Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter VIII.

On the same day on which Essex sailed from Cadiz something of the highest moment was done in England: Elizabeth made Robert Cecil her Secretary, in name as well as in fact. That he had exercised the functions of the office for several years had not necessarily implied his continuance in that position. The Queen had been uncertain; the arrangement, she said, was temporary; there were other candidates for the post. Among these was Thomas Bodley, whose claims Essex had pushed forward with his customary vehemence — a vehemence which, once again, had failed in its effect. For Cecil was now definitely installed in that great office; all the outward prestige and all the inward influence that belonged to it were to be permanently his.

He sat at his table writing; and his presence was sweet and grave. There was an urbanity upon his features, some kind of explanatory gentleness, which, when he spoke, was given life and meaning by his exquisite elocution. He was all mild reasonableness — or so it appeared, until he left his chair, stood up, and unexpectedly revealed the stunted discomfort of deformity. Then another impression came upon one — the uneasiness produced by an enigma: what could the combination of that beautifully explicit countenance with that shameful, crooked posture really betoken? He returned to the table, and once more took up his quill; all, once more, was perspicuous serenity. And duty too — that was everywhere — in the unhurried assiduity of the writing, the consummate orderliness of the papers and arrangements, the long still hours of expeditious toil. A great worker, a born administrator, a man of thought and pen, he sat there silent amid the loud violence about him — the brio of an Essex and a Raleigh, the rush and flutter of minor courtiers, and the loquacious paroxysms of Elizabeth. While he laboured, his inner spirit waited and watched. A discerning eye might have detected melancholy and resignation in that patient face. The spectacle of the world’s ineptitude and brutality made him, not cynical — he was not aloof enough for that — but sad — was he not a creature of the world himself? He could do so little, so very little, to mend matters; with all his power and all his wisdom he could but labour, and watch, and wait. What else was possible? What else was feasible, what else was, in fact, anything but lunacy? He inspected the career of Essex with serious concern. Yet, perhaps, in some quite different manner, something, sometimes — very rarely — almost never — might be done. At a moment of crisis, a faint, a hardly perceptible impulsion might be given. It would be nothing but a touch, unbetrayed by the flutter of an eyelid, as one sat at table, not from one’s hand, which would continue writing, but from one’s foot. One might hardly be aware of its existence oneself, and yet was it not, after all, by such minute, invisible movements that the world was governed for its good, and great men came into their own?

That might be, in outline, the clue to the enigma; but the detailed working-out of the solution must remain, from its very nature, almost entirely unknown to us. We can only see what we are shown with such urbane lucidity — the devoted career of public service, crowned at last, so fortunately, by the final achievement — a great work accomplished, and the Earl of Salisbury supreme in England. So much is plain; but we are shown no more — no man ever was. The quiet minimum of action which led to such vast consequences is withdrawn from us. We can, with luck, catch a few glimpses now and then; but, in the main, we can only obscurely conjecture at what happened under the table.

Essex returned, triumphant and glorious. He was the hero of the hour. A shattering blow had been dealt to the hated enemy, and in the popular opinion it was to the young Earl, so daring, so chivalrous, so obviously romantic, that the victory was due. The old Lord Admiral had played no great part in the affair, and the fact that the whole expedition would have been a failure if the advice of Raleigh had not been followed at the critical moment was unknown. There seemed, in fact, to be only one person in England who viewed the return of the conqueror without enthusiasm; that person was the Queen. Never was the impossibility of foretelling what Elizabeth would do next more completely exemplified. Instead of welcoming her victorious favourite in rapturous delight, she received him with intense irritation. Something had happened to infuriate her; she had indeed been touched at a most sensitive point; it was a question of money. She had put down £50,000 for the expenses of the expedition, and what was she to get in return? Only, apparently, demands for more money, to pay the seamen’s wages. It was, she declared, just as she had expected; she had foreseen it all; she had known from the very first that everyone would make a fortune out of the business except herself. With infinite reluctance she disgorged another £2000 to keep the wretched seamen from starvation. But she would have it all back; and Essex should find that he was responsible. There certainly had been enormous leakages. The Spaniards themselves confessed to a loss of several millions, and the official estimate of the booty brought back to England was less than £13,000. Wild rumours were flying of the strings of pearls, the chains of gold, the golden rings and buttons, the chests of sugar, the casks of quicksilver, the damasks and the Portuguese wines, that had suddenly appeared in London. There were terrific wranglings at the Council table. Several wealthy hostages had been brought back from Cadiz, and the Queen announced that all their ransoms should go into her pocket. When Essex protested that the soldiers would thereby lose their prize-money, she would not listen; it was only, she said, owing to their own incompetence that the loot had not been far greater; why had they not captured the returning West Indian fleet? The Cecils supported her with unpleasant questions. The new Secretary was particularly acid. Essex, who had good reason to expect a very different reception, was alternately depressed and exacerbated. “I see,” he wrote to Anthony Bacon, “the fruits of these kinds of employments, and I assure you I am as much distasted with the glorious greatness of a favourite as I was before with the supposed happiness of a courtier, and call to mind the words of the wisest man that ever lived, who, speaking of man’s works crieth out ‘Vanity of vanities, all is but vanity.’” The Queen’s displeasure was increased by another consideration. The blaze of popularity that surrounded the Earl was not to her liking. She did not approve of anyone being popular except herself. When it was proposed that thanksgiving services for the Cadiz victory should be held all over the country, her Majesty ordered that the celebrations should be limited to London. She was vexed to hear that a sermon had been preached in Saint Paul’s, in which Essex had been compared to the greatest generals of antiquity and his “justice, wisdom, valour and noble carriage” highly extolled; and she took care to make some biting remarks about his strategy at the next Council. “I have a crabbed fortune that gives me no quiet,” Essex wrote, “and the sour food I am fain still to digest may breed sour humours.” It was an odd premonition; but he brushed such thoughts aside. In spite of everything he would struggle to keep his temper, and “as warily watch myself from corrupting myself as I do seek to guard myself from others.”

His patience and forbearance were soon rewarded. News came that the West Indian fleet, laden with twenty million ducats, had entered the Tagus only two days after the English had departed. It seemed clear that if the plan urged by Essex had been adopted — that if the armament had waited off the coast of Portugal as he had advised — the whole huge treasure would have been captured. Elizabeth had a sudden revulsion. Was it possible that she had been unjust? Ungenerous? Certainly she had been misinformed. Essex swam up into high favour, and the Queen’s anger, veering round full circle, was vented upon his enemies. Sir William Knollys, the Earl’s uncle, was made a member of the Privy Council and Comptroller of the Household. The Cecils were seriously alarmed, and Burghley, trimming his sails to the changing wind, thought it advisable, at the next Council, to take the side of Essex in the matter of the Spanish ransoms. But the move was not successful. Elizabeth turned upon him in absolute fury. “My Lord Treasurer,” she roared, “either for fear or favour, you regard my Lord of Essex more than myself. You are a miscreant! You are a coward!” The poor old man tottered away in a shaken condition to write a humble expostulation to the Earl. “My hand is weak, my mind troubled,” he began. His case, he continued, was worse than to be between Scylla and Charybdis, “for my misfortune is to fall into both . . . Her Majesty chargeth and condemneth me for favouring of you against her; your Lordship contrariwise misliketh me for pleasing of her Majesty to offend you.” He really thought that it was time for him to retire. “I see no possibility worthily to shun both these dangers, but by obtaining of licence to live an anchorite, or some such private life, whereunto I am meetest for my age, my infirmity, and daily decaying estate; but yet I shall not be stopped by the displeasure of either of you both to keep my way to heaven.” Essex replied, as was fit, with a letter of dignified sympathy. But Anthony Bacon’s comments were different; he did not conceal his delighted animosity. “Our Earl, God be thanked!” he told a correspondent in Italy, “hath with the bright beams of his valour and virtue scattered the clouds and cleared the mists that malicious envy had stirred up against his matchless merit; which hath made the Old Fox to crouch and whine.”

Burghley was indeed very much upset. He considered the whole situation carefully, and he came to the conclusion that perhaps, after all, he had made a mistake in his treatment of the Bacons. Would that young nobleman have ever reached so dangerous an eminence without the support of his nephews? Did not they supply him with just that intellectual stiffening, that background of sense and character, which his unstable temperament required? Was it possibly still not too late to detach them? He could but try. Anthony was obviously the more active and menacing of the two, and if he could be won over . . . He sent Lady Russell, the sister of his wife and Lady Bacon, on an embassy to her nephew, with conciliatory messages and bearing offers of employment and reward. The conversation was long, but it was fruitless. Anthony would not budge an inch. He was irrevocably committed to the Earl, whom he worshipped with the sombre passion of an invalid, his uncle’s early neglect of him could never be forgiven or forgotten, and as for his cousin Robert, his hatred of him was only equalled by his scorn. He explained his feelings in detail to his aunt, who hardly knew what to answer. The Secretary, he declared, had actually “denounced a deadly feud” against him. “Ah, vile urchin!” said Lady Russell, “is it possible?” Anthony replied with a laugh and a Gascon proverb —“Brane d’âne ne monte pas al ciel.”

“By God,” said Lady Russell, “but he is no ass.”

“Let him go for a mule then, Madam,” rejoined Anthony, “the most mischievous beast that is.” When his aunt had gone, Anthony wrote out a minute account of the conversation and sent it to his patron, concluding with a protestation to his “Good Lord” of “the entire devotion of my heart, together with the unchangeable vow of perfect obedience, which it hath long since no less resolutely than freely sworn unto your lordship, and the confidence I have in your lordship’s most noble and true love.” Why indeed should he change? How futile to suggest it! And now, when so many years of service had grown into adoration — now, when so many years of labour were blossoming into success!

For, in truth, the dreams of Anthony seemed to be on the brink of fulfilment; it was difficult to conceive what could prevent Essex from becoming before long the real ruler of England. His ascendancy over Elizabeth appeared to be complete. Her personal devotion had not lessened with time; on the contrary it seemed now to be reinforced by a growing recognition of his qualities as a soldier and a statesman. The Cecils bowed before him; Raleigh was not admitted to the royal presence; no other rivals were visible. Dominating the Council table, he shouldered the duties and responsibilities of high office with vigour and assurance. Work poured in upon him; he had, he said, “to provide for the saving of Ireland, the contenting of France, the winning of the Low Countries to such conditions as they are yet far from; and the discovering and preventing of practices and designs, which are more and greater than ever.” In the midst of so much business and so much success, he did not forget his friends. His conscience pricked him on the score of Thomas Bodley. What reparation could he make for the loss of the Secretaryship, which he had promised his faithful follower in vain? He bethought him of the library of Bishop Jerome Osorius, seized up so unexpectedly on that summer day at Faro. Bodley should have it — it was the very thing. And Bodley did have it; and such was the curious beginning of the great Library that bears his name.

Success, power, youth, royal favour, popular glory — what was lacking in the good fortune of the marvellous Earl? Only one thing, perhaps — and that too now was given him: the deathless consecration of Art. A supreme poet, blending together with the enchantment of words the loveliness of an hour and the vastness of human destiny, bestowed a splendid immortality upon the

                        “noble Peer,
Great England’s glory and the world’s wide wonder,
Whose dreadful name late through all Spain did thunder,
And Hercules two pillars standing near
Did make to quake and fear.
Fair branch of Honour, flower of Chivalry,
That fillest England with thy triumph’s fame,
Joy have thou of thy noble victory!”

The prowess and the person of Essex stand forth, lustrous and dazzling, before all eyes.

Yet there was one pair of eyes — and one only — that viewed the gorgeous spectacle without blinking. The cold viper-gaze of Francis Bacon, heedless of the magnificence of the exterior, pierced through to the inner quiddity of his patron’s situation and saw there nothing but doubt and danger. With extraordinary courage and profound wisdom he chose this very moment — the apex, so it seemed, of Essex’s career — to lift his voice in warning and exhortation. In a long letter, composed with elaborate solicitude and displaying at once an exquisite appreciation of circumstances, a consummate acquaintance with the conditions of practical life, and a prescience that was almost superhuman, he explained to the Earl the difficulties of his position, the perils that the future held in store for him, and the course of conduct by which those perils might be avoided. Everything, it was obvious, hinged upon the Queen; but Bacon perceived that in this very fact lay, not the strength, but the weakness of Essex’s situation. He had no doubt what Elizabeth’s half-conscious thoughts must be. —“A man of a nature not to be ruled; that hath the advantage of my affection, and knoweth it; of an estate not grounded to his greatness; of a popular reputation; of a militar dependence.” What might not come of such considerations? “I demand,” he wrote, “whether there can be a more dangerous image than this represented to any monarch living, much more to a lady, and of her Majesty’s apprehension?” It was essential that the whole of Essex’s behaviour should be dominated by an effort to remove those suspicions from Elizabeth’s mind. He was to take the utmost pains to show her that he was not “opiniastre and unrulable”; he was “to take all occasions, to the Queen, to speak against popularity and popular courses vehemently and to tax it in all others”; above all, he was utterly to eschew any appearance of “militar dependence.”

“Herein,” wrote Bacon, “I cannot sufficiently wonder at your Lordship’s course . . . for her Majesty loveth peace. Next she loveth not charge. Thirdly, that kind of dependence maketh a suspected greatness.” But there was more than that. Bacon clearly realised that Essex was not cut out to be a General; Cadiz, no doubt, had gone off well; but he distrusted these military excursions, and he urged the Earl to indulge in no more of them. There were rumours that he wished to be made the Master of the Ordnance; such thoughts were most unwise. Let him concentrate upon the Council; there he could control military matters without taking a hand in them; and, if he wished for a new office, let him choose one that was now vacant and was purely civilian in its character: let him ask the Queen to make him the Lord Privy Seal.

No advice could have been more brilliant or more pertinent. If Essex had followed it, how different would his history have been! But — such are the curious imperfections of the human intellect — while Bacon’s understanding was absolute in some directions, in others it no less completely failed. With his wise and searching admonitions he mingled other counsel which was exactly calculated to defeat the end he had in view. Profound in everything but psychology, the actual steps which he urged Essex to take in order to preserve the Queen’s favour were totally unfitted to the temperament of the Earl. Bacon wished his patron to behave with the Machiavellian calculation that was natural to his own mind. Essex was to enter into an elaborate course of flattery, dissimulation, and reserve. He was not in fact to imitate the subserviency of Leicester or Hatton — oh no! — but he was to take every opportunity of assuring Elizabeth that he followed these noblemen as patterns, “for I do not know a readier mean to make her Majesty think you are in your right way.” He must be very careful of his looks. If, after a dispute, he agreed that the Queen was right, “a man must not read formality in your countenance.” And “fourthly, your Lordship should never be without some particulars afoot, which you should seem to pursue with earnestness and affection, and then let them fall, upon taking knowledge of her Majesty’s opposition and dislike.” He might, for instance, “pretend a journey to see your living and estate towards Wales,” and, at the Queen’s request, relinquish it. Even the “lightest sort of particulars” were by no means to be neglected —“habits, apparel, wearings, gestures, and the like.” As to “the impression of a popular reputation,” that was “a good thing in itself,” and besides “well governed, is one of the best flowers of your greatness both present and to come.” It should be handled tenderly. “The only way is to quench it verbis and not rebus.” The vehement speeches against popularity must be speeches and nothing more. In reality, the Earl was not to dream of giving up his position as the people’s favourite. “Go on in your honourable commonwealth courses as before.”

Such counsels were either futile or dangerous. How was it possible that the frank impetuosity of Essex should ever bend itself to these crooked ways? Everyone knew — everyone, apparently, but Bacon — that the Earl was incapable of dissembling. “He can conceal nothing,” said Henry Cuffe; “he carries his love and his hatred on his forehead.” To such a temperament it was hard to say which was the most alien — the persistent practice of some profoundly calculated stratagem or the momentary trickery of petty cunning. “Apparel, wearings, gestures!” How vain to hope that Essex would ever attend to that kind of tiresome particularity! Essex, who was always in a hurry or a dream — Essex, who would sit at table unconscious of what he ate or drank, shovelling down the food, or stopping suddenly to fall into some long abstraction — Essex, who to save his time would have himself dressed among a crowd of friends and suitors, giving, as Henry Wotton says, “his legs, arms, and breast to his ordinary servants to button and dress him, with little heed, his head and face to his barber, his eyes to his letters, and ears to petitioners,” and so, clad in he knew not what, a cloak hastily thrown about him, would pass out, with his odd long steps, and his head pushed forward, to the Queen.

And, when he reached her, suppose that then, by some miracle, he remembered the advice of Bacon, and attempted to put into practice one or other of the contrivances that his friend had suggested. What would happen? Was it not clear that his nature would assert itself in spite of all his efforts? — that what was really in his mind would appear under his inexpert pretences, and his bungling become obvious to the far from blind Elizabeth? Then indeed his last state would be worse than his first; his very honesty would display his falsehood; and in his attempt to allay suspicions that were baseless he would actually have given them a reality.

Essex, no doubt, read and reread Bacon’s letter with admiration and gratitude — though perhaps, too, with some involuntary sighs. But he was soon to receive a very different admonition from another member of the family. Old Lady Bacon had been keeping, as was her wont, a sharp watch upon the Court from Gorhambury. Shortly after the Earl’s return from Cadiz she had received a surprisingly good report of his behaviour. He had suddenly — so Anthony wrote — given up his dissipated habits, and taken to “Christian zealous courses, not missing preaching or prayers in the Court, and showing true noble kindness towards his virtuous spouse, without any diversion.” So far so good; but the amendment, it appeared, was not very lasting. Within a month or two, rumours were flying of an intrigue between the Earl and a married lady of high position. Lady Bacon was profoundly shocked; she was not, however, surprised; such doings were only to be expected in the godless world of London. The opportunity for a letter — a severely pious letter — presented itself. As for the lady in question, no words could be too harsh for such a creature. She was “unchaste and impudent, with, as it were, an incorrigible unshamefacedness.” She was “an unchaste gaze and common by-word.”

“The Lord,” she prayed, “speedily, by His grace, amend her, or”— that would be simplest —“cut her off before some sudden mischief.” For Essex, such extreme measures were not yet necessary; he was, of course, less guilty, and there was still hope of his reformation. Let him read one Thessalonians chapter four verse 3, and he would see that “this is the will of God, that ye should be holy, and abstain from fornication.” Nay, more; he would find “a heavy threat that fornicators and adulterers God will judge, and that they shall be shut out; for such things, says the Apostle, commonly cometh the wrath of God upon us.” Let him take care, and “grieve not the Holy Spirit of God.”

“With my very inward affection,” she concluded, “have I thus presumed ill-favoredly to scribble, I confess, being sickly and weak in many ways.”

Essex replied immediately, in the style of pathetic and dignified beauty that was familiar to him. “I take it,” he wrote, “as a great argument of God’s favour in sending so good an angel to admonish me; and of no small care in your Ladyship of my well-doing.” He denied the whole story. “I protest before the majesty of God that this charge which is newly laid upon me is false and unjust; and that, since my departure from England towards Spain, I have been free from taxation of incontinency with any woman that lives.” It was all, he declared, an invention of his enemies. “I live in a place where I am hourly conspired against, and practised upon. What they cannot make the world believe, that they persuade themselves unto; and what they cannot make probable to the Queen, that they give out to the world . . . Worthy Lady, think me a weak man, full of imperfections; but be assured I do endeavour to be good, and had rather mend my faults than cover them.” The Dowager did not quite know what to make of these protestations; perhaps they were genuine — she hoped so. He had begged her, in a postscript, to burn his letter; but she preferred not to. She folded it carefully up, with her crabbed fingers, and put it on one side, for future reference.

Whatever may have been the truth about the story that had reached her, it is clear that she no more understood the nature of her correspondent than she did that of her younger son. That devout austerity had too little in common with the generous looseness of the Earl, who, no doubt, felt that he might justly bow it on one side with some magnificent asseverations. His spirit, wayward, melancholy, and splendid, belonged to the Renaissance — the English Renaissance, in which the conflicting currents of ambition, learning, religion, and lasciviousness were so subtly intervolved. He lived and moved in a superb uncertainty. He did not know what he was or where he was going. He could not resist the mysterious dominations of moods — intense, absorbing, and utterly at variance with one another. He turned aside suddenly from the exciting whirl of business and politics to adore alone, in some inner room, the sensuous harmonies of Spenser. He dallied dangerously with Court beauties; and then went to meditate for hours upon the attributes of the Deity in the cold church of Saint Paul. His lot seemed to lead him irrevocably along the paths of action and power; and yet he could not determine whether that was indeed the true direction of his destiny; he dreamt of the remoteness of Lanfey and the serene solitudes of Chartley Chase. He was sent for by the Queen. He came into her presence, and another series of contradictory emotions overwhelmed him. Affection — admiration — exasperation — mockery — he felt them all by turns, and sometimes, so it seemed, simultaneously. It was difficult to escape the prestige of age, royalty, and success; it was impossible to escape the fascination of that rare intellect, with its alluring sinuosities and all the surprises of its gay vitality. His mind, swept along by hers, danced down delightful avenues. What happy twists! What new delicious vistas! And then — what had happened? The twists had grown abrupt, unaccountable, ridiculous. His head span. There was the way — plain and clear before them; but she insisted upon whisking round innumerable corners, and all his efforts could not keep her straight. She was a preposterous, obstinate old woman, fluctuating only when she should be firm, and strong in nothing but perversity. And he, after all, was a man, with a man’s power of insight and determination; he could lead if she would follow; but Fate had reversed the rôles, and the natural master was a servant. Sometimes, perhaps, he could impose his will upon her — but after what an expenditure of energy, what a prolonged assertion of masculinity! A woman and a man! Yes, indeed, it was all too obvious! Why was he where he was? Why had he any influence whatever? It was not only obvious, it was ludicrous, it was disgusting: he satisfied the peculiar cravings of a virgin of sixty-three. How was this to end? His heart sank, and, as he was about to leave her, he caught sight of something inexplicable in those extraordinary eyes. He hurried home — to his wife, his friends, his sisters; and then, in his great house by the River, one of those physical collapses, which from his boyhood had never been long absent, would come upon him; incapable of thought or action, shivering in the agonies of ague, he would lie for days in melancholy and darkness upon his bed.

But, after all, he could not resist the pressure of circumstances, the nature of the time, the call to do and to lead. His vital forces returned to him, bringing with them the old excitements of adventure and jealousies of ambition. Spain loomed as ever upon the horizon; she had not been crushed at Cadiz; the snake was still dangerous, and must be scotched again. There was talk of another expedition. Francis Bacon might say what he would; but if there was one how would it be possible for the “noble Peer” of the Prothalamium to keep out of it? How could he leave the agitation and the triumph to Walter Raleigh? How could he stay behind with the hunchback secretary, writing at a table? In private, he pressed the Queen eagerly; and she seemed more amenable than usual; she agreed to the principle of an armed attack, but hesitated over its exact form. The news began to leak out, and Francis Bacon grew uneasy. The event, he saw, would show whether his advice was going to be taken: the parting of the ways was at hand.

In the meantime, while the future hung in the balance, that versatile intelligence was occupied in a different direction. In January 1597 a small volume made its appearance — one of the most remarkable that has ever come from the press. Of its sixty pages, the first twenty-five were occupied by ten diminutive “Essays”— the word was new in English — in which the reflections of a matchless observer were expressed in an imperishable form. They were reflections upon the ways of this world, and particularly upon the ways of Courts. In later years Bacon enlarged the collection, widening the range of his subjects, and enriching his style with ornament and colour; but here all was terse, bare and practical. In a succession of gnomic sentences, from which every beauty but those of force and point had been strictly banished, he uttered his thoughts upon such themes as “Suitors,” “Ceremonies and Respects,” “Followers and Friends,” “Expense,” and “Negociating.”

“Some books,” he wrote, “are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”; there can be no doubt to which category his own belongs. And, as one chews, one learns much, not only of the methods of politic behaviour, but of the nature of the author, and of that curious quality of mingled boldness and circumspection that was native to his mind. “Mean men must adhere,” he says, in his essay on “Faction,” “but great men that have strength in themselves were better to maintain themselves indifferent and neutral; yet,” he adds, “even in beginners to adhere so moderately, as he be a man of the one faction, which is passablest with the other, commonly giveth best way.” The book was dedicated to “Mr. Anthony Bacon, his dear brother”; but what did Anthony, with his instinct for uncompromising devotion, think of such an apophthegm?

Whatever Anthony might think, Francis could not help it; in the last resort he must be swayed not by his brother but by his perception of the facts. It was clear that one of those periodical crises, which seemed to punctuate the relations of the Queen and the Earl with ever-increasing violence, was rapidly approaching. It became known that a naval attack upon Spain had actually been decided upon; but who was to command it? Early in February, Essex took to his bed. The Queen came to visit him; he seemed to recover after so signal an act of favour; and then once more was prostrate. The nature of his ailment was dubious: was he sulking, or was he really ill? Perhaps he was both. For a fortnight he remained invisible, while the Queen fretted, and rumour after rumour flew round the Court. The signs of a struggle — a quarrel — were obvious. It was declared on good authority that the Queen had told him that he was to share the command of the expedition with Raleigh and Thomas Howard; and that thereupon the Earl had sworn to have nothing to do with it. At last Elizabeth’s vexation burst out into speech. “I shall break him of his will,” she exclaimed, “and pull down his great heart!” She wondered where he got his obstinacy; but, of course, it was from his mother — from Lettice Knowles, her cousin, that woman whom she hated — the widow of Leicester. Then the news came that the Earl was better, so much better that he had risen, and was about to depart from the Court immediately, to visit his estates in Wales.

Bacon could hardly doubt any more where all this was leading. He made up his mind. He was a beginner; and it was for him “to adhere so moderately, as he be a man of the one faction, which is passablest with the other.” He wrote to Burghley. He wrote with deliberation and subtle care. “I thought,” he said, “it would better manifest what I desire to express, if I did write out of a settled consideration of mine own duty, rather than upon the spur of a particular occasion.” He mingled flattery and gratitude, touching upon “your Lordship’s excellent wisdom,” and adding “My singular good Lord, ex abundantia cordis, I must acknowledge how greatly and diversely your Lordship hath vouchsafed to tie me unto you by many your benefits.” In a tone of deep respect and humility, he pressed his services upon his uncle. “This causeth me most humbly to pray your Lordship to believe that your Lordship is upon just title a principal owner and proprietary of that, I cannot call talent, but mite, that God hath given me; which I ever do and shall devote to your service.” He even begged for forgiveness; he even dissociated himself — with an ameliorating parenthesis — from his brother Anthony. “In like humble manner I pray your Lordship to pardon mine errors, and not to impute unto me the errors of any other (which I know also themselves have by this time left and forethought); but to conceive of me to be a man that daily profiteth in duty.” And he closed with a final protestation, cast in a sentence of superb rhythm, with a noble and touching fall. “And so again, craving your Honour’s pardon for so long a letter, carrying so empty an offer of so unpuissant a service, but yet a true and unfeigned signification of an honest and vowed duty, I cease; commending your Lordship to the preservation of the Divine Majesty.”

Burghley’s answer is unknown to us; but we may be sure that he did not repel these advances, nor fail to note their implications. Events were now moving rapidly. The death of old Lord Cobham, by leaving vacant the Wardenship of the Cinque Ports, brought the crisis to a head. His son, the new Lord, hoped to succeed to the office; but he was hated by Essex, who pressed the claims of Sir Robert Sidney. For a week the conflict raged, and then the Queen announced her decision: the Wardenship should go to Lord Cobham. Thereupon Essex declared once more that he would leave the Court — that he had pressing business in Wales. All was prepared; men and horses were ready, and the Earl was only waiting to bid farewell to Burghley, when he was sent for by the Queen. There was a private interview, which ended in a complete reconciliation; and Essex emerged Master of the Ordnance.

So this was the consequence of Francis Bacon’s advice! He had told the Earl to pretend a journey, in order to be able to waive it gracefully at the request of the Queen; and the foolish man had done the very opposite — had used it as a threat with which to force the royal hand. And to what end? To pursue what was most to be avoided — to emphasise that “militar dependence” which was at once so futile and so full of danger — nay, even to get possession of that very office, the Mastership of the Ordnance, which he had been particularly recommended to shun.

Clearly, the letter to Burghley was justified; it had become imperative for a “beginner” to acquire some other aid to the good things of this world besides what was offered by the dubious fortune of Essex. Yet it would be foolish to abandon the old connexion altogether; it might still prove useful, in a variety of ways. For instance, Sir William Hatton was dead; he had left a rich widow — young and eligible; to marry her would be an excellent cure for that disease from which Bacon was still suffering — consumption of the purse. Negotiations were set on foot, and it seemed as if all might end happily, if the lady’s father, Sir Thomas Cecil, could be brought to agree. Bacon begged Essex to use his influence; and Essex did all that he was asked. He wrote to Sir Thomas, expatiating upon the merits of his “dear and worthy friend” who, he had heard, was “a suitor to my Lady Hatton; your daughter.”

“To warrant my moving of you to incline favourably to his suit, I will only add this, that if she were my sister or daughter, I protest I would as confidently resolve myself to farther it, as now I persuade you. And though my love to him be exceedingly great, yet is my judgment nothing partial; for he that knows him so well as I do cannot but be so affected.” Yet, once more, the Earl’s influence was unavailing; for some unknown cause, Bacon was again disappointed; and Lady Hatton, like the Attorney-Generalship, went to Edward Coke.

Essex had not only been made Master of the Ordnance; he had also been given the command of the expedition against Spain. For months it had been known that the Spaniards had been busy with elaborate naval preparations in their great adjoining harbours of Corunna and Ferrol. The destination of the new Armada was unknown — perhaps it was Africa, or Brittany, or Ireland; but there were persistent reports that an attack was to be made on the Isle of Wight. It was decided to forestall the danger. Essex, with Raleigh and Lord Thomas Howard under him, was to take the fleet and a powerful armed force to Ferrol, and destroy all that he found there. The Cadiz adventure, in short, was to be repeated; and why not? The Queen herself believed that it might be done — cheaply, effectively and quickly. Even the Cecils agreed. Reconciliation was in the air. Burghley acted as peace-maker, and brought his son and the Earl together. Essex gave a little dinner at his house, to which was bidden not only Sir Robert, but Walter Raleigh as well. The enmities of years were laid aside; and, in a private conclave of two hours, the three great men bound themselves together in friendship. As a final proof of goodwill, it was agreed that Elizabeth should be persuaded to take Raleigh once more into her favour. She yielded, readily enough, to the double pressure; he was summoned to her presence, graciously received, and told that he might resume his duties as Captain of the Guard. Raleigh celebrated the occasion by having made for him a suit of silver armour; and so once more, superb and glittering, the dangerous man stood in the royal ante-chamber at Whitehall.

And now it was summer, and the great fleet was almost ready to depart. Essex was on the coast, superintending the final preparations. He had taken his farewell of the Queen; but for a fortnight more he was in England, and the adieux were continued till the last moment in an impassioned correspondence. Difficulties, dangers, griefs there might be in that ambiguous relationship; but now absence seemed to make all things clear. Elizabeth was at her benignest. She sent off a stream of gifts and messages, she sent her portrait, she wrote constantly with her own hand. Essex was happy — active, important, excited; the great Queen, with all her majesty and all her affection, appeared before his imagination like some radiant fairy. She was his “most dear and most admired Sovereign.” He could not express his feelings; but, since “words be not able to interpret for me, then to your royal dear heart I appeal, which, without my words, can fully and justly understand me. Heavens and earth shall witness for me. I will strive to be worthy of so high a grace and so blessed a happiness.” He was tied to her “by more ties than ever was subject to a prince.” His soul was “poured out with most earnest, faithful, and more than most affectionate wishes.” He thanked her for her “sweet letters, indited by the spirit of spirits.” She had heard a report that his ship leaked, and wrote to him in alarm to bid him take precautions against the danger. He was in Plymouth, on the eve of departure, when her letter reached him. “That infinite love,” he wrote, “which I bear your Majesty makes me now love myself for your favour’s sake; and therefore, be secure, dear Lady, that I will be as useful to bring myself home to you, as you would have me be.” There was no danger, he assured her; the wind was favourable; all was ready; they were about to sail. “I humbly kiss your royal fair hands,” he concluded, “and pour out my soul in passionate jealous wishes for all true joys to the dear heart of your Majesty, which must know me to be your Majesty’s humblest and devoutest vassal, Essex.” The fleet set out to sea.


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