N EVER before did the hand of a woman and its possible bestowal in marriage play so important a part in the affairs of Europe as did that of Elizabeth. She contrived to delay and postpone giving an answer to Philip till his minister wrote home wrathfully, "The English queen is possessed of ten thousand devils," but at the death of Philip's third wife, ten years later, she was not at all displeased when the Spanish ambassador suggested pointedly that Philip was "still young enough to take a fourth wife." When France was showing too much favor to Scotland to suit English notions, she was fully capable of discussing the possibility of a Scotch husband, and when there was a whisper that one foreign ruler meditated the rescue of the captive Mary and a marriage with her, Elizabeth at once sent an agent to him to suggest a marriage with herself. Whenever her fears of Spain increased, she began to think of a French alliance. There was always a French suitor ready, for Catherine de Medicis was trying her best to persuade Elizabeth to choose one of the French princes for a husband.
The English queen kept one suitor waiting in uncertainty for seven years, another for eleven. She had all sorts of absurd names for her admirers; one was her "lap-dog," one her "tame cat," one her "sheep," another her "frog." Occasionally she found a wooer who was not so ready as the others to await her royal pleasure. Three years after all negotiations with the Archduke Charles, brother of the German emperor, had been broken off, she was talking familiarly with some of the ladies of the bedchamber, and she said with some indignation:—
"The king of France is to marry one daughter of the emperor, and the king of Spain is to marry another."
"There's many a noble marriage, your Majesty," said one of her ladies. "Would that there was one more," she added slily.
"These royal brides have near of kin to promote their interests," replied Elizabeth. "What can a woman alone do for herself, whether she is on a throne or on a wooden stool?"
"Your Grace has full many a faithful servant," answered the lady, "who would be ready to give life and limb to do your will."
"And yet with all these honorable marriages a-making, not one man in the council had the wit to remind the rest that the emperor has a brother," said the queen and turned away abruptly. The lady understood what was expected of her, and she sent at once for the Earl of Leicester.
"Would you do aught to gratify her Majesty?" she asked.
"Is there aught that I would not do to gratify her Majesty—or yourself?" he added with a gallant bow. The lady repeated the conversation.
The next day a humble petition came from the council:—
"Far be it from the intentions of your Majesty's servants to suggest anything displeasing to your Grace, but if it be in accordance with your will, it would be highly gratifying to your councilors, should you grant this their humble petition that your Highness will consider the matter of the Archduke Charles and the suit that he so recently made."
"Of my own will the thought of marriage has ever been far from me, but I cannot refuse the request of my councilors in whose judgment I have so much confidence."
An ambassador was sent at once to the German emperor with the message:—
"The queen of England regrets deeply that her frequent illnesses, the wars in France and Flanders, and difficult matters in her own government have prevented her from returning a final answer to the suit of his imperial Majesty's brother. If he is pleased to come to England, he will be most welcome, and she doubts not that her subjects can be persuaded to permit him the free exercise of his own religion."
"It is a pleasure," returned the emperor, "to send to her Majesty, the queen of England, assurances of my warmest regard. Most highly do I esteem the honor of receiving a message from a sovereign of such beauty of face and greatness of mind;" and then he continued, not without a little enjoyment it may be, "My brother is most grateful for her Majesty's good intentions toward him, but he would say that after a delay of three years he had supposed that she did not wish to accept his suit, and he is now engaged to a princess of his own faith, but he earnestly hopes that the queen will ever regard him as a brother."
The youthful envoy was presented with a silver vessel and treated with all courtesy, but these attentions to her ambassador did not soothe the rage of Elizabeth. "If I were a man," she stormed, "and the emperor had offered me such an insult, I would have called him out to single combat."
The last of Elizabeth's wooers was the Duke of Alençon. Catherine de Medicis had tried hard to win the hand of the queen for an older son who was not at all eager for the honor. When this plan failed, Catherine wrote to her minister in England: "Would she have my son Alençon? He is turned of sixteen, though but little for his age." She went on to say that this youth had the understanding, visage, and demeanor of one much older than he is." Elizabeth was thirty-eight, and when the scheme was first proposed to Cecil, he exclaimed, "Why, it would look like a mother with her son."
Elizabeth never refused a suitor at once, and she demanded full information about the Duke of Alençon. "How tall is he?" she asked. The duke was really so stunted as to be almost dwarfed; he had an enormous nose, a wide mouth, and a face scarred by the smallpox.
"I have waited a long time," said the queen, "and if I should now marry a man so much younger than myself and so badly marked with the pox, indeed I know not what they would say."
"The duke is growing older every day," replied the French ambassador, "and in London there is a learned physician who declares that in two or three days he can remove all traces of the disease. The duke's heart is full of love and admiration for your Majesty. If I might venture, but no——" and he thrust back into his pocket a paper that he had partly drawn forth.
"What is that?" demanded Elizabeth.
"Pardon, your Majesty, but it is a paper that I have no right to show. This is but the private letter of the duke, and was not meant to fall under the eyes of your Grace." Finally he was prevailed upon to give her the paper, which proved to be a note—written expressly for the purpose—from Alençon to a friend in France. She read and reread.
"That is a fair penmanship," said she. "That is marvelously well done."
"And the matter of the letter," asked the ambassador, "is not that, too, well done? It is but the outpourings of an honest heart and of its longings to win your Grace for himself."
"It is very fairly written," said Elizabeth, and she ended the audience, but she did not return the note.
The duke wrote many letters to the queen, and they do have an air of sincerity and earnestness that is different from the writings of some of Elizabeth's suitors. Catherine sent word that the learned doctor from London was doing much to improve the appearance of her son's face, but she wished to be sure that the medicines were harmless. "He can easily practise on a page," she wrote, "and if it does well, he can use his remedies on my son." The French ambassador hastened to tell the good news to Elizabeth, but this disappointing sovereign replied coolly, "I am really surprised that so loving a mother did not attempt sooner to remove so great a disfigurement."
One June day a young man with two servants appeared at Elizabeth's gates and demanded to see the queen. It was Alençon himself, and she was delighted. Of all her wooers not one before had ever dared to come to England and run the risk of a refusal, but "Monsieur," as the English called him, had shown himself so bold that the queen was charmed. He was homely, there was no denying it, but he was brave and gallant, quick and sprightly, and one of the best flatterers that had ever been at the English court. His reception and entertainment were most cordial, and he went home in full expectation of marrying the queen.
Not long after this visit Elizabeth called her council to consider the marriage. Cecil in his usual methodical fashion drew up a paper with the advantages on the left and the disadvantages on the right. Finally the council reported to the sovereign that they would try to "conform themselves" to whatever she wished. Then the queen was angry, for she had expected them to urge her to marry. She cried and she stormed. She told her councilors that they cared nothing at all for her safety and the welfare of the kingdom. They bore her wrath with the utmost humility, but they did not change their report. Neither did the queen change her mind, and the marriage treaty was drawn up. The councilors did not despair even then, and one evening a well-arranged scene took place after the queen had retired to her chamber. Her ladies fell on their knees around her. They sobbed and groaned.
"Oh, your Majesty," said one, "such a step cannot bring you happiness."
"The duke is so young," lamented another. "He knows not how to conceive of your greatness. He will despise you and scorn you because he cannot appreciate such rare excellence of mind. Only a king should be your husband."
"Your Majesty, do not forget Queen Mary," one wailed. "Think of her misery, and do not bring another foreigner into the land."
"How can a queen be governor of the Protestant church and promise to obey a Catholic spouse?" asked one.
Elizabeth turned sharply away without a word, but in the morning she sent for the duke.
"Your Grace," said he with great concern, "it grieves me to the heart to see you pale and tearful."
"Good reason have I for pallor," said she, "for two more nights like the last would bring me to the grave. The woman who lives in a cottage may wed whom she will; the queen of England must wed to please her subjects."
The duke dashed away to his own apartment. "England may well be an island," he exclaimed, "for the women are as changeable as the waves that encircle it." The queen had given him a ring, and now he threw it into the farthest corner of the room. He would have left England at once, but Elizabeth would not permit him to go, and when after three months he declared that he would stay no longer, she persisted in going to Canterbury with him, much against his will. He left her weeping, and while he was crossing the Channel, she was writing a poem beginning:—
"Monsieur" was the last of Elizabeth's suitors. Eleven years had passed since his marriage with the queen had first been discussed. She was now fifty years of age; the country settled into the belief that she would never marry, and most people expected that the next ruler of England would be the son of Mary, the prisoner.
No one knows whether Elizabeth was in earnest or not in any of the plans for her marriage. Leicester said: "Should she decide to marry, I am all but convinced that she would choose no other than myself,—at least, she has done me the honor to say as much—but I know not what to hope or what to fear." In the early part of her reign her subjects were nearly equally divided into Catholics and Protestants. It was her policy to be a Protestant, but to do nothing that would arouse the Catholics against her, as a Protestant marriage would surely have done. If on the other hand she had chosen a Catholic, then the ruling power of the country would have been enraged. She declared over and over that she would never marry one of her own subjects, and she had not forgotten the indignation of the English when Mary persisted in marrying a foreigner. Two things were worth more to this queen than all else in the world; one was the love of her subjects, the other was her own power. Any marriage that she might make would deprive her in some degree of one or the other. Her word could not always be trusted, but there is certainly some reason for believing that she was truthful in declaring that she did not mean to marry, and that if she changed her mind, it would be only to obey the demand of the country.
At the same time she enjoyed fancying herself in love with one or another. She demanded the utmost adoration from her courtiers. Few men could be comfortable at her court who did not bow down to her as the wisest, wittiest, most brilliant, most beautiful of women. When half of Europe was raving over the beauty of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth did her best to oblige Mary's ambassador to admit that she herself was far more lovely. She often spoke of herself as the "old woman," but woe to the courtier who did not hasten to assure her that such beauty as hers could never change, that each day only made her more radiant. She was always indignant when any of her courtiers ventured to marry, but perhaps this wrath was not so very illogical, for when they had assured her hundreds of times that all other beauty paled before hers, that nothing in the world save the radiance of her smile could cheer their lives, how could she help being enraged when they proved by marriage that her favor alone would not raise them to the heights of happiness? At last even her favorite Leicester married. Then Elizabeth raged. She sent him to prison, and would have committed him to the Tower, had not one of her most trusted councilors opposed her lawless proceedings so strongly.
The older Elizabeth grew, the more gorgeous became her raiment. When she was living quietly at Hatfield House with Mary wearing the crown, she dressed with exceeding plainness and simplicity. It was her best policy then to attract as little notice as possible; but when she was once safely on the throne, she showed herself a true daughter of Henry VIII. in her love of magnificence. She thoroughly enjoyed riding through streets hung with tapestry; she liked to see flags and streamers fluttering from the windows of the houses; processions, pageants, shows of all kinds were her delight. As she proved at Kenilworth, she could partake of a public banquet, ride on a hunt for half a day, listen to addresses of welcome and explanation of spectacles produced in her honor; and after so well-filled a day she could hear the thunder of guns and watch the flashing of fireworks for two hours longer without the least sign of weariness.
It is true that when she was alone with her ladies, she was satisfied with a comparatively simple dress, but when she was in public and felt herself part of the magnificence, nothing could be too sumptuous. Cloth of silver, cloth of gold, the richest of Italian velvet, the heaviest of silk, these were her robes, and there were fully two thousand of them. Nor were they plain in their richness; some were covered with pictures of eyes and ears to suggest that whatever was said or done in the land would come to the knowledge of the queen. Some were covered with embroidered illustrations of tales from mythology, or various devices that were full of some hidden significance. Aglets of all kinds adorned her gowns, as did buttons and clasps made of gold and enameled or set lavishly with diamonds or pearls or rubies. Her various kinds of head-dresses were marvels, for they were so a-glitter with precious stones. While Mary of Scotland was a captive, she sent Elizabeth a new year's gift of a net-work head-dress which she herself had made. A little later the French ambassador brought the queen three embroidered nightcaps, also made by the fair hands of Mary.
"In faith, I thank the Queen of Scots," said Elizabeth, "but my council be now but scarce recovered from their commotion and jealousy because you brought me a new year's gift from the same lady."
The disappointed ambassador went home with the nightcaps, but at the next call his luck was better. Elizabeth had determined to accept the pretty present, whether the act pleased her council or not. "Tell the Queen of Scots," said she, "that I am older than she is. When people arrive at my age, they take all they can get with both hands, and only give with their little finger." This was indeed true, for Elizabeth's hand was always open to a gift, especially to one of personal adornment. When her godson would win a favor from her, he presented her with a "heart of gold, garnished with sparks of rubies." Her silk-woman brought her one new year's day a pair of black silk stockings, a rare luxury even for a queen, since Spain was the home of silk stockings, and from the land of Elizabeth's rejected suitor and her country's enemy but few pairs made their way to England.
"Where did you get the stockings?" asked Elizabeth with delight.
"Your Majesty," she answered, "I once saw a pair brought from Spain, and I made these expressly for your Grace."
"Can you get me more?" asked the queen eagerly.
"This very day," replied the silk-woman joyfully, "I will set up another pair, and knit more for your Grace."
"I'll wear no more stockings made of cloth," declared the queen. "These are pleasant and delicate. I mind me well that my father had two pairs, and by great chance there came a pair from Spain while my brother Edward was king. No more cloth hose for me, good Mistress Montague."
One of the queen's bold sea-captains presented her with a fan made of red and white feathers, "enameled with a half-moon of mother-of-pearl, within that a half-moon garnished with sparks of diamonds and a few seed pearls." A fan was once given to her by Leicester which was even more dazzling. It was made of white feathers; its handle was of gold; rubies, diamonds, and two superb emeralds were on one side; rubies, diamonds, and pearls were on the other. Leicester's coat of arms was a bear and ragged staff; therefore, there was a lion rampant with a white bear lying muzzled at its feet. A pair of gloves was in those days a fitting offering "to set before the queen." Handkerchiefs, a kind of nightdress that must have served as a wrapper, for it was of white linen embroidered with black and trimmed with lace and spangles, preserved ginger, lemons, pies, a purse of gold coins from a wealthy city or a piece of confectionery from her cook,—whatever came was welcome.
To live in splendor was the queen's paradise. Her books were bound in velvet, their clasps were of gold or of silver, and wherever there was space, the glitter of some precious stone flashed forth. Handsome furniture, fine tapestries, golden plate, were her joy. The trappings of her horses were superb; the harness was of gold and silk, the saddle was of black velvet embroidered with pearls and gold thread. It was valued at seven thousand dollars. Preparing her dinner table was an elaborate ceremonial. Each article of table use must be brought in by a servant preceded by an usher, and before it could be laid on the table, the servant must kneel three times. After it was put in place, the servant knelt once, and then the little procession returned for another article. When it was time for the food to be brought in, there was much more ceremony. Silken-clad lady "tasters, tall yeomen of the guard, and eight maids of honor appeared. Drums and trumpets sounded, and then the food—rather cold, one would fancy—was borne in state to the chamber of the queen.
With all this love of magnificence Elizabeth had a thrifty notion of the value of economy in the adornments of others, and several times during her reign she had laws passed forbidding expensive attire. One of her proclamations stated that it caused "great inconvenience" to spend so much for dress, and that men were arraying their wives and children at so much "superfluous charge and expense" that they were no longer able to practise hospitality as they ought. "The lowest ought not to expect to dress as richly as their betters," declared the queen. "It is their pride that makes them rob and steal by the highway."
She even told her subjects just what materials they would be allowed to wear. Save for a few exceptions, ambassadors or commanders or Knights of the Garter, no one but an earl was allowed to wear purple silk or cloth of gold or of silver "tissued." No one below the rank of baron might dare to adorn himself with gold or silver lace, or wear a sword or rapier or dagger. The wife of a knight was permitted to appear in a velvet gown, cloak, or other upper garment, and she might embroider them with silk if she chose, but the wife of even a knight's eldest son could wear velvet only as a kirtle or petticoat. Her upper garment might be of satin, but she was forbidden to embroider it.
Elizabeth was not afraid to rebuke her ladies in waiting if their dress was too expensive to please her. One of them bought a velvet suit elaborately trimmed with gold and pearls. Elizabeth bore its appearance several times, then she had it brought to her secretly and put it on. Out among her ladies she went, wearing the elaborate gown, which was much too short for her. The owner of the velvet and pearls was aghast, but the queen smiled upon her and asked:—
"Think you not, Mistress Mary, that my gown is too short? Does it not become me ill?"
"Yes, your Majesty," faltered the poor lady.
"You are right," said the queen, "but mark you well that if it is too short for me, it is too fine for you." The gown never again appeared before the eyes of the queen.