Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter VII.

The Spanish question grew ever more acute. A war that was no war might exactly suit the temper of Elizabeth; but it seemed an infamy to Essex, and was no less distasteful to Henry of France, pressed hard by the Spaniards on his northern frontier and by the Catholic Leaguers in his own dominions. The French king and the English peer came together in a curious combination. Their joint object was to propel Elizabeth into an alliance with France, which would involve the active participation of England in an attack on the Spaniards. Between them flew, backwards and forwards, uniting and enflaming their energies, the stormy petrel, Antonio Perez, in whom a frantic hatred of King Philip had become the very breath of life.

A few years earlier Perez had fled from Spain in the wildest circumstances. Philip’s principal Secretary of State, he had quarrelled with his master over a murder, had taken refuge in his native town of Saragossa, and had there, at the King’s instigation, been seized by the Inquisition. His fate seemed certain; but unexpected forces came to his rescue, and Perez lives in history as the one man who, having once fallen into the clutches of the Holy Office, escaped with a whole skin. The charges against him were, indeed, highly serious. Exasperated in a dungeon, the misguided secretary had allowed himself, in his ravings, to insult not only the King but the Deity. “God sleeps! God sleeps!” he had exclaimed, and his words had been heard and noted. “This proposition,” the official report declared, “is heretical, as if God had no care for human beings, when the Bible and the Church affirm that He does care.” That was bad enough, but worse followed. “If it is God the Father,” said the miscreant, “who has allowed the King to behave so disloyally towards me, I’ll pull God the Father’s nose!” “This proposition,” said the official report, “is blasphemous, scandalous, offensive to pious ears, and savouring of the heresy of the Vaudois, who affirmed that God was corporeal and had human members. Nor is it an excuse to say that Christ, being made man, had a nose, since the words were spoken of the First Person of the Trinity.” The stake was the obvious retribution for such wickedness, and the proper preparations were being made when the people of Saragossa suddenly rose in arms. The ancient liberties of Aragon, its immemorial rights of jurisdiction, were being infringed, they asserted, by the King and the Holy Office. They invaded the prison, beat to death the royal governor, and set Perez free. He escaped to France; but his safety proved expensive to Saragossa. For soon afterwards the King’s army appeared upon the scene, and the ancient liberties of Aragon were finally abolished, while seventy-nine of the popular party were burnt alive in the marketplace, the ceremony beginning at eight in the morning and ending at nine in the evening, by torchlight.

The hectic hero of this affair was now leading the life of an exile and an intriguer. He was obviously a rogue, but he might, for the moment at any rate, be a useful rogue; and on that footing he had won his way into the good graces of Essex and Henry. He was active and unscrupulous; he was full of stories that were infinitely discreditable to the King of Spain, and he was master of an epistolary style of Euphuistic Latin which precisely hit off the taste of the great ones of that generation. How delightful to weave plots, change policies, and direct the fate of Europe in learned antitheses and elegant classical allusions!

When the conclave at Essex House judged that the time was ripe, a letter was despatched from the Earl to Perez, hinting that, if Henry really wished for Elizabeth’s alliance, his best course was to threaten to make peace himself with Spain. If Juno was France and Philip the King of the Underworld, was not the conclusion clear? For who was so ignorant as not to know that Juno, when she had implored for help many times and in vain, had at last burst out with —“Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo”? “But silence, my pen! And silence Antonio! For methinks I have read the poets too much.”1

Perez at once showed the letter to Henry, who was not slow to catch its drift. Taking the advice of his English friend, he despatched a special envoy to Elizabeth, with instructions to inform her that he had received favourable offers of peace from Spain, and was inclined to accept them. Elizabeth was apparently unmoved by this intelligence; she wrote a letter of expostulation to Henry, but she was unable, she declared, to give him further help; yet she was secretly uneasy, and soon afterwards despatched, on her side, a special envoy to France, who was to discover and report to her the real inclinations of the King.

This envoy was Sir Henry Unton, one of those remarkable ambassadors who divided their allegiance between the Government and Essex House. He went to France armed with the instructions, not only of Elizabeth, but of Anthony Bacon. A letter exists in which Unton is directed, with minute detail, to inform the French King that he must hold firm; in which he is told so to arrange matters as to be received with public coldness by Henry; and to “send us thundering letters, whereby he must drive us to propound and to offer.” Unton did as he was bid, and the thundering letters duly arrived. At the same time, Perez had been ordered to write to the Earl “such a letter as may be showed, wherein he shall say that the sending of Unton hath made all things worse than ever.” Perez too was all obedience; he sent off, in elaborate Latin, a report of Henry’s asseverations in favour of peace; he himself, he added, could not understand the policy of the English Government; but perhaps there was some mystery that was unrevealed —“the designs of Princes are a deep abyss.”2

It was perfectly true. All the letters were shown to the Queen, who read them carefully through, with a particular relish for the latinity of Perez. But the result of this extraordinary intrigue was not at all what might have been expected. Perhaps Elizabeth had smelt a rat. However that may be, she calmly wrote to Henry that she was very ready to help him against Spain with men and money — on one condition: that he should give into her keeping the town of Calais. The charming proposal was not well received. “I had as lief be bitten by a dog as scratched by a cat,” exclaimed the infuriated Béarnais. But in a few weeks he found that he had spoken more truly than he thought. A Spanish army advanced from Flanders, laid siege to Calais, and stormed the outworks of the town. The roar of the besieging guns could be distinctly heard — so Camden tells us — in the royal palace at Greenwich.

Elizabeth did not like that. Not only was the noise disturbing, but the presence of the Spaniards in a port commanding the narrow seas would be distinctly inconvenient. The next news was that the town of Calais had fallen, but that the citadel still held out. Something might yet be done, and a hasty levy of men was raised in London, and sent down with all speed, under the command of Essex, to Dover. With luck, the French might be relieved and the situation saved; but it suddenly occurred to Elizabeth that, with luck also, the French might relieve themselves, and that in any case the whole thing was too expensive. Accordingly, when the troops were actually on board, a courier galloped down to the shore with a letter from the Queen countermanding the expedition. Essex raved and implored with his usual energy; but, while the messengers were posting to and fro between Dover and London, the Spaniards took the citadel, (April 14th, 1596).

This was too much, even for the hesitancy of Elizabeth. She could not conceal from herself that, in this instance, at any rate, she had failed; that the beautiful negation, which was the grand object of all her policy, had eluded her; that, in fact, something had actually occurred. She was very angry, but the necessity for some sort of action on her own part gradually forced itself upon her; and for the first time she began to listen seriously to the suggestions of the war party.

There were two possibilities of attack. A really effective army might be sent to France which would be strong enough to enable Henry to deal with the Spaniards. This was the course that Perez, accompanied by the Duc de Bouillon, was immediately despatched across the Channel to urge, with all the fury of his eloquence, upon Elizabeth. But when the emissaries arrived they found to their astonishment that the wind had changed in England. Another project was on foot. For months a rebellion had been simmering in Ireland, and there was reason to believe that Philip was busy fitting out an expedition to give succour to his Catholic friends. It was now proposed to forestall his offensive by delivering a naval attack upon Spain. Essex was suddenly converted to the plan. Throwing over Henry and Perez with gay insouciance, he pressed upon the Queen the formation of a powerful armament to be sent not to Calais, but to Cadiz. Elizabeth consented. She appointed Essex and the Lord Admiral Howard of Effingham joint commanders of the force; and, within a fortnight of the fall of Calais, the Earl was in Plymouth, collecting together in feverish energy an army and a fleet.

Elizabeth had consented; but, in the absence of Essex, the suggestions of Perez sounded sweetly in her ear. She began wavering once again. Perhaps, after all, it would be wiser to help the French King; and surely it would be dangerous to send off the fleet on a wild-cat expedition — the fleet, which was her one protection against a Spanish invasion. The news of her waverings reached Essex, and filled him with agitation. He knew too well the temper of his mistress. “The Queen,” he wrote, “wrangles with our action for no cause but because it is in hand. If this force were going to France, she would then fear as much the issue there as she doth our intended journey. I know I shall never do her service but against her will.” He had racked his wits, he added, to bring her to agree to the expedition, and if it fell through now he swore he would “become a monk upon an hour’s warning.”

Certainly, it was touch and go. The next news was that an offensive and defensive league had been concluded with France; and a few days later the Queen wrote a letter to the two Lord Generals at Plymouth, which seemed to portend yet another change of policy. They were ordered to put the expedition under the command of some inferior officers, and to return themselves to the royal presence —“they being so dear unto her and such persons of note, as she could not allow of their going.” The Court was in a ferment. As the terrible moment of decision approached, Elizabeth’s mind span round like a teetotum. She was filled with exasperation and rage. She thundered against Essex, who, she said, was forcing her to do this thing against her will. The oldest courtiers were appalled, and Burghley, with trembling arguments and venerable aphorisms, sought in vain to appease her. The situation was complicated by the reappearance of Walter Raleigh. He had returned from Guiana, more exuberant and formidable than ever, with endless tales of wealth and adventure, and had been received with something like forgiveness by the Queen. Was it possible that the recall of Essex and Howard would be followed by the appointment of Raleigh to the supreme command? But the expedition itself, even if it was sanctioned, and whoever commanded it, might never start, for the difficulties in the way of its preparation were very great, there was a shortage of men, of money, of munitions, and it almost looked as if the armament would only be ready when it was too late to be of any use. Confusion reigned; anything might happen; then, all at once, the fog rolled off, and certainty emerged. Elizabeth, as was her wont, after being buffeted for so long and in so incredible a fashion by a sea of doubts, found herself firmly planted on dry land. The expedition was to go — and immediately; Essex and Howard were reinstated, while Raleigh was given a high, though subordinate, command. The new orientation of English policy was signalised in a curious manner — by the degradation of Antonio Perez. The poor man was no longer received at Court; he took no part in the final stages of the French treaty; the Cecils would not speak to him; he sought refuge in desperation with Anthony Bacon, and Anthony Bacon was barely polite. His life of vertiginous intrigue suddenly collapsed. Back in France again he was looked upon with coldness, with faint animosity. He faded, dwindled, and sank; and when, years later, worn out with age and poverty, he expired in a Parisian garret, the Holy Office may well have felt that the sufferings of the enemy who had escaped its vengeance must have been, after all, almost enough.

In the midst of his agitations at Plymouth, Essex had received a letter from Francis Bacon. The Lord Keeper Puckering had died; Egerton, the Master of the Rolls, had been appointed to succeed him; and Bacon now hoped for Egerton’s place. He wrote to ask for the Earl’s good offices, and his request was immediately granted. Pressed and harassed on every side by the labours of military organisation, by doubts of the Queen’s intentions, by anxieties over his own position, Essex found the time and the energy to write three letters to the leaders of the Bar, pressing upon them, with tactful earnestness, the claims of his friend. Francis was duly grateful. “This accumulating,” he wrote, “of your Lordship’s favours upon me hitherto worketh only this effect: that it raiseth my mind to aspire to be found worthy of them, and likewise to merit and serve you for them.” But whether, he added, “I shall be able to pay my vows or no, I must leave that to God, who hath them in deposito.”

Among all the confusions that surrounded the departure of the expedition, not the least disturbing were those caused by the antagonism of the two commanders. Essex and Lord Howard were at loggerheads. They bickered over everything, from the rival claims of the army and the navy to their own places in the table of precedence. Howard was Lord Admiral, but Essex was an Earl; which was the higher? When a joint letter to the Queen was brought for their signature, Essex, snatching a pen, got in his name at the top, so that Howard was obliged to follow with his underneath. But he bided his time — until his rival’s back was turned; then, with a pen-knife, he cut out the offending signature; and in that strange condition the missive reached Elizabeth.

Everything was ready at last; it was time to say farewell. The Queen, shut up in her chamber, was busy with literary composition. The results of her labour were entrusted to Fulke Greville, who rode down with the final despatches to Plymouth and handed them to Essex. There was a stately private letter from the Queen to the General:— “I make this humble bill of requests to Him that all makes and does, that with His benign hand He will shadow you so, as all harm may light beside you, and all that may be best hap to your share; that your return may make you better and me gladder.” There was a friendly note from Robert Cecil, with a last gay message from Elizabeth. “The Queen says, because you are poor she sends you five shillings.” And, in addition, there was a royal prayer, to be read aloud to the assembled forces, for the success of the expedition. “Most omnipotent and guider of all our world’s mass! that only searchest and fathomest the bottoms of all hearts and conceits, and in them seest the true original of all actions intended . . . Thou, that diddest inspire the mind, we humbly beseech, with bended knees, prosper the work and with best forewinds guide the journey, speed the victory, and make the return the advancement of thy fame and surety to the realm, with least loss of English blood. To these devout petitions, Lord, give thou thy blessed grant! Amen.”

The words, addressed by one potentate to another, with such a diplomatic mixture of flattering devotion and ornate self-confidence, were, apparently, exactly what were required. At any rate, the expedition was crowned with success. The secret of its purpose was well kept, and one day towards the end of June, 1596, the English armament suddenly appeared in the bay of Cadiz. At the first moment, an injudicious decision might have led to a disaster; the commanders had ordered a hazardous assault to be made by land; and it was only with difficulty that Raleigh persuaded them to change their plan, and attack on the water. After that, all went swimmingly. “Entramos! Entramos!” shouted Essex, flinging his hat into the sea, as his ship sailed into the harbour. Within fourteen hours all was over. The Spanish fleet was destroyed, and the town, with all its strength and riches, in the hands of the English. Among the Spaniards the disorganisation was complete; panic and folly had seized upon them. By a curious chance the Duke of Medina Sidonia was Governor of Andalusia. As if it were not enough to have led the Armada to its doom, it was now reserved for him to preside over the destruction of the most flourishing city of Spain. He hurried to the scene of action, wringing his hands in querulous despair. “This is shameful,” he wrote to King Philip. “I told your Majesty how necessary it was to send me men and money, and I have never even received an answer. So now I am at my wit’s end.” He was indeed. The West Indian fleet of fifty merchantmen, laden with treasure worth eight million crowns, had fled into an inner harbour, where it lay, in helpless confusion, awaiting its fate. Essex had ordered it to be seized, but there were delays among subordinates, and the unhappy Duke saw what must be done. He instantly gave commands; the whole fleet was set on fire; a faint smile, the first in seven years, was seen to flit across the face of Medina Sidonia. At last, in that intolerable mass of blazing ruin, he had got the better of his enemies.

While the honours of the sea-fight went to Raleigh, Essex was the hero on shore. He had led the assault on the city; his dash and bravery had carried all before them; and, when the victory was won, his humanity had put a speedy end to the excesses that were usual on such occasions. Priests and churches were spared; and three thousand nuns were transported to the mainland with the utmost politeness. The Spaniards themselves were in ecstasies over the chivalry of the heretic General. “Tan hidalgo,” said Philip, “non ha vista entre herejes.” The Lord Admiral himself was carried away with admiration. “I assure you,” he wrote to Burghley, “there is not a braver man in the world than the Earl is; and I protest, in my poor judgment, a great soldier, for what he doth is in great order and discipline performed.”

The English occupied Cadiz for a fortnight. Essex proposed that they should fortify the town and remain there until the Queen’s pleasure was known. When this was disallowed by the Council of War, he suggested a march into the interior of Spain; and, on this also being negatived, he urged that the fleet should put out to sea, lie in wait for the returning West Indian treasure-ships, and seize the vast booty they were bringing home. Once more he met with no support. It was decided to return to England immediately. A great ransom was raised from the inhabitants of Cadiz, the town was dismantled and destroyed, and the English sailed away. As they coasted back along the shores of Portugal, they could not resist a raid upon the unlucky town of Faro. The plunder was considerable, and it included one unexpected item — the priceless library of Bishop Jerome Osorius. The spectacle of so many marvellous volumes rejoiced the heart of the literary General; and he reserved them for himself, as his share of the loot. Yet, perhaps, he hardly glanced at them. Perhaps, as he sailed victoriously towards England, his wayward mind sank unexpectedly into an utterly incongruous mood. To be away from all this — and for ever! Away from the glory and the struggle — to be back at home, a boy again at Chartley — to escape irrevocably into the prolonged innocence of solitude and insignificance and dreams! With a play upon his own name — half smiling, half melancholy — he wrote some lines in which memory and premonition came together to give a strange pathos to the simple words:—

Happy were he could finish forth his fate
In some unhaunted desert, where, obscure
From all society, from love and hate
Of wordly folk, there should he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and yield God ever praise;
Content with hip, with haws, and brambleberry;
In contemplation passing still his days,
And change of holy thoughts to keep him merry:
Who, when he dies, his tomb might be the bush
Where harmless Robin resteth with the thrush:
        - Happy were he!

1. Juno autem, quum saepius frustra spem implorasset, tandem eripuit “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.” . . . Sed tace, calame, et tace, Antoni, nimium enim poetas legisse videor.

2. Fines principum abyssus multa.


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