I’ve travelled from England to Scotland so many times since I was a kid I’ve lost count. Perhaps that is why I find Robert Carey’s ride so interesting. But it was when I was standing before the gates of Richmond Palace, the place where the Tudor dynasty ended, that I really felt that I wanted to tell the story.
Three years before Queen Elizabeth I breathed her last, her Secretary of State Robert Cecil, had started making plans. The Queen, then a cadaverous 68, had no children and barring an act of Abrahamic intervention would not have one. Cecil was a man deeply concerned with the stability of the realm, which meant he had no course but to begin smoothing the way for the succession of James VI of Scots to the throne of England.
James was the only logical option for a stable monarchy. Anyone else would likely provoke a civil war, and it was not even certain that James might not inspire such strife. He was the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor and thus a descendant of Henry VII. However Elizabeth was playing her cards close to the chest, ageing did not help her paranoia. James was implicated distantly with the recent rebellion launched by the Earl of Essex. A rising that one way or the other would have ended at an executioner’s block, had indeed seen an axe sever the neck of the reckless earl.
James was young, eager and often rash, Elizabeth was cautious and mistrusting, it was up to Cecil to bridge the gap. His father had been a favourite of Henry VIII and he knew how to play the convoluted games that kings and princes liked to play around thrones. He accordingly made friends with James, who all too eagerly reciprocated and gushed promises of what Cecil could expect if he made him the next King of England.
Robert Cecil was clearly no man’s fool, and his unselfish loyalty to the peaceful and smooth succession to the throne had the dual benefit of making the would be sovereign indebted to him.
Because any correspondence with James had to be done in secret, this heightened the implications of conspiracy should they be found out. And as such Cecil warned James that they had to act quietly and carefully. Cecil misted the Scottish King with dampening warnings to cool him down, but he assured him that he would look after his interests. He also made sure to make clear that though confidentiality was necessary for them (or rather him) to keep their heads, any honours or boons James cared to bestow would be gratefully received.
Very few people, and then only a handful of trusted allies and go between’s, therefore knew that James and Cecil, while plying the Queen with letters from her “brother and cousin” were in fact also preparing for her funeral. James wisely adhered to his trusted friend and never pressed the question on Elizabeth but wrote letters to encourage her affection. He was direct and rather cloying in his approach, yet there is no evidence to suggest he was not sincere, for all his hopes were tied to her good graces. James’ seemed to please the old lady, yet never did she indicate an heir until the day of her death.
Cecil worked out the arrangements to get his man from Holyroodhouse to Westminister in great secrecy. He had enemies who would ruin him if they caught wind of his scheming, Sir Walter Raleigh was the main concern. Cecil was sure of himself and sure that Raleigh, supported by Lord Cobham and the Earl of Northumberland would oppose James, and so he blackened their names in the eyes of the King of Scots. Meanwhile, unofficially people in the streets could see that James was the odds-on favourite to succeed. This naturally spurred a number of offers to Scotland offering to arrange things, James tactfully denied all knowledge and put all future events down to the will of God.
Eternity came knocking in March 1603. As soon as he got word that Elizabeth was ill, Cecil began to make his move. Having elicited a promise that James would not interfere with the privy council until he was crowned, he made sure to lock down all known dissidents and troublemakers. The death of a monarch made itchy hands drift towards sword hilts. The time in between her death and the summoning of James would be the most dangerous. As the Queen began to weaken, Cecil’s men began a series of quiet arrests. The realm held its breath, as for some a protectress was soon to leave them vulnerable, while others anticipated a chance to turn the tables.
In such times, gentlemen of fortune can seize a chance to move up in the world, and rock the boats rowed by great statesmen. One such gentleman, who understood how vital the period of limbo between death and succession could be was Sir Robert Carey, Lord Warden of the Middle Marches.
He was a distant kinsman of Elizabeth, the 42-year-old son of Lord Hunsdon. When Elizabeth took to her bed in March, he, like many others fearful of their position headed south, leaving the security of the Scottish Borders with his deputies. A two-way flow of traffic was racing up and down the country. Those sure of James’ succession rode to Edinburgh, those hoping for one last sign of favour from Elizabeth went to Richmond Palace.
Carey arrived on the 19th of March and was granted an audience. “Robin, I am not well,” the Queen told him at her bedside. It was true, he realised, the Queen was fading and all his fortunes were at stake. Though unquestionably guilty he decided it was no bad thing for him to think of himself at such a time and wrote to King James, who had shown him kindness on those occasions that he had been sent hither. Information as to the Queen’s condition would be of interest at Holyrood, but Carey went a step further and boldly promised to be the first man to bring him the news if the queen should die.
On Wednesday the 23rd of March Elizabeth lost the power of speech. The privy council gathered in her chamber that afternoon and asked who would succeed her. When King James’ name was mentioned she motioned with her hand to give her assent. At 6, Archbishop Whitgift and her chaplains were summoned and after they had done all they could to prepare her, the queen was left with her ladies in waiting. Carey left the room, his knees sore from kneeling on the floor, his eyes red from the half-dried tears that now glistened unashamedly on his cheeks.
He left the palace for his quarters, having composed himself enough to bribe a porter to let him in at any time and leave orders to be notified when the end came. As he had left he had probably caught the no less watery eye of his sister, Lady Scrope, also in the palace was his brother the current Lord Hunsdon. If all else failed he could count on his siblings to help protect the family fortune. Cecil and Carey were not alone in their private plotting for the succession. Lady Scrope was in on it too, the story goes that she was in possession of a sapphire ring that belonged to James. He had sent her it to be returned as a sign that Elizabeth was dead.
Sometime between 2 and 3 on the morning of the 24th Carey was awoken and told Elizabeth was dead. At once he sprang to action and went to the palace gate. The privy council had locked the place down, Lord Cecil’s orders. However Sir Edward Wotton, a councillor, granted him admittance, but once inside he found he was unable to get back out again. Word had leaked somehow of his plan to ride to Scotland, and Cecil was determined to control the news himself, not have it hijacked by a private entrepreneur. Carey was ordered not to leave the palace.
Luckily the Carey family still held some clout. Lord Hunsdon seeing the situation had his brother accompany him to the gate. When they were stopped Hunsdon bluffed his way out and Carey mounted a horse from the royal stables and rode to London, but not before he had managed to obtain the totemic ring from his sister. At Charing Cross, he lodged with the Knight Marshal. There he was discovered by Cecil’s long reach, a messenger of the privy council arrived and asked that he come to Whitehall Gardens forthwith to bring the news to Scotland. However the marshal stopped him, it was an obvious trap. He knew Cecil would never let him be the first to kneel to James and he would likely be arrested before he got through the door, had to to be off before he was caught.
Carey was in the saddle by 9 or 10 and travelled the 162 miles to Doncaster and arrived at his house at Withrington on Friday the 25th March. There he gathered his deputies and charged them to keep a close watch over the border, he also told them solemnly that the next morning the king of Scotland should be proclaimed king of England at Withrington, Morpeth and Alnwick.
The determined Carey set out once more at a smart pace the next day, Saturday the 26th. It was 99 miles to Edinburgh, he had made such good time by noon, when he arrived at Norham, that he felt sure he would be at his destination by supper time. Perhaps this led him to carelessness, for his horse took a fearful tumble on the next leg. Probably while he was trying to calm the animal, or else during the fall, one of the horse’s hooves caught him on the head. And it was a muddy, slumped figure, bleeding profusely from a gash in his head that continued the journey at a much slower pace than before.
It was dark when he arrived at the palace, between midnight and the early hours of the 27th. The King had just gone to bed when he knocked and asked to be admitted. After a brief wait his bedraggled figure staggered unsteadily into the Kings presence, he kneeled and addressed him as King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. James offered his hand and Carey kissed it. Then followed a lengthy discussion during which Carey was asked what letters he had from the privy council. The answer was none, and that he had only just escaped from their men to bring James the news. James, therefore, asked what proof he had of his story, to which Carey produced a sapphire ring from a lady and handed it to the King saying that he hoped it would give “assurance of the truth.”
The King observed the ring and recognised it, he nodded “It is enough. I know by this you are a true messenger”. James was naturally grateful, swept up in the moment he had him tended to and granted him the title of Gentleman of the Bedchamber. But Carey had not counted on the anger of Cecil. Who was furious that he had been crossed so blatantly. One of his first acts after James arrived in London was to have Carey dismissed. Nevertheless, James did not forget him; in 1605, he was made governor of Prince Charles. True, Charles was not expected to succeed the throne and therefore it was not a choice appointment for an ambitious man, but he and his wife Elizabeth took the job seriously.
His life now followed closely that of his charge, Robert became Master of the Robes to the Prince and then his chamberlain. Their devotion paid off when Charles became King and he remained close to the King until his death in 1639, having been elevated to 1st Earl of Monmouth in 1626, a title that would be revived at the end of the century by a famous young man who was no less seriously involved in rights of succession, than Robert Carey had been when he staggered into King James’ presence that night in 1603 and bridged the gap between two dynasties.
1603. Christopher Lee.
Memoirs of Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth.
Josh Provan is a book reviewer, history writer, and blogger, the founder of Adventures in Historyland and contributes regularly to the Britannia Magazine on Facebook. He loves to explore the mysterious world of the past through the bits and pieces that have been left behind for us to discover. Be it from antiquity or the space age. He hopes one day to be published, and in spare hours he enjoys, painting, sword fencing, and horse riding but you’ll mostly find him reading or writing about adventures in Historyland. Twitter: @LandOfHistory Facebook: Adventures In Historyland.