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By Alison Plowden
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden
All rights reserved.
A Most Renowned Virgin Queen
Sacred, imperial, and holy is her seat,
Shining with wisdom, love, and mightiness:
Nature that everything imperfect made,
Fortune that never yet was constant found,
Time that defaceth every golden show,
Dare not decay, remove, or her impair;
Both nature, time, and fortune, all agree,
To bless and serve her royal majesty.
A little before noon on Sunday, 24 November 1588, the head of a very grand procession indeed emerged from the courtyard of Somerset House, turned right into the Strand and set off past St Clement Danes and Essex House towards Temple Bar and the City. It was an awesome spectacle, for the greatest names in the land were on their way to church to give thanks to the Almighty for their recent glorious deliverance from invasion and conquest by the mighty power of Spain.
Everybody who was anybody was in town that Sunday morning. Behind the heralds and the trumpeters and the gentlemen ushers rode the nobility, the privy councillors, the judges and bishops and all the great officers of state, the scribes and the men of war, all the brilliance and dignity, all the glamour and gallantry and professional expertise of the Elizabethan establishment: old Lord Burghley and sombre Secretary Walsingham; the Lord High Admiral Howard of Effingham and Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton, Hunsdon and Pembroke, Knollys and Egerton, that dazzling all-rounder Sir Walter Raleigh and Archbishop Whitgift, the Queen's 'little black husband'.
After the Queen's men came the Queen herself, surrounded by the gentlemen pensioners and riding in an open chariot throne drawn by two white horses. Four pillars at the back end of this contraption supported a canopy 'on the top whereof was made a crown imperial', while in front two smaller pillars accommodated a lion and a dragon. Next came the Master of the Horse, the young Earl of Essex, leading the royal palfrey, and a contingent of ladies of honour with the yeomen of the guard in their gorgeous red and gold liveries, halberds in their hands, brought up the rear.
At Temple Bar the city musicians were in position over the gateway, ready to strike up a welcoming tune, and the Lord Mayor and his brethren, the scarlet-robed Aldermen, waited to greet Her Majesty and escort her through Fleet Street and up Ludgate Hill to St Paul's. According to long-established custom, the way was lined by the city companies in their livery hoods and wearing their best clothes, all standing in order behind railings draped with blue cloth and all 'saluting her highness as she proceeded along'. Lesser mortals seized what points of vantage they could from which to cheer the Queen and gape at the grand folk in her train.
The procession reached Paul's Church between the hours of twelve and one, and was received at the great West Door by the Bishop of London with more than fifty other members of the clergy drawn up in support, all in their richest copes and vestments. Descending from her chariot, the Queen at once fell on her knees and there and then 'made her hearty prayers to God' before being conducted down the long west aisle of the cathedral, where the banners captured from the Armada ships hung on display, while the litany was changed before her. She then crossed the transept and took her place in the gallery in the north wall of the choir, facing the open air pulpit cross, to hear the Bishop of Salisbury preach a sermon 'wherein none other argument was handled but that praise, honour and glory might be rendered unto God, and that God's name might be extolled by thanksgiving'. Elizabeth did not normally share her subjects' inordinate enthusiasm for sermons, but on this occasion she listened with gracious attention to the eloquent Dr Pierce and when he had finished she herself addressed the assembled congregation, 'most Christianly' exhorting them to give thanks – the people responding with a great shout, wishing her a long and happy life to the confusion of her enemies. Her obligations to a benevolent deity having been thus handsomely discharged, the Queen processed back through the church the way she had come and went to dine in state at the bishop's palace.
This solemn ceremony marked the climax of a series of public holidays, thanksgiving services, sermons, bonfires and other victory celebrations; but although the nation rejoiced, there was little euphoria and less complacency. The thousands who thronged the churches that autumn had needed no urging to give thanks to God as they reflected soberly on the providential nature of their escape from the King of Spain's invincible Armada, and no thinking person believed that this would be the end of the matter. Certainly the Queen did not. One crisis, perhaps the greatest, had been met and overcome, but as she brought a highly satisfactory day to its close, repeating her triumphal journey through the city streets back to Somerset House, the November dusk ablaze with a 'great light of torches', she harboured no illusions about the nature of the hazards which lay ahead.
Elizabeth Tudor was fifty-five now (the same age as her father had been when he died) and had just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of her accession. By the standards of her day she was already well past middle-age, but if she was daunted by the prospect of beginning a new career as a war-leader so late in life, she gave no sign of it in the presence of her loving people. To a casual glance that spare, wiry figure and high-nosed profile had altered amazingly little over the past thirty years and the Queen's carefully cultivated public image was still, convincingly, that of a woman in her prime. She had once nearly died of smallpox and on at least two occasions since had been ill enough to cause serious anxiety, but she had always possessed great recuperative powers and in her mid-fifties her general health seems to have been excellent; even the ulcer on her ankle which had troubled her on and off for nearly ten years had healed at last. Physically she was as active as ever, dancing six or seven galliards in a morning and walking and riding with undiminished energy; while anyone rash enough to suppose that her mental powers might have begun to decline quickly discovered his mistake. She had kept up her lifelong habit of devoting some part of almost every day to study or serious reading and, as her godson, John Harington, records: 'Her highness was wont to sooth her ruffled temper with reading every morning, when she had been stirred to passion at the council, or other matters had overthrown her gracious disposition. She did much admire Seneca's wholesome advisings when the soul's quiet is flown away, and I saw much of her translating thereof.'
Unfortunately, the soothing properties of Seneca were not always efficacious. When stirred to passion, her Highness was still quite capable of filling the air with good round oaths and was subject on occasion 'to be vehemently transported with anger'. Elizabeth in a rage could be heard several rooms away and she was not above throwing things, or boxing the ears of the nearest maid of honour. 'When she smiled', wrote Harington, 'it was a pure sunshine that every one did choose to bask in; but anon came a storm from a sudden gathering of clouds, and the thunder fell, in wondrous manner, on all alike.' The Queen's bark, however, was usually worse than her bite and these tension-relieving explosions were always kept in the family. No outsider ever saw her other than graciously smiling or regally dignified.
But if, in 1588, Queen Elizabeth appeared to be at the peak of her form – tough, vigorous and autocratic, her appetite for the pleasures and problems of life seemingly unquenchable – time had not dealt so kindly with her contemporaries. Lord Burghley, now in his late sixties, was still in harness but increasingly burdened by the weight of his years and infirmities. Francis Walsingham was a sick man and most of the older generation of councillors and courtiers were nearing the end of their careers. Death, indeed, had already torn one gaping hole in that charmed circle of intimates whom the Queen honoured with pet names, and the procession to St Paul's had been the first great pageant of the reign in which the flamboyant figure of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, had not figured prominently.
Leicester, as commander-in-chief of the home forces, had spent a strenuous summer helping to organise England's land defence and, although he was much the same age as the Queen, he hadn't worn as well as his mistress. Paunchy and red-faced, his white hair receding fast, little trace remained of the dark, slightly sinister good looks which had once earned him the opprobrious label of Gypsy. When the invasion scare was finally over and his headquarters at Tilbury had been dismantled, the Earl came back to London and was present at a grand military review held at Whitehall on 26 August, watching with the queen from a window while his young stepson ran two tilts against the Earl of Cumberland. Next day he left for the country, intending to take the waters at Buxton. He stopped en route at Rycote Manor near Oxford, home of the Norris family where he and Elizabeth had often stayed together in the past, and from there he scribbled one of his affectionate little notes to the Queen. A week later he was dead, 'of a continual fever'.
In the excitement of the time, the disappearance of this great landmark of the Elizabethan scene went unmourned and almost unnoticed by the general public. Leicester had never been liked. 'He was esteemed a most accomplished courtier', observed William Camden, 'a cunning timeserver and respecter of his own advantages ... But whilst he preferred power and greatness, which is subject to be envied, before solid virtue, his detracting emulators found large matter to speak reproachfully of him, and even when he was in his most flourishing condition spared not disgracefully to defame him by libels, not without mixture of some untruths. In a word, people talked openly in his commendation, but privately he was ill spoken of by the greater part.'
People, of course, had always resented his special relationship with the Queen (in some quarters he was still blamed for her failure to get married), and he'd recently become a prime target of the Catholic propaganda machine. Leicester's Commonwealth, the familiar title of a book published anonymously in Antwerp in 1584, had not only raked up the old scandal of his first wife's death but accused its victim, in exuberant and imaginative detail, of pretty well every iniquity known to man – from fornication and covetousness to murder and treachery. In spite of official attempts to suppress it, this little masterpiece of character assassination enjoyed an immediate runaway success with that numerous section of the community who'd always suspected the Earl of being a bad lot and were only too happy to see their prejudices confirmed in print. So much so that, at least according to the chronicler John Stow, 'all men, so far as they durst, rejoiced no less outwardly at his death than for the victory lately obtained against the Spaniard'.
For the Queen it was a grievous loss and Camden noted that she took it much to heart. Elizabeth had first known Robert Dudley when they were both children and ever since she came to the throne he had been one of her closest and most constant companions, her 'brother and best friend', and more than that, it had often been whispered. One of the Spanish government's secret agents in London picked up a story that the Queen was so grieved that she had shut herself up in her chamber for several days, refusing to speak to anyone, until finally Lord Burghley and some of the other councillors were obliged to have the doors broken open. This report is not confirmed by any other source, and sounds both improbable and uncharacteristic. Elizabeth had learnt to conceal her innermost feelings before she was out of her teens, and as she grew older she 'either patiently endured or politely dissembled' her greatest griefs of mind and body. Besides this, September 1588, when the magnitude of the victory lately obtained against the Spaniard was just beginning to dawn on her subjects, was emphatically not the moment for the Queen to parade a private sorrow which would be shared by no one. But she kept that note from Rycote. Fifteen years later it was found in the little coffer which always stood at her bedside. Across it she had written: 'His last letter.'
Meanwhile, Robert Dudley's death had created a vacancy on the committee of England's most exclusive club and some people thought this would work to the advantage of Sir Christopher Hatton, another close friend of longstanding and the only member of Elizabeth's inner circle who had stayed single for her sake. But although she never forgot old friends, the Queen had already found another Robert in Leicester's twenty-year-old stepson, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. In many ways the choice was an obvious one. Nobly-born, brilliant and beautiful, Essex was plainly marked out to become a leader of the rising generation and, as such, one whom an ageing sovereign would be wise to keep under her eye and attached to her interest. Apart from that, Elizabeth was fond of the boy, who had undoubted claims on her favour. Fatherless from the age of nine (the first earl having died on royal service in Ireland), young Robert had been one of the Queen's wards and his mother, born Lettice Knollys, was the Queen's cousin.
Essex made his debut at Court when he was sixteen, under the sponsorship of his stepfather, and the following year he went with Leicester to the Netherlands to see something of the world and gain some martial experience. He did well in the fighting round Zutphen, where Philip Sidney received his deathwound, and Sidney, that beau ideal of Elizabethan youth, bequeathed his best sword to his 'beloved and much honoured Lord, the Earl of Essex'.
When Essex returned to England in December 1586, he had just passed his nineteenth birthday and the shy adolescent had developed into a mettlesome young blood, impatient to make a name for himself. He certainly made an immediate impact on the social scene for, as well as his striking good looks and impressive connexions, he was fortunate enough to be endowed with the gift of pleasing, 'a kind of urbanity or innate courtesy', which captivated the Queen and won him a popularity enjoyed by few other public figures of the time; the Londoners in particular taking him to their hearts and gazing with sentimental approval on this 'new adopted son' of royal grace.
Elizabeth was seldom given to sentiment and even more rarely visited by maternal yearnings, but she never lost her eye for an attractive man and Essex, with his engaging youthfulness, his cozening ways and eager devotion, offered a welcome addition to her court. Soon his tall, redheaded figure was seen everywhere at her side, and when her insomnia was troublesome she would keep him with her into the small hours, chatting or playing cards. He was, of course, still far too raw and inexperienced to be trusted with any serious responsibility, but he possessed breeding, courage and style, all attributes which the Queen looked for in her young men, and there seemed no reason to doubt that he would go far.
Even in these early days, though, Essex had his ups and downs, and in July 1587 he first betrayed a glimpse of the paranoid tendencies which would end by destroying him. During the course of her summer progress that year, the Queen paid a short visit to the Earl of Warwick, Leicester's elder brother, and Lady Warwick rather unwisely insisted on including Essex's sister Dorothy in her houseparty. Four years earlier Dorothy Devereux had made a runaway marriage in somewhat unsavoury circumstances to a man of considerably inferior rank and, as a result, had become persona non grata at Court.
The Warwicks were old and privileged friends, and kind Lady Warwick was no doubt counting on the Queen's fondness for Essex to smooth over any unpleasantness. But Elizabeth refused to meet Lady Dorothy and gave orders that she was to stay in her own rooms, a slight which Essex had no hesitation in blaming on the evil machinations of Walter Raleigh, whom he regarded as his most dangerous rival. After supper that evening he attacked the Queen for putting such a disgrace on his sister and himself 'only to please that knave Raleigh'. How could he give himself to the service of a mistress who stood in awe of such a man, he demanded, and proceeded to pour out a tirade of abuse against Raleigh – the scene gaining an added flavour from the fact that Sir Walter, in his capacity as Captain of the Guard, was on duty at the door and could hear everything that was said. The Queen was annoyed. She refused to listen to a word against Raleigh and the quarrel rapidly degenerated into a lively exchange of personalities, Elizabeth making some pungent comments on the manners and morals of her young friend's female relatives in general and his mother in particular. (She had reluctantlyforgiven Leicester for marrying the widowed Countess of Essex, but she never forgave her cousin Lettice.)
Excerpted from Elizabeth Regina by Alison Plowden. Copyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
The Age of Triumph, 1588–1603,
Prologue: The Year Eighty-Eight,
1 A Most Renowned Virgin Queen,
2 God's Handmaiden,
3 Fair Stood the Wind for France,
4 A Maid in an Island,
5 Great Eliza's Glorious Name,
6 A Very Great Princess,
7 The General of Our Gracious Empress,
8 The Madcaps All in Riot,
9 A Taper of True Virgin Wax,
10 Epilogue: Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory,
Sources and Bibliography,
Notes and Abbreviations,