Gateway to the Classics: Stories From English History, Book II by Alfred J. Church
Stories From English History, Book II by  Alfred J. Church

A Favourite

We have heard how at Zutphen, where Sir Philip Sidney was, the charge was led by the young Earl of Essex. He was a gallant young fellow, hot-headed and foolish indeed, and extravagant, but yet with much that was good in him. Unhappily he was spoilt by bad friends; the Queen herself, with her changeable ways, now petting him, now showing herself displeased with him, did not do him any good. What was worst of all, he could not control his own temper.

At Zutphen he was only nineteen, only twenty therefore when, in the year after, the Queen put him in command of the cavalry at Tilbury Fort. She liked to have him in attendance on her, for he was handsome and clever, and with fine manners, though he was sometimes violent in speech and action, as when, for instance, he fought a duel with a rival courtier, a certain Sir Charles Blunt. Sir Charles wounded him in the knee. The Queen, hearing of it, seemed rather pleased than offended. Essex, she said, needed some one to take him down, otherwise there would be no ruling him.

In the year after the Armada, when there was an expedition to help a certain Don Antonio, who hoped to take Portugal from King Philip, Essex ran away from Court to join the fleet. The Queen, who was much vexed, sent one Robert Carey after him with a letter, in which she said that "his sudden and undutiful departure from her presence and his place of attendance" was very offensive to her. Carey was not in time to catch him. He had already embarked. The expedition did nothing of any importance, for the Portuguese had no particular liking for Don Antonio, but Essex distinguished himself by his courage, being the first to leap ashore when there was a landing on the Spanish coast. This, however, was a fault which Elizabeth did not find it difficult to forgive. It was not so when she found that he had secretly married the widow of Sir Philip Sidney. She could not bear that any of her favourites should think of any one but herself. He was still in disgrace when some English soldiers were sent to help one of the French parties against the other. Again he secretly left the Court to have his share of the fighting. Of this, indeed, he seemed never to have enough. He was foremost in every attack; his young brother Walter was killed at his side. He challenged a French Admiral to a duel; and he took up a position so much in advance of his general's line that he was in great danger. The Queen did not like that he should risk his life in this way, and yet was proud of the courage which he showed. Still, as she refused to send the help which she had promised while he remained where he was, he thought it best to come home. Elizabeth gave him a hearty welcome, and seemed to forgive him for all his offences against her. In 1596 he commanded the army in an expedition against Spain, and took the town of Cadiz in a very gallant way. The Queen, however, was angry with him for allowing the soldiers to have the plunder of the place; she thought that it ought to have been kept for her, or, at least, for, her to divide as she thought best. Again Essex lost her favour, but he seems to have got it again the next year, when she made him Earl Marshal. In 1598 Lord Burleigh died; the Queen missed him much, and so did Essex. The two had been often at variance. Burleigh was for peace with Spain, if it were possible, and Essex for war. Once, it is said, when they had grown hot disputing this question, Burleigh drew a Prayer-book out of his pocket and showed the young man this text—"Bloodthirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days." But Burleigh had a great regard for him, and often served him with the Queen. Most of the courtiers looked at him with jealousy and even hatred.


The Earl of Essex.

In 1598 there was a worse quarrel than all, if indeed the story is true. There was a dispute as to the proper person to be put in some office in Ireland. The Queen set herself against the man whom Essex recommended, and at last he became so angry that he turned his back upon her. This piece of rudeness so provoked her that she gave him a box on the ear. He put his hand to his sword, and when the Lord Admiral stepped between him and the Queen, he declared that he would not have put up with such an insult from Henry VIII. himself, and left the Court in a furious rage. Again, however, he was received with favour, or what seemed like it. In 1599 he was sent to Ireland as Lord Deputy. Of course it was an honour, but a very dangerous one. The country was most difficult to manage, and certainly wanted more prudence and good temper in its ruler than Essex had ever shown.

In Ireland everything went wrong. Essex was as brave as a man could be, but he was not a general. He could not defeat the Irish rebels; perhaps no one could have done so. Accordingly he tried to make peace, and sent over to England the terms which he thought ought to be given. The Queen and her counsellors were furious, thinking them far too good for the Irish. No one now can say who was in the right. Ireland, after all, did belong to the Irish, and they asked only for what had been their own. But then there were many English settlers in the country, and there would have been an end of them if the Irish had prevailed.

Essex's enemies, of course, were busy. They even said that Essex was thinking of becoming King of Ireland by help of the rebel Irish and of Spain. The Queen sent him an angry letter, and he, on receiving it, left Ireland at once, in order, as he said, to see the Queen, and defend himself before her from the slander of his enemies. When he got to London he found that she was not there, but at her palace at Cheam, called Nonsuch. He hurried down there, and almost forced his way into the Queen's chamber. She had not long risen from her bed, and was being dressed by her women. He fell on his knees before her, and covered her hand with kisses. She seems to have been kind to him, though no one knew what she said. Anyhow, when he left the room, he seemed to be content with the way in which she had received him, and was in good spirits. But afterwards she turned, or was turned by others, against him, and when a gentleman whom he had knighted came to pay her his respects, she showed a great deal of anger. "I am no Queen," she cried. "That man sets himself above me. Who gave him command to come hither so soon, when I sent him on other business?" Later in the day he saw her again, but then she showed him no kind of favour, told him that he must not leave his house, and that he would have to answer for his conduct before the Council.

All this happened in the winter of 1599. About six months afterwards he was tried in an irregular sort of way. He confessed that he had made great mistakes in the conduct of the war, but solemnly affirmed that he had never had any treason against the Queen in his thoughts. In the end she pardoned him, but gave him to understand that he was not yet restored to favour.

If he had been content to be patient all might have ended well. But patient he never was and never could be. He saw that his enemies were powerful with the Queen, and that they persuaded her to do what they pleased. He was honestly convinced that many things which they did were not for the good of the country, and that if he were in their place, he could give better advice. Then he was greatly in debt, and was very angry to find that he was not to have any longer a very profitable monopoly, as it was called. A monopoly  was the privilege of selling something which other people were not allowed to sell. Of course any one who had the privilege could raise the price, not exactly as high as he chose, but so high as to make large profits. Essex's monopoly was of a kind of wine. He grew more and more angry and discontented, and began to talk in a very violent way, saying, for instance, "that the Queen grew old and cankered, and that her mind was become as crooked as her carcase."

At last he broke out into open violence. He had been called to attend the Council, and had answered that he was not well enough to come. The Lord Chief Justice and some other great persons came to warn him not to break the law. He brought them into his house and locked them up. This done, he went out into the street, followed by a number of friends, in the hope that the citizens would rise in his favour. The streets were empty, for the Lord Mayor had ordered that every one was to remain at home. One of the sheriffs, whom he knew to be his friend, he could not find. Sadly disappointed, he went back to his house, and found that his prisoners were gone.

Meanwhile the heralds had been sent into the city to proclaim Essex a traitor, to offer a reward of 1000 for his head, and pardon to such of his fellows as should at once make their peace with the Queen. Soon afterwards Essex's house was surrounded by soldiers; on the promise of a fair trial he surrendered, and was taken to the Tower.

The trial took place before a number of peers, some of whom were certainly Essex's enemies. He was not allowed to object to them, because they were not sworn, but gave their verdict on their honour. I need not describe the trial. He was of course found guilty, and indeed he had done much more than had been enough to bring about the condemnation of others. No one doubted that he would be sentenced to death; the question was whether the Queen would suffer him to die. For some time she could not make up her mind. Essex's enemies did their best to keep up her anger against him. They repeated, perhaps they made up, foolish things that he had said against her. But she could not forget that she had once loved him. There is a story, which has been denied, but which is probably true, that in former days she had given him a ring which he was to send to her when he was in great need. She expected to receive it, and he did send it. It went by mistake to the wrong person, and this person wilfully kept it back. The Queen was provoked that it never reached her, and the fierce temper which belonged to her family was roused to a worse rage than ever. Essex was found guilty on the 19th of February, the Queen signed his death warrant on the 23rd, and he was executed two days later.

It was a cruel act, because it was not in any way necessary. The Queen could not have believed that she was in any danger from him. It was not long before she began to reproach herself. After all she had loved the man, and when he was gone she began to find it out. She had many sad thoughts when she died, but none more sad than the memory of the foolish, brave Essex. She died on March 24, 1603, in her seventieth year.

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