A Conversation at Kenilworth Castle, July 1575

Written by Naomi Wallace

Elizabeth and Leicester 
  Beating oars 
  The stern was formed 
  A gilded shell 
  Red and gold 
  The brisk swell 
  Rippled both shores 
  Southwest wind 
  Carried down stream 
  The peal of bells 
  White towers 
                               Weialala leia 
                               Wallala leialala 

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, lines 279-291 

Kenilworth, a vision of dreams. She looked upon the magnificent palace, its red sandstone luminous and animated with the festivities. Fireworks erupted in cacophonous celebration, wine flowing from silver jugs into the happy mouths of the courtiers. Golden light bounced from her scarlet hair and glistened in her eyes, around which small creases now sat, inevitable markers of time. Faint scars on the delicate skin of her face served as an eternal reminder of the illness that had almost killed her. Her dress, though regal and decadent as ever, seemed to stifle her in the close midsummer air. After almost three weeks of jubilation in her name, exhaustion was creeping in. At forty-one years old, the Queen of England was no longer the lively sparrow she had once been, who embarked on day-long hunting excursions, and danced into the early hours of the morning, before falling asleep and waking to do it all over again. A tinge of sadness troubled her when she thought on this for too long. Her body and soul ached.  

Adorning the castle was a new tower, ornate lodgings within, purpose-built for her stay. Musicians awaited their cues at every corner, and actors donning grand costumes assembled for their tableaux. Kenilworth had been transformed into the page of a medieval storybook; she had delighted at entertainments that spanned from Arthurian legends to the Greek myths, to Robin Hood and Maid Marian. A garden of vibrant flowers and sweet-smelling strawberries had been planted just for her, and standing in it one could hear the melodious chimes from the aviary. Her very own Eden. The pageantry and opulence were astonishing, even to the most affluent woman in England.  

He must have spent a fortune, she thought, a little sickened by the thought, and more than a little sickened by the reason she knew was behind it all. Judging by the exorbitance of the whole affair, she would not be surprised if he came to her facing bankruptcy in a few months’ time. Surely, he would not be so foolish. Of course, he would, she mused. Of course he would. 

“I will regret to see you leave, tomorrow,” a voice interrupted her train of thought, and she turned to smile faintly at the instigator of the lavish occasion. The Earl of Leicester moved to stand beside her, their shoulders brushing. He, too, was beginning to show signs of the inescapable path towards old age. Flecks of silver lightened his otherwise dark hair, fine lines in his forehead revealing decades of stress. Still, when she looked on him, she saw the childhood friend whose imprisonment in the Tower by her older sister had coincided with her own. Who had been beside her when, against all likelihoods she found herself on the throne of England. She hoped that when he looked at her, he saw the fiery princess of a past now out of reach. They were a mirror of each other, tired souls desperately seeking solace in the remnants of their shared youth. 

“Truthfully, I am ready to be on my way. These few weeks – spectacular as you made them, Robin – have made me weary,” she replied wistfully. As he held her gaze, a faint wave of nausea swept over her, clashing with the familiar comfort his presence usually brought. Cornered, she knew that the conversation she had been dreading since arriving here at Kenilworth was upon her. None of her ladies were close enough to conveniently whisk her away, nor were there any other potential suitors near, at whom she could merely glance and expect an invitation to dance. No, they were alone. 

“I understand. I have one final masque planned for this evening before you depart. Elizabeth,” he began. She braced herself. “You know why I made all of this happen.” She stared blankly and did not reply, afraid to admit what they both knew. 

He continued, “I have asked you many times before. This time is different. I wanted to show…” He gestured at the extravagance around them. “All of this, it is nothing compared to you. You are worth it all ten times over.” 

“I should not think you have money enough in your purse to afford me, then.” At that, he exhaled with a smirk, which shortly disappeared when he glimpsed the solemn expression on her face. “I cannot give you the answer you desire.” 

“I wish nothing more in the world than to marry you,” he said bluntly, ignoring the last comment. 

“England does not run on wishes. I cannot bow to your will simply because it is what you wish. Not even my wishes come above the interests of my country.” A twinge of annoyance crept into her voice. Surely, he knew that what he was asking was an impossibility. Her lords, particularly Sir William Cecil, hated the man, resented his close affinity to their sovereign. Besides, their personal qualms were far superseded by their very reasonable expectation that any marriage agreement should be advantageous to the country, fuelled by the promise of a foreign alliance to ward off the looming threat of Spanish invasion.  

Then there was the unfortunate fact of his wife’s untimely and suspicious death. Poor Amy, found at the bottom of a staircase at Cumnor Place, all alone. Regardless of what truly happened, there was no denying that it looked terrible for Leicester. She could not possibly marry a man who, though she was decidedly certain it was not true, was believed by some to have murdered his former spouse in cold blood. And above all, even if none of these obstacles stood in the way, even if she was as free to choose a suitor as a woman picking fruit in the marketplace, the prospect of marriage repulsed her. Deep down she knew that being the Queen and a wife were not compatible, and she would not allow herself to be subjugated by a husband. Not even him. 

“Did you sincerely believe I might say yes,” she muttered, averting her eyes, “or did you just need to ask me one last time?” 

“It sounds terribly cruel when you frame it like that. I did not mean to be cruel.”  

Maybe this was true; the sadness in his voice suggested so. But it was cruel. His final bid to win her – almost buy her – with gaudy entertainments and indulgence was grotesque. Part of her, ungratefully, hated him for it. Not to mention, his motivations were heavily tainted by his self-serving need to assert himself as the uttermost powerful nobleman in the country. Marrying the Queen would render him untouchable. As much as he could claim this played no part in why he wanted her so badly, they were both painfully aware of this reality. The Earl of Leicester was just a man, after all, another dog vying for the prized bone of her hand in marriage. He hungered for power like the rest of the pack.  

No, the mirage of splendid celebration with which Kenilworth had shimmered for weeks had vanished. The abundant beauty, the mysticism that had made her feel as though they had been transported to Camelot, was gone. They were not Guinevere and Lancelot. She was the Queen of England and, no matter how beloved he was, he was her subject. 

“Nothing has changed, Robin. You are never to ask me again.” 

Shortly after he turned and walked away from her, the answer final, the rain began, breaking the suffocating humidity and cascading down the windowpanes of the great castle. A relentless downpour marking the end of the ostentatious affair. And so Leicester never got his final, doomed attempt to urge Elizabeth to marry him, as she took her leave, the bad weather having cut short the occasion. The deluge was a blessing, diluting his humiliation. It could not, however, mend his stinging pride that had asked her the now all too familiar question, and received the same answer of old.  

His wounded manhood would eventually recover, as would their relationship. Later, after his secret marriage to her cousin, and the explosive torrent of her reaction, he would think back on that evening at Kenilworth, when he looked her in the eyes and walked away with affirmed finality, knowing that his quest had drawn to a failed end. After his death, fifteen years before her own, she would remember the brief moment of consideration where she almost willed him to turn back, so she could throw herself into his arms and tell him her mind was quite changed. But these thoughts were the fleeting remnants of a young, bashful woman who had long since been crushed to make room for Gloriana.  

In centuries to come, the distant memory of Kenilworth would become enshrined in romantic legend, reimagined in the musings of poets and novelists alike. A palimpsest of squandered hopes and disappointed hearts. Elizabeth and Leicester, an age old tale. Semper eadem. Always the same. 

Featured Image: Kenilworth Castle. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kenilworth._The_Castle_LCCN2017659706.tif 

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