ELIZABETH I'S PRIVY COUNCIL – ESSEX and THE CECILS. Privy Council letter signed by the Earl of Essex ("Essex"), Lord Burghley ("W. Burghley"), Sir Robert Cecil ("Ro: Cecil"), Sir Thomas Egerton, as Lord Keeper ("Tho. Egerton C.S."), George Carey, second Baron Hunsdon ("G Hunsdon"), and Sir William Knollys, Greenwich, 11 June 1598
Lot 35*
Privy Council letter signed by the Earl of Essex ("Essex"), Lord Burghley ("W. Burghley"), Sir Robert Cecil ("Ro: Cecil"), Sir Thomas Egerton, as Lord Keeper ("Tho. Egerton C.S."), George Carey, second Baron Hunsdon ("G Hunsdon"), and Sir William Knollys, Greenwich, 11 June 1598
Sold for £ 4,000 (US$ 5,314) inc. premium

Lot Details
Privy Council letter signed by the Earl of Essex ("Essex"), Lord Burghley ("W. Burghley"), Sir Robert Cecil ("Ro: Cecil"), Sir Thomas Egerton, as Lord Keeper ("Tho. Egerton C.S."), George Carey, second Baron Hunsdon ("G Hunsdon"), and Sir William Knollys, to Matthew Hutton, Archbishop of York and acting Lord President of the North, ordering him to ensure the safe transit of the hostages ("pledges") of the Middle Marches from the Warden Depute, Sir Robert Ker, who are to be transferred from the keeping of Peregrine Lord Willoughby through the bishopric of Durham ("Duresme") to York, where they are to be put in the custody of the castle there, "the persons being (as wee are enformed) men of very meane reckoning" ("...and to give comandement that there be no resorte to them of any other persons, then such as shall be well knowen to be of honest behavioure, and voide of any suspicion of evill practise..."); with integral address leaf ("To owre very good l. The l./ Archbyshoppe of Yorke"), papered privy seal, contemporary recipient's docket in a fine Roman hand: "11o June 1598.o// The Lordes of his Ma.s m. Ho/ pr. Counsell concern hostages/ to be brought from Barwick/ to York// Recep. 14.o at 10 at night", 1 page, seal-tear (affecting no text) with associated light discoloration, light dust-staining where originally folded for filing and where later folded for framing, but overall in fine and attractive condition, folio, Greenwich, 11 June 1598


  • THE EARL OF ESSEX WITH LORD BURGHLEY AND SIR ROBERT CECIL AT QUEEN ELIZABETH'S PRIVY COUNCIL DISPOSE OF HOSTAGES 'OF VERY MEANE RECKONING' FROM SCOTLAND, two weeks before the dispute between the two factions came to a climax with Essex coming to blows with the Queen and storming out of the Council, and two months before the death of Lord Burghley.

    Although Essex had been a royal ward in Burghley's care and the younger Cecil had attempted to build bridges between them, by 1598 the rivalry between the two factions had grown intense. Essex had had mixed fortunes in his military and naval ventures and had not helped his cause by his unpredictable and moody behaviour; as is graphically shown by the remarkable letters he sent the Queen, sold in these rooms, 11 June 1999, lot 249 (now in the British Library). But early in 1598 all was still not lost, and he was still reckoned 'a man of great designs', keen to wage war on Spain and bestride the European stage. That spring he had even taken over the duties of secretary of state during Sir Robert Cecil's absence. In May Cecil's mission bore fruit with the signing of a Franco-Spanish peace treaty. But Essex would have none of it. His intransigence so infuriated Burghley that his former guardian produced a copy of the Psalms and quoted the verse that 'men of blood shall not live out half their days'. Nor was the Queen best pleased by Essex's support for the Dutch, who stood against the treaty. Essex responded by writing and secretly circulating a manuscript Apologie pointing out the dangers of making peace.

    Things came to a head at a meeting of the Privy Council held on either 30 June or 1 July, two weeks after our letter, when the Queen sought to choose a new Lord Deputy for Ireland and proposed Essex's uncle, Sir William Knollys (one of the signatories of our letter). Essex objected as this would mean losing a key ally. Instead, he nominated Cecil's friend Sir George Carew. The Queen thought this absurd: 'Angered at Elizabeth's scornful response, Essex turned his back on her. This breach of protocol infuriated Elizabeth and she struck him across the head. He instinctively reached for his sword, only to be held back by the lord admiral. Before leaving the room, Essex told the queen and his dumbfounded colleagues that "he neither could nor would put up so great an afront and indignity, neither would he have taken it at King Henry the Eighth his hands" (Camden, 556). He may have compounded the disaster—if the oral tradition reported by the young Edward Hyde (later earl of Clarendon) is accurate—by rebuking the queen with the comment that "she was as crooked in her disposition as in her carcass" (Paul E.J. Hammer, ODNB).

    Essex withdrew from the Court, while his friends urged him to return and even Lord Keeper Egerton – another signatory of our letter – urged him to conquer his false pride and submit. When Burghley eventually died on 4 August, Essex was still absent from Court and so did not share in the great redistribution of offices that followed. It took the gathering crisis in Ireland and a bout of illness on Essex's part for him to regain favour with the Queen and return to the Privy Council in September. This set in train his Irish command and further disaster, culminating in his rising and execution early in 1601.

    Our letter concerns the important question of England's relations with Scotland. It was obvious to most that James VI had the best claim to succeed the aging Elizabeth, and Essex saw this as one of his strongest suits, hoping to succeed Burghley on his death and usher in the transition and so reap the benefits. The incident which gave rise to our letter was sparked by Sir Robert Ker of Cessford (later first Earl of Roxburghe), who stood in high favour with James VI and had recently been appointed one of the wardens of the Scottish Marches. He had also been carrying on the tradition of border raiding into England but had been captured that February, being placed in the custody of the recipient of our letter, Matthew Hutton, Archbishop of York, who combined his episcopal duties with those of the Lord President of the North. Ker was released at the beginning of June on the surety of thirteen hostages who, by the terms of this letter, were to be transferred from the keeping of Peregrine Lord Willoughy, Governor of Berwick, into that of Archbishop Hutton.

    Both Willoughby and Hutton favoured Essex in his dispute with the Cecils. Although Willoughby was older and as a soldier was more experienced, and more successful, he lacked Essex's political ambition, and so tended to defer to the younger man. Essex made his appeal to Hutton in a different sphere: 'Reluctantly involved in the factional struggle between the earl of Essex and Sir Robert Cecil, Hutton persisted in seeing the earl almost until the end as the great protector of the protestant cause. He sent an edifying message to Essex during his imprisonment after his precipitate return from Ireland in autumn 1599, and the following year, only days before the earl's removal from the privy council, confided to Whitgift his hope that the queen might yet be reconciled "to that noble gentleman now abiding the frowns of fortune"' (Claire Cross, ODNB).

    The sixth signatory, Sir George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, is now best known in his capacity as patron of Shakespeare's company of players, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. And as such he played a tangential part in the story. Essex obtained his Irish command in March 1599. This provides one of the few topical references in Shakespeare's plays, when the Chorus in Henry V hails the expected return from Ireland of 'the general of our gracious empress... Bringing rebellion broached on his sword'. Hunsdon himself took a less sanguine view, that same summer at a meeting of the Privy Council painting a lurid picture of the dangers posed to the kingdom's security by Essex's army. After Essex's return and disgrace, one more use was made of Hunsdon's playwright. Two days before Essex's rising, members of his faction paid the Chamberlain's Men for a performance of Richard II, their clear message being that Essex would be Bolingbroke to Elizabeth's Richard.

    This fine document is published as Letter LXXVII, with related correspondence, in The Correspondence of Dr Matthew Hutton, Archbishop of York [edited by James Raine], Surtees Society, 17 (1843).
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