In the 16th century, people died almost as fast as they got born; faster in times of plague or other epidemics. Death came in many forms, childbirth, astonishingly poor treatment of babies and children, bad diet, diseases for which there was no cure or of which the cause was still unknown, accidents on the road, shipwrecks at sea, gang violence, and torture that was often followed by execution for suspicion of treason or the wrong beliefs. It also came as murder, something that at that time was surprisingly easy to accomplish.
In a society that had as yet no established police force or detective bureaus, where the Law was more about protecting property than persons, and with state offices that were passed along only by death and inheritance, it’s no wonder that murder was easy or that Revenge was the first theme to emerge on the early modern stage. Where the laws, or at least the ways they were administered, were so manifestly unfair, people will inevitably revert to taking matters into their own hands. Men went armed, people travelled in groups as a defense against attack by bandits or enemy neighbors. Since the Arabs’ 10th-century discovery of distilling, deadly poisons were easily manufactured from weeds that grew everywhere. Dogs that clustered around the feet of important men at meal time, eager for tidbits, were tolerated less for their master’s affection than for his need to know that what he was about to eat hadn’t been poisoned by a kitchen boy for a handful of silver or the promise of advancement.
Such an environment breeds an atmosphere of suspicion that causes rumors to run rampant. Every time an important man died, or a widow whose continued existence had been keeping young men from inheriting a valuable estate, rumors that they were murdered flew fast and furious. The more important the dead man, the more rumors that claimed he was murdered and the more likely that these found their way into the record. Equally important, where rumor plays such a part in eveyone’s life, it will also be used by some to slander enemies or to deflect suspicion from themselves to someone else, usually another enemy.
Because rumors of murder were so frequent, its important that historians not buy into them unless there’s some more solid evidence. Where rumors are rampant, it’s important to report them, but always as that and nothing more. No doubt most of such rumors, if it were possible to prove things that happened so long ago one way or the other, would turn out to be without foundation. Since disease or accident were the major causes of these frequent deaths, it’s best to leave the rumors where you find them. A second reason for not coming down on the side of some particular individual’s guilt is that murder is such a hot button issue that bringing it into the discourse almost inevitably skews it towards murky regions that can obscure the main thread of inquiry or even put an end to it.
The death of an important man, however it was caused, would create changes in those arenas in which he functioned. Most of the time, it’s the historian’s job to identify what those changes were, not what may have caused his death. Sometimes, however, the fact that many saw, or could have seen, his death as murder, is a part of the story that can’t be ignored. When among the few facts we know about a particular death are rumors of murder, an historian must consider a number of points before giving them credence.
One question it’s important to ask is always who may have benefitted either by the death and/or by the rumor? Examples of this are the immense numbers of damaging rumors about the Earl of Leicester, such as that he conspired to have his wife Amy Rosart murdered so he could marry Queen Elizabeth, or that he had the Earl of Essex murdered in Ireland so he could marry his wife, Lettice Knollys. While hurting Leicester, rumors surrounding the first benefitted William Cecil by returning him to Court favor when he was in danger of losing everything. With the second it was the death itself, which turned Essex’s son Robert into a ward of the Crown so that Cecil could oversee his education, thus making certain that this important youth, now the heir of Cecil’s rival, would be educated along State-approved Protestant lines. These are not enough to condemn Cecil, but they join a long list of similar situations, some of which directly affect our story.
Some suspicious deaths of poets and patrons
For ten years, since the first two yearround theaters opened in London in 1576, the Crown, or rather the Privy Council patrons of the Stage, managed to keep the tensions between the City and the Church, and the Stage and the Press, on a fairly even keel. It was towards the end of the ’80s that serious trouble began when both the stage and the periodical press erupted in scandal: the former in 1587 with the rabble-rousing Tamburlaine, the latter the following year with the publication of the anti-bishop pamphlets of Martin Mar-Prelate. However these distressed the Cecils and councillors like Archbishop John Whitgift, little was done about it, at least nothing that reaches the records, until the death of the Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, in 1590.
April 1590: Death of Walsingham
With the death of Walsingham, Burghley and Robert Cecil made swift moves to take control of both the stage and the press . Their first attempt to get their mitts on the author of Tamburlaine took place in January 1592. That––the Flushing coining sting––failed, but with the onset of plague later that summer and the closing of the theaters the following February, Robert Cecil went into high gear.
1592 to 1593: Deaths of Barrows, Greenwood, Penry and Marlowe
Following his appointment in 1591 to the Privy Council, Cecil began taking a prominent role in Star Chamber examinations of persons accused of sedition. Protestant dissidents Barrows and Greenwood, arrested in December 1592 and convicted the following March for “devising and circulating seditious books,” were hanged April 6, 1593. Six weeks later, on May 18th, playrwright Christopher Marlowe was examined and told to await further hearings. Three days later, John Penry, Mar-Prelate’s printer, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by the Star Chamber. A week later, at an inn on the road to Deptford, Penry was hanged “at the unusual hour” of four in the afternoon (Wikipedia) of the day before Cecil’s agents did away with Marlowe in Deptford.
Marlowe’s murder had an immediate effect on the theater community. In the weeks that followed, Cecil and his agents did their best to tarnish his reputation so thoroughly with libels (Nicholl) that no one would care what had happened to him, but his colleagues in the theater world, particularly men like Oxford and Bacon, would not have been fooled. In the Revels account for the winter holiday season of 1593/94, where normally anywhere from six to ten plays would be listed as having been performed at Court, there was, most unusually, only one that year, listed as performed by the defunct Queen’s Men. From the other companies, Pembroke’s, the Lord Admirals, or the less important companies who usually stepped in when the major companies were silent––not a single play.
June 1594: Death of Lord Strange
What does it mean then that Marlowe’s patron, Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, was murdered that June, poisoned––probably with arsenic? (Ian Wilson 474) The rumor that Stanley was murdered by Catholics, angry that he wouldn’t go along with plans to take the Crown by force, must have originated with the Cecils, who were at pains to contradict the popular rumor that Burghley had had him killed so his brother William could inherit the title and so be eligible to marry Burghley’s granddaughter. Their counter rumor, that Catholics had him murdered because he refused to go along with their plans to overthrow the Crown, is so absurd, one can only wonder that historians keep on repeating it.
Meanwhile, from January through June, a number of the plays Oxford had written in the ’80s for the Queen’s Men and other companies were registered with the Stationers. This was partly to protect them from theft during this chaotic period when out-of-work actors might scratch up a few pounds from a printer willing to buy a pirated manuscript, and partly to establish them as the property of the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This company, for which Oxford would henceforth be playwright, consisted of the leading members of the former Lord Strange’s Men with lead actor Edward Alleyn replaced by Richard Burbage (Gurr Shakespeare’s). Lord Hunsdon, long time theater patron and now the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, and his son-in-law the Lord Admiral, had stepped in to save the London stage.
It must have been right about that time that Hunsdon and Burbage began negotiating with Sir William More to purchase the Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars as a winter venue for the Company. Although they had lost legal title to the little stage at the Blackfriars school in April 1584, it’s possible they actually had the use of it as long as Hunsdon’s leases remained in effect, another six years (Smith 156). If this is the case, and the Company was actually able to continue to use it until 1590, it must have been at that that the need for a new stage in or near the West End became critical. Negotiations to purchase the Parliament Chamber probably began shortly after the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was formed in 1594. It took some time, but by February 1596 Burbage’s carpenters were free to begin the renovation.
1595: Death of Robert Southwell
Unfortunately for the Company, this occured just when Cecil inherited Walsingham’s secret service. Paul’s Boys was disbanded sometime in 1590; Robert Greene and Thomas Watson were gone in ’92, the first of the Wits to vanish; Penry and Marlowe were executed in ’93; Lord Strange was executed in ’94; and the Catholic poet, Robert Southwell, was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn (for publishing “seditious” material) in February 1595. Then in July 1596, two weeks after Cecil got the title and all that went with it in terms of license and authority, came the most serious blow of all to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
July 1596: Death of Lord Hunsdon
Hunsdon was in his seventies, so he was vulnerable to the ills of old age. Nevertheless, as his DNB biographer notes, he was still very active in the Privy Council and with other business right up until his death, which took place two weeks after Robert Cecil got full title to the most powerful job on the Privy Council. It didn’t hurt that his own father held the second most powerful job, that of Lord Treasurer, plus most of the other important posts.
Hunsdon’s death left the Company in the worst possible state. A senior member of the Council, deputy Lord Chamberlain under Sussex, himself Lord Chamberlain since 1585, Hunsdon was vital, not only to the Company but the London stage as a whole. Now that he was gone there was no one strong enough to protect them from the Cecils, Whitgift, and their other enemies on and off the Council. Also, with Hunsdon gone, there was no one to restrain the London companies from casting caution to the winds.
The likelihood is that Hunsdon, who had stood at the center of the controversy over the stage for many years, had been acting as a barrier to any overt action on the part of the actors and playwrights. A long time player at the top levels of Court politics, one with with a diplomat’s caution and sense of timing, he would have been keenly aware of the dangers of getting into a showdown with the Cecils. It’s likely that for the past two or three years, Hunsdon had been keeping the Company from any action that might endanger its existence. It may have been Hunsdon who, despite the increasing questions about the authorship, kept Hemmings from making any use of the name Shakespeare because he knew that he’d have to discuss it with other members of the Privy Council, something he preferred to postpone until there was a change in the wind, as experience told him would eventually occur.
Hunsdon’s post was one the Queen could not afford to leave empty for long. It had to go to someone of means, for the Lord Chamberlain at Elizabeth’s Court was required to spend a good deal of his own fortune entertaining Her Majesty and her guests. That the Queen skipped over Hunsdon’s heir, George Carey, appointing instead Cecil’s aging father-in-law William Brooke Lord Cobham, shows how far she was leaning towards accommodating the Cecils that year, perhaps out of embarrassment at the expensive results of having yielded to Essex’s war ventures. With problems of international dimensions on her plate, issues of who ran the Court stage may have seemed like very small potatoes to the Queen. Again, I think it unlikely that Elizabeth was aware of how closely linked was the Court stage to the London commercial stage, or the maneuvering that went on between the patrons and their opponents.
Certainly to those who were aware, and who wanted to see a theater in or near the influential West End, the fact that Brooke was a long-time resident of Blackfriars and a close neighbor of the theater school must have been a matter of some concern. That the actors and their playwright regarded him as more of an enemy than a patron seems clear from the April 1597 Garter ceremony where they portrayed his revered ancestor, Sir John Oldcastle, as the fat, dissolute clown whose name would soon be changed (by Elizabeth’s direct order, or so the legend goes) to Falstaff––a pun on both Shake-spear (Fall-staff) and Oldcastle’s historic contemporary, Sir John Fastolf. (Skoufolos)
March 1597: Carey appointed Lord Chamberlain
What caused the change of wind the following March, when, with the death of the aging Brooke she gave the post to George Carey, whose apartment was located directly beneath the Parliament Chamber? And why had Carey signed the petition the previous November that locked the doors to the new theater?––with his own father so invested in the Blackfriars theaters, one would think he would champion its cause. On the other hand, what would his abstention have accomplished in view of the 33 others who also signed? It must be remembered that in November of 1596, George Carey did not have either the authority or the office of Lord Chamberlain. Also, if I’m right, that Lord Hunsdon was playing a waiting game, he may well have advised his son that with not clear way to prevent Cecil from reacting, discretion was still the better part of valor.
Would George Carey, now Baron Hunsdon, if given the post of Lord Chamberlain and thus installed on the Privy Council, perhaps act more boldly now that he not only outranked Cecil as a peer, but was close to his equal as the councillor with the most contact with the Queen? Thanks to a letter from Carey to his wife, one that somehow managed to escape the Hatfield holocaust, we know that immediately following the death of Lord Strange, Carey was well aware that his wife’s brother-in-law had been murdered (Wilson 474). Many at the time suspected Burghley of having had Stanley murdered. Did Carey, perhaps, suspect that Robert Cecil had something to do with his father’s death as well? Did the actors? Did Oxford?
Which brings us finally to the summer of 1597 when Oxford and his company, with a handful of important plays ready to show the gathering members of Parliament (among them the Folio versions of Merchant of Venice and Love’s Labour’s Lost) driven to frustrated madness, launch an all-out attack, the publication and performance of a Richard III in which the evil protagonist is portrayed in terms that no one who sees it or reads it will fail to recognize Richard as Robert Cecil. It must have made quite an impact. Theater historians claim that it was as Richard III that Richard Burbage first made his reputation as a great actor.
1597: The scenario that makes sense
As the summer season approaches with two of their leaders (Burbage and Hunsdon) dead and the other (Oxford) bankrupt, with their beautiful new stage locked against them and with their livelihoods in serious jeopardy, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were ready to put their lives on the line in a bid to regain their autonomy. Nor were they the first. In July, the actors who, with the destruction of Lord Strange’s company, had joined Pembroke’s Men, performed a play titled The Isle of Dogs at the Swan, the new theater on Bankside. Something about this play caused Cecil to order all the theaters in London closed until October and throw its authors and leading actors in the Marshalsea prison.
Named for a waste area just across the Thames from both Greenwich and Deptford, a place where people dumped their dead dogs and vagrants hid from the authorities, it’s fair to suggest that The Isle of Dogs (no longer extant of course) was an obvious thrust at Cecil. Forced to take to the road in July, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were probably ready, willing and able to do whatever they could to stop him from persecuting actors––or die trying.
The moment of truth
With Hunsdon gone, the gloves came off. Digging through his trunk, grabbing the old play, The True Tragedy of Richard III, in went unmistakable references to Cecil, his crooked back, his spider-like figure, small, thin, and always dressed in black. In one long heated session Oxford rewrote his old play so that no one who knew anything about the Court, no one who frequented the clubs and taverns of Westminster or attended the sessions of Parliament, could miss the devastating portrait of Robert Cecil. Written in the white heat of frustration and very likely the belief, or at least the suspicion, that Cecil was responsible, not only for Marlowe’s death, but also for the deaths of Lord Strange and perhaps even Lord Hunsdon, it exploded into a masterpiece of rage, not just at Cecil, but also at the Court community that, once again, had let him down. With Richard Burbage properly made up and dressed, his body language and voice a perfect imitation of the twisted little Secretary, the attack was complete.
Did Cecil ever see it? Whether he did or not, it seems to have had the result they wanted. From then on it appears that Sir Robert refrained from direct attacks. Forced to appear indifferent, it seems he did nothing to interfere with the publication of the play, for year after year, one edition after another was published, proclaiming its popularity as a written work as well as a theater experience. Aware that Oxford had health issues, Cecil may have figured that he would probably outlive him, so if no opportunity presented itself until then, he would simply appropriate his papers as he had Walsingham’s, Leicester’s, and Essex’s.
When exactly did the Company unleash the play? There were six plays produced at Court the winter of 1596-97, all by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but it’s most unlikely that Richard III was one of them. More likely, aware that the Queen was preparing to call another session of Parliament, they held onto it until October or November, when at some point they sprang it on members from all over the nation gathered in the West End. With no theater available, it must have been produced in a hall in one of the great households along the Strand. At Raleigh’s Durham House? At Edgerton’s York House? Most likely perhaps, at Essex House, now fabulously refurbished and the gathering place for all those who detested Cecil. To make certain that the attack would not go unnoticed, they published it immediately, along with his recent revision of Richard II, both anonymous.
Who wrote Richard III? The coverup is launched
The advent of Richard III, whether performed or published or both, raised the demand to know the author’s name to a level where it had to be dealt with. The following year, both Richard plays were published again in quarto and––the first time for any play––both carried the name William Shake-spear on their title pages! Also published that year was the tedious Wit’s Treasury by Francis Meres in which he (or someone) identified William Shakespeare as the author of twelve currently popular plays while at the same time identifying the Earl of Oxford as “best for comedy.” In this way was the author of the Shakespeare canon introduced at the same moment in time and in such a way that Shakespeare and Oxford were identified in the public mind as separate individuals.