Passing Of Chivalry
Justice For The Earl Of Essex
The Life and Death of Robert Devereotx, Earl of Essex, by Cr. B. Harrison (Cassell, 15s.) Reviewed by CHARLES G. MORTIMER.
This is a pleasant scholarly book-all who delight in a good biography should purchase it. The author has availed himself to the full of the collection of Cecil Papers at Hatfield House; which were of course known but not used to any great extent by Lytton Strachey in his book Elizabeth and Essex (1928).
The life of Essex was a short one; he was only nine, when he succeeded to the title in 1576: and 33 when he came to his untimely end in 1601, but these years were packed with incident and provide the very mood and motive of a Shakespearian drama.
As the story develops, as the royal favourite becomes a man of action; a statesman; a soldier; and at last the idol of a nation despite his failure in Ireland; Dr. Harrison lays his finger unerringly upon the weakness that eventually ruined him. He was in fact vain man; from this sprang his sensitive pride which unfitted him for the burden of great and responsible positions; his overweening ambition which warped his judgment of affairs and, most fatally. of his fellow men and of the great Queen, upon whose favour his reputation and fortune were ultimately based.
" He entirely misjudged her, for he took her vacillations for weakness, failing to realise that being a woman she acted on the instinct of the moment and therefore was incalculable."
In fact Elizabeth was more than a match for her favourite; and so were the Cecils who had exactly those qualities of patience and self restraint that Essex lacked. They were trained to regard the vagaries of Elizabeth like the tricks of our English climate; a thing to be borne with a resigned and cheerful philosophy.
Yet Essex though not cast in the heroic mould of Sir Philip Sydney possessed a marvellous popularity on which he traded too much and found at last that he was but living in a world of fantasy; yet his appeal to his generation was remarkable. Stow gives evidence of this: " Such and so great was the hearty love
and deep affections of the people towards him by reason of his bounty, liberality, affability and mild behaviour that as well scholars, soldiers, citizens, sailors, etc., Protestants, Paptists, Sectaries and atheists, yea. women and children which never saw hi m that it was held a happiness in them to follow the worst of his fortunes."
The words of Dr. Harrison himself are these (page 274): " Essex's rise and decline were not merely the personal fortune of one man and his immediate followers; it affected the nation more deeply than any event since the Armada."
But why was this? Our author puts forward a most interesting theory to account for it; a theory too, well supported by contemporary evidence.
The fact seems to be that when the long reign of Elizabeth was approaching its close, disillusion and reaction were setting in; and a younger generation was disputing the traditional beliefs and standards of the older. ,Not that the Queen had fallen herself from greatness; or that her hest diplomats'were failing her or losing their nerve; it was simply the craving for a new idol to worship; a new star to follow at the turn of the century; and such a lure the career and character of Essex seemed to possess. The unfortunate man never lived to gather these fruits; he was involved in what strikes us today as an absurd conspiracy; he was outwitted at every turn; his own following was lost to him; and his last resource seemed to be to clear his conscience on the grand scale and so make an ending.
There is not a chapter in the present biography that is not filled with carefully considered historical data; admirable sidelights on the contemporaries of Essex; and a grasp of human nature which would make the most unimaginative reader feel his kinship with this age of passing Chivalry.