“This conceit of my ability”: The Earl of Leicester Is Offered Absolute Authority

Mr. Secretary, I came hither to the Hague, upon Monday last, where I was very honourably received, all the States being assembled together for that purpose, to make as much show as they could devise of their good wills to her majesty, as in many orations, pageants, and such like, was expressed, beside the people with great joy cried, ‘God save the queen, God save the queen’, in every place of the streets as I passed. The next day all the whole States General came to me, and there openly again their chancellor Leonius (some call him Longonius) made a long oration in thanks and praises to the queen’s majesty for her great clemency, bounty, and goodness, showed to these poor afflicted countries; attributing all their good and happiness, under God, to her majesty only.1

Elizabeth, imperial queen and protectress of Protestant nations

Elizabeth, imperial queen and protectress of Protestant nations

The joyeuse entrée at The Hague, on 6 January 1586 in the Dutch calendar, had been spectacular, even though the burghers had thought of cutting costs by making a list of “what could be bought most cheaply” for the welcome banquet – they then decided that a banquet was not needed at all and suggested a present for his lordship would do as well. The day before his lordship’s arrival, though, “it was whispered to them that a present would not prove acceptable”, and immediately the banquet was back on the agenda.2 Still, The Hague was a more sober town than many another visited by the English earl on his progress through Zeeland and Holland at the start of his Dutch adventure in 1585/1586. He therefore thought it advisable to keep the local people in good humour:

I must beseech her majesty, also, that there may be particular letters written of thanks to those towns who have so honourably and chargeably received me in her majesty’s name, as Dordrecht, Rotterdam, and this town Delft, which are all three notable fair towns … The worst of these towns presented me with 1500 [arquebus] shot and armed men, at the least, and did conduct me from town to town with six and seven hundred shot. This town [Delft] is another London almost for beauty and fairness, and have used me most honourably, as these bearers can tell you; with the greatest shows that ever I saw. … There was such a noise, both here, at Rotterdam, and Dordrecht, in crying, ‘God save queen Elisabeth’, as if she had been in Cheapside … these towns will take no direction but from the queen of England, I assure you.3

This was the point: In the understanding of the Dutch politicians Elizabeth had sent her representative, the Earl of Leicester, so he should have “the rule and government general” over them in her place – they would all become subjects of the English queen. And so it came that on 10 January 1586 N.S. the earl was acutely confronted with an issue he had (half) expected:

As upon new years day in the morning they came all to me and brought with them a herald and trumpets, meaning as soon as they had delivered their speech, which D. Leoninus had to make for them, which was to offer to me, with many good words for her majesty’s sake, the absolute government of the whole provinces and to proclaim the same immediately. I was scarce ready when one brought me word of their being all in my great chamber, desiring to speak with me. Not knowing or thinking it had been for any such matter, I made haste to go to them, and so did, having the best of my company there with me. As soon as I came to them, by and by Leoninus began an oration to me, and, even as he began, one told me in mine ear that they were come to offer this matter, and had brought herald and all, etc. I was so bold presently to interrupt the chancellor, telling him that I heard he had some matter rather to deal more privately in than so openly, and therefore prayed him and the rest to come in with me to my chamber where they should have a more convenient place. He turned about and said, ‘You hear my lord desires us to withdraw with him into his chamber’ and so they all went with me into my bedchamber …

And there the chancellor began again, and proceeded with his matter, which was, indeed, after a long discourse of her majesty’s goodness, of the love of the country to her, of the trust they had in her above all the world, of the necessity they had for safety of their state and countries, albeit her majesty would not take the sovereignty upon her which they yet desired might be to choose some person of honour and credit to be their governor. And as there was no prince in the world whom they ought obedience and duty unto but to her majesty, so seeing the credit and trust it pleased her to put me in here already, and the favour, credit, and I cannot tell what, so many good words they used of me, they took knowledge of that I had long had at her majesty’s hands with many years continuance in her service, as appeared, they said, both now by her own commendation by letters, as also to their commissioners in England that had reported the same of her own mouth: they did not know any person whom they could desire so much to take this office in hand as myself, and, therefore, with one whole consent they did there beseech me, even for the love her majesty bare them and for the help of so afflicted a country that was ever a faithful friend to the crown of England, that I would take the place and name of absolute governor and general of all their forces and soldiers, with their whole revenues, taxes, compositions, and all manner of benefits that they have, or may have, to be put freely and absolutely into my hands, disposition and order, with so ample words and terms as here were too long to recite, seeing I will shortly send you the whole by Mr. Davison.

As soon as he had ended I answered by Mr. Davison, whom I required to deliver it in French, as they all speak only French, that, as this was a matter unlooked for, being further than had passed in the contract with her most excellent majesty heretofore, so was I presently very far unprovided to give them answer to this matter, albeit in her majesty’s behalf greatly to thank them for their earnest goodwills and great affection borne to her majesty; and very true it was they did all acknowledge that her highness had shown herself a most loving princess and neighbour to them, as did well appear to their ambassadors in England, that what she did was only for the goodwill she bare to this afflicted country and for no private respect or commodity to herself. I did also give them most hearty thanks for myself that did conceive so well of me, being but a stranger to them, that they would hazard so great a matter upon me as all their state, both well and ill doing, should depend thereupon. But as her majesty’s gracious favour towards me led them to this conceit of my ability, far more than was in me to deal in any such cause, so I prayed them not to take it in ill part that I desired at their hands to proceed with them in those causes which I had to do in her majesty’s behalf with them and give me time, or else some of them to come unto me, to hear what I had to deliver unto them touching the contract already passed betwixt her majesty and them, wherein I thought they should find I had more already laid upon me than so weak shoulders were able to bear and well to go through withal. That her majesty had sent me only to serve them, and so I promised I would, both faithfully and honestly, even as her majesty had commanded and willed me to do. So they returned after Mr. Davison had made this answer for me, not leaving at their departure to insist upon their former request very earnestly.4

The problem was that in her instructions to Leicester Elizabeth had ruled out to accept offers of sovereignty from the United Provinces (while nonetheless demanding of the States to follow the “advice” of her lieutenant-general in matters of government). At all cost she wanted to avoid the impression that she was relieving other rulers, like Philip II, of their lawful possessions. – Her council, on the other hand, stood firmly behind Leicester’s expedition, hoping when presented with a fait accompli she would relent and add the rebellious provinces to her empire. Meanwhile, the winds were adverse to carrying any vessel over the Channel for weeks5 and communications were interrupted at a critical stage: “as for the season of this time, which is such as we cannot, till the weather brake, send by water or land almost to any place. I could not hear out of Zeeland but by long seas, all the rivers be icy and frozen, but not to bear any horse or carriage.”6

Leicester could not let the Dutch wait, and so he sent William Davison, who was likewise seriously delayed, to London to explain his decisions: “I did never see greater probability in my life of assured good success, and protest unto you, I like the matter twenty times better than I did in England … It is done for the best, and if so her majesty accept of it, all will be to the best.”7 Unfortunately, her majesty would not accept of it.

Antwerp in deep frost, 1590. In 1585 the city had fallen to the Spaniards - its recovery was expected of the new lieutenant-general.

Antwerp in deep frost, 1590. In 1585 the city had fallen to the Spaniards – its recovery was on the Dutch wishlist for their new governor.

See also:
Departure and Arrival: Leicester and the Netherlands in 1585, Part I
Departure and Arrival: Leicester and the Netherlands in 1585, Part II
The Governor-General’s Appearance

1 Leycester Correspondence p. 46
2 Strong and van Dorsten 1964 pp. 43 – 44
3 Leycester Correspondence pp. 31 – 32
4 Leycester Correspondence pp. 57 – 59
5 Leycester Correspondence p. 50
6 Leycester Correspondence p. 60
7 Leycester Correspondence p. 63

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.

Strong, R. C. and van Dorsten, J. A. (1964): Leicester’s Triumph. Oxford University Press.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Elizabeth I, letters, Netherlands, Robert Dudley and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “This conceit of my ability”: The Earl of Leicester Is Offered Absolute Authority

  1. Esther says:

    Interesting article. I’m always surprised at the offer of sovereignty; I would have thought that issue of Elizabeth’s becoming ruler of the Netherlands would have been discussed during the treaty negotiations.

    • Thanks, Esther! Actually it seems to have been discussed for the treaty in the summer of 1585, but the Dutch were aware that Elizabeth wouldn’t agree to it and so were not very specific; in their own instructions when they invited Leicester they made it clear they expected him to act as their ruler and they still hoped Elizabeth would accept sovereignty … so did the council. It’s a very complicated issue.

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