Robert Cecil sipped his wine in the privacy of his library and contemplated the Queen’s final hours. In a scene worthy of Shake-speare, the defiant monarch had refused to lie down, granting Death a special audience as if it were a foreign ambassador. Propped up and strapped against a mattress, Elizabeth Tudor sucked her thumb, lost in the oblivion of second childhood.
A month ago when it happened, Cecil had done everything right. He had planted himself by her bedside, watching every move and calculating each breath as she lapsed in and out of consciousness. At just the right moment, he had sent the Archbishop away on an official errand. He wasn’t going to take any chances. He had to be alone with the Queen so he could prompt her into naming her successor, and he had to do it without the meddlesome interference of morality to contradict his plans.
For Cecil’s part, there was only one man she could choose, but for obvious reasons the name uttered by a senile old woman in the throes of dementia couldn’t be trusted. His brain-sick sister Anne had reviled their goodly father with shocking accusations before she died, and thus being mad, nothing she said was dependable. He was determined to prevent any royal rantings from challenging James’ impending sovereignty, which he had tirelessly promoted.
His thoughts strayed back to his father. While Death had caused him to forget the pedantic timbre of Lord Burghley’s voice, he remembered every aspect of his laudable advice: that powerful men engineered significant events behind the scenes, and that it was best to do so without witnesses. In the early days of his career when the late Queen’s bid for the monarchy was endangered by pretenders, Burghley had used that principle to win her the crown.
But since his death, a new age had dawned. Robert Cecil now maneuvered his own political machine using King James as the lever. He had secretly negotiated James’ succession in return for lucrative rewards and it was only a matter of time before he could collect. Not even the Queen in the waning hours of her life could subvert his plans. If she said nothing or her words were unintelligible, Cecil would interpret to the world the foregone conclusion.
The more Cecil drank, the more he reveled in his tidy retrospective. He was proud to have surpassed his father by crafting his own special niche. From the moment of the Queen’s death until James was notified, if only for a short time, he was in control of England. The poor little hunchback who had accidentally been dropped down the stairs by a careless nurse, and who was scorned and reviled by his enemies, had excelled beyond his father’s accomplishments. That was no small achievement. History would memorialize Lord Burghley as a great elder-statesman, but he had edited that history to favor Protestantism and trumpet his own deeds while consigning the efforts of other men to unmarked graves.
Cecil had been asleep in a chair by her bed when the Queen awakened and murmured, “I cannot have that rascal on the throne.”
“What rascal, Majesty?” he asked, pressing closer.
“That rascal’s son. I cannot have him on the throne.”
“What rascal? Tell me his name.”
The Queen waved him away as if he were an annoying fly. When she fell silent, he whispered something in her ear about the large annuity she had been paying James to ease her conscience at having executed his mother so long ago.
With the Archbishop out of the room, he asked her the fateful question.
“Majesty, do you plan on naming James as your successor?”
The Queen sucked her thumb and shook her head no.
With his hot breath against her cheek, he rephrased the question.
“Majesty, do you want your Scottish cousin?”
Taking Mary of Scotland’s hand at Heaven’s Gate, and with her thumb still in her mouth, the Queen nodded yes.
With that, she died.
Cecil let a few moments pass before he let in the Archbishop and the rest of the Queen’s counselors. He wanted those few moments alone to savor his triumph. Then, when all were assembled, everyone knelt in prayer as the church bells tolled. While the nation went into mourning, a rider hastened to notify King James, and Cecil circulated his official letter enjoining England’s nobles to pledge their allegiance to the Protestant King. A number of Catholics would refuse, he thought, but the rebels would be dealt with accordingly.
The scene had played out with well-timed precision, as if they had been actors on the stage. After that, Cecil’s most daunting task involved reviewing the late Queen’s documents. In the same orderly manner he had used to scrutinize Walsingham’s papers after his death a decade earlier, Cecil arranged for some illiterate servants to collect the late Queen’s correspondence and bring it to Theobalds. As James’ advisor, he was compelled to sort through every scrap of paper so that no state secrets would fall into the wrong hands. Cecil would decide which letters were personal and which were of significant historical value. Some might even contain current political strategies while others would be candidates for the fire.
At least for now, his most decisive challenge was to finish his wine.
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