Elizabeth and Essex: the Deadly Game of Courtly Love

Chapter 2 : Relationship with Elizabeth

The relationship of Elizabeth and Essex has always worried historians; not least because it does not show either protagonist in a flattering light. Was her feeling for him the laughable passion of an ageing woman for a pretty young man on the make; did he simply exploit it, cynically? Was his appeal for Elizabeth that of a surrogate son; was it from frustrated maternity that she forgave him so frequently? There may be an element of truth in that - but if so, there was surely an element of the incestuous in the story. (There is even a theory - without foundation, but interesting nonetheless - that Essex was not merely a surrogate son for Elizabeth, a reminder of Leicester, but an illegitimate child of the pair.)

Sir Robert Naunton wrote later of the problems in the relationship of Elizabeth and Essex: ‘The first was a violent indulgency of the Queen which is incident to old age where it encounters with a pleasing and suitable object . . . The second was a fault in the object of her grace, my Lord himself, who drew in too fast like a child sucking on an over-uberous [over-abundant] nurse’. Had there been ‘a more decent decorum’ in either of them, things might have proceeded differently, he judged. Without it, they were ‘like an instrument ill tuned and lapsing to discord’.

I have to declare an interest here. My new book The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty views the romantic relationships of the Tudors, this included, through the prism of a far older story. Indeed, I would argue that the story of Elizabeth and Essex was played out by the rules of courtly love: a game which had dominated aristocratic ideals for centuries, and certainly coloured the course of the whole Tudor dynasty.

Courtly love was a force compared to which, said the great medievalist C.S. Lewis, ‘the Renaissance was a mere ripple on the surface of literature’. The knight held captive in a posture of devotion to the cruel ‘mistress’ he must always obey. Bound to serve – without reward if necessary, since his mistress was already married to someone else, and a lady of higher rank than he.

These were the rules which had made possible the long courtship of Elizabeth’s parents, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. These were the rules which allowed Elizabeth to present herself to her courtiers as Gloriana; gave viable form to her whole controversial female monarchy. Perhaps the old game had been growing weary at last, even as Leicester introduced his stepson Essex to the Queen’s court - but it retained, still, enough credence to give a language for Essex’s ritual parade of adoration for the mistress who could, indeed, have been his mother. It made acceptable a whole hyperbolic language of love.

‘Madam’, he wrote to her after one early separation, ‘if my horse could run as fast as my thoughts do fly, I would as often make mine eyes rich in beholding the treasure of my love as my desires do triumph when I seem to myself in a strong imagination to conquer your resisting will.’ One letter declares that: ‘Since I was first so happy as to know what love meant, I was never one day, nor one hour, free from hope and jealousy, and as long as you do me right, they are the inseparable companions of my life.’

Those protestations, however, ring somewhat hollow, if set against the many occasions on which Essex saw fit almost to scold the woman who had been ruling England for years when he was born. Indeed, I suspect that Essex (like his rival Ralegh?) failed really to understand or appreciate Elizabeth as the earlier generation around her (Leicester, Hatton, William Cecil) had done. He saw as pure weakness the qualities of vacillation and dissimulation which, carefully deployed, had been two of the best weapons in Elizabeth’s wars. He would write to her, and of her, almost on terms of equality. ‘What, cannot princes err? Cannot subjects receive wrong? Is an earthly power or authority infinite? Pardon me, pardon me, my good lord, I can never subscribe to these principles’, he wrote angrily in the last years of their relationship. To the letter he sent her, Elizabeth returned a verbal message: ‘Tell the Earl that I value myself at as great a price as he values himself.’

‘He hath played long enough upon me’, Elizabeth said on one occasion. ‘I mean to play awhile upon him and to stand as much upon my greatness as he hath done upon his stomach [pride].’ Late in her reign one observer noted that Essex’s greatness ‘was now judged to depend as much on her Majesty’s fear of him as her love to him’ Her godson John Harrington reported her as saying: ‘By God’s Son, I am no Queen; that man is above me’.

And yet, underneath their dangerous spats, and certainly underneath the hyperbole of courtly love, was there some real need, some emotional reality? The two seemed tied one to the other - by practical needs, yes, but surely also by some kind of visceral link. There is a vehemence in the Earl’s letters as well as in the Queen’s which suggest real emotion of some sort. In Essex’s own (undated) words:

‘This is but one of the many letters which, since I saw your Majesty, I wrote, but never sent unto you; for, to write freely to a Lady that lies in wait for all things I do or say, were too much hazard . . . your Majesty seeth the state of my mind, full of confusion and contrariety. I sometimes think of running, and then remember what it will be to come in armour triumphing into that presence, out of which both by your own voice I was commanded, and by your hands thrust out. But God knows this is no sudden accident. You may tell those that thirst and gape after my ruin, that you have now an advantage, that, being in passion, I spake rashly. It is well you have that you looked for, and so have I.’