The Scene: Cecil House
May 4, 1586
“Who makes the fairest show means most deceit . . .”
Seated in his library enjoying his wine, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, thanked God for having made him a clever man.
By befriending young Elizabeth during her dark days as a political prisoner under her sister Mary’s rule, he had earned the Princess’ everlasting gratitude. But his real rise to power had come shortly after young King Edward’s untimely death. Sadly, the boy-king had indulged in the misguided whim of naming his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, to be his royal successor. It took only nine days for the Privy Council to reject her claim in favor of Edward’s sister Mary. Poor Lady Jane was beheaded on Tower Green, a victim of the boy-king’s naivete and her own family’s lust for power. Then years later, after Mary’s agonizing death, Fortune finally put the crown on Elizabeth’s head.
No one had expected this turn of events. Despite the fact that the Pope had declared her a bastard, Fortune had raised the lowly Princess Elizabeth from the dust and set her on a glittering throne. As payment for his loyalty, the new Queen elevated Burghley to the rank of chief advisor. He congratulated himself for that fact every day, confident that not even the astrologer John Dee could have acted with better foresight.
He was sure this had happened because in his youth he had read Machiavelli’s The Prince to guide him in rising from the middle classes to commanding power of his own. He was awed to think that Fortune governed only half of a man’s fate, while the other half was ruled by Will.
To move the idea from his thoughts into his actions, he personified it, as he did with most of his studies. Fortune became a charming but fickle woman, with Will as her forceful, masculine consort. Together they conspired to control a man’s destiny; but to avoid being crushed by Fortune’s Wheel, a man must use his force of Will to steer events in his direction. Machiavelli had said that if a man neglects what must be done in favor of what ought to be done, he will bring about his own ruin rather than his security. Lord Burghley had not only embraced the precept, but he lived and breathed it.
Just like Elizabeth, Fortune favored decisive men over meek ones. She had brazenly offered herself to him during her imprisonment, seeking to express her gratitude for his tenderness with lust. But he sublimated his natural urges, and instead of stiffening with desire, he stiffened his resolve and gently refused her, decisively calming her bewildering cravings with sweet and sympathetic words.
He didn’t tell her that he knew that Thomas Seymour, married to King Henry VIII’s widow Catherine Parr, had taken Elizabeth’s virginity when she was only 15 and living under her stepmother’s roof. Seymour’s incestuous visits to her bed had left her shocked and confused, churning with mixed emotions. A major scandal was avoided at the time only because no one thought Elizabeth was of any importance. Her virginity didn’t matter, since a suitable husband from a noble family could always be found for such a girl.
But Fortune intervened, and in an ironic twist, Elizabeth rewarded Burghley for his decisive refusal of her sexual favors because, in her words, he had “safeguarded her dignity at the crossroads of her fate.” Elizabeth valued him as an incorruptible and cautious advisor. While she never again tried to seduce him, she cast her erotic desires on younger men, many of whom sought political advancement in her bed. He had to protect her from these dangerous entanglements and undesirable unions, particularly because his son-in-law, the Earl of Oxford, was her favorite.
The two of them were always behind closed doors, loving and singing and dancing and laughing and speaking foreign languages, sharing a colorful world of court masques and theatrical illusions, which Burghley detested as sinful and unholy rubbish. Sometimes it was more than he could bear, listening to them from behind a tapestry while they sang duets or read scenes from Oxford’s plays as a prelude to their long nights of unabridged passion. Why couldn’t Oxford just go home to his wife?
Damn those plays! The historical ones weren’t bad, and Burghley had survived the humiliation of having his habits caricatured at Court, but he never knew when he or other members of his family would be mocked on the public stage. He had survived the obvious reference to the robbery at Gad’s Hill in The Famous Victories because the play had been presented anonymously. He had even survived the embarrassment at his daughter’s wedding when Edward revealed the private financial proposals of her rejected suitors in his play, The Merry Courtship of Mistress Anne.
Burghley’s most recent fear was the prospect of being exposed for conniving a consensual, albeit incestuous, union with Anne in a play called Hamlet. He confessed as much to the Queen in a mysterious letter, begging for her royal mercy but leaving his precise crime unnamed. He hoped she wouldn’t recognize his sin entwined in the clever lines of Hamlet, for he was sure Edward had put it there. If so, Burghley knew his career would be over and Edward would have won his revenge.
But the Queen only wanted history plays from Edward now, strictly for political purposes, so perhaps Burghley had nothing more to fear. Historical figures were cut in marble and didn’t inspire the intense scrutiny of the living. Julius Caesar, Pericles and Coriolanus, being mortal men, had outlived their sins as Burghley knew he himself would, when he lay in his grave.
It was unfortunate that the bad blood between himself and Edward, Earl of Oxford, had simmered gradually during his ward’s adolescence and boiled over into his unhappy marriage to Anne. As a royal guardian, Burghley always believed that he had done his best to balance Edward’s needs with England’s wellbeing. If it turned out that the young man’s interests were secondary to maintaining England’s welfare, sacrifices on Edward’s part were mere trifles to be expected.
As if to prove himself correct in his thinking, he turned to his well-worn journal and opened it to the terse entries written at the start of his stormy relationship with the Earl of Oxford.
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