All history is marked with the dates of key events, December 7, 1941: the bombing of Pearl Harbor; June 28, 1914: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria; April 18, 1775: the Ride of Paul Revere. But history also shows how these are only the peak or breakout points of a long string of events, all tending in a particular direction, and that they’re followed by a string of events that occur as a result; in the case of these events, wars. This is the drama of history, for these peak events resemble the climax of a plot, one driven by human forces and perhaps, as the Elizabethans believed, the stars.
This is the story of a different kind of war, a war between the London Stage and the Queen’s Principal Secretary Robert Cecil. On a public level it was a war for the heart and mind of a nation, through a series of battles for and against intellectual freedom; on a personal level it was a showdown between two strong-willed members of a particular family. The peak event was the production and publication of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which portrayed that evil king in terms which the upper levels of Shakespeare’s audience immediately identified as the Queen’s Machiavellian little Secretary of State, who just happened to be Oxford’s own brother-in-law. Had the Greeks known of this future story, they would surely have delighted in dramatising it. In the Bible it’s best exemplified by the story of Jacob and Esau, with Oxford as “the hairy man” who sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of pottage, the bowl being the Globe theater, the pottage the public audience that frequented it.
The story told here is not quite the one you’ll read in the histories based on documents owned and monitored by the Cecil family for four centuries (in other words, all of them). The Cecil’s had almost complete control of the record of the entire Tudor period until 1999, when their power was curtailed by the democritization of the House of Lords, but I’ve no doubt it’s still considerable. One would hope that younger generations of Cecils would welcome the important role their ancestors played in the creation of the Shakespeare canon, the glory of their nation, but it isn’t likely.
The record has been expunged by Robert Cecil and his decendants to the extent that to put these pieces together I have been forced to do a lot of guessing, but there’s no way to hide the major points, and they really do connect very easily through dates, locations, motivations, etc. Now, with the good work done by Aune, Hotine and Croft in showing what a bombshell was launched by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the London theater and pamphlet audience in the fall of 1597, I think we have our story. But first, let’s examine the timeline of events leading up to the showdown: the performance and publication of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
1583-85: Oxford writes The True Tragedy of King Richard III as part of Walsingham’s campaign to bring entertainment along with culture to the Provinces via the new royal company, the Queen’s Men. There is nothing specific in this version about Richard’s deformity.
1587: Marlowe and Alleyn break off with Burbage, Oxford and Walsingham and the Queen’s Men to produce Tamburlaine for Richard Henslowe at his new theater on Bankside. Needing a scrivener, they take Thomas Kyd with them. Oxford and Bacon are outraged at their betrayal, while the Cecils, Whitgift, et al, are alarmed at the response to the play by the Southwark community of restless young apprentices.
1588: August: the decades-long push by Walsingham and others to prepare for a Spanish invasion comes to an end with England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada. September: The death of Richard Tarleton brings the Queen’s Men to an end.
1589: Masquerading as Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe in Menaphon, Oxford and Bacon taunt Marlowe and the Lord Strange’s Men for deserting the Fisher’s Folly group. Martin MarPrelate’s attack on the bishops jeopardizes the infant periodical press by alarming the Cecils, the Archbishop, and the Queen, who blame the trouble on the men who created the pamphlet audience, Oxford and Bacon.
1590: April 6: Death of Walsingham. His papers are confiscated by the Cecils. His offices are taken on by Burghley, who passes along to his son Robert the team of undercover agents Walsingham had assembled for the Ridolfi, Babbington and Queen of Scots operations. With all his father’s gift for craft and planning, Robert Cecil prepares to use his new authority to take over and dismantle his cousin and his brother-in-law’s annoying media projects.
1592: January: Marlowe gets caught in a government counterfeiting sting across the Channel in Flushing involving two of Walsingham’s old team of agents. With the help of his aristocratic patrons, Ferdinando Stanley and Henry Percy, he manages to escape. August: the plague strikes, warning that it will return in full force the following spring. September: University Wits Robert Greene and Thomas Watson depart the scene, Greene (Oxford) warning Marlowe to drop his anti-establishment stance, for “little thou knowest how in the end thou wilt be visited.”
1593: April: The plague strikes, emptying buildings, streets and theaters. With the Court and most of London departed for safety, Cecil springs a well-planned sting that by June has rid him of both John Penry, MarPrelate’s printer and the author of Tamburlaine and other anti-establishment plays. Thomas Walsingham, nephew of Sir Francis, acts to assist in Marlowe’s demise, perhaps under pressure from Cecil (for which he will be well rewarded a few years later).
1594: January to June: somebody, probably Hunsdon and/or Howard, registers a number of ’80s plays, some by Shakespeare (all anonymous), as prelude to organizing the second royal company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with the top actors from Lord Strange’s Men plus Richard Burbage. The rest are assigned to Howard as the Ld Admiral’s Men. June: Death of 36-yeaer-old Lord Strange. His brother-in-law, George Carey, writes his wife that her sister’s husband has been murdered. His title Earl of Derby goes to his brother, William Stanley. It’s rumored the Cecils had him poisoned so Elizabeth Vere could marry his younger brother (Ian Wilson 176). December: Bacon throws a huge party at Gray’s Inn where a revised version of Comedy of Errors is performed.
1595: January: Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth marries the new Earl of Derby. Oxford passes on the Court stage to them as a wedding present through his production of The Tempest, which he has revised for their wedding. November 9: Roland White writes to Sir Robert Sidney in Flushing that “some say my lord of Oxford is dead.” Oxford increases his petitions requesting that the Queen to return the stewardship of Waltham Forest to him.
1596: February: With help from Hunsdon, Burbage purchases the Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars from Sir William More and begins renovating it so the Lord Chamberlain’s Men can entertain the gentlemen of the Inns of Court from the nearby posh West End. This is a financial necessity since his Bishopsgate Theatre’s lease will run out in ’97. June 24: Death of Cecil’s wife, Elizabeth Brooke, in childbed causes him grief. July 5: While Essex is away at Cadiz, Cecil is officially appointed Secretary of State, putting him on the Privy Council with massive new powers. July 23: Death of Lord Hunsdon. Instead of his son, George Carey, the Queen appoints Cecil’s former father-in-law, William Brooke Ld Cobham, to the post of Lord Chamberlain. November: 34 residents of Blackfriars sign a petition asking the Privy Council to stop Burbage’s theater from opening. One is George Carey, the new Lord Hunsdon, who now owns leases to all the spaces surrounding the new theater.
1597: February: Death of James Burbage. His sons inherit a load of debt, two theaters, one they can’t use or rent; the other on the verge of being shut down. March: Death of Ld Cobham. The post of Ld Chamberlain finally goes to Hunsdon’s son, George Carey, which puts him on the Privy Council. July: A scurrilous play by Nashe and Ben Jonson called The Isle of Dogs causes the Privy Council to close the London theaters, threatening to “pluck them down.” The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are forced to take to the road where among other plays they perform a version of Richard III in which pointed comments on Richard’s deformity associate him with Robert Cecil in the minds of play-goers. October: As soon as they return to London, the LCMen register RIII, then RII, the first of Shakespeare’s ’90s revised plays to be registered (Romeo and Juliet is also registered that year)––all still anonymous. October 24: Parliament is called into session, continuing until Dec. 20. With their Blackfriars theater closed, where in the West End does the Company entertain the members of Parliament? With the public theater in Shoreditch still closed and their new Blackfriars stage closed by government fiat, where do they perform? Perhaps at Essex House, recently rebuilt by Essex into a palatial manor.
1598: January 11: Parliament comes back into session, finally closed February 9. August 4: Death of Lord Burghley; Cecil now on his own. Several publications launch the name Shakespeare: New editions of RIII and RII are registered and published, this time as by William Shake-speare, while Francis Meres’s Wit’s Treasury lauds William Shakespeare, listing several of his plays at the same time labelling the Earl of Oxford as “best for comedy,” thus distingishing the two as separate beings. The cover-up begins.
1599: December: the Burbages and crew dismantle the old Theatre in Bishopsgate at night, secretly transporting it across the Thames to reassemble it on Bankside as the Globe, probably within days. Considering that this was the heart of the most lucrative theater season of the year, they would have worked day and night until they could open their doors again. From now until 1609, the most likely year of Oxford’s actual death, their Blackfriars theater remains closed to the adults.
1600: The theater at Blackfriars opens again but only for a new company of boys under the direction of Henry Evans (whose name was on the first Blackfriars theater school lease just before he gave it to Oxford in 1583). Probably also acting as patron was the Earl of Derby, husband of Oxford’s oldest daughter and brother of the murdered Lord Strange. The boys continued to reign at Blackfriars until 1608 when incidents in Chapman’s Tragedy of Byron (in which Oxford is praised) offend the King, causing him to disband the company. The Burbages bring the Company, now the King’s Men, back to Blackfriars in 1609, commencing in 1610 to entertain the West End audience for decades until the Civil War closed all the theaters (Smith 194).