31. Elizabeth's Reign, A.D. 1587—1602
No reign ever was more glorious or better for the people than Queen Elizabeth's. It was a time when there were many very great men living —soldiers, sailors, writers, poets—and they all loved and look up to the queen as the mother of her country. There really was nothing she did love like the good of her people, and somehow they all felt and knew it, and "Good Queen Bess" had their hearts—though she was not always right, and had some serious faults.
The worst of her faults was not telling the truth. Somehow kings and rulers had, at that time, learnt to believe that when they were dealing with other countries anything was fair, and that it was not wrong to tell falsehoods to hide a secret, nor to make promises they never meant to keep. People used to do so who would never have told a lie on their own account to their neighbor, and Lord Burleigh and Queen Elizabeth did so very often, and often behaved meanly and shabbily to people who had trusted to their promises. Her other fault was vanity. She was a little woman, with bright eyes, and rather hooked nose, and sandy hair, but she managed to look every inch a queen, and her eye, when displeased, was like a lion's. She had really been in love with Lord Leicester, and every now and then he hoped she would marry him; indeed, there is reason to fear that he had his wife secretly killed, in order that he might be able to wed the queen; but she saw that the people would not allow her to do so, and gave it up. But she liked to be courted. She allowed foreign princes to send her their portraits, rings, and jewels, and sometimes to come and see her, but she never made up her mind to take them. And as to the gentlemen at her own court, she liked them to make the most absurd and ridiculous compliments to her, calling her their sun and goddess, and her hair golden beams of the morning, and the like; and the older she grew the more of these fine speeches she required of them. Her dress—a huge hoop, a tall ruff all over lace, and jewels in the utmost profusion— was as splendid as it could be made, and in wonderful variety. She is said to have had three hundred gowns and thirty wigs. Lord Burleigh said of her that she was sometimes more than a man, and sometimes less than a woman. And so she was, when she did not like her ladies to wear handsome dresses.
One of the people who had wanted to marry her was her brother-in-law, Philip of Spain, but she was far too wise, and he and she were bitter enemies all the rest of their lives. His subjects in Holland had become Protestants, and he persecuted them so harshly that they broke away from him. They wanted Elizabeth to be their queen, but she would not, though she sent Lord Leicester to help them with an army. With him went his nephew, Sir Philip Sydney, the most good, and learned, and graceful gentleman at court. There was great grief when Sir Philip was struck by a cannon ball in the thigh, and died after nine days pain. It was as he was being carried from the field, faint and thirsty, that some one had just brought him a cup of water, when he saw a poor soldier, worse hurt than himself, looking at it with longing eyes. He put it from him untasted, and said, "Take it, thy necessity is greater than mine."
After the execution of Mary of Scotland, Philip of Spain resolved to punish Elizabeth and the English, and force them back to obedience to the pope. He fitted out an immense fleet, and filled it with fighting men. So strong was it that, as armada is the Spanish for a fleet, it was called the Invincible Armada. It sailed for England, the men expecting to burn and ruin all before them. But the English ships were ready. Little as they were, they hunted and tormented the big Spaniards all the way up the English Channel; and, just as the Armada had passed the Straits of Dover, there came on such dreadful storms that the ships were driven and broken before it, and wrecked all round the coasts—even in Scotland and Ireland—and very few ever reached home again. The English felt that God had protected them with His wind and storm, and had fought for them.
Lord Leicester died not long after, and the queen became almost equally fond of his stepson, the Earl of Essex, who was a brave, high-spirited young man, only too proud.
The sailors of Queen Elizabeth's time were some of the bravest and most skilful that ever lived. Sir Francis Drake sailed round the world in the good ship Pelican, and when he brought her into the Thames the queen went to look at her. Sir Walter Raleigh was another great sailor, and a most courtly gentleman besides. He took out the first English settlers to North America, and named their new home Virginia—after the virgin queen—and he brought home from South America our good friend the potato root; and, also he learnt their to smoke tobacco. The first time his servant saw this done in England, he thought his master must be on fire, and threw a bucket of water over him to put it out.
The queen valued these brave men much, but she liked none so well as Lord Essex, till at last he displeased her, and she sent him to govern Ireland. There he fell into difficulties, and she wrote angry letters, which made him think his enemies were setting her against him. So he came back without leave; and one morning came straight into her dressing chamber, where she was sitting, with her thin grey hair being combed, before she put on one of her thirty wigs, or painted her face. She was very angry, and would not forgive him, and he got into a rage, too; and she heard he had said she was an old woman, crooked in temper as in person. What was far worse, he raised the Londoners to break out in a tumult to uphold him. He was taken and sent to the Tower, tried for treason, and found guilty of death. But the queen still loved him, and waited and waited for some message or token to ask her pardon. None came, and she thought he was too proud to beg for mercy. She signed the death warrant, and Essex died on the block. But soon she found that he had really sent a ring she once had given him, to a lady who was to show it to her, in token that he craved her pardon. The ring had been taken by mistake to a cruel lady who hated him, and kept it back. But by-and-by this lady was sick to death. Then she repented, and sent for the queen and gave her the ring, and confessed her wickedness. Poor Queen Elizabeth—her very heart was broken. She said to the dying woman, "God may forgive you, but I cannot." She said little more after that. She was old, and her strength failed her. Day after day she sat on a pile of cushions, with her finger on her lips, still growing weaker, and begging for the prayers the archbishop read her. And thus, she who had once been so great and spirited, sank into death, when seventy years old, in the year 1602.