Essex, too, had come back, and had to face a mistress who was by no means dying. A few Spanish merchantmen, accidentally picked up on the return journey, were all he could produce to justify an exploit which had not only been enormously expensive but had left England exposed to the danger of foreign invasion. Elizabeth had been unwilling to allow the fleet to depart after the great storm; she had been over-persuaded; and this was the consequence. Her rage was inevitable. Mismanagement — gross and inexcusable; severe loss, both of treasure and reputation; imminent peril to the realm: such was her summary of the business. The only compensation, she felt, was that she had now learnt her lesson. The whole policy, which she had always profoundly distrusted, of these dangerous and expensive expeditions, was finally shown to be senseless, and she would have no more of it. Never again, she declared to Burghley, would she send her fleet out of the Channel; and, for once in a way, she kept her word.
Received with icy disapprobation, Essex struggled to excuse himself, found that it was useless, and, mortified and angry, retired from the Court to the seclusion of his country house at Wanstead, on the eastern outskirts of London. From there he addressed a pathetic letter to the Queen. She had made him, he said, “a stranger,” and “I had rather retire my sick body and troubled mind into some place of rest than, living in your presence, to come now to be one of those that look upon you afar off.”
“Of myself,” he added, “it were folly to write that which you care not to know.” Nevertheless, he assured her, “I do carry the same heart I was wont, though now overcome with unkindness, as before I was conquered by beauty. From my bed, where I think I shall be buried for some few days, this Sunday night. Your Majesty’s servant, wounded but not altered by your unkindness, R Essex.”
“Conquered by beauty!” Elizabeth smiled, but she was not placated. What particularly annoyed her was to find that the popular reputation of the Earl as a great captain was in no way abated. The failure of the Islands Voyage was put down by the general public to ill luck, to the weather, to Raleigh — to every cause but the right one — the incompetence of the commander-in-chief. They were fools; and she knew where the truth lay. Yet she wished it were otherwise. One day, while she was expatiating on the theme in the garden at Whitehall, Sir Francis Vere ventured to speak up for the absent man. She listened graciously, argued a little, then changed her tone, and, leading Sir Francis to the end of an alley, sat down with him and talked for a long time, with gentleness and affection, of Essex — his ways, his views, his curious character, his delightful disposition. Soon afterwards, she wrote to him, inquiring of his health. She wrote again, more pressingly. In her heart she wished him back, life was dull without him, the past might be forgotten. She wrote once more, with hints of forgiveness. “Most dear Lady,” Essex replied, “your kind and often sending is able either to preserve a sick man, or rather to raise a man that were more than half dead to life again. Since I was first so happy as to know what love meant, I was never one day, nor one hour, free from hope and jealousy; and, as long as you do me right, they are the inseparable companions of my life. If your Majesty do in the sweetness of your own heart nourish the one, and — in the justness of love free me from the tyranny of the other, you shall ever make me happy . . . And so, wishing your Majesty to be mistress of that you wish most, I humbly kiss your fair hands.”
She was charmed. Such protestations — all the more enticing for the very ambiguity of their phrasing — melted away the last remains of her resentment. He must come back immediately; and she prepared herself for a moving and thoroughly satisfactory scene of reconciliation.
But she was not to be happy so soon. When Essex saw beyond a doubt that she wished him to return, he on his side grew remote and querulous. Surrounded by advisers less wise than Francis Bacon — his mother and his sisters, and the pushing military men who depended on his patronage — he allowed himself to listen to their suggestions and to begin playing a dubious game. The fact that he had failed indefensibly in the Islands Voyage only made him the more anxious to assert himself. His letters, written in a mixture of genuine regret and artful coquetry, had produced the desired effect. The Queen wished him back; very well, she might have her wish — but she must pay for it. He considered that on his part he had a serious grievance. Not only had Robert Cecil been made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his absence, but, one week before his return, Lord Howard of Effingham had been created Earl of Nottingham. This was too much. The patent actually mentioned, among the reasons for this promotion, the capture of Cadiz; and all the world knew that the capture of Cadiz had been due to Essex alone. It was true that the patent also mentioned — naturally enough — the defeat of the Spanish Armada, that Howard was over sixty, and that an earldom seemed a fitting reward for his long and splendid career of public service. No matter, there was another more serious question at issue, and it was in fact as plain as day — so the hotheads assured themselves at Wanstead Park — that the whole affair had been arranged beforehand as a deliberate slight. Howard had already, before the Cadiz expedition, attempted, as Lord Admiral, to take precedence of Essex, who, as an Earl, had firmly resisted his pretensions. But — now there could be no doubt about it: the Lord Admiral, if he was an Earl, took precedence by law of all other Earls — except the Great Chamberlain, the Lord Steward, and the Earl Marshal; and thus Essex would have to give place to this upstart Nottingham. Who could be surprised if, in these circumstances, he refused to return to Court? He declined to be insulted. If the Queen really wished to see him, let her make such an eventuality impossible; let her show the world, by some signal mark of her favour, that his position — so far from being weakened by the Islands Voyage — was more firmly established than ever.
It was announced that he was still far from well — that any movement from Wanstead was out of the question. Elizabeth loured. Her Accession Day — November 17th — was approaching, and the customary celebrations would lack something — decidedly they would lack something — in the absence of . . . but she refused to think of it. She grew restless, and a thunderstorm seemed to hang over the Court. The return of Essex was becoming of the highest importance to everybody. Lord Hunsdon addressed the Earl with a tactful remonstrance, but in vain. Then Burghley wrote — not without humour. “By report,” he said, “I hear that your Lordship is very sick, though, I trust, recoverable with warm diet.” But Accession Day came and went without the presence of Essex. Burghley wrote again; even Nottingham sent a fine Elizabethan letter, protesting his friendship. He doubted “that some villainous device had been pursued to make your Lordship conceive ill of me: but, my Lord, if I have not dealt in all things concerning you, as I would have dealt withal had I been in your place, let me never enjoy the kingdom of Heaven!” Under this fusillade Essex weakened so far as to let it be known that he would return — if her Majesty expressly required it. And then Elizabeth mounted her high horse. She would mention the matter no more; she had other things to think of; she must give the whole of her attention to the negotiations with the French ambassador.
The French ambassador did indeed require skilful handling. A new diplomatic situation was arising, so full of uncertainty that Elizabeth found it more difficult than ever to decide upon the course to take. King Philip had unexpectedly recovered after the return of his fleet to Ferrol. He had sent for the Adelantado, who, it was expected by the courtiers, would leave the King’s presence for the gallows. But not at all; the interview was entirely devoted to a discussion of the forthcoming invasion of England, which was to take place in the spring. There was to be a fourth Armada. Extraordinary efforts were to be made, the deficiencies of the past were to be rectified, and this time there would be no doubt of the result. A State paper was drawn up, to determine the steps which must be taken to ensure the success of the expedition. “The first,” so ran this remarkable document, “is to recommend the undertaking to God, and to endeavour to amend our sins. But, since his Majesty has already given a general order to this effect, and has appointed a commander who usually insists upon this point, it will only be needful to take care that the order is obeyed and to promulgate it again.” In the next place, a large sum of money must be raised, “with extraordinary rapidity and by every licit means that can be devised. In order to examine what means are licit, a committee of theologians must be summoned, to whom so great a matter may be confided, and their opinion should be adopted.” Certainly, with such wisdom at the head of affairs, there could be no possible doubt whatever about the success of the scheme.
But, while the attack on England was maturing, King Philip was growing more and more anxious for peace with France. Henry IV was gradually establishing his position, and, when he recaptured Amiens, the moment for opening negotiations had come. The French King, on his side, wished for peace; he saw that he could obtain it; but, before coming to a conclusion, it was necessary to consult his two allies — the English and the Dutch. He hoped to persuade them to a general pacification, and with this end in view he despatched a special envoy, De Maisse, to London.
If De Maisse expected to extract a speedy reply to his proposals, he was doomed to disappointment. He was received at the English Court with respect and cordiality, but, as his questions grew more definite, the replies to them grew more vague. He had several interviews with Elizabeth, and the oracle was not, indeed, dumb; on the contrary, it was extremely talkative — upon every subject but the one in hand. The ambassador was perplexed, amazed, and fascinated, while the Queen rambled on from topic to topic, from music to religion, from dancing to Essex, from the state of Christendom to her own accomplishments. She touched upon King Philip, who, she said, had tried to have her murdered fifteen times. “How the man must love me!” she added with a laugh and a sigh. She regretted these fatal differences in religion, which, she considered, mostly turned upon bagatelles. She quoted Horace: “quidquid delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi.” Yes, it was all too true; her people were suffering, and she loved her people, and her people loved her; she would rather die than diminish by one iota that mutual affection; and yet it could not last much longer, for she was on the brink of the grave. Then, before De Maisse could get in a word of expostulation, “No, no!” she exclaimed. “I don’t think I shall die as soon as all that! I am not so old, Monsieur l’ambassadeur, as you suppose.”
The Queen’s costumes were a source of perpetual astonishment to De Maisse, and he constantly took note of them in his journal. He learnt that she had never parted with a dress in the course of her life and that about three thousand hung in her wardrobes. On one occasion he experienced something more than astonishment. Summoned to an audience, he found Elizabeth standing near a window, in most unusual attire. Her black taffeta dress was cut in the Italian fashion, and ornamented with broad gold bands, the sleeves were open and lined with crimson. Below this dress, which was open all down the front, was another of white damask, open also down to the waist; and below that again was a white chemise, also open. The amazed ambassador hardly knew where to look. Whenever he glanced at the Queen, he seemed to see far too much, and his embarrassment was still further increased by the deliberation with which, from time to time, throwing back her head as she talked, she took the folds of her dress in her hands and held them apart, so that, as he described it, “lui voyait-on tout l’estomac jusques au nombril.” The costume was completed by a red wig, which fell on to her shoulders and was covered with magnificent pearls, while strings of pearls were twisted round her arms, and her wrists were covered with jewelled bracelets. Sitting down when he appeared, she discoursed for several hours with the utmost amiability. The Frenchman was convinced that she was trying to bewitch him; perhaps she was; or perhaps the unaccountable woman had merely been feeling a little vague and fantastic that morning when she put on her clothes.
The absence of Essex dominated the domestic situation, and De Maisse was not slow to perceive a state of tension in the atmosphere. The great Earl, hovering on the outskirts of London in self-imposed and ambiguous exile, filled every mind with fears, hopes, and calculations. The Queen’s references to the subject, though apparently outspoken, were not illuminating. She assured the ambassador that if Essex had really failed in his duty during the Islands Voyage she would have cut off his head, but that she had gone into the question very thoroughly, and come to the conclusion that he was blameless. She appeared to be calm; her allusion to the Earl’s execution seemed to be a piece of half-jocular bravado; and she immediately passed on to other matters. The courtiers were more agitated. There were strange rumours abroad. It was whispered that the Earl had announced his approaching departure for the West, and had declared that so many gentlemen were with him who had been ill-recompensed for their services that it would be dangerous to stay any longer near London. The rash remark was repeated everywhere by Essex’s enemies; but it had no sequel, and he remained at Wanstead.
All through the month of December, while De Maisse was struggling to obtain some categorical pronouncement from Elizabeth, this muffled storm continued. At one moment Essex suggested that his difference with Nottingham might be settled by single combat — a proposal that, curiously enough, was not accepted. Nottingham himself grew testy, took to his bed, and talked of going into the country. At last, quite unexpectedly, Essex appeared at Court. It was instantly known that he had triumphed. On the 28th the Queen made him Earl Marshal of England. The office had been in abeyance for many years, and its revival and bestowal at this moment was indeed a remarkable sign of the royal favour; for the appointment automatically restored the precedency of Essex over Nottingham. Since the offices of Lord Admiral and Earl Marshal were by statute of equal rank, and since both were held by Earls, it followed that the first place belonged to him of the older creation.
A few days later De Maisse prepared to depart, having achieved nothing by his mission. He paid a visit of farewell to Essex, who received him with sombre courtesy. A great cloud, said the Earl, had been hanging over his head, though now it was melting away. He did not believe in the possibility of peace between Spain and England; but he was unwilling to take a part in those negotiations; it was useless — the Father and the Son alone were listened to. Then he paused, and added gloomily “The Court is a prey to two evils — delay and inconstancy; and the cause is the sex of the sovereign.” De Maisse, inwardly noting the curious combination of depression, anger, and ambition, respectfully withdrew.
The Earl might still be surly; but the highest of spirits possessed Elizabeth. The cruel suspense of the last two months — the longest and most anxious of those wretched separations — was over; Essex was back again; a new delightful zest came bursting into existence. France could wait. She would send Robert Cecil to talk to Henry. In the meantime — she looked gaily round for some object on which to vent her energy — yes, there was James of Scotland! That ridiculous young man had been up to his tricks again; but she would give him a lesson. It had come to her ears that he was actually sending out an envoy to the Courts of the Continent, to assert his right of succession to the English throne. His right of succession! It was positively a mania. He seemed to think she was already dead; but he would find he was mistaken. Lashing herself into a most exhilarating fury, she seized her pen, and wrote a letter to her brother of Scotland, well calculated to make him shake in his shoes. “When the first blast,” she began, “of strange unused and seld heard-of sounds had pearsed my ears, I supposed that flyeing fame, who with swift quills ofte passeth with the worst, had brought report of some untrothe”; but it was not so. “I am sorry,” she continued, “that you have so wilfully falen from your best stay, and will needs throwe yourself into the hurlpool of bottomless discredit. Was the haste soe great to hie to such oprobry? . . . I see well we two be of very different natures . . . Shall imbassage be sent to forayne princes laden with instructions of your raishe advised charge? I assure you the travaile of your creased words shall passe the boundes of too many landes, with an imputation of such levytie, as when the true sonnshine of my sincere dealing and extraordinary care ever for your safety and honour shall overshade too far the dymme and mystie clowdes of false invectyves . . . And be assured, that you deale with such a kinge as will beare no wronges and indure no infamy. The examples have been so lately seen as they can hardly be forgotten, of a farr mightier and potenter prince than many Europe hath. Looke you not therefore without large amends I may or will slupper-up such indignities . . . And so I recomend you to a better mynde and more advysed conclusions.”
Having polished off King James, she felt able to cope once more with King Henry. She told Robert Cecil that he should go to France as her special ambassador, and the Secretary was all assent and gratitude. Inwardly, however, he was uneasy; he did not relish the thought of a long absence abroad while the Earl remained at home in possession of the field; and, while he gravely sat over his despatches, he wondered what could be done. He decided to be perfectly open — to approach his rival with a frank avowal of his anxieties. The plan worked; and Essex, in generous grandeur, remembering with a smile how, in his absence, both the Secretaryship and the Duchy of Lancaster had gone to Cecil, swore that he would steal no marches. Yet Cecil still felt uncomfortable. It happened that at that moment a large and valuable consignment of cochineal arrived from the Indies for the Queen. He suggested that Essex should be allowed the whole for £50,000, at the rate of eighteen shillings a pound, the market price of a pound of cochineal being between thirty and forty shillings; and he also recommended that Essex should be given £7000 worth of the precious substance as a free gift. Elizabeth readily consented, and the Earl found himself bound to the Secretary by something more than airy chivalry — by ties of gratitude for a very solid benefit.
Cecil had taken ship for France, when news of a most alarming nature reached London. A Spanish fleet of thirty-eight fly-boats with 5000 soldiers on board was sailing up the Channel. Elizabeth’s first thought was for her Secretary. She sent an urgent message, forbidding him to leave England; but he had already sailed, had missed the Spanish fleet, and arrived at Dieppe in safety. From there he at once despatched to his father a full account of the enemy’s armament, writing on the cover of his letter, “For life, for life, for very life,” with a drawing of a gallows, as a hint to the messenger of what would happen to him if he dallied on the road. There was not a moment’s hesitation in London. The consultations of the Government were brief and to the point: orders were sent out in every direction, and no one asked the advice of the theologians. Lord Cumberland, with all the ships he could collect, was told to pursue the enemy; Lord Nottingham hurried to Gravesend, and Lord Cobham to Dover; Raleigh was commissioned to furnish provisions all along the coast; Essex was to stand ready to repel an attack wherever it might be delivered. But the alarm passed as quickly as it had arisen. Cumberland’s squadron found the Spaniards outside Calais, and sank eighteen of the fly-boats; the rest of them huddled into the harbour, from which they never ventured to emerge.
Essex kept his promise. During the Secretary’s absence he supplied his place with the Queen, but made no attempt to take an unfair advantage of the situation. For the time indeed, his interests seemed to be elsewhere, and politics gave way to lovemaking. During the early wintry months of 1598 he kept himself warm at Court, philandering with the ladies. The rumours of his proceedings were many and scandalous. It was known that he had had a child by Mistress Elizabeth Southwell. He was suspected of a passion for Lady Mary Howard and of another for Mistress Russell. A Court gossip reported it as certain that “his fairest Brydges” had once more captured the Earl’s heart. While he passed the time with plays and banquets, both Lady Essex and the Queen were filled with uneasiness. Elizabeth’s high spirits had suddenly collapsed; neither the state of Europe nor the state of Whitehall gave her any satisfaction; she grew moody, suspicious, and violent. For the slightest neglect, she railed against her Maids of Honour until they burst out crying. She believed that she had detected love-looks between Essex and Lady Mary Howard, and could hardly control her anger. She did, however, for the moment, privately determining to have her revenge before long. Her opportunity came when Lady Mary appeared one day in a particularly handsome velvet dress, with a rich border, powdered with pearl and gold. Her Majesty said nothing, but next morning she had the dress secretly abstracted from Lady Mary’s wardrobe and brought to her. That evening she electrified the Court by stalking in with Lady Mary’s dress upon her; the effect was grotesque; she was far taller than Lady Mary and the dress was not nearly long enough. “Well, Ladies,” she said, “how like you my new-fancied suit?” Then, amid the gasping silence, she bore down upon Lady Mary. “Ah, my Lady, and what think you? Is not this dress too short and ill-becoming?” The unfortunate girl stammered out an assent. “Why then,” cried her Majesty, “if it become not me, as being too short, I am minded it shall never become thee, as being too fine; so it fitteth neither well”; and she marched out of the room again.
Such moments were disturbing; but Essex still had the art to pacify the royal agitations. Then all was radiance again, and spring was seen to be approaching, and one could forget the perplexities of passion and politics, and one could be careless and gay. In a particularly yielding moment, the Earl had persuaded the Queen to grant him a great favour; she had agreed to see his mother — the odious Lettice Leicester, who had been banished from her presence for years. Yet, when it came to the point, Elizabeth jibbed. Time after time Lady Leicester was brought to the Privy Gallery; there she stood waiting for her Majesty to pass; but, for some reason or other, her Majesty always went out by another way. At last it was arranged that Lady Chandos should give a great dinner, at which the Queen and Lady Leicester should meet. Everything was ready; the royal coach was waiting; Lady Leicester stood at the entrance with a fair jewel in her hand, worth £300. But the Queen sent word that she should not go. Essex, who had been ill all day, got out of bed when he heard what had happened, put on a dressing-gown, and had himself conveyed to the Queen by a back way. It was all useless, the Queen would not move, and Lady Chandos’s dinner party was indefinitely postponed. Then all at once Elizabeth relented. Lady Leicester was allowed to come to Court; she appeared before the Queen, kissed her hand, kissed her breast, embraced her, and was kissed in return. The reconciliation was a very pretty one; but how long would these fair days last?
In the meantime Cecil had failed as completely in France as De Maisse in England. He returned, having accomplished nothing, and early in May the inevitable happened — Henry broke off from his allies, and, by the treaty of Vervins, made peace with Spain. Elizabeth’s comments were far from temperate. The French King, she said, was the Antichrist of Ingratitude; she had helped him to his crown, and now he had deserted her. It was true enough — but the wily Béarnais, like everybody else, was playing his own game. Burghley, however, was convinced that the situation required something more than vituperative outbursts. He wished for peace, and believed that it was still not too late to follow Henry’s example; Philip, he thought, would be ready enough to agree to reasonable terms. Such were Burghley’s views, and Essex violently opposed them. He urged an exactly contrary policy — a vigorous offensive — a great military effort, which would bring Spain to her knees. To start off with, he proposed an immediate attack upon the Indies; whereupon Burghley made a mild allusion to the Islands Voyage. And so began once more a long, fierce struggle between the Earl and the Cecils — a struggle that turned the Council board into a field of battle, where the issues of Peace and War, the destinies of England, and the ambitions of hostile ministers jostled and hurtled together, while the Queen sat, in her high chair at the head of the table, listening, approving, fiercely disagreeing, veering passionately from one side to the other, and never making up her mind.
Week after week the fight went on. Essex’s strong card was Holland. Were we, he asked, to play the same trick on the Dutch as Henry had played on us? Were we to leave our Protestant allies to the tender mercy of the Spaniard? Burghley replied that the Dutch might join in a general pacification; and he countered Holland with Ireland. He pointed out that the only hope of effectually putting a stop to the running sore of Irish rebellion, which was draining the resources of England, was to make peace with Spain, whereby the rebels would be deprived of Spanish money and reinforcements, while at the same time England would be able to devote all her energies to a thorough conquest of the country. Current events gave weight to his words. The Lord Deputy Borough had suddenly died; there was confusion in Dublin; and Tyrone, the leader of the rebels in Ulster, had, after a patched-up truce, reopened hostilities. In June it was known that he was laying siege to the fort on the River Blackwater, one of the principal English strongholds in the North of Ireland, and that the garrison was in difficulties. No new Lord Deputy had been appointed; who should be selected for that most difficult post? Elizabeth, gravely troubled, found it impossible to decide. It looked as if the Irish question was soon to become as intolerable as the Spanish one. As the summer days grew hotter, the discussions in the Council grew hotter too. There were angry explosions on either side. One day, after Essex had delivered a feverish harangue on his favourite topic — the infamy of a peace with Spain — Burghley drew out a prayer-book from his pocket and pointed with trembling finger to a passage in the fifty-fifth psalm. “Bloodthirsty and deceitful men,” read Essex, “will not live out half their days.” He furiously brushed aside the imputation; but everyone was deeply impressed; and there were some who recollected afterwards, with awe and wonder, the prophetic text of the old Lord Treasurer.
Essex felt that he was misunderstood, and composed a pamphlet to explain his views. It was a gallantly written work, but it convinced no one who was not convinced already. As for the Queen, she still wavered. The Dutch sent an embassy, offering large sums of money if she would continue the war. This was important, and she appeared to be coming round finally to an anti-Spanish policy; but it was appearance and nothing more; she sheered away again with utter indecision.
Nerves grew jangled, and tempers dangerously short. Everything, it was clear, was working up towards one of those alarming climaxes with which all at Court had grown so familiar; and, while they waited in dread, sure enough the climax came. But this time it was of a nature undreamt of by the imagination of any courtier: when the incredible story reached them, it was as if the earth had opened at their feet. The question of the Irish appointment had become pressing, and Elizabeth, feeling that something really must be done about it, kept reverting to the subject on every possible occasion, without any result. At last she thought she had decided that Sir William Knollys, Essex’s uncle, was the man. She was in the Council Chamber, with Essex, the Lord Admiral, Robert Cecil, and Thomas Windebank, Clerk of the Signet, when she mentioned this. As often happened, they were all standing up. Essex, who did not want to lose the support of his uncle at Court, proposed instead Sir George Carew, a follower of the Cecils, whose absence in Ireland would, he thought, inconvenience the Secretary. The Queen would not hear of it, but Essex persisted; each was annoyed; they pressed their candidates; their words grew high and loud; and at last the Queen roundly declared that, say what he would, Knollys should go. Essex, overcome with irritation, contemptuous in look and gesture, turned his back upon her. She instantly boxed his ears. “Go to the devil!” she cried, flaring with anger. And then the impossible happened. The mad young man completely lost his temper, and, with a resounding oath, clapped his hand to his sword. “This is an outrage,” he shouted in his sovereign’s face, “that I will not put up with. I would not have borne it from your father’s hands.”— He was interrupted by Nottingham, who pressed him backwards. Elizabeth did not stir. There was an appalling silence; and he rushed from the room.
Unparalleled as was the conduct of Essex, there was yet another surprise in store for the Court, for the Queen’s behaviour was no less extraordinary. She did nothing. The Tower — the block — heaven knows what exemplary punishment — might naturally have been expected. But nothing happened at all. Essex vanished into the country, and the Queen, wrapped in impenetrable mystery, proceeded with her usual routine of work and recreation. What was passing in her head? Had she been horrified into a paralysis? Was she overcome by the workings of outraged passion? Was she biding her time for some terrific revenge? It was impossible to guess. She swept on her way, until . . . there was indeed an interruption. The great, the inevitable, misfortune had come at last; Burghley was dying. Worn out by old age, the gout, and the cares of his great office, he was sinking rapidly to the grave. He had been her most trusted counsellor for more than forty years - from a time — how unbelievably distant! — when she had not been Queen of England. Her Spirit, she had always called him; and now her Spirit was leaving her for ever. She could attend to nothing else. She hoped against hope, she prayed, she visited him constantly, waiting with grand affection — the solicitude of some strange old fairy daughter — beside his dying bed. Sir Robert sent him game, but he was too feeble to lift the food to his mouth, and the Queen fed him herself.
“I pray you,” he wrote to his son, “diligently and effectually let her Majesty understand how her singular kindness doth overcome my power to acquit it, who, though she will not be a mother, yet sheweth herself, by feeding me with her own princely hand, as a careful norice; and if I may be weaned to feed myself, I shall be more ready to serve her on the earth; if not, I hope to be, in heaven, a servitor for her and God’s Church. And so I thank you for your partridges.”
When all was over, Elizabeth wept long and bitterly; and her tears were still flowing — it was but ten days after Burghley’s death — when yet another calamity fell upon her. There had been a terrible disaster in Ireland. Sir Henry Bagenal, marching at the head of a powerful army to the relief of the fort on the Blackwater, had been attacked by Tyrone; his army had been annihilated, and he himself killed. The whole of northern Ireland, as far as the walls of Dublin, lay open to the rebels. It was the most serious reverse that Elizabeth had suffered in the whole of her reign.
The news was quickly carried to Whitehall; it was also carried to the Escurial. King Philip’s agony was coming to an end at last. The ravages of his dreadful diseases had overwhelmed him utterly; covered from head to foot with putrefying sores, he lay moribund in indescribable torment. His bed had been lifted into the oratory, so that his dying eyes might rest till the last moment on the high altar in the great church. He was surrounded by monks, priests, prayers, chantings, and holy relics. For fifty days and nights the extraordinary scene went on. He was dying as he had lived — in absolute piety. His conscience was clear: he had always done his duty; he had been infinitely industrious; he had existed solely for virtue and the glory of God. One thought alone troubled him: had he been remiss in the burning of heretics? He had burnt many, no doubt; but he might have burnt more. Was it because of this, perhaps, that he had not been quite as successful as he might have wished? It was certainly mysterious — he could not understand it — there seemed to be something wrong with his Empire — there was never enough money — the Dutch — the Queen of England . . . as he mused, a paper was brought in. It was the despatch from Ireland, announcing the victory of Tyrone. He sank back on his pillows, radiant; all was well, his prayers and his virtues had been rewarded, and the tide had turned at last. He dictated a letter to Tyrone of congratulation and encouragement. He promised immediate succour, he foretold the destruction of the heretics, and the ruin of the heretic Queen. A fifth Armada . . . he could dictate no more, and sank into a tortured stupor. When he awoke it was night, and there was singing at the altar below him; a sacred candle was lighted and put into his hand, the flame, as he clutched it closer and closer, casting lurid shadows upon his face; and so, in ecstasy, and in torment, in absurdity and in greatness, happy, miserable, horrible, and holy, King Philip went off, to meet the Trinity.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00