Elizabeth simply would not let him leave. For a good decade the Earl of Leicester had hoped to lead an expedition to the Netherlands in support of the “cause”, the Protestant revolt against King Philip of Spain. In the summer of 1585, around the time Antwerp fell to the Duke of Parma’s troops, the English queen had finally signed a treaty with the Dutch, promising help with money and troops. The Dutch would have none but Leicester, she knew; still she wavered to appoint him for the job – he had just departed for a weekend with his wife, to Kenilworth, and this was enough for her to consider Arthur, 14th Lord Grey de Wilton as the earl’s replacement.
This particular hiccup regarding Leicester’s prospects did not last long, but as the months went by there were many more such moments of anxiety, for example when Lady Leicester (on her return from Kenilworth) was seen passing through London. Importantly, though, Lord Grey had no money. Leicester too would have liked to see him on the expedition, as his second-in-command, but Grey’s debts effectively excluded him as a candidate for either position. Money matters were the greatest obstacle to the start of the expedition anyway, and the concerns on the part of the Dutch delegation were growing. Towards the end of September they went so far as to seek out their future commander-in-chief at his home:
the States that were at court came hither to me this morning by nine o’clock, and spent two hours with me, touching my dispatch, in so much as they were readily to kneel to me for to make what haste for mine own arrival on the other side that I could possibly, yea by all persuasions pressing me that I would not stay till my full preparations were made, and my companies … for, they said, it was very long already. … For that I know this forenoon some of the Estates will come again to me about this cause, I will be absent somewhere till afternoon, by which time I will hope to receive further direction from you, which God grant to be best for her Majesty’s own service and her realm, by whose wisdom and government we are all like either to stand or fall. Thus in much haste, praying you to excuse the imperfection of it, being scribbled in my bed this Monday morning almost two o’clock.1
Enclosed in this letter to Walsingham was a little note, only for the secretary’s eyes; it betrayed the earl’s despair as Elizabeth was about to change her mind once again:
This is one of the strangest dealings in the world. I find if any little stay be longer, the alteration on the other side will be past remedy. They are so importunate upon me as I was fain to promise them to be ready myself to go within 15 days. I have done as I have written, both in dispatch of my letters and taking up of the other necessaries, which comes to no small sum, and now was I in my money matters and have my friends abroad for it! What must be thought of such an alteration! For my part, I am weary of life and all. I pray you let me hear with speed. I will go this morning to Wanstead, to see some horses I have there, where I will tarry till three o’clock, and then return hither again, and, if the matter alter, I can have no heart to come at court or look upon any man, for it will be thought some misliking in me doth stay the matter.2
Elizabeth indeed was emotional about having to forgo her old friend’s company. Even when she had first made up her mind that Leicester should be appointed to lead her forces, the earl described to Walsingham how “it pleased her to say to me yesterday that she was loath to give the sentence thereof herself, but would send it rather by some other”.3 And a few weeks later she had found a very personal way to procrastinate; Walsingham received another letter which also betrays Leicester’s affection for her:
Mr. Secretary, I find her Majesty very desirous to stay me. She makes the cause only the doubtfulness of her own self, by reason of her oft disease taking her of late and this last night worst of all. She used very pitiful words to me for her fear that she shall not live, and would not have me from her. You can consider what manner of persuasion this must be to me from her … I would not say much for any matter but did comfort her as well as I could, only I did let her know how far I had gone in preparation. I do think for all this that if she be well to-night, she will let me go, for she would not have me speak of it to the contrary to anybody … pray you send my wife word in the morning that I cannot come before Thursday to London.4
The queen did feel better that evening it seems for, yet over two months later, on 9 December 1585, the Earl of Leicester set sail for the Low Countries. As we shall see, this in itself was a tricky business.
1 Leycester Correspondence pp. 6, 7
2 Leycester Correspondence p. 8
3 Adams 1995 p. 388
4 Jenkins 2002 p. 305
Correspondence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, during his Government of the Low Countries, in the Years 1585 and 1586. (ed. John Bruce, 1844). Camden Society.
Adams, Simon (1995): Household Accounts and Disbursement Books of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, 1558–1561, 1584–1586. Cambridge University Press.
Jenkins, Elizabeth (2002): Elizabeth and Leicester. The Phoenix Press.