Shapiro, 1599 Chapter 13 “Things Dying, Things Newborn” pp.253-283
Essex had landed in Ireland on April 14, joining his troops after a rough passage. Almost three weeks had passed since his inspiring if ominous departure from London. Even before embarking Essex knew how much was at stake: "For myself, if things succeed ill in my charge, I am like to be a martyr." He was worried, too, about what effect "moist, rotten" Ireland might have upon his "sad mind" and his "rheumatic body" prone to the dysentery that had killed his father. What he discovered upon his arrival in Dublin could only have depressed him further.
Almost immediately, Essex saw that he had to abandon his long standing plans to seize the initiative by marching on Tyrone in Ulster. The Irish Council explained that there wouldn't be enough grass for fodder there until June. Nor was there sufficient transport to supply troops heading into Ulster. Essex also had to scrap plans to establish a garrison at Lough Foyle in the north, so crucial for flanking Tyrone's forces. He lacked sufficient shipping and men to accomplish this and the Privy Council rejected his request for four thousand reinforcements, encouraging him to make do with what he had.
Essex was surprised by the number of rebels he now faced. Initial reports spoke of Tyrone with six or seven thousand men near Armagh; O'Donnell, in Connaught, with four thousand more; and another four thousand in Munster commanded by the Earl of Desmond. A few days later the Irish Council raised their estimate of enemy combatants to thirty thousand; the rebels outnumbered Essex's expeditionary force by almost two to one. The council-- motivated by self-interest and fearful of what would happen if the raw English troops were overwhelmed by Tyrone's battled-tested veterans-- persuaded Essex to turn his attention first to the south, to suppress the rebellion in Leinster and Munster, a strategy that Elizabeth and her Privy Council reluctantly approved.
Rather than cutting the root of the rebellion in Ulster, Essex was now committed, as he put it, to shaking and sawing its branches in the south and west. The problem was with the metaphor itself: Essex would have been better off taking a torch to the entire tree-branches, trunk, roots, and all. A scorched earth policy, the kind that Edmund Spenser had advocated, would starve the Irish into submission, destroying their crops as well as the trees behind which they hid and fought. But Essex considered a war of attrition dishonorable. "To speak plainly," Essex gamely wrote the Privy Council, "our numbers are inferior to those which come against us, but our cause is better, our order and discipline stronger; our courage likewise, I doubt not, shall be greater."
If Essex was unsure of how the war should be waged, he was fully committed to his band of brothers, the gentleman-adventurers who had followed him at their own expense to fight in Ireland. One of his first acts after landing was appointing his close friend the Earl of Southampton as general of the horse in Ireland, though Elizabeth had warned him not to. But Essex stood upon prerogative: his commission entitled him "to make free choice of all officers and commanders of the army," and he would do so. He also made another loyal friend, the Earl of Rutland-- who had come to Ireland against the queen's command-- lieutenant general of the infantry. Elizabeth responded by calling Rutland home. And she refused to let Essex appoint his father-in-law, Sir Christopher Blount, to the Irish Council. From Essex's perspective, the queen, unlike her father and grandfather, had no firsthand experience of war and was simply meddling in affairs she knew nothing about. Elizabeth, for her part, feared that such appointments, along with Essex's right to knight those who followed him to Ireland, would bind men more closely to him than to her. She wouldn't stand for that nor would she tolerate a shadow court in Ireland.
Behind these maneuvers, behind the entire Irish campaign, was a struggle over a culture of honor. In the early fourteenth century there had been twelve hundred knights in England; by the time Elizabeth be came queen that number had been halved through attrition. Midway through her reign that number had been halved again. It was a quietly efficient way for Elizabeth to consolidate power and break the will of an ancient nobility that had periodically risen up against the English monarchy. Since her unflinching response to the Northern Rebellion thirty years earlier, the aristocracy had been submissive. By the end of her reign the noblemen who bore the titles that had struck fear into the hearts of monarchs in Shakespeare's history plays-- the Percys, Pembrokes, Buckinghams, Westmorelands, Northumberlands, and Norfolks-- were poor shadows of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, men whose power had been rooted in land and armed followers. So weakened was the nobility that Shakespeare's depiction of their ancestors' martial exploits in his history plays, while nostalgically recalling the great age of English chivalry, also reminded audiences how far, and how irrevocably, that culture of honor had declined. Essex, who had little land and less money, was more dependent on Elizabeth's largesse than most. He was the last upstart, the last, in the Earl of Northumberland's words, to wear "the crown of England in his heart." Even if his ambitions stopped short of the throne, Essex was determined to restore English knighthood in both numbers and prestige.
Which explains why he had so coveted the post of earl marshal, whose responsibilities included presiding over the court's chivalric activities. Essex refused to see the post as largely ceremonial and set scholars to work delving into the long-forgotten powers of the office, including the responsibility for judging all questions of honor in the realm. And he sought to strengthen his authority by combining this post with that of the office of constable, which, some believed, carried with it the right to arrest anyone in England, including the monarch. Essex began to sign his letters to the queen as her "vassal," bound in feudal traditions of homage and allegiance, rather than her "servant" ("What I owe as a subject, I know, and what as an Earl, and Marshal of England; to serve as a servant and a slave I know not"). A month before departing for Ireland, at a hearing of the College of Arms held at Essex House, he had publicly declared that England was "most mighty when the nobility led and commanded in war" and that even as "God hath tied himself to the honor of men," so "should the prince do likewise." "When nobility is suppressed," he added, "all government [is] subverted."
Essex had taken advantage of the prerogative of command to dub twenty-one knights in the siege of Rouen in 1591, and another sixty-eight in Cadiz, many of whose allegiance to him was now unquestioned. "Knights be not born," William Harrison reminded readers in his Description of England (1577), not even "the king." Essex knighted eighty-one of his followers in Ireland, so many that it was hard to persuade Elizabeth not to revoke some of them. Sir John Chamberlain spoke for those who saw that this explosion in the number of knights undermined the authority of the monarch and "draw the order" of knighthood "into contempt": "it is noted as a strange thing" that Essex "in the space of seven or eight years" should "make more knights then are in all the realm besides."
The chivalric culture Essex was determined to restore and whose future was at stake in this Irish campaign had its apotheosis in the Order of the Garter, celebrated annually on St. George's Day, April 23. The chance to hold a garter feast immediately after his arrival in Ireland enabled Essex to showcase the chivalric values he felt were unappreciated in Elizabeth's court, which rewarded "little men" (a jab here at the diminutive Cecil, who preferred "ease, pleasure, and profit"). It would be a replay of the famous Garter feast held by the Earl of Leicester in Utrecht in 1586, where, at the fighting at barriers, Essex, at age twenty, had first burst onto the scene, and "gave all men great hope of his prowess in arms."
The celebration Essex arranged in Dublin beggared description. Sir Anthony Standen confided to Edward Reynolds, Essex's secretary back in London, that the ceremonies "on St. George's Day passed all the service that I ever saw done to any prince in Christendom." Standen knew how poorly this would be received at home: "Though all was to her Majesty's honor, yet what malice may hew out of this, you know." Another account was provided by the famously blunt Sir James Perrot (who had said of Elizabeth's tendency to pay attention to her skilled soldiers only in time of war, "Now she is ready to piss herself for fear of the Spaniard, I am again one of her white boys"). As for Essex's show in Dublin, Perrot, who was there, wrote, "There was not greater state, plenty, and attendance used at that time in the Court of England on the Queen and all her Knights of the Order." Even Irish writers, who had few good words for the English, conceded that Essex "displayed a regal pomp the most splendid that any Englishman had ever exhibited in Ireland." It was high romance, fit to be immortalized by ballad makers:
In Ireland, St.
The chivalric display in Dublin could not have stood in starker contrast to what was taking place that very day at Windsor, where Elizabeth saw to it that Garter celebrations were muted, owing to the "sedition and flames of rebellion in Ireland." Nonetheless, she decided that three knights were to fill the depleted ranks of the Order that day at Windsor: Thomas Scrope; Robert Ratclyffe, the Earl of
Sussex; and Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham, deeply despised by Essex and his martial followers (and recently mocked onstage by Shakespeare (as Falstaff and his crew). It must have struck many on both sides of the Irish Sea that day that England's true knights were with Essex while those rewarded at Windsor were foppish imposters, none more so than Cobham, whose train was called "the bravest" (in the sense of sumptuous, not courageous), and who had spent lavishly on the event. Cobham outfitted his gentlemen followers "in purple breeches, and white satin doublets and chains of gold," and his "yeomen in purple cloth breeches, and white fustian doublets, all in blue coats, and faced with white taffeta, and feathers of white and blue."
It was the kind of performance that interested Shakespeare. Two years earlier, at the previous induction ceremony at Windsor (which fell on or near his thirty-third birthday), Shakespeare had almost certainly been part of the procession of gentlemen retainers following his patron Henry Carey, the lord chamberlain, all of them arrayed "in blue coats faced with orange-colored taffety, and orange-colored feathers in their hats." It may have been the gaudiest costume Shakespeare ever wore. The ceremonies at Windsor, which had brought him in such close proximity to the traditions of English chivalry, made a strong impression on him. And they were still on his mind when not long after he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which he included an otherwise gratuitous allusion to "Each fair installment, coat, and several crest With loyal blazon" of the Order, and even quoted its motto-- "Honi soit qui mal y pense"-- "Evil to him who thinks evil" (5.5.62-68).
Shakespeare's fascination with the Order and with the decline of chivalry in England goes back to the beginning of his career. In The First Part of Henry the Sixth, brave Talbot strips the Garter off Sir John Fastolfe, demanding to know if "such cowards ought to wear / This ornament of knighthood, yea or no?" (4.1.28-29). Shakespeare went out of his way here to draw attention to the devaluation of the Order, and the speech that follows, which is not based on anything in his sources, would have resonated with England's martial faction:
When first this
order was ordained,
Shakespeare's long-standing interest in his history plays in the struggle over chivalric values, coupled with his strenuous efforts in the late 1590s to secure for his family a coat of arms, suggests that he himself was torn by the tension between past and present, between the form and substance of what it meant to bear arms.
As for Elizabeth, when reports trickled back to England of Essex's extravagant celebration, paid for out of her pocket, she responded in characteristic fashion, punishing Essex by giving the juiciest plum of all monopolies in England-- the lucrative mastership of wards that had enriched Burghley and which she had dangled before Essex for months-- to her dutiful bureaucratic servant Sir Robert Cecil.
BY THE TIME THIS NEWS REACHED IRELAND IN EARLY MAY, ESSEX HAD already marched out of Dublin, leading four thousand foot soldiers and five hundred cavalry against the rebels in Leinster and Munster. His army headed southwest, through Newcastle, Naas, Kilcullen, Athy, Maryborough, Ballyragget, Kilkenny, and Clonmel. There were a few skirmishes but no serious battles with the Irish, who preferred to fight on their own terms, frustrating the gentlemen on horse who were anxious for glory and prone to making foolhardy cavalry charges. One of these adventurers, the young Lord Grey, had to be reined in for his aggressiveness by the Earl of Southampton, a stinging insult that Grey, who packed up and went home, never forgot.
Essex reported to the Privy Council that "the rebels fight in woods and bogs, where horse are utterly unserviceable; they use the advantage of lightness and swiftness." And Essex's spies reported that the enemy was deliberately avoiding a fight, relying instead on "the three furies, Penury, Sickness, and Famine," to wear down the English invaders. There were a few token demonstrations of submission to English authority by rebel leaders, and Essex was greeted with orations in towns like Kilkenny and Clonmel, his path strewn with rushes-- leading Elizabeth to complain aloud that she was spending a thousand pounds a day so that Essex might "go in progress."
The last week of May also witnessed the campaign's first victory, the taking, with artillery, of Castle Cahir, a major rebel stronghold. Elizabeth, when told of this, remained unimpressed with the capture of "an Irish hold from a rabble of rogues," but it was a fine piece of tactical warfare. The same cannot be said of the disastrous defeat visited that same week upon Sir Henry Harrington's troops at Wicklow. Harrington had been dispatched by Essex to suppress Phelim McFeagh, the O'Tooles, and their followers. In a replay of the defeat at Blackwater, command broke down. Outnumbered by the surrounding rebel forces, Harrington struggled to return his forces to Wicklow, five miles or so from where they were encamped. There was apparently collusion between Adam Loftus, who led an Irish company fighting for the English, and the rebel forces. Under attack, the English troops broke and ran, "possessed with such a fear, that they cast away their arms, and would not strike one blow for their lives." Nearly half of the English force of 450 men was cut down. Meanwhile, the main body of Essex's expeditionary force trudged on, reaching as far west as Limerick and Askeaton before doubling back and completing a loop that took them through Mallow, Waterford, Arklow, and Wicklow, before they returned, exhausted, to Dublin on July 2, nearly two months since their departure, a month after the Ulster campaign should have begun. Aside from a few more submissions and orations they had little to show for their efforts, the sea of rebellion simply closing behind them. A disappointed John Harington wrote to a friend in England that in "all that journey" nothing was "done greatly worthy of speaking of." Essex's men, William Camden records, were "weary, distressed, and their companies incredibly wasted." The knighting of over a score of gentlemen who had been part of the force no doubt kept other hopeful gallants, though "lousy as beggars," from heading home. Elizabeth, all too conscious of how news of this ragged campaign was playing both in foreign capitals and in England, was furious, and let Essex know that the people "groan under the burden of continual levies and impositions, which are occasioned by these late actions."
Essex, deteriorating mentally and physically, was further disheartened by the news that his daughter Penelope had died in his absence, while his wife, sick and pregnant, feared miscarriage. While recuperating in Dublin, he dealt harshly with the survivors of the defeat at Wicklow. He held a court-martial on July II, after which Lieutenant Walsh, who served under Captain Loftus, was executed for cowardice. Other officers were cashiered and imprisoned. Every soldier who fought in that battle was "condemned to die," then "most of them pardoned and for example's sake every tenth man only executed." Decimation, literally killing every tenth man, wasn't English military practice. Essex had come across the idea in a scholarly footnote in the 1598 translation of Tacitus (where he read that when soldiers had "thrown away their weapons and run cowardly out of the field" their general would "put all standard bearers, centurions, etc., to death, and of the common sort every tenth man"). It may have kept other troops from deserting, but it was poorly received at home: John Chamberlain writes that "my Lord's decimating of Sir Harry Harrington's companies is much descanted of, and not greatly liked here."
Beyond the confines of the court, news of the Irish campaign remained anecdotal. Deserters returning into England told tall tales of how badly Essex was faring in Ireland. One of them, Harry Davis, a Welsh man pressed into service at Windsor, was apprehended and confessed to the local authorities in Rye that "the Earl of Essex traveling from Waterford to Dumdarricke in a wood was met withal by the wild Irish and set upon, where he lost fifty thousand men and the Earl himself was wounded in the right arm in such sort as he was like to lose his arm." None of this was true, but in the absence of any official word on the course of the war, news like this-- "stuffing the ears of men with false reports" (Induction, 8) as Shakespeare had put it in The Second Part of Henry the Fourth-- was deeply disconcerting and could only have eroded support for the costly war. Venice's ambassador in London reported home this summer that "Ireland may well be called the Englishman's grave."
The conscripted soldiers could hardly be blamed for their low morale. By mid-July only six thousand of the original sixteen thousand troops that sailed for Ireland were fit for battle. Their lot was miserable: food, gunpowder, and even their uniforms were deducted from their meager pay-- and, to make matters worse, the lightweight "English stockings and shoes sent over" were worthless for fighting in bogs, where they quickly shrank. The morale of their general wasn't much better. Essex began to sound increasingly paranoid, convinced that his "enemies in England, who first procured a cloud of disgrace to overshadow me… now in the dark give me wound upon wound." He complained darkly to the Privy Council that "I am armed on the breast, but not on the back." His spirits must have sunk even lower when he received the first of a string of abusive letters from Elizabeth, who ordered him to march on the "base bush kern" Tyrone in Ulster without further delay.
But by the time her letter arrived in Dublin, Essex was already gone, leading a brief foray west into Offaly, at the head of twelve hundred foot soldiers and two hundred cavalry. Little of substance was accomplished on this ten days' mission, which ended in early August, though much gallantry was demonstrated and thirty more knights were dubbed, including two writers, John Harington and William Cornwallis. Elizabeth wrote again, incensed: "You have broken the heart of our best troops and weakened your strength upon inferior rebels, and run out the glass of time which can hardly be recovered." Facing the threat of the Spanish invasion in late July and early August, and fearful that Essex, once reports reached him, would use this as an excuse to abandon Ireland and return home at the head of some of his troops, Elizabeth further eroded their relationship by revising the terms of his commission and forbidding Essex from setting foot in England until she said so.
Essex's campaign was then struck by another blow: on August 5 a large English force under Sir Conyers Clifford was ambushed by O'Donnell's forces in the Curlew Mountains. Of Clifford's 1,500 troops, 241 soldiers (including I0 officers) were killed and another couple of hundred wounded, almost a third of the force. Clifford himself was killed and decapitated, his head sent to O'Donnell. John Harington, who survived the encounter, was sure that the English had been bewitched: "I verily think that the idle faith which possesses the Irishry, concerning magic and witchcraft, seized our men and lost the victory." He adds that if not for the courage of the gallants on horseback, who "gave a desperate charge upon the hill, among rocks and bogs, where never horse was seen to charge before," the losses would have been even greater.
Even before news of this latest defeat reached England, Elizabeth had written yet again, pouring salt in Essex's wounds, reminding him of what people would think if he failed to attack Tyrone: "What despair will this work in our subjects' minds, that had greater hopes; what pride it will raise in the rebels, that had greater fears; and what dishonor it will do us in foreign parts, we had rather you had prevented than we had noted." She did her own arithmetic and imagined that he could scrape together ten or eleven thousand troops (though in truth he had fewer than half that number at his disposal). Elizabeth saw what she wanted to see: "We command you no impossibilities." Essex knew better: “Those who yesterday I led to the field, fight against me today," he wrote, "and those who shot at me today, will come in and fight on my side tomorrow. Such is the nature of this people and of this war." This was not as he imagined things would turn out when he proudly rode out of London to the cheers of thousands.
On August 14, Essex wrote home promising that "within eight or ten days at the furthest, I hope to be marching." But marching where? William Camden later wrote that about this time Essex began "to cast in his mind sinister designs of returning into England with select bands, and reducing his adversaries into his power by armed hand, being persuaded that many would side with him, partly out of love, and partly out of desire of innovation." Sir Christopher Blount later confessed that "a few days before the Earl's journey into the North," Essex discussed with him and Southampton at the Castle in Dublin "the best manner of going into England." Essex's plan was to take two or three thousand soldiers with him, land at Milford Haven, and drum up support for his cause there. It was a scheme that might have been partly inspired by Shakespeare's Richard the Third, where Henry VII, Elizabeth's grandfather, "is with a mighty power landed at Milford" (4.4.532-33) on his way to rescue the nation from despotic rule. Rumors would reach Cecil that Essex had been viewing "diverse havens" in Wales in anticipation of returning at the head of an army and that it had been preached in Chester that while the war in Ireland was great, "the greatest was to come." Blount and Southampton convinced Essex that such a plan would be his ruin and an "irrecoverable blot" upon his reputation. They urged that if he must go, he should lead a small party of choice men, sufficient to secure him from being seized before he could speak with the queen.
On August 21, Essex held a council of war at which Southampton and his junior officers pointed out the impracticality, if not folly, of mounting an assault on Ulster. Morale had plummeted: 'The amazement of our base soldiers upon the late disaster and the fear of a northern journey is such as they disband daily; the Irish go to the rebels by herds… and some force themselves to be sick." Gallants were quietly stealing home. Essex, for his part, was desperate and self-pitying. He wrote to the queen "from a mind delighting in sorrow; from spirits wasted with travail, care, and grief; from a heart torn in pieces with passion; from a man that hates himself and all things that keep him alive, what service can your Majesty reap?" Elizabeth's tirades against Essex were increasingly public. Francis Bacon recorded hearing the queen rail against Essex at this time, calling his actions in Ireland "unfortunate, without judgment, contemptuous, and not without some private end of his own." With her wise old counselor Burghley dead, and the rest of the court badly factionalized, there was nobody left to keep the queen in check or stop the widening gyre of mutual recrimination.
Faced with Elizabeth's unrelenting criticism, Essex had no choice but to seek out Tyrone, though badly outnumbered. He gathered his few healthy troops-- now reduced to 3,200 on foot and 360 cavalry-- to face an enemy force over twice that size. The long-awaited campaign into Ulster lasted all of twelve days. It couldn't have lasted much longer than that since the troops could carry only three weeks of supplies with them. Without the pressure of Clifford's forces, Tyrone's men had no fear of being outflanked from either the north or west. If Essex impetuously drove as far as Cavan, Tyrone's army could slip behind his troops and invade Dublin itself. The skies themselves seemed to conspire against the English attack, for it was "so monstrous wet as the like hath not been seen." Tyrone's superior force shadowed Essex's but remained tantalizingly out of reach, refusing to meet the desperate English in the field.
Essex's last hope was to appeal to Tyrone's sense of chivalry. He challenged him to solo combat: "Meet me in the field . . . where we will parley in that fashion which best becometh soldiers." Tyrone, who was fifty four, twenty-two years older than Essex, had no interest in such heroics. He had his own plan, one that he hoped would appeal to Essex's chivalric sensibility if not his love of theater. Though Tyrone clearly had the upper hand, he had nothing to gain from gloating, and that had never been his style. He offered to meet Essex to show deference and submit to his authority in form (if not much more than that).
Unable to provoke Tyrone or lure his disciplined soldiers into a fight, Essex finally agreed to meet on his enemy's terms. The place agreed upon was the ford of Bellaclinthe, where, on September 7, Tyrone submissively rode into the strong current, the waters reaching as high as his horse's belly, while Essex, also on horseback, remained on dry land across from him. It was a remarkable scene. Those watching from a distance recorded how Tyrone "took off his hat, and, inclining his body, did his duty unto his Lordship with very humble ceremony, continuing the same observancy the whole time of the parley." Tyrone knew what role he had to play and played it to perfection. They spoke privately for half an hour. What words passed between them went unheard by others. Essex later told Southampton that Tyrone urged him "to stand for himself and he would join with him," an offer that Essex later said he "utterly rejected." Nonetheless, the very act of meeting in private with the rebel leader was foolhardy, a tactical error that Essex would pay for dearly. Rumors quickly circulated. One held that "Essex will be King of Ireland." Another, reported to the King of Spain by a Franciscan in Ireland, was that Tyrone "had almost prevailed upon the Earl of Essex to desert the Queen's cause and join that of your Majesty." Tyrone of course had much to gain by spinning such tales. He even hinted darkly at a contemplated coup by Essex when he told an English emissary in late September that within two months he "would see the greatest alteration and the strangest, that he could imagine or ever saw in his life."
After Essex and Tyrone parleyed, their lieutenants met to confirm the terms of a truce that the two leaders had agreed upon, and on September 15 the terms were drawn up: there was to be a cessation of fighting, to be broken with a fortnight's notice. Little else was ceded by the Irish, who retained the right to "enjoy what they have now," including the freedom to pass through the country. Even before news of this feeble armistice reached court, Elizabeth had become fed up with Essex's "impertinent arguments." She wrote again to Essex in stinging terms and there was talk at court of her replacing him with Lord Mountjoy: "You had our asking, you had choice of times, you had power and authority more ample than ever any had, or ever shall have. It may well be judged with how little contentment we seek this and other errors. But how should that be hid which is so palpable?" Camden notes that "with these letters the Lord Deputy was incensed."
So, too, was Elizabeth, when on Sunday, September 16, a Captain Lawson arrived at Nonsuch Palace from Ireland to report on Essex's conference with Tyrone (though not on the terms of the truce). The Swiss tourist Thomas Platter happened to be visiting Nonsuch that day, and from his account it seems that Elizabeth gave nothing away. Platter describes how she appeared "most lavishly attired in a gown of pure white satin, gold-embroidered, with a whole bird of paradise for panache." Although "she was already seventy-four," he adds (though in fact she was only sixty-seven), she was "very youthful still in appearance, seeming no more than twenty years of age." A seemingly unruffled Elizabeth played cards with Lord Cobham and the lord admiral, read a bit, heard a sermon, and had lunch served. Poised and resolute, she was still a force to be reckoned with, and Essex had underestimated her. She gave Captain Lawson a letter to carry back to Essex warning that his actions would prove "perilous and contemptible," that he had merely patched together a "hollow peace," and that he had better not pardon Tyrone or agree to terms with him without her written permission: "To trust this traitor upon oath is to trust a devil upon his religion."
It's unlikely that Essex ever received this letter. On September 24 he called a meeting of the Irish Council, at which he handed back the sword of state. Determined to leave Ireland and appeal to the queen in person, Essex took ship with a band of his most loyal supporters, pausing only long enough to knight four more followers "on the sands" before embarking. It was "jested at in Ireland," William Udall wrote at the time, that Essex "made more knights than he killed rebels." Those who accompanied Essex included the Earl of Southampton, Sir Henry Danvers (who was still recovering from a head wound), Sir Thomas Gerard, Captain Christopher St. Lawrence, and Sir Henry Wotton. Upon landing in England, Essex dispatched letters to his uncle, Sir William Knollys, that offer some insight into his motives: he was "resolved with all speed (and your silence) to appear, in the face of my enemies; not trusting afar off to my own innocency, or to the Queen's favor, with whom they have got so much power."
It's hard to imagine the exhilaration these men experienced to be out of a war zone, back on English soil. They rode posthaste, aided by a full moon, without fear of bogs or ambush, desperate to reach court before their enemies had word of their return. Their pace was blistering, and within three days of leaving Dublin the small group approached London. At dawn on the twenty-eighth, they raced south on the final leg of their journey, to Nonsuch, where the queen was holding court.
Much of what we know about what happened next comes from the letters that Rowland Whyte, then at court, wrote to Sir Robert Sidney. Whyte only passed along these sensitive reports after Sidney had assured him that he would destroy the letters as soon as he read them ("Burn my letters," Whyte wrote, "else shall I be affrighted to write, the time is now so full of danger"). If Sidney hadn't gone back on his word, a good deal of what next took place would have remained even more mysterious than it is. Whyte writes how Lord Grey, now back from Ireland and still smarting from Southampton's reprimand, learned of the return of Essex's band and raced to Nonsuch to alert the court. Essex's friend Sir Thomas Gerard rode hard and caught up with Grey. The courteous formality of the two men, so recently comrades in arms, barely masks the bitterness of their exchange:
"I pray you," said Sir Thomas Gerard, "let my Lord of Essex ride before, that he may bring the first news of his return himself " "Doth he desire it?" said my Lord Grey. "No," said Sir Thomas, "nor I think will desire nothing at your hands." "Then," said he, "I think I have business," and made greater haste than before, and upon his arrival went straight to Robert Cecil. After Gerard failed to stop him, Christopher St. Lawrence, the bold Irish man, offered to ride ahead and kill Grey and Cecil, too, but Essex wouldn't "assent to it."
Upon arriving at Nonsuch perhaps a quarter hour after Grey, Essex leaped from his horse at the court gate and entered the palace. There was no time to lose. He raced through the presence chamber into the privy chamber, only to discover that, though already ten in the morning, the queen was not yet dressed and up. What followed next was like a scene out of Shakespeare's Lucrece:
Now is he come
unto the chamber door
Essex burst into the queen's bedchamber, where he discovered Elizabeth "newly up, her hair about her face." "'Tis much wondered at," Whyte writes with considerable understatement, "that he went so boldly to her Majesty's presence, she not being ready, and he so full of dirt and mire, that his very face was full of it." No man had ever entered into her bedchamber in her presence, had seen Elizabeth beside her famous walnut bed, hung with cloth of silver, fringed with gold and silver lace and crowned with ostrich plumes. For the queen and her ladies-in-waiting it must have come as an unbelievable shock. It's next to impossible today to grasp how great a taboo Essex had violated. This was England's virgin queen and her bed chamber sacrosanct. When Ben Jonson daringly chose to revisit this scene a year later in his play Cynthia's Revel s, he cast Essex's action as a crime of mythical proportions-- like Actaeon, he wrote, seeing the naked Diana:
Seems it no
crime to enter sacred bowers,
To make religion of offending heaven.
As Jonson's play suggests, it was a primal scene, one that left a deep impression at court and on England's writers, including Shakespeare. It may well have informed the play he was now writing, with its fraught closet scene in which a rash Prince Hamlet confronts Queen Gertrude and remonstrates with her there.
In many ways, the encounter proved to be Elizabeth's finest hour. She didn't know if Essex had come at the head of an army, if he had already killed his enemies at court, or even whether she herself was in physical danger. As great an actress as she was, she hadn't had time to prepare for the scene, to present herself as a formidable queen. With the advance of years, making herself up for this role had become increasingly time consuming; Essex's entry had caught her, embarrassingly, in the midst of her preparations. If Elizabeth was rattled, she didn't show it. Essex, reports ran, "kneeled unto her, kissed her hands and her fair neck, and had some private speech with her, which seemed to give him great contentment." He had chosen to play the role of the courtier. His words don't survive, but there's a likelihood that his sentiments were mirrored in a sonnet Essex had composed about this time, one that translated the disappointments of the courtier into the language of frustrated courtship:
To plead my
faith where faith hath no reward
It reveals a great deal about Essex that he not only seems to have believed in such sentiments, but he spent his time, as his follower Henry Wotton put it, "evaporat[ing] his thoughts in a sonnet."
Elizabeth adapted easily enough to this familiar script. She kept her wits, heard him out, played for time, and told Essex to come back after he had cleaned himself up. She might have told him what everyone else already knew: the great age of the disappointed Petrarchan sonneteer was over. Essex, who for the second time this month had badly misread the scene he was playing, left convinced that his charm and chivalric manner had turned back Elizabeth's anger. Delighted with how things were going, he departed "very pleasant, and thanked God, though he had suffered much trouble and storms abroad, he found a sweet calm at home…. At eleven he was ready, and went up again to the queen, and conferred with her till half an hour past twelve." By that time, Elizabeth had gotten word that Essex had returned with only a handful of supporters and that her court and kingdom were safe.
When Essex was invited back to the queen's presence he "found her much changed in that small time, for she began to call him to question for his return and was not satisfied in the manner of his coming away and leaving things at so great a hazard." Essex was dismissed and told to await her instructions. He would never set eyes on the queen again. From that moment, at least in England, it's fair to say that chivalry was dead.
EVEN AS ESSEX AND HIS COHORT WERE RACING HOME FROM IRELAND ON September 24 on their way to Nonsuch, the cream of London's merchant class were assembling at Founders Hall, on Lothbury Street, south of Moorgate. Over a hundred of them-- from Lord Mayor Soame and leading aldermen to prosperous drapers and grocers-- had convened two days earlier to form a joint-stock company toward which they committed the remarkable sum of thirty thousand pounds. They were meeting
again on the twenty-fourth to choose directors and treasurers and draft a petition to the queen "for the honor of our native country and for the advancement of trade… to set forth a voyage this present year to the East Indies." It was a venture that transformed England as few things ever would. The East India Company was born at this moment, which, as it expanded its markets, geographic range, and political, industrial, and military might, helped forge a British Empire. It was also a seminal moment in the history of global capitalism.
Except that few, save for a visionary like John Dee, who had coined the phrase "British Empire" twenty years earlier, could even dream of such a future. History looks very different when read backward. Until now, efforts to establish England as an imperial power had gone nowhere. The investors gathered at Founders' Hall that day knew all too well that England had failed to plant colonies in America; it couldn't even protect its plantations in Ireland. English venturers had failed to break into the Caribbean slave trade, failed to discover the much sought after northern passage to the East, and failed to establish a direct trade with the East Indies around the Cape of Good Hope. Their success in importing and exporting goods through Turkey, Venice, Levant, Muscovy, and other limited trading companies had been only modestly profitable and restricted to the few members of these companies. And everyone knew that the penny-pinching queen was not ambitious for empire and was happier signing a peace treaty that would save her money than antagonizing Spain by encroaching on its exclusive trade.
But the merchants who gathered to form the East India Company had little choice. Their hand had been forced by the recent and stunning success of the Dutch in penetrating the Eastern trade. .Jacob van Neek's envy-inspiring account, immediately translated into English in 1599-- A True Report of the Gainful , Prosperous and Speedy Voyage to Java in the East Indies, Performed by a Fleet of Eight Ships of Amsterdam--recounted the get-rich story in detail: the Dutch ships had returned on July 19, 1599, and "there never arrived in Holland any ships so richly laden." The haul was staggering: eight hundred tons of pepper, two hundred tons of cloves, and great quantities of nutmeg, cinnamon, and other luxury goods. Dutch merchants had made a four hundred percent return on their investment. The English merchants knew that even as they were petitioning the queen, more Dutch ships were outward bound.
This news was potentially ruinous for many of those at Founders' Hall. Until now, luxuries from the East had entered English markets through the Levant trade. Goods like pepper and other spices were brought overland from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, and English merchants would transport them home from there through the Mediterranean. Levant Company agents stationed in the Middle East quickly saw that the Dutch venture would put them out of business. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of those who gathered to form the East India Company were affiliated with the Levant Company and had the most to lose. They made no secret in their petition to the queen that they were responding to "the success of the voyage performed by the Dutch nation." They were concerned that "the Dutchmen prepare for a new voyage" and threw in for good measure an appeal at once nationalist and commercial, that they were "stirred up with no less affection to advance the trade of their native country than the Dutch merchants." In return for their huge investment, with no hope of immediate returns (the outbound voyage alone was likely to take over a year), they sought a charter from the queen guaranteeing a monopoly on trade beyond the Cape of Good Hope for fifteen years. And to forestall any argument that their venture would frustrate Elizabeth's plans for peace with Spain, they drafted a document setting out "the true limits" of Iberian "conquest and jurisdiction," to reassure her that the Spanish had no legal grounds for complaint.
The London merchants knew that they were in an unusually strong position with the queen and Privy Council. After all, they had twice come to the rescue of the Crown this year, first when providing loans for the Irish campaign and then again, in July and August, when they had provided substantial financial and military support in defending London against the threatened Spanish invasion. Their generosity during this false alarm (self-interest notwithstanding) had no doubt done much to erase hard feelings about rich merchants that the Privy Council had hauled in for refusing to pay the forced loan (like Augustine Skinner, now no longer pleading poverty but one of the original subscribers to the East India
venture). And what they didn't know was that the queen, wary of Essex and his militant supporters, needed the city on her side in case of armed rebellion.
The timing was right for London's merchants to ask for something in return from the queen. To send ships around the Cape of Good Hope was a daunting enterprise (and in fact, the first expedition, which after a series of delays finally sailed in 160I, cost more than twice the thirty thousand pounds that had been committed). It required not just capital, but skilled commanders, ships of adequate tonnage capable of making the long voyage and fending off privateers, maps and knowledge of the regions, and a demand for these luxury items at home. And since this venture wasn't about trading goods (for there wasn't much of a market in the sweltering East Indies for heavy cloth, England's main export), large amounts of gold and silver had to be available for export to purchase foreign commodities. In all these respects, England had reached, and passed, the tipping point. Drake and other naval heroes had made their fame and fortune privateering-- glorified purse snatching. What was needed now was long-term investment in a venture that required patience and capital and cool heads-- things for which merchants, not courtiers, were famous.
Because of the vast expense and because "the trade of the Indies" was "so far remote from hence," the organizers of the East Indies subscription understood that only a "joint and a united stock" would work, that the circle of investors had to be widened well beyond the scope of those who were already members of the Levant or other exclusive trading companies. It's notable, though, that the initial subscription to the East India Company failed to include a single nobleman; there was as yet no overlap between Elizabethan knight adventurers seeking glory in Ireland and the stay-at-home merchant-adventurers in search of profits. Until now, aristocrats who invested in shipping did so in semi-military operations, such as the privateering Earl of Cumberland, who personally led six of the eleven voyages he financed between 1586 and 1598. The problem was that these expeditions were hit or miss affairs, more likely to bring glory than profits (Cumberland himself complained that in the end all he had done was "thrown his land into the sea"). It couldn't be managed alone. Collective will was needed, too, and this was stiffened by the propagandistic efforts of men like Richard Hakluyt, who attended the
organizational meetings of the East India Company this autumn and who was handsomely rewarded by the company with a gift of ten pounds, in addition to the thirty shillings he received for providing maps. Hakluyt is best known as the author of the massive three-volume Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics, and Discoveries of the English Nation, a millionand-a-half-word epic of English voyages of exploration, which appeared in successive folio volumes in 1598, 1599, and 1600. In the fall of 1599, he was feverishly completing the second volume, whose dedication to Robert Cecil he finished on October 24, and which focused on voyages "to and beyond the East India."
His preface to that volume now seems innocuous, but at the time was radical: Hakluyt describes London's merchants as England's true "adventurers" and criticizes the gentry, who "now too much consume their time and patrimony." He hopes that England's knight-adventurers "will do much more" when "they are like to have less employment than now they have," preoccupied as they are in "our neighbor wars" in Ireland and the Low Countries. This is a role reversal of staggering proportions: true adventure now consisted in pursuing national glory through trade and empire, not through a culture of honor. Writing after Essex's ill-fated return, Hakluyt saw which way contemporary winds were blowing. His first volume, published in 1598, had advertised on its title page Essex's exploits in the Cadiz campaign of 1596, and the volume even culminated with a lively account of that enterprise, including a list of those knighted in the campaign. When in late 1599 a second issue of this volume was published, Hakluyt cut the Cadiz chapter and erased from the title page any reference to Essex's heroic (and unprofitable) actions there.
The death of chivalry coincided with the birth of empire. Hakluyt wasn't alone in seeing the writing on the wall: roughly a fifth of the men knighted by Essex in Ireland, including his most loyal supporters, the Earls of Southampton and Monteagle, would go on to become members of the investor class, belatedly elbowing their way into one or another trading venture. The knight-adventurers found themselves playing an uncharacteristically subordinate role. When, for example, Lord Treasurer Buckhurst tried pressuring the East India Company to appoint Sir Edward Michelbourne, one of Essex's
knights, to be a commander on their first voyage, the merchants demurred, explaining that they had no intention of employing a gentleman in a position of authority-- they didn't want a hotheaded knight ruining trade by wrangling with the Portuguese in the East Indies. From now on, merchant-adventurers were in charge.
Shakespeare, almost surely at work on Hamlet by this time, wasn't among those gathered in Founders' Hall that September day. If he didn't have enough ready money on hand after the building of the Globe, he certainly would within a year or two, yet his name never appears in the rolls of joint-stock company investors: he preferred to invest his wealth in English property (or products like malt) rather than in speculative voyages abroad. Yet Shakespeare played his part indirectly: one of the items carried aboard an early East India Company voyage was a copy of Hamlet. In 1607, William Keeling, captain of the Dragon, and his crew were bound, along with the Hector and the Consent, for the East Indies. In early September of that year, while the ships were off Sierra Leone, Keeling notes in his ship's log that he ordered his men to perform The Tragedy of Hamlet. Six months later, they gave a repeat performance when Captain Hawkins of the Hector came aboard. Keeling explains that he "had Hamlet acted" for practical rather than artistic reasons: "to keep my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep." Shakespeare's play had quickly become part of the cultural transformations it was itself reckoning with.
It's not that Shakespeare wasn't interested in adventuring and trade-- The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Pericles, and The Tempest all testify to his fascination with foreign trade, conquest, and exploration. But he didn't follow the lead of other playwrights whose plays celebrated the achievements of London's merchants. Shakespeare's choice of subject matter suggests that from his early twenties, and perhaps from his childhood, he was the kind of writer who dreamed and wrote of kings and queens, war and empire, heroism and nobility, and stranger shores. While there were merchants and ordinary men and women in his plays, neither they, nor London itself, were ever at the heart of it.
Shakespeare also knew that the word "adventurer" cut two ways and employed it in both senses. Hamlet, for example, when speaking of the Players, describes how "the adventurous knight shall use his foil and target" (2.2.320-21). Romeo, on the other hand, as befits a merchant's son, tells Juliet that "were thou as far/ As that vast shore washed with the farthest sea, / I should adventure for such merchandise" (2.2.82-84). That Shakespeare was alert to the decline of chivalry is clear enough by the time that he wrote Troilus and Cressida, not long after Hamlet, with its trenchant contrast between its prologue's parody of epic language "princes orgulous" with "high blood chafed" arriving in Troy on "deep drawing barks" that "disgorge/ Their warlike freightage" (Prologue 1-13)-- and the egotism, vanity, and brutality that marks the behavior of the Greek heroes. Shakespeare exposes the seamier side of Homer's heroic story, emphasizing the more sordid and rapacious aspects of the Trojan campaign. Only a writer who had partly believed in the possibility of heroism could have turned so sharply against it and the bitterness of this repudiation sours the play and diminishes it. Had Shakespeare's late and collaborative play Cardenio survived (it was written around 1612 and performed at court not long after), we would probably have an even sharper sense of this disenchantment, for that play almost surely took its plot from the story of Cardenio and Lucinda in Don Quixote, Cervantes's masterly send-up of knight-errantry, recently translated into English. Shakespeare would continue to write about heroes like Othello, Antony, and Coriolanus-- though each of these tragic figures finds himself crushed by a world too small to accommodate his heroic greatness. Coriolanus offers the finest expression of this when he turns his back on Rome and declares, "There is a world elsewhere" (3.3-145); the punishing ending of Coriolanus shows him how wrong he was.
Hamlet, born at the crossroads of the death of chivalry and the birth of globalization, is marked by these forces, but, unlike the caustic Troilus and Cressida, not deformed by them. They cast a shadow over the play, though, and certainly inform its reflections on the possibility of heroic action. They also reinforce the play's nostalgia: there's a sense in Hamlet no less than in the culture at large of a sea change, of a world that is dead but not yet buried. The ghost of Hamlet's father, who returns from purgatory in the play's opening scene, not only evokes a lost Catholic past, then, but is also a ghostly
relic of a chivalric age. The distance between this past and the present is underscored by the Ghost's martial appearance. He enters dressed exactly as he was when, as a young man, he had defeated his Norwegian rival on the battlefield: "Such was the very armor he had on/ When he the ambitious Norway combated" (u.60-61). We see Hamlet's father not as he died, but as he heroically fought thirty years earlier. By 1599, such dress was an anachronism; only on Accession Day did knights still dress in otherwise rusting armor.
Shakespeare goes to considerable lengths to paint a verbal portrait of Hamlet's father's heroic encounter, a world of heraldic law and mortal combat, of armored men wielding broad swords, fighting to the death:
Our last king,
Whose image even
but now appeared to us,
Dared to the
combat; in which our valiant Hamlet,
(with his life) all these his lands
Had he been
vanquisher; as by the same co-mart
His fell to Hamlet.
Hamlet ends with another celebrated encounter. But this fight, which also takes the lives of Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself- couldn't be more different than the one Horatio describes at the play's outset. It's a duel, but not quite even that-- nothing more than a fencing match, fought with blunted weapons. Shakespeare's contemporaries would have been more attuned than we are to the
difference between old and new ways of fighting and what kind of worldview each embodied. It was only in the second half of the sixteenth century that the rapier replaced the heavy sword as the weapon of choice, and it wasn't really until the 1580s that the rapier and dagger, Laertes' preferred weapons, became popular in England.
A book that laments this change, and which Shakespeare drew on when writing Hamlet, was George Silver's Paradoxes of Defence, dedicated to Essex and published in early 1599. In it, Silver is nostalgic for the lost world epitomized by the kind of combat old Hamlet and Fortinbras had engaged in: "Our forefathers were wise, though our age account them foolish, valiant though we repute them cowards: they found out the true defense for their bodies in short weapons by their wisdom, they defended themselves and subdued their enemies, with those weapons with their valor." Silver adds that "we, like degenerate sons, have forsaken our forefathers' virtues with their weapons and have lusted like men sick of a strange ague, after the strange vices and devices of ltalian, French, and Spanish fencers." Notably, it's a Frenchman's praise of Laertes' swordsmanship that gives Claudius the idea of having Laertes fence with Hamlet.
As recently as As You Like It, Shakespeare had lampooned the culture of the challenge in Touchstone's comic routine about how to quarrel without ever coming to blows: "I have had four quarrels and like to have fought one" (5-4.46). In Hamlet, we get a different version of Touchstone's "Retort Courteous" in the affected language Osric uses to describe the impending fencing match. So that Hamlet is told that his rival, Laertes, is "full of most excellent differences, of very soft society, and great showing; indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry." Chivalry and honor are reduced in the Danish court to jargon and an elaborate bet: Hamlet is told that a French-ified Laertes had wagered "six Barbary horses against six French swords, their assigns, and three liberal conceited carriages-- that's the French bet against the Danish" (5.2.160-64). Acting as if one still lived in the world of Hamlet's heroic father-- where it was possible to win fame through martial feats-- was no longer possible. But how to act in the world that had replaced it was not yet clear, and part of Hamlet's dilemma.
The gap between exploits in the field and merely playing soldier would also have been unmistakable to Elizabethans at this year's annual Accession Day joust, held once again at Whitehall in November. Those who had fought in Ireland from the beginning to the end of the campaign, some bearing the scars of battle, were excluded from joining the lists this year, including Essex himself, who a year earlier had been chief challenger. Only two men who had served in Ireland (and who had returned by midsummer) were among the combatants at Whitehall and both had jousted the previous year: Essex's sworn enemy, Lord Grey, and Henry Carey, now Sir Henry, who had also been knighted by Essex in Ireland and who remained devoted to him. Their nonfatal encounter-- for Grey and Carey were paired with each other in the tilts-- would no doubt have been closely watched by friend and foe alike in the crowd outside Whitehall. But what, in the end, "was most memorable" about the tournament, according to Rowland Whyte, speaks worlds about how martial display had become subordinated to theater and conspicuous display: a minor court figure, Lord Compton, had appeared "like a fisherman, with six men clad in motley, his caparisons all of net, having caught a frog." To those in the crowd returning from the wars-- officers and soldiers alike- this Accession Day show must have confirmed for them, if further proof was needed, that things had degenerated, that the world had changed, and changed quickly.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare once again found himself drawn to the epochal, to moments of profound shifts, of endings that were also beginnings. It was such a rupture that he had in mind when he wrote in The Winter's Tale of "Heavy matters, heavy matters! . . . Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn" (3.3.109-n). Born into a world in which the old religion had been replaced by the new, and like everybody else, living in nervous anticipation of the imminent end of Elizabeth's reign and the Tudor dynasty, Shakespeare's sensitivity to moments of epochal change was both extraordinary and understandable. In Hamlet he perfectly captures such a moment, conveying what it means to live in the bewildering space between familiar past and murky future.
AS LONG AS ESSEX'S FATE REMAINED UNRESOLVED, NOTHING WAS RESOLVED: "All men's eyes and ears," Rowland Whyte writes, "are open to what it will please Her Majesty to determine." Until Elizabeth made up her mind, Essex remained under house arrest, cut off from his friends and even his newly delivered wife. Yet it wasn't entirely clear what, if anything, Essex had done wrong. Many outside the orbit of the court were confused. One of them, the aged poet Thomas Churchyard, who had celebrated Essex's departure and had been laboring in his absence on a companion poem honoring his return, entering "The Welcome Home of the Earl of Essex" in the Stationers' Register on October I. His ill-timed poem was never printed, and the manuscript almost surely consigned to the dustheap.
Adding to the confusion and tension in the city, Essex's gallant followers were abandoning Ireland and flooding London: "This town is full of them, to the great discontentment of her Majesty." The public theaters appear to have been one of their haunts and Shakespeare probably spotted at the Globe some of these gentleman volunteers, for according to Rowland Whyte, "Lord Southampton and Lord Rutland came not to Court…. They pass away the time in London merely in going to plays every day."
We don't know what old plays they might have seen at the Globe in October or early November. It would turn out to have been a dangerous coincidence had the Chamberlain's Men staged Shakespeare's Third Part of Henry the Sixth, which included a scene in which supporters of Edward, who was under house arrest, succeed in a daring rescue attempt "to set him free from his captivity" (4.5.12). For in early November, Essex's friends, fearing that he was to be delivered to the Tower of London, contemplated a similar scheme. According to Sir Charles Danvers, the plan, spearheaded by Essex's close friends Southampton and Mountjoy, was "either by procuring him means to escape privately into France, or by the assistance of his friends into Wales, or by possessing the Court with his friends to bring himself again to her Majesty's presence." This last and violent act would have been treasonous.
Danvers adds that these ideas had been "rather thought upon, than ever well digested," until around mid-November, when he met with Southampton, his brother Henry Danvers, and Mountjoy, and Essex's friends resolved that if he were in danger of being carried to the Tower, best plan was "to make a private escape." Somehow, Southampton got this message through to Essex, offering that he and Henry Danvers would go into exile with him. And Danvers said that if they chose to leave him behind, he would "sell all that I had, to my shirt," to maintain Essex abroad. But Essex categorically refused to flee, saying that "if they could think of no better a course for him than a poor flight, he would rather run any danger than lead the life of a fugitive." Southampton later remembered things a bit differently, and claimed to have opposed the plot and stopped it "not three hours before it should have been attempted."
Even some of Essex's more loyal supporters found the recent turn of events terrifying and thought Essex himself mad. John Harington, now Sir John, who had just a few months earlier written how he had been "summoned by honor to this Irish action," now saw things differently: "ambition thwarted in its career, doth speedily lead on to madness. Herein I am strengthened by what I learn in my Lord of Essex, who shifteth from sorrow and repentance to rage and rebellion so suddenly, as well proveth him devoid of good reason or right mind." In their last conversation back in Ireland, Harington adds, Essex "uttered strange words bordering on such strange designs that made me hasten forth and leave his presence. Thank heaven! I am safe at home, and if I go in such troubles again, I deserve the gallows for a meddling fool."
Politically, then, the fall of 1599 proved not much less unsettling than the summer of the "Invisible Armada" had been. Essex was disgraced, but what was to be done with him, and what "strange designs" might he and his desperate faction undertake-- or lure the King of Scots into joining? The political uncertainty that autumn was the stuff of Shakespearean drama: libels posted in the streets and scrawled on the walls at court, censorship, surveillance, intercepted letters, and wild rumors. If the testimony of Francis Bacon is to be believed, the politics and libels reached the playhouses: "About that time there did fly about in London streets and theaters, diverse seditious libels, and Paul's and ordinaries were full of bold and factious discourses, whereby not only many of her Majesty's faithful and zealous councilors and servants were taxed, but withal the hard estate of Ireland was imputed to anything rather than unto the true cause (the Earl's defaults)."
Others, like Fulke Greville, were convinced that these libels were circulated not by Essex's supporters but by his enemies, a Machiavellian move intended to further discredit Essex: "His enemies took audacity to cast libels abroad in his name against the state, made by themselves; set paper upon posts, to bring his innocent friends in question. His power, by Jesuitical craft of rumor, they made infinite; and his ambition, more than equal to it. His letters to private men were read openly, by the piercing eye of an attorney's office, which warrants the construction of every line in the worst sense against the writer." Who then was responsible in late December, when, Rowland Whyte reports, it was discovered "at court upon the very white walls, much villainy hath been written against Sir Robert Cecil"?
As the year came to a close the Essex faction grew increasingly desperate. With Essex unwilling to go into exile, there was one card left to play, the Scottish one. Sometime over the past summer Essex's friend Lord Mountjoy had sent Henry Lee to the King of Scots to reassure him that despite rumors to the contrary, Essex had no personal designs upon the throne of England-- and in fact "would endure no succession" but James's. Around Christmastime 1599 (a date later confirmed by Henry Cuffe, Essex's secretary), a new plan was hatched. After being chosen by Elizabeth to succeed Essex as lord lieutenant in Ireland, Mountjoy sent Henry Lee back to Scotland, this time to say that if the King of Scots "would enter into the cause at that time, my Lord Mountjoy would leave the kingdom of Ireland defensively guarded, and with four or five thousand men assist that enterprise which, with the party that my Lord of Essex would be able to make, were thought sufficient to bring that to pass which was intended"-- the rehabilitation of Essex, the downfall of his rivals at court, and the assurance of James's succession in England. Southampton also wrote to James committing himself to the plan.
Essex's friends were counting on the King of Scots' impatience to claim the English throne. It wasn't clear to Sir Charles Danvers (who later confessed details of this plot) whether James would actually enter hostilely into England-- nor is it clear how the Scottish King treated this overture. Still, the combined threat of a foreign army making maneuvers on the English border, combined with an
insurrection by English troops landed in Wales and a local uprising in London would have been Elizabeth's and Cecil's worst nightmare. By the time that Lee-- whose activities in Scotland were closely monitored-returned from Scotland, Mountjoy had already shipped off to Ireland. Lee was committed by the authorities to prison in the Gatehouse. Essex himself didn't lose hope in this scheme, even sending Southampton to Mountjoy in Ireland "to move him to bring over those former intended forces into Wales," and from there "to proceed to the accomplishment of the former design." Southampton said that Danvers was convinced that the forces Mountjoy would bring from Ireland were sufficient-- they didn't need to count on the equivocating James. Mountjoy at this point refused, telling Southampton to drop the idea; with James remaining uncommitted to the plan, it was no longer about the succession, merely Essex's private ambition.
It's extremely unlikely that more than a handful conspirators knew anything about this plot at the time or even later when it was confessed to the authorities-- so the fact that Hamlet contains both an abortive coup (by Laertes' faction, who burst in on Claudius) and a neighboring foreign prince at the head of an army (led by Fortinbras, who claims the Danish throne in the end) is sheer coincidence. But it was a time when such things could be imagined-- and by some even plotted. Hamlet, composed during these months, feels indelibly stamped by the deeply unsettling mood of the time. The play offered no temporary respite; the atmosphere in which Elizabethans found themselves at performances of Hamlet was uncomfortably familiar. Shakespeare was as good as his word in Hamlet that the "purpose of playing" was to show "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (3.2.20-24). An anxious Rowland Whyte could have easily been speaking of Claudius's court when he wrote to Sir Robert Sidney this fall that "there is such observing and prying into men's actions that I hold them happy and blessed that live away." "As God help me," Whyte warns, "it is a very dangerous time here."