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber - were sent to the Tower for several months, charged with attempted murder. Whether there was any substance to the accusation is not clear, because it was Dudley himself who later secured their release. In December, Norfolk publicly accused him of interfering in state affairs, thus provoking a heated exchange between the two men. Dudley went straight to the Queen, and less than a week later, Norfolk found himself on the way north to serve as Lieutenant General on the Scottish border. This was no sinecure, because that month saw Elizabeth dispatching, in direct contravention of a treaty she had made with Mary of Guise, an English fleet to assist the Protestant lords in Scotland in their struggle against the Queen Mother and the French troops she had summoned to support her.

As Christmas approached, Queen and court indulged in a continual merry-go-round of balls, banquets, masques and hunting parties, Elizabeth ignoring the unsavoury things that were being said about her.

It was fortunate that the Archduke had not yet set out for England, for it was now obvious to de Quadra and Breuner that the Queen had lost interest in marrying him, and they concluded that she was merely using them 'and the other envoys who are sojourning here on matrimonial business'; they guessed that her real purpose in keeping them guessing had been to counteract the threat of French aggression and deceive her own subjects into thinking that she was serious about marrying. 'For as long as we are here, she can put off the vulgar mob who daily beg and implore her to marry, with the plea that she must have leisure to occupy herself with the requests of so many potentates, to the weal and advantage of her realm.'

In December, Breuner left England, having failed in his mission. He was no nearer to understanding Elizabeth now than he had been at the start, and he imputed her changeable behaviour to her youthful experiences, 'for sometimes she was regarded as legitimate, and at other times not. She has been brought up at court, then sent away, and to crown all she has even been held captive.' Having attained the throne, she could be compared to 'a peasant on whom a barony has been conferred', having become so puffed up with pride that she imagined she could indulge her every whim. 'But here she errs, for if she took my Lord Robert, she will incur so much enmity that she may one evening lay herself down as the Queen of England, and rise the next morning as plain Mistress Elizabeth.'

Yet it seemed that Elizabeth was indeed contemplating such a step. In January 1560, de Quadra reported that there was ill-feeling among the Queen's subjects at the prospect of her taking Dudley as her consort; he believed they would 'do something to set this crooked business straight. There is not a man who does not cry out on him as the Queen's ruin, and on her with indignation.' It was now believed by all that 'she will marry none but the favoured Robert'.

In March, there was talk that Dudley might attempt to have his marriage dissolved. Bishop de Quadra had heard him boasting that 'if he lives another year, he will be in a very different position from now. He is laying in a good stock of arms and is every day assuming a more masterful part in affairs. Every day he presumes more and more, and it is now said that he means to divorce his wife.' But, again, the rumours appear to have been baseless, for Dudley took no steps to have his marriage dissolved.

Early in the new year von Helfenstein returned to England in an attempt to revive the Habsburg marriage negotiations. The King of Bohemia and the Duke of Bavaria, vassals of the Emperor, both sent envoys urging the Queen to reconsider, and suggested to Charles that it might be better if he went and did his courting in person, but the Emperor, offended by Elizabeth's apparent indifference to the match, was now refusing to let his son go to England unless she made some commitment beforehand. A stalemate had been reached, and by February it was obvious that the marriage negotiations had collapsed. On the 19th de Quadra gave it as his opinion that the Queen's strategies would lead to her ruin, because without the support and friendship of the Habsburg monarchies, 'not only will the French despise her, but her own people as well, and she will be left helpless'.

In February, Elizabeth disposed of her other foreign suitor, who had just succeeded his father as King of Sweden. She wrote on the 25th to tell Erik that, despite being unable to doubt 'the zeal and love of your mind towards us, yet we are grieved that we cannot gratify Your Serene Highness with the same kind of affection'. She protested that she had 'never yet conceived a feeling of that kind affection towards anyone', and begged Erik 'to set a limit to your love, that it advance not beyond the laws of friendship'. She stated firmly that, 'if God ever direct our heart to consideration of marriage, we shall never choose any absent husband, how powerful or worthy a prince soever. I have always given to your brother the same answer, that we do not conceive in our heart to take a husband, but highly commend this single life, and hope that Your Serene Highness will no longer spend time in waiting for me.' In a postscript, she begged him to desist from coming to England, 'since nothing but expectation can happen to Your Serene Highness in that business, and we very greatly fear that your love, which is now so great, might be turned to another alien feeling, which to us would be very grievous'.

At first, Erik refused to take no for an answer, but as the weeks passed and the Queen showed no sign of relenting,, he reluctantly summoned Duke John home.

In England many were asking had the way been cleared for Robert Dudley?

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