Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter XIII.

He was surprised, she was delighted — those were her immediate reactions; but then, swiftly, a third feeling came upon her — she was afraid. What was the meaning of this unannounced, this forbidden return, and this extraordinary irruption? What kind of following had the man brought from Ireland and where was it? What had happened? Was it possible that at this very moment she was in his power? Completely in the dark, she at once sought refuge in the dissimulation which was her second nature. Her instinctive pleasure in his presence, her genuine admiration of his manner and his speech, served her purpose excellently, and, covered with smiles, she listened while he poured out his protestations and told his story — listened with an inward accompaniment of lightning calculations and weighings of shifting possibilities and snatchings at dubious hints. Very soon she guessed that she was in no immediate danger. She laughingly bade him begone and change his clothes, while she finished her toilet; he obeyed, returned, and the conversation continued for an hour and a half. He came downstairs to dinner in high spirits, flirted with the ladies, and thanked God that after so many storms abroad he had found so sweet a calm at home. But the calm was of short continuance; he saw the Queen again after dinner and found the breezes blowing. She had made her inquiries, and, having sufficiently gauged the situation, had decided on her course of action. She began by asking disagreeable questions, disagreeably; when he answered, she grew angry; finally she declared that he must explain himself to the Council. The Council met, and when the Earl had given an account of his proceedings, adjourned in vague politeness. Perhaps all was well — it almost seemed so; but the Queen, apparently, was still vexed and inaccessible. At eleven o’clock at night the Earl received a message from her Majesty; he was commanded to keep to his chamber.

Everyone was mystified, and the wildest speculations flew about. At the first blush it was supposed that Essex had completely triumphed — that in one bold stroke he had recaptured the favour and the power that were slipping from his grasp. Bacon sent off a letter of congratulation. “I am more yours than any man’s and more yours than any man,” he wrote. A little later, the news of the Queen’s displeasure brought doubts; yet it seemed hardly possible that anything very serious should happen to the Earl, who, after all, had only been blundering in Ireland, like so many before him. But meanwhile the Queen proceeded with her plan. Having waited a day, during which no news came of any suspicious movements in London, she felt she could take her next step. She committed Essex to the custody of the Lord Keeper Egerton, to whose residence — York House, in the Strand — he was forthwith removed. All still remained calm, and Elizabeth was satisfied: Essex was now completely at her mercy. She could decide at her leisure what she would do with him.

While she was considering he fell ill. He had been seriously unwell before he left Ireland, and the fatigue of his three days’ ride across England, followed by the emotion and disgrace at Nonesuch, had proved too much for his uncertain and suggestible physique. Yet, while he lay in captivity at York House, he still — though crying out from time to time that he only longed for a country obscurity — had not given up hopes of a return to favour and even a reinstatement as Lord Deputy. He wrote submissive letters to the Queen; but she refused to receive them, and sent no word. John Harington, who had been among those he had knighted in Ireland, returned at this moment, and Essex begged him to be the bearer of yet another missive, filled with contrition and adoration. But the sprightly knight preferred to take no risks. He had been threatened with arrest on his arrival in London, and he felt that his own affairs were as much as he could manage; charity, he said, began at home, and he had no desire to be “wracked on the Essex coast.” His conscience, too, was not quite clear. He had had the curiosity to pay a visit to Tyrone after the pacification, and had behaved, perhaps, in too friendly and familiar a fashion with the recreant Earl. He had produced a copy of his Ariosto, had read aloud some favourite passages, had presented the book to the elder of Tyrone’s sons —“two children of good towardly spirit, in English clothes like a nobleman’s sons, with velvet jerkins and gold lace,”— and finally had sat down to a merry dinner with the rebels at a “fern table, spread under the stately canopy of heaven.” Possibly some rumour of these proceedings had reached Elizabeth’s ears, and she was not altogether pleased by them. Nevertheless he believed that all would be well if only he could obtain an audience. He knew that she had a liking for him; he was her godson — had been familiar with her from his childhood, and was actually connected, in an underground way, with the royal family, his stepmother having been a natural daughter of Henry VIII. At last he was told that the Queen would receive him; he went to Court in considerable trepidation; and as soon as he entered the presence he thanked his stars that he had had the sense to refuse to deliver any message from Essex.

He never forgot the fearful scene that followed. Hardly had he knelt before her than she strode towards him, seized him by the girdle, and, shaking it, exclaimed “By God’s Son, I am no Queen! That man is above me! Who gave him command to come here so soon? I did send him on other business.” While the terrified poet stammered out some kind of answer, she turned from him in fury, “walked fastly to and fro,” and “looked with discomposure in her visage.”

“By God’s Son!” she burst out again, “you are all idle knaves and Essex worse!” He tried to pacify her, but “her choler did outrun all reason,” she would listen to nothing, and, in the storm of her invective, seemed to forget that her unfortunate godson was not, after all, the Lord Deputy. At last, however, she grew calmer, asked questions, was amused by Harington’s little jokes and stories, and made no account of his hobnobbing with Tyrone. He described the rebel to her, and his curious Court — how “his guard for the most part were beardless boys, without shirts, who in the frost wade as familiarly through rivers as water-spaniels.”

“With what charm,” he added, “such a master makes them love him, I know not; but if he bid them come, they come; if go, they do go; if he say do this, they do it.” She smiled; and then, suddenly changing countenance, told him to go home. He “did not stay to be bidden twice,” but rode away to his house in Somersetshire “as if all the Irish rebels had been at his heels.”

The author of the Metamorphosis of Ajax was no fit confidant for a perplexed and injured sovereign. Elizabeth looked elsewhere for an adviser, or at any rate a listener, and she found what she wanted in Francis Bacon. Recalling the conversation of the summer, she took advantage of his official attendance upon her on legal business to revert to the subject of the Earl. She found his answers pertinent; she renewed the topic; and so began a series of strange dialogues in which, during many months, in confidential privacy, the fate of Essex, with all its hidden implications of policy and passion, became the meeting-point of those two most peculiar minds. Elizabeth was, as usual, uncertain how to treat the situation in which she found herself: was there to be forgiveness or punishment? and, if the latter, of what kind? Revealing little, she asked much. As for Bacon, he was in his element. He felt that he could thread his way through the intricacies that surrounded him with perfect propriety. To adjust the claims of personal indebtedness and public duty, to combine the feelings of the statesman and the friend, to hold the balance true between honour and ambition — other men might find such problems difficult, if not insoluble; but he was not frightened by them; his intellect was capable of more than that. As he talked to Elizabeth he played upon the complex theme with the profound relish of a virtuoso. He had long since decided that, in all human probability, Essex was a ruined man; he owed the Earl something — much; but it would be futile to spoil his own chances of fortune by adhering to a hopeless cause; it was essential to win the good graces of Robert Cecil; and now, there was this heaven-sent opportunity — which it would be madness to miss — for acquiring something more important still — the confidence of the Queen. Besides — he could doubt it no longer — Essex was a mischievous person, whose activities were dangerous to the State. While he was clearly bound to give him what help he could as a private individual, he was certainly under no obligation to forward the return of such a man to power; it was even his duty to insinuate into the Queen’s mind his own sense of the gravity of the situation. And so, with unhesitating subtlety, he spun the web of his sagacious thought. He had no doubt of himself — none; and when, a few years later, under the pressure of the public disapproval, he wrote an account of his proceedings, it still seemed to him that a recital of his actual conduct was all that was necessary as a justification.

Elizabeth listened with interest to everything he had to say — it was always impossible to do otherwise. He was profuse in his expressions of sympathy and attachment to the Earl; but, he must needs say it, there were some positions to which he thought him ill-suited; to send him back to Ireland, for instance —“Essex!” interrupted the Queen. “Whensoever I send Essex back again into Ireland, I will marry you. Claim it of me.” No, that was not her thought — far from it; she intended rather to bring him to justice; but by what process? She inclined to a trial before the Star Chamber. But Bacon demurred. It would, he said, be a dangerous proceeding; it might be difficult to produce cogent proof in public of the Earl’s delinquencies; and his popularity was so great that a severe punishment on insufficient evidence might produce most serious consequences. She glared angrily, and dismissed him. She did not like that suggestion; but the words sank into her mind, and she veered away from the notion of a public prosecution.

For, as time passed, everything seemed to show that Bacon’s warning was justified. There could be no doubt about the Earl’s popularity. It was increased by his illness, and, when it was whispered that he lay near to death in his captivity, the public indignation made itself heard. Pamphlets, defending the Earl and attacking his enemies, were secretly printed and scattered broadcast. At last even the white walls of the palace were covered with abusive scrawls. Bacon was singled out for particular denunciation; he was a traitor, who was poisoning the Queen’s mind against his benefactor. He was threatened — so he declared — with assassination. This was unpleasant, but some use might be made of it: it might serve to put beyond a doubt his allegiance to the Secretary. He wrote to his cousin, telling him of these threats of violence, against which, he said, “I thank God I have the privy coat of a good conscience.” He looked upon them “as a deep malice to your honourable self, upon whom, by me, through nearness, they think to make some aspersion.”

Cecil smiled gently when he read the letter; and he sent for his cousin. He wished to make his own position quite clear. He had indeed heard, he said, that Francis had been doing some ill office to Essex; but . . . he did not believe it. And then he added: “For my part, I am merely passive and not active in this action; and I follow the Queen, and that heavily, and I lead her not. The Queen indeed is my sovereign, and I am her creature, I may not leese her; and the same course I wish you to take.”

So he explained himself, and the explanation was a perfectly true one. Robert Cecil was indeed merely passive, merely following, with the sadness which his experience of the world had brought him, the action of the Queen. But passivity, too, may be a kind of action — may, in fact, at moments prove more full of consequence than action itself. Only a still, disillusioned man could understand this; it was hidden from the hasty children of vigour and hope. It was hidden, among others, from Walter Raleigh. He could not conceive what the Secretary was doing; he was letting a golden opportunity slip through his fingers; he was leaving the Queen to her own devices — it was madness — this was the time to strike. “I am not wise enough,” he wrote to Cecil, “to give you advice; but if you take it for a good counsel to relent towards this tyrant, you will repent it when it shall be too late. His malice is fixed, and will not evaporate by any your mild courses. For he will ascribe the alteration to her Majesty’s pusillanimity and not to your good nature: knowing that you work but upon her humour, and not out of any love towards him. The less you make him, the less he shall be able to harm you and yours. And if her Majesty’s favour fail him, he will again decline to a common person . . . Lose not your advantage; if you do, I rede your destiny. Yours to the end, WR.” It was true — he was not “wise enough” to give a Cecil advice. Could he not see that the faintest movement, the slightest attempt to put pressure upon the Queen, would be fatal? How little he understood that perverse, that labyrinthine character! No! If anything was to be done, she herself, in her own strange way and with her own strange will, must do it. And the Secretary sat motionless — waiting, watching, and holding his breath.

Elizabeth, certainly, needed watching very carefully. For the moment she seemed to be occupied with entirely frivolous pursuits. The ceremonies of Accession Day absorbed her; she sat for hours in the tiltyard — where Essex had so often shone in all his glory — careless and amused; and when at last there was a grotesque surprise and Lord Compton came in, as an eye-witness described it, “like a Fisherman, with 6 men clad in motley, his capariesons all of nett, having caught a Frogge,” the old creature’s sides shook with delighted laughter. A week later she came to a sudden decision: she would justify her treatment of Essex before the world by having a statement of his delinquencies read out by the Council in the Star Chamber. He himself could not be present — he was too ill. But was he? She could not feel quite sure; he had been known before now to convert a fit of the sulks into a useful malady; she would see for herself. And so, at four o’clock in the evening of November 28th, accompanied by Lady Warwick and Lord Worcester, she stepped into her barge and had herself conveyed to York House. We know no more. Essex was in truth very ill — apparently dying. Was he conscious of her visit? Were there words spoken? Or did she come and look and go, unseen? Unanswerable questions! The November night falls, gathering her up into its darkness.

Next day the Star Chamber met, and the statement of the Earl’s misdoings was read aloud. It was declared that he had mismanaged the Irish operations, that he had made a disgraceful treaty with Tyrone, and that he had returned to England contrary to the Queen’s express orders. Members of the public were admitted, but Francis Bacon did not attend. Elizabeth, running over the list of those who had been present, observed the fact. She sent him a message, asking the meaning of it. He replied that he had thought it wiser to keep away, in view of the threats of violence against his person. But she was not impressed by the excuse, and did not speak to him again for several weeks.

The Star Chamber declaration led to nothing. The weeks, the months, flowed by, and Essex was still a prisoner; the fatal evening at Nonesuch proved to have been the beginning of a captivity which lasted almost a year. Nor was it a mild one. None of the Earl’s intimates were allowed to see him. Even Lady Essex, who had just borne him a daughter, and who haunted the Court dressed in the deep mourning of a suppliant, was forbidden to see her husband for many months. Elizabeth’s anger had assumed a grimmer aspect than ever before. Was this still a lovers’ quarrel? If so, it was indeed a strange one. For now contempt, fear, and hatred had come to drop their venom into the deadly brew of disappointed passion. With fixed resentment, as the long months dragged out, she nursed her wrath; she would make him suffer for his incompetence, his insolence, his disobedience; did he imagine that his charms were irresistible? She had had enough of them, and he would find that he had made a mistake.

With the new year — it was the last of the century — there were two developments. Essex began to recover, and by the end of January he had regained his normal health. At the same time the Queen made a new attempt to deal with the situation in Ireland. Tyrone had himself put an end to the truce of September, and had recommenced his manoeuvrings against the English. Something had to be done, and Elizabeth, falling back on her previous choice, appointed Mountjoy Lord Deputy. He tried in vain to escape from the odious office, but it was useless; Elizabeth was determined; go he must. Before doing so, however, he held a consultation with Southampton and Sir Charles Davers, another devoted follower of Essex, as to how he might best assist the imprisoned Earl. An extraordinary proposal was made. For some years past Essex had been in communication with James of Scotland, and Mountjoy himself, during the campaign in Ireland, had written to the King — whether with or without the knowledge of Essex is uncertain — asking him to make some move in Essex’s behalf. James’s answer having proved unsatisfactory, the matter was dropped; but it was now revived in an astonishing and far more definite manner. It was well known that the prime object of the King of Scotland’s policy was to secure the inheritance of England. Mountjoy suggested that a message should be sent to James informing him that the Cecil party was hostile to his succession, that his one chance lay in the reinstatement of Essex, that if he would take action in Essex’s favour Mountjoy himself would cross over from Ireland with an army of four or five thousand men, and that with their combined forces they could then impose their will upon the English Government. Southampton and Davers approved of the project, and there can be no doubt that Essex himself gave his consent to it, for the conspirators had found means of conveying letters in secret to and from York House. The messenger was despatched to Scotland; and Mountjoy actually started to take up the government of Ireland with this project of desperate treason in his mind. But James was a cautious person: his reply was vague and temporising; Mountjoy was informed; and the scheme was allowed to drop.

But not for long. For in the spring, Southampton went to Ireland, and Essex took the opportunity to send a letter to Mountjoy, urging him to carry out his original intention and to lead his army into England, with or without the support of James. Mountjoy, however, had changed his mind. Ireland had had its effect on him too — and an unexpected one. He was no longer the old Charles Blount, who had been content to follow in the footsteps of his dazzling friend; he had suddenly found his vocation. He was a follower no more; he was a commander; he felt that he could achieve what no one had achieved before him; he would pacify Ireland, he would defeat Tyrone. Penelope herself would not keep him from that destiny. His answer was polite, but firm. “To satisfy my lord of Essex’s private ambition, he would not enter into an enterprise of that nature.”

Meanwhile Elizabeth, unaware of these machinations, was wondering gloomily what she was going to do. The Tower? On the whole, she thought not; things were bad — but not quite so bad as that. Nevertheless, she would move the culprit out of York House. The poor Lord Keeper could not be made a gaoler for ever; and Essex was sent into his own house, after Anthony Bacon and all his other friends had been turned out of it, to be kept there in as close confinement as before. Then her mind again moved towards the Star Chamber. She summoned Bacon, who once more advised against it; once more he told her — not that the Earl’s misdoings hardly deserved so terrible a form of prosecution — but that his power with the people was such as to make it dangerous. This time she agreed with him, and decided to set up a disciplinary tribunal of her own devising. There should be a fine show, and the miscreant should be lectured, very severely lectured, made to apologise, frightened a little, and then — let off. So she arranged it, and everyone fell in with her plans. Never was the cool paternalism of the Tudors so curiously displayed. Essex was a naughty boy, who had misbehaved, been sent to his room, and fed on bread and water; and now he was to be brought downstairs, and, after a good wigging, told he was not to be flogged after all.

The ceremony took place, (June 5th, 1600), at York House, and lasted for eleven hours without a break. Essex knelt at the foot of the table, round which the assembled lords of the Council sat in all their gravity. After some time the Archbishop of Canterbury moved that the Earl be allowed to stand; this was granted; later on he was allowed to lean, and at last to sit. The Crown lawyers rose one after another to denounce his offences, which, with a few additions, were those specified in the Star Chamber declaration. Among the accusers was Bacon. He had written an ingenious letter, begging to be excused from taking a part in the proceedings, but adding that, if her Majesty desired it, he could not refuse. Naturally enough, her Majesty did desire it, and Bacon was instructed to draw the attention of the lords to the Earl’s impropriety in accepting the dedication of Hayward’s History of Henry IV. He knew full well the futility of the charge, but he did as he was bid. All was going well, and Essex was ready with a profound apology, when the dignity of the scene was marred by the excited ill-humour of Edward Coke, the Attorney-General. Essex found himself being attacked in such a way that he could not refrain from angry answers; Coke retorted; and the proceedings were degenerating into a wrangle, when Cecil intervened with some tactful observations. Then the judgment of the Court was given. Imprisonment in the Tower and an enormous fine were hung for a moment over the Earl’s head; but on his reading aloud an abject avowal of his delinquencies, followed by a prayer for mercy, he was told that he might return to his house, and there await the Queen’s pleasure.

He waited for a month before anything happened; at last his guards were removed, but he was still commanded to keep to his house. Not until the end of August was he given complete liberty. Elizabeth was relenting, but she was relenting as unpleasantly as possible. All through the summer she was in constant conference with Bacon, who had now taken up the rôle of intermediary between the Queen and the Earl. He had sent an apology to Essex for the part he had played at York House, and Essex had magnanimously accepted it. He now composed two elaborate letters, in Essex’s name, addressed to the Queen and imploring her forgiveness. He did more. He invented a letter from his brother Anthony to Essex and the Earl’s reply — brilliant compositions, in which the style of each was exquisitely imitated, and in which the Earl’s devotion to his sovereign was beautifully displayed; and then he took these works and showed them to the Queen. Incidentally, there was much in them to the credit of Francis Bacon; but their effect was small. Perhaps Elizabeth was too familiar with the stratagems of plotters in the theatre to be altogether without suspicions when they were repeated in real life.

But Essex was not dependent upon Bacon’s intervention; he wrote to the Queen himself, again and again. In varying tones he expressed his grief, he besought for an entire forgiveness, he begged to be allowed into the beloved presence once more. “Now having heard the voice of your Majesty’s justice, I do humbly crave to hear your own proper and natural voice of grace, or else that your Majesty in mercy will send me into another world.”

“I receive no grace, your Majesty shows no mercy. But if your Majesty will vouchsafe to let me once prostrate myself at your feet and behold your fair and gracious eyes, though it be unknown to all the world but to him that your Majesty shall appoint to bring me to that paradise — yea, though afterwards your Majesty punish me, imprison me, or pronounce the sentence of death against me — your Majesty is most merciful, and I shall be most happy.” So he wrote, but it was not only to Elizabeth that he addressed himself. Even while he was pouring out these regrets and protestations, his mind kept reverting to Ireland. One day he sent for Sir Charles Davers and asked him to make yet one more attempt upon the fidelity of Mountjoy. Davers knew well enough how it would be; but he was absolutely devoted to the Earl, who, as he said afterwards, “had saved my life, and that after a very noble fashion; he had suffered for me, and made me by as many means bound unto him, as one man could be bound unto another; the life he had saved, and my estate and means whatsoever, he should ever dispose of”; and the adoring vassal immediately took horse, to do as his lord desired.

A moment of crisis was approaching, which, Essex perceived, would reveal the real state of Elizabeth’s mind. The monopoly of the sweet wines, which she had granted him for ten years, would come to an end at Michaelmas; would she renew it? It brought him a great income, and if she cut that off she would plunge him into poverty. Favour and hope — disgrace and ruin — those were the alternatives that seemed to hang upon her decision in this matter. She was well aware of it herself. She spoke of it to Bacon. “My Lord of Essex,” she said, “has written me some very dutiful letters, and I have been moved by them; but”— she laughed grimly —“what I took for the abundance of the heart I find to be only a suit for the farm of sweet wines.”

One letter, however, perhaps moved her more than the rest. “Haste paper to that happy presence, whence only unhappy I am banished; kiss that fair correcting hand which lays new plasters to my lighter hurts, but to my greatest wound applieth nothing. Say thou comest from pining, languishing, despairing Essex.” Did she find those words impossible to resist? It may have been so. From some phrases in another letter we may guess that there was indeed a meeting; but, if there was, it ended disastrously. In the midst of his impassioned speeches a fearful bitterness welled up within her; she commanded him from her presence; and with her own hands she thrust him out.1

She hesitated for a month, and then it was announced that the profits from the sweet wines would be henceforward reserved for the Crown. The effect upon Essex was appalling: he became like one possessed. Davers had already brought back word from Mountjoy that his decision was irreversible. “He desired my Lord to have patience, to recover again by ordinary means the Queen’s ordinary favour; that, though he had it not in such measure as he had had heretofore, he should content himself.” Patience! Content himself! The time for such words was past! He raved in fury, and then, suddenly recoiling, cursed himself in despair. “He shifteth,” wrote Harington, who paid him at this time a brief and terrified visit, “from sorrow and repentance to rage and rebellion so suddenly as well proveth him devoid of good reason or right mind . . . He uttered strange words, bordering on such strange designs that made me hasten forth and leave his presence . . . His speeches of the Queen becometh no man who hath mens sana in corpore sano. He hath ill advisers and much evil hath sprung from this source. The Queen well knoweth how to humble the haughty spirit, the haughty spirit knoweth not how to yield, and the man’s soul seemeth tossed to and fro, like the waves of a troubled sea.”

His “speeches of the Queen” were indeed insane. On one occasion something was said in his presence of “her Majesty’s conditions.”

“Her conditions!” he exclaimed. “Her conditions are as crooked as her carcase!” The intolerable words reached Elizabeth and she never recovered from them.

She, too, perhaps was also mad. Did she not see that she was drifting to utter disaster? That by giving him freedom and projecting him into poverty, by disgracing him and yet leaving him uncrushed, she was treating him in the most dangerous manner that could be devised? Her life-long passion for half-measures, which had brought her all her glory, had now become a mania, and was about to prove her undoing. Involved in an extraordinary paralysis, she ignored her approaching fate.

But the Secretary ignored nothing. He saw what was happening, and what was bound to follow. He knew all about the gatherings at Lord Southampton’s in Drury House. He noted the new faces come up from the country, the unusual crowds of swaggering gentlemen in the neighbourhood of the Strand, the sense of stir and preparation in the air; and he held himself ready for the critical moment, whenever it might come.

1. “This is but one of the many letters which, since I saw your Majesty, I wrote, but never sent unto you . . . I sometimes think of running [i.e. in the tiltyard] and then remember what it will be to come in armour triumphing into that presence, out of which both by your own voice I was commanded, and by your hands thrust out.” Essex to the Queen. Undated.

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