Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter XIV.

For Essex had now indeed abandoned himself to desperate courses. Seeing no more of Anthony Bacon, he listened only to the suggestions of his mother and Penelope Rich, to the loud anger of Sir Christopher Blount, and to the ruthless counsel of Henry Cuffe. Though Mountjoy had abandoned him, he still carried on a correspondence with the King of Scotland, and still hoped that from that direction deliverance might come. Early in the new year, (1601), he wrote to James, asking him to send an envoy to London, who should concert with him upon a common course of action. And James, this time, agreed; he ordered the Earl of Mar to proceed to England, while he sent Essex a letter of encouragement. The letter arrived before the ambassador; and Essex preserved it in a small black leather purse, which he wore concealed about his neck.

The final explosion quickly followed. The Earl’s partisans were seething with enthusiasm, fear, and animosity. Wild rumours were afloat among them, which they disseminated through the City. The Secretary, it was declared, was a friend to the Spaniards; he was actually intriguing for the Spanish Infanta to succeed to the Crown of England. But more dangerous still was the odious Raleigh. Everyone knew that that man’s ambition had no scruples, that he respected no law, either human or divine; and he had sworn — so the story flew from mouth to mouth — to kill the Earl with his own hand, if there was no other way of getting rid of him. But perhaps the Earl’s enemies had so perverted the mind of the Queen that such violent measures were unnecessary. During the first week of February the rumour rose that he was to be at once committed to the Tower. Essex himself perhaps believed it; he took counsel with his intimates; and it seemed to them that it would be rash to wait any longer for the arrival of Mar; that the time had come to strike, before the power of initiative was removed from them. But what was to be done? Some favoured the plan of an attack upon the Court, and a detailed scheme was drawn up, by which control was to be secured over the person of the Queen with a minimum of violence. Others believed that the best plan would be to raise the City in the Earl’s favour; with the City behind them, they could make certain of overawing the Court. Essex could decide upon nothing; still wildly wavering, it is conceivable that, even now, he would have indefinitely postponed both projects and relapsed into his accustomed state of hectic impotence if something had not happened to propel him into action.

That something bears all the marks of the gentle genius of Cecil. With unerring instinct the Secretary saw that the moment had now arrived at which it would be well to bring matters to an issue; and accordingly he did so. It was the faintest possible touch. On the morning of Saturday, February 7th, a messenger arrived from the Queen at Essex House, requiring the Earl to attend the Council. That was enough. To the conspirators it seemed obvious that this was an attempt to seize upon the Earl, and that, unless they acted immediately, all would be lost. Essex refused to move; he sent back a message that he was too ill to leave his bed; his friends crowded about him; and it was determined that the morrow should see the end of the Secretary’s reign.

The Queen herself — who could be so base or so mad as to doubt it? — was to remain inviolate. Essex constantly asserted it; and yet there were some, apparently, among that rash multitude, who looked, even upon the divine Gloriana, with eyes that were profane. There was a singular episode on that Saturday afternoon. Sir Gilly Merrick, one of the most fiery of the Earl’s adherents, went across the river with a group of his friends, to the players at Southwark. He was determined, he said, that the people should see that a Sovereign of England could be deposed, and he asked the players to act that afternoon the play of “Richard the Second.” The players demurred: the play was an old one, and they would lose money by its performance. But Sir Gilly insisted; he offered them forty shillings if they would do as he wished; and on those terms the play was acted. Surely a strange circumstance! Sir Gilly must have been more conversant with history than literature; for how otherwise could he have imagined that the spectacle of the pathetic ruin of Shakespeare’s minor poet of a hero could have nerved any man on earth to lift a hand, in actual fact, against so oddly different a ruler?

The Government, aware of everything, took its precautions, and on Sunday morning the guards were doubled at Whitehall. Sir Charles Davers went there early to reconnoitre, and returned with the news that it was no longer possible to surprise the Court; he recommended the Earl to escape secretly from London, to make his way into Wales, and there raise the standard of revolt. Sir Christopher Blount was for immediate action, and his words were strengthened by the ever-increasing crowd of armed men, who, since daybreak, had been pouring into the courtyard of Essex House. Three hundred were collected there by ten o’clock, and Essex was among them, when there was a knocking at the gate. The postern was opened, and four high dignitaries — the Lord Keeper, the Earl of Worcester, Sir William Knollys, and the Lord Chief Justice — made their appearance. Their servants were kept out, but they themselves were admitted. They had come, said Egerton, from the Queen, to inquire the cause of this assembly, and to say that if it arose through any grief against any persons whatsoever all complaints should be heard and justice be given. The noise and tumult were so great that conversation was impossible, and Essex asked the stately but agitated envoys to come up with him into his library. They did so, but hardly had they reached the room when the crowd burst in after them. There were cries of “Kill them! kill them!” and others of “Shop them up!” The Earl was surrounded by his shouting and gesticulating followers. He tried to speak, but they interrupted him. “Away, my Lord, they abuse you; they betray you; they undo you; you lose time!” He was powerless among them, and, while the Lords of the Council vainly adjured them to lay down their arms and depart in peace, he found himself swept towards the door. He bade Egerton and the others stay where they were; he would return ere long, he cried out, and go with them to the Queen. Then he was out of the room, and the door was shut and locked on the Councillors; they were “shopped up.” Down the stairs and into the courtyard streamed the frenzied mob. And then the great gates were opened and they all rushed out into the street. But even now, at this last moment, there was hesitation. Where were they to go? “To the Court! To the Court!” cried some, and all waited upon Essex. But he, with a sudden determination, turned towards the City. To the City, then, it was to be. But there were no horses for such a multitude; they must all walk. The Strand lay before them, and down the Strand they hurried, brandishing their weapons. In front of all strode the tall black figure of Sir Christopher Blount. “Saw! Saw! Saw! Saw! Tray! Tray!” he shouted, seeking with wild gestures and incoherent exclamations to raise up London for the Earl.

The insurgents entered the City by Lud Gate; but the Government had been beforehand with them. Word had been sent to the preachers to tell the citizens to keep themselves within doors, armed, until further orders; and the citizens obeyed. Why should they do otherwise? The Earl was their hero; but they were loyal subjects of the Queen. They were quite unprepared for this sudden outbreak; they could not understand the causes of it; and then the news reached them that the Earl had been proclaimed a traitor; and the awful word and the ghastly penalties it carried with it struck terror into their souls. By noon Essex and his band were at Saint Paul’s, and there was no sign of any popular movement. He walked onward, crying aloud as he went that there was a plot to murder him, and that the Crown had been sold to the Spanish Infanta. But it was useless; there was no response; not a creature joined him. Those who were in the street stood still and silent, while perplexed and frightened faces peered out at him from doors and windows on either side. He had hoped to make a speech at Paul’s Cross, but in such an atmosphere a set oration was clearly impossible; and besides, his self-confidence had now utterly gone. As he walked on down Cheapside, all men could see that he was in desperation; the sweat poured from his face, which was contorted in horror; he knew it at last — he was ruined — his whole life had crashed to pieces in this hideous fiasco.

In Gracechurch Street he entered the house of one of his friends, Sheriff Smith, upon whose support he reckoned. But the Sheriff, though sympathetic, was not disloyal, and he withdrew, on the pretext of consulting the Lord Mayor. After refreshing himself a little, Essex emerged, to find that many of his followers had slipped away, while the forces of the Government were gathering against him. He determined to return to his house; but at Lud Gate he found that the way was blocked. The Bishop of London and Sir John Leveson had collected together some soldiers and well-disposed citizens, and had stretched some chains across the narrow entry. The rebels charged, and were repelled. Sir Christopher was wounded; a page was killed; and some others were mortally injured. Essex turned down to the river. There he took boat, and rowed to Essex House, which he entered by the water-gate. The Councillors, he found, had been set free, and had returned to Whitehall. Having hurriedly destroyed a mass of incriminating papers, including the contents of the black leather purse about his neck, he proceeded to barricade the house. Very soon the Queen’s troops, headed by the Lord Admiral, were upon him; artillery was brought up, and it was clear that resistance was useless. After a brief parley, Essex surrendered at discretion, and was immediately conveyed to the Tower.

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