The Queen’s Pawn by Elizabeth Housden

This Play is the copyright of the Author and may not be performed, copied or sold without the Author’s prior consent

Characters, in order of appearance

Arabella Blount, daughter of the late Sir Christopher Blount
Susannah Blount, her younger sister
Lady Eleanor Blount, their mother
Sir Thomas Blount, her son
Sir William Cecil, Secretary of State for England and Wales
Lord Robert Dudley, Her Majesty’s Master of the Horse
Lady Amy Dudley, his wife
Mrs Lizzie Odingsells, her friend and companion
Dr Percival Owen, Coroner/Chronicler

The action takes place during the summer and autumn of 1560.

PROLOGUE

Music.

Gradual promenade of actors, all carrying scripts and quills, gather on stage from various points in the auditorium round the Chronicler who is writing.

CHRONICLER: I am the scribe, the recorder. I am the Chronicler.

Mrs ODINGSELLS: We, who are the observers and participators in events are the true chroniclers of history.

THOMAS:  It is our duty to tell the truth as we see it, as we know it, for those who come after. We must dictate, write letters…

CHRON: I write down. I write much…

AMY: Letters tell much…

SUSANNAH: Letters tell all…

CECIL: Public writings…

ELEANOR: Private letters…

ARABELLA: Secret letters… (They press nearer the Chronicler who stops writing and reads what he has written)

CHRON: So, King Harry died and a light went from the world – a world that might breathe easier t’is true for never again, we thought, would there be so huge a figure to bestride a horse, to argue theology with the Pope himself or to rock the court with his laughter and his rages. Never again could we have such a terrifying monarch who dispatched his wives as easily as swatting flies.

CECIL: No one was safe, particularly those subjects who dared to disagree or failed him in some way, such as Thomas Cromwell, his Secretary of State.

THOMAS:  He was not averse to wielding the axe to raise himself in the people’s esteem, for such was the fate of Lord Edmund Dudley, killed as a sop to public opinion who disliked him. MRS O: No. Never another as terrifying as he. Or so we thought.

ELEANOR: But we were wrong, for the lion left cubs behind him.

CHRON: Young Edward was frail, affectionate and clever, but a child, just nine years old and with his ascendancy came a fresh chance for the Dudley family. At once, Lord John Dudley, the Earl of Warwick, the boy’s uncle, became Lord Protector of England and t’was not long after he was created Duke of Northumberland – a manipulator the like of whom we have rarely seen – t’was like he was king not old Harry’s little son.

SUSANNAH: Time ran out for Edward, but sixteen years when he gave up a life barely begun.

AMY: Northumberland, frantic to retain control over the monarchy and keep safe the protestant faith, forced his young son’s wife, poor Lady Jane Grey into Westminster Abbeywith a crown on her head, so fast that people had scarce time to draw breath.

ARABELLA: But the people knew t’was wrong however much they cared for the new religion.

AMY: And they were not to know then that Catholic Mary’s reign, when it began but nine days after Jane was crowned, was to be even bloodier and more terrifying than her father’s.

CECIL: But Elizabeth knew, and feared for her life with good cause, and in the Tower she waited with that fellow Robert Dudley, the Lord Protector’s son to know her fate – to see if was to be the same as Lord John, Robert’s father, his head sliced off by an incompetent axe-man, that then rotted for weeks on the Tower’s bloodied walls.

MRS O: She had good cause to fear. For five years she lived in dread and then…

Fanfare

CHRON: Mary died – Bloody Mary from that time on and then…

Fanfare

THOMAS:  Elizabeth, bonny, young and beautiful, the greatest asset old Harry had left this land, rode in triumph to London and the people loved her and cheered and laughed and though we did not know it that glorious day, the reign of the greatest Tudor of them all had begun.

CECIL: And, in the shape of Lord Robert, Elizabeth’s lifelong friend, childhood play-mate, fellow prisoner in the dreaded Tower, the Dudley family came once more into its own.

ELEANOR: Or so we thought…

Music.

Lights fade to blackout.

ACT 1

Scene 1

Interior - Tudor living room of Sir Thomas Blount’s home at Hampton. They are clearly well-to-do.

A chair is set by the fireplace and on it some needlepoint on a frame.

A basket with yarns is beside it on the floor. On a small table stands a decanter of wine and some glasses.

At a table DSR sits ARABELLA, attractive, 18 years old, self-possessed with a lot more to her that meets the eye, is pouring over a chess board with a game set in the course of play.

SUSANNAH, 15 years old, lively, naughty, very much ‘put upon’, as she sees it, as the youngest of the family, is USL at the window, looking out.

It is evening, in the summer of 1560 (late July) but a thunderstorm is in progress and it is raining hard.

ARABELLA: ( moves a chess piece and sits back.) Check.

SUSANNAH: (ignoring her) The storm has lessened.

ARABELLA: It is of no consequence. (Beat) Susannah, I said check.

SUSANNAH: I love the rain. But t’is best when I am a-bed and hide under the bedclothes. Do you not think so, Arabella?

ARABELLA: You do nothing but dream. In fact I think…

SUSANNAH: (excitedly) I can see a horse! See how fast he comes. The mud is flying up as far as his flanks! (She peers closer) Arabella! I think, yes, I think it is Thomas!

ARABELLA: You are absurd. Thomas will not be home for hours yet a-while. You know how long he expected to stay at Court. When the queen…

SUSANNAH: It is! It is Thomas. (She turns back) Why has he returned? Perhaps we are at war with France again.

(She crosses the room swiftly and sits closely beside ARABELLA).

I love watching them go to fight, it is thrilling. Even more thrilling than a thunderstorm.

ARABELLA: You speak like a fool, Susannah. War is not thrilling. People… do not come back…

SUSANNAH: (knowing) Methinks you should say HE might not come back.

ARABELLA: (cross) You are still more the fool. I know not of whom you speak.

(SUSANNAH laughs, teasing, trying to catch her eye, which ARABELLA firmly avoids)

Enter THOMAS flinging off his cloak. He is 22 years old, the head of the family since his father died, responsible, a courtier, intelligent.

THOMAS:  What a night for any time of year, but in July! The devil is riding abroad. He has to be. Nothing else would bring such a storm. Where is our mother?

ARABELLA: She went down to scold Cook. The meat was near to raw and smelt bad. We could eat none of it.

SUSANNAH: (giggling) I love it when Mother gets angry with Cook.

ARABELLA: You are easy pleased. Is there aught you love not today, sister?

SUSANNAH: Chess! It bores me, so I…

THOMAS:  Susannah, go and fetch Mother. (She looks rebellious) Quickly.

SUSANNAH: But I do not…

THOMAS:  (swiftly angry) Now, Susannah or as God is my witness I’ll box your ears for you.

SUSANNAH: (flouncing out) Very well, brother.

Exit SUSANNAH.

THOMAS walks over to the table and pours himself out a glass of wine from a decanter and drinks it. He walks slowly about, brooding.

ARABELLA regards him anxiously. He comes to rest by the table and looks down at the chessboard.

THOMAS:  You have her in check.

ARABELLA: (pleased with herself) To escape she will lose her bishop or her knight.

THOMAS:  (picking up a piece thoughtfully) The queen’s bishop or her knight… Hmm.

ARABELLA: Yes, but that is my knight, Thomas. I am white.

THOMAS:  (putting the piece back) Indeed. So the red queen is to lose her knight is she? Somehow I doubt it.

ARABELLA: No, truly, look, she can only move here or here and that can but mean…

THOMAS:  (almost to himself) I’ll warrant t’will be the bishop that pays the price.

ARABELLA: Maybe, but I would sacrifice the knight.

THOMAS:  (he turns away) So might I but I spoke not of chess, Arabella.

Noises off.

Enter LADY ELEANOR, She is late 40s, elegant, intelligent, used to dealing with people, a good mother and loyal. She sees much and says little unless pressed.

She is closely followed by SUSANNAH and she is concerned. She goes swiftly to him and kisses him.

He returns the greeting.

ELEANOR: Tom? Back so soon? What’s a-miss? Is something wrong at Court?

THOMAS:  Mother, are there rooms prepared?

ELEANOR: Rooms? What rooms? For guests, perchance?

THOMAS:  Yes.

ELEANOR: They can be swiftly put to order. But who is…?

THOMAS:  Send my sisters to give the direction. (He turns away and speaks to her quietly) and then send them to bed. Hurry.

ELEANOR: (giving him a swift look) Arabella, Susannah go and find Sarah. Tell her to prepare at once … how many rooms?

THOMAS:  One. But he will also have one manservant. See to it that he, too, is well housed.

ELEANOR: As your brother wishes and then retire yourselves. It is growing late.

ARABELLA: Yes, mother.

SUSANNAH: Oh, but Mother, we are playing chess. I so love playing chess and this game is exciting. We…

THOMAS:  (rounding on her) To bed, Susannah. (She looks defiant and ARABELLA pulls her out of the room.)

ELEANOR: Thomas, what is wrong? It is rare for you to be so impatient with Susannah.

THOMAS:  I will make amends later but we must talk and talk swiftly. Our guest arrives in but ten minutes, I surmise.

ELEANOR: (Sitting) Who is it we are to welcome? Why are you home so early and why so anxious? You frighten me.

THOMAS:  (he turns a chair round from the chess table and sits on it. He looks rueful) Forgive me.

(He smiles and pats her hand)

There, I am recovering now. But these last few hours have been worrying.

(He frowns down into his drink and drains the glass).

I will explain. We are to be visited tonight by William Cecil but make no mention of it to anyone. I have a feeling he will prefer it.

ELEANOR: (she nods) So, he has returned from Scotland! His mission was successful?

THOMAS:  Indeed. He has arranged the treaty with the Scots. The French are to withdraw. It is a diplomatic triumph.

ELEANOR: No war! Thank God for it! And a treaty signed! The Queen will be well pleased with him.

THOMAS:  (pointedly) So you would think.

ELEANOR: She is not? But that is what she sent him there to do!

THOMAS:  That is what we all thought. I think maybe he was there for another reason as well and he has returned rather too soon for Her Majesty.

ELEANOR: I do not follow you.

THOMAS:  (getting up and walking about) I think it was very fortuitous for the queen for Cecil to go to Scotland at precisely that moment. It has kept him away for some two months past. And who has been advising her all this while?

ELEANOR: Throckmorton, Norfolk, Rutland. Who else could…?

THOMAS:  Lord Robert Dudley.

ELEANOR: Lord Robert is her Master of Horse. He is no statesman.

THOMAS:  No? He has taken Cecil’s place however, in his absence. There is not an ambassador arrives without him being present. No decision on any subject is reached without her putting her head close to his to seek his opinion and there’s not a meeting she attends without him at her side, when she attends a meeting at all, that is and there have not been too many since Cecil’s departure for Scotland. She rides with him all day, hunting, hunting and yet more hunting. T’is a miracle a single stag lives yet in the woods of Surrey, Middlesex or Berkshire! But it is not the hunting that has the tongues wagging. Even the extermination of the deer would be worthwhile in Cecil’s eyes if that were all the consequence of this … friendship. Throckmorton is beside himself and Norfolk, I think, would like to kill Dudley, if he could.

ELEANOR: (quietly) Ah. (She takes up her tapestry)

THOMAS:  Well, Mother, what do you know of this?

ELEANOR: (she speaks lightly) I know Robert Dudley as do you.

THOMAS:  And?

ELEANOR: And?

THOMAS:  The wagging tongues. Come, Mother, I need your good ear and sharp observation. Think you that Robert Dudley is a suitable… companion… for Her Majesty?

ELEANOR: He is young, her age, he is good looking and well educated, clever. Master Ascham taught them both together for several years. You know how she loves to ride and there is no finer horseman than he the length or breadth of this land of ours. He surely is her closest and oldest friend. He is charming and witty and… (She tails off as she looks at his face)

THOMAS:  I know all this. Robert has been my friend, too. A man I have looked up to and admired, loved even. It is not hard to love Robert. But…

ELEANOR: There can be no buts, Tom.

THOMAS:  Mother, the whole Court is agog with this business.

ELEANOR: What business would that be?

THOMAS:  The business of whether she intends to marry him or not.

ELEANOR: That cannot be, Tom.

THOMAS:  The Queen needs a husband.

ELEANOR: Indeed. What of the foreign princes dancing attendance on her? Erik of Sweden, I hear….

THOMAS:  Erik’s visit has finally been abandoned. He knows now of her appearing to promise all and then withdrawing again and again to be no more than political expediency. He will not come now to be teased and humiliated and rejected.

ELEANOR: So, not Erik. Then what of the Archduke Ferdinand?

THOMAS:  The same. She has wasted his time for long enough. Still the suitors come or attempt it but always there is Lord Robert and still, I say, she needs a husband.

ELEANOR: And England needs an heir but there is nothing to suggest Lord Robert could be that man. At least…not at present…

THOMAS:  Long days she spends in his company, more than with any other at Court. They spend hours laughing. You can hear their laughter ringing through from her private apartments. No one makes her laugh more than he.

ELEANOR: He makes her laugh? Ah…

THOMAS:  You think she doesn’t want him?

ELEANOR: I did not say that.

THOMAS:  Come, tell me what you hear for by God I see from your face you have heard more than this.

ELEANOR: T’is true I hear much and I, too have understood that she dismisses each eligible suitor one after another. I hear Lord Robert is constantly with her, not merely hunting but all day, every day, engaged in diverse activities, watching him jousting as her champion and dancing every evening. They dine alone, sit close, alone and, God help me, he visits her chamber, again alone.

THOMAS:  Aught else? What of the servants?

ELEANOR: Even they. Why, I had occasion to speak right roundly to several of them but these three days past. I overheard Sarah say that the queen was likely to be with child by Lord Robert or at the very least they had put to try the making of one. She heard it from her cousin who had in turn heard it from someone else. They were convinced that this tale was true. I scolded her vigorously and told them if the authorities heard of this rumour she could be sent to prison for slandering the queen’s majesty.

THOMAS:  Then we are too late.

ELEANOR: We have not spoken of this before, Thomas. I know you care not for gossip any more than do I. Why now? Why tonight?

THOMAS:  Because matters have become worse and before Cecil arrives I had to speak with you, to know what you know. Cecil has been snubbed by the queen tonight in a way that has humiliated him and alarmed her true subjects and members of the Council even more than the things of which you speak although there can be no doubt they are connected. T’is true, all these things I have seen and more but Cecil’s reception this night was the worst yet. T’was as if he had failed in his mission instead of achieving enormous gain for England! Think of it! Stability in Scotland, peace with France and agreeing their stand-off, and what is more the French finally now acknowledge her as rightful queen of England. Yet she barely mentioned his successful parley but chastised him openly for not recovering Calais. God’s wounds, but I know not how he could stand for it! And Robert Dudley sat beside her and smiled at him, mocking him with superior looks and then she dismissed the whole Court. Said no one pleased her save her “bonny sweet Robin”, as she called him. She left, taking Lord Robert with her into her private apartments, alone, and admitted no one else. They say there can be no doubt but that he is her lover.

ELEANOR: But why ask me what I have heard if you have seen it for yourself?

THOMAS:  To see what has been spoken of outside Court. There yet may be time to stop these rumours. But if you know without my having spoken of them, and the servants, too then I fear we are too late and the queen’s reputation has been lost.

ELEANOR: I hear a horse! But, Thomas, what can you say to Sir William? And why ask you? He must know you are loyal to Robert?

THOMAS:  Indeed and that is why he asks. Robert’s enemies are easy to assess, and God knows he has plenty of them, but how far will Robert’s friends defend him? How far can I? That is what Cecil needs to discuss with me tonight, of that I have no doubt. The river is swollen with the rain and his journey home will be much delayed. He will stay with us tonight and return to his wife on the morrow. One more day will not make a difference after so long away. In the meantime, we will talk.

ELEANOR: So you think…?

THOMAS:  I think the queen is in love with Robert and he with her. The queen needs a husband, Mother, we know that but surely, surely it cannot be she has chosen Robert, however great their friendship? And can they truly be lovers?

ELEANOR: I do not know though many will think they are. But England is her passion, Tom, above all, even more so than her father’s.

THOMAS:  Hmm. But what of her mother’s passions, have you thought of them? Old Harry’s blood runs not alone in those veins, remember.

ELEANOR: But it cannot be, dear God! Lord Robert is married!

THOMAS:  So was King Henry, Mother when Anne Boleyn first set eyes on him.

ELEANOR: God, no…

[end of extract]

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