In the Days of Queen Elizabeth - E. M. Tappan

Elizabeth and Philip

However fond Elizabeth was of Leicester, she would never allow him to presume upon her favor. A friend of his one day demanded to see the queen, and the usher, or "gentleman of the black rod," as he was called, refused to permit him to enter. Leicester threatened the usher with the loss of his position, but that gentleman went straightway to the queen, fell at her feet, and told the whole story.

"Your Grace," said he, "I have but obeyed your commands, and all that I crave is to know the pleasure of your Majesty. Shall I obey yourself or my Lord Leicester?"

Leicester had also attempted to tell his side of the story, but a wave of the queen's hand had silenced him. Now she turned upon him haughtily and said:—

"I have wished you well, my lord, but know you that my favor is not so locked up in you that others can have no share. I will have here but one mistress and no master."

Leicester tried to take revenge on the queen's vanity by asking her for an appointment in France.

"Do you really wish to go?" she demanded.

"It is one of the things that I most desire," answered the earl. Elizabeth pondered a moment, she glanced at Leicester, and then turned to the Spanish ambassador, who stood near, and said laughingly:—

"I can't live without seeing him. Why, he is my lap-dog, and wherever I go, people expect that he will follow." Leicester did not go to France.

"Elizabeth's old suitor, King Philip, was giving her more trouble than Leicester. The Low Countries, as Holland and Belgium were then called, formed part of his domain. Most of the inhabitants of these lands were Protestants, and they were making a determined resistance to the rule of the Spanish king. Elizabeth believed that if Philip was successful he might attack England. The course decided upon by the English council was to send money secretly to the revolters in the Low Countries. This would not make open war with Spain, but would enable the king's opponents to oppose him more strongly, and would keep him too busy to think of invading England.

Even before Elizabeth came to the throne, the English Channel and the neighboring seas were swarming with bold sailors who attacked any vessel that they believed might be carrying gold or any other cargo of value. To-day this would be called piracy, it was then looked upon as brave seamanship. These pirates cared little for the nationality of a vessel, but Spain had more ships at sea than any other country, and these ships were loaded with gold from America or with valuable goods from India, therefore, Spain was the greatest sufferer; and as the English sailors were generally more bold and more successful than others in making these attacks, the wrath of Spain toward England grew more and more bitter. Whenever a Spanish ship captured an English ship, the sailors were hanged, or imprisoned, or perhaps tortured, or even burned at the stake as heretics. "It is only fair," said Elizabeth, "to get our reprisal in whatever way we can;" and whoever had taken a Spanish vessel, be he English or belonging to some other nation, was allowed to bring his prize into an English port and there dispose of it.

The slave-trade, too, was looked upon as an honorable business and a valuable source of wealth for England. Spain forbade all nations to trade with her American colonies, but these bold Englishmen kidnapped negroes on the African coast, carried them to America, and found ready purchasers in the Spanish colonists of the West Indies. One of these English fleets was attacked by the Spanish in the Gulf of Mexico, and three of the vessels were captured. Elizabeth raged and declared that she would have vengeance. It is possible that her indignation was no less from the fact that two of the vessels of this fleet belonged to the queen herself.

It was not long before the opportunity for revenge appeared. Four Spanish vessels loaded with money for the payment of Philip's army were chased by French pirates and took refuge in an English harbor. Under the pretence of securing the safety of this money, it was quietly transferred to the royal treasury.

The Spanish ambassador protested, but there was much delay before he was permitted to see the queen. He presented a letter from Duke Alva, who commanded the Spanish forces in the Low Countries, claiming the treasure.

"I am not wholly without reason," declared Elizabeth coolly, "for believing that this gold does not belong to the king of Spain."

"This is the duke's own writing, your Highness," said the ambassador.

"Not willingly or with intent to deal unjustly would I seize upon aught that with propriety belongs to his Majesty," said the queen, "but certain rumors have reached me that divers persons of Genoa are sending this money to the Low Countries to make profit by loaning it to the duke."

"Your Majesty, I give you most solemn assurance that such is not the case," declared the helpless ambassador.

"A few days will determine whether your informants or mine be correct," said the queen haughtily. "If the king of Spain can prove that the gold is his, I will restore it to him. Otherwise, I will pay the usual rate of interest to its true owners, and keep it for good service in my own kingdom."

Elizabeth was right in her belief that Philip would not wish to have another war on his hands, and so would make no attack upon her kingdom. He seized Englishmen and English property in Antwerp, but this was small loss to England, for Elizabeth retaliated by imprisoning the Spaniards who were doing business in her kingdom and whose possessions were of far more value than those of the English in Antwerp.

Duke Alva was annoyed and delayed in his plans by the loss of the money, but the fighting went on most bitterly. In France there was a kind of peace between the court and the Huguenots, as the French Protestants were called, but on neither side was there forgiveness or forgetfulness. The leader of the Huguenots was wounded in Paris by an assassin. Catherine de Medicis, mother of the French king, alarmed her son by declaring that the Huguenots would take a fearful vengeance for this attack, and induced him to consent to a terrible slaughter in which thousands of Protestants were slain. This was the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day.

The English were then thoroughly aroused. Thousands were ready to take up arms and avenge the wicked murders. To the French ambassador fell the unwelcome task of telling the dreadful story to the queen of England. He asked for an audience, but she refused it. For three days she hesitated; at length he was admitted. The queen and all her attendants were dressed in the deepest mourning. The unhappy ambassador entered the room and advanced through the lines of lords and ladies. Little return was made to his respectful salutations, there was dead silence. Finally the queen with grave, stern face, came a few steps toward him, greeted him with politeness, and motioned him to follow her to one side.

"I have no wish to show discourtesy to your sovereign," she said, "but it was impossible that I should bring my mind sooner to speak of a matter so grievous to me and to my realm." The ambassador bowed silently, and the queen went on. "Can it be that this strange news of the prince whom I have so loved and honored has been correctly reported to me?"

"In truth," answered the ambassador gravely, "it is for this very thing that I am come to lament with your Majesty over the sad accident."

"An accident?" questioned Elizabeth.

"Surely, your Majesty, for is not that an accident which is forced upon a sovereign by no will of his own, but by the plots and treasons of those whom he would gladly have befriended?"

"How may that be?" asked Elizabeth.

"The evening before the sad event the king was horrified to learn that in revenge for the attempt at assassination, a terrible deed had been planned. It was no less than the imprisonment of himself and his family and the murder of the Catholic leaders."

"How was this known?"

"One whose conscience could no longer bear the burden revealed the wicked plot. The words and looks of several of the conspirators gave gloomy confirmation to the story."

"Why not imprison the traitors? Is there no dungeon in France and no executioner?"

"Your Majesty, not all rulers have your keen judgment and your control of even the strongest sentiments of your heart. The king has not yet learned to govern his feelings by moderation. He had but a few short hours to decide what was best. Many were urging him on to inflict the most severe penalties, and at last he yielded, and allowed that to be done which he will ever regret. Especially does he lament that with a populace so wildly excited and so indignant at the plot against the king, it is all but impossible that some who are innocent should not have perished with the guilty. This is his chief cause of grief." The ambassador had made as smooth a story as possible, but how would the queen receive it?

She was silent for several minutes, then she said:—

"Although I could not accept his Majesty, the king of France, for a husband, yet shall I always revere him as if I were his wife, and ever feel jealous for his honor. I will believe that from some strange accident, which time will perhaps more fully explain, these murders have come to pass. I recommend the Protestants among his people as especially entitled to his Highness's loving care and protection."

When this speech was reported to Catherine de Medicis, she smiled grimly and said, "The queen of England can hardly ask greater protection than she herself grants; namely, to force no man's conscience, but to permit no other worship in the land than that which the ruler himself practises."

Four years had passed since Mary of Scotland fled to England. Nothing had been satisfactorily determined in regard to her guilt or innocence. An important part of the testimony against her was a casket of her letters to Bothwell. Elizabeth's commissioners believed these letters to be the work of Mary's hand, but the English queen refused to permit them to be made public. Whether they were true or were forgeries, she would not allow a queen, a member of her own family, to be declared guilty of murder.

Mary was put under the care of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The sovereign claimed the right to give prisoners of state or guests of the nation to her nobles for watch or entertainment or both. "I am about to trust you as I would trust few men," the queen said to the earl when she informed him of his new task. He was obliged to accept the charge meekly, but it must have been a heavy burden. If his family moved from one of his manors to another, Mary must go with them. She must have the attendance and treatment due to her rank, but she must be closely watched to prevent, if possible, the sending of letters and messages to any that might conspire to rescue her. Guests of the family must be kept from meeting her. It is no wonder that the earl's health gave out. He went away for medical treatment, and at once there came a letter from Cecil:—

"The queen has heard that you are gone from home. She says she can scarce believe it, but she bids me know from you what order you left for attendance upon the Queen of Scots. She would not that you should be long away from her, for she feels it only in accordance with her honor that the said queen be honorably attended, and for this she cares as much as for any question of surety."

The earl did not recover at once, and the queen sent another trusty servant to take charge of Mary. The caring for the prisoner and her retinue was no small matter, for there were so many in her train that her unwilling host felt greatly relieved when Elizabeth commanded that their number be reduced to thirty.

Soon after Mary's coming to England there was an uprising in the north among the nobles who wished to oblige Elizabeth to acknowledge Mary as her heir. They planned for the Scotch queen to marry an English duke of great power and wealth. This conspiracy was discovered, Mary was kept for a while in closer confinement, and after some time the duke was beheaded. Elizabeth long refused to sign the warrant, and she would pay no attention whatever to the counsels of the royal advisers in regard to the execution of Mary, though one called her "that dangerous woman," another, "a desperate person." The archbishop of York advised Elizabeth to "cut off the Scottish queen's head forthwith;" Cecil was decidedly in favor of this plan, for he believed that it was the only way to secure peace to the kingdom, that so long as Mary lived there would be plots, and that, however closely she was watched, she would find means to communicate with plotters. The rebellion in the north was the only revolt of any importance while Elizabeth was on the throne. It was punished most severely by a vast number of executions.

Not long after the revolt, the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth. He pronounced upon her a solemn curse whether she ate or drank, went in or went out; whatever she did, she was accursed, and her subjects were no longer called upon to obey her. Neither Philip nor the king of France ventured to have this decree published in his kingdom, and in England it seems to have produced no effect whatever. The government was every day becoming stronger. The man who disobeyed did not often escape punishment, and Englishmen in general preferred to be excommunicated by the Pope in Italy than to be executed by Elizabeth in England.

The queen gained steadily in power and in the affections of her subjects. Some of this increase of power was because by good management England had grown richer, some of it because by her shrewd treatment of France and Spain she had won the deference of both. Her means of gaining power were not always to be commended; she was not above maintaining nominally peaceful relations with a king while she was aiding his revolting subjects; and she would favor first one proposed marriage and then another, as it might suit her purposes to win the good will of the country to which the respective wooers belonged. When she was once accused of deriding and mocking whoever sought her hand, she replied with an air of injured innocence that she never "mocked or trifled" with any of those who would have had her in marriage, that she had given them her answer as promptly as the "troubles and hindrances that were happening in the world" would permit. Dishonorable as her behavior sometimes was, it is only fair to Elizabeth to remember that in her times fair dealing among nations was the exception rather than the rule; the country that could gain the advantage over another country was looked upon as having shown the greater ability.

Part of Elizabeth's gain in power was due to the improved condition of England. The country was at peace, taxes were not large; ways of living were becoming more comfortable; all subjects were required to attend the Protestant church, but fines and loss of office were small matters when compared with the axe and the stake; bold sailors were taking English ships to distant harbors; a great exchange had been built in London where merchants from any part of the world might come to buy and sell; and the thing that made all these advantages possible was the fact that the government was firm and sure. That the queen was the vainest woman who ever lived, that she would say one thing one day and quite another thing the next morning was perhaps not known outside of her court, and in any case, her subjects would have forgiven her faults, for they felt that she was ever a friend to them, that she believed in them and trusted them. At one time a gun went off by accident and the bullet came very near the queen. Elizabeth straightway issued a proclamation, "I will believe nothing against my subjects," said she, "that loving parents would not believe of their children."

Elizabeth refused positively to stand at the head of any one party; she was determined to be, as she said, "a good queen" to all her subjects. It must be admitted that she was sometimes unjust to the "great folk," but nothing else aroused her wrath so surely and so dangerously as a wrong done to her people, to the masses of her subjects, with whom she felt sympathy and to whom she turned for support. It was an ancient custom in the land that whenever the sovereign went from one part of the kingdom to another, the people of whatever district he might chance to be in should furnish him with food for his attendants, often numbered by hundreds. "Purveyors," or officers whose business it was to attend to the providing of food, went ahead of the royal party and took what they chose to declare would be needed. Sometimes they paid for it—whatever price they chose—sometimes they did not, but in any case the purveyor was sorely tempted to seize larger quantities of supplies than would be needed and sell them elsewhere. When Elizabeth discovered that one of her officers had been behaving in this manner, she was most indignant. "My people shall suffer by no such abuses," she declared. One article that the cheating purveyor had seized and sold for the advantage of his own pocket was a quantity of smelts. "Take him to the pillory," bade the angry queen. "Hang the smelts about his neck, and see you to it that there shall he sit for three full days. Let him who steals from my people keep in his account that he has to reckon not with them but with me; they are my  people, and I am their queen."

This proud sovereign who ruled her haughty nobles with so high a hand enjoyed showing to her subjects how humble she could be. When she was tormenting the king of Spain by every means in her power, she kept on one Maundy Thursday the old custom of feet-washing. Elizabeth was thirty-nine years of age, and therefore the poor women who were seated before her for the ceremony were thirty-nine in number. The queen's ladies brought silver basins filled with warm water delicately perfumed with flowers and sweet-smelling herbs. Cushions were placed, and on these the queen kneeled as she washed one foot of each of the poor women, marked it with a cross and kissed it. It takes a little from the humility of the act to read that just before the queen's performance of this duty the feet of the thirty-nine poor women were most carefully scrubbed and perfumed by three separate officials. There must have been some competition to be among the chosen thirty-nine, if any one guessed what would happen, for before the queen bade them farewell, she presented each one with a pair of shoes, cloth for a gown, the towel and apron used in the ceremony, a purse of white leather containing thirty-nine pence, and a red purse containing twenty shillings. Besides these gifts, each one received bread, fish, and wine.

It is no wonder that Elizabeth was popular among her subjects, and that she rejoiced in their good will, but some of the consequences of their devotion were not agreeable. It was the custom to wear ornaments called aglets, which were somewhat like large loops. These were made of gold and often set with precious stones. They were sewed upon various parts of her robes of state, and they had a fashion of disappearing when the queen was dining in public, for her subjects who were near enough to secure one as a souvenir of their beloved queen seem to have taken advantage of their opportunity. The persons who had charge of her wardrobe made in their books many such entries as these:—

"Lost from her Majesty's back the 17th of January, at Westminster, one aglet of gold, enamelled blue, set upon a gown of purple velvet."

Another one is:—

"One pearl and a tassel of gold being lost from her Majesty's back, off the French gown of black satin, the 15th day of July, at Greenwich."