The old woman sat in murky light, facing a small and flickering fire. Her visitor sat to the side – sat stiff, looked tentative.
She began to speak, shifting her eyes, but not her head, from the fire.
“So, sir, it all goes well with you and your company? I note that you frequently broach certain subjects of an historical nature, and even of what one might call a political nature. Do you feel uneasy in so doing? Should I feel uneasy?’
“Your Majesty, all is done in close concert with the Master of Revels…”
“Yes, yes. Tilney is most capable. And you do keep him busy! You may feel he is there to cramp and snip and pester, yet, I can assure you, if it were not for his discreet censorings…Well, there are those who would have all public drama banned from London. The Lord Mayor, for one! So, I hope you appreciate the Master of Revels’ position. I hope you appreciate my position. But you are not here to be reprimanded or even advised.
“May I speak freely, sir? Of course I may. I’m the Queen. I say it outright then: you are here because your company and conversation are to my taste. You need not be anxious. It pleases me to be with clever men, especially if they are a touch, shall we say, irregular. Wild, even. I am resigned, of course, to the likes of Walsingham and Cecil for my main company. They are scarcely a merry lot, my chief advisers. They chirp but rarely, those drear birds.
“Yes, I like it when a man is clever and a bit wild. Of course, he must not attempt to lay a hold on my realm. I still weep for one who did just that that. He lacks a head now, poor Essex, but he entertained me. I think there must be a great pardon in heaven awaiting all men who have not bored their women.
“But, sir, apart from refraining from treason, I ask only that you keep in mind that what I confide is to be kept closer than your own hide…if you value that hide! Well, sir?”
“Your Majesty, all that you say in my presence lies, er, as in its own tomb.”
“Yes, yes. Prettily answered. You can’t tell me to shut up and you can’t reveal a word of what I utter. That’s how it is: you must sit there, because it pleases an old queen to ruminate in the presence of clever men. And you are surely the cleverest in an age of supremely clever men…Wine, eh? Let’s have some hot wine.”
A slight raising of the royal hand drew forward a venerable serving woman into the firelight.
“Sellars, let’s have wine, hot wine. Wait! Spice it a little, for this occasion. But, look you, Sellars, there’s no need for saffron. I’m sure my guest cares little for such frippery, and one may as well sprinkle flakes of gold about the courtyard as spice wine with saffron.”
The old servant bowed and shuffled away as soundlessly as she had approached.
“Forgive me, sir, but I may be a queen a while and drink saffron every day…but can I stay a queen long without thrift? In any case, thrift is not a policy for me, it is a twitch, a nerve, an itch in the very bone. My itch comes from Henry the Seventh, no doubt. My grandfather saved this realm through thrift. Over-saved it, perhaps. He knew the pinch of need, the humiliation of dependency.
“As for me…when one’s father murders one’s mother, when one’s guardian is beheaded by one’s brother, and that deservedly, and when one looks certain to die by the hand of one’s sister…well, a man of keen wit will understand why this Elizabeth turns over every coin a hundred times before spending, turns a thought in her mind a thousand times and still will not allow it to take life as a decision. When you have enjoyed not one moment’s security, you grow careful, fretful.
“I might have been a monster, sir. Instead, I am merely ruthless…and endlessly thrifty with money and decision. Also, I have the ability to make others responsible not just for my hard deeds but for the very thoughts that engender those deeds. I am mother only to good decisions. My compassion lies in taking much time to decide, not in taking blame. But you, sir, who know much of King John, understand this royal art of blame-shifting, a trait so sinister, but so necessary.”
“Your Majesty, John lived in other, harsher times.”
“Yes, yes, You answer well again. To reward your tact, I shall tell you that we are all like John, we monarchs. It is only a matter in what degree we are like him, but we are all like him. We are born forsworn…hmmm…by the way…
“You are not Catholic, I hope?”
“Oh, don’t worry if you are. You can worship Mithra or Solomon’s big toe, for all I care. That’s the rule for this private room, and back wherever you lodge, or the cellar where you and your toe-worshippers may gather. But never in public, or even in close company! If you are a Catholic, especially, you must be careful. Men in your irregular profession should make every appearance of conformity. Given to brawling, swilling, buggery, spying…and Catholicism. That’s what people think of you and your kind. And when my officers get their hands on you, they relish both the questioning and the correction. You will then find we have not come far from King John’s day. Tread carefully, I say. Do not brawl, do not spy and serve whatever gang of priests has the upper hand – yet not eagerly, in case they lose the upper hand. I speak as one who has lived in the shadow of the axe.”
“Majesty, I am no Catholic. Nor am I of the turbulent ilk of Kyd and Marlowe. It is men’s hearts and characters which interest me, not their beliefs.”
“Indeed, sir, you seem one of the few who convey that men are a shifting mess, consistent only in contradiction. You understand that the most constant among them is a silly stew with lid off: burning here, tepid there, till stirred about. Not even passion or self-love explains their character. Their worth certainly cannot be judged by their beliefs – but perhaps by their ability to hold to a belief longer than the life of a summer fly? What do you think? My father was sorrier to see the head of Thomas More go a-rolling than that of my mother. Of course, there is a better type of faith again: the keeping of faith in one’s occupation. When one is paid to tinker, then tinker well, with all the heart.
“I do believe England and France have two such good and honest tinkers at the forge of government. Rare moment! For England, I give up my indifference; Henry of Navarre gives up his Protestant faith for France. I avenge my mother in this, he forsakes his mother. To think France has such a king, who had such a mother! Does Navarre not breed fops like the rest of that nation?”
The servant appeared with a simple tray and two cups.
“Silver-embossed glass! Sellars, you do not know that the heat weakens the glass? Should it shatter, all this intricate metal-work must then be discarded, since there is nobody in England able to fit new glass to it. Never mind. It is Elizabeth who must pay, none other! Perhaps some new Leicester will conquer Venice for me, so I may have what glass I will. And who shall pay for this new hero’s war? Why Elizabeth, of course! She pays for wars, she pays for glass, she pays for saffron. She pays! And later scholars will say that she spent not enough, that she hesitated, economised…”
The old servant bowed and shuffled away, as if deaf to all.
“And Sellars, if there is residue in the pot, make sure you drink it. I’ll not waste spice, knowing the great way it must travel. And the wine is no mean vintage. Drink, woman, and do your rheums some good. I’ll not have waste, nor apologise for thrift.”
Again she addressed her visitor.
“Well, I am the grand-daughter of Henry Tudor, who put money in his purse, and I shall put money in my purse…And if you will attend to me, sir, you will put money in your purse!
“Pardon your queen. You must remember I am also a lone woman, with a large household to keep. Drink, please. There was something I wished to say to you, If I drift into a doze for a while, it will not be for long. Hot wine often puts me in a doze…
There is something we have in common, as I think…something I wished to say to you…But if I should doze…”
Two queens on an island. One was a widowed queen consort of France, and queen of Scotland. The other was daughter to an allegedly adulterous queen consort of England, who lost her head. Did that make the daughter a bastard? Each was a relative of Margaret Tudor, elder sister to Henry, the head-chopper. Now, who was rightful queen of England? Catholic Mary? Protestant Bess?
How could it end well? It just could not.
Mary Stuart had married her too young and too Catholic cousin, Darnley: an Englishman and a Stuart, who, though a sot, would do no harm to her claims to England’s throne.
The Scottish barons rebelled, because Darnley was Catholic, but mainly because Scots rebel through habit, inclination and sport. This rebellion Elizabeth was happy to support, and she secretly promised the barons much money – while publicly deploring rebellion against her dear sister of Scotland. Ah, but one does not simply empty coffers in such an enterprise. One delays payment, sees how far things go before committing to greater expenditure…
Meanwhile, Mary, who had the gift of suddenness, and her suddenly married husband, who had the gift of drifting luckily, crushed the rebels. Elizabeth’s main client among the barons was Mary’s bastard half-brother, Lord Moray. Moray escaped, alone, and made a dash to the English court, which had, after all, set him on to rebel.
Meanwhile, Mary was contemplating what she might do to enhance and exploit this sudden prestige. Perhaps a sudden invasion of the kingdom of her “excellent sister, Elizabeth”? Elizabeth had enemies, especially Catholics, all about her. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, had loved the Reform, and many had hated her for it. Mary of Scotland would find allies, in and out of England.
While Mary’s aggression was restrained, barely, by the now loyal barons, Elizabeth needed no cooling. She lived to wait, to cogitate. Meanwhile, the awkward fugitive, Lord Moray was at court. Elizabeth’s cheap, indefinite but perhaps effective response was…
The main public, the important audience, was the French Ambassador. If one has a point to make about anything, anywhere in the world, make it to the French Ambassador: a creature which floats forever in a perfect suspension of disbelief.
Elizabeth is in conference with the French Ambassador, discussing some of the countless plaguing matters which a neatly etched English Channel should simplify, but never does. An usher announces to the Queen that Lord Moray has arrived from Scotland, and awaits Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Elizabeth is aware that her pale features, made paler by a crust of flour and lead, need little more than a widening of the eyes and a certain hard set of the mouth to form the most perfect mask of fury. Such a mask she puts on as she rises to her feet.
“Do I hear rightly? Is it possible that this traitor to my sister Mary, with whom I form one heart and mind…can it be that the traitor is here at Hampton Court? It were better for him if he were taking refuge in the darkest cellar of Edinburgh Castle, or of Holyrood…Moray! In our house! Shall we send him on his way? Shall we imprison him on our sister’s behalf? Shall he be plucked and trussed like a goose and sent thither, back to Scotland?”
Lord Cecil puts in at the correct juncture.
“Madam, one may perhaps receive Lord Moray. It is possible he can make some excuse for his conduct toward his sister, and toward your sister. As christians, we may hear him, though, as christians, we may also condemn him.”
Elizabeth slumps back into her seat, calming only slightly. Is that a quick, satisfied glance she darts at the French Ambassador, as after a well-played set of tennis?
“Well, well. You will ever play the moderator, my lord Cecil. Let’s hear this rebel. But – mark you, lord Cecil! – this fondness of yours is none of mine. Well, well. Admit the bold fellow to our company. But briefly, sir, briefly…and stay, monsieur l’ambassadeur, please stay. France must know that England refuses comfort to all who raise rebellious arms against God’s anointed.”
Moray, dressed entirely in black, creeps into the silent court. The Queen will not regard him, while Cecil urges him forward with tense eye movements.
At last, Lord Moray kneels before Elizabeth, and begins to murmur. The Queen now directs a scornful glare at him and snaps:
“In French, felon, in French! Let the ambassador hear, so that through him all Europe can hear, why you have so abused my sister’s trust…that sister with whom I share one mind and one heart! You that have raised arms against my sister – who is also your sister – tell your ungodly tale. Mumble no excuses, however, for we will hear none. Why have you done this, felon? And what comfort have you sought here? Is it your mind to set sister against sister? How so, since England and Scotland have but one mind and one heart between them? What demon surgery might do this? Speak!”
A tearful Moray utters the words confected for him by Lord Cecil, the words which remove all guilt from Elizabeth, and which even absolve Moray from the crime of treason. He blubbers of his love for Mary, of her boundless generosity to a half-brother who is but a royal bastard, and how it was only fear of a plot against his life by those who have wheedled their way into Mary’s affections etc etc…
“Great Queen, I ask only that you seek to restore me to my sister’s affections. If I am to lose my life, let it be in her service, not as a rebel, which I am not. Assign me to face any peril in the service of Scotland’s Queen, and I shall face it. But do not let me bear a disgrace which I have not fully deserved.”
Elizabeth considers, then, with a downward glance:
“Live, then, Lord Moray, the better to serve your sister. Why, even I have had my little disagreements with Mary. What family is without strife? What Tudor rose without thorns?
“Yet we must receive you as one quite out of favour with her whom I love above my own life, above all except my country and the realm which is my trust. No. You shall live here but modestly, as suppliant, till I know my sister’s will concerning you. It is likely that her soft and forgiving nature will show more than leniency – I know the lady’s angelic quality – thus I may not punish you in advance of any determination of hers. No, sir, you shall not be given any mean treatment here, but it must be modest. Nor may you be seen again in this room of state, until you are once again Mary’s appointed servant and representative.
“Enough! Let Lord Moray be accommodated where can best pray and wait. Now, I have business with France.”
As Mary returns to her rolls and charts, does she steal another glance, to read the response of the French ambassador to her performance? And does the Frenchman make the slightest approving bow, just from the neck, as one who wishes to say: “Well played!”?
It is certain that when the little scene is described across Europe, none will care for its veracity. All men of state will simply agree that the scene was well played – which is better than any veracity, whether one is trading in horses or national destinies.
The Queen stirred.
“What? Have I been sleeping?”
The visitor spoke timidly, as one might:
“Majesty, a little, I think.”
“Have I been speaking? Have I been speaking of Mary?”
“You spoke the name, as you drowsed.”
“Majesty, I cannot know.”
“Oh, never mind. It was the interesting Mary of which I was dreaming. No, not dreaming, for dreams are fiction, and my thoughts have been consequential. I doubt anybody thinks as long and consequentially as I do…
“Yet I am inclined to doze off these days. I blame the wine, but perhaps it is age. It were best not to tell our enemies, domestic or other, that the Queen grows a little feeble. Not that I have ever governed energetically. I have governed by inertia, as one must in an age of brilliance, of coloured flies and coloured dragons.
“Sir, there was something I wished to say to you…something about our respective tasks…But first, a little more wine before it grows quite cold in these glass cups…”
Queen Mary fell in love suddenly, and fell out of love at least quickly. Darnley was a drunkard, a weakling, a bully. Soon she rejected her husband, then scorned him openly.
Rated lowly by all, Darnley yet expected to be not just consort but co-sovereign, with all rights to the throne of Scotland. Envious like all bullies, he joined a conspiracy by the barons to murder Mary’s closest advisor, an Italian musician, in Mary’s presence. At the time, Mary was pregnant with James I of England – but well! This was politics in Scotland!
The plot went well, seen as Scottish politics, rather than as general politics. After the open butchery, Mary was prisoner of her barons and her husband, Darnley.
Darnley, who showed all the unenviable qualities of Tudors and Stuarts, and none of the good, had one over-riding weakness: his passion for his wife. Mary had long since rejected his advances, preferring the conversation of a misshapen and ugly musician to the more-than-conversation of her lusty young husband.
Now, the prisoner Mary must count her possible allies, all of them so uncertain, so far off: Lord Moray, awaiting forgiveness in England, the Catholic monarchs of Europe, a pope, a juggling, delaying Elizabeth…
No. Mary’s one potent ally to hand was…why, it was Darnley! All that would be needed was a two-person play, in which the one actor grew hot by artifice and kept the coldest of minds, and the other needed not to act, but merely surrender to his passion. With sublime economy, he would serve as both blustering actor and dull, groundling audience.
Mary’s mind is all on vengeance, vengeance on the barons, vengeance on Darnley. But she begins the little play as a simple woman, five months pregnant, who has just witnessed a bloody murder. She grows ill, complains of cramps…
Now the barons must decide what all the world will think of their treatment of a royal mother, rather than their treatment of an Italian musician.
She is escorted to her chamber with all care, even with reverence, to be nursed by her chosen doctors and attendants.
The husband and future father, in prey to wild and conflicting emotions, comes alone to his ailing wife.
For so long, Darnley has read only scorn in the faces of those whose respect he has craved. When he enters a room, men roll their eyes, and do not interrupt their conferences or their gaming. With what sense of the real has been left to him, the drunkard Darnley knows he is the world’s scorn. For all his rank and physical assets, even servant girls sense the self-loathing adolescent behind the pomp. All shun him, and some part of Darnley knows it.
Less than a day ago, Mary was spitting contempt at him and vowing revenge. Now, so suddenly, she is a simpering girl with moist eyes and a weakly dawning smile. And now, with anxiety, with affection, she softly rubs her belly. And now she takes the hand of Darnley and, with broadening smile and eyes now fairly swimming, places it on her belly. She holds his hand there.
United by their unborn child, they gaze into each other’s tearful eyes. Darnley leans down toward her face, then hesitates. But his wife’s expression tells him to proceed, to come into her embrace, which will be an embrace of three.
Darnley is suddenly a man, and much more. He is the triumphant spiller of corrupt Italian blood; he is also a triumphant lover, a king, a conqueror of queens’ hearts, founder of a dynasty which must surely encompass all England as well as Scotland.
Of course! He has the key to it all now: a man must dominate utterly, in all things, then he must lose himself utterly in the body a woman who submits utterly, and who can scent the blood of his rival on his hands. There, in her submissive bosom, he mines new domination…
And soon, Mary has escaped her captors, in the company of her main captor, her dominator – Darnley.
How she is to murder the fellow later, that must await the end…of another play!
Again the Queen stirred.
“What, have I slept again?”
“Briefly, I think, Your Majesty.”
“Did I not tell you of certain matters, concerning Scotland, and such like?”
“No, Your Majesty. You have been dozing. I have been relishing these quiet moments, and this wine you have graciously provided.”
“Indeed, indeed. Well, if I have said anything…”
“Well, I have not been dreaming, for dreams are absurd. I have been remembering certain things most accurately. It is a pity I cannot tell you all I remember, but it is also safer for you, sir. One day, Mary’s son will occupy this throne.
“It will do you no harm to hear that Mary made an end as sublime as any mortal can aspire to. Never was an execution more perfectly staged – and yet not by those wielding the axe. You know, by the time she died, she was a frump. And no man could call me a frump. No, do not begin to flatter me now, sir. And yet, flatter me, do! Oh, say nothing, say nothing…
“But when Mary of Scotland went to the block, she did it with such impossible grace that men will forever remember her as a woman of sublime beauty.
“Yet she was a frump.”
She sat searching in the bottom of her near empty cup. The visitor waited.
“Yes, I had something to say to you, sir. It is this: you and I do a similar task. You are paid to do it, I must pay to do it…Hot wine in glass! How I must pay and pay! Yes, we are, you and I, under the one yoke. I hope you get more joy of it than do I.”
“Majesty, you steer the course of this nation. You reach out to Muscovy, to Barbary, to the New World. I do not flatter. You have been more king than any king. I am a writer of plays.”
“Plays, you say? I tell you this, Master…but your name has eluded me, though I know it well…”
“Master Shakespeare, we are both in the business of confecting and performing. Remember: it is the play, always!”
“The…the play, Majesty?”
“The play, Master Shakespeare. The play’s the thing!”