When Francis Osborne mused “mingle not your interest with a great one’s,” in Advice to a Son, the counsel was suggested by surveying the life of Henry Cuffe, a retainer of the disgraced Earl of Essex who, “tho’ of excellent Parts,” hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1601 on account of his late master’s rebellion. (With him hanged Essex’s stewart, Gilly Merrick.)
A child of the gentry, Cuffe’s academic brilliance landed him a (still-extant) professorship at Oxford. The vain Lord Essex, who prided himself a patron of scholarship, hired him into his retinue in the mid-1590s. Cuffe would prove to be a loyal companion. Too loyal.
He accompanied Essex on the latter’s great foreign adventures, the triumphant raid on Cadiz and the disastrous expedition to Ireland, and was entrusted as the earl’s messenger to Queen Elizabeth when the latter project began to founder. Essex was one of the great men of state and it was through him that Cuffe came in sight of those zeniths of power only dreamt by Oxford dons. But he could only scale them if Essex kept his own footing, too.
Six years or so into their association, Cuffe was all-in on restoring his patron’s favor (and with it, his own) once Essex returned from the Ireland debacle to find himself on the outs. The treason trial against Cuffe would slate him as one of the chief spirits agitating the earl, imprisoned then in Essex House, to break out with his foolhardy rebellion or coup in February 1601.
“Ere long you shall see a change: my lord is like to come in favour again, and be restored to his greatness,” recalled one Essex rebel of Cuffe’s recruitment pitch to him. Once their seizure of power got underway, “We having the face of the state, all will follow and take with us.” It was alleged that Cuffe inveigled Essex against more cautious counselors, arguing that the lord’s charisma was sure to carry the day could he but secure some personal face time with the queen — and that Cuffe stood in line to become the next Speaker of the Parliament, should the wager pay off.
It didn’t. Treason doth never prosper …
Cuffe’s best argument in defense was that he, bookish lad, had never left Essex House at all on the fatal day when other conspirators attempted to march through London, and what treason was that?
“I must confess, as a servant that longed for the honour of his master, I have often wished to see his recalling to the court, and restored to her majesty’s former favour” Cuffe allowed — “but beyond the limits of these desires, my thoughts never carried me, nor aspired to other greatness than to see him again in place of a servant and worthy subject, as before he had been.”
The volume of accusations otherwise from within Essex’s inner circle overwhelmed this defense — most especially so the accusation of the very lord with whom Cuffe had so carelessly mingled his own fortunes. For, four days before Essex lost his own head, that doomed magnate had summoned his prosecutors to the Tower and bid them bring Cuffe to his chamber.
This request being granted him, and Cuffe brought before him, he [Essex] there directly and vehemently charged him; and among other speeches used these words:
Henry Cuffe, call to God for mercy, and to the queen, and deserve it by declaring truth. For I, that must now prepare for another world, have resolved to deal clearly with God and the world: and must needs say this to you; You have been one of the chiefest instigators of me to all these my disloyal courses into which I have fallen.
This is a very fine parting kick in the teeth for a devoted lickspittle. Maybe Osborne’s advice should have been to mingle not your interest with an asshole’s.