CHAPTER XVIII. ELIZABETH (iii), 1568-72 - THE CATHOLIC CHALLENGE
[Nov. The Commission at Westminster]
It seemed safer then that the enquiry should be held in London, with a large increase in the number of the Commissioners. Of the Scots lords, Lethington was undoubtedly anxious that the murder charge should be withdrawn. Nevertheless, at the sitting held at the end of November, Murray definitely put in the charge, producing copies or translations of the Casket Letters. These the commissioners examined; later on, they were shown the originals, which they judged to be genuine documents in the Queen's hand. Whether they were competent to test forgeries executed with tolerable skill is at least open to question. The rest of the evidence produced was not only that of interested persons, but contained inconsistencies; neither Mary herself nor her agents were ever put in possession of copies of the incriminating documents; one side only was heard. If it was Elizabeth's object to create in the minds of the English lords a strong presumption that Mary was guilty, that purpose was successfully effected. Under such conditions Mary declined compromises. The Commission was broken up. The farce was over. Murray returned to Scotland: the Queen remained a prisoner in England, to be - with or without her own complicity - the centre of every papist plot till the final tragedy.
[Comment on the enquiry]
So the mystery of Mary Stewart remains a mystery to this day. That she was cognisant of the plot to murder Darnley is the more probable theory, in view of facts which no one denies; yet those facts remain intelligible if she was innocent. There are no admitted facts which preclude her guilt: none which prove it conclusively. The various confessions of interested witnesses, voluntary or extorted, are untrustworthy. The genuineness of the Casket Letters is doubtful. No opportunity was given for cross-examining the witnesses or examining the letters. The world believed that Mary was guilty, however it may have been disposed to condone the guilt. The world was probably right. But to pretend that there was a fair or complete investigation - that Mary's guilt was proved before the Commission - is absurd. That Mary from first to last protested against being brought to the bar of an English tribunal - whose authority she could not acknowledge without implying a recognition of that suzerainty which Edward I of England had claimed, and Robert I of Scotland had wiped out at Bannockburn - was entirely compatible with the innocence of a high-spirited and courageous princess: and would have been so, even if she could have counted on the absolute impartiality of her judges. Knowing that she could count on nothing of the kind, fully aware that Elizabeth herself would in fact be the judge, and suspecting with very good reason that any verdict pronounced by her would be shaped strictly with a view to her own political convenience, it is almost inconceivable that Mary should have acknowledged the jurisdiction merely because Innocence in the abstract ought to invite enquiry. Had Mary been less beautiful, less unfortunate, less of a heroine of romance, it is likely enough that she would find few champions; but the pretence that she had a fair trial would still be none the less untenable.
[Dec. Seizure of Spanish Treasure]
In the meantime, an incident had occurred which shows what an immense change had been taking place in England during the ten years of Elizabeth's reign; how completely the nation had recovered confidence in itself. Throughout these years, English ships had been multiplying, English sailors had been ignoring the Spanish and Portuguese monopolies of ocean traffic, and English captains had been, with only the most perfunctory official discouragement, and under colour of the flimsiest pretexts or of no pretext at all, indulging in what was virtually piracy. Now, the religious struggle, after a few months' smouldering, had again broken out in France. La Rochelle, the Huguenot head-quarters, was a nest of privateers, with whom the English adventurers consorted, and the water-way for Spanish ships to the Netherlands was infested with dangers. Alva was in want of money. Philip borrowed a great sum from the Genoese bankers. The vessels conveying the bullion were forced to put into English ports, in fear of capture. Elizabeth was not ready to declare war in favour of the revolted provinces; but Cecil was extremely anxious to render them all the help possible short of declaring war. The treasure-ships had sailed into a trap. Don Guerau invited Elizabeth to send them on under escort to the Netherlands; she replied that as the money belonged not to Philip but to the Genoese bankers, who would not object, she intended to borrow it herself. Don Guerau was furious, and sent messages to Alva, who promptly seized all English goods and persons in the Netherlands. With equal promptitude, all Spaniards and Spanish goods were seized in England. The balance of loss was heavily in favour of the English.
It seemed most probable that this astonishingly audacious proceeding must result either in the fall of Cecil, to whom it was due, or in open war with Spain, and the immediate committal of England to the formation of a Protestant League; which might force the English Catholics in their turn directly to espouse the cause of Mary. The reception given in this country shortly before to the Cardinal of Chatillon, Coligny's brother, was a symptom of Cecil's Protestant policy, and he at least was probably willing enough that any tendency of the English Catholics towards revolt should be precipitated rather than delayed.
[1569 The incident passed over]