Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter XV.

The Government had never been in any danger, though there must have been some anxious moments at Whitehall. It was conceivable that the City might respond to the Earl’s incitement and that a violent struggle would be the consequence; but Elizabeth, who was never lacking in personal courage, awaited the event with vigorous composure. When the news came that all was well, and she knew that she could depend upon the loyalty of the people, she found herself without a qualm. She gave orders that Essex and his adherents should be put upon their trial immediately.

Nearly a hundred persons were in custody, and the Council proceeded at once with the examination of the ringleaders. Very soon the whole course of the intrigues of the last eighteen months, including the correspondence with James and the connivance of Mountjoy, had transpired. The trial of the two Earls, Essex and Southampton, was fixed to take place before a special commission of Peers on February 18th. What line was the prosecution to take? It was speedily decided that no reference whatever should be made to Scotland, and that the facts incriminating Mountjoy, whose services in Ireland could not be dispensed with, should be suppressed. There would be ample evidence of treason without entering upon such delicate and embarrassing particulars.

Bacon had been employed in the preliminary examination of some of the less important prisoners, and was now required to act as one of the counsel for the prosecution. He had no hesitations or doubts. Other minds might have been confused in such a circumstance; but he could discriminate with perfect clarity between the claims of the Earl and the claims of the Law. Private friendship and private benefits were one thing; the public duty of taking the part required of him by the State in bringing to justice a dangerous criminal was another. It was not for him to sit in judgment: he would merely act as a lawyer — merely put the case for the Crown, to the best of his ability, before the Peers. His own opinions, his own feelings, were irrelevant. It was true, no doubt, that by joining in the proceedings he would reap considerable advantages. From the financial point of view alone the affair would certainly be a godsend, for he was still pressingly in debt; and, besides that, there was the opportunity of still further ingratiating himself with the man who now, undoubtedly, was the most powerful personage in England — his cousin, Robert Cecil. But was that an argument for declining to serve? It was nonsense to suppose so. Because a lawyer was paid his fee did it follow that his motives were disreputable? There was, besides, one further complication. It was clear that it would be particularly useful for the Government to number Francis Bacon among its active supporters. The Earl had been his patron, and was his brother’s intimate friend; and, if he was now ready to appear as one of the Earl’s accusers, the effect upon the public, if not upon the judges, would be certainly great; it would be difficult to resist the conclusion that the case against Essex must be serious indeed since Francis Bacon was taking a share in it. If, on the other hand, he refused, he would undoubtedly incur the Queen’s displeasure and run the risk of actual punishment; it might mean the end of his career. What followed? Surely only a simpleton would be puzzled into hesitation. The responsibility for the Government’s acts lay with the Government; it was not for him to inquire into its purposes. And if, by doing his duty, he avoided disaster — so much the better! Others might be unable to distinguish between incidental benefits and criminal inducements: for him it was all as clear as day.

Never had his intellect functioned with a more satisfactory, a more beautiful, precision. The argument was perfect; there was, in fact, only one mistake about it, and that was that it had ever been made. A simpleton might have done better, for a simpleton might have perceived instinctively the essentials of the situation. It was an occasion for the broad grasp of common humanity, not for the razor-blade of a subtle intelligence. Bacon could not see this; he could not see that the long friendship, the incessant kindness, the high generosity, and the touching admiration of the Earl had made a participation in his ruin a deplorable and disgraceful thing. Sir Charles Davers was not a clever man; but his absolute devotion to his benefactor still smells sweet amid the withered corruptions of history. In Bacon’s case such reckless heroism was not demanded; mere abstention would have been enough. If, braving the Queen’s displeasure, he had withdrawn to Cambridge, cut down his extravagances, dismissed Jones, and devoted himself to those sciences which he so truly loved . . . but it was an impossibility. It was not in his nature or his destiny. The woolsack awaited him. Inspired with the ingenious grandeur of the serpent, he must deploy to the full the long luxury of his coils. One watches, fascinated, the glittering allurement; one desires in vain to turn away one’s face.

A State trial was little more than a dramatic formality. The verdict was determined beforehand by the administration, and everyone concerned was well aware that this was so. Such significance as the proceedings had were of a political nature; they enabled those in power to give a public expression of their case against the prisoner — to lay before the world the motives by which they wished it to be supposed that they were actuated. In the present case there was no doubt whatever of the technical guilt of the accused. The Court of Peers had consulted the judges, who had pronounced that the conduct of Essex and his followers on Sunday the 8th, whatever their intentions may have been, in itself constituted treason, so that sentence might have been passed immediately a formal proof of that conduct had been made. But that a walk through the City should involve such fearful consequences would outrage public feeling; and it was the object of the prosecution to show that Essex had been guilty of a dangerous and deliberate conspiracy. The fact that the most serious feature in the case — the intrigue with the King of Scotland — was to be suppressed was a handicap for the Crown lawyers; but their position was an extremely strong one. The accused were allowed no counsel; their right of cross-examination was cut down to a minimum; and the evidence of the most important witnesses was given in the shape of depositions read aloud to the Court — depositions which had been extracted in the Tower, and which it was impossible to control or verify. On the whole, it seemed certain that with a little good management the prosecution would be able to blacken the conduct and character of the prisoners in a way which would carry conviction — in every sense of the word.

It so happened, however, that good management was precisely what was lacking on the part of the Crown leader, Edward Coke. On this far more serious occasion, the Attorney-General repeated the tactical errors which he had committed at York House. He abused his antagonists so roughly as to raise sympathy on their behalf; and he allowed himself to be led away into heated disputations which obscured the true issues of the case. During these wranglings Essex was more than once able to carry the war into the enemy’s camp. He declared fiercely that Raleigh had intended to murder him, and Raleigh was put into the witness-box to deny the irrelevant charge. A little later Essex brought up the story that the succession had been sold to the Spaniards by the Secretary. There followed a remarkable and unexpected scene. Cecil, who had been listening to the proceedings from behind a curtain, suddenly stepped forth, and, falling on his knees, begged to be allowed to clear himself of the slander. It was agreed that he should be heard, and, after a long altercation with Essex, Cecil elicited the fact that the informant upon whose report the charge was based was Sir William Knollys, the Earl’s uncle. Knollys in his turn was sent for, and his evidence exculpated the Secretary. All that had happened, he said, was that Cecil had once mentioned to him a book in which the Infanta’s title was preferred before any other. Essex’s accusations had collapsed; but the prosecution, after many hours, had come no nearer to a proof of his criminal intentions. It was useless for Coke to shout and hector. “It was your purpose,” he cried, shaking a menacing finger at Essex, “to take not only the Tower of London but the royal palace and the person of the prince — yea, and to take away her life!” Such exaggerations were only damaging to his own cause.

Bacon saw what was happening, and judged that it was time to intervene. The real question at issue — the precise nature of the Earl’s motives — was indeed a complicated and obscure one. The motives of the most ordinary mortal are never easy to disentangle, and Essex was far from ordinary. His mind was made up of extremes, and his temper was devoid of balance. He rushed from opposite to opposite; he allowed the strangest contradictories to take root together, and grow up side by side, in his heart. He loved and hated — he was a devoted servant and an angry rebel — all at once. For an impartial eye, it is impossible to trace in his conduct a determined intention of any kind. He was swept hither and thither by the gusts of his passions and the accidents of circumstance. He entertained treasonable thoughts, and at last treasonable projects; but fitfully, with intervals of romantic fidelity and noble remorse. His behaviour in Ireland was typical of all the rest. After suggesting an invasion of England at the head of his troops, he veered completely round and led his army against Tyrone. It finally turned out that he had gone too far to draw back, and, pushed on by his own followers and the animosity of the Queen, he had plunged into a desperate action. But, till the last moment, he was uncertain, indefinite and distraught. There was no settled malignancy in his nature. It is possible that he believed in the treachery of Cecil; and, as it happened, there was some justification for the belief, for Cecil, with all his loyalty, was actually in receipt of a Spanish pension. Convinced of his own high purposes, the unrealistic creature may well have dreamed in his sanguine hours that, after all, he would manage to effect a bloodless revolution; that Cecil and Raleigh could be not too roughly thrust upon one side; and that then the way would be open once more for his true affection, his true admiration, his true ambition — that thenceforward the Queen would be his and he the Queen’s, in glorious happiness, until death parted them.

Such were his inward workings, and Francis Bacon was the last man in the world to have understood them. They were utterly remote from the clear, bright ambit of that supremely positive intelligence. Wish as he might, the author of the “Essays or Counsels” could never have comprehended a psychology that was dominated by emotion instead of reason; but, on this occasion, he did not wish. Sympathy was far from him. What were the actual facts? By facts alone was it possible to judge of conduct, and the Court, led away by recrimination and irrelevancies, was beginning to lose sight of them. It was for him to brush aside, calmly but firmly, the excuses and the subterfuges of the prisoner, and to concentrate the attention of the judges — and of the public — on what was really the vital point in the whole business — the meaning of his deeds.

With perfect tact Bacon paid homage to the education of the Peers by illustrating his remarks with an incident from the Classics. All history, he said, made it plain “that there was never any traitor heard of, but he always coloured his practices with some plausible pretence.” Essex had “made his colour the severing of some great men and counsellors from her Majesty’s favour, and the fear he stood in of his pretended enemies lest they should murder him in his house. Therefore he saith he was compelled to fly into the City for succour and assistance.” He was “not much unlike Pisistratus, of whom it was so anciently written how he gashed and wounded himself, and in that sort ran crying into Athens that his life was sought and like to have been taken away; thinking to have moved the people to have pitied him and taken his part by such counterfeited harm and danger: whereas his aim and drift was to take the government of the city into his hands, and alter the form thereof. With like pretences of dangers and assaults, the Earl of Essex entered the City of London.” In reality “he had no such enemies, no such dangers.” The facts were plain, “and, my Lord”— he turned to the prisoner —“all whatsoever you have or can say in answer hereof are but shadows. And therefore methinks it were best for you to confess, not to justify.”

Essex could never distinguish very clearly between a personality and an argument. “I call forth Mr. Bacon,” he replied, “against Mr. Bacon”; and then he told the Court how, but a few months previously, his accuser had written letters in his name, to be shown to the Queen, in which his case had been stated “as orderly for me as I could do myself.”

“These digressions,” said Bacon coldly, “are not fit, neither should be suffered”; the letters were harmless; “and,” he added, “I have spent more time in vain in studying how to make the Earl a good servant to the Queen and State than I have done in anything else.”

Then he sat down, and the case came once more under the guidance of Coke. The confessions of the other conspirators were read; but there was no order in the proceedings; point after point was taken up and dropped; and at last, when the Attorney-General, after an harangue on the irreligion of the accused, offered to produce evidence upon the subject, the Peers declined to hear it. Once more confusion had descended, and once more Bacon rose to fix attention upon the central issue. “I have never yet seen in any case such favour shown to any prisoner,” he said, “so many digressions, such delivery of evidence by fractions, and so silly a defence of such great and notorious treasons.” He then read aloud the opinion of the judges on the point of law, and continued:

“To take secret counsel, to execute it, to run together in numbers armed with weapons — what can be the excuse? Warned by the Lord Keeper, by a herald, and yet persist. Will any simple man take this to be less than treason?” Essex interrupted. “If I had purposed anything against others than my private enemies,” he said, “I would not have stirred with so slender a company.” Bacon paused a moment and then replied, addressing himself directly to the Earl. “It was not the company you carried with you, but the assistance which you hoped for in the City, which you trusted unto. The Duke of Guise thrust himself into the streets of Paris, on the day of the Barricadoes, in his doublet and hose, attended only with eight gentlemen, and found that help in the city, which, (God be thanked), you failed of here. And what followed? The King was forced to put himself into a pilgrim’s weeds, and in that disguise to steal away to escape their fury. Even such,” he concluded, turning to the Peers, “was my Lord’s confidence too; and his pretence the same — an all-hail and a kiss to the City. But the end was treason, as hath been sufficiently proved.”

The thrust was indeed a sharp one; but Bacon’s words were no longer directed merely to the Court and the public. The parallel with Guise, whose rebellion had occurred within living memory, had in it an actuality far more deadly than the learned allusion to Pisistratus. There could be only one purpose in drawing it: it was precisely calculated to touch, in the most susceptible place, the mind of the Queen. To put Essex before her, with such verisimilitude, in the shape of the man who had raised up Paris against Henry III, was a master-stroke of detraction. The words, no doubt, would reach Elizabeth; but they were addressed, in reality, to someone else — to the invisible listener, who, after his dramatic appearance, had returned to his place behind the hangings. The Secretary’s kindred intellect appreciated to the full the subtle implications of the speech; his cousin was doing admirably. The Earl was silent. Francis Bacon’s task was over. The double tongue had struck, and struck again.

Both prisoners were inevitably found guilty, and the revolting sentence was passed in the usual form. During the ordeal of the trial Essex had been bold, dignified, and self-possessed; but now, back again in the Tower, he was seized by a violent revulsion; anguish and horror overpowered his mind. A puritan clergyman, who had been sent to minister to him, took the opportunity to agitate his conscience and fill his imagination with the fear of hell. He completely collapsed. Self-reliance — self-respect — were swept away in a flood of bitter lamentations. He wished, he said, to make a confession to the Lords of the Council. They came, and he declared to them that he was a miserable sinner, grovelling heart-broken before judgment-seat of God. He cried out upon his inexcusable guilt; and he did more: he denounced the black thoughts, the fatal counsels, the evil doings of his associates. They, too, were traitors and villains, no less than himself. He raved against them all — his step father — Sir Charles Davers — Henry Cuffe — each was worse than the other; they had lured him on to these abominable practices, and now they were all to sink together under a common doom. His sister, too! Let her not be forgotten — she had been among the wickedest! Was she not guilty of more sins than one? “She must be looked to,” he cried, “for she hath a proud spirit!”— adding dark words of Mountjoy, and false friendship, and broken vows of marriage. Then, while the grave Councillors listened in embarrassed silence, he returned once more to his own enormities. “I know my sins,” he said, “unto her Majesty and to my God. I must confess to you that I am the greatest, the most vilest and most unthankful traitor that has ever been in the land.”

While these painful scenes of weakness and humiliation were passing in the Tower, Elizabeth had withdrawn into deepest privacy at Whitehall. Every mind was turned towards her — in speculation, in hope, in terror; the fatal future lay now, spinning and quivering, within her formidable grasp.

It is not difficult to guess the steps by which she reached her final conclusion. The actual danger which she had run must have seemed to her — in spite of Bacon’s reminder — the least important element in the case. The rising had been an act of folly, doomed from the first to ignominious failure — an act so weak and ineffective that, taken by itself, it could hardly be said to deserve the extreme penalty of the law. If, for other reasons, she was inclined towards mercy, there would be ample justification for taking a lenient view of what had happened, and for commuting the punishment of death for one, perhaps, of imprisonment and sequestration. It is true that the intrigue with James of Scotland wore a more serious complexion; but this had proved abortive; it was unknown to all but a few in high places; and it might well be buried in oblivion. Were there, then, other reasons for mercy? Most assuredly there were. But these were not judicial reasons; neither were they political; they were purely personal; and, of course, in that very fact lay their strength.

To abolish, in a moment, the immediate miserable past — to be reconciled once more; to regain, with a new rapture, the old happiness — what was there to prevent it? Nothing, surely; she had the power for such an act; she could assert her will — extend her royal pardon; after a short eclipse, he would be with her again; not a voice would be raised against her; Cecil himself, she knew, would accept the situation without a murmur; and so — would not all be well? It was indeed a heavenly vision, and she allowed herself to float deliciously down the stream of her desires. But not for long. She could not dwell indefinitely among imaginations; her sense of fact crept forward — insidious — paramount; with relentless fingers it picked to pieces the rosy palaces of unreality. She was standing once again on the bleak rock. She saw plainly that she could never trust him, that the future would always repeat the past, that, whatever her feelings might be, his would remain divided, dangerous, profoundly intractable, and that, if this catastrophe were exorcised, another, even worse, would follow in its place.

And yet, after all, might she not take the risk? She had been a gambler all her life; there was little left of it now; why not live out that little in the old style, with the old hazard — the close-hauled boat tacking fiercely against the wind? Let him intrigue with James of Scotland, she could manage that! Let him do his worst — she would be equal to it; she would wrestle with him, master him, hold him at her mercy, and pardon him — magnificently, ecstatically, pardon him — again and again! If she failed, well, that would be a new experience, and — how often had she said it! —“per molto variare la natura è bella.” Yes, truly, she and nature were akin — variable, beautiful . . . a hideous memory struck her; terrible, outrageous words re-echoed in her mind. “Crooked”—“carcase”— so that was what he thought of her! While he was pouring out his sugared adorations, he loathed her, despised her, recoiled from her. Was it possible? Was the whole history of their relations, then, one long infamous deception? Was it all bitterness and blindness? Had he perhaps truly loved her once? — Once! But the past was over, and time was inexorable. Every moment widened the desperate abyss between them. Such dreams were utter folly. She preferred not to look in her looking-glass — why should she? There was no need; she was very well aware without that of what had happened to her. She was a miserable old woman of sixty-seven. She recognised the truth — the whole truth — at last.

Her tremendous vanity — the citadel of her repressed romanticism — was shattered, and rage and hatred planted their flag upon its ruins. The animosity which for so long had been fluctuating within her now flared up in triumph and rushed out upon the author of her agony and her disgrace. He had betrayed her in every possible way — mentally, emotionally, materially — as a Queen and as a woman — before the world and in the sweetest privacies of the heart. And he had actually imagined that he could elude the doom that waited on such iniquity — had dreamed of standing up against her — had mistaken the hesitations of her strength for the weaknesses of a subservient character. He would have a sad awakening! He would find that she was indeed the daughter of a father who had known how to rule a kingdom and how to punish the perfidy of those he had loved the most. Yes, indeed, she felt her father’s spirit within her; and an extraordinary passion moved the obscure profundities of her being, as she condemned her lover to her mother’s death. In all that had happened there was a dark inevitability, a ghastly, satisfaction; her father’s destiny, by some intimate dispensation, was repeated in hers; it was supremely fitting that Robert Devereux should follow Anne Boleyn to the block. Her father! . . . but in a still remoter depth there were still stranger stirrings. There was a difference as well as a likeness; after all, she was no man, but a woman; and was this, perhaps, not a repetition but a revenge? After all the long years of her life-time, and in this appalling consummation, was it her murdered mother who had finally emerged? The wheel had come full circle. Manhood — the fascinating, detestable entity, which had first come upon her concealed in yellow magnificence in her father’s lap — manhood was overthrown at last, and in the person of that traitor it should be rooted out. Literally, perhaps . . . she knew well enough the punishment for high treason. But no! She smiled sardonically. She would not deprive him of the privilege of his rank. It would be enough if he suffered as so many others — the Lord Admiral Seymour among the rest — had suffered before him; it would be enough if she cut off his head.

And so it happened that this was the one occasion in her life on which Elizabeth hardly hesitated. The trial had taken place on February the 19th, and the execution was fixed for the 25th. A little wavering there had indeed to be — she would not have been Elizabeth without it; but it was hardly perceptible. On the 23rd she sent a message that the execution should be postponed; on the 24th she sent another that it should be proceeded with. She interfered with the course of the law no further.

Afterwards a romantic story was told, which made the final catastrophe the consequence of a dramatic mishap. The tale is well known: how, in happier days, the Queen gave the Earl a ring, with the promise that, whenever he sent it back to her, it would always bring forgiveness; how Essex, leaning from a window of the Tower, entrusted the ring to a boy, bidding him take it to Lady Scrope, and beg her to present it to her Majesty; how the boy, in mistake, gave the ring to Lady Scrope’s sister, Lady Nottingham, the wife of the Earl’s enemy; how Lady Nottingham kept it, and said nothing, until, on her deathbed two years later, she confessed all to the Queen, who, with the exclamation “God may forgive you, Madam, but I never can!” brought down the curtain on the tragedy. Such a narrative is appropriate enough to the place where it was first fully elaborated — a sentimental novelette;1, but it does not belong to history. The improbability of its details is too glaring, and the testimony against it is overpowering. It is implicitly denied by Camden, the weightiest of contemporary historians; it is explicitly contradicted by Clarendon, who, writing in the succeeding generation, was in a position to know the facts; and it has been rejected by later writers, including the learned and judicious Ranke. And assuredly the grim facts stand better by themselves, without the aid of such adventitious ornaments. Essex made no appeal. Of what use would be a cry for mercy? Elizabeth would listen to nothing, if she was deaf to her own heart. The end came in silence: and at last he understood. Like her other victims, he realised too late that he had utterly misjudged her nature, that there had never been the slightest possibility of dominating her, that the enormous apparatus of her hesitations and collapses was merely an incredibly elaborate façade, and that all within was iron.

One request he made — that he should not be executed in public; and it was willingly granted, for there still seemed a chance of a popular movement on his behalf. He should be beheaded, like all the great state criminals before him, in the courtyard of the Tower.

And there, on the morning of February 25th, 1601, were gathered together all those who were qualified to witness the closing ceremony. Among them was Walter Raleigh. As Captain of the Guard, it was his duty to be present; but he had thought, too, that perhaps the condemned man would have some words to say to him, and he took up his station very near the block. There were murmurs around him. Was this as it should be? Now that the great Earl was brought so low, were his enemies to come pressing about him in scornful jubilation? A shameful sight! Raleigh heard, and in sombre silence immediately withdrew. He went into the White Tower, ascended to the Armoury, and thence, from a window, the ominous prophet of imperialism surveyed the scene.

It was not a short one. The age demanded that there should be a dignified formality on such occasions, and that the dreadful physical deed should be approached through a long series of ornate and pious commonplaces. Essex appeared in a black cloak and hat with three clergymen beside him. Stepping upon the scaffold, he took off his hat, and bowed to the assembled lords. He spoke long and earnestly — a studied oration, half speech, half prayer. He confessed his sins, both general and particular. He was young, he said — he was in his thirty-fourth year — and he “had bestowed his youth in wantonness, lust, and uncleanness.” He had been “puffed up with pride, vanity, and love of this world’s pleasure”; his sins were “more in number than the hairs on his head.”

“For all which,” he went on, “I humbly beseech my saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon; especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.” He prayed for the welfare of the Queen, “whose death I protest I never meant, nor violence to her person.” He was never, he declared, either an atheist or a papist, but hoped for salvation from God only by the mercy and merits of “my saviour Jesus Christ. This faith I was brought up in; and herein I am ready to die; beseeching you all to join your souls with me in prayer.” He paused, and was about to take off his cloak, when one of the clergymen reminded him that he should pray God to forgive his enemies. He did so, and then, removing his cloak and ruff, knelt down by the block in his black doublet. Another of the clergymen encouraged him against the fear of death, whereupon, with ingenuous gravity, he confessed that more than once, in battle, he had “felt the weakness of the flesh, and therefore in this great conflict desired God to assist and strengthen him.” After that, gazing upwards, he prayed, more passionately, to the Almighty. He prayed for all the Estates of the Realm, and he repeated the Lord’s Prayer. The executioner, kneeling before him, asked for his forgiveness, which he granted. The clergymen requested him to rehearse the Creed, and he went through it, repeating it after them clause by clause. He rose and took off his doublet; a scarlet waistcoat, with long scarlet sleeves, was underneath. So — tall, splendid, bare-headed, with his fair hair about his shoulders — he stood before the world for the last time. Then, turning, he bowed low before the block; and, saying that he would be ready when he stretched out his arms, he lay down flat upon the scaffold. “Lord, be merciful to thy prostrate servant!” he cried out, and put his head sideways upon the low block. “Lord, into thy hands I recommend my spirit.” There was a pause; and all at once the red arms were seen to be extended. The headsman whirled up the axe, and crashed it downwards; the body made no movement; but twice more the violent action was repeated before the head was severed and the blood poured forth. The man stooped, and, taking the head by the hair, held it up before the onlookers, shouting as he did so, “God save the Queen!”

1. The Secret History of the most renowned Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, by a Person of Quality, 1695. A reference to the legend in its rudimentary form occurs in The Devil’s Law Case, (circa 1620). Cf. The Works of John Webster, ed. Lucas, ii. 343.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00