LAST YEARS AND DEATH: 1601-1603
THE death of Mary Stuart did something to simplify parties in Scotland; and, if her son had possessed the qualities of a ruler, he would have had a better chance of reducing his kingdom to order than any of his predecessors, because a middle class was at length rising into importance. As far as knowledge and discernment went, he was an able politician, and on several occasions he showed not only skill in his combinations, but–what he is not generally credited with by those who study only his career in England — considerable energy and courage. But he was wanting in perseverance, and a slave to idle pleasures. He had always some favourite upon whom he lavished any money that came into his hands. What was needed in his own interest and that of his country was that he should exercise rigid economy, develop all the forces that made for order, ally himself with the burghs and lower barons, cultivate good relations with the Kirk, industriously attend to all the details of government, and seize every opportunity to humble the great nobles of whatever party or creed. Instead of this, he tried to maintain himself by balancing rival parties, and employing one nobleman to execute his vengeance on another. Instead of honestly and zealously seconding the policy of Elizabeth, and so deserving her confidence and support, which would have been of the utmost value to him, he tried to levy blackmail on her by coquetting with Spain and the Catholics.
Elizabeth is accused of deliberately encouraging Scottish factions in order to keep the northern kingdom weak. She certainly supported Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, a turbulent and unprincipled man, while he was the antagonist of the Catholic nobles who were inviting the Spaniard. But it is plain that she desired nothing so much as to see James crush all aristocratic disorder, and make himself master of his kingdom. Her exhortations to him on this subject are full of wisdom, and expressed in most stirring language. But they only produced petitions for money. Notwithstanding her own difficulties, she long allowed him £3000 a year, which, in 1600, was increased to £6000. But ten times that amount would have done him no good, because he would immediately have squandered it.
As Elizabeth grew old, James naturally became absorbed in the prospect of his succession to the English crown. All Scotchmen shared his eagerness. In England, feeling was almost unanimous in his favour, though some of the Catholics continued to talk of the Infanta or Arabella Stuart the niece of Darnley. By teasing Elizabeth to recognise his title, intriguing with her courtiers, and calling on his own subjects to furnish him with the means of asserting his rights, James irritated the English Queen. But she had always intended that he should succeed her, and she did nothing to prejudice his claim.
The two leading men at the English court–Cecil and Raleigh–who had been united in their hostility to Essex, were now secretly competing for the favour of James. Each warned the Scottish King against the other, and represented himself as the only trustworthy adviser. Cecil, from his confidential relations with the Queen, had the most difficult game to play, and it was not till her health was evidently failing that he ventured to open private communications with James. Even then he did not dare to correspond with him directly, but it was understood that everything written by Lord Henry Howard (brother of the last Duke of Norfolk) was to be taken as written by Cecil. To make up for his previous backwardness, he lent James £10,000–a pledge of fidelity which it was out of his rival’s power to emulate.
The long career of Elizabeth was now drawing to its close. Her sun might seem to be going down in calm splendour. She had triumphed over all her enemies. She might say with Virgil’s heroine–
“Vixi, et quem dederat cursum fortuna, peregi;
Et nunc magna mei sub terras ibit imago.”
The mighty Philip had gone to his grave five years before her (1598), a beaten man, having failed in Holland, failed in France, failed against England. Of the three great champions who withstood him, Elizabeth, if not the most distinguished by high qualities, had yet, perhaps, the largest share in saving Europe from the retrograde tyranny which menaced it. The glorious resistance of William of Orange covered only sixteen years (1568-84). That of Henry IV can hardly be said to have had any European importance before his accession to the French throne, from which date to the peace of Vervins and the death of Philip is a period of nine years (1589-98). But the whole of Elizabeth’s long reign was spent in abating the power of Spain. It was the persistent, never-relaxing pressure from an unassailable enemy which wore out Philip, as it afterwards wore out Bonaparte. Elizabeth had found England weak and distracted: she was leaving it united and powerful. Nor was she of those to whom their due meed of praise is denied during life, and accorded only by the tardy justice of posterity. Her wisdom and courage were the admiration not of her own people alone, but of all Europe. “Her very enemies,” says a French historian, “proclaimed her the most glorious and fortunate of all women who ever wore a crown.” From the point of view of public life, little or nothing was wanting–so Bacon thought–to fill up the full measure of her felicity.
Yet it seems that the last months of her life were clouded by melancholy, and deformed by a querulous ill-temper. Some have suggested that she suffered from remorse for her severity to Essex; others that she felt herself out of sympathy with the Puritan tendencies of the time. It is not necessary to resort to these unfounded or far-fetched suppositions to account for her gloom. If we turn from her public to her private life, what situation could be more profoundly pitiable? Honour and obedience, indeed, still surrounded her. But that which also should accompany old age, love and troops of friends, she might not look to have. Near relations she had none. Alone she had chosen to live, and alone she must die. As her time approached, she was haunted by the consciousness that, among all those who treated her with so much reverence, there was not one who had any reason to be attached to her or to care that her life should be prolonged. Those who have not loved when they were young must not expect to find love when they are old. While health and strength remained, she had tasted the satisfaction of living her own life and playing the great game of politics, for which she was exceptionally gifted. But to a woman who has passed through life without knowing what it is to love or be loved, who has no memory of even an unrequited affection to feed on, who has never shared a husband’s joys and sorrows, never borne the sweet burden of maternity, never suckled babe or rocked cradle, who must finish her journey alone, sitting in the solemn twilight before the last dark hour uncared for and uncaring, without the cheer of children or the varied interests that gather round the family–to such a one, what avails it that she has tasted the excitement of public life, that she has borne a share in politics or business–what even that her aims have been high or that she has done the State some service, if she has renounced the crown of womanhood, and turned from their appointed use those numbered years within which the female heart can find present joy and lay up store of calm satisfaction for declining age?
Elizabeth had always enjoyed good health, thanks to her “exact temperance both as to wine and diet, which, she used to say, was the noblest part of physic,” and her active habits. In capacity for resisting bodily fatigue and freedom from nervous ailments, she was like a man. It was not till the beginning of 1602 that those about her noticed any signs of failing strength. She still went on hunting and dancing. In dancing she excelled, and she kept it up for exercise, as many an old man keeps up his skating or tennis without being exposed to ill-natured remarks. In December 1602 her godson Harington, an amusing person, whose company she enjoyed, found her “in most pitiable state,” both in body and mind. “She held in her hand a golden cup which she often put to her lips; but in sooth her heart seemeth too full to lack more filling.” He read her some verses he had written, “whereat she smiled once,” but said, “When thou dost feel creeping Time at thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less. I am past my relish for such matters. Thou seest my bodily meat doth not suit me well. I have eaten but one ill-tasted cake since yesternight.” Harington hastened to send a present to the King of Scots, with the inscription, “Domine memento mei cum veneris in regnum.”
In the same month Robert Carey, son of her cousin Lord Hunsdon, visited her, and professed to think her looking well. “No, Robin,” she said, “I am not well,” and then “discoursed of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs. . . . Hereupon I wrote to the King of Scots.”(1) Her melancholy was not caused by any weakening of her mind. A long letter to James, dated 5 January 1603, though hardly legible, is very vigorous and characteristic.
At the beginning of March1603 she became much worse. There was some disease of the throat, attended with swelling and a distressing formation of phlegm, which made speaking difficult. The only relatives about her were Robert Carey and his sister Lady Scrope, watching keenly that they might be the first to inform James of her death. She could not be brought by any of her Council to take food or go to bed. When in bed she had been troubled by a visual illusion; “she saw her body exceedingly lean and fearful in a light of fire.” At last Nottingham, the Admiral, who was mourning the recent death of his wife, was sent for. He was a second cousin of Anne Boleyn, and was the one person to whom the dying Queen seemed to cling with some trust. He induced her to take some broth. “For any of the rest,” says her maid-of-honour, Mistress Southwell, “she would not answer them to any question, but said softly to my Lord Admiral’s earnest persuasions that if he knew what she had seen in her bed he would not persuade her as he did. And Secretary Cecil, overhearing her, asked if her Majesty had seen any spirits; to which she said she scorned to answer him so idle a question. Then he told her how, to content the people, her Majesty must go to bed. To which she smiled, wonderfully contemning him, saying that the word must was not to be used to princes; and thereupon said, ‘Little man, little man, if your father had lived ye [he?] durst not have said so much: but thou knowest I must die, and that maketh thee so presumptuous.’ And presently commanding him and the rest to depart her chamber, willed my Lord Admiral to stay; to whom she shook her head, and with a pitiful voice said, ‘My Lord, I am tied with a chain of iron about my neck.’ He alleging her wonted courage to her, she replied, ‘I am tied, and the case is altered with me.'” At last, “what by fair means,” says Carey, “what by force, he got her to bed.”
It was perfectly understood that she meant James to be her successor. The Admiral now told his colleagues that she had confided her intention to him just before her illness took a serious turn. Two years before, in conversation with Rosni, the minister of Henry IV., she had spoken of the approaching union of the Scotch and English crowns as a matter of course. But it was not till a few hours before her death that her councillors ventured to question her on the subject. They gave out that she indicated James by a sign; and this is also asserted by Carey, who, however, does not seem to have been present, though probably his sister was. Mistress Southwell seems to write as an eye-witness, but betrays a Catholic bias, which may cast some doubt on her testimony. “The Council sent to her the bishop of Canterbury and other of the prelates, upon sight of whom she was much offended, cholericly rating them, bidding them be packing, saying she was no atheist, but knew full well they were hedgepriests, and took it for an indignity that they should speak to her. Now being given over by all, and at the last gasp, keeping still her sense in everything and giving ever when she spoke apt answers, though she spake very seldom, having then a sore throat, she desired to wash it, that she might answer more freely to what the Council demanded; which was to know whom she would have king; but they, seeing her throat troubled her so much, desired her to hold up her finger when they named whom liked her. Whereupon they named the king of France, the king of Scotland, at which she never stirred. They named my lord Beauchamp, (2) whereto she said, ‘I will have no rascal’s son in my seat, but one worthy to be a king.’ Hereupon instantly she died.” (23 March, afternoon.)
It is certain, however, that she lived several hours after this characteristic outburst. Carey says that at six o’clock in the evening he went into her room with the Archbishop; that, though speechless, she showed by signs that she followed his prayers, and twice desired him to remain when he was going away. She died in the early hours of Thursday, 24 March.
There have been many greater statesmen than Elizabeth. She was far from being an admirable type of womanhood. She does not, in my opinion, stand first even among female sovereigns, for I should put that able ruler and perfect woman, Isabella of Castile, above her. I admit, however, that such comparisons are apt to be unjust. Few rulers have had to contend with such formidable and complicated difficulties as the English Queen. Few have surmounted them so triumphantly. This is the criterion, and the sufficient criterion, which determines the judgment of practical men. Research, if applied with fairness and common sense, may perhaps modify, it can never set aside, the popular verdict. There are writers who have made the discovery that Elizabeth was a very poor ruler, selfish and wayward, shortsighted, easily duped, fainthearted, rash, miserly, wasteful, and swayed by the pettiest impulses of vanity, spite, and personal inclination. They have not explained, and never will, how it was that a woman with all these disqualifications for government should have ruled England with signal success for forty-four years. Statesmen are indebted to good luck occasionally, like other people. But when this explanation is offered again and again with dull regularity, we are compelled to say, with one who had at once the best opportunity and the highest capacity for estimating the greatness of Elizabeth: “It is not to closet penmen that we are to look for guidance in such a case; for men of that order being keen in style, poor in judgment, and partial in feeling, are no faithful witnesses as to the real passages of business. It is for ministers and great officers to judge of these things, and those who have handled the helm of government and been acquainted with the difficulties and mysteries of State business.” (Bacon, In felicem memoriam Elizabethœ.)
The judgment of those who have handled the helm of government is to be found in the words of her contemporary, the great Henry–“She was my other self:” and of a greater still in the next generation-“Queen Elizabeth of famous memory; we need not be ashamed to call her so!” (Carlyle, Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, Speech V.)
Notes: 1. Elizabeth made large use of the courage and fidelity of her kinsmen on the Boleyn side, but she did little to advance them either in rank or wealth. Hunsdon had set his heart on regaining the Boleyn Earldom of Wiltshire. When he was dying, Elizabeth brought the patent and robes of in earl, and laid them on his bed; but the choleric old man replied, “Madam, seeing you counted me not worthy of this honour while I was living, I count myself unworthy of it now I am dying.” 2. Son of Catherine Grey by the Earl of Hertford. “Rascal” at that time meant a person of low birth.
From Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly. Published in London by Macmillan and Co., 1892.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Queen Elizabeth by Edward Spencer Beesly, 1892 – Chapter XII" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/queen-elizabeth-edward-spencer-beesly-1892-chapter-xii/, March 6, 2015