The Armada was defeated; Leicester was dead. A new world was opening for the young and the adventurous. It was determined, under Drake’s auspices, to make a counter-attack on Spain, and an armament was prepared to raid Corunna, take possession of Lisbon, detach Portugal from Philip, and place Don Antonio, who laid claim to the kingdom, on the throne. Excitement, booty, glory, fluttered before the imagination of every soldier, and of Essex among the rest; but the Queen forbade him to go. He was bold enough to ignore her orders, and, leaving London on horseback one Thursday evening, he arrived in Plymouth on Saturday morning — a distance of 220 miles. This time he was too quick for his mistress. Taking ship immediately, with a detachment of troops under the veteran Sir Roger Williams, he sailed for the coast of Spain. Elizabeth was furious; she despatched messenger after messenger to Plymouth, ordered pinnaces to search the Channel, and, in an enraged letter to Drake, fulminated against the unfortunate Sir Roger. “His offence,” she wrote, “is in so high a degree that the same deserveth to be punished by death, which if you have not already done, then we will and command you that you sequester him from all charge and service and cause him to be safely kept, until you shall know our further pleasure therein, as you will answer for the contrary at your perils; for as we have authority to rule so we look to be obeyed.” If Essex, she continued, “be now come into the company of the fleet, we straightly charge you that you do forthwith cause him to be sent hither in safe manner. Which, if you do not, you shall look to answer for the same to your smart; for these be no childish actions. Therefore consider well of your doings herein.” But her threats and her commands were alike useless. Essex joined the main body of the expedition unhindered and took a brave part in the skirmishes and marches in which it ingloriously ended. It turned out to be easier to repel an invasion than to make one. Some Spanish ships were burnt, but the Portuguese did not rise, and Lisbon shut herself up against Don Antonio and the English. Into one of the gates of the town Essex, as a parting gesture, thrust his pike, “demanding aloud if any Spaniard mewed therein durst adventure forth in favour of his mistress to break a lance.” There was no reply; and the expedition returned to England.
The young man soon made his peace with the Queen; even Sir Roger Williams was forgiven. The happy days of the Court returned with hunting, feasting, and jousting. Raleigh, with a shrug, went off to Ireland, to look after his ten thousand acres, and Essex was free from even the shadow of a rivalry. Or was Charles Blount a rival? The handsome boy had displayed his powers in the tilt-yard to such purpose that Elizabeth had sent him a golden queen from her set of chessmen, and he had bound the trophy to his arm with a crimson ribbon. Essex, when he saw it, asked what it was, and, on being told, “Now I perceive,” he exclaimed, “that every fool must have a favour.” A duel followed in Marylebone fields and Essex was wounded. “By God’s death!” said Elizabeth, when she heard of it, “it was fit that someone or other should take him down, and teach him better manners.” She was delighted to think that blood had been shed over her beauty; but afterwards she insisted on the two young men making up their quarrel. She was obeyed, and Blount became one of the Earl’s most devoted followers.
The stream of royal kindness flowed on, though occasionally there were odd shallows in it. Essex was extravagant; he was more than £20,000 in debt; and the Queen graciously advanced him £3000 to ease his necessities. Then suddenly she demanded immediate repayment. Essex begged for delay, but the reply was sharp and peremptory; the money — or its equivalent in land — must be handed over at once. In a pathetic letter, Essex declared his submission and devotion. “Now that your Majesty repents yourself,” he wrote, “of the favour you thought to do me, I would I could, with the loss of all the land I have, as well repair the breach which your unkind answer hath made in my heart, as I can with the sale of one poor manor answer the sum which your Majesty takes of me. Money and land are base things, but love and kindness are excellent things, and cannot be measured but by themselves.” Her Majesty admired the phrasing, but disagreed with the economics; and shortly afterwards the manor at Keyston in Huntingdonshire, “of mine ancient inheritance,” as Essex told Burghley, “free from incumbrance, a great circuit of ground, in a very good soil,” passed into the royal possession.
She preferred to be generous in a more remunerative way. She sold to Essex, for a term of years, the right to farm the customs on the sweet wines imported into the country — and he might make what he could out of it. He made a great deal — at the expense of the public; but he was informed that, when the lease expired, it might or might not be renewed — as her Majesty thought fit.
He was lavish in the protestations of his worship — his adoration — his love. That convenient monosyllable, so intense and so ambiguous, was for ever on his lips and found its way into every letter — those elegant, impassioned, noble letters, which still exist, with their stiff, quick characters and those silken ties that were once loosened by the long fingers of Elizabeth. She read and she listened with a satisfaction so extraordinary, so unprecedented, that when one day she learned that he was married she was only enraged for a fortnight. Essex had made an impeccable choice — the widow of Sir Philip Sidney and the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham; he was twenty-three, handsome, vigorous, with an earldom to hand on to posterity; even Elizabeth could not seriously object. She stormed and ramped; then remembered that the relations between herself and her servant were unique and had nothing to do with a futile domesticity. The fascinating bridegroom pursued and cajoled her with ardours as romantic as ever; and she felt that a queen could ignore a wife.
Soon enough an occasion arose for showing the world that to be the favourite of Elizabeth involved public duties as well as private delights. Henry IV of France, almost overpowered by the Catholic League and the Spaniards, appealed urgently to England for help. Elizabeth wavered for several months, and then reluctantly decided that Henry must be supported — but only with the absolute minimum of expenditure. She agreed that four thousand men should be sent to Normandy to act with the Huguenots; and Essex, who had done all he could to bring her to this resolution, now begged to be put in command of the force. Three times the Queen refused his entreaties; at last he knelt before her for two hours; still she refused — then suddenly consented. The Earl went off in high feather, but discovered before very long that the command even of the smallest army needs something more than knight-errantry. During the autumn and winter of 1591, difficulties and perplexities crowded upon him. He was hasty, rash and thoughtless. Leaving the main body of his troops, he galloped with a small escort through a hostile country to consult with the French King about the siege of Rouen, and on his return was almost cut off by the Leaguers. The Council wrote from England upbraiding him with needlessly risking his life, with “trailing a pike like a common soldier,” and with going a-hawking in districts swarming with the enemy. The Queen despatched several angry letters; everything annoyed her; she suspected Essex of incompetence and the French King of treachery; she was on the point of ordering the whole contingent home. Once more, as in the Portuguese expedition, it turned out that foreign war was a dreary and unprofitable business. Essex lost his favourite brother in a skirmish; he was agonised by the Queen’s severity; his army dwindled, from death and desertion, to one thousand men. The English fought with reckless courage at Rouen; but the Prince of Parma, advancing from the Netherlands, forced Henry to raise the siege. The unfortunate young man, racked with ague, was overcome by a sudden despair. “Unkindness and sorrow,” he told the Queen, “have broken both my heart and my wits.”
“I wish,” he declared to one of his friends, “to be out of my prison, which I account my life.” Yet his noble spirit soon reasserted itself. His reputation was retrieved by his personal bravery. He challenged the Governor of Rouen to single combat — it was his one and only piece of strategy — amid general applause. The Queen, however, remained slightly cynical. The Governor of Rouen, she said, was merely a rebel, and she saw no occasion for the giving or receiving of challenges. But Essex, whatever the upshot of the expedition, would be romantic to the last; and, when the time came for him to return to England, he did so with a gesture of ancient chivalry. Standing on the shore of France before his embarkation, he solemnly drew his sword from its scabbard, and kissed the blade.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00