The Scene: Theobalds, Home of Sir Robert Cecil
April 26, 1603
One month after the Queen’s death
“Shipwrack’d upon a kingdom, where
No pity, no friends, no hope, no kindred weep
For me . . .”
– Henry VIII
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.
He sighed wearily when he saw the unopened letter at his elbow. On recognizing the handwriting, he found no desire to read it. It had been a busy month, juggling complex responsibilities: first, in securing James’ transition, and second, in collecting on the promises James had made him in carving out his place at Court. The last thing he needed was another plaintive letter from Lord Oxford, begging for his intervention on the reversion of an old estate or for granting a coat-of-arms to the aging father of some petty underling.
It rankled Cecil that his former brother-in-law had no idea how lucky he was, living in the peaceful seclusion of the country. If only he would stay there! Oxford was an infirm relic who’d been absent from the Court for so long, he’d forgotten its pernicious back-stabbing. But by virtue of his lineage, his bold defense of James’ embattled mother, and his reputation for arranging performances of the Shake-speare plays, James had given him preferment and renewed his mysterious stipend.
Almost instantly, the King and the Earl had become great friends. They shared a taste for music, art and literature that left Cecil cold. The King’s new right hand man really wasn’t interested in such trivialities.
When he heard that James adored the Shake-speare plays, Oxford firmly cinched their bond by arranging a Court performance of Robin Goodfellow. Cecil felt like the dust swept behind the door in the epilogue. He highly resented being made to feel like a common drone, devoid of the sparkle of popular entertainment.
This new friendship made it much easier for Oxford to re-insert himself into official proceedings. As Lord Great Chamberlain, he was required to serve at the coronation, but since he had so few household servants to number as his attendants, Cecil was sure it would be a humiliating impossibility. Then the Earl made the outrageous move of selecting actors to play those ceremonial parts. Cecil thought it scandalous, but the King was highly amused, especially when he learned how quickly Oxford’s secretary had ordered the crimson cloth for their liveries.
Worse yet, the King had instantly accepted Oxford’s invitation to stay at his estate in Bath prior to the ceremony, to protect him from the plague that was ravaging London. The monarch’s safety had always been a part of Cecil’s plan, but he hadn’t factored in the stopover at Bath and was furious that the King had been so crudely commandeered.
Cecil wasn’t about to relinquish his authority, but he worried that James was already complicating matters by adamantly insisting on bringing his male lovers to Court. They were nothing but a flaming coven of effeminate whores. And worst of all, the traitor Southampton was among the first to receive one of the flurry of pardons with which the new King was littering the countryside. Cecil had to act quickly. His first order of business was to make himself indispensable to the new King and shepherd him through the subtle cultural complexities of England, which were quite different from those in Scotland. James risked inflaming public disapproval by casting himself in the role of usurper (among other defamations). Many were already disgruntled at the mere thought of having a foreigner as their king.
With all of these concerns Cecil had so much to do that it made his head spin. And then there was the letter from his former brother-in-law, who always seemed to re-enter the family whenever he needed a favor. Cecil wondered what it was this time. He decided to read the melodramatic missive as if it were an entertaining diversion, and so he poured himself more wine, opened the letter and settled back into his chair.
The letter began with Oxford’s usual fawning praise, thanking him for his abundant kindnesses and courtesies. Cecil snickered, hard-pressed to know exactly what these were. Despite his brother Thomas’ ardent support of Lord Oxford, Robert had successfully barred him from ever receiving the Royal Order of the Garter, a nobleman’s highest honor, and he had reveled in that disappointment.
The letter continued:
Because of my infirmity, I cannot come among you as often as I wish, and my house is not so near. The other day, I received a letter at nine o’clock telling me not to fail to be at Whitehall at eight the same morning! This being impossible, I hastened to Ludgate to join the royal procession, but through the press of people and horses I could not reach your company as I desired, but followed as I might.
Why didn’t Oxford take the hint? How credulous of him, not to figure out that the letter about Whitehall had been delayed on purpose!
Cecil grimaced every time Oxford mentioned his cursed infirmity caused by the knife wound in his leg because it drew his attention to Cecil’s own deformity. Oxford’s limp was the consequence of a crime of passion, whereas Cecil’s injured back resulted from an accident in infancy. Really, the Earl of Oxford had become a tedious antique.
Cecil sat bolt upright when he came to Lord Oxford’s eulogy for the Queen.
I am greatly grieved in remembering the mistress we have lost, under whose care you and I from our greenest years were in a manner brought up – and although it has pleased God after an earthly kingdom to take her up into a more permanent and heavenly state (wherein I do not doubt that she is crowned with glory) and to give us a Prince that is wise, learned, and enriched with all virtues – yet considering the long time which we spent in her service, we cannot look for so much left of our days as to bestow so much upon another. Neither (as denied by the infirmity of age and common course of reason) are we ever to expect from another Prince the long acquaintance and kind familiarities wherewith she did use us.
In this common shipwreck, mine is above all the rest, who, least regarded (though often comforted) of all her followers, she has left to try my fortune among the alterations of time and chance – without either sail whereby to take the advantage of any prosperous gale, or anchor to ride till the storm be overpast. Therefore, there is nothing left to comfort me but the excellent virtues and deep wisdom wherewith God has endowed our new master and sovereign lord – who does not come among us as a stranger but as a natural Prince, succeeding by right of blood and inheritance, not as a conqueror, but as a true shepherd of Christ’s flock to cherish and comfort them.
Wherefore, I most earnestly desire of you this favor, as I have written before, that I may be informed from you concerning those points I earlier mentioned, as to time and place. And thus recommending myself to you, I take my leave, your assured friend and unfortunate brother-in-law,
Grudgingly admitting that Oxford’s words had moved him, Cecil looked up and saw the Queen’s documents and other belongings filling half of his cellar, awaiting his perusal.
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