Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter V.

The spring of youth was almost over; in those days, at the age of twenty-five, most men had reached a full maturity. Essex kept something of his boyishness to the end, but he could not escape the rigours of time, and now a new scene — a scene of peril and gravity appropriate to manhood — was opening before him.

The circumstances of a single family — it has happened more than once in English history — dominated the situation. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who had filled, since the beginning of the reign, the position of Prime Minister, was over seventy; he could not last much longer; who would succeed him? He himself hoped that his younger son, Robert, might step into his place. He had brought him up with that end in view. The sickly, dwarfed boy had been carefully taught by tutors, had been sent travelling on the Continent, had been put into the House of Commons, had been initiated in diplomacy, and gently, persistently, at every favourable moment, had been brought before the notice of the Queen. Elizabeth’s sharp eye, uninfluenced by birth or position, perceived that the little hunchback possessed a great ability. When Walsingham died, in 1590, she handed over to Sir Robert Cecil the duties of his office; and the young man of twenty-seven became in fact, though not in name, her principal secretary. The title and emoluments might follow later — she could not quite make up her mind. Burghley was satisfied; his efforts had succeeded; his son’s foot was planted firmly in the path of power.

But Lady Burghley had a sister, who had two sons — Anthony and Francis Bacon. A few years older than their cousin Robert, they were, like him, delicate, talented, and ambitious. They had started life with high hopes: their father had been Lord Keeper — the head of the legal profession; and their uncle was, under the Queen, the most important person in England. But their father died, leaving them no more than the small inheritance of younger sons; and their uncle, all-powerful as he was, seemed to ignore the claims of their deserts and their relationship. Lord Burghley, it appeared, would do nothing for his nephews. Why was this? To Anthony and Francis the explanation was plain: they were being sacrificed to the career of Robert; the old man was jealous of them — afraid of them; their capacities were suppressed in order that Robert should have no competitors. Nobody can tell how far this was the case. Burghley, no doubt, was selfish and wily; but perhaps his influence was not always as great as it seemed; and perhaps, also, he genuinely mistrusted the singular characters of his nephews. However that may be, a profound estrangement followed. The outward forms of respect and affection were maintained; but the bitter disappointment of the Bacons was converted into a bitter animosity, while the Cecils grew more suspicious and hostile every day. At last the Bacons decided to abandon their allegiance to an uncle who was worse than useless, and to throw in their lot with some other leader, who would appreciate them as they deserved. They looked round, and Essex was their obvious choice. The Earl was young, active, impressionable; his splendid personal position seemed to be there, ready to hand, waiting to be transformed into something more glorious still — a supreme political predominance. They had the will and the wit to do it. Their uncle was dropping into dotage, their cousin’s cautious brain was no match for their combined intelligence. They would show the father and the son, who had thought to shuffle them into obscurity, that it is possible to be too grasping in this world and that it is sometimes very far from wise to quarrel with one’s poor relations.

So Anthony at any rate thought — a gouty young invalid, splenetic and uncompromising; but the imaginations of Francis were more complicated. In that astonishing mind there were concealed depths and deceptive shallows, curiously intermingled and puzzling in the extreme to the inquisitive observer. Francis Bacon has been described more than once with the crude vigour of antithesis; but in truth such methods are singularly inappropriate to his most unusual case. It was not by the juxtaposition of a few opposites, but by the infiltration of a multitude of highly varied elements, that his mental composition was made up. He was no striped frieze; he was shot silk. The detachment of speculation, the intensity of personal pride, the uneasiness of nervous sensibility, the urgency of ambition, the opulence of superb taste — these qualities, blending, twisting, flashing together, gave to his secret spirit the subtle and glittering superficies of a serpent. A serpent, indeed, might well have been his chosen emblem — the wise, sinuous, dangerous creature, offspring of mystery and the beautiful earth. The music sounds, and the great snake rises, and spreads its hood, and leans and hearkens, swaying in ecstasy; and even so the sage Lord Chancellor, in the midst of some great sentence, some high intellectual confection, seems to hold his breath in a rich beatitude, fascinated by the deliciousness of sheer style. A true child of the Renaissance, his multiplicity was not merely that of mental accomplishment, but of life itself. His mind might move with joy among altitudes and theories, but the variegated savour of temporal existence was no less dear to him — the splendours of high living — the intricacies of Court intrigue — the exquisiteness of pages — the lights reflected from small pieces of coloured glass. Like all the greatest spirits of the age, he was instinctively and profoundly an artist. It was this aesthetic quality which on the one hand inspired the grandeur of his philosophical conceptions and on the other made him one of the supreme masters of the written word. Yet his artistry was of a very special kind; he was neither a man of science nor a poet. The beauty of mathematics was closed to him, and all the vital scientific discoveries of the time escaped his notice. In literature, in spite of the colour and richness of his style, his genius was essentially a prose one. Intellect, not feeling, was the material out of which his gorgeous and pregnant sentences were made. Intellect! It was the common factor in all the variations of his spirit; it was the backbone of the wonderful snake.

Life in this world is full of pitfalls: it is dangerous to be foolish, and it is also dangerous to be intelligent; dangerous to others, and, no less, to oneself. “Il est bon, plus souvent qu’on ne pense,” said the wise and virtuous Malesherbes, “de savoir ne pas avoir de l’esprit.” But that was one of the branches of knowledge that the author of the “Advancement of Learning” ignored. It was impossible for Francis Bacon to imagine that any good could ever come of being simple-minded. His intellect swayed him too completely. He was fascinated by it, he could not resist it, he must follow wherever it led. Through thought, through action, on he went — an incredibly clever man. Through action even? Yes, for though the medley of human circumstance is violent and confused, assuredly one can find one’s way through it to some purpose if only one uses one’s wits. So thought the cunning artist; and smiling he sought to shape, with his subtle razor-blade, the crude vague blocks of passion and fact. But razors may be fatal in such contingencies; one’s hand may slip; one may cut one’s own throat.

The miserable end — it needs must colour our vision of the character and the life. But the end was implicit in the beginning — a necessary consequence of qualities that were innate. The same cause which made Bacon write perfect prose brought about his worldly and his spiritual ruin. It is probably always disastrous not to be a poet. His imagination, with all its magnificence, was insufficient: it could not see into the heart of things. And among the rest his own heart was hidden from him. His psychological acuteness, fatally external, never revealed to him the nature of his own desires. He never dreamt how intensely human he was. And so his tragedy was bitterly ironical, and a deep pathos invests his story. One wishes to turn away one’s gaze from the unconscious traitor, the lofty-minded sycophant, the exquisite intelligence entrapped and strangled in the web of its own weaving. “Although our persons live in the view of heaven, yet our spirits are included in the caves of our own complexions and customs, which minister unto us infinite errors and vain opinions.” So he wrote; and so, perhaps, at last, he actually realised — an old man, disgraced, shattered, alone, on Highgate hill, stuffing a dead fowl with snow.

But all this was still far distant in the busy years of the early nineties, so rich with excitements and possibilities. The issues were simplified by the disgrace and imprisonment of Raleigh, whose amorous intrigue with Elizabeth Throgmorton, one of the maids of honour, had infuriated the Queen. The field was cleared for the two opposing factions: the new party of Essex and his followers — aggressive and adventurous — and the old party of the Cecils, entrenched in the strongholds of ancient power. This was the essence of the political situation till the close of the century; but it was complicated and confused both by compromises and by bitternesses, which were peculiar to the time. The party system was still undreamt of; and the hostile forces which would be grouped to-day as Government and Opposition, then found themselves side by side in a common struggle to control the executive. When, early in 1593, Essex was sworn of the Privy Council, he became the colleague of his rivals. It was for the Queen to choose her counsellors. She would listen to one and then to another; she would shift, according to her adviser, from one policy to its direct contrary; it was a system of government after her own heart. Thus it was that she could enjoy to the full the delicious sense of ruling — could decide, with the plenitude of power, between momentous eventualities — and, by that very means, could contrive to keep up an endless balance and a marvellous marking of time. Her servants, struggling with each other for influence, remained her servants still. Their profound hostility could not divert them from their duty of working together for the Queen. There was no such thing as going temporarily out of office; one was either in office or one was nothing at all. To fail might mean death; but, until that came, the dangerous enemy whose success was one’s annihilation met one every day in the close companionship of the Council table and the narrow inner circle of the Court.

Very swiftly Essex, with the Bacons at his back, grew to be something more than a favourite, and emerged as a minister and a statesman. The young man was taking himself seriously at last. He was never absent from the Council; and when the House of Lords was in session he was to be seen in his place as soon as the business of the day began — at seven o’clock in the morning. But his principal activities were carried on elsewhere — in the panelled gallery and the tapestried inner chambers of Essex House — the great Gothic family residence which overlooked the river from the Strand. There it was that Anthony Bacon, his foot swathed in hot flannels, plied his indefatigable pen. There it was that a great design was planned and carried into execution. The Cecils were to be beaten on their own chosen ground. The control of foreign affairs — where Burghley had ruled supreme for more than a generation — was to be taken from them; their information was to be proved inaccurate, and the policy that was based on it confuted and reversed. Anthony had no doubt that this could be done. He had travelled for years on the Continent; he had friends everywhere; he had studied the conditions of foreign States, the intricacies of foreign diplomacy, with all the energy of his acute and restless mind. If his knowledge and intelligence were supported by the position and the wealth of Essex, the combination would prove irresistible. And Essex did not hesitate; he threw himself into the scheme with all his enthusiasm. A vast correspondence began. Emissaries were sent out, at the Earl’s expense, all over Europe, and letters poured in, from Scotland, France, Holland, Italy, Spain, Bohemia, with elaborate daily reports of the sayings of princes, the movements of armies, and the whole complex development of international intrigue. Anthony Bacon sat at the centre, receiving, digesting, and exchanging news. The work grew and grew, and before long, such was the multiplicity of business, he had four young secretaries to help him, among whom were the ingenious Henry Wotton and the cynical Henry Cuffe. The Queen soon perceived that Essex knew what he was talking about, when there was a discussion on foreign affairs. She read his memoranda, she listened to his recommendations; and the Cecils found, more than once, that their carefully collected intelligence was ignored. Eventually a strange situation arose, characteristic of that double-faced age. Essex almost attained the position of an alternative Foreign Secretary. Various ambassadors — Thomas Bodley was one — came under his influence, and, while corresponding officially with Burghley, sent at the same time parallel and more confidential communications to Anthony Bacon. If the gain to the public service was doubtful, the gain to Essex was clear; and the Cecils, when they got wind of what was happening, began to realise that they must reckon seriously with the house in the Strand.

Francis Bacon’s connexion with Essex was not quite so close as his brother’s. A barrister and a Member of Parliament, he had a career of his own; and he occupied his leisure with literary exercises and philosophical speculations. Yet he was in intimate contact with Essex House. The Earl was his patron, whom he held himself ready to assist in every way, whenever his help was needed — with advice, or the drafting of state papers, or the composition of some elaborate symbolic compliment, some long-drawn-out Elizabethan charade, for the entertainment of the Queen. Essex, seven years his junior, had been, from the first moment of their meeting, fascinated by the intellectual splendour of the elder man. His enthusiastic nature leapt out to welcome that scintillating wisdom and that profound wit. He saw that he was in the presence of greatness. He vowed that this astonishing being, who was devoting himself so generously to his service, should have a noble reward. The Attorney-Generalship fell vacant, and Essex immediately declared that Francis Bacon must have the post. He was young and had not yet risen far in his profession — but what of that? He deserved something even greater; the Queen might appoint whom she would, and, if Essex had any influence, the right man, for once, should be given preferment.

The Attorney-Generalship was indeed a prize worth having, and to receive it from the hand of Essex would bring a peculiar satisfaction to Lord Burghley’s nephew — it would show that he might come to honour without the aid of his uncle. Francis smiled; he saw a great career opening before his imagination — judgeships — high offices of state — might he not ere long be given, like his father before him, the keeping of the Great Seal of England? A peerage! — Verulam, Saint Albans, Gorhambury — what resounding title should he take? “My manor of Gorhambury”— the phrase rolled on his tongue; and then his chameleon mind took on another colour; he knew that he possessed extraordinary administrative capacity; he would guide the destinies of his country, the world should know his worth. But those, after all, were but small considerations. Most could be politicians, many could be statesmen; but might there not be reserved for him alone a more magnificent fate? To use his place and his power for the dissemination of learning, for the creation of a new and mighty knowledge, for a vast beneficence, spreading in ever wider and wider circles through all humanity . . . these were glorious ends indeed! As for himself — and yet another tint came over his fancy — that office would be decidedly convenient. He was badly in want of cash. He was extravagant; he knew it — it could not be helped. It was impossible for him to lead the narrow life of mean economies that poverty dictated. His exuberant temperament demanded the solace of material delights. Fine clothes were a necessity — and music — and a household with a certain state. His senses were fastidious; the smell of ordinary leather was torture to him, and he put all his servants into Spanish-leather boots. He spent infinite trouble in obtaining a particular kind of small beer, which was alone tolerable to his palate. His eye — a delicate, lively hazel eye —“it was like the eye of a viper,” said William Harvey — required the perpetual refreshment of beautiful things. A group of handsome young men — mere names now — a Jones, a Percy — he kept about him, half servants and half companions, and he found in their equivocal society an unexpected satisfaction. But their high living added alarmingly to the expenses of his establishment. He was already in debt, and his creditors were growing disagreeable. There could be no doubt about it; to be made Attorney-General would be a supreme piece of good fortune, from every point of view.

Essex at first had little doubt that he would speedily obtain the appointment. He found the Queen in good humour; he put forward Bacon’s name, and immediately discovered that a serious obstacle stood in the way of his desire. By an unlucky chance, a few weeks previously Bacon, from his place in the House of Commons, had opposed the granting of a subsidy which had been asked for by the Crown. The tax, he declared, was too heavy, and the time allowed for the levying of it too short. The House of Lords had intervened, and attempted to draw the Commons into a conference; whereupon Bacon had pointed out the danger of allowing the Lords to have any share in a financial discussion, with the result that their motion had been dropped. Elizabeth was very angry; interference in such a question from a member of the House of Commons appeared to her to be little short of disloyalty; and she forbade Bacon to appear before her. Essex tried to soften her in vain. Bacon’s apologies, she considered, were insufficient — he had defended himself by asserting that he had done what he had merely from a sense of duty. He had, in fact, acted with a singular spirit; but it was for the last time. His speech against the subsidy had been extremely clever, but not to have made it would have been cleverer still. Never again would he be so ingenuous as to appear to be independent of the Court. The result of such plain dealing was all too obvious. The more Essex pressed his suit, the more objections the Queen raised. Bacon, she said, had had too little practice; he was a man of theory; and Edward Coke was a sounder lawyer. Weeks passed, months passed, and still the Attorney-Generalship hung in the wind, and the regeneration of mankind grew dubious amid a mountain of unpaid bills.

Essex continued sanguine; but Bacon perceived that if the delay lasted much longer he would be ruined. He raised money wherever he could. Anthony sold an estate, and gave him the proceeds. He himself determined to sell land; but only one property was available, and that he could not dispose of without the consent of his mother. Old Lady Bacon was a terrific dowager, who lived, crumpled and puritanical, in the country. She violently disapproved of her son Francis. She disapproved; but, terrific as she was, she found it advisable not to express her sentiments directly. There was something about her son Francis which made even her think twice before she displeased him. She preferred to address herself to Anthony on such occasions, to pour out her vexation before his less disquieting gaze, and to hope that some of it would reach the proper quarter. When she was approached by the brothers about the land, her fury rose to boiling-point. She wrote a long, crabbed, outraged letter to Anthony. She was asked, she said, to consent to the selling of property in order to pay for the luxurious living of Francis and his disreputable retainers. “Surely,” she wrote, “I pity your brother, yet so long as he pitieth not himself but keepeth that bloody Percy, as I told him then, yea as a coach companion and bed companion — a proud, profane, costly fellow, whose being about him I verily fear the Lord God doth mislike and doth less bless your brother in credit and otherwise in his health — surely I am utterly discouraged . . . That Jones never loved your brother indeed, but for his own credit, living upon your brother, and thankless though bragging . . . It is most certain that till first Enny, a filthy wasteful knave, and his Welshmen one after another — for take one and they will still swarm ill-favouredly — did so lead him in a train, he was a towardly young gentleman, and a son of much good hope in godliness.” So she fulminated. She would only release the land, she declared, on condition that she received a complete account of Francis’s debts and was allowed a free hand in the payment of them. “For I will not,” she concluded, “have his cormorant seducers and instruments of Satan to him committing foul sin by his countenance, to the displeasing of God and his godly fear.”

When this was handed on to Francis, he addressed to his mother an elaborate letter of protest and conciliation. She returned it to Anthony in a rage. “I send herein your brother’s letter. Construe the interpretation. I do not understand his enigmatical folded writing.” Her son, she said, had been blessed with “good gifts of natural wit and understanding. But the same good God that hath given them to him will I trust and heartily pray to sanctify his heart by the right use of them, to glorify the Giver of them to his own inward comfort.” Her prayer — it is the common fate of the prayers of mothers — was only ironically answered. As for the land, old Lady Bacon found herself in the end no match for her two sons; she yielded without conditions; and Francis, for the time at least, was freed from his embarrassment.

Meanwhile Essex did not relax his efforts with the Queen. “I cannot tell,” wrote Anthony to his mother, “in what terms to acknowledge the desert of the Earl’s unspeakable kindness towards us both, but namely to him now at a pinch, which by God’s help shortly will appear by good effects.” In several long conferences, the gist of which, when they were over, he immediately reported by letter to one or other of the brothers, Essex urged Elizabeth to make the desired appointment. But the “good effects” were slow in coming. The vacancy had occurred in the April of 1593, and now the winter was closing in, and still it was unfilled. The Queen, it was clear, was giving yet another exhibition of her delaying tactics. During the repeated discussions with Essex about the qualifications of his friend, she was in her element. She raised every kind of doubt and difficulty, to every reply she at once produced a rejoinder, she suddenly wavered and seemed on the brink of a decision, she postponed everything on some slight pretext, she flew into a temper, she was charming, she danced off. Essex, who could not believe that he would fail, grew sometimes himself more seriously angry. The Queen was the more pleased. She pricked him with the pins of her raillery, and watched the tears of irritation starting to his eyes. The Attorney-Generalship and the fate of Francis Bacon had become entangled in the web of that mysterious amour. At moments flirtation gave way to passion. More than once that winter, the young man, suddenly sulky, disappeared, without a word of warning, from the Court. A blackness and a void descended upon Elizabeth; she could not conceal her agitation; and then, as suddenly, he would return, to be overwhelmed with scornful reproaches and resounding oaths.

The quarrels were short, and the reconciliations were delicious. On Twelfth Night there was acting and dancing at Whitehall. From a high throne, sumptuously decorated, the Queen watched the ceremonies, while beside her stood the Earl, with whom “she often devised in sweet and favourable manner.” So the scene was described by Anthony Standen, an old courtier, in a letter that has come down to us. It was an hour of happiness and peace; and, amid the jewels and the gilded hangings, the incredible Princess, who had seen her sixtieth birthday, seemed to shine with an almost youthful glory. The lovely knight by her side had wrought the miracle — had smiled the long tale of hideous years into momentary nothingness. The courtiers gazed in admiration, with no sense of incongruity. “She was as beautiful,” wrote Anthony Standen, “to my old sight, as ever I saw her.”

Was it possible that to the hero of such an evening anything could be refused? If he had set his heart on the Attorney-Generalship for Bacon, surely he would have it. The time of decision seemed to be approaching. Burghley begged the Queen to hesitate no longer, and he advised her to give the place to Edward Coke. The Cecils believed that she would do so; and Sir Robert, driving with the Earl one day in a coach through the city, told him that the appointment would be made in less than a week. “I pray your Lordship,” he added, “to let me know whom you will favour.” Essex replied that Sir Robert must surely be aware that he stood for Francis Bacon. “Lord!” replied Sir Robert, “I wonder your lordship should go about to spend your strength in so unlikely or impossible a manner. If your lordship had spoken of the solicitorship, that might be of easier digestion to her Majesty.” At that Essex burst out. “Digest me no digestions,” he cried; “for the attorneyship for Francis is that I must have. And in that I will spend all my power, might, authority, and amity, and with tooth and nail defend and procure the same for him against whomsoever; and whosoever getteth this office out of my hands for any other, before he have it, it shall cost him the coming by. And this be you assured of, Sir Robert; for now do I fully declare myself. And for your own part, Sir Robert, I think strange both of my lord Treasurer and you that you can have the mind to seek the preference of a stranger before so near a kinsman.” Sir Robert made no reply; and the coach rattled on, with its burden of angry ministers. Henceforth there was no concealment; the two parties faced each other fiercely; they would try their strength over Coke and Bacon.

But Elizabeth grew more ambiguous than ever. The week passed, and there was no sign of an appointment. To make any decision upon any subject at all had become loathsome to her. She lingered in a spiritual palsy at Hampton Court; she thought she would go to Windsor; she gave orders to that effect, and countermanded them. Every day she changed her mind: it was impossible for her to determine even whether she wanted to move or to stay still. The whole Court was in an agony, half packed up. The carter in charge of the wagons in which the royal belongings were carried had been summoned for the third time, and for the third time was told that he might go away. “Now I see,” he said, “that the Queen is a woman as well as my wife.” The Queen, who was standing at a window, overheard the remark, and burst out laughing. “What a villain is this!” she said, and sent him three angels to stop his mouth. At last she did move — to Nonesuch. A few more weeks passed. It was Easter, 1594. She suddenly made Coke Attorney-General.

The blow was a grave one — to Bacon, to Essex, and to the whole party; the influence of the Cecils had been directly challenged, and they had won. There was apparently a limit to the favour of the Earl. So far, however, as Bacon was concerned, a possibility still remained of retrieving the situation. Coke’s appointment left the Solicitor-Generalship vacant, and it seemed obvious that Bacon was the man for the post. The Cecils themselves acquiesced; Essex felt that this time there could be no doubt about the matter; he hurried off to the Queen — and was again met by a repulse. Her Majesty was extremely reserved; she was, she said, against Bacon — for the singular reason that the only persons who supported him were Essex and Burghley. Upon that, Essex argued and expatiated, until Elizabeth lost her temper. “In passion”— so Essex told his friend in a letter written immediately afterwards —“she bade me go to bed, if I would talk of nothing else. Wherefore in passion I went away, saying while I was with her I could not but solicit for the cause and the man I so much affected, and therefore I would retire myself till I might be more graciously heard. And so we parted.” And so began another strange struggle over the fate of Francis Bacon. For almost a year Elizabeth had refused to appoint an Attorney-General; was it conceivable that she was now about to delay as long in her choice of a Solicitor-General? Was it possible that, with a repetition da capo of all her previous waverings, she would continue indefinitely to keep everyone about her in this agonising suspense?

It was, indeed, all too possible. The Solicitor-Generalship remained vacant for more than eighteen months. During all that time Essex never lost courage. He bombarded the Queen, in and out of season. He wrote to the Lord Keeper Puckering, pressing Bacon’s claims; he even wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, to the same purpose. “To you, as to a Councillor,” he told the latter, “I write this, that her Majesty never in her reign had so able and proper an instrument to do her honourable and great services as she hath now, if she will use him.” Old Anthony Standen was amazed by the Earl’s persistency. He had thought that his patron lacked tenacity of purpose — that “he must continually be pulled by the ear, as a boy that learneth ut, re, mi, fa;” and now he saw that, without prompting, he was capable of the utmost pertinacity. On the other hand, in the opinion of old Lady Bacon, fuming at Gorhambury, “the Earl marred all by violent courses.” The Queen, she thought, was driven to underrate the value of Francis through a spirit of sheer contradiction. Perhaps it was so; but who could prescribe the right method of persuading Elizabeth? More than once she seemed to be on the point of agreeing with her favourite. Fulke Greville had an audience of her, and, when he took the opportunity of putting in a word for his friend, she was “very exceeding gracious.” Greville developed the theme of Bacon’s merits. “Yes,” said her Majesty, “he begins to frame very well.” The expression was perhaps an odd one; was it not used of the breaking-in of refractory horses? But Greville, overcome by the benignity of the royal manner, had little doubt that all was well. “I will lay £100 to £50,” he wrote to Francis, “that you shall be her Solicitor.”

While his friends were full of hope and energy, Francis himself had become a prey to nervous agitation. The prolonged strain was too much for his sensitive nature, and, as the months dragged on without any decision, he came near to despair. His brother and his mother, similarly tempered, expressed their perturbation indifferent ways. While Anthony sought to drown his feelings under a sea of correspondence, old Lady Bacon gave vent to fits of arbitrary fury which made life a burden to all about her. A servant of Anthony’s, staying at Gorhambury, sent his master a sad story of a greyhound bitch. He had brought the animal to the house, and “as soon as my Lady did see her, she sent me word she should be hanged.” The man temporised, but “by-and-by she sent me word that if I did not make her away she should not sleep in her bed; so indeed I hung her up.” The result was unexpected. “She was very angry, and said I was fransey, and bade me go home to my master and make him a fool, I should make none of her. . . . My Lady do not speak to me as yet. I will give none offence to make her angry; but nobody can please her long together.” The perplexed fellow, however, was cheered by one consideration. “The bitch,” he added, “was good for nothing, else I would not a hung her.” The dowager, in her calmer moments, tried to turn her mind, and the minds of her sons, away from the things of this world. “I am sorry,” she wrote to Anthony, “your brother with inward secret grief hindereth his health. Everybody saith he looketh thin and pale. Let him look to God, and confer with Him in godly exercises of hearing and reading, and contemn to be noted to take care.”

But the advice did not appeal to Francis; he preferred to look in other directions. He sent a rich jewel to the Queen, who refused it — though graciously. He let her Majesty know that he thought of travelling abroad; and she forbade the project, with considerable asperity. His nerves, fretted to ribbons, drove him at last to acts of indiscretion and downright folly. He despatched a letter of fiery remonstrance to the Lord Keeper Puckering, who, he believed, had deserted his cause; and he attacked his cousin Robert in a style suggestive of a female cat. “I do assure you, Sir, that by a wise friend of mine, and not factious toward your Honour, I was told with asseveration that your Honour was bought by Mr. Coventry for two thousand angels . . . And he said further that from your servants, from your Lady, from some counsellors that have observed you in my business, he knew you wrought underhand against me. The truth of which tale I do not believe.” The appointment was still hanging in the balance; and it fell to the rash and impetuous Essex to undo, with smooth words and diplomatic explanations, the damage that the wise and subtle Bacon had done to his own cause.

In October 1595 Mr. Fleming was appointed, and the long struggle of two and a half years was over. Essex had failed — failed doubly — failed where he could hardly have believed that failure was possible. The loss to his own prestige was serious; but he was a gallant nobleman, and his first thought was for the friend whom he had fed with hope, and whom, perhaps, he had served ill through over-confidence or lack of judgment. As soon as the appointment was made, he paid a visit to Francis Bacon. “Master Bacon,” he said, “the Queen hath denied me yon place for you, and hath placed another. I know you are the least part in your own matter, but you fare ill because you have chosen me for your mean and dependence; you have spent your time and thoughts in my matters. I die if I do not somewhat towards your fortune: you shall not deny to accept a piece of land which I will bestow upon you.” Bacon demurred; but he soon accepted; and the Earl presented him with a property which he afterwards sold for £1800, or at least £10,000 of our money.

Perhaps, on the whole, he had come fortunately out of the business. Worse might have befallen him. In that happy-go-lucky world, a capricious fillip from a royal finger might at any moment send one’s whole existence flying into smithereens. Below the surface of caracoling courtiers and high policies there was cruelty, corruption, and gnashing of teeth. One was lucky, at any rate, not to be Mr. Booth, one of Anthony Bacon’s dependants, who, poor man, had suddenly found himself condemned by the Court of Chancery to a heavy fine, to imprisonment, and to have his ears cut off. Nobody believed that he deserved such a sentence, but there were several persons who had decided to make what they could out of it, and we catch a glimpse, in Anthony’s correspondence, of this small, sordid, ridiculous intrigue, going along contemporaneously with the heroic battle over the great Law Offices. Lady Edmondes, a lady-in-waiting, had been approached by Mr. Booth’s friends and offered £100 if she would get him off. She immediately went to the Queen, who was all affability. Unfortunately, however, as her Majesty explained, she had already promised Mr. Booth’s fine to the head man in her stables —“a very old servant”— so nothing could be done on that score. “I mean,” said her Majesty, “to punish this fool some way, and I shall keep him in prison. Nevertheless,” she added, in a sudden access of generosity towards Lady Edmondes, “if your ladyship can make any good commodity of this suit, I will at your request give him releasement. As for the man’s ears . . . ” Her Majesty shrugged her shoulders, and the conversation ended. Lady Edmondes had no doubt that she could make a “good commodity,” and raised her price to £200. She even threatened to make matters worse instead of better, as she had influence, so she declared, not only with the Queen but with the Lord Keeper Puckering. Anthony Standen considered her a dangerous woman and advised that she should be offered £150 as a compromise. The negotiation was long and complicated; but it seems to have been agreed at last that the fine must be paid, but that, on the payment of £150 to Lady Edmondes, the imprisonment would be remitted. Then there is darkness; in low things as in high the ambiguous age remains true to its character; and, while we search in vain to solve the mystery of great men’s souls and the strange desires of Princes, the fate of Mr. Booth’s ears also remains for ever concealed from us.


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