Book review: The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

‘A queen must never be ruled by her heart… I am not as other women.’

Thursday, 10th July 2014, 10:00 am
The Marriage Game by Alison Weir
The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

Elizabeth I was England’s greatest queen, the Tudor monarch who gave us the Golden Age, but the power and the glory came with a heavy personal price. To keep control in a man’s world, she had to be a queen first and a woman second.

In The Marriage Game, historian and novelist Alison Weir focuses on the scandalous relationship between Elizabeth and the charismatic but married Lord Robert Dudley which sent shockwaves through the courts of England and Europe.

While Elizabeth dallies with the dashing Dudley, we witness the spectacle of royal suitors being teased and duped, and her outraged councillors watching her chances of providing a successor slip by in a flurry of obstinate and ostentatious refusals.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Alison Weir is that rare and wonderful thing… an acclaimed historian who can translate her vast knowledge into captivating, convincing fiction.

And the reconstructed Elizabeth we find here is surely her greatest creation, an astonishingly vivid portrait of an iconic queen… proud, perceptive, unpredictable, self-centred and constantly torn between personal desire and public duty.

After years in the dangerous shadows, 25-year-old Elizabeth is finally on the throne but her crown has been hard won and she is determined that no-one will ever take it from her.

Her chief adviser and Secretary of State William Cecil is eager for her to marry, have children and carry on the succession but already Elizabeth has plans to remain a Virgin Queen, refusing to be ‘consigned to the nursery so that my husband can rule in my name.’

Elizabeth knows her power draws men ‘like a lodestone’ and one man above all is ‘greedy for it.’ Since childhood, she has been bewitched by handsome Robert Dudley, offspring of a notorious family of traitors and now her Master of Horse.

As foreign princes line up to seek her hand in marriage and despite being plagued by insecurities, Elizabeth embarks on a perilous balancing act, using flirtatious promises and high-stakes diplomacy to play what Cecil calls ‘the marriage game.’

And like her mother Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth loves the thrill of the chase. The desire of men is the ‘breath of life’ to her, a game in which she always has the upper hand. ‘While they live in hope,’ she declares, ‘they remain my friends.’

But the love affair with Dudley is perilous and Elizabeth is fully aware that Cecil sees him as a threat to her chances of making a good political marriage and to the stability of the realm. Her need for Dudley’s affection in a world where she has ‘so much sorrow and tribulation, and so little joy’ could yet cost her the throne…

This is Gloriana in her magnificent, seductive and contrary majesty… with her mother’s coquettishness, her father’s intelligence and fiery temper, brimming with passion and yet beguilingly feminine and achingly vulnerable.

For all her elevated status, Elizabeth is limited in her freedom to love and be loved by the bonds of responsibility and state and, like any woman in a man’s world, she needs to employ her natural guile and wit to survive.

Using years of research, contemporary records and real conversations, Weir explores Elizabeth’s reasons for remaining a Virgin Queen. Fear of losing her grip on power, her genuine desire to serve her people, an early, disastrous affair with Thomas Seymour, lessons from her own mother’s life and fear of dying in childbirth become intrinsic parts of Elizabeth complex and credible psyche.

We can never know the real truth behind this tempestuous, dazzling queen but if you like your historical novels to be as near the true facts as possible – no flights of fancy, no romantic byways – then Alison Weir’s exciting Tudor odysseys are a revelation, and an education.

(Hutchinson, hardback, £18.99)