Alone in her private chamber, the senescent Queen broke with tradition and gazed into her mirror. Despite her velvet gown and layers of jewels, she searched in vain for the remnants of her beauty, but found no trace of them in her reflection. Time had forced her into the strange and unfamiliar mask of an old woman. Regardless of her efforts to revive the natural blush of youth, she recognized that it was irretrievably gone.
These days, she felt as if she wasn’t fooling anyone. In the eyes of the world she was an old crone, like those burned at the stake in the superstitious villages to the north. Men had no respect for such haggard creatures. Even though she still ruled a powerful nation, she was no different from any other wretched woman who had suffered the indignities of Time. In men, old age symbolized wisdom; but in women, it meant decay. Age had rallied her enemies against her and made her more vulnerable to destruction.
Tonight she barred all attendants from her door. Alone and unobserved, she removed her wig and ran her fingers through her wispy gray hair. She tried to recall the face of her mother, the beauteous Anne Boleyn. But so many years had passed; she had been only three at the time of her mother’s execution, and the memory refused to answer her summons. At least her unfortunate mother hadn’t been forced to endure the agony of outliving her beauty.
Indeed, Elizabeth Tudor had survived long enough to have gained wisdom, the essential quality Lord Burghley had assured her was required by a successful monarch. But now she wondered if it was better for a female monarch to die young and at the peak of perfection – like her mother, bereft of the head whose face would one day betray her in the mirror. Wisdom was a fine quality, though perhaps overrated; for when it came down to a universal truth in a world governed by men, women without a trace of sensual beauty were powerless to control events in their favor.
She dipped a small towel into the bowl of rosewater and wrung it out. She closed her eyes and spread the linen across her face, feeling her tears merge into its warmth. After a few moments, she removed the cloth and gently began peeling away the layers of wax that covered her face, just as her ladies had routinely done under strict orders of absolute silence. When finished, the mask of her royal persona lay in pieces on the table.
In the glass, she saw the reflection of an ordinary woman who had governed in extraordinary times. The Earl of Oxford would have understood her ambivalence at this cruel unmasking, for he had often described his emotions after a performance, when the illusions he had created were stripped away, yielding a harsh reality that slowly emerged from the fading mists of glamor.
She twisted the ring on her finger. She had worn it all these years to mark their secret marriage, even while they had engaged in passionate affairs with others. When she had boasted to the world that she was married to England, Oxford had been the true embodiment of that phrase.
They had conceived a child together. Perhaps if they had been commoners, this act would have bonded them as it did the most humble peasants; but her rank demanded strict adherence to dignity, and Oxford’s devil-may-care antics in the playhouses made that dignity impossible.
First and foremost she was Queen of England, secured by the myth of her virginity. Oxford’s damning papers threatened to unravel that mythology. If only she could remember where she had placed those papers. There was never any safety in allowing Oxford or any husband to be named as her King Consort, when a male presence so close to the throne would only incite her enemies against her. She needed to look no farther than Scotland to see how her cousin Mary had fared in turning lovers into husbands and giving birth to a son, allowing men closer access to her throne.
A thousand of her darkest fears had built a protective wall around Henry. She wondered if practicality would ever have allowed her to proclaim him as her heir. Historically, kings were considered far preferable to queens as rulers of great nations, and he could easily have been used to supplant her as regents had used the infant James to replace his mother as the ruler of Scotland.
No one could have predicted that Henry would have valued his love for Essex more than his love for her. Ironically, his best protection, the ignorance of his true parentage, had also sown the seeds of his destruction.
And then there was Essex, the last in the long line of her lovers. Oh, how she missed him in her bed, with his strong arms and powerful thighs. But he had never truly loved her; in anger, she had slapped his face for his peevish behavior on the battlefields of Ireland, and he had grabbed his sword as if he would strike her. His foul expression said he wanted her dead, and that he would steal her throne.
Henry had been such a fool to follow him.
She closed her eyes and prayed for her son’s repentance. Against Cecil’s advice, she was prepared to wait until the last possible moment before making any arrests in the treason conspiracy, in case her lover Essex had a sudden change of heart or Henry was smitten with a guilty conscience.
She opened her eyes and saw that her reflection had no patience for a woman’s tears.
If Henry failed to repent, she had already followed Cecil’s proposal to secure an alliance with King James of Scotland. She had toyed with him numerous times over the matter of her succession and sent him large sums of money. When James finally insisted that she legalize her intentions in Parliament, she declared that her word alone was sufficient. Of course he knew it wasn’t, but at least he was waiting patiently for Time to take its toll, if only to settle the score on behalf of his mother.
She wiped her eyes and realized that upon her death, all of the world’s leaders (including the Pope) would understand how well she had protected herself from the domineering men who had sought to undermine her rule from the moment of her coronation. Her propensity for making hasty promises and quickly revoking them had kept everyone off guard, especially King James of Scotland.
Elizabeth Tudor smiled. Lord Oxford had been right about one thing – beneath a mask, it was possible to deceive an entire world.
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