Though Cecil and Walsingham, Drake and Hawkins had been the immediate instruments of glory and victory, Elizabeth personified triumphant England, and at sixty she was at the top of her fame and power. Her face was a bit wrinkled, her hair was detachable, some teeth were missing and some were black, but in her awesome finery of lacy headdress, flying ruff, padded sleeves, and hoopskirt, all asparkle with encrusted gems, she stood proud and straight and undeniably a queen. Parliament grumbled at her royal ways, but submitted; old councilors offered advice with the timidity of young suitors; and young suitors fluent with adoration surrounded the throne. Leicester and Walsingham paid their debt to nature, Drake and Hawkins would soon be swallowed by the sea they had thought to rule. Cecil—the “Atlas of this commonwealth,” Bacon called him107—was now old, and he creaked with gout; presently Elizabeth would nurse him in his final illness and feed him his last food with her own hand.108 She grew sad with these amputations, but she did not let them darken the splendor of her progresses or the vivacity of her court.
New faces shone about her, bringing her some vicarious youth. Christopher Hatton was so handsome that she made him Chancellor (1587). She waited nine years before accepting Burghley’s advice to make his sagacious hunchbacked son, Robert Cecil, her Secretary of State. She relished more the fine features and rattling sword of Walter Raleigh, and did not mind his private theological doubts; she had some of her own.
Raleigh was almost the complete Elizabethan man: gentleman, soldier, mariner, adventurer, poet, philosopher, orator, historian, martyr; here was the uomo universale of Renaissance dreams, who touched genius at every point, but never let the part become the whole. Born in Devonshire in 1552, entered at Oxford in 1568, he fled from books into life and joined a gallant group of pedigreed volunteers who crossed to France to fight for the Huguenots. Six years in those wars may have taught him some of the unscrupulous violence of action and reckless audacity of speech that molded his later fate. Back in England (1575), he forced himself to study law, but in 1578 he went off again as a volunteer to help the Dutch against Spain. Two years later he was in Ireland as a captain in the army that put down Desmond’s rebellion, and he played no hesitant part in the Smerwick massacre. Elizabeth rewarded him with twelve thousand acres in Ireland and favor at her court. Pleased with his figure, his compliments,IV and his wit, she listened with less than her customary skepticism to his proposal for English colonies in America; she gave him a charter, and in 1584 he sent out, but did not accompany, the first of several expeditions that tried—and failed—to establish a settlement in Virginia; only the name survived, as a lasting memorial to the Queen’s inaccessibility. Elizabeth Throckmorton, a maid of honor, proved more approachable; she accepted Raleigh as her lover, and secretly married him (1593). As no member of the court might marry without the Queen’s consent, the ardent couple received an unexpected honeymoon in the Tower. Raleigh earned release—with banishment from the court—by writing to Burghley a letter describing the Queen as an amalgam of all the perfections in history.
He retired to his Sherborne estate, planned voyages and discoveries, played with atheism, and wrote poetry whose every line had a characteristic tang and sting. But two years of quiet exhausted his stability. With the help of Lord Admiral Howard and Robert Cecil, he fitted out five vessels and headed for South America, seeking El Dorado—a fabled land of golden palaces, rivers running gold, and Amazons with undiminished charms. He sailed a hundred miles up the Orinoco, but found no female warriors and no gold. Baffled by rapids and falls, he returned to England empty-handed; but he told how the American natives had marveled at the beauty of the Queen when he showed them her portrait; and soon he was readmitted to the court. His eloquent account The Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana reaffirmed his faith that “the sun covereth not so much riches in any part of the world” as the region of the Orinoco. Tirelessly he preached the desirability of getting America’s wealth out of Spanish into English hands; and he phrased the doctrine of sea power perfectly: “Whoever commands the sea commands the trade; whoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”109
In 1596 he joined the expedition to Cádiz, fought as vigorously as he wrote, and received a wound in the leg. The Queen now “used him graciously” and made him captain of the guard. In 1597 he commanded part of the fleet that Essex led to the Azores. Separated from the rest by a storm, Raleigh’s squadron encountered and defeated the enemy. Essex never forgave him for pre-empting victory.
Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, surpassed even Raleigh in fascination. He had Walter’s ambition and verve and pride, a little more of his hot temper, a little less of his wit, much more of generosity and noblesse oblige. He was a man of action enamored of intellect—victor in jousts and on the athletic field, distinguished for bravery and audacity in war, yet also the helpful and appreciative friend of poets and philosophers. When his mother became Leicester’s second wife, Leicester advanced him at court to offset Raleigh’s ingratiating charm. The Queen, fifty-three, fell maternally in love with the high-strung, handsome lad of twenty (1587); here was a son to console her childlessness. They talked, rode, heard music, played cards together, and “my Lord,” said a gossip, “cometh not to his own lodging till birds sing in the morning.”110 Her aging heart suffered when he secretly married Philip Sidney’s widow; but she soon forgave him, and by 1593 he was a member of the Privy Council. However, he was poorly fitted for court life or statesmanship; “he carried his love and hate always on his face,” said his servant Cuffe, “and knew not how to hide them.”111 He made enemies of Raleigh, William Cecil, Robert Cecil, finally of the ungrateful Bacon and the reluctant Queen.
Francis Bacon, who was destined to have more influence on European thought than any other Elizabethan, had been born (1561) in the very aura of the court, at York House, official residence of the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, who was his father, Sir Nicholas; Elizabeth called the boy “the young Lord Keeper.” His frail constitution drove him from sports to studies; his agile intellect grasped knowledge hungrily; soon his erudition was among the wonders of those “spacious times.” After three years at Cambridge he was sent to France with the English ambassador to let him learn the ways of state. While he was there his father unexpectedly died (1579) before buying an estate that he had intended for Francis, who was a younger son; and the youth, suddenly reduced to meager means, returned to London to study law at Gray’s Inn. Being a nephew of William Cecil, he appealed to him for some political place; after four years of waiting, he sent him a whimsical reminder that “the objection of my years will wear away with the length of my suit.”112 Somehow, in that year 1584, he was elected to Parliament, though still but twenty-three. He distinguished himself by favoring more toleration of the Puritans (his mother was one). The Queen ignored his arguments, but he restated them bravely in a privately circulated Advertisement Touching the Controversies of the Church of England (1589). He proposed that no man should be molested for his religious faith who promised to defend England against any foreign power—including the papacy—that threatened England’s full sovereignty and freedom. Elizabeth and Cecil thought the young philosopher a bit forward; and in truth he was ahead of his times.
Essex relished the keenness of Bacon’s mind and invited his advice. The young sage counseled the young noble to seem, if he could not be, modest; to moderate his expenditures; to seek civil rather than military office, since setbacks in politics could be sooner redeemed than defeats in war; and to regard his popularity with the populace as a danger with the Queen.113 Bacon hoped that Essex would mature into a statesman and give his mentor some opportunity to rise. In 1592 he appealed again to Cecil in famous lines:
I wax now somewhat ancient; one-and-thirty years is a great deal of sand in the hourglass … The meanness of my estate doth somewhat move me … I confess that I have as vast contemplative ends as I have moderate civil ends: for I have taken all knowledge to be my province … This, whether it be curiosity, or vainglory, or nature … is so fixed in my mind as it cannot be removed.114
When Essex importuned the Cecils and Elizabeth to give Bacon the vacant office of attorney general, his appeals were in vain; Edward Coke, older and technically more fit, was chosen instead. Essex took the blame handsomely, and gave Bacon an estate at Twickenham with £1,800.115 Before Bacon could use this he suffered a brief and genteel imprisonment for debt.116 In 1597 he was appointed to the “Learned Council” of lawyers who advised the Privy Council.117
Despite Bacon’s advice, Essex joined the war party, and planned to make himself head of the army. His dashing bravery at Cádiz made him too popular for the Council’s taste; failure at the Azores and his undiminished pride, extravagance, and sharp tongue alienated the court and irritated the Queen. When she flatly rejected his recommendation of Sir George Carew for office in Ireland, he turned his back on her with a gesture of contempt. Furious, she boxed his ears and cried, “Go to the Devil!” He grasped his sword and shouted at her, “This is an outrage that I will not put up with. I would not have borne it from your father’s hands.” He rushed in anger from the room, and all the court expected him to be clapped into the Tower (1598).118 Elizabeth did nothing. On the contrary—or was it to get rid of him?—a few months later she appointed him Lord Deputy for Ireland.
Bacon had cautioned him not to seek that ungrateful task of countering a faith by force; but Essex wanted an army. On March 27, 1599, he left for Dublin amid the acclamations of the populace, the misgivings of his friends, and the satisfaction of his enemies. Six months later, having failed in his mission, he hurried back to England without permission of the Queen, rushed unannounced into her dressing room, and tried to explain his actions in Ireland. She listened to him with patient wrath, and had him committed to the custody of the Lord Keeper at York House until the charges against him could be heard.
The people of London murmured, for they were ignorant of his failure and remembered his victories. The Privy Council ordered a semipublic trial, and commissioned Bacon—as a member of the Learned Council and as a lawyer pledged to defend the Queen—to-draw up a statement of the charges. He asked to be excused; they insisted; he consented. The indictment he formulated was moderate; Essex acknowledged its truth and offered humble submission. He was suspended from his offices and was told to remain in his own home till the Queen should be pleased to free him (June 5, 1600). Bacon pleaded for him, and on August 26 Essex was restored to liberty.
Now in his own Essex House, he continued his search for power. One of his intimates was Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton; him Essex sent to Ireland to propose that Mountjoy, now Lord Deputy there, should return to England with the English army and help Essex take control of the government. Mountjoy refused. Early in 1601 Essex wrote to James VI of Scotland, asking his aid and promising to support him as successor to Elizabeth; James sent him a letter of encouragement. Wild rumors spread through the excited capital: that Robert Cecil was planning to make the Spanish Infanta queen of England; that Essex was to be immured in the Tower; that Raleigh had vowed to kill him. Perhaps to force Essex to show his hand, the younger Cecil induced the Queen to send Essex a message requiring him to attend the Council. His friends warned him that this was a ruse to seize him. One friend, Sir Gilly Merrick, paid the Chamberlain’s company to stage, that evening in Southwark, Shakespeare’s Richard II, showing a sovereign justly deposed.119
The next morning (February 7, 1601) some three hundred supporters of Essex, fervent and armed, gathered in the courtyard of his home. When the Lord Keeper and three other dignitaries came to ask the cause of this illegal assembly, the crowd locked them up and swept the hesitant Earl on with them to London and revolution. He had hoped that the people would rise to his cause, but the preachers bade them stay indoors, and they obeyed. The forces of the government were on guard and routed the rebels. Essex was captured and lodged in the Tower.
He was quickly brought to trial on a charge of treason. The Council bade Bacon help Coke in preparing the government’s case. His refusal would have ruined his political career; his consent ruined his posthumous reputation. When Coke faltered in presenting the indictment, Bacon rose and stated the matter with convincing, convicting clarity. Essex confessed his guilt and named his accomplices.120 Five of these were arrested and beheaded. Southampton was sentenced to life imprisonment; James I later released him. Legend told how Essex sent the Queen a ring once given him by her with a promise to come to his aid if he should ever return it in his hour of need. If sent, it did not reach her.121 On February 25, 1601, aged thirty-five, Essex went gallantly to the fate that was the seal of his character. Raleigh, his enemy, wept when the blow fell. For a year the Tower displayed the severed and decaying head.