Lectures on Modern History/Philip II., Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
VII. Philip II., Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth

VII

PHILIP II, MARY STUART, AND ELIZABETH

The monarchy of Philip II. was held by no binding idea, but religious unity. The dynasty was new, and the king was not personally imposing or attractive. The people of Palermo, Milan, Antwerp, had no motive to make sacrifices except the fact that their king was the one upholder of religion in Europe. Catholics in every country were his natural allies.

Charles V., who accepted inevitable divisions in Germany, had established the Inquisition in the Netherlands, Under Philip that policy was consistent, and promised, in the flood of the Counter-Reformation, to be a source of power. He would not fall behind his father. He drove the Netherlands into rebellion; but his intention was intelligible. In the sixteenth century the pride of state does as much for oppression and intolerance as religious passion. If he succeeded in repressing heresy, he would have a very real political advantage over other powers. In October 1565 he wrote: "As to the Inquisition, my will is that it be enforced by the Inquisitors as of old, and as is required by all law, human and divine. This lies very near my heart, and I require you to carry out my orders. Let all prisoners be put to death, and suffer them no longer to escape through the neglect, weakness, and bad faith of the judges. If any are too timid to execute the edicts, I will replace them by men who have more heart and zeal."

By this scheme of violence Philip II. turned the Reformation into revolution. He saw that generally nothing was more striking than the ease with which people changed religious profession; and he believed that what was done with success in Germany and Austria and England, could be done in the seventeen provinces of the Burgundian crown. The leaders of the popular movement were men of rank, like Egmont and William of Orange, men not likely to go to extremes. And it was an axiom that the masses are always led by few, and cannot act of themselves. But in the Netherlands more than elsewhere the forms, if not the reality, of freedom were preserved, and the sovereign was not absolute. Moreover, he governed from a distance, and, in addition to his constitutional caution and procrastination, correspondence was very slow.

The endeavour of Philip to substitute his will for self-government provoked a Catholic and aristocratic opposition, followed by a democratic and Protestant movement, which proved more difficult to deal with. The nobles were overcome by the strong measures of Alva. The Gucux were defeated repeatedly by Don Juan and Farnese, after the recall of Alva. And it seemed, for many years, that the movement would fail. It is to the statesmanship of William the Silent, who was neither a great soldier nor a strong churchman, that they owed their success. He failed, indeed, to keep Protestants and Catholics together on a wide basis of toleration. In 1579 the southern provinces returned to Spain, and the northern provinces cast off their allegiance. But, by the union of Utrecht, they founded that confederacy which became one of the foremost powers in the world, and the first of revolutionary origin. The southern provinces remained Catholic. The northern were, in great measure, Protestant, but with a large Catholic population. William, the Stadtholder, was killed by an assassin in 1584, before his work was done. He had brought in Alençon, Elizabeth's suitor, that he might secure the help of France. But Alençon proved a traitor; and during the proconsulate of Farnese, Duke of Parma, the Spaniards gained much ground.

Philip II. stood at the height of his power in the middle of the eighties. He had annexed Portugal, with its immense colonial empire. By the death of Alençon, the King of Navarre, who was a Huguenot, became the heir to the crown of France, and the Catholic party looked to Spain for their salvation. Now, after many patient years, he prepared for war with England. For Drake was ravaging Spanish territory; and an English army under Leicester, having occupied the Netherlands after the death of William, though they accomplished little, gave just cause for an open quarrel. Whenever, in the course of the Counter-Reformation, it came to a duel between Spain and England, the fate of Protestantism would be staked on the issue. That conflict was finally brought about, not by the revolt of the Netherlands, but by the most tragic of all histories, that begins at Holyrood with the murder of Riccio and ends twenty-one years later at Fotheringay.

When Mary Stuart came to Scotland the country had just become Protestant. She did not interfere with the settlement, but refused to permit the suppression of Catholicism, and became, in opposition to the most violent of the reformers, a champion of religious toleration. John Knox differed from all the Protestant founders in his desire that the Catholics should be exterminated, root and branch, either by the ministry of the State, or by the self-help of all Christian men. Calvin, in his letter to Somerset, went very far in the same direction, but not so far as this. The nobles, or rather the heads of clans, in whom the power of society resided, having secured the Church lands, were not so zealous as their preachers, and the queen succeeded in detaching them. Mary was religious without ferocity, and did not share the passions of her time. She would have been willing to marry Leicester, and to make herself dependent on English policy, but Elizabeth refused to acknowledge her right of succession, and drove her to seek connection with the Catholic Powers. She wished at one time to marry Don Carlos, that, having been Queen of France, she might become Queen of Spain. This was impossible; and so she became the wife of Darnley, who united the blood of the Tudors and the Stuarts. She belonged, on her mother's side, to the house of Guise, whose princes were leaders of the militant Counter-Reformation. The duke, who had slaughtered the Huguenots at Vassy, was now dead. But his brother, the Cardinal, who afterwards claimed the merit of a more signal massacre, was still an important personage in Church and State. Mary, appearing on this background of sanguinary uncles, was believed to be an adherent of their policy, and to take part in all extremes of the Catholic reaction.

Riccio, the Piedmontese secretary, through whom she corresponded with foreign princes, was hated accordingly; and Darnley, who attributed to the Italian's influence his own exclusion from power, consented that he should be made away with. The accomplices who wrought the deed took care that Mary should know that they acted with his approval; and when she found herself the wife of an assassin and a coward, the breach ensued which was sometimes dissembled but never repaired. Three months later their son was born, but Darnley was not present at the christening. His enemies advised the queen to obtain a divorce, but she objected that it would injure the prospects of her son. Maitland then hinted that there might be other ways of getting rid of him. Mary did not yield consent; but the idea once started was followed up, and the king was doomed to death by what was called the Bond of Craigmillar.

At the end of 1566 he fell seriously ill at his father's house at Glasgow. Mary came, spent three days with him, and an explanation took place, amounting apparently to a reconciliation. Darnley was taken to Edinburgh, and lodged about a mile from Holyrood, at the Kirk-o'-Field, where he was repeatedly visited by the queen. On the night of 9th February she went away to attend a ball, and three hours after she had left him his house was blown up, and he was found in the garden, strangled. Nobody doubted at the time, or has ever doubted since, that the crime was committed by the Earl of Bothwell, a rough and resolute soldier, whose ambition taught him to seek fortune as a supporter of the throne. He filled Edinburgh with his troops, stood his trial, and was at once acquitted. Thereupon his friends, and some who were not his friends, acting under pressure, resolved that he should marry the queen. As a widow, she was helpless. Bothwell possessed the energy which Darnley wanted, and, as he was a Protestant, the queen would be less isolated. He had killed her husband; but then her husband was himself a murderer, who deserved his fate. Bothwell, encouraged by many of the Lords, had only executed justice on a contemptible criminal. There was a debt of gratitude owing to him for what he had done.

Public decorum forbade that the queen should ostensibly accept the offer of a man who made her a widow ten weeks before. Therefore Bothwell waylaid the queen at the Brig of Almond, some miles from Edinburgh, dispersed her attendants, and carried her off to Dunbar. There was a difficulty about the marriage, because he was married already. He now procured a divorce, and, ten days after the outrage at Almond Brig, they reappeared at Edinburgh. The queen publicly forgave Bothwell for what he had done, made him a duke, and, on 15th May, three months after the explosion at Kirk-o'-Field, married him according to the Presbyterian rite. The significant sequence of these events gave an irresistible advantage to her enemies. It was an obvious inference that she had been a party to the murder of the king, when she was so eager to marry the man that slew him. The only answer would be by discarding him. Nobody could think the son safe in the hands of his father's murderer.

Either the Lords must get the queen into their power, or they must dethrone her and govern Scotland during the long minority of her son. The forces met at Carberry Hill. There was no fight. Mary hoped, by a temporary parting from her third husband, to save her crown. She passed into captivity, was shut up at Loch Leven, and compelled to abdicate. The Protestant interest was at last supreme.

Mary escaped from her island prison, gathered an army, gave battle at Langside, and lost it, and then, losing courage before her cause was helpless, fled to England, in the belief that Elizabeth would save her.

From the death of Darnley, still more after her Protestant marriage, she had ceased to be the champion of her own Church, That was again her position when she came to England. There, she was heir to the throne, and the centre of all the hopes and efforts to preserve or to restore Catholicism.

The story of Mary Stuart cannot be told without an understanding in regard to the Casket Letters. They are still the object of an incessant controversy, and the problem, although it has made progress of late, and the interest increases with the increase of daylight, remains unsolved. The view to be taken of the events depends essentially on the question of authenticity. If the letters are what they seem to be, the letters of the queen to Bothwell, then she is implicated in the murder of her husband. If they are not authentic, then there is no evidence of her guilt. Everybody must satisfy himself on this point before he can understand the ruin of the Catholic cause in Scotland and in England, and the consequent arrest of the Counter-Reformation in Europe.

At the same time the issue does not seriously affect the judgment of History on the character of the queen herself. She repeatedly expressed her delight in murder, and her gratitude to those who executed or attempted it, and stands on the same level of morality with the queen her mother-in-law, or with the queen her rival. But the general estimate does not throw light on the particular action, and supplies no help in a hanging matter.

The opinion of historians inclines, on the whole, in her favour. About fifty writers have considered the original evidences sufficiently to form something like an independent conclusion. Eighteen of these condemn Mary, thirty pronounce her not guilty; two cannot make up their minds. Most of the Catholics absolve, and among Protestants there is an equal number for and against. The greater names are on the hostile side. They do not carry weight with us, because they decided upon evidence less complete than that which we possess. Four of the greatest, Robertson, Ranke, Burton, Froude, were all misled by the same damaging mistake. The equal division of the Protestants shows how little any religious bias has had to do with the inquiry; so that the overwhelming majority on the Catholic side requires explanation.

There have been two reasons for it. Many found it difficult to understand how a woman who died so edifying a death could have been a murderess. It would be easy to find many instances of men in that age who led holy lives and died with serenity, but who, in the matter of homicide, had much in common with the Roman triumvirs, or the heroes of the French Revolution. But persons disposed to admit that difficulty would naturally be impressed by an argument of much greater force. The man who produced the famous letters, the Chancellor Morton, was a notorious villain. He had kept guard at Holyrood while his friends slew Riccio. Further, many have admitted, many more are now ready to admit, that some portion of the letters is forged. In that case, how can we accept evidence which the forgers have supplied? How can we send Mary to the scaffold on the testimony of perjured witnesses? Either we must say that the proofs are genuine throughout, and that Morton did not suffer them to be tampered with, or we must absolve Mary. Nobody, I think, at the present day, will deny that the letters, as we have them, were tampered with. Therefore we must hold Mary to be not guilty. Everybody can see the force of this argument, and the likelihood that it would impress those who expect to find consistency in the lives and characters of men, or even of women.

On 20th June 1567 Morton captured Dalgleish, one of Bothwell's men, who had helped to kill Darnley. In order to escape torture—he did not escape capital punishment—Dalgleish delivered up a silver gilt casket which had belonged to the queen's first husband, and which now contained papers, the property of her third husband. Among them were eight letters, not directed, or dated, or signed, but which were recognised by those who saw them to be in the handwriting of the queen.

Towards the end of July it began to be whispered, by Moray in London, by Throckmorton at Edinburgh, that they proved her complicity in the death of Darnley, and justified the Lords in deposing her. In the following year, when Mary had sought a refuge in England, these papers were produced, and they furnished the argument by which Elizabeth justified the detention of the Scottish queen. The decisive piece is a long document, known as the Glasgow letter, which alludes distinctly to the intended crime. As it contains a conversation with Darnley, which he repeated to Crawford, one of his officers, the confirmation thus supplied caused it to be widely accepted at the time, and by the four writers I named just now.

That is what puts them out of court; for the letter was evidently concocted by men who had Crawford's report before them. The letter is spurious, and it is the only one that connects the queen with the death of Darnley. It does not follow that the others are spurious, for they add nothing to the case. The forgers, having constructed the damning piece, would not be likely to do more. Every additional forgery would increase the risk of detection, without any purpose. What purported to be the originals do not exist. They can be traced down to 1584, and no farther. The handwriting can no longer be tested. Until lately, the French text of the letters was not known, and they could be studied only in translations.

Since 1872, when the Hatfield letters were discovered, and were printed at Brussels, we possess four in their original shape. These cannot be seriously impeached. The comparison of the style and language with that of Mary's undisputed writings shows that they correspond; and they do not resemble in the same degree those of her contemporaries. The ablest of Mary's advocates accept these letters as genuine. But they deny that they were written to Bothwell. The writer speaks of a secret marriage, which she would like to disclose. There certainly was no secret marriage with Bothwell; but it is a possible hypothesis that she may have married Darnley in secret before the ceremonial wedding. Therefore this letter, which is a love letter, is quite legitimate, and is meant for the right address. But the word which the queen uses, marriage, is employed in the sense of a wedding ring, as they say alliance or union, to this day, in the same meaning. She is regretting that she must wear the ring round her neck, and cannot produce it in public, because of Darnley.

Besides the one which is spurious and the four which are genuine, there are three other letters which we do not know in the original French. They cannot be tested in the same manner as those I have just spoken of, and cannot be accepted with the same confidence. If, then, we divide the letters in this way: one evidently forged, four evidently genuine, and three that are best left aside, the result is that there is no evidence of murderous intent. But it would appear that Mary wished to be carried off by Bothwell, and that she meant to marry him. How she proposed to dispose of her living husband, whether by death or by his consent to divorce, we cannot tell. The case is highly suspicious and compromising; but more than that is required for a verdict of guilty in a matter of life and death.

What is known as the Penal Laws begins with Mary's captivity in England. There was the northern rising; the Pope issued a Bull deposing Elizabeth, and Philip undertook to make away with her; for the Queen of Scots, once Queen of France, now fixed her hopes on Spain and the forces of the Counter-Reformation. The era of persecution began which threw England back for generations, while France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands were striving for religious freedom. It was proposed to extirpate the Catholics. Negotiations were opened with the Scots to give them back their queen, on condition that they would at once put her to death. And when she had been condemned for plotting treason, Elizabeth asked her gaoler to murder her in her prison. The execution at Fotheringay gave Elizabeth that security at home which she could never have enjoyed while Mary lived. But it was the signal of danger from abroad. Philip II. was already preparing for war with England when Mary bequeathed her rights to him. The legal force of the instrument was not great, but it gave him a claim to fight for, constituting the greatest enterprise of the Reformation struggle. Sixtus V., the ablest of the modern Popes, encouraged him. Personally, he much preferred Elizabeth to Philip, and he offered her favourable terms. But he gave his benediction, and even his money, to the Spaniards when there was a chance that they would succeed. And their chances, in the summer of 1588, seemed very good. The Armada was stronger, though not much stronger, than the English fleet; but the army that was to be landed at the mouth of the Thames was immeasurably superior to the English. This was so evident that Philip was dazzled and listened to no advice. They might have sailed for Cork and made Ireland a Spanish stronghold. They might have supplied Farnese with the land force that he required to complete the conquest of the revolted provinces, putting off to the following year the invasion of England. When they came in sight of Plymouth, Recalde, one of the victors of Lepanto, and Oquendo, whose name lasted as long as the Spanish navy, for the ship of the line that bore it was sunk in Cervera's action, demanded to fight. But the orders were peremptory to sail for Dunkirk and to transport Farnese to Margate. The Armada made the best of its way to Gravelines, where they were attacked before Farnese could embark, and the expedition failed.

An American writer, meditating upon our history at Battle, on the spot where Harold fell, once expressed his thought in these words, "Well, well, it is a small island, and has been often conquered." It was not conquered in August 1588, because Drake held the narrow seas. The credit was not shared by the army. And it may be a happy fortune that the belated levies of Tilbury, commanded by Leicester, never saw the flash of Farnese's guns. For the superiority of Spain was not by sea, nor the greatness of England on land. But England thenceforth was safe, and had Scotland in tow. Elizabeth occupied a position for which her timorous and penurious policy, during so many years, had not prepared the world. She proposed terms to Philip. She would interfere no more in the Low Countries, if he would grant toleration. Farnese entered into the scheme, but Philip refused. The lesson of the Armada was wasted upon him. He did not perceive that he had lost Holland as well as England.

The revolt of the Netherlands created a great maritime power; for it was by water, by the dexterous use of harbours, estuaries, and dykes, that they obtained independence. By their sea power they acquired the trade of the Far East, and conquered the Portuguese possessions. They made their universities the seat of original learning and original thinking, and their towns were the centre of the European press. The later Renaissance, which achieved by monuments of solid work what dilettantism had begun and interrupted in the Medicean age, was due to them and to the refuge they provided for persecuted scholars. Their government, imperfect and awkward in its forms, became the most intelligent of the European governments. It gave the right of citizenship to revolutionary principles, and handed on the torch when the turn of England came. There the sects were reared which made this country free; and there the expedition was fitted out, and the king provided, by which the Whigs acquired their predominance. England, America, France have been the most powerful agents of political progress; but they were preceded by the Dutch. For it was by them that the great transition was made, that religious change became political change, that the Revolution was evolved from the Reformation.

Notes