Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter IX.

King Philip sat working in the Escurial — the gigantic palace that he had built for himself, all of stone, far away, high up, amid the desolation of the rocky Guadarrama. He worked incessantly, as no monarch had ever worked before, controlling from his desk a vast empire — Spain and Portugal, half Italy, the Netherlands, the Western Indies. He had grown old and white-haired in his labours, but he worked on. Diseases had attacked him; he was tortured by the gout; his skin was cankered; he was the prey of a mysterious and terrible paralysis; but his hand moved over the paper from morning till night. He never emerged now. He had withdrawn into this inner room of his palace — a small room, hung with dark green tapestries — and there he reigned, secret, silent, indefatigable, dying. He had one distraction, and only one; sometimes he tottered through a low door into his oratory beyond, and kneeling, looked out, through an inner window, as it were from a box of an opera, into the enormous spaces of a church. It was the centre of his great building, half palace and half monastery, and there, operatic too in their vestments and their movements and their strange singings, the priests performed at the altar close below him, intent upon their holy work. Holy! But his work too was that; he too was labouring for the glory of God. Was he not God’s chosen instrument? The divine inheritance was in his blood. His father, Charles the Fifth, had been welcomed into Heaven, when he died, by the Trinity; there could be no mistake about it; Titian had painted the scene. He also would be received in a similar glorious fashion; but not just yet. He must finish his earthly duties first. He must make peace with France, he must marry his daughter, he must conquer the Dutch, he must establish everywhere the supremacy of the Catholic Church. There was indeed a great deal still to do, and very little time to do it in — he hurried back to his table; and it must all be done by himself, with his own hand.

His thoughts rushed round, confused and crowded. Not one was pleasant now. He had forgotten the fountains of Aranjuez and the eyes of the Princess of Eboli. Obscure incentives obsessed and agonised his brain — religion, pride, disappointment, the desire for rest, the desire for revenge. His sister of England rose before him — a distracting vision! He and she had grown old together, and she had always eluded him — eluded his love and his hate. But there was still just time; he would work more unrelentingly than ever before; and he would teach her — the unspeakable woman, with her heretic laughter — before he died, to laugh no longer.

That indeed would be a suitable offering with which to meet the Trinity. For years he had been labouring, with redoubled efforts, towards this end. His great Armada had not succeeded in its mission; that was true; but the reverse had not been an irreparable one. The destruction of Cadiz had also been unfortunate; but neither had that been fatal. Another Armada should be built and, with God’s blessing, should achieve his purpose. Already he had accomplished much. Had he not been able, within a few months of the fall of Cadiz, to despatch a powerful fleet to Ireland, with a large army to succour the rebels there? It was unluckily a fact that the fleet had never reached Ireland, owing to a northerly gale, that more than twenty ships had sunk, and that the remains of this second Armada had returned discomfited to Spain. But such accidents would happen, and why should he despair so long as the Trinity was on his side? With incredible industry he had set to work to have the fleet refitted in the harbour of Ferrol. He had put Martin de Padilla, the Governor, (Adelantado), of Castile, in command of it, and Martin was a pious man, even more pious than Medina Sidonia. By the summer of 1597 it seemed as if the third Armada should be ready to start. Yet there were unaccountable delays. The Council sat in solemn conclave, but its elaborate discussions appeared, for some reason or other, not to help things forward. There were quarrels, too, among the commanders and officials; all were at loggerheads, without any understanding of the great task on which they were engaged. King Philip alone understood everything. His designs were his own secret; he would reveal them to no one; even the Adelantado, inquire as he would, should not be told the destination of the fleet. But there was to be no more of this procrastination. The Armada must sail at once.

Then came most disturbing news. The English fleet was being equipped; it was being assembled at Plymouth; very soon it would be on the high seas. And there could be little doubt of its objective; it would sail straight for Ferrol, and, once there — what was to prevent it? — the story of Cadiz would be repeated. The Adelantado declared that nothing could be done, that it was impossible to leave the harbour, that the preparations were altogether inadequate, that, in fact, he lacked everything, and could not face an enemy. It was exasperating — the pious Martin seemed to have caught Medina Sidonia’s tone. But there was no help for it; one must face it out, and trust in the Trinity.

News came that the fleet had left Plymouth; and then — there was a miracle. After a terrifying pause it was known that a south-westerly gale had almost annihilated the English, whose ships, after ten days, had returned, with the utmost difficulty, into harbour. King Philip’s Armada was saved.

The storm had indeed been an appalling one. The Queen in her palace had shuddered, as she listened to the awful wind; Essex himself had more than once given up his soul to God. His escape was less fortunate than he imagined; he was to be overwhelmed by a more terrible disaster; and the tempest was only an ominous prologue to the tragedy. With the fatal freshening of that breeze his good luck was over. From that moment misfortune steadily deepened upon him. By a curious coincidence the storm which ushered in such dreadful consequences has received a peculiar immortality. Among the young gentlemen who had sailed with the Earl in search of adventures and riches was John Donne. He suffered horribly, but he determined to convert his unpleasant sensations into something altogether unexpected. Out of the violence and disruption of a storm at sea he made a poem — a poem written in a new style and a new movement, without sensuous appeal or classic imagery, but harsh, modern, humorous, filled with surprising realistic metaphor and intricate wit.

“As sin-burdened souls from graves will creep
At the last day, some forth their cabins peep;
And tremblingly ask what news, and do hear so,
Like jealous husbands, what they would not know.
Some sitting on the hatches, would seem there
With hideous gazing to fear away fear.
Then note they the ship’s sicknesses, the mast
Shaked with this ague, and the hold and waste
With a salt dropsy clogged, and all our tacklings
Snapping, like too high stretched treble strings;
And from our tattered sails, rags drop down so
As from one hanged in chains a year ago.”

The verses, handed round everywhere in manuscript, were highly appreciated. It was the beginning of that extraordinary career of passion and poetry, which was to end in the fullness of time at the Deanery of Saint Paul’s.

While Donne was busy turning his acrobatic couplets, Essex was doing his utmost at Falmouth and Plymouth to repair the damage that had given rise to them. Commiseration came to him from Court. The Cecils wrote polite letters, and Elizabeth was in an unexpectedly gentle mood. “The Queen,” Sir Robert told him, “is now so disposed to have us all love you, as she and I do talk every night like angels of you.” An incident that had just occurred had so delighted her that she viewed the naval disaster with unusual equanimity. An Ambassador had arrived from Poland — a magnificent personage, in a long robe of black velvet with jewelled buttons, whom she received in state. Sitting on her throne, with her ladies, her counsellors, and her noblemen about her, she graciously gave ear to the envoy’s elaborate harangue. He spoke in Latin; extremely well, it appeared; then, as she listened, amazement seized her. This was not at all what she had expected. Hardly a compliment — instead, protestations, remonstrances, criticisms — was it possible? — threats! She was lectured for presumption, rebuked for destroying the commerce of Poland, and actually informed that his Polish Majesty would put up with her proceedings no longer. Amazement gave way to fury. When the man at last stopped, she instantly leapt to her feet. “Expectavi orationem,” she exclaimed, “mihi vero querelam adduxisti!”— and proceeded, without a pause, to pour out a rolling flood of vituperative Latin, in which reproof, indignation, and sarcastic pleasantries followed one another with astonishing volubility. Her eyes flashed, her voice grated and thundered. Those around her were in ecstasy; with all their knowledge of her accomplishments, this was something quite new — this prodigious power of ex tempore eloquence in a learned tongue. The unlucky ambassador was overwhelmed. At last, when she had rounded her last period, she paused for a moment, and then turned to her courtiers. “By God’s death, my lords!” she said with a smile of satisfaction, “I have been enforced this day to scour up my old Latin which hath lain long rusting!” Afterwards she sent for Robert Cecil and told him that she wished Essex had been there to hear her Latin. Cecil tactfully promised that he would send the Earl a full account of what had passed; he did so, and the details of the curious scene have reached posterity, too, in his letter.

With some unwillingness she allowed the fleet to make another attack upon Spain. But it was now too weak to effect a landing at Ferrol; it must do no more than send fire-ships into the harbour in order to destroy the shipping; and after that an attempt might be made to intercept the West Indian treasure fleet. Essex set off with his diminished squadron, and once more the winds were against him. When, after great difficulty, he reached the Spanish coast, a gale from the East prevented his approaching the harbour of Ferrol. He wrote home, explaining his misadventure and announcing that, as he had received intelligence of the Spanish fleet having sailed to the Azores to meet the treasure transport, he intended to follow it thither immediately. Elizabeth sent him a reply, written in her most regal and enigmatic manner. “When I see,” she said, “the admirable work of the Eastern wind, so long to last beyond the custom of nature, I see, as in a crystal, the right figure of my folly, that ventured supernatural haps upon the point of frenetical imputation.” In other words, she realised that she was taking risks against her better judgment. She was like “the lunatic man that keeps a smack of the remains of his frenzy’s freak, helped well thereto by the influence of Sol in Leone”—(it was August). Essex was not to presume too far on her unwise indulgence. She put in a “caveat, that this lunatic goodness make you not bold . . . to heap more errors to our mercy; . . . you vex me too much with small regard for what I scape or bid.” He was to be cautious. “There remains that you, after your perilous first attempt, do not aggravate that danger with another in a farther-off climate, which must cost blows of good store; let character serve your turn, and be content when you are well, which hath not ever been your property.” With a swift touch or two, delivered de haut en bas, she put her finger on his failings. “Of this no more, but of all my moods, I forget not my tenses, in which I see no leisure for ought but petitions, to fortify with best forwardness the wants of this army, and in the same include your safe return, and grant you wisdom to discern verisimile from potest fieri.” And she concluded with an avowal of affection, in which the fullness of the feeling seems to be expressed by its very contortion. “Forget not to salute with my great favour good Thomas and faithful Mountjoy. I am too like the common faction, that forget to give thanks for what I received; but I was so loth to take that I had well nigh forgot to thank; but receive them now with millions and yet the rest keeps the dearest.”

Her words went over the ocean to find him, and when they reached him it would have been well had he marked them more. At the Azores there was no sign of the Spanish fleet; but the treasure ships were expected to appear at any moment. Terceira, the central citadel in the Islands, was too strong to be attacked; and since, if the transport could once reach that harbour, it would be in safety, it was the plain policy of the English to lie in wait for it to the westward on the line of its route from America. It was decided to make a landing on the island of Fayal, which would be an excellent centre of observation. The whole fleet sailed towards it, but the ships failed to keep together, and when Raleigh’s squadron reached the rendezvous there was no sign of Essex or the rest. Raleigh waited for four days; then, being in want of water, he landed his men, attacked the town of Fayal, and took it. It was a successful beginning; Raleigh had commanded skilfully, and a good store of booty fell to him and his men. Immediately afterwards the rest of the fleet made its appearance. When Essex heard what had happened he was furious; Raleigh, he declared, had deliberately forestalled him for the sake of plunder and glory, and had disobeyed orders in attacking the island before the arrival of the commander-in-chief. The old quarrel flamed up sky-high. Some of Essex’s more reckless partisans suggested to him that such an opportunity should not be missed — that Raleigh should be court-martialled and executed. Angry though Essex was, this was too much for him; “I would do it,” he was reported to have said, “if he were my friend.” At last an agreement was come to. It was arranged that Raleigh was to apologise, and that no mention of his successful action was to be recorded in the official report; he was to gain no credit for what he had done; on those conditions his misconduct would be passed over. There was a reconciliation, but Essex was still sore. So far he had done nothing worthy of his reputation — not a prize nor a prisoner was his. But he learnt that there was another island which might easily be captured; if Raleigh had taken Fayal, he would take San Miguel; and to San Miguel he instantly sailed. Verisimile and potest fieri! Why had he not marked those words? The attack upon San Miguel was an act of folly. For that island lay to the east of Terceira, and to go there was to leave the route of the treasure fleet unguarded. What might have been expected occurred. While the English were approaching San Miguel, the vast tribute of the Indies safely sailed into the harbour of Terceira. San Miguel after all proved to be so rocky as to make a landing impossible; Terceira was impregnable; all was over; there was nothing to be done but to return home.

Yes! But all this time where was the Spanish fleet? It had never left Ferrol, where the preparations of years were at last being completed with feverish rapidity. While King Philip was urging them forward in an endless stream of despatches, the news reached him that the English had sailed to the Azores. He saw that his opportunity had come. The odious island lay open and defenceless before him. Surely now his enemy was delivered into his hands. He ordered the Armada to sail immediately. It was in vain that the Adelantado begged for a little more delay, that he expatiated upon the scandalous deficiencies which made the armament unfit for service, that finally he implored to be relieved of his intolerable responsibility. In vain — the pious Martin, still ignorant of his destination, was forced to lead the fleet into the Bay of Biscay. Then, and only then, was he allowed to read his instructions. He was to sail straight for England, to attack Falmouth, to occupy it, and, having defeated the enemy’s fleet, to march towards London. The Armada sailed onwards, but as it approached Scilly a northerly wind fell upon it. The ships staggered and wavered; the hearts of the Captains sank. King Philip’s preparations had been indeed inadequate; everything, as the Adelantado had said, was lacking — even elementary seamanship, even the desire to meet the foe. The spider of the Escurial had been spinning cobwebs out of dreams. The ships began to scatter and sink; the wind freshened to a gale; there was a despairing Council of War; the Adelantado gave the signal; and the Armada crept back into Ferrol.

King Philip was almost unconscious with anxiety and disease. He prayed incessantly, kneeling in anguish as he looked out from his opera-box upon the high altar. Suddenly he was overwhelmed by a paralytic seizure; he hardly breathed, he could swallow no food, his daughter, hovering over him, blew liquid nourishment down his throat from a tube, and so saved his life. Already the news had come of the return of the Adelantado; but the King seemed to have passed beyond the reach of human messages. Suddenly there was a change; his eyes opened; he regained consciousness. “Will Martin never start?” were his first words. The courtiers had a painful task in front of them. They had to explain to King Philip that the pious Martin had not only started but that he had also come back.

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