Solomon Kane and Tudor Paranoia – Part Two Essay

After the previous post, it would seem likely that the limits of persecution mania and grandiose delusion had been reached in Tudor England. If they had, the second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, born in 1567 (when Solomon Kane was twelve), exceeded the limits. For volatility, suspicion, wishful thinking, a thoroughly bad sense of timing, moodiness and egotistical conceit, he beat Botolf, Thomas Seymour and Wyatt right from the starting gate.

It’s my theory, by the way, that Solomon Kane killed the first earl, Robert’s father, in Dublin in 1576. Solomon would have been in his early twenties by my reckoning, and that was his first notable slaying. His motive was justice. Walter Devereaux, the first earl, had carried out constant brutal atrocities against the Irish, including a massacre of unarmed men, women and children on Rathlin Island – not done by him personally, but by his command.

While Solomon regarded the Irish Papists as half-heathen savages, the slaughter on Rathlin left him aghast, the more so as he met a few of the ragged, starving survivors. One was Meve O’Brien, who later married a MacDonnal, and became the custodian of Saint Brandon’s cross. Her ghost comes from the tomb to prevent the return of Odin in REH’s “The Cairn on the Headland.” The dates given for her life are 1565-1640, so she would have been eleven when Solomon encountered her after the Rathlin massacre.

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By luck or the providence of God, Kane was never suspected. Walter Devereaux had suffered from flux and griping stomach pains for days, at the time Solomon throttled him inside the walls of Dublin Castle. Rumors flew around that his bitter rival, the Earl of Leicester, had him poisoned, and it was said that physicians pronounced his death as natural by the order of highly-placed persons, to avoid political scandal. Probably they did, but neither Leicester nor natural causes were responsible. Solomon Kane did it.

Robert Devereux thus became the second Earl of Essex at the age of ten, or thereby. Apart from the title, he inherited almost nothing, neither lands nor money. A ward of the Crown, he was educated and trained for public life as a courtier, and had no choice but to try for success in the dangerous circle of place-seekers that surrounded Elizabeth I. He had charm, wit, intelligence and enthusiasm, but he was touchy, egotistical and reckless. Elizabeth was about thirty-five years older than Essex. He charmed but never deceived her, and never even came close to being more important to her than the realm of England – but he did succeed in winning her favor.

That was fortunate for him, since what estates he had were mortgaged for over twenty-five thousand pounds, an incredible sum at the time. There was an outstanding debt of his father’s to the Crown for a further ten thousand. He wasn’t the Queen’s only charming favorite; Sir Walter Raleigh was a constant rival, and the two loathed each other almost as much as Catherine Parr and the Duchess of Somerset had. When the queen showed her dislike of Essex’s sister, Dorothy Perrot, with a public slight (she ordered her confined to her room when she discovered she was a fellow houseguest) Essex furiously wrote to a friend that it was all the fault of “that knave Raleigh, for whose sake … she would both grieve me … and disgrace me in the eye of the world … ”

The monarch in current philosophy was infallible, appointed by God, the fountain of justice and truth. Therefore any petty, spiteful or unjust act must have been inspired by wicked ministers and councilors. It wasn’t thinkable, and certainly not expressible, that the monarch had been bitchy on her own unaided impulse.

Raleigh was quite an exponent of dire suspicion and belief in underhanded pernicious foes himself. All courtiers were. “The nature of man,” he said, “is such as beholdeth the new prosperity of others with an envious eye, and wisheth a moderation of fortune nowhere so much as in those we have known in equal degree with ourselves.”

The late 1580s were the time of Essex’s greatest successes. The Earl of Leicester died, and for once Essex played his courtly cards well enough to gain the prizes many desired – Leicester’s farm of sweet wine, a monopoly worth 2,500 pounds a year, and the rank of General of the Queen’s Armies. Essex led an army of 7,000 men to France in support of the new French king, Henry of Navarre (a Protestant at heart) against the invading Spaniards. Solomon Kane was a captain on the French side in that struggle, as Jack Hollinster remembers when he meets Kane in “The Blue Flame of Vengeance” (also known as “Blades of the Brotherhood.”)

For Essex, though, the French campaign proved a disaster, and he was haunted by dread that rival courtiers would replace him in the Queen’s good graces while he was absent. He shouldn’t have blamed evil rivals when he had made the offensive mistake of creating two dozen knights on his French campaign. The queen herself hadn’t dubbed that many new knights even when her subjects, aided by weather and Spanish ineptitude, had trounced the “invincible” Armada.

In 1596, Essex and his rival Raleigh were given a promising and prestigious commission, under the command of Lord Howard. They were sent to even the score for the Spanish Armada’s presumption by striking at Spain with an English fleet. They had splendid success at Cadiz, taking and plundering the city, burning four of King Philip’s greatest galleons, and catching thirty-six merchant ships with rich cargoes in the inner harbor.

Unfortunately they were so busy showing what brave fighters they were, and trying to outdo each other in winning honor and glory, that they forgot about the undefended merchant ships with their rich cargoes until it was too late. The Spaniards set fire to them to keep them out of English hands. If Elizabeth’s vainglorious courtiers had captured those three dozen vessels and taken them home, they would have been worth about ten million ducats. Instead, the Cadiz raid didn’t even pay for itself. The Queen was not pleased by that.

(Solomon Kane was not with that expedition. I believe he was then back in Africa, performing the exploit partly recorded in REH’s fragment “Hawk of Basti,” not long after the events described in “The Hills of the Dead.” His age was forty-two.)

Essex had also come to believe, with true Tudor paranoia, that Robert Cecil was his back-stabbing enemy. Cecil (Earl of Salisbury, and successor to Walsingham as Secretary of State) had his brother-in-law made Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1597, a post Essex desired. Clearly this was scheming malice directed against him. Essex hadn’t lost the Queen’s favor yet, but when he was given supreme command of another expedition against Spain, he bungled it from start to finish, failing to destroy Spanish warships at Ferrol as his orders stated, missing a Spanish treasure fleet at the Azores, and (again) letting the Spaniards burn a magnificent galleon rather than let it fall into English hands. But instead of seeing his own failings he blamed everything that went wrong on rivals and traitors who everlastingly plotted against him.

They hadn’t been successful, if that was the case, because the Queen still gave Essex the rank of Earl Marshal. He promptly tried exactly the sort of ploy he accused his rivals of perpetrating — tried to get Sir George Carew, a friend of Cecil’s, sent to Ireland as Lord Lieutenant in the hope that he’d fail miserably. Most officials sent to govern Ireland did. The place was a graveyard of lost English reputations.

Elizabeth was no idiot. Essex’s motives were so transparent that she laughed at him, and the result was a quarrel, Essex carrying on like a hurt schoolboy. He lost control of himself to the extent of actually reaching for his sword – in his sovereign’s presence, for God’s sake, and this in the sixteenth century!

He was lucky not to be sent to the headsman right then. He didn’t appreciate his luck, though, and refused to apologise. In fact he wanted the queen – Elizabeth the First, and lots of luck, dude – to apologise to him. When she didn’t, he copied Achilles and sulked in his tent, or rather, in his great country house. He was even indiscreet enough to write in a letter the unforgettable and unforgivable words, verging on treason, “What, cannot princes err?”

It was a military crisis in Ireland (one of many) that caused the pair to resolve their quarrel. The rebel Earl of Tyrone slaughtered two thousand English soldiers at Yellow Ford in 1598. Elizabeth swore to see Tyrone hanged and all Ireland subdued. Essex was still her Earl Marshal, and she sent him into Ireland as her Lord Lieutenant, in January 1599.

From the beginning everything was against him, including the weather. (This was Ireland, after all, that “wet, rotten country,” as Essex had described it himself.) Dublin was a mess of political and military corruption. When he led his forces out of Dublin against Tyrone, he found it reduced by desertion and disease from sixteen thousand to four thousand in less than three months. Essex was also stubborn and egotistical enough to clash with Elizabeth when she interfered with his staff and military decisions. As a courtier, he’d shot himself in the foot with his monarch so often by now that he ought to have learned something, but he hadn’t.

Frustrated, obsessed with “the malice and practice of [his] enemies in England”, he returned to Dublin to read a scathing letter from the queen. It ordered him flatly to proceed into Ulster and crush Tyrone. Marching as commanded, he met Tyrone’s hugely superior army on its own ground. To his surprise he found Tyrone, a leader both more polite and more stable than Essex, willing to parley. Essex wrote to Elizabeth describing Tyrone’s peace terms, expecting praise for having brought this expensive war to an end without further losses.

Not a chance. Elizabeth’s letters grew more vicious, more relentless in their demands for Tyrone’s living body or his severed head. She called any truce with the rebel “perilous and contemptible” and that was her mildest language.

Essex committed both political suicide and treason. Frenzied by the belief that his enemies had turned the queen against him, he formed the design of invading England with his – by now – ridiculously inadequate army. From England it looked as though he’d completely turned traitor and made a deal with Tyrone.

With characteristic Tudor thinking, the court looked for an Iago, a villain who had craftily poisoned Essex’s mind against his lawful sovereign. Henry Cuffe, Essex’s secretary, was perfect for the role – educated and gifted, but lowly in rank, therefore probably ambitious, and what was more he had travelled in Italy. As all right-thinking Englishmen knew, that country was the sink and origin of treachery. Machiavelli, the Borgias, and all that. Clearly Cuffe had learned subtle villainy there. Essex himself shafted Cuffe without pity, trying to cast the blame for his misdeeds on his secretary.

Cuffe was found guilty and executed. As Baldwin Smith writes, he came “down in history forever branded as the evil secretary incarnate.” Devereux could have saved himself even at that stage, but he continued to blunder and indulge his fantasies of enemies everywhere conspiring against him and the queen. He concluded that Robert Cecil, Raleigh and others were plotting to overthrow the queen and give England to Catholic Spain. Under that delusion, he hatched a treasonable plot himself, perhaps (he’d so far lost touch with reality) not seeing it as treasonable. He also picked the worst henchmen possible, “sword-men, bold confident fellows, men of broken fortunes, discontented persons and such as saucily use their tongues in railing against all men.” The biggest mouths combined with the smallest brains, in other words.

The plot failed completely, as it had to, being so inept. Essex died bleating craven repentance. It took three strokes of the headsman’s axe to remove his head. The executioner was as incompetent as his victim. (By Tudor standards, though, Essex was not being a coward; he was reconciling himself with his monarch and God and saving his soul, which is how he doubtless thought of it himself.)

His arch-rival Walter Raleigh had got himself into disgrace in 1592. A casual fling with one of the queen’s maids left the lassie pregnant. Elizabeth, enraged, had him incarcerated in the Tower. After his release he led an expedition to South America (in 1595) searching for the fabulous golden city of El Dorado. He didn’t find it.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, he found himself less congenial to King James I than he had been to the last Tudor monarch. His attitudes to Spain were as aggressive as they were now out-of-date, and James preferred peace. Raleigh’s conviction that ill-wishing, treacherous enemies were everywhere, though, was far from obsolete in the new Stuart age. Before James had been a year on the throne of England, Raleigh and others were accused of plotting his overthrow.

Raleigh was convicted on the testimony of Lord Cobham – probably perjured. He was condemned to death, reprieved, and sent to the Tower instead. After thirteen years, in 1616, he was released, but two years later King James, a mean-spirited fellow, invoked Raleigh’s death sentence and had him executed. Raleigh’s History of the World, written in the Tower, by the way, contains many warnings that injustice on the part of kings is always punished by God.

Solomon Kane would surely have agreed, little as he cared for Raleigh otherwise. Where Kane was at the time of Raleigh’s death is unknowable. If still living, he would have been sixty-four. On this blogger’s reckoning, REH’s poem “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” describes his brief return to Devon in 1613. It closes out his career on a perfect note of haunted mystery. To speculate about what happened after that would be anticlimactic and even impudent. But perhaps the thesis that Kane’s paranoid obsessiveness was hardly out of place in Tudor England has been given some substance.

Art credit: Solomon Kane by Timothy Truman

Read Part One


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