Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr

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Public Domain Books

Nell Gwyn
Simon Verelst, ca. 1680
At the National Gallery

Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester

History has many romantic stories to tell of the part which women have played in determining the destinies of nations. Sometimes it is a woman’s beauty that causes the shifting of a province. Again it is another woman’s rich possessions that incite invasion and lead to bloody wars. Marriages or dowries, or the refusal of marriages and the lack of dowries, inheritance through an heiress, the failure of a male succession–in these and in many other ways women have set their mark indelibly upon the trend of history.

However, if we look over these different events we shall find that it is not so much the mere longing for a woman–the desire to have her as a queen–that has seriously affected the annals of any nation. Kings, like ordinary men, have paid their suit and then have ridden away repulsed, yet not seriously dejected. Most royal marriages are made either to secure the succession to a throne by a legitimate line of heirs or else to unite adjoining states and make a powerful kingdom out of two that are less powerful. But, as a rule, kings have found greater delight in some sheltered bower remote from courts than in the castled halls and well-cared-for nooks where their own wives and children have been reared with all the appurtenances of legitimacy.

There are not many stories that hang persistently about the love- making of a single woman. In the case of one or another we may find an episode or two–something dashing, something spirited or striking, something brilliant and exhilarating, or something sad. But for a woman’s whole life to be spent in courtship that meant nothing and that was only a clever aid to diplomacy–this is surely an unusual and really wonderful thing.

It is the more unusual because the woman herself was not intended by nature to be wasted upon the cold and cheerless sport of chancellors and counselors and men who had no thought of her except to use her as a pawn. She was hot-blooded, descended from a fiery race, and one whose temper was quick to leap into the passion of a man.

In studying this phase of the long and interesting life of Elizabeth of England we must notice several important facts. In the first place, she gave herself, above all else, to the maintenance of England–not an England that would be half Spanish or half French, or even partly Dutch and Flemish, but the Merry England of tradition–the England that was one and undivided, with its growing freedom of thought, its bows and bills, its nut-brown ale, its sturdy yeomen, and its loyalty to crown and Parliament. She once said, almost as in an agony:

“I love England more than anything!”

And one may really hold that this was true.

For England she schemed and planned. For England she gave up many of her royal rights. For England she descended into depths of treachery. For England she left herself on record as an arrant liar, false, perjured, yet successful; and because of her success for England’s sake her countrymen will hold her in high remembrance, since her scheming and her falsehood are the offenses that one pardons most readily in a woman.

In the second place, it must be remembered that Elizabeth’s courtships and pretended love-makings were almost always a part of her diplomacy. When not a part of her diplomacy they were a mere appendage to her vanity. To seem to be the flower of the English people, and to be surrounded by the noblest, the bravest, and the most handsome cavaliers, not only of her own kingdom, but of others–this was, indeed, a choice morsel of which she was fond of tasting, even though it meant nothing beyond the moment.

Finally, though at times she could be very cold, and though she made herself still colder in order that she might play fast and loose with foreign suitors who played fast and loose with her–the King of Spain, the Duc d’Alencon, brother of the French king, with an Austrian archduke, with a magnificent barbarian prince of Muscovy, with Eric of Sweden, or any other Scandinavian suitor– she felt a woman’s need for some nearer and more tender association to which she might give freer play and in which she might feel those deeper emotions without the danger that arises when love is mingled with diplomacy.

Let us first consider a picture of the woman as she really was in order that we may understand her triple nature–consummate mistress of every art that statesmen know, and using at every moment her person as a lure; a vain-glorious queen who seemed to be the prey of boundless vanity; and, lastly, a woman who had all a woman’s passion, and who could cast suddenly aside the check and balance which restrained her before the public gaze and could allow herself to give full play to the emotion that she inherited from the king, her father, who was himself a marvel of fire and impetuosity. That the daughter of Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn should be a gentle, timid maiden would be to make heredity a farce.

Elizabeth was about twenty-five years of age when she ascended the throne of England. It is odd that the date of her birth cannot be given with precision. The intrigues and disturbances of the English court, and the fact that she was a princess, made her birth a matter of less account than if there had been no male heir to the throne. At any rate, when she ascended it, after the deaths of her brother, King Edward VI., and her sister, Queen Mary, she was a woman well trained both in intellect and in physical development.

Mr. Martin Hume, who loves to dwell upon the later years of Queen Elizabeth, speaks rather bitterly of her as a “painted old harridan"; and such she may well have seemed when, at nearly seventy years of age, she leered and grinned a sort of skeleton smile at the handsome young courtiers who pretended to see in her the queen of beauty and to be dying for love of her.

Yet, in her earlier years, when she was young and strong and impetuous, she deserved far different words than these. The portrait of her by Zucchero, which now hangs in Hampton Court, depicts her when she must have been of more than middle age; and still the face is one of beauty, though it be a strange and almost artificial beauty–one that draws, attracts, and, perhaps, lures you on against your will.

It is interesting to compare this painting with the frank word- picture of a certain German agent who was sent to England by his emperor, and who seems to have been greatly fascinated by Queen Elizabeth. She was at that time in the prime of her beauty and her power. Her complexion was of that peculiar transparency which is seen only in the face of golden blondes. Her figure was fine and graceful, and her wit an accomplishment that would have made a woman of any rank or time remarkable. The German envoy says:

She lives a life of such magnificence and feasting as can hardly be imagined, and occupies a great portion of her time with balls, banquets, hunting, and similar amusements, with the utmost possible display, but nevertheless she insists upon far greater respect being shown her than was exacted by Queen Mary. She summons Parliament, but lets them know that her orders must be obeyed in any case.

If any one will look at the painting by Zucchero he will see how much is made of Elizabeth’s hands–a distinctive feature quite as noble with the Tudors as is the “Hapsburg lip” among the descendants of the house of Austria. These were ungloved, and were very long and white, and she looked at them and played with them a great deal; and, indeed, they justified the admiration with which they were regarded by her flatterers.

Such was the personal appearance of Elizabeth. When a young girl, we have still more favorable opinions of her that were written by those who had occasion to be near her. Not only do they record swift glimpses of her person, but sometimes in a word or two they give an insight into certain traits of mind which came out prominently in her later years.

It may, perhaps, be well to view her as a woman before we regard her more fully as a queen. It has been said that Elizabeth inherited many of the traits of her father–the boldness of spirit, the rapidity of decision, and, at the same time, the fox- like craft which often showed itself when it was least expected.

Henry had also, as is well known, a love of the other sex, which has made his reign memorable. And yet it must be noted that while he loved much, it was not loose love. Many a king of England, from Henry II. to Charles II., has offended far more than Henry VIII. Where Henry loved, he married; and it was the unfortunate result of these royal marriages that has made him seem unduly fond of women. If, however, we examine each one of the separate espousals we shall find that he did not enter into it lightly, and that he broke it off unwillingly. His ardent temperament, therefore, was checked by a certain rational or conventional propriety, so that he was by no means a loose liver, as many would make him out to be.

We must remember this when we recall the charges that have been made against Elizabeth, and the strange stories that were told of her tricks–by no means seemly tricks–which she used to play with her guardian, Lord Thomas Seymour. The antics she performed with him in her dressing-room were made the subject of an official inquiry; yet it came out that while Elizabeth was less than sixteen, and Lord Thomas was very much her senior, his wife was with him on his visits to the chamber of the princess.

Sir Robert Tyrwhitt and his wife were also sent to question her, Tyrwhitt had a keen mind and one well trained to cope with any other’s wit in this sort of cross-examination. Elizabeth was only a girl of fifteen, yet she was a match for the accomplished courtier in diplomacy and quick retort. He was sent down to worm out of her everything that she knew. Threats and flattery and forged letters and false confessions were tried on her; but they were tried in vain. She would tell nothing of importance. She denied everything. She sulked, she cried, she availed herself of a woman’s favorite defense in suddenly attacking those who had attacked her. She brought counter charges against Tyrwhitt, and put her enemies on their own defense. Not a compromising word could they wring out of her.

She bitterly complained of the imprisonment of her governess, Mrs. Ashley, and cried out:

“I have not so behaved that you need put more mistresses upon me!”

Altogether, she was too much for Sir Robert, and he was wise enough to recognize her cleverness.

“She hath a very good wit,” said he, shrewdly; “and nothing is to be gotten of her except by great policy.” And he added: “If I had to say my fancy, I think it more meet that she should have two governesses than one.”

Mr. Hume notes the fact that after the two servants of the princess had been examined and had told nothing very serious they found that they had been wise in remaining friends of the royal girl. No sooner had Elizabeth become queen than she knighted the man Parry and made him treasurer of the household, while Mrs. Ashley, the governess, was treated with great consideration. Thus, very naturally, Mr. Hume says: “They had probably kept back far more than they told.”

Even Tyrwhitt believed that there was a secret compact between them, for he said, quaintly: “They all sing one song, and she hath set the note for them.”

Soon after this her brother Edward’s death brought to the throne her elder sister, Mary, who has harshly become known as Bloody Mary. During this time Elizabeth put aside her boldness, and became apparently a shy and simple-minded virgin. Surrounded on every side by those who sought to trap her, there was nothing in her bearing to make her seem the head of a party or the young chief of a faction. Nothing could exceed her in meekness. She spoke of her sister in the humblest terms. She exhibited no signs of the Tudor animation that was in reality so strong a part of her character.

But, coming to the throne, she threw away her modesty and brawled and rioted with very little self-restraint. The people as a whole found little fault with her. She reminded them of her father, the bluff King Hal; and even those who criticized her did so only partially. They thought much better of her than they had of her saturnine sister, the first Queen Mary.

The life of Elizabeth has been very oddly misunderstood, not so much for the facts in it as for the manner in which these have been arranged and the relation which they have to one another. We ought to recollect that this woman did not live in a restricted sphere, that her life was not a short one, and that it was crowded with incidents and full of vivid color. Some think of her as living for a short period of time and speak of the great historical characters who surrounded her as belonging to a single epoch. To them she has one set of suitors all the time–the Duc d’Alencon, the King of Denmark’s brother, the Prince of Sweden, the russian potentate, the archduke sending her sweet messages from Austria, the melancholy King of Spain, together with a number of her own brilliant Englishmen–Sir William Pickering, Sir Robert Dudley, Lord Darnley, the Earl of Essex, Sir Philip Sidney, and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Of course, as a matter of fact, Elizabeth lived for nearly seventy years–almost three-quarters of a century–and in that long time there came and went both men and women, those whom she had used and cast aside, with others whom she had also treated with gratitude, and who had died gladly serving her. But through it all there was a continual change in her environment, though not in her. The young soldier went to the battle-field and died; the wise counselor gave her his advice, and she either took it or cared nothing for it. She herself was a curious blending of forwardness and folly, of wisdom and wantonness, of frivolity and unbridled fancy. But through it all she loved her people, even though she often cheated them and made them pay her taxes in the harsh old way that prevailed before there was any right save the king’s will.

At the same time, this was only by fits and starts, and on the whole she served them well. Therefore, to most of them she was always the good Queen Bess. What mattered it to the ditcher and yeoman, far from the court, that the queen was said to dance in her nightdress and to swear like a trooper?

It was, indeed, largely from these rustic sources that such stories were scattered throughout England. Peasants thought them picturesque. More to the point with them were peace and prosperity throughout the country, the fact that law was administered with honesty and justice, and that England was safe from her deadly enemies–the swarthy Spaniards and the scheming French.

But, as I said, we must remember always that the Elizabeth of one period was not the Elizabeth of another, and that the England of one period was not the England of another. As one thinks of it, there is something wonderful in the almost star-like way in which this girl flitted unharmed through a thousand perils. Her own countrymen were at first divided against her; a score of greedy, avaricious suitors sought her destruction, or at least her hand to lead her to destruction; all the great powers of the Continent were either demanding an alliance with England or threatening to dash England down amid their own dissensions.

What had this girl to play off against such dangers? Only an undaunted spirit, a scheming mind that knew no scruples, and finally her own person and the fact that she was a woman, and, therefore, might give herself in marriage and become the mother of a race of kings.

It was this last weapon, the weapon of her sex, that proved, perhaps, the most powerful of all. By promising a marriage or by denying it, or by neither promising nor denying but withholding it, she gave forth a thousand wily intimations which kept those who surrounded her at bay until she had made still another deft and skilful combination, escaping like some startled creature to a new place of safety.

In 1583, when she was fifty years of age, she had reached a point when her courtships and her pretended love-making were no longer necessary. She had played Sweden against Denmark, and France against Spain, and the Austrian archduke against the others, and many suitors in her own land against the different factions which they headed. She might have sat herself down to rest; for she could feel that her wisdom had led her up into a high place, whence she might look down in peace and with assurance of the tranquillity that she had won. Not yet had the great Armada rolled and thundered toward the English shores. But she was certain that her land was secure, compact, and safe.

It remains to see what were those amatory relations which she may be said to have sincerely held. She had played at love-making with foreign princes, because it was wise and, for the moment, best. She had played with Englishmen of rank who aspired to her hand, because in that way she might conciliate, at one time her Catholic and at another her Protestant subjects. But what of the real and inward feeling of her heart, when she was not thinking of political problems or the necessities of state!

This is an interesting question. One may at least seek the answer, hoping thereby to solve one of the most interesting phases of this perplexing and most remarkable woman.

It must be remembered that it was not a question of whether Elizabeth desired marriage. She may have done so as involving a brilliant stroke of policy. In this sense she may have wished to marry one of the two French princes who were among her suitors. But even here she hesitated, and her Parliament disapproved; for by this time England had become largely Protestant. Again, had she married a French prince and had children, England might have become an appanage of France.

There is no particular evidence that she had any feeling at all for her Flemish, Austrian, or Russian suitors, while the Swede’s pretensions were the laughing-stock of the English court. So we may set aside this question of marriage as having nothing to do with her emotional life. She did desire a son, as was shown by her passionate outcry when she compared herself with Mary of Scotland.

“The Queen of Scots has a bonny son, while I am but a barren stock!”

She was too wise to wed a subject; though. had she married at all, her choice would doubtless have been an Englishman. In this respect, as in so many others, she was like her father, who chose his numerous wives, with the exception of the first, from among the English ladies of the court; just as the showy Edward IV. was happy in marrying “Dame Elizabeth Woodville.” But what a king may do is by no means so easy for a queen; and a husband is almost certain to assume an authority which makes him unpopular with the subjects of his wife.

Hence, as said above, we must consider not so much whom she would have liked to marry, but rather to whom her love went out spontaneously, and not as a part of that amatory play which amused her from the time when she frisked with Seymour down to the very last days, when she could no longer move about, but when she still dabbled her cheeks with rouge and powder and set her skeleton face amid a forest of ruffs.

There were many whom she cared for after a fashion. She would not let Sir Walter Raleigh visit her American colonies, because she could not bear to have him so long away from her. She had great moments of passion for the Earl of Essex, though in the end she signed his death-warrant because he was as dominant in spirit as the queen herself.

Readers of Sir Walter Scott’s wonderfully picturesque novel, Kenilworth, will note how he throws the strongest light upon Elizabeth’s affection for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Scott’s historical instinct is united here with a vein of psychology which goes deeper than is usual with him. We see Elizabeth trying hard to share her favor equally between two nobles; but the Earl of Essex fails to please her because he lacked those exquisite manners which made Leicester so great a favorite with the fastidious queen.

Then, too, the story of Leicester’s marriage with Amy Robsart is something more than a myth, based upon an obscure legend and an ancient ballad. The earl had had such a wife, and there were sinister stories about the manner of her death. But it is Scott who invents the villainous Varney and the bulldog Anthony Foster; just as he brought the whole episode into the foreground and made it occur at a period much later than was historically true. Still, Scott felt–and he was imbued with the spirit and knowledge of that time–a strong conviction that Elizabeth loved Leicester as she really loved no one else.

There is one interesting fact which goes far to convince us. Just as her father was, in a way, polygamous, so Elizabeth was even more truly polyandrous. It was inevitable that she should surround herself with attractive men, whose love-locks she would caress and whose flatteries she would greedily accept. To the outward eye there was very little difference in her treatment of the handsome and daring nobles of her court; yet a historian of her time makes one very shrewd remark when he says: “To every one she gave some power at times–to all save Leicester.”

Cecil and Walsingham in counsel and Essex and Raleigh in the field might have their own way at times, and even share the sovereign’s power, but to Leicester she intrusted no high commands and no important mission. Why so? Simply because she loved him more than any of the rest; and, knowing this, she knew that if besides her love she granted him any measure of control or power, then she would be but half a queen and would be led either to marry him or else to let him sway her as he would.

For the reason given, one may say with confidence that, while Elizabeth’s light loves were fleeting, she gave a deep affection to this handsome, bold, and brilliant Englishman and cherished him in a far different way from any of the others. This was as near as she ever came to marriage, and it was this love at least which makes Shakespeare’s famous line as false as it is beautiful, when he describes “the imperial votaress” as passing by “in maiden meditation, fancy free.”


The Story of Antony and Cleopatra  •  Abelard and Heloise  •  Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester  •  Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Bothwell  •  Queen Christina of Sweden and the Marquis Monaldeschi  •  King Charles II. and Nell Gwyn  •  Maurice of Saxony and Adrienne Lecouvreur

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