A certain degree of success, real or supposed, in the delineation of Queen Mary, naturally induced the author to attempt something similar respecting “her sister and her foe,” the celebrated Elizabeth. He will not, however, pretend to have approached the task with the same feelings; for the candid Robertson himself confesses having felt the prejudices with which a Scottishman is tempted to regard the subject; and what so liberal a historian avows, a poor romance-writer dares not disown. But he hopes the influence of a prejudice, almost as natural to him as his native air, will not be found to have greatly affected the sketch he has attempted of England’s Elizabeth. I have endeavoured to describe her as at once a high-minded sovereign, and a female of passionate feelings, hesitating betwixt the sense of her rank and the duty she owed her subjects on the one hand, and on the other her attachment to a nobleman, who, in external qualifications at least, amply merited her favour. The interest of the story is thrown upon that period when the sudden death of the first Countess of Leicester seemed to open to the ambition of her husband the opportunity of sharing the crown of his sovereign.
It is possible that slander, which very seldom favours the memories of persons in exalted stations, may have blackened the character of Leicester with darker shades than really belonged to it. But the almost general voice of the times attached the most foul suspicions to the death of the unfortunate Countess, more especially as it took place so very opportunely for the indulgence of her lover’s ambition. If we can trust Ashmole’s Antiquities of Berkshire, there was but too much ground for the traditions which charge Leicester with the murder of his wife. In the following extract of the passage, the reader will find the authority I had for the story of the romance:—
“At the west end of the church are the ruins of a manor, anciently belonging (as a cell, or place of removal, as some report) to the monks of Abington. At the Dissolution, the said manor, or lordship, was conveyed to one — Owen (I believe), the possessor of Godstow then.
“In the hall, over the chimney, I find Abington arms cut in stone — namely, a patonee between four martletts; and also another escutcheon — namely, a lion rampant, and several mitres cut in stone about the house. There is also in the said house a chamber called Dudley’s chamber, where the Earl of Leicester’s wife was murdered, of which this is the story following:—
“Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a very goodly personage, and singularly well featured, being a great favourite to Queen Elizabeth, it was thought, and commonly reported, that had he been a bachelor or widower, the Queen would have made him her husband; to this end, to free himself of all obstacles, he commands, or perhaps, with fair flattering entreaties, desires his wife to repose herself here at his servant Anthony Forster’s house, who then lived in the aforesaid manor-house; and also prescribes to Sir Richard Varney (a prompter to this design), at his coming hither, that he should first attempt to poison her, and if that did not take effect, then by any other way whatsoever to dispatch her. This, it seems, was proved by the report of Dr. Walter Bayly, sometime fellow of New College, then living in Oxford, and professor of physic in that university; whom, because he would not consent to take away her life by poison, the Earl endeavoured to displace him the court. This man, it seems, reported for most certain that there was a practice in Cumnor among the conspirators, to have poisoned this poor innocent lady, a little before she was killed, which was attempted after this manner:— They seeing the good lady sad and heavy (as one that well knew, by her other handling, that her death was not far off), began to persuade her that her present disease was abundance of melancholy and other humours, etc., and therefore would needs counsel her to take some potion, which she absolutely refusing to do, as still suspecting the worst; whereupon they sent a messenger on a day (unawares to her) for Dr. Bayly, and entreated him to persuade her to take some little potion by his direction, and they would fetch the same at Oxford; meaning to have added something of their own for her comfort, as the doctor upon just cause and consideration did suspect, seeing their great importunity, and the small need the lady had of physic, and therefore he peremptorily denied their request; misdoubting (as he afterwards reported) lest, if they had poisoned her under the name of his potion, he might after have been hanged for a colour of their sin, and the doctor remained still well assured that this way taking no effect, she would not long escape their violence, which afterwards happened thus. For Sir Richard Varney abovesaid (the chief projector in this design), who, by the Earl’s order, remained that day of her death alone with her, with one man only and Forster, who had that day forcibly sent away all her servants from her to Abington market, about three miles distant from this place; they (I say, whether first stifling her, or else strangling her) afterwards flung her down a pair of stairs and broke her neck, using much violence upon her; but, however, though it was vulgarly reported that she by chance fell downstairs (but still without hurting her hood that was upon her head), yet the inhabitants will tell you there that she was conveyed from her usual chamber where she lay, to another where the bed’s head of the chamber stood close to a privy postern door, where they in the night came and stifled her in her bed, bruised her head very much broke her neck, and at length flung her down stairs, thereby believing the world would have thought it a mischance, and so have blinded their villainy. But behold the mercy and justice of God in revenging and discovering this lady’s murder; for one of the persons that was a coadjutor in this murder was afterwards taken for a felony in the marches of Wales, and offering to publish the manner of the aforesaid murder, was privately made away in the prison by the Earl’s appointment; and Sir Richard Varney the other, dying about the same time in London, cried miserably, and blasphemed God, and said to a person of note (who hath related the same to others since), not long before his death, that all the devils in hell did tear him in pieces. Forster, likewise, after this fact, being a man formerly addicted to hospitality, company, mirth, and music, was afterwards observed to forsake all this, and with much melancholy and pensiveness (some say with madness) pined and drooped away. The wife also of Bald Butter, kinsman to the Earl, gave out the whole fact a little before her death. Neither are these following passages to be forgotten, that as soon as ever she was murdered, they made great haste to bury her before the coroner had given in his inquest (which the Earl himself condemned as not done advisedly), which her father, or Sir John Robertsett (as I suppose), hearing of, came with all speed hither, caused her corpse to be taken up, the coroner to sit upon her, and further inquiry to be made concerning this business to the full; but it was generally thought that the Earl stopped his mouth, and made up the business betwixt them; and the good Earl, to make plain to the world the great love he bare to her while alive, and what a grief the loss of so virtuous a lady was to his tender heart, caused (though the thing, by these and other means, was beaten into the heads of the principal men of the University of Oxford) her body to be reburied in St, Mary’s Church in Oxford, with great pomp and solemnity. It is remarkable, when Dr. Babington, the Earl’s chaplain, did preach the funeral sermon, he tript once or twice in his speech, by recommending to their memories that virtuous lady so pitifully murdered, instead of saying pitifully slain. This Earl, after all his murders and poisonings, was himself poisoned by that which was prepared for others (some say by his wife at Cornbury Lodge before mentioned), though Baker in his Chronicle would have it at Killingworth; anno 1588.”1
The same accusation has been adopted and circulated by the author of Leicester’s Commonwealth, a satire written directly against the Earl of Leicester, which loaded him with the most horrid crimes, and, among the rest, with the murder of his first wife. It was alluded to in the Yorkshire Tragedy, a play erroneously ascribed to Shakespeare, where a baker, who determines to destroy all his family, throws his wife downstairs, with this allusion to the supposed murder of Leicester’s lady —
“The only way to charm a woman’s tongue
Is, break her neck — a politician did it.”
The reader will find I have borrowed several incidents as well as names from Ashmole, and the more early authorities; but my first acquaintance with the history was through the more pleasing medium of verse. There is a period in youth when the mere power of numbers has a more strong effect on ear and imagination than in more advanced life. At this season of immature taste, the author was greatly delighted with the poems of Mickle and Langhorne, poets who, though by no means deficient in the higher branches of their art, were eminent for their powers of verbal melody above most who have practised this department of poetry. One of those pieces of Mickle, which the author was particularly pleased with, is a ballad, or rather a species of elegy, on the subject of Cumnor Hall, which, with others by the same author, was to be found in Evans’s Ancient Ballads (vol. iv., page 130), to which work Mickle made liberal contributions. The first stanza especially had a peculiar species of enchantment for the youthful ear of the author, the force of which is not even now entirely spent; some others are sufficiently prosaic.
The dews of summer night did fall;
The moon, sweet regent of the sky,
Silver’d the walls of Cumnor Hall,
And many an oak that grew thereby,
Now nought was heard beneath the skies,
The sounds of busy life were still,
Save an unhappy lady’s sighs,
That issued from that lonely pile.
“Leicester,” she cried, “is this thy love
That thou so oft hast sworn to me,
To leave me in this lonely grove,
Immured in shameful privity?
“No more thou com’st with lover’s speed,
Thy once beloved bride to see;
But be she alive, or be she dead,
I fear, stern Earl, ‘s the same to thee.
“Not so the usage I received
When happy in my father’s hall;
No faithless husband then me grieved,
No chilling fears did me appal.
“I rose up with the cheerful morn,
No lark more blithe, no flower more gay;
And like the bird that haunts the thorn,
So merrily sung the livelong day.
“If that my beauty is but small,
Among court ladies all despised,
Why didst thou rend it from that hall,
Where, scornful Earl, it well was prized?
“And when you first to me made suit,
How fair I was you oft would say!
And proud of conquest, pluck’d the fruit,
Then left the blossom to decay.
“Yes! now neglected and despised,
The rose is pale, the lily’s dead;
But he that once their charms so prized,
Is sure the cause those charms are fled.
“For know, when sick’ning grief doth prey,
And tender love’s repaid with scorn,
The sweetest beauty will decay —
What floweret can endure the storm?
“At court, I’m told, is beauty’s throne,
Where every lady’s passing rare,
That Eastern flowers, that shame the sun,
Are not so glowing, not so fair.
“Then, Earl, why didst thou leave the beds
Where roses and where lilies vie,
To seek a primrose, whose pale shades
Must sicken when those gauds are by?
“‘Mong rural beauties I was one,
Among the fields wild flowers are fair;
Some country swain might me have won,
And thought my beauty passing rare.
“But, Leicester (or I much am wrong),
Or ’tis not beauty lures thy vows;
Rather ambition’s gilded crown
Makes thee forget thy humble spouse.
“Then, Leicester, why, again I plead
(The injured surely may repine)—
Why didst thou wed a country maid,
When some fair princess might be thine?
“Why didst thou praise my hum’ble charms,
And, oh! then leave them to decay?
Why didst thou win me to thy arms,
Then leave to mourn the livelong day?
“The village maidens of the plain
Salute me lowly as they go;
Envious they mark my silken train,
Nor think a Countess can have woe.
“The simple nymphs! they little know
How far more happy’s their estate;
To smile for joy, than sigh for woe —
To be content, than to be great.
“How far less blest am I than them?
Daily to pine and waste with care!
Like the poor plant that, from its stem
Divided, feels the chilling air.
“Nor, cruel Earl! can I enjoy
The humble charms of solitude;
Your minions proud my peace destroy,
By sullen frowns or pratings rude.
“Last night, as sad I chanced to stray,
The village death-bell smote my ear;
They wink’d aside, and seemed to say,
‘Countess, prepare, thy end is near!’
“And now, while happy peasants sleep,
Here I sit lonely and forlorn;
No one to soothe me as I weep,
Save Philomel on yonder thorn.
“My spirits flag — my hopes decay —
Still that dread death-bell smites my ear;
And many a boding seems to say,
‘Countess, prepare, thy end is near!’”
Thus sore and sad that lady grieved,
In Cumnor Hall, so lone and drear;
And many a heartfelt sigh she heaved,
And let fall many a bitter tear.
And ere the dawn of day appear’d,
In Cumnor Hall, so lone and drear,
Full many a piercing scream was heard,
And many a cry of mortal fear.
The death-bell thrice was heard to ring,
An aerial voice was heard to call,
And thrice the raven flapp’d its wing
Around the towers of Cumnor Hall.
The mastiff howl’d at village door,
The oaks were shatter’d on the green;
Woe was the hour — for never more
That hapless Countess e’er was seen!
And in that Manor now no more
Is cheerful feast and sprightly ball;
For ever since that dreary hour
Have spirits haunted Cumnor Hall.
The village maids, with fearful glance,
Avoid the ancient moss-grown wall;
Nor ever lead the merry dance,
Among the groves of Cumnor Hall.
Full many a traveller oft hath sigh’d,
And pensive wept the Countess’ fall,
As wand’ring onward they’ve espied
The haunted towers of Cumnor Hall.
1st March 1831.
1 Ashmole’s Antiquities of Berkshire, vol.i., p.149. The tradition as to Leicester’s death was thus communicated by Ben Jonson to Drummond of Hawthornden:—“The Earl of Leicester gave a bottle of liquor to his Lady, which he willed her to use in any faintness, which she, after his returne from court, not knowing it was poison, gave him, and so he died.”— Ben Jonson’s Information to Drummond of Hawthornden, Ms., Sir Robert Sibbald’s copy.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00