History has been kind to the Cecils because the Cecils have been kind to history, for without them and their vast collection of papers at Hatfield, only fully calendared within the last thirty years, there would be little understanding of their period, or of the one preceding. (Some of their collections have been put online, so that it’s possible to read them in modern English.)
The passion for education that was the Reformation’s greatest legacy had different effects on individuals according to their natures. Where a man like Oxford, a born artist, found the materials for the world’s greatest poetry and drama, William Cecil, a born administrator, found more practical lessons, such as how history is made. His library was filled with books that taught him that without records there is no history. As secretaries to the nation for most of six decades, he and his son had access to the most important records of the Elizabethan era, much of it created by themselves through personal correspondence. In a time when families ruled England, much of this was not only national, but family history, and families have always chosen what to keep and what to throw away.
Like any family, the Cecils were eager to leave behind a record that made them look good. If only due to their importance, this means that a lot that came through their hands in the course of business, both State and family, got thrown away. Beyond that they had plenty of opportunity to lay hold of papers that did not come to them as a matter of course. The major reason why there’s been no definitive biography of the second most powerful courtier of the period, William Cecil’s major rival until 1588, the Earl of Leicester, is that his papers did not survive. Another whose private papers were lost is Sir Francis Walsingham, whose offices were taken by the Cecils immediately following his death (ODNB). A third are the papers of the Earl of Essex, still part of the Hatfield House collection. Since Walsingham was Essex’s father-in-law, and Leicester was his stepfather (and perhaps his real father), their acquisition of Essex’s papers may well have given them access to sensitive collections of both these earlier rivals.
As Secretaries of State throughout all but a decade of Elizabeth’s reign and the first decade of James’s, plus holders of a number of other important offices, the Cecils had unprecedented access to every important record office in the nation. As a result, they were in a position to alter a paper trail where it benefited them to do so. Over the 67 years they were in power they also accumulated quantities of unofficial documents including important collections of letters that came to them through purchases, donations, or flat out appropriation, as with the archives of Francis Walsingham and the Earl of Essex. It would have been well within their power as Secretary of State, Master of the Court of Wards and Chancellor of Cambridge University to appropriate records from institutions and return them bereft of what material they wanted to disappear, and none would ever be the wiser, for who would bother to check?
From the very first, leading English historians have been content to follow the paper trail created by the Cecils in their vast repository of papers at Hatfield House. The leading historian of England during the Elizabethan period was William Camden, William Cecil’s protégé. In need of their good will to examine the papers, even perhaps to get their work published, from Camden on down, English historians have rarely questioned the image of the Cecils that they chose to leave to posterity.
Having researched this area for over twenty years, it seems to me a little too unusual how in a number of places where there should be documentation relating to the stage, the press, or the writers and patrons who contributed to their creation, that just that part of the record that relates to crucial moments should so often be missing. Clues to this have piled up to the point where it can’t be denied. First is the question why there should be so little in just the areas where we would expect to find information when there’s a normal amount in other areas during the same periods. The second clue is how more than once, in a series of official records, a hiatus will occur just where we would expect there to be some evidence of a particular writer or theatrical event. The third clue is the one we’ve finally managed, with the help of the aforementioned scholars, to track down, that is, who could have so thoroughly purged the record and why? The only possible answer is Robert Cecil, and his father before him.
This is no surprise. Authorship scholars have long suspected Cecil and his father of manipulating the record where it mentioned Oxford, but they had no evidence; how could they, when the very issue is the absence of evidence? With almost complete control for all but one of six decades of the nation’s papers and treasury, they were in a position to do pretty much what they pleased, and one of the things they pleased was to make their enemies and rivals look as bad as possible and themselves as good as possible. They knew they were hated for their power, and for the way they used it to further their own fortunes, so they had every motive for fixing the situation by changing its history. And although William was as guilty as Robert, because when he died he left his papers to his son, trusting him to keep them in the same manner he had, the bulk of the shame falls on Robert, for not only did he have the task of cleaning up after his father, when it came to destroying his brother-in-law’s reputation, Cecil had a far greater motivation than did his father, who had in fact had acted in Oxford’s interest more often than not, at least during his younger years.
Where Burghley was constrained for largely family reasons to create a disconnect between his son-in-law and his disreputable involvement with the Stage and Press, Robert’s motivations were darker and more personal. Where Burghley was Oxford’s surrogate parent, Robert, like a younger brother, had grown up in Oxford’s shadow with all the envy and bitterness that implies, particularly with one so far above him in age, rank, looks, and self-importance. Where Burghley’s issue with Oxford was his treatment of his daughter and his penning of “lewd” plays, Cecil’s was Oxford’s portrayal of himself as the twisted, evil Richard III. Unable to attack him openly, I believe he set about first to curtail, then when that ended in a stalemate, to remove every trace of his power, every connection to the writing establishment and to his authorship of the Shakespeare canon.
How fascinating that following Shakespeare’s takedown in 1597, Cecil “became” Richard III, not only to his nation, but perhaps in his own mind as well, committing wicked acts against men who once had been his friends and close relations. If he couldn’t destroy Oxford himself, as he had Marlowe and Lord Strange, if he couldn’t destroy his company as he had theirs, he would destroy what he could, first, their use of a stage in or close to the politically important West End community (where he was building himself a palatial manor), and second: any evidence that Oxford was a playwright, that Fishers Folly was the source of the plays of the period before Cecil took power, and that, most important of all, he himself was the model for the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men’s portrayal of Richard III.
That Oxford began seeking the stewardship of the Forst of Waltham with a previously unseen intensity in October 1593, a few months after the assassination of Marlowe, suggests that this was when he first began looking for a way to protect himself and his papers from the animosity of Walsingham’s successor. That the shelter he sought was “the Forest,” where so many of Shakespeare’s protagonists end up (Timon, Prospero, Valentine and Proteus, Imogen, everyone in As You Like It), next to the ancient palace where Edward the Confessor spent his final days, and where he’d be under the monarch’s protection, suggests that he also wanted to be where he, and his papers, were as safe from Cecil as possible. Though unable to do this under Elizabeth, with the help of the young Earl of Pembroke and his brother, he got what he needed from King James.
When Cecil’s animosity reached the point where Oxford found himself––Lord Great Chamberlain of his nation and its highest ranking peer––blocked from what he believed to be his mandate, namely to communicate with the movers and shakers of his time through the stage, he found a way to humble his adversary, not, as Cecil was wont to do, by having him physically destroyed, but by using the timeless power of literature (via the Stage and the Press) to destroy his reputation, so that even the good that Cecil may have tried to do with the power given him by James was scorned by a Parliament that saw only his personal cruelty, lust and greed, as was pointed out to them in 1597 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and repeatedly for years by succeeding editions of the published play.
Richard III had other effects as well. It was the beginning of what we might call the Theater of Disgust that, beginning in the late ’90s, would come to dominate the Jacobean stage with plays like John Webster’s (Mary Sidney’s) The White Devil and The Dutchess of Malfi, Jonson’s Volpone, and Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore. The only Shakespeare play in which the protagonist is a villain with no redeeming qualities, it is also the only play without a single admirable character––all are either weak, dull, or evil. Doubtless this was how Oxford saw the Court of Elizabeth in the 1590s, particularly as the Cecils, the “reptilia” as Oxford’s brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie called them, were getting everything into their own hands.
With the Cecils gaining control on one hand and Essex going off the rails on the other, taking all the younger courtiers with him, where was there a choice? Bacon’s was to do whatever it took to gain entry to the establishment so he could change it from the inside––though little good it did either him or his country. Oxford, older than Bacon and disgusted with the Court (pace Duke Vincentio and King Lear), chose to retreat to the Forest where his ambition was to achieve a place at the literary table with Homer, Cicero, Dante and Chaucer. However he may appear to have failed in worldly terms, in this he succeeded, though none who knew it then would or could vouch for him, at least, not openly. Nor has anyone since, until John Looney finally tracked him down to Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics.
He who laughs last . . .
However Oxford may have enjoyed his revenge; however he and the Pembrokes succeeded in saving his works for posterity, when it comes to their showdown, it’s Robert Cecil and his descendants who have had the last laugh. By erasing the paper trail that connected Oxford, not only to Shakespeare, but to anything having to do with the early history of the English stage and press, Cecil locked his hated brother-in-law in an eternal checkmate, for without any evidence to the contrary, historians ever since have seen both him and his father as dedicated servants of the Crown, the first of many in a long line of Robert and William Cecils, dozens of Earls and Marquesses of Salisbury, while Oxford is reviled and the connection he drew between Cecil and Richard III, however strong in his own day, has grown so frail over time as to be (almost) completely lost. He who laughs last, laughs best, and the Cecils and the capitalist establishment they created, are still laughing.