Traitors of the Tower by Alison Weir

  The council knew what was going on, and feared what Essex might do. They put him under guard in his London house, but Essex got out and met up with his friends. With two hundred men, they tried to raise support for a revolt in London, but failed. Essex was again arrested, and taken to the Tower on the Queen’s orders. Elizabeth would not go to bed until her orders had been carried out. She now saw Essex for what he was, but for all her courage during the revolt, she was ‘much wasted’, would not change her clothes, and kept a sword by her for fear of attack.

  On 19 February 1601, Essex and the other young men were tried in Westminster Hall. They were charged with plotting against the Queen’s crown and life, and with other crimes. Essex stood there smiling, but not for long. He pleaded not guilty, and said he had wanted to force the Queen to get rid of Robert Cecil.

  ‘Will any man be so simple to take this as less than treason?’ asked Sir Francis Bacon, acting for the Crown. No man was. Essex was condemned to a traitor’s death. He seemed unmoved, and said he would not fawn and beg for himself, but that he had meant no harm to the Queen.

  Many thought that if Essex pleaded for mercy, Elizabeth would spare him, but his pride would not allow it. The Dean of Norwich was sent by the council to get him to admit his guilt, but to no effect. On the day after Essex’s trial, Elizabeth signed his death warrant in a firm hand.

  On 21 February, Essex’s chaplain saw him in the Tower and painted a fearful picture of the hell that was waiting for him if he did not own up to his sins. Now Essex did break down, and said he would confess in full all his crimes. The council went to see him, and he told them he was the most vile traitor that England had ever known. He admitted that the Queen would never be safe while he lived. He went over all his misdeeds in detail.

  Essex’s wife begged Cecil to ask the Queen to spare her husband’s life, but Elizabeth would not, as ‘he himself had shown he was not worthy of it’. She did grant that he could die in private, not on the public scaffold.

  On 23 February, the death warrant was brought to the Tower. After it came a message from the Queen, saying Essex was not to suffer until the next day. That night, she sent two hangmen to carry out the sentence. ‘If one faint, the other may perform it for him.’ Then she shut herself in her rooms and stayed there until it was all over.

  In the early hours of 25 February 1601, a small group of people arrived at the Tower to watch Essex die. They sat on seats around the scaffold, which was in front of the House of Ordnance, as Anne Boleyn’s scaffold had been. Aided by three churchmen, Essex was brought out at eight o’clock. He wore a black velvet gown and breeches and a black felt hat. He climbed the steps, took off his hat and bowed to those watching. Then he made his speech.

  ‘My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head,’ he said. ‘I have been puffed up with pride.’ He asked Christ to pardon him, and spoke of ‘my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying sin’, which had brought him and his friends to ruin. ‘I beseech God to forgive us, and to forgive it me, most wretched of all.’ He ended by praying God to save the Queen, ‘whose death I never meant’.

  Now he took off his gown and ruff, and knelt by the block, saying aloud the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. The headsman knelt and asked Essex’s pardon, which he gave. Essex rose, then bowed to the block and laid himself down over it. He said he would be ready when he held out his arms.

  ‘Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!’ he cried, twisting his head to the side. Then he cried, ‘Strike home!’ and flung out his arms, still praying. It took three chops to cut off his head, but he seems to have been killed by the first, as his body did not move after it. The headsman swung the head up by the hair and shouted, ‘God save the Queen!’

  Essex’s death was mourned by many of the common people, who made up songs about him, such as ‘Sweet England’s Pride is Gone’. But Elizabeth never showed any regret for sending Essex to the block, for she felt she had been just in doing so, and that her realm was safer without him. Yet she would always think of him with sadness. Until her own death in March 1603, she would wear a ring he had given her.

  Three hundred years later, the writer and statesman, Lord Macaulay, would visit the chapel of St Peter in the Tower of London and gaze upon the altar pavement. Beneath it had been buried the bodies of six of those ‘traitors’ who had lost their heads in the Tower. Macaulay was much moved, and wrote, ‘There is no sadder spot on Earth.’



  Alison Weir, Traitors of the Tower



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