Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly, 1892 – Chapter XI

'The Ermine Portrait' of Elizabeth I, c1585, by Nicholas Hilliard;

‘The Ermine Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, c1585, by Nicholas Hilliard;



IT was a boast of Elizabeth that when once her servants were chosen she did not lightly displace them. Difference of opinion from their mistress, or from one another, did not involve resignation or dismissal, because, though they were free to speak their minds, all had to carry out with fidelity and even zeal, whatever policy the Queen prescribed. This condition they accepted; not only the astute and compliant Burghley, but the more eager and opinionated Walsingham; and therefore they had practically a life-tenure of office. Soon after the Armada the first generation of them began to disappear. Bacon, Sussex, and Bedford were already gone. Leicester died in 1588; his brother Warwick, and Mildmay in 1589; Walsingham and Randolph in 1591; Hatton in 1592; Grey de Wilton in 1593; Knollys and Hunsdon in 1596. Of the trusty servants with whom she began her reign, Burghley alone remained. The leading men of the new generation were Robert Cecil, the Treasurer’s second son, trained to business under his father’s eye, and of qualities similar, though inferior; Nottingham (formerly Howard of Effingham), a straightforward man of no great ability, but acceptable to the Queen for his father’s services and his own (and not the less so for his fine presence); the accomplished Buckhurst; the brilliant Raleigh; and, younger than the rest, Essex. The last was the son of a man much favoured by Elizabeth. Leicester was his step-father, Knollys his grandfather, Hunsdon his great-uncle, Walsingham his father-in-law, Burghley his guardian. Ardent, impulsive, presumptuous, a warm friend, a rancorous enemy, profuse in expense, lawless in his amours, jealous of his equals, brooking no superior, impatient of all rule or order that delayed him from leaping at once to the highest place,–he was possessed with a most exaggerated notion of his own capacity, which appears to have been only moderate. As the ward of Burghley he had been much in the company of his future enemy, Robert Cecil, whose sly prim ways were most unlike his own. The contrast did him no harm with the public, to whom the younger man was a Tom Jones and the elder a Blifil. Two vastly abler men, Francis Bacon and Raleigh, less advantageously placed, but unhampered with any scruples, were busily trying to profit by the all-pervading animosity of Cecil and Essex.

Belonging, as Essex did by his connections, to the inner circle who stood closest to Elizabeth, it was natural that she should take an interest in him, and give him opportunities for turning his showy qualities to account. In 1586 he was sent to the Low Countries as general of cavalry under his step-father, Leicester. He distinguished himself by his fiery valour in the expeditions to Spain, and as commander of the English army in France, though he does not seem to have had any real military talent. But Elizabeth’s regard for him was soon shaken by his presumptuous and unruly behaviour. When he fought a duel with Sir Charles Blount because she had conferred some favour on the latter, she swore “by God’s death it were fitting some one should take him down and teach him better manners, or there were no rule with him.” He displeased her by his quarrels with Cecil and Effingham, and his discontented grumbling. She was highly dissatisfied with his management of the Azores expedition in 1597. In July 1598, at a meeting of the Council, she was provoked by his insolence to strike him; and though after three months he obtained his pardon, he never regained her favour.

It was at this time that Burghley died (4 August), in his seventy-eighth year. Elizabeth, though she could call him “a froward old fool” about a trifling matter ( March 1596), could not but feel that much was changed when she lost the able and faithful servant who had worked with her for forty years. “She seemeth to take it very grievously, shedding of tears and separating herself from all company.” Buckhurst was the new Treasurer.

Essex had for some time cast his eyes on Ireland as a field where glory and power might be won. There can be little doubt that he was already speculating on the advantage that the possession of an army might give him in any difficulty with his rivals or with the Queen herself. Cecil perfidiously advocated his appointment to a post which had been the grave of so many reputations. The Queen at length consented, though reluctantly. Essex was a popular favourite. He had managed–it is not very clear how–to win the confidence of both Puritans and Papists. The general belief was that, for the first time since she had mounted the throne, Elizabeth was afraid of one of her subjects.

During the whole of the reign Ireland had been a cause of trouble and anxiety. Elizabeth’s treatment of that unhappy country was not more creditable or successful than that of other English statesmen before and after her. There was the same absence of any systematic policy steadily carried out, the same wearisome and disreputable alternation between bursts of savage repression and intervals of pusillanimity, concession, and neglect. In the competition of the various departments of the public service for attention and expenditure, Ireland generally came last. All other needs had to be served first whether at home or abroad.

In the early years of the reign the chief trouble lay in Ulster, then the most purely Celtic part of Ireland, and practically retouched by English conquest. Twice, in her weariness of the struggle with Shan O’Neill, Elizabeth conceded to him something like a subkingship of Ulster in return for his nominal submission. In the end he was beaten, and his head was fixed on the walls of Dublin Castle (1566). But nothing further was done to anglicise Ulster. During the attempt of the Devonshire adventurers to colonise South Munster (1569-71), and the consequent rebellion, the northern province remained an unconcerned spectator. Nor did it join in the great Desmond rising (1579-83), which, with the insurrection of the Catholic lords of the Pale and the landing of the Pope’s Italians at Smerwick, was the Irish branch of the threefold attack on Elizabeth directed by Gregory XIII. The attempt of the elder Essex to colonise Antrim (1573-75) was a disastrous failure, and Ulster still remained practically independent of the Dublin Government.

The most successful Deputy of the reign was Perrot (1584-87), a valiant soldier and strict ruler, who, after long experience in the Irish wars, had come to the conclusion that what Ireland most wanted was justice. The native chiefs, released from the constant dread of spoliation, and finding that English encroachment was repressed as inflexibly as Irish disorder, became quiet and friendly. But this system did not suit the dominant race. The Deputy was accused to the Queen of seeking to betray the country to the Irish and the Spaniard. Recalled, and put upon his trial for treason, he was found guilty on suborned evidence, and sentenced to death. It is usually said that his real offence was some disrespectful language about the Queen, which he confessed. But it seems that she forbore to take his life precisely because she would not have it thought that she was influenced by personal resentment.

His successor, Fitzwilliam, was a Deputy of the old sort–greedy, violent, careless of consequences, and always acting on the principle that, as against an Englishman, a Celt had no rights. The execution of MacMahon in Monaghan, and the confiscation of his lands on a trivial pretext, alarmed the North. Ulster had not been bled white like the rest of Ireland. The O’Neills had a nephew of their old hero Shan for their chief, who had been brought up at the English Court and made Earl of Tyrone by Elizabeth. An educated and remarkably able man, he had none of his uncle’s illusions. He clung to his ancestral rights and dignity, but he hoped to preserve them by zealously discharging his obligations as a vassal of the Queen. He served in the war against Desmond, and exerted himself to maintain order in Ulster. But he had no mind to sink into the position of a mere dignified land-owner like the English nobles; nor indeed, under such a Deputy as Fitzwilliam, was he likely to preserve even his lands if he lost his power. Rather than that, he determined to enter into what he knew was a most unequal struggle, on the off-chance of pulling through by help from Spain. It is clear that he was driven into rebellion against his inclination. But when he had once drawn the sword he maintained the struggle against one Deputy after another with wonderful tenacity and resource. For the first time in Irish history, the rebel forces were disciplined and armed like those of the crown, and stood up to them in equal numbers on equal terms. At length, in August 1598, Tyrone inflicted upon Sir Henry Bagnall near Armagh the severest defeat that the English had ever suffered in Ireland; slaying 1500 of his men, and capturing all his artillery and baggage. Insurrections at once broke out all over Ireland.

This was the situation with which Essex undertook to deal. He had loudly blamed other Deputies for not vigorously attacking Tyrone in his own country. Vigour was the one military quality which he himself possessed. He went with the title of Lieutenant and Governor-General, and with extraordinary powers, at the head of 21,000 men–such an army as had never been sent to Ireland (April 1599). The Queen, who trembled at the expense, and did not wish to see any of her nobles, least of all Essex, permanently established in a great military command, enjoined him to push at once into Ulster, as he had himself proposed, and finish the war. Instead of doing this, he went south into districts that had been depopulated and desolated by the savage warfare of the last thirty years. Even here he met with discreditable reverses. When he got back to Dublin (July) his army was reduced by disease and desertion to less than 5000 men. Disregarding the Queen’s express prohibition, he made his friend Southampton General of horse. When she censured his bad management, he replied with impertinent complaints about the favour she was showing to Cecil, Raleigh, and Cobham, and began to consult with his friends about carrying selected troops over to England to remove them. Rumours of his intention to return reached the Queen. “We do charge you,” she wrote, “as you tender our pleasure, that you adventure not to come out of that kingdom.” He declared that he could not invade Ulster without reinforcements. They were sent, and at length he marched into Louth (September). There he was met by Tyrone, who, in an interview, completely twisted him round his finger, and obtained a cessation of arms and the promise of concessions amounting to what would now be called Home Rule. A few days later, on receipt of an angry letter from the Queen forbidding him to grant any terms without her permission, he deserted his post and hurried to England. The first notice Elizabeth received of this astounding piece of insubordination was his still more astounding incursion into her bedroom, all muddy from his ride, before she was completely dressed (28 September 1599).

Elizabeth seems to have been so much taken aback by the Earl’s unparalleled presumption, that she did not blaze out as might have been expected. She gave him audience an hour or two later, and heard what he had to say. Probably he adopted an injured tone as usual, and inveighed against “that knave Raleigh” and “that sycophant Cobham.” But his insubordination had been gross, and no talking could make it anything else. It was more dangerous than Leicester’s disobedience in 1586, because it came from a vastly more dangerous person. The same afternoon the Queen referred the matter to the Council. Essex was put under arrest, and never saw her again. The more she reflected, the more indignant and alarmed she became. “By God’s son,” she said to Harington, “I am no Queen; this man is above me.” After a delay of nine months, occasioned by his illness, the fallen favourite was brought before a special Commission on the charge of contempt and disobedience, and sentenced to be suspended from his offices and confined to his house during the Queen’s pleasure (June 1600). In a few weeks he was released from arrest, but he could not obtain permission to appear at court, though he implored it in most abject letters.

There are persons who consider themselves to be intolerably wronged and persecuted if they cannot have precedence and power over their fellow-citizens. Essex was such a person. Instead of being thankful that he had escaped the punishment which under most sovereigns he would have suffered, he entered into criminal plots for coercing, if not overthrowing, the Queen. He urged the Scotch King to enforce the recognition of his title by arms. He tried to persuade Mountjoy, his successor in Ireland, to carry his army to Scotland to co-operate with James. These intrigues were not known to the Government. But it did not escape observation that he was collecting men of the sword in the neighbourhood of his house; that he was holding consultations with suspected nobles and gentlemen (some of whom were afterwards engaged in the Gunpowder Plot); that the Puritan clergy were preaching and praying for his cause; and that there was a certain ferment in the city. Essex was therefore summoned to attend before the Council. Instead of obeying, he flew to arms, with Lords Southampton, Rutland, Sandys, Cromwell, and Monteagle, and about 300 gentlemen. But the citizens of London did not respond to his appeal, and the insurrection was easily suppressed, less than a dozen persons being slain on both sides (8 February 1601). A more senseless and profligate attempt to overthrow a good government it would be difficult to find in history. It was not dignified by any semblance of principle, and it would sufficiently stamp the character of its author, even if it stood alone as an evidence of his vanity, egotism, and want of common sense.

The trial and execution of the principal malefactor followed as a matter of course and without delay (February 25). It would have been scandalous to spare him. Elizabeth had once been fond of him, and had no reason to be ashamed of it. To talk of her “passion” and her “amorous inclination,” as Hume and others have done, is revolting and malignant nonsense. It is creditable to old age when it can take pleasure in the unfolding of bright and promising youth. But royal favour was not good for such a man as Essex. It developed the worst features in his showy but faulty character. As he steadily deteriorated, her regard cooled; but so much of it remained that she tried to amend him by chastisement, “ad correctionem,” as she said, “non ad ruinam.” She had long before warned him that, though she had put up with much disrespect to her person, he must not touch her sceptre, or he would be dealt with according to the law of England. She was as good as her word, and, though the memory of it was painful to her, there is not the smallest evidence that she ever repented of having allowed the law to take its course. Only three of the accomplices of Essex were punished capitally. The five peers, none of them powerful or formidable, experienced Elizabeth’s accustomed clemency.

It has been suggested by an admirer of Essex that he failed in Ireland because his “sensitively attuned nature” shrank from the systematic desolation and starvation afterwards employed by his successor. No evidence is offered for this suggestion. In a letter to the Queen (25 June 1599) he advocates “burning and spoiling the country in all places,” which method “shall starve the rebels in one year.” This course Mountjoy carried out. With means far inferior to those of Essex, and notwithstanding the landing of 3000 Spaniards at Kinsale (September 1601), he was the first Englishman who completely subdued Ireland. Tyrone surrendered a few days before the Queen’s death.

Little has been said in these pages about parliamentary proceedings. The real history of the reign does not lie there. The country was governed wholly by the Queen, with the advice of her Council, and not at all by Parliament. In the forty-five years of her reign there were only thirteen sessions of Parliament. The functions of Parliament were to vote grants of money when the ordinary revenues of the crown were insufficient, and to make laws. Its right in these matters was unquestioned. If the Queen had never wanted subsidies or penal laws against her political and religious opponents (of other laws she often said there were more than enough already), it would never have been summoned at all; nor is there any reason to suppose that the country would have complained as long as it was governed with prudence and success. In fact, to do without Parliaments was distinctly popular, because it meant doing without subsidies.

In the thirty years preceding the Armada–the sessions of Parliament being nine–Elizabeth applied for only eight subsidies, and of one of them a portion was remitted. By her economy she not only defrayed the expenses of government out of the ordinary revenue, which, at the end of the reign was about £300,000 a year, but paid off old debts. It was not till the twenty-fourth year of her reign that she discharged the last of her father’s debts, up to which time she had been paying interest on it. Subsequently she even accumulated a small reserve, which, as she told Parliament, was a most necessary thing if she was not to be driven to borrow on sudden emergency. But this reserve vanished immediately she became involved in the great war with Spain; and during the last fifteen years of her life, although she received twelve subsidies, she was always in difficulty for money. She had to sell crown lands to the value of £372,000. Parliament, which had voted the usual single subsidies without complaint, grumbled and pretended poverty when she asked for three and even four. Bacon’s famous outburst (1593) about gentlemen having to sell their plate and farmers their brass pots to pay the tax, was a piece of claptrap. The nation was, relatively to former times, rolling in wealth. But the old belief had still considerable strength–that government being the affair of the King, not of his subjects, he should provide for its expenses out of his hereditary income, just as they paid their private expenses out of their private incomes; that he had no more claim to dip into their pockets than they had to dip into his; and that a subsidy, as its name imports, was an occasional and extraordinary assistance furnished as a matter not of duty but of good-will.

This might have been healthy doctrine when kings were campaigning on the Continent for personal or dynastic objects. It was out of place when a large expenditure was indispensable for the interests and safety of the country. The grumbling, therefore, about taxation towards the end of the reign was unreasonable and discreditable to the grumblers. The Queen met them with her usual good sense. She explained to them–though, as she correctly said, she was under no constitutional obligation to do so–how the money went, what she had spent on the Spanish war, on Ireland, and in loans to the Dutch and the French King. The plea was unanswerable. Her private expenditure was on a very modest scale. In particular she had never indulged in that besetting and costly sin of princes, palace-building; and this at a time when the noble mansions which still testify to the wealth of the England of that day were rising in every county. Her only extravagance was dress. Some have carped at her collection of jewelry. But jewels, like the silver balustrades of Frederick William I., were a mode of hoarding, and in her later years she reconverted jewels into money to meet the expenses of the State. Modern writers, who so airily blame her for not subsidising more liberally her Scotch, Dutch, and French allies, would find it difficult, if they condescended to particulars, to explain how she was able to give them as much money as she did.

It is common to make much of the debate on monopolies in the last Parliament of Elizabeth (1601), as showing the rise of a spirit of resistance to the royal prerogative. I do not think that the report of that debate would convey such an impression to any one reading it without preconceived views. None of the speakers contested the prerogative. They only complained that it was being exercised in a way prejudicial to the public interest. If the monopolies had been unimportant, or if the patentees had used their privilege less greedily, there would evidently have been no complaint as to the principle involved. No course of action was decided on, because the Queen intervened by a message in which she stated that she had not been aware of the abuses prevailing, that she was as indignant at them as Parliament could be, and that she would put a stop, not to monopolies, but to such as were injurious. With this message the House of Commons was more than satisfied. As a matter of fact monopolies went on till dealt with by the declaratory statute in the twenty-first year of James I.

If the last Tudor handed down the English Constitution to the first Stuart as she had received it from her predecessors, unchanged either in theory or practice, it was far otherwise with the English Church. There are two conflicting views as to the historical position of the Church in this country. According to one it was, all through the Middle Age, National as well as Catholic. The changes which took place at the Reformation made no difference in that respect, and involved no break in its continuity. It is not a Protestant Church. It is still National and still Catholic, resting on precisely the same foundations, and existing by the same title as it did in the days of Dunstan and Becket. According to the other view, the epithets National and Catholic are contradictory. A Church which undergoes radical changes of government, worship, and doctrine is no longer the same Church but a new one, and must be held to have been established by the authority which prescribed these changes, which, in this case, was the Queen and Parliament. The word “Protestant” was avoided in its formularies to make conformity easier for Catholics; but it is a Protestant Church all the same. Whichever of these views is nearer to the truth, it cannot be denied that, by the legislation of Elizabeth the English Church became–what it was not in the Middle Age–a spiritual organisation entirely dependent on the State. This it remains still; the supremacy having been virtually transferred from the crown to Parliament in the next century. I shall not venture to inquire how far this condition of dependence has affected its ability and inclination to perform the part of a true spiritual power. It is enough to say that no act of will on the part of any English statesman has had such important and lasting consequences, for good or for evil, as the decision of Elizabeth to make the Church of England what it is.

We have seen that the government and worship of the Church were established by Act of Parliament in 1559, and its doctrines in 1571. But when once Elizabeth had placed her ecclesiastical powers beyond dispute, by obtaining statutory sanction for them, she allowed no further interference by Parliament. All its attempts, even at mere discussion of ecclesiastical matters, she peremptorily suppressed. She supplied any further legislation that was needed by virtue of her supremacy, and she exercised her ecclesiastical government by the Court of High Commission. The new Anglican model was acquiesced in by the majority of the nation. But it had, at first, no hearty support except from the Government. The earnest religionists were either Catholics or Puritans. The object of Elizabeth was to compel these two extreme parties to outward conformity of worship. What their real beliefs were she did not care.

The large majority of the Catholics showed a loyal and patriotic spirit at the time of the Armada. But they were not treated with confidence by the Government. Great numbers of them were imprisoned or confined in the houses of Protestant gentlemen, by way of precaution, when the Armada was approaching. No Catholic, I believe, was intrusted with any command either by land or sea; and after the danger was over, the persecution, in all its forms, became sharper than ever. There was the less reason for this, inasmuch as it was no secret that the secular priests and the great majority of the English Catholics had become bitterly hostile to the small Jesuitical faction whose treasonable conspiracies had brought so much trouble on their loyal co-religionists.

The term “Puritan” is used loosely, though conveniently, to designate several shades of belief, By far the larger number of those to whom it is applied were, and meant to remain, members of the Established Church. They objected to certain ceremonies and vestments. They hoped to procure the abolition of these, and, in the meantime, evaded them when they could. They were what would now be called the Evangelical or Low Church party. They held Calvin’s distinctive doctrines on predestination, as indeed did most of the bishops; but though preferring his Presbyterian organisation, or something like it, they did not treat it as essential. They were broadly distinguished from the Brownists or Independents, then an insignificant minority, who held each congregation to be a church, and therefore protested against the establishment of any national church.

Though Elizabeth persecuted the Catholics with a severity steadily increasing in proportion as they became less numerous and formidable, she remained to the last anxious to make conformity easy for them. This was her reason for so obstinately refusing the concessions in the matter of ritual and vestments-trifling as they appear to the modern mind–which would have satisfied almost the whole of the Puritan party. This policy (for policy it assuredly was rather than conviction), which drove the most earnest Protestants into an attitude of opposition destined in the next two reigns to have such serious consequences, has been severely censured. But there can be no question that it did answer the purpose she had in view, which for the moment was most important. It did induce great numbers of Catholics to conform. She avoided a civil war in her own time between Catholics and Anglicans at the price of a civil war later on between Anglicans and Puritans. Looking at the great drama as a whole, perhaps the Puritans of the Great Rebellion might congratulate themselves on the part that Elizabeth chose to play in its earlier acts. It cannot be doubted that a civil war in the sixteenth century between Catholics and Protestants would have been waged with far more ferocity than was displayed by either Cavaliers or Roundheads, and would have been attended with the horrors of foreign invasion. To conciliate the earnest religionists on both sides was impossible. Elizabeth chose the via media, and the successful equilibrium which she maintained during nearly half a century proves that she hit upon what in her own day was the true centre of gravity.

But while doing justice to Elizabeth’s insight and prudence, we may not excuse her extreme severity to the nonconformists of either party. It was not necessary. It seems to have been even impolitic. It arose from her arbitrary temper–from a quality, that is to say, valuable in a ruler, but apt, in great rulers, to be somewhat in excess. I have condemned her persecution of the Catholics. Her persecution of the Protestant nonconformists was marked by even greater injustice. Against the Catholics it might at least be urged that their opinions logically led to disloyalty. But the Independents, Barrow, Greenwood, and Penry, were indisputably loyal men. They were put to death nominally for spreading writings which, contrary to common sense, were held to be seditious, but really for their religious opinions, which, in the case of the first two, were extracted from them by the interrogatories of Archbishop Whitgift, an Inquisitor as strenuous and merciless as Torquemada. Some of the Council, especially Burghley and Knollys, were strongly opposed to Whitgift’s proceedings. It must therefore be assumed that he had the Queen’s personal approval. She had committed herself to a struggle with intrepid and obstinate men. The crowded gaols were a visible demonstration that she could not compel them to submit; and to hang them all was out of the question. An Act was therefore passed in 1593, by which those who would not promise to attend church were to be banished the country. Thus most of the Independents were at last got rid of. The non-separatist Puritans, who aimed at less radical changes, and hoped to effect them, if not under their present sovereign, yet under her successor, kept on the windy side of the law, attending church once a month, and not entering till the service was nearly over. Thus, at the end of her reign, Elizabeth perhaps flattered herself that she was within measurable distance of religious uniformity.

From Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly. Published in London by Macmillan and Co., 1892.