Robert Cecil, from the engraving by Elstrak
Robert Cecil, from the engraving by Elstrak

The last years of Elizabeth's reign are occupied largely by the antagonisms and intrigues of rival politicians and parties and possible candidates for the throne. Most prominent is the tragedy of the Earl of Essex, and the story of Essex are inextricably bound up with that of Ireland. The scene yields no great actors; for even the men who had in them real elements of greatness, Raleigh and Bacon, played parts "which were fax from being great.

In Europe two men stand out far above their contemporaries, Henry IV of France and Maurice of Nassau, the son of William of Orange, a worthy successor of his father in the leadership of the United Provinces. But these two enter little into specifically English history.

Elizabeth until her last hour would never definitely acknowledge any particular person as her successor. So far as legitimacy was concerned, there was no possibility of questioning the title of James VI of Scotland; but political reasons were likely to weigh more than mere legitimacy. The Greys were represented by Lord Beauchamp, son of Catherine Grey and the Earl of HertĀ­ford, and by his son William Seymour.

Margaret Tudor was reĀ­presented not only by James VI but by her great-granddaughter, Arabella Stuart of the house of Lennox. The line of the Poles, descending from George Duke of Clarence, was represented by the Earl of Huntingdon. And the ultra-Romanists at least fixed their hopes on Isabella of Spain, the sister of the reigning King Philip III.

Nor was Isabella now an entirely impossible candidate because Philip II had conferred upon her the sovereignty of the Netherlands, parting it from the Spanish monarchy. Isabella of Burgundy, with an Austrian archduke for a husband, might mean, not the subjection of England to Spanish control, but the union of England with an independent Burgundy, in which quite conceivably the United Provinces might be included. Isabella's claim rested on the fact that she was the only, pronounced Catholic with Plantagenet blood in her veins who was a candidate at all.

Plot and counter-plot
There were many of the English, especially among the nobility, with leanings to the old religion, and in common with many of the professed Romanists they might be expected to accept with equal readiness a Roman Catholic ruler pledged to tolerate Anglicanism or a Protestant ruler pledged to tolerate Romanism.

Hence there was a very wide field for plotting and counter-plotting, especially in view of the possibility of a marriage between Arabella Stuart and either Lord Beauchamp or his son. Of the English plotters, by far the most subtle was Robert Cecil, who intrigued with all parties, but with the ultimate intention of securing the throne for James VI and recognition for himself as the man to whom the Scots king owed the success of his candidature.

Incidentally it was of primary importance to Cecil to ruin his leading rival, the Earl of Essex, who was identified with the anti-Spanish war party and the more aggressive Protestants, and was bound to champion the cause of James VI, although the Romanists cherished vain hopes that either James or Arabella Stuart might be won over to their own cause. We must be content with this indication of the nature of the plotting and counter-plotting that went on, without attempting the long task of unravelling the intricate details.

The fall of Essex
The ruin of Essex was accomplished through Ireland. Power of resistance in that unhappy country had been broken by the Smerwick campaign and the subsequent merciless treatment of the Irish. The north had not taken part, however, in Desmond's rebellion; the O'Neills in Ulster and the O'Donnells of Tyrconnel, in the north-west, had remained loyal; Hugh O'Neill, the young Earl of Tyrone, had enjoyed an English training and was a professed supporter of English rule.

In the south Ormond was at least convinced that English tyranny was preferable to the wild anarchy which seemed the only alternative. But Tyrone was not content; and he brought to bear upon the problem a subtlety of brain and a power of organisation unprecedented among the Irish leaders.

The Armada came and passed without stirring up any movement in Ireland; but not long afterwards the north-west was again in a state of ferment. The government, always kept with insufficient funds, except at the moment of some supreme crisis, could only deal with the insurgents after the usual ineffective fashion.

Tyrone posed as the pacificator, exerting his influence to quiet the disturbances; his attitude and all his overt actions were irreproachably loyal; yet the English officials were convinced that he was merely masking disloyal intrigues. In fact, five years after the Armada, he was in communication with Philip of Spain, and Ireland was at least in part the objective of that second Armada of Philip's which collapsed so ignominiously in 1596.

Yet, whatever Tyrone had been doing, nothing could be brought home to him; and after this demonstration of the futility of trusting to Spain, he succeeded in making his peace with the English government, while he continued to weave his intrigues and to organise his own effective ascendency. In 1598 the English government resolved to deal with him with a strong hand, but only to meet with a disastrous defeat on the Blackwater near Armagh. Still Tyrone did not follow up his victory, though if he had done so half Ireland would probably have risen. He still chose to maintain his professions of loyalty, and to declare that the misguided government was attacking an innocent man.

This was the situation which brought about the downfall of Essex. He clamoured at the council-board against the inefficiency of the Irish administration; his tirades were answered by the offer of the deputyship for himself. He declared himself ready to undertake the task of bringing Ireland to order upon conditions — conditions which would place under his control a force dangerously large for a man of overweening ambition. The conditions were granted, and he departed to Ireland. But Essex in Ireland could not exercise his personal fascination upon the queen. His absence left the field clear to his antagonists, and his own proceedings in Ireland did not improve his position.

He exceeded even the exceptionally full powers which had been conferred on him, acting in direct defiance of instructions, and wrote violent letters of complaint at the treatment which he was receiving.

He paraded through Ireland instead of marching in force against Tyrone; and when at last peremptory orders did compel him to march, he negotiated and made terms instead of striking, and, to the consternation of his supporters in England, retired without a blow. What actually passed is unknown; but, on the whole, the presumption is that he made a private bargain with Tyrone, which was to secure the succession of James VI in England and the ascendency of the two earls in England and Ireland respectively.

The outraged queen expressed her resentment against her favourite in unmeasured terms; whereupon in a moment of madness he threw up his post, hurried to England, rode post-haste to Greenwich, and flung himself in most unseemly guise into the presence of his royal mistress, trusting to recover his ascendency with her. But the outrage was too gross. The queen banished him from her presence, and the same day he was arrested and placed in prison.

For nearly a year Essex was kept in ward, while Tyrone in Ireland opened fresh communications with Philip III, and the game of intrigue went merrily forward in England, always to the advantage of Cecil. Essex on his release found himself powerless, and made frantic efforts to recover ground as a popular champion and a patriot, to the entire satisfaction of his rival. When he had been given sufficient rope, Cecil struck. Essex was summoned to appear before the Council.

The execution of Essex
The earl made a desperate attempt to appeal to the London mob, which failed completely. He was arrested, tried for treason before his peers, and executed. Passionately as Elizabeth was attached to him, pardon was impossible; but, with his death, all happiness went out of the old queen's life.

Montjoy, an able commander, was sent to take the place of Essex in Ireland; but even the exceptionally large forces placed at his disposal did not suffice him to make an immediate end of Tyrone. Philip III, of Spain made a last effort, and the insurgents in the south were reinforced by troops from Spain. Here, however, Montjoy succeeded in crushing the enemy before Tyrone could come to their assistance. Of the insurgent chiefs, some were captured and others fled the country. Tyrone displayed his own diplomatic abilities by making satisfactory terms for himself, and the rebellion was at an end.

Cecil triumphant
With the fall of Essex, Cecil's most dangerous rival had vanished. Raleigh, with all his abilities, was better skilled in making enemies than friends, in politics at least. Elizabeth never trusted him, and he lacked both the craft and the self-control which distinguished the son of Lord Burleigh. That astute politician knew exactly what every one was doing or trying to do, and half the plotters looked to him for a lead while he manipulated the game to suit his own ends.

When Elizabeth was stricken down with mortal illness, all his plans were in perfect order for securing the succession of James the moment the throne should be vacant. Troops and fleets were under the command of his partisans; virtually none but adherents of his own had access to the dying queen.

Elizabeth's death
Only at the very last, when speech had actually left her, the spectators averred that she signed her acquiescence, when asked if she recognised James as her heir. No one was ready to come forward on the spot as champion of any of the rival candidates; and no hand or voice was raised in opposition when James VI of Scotland was proclaimed James I of England. Cecil had won, and there was no question at all that he would be all-powerful with the new monarch.

Mournful was the deathbed of the great queen, the most triumphant of all English rulers; mournful, because her own delight in life had departed from her, and of all those who still flattered her and bowed to her imperious will there was none who loved her, none whom she loved. In the heart of the nation she has been enshrined as "Good Queen Bess," the princess who flung defiance at the might of Spain and raised England to the highest pinnacle of power, the queen in whose reign English seamen won for England her proud position as mistress of the seas, and English poets matched the triumphs of the Athenian stage.

Summing up Elizabeth's reign
What England owes to the Elizabethan age, Englishmen feel that they owe to Elizabeth herself. All other personalities are dominated by hers. And yet it is one of the most amazing of paradoxes that such a woman as Elizabeth should stand out emphatically as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all English monarchs. Trickery was the breath of her nostrils; an insatiable vanity, for which no flattery was too grotesque, was, superficially, her most prominent characteristic.

She deliberately assumed her right to display, in an exaggerated degree, every foible which the misogynist attributes to her sex. She was as ready to make a scapegoat of the innocent as her father before her; her treatment of Davison the Secretary, who obtained her signature to Mary Stuart s death warrant, was not less base than Henry's treatment of Wolsey and Cromwell.

And yet her greatness remains. Beneath the trickery and meanness and vanity lay a deep-rooted love of her country; a mighty resolve to make that country great. Perhaps she never loved any man save Essex, the darling of her old age; but she loved her people. And behind the mask of feminine caprice there worked a brain, cold, calculating, unemotional, which gauged chances to a hair's breadth, knew exactly how far it was safe to go on any particular course, never failed to provide a means of escape from every apparent impasse." Dux femina/facti" was the legend on the medals to commemorate the Armada. "Under a woman's captaincy," England won for ever her place among the nations.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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