Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter XVI.

Southampton was spared. His youth and romantic devotion to Essex were accepted as a palliation of his delinquency, and the death sentence was commuted for imprisonment in the Tower. Sir Christopher Blount and Sir Charles Davers were beheaded; Sir Gilly Merrick and Henry Cuffe were hanged. Some heavy fines were levied from some of the other conspirators, but there were no more executions; the Government was less vindictive than might have been expected. Penelope Rich, who had been taken prisoner in Essex House at the same time as her brother, was set free. In the hour of his triumph Cecil’s one wish was to show no animosity; he gave rein to his instinctive mildness, and was as polite as possible to his fallen enemies. An opportunity occurred of showing a favour to Lady Essex, and he immediately seized it. One Daniell, a servant of the Earl’s, had got hold of some of his private letters, had forged copies of them, and had blackmailed the Countess with threats of publication. She appealed to Cecil, who acted with great promptitude. The ruffian was seized and brought before the Star Chamber; and, in an elaborate sentence, filled with flowery praises of the Countess, he was condemned to pay her two thousand pounds, to be fined another thousand, to be imprisoned for life, and —“to thend the said offences of the foresaid Daniell should not only be notefyed to the publique viewe, but to cause others to refrayne from committing of the like hereafter, it is likewise ordered and decreed that for the same his offences he the said Daniell shal be sett upon the pillory, with his eares thereunto nayled, with a paper on his head inscribed with these words — For forgery, corrupte cosenages, and other lewde practises.” Lady Essex was duly grateful; a letter of thanks to Cecil gives us a momentary glimpse of the most mysterious of the personages in this tragic history. A shrouded figure, moving dubiously on that brilliantly lighted stage, Frances Walsingham remains utterly unknown to us. We can only guess, according to our fancy, at some rare beauty, some sovereign charm — and at one thing more: a superabundant vitality. For, two years later, the widow of Sidney and Essex was married for the third time — to the Earl of Clanricarde. And so she vanishes. The rising had been followed by no repercussions among the people, but the Government remained slightly uneasy. It was anxious to convince the public that Essex had not been made a martyr to political intrigue, but was a dangerous criminal who had received a righteous punishment. The preacher in Saint Paul’s was instructed to deliver a sermon to that effect, but this was not enough; and it was determined to print and publish a narrative of the circumstances, with extracts from the official evidence attached. Obviously Bacon was the man to carry out the work; he was instructed to do so; his labours were submitted to the correction of the Queen and Council; and the “Declaration of the Practices and Treasons of Robert Late Earl of Essex and his Complices . . . together with the very Confessions, and other parts of the Evidences themselves, word for word taken out of the Originals” was the result. The tract was written with brevity and clarity, and, as was to be expected, it expressed in a more detailed form the view of the case which Bacon had outlined in his speeches at the trial. It showed that the rising had been the result of a long-thought-out and deliberately planned conspiracy. This result was achieved with the greatest skill and neatness; certain passages in the confessions were silently suppressed; but the manipulations of the evidence were reduced to a minimum; and there was only one actually false statement of fact. The date of the Earl’s proposal to invade England with the Irish army was altered; it was asserted to have been made after the expedition against Tyrone, and not before it; and thus one of the clearest indications of the indeterminate and fluctuating nature of Essex and his plans was not only concealed but converted into a confirmation of Bacon’s thesis. By means of a clever series of small omissions from the evidence, the balance of the facts just previous to the rising was entirely changed; the Earl’s hesitations - which in truth continued up to the very last moment — were obliterated, and it was made to appear that the march into the City had been steadily fixed upon for weeks. So small and subtle were the means by which Bacon’s end was reached that one cannot but wonder whether, after all, he was conscious of their existence. Yet such a beautiful economy — could it have arisen unbeknownst? Who can tell? The serpent glides off with his secret.

As a reward for his services Francis Bacon received £1200 from the Queen. And very soon his financial position was improved still further. Three months after the final catastrophe, Anthony Bacon found the rest which this world had never given him. The terrible concatenation of events — the loss of his master, the loss of his brother, the ruin of his hopes, the triumph of folly, passion, and wickedness — had broken the last prop of his shattered health — his fierce indomitable spirit. He died, and Francis inherited his small fortune. The future was brightening. Property — prosperity — a multitude of satisfactions, sensual and intellectual — a crowded life of brilliance, learning, and power — were these things coming then at last? Perhaps; but when they came they would be shared in no family rejoicings. Only a strange cackle disturbed the silence of Gorhambury. For old Lady Bacon’s wits had finally turned. Gibbering of the Lord and the Earl, of her sons and her nephew, of hell-fire and wantonness, she passed the futile days in a confusion of prayers and rages. Frantic, she tottered on into extreme senility. Oblivion covers her.

Mastery had come into Robert Cecil’s hands; but it was mastery tempered by anxiety and vigilance. No sooner was his great rival gone than a fresh crisis, of supreme importance in his life, was upon him. The Earl of Mar arrived in London. The situation had completely changed since his departure from Scotland, and it now seemed as if James’s emissary could have little to do at the English Court. While he was waiting indecisively, he received a message from Cecil, asking for a private interview. The Secretary had seen where the key to the future lay. He was able to convince Mar that he was sincerely devoted to the cause of the King of Scotland. If only, he said, James would abandon his policy of protests and clandestine manoeuvring, if he would put his trust in him, if he would leave to him the management of the necessary details, he would find, when the hour struck, that all would be well, that the transition would be accomplished and the Crown of England his, without the slightest difficulty or danger. Mar, deeply impressed, returned to Edinburgh, and succeeded in making James understand the crucial importance of these advances. A secret correspondence began between the King and the Secretary. The letters, sent round, by way of precaution, through an intermediary in Dublin, brought James ever more closely under the wise and gentle sway of Cecil. Gradually, persistently, infinitely quietly, the obstacles in the path of the future were smoothed away; and the royal gratitude grew into affection, into devotion, as the inevitable moment drew near.

To Cecil, while he watched and waited, one possibility was more disturbing than all the rest. The rise of Raleigh had accompanied the fall of Essex; the Queen had made him Governor of Jersey; she was beginning to employ him in diplomacy; where was this to end? Was it conceivable that the upshot of the whole drama was merely to be a change of dangerous favourites — but a change for the worse, by which the dashing incompetence of Essex would be replaced by Raleigh’s sinister force? And, even if it was too late now for that bold man to snatch very much more from Elizabeth, what fatal influence might he not come to wield over the romantic and easily impressible James? This must be looked to; and looked to it was. The King’s mind was satisfactorily infected with the required sentiments. Cecil himself said very little — only a sharp word, once; but Lord Henry Howard, who, as Cecil’s closest ally, had been allowed to join in the secret correspondence, poured out, in letter after letter, envenomed warnings and bitter accusations; and soon James felt for Raleigh only loathing and dread. Raleigh himself was utterly unsuspecting; there seemed to be a warm friendship between him and the Secretary. Once again he was the victim of bad luck. His earlier hopes had been shattered by Essex; and now that Essex was destroyed he was faced by a yet more dangerous antagonist. In reality, the Earl’s ruin, which he had so virulently demanded, was to be the prologue of his own. As he had looked out from the armoury on his enemy’s execution his eyes had filled with tears. So strangely had he been melted by the grandeur of the tragedy! But did some remote premonition also move him? Some obscure prevision of the end that would be his too at last?

The great reign continued for two years longer; but the pulses of action had grown feeble; and over public affairs there hovered a cloud of weariness and suspense. Only in one quarter was history still being made — in Ireland. Elizabeth’s choice of Mountjoy had been completely justified. With relentless skill and energy he had worn down the forces of Tyrone. It was in vain that all Catholic Europe prayed for the rebel, in vain that the Pope sent him a phoenix’s feather, in vain that three thousand Spaniards landed at Kinsale. Mountjoy was victorious in a pitched battle; the Spaniards were forced to capitulate; Tyrone was pressed back, pursued, harried, driven from pillar to post. Once more he negotiated and yielded; but this time the dream of a Catholic dominion in Ireland was finally shattered, and Elizabeth’s crowning triumph was achieved. Yet Tyrone’s strange history was not ended; some unexpected sands were still waiting for him in Time’s glass. A great lord once again on his estates in Ulster, rich and proud with his adoring vassals about him, he suddenly plunged into a fresh quarrel with the English Government. All at once he took fright — he fled. For long he wandered with his family and retinue through France, Flanders, and Germany, a desperate exile, an extraordinary flitting focus of ambiguous intrigue. At length the Pope received him, housed him, pensioned him; his adventures silently ceased. And he, too, passes from us — submerged by the long vague years of peace, indolence, and insignificance — sinking away into forgetfulness through the monotony of Roman afternoons.

Elizabeth had resisted the first onslaughts of rage and grief with the utmost bravery, but an inevitable reaction followed, and, as the full consciousness of what had happened pressed in upon her, her nervous system began to give way. Her temper grew more abrupt and capricious than ever; for days at a time she sat silent in moody melancholy. She could hardly bring herself to eat; “little but manchet and succory potage”— so Sir John Harington tells us — passed her lips. She kept a sword continually by her, and when a nerve-storm came upon her she would snatch it up, stamp savagely to and fro, and thrust it in fury into the tapestry. Sir John, when he begged for an audience, received a sharp reply. “Go tell that witty fellow, my godson, to get home; it is no season now to fool it here.” It was too true, and he obeyed her, sad at heart. Sometimes she would shut herself up in a darkened room, in paroxysms of weeping. Then she would emerge, scowling, discover some imagined neglect, and rate her waiting-women until they too were reduced to tears.

She still worked on at the daily business of government, though at times there were indications that the habits of a lifetime were disintegrating, and she was careless, or forgetful, as she had never been before. To those who watched her it almost seemed as if the inner spring were broken, and that the mechanism continued to act by the mere force of momentum. At the same time her physical strength showed signs of alarming decay. There was a painful scene when, in October, she opened Parliament. As she stood in her heavy robes before the Lords and Commons she was suddenly seen to totter; several gentlemen hurried forward and supported her; without them she would have fallen to the ground.

But in truth the old spirit was not yet extinct, and she was still capable of producing a magnificent sensation. The veteran conjurer’s hand might tremble, but it had not lost the art of bringing an incredible rabbit out of a hat. When the session of Parliament began, it was found that there was great and general discontent on the subject of monopolies. These grants to private persons of the sole right to sell various articles had been growing in number, and were felt to be oppressive. As the long list of them was being read aloud in the House of Commons, a member interjected “Is not bread there?” “If order be not taken,” another replied, “it will be, before next Parliament.” The monopolies — Essex’s lease of the sweet wines had been one of them — were Elizabeth’s frugal method of rewarding her favourites or officials; and to protest against them amounted to an indirect attack on the royal prerogative. Elizabeth had not been accustomed to put up with interferences of this kind from the Commons; how often, for less cause than this, had she railed at them in high displeasure, and dismissed them cowering from her presence! And so no one was surprised when she sent for the Speaker, and the poor man prepared himself for a tremendous wigging. Great was his amazement. She greeted him with the highest affability; told him that she had lately become aware that “divers patents, which she had granted, were grievous to her subjects,” assured him that she had been thinking of the matter “even in the midst of her most great and weighty occasions,” and promised immediate reform. The Speaker departed in raptures. With her supreme instinct for facts, she had perceived that the debate in the House represented a feeling in the country with which it would be unwise to come into conflict; she saw that policy dictated a withdrawal; and she determined to make the very best use of an unfortunate circumstance. The Commons were overwhelmed when they learnt what had happened; discontent was turned to adoration; there was a flood of sentiment, and the accumulated popularity of half a century suddenly leapt up to its highest point. They sent a deputation to express their gratitude, and she received them in state. “In all duty and thankfulness,” said the Speaker, as the whole company knelt before her, “prostrate at your feet, we present our most loyal and thankful hearts, and the last spirit in our nostrils, to be poured out, to be breathed up, for your safety.” There was a pause; and then the high voice rang out:

“Mr. Speaker, we perceive your coming is to present thanks unto us; know I accept them with no less joy than your loves can have desired to offer such a present, and do more esteem it than any treasure or riches, for those we know how to prize, but loyalty, love, and thanks I account them invaluable; and, though God hath raised me high, yet this I account the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves.” She stopped, and told them to stand up, as she had more to say to them. “When I heard it,” she went on, “I could give no rest unto my thoughts until I had reformed it, and those varlets, lewd persons, abusers of my bounty, shall know I will not suffer it. And, Mr. Speaker, tell the House from me that I take it exceeding grateful that the knowledge of these things have come unto me from them. Of myself, I must say this, I never was any greedy scraping grasper, nor a strict fast-holding prince, nor yet a waster; my heart was never set upon any worldly goods, but only for my subjects’ good.” Pausing again for a moment, she continued in a deeper tone. “To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it. The cares and troubles of a crown I cannot more fitly resemble than to the drugs of a learned physician, perfumed with some aromatical savour, or to bitter pills gilded over, by which they are made more acceptable or less offensive, which indeed are bitter and unpleasant to take. And for my own part, were it not for conscience’ sake to discharge the duty that God hath laid upon me, and to maintain His glory, and keep you in safety, in mine own disposition I should be willing to resign the place I hold to any other, and glad to be freed of the glory with the labours; for it is not my desire to live nor to reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And, though you have had and may have many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had nor shall have any love you better.” She straightened herself with a final effort; her eyes glared; there was a sound of trumpets; and, turning from them in her sweeping draperies — erect and terrible — she walked out.

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