Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter XII.

The state of affairs in Ireland was not quite so bad as it might have been. After the disaster on the Blackwater, rebellion had sprung up sporadically all over the island; the outlying regions were everywhere in open revolt; but Tyrone had not made the most of his opportunity, had not advanced on Dublin, but had frittered away the months during which he had been left undisturbed by his enemies in idleness and indecision. He was a man who was more proficient in the dilatory arts of negotiation — sly bargaining, prolonged manoeuvring, the judicious making and breaking of promises — than in the vigorous activities of war. Of Irish birth and English breeding, half savage and half gentleman, half Catholic and half sceptic, a schemer, a lounger, an adventurer, and a visionary, he had come at last, somehow or other, after years of diffused cunning, to be the leader of a nation and one of the pivots upon which the politics of Europe turned. A quiet life was what he longed for — so he declared; a quiet life, free alike from the intolerance of Protestantism and the barbarism of war; and a quiet life, curiously enough, was what in the end he was to be given. But the end was not yet, and in the meantime all was disturbance and uncertainty. It had been impossible for him to assimilate his English Earldom with the chieftainship of the O’Neils. His hesitating attempts to be a loyal vassal of the Saxons had yielded to the pressure of local patriotism; he had intrigued and rebelled; he had become the client of Philip of Spain. More than once the English had held him at their mercy, had accepted his submission, and had reinstated him in his honours and his lands. More than once, after trading on their fluctuating policies of severity and moderation, he had treacherously turned against them the power and the influence which their protection had enabled him to acquire. Personal animosities had been added to public feuds. He had seduced the sister of Sir Henry Bagenal, had carried her off and married her, in spite of her brother’s teeth; she had died in misery; and Sir Henry, advancing with his army to meet the rebel at the Blackwater, had been defeated and killed. After such a catastrophe, it seemed certain that the only possible issue was an extreme one. This time the English Government would admit no compromise, and Tyrone must be finally crushed. But Tyrone’s own view was very different; he was averse from extremity; he lingered vaguely in Ulster; the old system of resistance, bargaining, compromise, submission, and reconciliation, which had served him so often, might very well prove useful once again.

But one thing was clear: if the English Government desired the speedy destruction of Tyrone, it could have chosen no one more anxious to second its purposes than the new Lord Deputy. For Essex, it was obvious, an Irish victory was vital. Would he achieve one? Francis Bacon was not the only observer at Court to be pessimistic on that subject. A foreboding gloom was in the air. When John Harington was about to follow his patron to Ireland with a command in the Cavalry, he received from his kinsman, Robert Markham, who had an office about the Court, a weighty letter of advice and instruction. Harington was bidden to be most careful in his conduct; there would be spies in the Irish army, who would report everything to high-placed ill-wishers at home. “Obey the Lord Deputy in all things,” wrote Markham, “but give not your opinion; it may be heard in England.” The general situation, Markham thought, was menacing. “Observe,” he said, “the man who commandeth, and yet is commanded himself; he goeth not forth to serve the Queen’s realm, but to humour his own revenge.” . . . “If the Lord Deputy,” he went on, “performs in the field what he hath promised in the Council, all will be well; but, though the Queen hath granted forgiveness for his late demeanour in her presence, we know not what to think hereof. She hath, in all outward semblance, placed confidence in the man who so lately sought other treatment at her hands; we do sometime think one way, and sometime another; what betideth the Lord Deputy is known to Him only who knoweth all; but when a man hath so many shewing friends and so many unshewing enemies, who learneth his end below? . . . Sir William Knollys is not well pleased, the Queen is not well pleased, the Lord Deputy may be pleased now, but I sore fear what may happen hereafter.”

To such warnings, no doubt, Harington — a gay spark, who had translated Ariosto into English verse and written a Rabelaisian panegyric on water closets — paid no great heed; but in fact they expressed, with an exactness that was prophetic, the gist of the situation. The expedition was a gamble. If Essex won in Ireland, he won in England too; but the dice were loaded against him; and if he failed . . . From the very first, the signs were unpropitious. The force of sixteen thousand foot and fifteen hundred horse, which had been collected for the expedition, was, for an Elizabethan army, a well-equipped and efficient one; but that was the beginning and the end of the Lord Deputy’s advantages. His relations with the Home Governments were far from satisfactory. Elizabeth distrusted him — distrusted his capacity and even, perhaps, his intentions; and the Secretary, who now dominated the Council, was his rival, if not his enemy. His wishes were constantly thwarted, and his decisions overruled. A serious quarrel broke out before he had left England. He had appointed Sir Christopher Blount to be one of his Council, and Lord Southampton his General of the Horse; both appointments were cancelled by Elizabeth. Her objections to Sir Christopher are unknown — possibly she considered his Catholicism a bar to high position in Ireland; but Southampton, who had incurred her supreme displeasure by carrying on an intrigue with Elizabeth Vernon, one of her ladies-in-waiting, and then daring to marry her — Southampton, whom, in her fury, she had put into prison together with his bride — that Essex should have ventured to name this young reprobate for a high command seemed to her little short of a deliberate impertinence. There was some fierce correspondence; but she held firm; the two men followed Essex as private friends only; and the Lord Deputy arrived in Dublin — it was April 1599 — in a gloomy mood and a fretted temper.

He was immediately faced with a strategical question of crucial importance. Should he at once proceed to Ulster and dispose of Tyrone, or should he first suppress the smouldering disaffection in the other parts of the island? The English Council in Dublin recommended the latter course, and Essex agreed with them. It would be easier, he thought, to deal with the main forces of the rebellion when its subsidiary supports had been demolished. Possibly he was right; but the decision implied a swift and determined execution; to waste too much time and too much energy on minor operations would be worse than useless. That was obvious, and the subduing of a few recalcitrant chiefs with a powerful English army seemed a simple enough affair. Essex marched into Leinster, confident that nothing could resist him — and nothing could. But he was encountered by something more dangerous than resistance — by the soft, insidious, undermining atmosphere of that paradoxical country which, a quarter of a century earlier, had brought his father to despair and death.

The strange air engulfed him. The strange land — charming, savage, mythical — lured him on with indulgent ease. He moved, triumphant, through a new peculiar universe of the unimagined and the unreal. Who or what were these people, with their mantles and their nakedness, their long locks of hair hanging over their faces, their wild battle-cries and gruesome wailings, their kerns and their gallowglas, their jesters and their bards? Who were their ancestors? Scythians? Or Spaniards? Or Gauls? What state of society was this, where chiefs jostled with gypsies, where ragged women lay all day long laughing in the hedgerows, where ragged men gambled away among each other their very rags, their very forelocks, the very . . . parts more precious still, where wizards flew on whirlwinds, and rats were rhymed into dissolution? All was vague, contradictory, and unaccountable; and the Lord Deputy, advancing further and further into the green wilderness, began — like so many others before and after him — to catch the surrounding infection, to lose the solid sense of things, and to grow confused over what was fancy and what was fact.

His conquering army was welcomed everywhere by the English settlers. The towns threw open their gates to him, and he was harangued in Latin by delighted Mayors. He passed from Leinster into Munster — still victorious. But time was slipping away. Days and days were spent over the reduction of unimportant castles. Essex had never shown any military genius — only a military taste; and his taste was gratified now, as it had never been before, by successful skirmishes, romantic escapades, noble gestures, and personal glory. The cost was serious. He had lost sight of his main purpose in a tangle of insignificant incidents. And while he was playing with time his strength was dwindling. Under the combined influences of casualties, desertions, disease, and the garrisoning of distant outposts, his army was melting away. At last, in July, he found himself back in Dublin, having spent nearly three months in dubious operations far from the real force of the enemy, and with the numbers of the men under his command diminished by one-half.

Then the mist of illusion melted, and he was faced with the deplorable truth. At this late hour, with his weakened army, was it possible any longer to make sure of crushing Tyrone? In extreme agitation he counted up the chances, and knew not which way to turn. Wherever he looked, a gulf seemed to open at his feet. If he failed against Tyrone, how fatal! If he did nothing, what a derision! Unable to bring himself to admit that he had muddled away his opportunity, he sought relief in random rage and wild accusations, in fits of miserable despair, and passionate letters to Elizabeth. A detachment of some hundreds of men had shown cowardice in the field; he cashiered and imprisoned all the officers, he executed a lieutenant, and he had every tenth man in the rank and file put to death. He fell ill, and death seemed to come near to him too; he would welcome it. He rose from his couch to write a long letter to the Queen, of exposition and expostulation. “But why do I talk of victory or success? Is it not known that from England I receive nothing but discomfort and soul’s wounds? Is it not spoken in the army that your Majesty’s favour is diverted from me, and that already you do bode ill both to me and it? . . . Is it not lamented of your Majesty’s faithfullest subjects, both there and here, that a Cobham or a Raleigh — I will forbear others for their places’ sakes — should have such credit and favour with your Majesty when they wish the ill-success of your Majesty’s most important action? . . . Let me honestly and zealously end a wearisome life. Let others live in deceitful and inconstant pleasures. Let me bear the brunt, and die meritoriously . . . Till then, I protest before God and His Angels, I am a true votary, that is sequestered from all things but my duty and my charge . . . This is the hand of him that did live your dearest, and will die your Majesty’s faithfullest servant.”

There was a sudden rising in Connaught which had to be put down; the rebels were defeated by Sir Christopher Blount; but by now July was over, and the Lord Deputy was still in Dublin. Meanwhile, at home, as time flowed by, and no news of any decisive action came from Ireland, men’s minds were divided between doubt and expectation. At Court the tone was cynical. “Men marvel,” a gossip wrote on August 1, “Essex hath done so little; he tarries yet at Dublin.” The decimation of the soldiers was “not greatly liked,” and when news came that the Lord Deputy had used the powers specially given him by the Queen to make no fewer than fifty-nine knights, there was much laughter and shrugging of shoulders. But elsewhere the feeling was different. The people of London still had high hopes for their favourite — hopes which were voiced by Shakespeare in a play which he produced at this moment at the Globe Theatre. Southampton was the friend and patron of the rising dramatist, who took this opportunity of making a graceful public allusion to Southampton’s own patron and friend.

“How London doth pour out her citizens!”

So spoke the Chorus in “Henry V,” describing the victorious return of the King from France —

“As, by a lower but by loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious Empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him!”

The passage was no doubt applauded, and yet it is possible to perceive even here, through the swelling optimism of the lines, a trace or two of uneasiness.

Elizabeth, waiting anxiously for a despatch announcing Tyrone’s defeat, and receiving instead nothing but letter after letter of angry complaints and despairing ejaculations, began to grow impatient. She did not restrain her comments to those about her. She liked nothing, she said, that was done in Ireland. “I give the Lord Deputy a thousand pounds a day to go on progress.” She wrote to him complaining bitterly of the delay, and ordering him to march forthwith into Ulster. The reply came that the army was fatally depleted — that only 4000 men were left of the 16,000 that had gone from England. She sent a reinforcement of 2000; but the expense cut her to the quick. What was the meaning of this waste and this procrastination? Sinister thoughts came floating back into her head. Why, for instance, had he made so many knights? She wrote, peremptorily ordering Essex to attack Tyrone, and not to leave Ireland till he had done so. “After you shall have certified us to what form you have reduced things in the North . . . you shall with all speed receive our warrant, without which we do charge you, as you tender our pleasure, that you adventure not to come out of that kingdom by virtue of any former license whatever.”

Her agitation deepened. One day at Nonesuch she met Francis Bacon, and drew him aside. She knew him as a clever man, a friend of Essex, and possibly she could extract something from him which would throw a light on the situation. What was his opinion, she asked, of the state of affairs in Ireland, and — she flashed a searching glance on him — the proceedings of the Lord Deputy? It was an exciting moment for Bacon. The honour was great and unexpected — he felt himself swept upward. With no official standing whatever, he was being consulted in this highly confidential way. What was he to answer? He knew all the gossip, and had reason to believe that, in the Queen’s opinion, Essex was acting in a manner that was not only unfortunate and without judgment, but “contemptuous and not without some private end of his own.” With this knowledge, he made a reply that was remarkable. “Madam,” he said, “if you had my Lord of Essex here with a white staff in his hand, as my Lord of Leicester had, and continued him still about you for society to yourself, and for an honour and ornament to your attendance and Court in the eyes of your people, and in the eyes of foreign ambassadors, then were he in his right element. For to discontent him as you do, and yet to put arms and power into his hands, may be a kind of temptation to make him prove cumbersome and unruly. And therefore if you would send for him, and satisfy him with honour here near you, if your affairs — which I am not acquainted with — will permit it, I think were the best way.” She thanked him, and passed onwards. So that was how the land lay! “Arms and power . . . temptation . . . cumbersome and unruly”! He had blown upon her smouldering suspicions, and now they were red hot.

Shortly afterwards Henry Cuffe arrived from Ireland, with letters and messages for the Queen from the Lord Deputy. The tale he had to tell was by no means reassuring. The army, weakened still further by disease and desertion, was in an unsatisfactory condition; the bad weather made movement difficult; and the Dublin Council had once more pronounced strongly against an attack upon Ulster. Elizabeth wrote a scathing letter to her “right trusty and well beloved cousin,” in which she no longer gave command, but merely desired to be informed what he was going to do next. She could not imagine, she said, what could be the explanation of his conduct. Why had nothing been done? “If sickness of the army be the reason, why was not the action undertaken when the army was in better state? If winter’s approach, why were the summer months of July and August lost? If the spring were too soon, and the summer that followed otherwise spent, and the harvest that succeeded were so neglected as nothing hath been done, then surely we must conclude that none of the four quarters of the year will be in season for you and that Council to agree to Tyrone’s prosecution, for which all our charge is intended.” Then, into the middle of her long and bitter argumentation, she stuck a phrase well calculated to give a jar to her correspondent. “We require you to consider whether we have not great cause to think that your purpose is not to end the war.” She was determined to make him realise that she was watching him carefully and was prepared for any eventuality.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, the moment of final decision was swiftly approaching. The horns of a fearful dilemma were closing in upon the unfortunate Lord Deputy. Was he to obey the Queen, and risk all against his own judgment and the advice of his Council? Or was he to disobey her, and confess himself a failure? Winter was at hand, and, if he were going to fight, he must fight at once. Hysterical and distracted, he was still hesitating, when letters were brought to him from England. They told him that Robert Cecil had been appointed to the lucrative office, which he himself had hoped to receive, of the Mastership of the Wards. Then every other feeling was drowned in rage. He rushed to Blount and Southampton. He had made up his mind, he said; he would not go into Ulster; he would go into England, at the head of his army; he would assert his power; he would remove Cecil and his partners; and he would make sure that henceforward the Queen should act as she ought to act and as he wished.

The desperate words were spoken, but that was all. The hectic vision faded, and, before the consultation was over, calmer counsels had prevailed. Sir Christopher pointed out that what the Earl was proposing — to lead his small army, with such a purpose, from Wales to London — meant civil war. It would be wiser, he said, to go over with a bodyguard of a few hundred tried followers, and effect a coup d’état at Nonesuch. But this plan too was waved aside. Suddenly veering, Essex decided to carry out the Queen’s instructions and to attack Tyrone in Ulster.

As a preliminary, he ordered Sir Conyers Clifford, at the head of a picked force, to effect a diversion by marching against the rebels from Connaught. He himself was preparing to move, when there was a new catastrophe: Clifford, caught by the enemy on a causeway crossing a bog, was set upon, defeated, and killed. But it was too late for Essex to draw back, and at the end of August he left Dublin.

At the same time he composed and despatched a short letter to the Queen. Never were his words more gorgeous and his rhythms more moving: never were the notes of anguish, remonstrance, and devotion so romantically blended together.

“From a mind delighting in sorrow; from spirits wasted with travail, care, and grief; from a heart torn in pieces with passion; from a man that hates himself and all things that keep him alive, what service can your Majesty reap? Since my services past deserve no more than banishment and proscription into the most cursed of all countries, with what expectation and what end shall I live longer? No, no, the rebel’s pride and successes must give me means to ransom myself, my soul I mean, out of this hateful prison of my body. And if it happen so, your Majesty may believe that you shall not have cause to mislike the fashion of my death, though the course of my life may not please you. From your Majesty’s exiled servant, Essex.”

It was very fine — thrilling, adorable! But the sequel was less so. If the desperate knight had indeed flung himself to death amid the arrows of the barbarians . . . but what happened was altogether different. In a few days he was in touch with Tyrone’s army, which, though it outnumbered his own, refused to give battle. There was some manoeuvring, a skirmish, and then Tyrone sent a messenger, demanding a parley. Essex agreed. The two men met alone, on horseback, at a ford in a river, while the armies watched from either bank. Tyrone, repeating his old tactics, offered terms — but only verbally; he preferred, he said, not to commit them to writing. He proposed a truce, to be concluded for six weeks, to continue by periods of six weeks until May Day, and not to be broken without a fortnight’s warning. Essex again agreed. All was over. The campaign was at an end.

Of all possible conclusions, this surely was the most impotent that could have been imagined. The grand expedition, the noble general, efforts, hopes, vaunting — it had all dwindled down at last to a futile humiliation, an indefinite suspension of hostilities — the equivocal, accustomed triumph of Tyrone. Essex had played all his cards now — played them as badly as possible, and there was nothing left in his hand. Inevitably, as the misery of his achievement sank into his consciousness, the mood of desperate resolutions returned. He decided that there was only one thing now that could save the situation — he must see the Queen. But — such was the wild wavering of his spirit — whether he was to come into her presence as a suppliant or as a master, he could not tell: he only knew that he could bear to be in Ireland no longer. With Blount’s suggestion of a coup d’état indeterminately hovering in his mind, he summoned round him the members of his household, and, accompanied by them and a great number of officers and gentlemen, embarked at Dublin on September 24th. Early on the morning of the 28th the troop was galloping into London.

The Court was still at Nonesuch, in Surrey, about ten miles southward; the river lay between; and, if an attack were to be made, it would be necessary for the cavalcade to ride through the City and cross the Thames at London Bridge. But by this time the notion of deliberate violence had become an unreality — had given place to the one overmastering desire to be with the Queen at the earliest possible moment. The quickest way was to take the ferry from Westminster to Lambeth, and Essex, leaving the bulk of his followers to disperse themselves in London, had himself rowed across the river with six of his chosen friends. At Lambeth the weary men seized what horses they could find and rode on. They were soon passed by Lord Grey of Wilton, a member of the Cecil party, who, on a fresher mount, was also riding to Court that morning. Sir Thomas Gerard spurred after him. “My Lord, I beg you will speak with the Earl.”

“No,” was Lord Grey’s reply, “I have business at Court.”

“Then I pray you,” said Sir Thomas, “let my Lord of Essex ride before, that he may bring the first news of his return himself.”

“Doth he desire it?” said Lord Grey.

“No,” said Sir Thomas, “nor I think will desire anything at your hands.”

“Then I have business,” said Lord Grey, and rode on with greater speed than ever. When Gerard told his friends what had occurred, Sir Christopher Saint Lawrence cried out with an oath that he would press on and kill Lord Grey, and after him the Secretary. The possibility of a swift, dramatic, irretrievable solution hovered in the air for a moment amid the group of angry gentlemen. But Essex forbade it; it would be mere assassination; he must take his chance.

Directly Lord Grey reached Nonesuch he went to Cecil, and told him the astounding news. The Secretary was calm; he did nothing — sent no word to the Queen, who was dressing in her upper chamber — but waited quietly in his chair. A quarter of an hour later — it was ten o’clock — the Earl was at the gate. He hurried forward, without a second’s hesitation; he ran up the stairs, and so — oh! he knew the way well enough — into the presence chamber, and thence into the privy chamber; the Queen’s bedroom lay beyond. He was muddy and disordered from his long journey, in rough clothes and riding boots; but he was utterly unaware of any of that, as he burst open the door in front of him. And there, quite close to him, was Elizabeth among her ladies, in a dressing-gown, unpainted, without her wig, her grey hair hanging in wisps about her face, and her eyes starting from her head.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31