Elizabeth was now securely established upon her throne. It is true that Mary Queen of Scots had not renounced her pretensions, but there was no immediate prospect of her making any attempt to realize them, and very little hope for her that she would be successful, if she were to undertake it. There were other claimants, it is true, but their claims were more remote and doubtful than Mary's. These conflicting pretensions were likely to make the country some trouble after Elizabeth's death, but there was very slight probability that they would sensibly molest Elizabeth's possession of the throne during her lifetime, though they caused her no little anxiety.
The reign which Elizabeth thus commenced was one of the longest, most brilliant, and in many respects, the most prosperous in the whole series presented to our view in the long succession of English sovereigns. Elizabeth continued a queen for forty-five years, during all which time she remained a single lady; and she died, at last, a venerable maiden, seventy years of age.
It was not for want of lovers, or, rather, of admirers and suitors, that Elizabeth lived single all her days. During the first twenty years of her reign, one half of her history is a history of matrimonial schemes and negotiations. It seemed as if all the marriageable princes and potentates of Europe were seized, one after another, with a desire to share her seat upon the English throne. They tried every possible means to win her consent. They dispatched embassadors; they opened long negotiations; they sent her ship-loads of the most expensive presents: some of the nobles of high rank in her own realm expended their vast estates, and reduced themselves to poverty, in vain attempts to please her. Elizabeth, like any other woman, loved these attentions They pleased her vanity, and gratified those instinctive impulses of the female heart by which woman is fitted for happiness and love. Elizabeth encouraged the hopes of those who addressed her sufficiently to keep them from giving up in despair and abandoning her. And in one or two cases she seemed to come very near yielding. But it always happened that, when the time arrived in which a final decision must be made, ambition and desire of power proved stronger than love, and she preferred continuing to occupy her lofty position by herself, alone.
Philip of Spain, the husband of her sister Mary, was the first of these suitors. He had seen Elizabeth a good deal in England during his residence there, and had even taken her part in her difficulties with Mary, and had exerted his influence to have her released from her confinement. As soon as Mary died and Elizabeth was proclaimed, one of her first acts was, as was very proper, to send an embassador to Flanders to inform the bereaved husband of his loss. It is a curious illustration of the degree and kind of affection that Philip had borne to his departed wife, that immediately on receiving intelligence of her death by Elizabeth's embassador, he sent a special dispatch to his own ambassador in London to make a proposal to Elizabeth to take him for her husband!
Elizabeth decided very soon to decline this proposal. She had ostensible reasons, and real reasons for this. The chief ostensible reason was that Philip was so inveterately hated by all the English people, and Elizabeth was extremely desirous of being popular. She relied solely on the loyalty and faithfulness of her Protestant subjects to maintain her rights to the succession, and she knew that if she displeased them by such an unpopular Catholic marriage, her reliance upon them must be very much weakened. They might even abandon her entirely. The reason, therefore, that she assigned publicly was, that Philip was a Catholic, and that the connection could not, on that account, be agreeable to the English people.
Among the real reasons was one of a very peculiar nature. It happened that there was an objection to her marriage with Philip similar to the one urged against that of Henry with Catharine of Aragon. Catharine had been the wife of Henry's brother. Philip had been the husband of Elizabeth's sister. Now Philip had offered to procure the pope's dispensation, by which means this difficulty would be surmounted. But then all the world would say, that if this dispensation could legalize the latter marriage, the former must have been legalized by it, and this would destroy the marriage of Anne Boleyn, and with it all Elizabeth's claims to the succession. She could not, then, marry Philip, without, by the very act, effectually undermining all her own rights to the throne. She was far too subtle and wary to stumble into such a pitfall as that.
Elizabeth rejected this and some other offers, and one or two years passed away. In the mean time, the people of the country, though they had no wish to have her marry such a stern and heartless tyrant as Philip of Spain, were very uneasy at the idea of her not being married at all. Her life would, of course, in due time, come to an end, and it was of immense importance to the peace and happiness of the realm that, after her death, there should be no doubt about the succession. If she were to be married and leave children, they would succeed to the throne without question; but if she were to die single and childless, the result would be, they feared, that the Catholics would espouse the cause of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Protestants that of some Protestant descendant of Henry VII., and thus the country be involved in all the horrors of a protracted civil war.
The House of Commons in those days was a very humble council, convened to discuss and settle mere internal and domestic affairs, and standing at a vast distance from the splendor and power of royalty, to which it looked up with the profoundest reverence and awe. The Commons, at the close of one of their sessions, ventured, in a very timid and cautious manner, to send a petition to the queen, urging her to consent, for the sake of the future peace of the realm, and the welfare of her subjects, to accept of a husband. Few single persons are offended at a recommendation of marriage, if properly offered, from whatever quarter it may come. The queen, in this instance, returned what was called a very gracious reply. She, however, very decidedly refused the request. She said that, as they had been very respectful in the form of their petition, and as they had confined it to general terms, without presuming to suggest either a person or a time, she would not take offense at their well-intended suggestion, but that she had no design of ever being married. At her coronation, she was married, she said, to her people, and the wedding ring was upon her finger still. Her people were the objects of all her affection and regard. She should never have any other spouse. She said she should be well contented to have it engraved upon her tombstone, "Here lies a queen who lived and died a virgin."
This answer silenced the Commons, but it did not settle the question in the public mind. Cases often occur of ladies saying very positively that they shall never consent to be married, and yet afterward altering their minds; and many ladies, knowing how frequently this takes place, sagaciously conclude that, whatever secret resolutions they may form, they will be silent about them, lest they get into a position from which it will be afterward awkward to retreat. The princes of the Continent and the nobles of England paid no regard to Elizabeth's declaration, but continued to do all in their power to obtain her hand.
One or two years afterward Elizabeth was attacked with the small-pox, and for a time was dangerously sick. In fact, for some days her life was despaired of, and the country was thrown into a great state of confusion and dismay. Parties began to form—the Catholics for Mary Queen of Scots, and the Protestants for the family of Jane Grey. Every thing portended a dreadful contest. Elizabeth, however, recovered; but the country had been so much alarmed at their narrow escape, that Parliament ventured once more to address the queen on the subject of her marriage. They begged that she would either consent to that measure, or, if she was finally determined not to do that, that she would cause a law to be passed, or an edict to be promulgated, deciding beforehand who was really to succeed to the throne in the event of her decease.
Elizabeth would not do either. Historians have speculated a great deal upon her motives; all that is certain is the fact, she would not do either.
But, though Elizabeth thus resisted all the plans formed for giving her a husband, she had, in her own court, a famous personal favorite, who has always been considered as in some sense her lover. His name was originally Robert Dudley, though she made him Earl of Leicester, and he is commonly designated in history by this latter name. He was a son of the Duke of Northumberland, who was the leader of the plot for placing Lady Jane Grey upon the throne in the time of Mary. He was a very elegant and accomplished man, and young, though already married. Elizabeth advanced him to high offices and honors very early in her reign, and kept him much at court. She made him her Master of Horse, but she did not bestow upon him much real power. Cecil was her great counselor and minister of state. He was a cool, sagacious, wary man, entirely devoted to Elizabeth's interests, and to the glory and prosperity of the realm. He was at this time, as has already been stated, forty years of age, thirteen or fourteen years older than Elizabeth. Elizabeth showed great sagacity in selecting such a minister, and great wisdom in keeping him in power so long. He remained in her service all his life, and died at last, only a few years before Elizabeth, when he was nearly eighty years of age.
Dudley, on the other hand, was just about Elizabeth's own age. In fact, it is said by some of the chronicles of the times that he was born on the same day and hour with her. However this may be, he became a great personal favorite, and Elizabeth evinced a degree and kind of attachment to him which subjected her to a great deal of censure and reproach.
She could not be thinking of him for her husband, it would seem, for he was already married. Just about this time, however, a mysterious circumstance occurred, which produced a great deal of excitement, and has ever since marked a very important era in the history of Leicester and Elizabeth's attachment. It was the sudden and very singular death of Leicester's wife. Leicester had, among his other estates, a lonely mansion in Berkshire, about fifty miles west of London. It was called Cumnor House. Leicester's wife was sent there, no one knew why; she went under the charge of a gentleman who was one of Leicester's dependents, and entirely devoted to his will. The house, too, was occupied by a man who had the character of being ready for any deed which might be required of him by his master. The name of Leicester's wife was Amy Robesart.
In a short time news came to London that the unhappy woman was killed by a fall down stairs! The instantaneous suspicion darted at once into every one's mind that she had been murdered. Rumors circulated all around the place where the death had occurred that she had been murdered. A conscientious clergyman of the neighborhood sent an account of the case to London, to the queen's ministers, stating the facts, and urging the queen to order an investigation of the affair, but nothing was ever done. It has accordingly been the general belief of mankind since that time, that the unprincipled courtier destroyed his wife in the vain hope of becoming afterward the husband of the queen.
The people of England were greatly incensed at this transaction. They had hated Leicester before, and they hated him now more inveterately still. Favorites are very generally hated; royal favorites always. He, however, grew more and more intimate with the queen, and every body feared that he was going to be her husband. Their conduct was watched very closely by all the great world, and, as is usual in such cases, a thousand circumstances and occurrences were reported busily from tongue to tongue, which the actors in them doubtless supposed passed unobserved or were forgotten.
One night, for instance, Queen Elizabeth, having supped with Dudley, was going home in her chair, lighted by torch-bearers. At the present day, all London is lighted brilliantly at midnight with gas, and ladies go home from their convivial and pleasure assemblies in luxurious carriages, in which they are rocked gently along through broad and magnificent avenues, as bright, almost, as day. Then, however, it was very different. The lady was borne slowly along through narrow, and dingy, and dangerous streets, with a train of torches before and behind her, dispelling the darkness a moment with their glare, and then leaving it more deep and somber than ever. On the night of which we are speaking, Elizabeth, feeling in good humor, began to talk with some of the torch-bearers on the way. They were Dudley's men, and Elizabeth began to praise their master. She said to one of them, among other things, that she was going to raise him to a higher position than any of his name had ever borne before. Now, as Dudley's father was a duke, which title denotes the highest rank of the English nobility, the man inferred that the queen's meaning was that she intended to marry him, and thus make him a sort of king. The man told the story boastingly to one of the servants of Lord Arundel, who was also a suitor of the queen's. The servants, each taking the part of his master in the rivalry, quarreled. Lord Arundel's man said that he wished that Dudley had been hung with his father, or else that somebody would shoot him in the street with a dag. A dag was, in the language of those days, the name for a pistol.
Time moved on, and though Leicester seemed to become more and more a favorite, the plan of his being married to Elizabeth, if any such were entertained by either party, appeared to come no nearer to an accomplishment. Elizabeth lived in great state and splendor, sometimes residing in her palaces in or near London, and sometimes making royal progresses about her dominions. Dudley, together with the other prominent members of her court, accompanied her on these excursions, and obviously enjoyed a very high degree of personal favor. She encouraged, at the same time, her other suitors, so that on all the great public occasions of state, at the tilts and tournaments, at the plays—which, by-the-way, in those days were performed in the churches—on all the royal progresses and grand receptions at cities, castles, and universities, the lady queen was surrounded always by royal or noble beaux, who made her presents, and paid her a thousand compliments, and offered her gallant attentions without number—all prompted by ambition in the guise of love. They smiled upon the queen with a perpetual sycophancy, and gnashed their teeth secretly upon each other with a hatred which, unlike the pretended love, was at least honest and sincere. Leicester was the gayest, most accomplished, and most favored of them all, and the rest accordingly combined and agreed in hating him more than they did each other.
Queen Elizabeth, however, never really admitted that she had any design of making Leicester, or Dudley, as he is indiscriminately called, her husband. In fact, at one time she recommended him to Mary Queen of Scots for husband. After Mary returned to Scotland the two queens were, for a time, on good terms as professed friends, though they were, in fact, all the time, most inveterate and implacable foes; but each, knowing how much injury the other might do her, wished to avoid exciting any unnecessary hostility. Mary, particularly, as she found she could not get possession of English throne during Elizabeth's life-time, concluded to try to conciliate her, in hopes to persuade her to acknowledge, by act of Parliament, her right to the succession after her death. So she used to confer with Elizabeth on the subject of her own marriage, and to ask her advice about it. Elizabeth did not wish have Mary married at all, and so she always proposed somebody who she knew would be out of the question. She at one time proposed Leicester, and for a time seemed quite in earnest about it, especially so long as Mary seemed averse to it. At length, however, when Mary, in order to test her sincerity, seemed inclined to yield, Elizabeth retreated in her turn, and withdrew her proposals. Mary then gave up the hope of satisfying Elizabeth in any way and married Lord Darnley without her consent.
Elizabeth's regard for Dudley, however, still continued. She made him Earl of Leicester, and granted him the magnificent castle of Kenilworth, with a large estate adjoining and surrounding it; the rents of the lands giving him a princely income, and enabling him to live in almost royal state. Queen Elizabeth visited him frequently in this castle. One of these visits is very minutely described by the chroniclers of the times. The earl made the most expensive and extraordinary preparations for the reception and entertainment of the queen and her retinue on this occasion. The moat—which is a broad canal filled with water surrounding the castle—had a floating island upon it, with a fictitious personage whom they called the lady of the lake upon the island, who sung a song in praise of Elizabeth as she passed the bridge. There was also an artificial dolphin swimming upon the water, with a band of musicians within it. As the queen advanced across the park, men and women, in strange disguises, came out to meet her, and to offer her salutations and praises. One was dressed as a sibyl, another like an American savage, and a third, who was concealed, represented an echo. This visit was continued for nineteen days, and the stories of the splendid entertainments provided for the company—the plays, the bear-baitings, the fire-works, the huntings, the mock fights, the feastings and revelries—filled all Europe at the time, and have been celebrated by historians and story-tellers ever since. The Castle of Kenilworth is now a very magnificent heap of ruins, and is explored every year by thousands of visitors from every quarter of the globe.
Leicester, if he ever really entertained any serious designs of being Elizabeth's husband, at last gave up his hopes, and married another woman. This lady had been the wife of the Earl of Essex. Her husband died very suddenly and mysteriously just before Leicester married her. Leicester kept the marriage secret for some time, and when it came at last to the queen's knowledge she was exceedingly angry. She had him arrested and sent to prison. However, she gradually recovered from her fit of resentment, and by degrees restored him to her favor again.
Twenty years of Elizabeth's reign thus passed away, and no one of all her suitors had succeeded in obtaining her hand. All this time her government had been administered with much efficiency and power. All Europe had been in great commotion during almost the whole period, on account of the terrible conflicts which were raging between the Catholics and the Protestants, each party having been doing its utmost to exterminate and destroy the other. Elizabeth and her government took part, very frequently, in these contests; sometimes by negotiations, and sometimes by fleets and armies, but always sagaciously and cautiously, and generally with great effect. In the mean time, however, the queen, being now forty-five years of age, was rapidly approaching the time when questions of marriage could no longer be entertained. Her lovers, or, rather, her suitors, had, one after another, given up the pursuit, and disappeared from the field. One only seemed at length to remain, on the decision of whose fate the final result of the great question of the queen's marriage seemed to be pending.
It was the Duke of Anjou. He was a French prince. His brother, who had been the Duke of Anjou before him, was now King Henry III. of France. His own name was Francis. He was twenty five years younger than Elizabeth, and he was only seventeen years of age when it was first proposed that he should marry her. He was then Duke of Alençon. It was his mother's plan. She was the great Catharine de Medici, queen of France, and one of the most extraordinary women, for her talents, her management, and her power, that ever lived. Having one son upon the throne of France, she wanted the throne of England for the other. The negotiation had been pending fruitlessly for many years, and now, in 1581, it was vigorously renewed. The duke himself, who was at this time a young man of twenty-four or five, began to be impatient and earnest in his suit. There was, in fact, one good reason why he should be so. Elizabeth was forty-eight, and, unless the match were soon concluded, the time for effecting it would be obviously forever gone by.
He had never had an interview with the queen. He had seen pictures of her, however, and he sent an embassador over to England to urge his suit, and to convince Elizabeth how much he was in love with her charms. The name of this agent was Simier. He was a very polite and accomplished man, and soon learned the art of winning his way to Elizabeth's favor. Leicester was very jealous of his success. The two favorites soon imbibed a terrible enmity for each other. They filled the court with their quarrels. The progress of the negotiation, however, went on, the people taking sides very violently, some for and some against the projected marriage. The animosities became exceedingly virulent, until at length Simier's life seemed to be in danger. He said that Leicester had hired one of the guards to assassinate him; and it is a fact, that one day, as he and the queen, with other attendants, were making an excursion upon the river, a shot was fired from the shore into the barge. The shot did no injury except to wound one of the oarsmen, and frighten all the party pretty thoroughly. Some thought the shot was aimed at Simier, and others at the queen herself. It was afterward proved, or supposed to be proved, that this shot was the accidental discharge of a gun, without any evil intention whatever.
In the mean time, Elizabeth grew more and more interested in the idea of having the young duke for her husband; and it seemed as if the maidenly resolutions, which had stood their ground so firmly for twenty years, were to be conquered at last. The more, however, she seemed to approach toward a consent to the measure, the more did all the officers of her government, and the nation at large, oppose it. There were, in their minds, two insuperable objections to the match. The candidate was a Frenchman, and he was a papist. The council interceded. Friends remonstrated. The nation murmured and threatened. A book was published entitled "The Discovery of a gaping Gulf wherein England is like to be swallowed up by another French marriage, unless the Lord forbid the Bans by letting her see the Sin and Punishment thereof." The author of it had his right hand out off, for his punishment.
At length, after a series of most extraordinary discussions, negotiations, and occurrences, which kept the whole country in a state of great excitement for a long time, the affair was at last all settled. The marriage articles, both political and personal, were all arranged. The nuptials were to be celebrated in six weeks. The duke came over in great state and was received with all possible pomp and parade Festivals and banquets were arranged without number, and in the most magnificent style, to do him and his attendants honor. At one of them, the queen took off a ring from her finger, and put it upon his, in the presence of a great assembly, which was the first announcement to the public that the affair was finally settled. The news spread every where with great rapidity. It produced in England great consternation and distress, but on the Continent it was welcomed with joy, and the great English alliance, now so obviously approaching, was celebrated with ringing of bells, bonfires, and grand illuminations.
And yet, notwithstanding all this, as soon as the obstacles were all removed, and there was no longer opposition to stimulate the determination of the queen, her heart failed her at last, and she finally concluded that she would not be married, after all. She sent for the duke one morning to come and see her. What takes place precisely between ladies and gentlemen when they break off their engagements is not generally very publicly known, but the duke came out from this interview in a fit of great vexation and anger. He pulled off the queen's ring and threw it from him, muttering curses upon the fickleness and faithlessness of women.
Still Elizabeth would not admit that the match was broken off. She continued to treat the duke with civility and to pay him many honors. He decided, however, to return to the Continent. She accompanied him a part of way to the coast, and took leave of him many professions of sorrow at the parting, begged him to come back soon. This he promised to do, but he never returned. He lived some time afterward in comparative neglect and obscurity, and mankind considered the question of the marriage of Elizabeth as now, at last, settled forever.