Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Secret History of the Death of Queen Elizabeth.

It is an extraordinary circumstance in our history, that the succession to the English dominion, in two remarkable cases, was never settled by the possessors of the throne themselves during their lifetime; and that there is every reason to believe that this mighty transfer of three kingdoms became the sole act of their ministers, who considered the succession merely as a state expedient. Two of our most able sovereigns found themselves in this predicament: Queen Elizabeth and the Protector Cromwell! Cromwell probably had his reasons not to name his successor; his positive election would have dissatisfied the opposite parties of his government, whom he only ruled while he was able to cajole them. He must have been aware that latterly he had need of conciliating all parties to his usurpation, and was probably as doubtful on his death-bed whom to appoint his successor as at any other period of his reign. Ludlow suspects that Cromwell was “so discomposed in body or mind, that he could not attend to that matter; and whether he named any one is to me uncertain.” All that we know is the report of the Secretary Thurlow and his chaplains, who, when the protector lay in his last agonies, suggested to him the propriety of choosing his eldest son, and they tell us that he agreed to this choice. Had Cromwell been in his senses, he would have probably fixed on Henry, the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, rather than on Richard, or possibly had not chosen either of his sons!

Elizabeth, from womanish infirmity, or from state-reasons, could not endure the thoughts of her successor; and long threw into jeopardy the politics of all the cabinets of Europe, each of which had its favourite candidate to support. The legitimate heir to the throne of England was to be the creature of her breath, yet Elizabeth would not speak him into existence! This had, however, often raised the discontents of the nation, and we shall see how it harassed the queen in her dying hours. It is even suspected that the queen still retained so much of the woman, that she could never overcome her perverse dislike to name a successor; so that, according to this opinion, she died and left the crown to the mercy of a party! This would have been acting unworthy of the magnanimity of her great character — and as it is ascertained that the queen was very sensible that she lay in a dying state several days before the natural catastrophe occurred, it is difficult to believe that she totally disregarded so important a circumstance. It is therefore, reasoning à priori, most natural to conclude that the choice of a successor must have occupied her thoughts, as well as the anxieties of her ministers; and that she would not have left the throne in the same unsettled state at her death as she had persevered in during her whole life. How did she express herself when bequeathing the crown to James the First, or did she bequeath it at all?

In the popular pages of her female historian Miss Aikin, it is observed that “the closing scene of the long and eventful life of Queen Elizabeth was marked by that peculiarity of character and destiny which attended her from the cradle, and pursued her to the grave.” The last days of Elizabeth were indeed most melancholy — she died a victim of the higher passions, and perhaps as much of grief as of age, refusing all remedies and even nourishment. But in all the published accounts, I can nowhere discover how she conducted herself respecting the circumstance of our present inquiry. The most detailed narrative, or as Gray the poet calls it, “the Earl of Monmouth’s odd account of Queen Elizabeth’s death,” is the one most deserving notice; and there we find the circumstance of this inquiry introduced. The queen at that moment was reduced to so sad a state, that it is doubtful whether her majesty was at all sensible of the inquiries put to her by her ministers respecting the succession. The Earl of Monmouth says, “On Wednesday, the 23rd of March, she grew speechless. That afternoon, by signs, she called for her council, and by putting her hand to her head when the King of Scots was named to succeed her, they all knew he was the man she desired should reign after her.” Such a sign as that of a dying woman putting her hand to her head was, to say the least, a very ambiguous acknowledgment of the right of the Scottish monarch to the English throne. The “odd” but very naïve account of Robert Cary, afterwards Earl of Monmouth, is not furnished with dates, nor with the exactness of a diary. Something might have occurred on a preceding day which had not reached him. Camden describes the death-bed scene of Elizabeth; by this authentic writer it appears that she had confided her state-secret of the succession to the lord admiral (the Earl of Nottingham); and when the earl found the queen almost at her extremity, he communicated her majesty’s secret to the council, who commissioned the lord admiral, the lord keeper, and the secretary, to wait on her majesty, and acquaint her that they came in the name of the rest to learn her pleasure in reference to the succession. The queen was then very weak, and answered them with a faint voice, that she had already declared, that as she held a regal sceptre, so she desired no other than a royal successor. When the secretary requested her to explain herself, the queen said, “I would have a king succeed me; and who should that he but my nearest kinsman, the King of Scots?” Here this state conversation was put an end to by the interference of the archbishop advising her majesty to turn her thoughts to God. “Never,” she replied, “has my mind wandered from him.”

An historian of Camden’s high integrity would hardly have forged a fiction to please the new monarch: yet Camden has not been referred to on this occasion by the exact Birch, who draws his information from the letters of the French ambassador, Villeroy; information which it appears the English ministers had confided to this ambassador; nor do we get any distinct ideas from Elizabeth’s more recent popular historian, who could only transcribe the account of Cary. He had told us a fact which he could not be mistaken in, that the queen fell speechless on Wednesday, 23rd of March, on which day, however, she called her council, and made that sign with her hand, which, as the lords choose to understand, for ever united the two kingdoms. But the noble editor of Cary’s Memoirs (the Earl of Cork and Orrery) has observed that “the speeches made for Elizabeth on her death-bed are all forged.” Echard, Rapin, and a long string of historians, make her say faintly (so faintly indeed that it could not possibly be heard), “I will that a king succeed me, and who should that be but my nearest kinsman, the King of Scots?” A different account of this matter will be found in the following memoirs. “She was speechless, and almost expiring, when the chief councillors of state were called into her bedchamber. As soon as they were perfectly convinced that she could not utter an articulate word, and scarce could hear or understand one, they named the King of Scots to her, a liberty they dared not to have taken if she had been able to speak; she put her hand to her head, which was probably at that time in agonising pain. The lords, who interpreted her signs just as they pleased, were immediately convinced that the motion of her hand to her head was a declaration of James the Sixth as her successor. What was this but the unanimous interpretation of persons who were adoring the rising sun?”

This is lively and plausible; but the noble editor did not recollect that “the speeches made by Elizabeth on her death-bed,” which he deems “forgeries,” in consequence of the circumstance he had found in Cary’s Memoirs, originate with Camden, and were only repeated by Rapin and Echard, &c. I am now to confirm the narrative of the elder historian, as well as the circumstance related by Cary, describing the sign of the queen a little differently, which happened on Wednesday, 23rd. A hitherto unnoticed document pretends to give a fuller and more circumstantial account of this affair, which commenced on the preceding day, when the queen retained the power of speech; and it will be confessed that the language here used has all that loftiness and brevity which was the natural style of this queen. I have discovered a curious document in a manuscript volume formerly in the possession of Petyt, and seemingly in his own handwriting. I do not doubt its authenticity, and it could only have come from some of the illustrious personages who were the actors in that solemn scene, probably from Cecil. This memorandum is entitled

“Account of the last words of Queen Elizabeth about her Successor.

“On the Tuesday before her death, being the twenty-third of March, the admiral being on the right side of her bed, the lord keeper on the left, and Mr. Secretary Cecil (afterwards Earl of Salisbury) at the bed’s feet, all standing, the lord admiral put her in mind of her speech concerning the succession had at Whitehall, and that they, in the name of all the rest of her council, came unto her to know her pleasure who should succeed; whereunto she thus replied:

I told you my seat had been the seat of kings, and I will have no rascal to succeed me. And who should succeed me but a king?

“The lords not understanding this dark speech, and looking one on the other; at length Mr. Secretary boldly asked her what she meant by those words, that no rascal should succeed her. Whereto she replied, that her meaning was, that a king should succeed: and who, quoth she, should, that be but our cousin of Scotland?

“They asked her whether that were her absolute resolution? whereto she answered, I pray you trouble me no more; for I will have none but him. With which answer they departed.

“Notwithstanding, after again, about four o’clock in the afternoon the next day, being Wednesday, after the Archbishop of Canterbury and other divines had been with her, and left her in a manner speechless, the three lords aforesaid repaired unto her again, asking her if she remained in her former resolution, and who should succeed her? but not being able to speak, was asked by Mr. Secretary in this sort, ‘We beseech your majesty, if you remain in your former resolution, and that you would have the King of Scots to succeed you in your kingdom, show some sign unto us: whereat, suddenly heaving herself upwards in her bed, and putting her arms out of bed, she held her hands jointly over her head in manner of a crown; whence as they guessed, she signified that she did not only wish him the kingdom, but desire continuance of his estate: after which they departed, and the next morning she died. Immediately after her death, all the lords, as well of the council as other noblemen that were at the court, came from Richmond to Whitehall by six o’clock in the morning, where other noblemen that were in London met them. Touching the succession, after some speeches of divers competitors and matters of state, at length the admiral rehearsed all the aforesaid premises which the late queen had spoken to him, and to the lord keeper, and Mr. Secretary (Cecil), with the manner thereof; which they, being asked, did affirm to be true upon their honour.”

Such is this singular document of secret history. I cannot but value it as authentic, because the one part is evidently alluded to by Camden, and the other is fully confirmed by Cary; and besides this, the remarkable expression of “rascal” is found in the letter of the French ambassador. There were two interviews with the queen, and Cary appears only to have noticed the last on Wednesday, when the queen lay speechless. Elizabeth all her life had persevered in an obstinate mysteriousness respecting the succession, and it harassed her latest moments. The second interview of her ministers may seem to us quite supernumerary; but Cary’s “putting her hand to her head,” too meanly describes the “joining her hands in manner of a crown.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53