Introduction

Sponsor

Institute of Historical Research

Publication

Author

G. Dyfnallt Owen (editor)

Year published

1973

Pages

5-13

Annotate

Comment on this article
Double click anywhere on the text to add an annotation in-line

Citation Show another format:

'Introduction', Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 23: Addenda, 1562-1605 (1973), pp. V-XIII. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=112625 Date accessed: 21 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


Highlight

(Min 3 characters)

Introduction

This is the first of two volumes intended primarily to furnish Addenda to the material, published in the preceding volumes of the Calendar, covering the years 1603–68. The original intention was to restrict the contents of these volumes of Addenda to those documents which could be placed with any degree of certainty within the limits of this period. But further investigation at Hatfield House revealed that there were a number of items appertaining to the reign of Elizabeth which had not appeared in the relevant volumes of the Calendar, nor in the two volumes of Addenda published in 1915 and 1923. It was decided to include them on the grounds of their historical interest.

A substantial proportion of the documents presented in this volume are petitions, of which some 2500 have survived amongst the papers at Hatfield House. Their very number suggests that a direct approach to the three principal repositories of power in the land—the King, the Privy Council and Sir Robert Cecil, was considered to be the best way of redressing personal grievances or obtaining favours. It was a way open to all classes, and from whatever quarter the petitions emanated they received equal treatment, at least to the extent of being read. The fact that many of those addressed to the King eventually found their way to Hatfield House shows that James 1 passed them on to Cecil, in the belief that his Secretary of State was in a better position to judge the merits of the case and the advisability of further action. So did the Privy Council and some of its members who were personally presented with petitions. Cecil handled them as he did all matters, with a high sense of responsibility and with discretion. But he could also be moved to irritability by specious or fatuous assertions, and would express his opinion of their authors in an acidulous comment at the bottom of the offending petition.

In general terms petitions served to bring complaints or requests to the notice of people who were in a position to do something about them. For this reason, suitors, or those who framed petitions on their behalf, advisedly set the tone of the supplication in such a way as to bring the maximum desirable effect upon the recipient. Petitions to the King were usually based on arguments of legality, since he was expected to enforce due observance of the law, the demands of equity and the suppression of improprieties in judicial proceedings. Another method of approach was to remind him of the traditional practice of monarchs to reward long years of military service, particularly where it could be shown that the petitioner had suffered loss of property or limb in the wars against Spain or the rebels in Ireland. For the Privy Council were reserved complaints of negligence or refractoriness on the part of those in authority in the implementation of previous directives from the Council. This was a point on which the latter was very sensitive, for it was constantly being frustrated and exasperated by the uncooperative attitude of the gentry and town authorities who carried the weight of local government, and upon whom the Privy Council relied for the vigorous application of its decisions. Concerned as it was with the encouragement and protection of the mercantile interests of the nation, the Council was also solicited to intervene in commercial disputes between English and foreign merchants, and to undertake something more than ineffectual protests when English ships and cargoes were pillaged on the high seas by the subjects of neighbouring states. It was commonly accepted that these were matters which could only be successfully prosecuted by the highest executive body in the kingdom.

Because of his position and prestige as principal Secretary of State, Cecil was inevitably singled out for the attention of suitors, and the more his status and influence grew the greater was the inflow of the most diversified petitions. These show that very little was regarded as being beyond the reach of his beneficent mediation, if he could be persuaded to use it. For instance, as Master of the Court of Wards, an institution repugnant to the propertied classes, he was implored on all sides to mitigate the harsh conditions of a system whereby the land of deceased tenants holding by knight's service was leased to the highest bidder whose temporary administration (until the heir came of age) could result in its utter spoliation and ruin. Cecil could not always have found it easy or convenient to do so. There were too many occasions when such lands were deliberately concealed from the Crown, and the King cheated of revenue which was legitimately his. Stringent measures had to be taken from time to time to eradicate these abuses, and appeals could not always be entertained. But there is evidence that Cecil held the view, shared by others, that although exploitation was unavoidable, the system of wardship enabled the Crown to protect its wards by a preliminary inquiry into the circumstances and background of prospective lessees, and the selection of the most suitable and reliable (and possibly humane) amongst them. He himself often granted wardships to people whom he could trust, including some in his private employment, as well as to members of the wards' families who could be counted upon to act in their interests.

Cecil appreciated, of course, that self-interest actuated most of the suitors who submitted petitions to him. Occasionally it could take a crude form. When the Mayor and Aldermen of Hull pressed him to relieve them of having to support a group of townsmen ruined by the action of the King of Denmark in seizing their goods, they not only wrote that "the town can no longer maintain the whole burden of alleviating their misery", but enclosed the fee due to Cecil as Steward of Hull. There was sometimes the gratuitous information that the late Lord Burghley had favoured the petitioner, as if to imply that Cecil was under a moral obligation to continue his father's benevolence. The discovery of conspiracies could be a trying time for him. The Main and Bye Plots in 1603, in which Lord Cobham, his brother, Ralegh and others were implicated, provoked a rush of creditors who demanded that the debts of the condemned men should be paid out of their goods and lands sequestered by the Crown. Two years or so later the Gunpowder Plot was to produce a group of clamant patriots who differed in their views as to who exactly had killed or captured the plotters, but were united in their opinion that their loyalty should be suitably rewarded.

There were, however, a few petitioners who had little to recommend them except their destitution, and less hope of a sympathetic hearing without calling to their aid Cecil's undoubted feeling of compassion. The case of the "ladies of Desmond" provides one example. They were three of the daughters of Gerald FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond, who had rebelled against the English Government and had been killed in 1583 while still under attainder. At the close of Elizabeth's reign they were in London, living in conditions of extreme want, as Lady Jane FitzGerald informed Cecil. "I need not to your Honour agravate our miserie, who for want ly pawned in our lodginge at Greenewiche, being debarred of the small meanes formerly allowed us, so that we are not able to follow the court to be suitors." Cecil took up their case, and he may have argued that the late Earl's son, James, had amply proved his loyalty to the Crown prior to his recent death, for he succeeded in procuring an adequate pension for the sisters. He showed the same commiseration with Elizabeth Woodrove whose husband had likewise been attainted for treason. She wrote to Cecil that she felt impelled to seek his help, "for the good report of your honorable and pittifull disposition towards the distressed hath perswaded me chiefly to depend upon your Lordship", and his mediation would "do me more good then if I were dead to restore my life". She also obtained a pension, and it is conceivable that Cecil, in pleading her cause, may have made good use of the fact that she was the daughter of Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who had been beheaded in 1572 for his treasonable attachment to Mary, Queen of Scots, the King's mother. Not the least convincing testimony to Cecil's reputation for charitableness and his disposition to support a commendable cause, is the petition submitted by a groom of the King's Privy Chamber, whose son had shown a taste for intellectual studies and was "verie apt and forward in learning to your suppliants great comfort". This had encouraged the petitioner to request Cecil to obtain a scholarship for his son at Cambridge, "knowing your Lordship to be a lover and favorer of learning and a relever of the poor", since he was not in a position to pay the expenses of the boy's education.

It cannot be claimed that the petitions are an important primary source of materials for contemporary history; their authors were too concerned with their prospects of gain or advantage to communicate anything more than was strictly relevant to their suits. But neither are they valueless as circumstantial evidence concerning events at home and abroad. They show that recusants were on the whole mildly treated by the authorities before the Gunpowder Plot, and the consequent wave of antipathy towards the Catholics, made life somewhat oppressive to them. John Arundel, of Lanherne, Cornwall, who was under house detention at Highgate, London, saw no reason why he should not write to the Privy Council for leave to move to his own house in Dorsetshire, with an offer to comply with any conditions accompanying that concession. In the same expectation of having his wish gratified, Thomas Bramston, a priest who had defied official banishment and been caught when he returned clandestinely, asked Cecil for permission to leave Newgate prison and proceed to Bath for a health cure, adding that he would provide enough sureties to satisfy the Privy Council that he had no intention of escaping abroad. In the atmosphere of relaxation which followed upon the accession of James I and in view of the diminishing threat of Spanish attack, such petitions could be considered with equanimity, although Cecil, for his part, had to exercise discretion. He could not entirely ignore the many persistent rumours in the country that he was a Catholic at heart and partial to those who professed that religion.

The smooth transfer of the crown to James I guaranteed the continuity and stability of government which, in its turn, gradually overcame whatever repugnance existed towards the idea of a Scottish King on an English throne. But to many tenants and officials on royal manors throughout the kingdom the advantages were less discernible. The uneasy feeling that Crown lands may have been alienated in the process led the tenants on one manor in Lincolnshire to postpone the payment of their rents until they had received assurance that their landlord was still the monarch. What was no less alarming and disagreeable was the replacement of the late Queen's manorial officials by a new set, particularly in the Crown lands allocated to James's wife, Anne of Denmark, as part of her jointure. This change of personnel often led to the disruption of hitherto unchallenged arrangements whereby such offices as the bailiffship had been retained by the same family for generations; and to deliberate attempts to undermine and violate ancient manorial customs. As High Steward of the Queen's lands Cecil had a decisive voice in the nomination of her manorial officials, and not a few of those appointed by him were his own servants whom he wished to reward for their services.

The only event of national consequence published in this volume is Cecil's embassy to France in 1598 which, although it was accounted a diplomatic failure, revealed his shrewdness and percipience when sparring with a King, Henry IV, whose maxim was "Qui a le profit a l'honneur", but whose honour was the least definable of his many excellent attributes both as a person and monarch.

There were positive indications in late 1597 that the military alliance between England, France and the United Provinces against Spain was weighing heavily on Henry, and that the possibility of negotiating a peace with Philip II was a matter in which he was seriously engaged. One important factor in his calculations was the precarious health of the Spanish King who, it was known, was filled with trepidation at the thought of leaving his inexperienced son to continue the war against a redoubtable soldier like Henry. Another was the likelihood of being able, with one stroke, to oblige the Spaniards to restore the towns taken by them in Picardy as well as certain places occupied by their troops in Brittany, and thus establish his rule over a reintegrated and united France. A third consideration, which he was not inclined to minimize, was the desperate need of his kingdom for a peace after years of bitter and destructive fighting between the Catholic League and the Huguenots.

Elizabeth and her councillors were aware that Henry meant business in the preliminary talks which were already proceeding with the Cardinal Albert, Governor of the Low Countries, who was acting on behalf of Philip II. French interests were in the charge of Villeroy, whose adroitness was to move even Cecil to admiration, although he could hardly regard him with affection. And Villeroy was probably more dedicated to peace than any other statesman in France at that moment with the exception of Sully. (fn. 1)

The Queen, with her ineradicable distrust of Philip, could only bring herself with great difficulty to contemplate a peace with Spain. It seemed to her an inopportune moment to do so, so soon after the successful expedition against Cadiz, and the Islands' voyage in the following year (1597), had demonstrated the superiority of English naval power, much to the benefit of English commerce. Henry's engagement of the main Spanish army had also relieved the pressure on two fronts in the land struggle against the domination of Spain. The Dutch garrisons and allied forces along the sagging frontier of the United Provinces were able to go over to the offensive and take a string of towns and a large slice of territory without interference. In Ireland, where the Earl of Tyrone was leading a dangerous revolt against the English Government, the decisive aid which Philip had promised him had to be curtailed and partly postponed because of the King's commitments in his war against France. As far as Elizabeth was concerned this satisfactory state of affairs could have continued indefinitely, and she felt her position to be so secure that not even the fall of Calais into Spanish hands caused her excessive anxiety. Henry's withdrawal from the alliance, however, would remove its cornerstone, and permit Philip to redirect his still considerable military resources towards crushing England and the Dutch. What is more, France's defection would throw the responsibility and burden of continuing the war on Elizabeth, a prospect which she hardly relished when she considered its past and current expenses. The dangers and consequences of such a contingency were alive to her when she wrote to Henry: "Quand le fagot bien lié se separe il devient proye au plus fort et debile en soy. Vous estez trop sage pour ne boucher l'oreille à si séduisantes Syrènes." (fn. 2)

But Henry had decided that if he had to turn a deaf ear in any direction, it would be towards Elizabeth. The retaking of Amiens by troops under his personal command in September, 1597, had revived his confidence and induced the Spaniards to be more tractable in the peace talks. However, the situation was still fluid enough to require a further reminder to Philip that France was not irrevocably committed to peace, and that he might have to pay a higher price to detach her from the antiSpanish axis. Some kind of show of allied solidarity was needed for this purpose, and in January, 1598, Hurault de Maisse was despatched from Paris to engineer such an exhibition.

Maisse's mission to London was soon accomplished, for all he was instructed to do was to explain to Elizabeth, without too much diplomatic verbiage, that his master was discussing peace with Spain and was desirous of including England and the United Provinces in the final settlement. To this extent Henry was conforming to the terms of the alliance which stipulated that none of the three signatories should unilaterally engage in peace negotiations without informing the other two. Maisse was to be explicit on one point. If France's allies were reluctant to make peace or, alternatively, were disinclined to prosecute the war with appreciably more energy than they had shown recently, then the French King would consider himself discharged from all obligations towards them and, more important, from the undertaking not to negotiate without them. (fn. 3)

It was clear to Elizabeth, and not less so to Cecil, that a downright refusal to enter into discussions would be exploited by Henry to justify his self-help peace policy. Brooding over the situation Cecil detected one disagreeable development. The French King had shown no enthusiasm for wresting Calais from Spanish hands as he had done in the case of Amiens. There was a hint here that the town might be surrendered by Spain as a condition of a peace treaty. If so, Elizabeth would be deprived of any chance of acquiring the town as she had hoped to do, even by handing over the Brill and Flushing—her security for the repayment of Dutch debts to her—to Spain in exchange for it. The fact had to be registered that Henry was not particularly mindful of English interests.

The French King had proposed through Maisse that an embassy should be sent to confer with him, and this was accepted. To find out what exactly he had in mind required consummate skill in the dissection of motives, and Elizabeth chose Cecil as the man best qualified to do so. Moreover, he could certainly be relied upon not to commit the Queen to any foreign entanglements, not even those conducive to peace, unless they were productive of some advantage to her. The news that the Dutch had decided to dispatch a similar embassy to Henry was reassuring, for it was known that the States General was adamant against peace with Spain.

Bad weather hindered Cecil and his colleagues, with their numerous gentlemen in attendance and servants, from crossing the Channel, but he was in no haste to meet the French King. He assumed, too readily perhaps, that by taking his time he would assist in delaying the peace talks, although the fact that two eminent French statesmen, Bellièvre and Sillery, had been sent to Vervins, where the talks were taking place, should have warned him that Henry would not allow tactics of this sort to interfere with his purpose. So too should the fact that Henry was not in a desperate hurry to meet him. He was not at Rouen to welcome the English embassy, as had been expected, but preparing to reduce Brittany and the Duke of Mercœur, the last of the Catholic Leaguers, to submission by a mixture of force and bribery. To break the last link between Philip II and his former confederates in France was of infinitely more importance to the French King than a confrontation with Cecil. With Mercœur's recognition of him as the rightful King of France, the hold of the Spaniards on Blavet, their main stronghold in Brittany, would become untenable and place Henry in a correspondingly better position to demand their retirement from that place as well as the Picardy towns.

Elizabeth, mainly for reasons of prestige, disliked the idea of her Secretary of State running after Henry, but she had tied his hands by her firm insistence that Cecil should ignore or avoid the pacifist ministers of the French King and deal personally with Henry. This suited Cecil's plan, and the embassy travelled first to Paris and then, by way of Orléans, to Angers, where they caught up with Henry and arrived in time to witness the capitulation of Mercœur and the marriage of his daughter to the King's natural son, César. The exchange of opinions between the English envoys, reduced to two by the illness and death of Sir Thomas Wilkes at Rouen, and the French King and his Council made two things abundantly clear: the uncompromising desire of his councillors to make peace, and the inclination of Henry to follow their advice, despite his own feelings as a soldier and King that he owed much of his success to the military and financial aid of England and the United Provinces. It was here too that Cecil discovered, to his disappointment, that even the Huguenots of France were resigned to the prospect of a peace with Spain. Before leaving England he had written to the Earl of Essex that if the French King was not amenable to argument, matters might be arranged that, "according to the rules of discretion the party of Religion may be sounded, provided and prepared to diverte him and awaken him if he runne into pacts with Spayne and leave out England". (fn. 4) Conversations with Huguenot leaders soon showed Cecil that cooperation from them was out of the question. "Wee find all them of the religion absolutely of the opinion the King will make peace, and can have no other councell of them but that your Maty must offer him great helpe, such are the necessityes of Spaine, such are the greedynes of France and such is the unremoveable resolution of the Estates not to treat any way." But help in concrete terms of men and money was the last thing that Cecil had orders to discuss, and in any case he dared not do so without further reference to the Queen and her Council. If he felt frustrated and exasperated by this rebuff, he took some of his irritation out on the Dutch embassy whom he warned bluntly "to bethinke them how to ease the Queens charge if the Queene must bee kept in warre for them", and had the satisfaction of reporting that the leader of the embassy, Oldenbarneveldt "seemed a little awaknd by this".

A day or so later it was Cecil's turn to have a rude awakening. A letter from the Queen informed him that correspondence from Cardinal Albert had been intercepted "by God's providence". Its contents disclosed only too plainly that the French plenipotentaries at Vervins had accepted the Spanish terms, and that there was no provision made for a commission to treat with England. Whether Henry was privy to this or not, Elizabeth chose to suspect his honesty and wrote to Cecil: "Yow shall fynd evident cause for yow to chaunge your course of negotiating with that King, with whome yow shall see wee have more cause to deale openly and roundly then wee thought wee shold have had". (fn. 5) Copies of the incriminating correspondence were attached for Cecil to study and act upon.

Henry was in bed when Cecil and Herbert confronted him, and by the time they had "openly and roundly" expressed their sentiments, Monsieur Le Grand (Bellegard, Master of the Horse to the French King) "was faine to fetche drink for him". Henry vigorously denied any duplicity on the part of the French negotiators at Vervins, and the audience passed off without too much unpleasantness, although the King wrote to Elizabeth that Cecil, "s'est plaint a moy avec plus de vehemence et passion de vostre part et de la sienne que la confiance que vous devez avoir en moy ne merite". (fn. 6) A second audience proved more explosive. Henry went to Nantes to attend to his Breton affairs, leaving Cecil the choice of following him if he wished to pursue the matter any further. Cecil was not averse to doing so, but this time the King turned on him and Herbert. There was an angry exchange of opinions interspersed with recriminations, during which Henry declared categorically that the behaviour of his allies left him no alternative but to seek peace, and the English envoys pointedly asked for their passports to return home

A final conference of French councillors and English and Dutch emissaries, with Henry in the chair, failed to swing the King round to the point of view of the allies, despite their offers to provide him with a sufficiency of troops and money to continue hostilities against Spain. "Ils avoient d'ailleurs des offres à faire, bien plus capables de séduire un Prince dont on connoissait le penchant pour la guerre," Sully wrote later in his Mêmoires. "Heureusement le Roi évita ce piege et la considération de l'état présent de son royaume l'emporta sur toutes les autres." (fn. 7)

Henry's last word on the subject was convincing enough. His kingdom had no natural barriers against Spain like England and the United Provinces; its towns were unfortified and lacked munition; its navy was weak, and its provinces devastated by the late civil war. It was imperative that his authority as King should be universally recognized in France, and his government made strong enough to establish internal order and restore cohesion and harmony to a divided nation. The King could not resist the temptation to make a last dig by contrasting the deplorable state of France with the commercial gains and benefits reaped by England and the Dutch from the war. Such was the effect of his arguments on the allied envoys, so Sully would have the world believe, that they "ne trouvant rien à repliquer se regardoient l'un l'autre avec le dernier étonnement". But their astonishment may have been caused not so much by Henry's explanatory statement, which could not possibly have surprised them, but by his frank avowal that he needed a breathing space before embarking on the scheme he had in mind to curb the power and pretensions of the Houses of Spain and Austria.

Cecil's embassy was not entirely a diplomatic failure after all. At least he was able to form some idea of what Henry proposed to do eventually, and which the King might well have achieved if an assassin's knife had not cut short his life twelve years later.

Footnotes

1 J. Nouaillac, Villeroy, Secrétaire d'État et Ministre, pp. 366–78.
2 PRO, State Papers, France (S.P. 78), Vol. 41, p. 11. Elizabeth to Henry IV, January 4, 1598.
3 P. Laffleure de Kermaingant, Mission de Jean de Thumery, Sieur de Boissise, p. 143.
4 S.P. France, op, cit, p. 135. Cecil to Essex, February 14, 1598.
5 Ibid., Elizabeth's Instructions to Cecil, March 17, 1598.
6 Ibid., p. 364. Henry IV to Elizabeth, March 30/April 9, 1598.
7 Mémoires de Sully, Vol. II, p. 380.