The sight of that head, or the knowledge that it was staring down upon her night and day, must have shared in the somber mood of Elizabeth’s final years. She sat alone for hours in silent, pensive melancholy. She maintained the amusements of her court and made at times a brave pretense of gaiety, but her health was gone and her heart was dead. England had ceased to love her; it felt that she had outlived herself and should make room for younger royalty. The last of her Parliaments rebelled more vigorously than any before against her infringement of parliamentary freedom, her persecution of Puritans, her rising demands for funds, her gifts of trade monopolies to her favorites. To everyone’s surprise, the Queen yielded on the last point and promised to end the abuse. All the members of the Commons went to thank her, and they knelt as she gave what proved to be her last address to them, her wistful “Golden Speech” (November 20, 1601):
There is no jewel, be it of never so rich a price, which I prefer before … your love. For I do esteem it more than any treasure … And though God has raised us high, yet this I count the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves …122
She bade them rise and then continued:
To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it … For my own part, were it not for conscience’ sake to discharge the duty that God hath laid upon me, and to maintain His glory, and keep you in safety, in mine own disposition I should be willing to resign the place I hold to any other, and glad to be freed of the glory with the labors; for it is not my desire to live or to reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had and may have many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any love you better.123
She had postponed as long as she could the question of a successor, for while the Queen of Scots lived, as legal heir to her throne, Elizabeth could not reconcile herself to letting Mary undo the Protestant settlement. Now that Mary was dead, and Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, was heir apparent, it was some comfort to know that, however vacillating and devious, he was Protestant. She knew that Robert Cecil and others of her court were secretly negotiating with James to ease his accession and feather their nests, and were counting the days when she should die.
Rumors moved across Europe that she was dying of cancer. But she was dying of too much life. Her frame could not bear any more the joys and sorrows, the burdens and blows of the relentless years. When her godson, Sir John Harington, tried to amuse her with witty verses, she sent him off, saying, “When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less.”124 In March 1603, having exposed herself too boldly to the winter cold, she caught a fever. Through three weeks it consumed her. She spent them mostly in a chair or reclining on cushions. She would have no doctors, but she asked for music, and some players came. Finally she was persuaded to take to her bed. Archbishop Whitgift expressed a hope for her longer life; she rebuked him. He knelt beside the bed and prayed; when he thought it was enough, he tried to rise, but she bade him continue; and again, when “the old man’s knees were weary,” she motioned to him to pray some more. He was released only when, late at night, she fell asleep. She never woke. The next day, March 24, John Manningham wrote in his diary: “This morning, about three o’clock, her majesty departed this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree.”125 So it seemed.
England, which had long awaited her passing, felt the blow nevertheless. Many men realized that a great age had ended, a powerful hand had fallen from the helm, and some, like Shakespeare, feared a chaotic interlude.126 Bacon thought her such a great queen that
if Plutarch were now alive to write lives by parallels, it would trouble him … to find for her a parallel among women. This lady was endued with learning in her sex singular, and rare even among masculine princes … As for her government … this part of the island never had forty-five years of better times; and yet not through the calmness of the season, but through the wisdom of her regiment. For if there be considered, of the one side, the truth of religion established, the constant peace and security; the good administration of justice; the temperate use of the prerogative … the flourishing state of learning … and if there be considered, on the other side, the differences of religion, the troubles of neighbor countries, the ambition of Spain, and opposition of Rome; and then that she was solitary and of herself: these things I say considered, as I could not have chosen an [other] instance so recent and so proper, so I suppose I could not have chosen one more remarkable or eminent … concerning the conjunction of learning in the prince with felicity in the people.127
Looking back now in the hindsight of time, we should shade the portrait a little, noting and forgiving the faults of the incomparable Queen. She was no saint or sage, but a woman of temper and passion, lustily in love with life. The “truth of religion” was not quite established, and not all her subjects could, as Shakespeare may have thought, “eat in safety, under their own vines, what they planted, and sing the merry songs of peace.”128 The wisdom of her rule was partly that of her aides. The vacillations of her mind proved often fortunate, perhaps by the chance of change; sometimes they brought such weakness of policy that the internal troubles of her enemies had to help her to survive. But survive she did, and she prospered, by fair means or devious. She freed Scotland from the French and bound it with England; she enabled Henry of Navarre to balance his Mass in Paris with the Edict of Nantes; she found England bankrupt and despised, and left it rich and powerful; and the sinews of learning and literature grew strong in the wealth of her people. She continued the despotism of her father, but moderated it with humanity and charm. Denied husband and child, she mothered England, loved it devotedly, and used herself up in serving it. She was the greatest ruler that England has ever known.
I. Aubrey tells a naughty story. Edward de Vere, “Earle of Oxford, making his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”33
II. A Catholic historian adds: “If the Secretary of State approved of the killing of Elizabeth, this was in conformity with the principles of law then in force. Gregory, too, with whom the Secretary of State undoubtedly consulted before he sent his letter … concurred in this view.”66
III. Old Style, ten days earlier than by the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted by Spain ill 1582, but not by England till 1751.
IV. The tale of his coat in the mnd beneath her feet is a legend.