CHAPTER XXVI. ELIZABETH (xi), 1598-1603-THE QUEEN'S LAST YEARS
While Essex was still in Ireland this imagination of Philip's had borne curious fruit. He ordered the preparation of another Armada: the greatest of all. The Spanish vapourings on the subject actually created some alarm in England; Raleigh and Lord Thomas Howard very promptly had efficient fleets on the narrow seas; the Lord Admiral (now Earl of Nottingham) was appointed Lord General and there was a great mustering of troops and raising of companies by noblemen and gentlemen. But it is more than probable that, as far as the land forces were concerned, these measures were intended quite as much to be a hint to Essex that he would find any attempt at coercion an exceedingly dangerous game, as for protection against any effort which Philip was capable of putting forth. In fact this Armada ended in the feeblest of all these feeble fiascoes: for while it was making ready, a Dutch fleet was raiding the Canaries and the trade routes; when it put to sea its energies were absorbed in a futile attempt to catch these audacious enemies; and before it reached the Azores, a fourth part of it had foundered and the balance had been practically crippled by foul weather.
Such then was the position when in the autumn of 1599 Essex suddenly found himself a prisoner. Cecil however did not think it politic to go to extremities. The Earl was not haled before the Star-Chamber as was proposed in some quarters; it was not till the following June that he was brought before a commission of the Privy Council for enquiry and censure; and some two months later he was released. But from October 1599 to August 1600 he remained in custody.
In the meantime, Tyrone was appealing to Spain and to the Archduke Albert. The latter, with ulterior objects, was negotiating for peace with Cecil - who was following a path of his own - and had no mind to complicate the intrigue by an Irish embroilment. Philip immediately gave orders that everything was to be provided to conquer Ireland out of hand; but as the means for carrying out those orders were entirely lacking, there were no results. Moreover, Elizabeth had at last realised that the systematic reduction of Ireland was now an absolute necessity which could only be accomplished by adequate forces under a competent commander. Montjoy, a connexion of Essex, was sent over; his dealings with Tyrone met with increasing success. Essex had at first counted on Montjoy acting in effect as his own deputy; but in this he was disappointed. Placed in a position of responsibility, the Deputy immediately rejected the overtures he made. The army in Ireland was not to be the instrument of Essex's ambition.
Where so many of the actors were simultaneously engaged in alternative intrigues, some of them with entire insincerity, and solely for the purpose of keeping inconvenient persons or groups in play until they were harmless, it is not possible to be sure in most cases of the real policy intended. Cecil's party were in some sort of communication even with Parsons, who persuaded himself that if only Philip would definitely commit himself to a nominee, and would strike in before the Scots King could secure himself, the chiefs of that party would support him. It is not credible that this was really the case, but it is at least probable that the group were deliberately seeking to produce that impression at the Spanish head- quarters. For them the essential thing was to wreck Essex on the one side and out-wit the extreme Catholics on the other. Others might be deceived, but Cecil and Raleigh at least must have been fully alive to the worthlessness of any programme which assumed political intelligence on the part of Philip, or effective activity in Spain. James was playing for the support of every section, by inducing each to believe that his overtures to the other sections were mere blinds: and during this year he was working for the support of Henry IV., as being at heart a tolerant Catholic. Whether Essex, who must have been aware of the intrigue, accepted the policy or regarded it as merely a useful diplomatic deception remains uncertain; at any rate it did not alienate him. But the appearance of a Franco-Scottish rapprochement was an immediate incentive to and excuse for counter negotiations with Philip and the Archduke on the part of the English government.
[The end of Essex 1600-1]
At the end of August, Essex was released, though still excluded from favour. The Cecil party had complete control of the situation, and to all appearance meant to come to terms with the Archduke: which would wreck the Earl's ambitions irretrievably. Now, when his one chance lay in playing the repentant and tearful adorer of a mistress cruel and fair if somewhat mature - a very familiar role for him - his cry was all for the restoration of lost pecuniary privileges; and his mistress would naturally have none of a lover so self-centred. Despairing of the Queen's favour, he was rash enough to pose as a popular champion, declaiming against the intriguers who were selling England to the Infanta, and drawing round him the young hot-heads and scape-graces of the nobility, in the insane belief that their swords and the cheers of the London mob would enable him to effect the overthrow of Cecil by a coup de main. When the time was ripe, early in February, Cecil struck. Essex was summoned to appear before the Council. He evaded the summons, and next day with his friends made a frantic attempt to raise the City for the removal of the Queen's false Counsellors. That evening he was a prisoner in the Tower. A few days later, he was brought to trial for treason before a Court of Peers, and was condemned and executed. Pardon was impossible, though Elizabeth's grief at signing his death warrant was poignant and permanent.