CHAPTER XIX. ELIZABETH (iv), 1572-78 - VARIUM ET MUTABILE

[The Queen's diplomacy]

The picture of Elizabeth and of her surroundings hitherto presented in these pages has been one which rouses rather a reluctant admiration for a combination of good fortune and dexterity than a moral enthusiasm. Statesmen, in fact, had to pick their way with such extreme wariness through such a labyrinth of intrigues that little play was permitted to their more generous instincts; and it is undeniable that Elizabeth herself loved intricate methods, and made it quite unnecessarily difficult for her ministers to pursue a straightforward course. This is the aspect of the national life which is inevitably forced on our attention - the diplomatic aspect in an age when diplomacy was playing an immense part in public affairs. For England, it might almost be said that diplomatic methods had been created by Henry VII., maintained by Wolsey, dropped again for thirty years, and then re-created by Elizabeth. As Wolsey had played France and the Empire against each other, to make England the arbiter of Europe, so Elizabeth played France and Spain against each other, so that neither could afford to go beyond empty threats against her in her own territory; while both governments had recalcitrant Protestant subjects who were a good deal more hampering and disquieting to them than were Elizabeth's Catholic subjects to her. In Scotland, Elizabeth's policy, like her father's, was that of maintaining factions which kept the country divided.

Now the persons with whom Elizabeth had to deal were for the most part perfectly unscrupulous. The Queen-mother in France, the Scots lords, Philip of Spain, and the Spanish ambassadors with the exception of De Silva, were as ready to make and ignore promises and professions as was Elizabeth herself. If they found her fully a match for them at their own game, we can hardly reproach her if we cannot applaud. But it is notable that in England, the arch-dissembler is Elizabeth herself. It is she who manages the undignified but eminently successful trickery of the marriage negotiations. It is she who evades committing herself irrevocably to the Huguenots or to the Prince of Orange. It is she who preserves Mary's restoration as a possibility, to be held in terrorem over Scotland after publishing her accusers' evidence against her.

[The Queen's subjects]

But the success of this supreme wiliness, a quality in which perhaps Elizabeth's one rival was Lethington, was due to the presence in her ministers and in her people of moral qualities which she did not herself display. First and foremost was their loyalty to her. They acted boldly on secret instructions, with entire certainty that they must take the whole responsibility upon themselves; that to be pardoned for success was the highest official recognition they could hope for; that flat repudiation and probable ruin would follow failure. Burghley in particular repeatedly risked favour to save the Queen from herself, when her vacillation, calculated or not, was on the verge of being carried too far; nor was he alone in speaking his mind; yet in spite of merciless snubs his fidelity was unimpaired; none of her enemies ever dreamed for an instant that he could be tampered with. Nor did it ever appear that more than a very few even among the most discontented of her subjects would lend themselves to open disloyalty. In England, there were almost none who would have anything to say to the political assassinations which repeatedly stained the annals of the nations of the Continent and of Scotland: a peculiarity remarked on in the Spanish correspondence.

Again, the religious tone and temper of the country were in striking contrast to those prevailing where the Reformation assumed the Calvinistic model. In France and in Scotland, Protestants and Catholics were ready to fly at each other's throats; in England that inclination was confined to extremists of either party. The bulk of the population was quite content with conformity to a compromise, and was tolerant of a very considerable theoretical disagreement, and even of actual nonconformity, so long as it was not actively aggressive. It was not till Jesuits on one side, and ultra-puritans on the other, developed an active propaganda directed against the established order, that there was any general desire to strike hard at either; nor did even the puritan parliaments display any violent anti-Catholic animus till roused by the insult to the nation of the Bull of Deposition.

[Development of Protestantism]