A FTER the defeat of the Armada not only was there a general rejoicing, but the whole land felt a new sense of freedom. Until 1588 Elizabeth had been obliged to steer the ship of state with the utmost wariness. She must keep on good terms with Scotland, lest that country should turn to France for friendship. She must make sure that France would not oppose her, lest Philip should join the ruler of the land across the Channel. She must help the Low Countries sufficiently to strengthen their opposition to the Spanish king and so keep him from England, but she must not give them so much aid that they would become a burden upon her in their dependence, and she must not accept the Protectorate, that would perhaps involve her realm in a long and bloody war with Spain. For thirty years this keen, shrewd scheming went on. England was gaining every day in power and wealth, and when at last "Old Leadenfoot" began to bestir himself, the country was ready to meet him.
The Armada had come and gone, and England was free. Philip might talk as boastfully as he would about sending another fleet to make another attack, but no one forgot that he had sent a fleet and it had failed. England was "mistress of the seas" in the sense that she was no longer in fear of any other nation. If a Spanish vessel encountered an English vessel, they would be likely to fight, but the Englishmen expected to win, and that expectation of victory was in itself a mark of greatness. If England chose to plant colonies in the New World, there was little fear that Spain would trouble them to any great extent.
This new sense of freedom showed itself not only in what was done but in what was written, and often the same man that had written an undying poem could fight a battle or lead a voyage of discovery or plan what was best for the nation when there were difficult questions of state to decide. Shakespeare himself, the greatest writer of all, was not only a poet but a keen, thrifty man of business.
The people of England had become accustomed to seeing great deeds done before their eyes, and that is one reason why few stories were written but many plays, for it seemed much more "real" to see a tale acted on the stage than to hear an account of it.
It was a great pity that this freedom could not have extended to religious matters, but it was some years after Queen Elizabeth's death before many people realized that it was possible for two persons to have entirely different ideas of religion and yet be honest and sincere and live peacefully together. Toward the close of Elizabeth's reign there were persecutions of those refusing to attend the Church of England that were far more severe than the mild system of fines with which she began her rule. The fines were increased, and Puritans as well as Catholics were sometimes ruined by the large sums of money that they were obliged to pay if they persisted in refusing to attend the services of the Church of England. They were often imprisoned, and in the Elizabethan days imprisonment was no light penalty. Not only were the jails damp, unhealthy, filthy places, but prisoners were obliged to pay many exorbitant charges, so that if a man escaped with his life and health, he had to leave large sums of money behind him. One jail bill of that day has a weekly item of five dollars and a half for food, and as money would purchase about five times as much then as now, this charge was equivalent to more than twenty-seven dollars to-day. This was not all by any means, for a prisoner had to pay the rent of his wretched dungeon. If he was doomed to wear fetters, he must pay extra for them, and, most absurd charge of all, he was forced to pay an entrance fee on being sent to the horrible place. Besides being imprisoned, dissenters, as those were called who would not attend the Church of England, were sometimes whipped or tortured or even hanged. The only excuse for such treatment is that neither the queen nor her council was in fault for not being a century in advance of their times. Indeed, it was more than two centuries after the death of the queen before England would allow a Catholic to become a member of Parliament.
As Elizabeth drew older, she dressed with increasing magnificence. Her hands were loaded with rings, and her robes were made of the richest material that could be obtained. A German traveler who saw her on her way to her private chapel describes her as wearing a dress of heavy white silk, made with a very long train and bordered with pearls as large as beans. She wore a deep collar made of gold and jewels. This same traveler says that every corner of her palace shone with gold and silver and crystal and precious stones, and yet her floors were strewn with rushes that were probably as dirty as those in the homes of her subjects.
The end of the century drew near, and it brought sorrow to the queen in the death of her old adviser, Lord Burleigh. Leicester had died soon after the defeat of the Armada, and Elizabeth never parted with a paper upon which she had written sadly, "His last letter." In Burleigh's old age he became quite infirm, and while Elizabeth's other ministers addressed her kneeling, Burleigh was always made to seat himself comfortably before she would discuss any question with him. "I am too old and too feeble to serve you well," he would say, but she refused to let him resign his office. In the days of his strength, she would storm at him in a tornado of rage when his judgment differed from hers, but as he became weak and ill, she was the tenderest of friends. "The door is low, your Majesty," said the servant as she entered the sickroom of the councilor. "Then I will stoop," said she, "for your master's sake, though never for the king of Spain." She often went to sit by his bedside, and the haughty sovereign whose wrath burst forth so furiously at a word of opposition became the most gentle of nurses. As she sat beside him, she would allow no hand but her own to give him nourishment. "She never speaks of him without tears," said one who was with her after his death.
The loss of another of her friends brought her even greater grief than that of Burleigh, for this time the life of her favorite lay in her own power, but as the faithful sovereign she felt herself obliged to sacrifice it. From the time that Leicester had presented to her his brilliant, fascinating stepson, the Earl of Essex, the young man had been a prime favorite with the queen. At their first meeting he was seventeen and the queen fifty-six, and she treated him like a petted child who can do no wrong. She forbade him to take any part in the fighting in Portugal, but he slipped away from court without her knowledge, and was the first to leave the boats on the Portuguese coast. He returned with some fear of being punished for his disobedience, but the queen forgot the wrongdoing, and was only anxious to make up for his disappointment because a position that he had wished for had been given to some one else.
When Essex married, Elizabeth was as indignant as usual at each new proof that with all the adoration that her courtiers continually declared of herself, she was not the whole world to them. When Essex was fighting in Holland, a request was sent to the queen for more troops. The ambassador said:—
"Your Majesty, my master has consulted the Earl of Essex, and he favors the request."
Elizabeth had not yet granted Essex her forgiveness, and she blazed forth:—
"The Earl of Essex, indeed! He would have it thought that he rules my realm."
In spite of her anger with him, she was so anxious when she knew how carelessly he risked his life that she wrote ordering him to return to England at once, and when, much against his will, he obeyed her command, she spent a week in feasting and merriment. Over and over they quarreled. Essex would perhaps favor one candidate for a position, and the queen another. There would be hot words between them, and they would part, both in a fury. Then Essex would pretend to be ill, and the repentant queen would go to see the spoiled child, and pardon his petulance unasked. "He is not to blame, he takes it from his mother," she would say, and as she especially disliked his mother, she admitted this as sufficient excuse for overlooking his impertinence. The great storm came when the queen named a lord lieutenant for Ireland, and Essex opposed. Elizabeth made one of her severe speeches, and the young man retorted by shrugging his shoulders and turning his back on her. The queen replied by soundly boxing his ears. Essex grasped his sword. "I wouldn't have pardoned that blow even from King Henry himself. What else could one expect from an old king in petticoats!" he cried and dashed away from court.
His friends urged him to return and try to regain the affection of the queen by a humble apology, but for many weeks he refused. "I am the queen's servant," said he, "but I am not her slave." However, he finally sued for pardon and was again forgiven.
So long as the offences of Essex were against Elizabeth as a woman, she was ready to forgive, but at last he committed a crime against her government, and the woman was forgotten in the sovereign. All through the reign there was trouble with Ireland. The Irish hated the English and would follow anyone who would lead them against English rule. There were continual rebellions. Essex's enemies brought it about that the favorite should be sent to command what he called "the cursedest of all islands." Before long, rumors of his mismanagement began to reach the ears of the queen. "He is ever forcing his soldiers to make wearisome and useless marches and countermarches," said the reports. "He wastes money and supplies, and he exhausts his troops by irregular skirmishes that amount to nothing. He has made a foolish peace with the leader of the Irish rebels instead of suppressing them by force of arms. He is trying to make himself king of the Irish, and he will then raise an Irish army to come over and dethrone the queen."
Elizabeth sent letters full of reproof to Essex, but the young fellow only said to himself, "They are not her letters. She has written the words, but it is Burleigh who has guided her pen." He abandoned his command and went straight to England, sure that the queen would pardon any misdeed on the part of her favorite.
Early one morning the young man arrived in London. He must see the queen before his enemies could have word of her and induce her to forbid him to appear at court, and he galloped wildly on to the palace. He looked into the audience chamber, she was not there; into the privy chamber, she was not there. Then he burst into her dressing room where the queen sat with her women brushing her hair. He was muddy with his mad gallop to the palace, his clothes were disordered and travelstained, but when he threw himself at her feet and pleaded, "Don't judge me by the tales of my enemies," the queen was so kind to him that he thought himself forgiven. Later, however, she saw that he had committed many acts of disobedience which in a military commander were unpardonable. He was tried by the privy council, and for a few weeks was confined to his own house. Elizabeth deprived him of several valuable monopolies and even after his release forbade him to appear at court. In any other commander the penalty of such crimes would have been far more severe, but instead of thinking upon the mercy that had been shown him, Essex meditated upon what he thought his wrongs. He became more and more embittered, and at last he tried to arouse a rebellion against the queen. There was a fierce struggle in Elizabeth's mind between her love for the young man and her duty to punish the treason. At last she signed the death warrant, recalled it, then signed another, and Essex was executed in the Tower of London.
The seventeenth century began, and the health of the queen was clearly failing. A woman of less strength of character would have posed as an invalid, but Elizabeth seemed to feel that sickness was unworthy of a queen, and she concealed her increasing weakness as far as possible. She often had to be lifted upon her horse, but she would not give up riding. She even went to visit one of her councilors. Cornets saluted her, drums and trumpets sounded as she entered the courtyard. She watched the dancing of the ladies of the house and the feats of horsemanship and swordplay of the young men, but she was exhausted, and in spite of her good courage, she could not go up the stairs without a staff. Yet in the early part of 1602 she went a-Maying in the old fashion of celebrating the coming of spring.
With all her glory and her greatness, the last days of this woman on a throne were more lonely than those of a woman in a cottage. Essex had been a great favorite among the people, and they had never forgiven his death. When the queen showed herself among them, she was no longer received with all the old tokens of loyalty and affection, and no one could have been more keen than she to note the least change in the manner of her subjects.
She knew that James would be her heir, but she had not forgotten the long lines of greedy courtiers who had sought her when her sister Mary was near her end, and she refused to name him definitely as the one whom she wished to succeed her. This refusal made little difference, however, in the increasing devotion of those around her to the Scotch king, who would so soon be the ruler of England. One after another wearied of attendance; some made excuses to leave her, others left without excuse. The son of Burleigh, who had taken his father's place, sent almost daily epistles to Scotland. Harington, who used to write her merry, jesting letters, signed "Your Majesty's saucy godson," had sent valuable gifts to the King of Scots, and a petition that he might not be forgotten when James should come into his kingdom. Her own councilors were sending messengers to James hoping to win his favor. Two of her relatives stood by her bedside, but their watchfulness arose not from affection but that they might be the first to tell James that the crown was his at last.
The queen became more and more feeble. She was sad and melancholy. Often she sat for hours alone in the dark weeping. She felt her loneliness most keenly. "Whom can I trust? Whom can I trust?" her attendants heard her murmur. A kinsman who went to see her said that she drew heavy sighs continually, "And I never knew her to sigh," he declared, "save at the death of the Queen of Scots." She lay on cushions piled up on the floor.
"Madam," urged the son of Burleigh, "will you not be moved to your bed?"
"If I go to my bed, I shall never leave it," she answered.
"But you must in order to content your loving subjects," he urged.
Then the queen showed once more her proud Tudor blood. " 'Must' is no word to use to princes," said she, "and, little man, if your father had lived, even he would not have dared to say so much."
She passed away quietly in a gentle sleep. According to a strange custom of the times an image of her was made in wax, decked in the royal robes, and laid upon her coffin. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, and as the sad procession went through the streets, the early love of her subjects returned in full measure. An old chronicler says:—
"And when they beheld her statue, or effigy, lying on the coffin, set forth in royal robes, having a crown upon the head thereof, and a ball and sceptre in either hand, there was such a general sighing, groaning, and weeping, as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man; neither doth any history mention any people, time, or state, to make like lamentation for the death of their sovereign."