Kenilworth eBook: Page1
Walter Scott (2006)
Produced by An Anonymous Volunteer and David Widger
KENILWORTH. by Sir Walter Scott, Bart.
A certain degree of success, real or supposed, in the delineation ofQueen Mary, naturally induced the author to attempt something similarrespecting "her sister and her foe," the celebrated Elizabeth. Hewill not, however, pretend to have approached the task with the samefeelings; for the candid Robertson himself confesses having felt theprejudices with which a Scottishman is tempted to regard the subject;and what so liberal a historian avows, a poor romance-writer dares notdisown. But he hopes the influence of a prejudice, almost as natural tohim as his native air, will not be found to have greatly affected thesketch he has attempted of England's Elizabeth. I have endeavouredto describe her as at once a high-minded sovereign, and a female ofpassionate feelings, hesitating betwixt the sense of her rank andthe duty she owed her subjects on the one hand, and on the other herattachment to a nobleman, who, in external qualifications at least,amply merited her favour. The interest of the story is thrown upon thatperiod when the sudden death of the first Countess of Leicester seemedto open to the ambition of her husband the opportunity of sharing thecrown of his sovereign.
It is possible that slander, which very seldom favours the memoriesof persons in exalted stations, may have blackened the character ofLeicester with darker shades than really belonged to it. But the almostgeneral voice of the times attached the most foul suspicions to thedeath of the unfortunate Countess, more especially as it took place sovery opportunely for the indulgence of her lover's ambition. If we cantrust Ashmole's Antiquities of Berkshire, there was but too much groundfor the traditions which charge Leicester with the murder of his wife.In the following extract of the passage, the reader will find theauthority I had for the story of the romance:--
"At the west end of the church are the ruins of a manor, ancientlybelonging (as a cell, or place of removal, as some report) to themonks of Abington. At the Dissolution, the said manor, or lordship, wasconveyed to one--Owen (I believe), the possessor of Godstow then.
"In the hall, over the chimney, I find Abington arms cut instone--namely, a patonee between four martletts; and also anotherescutcheon--namely, a lion rampant, and several mitres cut in stoneabout the house. There is also in the said house a chamber calledDudley's chamber, where the Earl of Leicester's wife was murdered, ofwhich this is the story following:--
"Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a very goodly personage, andsingularly well featured, being a great favourite to Queen Elizabeth,it was thought, and commonly reported, that had he been a bachelor orwidower, the Queen would have made him her husband; to this end, to freehimself of all obstacles, he commands, or perhaps, with fair flatteringentreaties, desires his wife to repose herself here at his servantAnthony Forster's house, who then lived in the aforesaid manor-house;and also prescribes to Sir Richard Varney (a prompter to this design),at his coming hither, that he should first attempt to poison her, and ifthat did not take effect, then by any other way whatsoever to dispatchher. This, it seems, was proved by the report of Dr. Walter Bayly,sometime fellow of New College, then living in Oxford, and professor ofphysic in that university; whom, because he would not consent to takeaway her life by poison, the Earl endeavoured to displace him the court.This man, it seems, reported for most certain that there was a practicein Cumnor among the conspirators, to have poisoned this poor innocentlady, a little before she was killed, which was attempted after thismanner:--They seeing the good lady sad and heavy (as one that wellknew, by her other handling, that her death was not far off), began topersuade her that her present disease was abundance of melancholy andother humours, etc., and therefore would needs counsel her to take somepotion, which she absolutely refusing to do, as still suspecting theworst; whereupon they sent a messenger on a day (unawares to her) forDr. Bayly, and entreated him to persuade her to take some little potionby his direction, and they would fetch the same at Oxford; meaning tohave added something of their own for her comfort, as the doctorupon just cause and consideration did suspect, seeing their greatimportunity, and the small need the lady had of physic, and thereforehe peremptorily denied their request; misdoubting (as he afterwardsreported) lest, if they had poisoned her under the name of his potion,he might after have been hanged for a colour of their sin, and thedoctor remained still well assured that this way taking no effect, shewould not long escape their violence, which afterwards happened thus.For Sir Richard Varney abovesaid (the chief projector in this design),who, by the Earl's order, remained that day of her death alone with her,with one man only and Forster, who had that day forcibly sent away allher servants from her to Abington market, about three miles distant fromthis place; they (I say, whether first stifling her, or else stranglingher) afterwards flung her down a pair of stairs and broke her neck,using much violence upon her; but, however, though it was vulgarlyreported that she by chance fell downstairs (but still without hurtingher hood that was upon her head), yet the inhabitants will tell youthere that she was conveyed from her usual chamber where she lay, toanother where the bed's head of the chamber stood close to a privypostern door, where they in the night came and stifled her in her bed,bruised her head very much broke her neck, and at length flung her downstairs, thereby believing the world would have thought it a mischance,and so have blinded their villainy. But behold the mercy and justiceof God in revenging and discovering this lady's murder; for one of thepersons that was a coadjutor in this murder was afterwards taken for afelony in the marches of Wales, and offering to publish the mannerof the aforesaid murder, was privately made away in the prison by theEarl's appointment; and Sir Richard Varney the other, dying about thesame time in London, cried miserably, and blasphemed God, and said toa person of note (who hath related the same to others since), not longbefore his death, that all the devils in hell did tear him in pieces.Forster, likewise, after this fact, being a man formerly addicted tohospitality, company, mirth, and music, was afterwards observed toforsake all this, and with much melancholy and pensiveness (some saywith madness) pined and drooped away. The wife also of Bald Butter,kinsman to the Earl, gave out the whole fact a little before her death.Neither are these following passages to be forgotten, that as soon asever she was murdered, they made great haste to bury her before thecoroner had given in his inquest (which the Earl himself condemned asnot done advisedly), which her father, or Sir John Robertsett (as Isuppose), hearing of, came with all speed hither, caused her corpse tobe taken up, the coroner to sit
The same accusation has been adopted and circulated by the author ofLeicester's Commonwealth, a satire written directly against the Earl ofLeicester, which loaded him with the most horrid crimes, and, amongthe rest, with the murder of his first wife. It was alluded to in theYorkshire Tragedy, a play erroneously ascribed to Shakespeare, wherea baker, who determines to destroy all his family, throws his wifedownstairs, with this allusion to the supposed murder of Leicester'slady,--
"The only way to charm a woman's tongue Is, break her neck--a politician did it."
The reader will find I have borrowed several incidents as well as namesfrom Ashmole, and the more early authorities; but my first acquaintancewith the history was through the more pleasing medium of verse. Thereis a period in youth when the mere power of numbers has a more strongeffect on ear and imagination than in more advanced life. At this seasonof immature taste, the author was greatly delighted with the poems ofMickle and Langhorne, poets who, though by no means deficient in thehigher branches of their art, were eminent for their powers of verbalmelody above most who have practised this department of poetry. One ofthose pieces of Mickle, which the author was particularly pleased with,is a ballad, or rather a species of elegy, on the subject of CumnorHall, which, with others by the same author, was to be found in Evans'sAncient Ballads (vol. iv., page 130), to which work Mickle made liberalcontributions. The first stanza especially had a peculiar species ofenchantment for the youthful ear of the author, the force of which isnot even now entirely spent; some others are sufficiently prosaic.
The dews of summer night did fall; The moon, sweet regent of the sky, Silver'd the walls of Cumnor Hall, And many an oak that grew thereby,
Now nought was heard beneath the skies, The sounds of busy life were still, Save an unhappy lady's sighs, That issued from that lonely pile.
"Leicester," she cried, "is this thy love That thou so oft hast sworn to me, To leave me in this lonely grove, Immured in shameful privity?
"No more thou com'st with lover's speed, Thy once beloved bride to see; But be she alive, or be she dead, I fear, stern Earl, 's the same to thee.
"Not so the usage I received When happy in my father's hall; No faithless husband then me grieved, No chilling fears did me appal.
"I rose up with the cheerful morn, No lark more blithe, no flower more gay; And like the bird that haunts the thorn, So merrily sung the livelong day.
"If that my beauty is but small, Among court ladies all despised, Why didst thou rend it from that hall, Where, scornful Earl, it well was prized?
"And when you first to me made suit, How fair I was you oft would say! And proud of conquest, pluck'd the fruit, Then left the blossom to decay.
"Yes! now neglected and despised, The rose is pale, the lily's dead; But he that once their charms so prized, Is sure the cause those charms are fled.
"For know, when sick'ning grief doth prey, And tender love's repaid with scorn, The sweetest beauty will decay,-- What floweret can endure the storm?
"At court, I'm told, is beauty's throne, Where every lady's passing rare, That Eastern flowers, that shame the sun, Are not so glowing, not so fair.
"Then, Earl, why didst thou leave the beds Where roses and where lilies vie, To seek a primrose, whose pale shades Must sicken when those gauds are by?
"'Mong rural beauties I was one, Among the fields wild flowers are fair; Some country swain might me have won, And thought my beauty passing rare.
"But, Leicester (or I much am wrong), Or 'tis not beauty lures thy vows; Rather ambition's gilded crown Makes thee forget thy humble spouse.
"Then, Leicester, why, again I plead (The injured surely may repine)-- Why didst thou wed a country maid, When some fair princess might be thine?
"Why didst thou praise my hum'ble charms, And, oh! then leave them to decay? Why didst thou win me to thy arms, Then leave to mourn the livelong day?
"The village maidens of the plain Salute me lowly as they go; Envious they mark my silken train, Nor think a Countess can have woe.
"The simple nymphs! they little know How far more happy's their estate; To smile for joy, than sigh for woe-- To be content, than to be great.
"How far less blest am I than them? Daily to pine and waste with care! Like the poor plant that, from its stem Divided, feels the chilling air.
"Nor, cruel Earl! can I enjoy The humble charms of solitude; Your minions proud my peace destroy, By sullen frowns or pratings rude.
"Last night, as sad I chanced to stray, The village death-bell smote my ear; They wink'd aside, and seemed to say, 'Countess, prepare, thy end is near!'
"And now, while happy peasants sleep, Here I sit lonely and forlorn; No one to soothe me as I weep, Save Philomel on yonder thorn.
"My spirits flag--my hopes decay-- Still that dread death-bell smites my ear; And many a boding seems to say, 'Countess, prepare, thy end is near!'"
Thus sore and sad that lady grieved, In Cumnor Hall, so lone and drear; And many a heartfelt sigh she heaved, And let fall many a bitter tear.
And ere the dawn of day appear'd, In Cumnor Hall, so lone and drear, Full many a piercing scream was heard, And many a cry of mortal fear.
The death-bell thrice was heard to ring, An aerial voice was heard to call, And thrice the raven flapp'd its wing Around the towers of Cumnor Hall.
The mastiff howl'd at village door, The oaks were shatter'd on the green; Woe was the hour--for never more That hapless Countess e'er was seen!
And in that Manor now no more Is cheerful feast and sprightly ball; For ever since that dreary hour Have spirits haunted Cumnor Hall.
The village maids, with fearful glance, Avoid the ancient moss-grown wall; Nor ever lead the merry dance, Among the groves of Cumnor Hall.
Full many a traveller oft hath sigh'd, And pensive wept the Countess' fall, As wand'ring onward they've espied The haunted towers of Cumnor Hall.
ARBOTSFORD, 1st March 1831.