Gateway to the Classics: Queen Elizabeth by Jacob Abbott
Queen Elizabeth by  Jacob Abbott

The Earl of Essex

The lady whom the Earl of Leicester married was, a short time before he married her, the wife of the Earl of Essex, and she had one son, who, on the death of his father, became the Earl of Essex in his turn. He came to court, and continued in Leicester's family after his mother's second marriage. He was an accomplished and elegant young man, and well regarded with a good deal of favor by the queen. He was introduced at court when he was but seventeen years old, and, being the stepson of Leicester, he necessarily occupied a conspicuous position; his personal qualities, joined with this, soon gave him a very high and honorable name.

About a month after the victory obtained by the English over the invincible armada, Leicester was seized with a fever on a journey, and, after lingering for a few days, died, leaving Essex, as it were, in his place. Elizabeth seems not to have been very inconsolable for her favorite's death. She directed, or allowed, his property to be sold at auction, to pay some debts which he owed her—or, as the historians of the day express it, which he owed the crown—and then seemed at once to transfer her fondness and affection to the young Essex, who was at that time twenty-one years of age. Elizabeth herself was now nearly sixty. Cecil was growing old also, and was somewhat infirm, though he had a son who was rapidly coming forward in rank and influence at court. This son's name was Robert. The young Earl of Essex's name was Robert too. The elder Cecil and Leicester had been, all their lives, watchful and jealous of each other, and in some sense rivals. Robert Cecil and Robert Devereux—for that was, in full, the Earl of Essex's family name—being young and ardent, inherited the animosity of their parents, and were less cautious and wary in expressing it. They soon became open foes.

Robert Devereux, or Essex, as he is commonly called in history, was handsome and accomplished, ardent, impulsive, and generous. The war with Spain, notwithstanding the destruction of the armada, continued, and Essex entered into it with all zeal. The queen, who with all her ambition, and her proud and domineering spirit, felt, like any other woman, the necessity of having something to love, soon began to take a strong interest in his person and fortunes, and seemed to love him as a mother loves a son; and he, in his turn, soon learned to act toward her as a son, full of youthful courage and ardor, often acts toward a mother over whose heart he feels that he has a strong control. He would go away, without leave, to mix in affrays with the Spanish ships in the English Channel and in the Bay of Biscay, and then come back and make his peace with the queen by very humble petitions for pardon, and promises of future obedience. When he went, with her leave, on these expeditions, she would charge his superior officers to keep him out of danger; while he, with an impetuosity which strongly marked his character, would evade and escape from all these injunctions, and press forward into every possible exposure, always eager to have battle given, and to get, himself, into the hottest part of it, when it was begun. At one time, off Cadiz, the officers of the English ships hesitated some time whether to venture an attack upon some ships in the harbor—Essex burning with impatience all the time—and when it was at length decided to make the attack, he was so excited with enthusiasm and pleasure that he threw his cap up into the air, and overboard, perfectly wild with delight, like a school-boy in anticipation of a holiday.

Ten years passed away, and Essex rose high and higher in estimation and honor. He was sometimes in the queen's palaces at home, and sometimes away on the Spanish seas, where he acquired great fame. He was proud and imperious at court, relying on his influence with the queen, who treated him as a fond mother treats a spoiled child. She was often vexed with his conduct, but she could not help loving him. One day, as he was coming into the queen's presence chamber, he saw one of the courtiers there who had a golden ornament upon his arm which the queen had given him the day before. He asked what it was; they told him it was a "favor" from the queen. "Ah," said he, "I see how it is going to be; every fool must have his favor." The courtier resented this mode of speaking of his distinction, and challenged Essex to a duel. The combatants met in the Park, and Essex was disarmed and wounded. The queen heard of the affair, and, after inquiring very curiously about all the particulars, she said that she was glad of it; for, unless there was somebody to take down his pride, there would be no such thing as doing any thing with him.

Elizabeth's feelings toward Essex fluctuated in strange alternations of fondness and displeasure. At one time, when affection was in the ascendency, she gave him a ring, as a talisman of her protection. She promised him that if he ever should become involved in troubles or difficulties of any kind, and especially if he should lose her favor, either by his own misconduct or by the false accusations of his enemies, if he would send her that ring, it should serve to recall her former kind regard, and incline her to pardon and save him. Essex took the ring, and preserved it with the utmost care.

Friendship between persons of such impetuous and excitable temperaments as Elizabeth and Essex both possessed, though usually very ardent for a time, is very precarious and uncertain in duration. After various petulant and brief disputes, which were easily reconciled, there came at length a serious quarrel. There was, at that time, great difficulty in Ireland; a rebellion had broken out, in fact, which was fomented and encouraged by Spanish influence. Essex was one day urging very strongly the appointment of one of his friends to take the command and there, while the queen was disposed to appoint another person. Essex urged his views and wishes with much importunity, and when he found that the queen was determined not to yield, he turned his back upon her in a contemptuous and angry manner. The queen lost patience in her turn, and, advancing rapidly to him, her eyes sparkling with extreme resentment and displeasure, she gave him a severe box on the ear, telling him, at the same time, to "go and be hanged." Essex was exceedingly enraged; he clasped the handle of his sword, but was immediately seized by the other courtiers present. They, however, soon released their hold upon him, and he walked off out of the apartment, saying that he could not and would not bear such an insult as that. He would not have endured it, he said, from King Henry the Eighth himself. The name of King Henry the Eighth, in those days, was the symbol and personification of the highest possible human grandeur.

The friends of Essex among the courtiers endeavored to soothe and calm him, and to persuade him to apologize to the queen, and seek a reconciliation. They told him that, whether right or wrong, he ought to yield; for in contests with the law or with a prince, a man, they said, ought, if wrong, to submit himself to justice; if right, to necessity; in either ease, it was his duty to submit.

This was very good philosophy; but Essex was not in a state of mind to listen to philosophy. He wrote a reply to the friend who had counseled him as above, that "the queen had the temper of a flint; that she had treated him with such extreme injustice and cruelty so many times that his patience was exhausted, and he would bear it no longer. He knew well enough what duties he owed the queen as an earl and grand marshal of England, but he did not understand being cuffed and beaten like a menial servant; and that his body suffered in every part from the blow he had received."

His resentment, however, got soothed and softened in time, and he was again admitted to favor, though the consequences of such quarrels are seldom fully repaired. The reconciliation was, however, in this case, apparently complete, and in the following year Essex was himself appointed the Governor, or, as styled in those days, the Lord Deputy of Ireland.

He went to his province, and took command of the forces which had been collected there, and engaged zealously in the work of suppressing the rebellion. For some reason or other, however, he made very little progress. The name of the leader of the rebels was the Earl of Tyrone. Tyrone wanted a parley, but did not dare to trust himself in Essex's power. It was at last, however, agreed that the two leaders should come down to a river, one of them upon each side, and talk across it, neither general to have any troops or attendants with him. This plan was carried into effect. Essex, stationing a troop near him, on a hill, rode down to the water on one side, while Tyrone came into the river as far as his horse could wade on the other, and then the two earls attempted to negotiate terms of peace by shouting across the current of the stream.

Nothing effectual was accomplished by this and some other similar parleys, and in the mean time the weeks were passing away, and little was done toward suppressing the rebellion. The queen was dissatisfied. She sent Essex letters of complaint and censure. These letters awakened the lord deputy's resentment. The breach was thus rapidly widening, when Essex all at once conceived the idea of going himself to England, without permission, and without airing any notice of his intention, to endeavor, by a personal interview, to reinstate himself in the favor of the queen.


The House of the Earl of Essex.

This was a very bold step. It was entirely contrary to military etiquette for an officer to leave his command and go home to his sovereign without orders and without permission. The plan, however, might have succeeded. Leicester did once succeed in such a measure; but in this case, unfortunately, it failed. Essex traveled with the utmost dispatch, crossed the Channel, made the best of his way to the palace where the queen was then residing, and pressed through the opposition of all the attendants into the queen's private apartment, in his traveling dress, soiled and way-worn. The queen was at her toilet, with her hair down over her eyes, Essex fell on his knees before her, kissed her hand, and made great professions of gratitude and love, and of an extreme desire to deserve and enjoy her favor. The queen was astonished at his appearance, but Essex thought that she received him kindly. He went away after a short interview, greatly pleased with the prospect of a favorable issue to the desperate step he had taken. His joy, however, was soon dispelled. In the course of the day he was arrested by order of the queen, and sent to his house under the custody of an officer. He had presumed too far.

Essex was kept thus secluded and confined for some time. His house was on the bank of the river. None of his friends, not even his countess, were allowed access to him. His impetuous spirit wore itself out in chafing against the restraints and means of coercion which were pressing upon him; but he would not submit. The mind of the queen, too, was deeply agitated all the time by that most tempestuous of all mental conflicts, a struggle between resentment and love. Her affection for her proud-spirited favorite seemed as strong as ever, but she was determined to make him yield in the contest she had commenced with him. How often cases precisely similar occur in less conspicuous scenes of action, where they who love each other with a sincere and uncontrollable affection take their stand in attitudes of hostility, each determined that the obstinacy of the other shall give way, and each heart persisting in its own determination, resentment and love struggling all the time in a dreadful contest, which keeps the soul in a perpetual commotion, and allows of no peace till either the obstinacy yields or the love is extinguished and gone.

It was indirectly made known to Essex that if he would confess his fault, ask the queen's forgiveness, and petition for a release from confinement, in order that he might return to his duties in Ireland, the difficulty could be settled. But no, he would make no concessions. The queen, in retaliation, increased the pressure upon him. The more strongly he felt the pressure, the more his proud and resentful spirit was aroused. He walked his room, his soul boiling with anger and chagrin, while the queen, equally distressed and harassed by the conflict in her own soul, still persevered, hoping every day that the unbending spirit with which she was contending would yield at last.

At length the tidings name to her that Essex, worn out with agitation and suffering, was seriously sick. The historians doubt whether his sickness was real or feigned; but there is not much difficulty in understanding, from the circumstances of the case, what its real nature was. Such mental conflicts as those which he endured suspend the powers of digestion and accelerate the pulsations of the heart, which beats in the bosom with a preternatural frequency and force, like a bird fluttering to get free from a snare. The result is a sort of fever burning slowly in the veins, and an emaciation which wastes the strength away, and, in impetuous and uncontrollable spirits, like that of Essex, sometimes exhausts the powers of life altogether. The sickness, therefore, though of mental origin, becomes bodily and real; but then the sufferer is often ready, in such cases, to add a little to it by feigning. An instinct teaches him that nothing is so likely to move the heart whose cruelty causes him to suffer, as a knowledge of the extreme to which it has reduced him. Essex was doubtless willing that Elizabeth should know that he was sick. Her knowing it had, in some measure, the usual effect. It reawakened and strengthened the love she had felt for him, but did not give it absolutely the victory. She sent eight  physicians to him, to examine and consult upon his case. She caused some broth to be made for him, and gave it to one of these physicians to carry to him, directing the messenger, in a faltering voice, to say to Essex that if it ware proper to do so she would have come to see him herself. She then turned away to hide her tears. Strange inconsistency of the human heart—resentment and anger holding their ground in the soul against the object of such deep and unconquerable love. It would be incredible, were it not that probably every single one of all the thousands who may read this story has experienced the same.

Nothing has so great an effect in awakening in the heart a strong sentiment of kindness as the performance of a kind act. Feeling originates and controls action, it is true, but then, on the other hand, action has a prodigious power in modifying feeling. Elizabeth's acts of kindness to Essex in his sickness produced a renewal of her tenderness for him so strong that her obstinacy and anger gave way before it, and she soon began to desire some mode of releasing him from his confinement, and restoring him to favor. Essex was softened too. In a word, there was finally a reconciliation, though it was accomplished by slow degrees, and by means of a sort of series of capitulations. There was an investigation of his case before the privy council, which resulted in a condemnation of his conduct, and a recommendation to the mercy of the queen; and then followed some communications between Essex and his sovereign, in which he expressed sorrow for his faults, and made satisfactory promises for the future.

The queen, however, had not magnanimity enough to let the quarrel end without taunting and irritating the penitent with expressions of triumph. In reply to his acknowledgments and professions, she told him that she was glad to hear of his good intentions, and she hoped that he would show, by his future conduct, that he meant to fulfill them; that he had tried her patience for a long time, but she hoped that henceforth she should have no further trouble. If it had been her father, she added, instead of herself, that he had had to deal with, he would not have been pardoned at all. It could not be a very cordial reconciliation which was consummated by such words as these. But it was very like Elizabeth to utter them. They who are governed by their temper are governed by it even in their love.

Essex was not restored to office. In fact, he did not wish to be restored. He said that he was resolved henceforth to lead a private life. But even in respect to this plan he was at the mercy of the queen, for his private income was in a great measure, derived from a monopoly, as it is called, in a certain kind of wines, which had been granted to him some time before. It was a very customary mode, in those days, of enriching favorites, to grant them monopolies of certain kinds of merchandise, that is, the exclusive right to sell them. The persons to whom this privilege was granted would underlet their right to merchants in various parts of the kingdom, on condition of receiving a certain share of the profits. Essex had thus derived a great revenue from his monopoly of wines. The grant, however, was expiring, and he petitioned the queen that it might be renewed.

The interest which Essex felt in the renewal of this grant was one of the strongest inducements to lead him to submit to the humiliations which he had endured, and to make concessions to the queen. But he was disappointed in his hopes. The queen, elated a little with the triumph already attained, and, perhaps, desirous of the pleasure of humbling Essex still more, refused at present to renew his monopoly, saying that she thought it would do him good to be restricted a little, for a time, in his means. "Unmanageable beasts," she said, a had to be tamed by being stinted in their provender."

Essex was sharply stung by such a refusal, accompanied, too, by such an insult. He was full of indignation and anger. At first he gave free expression to his feelings of vexation in conversation with those around him. The queen, he said, had got to be a perverse and obstinate old woman, as crooked in mind as she was in body. He had plenty of enemies to listen to these speeches, and to report them in such a way as that they should reach the queen. A new breach was consequently opened, which seemed now wider than ever, and irreparable.

At least it seemed so to Essex; and, abandoning all plans for again enjoying the favor of Elizabeth, he began to consider what he could do to undermine her power and rise upon the ruins of it. The idea was insanity, but passion always makes men insane. James, king of Scotland, the son and successor of Mary, was the rightful heir to the English throne after Elizabeth's death. In order to make his right of succession more secure, he had wished to have Elizabeth acknowledge it; but she, always dreading terribly the thoughts of death, could never bear to think of a successor, and seemed to hate every one who entertained any expectation of following her. Essex suppressed all outward expressions of violence and anger; became thoughtful, moody, and sullen; held secret consultations with desperate intriguers, and finally formed a scheme to organize a rebellion, to bring King James's troops to England to support it, to take possession of the Tower and of the strongholds about London, to seize the palace of the queen, overturn her government, and compel her both to acknowledge James's right to the succession and to restore Essex himself to power.

The personal character of Essex had given him a very wide-spread popularity and influence, and he had, consequently, very extensive materials at his command for organizing a powerful conspiracy. The plot was gradually matured, extending itself, in the course of the few following months, not only throughout England, but also into France and Spain. The time for the final explosion was drawing near, when, as usual in such cases, intelligence of the existence of this treason, in the form of vague rumors, reached the queen. One day, when the leading conspirators were assembled at Essex`s palace, a messenger came to summon the earl to appear before the council. They received, also, private intelligence that their plots were probably discovered. While they were considering what to do in this emergency—all in a State of great perplexity and fear—a person came, pretending to be a deputy sent from some of the principal citizens of London, to say to Essex that they were ready to espouse his cause. Essex immediately became urgent to commence the insurrection at once. Some of his friends, on the other hand, were in favor of abandoning the enterprise, and flying from the country; but Essex said he had rather be shot at the head of his bands, than to wander all his days beyond the seas, a fugitive and a vagabond.

The conspirators acceded to their leader's councils. They sent word, accordingly, into the city, and began to make their arrangements to rise in arms the next morning. The night was spent in anxious preparations. Early in the morning, a deputation of some of the highest officers of the government, with a train of attendants, came to Essex's palace, and demanded entrance in the name of the queen. The gates of the palace were shut and guarded. At last, after some hesitation and delay, the conspirators opened a wicket, that is, a small gate within the large one, which would admit one person at a time. They allowed the officers themselves to enter, but shut the gate immediately so as to exclude the attendants. The officers found themselves in a large court-yard filled with armed men, Essex standing calmly at the head of them. They demanded what was the meaning of such an unusual assemblage. Essex replied that it was to defend his life front conspiracies formed against it by his enemies. The officers denied this danger, and began to expostulate with Essex in angry terms, and the attendants on his side to reply with vociferations and threats, when Essex, to end the altercation, took the officers into the palace. He conducted them to a room and shut them up, to keep them as hostages.

It was now near ten o'clock, and, leaving his prisoners in their apartment, under a proper guard, Essex sallied forth, with the more resolute and desperate of his followers, and proceeded into the city, to bring out into action the forces which he supposed were ready to co-operate with him there. He rode on through the streets, calling to arms, and shouting, "For the queen! For the queen!" His design was to convey the impression that the movement which he was making was not against the queen herself, but against his own enemies in her councils, and that she was herself on his side. The people of London, however, could not be so easily deceived. The mayor had received warning before, from the council, to be ready to suppress the movement, if one should be made. As soon, therefore, as Essex and his company were fairly in the city, the gates were shut and barred to prevent his return. One of the queen's principal ministers of state too, at the head of a small troop of horsemen, came in and rode through the streets, proclaiming Essex a traitor, and calling upon all the citizens to aid in arresting him. One of Essex's followers fired a pistol at this officer to stop his proclamation, but the people generally seemed disposed to listen to him, and to comply with his demand. After riding, therefore, through some of the principal streets, he returned to the queen, and reported to her that all was well in the city; there was no danger that Essex would succeed in raising a rebellion there.

In the mean time, the further Essex proceeded, the more he found himself environed with difficulties and dangers. The people began to assemble here and there with evident intent to impede his movements. They blocked up the streets with carts and coaches to prevent his escape. His followers, one after another, finding all hope of success gone, abandoned their despairing leader and fled. Essex himself, with the few who still adhered to him, wandered about till two o'clock, finding the way of retreat every where hemmed up against him. At length he fled to the river side, took a boat, with the few who still remained with him, and ordered the watermen to row as rapidly as possible up the river. They landed at Westminster, retreated to Essex's house, fled into it with the utmost precipitation, and barricaded the doors. Essex himself was excited in the highest degree, fully determined to die there rather than surrender himself a prisoner. The terrible desperation to which men are reduced in emergencies like these is shown by the fact that one of his followers did actually station himself at a window bare-headed, inviting a shot from the pistols of the pursuers, who had by this time environed the house, and were preparing to force their way in. His plan succeeded. He was shot, and died that night.

Essex himself was not quite so desperate as this. He soon saw, however, that he must sooner or later yield. He could not stand a siege in his own private dwelling against the whole force of the English realm. He surrendered about six in the evening, and was sent to the Tower. He was soon afterward brought to trial. The facts, with all the arrangements and details of the conspiracy, were fully proved, and he was condemned to die.

As the unhappy prisoner lay in his gloomy dungeon in the Tower, the insane excitement under which he had for so many months been acting slowly ebbed away. He awoke from it gradually, as one recovers his senses after a dreadful dream. He saw how utterly irretrievable was the mischief which had been done. Remorse for his guilt in having attempted to destroy the peace of the kingdom to gratify his own personal feelings of revenge; recollections of the favors which Elizabeth had shown him, and of the love which she had felt for him, obviously so deep and sincere; the consciousness that his life was fairly forfeited, and that he must die—to lie in his cell and think of these things, overwhelmed him with anguish and despair. The brilliant prospects which were so recently before him were all forever gone, leaving nothing in their place but the grim phantom of an executioner, standing with an ax by the side of a dreadful platform, with a block upon it, half revealed and half hidden by the black cloth which covered it like a pall.

Elizabeth, in her palace, was in a state of mind scarcely less distressing than that of the wretched prisoner in his cell. The old conflict was renewed—pride and resentment on the one side, and love which would not be extinguished on the other. If Essex would sue for pardon, she would remit his sentence and allow him to live. Why would he not do it ? If he would send her the ring which she had given him for exactly such an emergency, he might be saved. Why did he not send it? The courtiers and statesmen about her urged her to sign the warrant; the peace of the country demanded the execution of the laws in a case of such unquestionable guilt. They told her, too, that Essex wished to die, that he knew that he was hopelessly and irretrievably ruined, and that life, if granted to him, was a boon which would compromise her own safety and confer no benefit on him. Still Elizabeth waited and waited in an agony of suspense, in hopes that the ring would come; the sending of it would be so far an act of submission on his part as would put it in her power to do the rest. Her love could bend her pride, indomitable as it usually was, almost  to the whole concession, but it would not give up quite all. It demanded some sacrifice on his part, which sacrifice the sending of the ring would have rendered. The ring did not come, nor any petition for mercy, and at length the fatal warrant was signed.

What the courtiers said about Essex's desire to die was doubtless true. Like every other person involved in irretrievable sufferings and sorrows, he wanted to live, and he wanted to die. The two contradictory desires shared dominion in his heart, sometimes struggling together in a tumultuous conflict, and sometimes reigning in alternation, in calms more terrible, in fact, than the tempests which preceded and followed them.

At the appointed time the unhappy man was led out to the court-yard in the Tower where the last scene was to be enacted. The lieutenant of the Tower presided, dressed in a black velvet gown, over a suit of black satin. The "scaffold" was a platform about twelve feet square and four feet high, with a railing around it, and steps by which to ascend. The block was in the center of it, covered, as well as the platform itself, with black cloth. There were seats erected near for those who were appointed to be present at the execution. Essex ascended the platform with a firm step, and, surveying the solemn scene around him with calmness and composure, he began to speak.

He asked the forgiveness of God, of the spectators present, and of the queen, for the crimes for which he was about to suffer. He acknowledged his guilt, and the justice of his condemnation. His mind seemed deeply imbued with a sense of his accountability to God, and he expressed a strong desire to be forgiven, for Christ's sake, for all the sins which he had committed, which had been, he said, most numerous and aggravated from his earliest years. He asked the spectators present to join him in his devotions, and he then proceeded to offer a short prayer, in which he implored pardon for his sins, and a long life and happy reign for the queen. The prayer ended, all was ready. The executioner, according to the strange custom on such occasions, then asked his pardon for the violence which he was about to commit, which Essex readily granted. Essex laid his head upon the block, and it required three blows to complete its severance from the body. When the deed was done, the executioner took up the bleeding head, saying solemnly, as he held it, "God save the queen."

There were but few spectators present at this dreadful scene, and they were chiefly persons required to attend in the discharge of their official duties. There was, however, one exception; it was that of a courtier of high rank; who had long been Essex's inveterate enemy, and who could not deny himself the savage pleasure of witnessing his rival's destruction. But even the stern and iron-hearted officers of the Tower were shocked at his appearing at the scaffold. They urged him to go away, and not distress the dying man by his presence at such an hour The courtier yielded so far as to withdraw from the scaffold; but he could not go far away. He found a place where he could stand unobserved to witness the scene, at the window of a turret which overlooked the court-yard.

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