Read an Excerpt
“The World Waxed Old”
The Twilight of the Tudor Dynasty
Sir John Harington arrived at Whitehall in December 1602 in time for the twelve-day Christmas celebrations at court. The coming winter season was expected to be a dull one, though the new Comptroller of the Household, Sir Edward Wotton, was trying his best to inject fresh life into it. Dressed from head to toe in white, he had laid on dances, bear baiting, plays and gambling. The Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, lost up to £800 a night—an astonishing sum, even for one who, according to popular verse, ruled “court and crown.” Behind the scenes, however, courtiers gambled for still higher stakes. Harington observed that Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, was sixty-nine and although she appeared in sound health, “age itself is a sickness.” She could not live forever, and after her reign of forty-four years the country was on the eve of change.
To Elizabeth, Harington was “that witty fellow my godson.” Courtiers knew him for his invention of the water closet, his translations of classical works, his scurrilous writings on court figures and his mastery of the epigram, which was then the fashionable medium for comment on court life. In the competition for Elizabeth’s favor, however, courtiers were expected to reflect her greatness not only in learning and wit but also in their visual magnificence. They did so by dressing in clothes “more sumptuous than the proudest Persian.” A miniature depicts Harington as a smiling man in a cut silk doublet and ruff, his long hair brushed back to show off a jeweled earring that hangs to his shoulder. Even a courtier’s plainest suits were worn with beaver hats and the finest linen shirts, gilded daggers and swords, silk garters and show roses, silk stockings and cloaks.
This brilliant world was a small one, though riven by scheming and distrust. “Those who live in courts, must mark what they say,” one of Harington’s epigrams warned. “Who lives for ease had better live away.” Harington, typically, knew everyone at Whitehall that Christmas, either directly or through friends and relations. Elizabeth herself was particularly close to the grandchildren of her aunt Mary Boleyn, a group known enviously as “the tribe of Dan.” The eldest, Lord Hunsdon, was the Lord Chamberlain, responsible for the conduct of the court. His sisters, the Countess of Nottingham and Lady Scrope, were Elizabeth’s most favored Ladies of the Privy Chamber. But Harington also had royal connections, albeit at one remove. His estate at Kelston in Somerset had been granted to his father’s first wife, Ethelreda, an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. When Ethelreda died childless the land had passed to John Harington senior. He remained loyal to Elizabeth when she was imprisoned following a Protestant-backed revolt against her Catholic sister Mary I, named after one of its leaders as Wyatt’s revolt, and when Elizabeth became Queen she rewarded him with office and fortune, making his second wife, Harington’s mother, Isabella Markham, a Lady of the Privy Chamber. It was the hope of acquiring such wealth and honor that was the chief attraction of the court.
Harington once described the court as “ambition’s puffball”—a toadstool that fed on vanity and greed—but it was one that had been carefully cultivated by the Tudor monarchy. With no standing army or paid bureaucracy to enforce their will, the monarchy had to rely on persuasion. They used Arthurian mythology and courtly displays to capture hearts, while patronage appealed to the more down-to-earth instincts of personal ambition. Elizabeth could grant her powerful subjects the prestige that came with titles and orders, and the influence conferred by office in the Church, the military, the administration of government and the law; there were also posts at court or in the royal household. She could bestow wealth with leases on royal lands and palaces, offer special trading licenses and monopolies or bequeath the ownership of estates confiscated from traitors.Those who gained most from Elizabeth’s patronage were themselves patrons, acting as conduits for the Queen’s munificence.
Harington and his friends worked hard to ingratiate themselves with the great men at court, often spending years, as he complained, in “grinning scoff, watching nights and fawning days.”When a great patron fell from grace a decade of personal and financial investment could be lost. The precise standing of all senior courtiers was therefore tracked and discussed by gossips and intelligencers. Every tiny fluctuation in their fortunes stoked what one observer described as “the court fever of hope and fear that continuously torments those that depend upon great men and their promises.” The “fever” reached a pitch when the health of the monarch was a cause for concern since her death could mean a complete revolution in government.
Harington arrived at court having completed, on 18 December, his Tract on the Succession to the Crown—a subject on which the pulse of the nation was now said to “beat extremely” but which was strictly forbidden. As Harington had recorded in his tract, Elizabeth had “utterly suppressed the talk of an heir apparent” in the year of his birth, 1561, “saying she would not have her winding sheet set up before her face.” Her concern, he explained, was “that if she should allow and permit men to examine, discuss and publish whose was the best title after her, some would be ready to affirm that title to be good afore hers.”
Forty years earlier there had been those who had claimed that Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, had a superior claim to the English throne; others asserted that it belonged to her Protestant cousin Catherine Grey. Both claimants had since died: Catherine in a country house prison in 1568, Mary on the executioner’s block in 1587. But their sons, James VI of Scotland and Lord Beauchamp, had succeeded them as rivals to her throne, together with more recent candidates such as James’s cousin Arbella Stuart and the Infanta Isabella of Spain. The dangers to Elizabeth were such that the publication of any discussion of the succession had been declared an act of treason by Parliament only the previous winter. Her advancing age meant, however, that an heir would soon have to be chosen, if not by her, then by others.
Harington had dedicated his tract to his preferred choice, James VI, the Protestant son of Mary, Queen of Scots. As the senior descendant of Henry VIII’s elder sister, Margaret, and her first husband, James IV, he was Elizabeth’s heir by the usual dynastic rules of primogeniture, but James was far from being the straightforward choice that this suggests.
The Stuart line of the Kings of Scots was barred from the succession under the will of Henry VIII, which was backed by Act of Parliament. James was also personally excluded under a law dating back to the reign of Edward III precluding those born outside “the allegiance of the realm of England.” His hopes rested on the fact that the claims of his rivals were equally problematic. Elizabeth had declared Catherine Grey’s son, Lord Beauchamp, illegitimate, and, as men had delved ever deeper into the complex question of the right to the throne, the numbers of potential heirs had proliferated. By 1600 the sometime writer, lawyer and spy Thomas Wilson had counted “twelve competitors that gape for the death of that good old princess, the now queen.” Spain, France and the Pope all had their preferred candidates, while the English were divided in their choice by religious belief and contesting ambitions.
Courtiers feared that the price of Elizabeth’s security during her life would be civil war and foreign invasion on her death—but the future was also replete with possibilities. A new monarch drawn from a weak field would need to acquire widespread support to secure his or her position against rivals. That meant opening up the royal purse: there would be gifts of land, office and title. Harington’s tract was a private gift to James made in the hope of future favor. The gamble was to invest in the winning candidate—for as Thomas Wilson observed, “this crown is not likely to fall for want of heads that claim to wear it, but upon whose head it will fall is by many doubted.”
The Palace of Whitehall, built by Cardinal Wolsey and extended by Henry VIII, sprawled on either side of King Street, the road linking Westminster and Charing Cross. On the western side were the buildings designed for recreation: four covered tennis courts, two bowling alleys, a cockpit, and a gallery for viewing tournaments in the great tiltyard. Up to 12,000 spectators would come to watch Elizabeth’s knights take part in the annual November jousts held to celebrate her accession. When the jousts were over the contestants’ shields were hung in a gallery, where that summer the visiting German Duke of Stettin-Pomerania had been directed to admire the insignia of Elizabeth’s last great favorite, Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. He had broken fifty-seven lances in the course of fighting fifteen challengers during the Accession Tilts of 1594. There was, however, much more to Essex than his prowess at the tilt. He had represented the aspirations of Harington’s generation, born after Elizabeth became Queen and kept from office by her stifling conservatism.
Elizabeth is still remembered as the Queen who defied the Armada in 1588, and as the figure of Gloriana encapsulated in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene the following year. But as one court servant warned, this was to see her “like a painted face without a shadow to give it life.”Elizabeth had reached the apogee of her reign in the 1580s. Thereafter came a decline that lasted longer than the reigns of her siblings, Mary I and Edward VI, put together. Her victory over the Armada was tarnished by the costs of the continuing war with Spain and the woman behind the divine image had grown old. To Essex’s vast following of young courtiers Elizabeth was a dithering old woman, dominated by her Treasurer, Lord Burghley, and his corrupt son, Sir Robert Cecil. Her motto, “Semper eadem” (I never change), once perceived as a promise of stability, came to be taken as a challenge.
When Burghley died in August 1598, Essex hoped to become the new force in Elizabeth’s government but within weeks a long-simmering rebellion in Ireland turned into a war of liberation. Essex, as Elizabeth’s most experienced commander, was made Lord Deputy of Ireland and sent to confront the rebel leader, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Instead, in September 1599, in defiance of royal orders, Essex arranged a truce and returned to court. Elizabeth was furious, and as Essex fell into disgrace he turned his hopes to finding favor with the candidate he hoped would succeed her. In February 1601 he led 300 soldiers and courtiers in a palace revolt to force her to name James VI of Scotland her heir and overthrow Robert Cecil together with his principal allies, Henry Brooke, Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Ralegh. The revolt quickly failed and the Earl was executed, but Essex remained a popular figure in national memory. Stettin’s journal records that ballads dedicated to Essex were being “sung and played on musical instruments all over the country, even in our presence at the royal court though his memory is condemned as that of a man having committed high treason.” They mourned England’s “jewel . . . The valiant knight of chivalry,” destroyed, it was said, by the malevolence of the Cecil faction.
Brave honour graced him still,
He ne’er did deed of ill,
Well it is known
But Envy, that foul fiend,
Whose malice ne’er did end
Hath brought true virtue’s friend
Unto his thrall.
Beneath the smiles of the courtiers as they played cards that Christmas lay the deep bitterness of old enemies: those who had admired Essex and those who had rejoiced in his downfall.
The gallery above the tiltyard where Essex had jousted was linked to the second group of buildings through a gatehouse over King Street. Here, in the Privy Gardens, thirty-four mythical beasts sat on thirty-four brightly colored poles overlooking the low-railed pathways. The buildings had a similar fairy-tale quality. They were decorated in elaborate paintwork, the Great Hall in checkerwork and the Privy Gallery in black and white grotesques. The theme of these distorted animal, plant and human forms extended into the interior, where they were highlighted with gold on the wood pillars and paneling. The visiting Duke of Stettin thought the ceilings rather low and the rooms gloomy. Elizabeth’s bedroom, which overlooked the Thames, “was very dark” with “but little air.” Nearby in Elizabeth’s cabinet, where she wrote her letters, Stettin observed a marvelous silver inkstand and “also a Latin prayer book that the queen had written nicely with her own hand, and, in a beautiful preface, had dedicated to her father.”
Harington had been granted an audience with the Queen soon after his arrival at Whitehall. As usual, he was escorted from the Presence Chamber, where courtiers waited bareheaded to present their petitions, along a dark passage and into the Privy Chamber, where his godmother awaited him. A mural by Hans Holbein the Younger dominated the room. The massive figure of Henry VIII stood, hands on hips, gazing unflinchingly at the viewer. His third wife, Jane Seymour, the mother of his son, Edward VI, was depicted on his left; above him was his mother, Elizabeth of York, with his father, Henry VII. The mural boasted the continuity of the Tudor dynasty, a silent reproach to the childless spinster Harington now saw before him. Contemporaries remarked often on Elizabeth’s similarity to her grandfather. When she was young they saw it in her narrow face and the beautiful long hands of which she was so proud. As she grew older she developed her grandfather’s wattle, a “great goggle throat” that hung from her chin.But she did not now look merely old. She appeared seriously ill.
Harington was shocked by what he saw and frightened for the future. Elizabeth had been increasingly melancholic since the Essex revolt, but he was now convinced that she was dying. He confided his thoughts in a letter to the one person he trusted: his wife, Mary Rogers, who was at home in Somerset caring for their nine children.
I herewith send thee what I would God none did know, some ill bodings of the realm and its welfare. Our dear Queen, my royal godmother, and this state’s natural mother, doth now bear signs of human infirmity, too fast for that evil which we will get by her death, and too slow for that good which she shall get by her releasement from pains and misery. Dear Mall, How shall I speak what I have seen, or what I have felt?—Thy good silence in these matters emboldens my pen . . . Now I will trust thee with great assurance, and whilst thou dost brood over thy young ones in the chamber, thou shalt read the doings of thy grieving mate in the court.