Robert Cecil was born June 1, 1563, toward the end of the first full year that Edward de Vere spent with the Cecil family in London. This was probably the first time that Oxford had observed a woman endure, not only pregnancy and childbirth, but the anxiety that Mildred Cecil, and her family, must have felt after having lost so many babies. In 16th-century England, a wife’s first duty was to provide her husband with a son. Mildred managed it, but just barely. Nor was the anxiety put to rest with Robert’s birth, for, born with a malformed spine that suggests scoliosis, it was not expected that he would survive. His persistence in clinging to life with so little encouragement shows how powerful a will resided in that twisted little body.
If Burghley’s first son Thomas was an embarrassment to the Queen’s Master Secretary, how much greater must have been poor, malformed little Robert throughout his childhood and teen years. Indeed, it was probably not until he needed him by his side in the 1590s that Burghley himself realized his son’s true value. Even then it’s unlikely that he got much praise. To say that Lord Burghley was chary of giving praise or credit is an understatement of truly vast proportions.
Lifelong suffering from constant comparison with the long-legged masculine beauties with which Elizabeth surrounded herself at Court, Robert was doubly cursed by the superstitions of his day, one of which saw physical deformity as a reflection of a deeper moral defect. As his cousin, Francis Bacon, would write shortly after his death in 1612:
Deformed persons are commonly even with nature; for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature; being for the most part (as the Scripture saith) void of natural affection; and so they have their revenge of nature. Certainly there is a consent, between the body and the mind; and where nature erreth in the one, she ventureth in the other. . . . Therefore it is good to consider of deformity, not as a sign, which is more deceivable; but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person, that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself, to rescue and deliver himself from scorn. Therefore all deformed persons, are extreme[ly] bold. First, as in their own defence, as being exposed to scorn; but in process of time, by a general habit. Also it stirreth in them industry, and especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay.
Bacon had reason to think ill of Cecil for keeping him from getting a position at Court equal to his abilities (James finally appointed him Attorney General once Cecil was gone). Yet harsh as it seems, Bacon was forward thinking (as usual) when he sees his cousin’s deformity less as evidence of an inherent moral defect than as its cause, bred of shame and the cruel ill treatment (and most likely physical torture by ignorant doctors) he observed during their childhoods as first cousins and close neighbors.
However broad the cultural gap between the essentially gentry background of the Cecils and Oxford’s aristocratic heritage, it was their differences over the arts that, from the start, would ultimately lead to the complete severence of their life paths and good will. Where Oxford’s training under Smith immersed him in the world of Greek and Roman, French and Italian literary art, the Cecils’ taste in everything was firmly fixed to the puritan ideology in which Mildren Cecil and her sisters had been raised. This required that there be no dangerous forays into ornamental “conceits” or the sort of wording that could arouse any emotions in readers other than pious religious sentiment. Poetry in particular was disdained as useless and dangerous to the soul.
As a result, the Cecil coterie had no feeling for literature, no grasp of what was great about it. While the Cooke sisters wrote to each other in Greek and Latin and translated the works of the early Church fathers––Ovid they regarded as obscene, Dante a Papist. The perfect example of their taste is the awkward English translation of The Courtier by Burghley’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Hoby, which no doubt was held up to the teenaged Oxford as the acme of perfection. As Burghley’s sycophantic biographer Conyers Read concedes, however gifted in other areas, William’s writing ranged from pedestrian to incomprehensible.
Once settled securely into wealth and power under James, Robert’s actions as a patron turned towards music and painting. While his writing reveals none of the tergiversations of his father, it’s also almost completely free from any feeling of immediacy. That the protestations of love for Raleigh and Essex in his letters to them were no more genuine than any of his other political maneuvers should be obvious from the report of history. That he had begun to plan for Raleigh’s destruction long before he wrote these letters should be obvious from his attempt to trap him (along with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland) in 1592 through the examination into the atheism of his so-called School of Night, launched by Cecil while planning the sting that brought down Marlowe.
Cecil’s mother must have loved her only son (she shared milder versions of some of his physical defects, as did several of her grandchildren), but considering Burghley’s scorn for Thomas, his older son (by his first wife), we can only assume that, as a father, Burghley found it just as difficult to love the little boy whose deformity did nothing to enhance his own image in the eyes of his colleagues, many of whom still believed the ancient shibboleth that such a son was evidence of some sin or moral defect of his own.
Think then, considering how Cecil would eventually deal with that other tall, arrogant, charismatic courtier, Sir Walter Raleigh (not to mention the tall, charismatic Essex), what Robert’s true feelings would have been towards Oxford, who, as his father’s ward and then son-in-law, though not so tall, was certainly taller than himself, and who may have seemed to him to take the place in his father’s heart that by rights was his alone. Oxford’s good looks, his wit and talent, his imperial status, were bane to his boyish soul. And over time, as the sorrows of the two beings whose love he never had reason to question, his mother and his sister Anne, the one hating Oxford, the other so badly hurt by him, added to his own bitter feelings, his desire for revenge was compounded when he lost both of them within a few months in 1588 and ’89.
With Walsingham’s death in 1590, Robert moved immediately to take over his spy operation and began planning his revenge against the writing community for the thousand slings and arrows that his father was forced to suffer so the Queen could have her “solace” at Christmas. Having learned from the plots with which his father and Walsingham got rid of the Babbington conspirators and Mary Queen of Scots, Cecil was well versed in setting and springing traps. When the libellers called him a spider, this is what they meant, comparing his methods to that of a spider weaving a plot, then waiting out of sight for the moment to strike. This was his gift, his talent, his pleasure.
Thus in February 1593 when plague deaths had jumped to a new high, closing the theaters and sending the Court to Greenwich, a mile or so miles from Deptford, Cecil had slanders about Marlowe ready and waiting. When the death toll began to rise again, he was ready to move quickly, to have the phony satire pasted on the wall of the Dutch Church, to send for his chief hit man, Robert Poley, to hurry back from overseas, sending other agents to arrest Marlowe, Penry, and Kyd. Penry’s execution at a lonely inn on the road to Deptford, arranged to provide the corpse so that Marlowe himself, whose patrons might retaliate for his death, could be bundled off to a berth on a waiting vessel, to parts unknown. It all went off without a hitch. In 1603 Oxford would explain, in a version of As You Like It produced for the Court and King James, his (Touchstone’s) desire to retreat to the Forest, since to be misunderstood by his community can “kill a man more dead than a great reckoning in a small room,” a clear reference to the opening blow struck by Cecil at his circle of writers back in 1593.
I have shot mine arrow o’er the house
Had Cecil never attacked the writing community; had Marlowe, Kyd and Ld Strange remained untouched, Oxford would probably not have bothered himself about Cecil. Think of Hamlet’s reaction after Laertes has attacked him at Ophelia’s grave: “Hear you, sir, what is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever . . . .” Later, before the fixed fencing match, he apologizes to Laertes for having ranked on him earlier: “Sir, in this audience, let my disclaiming from a purposed evil free me so far in your most generous thoughts, that I have shot mine arrow o’er the house and hurt my brother.” Laertes accepts the apology, he can hardly do otherwise, but he goes ahead and gives his brother-in-law the mortal stab anyway.
All of which suggests why Oxford might have persuaded James to let him spend his final days in the Forest in the Liberty of Havering where Cecil couldn’t get at him. It also gives a solid reason why on June 24, 1604, the day Oxford was supposed to have died, Cecil had Southampton, Shakespeare’s Fair Youth, arrested and detained while his agents went through his papers.
What exactly were they seeking?