Her penetration proved itself at once in her choice of aides. Like her embattled father—and despite her politic speech at Hatfield—she chose men of untitled birth, for most of the older nobles were Catholic, and some thought themselves fitter than she to wear the crown. As her secretary and principal adviser she named William Cecil, whose genius for prudent policy and assiduous detail became so outstanding a factor in her success that those who did not know her thought him king. His grandfather was a prosperous yeoman become country gentleman; his father was yeoman of the wardrobe to Henry VIII; his mother’s dowry raised the family to a comfortable estate. William left Cambridge without a degree, took law at Gray’s Inn, sowed his wild oats in London’s common fields,5entered the House of Commons at twenty-three (1543), and married, as his second wife, Mildred Cooke, whose grim Puritanism helped him toe the Protestant line. He served Protector Somerset, then Somerset’s enemy Northumberland. He supported Lady Jane Grey to succeed Edward VI, but switched to Mary Tudor in the nick of time; he became a conforming Catholic at her suggestion, and was appointed by her to welcome Cardinal Pole into England. He was a man of affairs, who did not allow his theological somersaults to disturb his political equilibrium. When Elizabeth made him her secretary she addressed him with her usual sagacity:
I give you this charge that you shall be of my Privy Council, and content to take pains for me and my realm. This judgment I have of you that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the state; and that without respect of my private will you will give me that counsel which you think best; and if you shall know anything necessary to be declared to me of secrecy, you shall show it to myself only. And assure yourself I will not fail to keep taciturnity therein. And therefore herewith I charge you.6
The test of his fidelity and competence is that she kept him as secretary for fourteen years, then as Lord Treasurer for twenty-six more, till his death. He presided over the Council, managed foreign relations, directed public finance and national defense, and guided Elizabeth in the definitive establishment of Protestantism in England. Like Richelieu, he thought the safety and stability of his country required the unifying absolutism of the monarch as against the divisive ambitions of contentious nobles, covetous merchants, and fratricidal faiths. He had some Machiavellian ways, rarely cruel, but relentless against opposition;7 once he thought of having the Earl of Westmorland assassinated;8 but that was an impatient moment in a half century of patient tenacity and personal rectitude. He had eyes and spies for everything, but eternal vigilance is the price of power. He was acquisitive and thrifty, but Elizabeth pardoned his wealth for his wisdom and loved the parsimony that accumulated the means for defeating the Armada. Without him she might have been misled by such lighter lights and spendthrift peacocks as Leicester, Hatton, and Essex. Cecil, reported the Spanish ambassador, “has more genius than the rest of the Council put together, and is therefore envied and hated on all sides.”9 Elizabeth sometimes listened to his enemies, and now and then treated him so harshly that he left her presence broken and in tears; but she knew, when out of her tantrums, that he was the steadiest pillar of her reign. In 1571 she made him Lord Burghley, head of the new aristocracy that, in the face of hostile nobles, upheld her throne and made her kingdom great.
Her minor aides deserve a line even in hurried history, for they served her with competence, courage, and scant remuneration, to the exhaustion of their lives. Sir Nicholas Bacon, father of Francis, was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal from the outset of the reign till his death (1579); Sir Francis Knollys was a privy councilor from 1558 and treasurer of the royal household till his end (1596); Sir Nicholas Throckmorton was her skillful ambassador in France, and Thomas Randolph in Scotland, Russia, and Germany. Only next to Cecil in devotion and craft was Sir Francis Walsingham, a Secretary of State from 1573 to his death (1590); a man of sensitive refinement, whom Spenser called “the great Maecenas of his age”; so shocked by repeated plots against the Queen’s life that he formed for her protection a web of espionage that stretched from Edinburgh to Constantinople, and caught in its skein the tragic Queen of Scots. Seldom has a ruler had servitors so able, so loyal, and so poorly paid.
For the English government itself was poor. Private fortunes outshone public funds. The revenue in 1600 totaled £500,000,10 which even now would be a paltry $25,000,000. Elizabeth seldom levied direct taxes, and she took in only £36,000 in customs dues. Ordinarily she relied on income from Crown lands, on grants in aid from the English Church, and on “loans” from the rich, which were practically compulsory but punctually repaid.11 She honored the debts left by her father, her brother, and her sister, and acquired such a reputation for solvency that she could borrow money at Antwerp at 5 per cent, while Philip II of Spain at times could not borrow at all. She was extravagant, however, in her expenditure for dresses and finery, and in gifts of economic privileges to her favorites.
Rarely, and reluctantly, she summoned Parliament to her financial aid, for she did not patiently bear opposition, criticism, or surveillance. She put no stock in theories of popular or parliamentary sovereignty; she believed with Homer and Shakespeare that only one head should rule—and why not hers, in which ran the blood and burned the pride of Henry VIII? She held to the divine right of kings and queens. She imprisoned persons at her own sharp will, without trial or stated cause; and her Privy Council, acting as the Court of Star Chamber to try political offenders, suspended without appeal the rights of habeas corpus and jury trial.12 She punished M.P.s who obstructed her purposes. She suggested to the local magnates who manipulated elections to Parliament that it would facilitate matters if they chose candidates with no boyish notions about free speech; she wanted pounds without palaver. Her early Parliaments yielded gracefully; her middle Parliaments yielded angrily; her later Parliaments neared revolt.
She got her will because the nation preferred her judicious absolutism to the fury of factions competing for power. No one thought of letting the people rule; politics was—as always—a contest of minorities to determine which should rule the majority. Half of England resented Elizabeth’s religious policy, nearly all England resented her celibacy; but by and large the people, grateful for low taxes, flourishing trade, domestic order, and prolonged peace, returned the affection offered them by the Queen. She gave them pageants and “progresses,” listened to them without visible boredom, shared in their public games, and in a hundred other ways “fished for men’s souls.”13 The Spanish ambassador, while bemoaning her Protestantism, wrote to Philip: “She is much attached to the people, and is confident that they are all on her side, which is indeed true.”14 The attempts that were made on her life strengthened her popularity and power; even the Puritans whom she persecuted prayed for her safety; and the anniversary of her accession became a day of national thanksgiving and festival.
Was she the actual ruler, or only a popular front for the lower nobility of England and the mercantile oligarchy of London? Her aides, though fearing her temper, often corrected her mistakes of policy—but she often corrected theirs. They told her disagreeable truths, gave her their contradictory counsels, and obeyed her decisions; they governed, but she ruled. “She gives her orders,” reported the Spanish ambassador, “and has her way as absolutely as her father.”15 Cecil himself seldom knew how she would decide, and he fretted over her frequent rejection of his laborious and meticulous advice. When he urged her not to treat with France, but to rely solely on Protestant support, she pulled him up with some asperity: “Mr. Secretary, I mean to have done with this business; I shall listen to the proposals of the French King. I am not going to be tied any longer to you and your brethren in Christ.”16
Her statesmanship drove both friends and enemies to tears. She was maddeningly slow and irresolute in determining policy; but in many cases her indecision paid. She knew how to ally herself with time, which dissolves more problems than men solve; her procrastination allowed the complex factors in a situation to settle themselves into focus and clarity. She admired the fabled philosopher who, when importuned for an answer, silently recited the alphabet before replying. She took as her motto Video et taceo—“I see and am silent.” She discovered that in politics, as in love, he who does not hesitate is lost. If her policy often fluctuated, so did the facts and forces to be weighed. Surrounded by perils and intrigues, she felt her way with forgivable caution, trying now one course, now another, and making no claim to consistency in so fluid a world. Her vacillation stumbled into some serious errors, but it kept England at peace until it was strong enough for war. Inheriting a nation politically in chaos and militarily in decay, her only practicable policy was to keep England’s enemies from uniting against it, to encourage the Huguenot revolt against the French monarchy, the Netherlands revolt against Spain, the Protestant revolt against a Scottish Queen too closely bound to France. It was an unscrupulous policy, but Elizabeth believed with Machiavelli that scruples are not becoming in rulers responsible for states. By whatever means her subtle weakness could devise she preserved her country from foreign domination, maintained peace—with some brief intervals—for thirty years, and left England richer than ever before in matter and mind.
As a diplomat she could give the foreign secretaries of the age many a lesson in alert information, resourceful expedients, and incalculable moves. She was the ablest liar of her time. Of the four women—Mary Tudor, Mary Stuart, Catherine de Médicis, and Elizabeth—who illustrated Knox’s “monstrous regiment [rule] of women” in the second half of the sixteenth century, Elizabeth was unquestionably supreme in political acumen and diplomatic skill. Cecil thought her “the wisest woman that ever was, for she understood the interest and dispositions of all the princes in her time, and was so perfect in the knowledge of her own realm that no councilor she had could tell her anything she did not know before”17—which, of course, requires a grain of salt. She had the advantage of conferring directly with ambassadors in French, Italian, or Latin, and was thereby independent of interpreters and intermediaries. “This woman,” said the Spanish ambassador, “is possessed with a hundred thousand devils; yet she pretends to me that she would like to be a nun, live in a cell, and tell her beads from morning till night.”18 Every Continental government condemned and admired her. “If she were not a heretic,” said Pope Sixtus V, “she would be worth a whole world.”19