But unlike Bullingbrook, James didn’t want any blood on his hands. He and Cecil were simply waiting for the Queen to die of old age. Essex, not James, was the butcher seeking her destruction. It seemed odd to think that a single performance of an old play like Richard II could touch off civic violence. While it was true that Sir Thomas More had once caused similar fears, years ago the censor had purged both plays of all incendiary material that might cause political unrest.
But what if Shakespeare had been paid to add a few incendiary lines? In his plays Lord Oxford had frequently done so, at no cost to anyone but his victims. The upstart crow from Stratford had probably learned that brand of treachery at his table. By virtue of this upcoming performance, Shaxper, Shaksper, Shakespeare (or however he signed his name) was clearly part of the conspiracy, which made it essential that Robert Poley continue to follow him.
Suddenly, Cecil’s coach hit a bump in the road and he was roughly tossed to the floor. He struggled to climb back onto the seat but his deformity made it difficult. After much effort, the little man regained his place and pounded on the roof with his walking stick, warning the driver to slow down. He quickly covered his mouth with a handkerchief to keep from losing his breakfast.
Making matters worse was the complex mix of generations of royal and noble intermarriages, which had yielded fourteen people who had credible claims to the throne. Most of them were probably prepared to do battle over it. Add to that the thousands of commoners seeking riches, ready to choose up sides in the hope of backing the victor, and a bloody civil war seemed inevitable.
Cecil had to summon every ounce of his political skill to prevent that calamity. James was already an experienced monarch in his own right, and would unify the nation. As a great-great grandson of Henry VII, James had a strong (albeit distant) claim to the throne, and was a staunch Protestant. The only strike against him was that he was a foreigner. England’s commoners were vehemently opposed to being ruled by outsiders. Still, Cecil believed that the guaranty of stability James conveyed would pacify the most obstreperous of his countrymen.
And yet the possibility troubled him that a single Shakespeare play could undermine all of his well laid plans.
Having spent his life taking control of events that lesser men had deemed uncontrollable, Cecil left nothing to chance. Missing his father’s last moments had strengthened his resolve to be alone with the Queen when her time came; and when she drew her last breath to choose her successor, only one name would resonate for all to hear. The election would light on James of Scotland.
As to any conspirators, all of those spoiled sons of wealthy noblemen who presumed to challenge the divine right of kings would be plucked up like weeds to make way for the new regime.
James VI of Scotland would become James I of England. The coach steadied and began to pick up speed.
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