The King’s “Great matter”

The King’s “Great Matter” was the euphemism used by those surrounding Henry VIII for his interminable effort to get a legal divorce from his original Queen so he could marry someone who could provide him with a legal heir. For us today the term might be better used for the real reason why he was so desperate to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. This, which had nothing to do with his having “fallen in love,” with Anne, as the romantic modern biographers would have it, but as everyone at the Court must have been aware, had everything to do with the political necessity of having at least one, preferably two legitimate male heirs so that the Tudors would remain in power after he died. Why Henry failed in this, and why so many had to die for his efforts, is a very “Great Matter” indeed for English history, or at least it should be. That for reasons of shame and national pride it’s been hidden for so long makes the hiding of the truth about Shakespeare’s identity seem much less surprising. 

Having ascended to the throne at eighteen, the first ten years of Henry’s reign promised great things for England. At over six feet tall, he was every inch the image of a great Renaissance prince. His blond good looks, athletic build, love of music and literature plus his efforts to raise the level of studies at the universities, spread his fame throughout the Courts of Europe. 

Faced with the political impasse into which his older brother Arthur’s death had cast his dynastic marriage to Katherine of Aragon––primarily to retain the support of her powerful father, Ferdinand II, King of Spain, and his son, Charles V, future Holy Roman Emperor––Henry married Katherine himself, who soon became pregnant with what everyone was certain would be the all-important heir to the English throne. 

However, since the dynastic nature of his legal marriage placed no moral constraints on the royal libido, as soon as Henry began feeling the urge in his mid to late teens, he had sex with every fair maiden who caught his eye. While his Victorian biographers are insufferably coy about this, the facts speak for themselves. One after another he took the more attractive members of his wife’s corps of ladies and their daughters to bed, and when they got pregnant, married them off to one or another of his younger male cohorts. Nor did he deny himself the one-nighters with pretty dairy maids and lissome laundresses that kings with a “healthy” sex drive back then regarded as their royal right.   

Unfortunately the child Katherine was carrying was born dead. When she had miscarried for the fifth and final time in November 1518, having produced but a single living child, a daughter (of small value where the throne is the objective), six months later, his current mistress, Elizabeth (Bessie) Blount, another of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, gave birth to a living son, on whom the King bestowed an elaborate title appropriate to his exalted patrimony. When Henry moved on to the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, Bessie was married off to another courtier. 

Anne Boleyn, the queen for whom he broke off relations with Rome (the Pope having refused to give him a divorce from Katherine), was already pregnant when they married in May of 1533. Sadly for her, the pregnancy provided yet another female (Elizabeth). Her subsequent failures to sustain another pregnancy must have begun early as there’s evidence in a letter from a year later that Henry was already losing interest in the wife for whom he had severed English relations with Rome and every other European state. John Dewhurst, the Victorian physician who wrote on the subject of these royal pregnancies, quoted a letter from that time: “Since the King began to doubt whether his lady was enceinte or not, he has renewed and increased the love he formerly had for [another] beautiful damsel of the court.”

Anne Boleyn’s final miscarriage, a male child of about three months, may have been the last straw for the touchy monarch. Condemned to death on the absurd charge of having sex with five men of the Court (including her own brother)  Henry married Jane Seymour within hours of beheading the woman for whom he had overturned England’s religion and its alliances with all the Courts of Europe.

Still without a legitimate heir, the King prepared his son by Bessie Blount for legitimization by giving him a royal education and naming him Duke of Richmond and Earl of Nottingham. Unfortunately the young Duke died at age seventeen of consumption, their term for tuberculosis––the same diagnosis historians would give the heir born to Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. This boy, who became Edward VI at age nine when his father died of the disease that had turned him in a monster. Following Henry’s death, his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, died in agony giving birth to her second husband’s child, who also died.

When the boy king himself died at fifteen of what, once again, the historians continue to call consumption––despite the horrific details as reported by Frederick Chamberlin––this left only the two unworthy females who, as heirs “of the kings’ body,” were legally entitled to inherit the throne. The eldest, Katherine’s daughter Mary, who vainly strove to get pregnant by her husband, Philip of Spain, died in pain four years later, of exactly what can’t be determined from the evidence. Her symptoms adhere to those listed as signs of inherited syphilis.

Thus was the door opened to the last and until Mary’s death, the least significant of Henry’s heirs, his daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor, who true to her original determination, never married, never gave birth and, despite rampant rumors, never got pregnant. Records of Elizabeth’s various illnesses, closely studied by Frederick Chamberlain (1921), shows symptoms of the same “Great Matter” that brought about all these other deaths, and although he sought to dispel the rumors, he did not stint in reporting their cause. 

This brief account of the deadly shadow that appears to have frustrated the King’s attempts to get an heir, that destroyed his wives and their children, that turned England into a religious pariah among the nations of Europe, leaves little doubt that as early as 1513 he had been infected by the epidemic that attacked Europe and its ruling houses at the turn of the sixteenth century, what the English called “the Great Pox,” what today we call syphilis (Andreski). Why is there no record of any treatment for it, nor any other record that would support this view? The answer is simple: shame; shame then, shame now, maybe shame forever.  

As for those who continue to refute “the suggestion” that Henry had syphilis because “his doctors never mentioned it,” of course they would never have discussed it with anyone outside the small inner circle that tended to his body on a daily basis, including the King himself. They didn’t need to, for everyone at that time would have known enough about this most dreaded of all the many diseases prevalent then, and for the centuries that would pass before doctors intent on finding its cure succeeded in discovering penicillin. 

Proofs that this is the truth about Henry, the deaths of his wives and children, his break with Rome, his ruthless destruction of so many good and loyal servants like Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell, his greed in taking for himself the wealth of the English Church and every other ancient institution that in his diseased madness he saw as his for the taking. By matching each period of increasingly ruthless destruction, greed or revenge with one of the three stages of syphilis, easily referenced today by articles and photographs online, there can be no denial that this was the real cause of the King’s insanity, and the diseases and deaths of his wives and children, attributed by historians to “consumption.” 

Our search for the truth about the Shakespeare canon has led to more than one long held, strongly defended national secret, but at the heart of all of the lesser secrets is the “Great Matter” of the disease that led to Henry’s divorce and its effect on English history. One of those effects was the reaction when the men who must have known the truth fled to Strasbourg and Geneva when Henry’s Catholic daughter took the throne, where, disgusted and horrified by what sex had done to their once great King, they adopted Calvin’s extreme form of Sin-obsessed, sex-averse protestantism. These were the men who, following Mary’s death, put Henry’s other daughter on the throne, who, over the 40 years of her reign, turned the once merry English into the chilly hands-off culture that it became under Elizabeth, whose hunger for love and laughter was transferred by Shakespeare to the Court Stage, then to the public stage, where it has since spread to the rest of the world.


 

Who was Falstaff?

As we go through Oxford’s life, matching the stages from youth to old age with Shakespeare’s protagonists, from Romeo to Hal to Hamlet to Feste to Lear, Falstaff stands out, not only as his most popular comic character, possibly even rivalling Hamlet for overall popularity, but also as the least like Oxford himself. Falstaff fails to resemble Oxford for the very good reason that unlike protagonists Romeo, Mark Antony, Hamlet or Lear, there was nothing of Oxford in Falstaff, who was based on someone totally unlike himself, someone who had died not long before he reincarnated him on the stage as a comical figure. That someone was the notable “Peck’s bad boy” of Elizabeth’s Court, Sir John Perrot.

Few know his name today (erased by the same invisible hands that have disconnected Oxford from the history of the Stage), but that would not have been the case in the late sixteenth century, when Perott’s popularity with the Queen, his valor and his misdeeds were the stuff of gossip and rumor in Court circles and throughout the nation at large. (His Wikipedia bio is a product of the same Academy that adheres to the Stratford version of Shakespeare’s identity, so it portrays him in the same dark light as it does the Earl of Oxford.)

According to Roger Turvey, who has written about Perrot at length, his influential Welsh stepfather had “secured him a place in the house of William Paulet, Lord St John, later first Marquess of Winchester . . . . Here, in the company of Henry Neville, sixth Lord Bergavenny, and John de Vere, sixteenth earl of Oxford, Perrot completed his formal education.” So says his biographer, although a later anecdote associates this with a moment in 1546 when these three were with Winchester because all three had been placed there under house arrest, the 16th Earl doubtless due to his first wife’s complaints of mistreatment. In this version of the story, Perrot and Neville brawled so violently that “they reportedly broke glasses about one another ears so that blood besprinkled . . . the chamber,” which doesn’t sound much like they were there to get an education, and in fact, by then, Perrot, having been educated in his childhood and teens by Welsh scholars, was already “fluent, on his own admission and by the reports of contemporaries, in French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin.”

 Later adventures put him in France, in an escapade during which, while out hunting, he saved the life of Henri II in an encounter with a wounded boar, a story that sounds a lot like one attributed elsewhere to the 16th Earl, who may have been present at the time (perhaps there were two dangerous boars). Repeatedly rescued from incarceration for debt by his relatives and the King during the reign of Edward VI, he managed to survive at Mary’s Court, doubtless on his charm, since his recorded response to orders to hunt down protestants in Wales was to harbor them in his own home. Seemingly undetered by the spells of house arrest or jail that followed such escapades, Perrot soon learned how to outsmart would-be oppressors through legal tactics. As Turvey puts it: “Never shy of resorting to law to browbeat his enemies into submission, Perrot is said by [a] contemporary . . . to have ruined a number of gentlemen in the process of prosecuting, and being prosecuted, by them.”

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth Sir John’s opportunities for acquiring fame and fortune increased exponentially. Obviously delighted with this intelligent, highly educated hunk of unabashed Welsh derring-do, (he was reputed to be her half-brother since it seems he resembled Henry VIII, a scandal Turvey denies) Elizabeth “showered him with grants of land and advowsons in southwest Wales and elsewhere in England.” Seeking a use for his belligerent nature, she sent him to Ireland, where Turvey claims he continued the “reign of terror” initiated  by his predecessor, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the space of two years, having “dispatched to the gallows over 800 rebels.” Based on how Perrot allowed protestants to escape during Mary’s reign, his acknowledged laxity in obeying orders from afar, and his later popularity with the Irish, these numbers may have been inflated. “800” would have had a comforting sound to an anxious Queen on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Weary of Ireland and its problems, aggravated by lack of support from the Privy Council, when they refused him permission to return to England, he came back anyway, which caused his enemies to expect that the Queen would “issue a severe and public reprimand”––but none came; instead she allowed him to return to Wales, where he continued to build his power base and send his supporters to parliament. Recurring troubles in Ireland caused her to send him back in 1584, and although in the following four years he was unable to create the reforms he’d promised, when he handed the governorship over to a Burghley appointee, in 1588, “the latter was compelled to admit that he left the country in a state of peace.”

In February 1589 the Queen confirmed his appointment to the Privy Council. According to Turvey, “This proved to be the high point of his career for, unbeknown to him, the foundations of his position and influence at court were soon to be undermined.” Perhaps putting Perrot on the Privy Council can be seen as a last ditch attempt by the Queen to maintain the balance of power that had always been her guiding principle; in any case it proves to have been Perrot’s death knell. It seems the obvious regard in which Perrot was still held by the Irish upset Lord Burghley, who, having returned to total power with the death of Walsingham in 1590, was hardly one to appreciate someone so unlike himself. As Turvey relates, with Walsingham’s death, “Perrot was placed under house arrest at Burghley’s Strand residence,” so that charges of treason lodged against him by the new Burghley appointed Governor of Ireland could be “investigated.” Formally charged with treason in December––the only crime that someone of his status could be charged––Perrot was sent to the Tower the following March, where he remained for a year before he was finally brought to trial.

Among the charges against Sir John were rude comments he had made about Elizabeth, among them: “Stick not so much upon Her Majesty’s letter, she may command what she will, but we will do what we list,” and “God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.” According to Turvey, he “did not deny that he might have spoken the words attributed to him. but he resented the interpretation placed upon them.”  As Turvey puts it, 

Even towards the end Perrot never believed that he would be found guilty, much less executed. He took comfort from the fact that the queen had stayed judgement against him on six occasions. However, unbeknown to him the architect of his downfall was no less a man than Burghley who, before and throughout the trial, presented himself in public as a friend and ally but in secret wrought his destruction. . . ; to his utter astonishment, Perrot was found guilty and condemned to death on 26 June 1592. 

Perrot died in prison that November and was buried shortly after within the Tower. He died before sentence could be carried out or, as seems likely in view of Elizabeth’s favourable treatment of his family later, and her lifelong concern for his welfare, before she could issue the pardon he was so certain would save him. The cause of his death was not reported. Turvey holds that Perrot was poisoned by “his enemies,” who, foreseeing that the Queen would eventually pardon him, feared what would happen to them should he be returned to the Privy Council. 

How is it that such a character could have been totally erased from a history in which he so obviously played a major role? Perhaps for the same reason that Oxford’s history as a theatrical impresario has been erased. 

Perrot as Sir Toby Belch

Much as Oxford first put Sir Thomas Smith on the stage in Thomas of Woodstock, then as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, and finally as old Gonzago in The Tempest, surely he did the same for John Perrot. First in Twelfth Night, while he was still very much alive, he appears as Sir Toby Belch, who shows so many of Perrot’s characteristics, one of which is how much he detests Malvolio, Oxford’s version of Christopher Hatton. One of the few thing we know about Perrot is how he detested Hatton, of whom it is said he famously jested that he had danced his way into the Queen’s favor in a Galliard. 

In need of a role that would tempt Will Kempe to join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, then in the planning stages, Oxford created Falstaff for a Court still feeling Perrot’s absence. That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men called him John Oldcastle at first, was because at that time they were in need of some means whereby to humiliate William Brooke Lord Cobham, the Cecil flunky that the Queen had named their Lord Chamberlain following the death of Lord Hunsdon. As for Falstaff’s corpulence, while we have nothing to tell us whether Sir John, once so active, put on weight during these long final periods of incarceration, that he suffered from kidney stones suggests that, denied the life of action he was used to, an appetite for food got the better of him, in the way that his other appetites had done. (The illustration provided by the Wikipedia bio must be disregarded. It was done in a later century by someone who had never seen him.)

In any case, at some point either before or after Cobham’s death in March 1597, it reverted to Falstaff, which, however associated with the historic soldier Sir John Fastolfe, provided a perfect counterpoint to the authorial name as published a few years earlier in Venus and Adonis and first put on a published play in 1598. While today’s academics ponder things like feminine endings, the poets in Oxford’s audience would not have missed the significance of Fall-staff as counterpoint to Shake-spear,

Why is it taking so long?

Why is it taking so long for the Academy to deal with the Authorship Question? 

It’s so obvious that a man from William of Stratford’s background, that of an uneducated sixteenth-century wool dealer’s son from a town three days ride by horseback from England’s only theatrical city, simply could NOT have written the works of Shakespeare. So why does the Academy lie about that?  Why have they continued to lie for centuries? 

One thing is certain, to attack the English Department for its stupidity has been a waste of time.  It arrived too late in the Shakespeare game to do anything but keep on turning in tight little circles around the kind of issues that are all their peculiar brand of philology will allow. No, our problem is with the History Department. Until we understand that, and the unseen immensity of the question of his identity, we will never get anywhere.   

Because while the English Departments care nothing about Oxford, or William, or any possible author, the History Department does care about him, because it hates him. It has hated the Earl of Oxford for centuries.  It sees him as a pampered brat who did nothing but waste his family inheritance and insult that kindly old gentleman, Lord Burghley. Alan Nelson is only the most recent in a long stream of historians who’ve been egregiously slamming Oxford for centuries.  Forty years before Nelson, sociologist Laurence Stone labelled Burghley’s wards “an antipathetic group of superfluous parasites” with Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all.” 

Part of this is the Earl’s own fault.  Following his return from Italy in 1576, he effectively disappears from history.  Focussed on building theaters and giving actors work, he did what he could to stay out of range of the Reformation puritans and evangelicals whose passionate belief that making and watching plays was a slippery slope leading to eternal damnation.  Though his name pops up now and then in the Revels records and Court Calendar, these seem almost accidental, as though a new clerk was keeping track, one who didn’t know the actors preferred to keep his involvement a secret.

None of this, however, goes anywhere near explaining why every biographer, journalist or novelist who has ever had cause to mention Oxford’s name in passing has paired it with some nasty pejorative, such as: “the obnoxious Earl of Oxford”; the “violent” Earl of Oxford; the “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “profligate,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable” Earl of Oxford. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.”  To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read, he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.”  To literary historian A.L. Rowse he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.”  To Alan Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel,”––this last because his mother wasn’t a thoroughbred aristocrat! 

Some of this mistreatment began in his own lifetime. We know this from the Sonnets, where he speaks of himself as ‘ïn disgrace with ‘fortune and men’s eyes,” and because in the version of Hamlet published while he was still alive, the dying protagonist begs his friend, “O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me . . . .”  What things unknown?  

As all are aware who have delved into what E.K. Chambers calls “the Shakespeare Problem,”  there are entire periods, whole sequences of events, that are missing from history.  One of these is the truth about Shakespeare’s identity.  Another is a satisfying account of the creation of the London Stage.  With both of these it’s as if a film about the moon landing goes from the planning stage to the return from space with nothing to show what took place in between.  Chambers’s only acknowledgement of  these blanks in the Record in The Elizabethan Stage, the great 4-volume compendium published in 1923, is the arcane Latin term, lacunae

All we have time for today is a close look at one important moment, and for that just the briefest of outlines. 

We’ll begin in the spring of 1590 with the death of the then Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham.  History’s claim––that Walsingham had no interest in the Stage––is another flat out lie, one of the many that we encounter when seeking the truth about the creation of the London Stage.  The record is clear, Walsingham had actively fostered it throughout the 1580s. Why then, as soon as he was gone, did it begin to suffer the setbacks that came close to destroying it?  The only possible answer is the return by Lord Burghley to running Walsingham’s office, the office that Burghley himself had created during the Queen’s first decade, and that he brought in with him his son Robert to help with those aspects of the job that his increasing age made difficult.  Among these it seems was an all-out attempt to control, or destroy the London Stage.

According to the Revels Account for the winters of 1590 through 1593, the three companies that had entertained the Court every winter for the decade that Walsingham was in charge, Paul’s Boys, the Lord Admiral’s Men, and the Queen’s Men, were dropped, one by one, from the roster. With their loss of the government’s support, some of  these companies were forced to break, and their actors to take off to the Continent in hopes of finding work there.

When Burghley’s attempt to get the popular playwright Christopher Marlowe incarcerated on a trumped up charge of counterfeiting failed in 1592, his brutal murder by government agents the following year was blamed on Marlowe himself.  To make certain that no one would bother to investigate his murder, a team of disinformation operatives were put to work creating documents that defamed his character, a defamation that has lasted to this day. 

The following year came the murder of Marlowe’s patron, Ferdinando Lord Strange, recently raised to 5th Earl of Derby. In 95 came the marriage of Ferdinando’s younger brother William, now the 6th Earl of Derby, to, of all women, Oxford’s daughter. With Ferdinando out of the way, the marriage, arrranged by Burghley, gave the Cecils the entry into the upper peerage that had been denied them when Oxford failed to provide them with an heir.

This brings us to 1596, the year the Queen finally gave in and appointed Robert Secretary of State. Two weeks later, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, creator of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that was meant to replace the companies disbanded by the Cecils, died unexpectedly following a healthy dinner. 

Two weeks after Hunsdon’ death, his office as Lord Chamberlain was given to Cecil’s father-in-law, Burghley’s main supporter William Brooke Lord Cobham, which put Brooke on the Privy Council, thus giving control of the Council to the Cecils. By October, the Council had been persuaded by Elizabeth Russell––Robert’s Aunt, Burghley’s sister-in-law––to prevent the Burbages from opening their elegant new theater in what she regarded as her personal bailiwick, the Liberty of Blackfriars. The following February, James Burbage, builder of the first public stage in London and father of the team that led the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was also dead.

When Cecil , now the most powerful man in England, was informed the following May that he was the butt of a play being performed at a new theater by a company made up of actors from those he had forced to disband, he ordered all the theaters in London closed for the rest of the summer.  He would have to allow them to reopen in October because that’s when upwards of 500 parliamentarians from all over England would pour into Westminster for the Queen’s Ninth Parliament, hungry for the kind of entertainment that they could find only in the nation’s capitol.  Cecil could not afford to displease these important constituents by keeping the theaters shuttered, so they reopened in October.  That is, all but two, one of them the Burbages 20-year-old public stage.  It remained closed––permanently.

With no theater in which to perform, no Court patron to protect them, their manager dead, their livelihoods at stake, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men turned to the one thing they had left, their playwright.  Faced with the destruction of the industry he had created and with the loss of contact with what by then must have become an immense public audience, Oxford called once more on his “Muse of  Fire.” Revising his old True Tragedy of  Richard the Third  into the brutal and humorless play we know today as Richard the Third,  the Company, with the help of someone close to the press community, launched their attack. With no theater available, they would have arranged to perform it nearby in the hall of  one of London’s great manors.  

The Court was used to Robert Cecil’s deformity, his spindly little legs, hunched back and crooked neck. Born with a serious form of the scoliosis that touched so many members of his mother’s family,  Robert had borne the slings and arrows of this cruel misfortune, the dismissive attitude of the tall men and beautiful women who winked at each other over his head in a Court ruled by a Queen who surrounded herself with tall, handsome, long-legged men.  But the parliamentarians from the north and west of England may never have seen him in person until he stood before them in Parliament as the Queen’s new representative. 

And so, as the footlights were lit, and the young Richard Burbage, hunched over and garbed all in black, entered the darkened room, the audience of  MPs and Court regulars gasped to see the image of  their new Secretary of State.  With Burbage mimicking Cecil’s lurching gait, speaking in accents modelled on the voice they had been hearing every day in Parliament, they listened with astonished horror as he mouthed the opening lines: 

“I that am rudely stamp’d, . . . Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up,”––a description written by one who had been present during his mother’s pregnancy,  who had seen the anxiety with which his family anticipated his birth (his mother had a history of miscarriages), one who had seen his struggles to breathe and walk.  Thus did Richard Burbage launch his career as one of the most famous actors of his time, in the role for which he would forever be best known. 

As the parliamentarians watched in stunned silence while the evil king proceded to destroy one after another of his rivals, the question must have struck many: Who could have written this devastating slander?  Who was daring enough to risk Cecil’s wrath?  Later, as Parliament finished its business and the MPs returned to their home territories, the scandal would have spread like wildfire throughout the nation––but only whispered, behind closed doors, for no one who had seen the play would have dared to speak openly.  No one would have dared to put anything on paper.  Despite the lack of incontrovertible evidence, that this is what happened is the only possible explanation for what followed.

Before the arrival of the MPs in October, someone had seen to it that this revision of The True Tragedy was made available to them in inexpensive quarto.  However prepared by this, what the audience would not have been prepared for was the comparison of their new Secretary of State with Richard III.  There is nothing in the published version to suggest it.  Only those who had seen it would make the connection.  And with no record of the performance but hearsay, how could anyone prove that the comparison with Cecil was intentional, or anything but the viewer’s naughty imagination?

That the play created a firestorm of scandalized commentary at Court and in London may never have reached the record, but it is suggested by the fact that a second edition of the play was published at some point not long after the Christmas break, one with exactly the same text as the first except that the phrase “by William Shake-speare” had been added to the title page. Thus was the name Shakespeare launched to an eternity of fame and misidentification.

That life at Court appears to have continued as though undisturbed, suggests that Elizabeth got involved.  Normally she left all matters relating to her Court entertainment to her Lord Chamberlain,  probably so that her reputation not be tarnished with the evangelicals, but the subsequent smoothing over of what must have been a great if  whispered scandal could only have been done by the Queen herself.  In any case, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Lord Admiral’s Men continued to entertain over the winter holidays, and as Robert Cecil continued beside her as her main advisor, it must have seemed to most that he had survived the blow aimed at him by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  

There was, however, one who would continue to feel it and that most painfully, namely Cecil himself.  Having proven himself a Master of the Dark Arts by the success of the sting with which he destroyed Marlowe and his reputation, Cecil’s campaign to destroy the London Stage and its creator was to have been the ultimate demonstration to his enemies that he was proof against all efforts to hurt him.  That in the final showdown over the Stage Oxford had beaten him, and that the world, or that part of it that mattered, knew it, left him with a great thirst for revenge.

Having learned from his father how He who owns the Record owns History, once Cecil reached the level of power under James that gave him access to every record in the nation, can we doubt that he took advantage of it?  Can we imagine that having the power to eliminate everything about the London Stage, along with everything that connected it to his hated brother-in-law,  can we think for one minute that he failed to use it?  Having no other weapon with which to wound him, can we doubt that he did so?

What other explanation can there be for E.K. Chambers’s lacunae, the great gaps that appear in the record where there ought to be something about the Stage?  The only persons in a position to do that were the Cecils, who, except for the decade and a half that Walsingham held the office of Secretary,  had control of it for half a century.  What other explanation can there be for the barrage of pejoratives that has attended any mention of the Earl of Oxford from that day to this? Who else could have seen to it that nothing good about the Earl of Oxford remained in the record, while things like the Howard-Arundel libels remained?

Hatfield House, home to the Cecils and their descendants ever since Robert acquired the property from King James, has also been the permanent home of the archives from the Tudor period as collected by the Cecils over the half century that they controlled the record.  For 400 years, scholars requiring access to original documents from the Tudor and Jacobean period have had to apply for permission to study these in the library at Hatfield House, under the watchful eyes of their librarians.  

As other household archives ended up in the British Museum or the Public Record Office, those gathered by Burghley and his son remained under their family’s control at Hatfield House.  Only since 2003 has the creation of the National Archives and the growth of the Internet has made it possible for those of us without the support of a university to research these records without the okay of the Cecil family.

Long after the original Cecils were gone, generations of Robert’s descendants have served on boards and committees whose goal has been to oversee the creation of a morally acceptible English History.  Can we doubt that these have been partly driven as a means of protecting the good name of Salisbury, correcting anything that might threaten to damage it with an ugly truth?

In his 1973 memoire about his family, Lord David Cecil repeats the version of Oxford that the Cecils have been telling each other and the nation ever since.  It’s all there, including the accusations of pedophilia, which means that generations of Cecils, and those following the paper trails they left to History were all aware of the Howard-Arundel libels long before Alan Nelson published them.  There is a nasty quality to these off-hand slurs that reflects the tone of the terms used to defame gay men by inference during the 19th-century when England writhed in the grip of its epidemic of homophobia, a story that has barely reached beyond what it did to Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde. How it also damaged Oxford’s reputation is an important chapter in our story.

It was also during the 19th century that William Cecil’s lifetime goal, the raising of a humble family to the peak of power, was finally and gloriously achieved when the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, another Robert Cecil, rose to become Queen Victoria’s longest ruling Prime Minister and the major power behind the phenomenon known as the British Empire. The grand irony here is that as this Cecil’s economic and political might spread the English language and its literature around the world, it took with it the works of Shakespeare, including of course, his Richard the Third, an irony that Oxford would surely have appreciated, had he been around to see it.

DNB bio of Sir Thomas North

In a Facebook discussion of Sir Thomas North, the supposed translator of Plutarch’s Lives, I tried to send a pdf of his DNB biography, which did not work. So I’ll try to send it here.

There always been a suspicion that North himself did not translate the first thing he’s been credited with, the Dial of Princes. The evidence for that can be found in his DNB bio. Of course all evidence related to North is of interest, but so far I have not found a whole lot else. Interested in what others think.

For the record

For those whose interest goes deeper than the surface, here’s a list of the proxies (standins, pen names) used by Oxford, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or the Earls of Pembroke, to get his works published over the years. If there’s an interest I can explain who these individuals were, those who were real, in Oxford’s life.

1562- Arthur Brooke: narrative poem – Romeus and Juliet

1563- L. Blundeston – Introduction to Barnabe Googe’s Eclogue’s 

1565-67-Arthur Golding: narrative poem – Ovid’s Metamorphoses

1564-66- Richard Edwardes: plays for university commencements- Cambridge: 1564: Damon and Pythias; Oxford: 1566: Palamon and Arcite

1566 – William Painter – comic and bawdy tales translated from French and Italian sources: Painter’s Pallace of Pleasure. Major source of Shakespeare’s plots (alongside Plutarch, Ovid & Holinshed).

1567 – George Gascoigne – plays for Gray’s Inn: The Supposes, Jocasta

1567-68 – anonymous – plays for Paul’s Boys; Children of Windsor; or Children of the Chapel: Wit and Will; Orestes; A Tragedy of the King of Scots

1568-1574 – anonymous – unnamed plays for Children’s companies, and companies led by the Dutton brothers. 

1576 – George PettieA Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure. A collection of tales in the style of Euphues. (published by R.B.)

1576 – Richard Edwardes (dead): first poetry anthology: A Paradise of Dainty Devices

1576-77 – anonymous – play for Paul’s Boys: The Historie of Error

1578 – John Lyly: novel – Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit

1578-79 – anonymous – plays for Lord Chamberlain’s Players – The Cruelty of a Stepmother (Cymbeline?); Murderous Michael (Arden of Faversham?)

1580 – Anthony Munday: novel – Zelauto: The Fountain of Fame

1580 – John Lyly: novel Euphues: His England

1580 – Robert Greene – pamphlet: romance tale: Mamillia (the first of dozens published over the 1580s)

1581 – George Pettie – translation of Stephano Guazzo’s Civile Conversation, Books I-III.

1584-85 – anonymous – play for “The Earl of Oxenford his boys” – Agamemnon and Ulysses (Troilus and Cressida?) many plays for various companies, none immediately identifiable by title.

1589 – Robert GreeneMenaphon – pamphlet introducing Thomas Nashe

1592 – Robert Greene -farewell pamphlet – Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit

1594-1600 – anonymous – published in quarto: Taming of A Shrew, Henry VI part two, Henry VI part three, Titus Andronicus, Edward III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV part one, Henry IV part two, Henry V

1598-1609: William Shakespeare: in quarto: Pericles, Prince of Tyre, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, Merry Wives, Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, Richard III

1623 – William Shakespeare – collected works in the First Folio.Apart for a few minor exceptions, all the other plays, roughly half, were first published in 1623.

Prove me right or prove me wrong

Among the great spear-shakers of history, Shakespeare inhabits a realm shared by few others, where the loss of his human identity has left him floating in a void, seemingly divorced from our pantheon of cultural heroes and even from the cultish level achieved by his plays, up there in the charmed circle, the champagne and chandelier-lit halls where people pay a fortune to be seen watching the Russian Ballet and Grand Opera. 

Of God it has been said “tis He who hath made us, and not we ourselves.” Flesh and bone perhaps, but for those who speak English, more even than his near contemporaries, the authors of the King James Bible, it’s Shakespeare who’s given us the words, and beyond the words, the ideas we’ve lived by ever since he rose to his present level in the nineteenth century. From his Stage to the first peeps of a free Press to the centuries of newspapers to radio, film, television, and the internet, it’s Shakespeare, more than any other single individual, whose public stage and the plays he created for it, gave the English their first experience with what today we call the Media. 

This act of defiance in the face of the growing tyranny of free market capitalism, a force unchecked by either policy or religion––the creation of the first stand alone commercially successful public theater in modern history––standing, right from the start, cheek by jowl with the central machinery of government, Whitehall and Parliament, was too much of a threat to those in power to allow the truth about its creation, or its creator, to get out. Today, freed by new forms of the Media provided by a new century, it’s time to let the genie out of the bottle, and tell the world who he was, what he did, and why he did it. 

The key, as always, is publication. Wikipedia, social media, access to the ODNB for a small fee, are accessible to freelance historians in ways that until now have been locked within the ivy-covered walls of Academe. Shakespeare lovers all over the world are ready to hear the story of his creation of the Media, the fourth estate of government, the vox populi. In a few books I cannot begin to provide all the evidence for any particular point, but the evidence is there, if only we’ll look for it, are wise enough to know it when we see it, and bold enough to take advantage of this brave new world of instant communication. 

Join the fray. Prove me right or prove me wrong, but let’s have the truth, wherever it may lead

Dating the plays by Oxford’s biography

Now that we know something of Oxford’s personal timeline we can begin to locate the moment when it’s most likely he was inspired (or driven) to write the first version of a particular play. This is complicated by the fact that all but one or two of his greatest plays are the result of his own revisions over the years (not to mention changes made by the editors of the First Folio) and by the fact that a number of his early plays have been assigned by academics to other writers. Thus the following assignment of most of these first versions, however based on data and common sense, is necessarily largely conjectural. For all but a few, an effort to prove his authorship would require a long article for each, while this essay is simply an effort to organize them into a hypothetical timeline as a starting point for more detailed research. The dates of these important turning points in his career are 1562, 1576, 1581, 1589, 1597, and 1604.

Because so many of the plays reflect incidents in Oxford’s life, characters and plots that reflect it are the most determining factors, but style is also important. The first period begins with his arrival in London and the publication of the sweet love poem Romeus and Juliet. When seen as his chosen means of attracting female companionship, it seems clear that it succeeded with at least one attractive and intelligent girl, Mary Browne, daughter of the wealthy and important courtier, Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montacute (Montague) who, sadly, was a confirmed Catholic. As his first love, she was also one of his longest (in later years, mother of the 3rd Earl of Southampton, the “Fair Youth” of the Sonnets). At the time of her marriage to the 2nd Earl of Southampton, February 19, 1566, Mary was thirteen and Oxford was fifteen, the same ages of the lovers that someday Shakespeare will place in the literary firmament of stars. 

1562: Arrival at Cecil House; The Court; Paul’s Boys

To Romeus can be added plays created for the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral and their master, Sebastian Westcott. Known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, Westcott’s little company almost immediately became the primary entertainers for the Queen’s winter holidays. To this period can be added the plays written for the university commencements at Cambridge in 1564, Damon and Pythias; and at Oxford in 1566, Palamon and Arcite (ignore the references to Richard Edwards, Oxford’s cover at this time.) During this period Oxford converted the choristers at the Queen’s Chapel at Greenwich Palace to a second boys company, known as The Children of the Chapel.

Following the death of his father in 1562, the new Earl of Oxford spent his teen years as a ward of the Queen, entertaining her Majesty while squirming under the thumb of her “favorite,” the Earl of Leicester. Though technically her Master of Horse (the chief military post) Leicester, (still only Robert Dudley) had assumed control over those Court functions not directly within the purview of her Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, with whom Oxford was housed at that time. During these years, while Dudley was profiting from the Queen’s gift of the “management” of Oxford’s inherited estates, his jealousy caused him to do whatever he could to prevent the brilliant youth from establishing himself as a force in European literature, an area Dudley claimed for himself, not as a writer, but as the Court’s leading literary patron at that time. Leicester and his adherents, based in the Inner Temple in Westminster, would fight Oxford for years over control of the Court Stage. 

1571, the year Oxford turned 21, fortune finally began to smile upon him. With his former tutor, Sir Thomas Smith now Secretary of State (Cecil having moved on to the more lucrative office of Lord Treasurer), plus the advent of the sophisticated Earl of Sussex as the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, suddenly Oxford had supporters at Court who were not afraid of Leicester.

Sussex had a forceful personality, and soon showed his determination to take control of those areas that traditionally belonged to his office, among them Court entertainment. Surely this was the moment when Oxford became the Queen’s Minister of Pastime (without portfolio). Now officially an adult, he began writing for the adult actors, who, unlike the boys, were old enough to earn a real living by entertaining the public at theater inns and Guild halls. In this they had the tacit support of Elizabeth, for unable to support them herself, due to the puritan attitudes of her most important ministers, she knew they had to find a way to survive.

Surely Sussex must also have played a part in persuading the Queen and Burghley to finally allow him the “Grand Tour” of the Continent that he had been demanding since turning 21, the traditional cap to the education of a peer, which they had been denying him, primarily for fear that he’d join one of the enclaves of wellborn English catholics overseas and they’d never see him again.

Plays that originated during this period (revised later for Court and public performance) include Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cymbeline, As You Like It, Macbeth, Richard II, Woodstock, Ironside, and the True Tragedies.  

1576: Oxford returns from Italy; the first commercial public stage

With Oxford’s return from Italy in March 1576 came the creation that summer of the great public stage on the major highway leading into London. Built to hold two to three thousand viewers at a sitting, the poorest members of the working class, for only a penny (the cost of a small loaf of bread) could see the show from the orchestra pit. Every day of the week but Sunday, upwards of two to three thousand members of the London public, poor or wellborn, male or female, young or old, gathered in the great stage every afternoon but Sunday, from four to six pm, for the next twenty years. 

Thus was created, not just a theater, but an immense public audience greater than anything that could be reached anywhere near as directly, either by the Church or by the State. To these years can be assigned early versions of many plays that would later be polished to the form we know from the First Folio, among them all the plays based in Italy: The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale

1581: Fisher’s Folly, plays about history and politics, the Queen’s Men

The first major turning point in Oxford’s career was the unhappy day in March 1581 that his son by maid-of-honor Ann Vavasor was born in the Queen’s chamber. He spent the next two months in the Tower, where he sat upon the ground and told himself sad stories of the deaths of kings. His friends would have brought him books, among them the Geneva Bible, a traditional companion for an incarcerated friend, causing him to ponder the relationship between Saul (Elizabeth) and David (himself).

Following two months in the Tower he was remanded to house arrest at Fisher’s Folly, the estate in Shoreditch he’d just finished renovating, a five minute walk to and from the big public theater he had helped to fund on land controlled by his friend from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland. Together with his secretaries, first Anthony Munday, then (following Munday’s shameful destruction of Edmund Campion) John Lyly, and actor and musician friends like the Bassanos, he hung out at the Pye Inn just around the corner, where he discovered the 16-year-old Edward Alleyn, younger brother of the inn’s owner John Alleyn.  

With nothing compelling him to provide the Royal Bitch with comedies, Oxford turned to what had been his favorite audience ever since his days at Gray’s Inn, the lords and lawyers of the legal colleges, the Inns of Court in Westminster, where he found ways to shake his spear at those who were calling him a traitor (any sort of Court offense could be considered treason), in plays that examined issues of betrayal, Timon of Athens, a blast at the courtiers who had turned on him as soon as the Queen withdrew her favor, and Julius Caesar, murdered by the noble Brutus, who, like himself, was torn between loyalty to a leader and the human freedoms threatened by that leader. 

This was also the most likely moment when the first version of Hamlet was written, though it could not have been anything like what it would become by the time Oxford’s patrons finally got it published in the 17th century. Most probably first written following the death of Sussex, who had begun to fail about the time Oxford was banished, his death blamed by some on Leicester.

Sussex had been something of a father figure for Oxford. Now, with him gone and no one to take his place, the Queen still bitter about his affair with Vavasor, Leicester was again in a position to keep him cornered. It’s also the perfect moment for The Spanish Tragedy (wrongly attributed years later to Thomas Kyd, his scrivener), which provides a taste of his style as it was in the mid-eighties.

Reinstated at Court two years later by Sir Francis Walsingham, now Secretary of State, who (silently) stepped into Sussex’s shoes as patron of the Court Stage, (ignore the standard depiction of Walsingham as having no interest in the theater), and who needed Oxford to supply the touring company he’d just created with rousing plays meant to stimulate patriotism, which Walsingham, in creating the Queen’s Men as a touring company, sent to play for the folk along the shores where he was certain the Spanish Armada would attack.

As the Queen’s Men, the first acting company given royal sanction, it was led by the leading actors of Oxford’s Company, the Dutton brothers. With the comedy team of Richard Tarleton and Will Kempe to provide the laughs, the company was a great success with the public, and also at Court where the Queen’s Men would dominate the winter Court Calendar for the next ten years. Plays written during this period include Ironside and James IV, and early versions of King John and Henry V.

1589: bankruptcy, Walsingham’s death; Southampton and the Sonnets

The leap in Oxford’s writing style from Spanish Tragedy to Romeo and Juliet came with the death of Anne Cecil in June of 1588, shortly before the showdown with the Spanish Armada. With Anne gone, also gone was her father’s hope for a son whose status as heir to the Oxford earldom would open his door to the upper peerage. With his dynastic need to support Oxford gone, and his outrage over plays like Hamlet and Pericles intensified by the deaths of both his daughter and his wife, Burghley used his status as Lord Treasurer to nullify Oxford’s primary source for funding the London Stage, his credit as a peer of the realm. 

Essentially bankrupt, Oxford was forced to sell Fisher’s Folly and say goodbye to all but one or two of the team of secretaries, poets and musicians. Now in his forties, he ended up at Mme. Penne’s, a hostelry for men of class and uncertain means located between Blackfriars and the Mermaid Tavern near Long Wharf. With his companies dispersed and his actors out of work, he whiled away the hours writing sonnets for and about his one remaining patron, the teenaged Earl of Southampton, and the mistress they came to share, the dark-eyed musician and poet Emilia Bassano. From this period came the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. From these efforts also was born the voice known to historians as Shakespeare’s.

The sudden death of Walsingham in 1590 initiated a series of deaths in the 1590s that would open the door to the Cecils’ takeover of the government and bring the endangered London Stage to the verge of collapse. One in particular, the 1593 murder of playwright Christopher Marlowe by government agents, a sting obviously masterminded by William Cecil’s son Robert, cries out for an in-depth examination by an authorship scholar that will correct the notions purveyed by Charles Nicholls’s The Reckoning, the best source so far for the plot to take down Marlowe, despite his absurd attempt to put the blame on Essex.

1594: A second marriage; The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Henry IV

Meanwhile Oxford’s long time patron, Henry Carey Lord Hunsdon, having been made Lord Chamberlain in 1587, together with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, were working behind the scenes to find a way to save the London Stage. Hunsdon, the Queen’s cousin (possibly her half-brother if Henry VIII was his father as was rumored) and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, both long time patrons of the Stage, enrolled by Sussex as his vice-Chamberlains back in the 70s, came up with what academic Andrew Gurr calls “the duopoly.”

Their idea was to split the authority over the London Stage between them. Hunsdon’s team, to be known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, would have Oxford as playwright, what was left of the Queen’s Men, the public Theatre in Norton Folgate for their stage, popular comedian Will Kempe as their star, and the brilliant businessman John Hemmings as their manager. Howard’s team, the Lord Admiral’s Men, would consist of Philip Henslowe’s team at his Rose Theater in Southwark, Marlowe’s playbook, and the popular Edward Alleyn as both their star and stage manager. Much about this crucial moment in theater history would be clarified if someone could examine Henslowe’s Diary, which covers the most important period in this story, the fight to save Oxford’s public audience. 

Many of the plays from this time are revisions of his earlier plays. Plays created for Hunsdon’s team include Henry IV parts one and two, Othello, a revision of Henry V, and the creation of Falstaff, who became so popular as performed by Will Kempe, that in 1597, when no comedy scenes had been provided for him that season in Richard II and Richard III, Kempe took off on his own, leaving Oxford to manufacture an offstage death scene in Henry V, in which the death of Falstaff is described as a repeat of the death of Socrates, perhaps a gracious tip of the hat to the great comedian.

Oxford left Penne’s in 1592, the Queen, perhaps at Hunsdon’s suggestion, having arranged a marriage for him with one of her wealthy ladies-in-waiting. They moved to King’s Place in Hackney, where he provided his new wife with and her family with an heir to the Oxford earldom, and where he had what he needed to provide The Lord Chamberlain’s Men with new plays. The remaining  reigns from the Lancastrian cycle that began with Richard II and ended with Richard III were both difficult since neither king offered a story worth telling: Henry VI was a disaster as a king, and Henry IV was hugely unpopular, particularly with those who had loved Richard, including his own son, Prince Hal, whose youthful rebellious attitude towards his father was due to his love and admiration for Richard, as medievalist Terry Jones explains in Who Murdered Chaucer?

Possibly spurred by Hunsdon, who needed plays for his new company, in 1592 Elizabeth arranged a second marriage to another of her Ladies-in-waiting, whose wealthy family would be able to keep him in sufficient comfort that he could continue to provide plays for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Meanwhile, Hunsdon and Burbage began making plans to turn the old Parliament Chamber in Blackfriars into a splendid new indoor theater walking distance from Westminster and the parliaments that took place there every three or four years. 

Given the mandate to provide Hunsdon with plays, Oxford began the process of revising plays Richard II and Henry V, filling the gap between the two with with Henry IV parts one and two. For these he combined memories of his recent time at Mme Penne’s with memories of his years at Fisher’s Folly, turning Marlowe, Kyd and Peele into Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, for whom he created his hilarious sendup of Marlowe’s style.

1597: The showdown with the Cecils: Richard III and the advent of “Shake-speare”

The Cecils were not slow to react. Burghley’s incessant petition to the Queen to make his son Robert the next Secretary of State finally paid off the summer of 1596 while their rivals, the Earl of Essex and his followers were off on the Continent burning the Spanish city of Cadiz. Two weeks later Hunsdon died (unexpectedly from all evidence) and two weeks after that the Queen in her wisdom appointed Robert’s father-in-law, William Brooke Ld. Cobham, to take Hunsdon’s place as the new Lord Chamberlain and consequently patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Elizabeth’s failure to block the Cecils’ coup is a tragic final act to an otherwise exemplary reign. 

A few weeks later the actors got news that the beautiful new theater their father and Hunsdon had created in the old Parliament Chamber would remain closed, thanks to a petition to the Privy Council created by Lady Russell, Robert’s aunt, Burghley’s sister-in-law. Evidently Robert Cecil, now with the power to deal a death blow to the London Stage, was clearing the decks for his trial performance as the Queen’s newly appointed representative in the Parliament set to convene the following October.

Thus it was that by the Christmas season of 1597-98, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, led by the Burbage brothers (their father had died the previous February), after twenty years of commercial success, found themselves on the verge of annihilation: both their father and their Privy Council patron dead, their public stage in Norton Folgate closed and not likely to reopen anytime soon, their great new indoor theater in Blackfriars permanently shuttered. As they faced the prospect of a Parliament without any means of providing it with the entertainment that was a large part of the MPs’ pleasure in coming to London, the Company, desperate to save itself, pulled the one arrow left in their quiver, their playwright. 

It is my contention that Oxford revised his earlier True Tragedy of Richard the Third into what we know today as his darkest and most vicious play, Richard III. Friends supplied his Company with a nearby hall where, over the Christmas break, they performed the revised play for an audience of MPs, during which Richard Burbage, in a costume based on Robert Cecil’s standard garb, mimicking his voice and wobbling gait, they conveyed the message that England’s new Secretary of State was a reincarnation of its most evil king. 

The shock waves created by this theatrical coup (however unrecorded or later erased from history) rolled, with the return of the MPs to their home territories, to the furthest corners of the nation. Although every reference to this showdown would be wiped from the record during his fifteen Robert’s years of total power as Secretary of State under James I, something happened the winter of 1597-98 that forced the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to add the phrase “by William Shake-speare” to second editions of both Richard II and Richard III. Thus was Shakespeare introduced to the world as the author of these two current plays, at the same time that an obscure writer published in a pamphlet titled “Wits Treasury” how William Shakespeare was the true author of ten other popular plays plus his “sugar’d sonnets shared among his friends.”  

1604: The death of Adonis, the Forest of Waltham, King Lear and Hamlet

Something, probably the enmity of Robert Cecil, prompted Oxford in the early nineties to return to petitioning the Queen for the return of his family’s ancient stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, an inherited office stolen from the 15th Earl by Henry VIII. Had Oxford been willing, or able, to provide her with the comedies she craved, she may have been more willing to grant his request, but it may also be that she feared that once he had rights to the Forest he would simply disappear into it and she would never see him again, which is, effectively, what he actually did following her death and the new monarch’s willingness to grant him the desired stewardship. Immediately following the King’s grant, sometime early in 1604, came the rumor that Oxford was dead

Since the date given for his death, June 24th, is not only the Summer Solstice, the prehistoric turning point of the year, it is also the traditional date for the death of Adonis and the Feast of St. John the Baptist, traditional messiah of the Society of Freemasons, the Society that would raise the statue to Shakespeare that dominates Poet’s Corner in the Abbey. So the suspicion arises that, given the stewardship of the Forest where he had spent the latter half of his childhood with Smith, Oxford was performing his final disappearing act. Desperate for the privacy to complete his life’s work, desiring protection from his creditors, who from then on would have to deal with his “widow” and her family, he put the business of protecting his works into the capable hands of the Pembroke brothers and Susan, his youngest daughter, his Cordelia. 

It is my contention––based on a good deal of evidence, however circumstantial––that Oxford lived on until 1608 or 09, giving a final philosophical and contemporary spin to those plays that Susan, Ben Jonson, John Hemmings, the Pembroke brothers and their mother Mary Sidney may already have been planning to publish as a collection. In 1591 and 1596, Mary, by publishing her brother’s work, broke for the first time the ancient tradition that literature produced by courtiers should not be made public.

New plays written by Oxford during this final period include King Lear which touches on how he felt about his current treatment at the hands of his older daughters, and Measure for Measure, which perfectly describes how he was pretending to be dead. Plays most obviously revised include As You Like It, to which he added the scenes in which Touchstone and Jaques hang about with Duke Senior, a flattering portrait of King James during one of his hunting expeditions. Oxford would continue until his final days to add bits to The Tempest from reports that came his way from explorers like his mother’s cousin Bartholomew Gosnold whose “discovery” of Cape Cod in 1602 was reported that same year by John Brereton in a pamphlet published by George Bishop. A final version of Hamlet also seems likely, the faithful friend acquiring the name Horatio at a time when Oxford’s cousin Horatio Vere was achieving status as a general in the ongoing continental wars.

Another list tracking what happened to the plays and his audience following his death, would be useful, but since all we are seeking here is a hypothetical timeline connecting the subject and characters of some of his most popular plays with the ups and downs of his life, “the rest is silence.”

Oxford’s lady loves

As John Vyvyan has demonstrated in his three books about Shakespeare, the Bard was all about love, all kinds of love, romantic, friendship, tender, kind, obsessive, explosive. Shakespeare speaks of a feeling so intense that he compares it to the fevers and chills of malaria, how it made him freeze then fry (a hint that he himself had the disease, as did many in his time). One of his female loves had him so tightly bound for awhile that he was driven to write 26 sonnets about her (at the same time he was writing another 126 to a young male). Vyvyan traces his literary sources on the subject of love to Chaucer, the Medieval Roman de la Rose, to Plato, Socrates (and Diotima), but what about his own experience? Whom did he love? Who loved him?

Knowing Oxford and something of his life, realizing that there was hardly a character in any of his plays who wasn’t based  on someone he knew personally, leaving aside for the moment the guys (Benvolio, Bassanio, Horatio, the Fair Youth) who was the Rosalynde to his Orlando, the Juliet to his Romeo, the Titania to his Oberon, the Beatrice to his Benedick; who was his Dark Lady? Also leaving aside the Queen, whose role as a romantic figure is considerably influenced by her power, there were three, I believe, who won his heart more or less permanently.

Romeo’s Juliet 

Thus we can understand that Oxford came to London at age twelve hungry for love, as he so clearly depicts in Romeus and Juliet. If he found tenderness and affection at Cecil House it could only have been from his guardian’s little seven-year-old daughter (and the lower level household servants), but soon enough, at holiday Court gatherings, he must have met the girls whose parents were the Queen’s courtiers. 

But it was not at one of these Court gatherings that he met the girl who would inspire his earliest works. Her name was Mary Browne. She was the daughter of Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague, a wealthy Catholic who had played leading roles under Henry and Mary. While Sir Anthony stayed clear of the conspiracies of other members of his Catholic community when Elizabeth was crowned, it was a large community that had its own gatherings, separate from those at Court. Many of these took place in his mansion near Southwark Cathedral. Trusting to the play and his habit of using real people, places and situations, it would have been at one of these that the teenaged Oxford, probably with his companion at Cecil House, the Earl of Rutland, crashed one of Sir Anthony’s parties, where he met and exchanged words and glances with his daughter Mary. 

Mary’s life, what we know of it, suggests a woman of charm and independence, and doubtless wit as well, because our hero could only love women with whom he could banter, as he shows in his rapid fire exchanges between pairs like Beatrice and Benedick or the couples in Love’s Labour’s Lost. We have a portrait of Mary, painted at some point around her thirteenth birthday, when she was married to a Catholic youth, Henry Wriothesley (pronounced Rosely), son of the notorious first Earl of Southampton, when Oxford had just turned fifteen. 

If he yearned for Mary’s company, he would have known from the start that, born and bred in the Protestant aristocracy, neither could he marry a Catholic, nor could she marry him (the barrier he will attribute in the play to a family feud typical of Italian princes). The teenaged Oxford had long been affianced to one of the daughters of the Protestant Earl of Huntingdon, about whom we know little beyond the fact that she never married.

Southampton turned out to be a raving religious fanatic whose sexual inclinations drove him to give over control of his household to his steward, whose ill treatment of Mary causd her to live separately, together with their little son. When the boy was six, after a visit to his father, Southampton refused to return him to his mother. Raised for the next two years in a household where he was dressed like a girl, when his father died in 1581, the little eight-year-old was sent to live at Lord Burghley’s country estate Theobalds (Tibbles), where he and one or two other boys of rank were educated and where it’s likely he crossed paths with another of Burghley’s royal wards, the young Earl of Essex. Sent at twelve to live and study at Cambridge University, the young Earl of Southampton graduated in 1589, at which point Burghley enrolled him in Gray’s Inn, a short walk from his family mansion, where it’s most likely he first connected with Oxford.

Following the death of her dreadful husband, Mary (most unusually at that time) remained single for fourteen years. Finally, on May 2, 1594, she married an old friend, the aging Chancellor of the Queen’s exchequer, Sir Thomas Heneage. Their marriage was celebrated by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dreame, in which he portrayed her as the Amazon princess Hippolyta and Heneage as Theseus, her son Henry as one of the lovers, Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth as Hermia, Burghley as Egeus, and Oxford’s own actors as the rude mechanicals. This marriage can be seen at least in part as a move by Mary to do what she could for Oxford and the London Stage, which just then was suffering Robert Cecil’s efforts to take it over.  Heneage (just happened) to be the official in charge of paying for the Queen’s Court entertainments; it was following their marriage, and under his authority, that the name William Shakespeare first appeared on a warrant for payment. 

Mary is mentioned in one of the seventeen poems Oxford wrote as a gift for her son, the Fair Youth of his Sonnets, an effort to persuade the 17-year-old to marry his daughter. But partly because Elizabeth was also Burghley’s granddaughter, whom Henry by then had come to hate (as did all his wards), the youth, doubtless with great anxieties where sex was concerned, knowing how he was raised, preferred to remain single. Mary herself is mentioned in Sonnet #3,

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Following her husband’s death, the Countess married a man her son’s age. He disapproved, but by then he had joined the group surrounding the Earl of Essex. No longer the newcomer to Court life who just a year or two earlier had paid for the publication of Venus and Adonis, he had become an adult member of Elizabeth’s Court.

Mary lived until 1607. The fourteen years when she was free of any other commitment coincided with his years at Fisher’s Folly, when he was turning out plays for both the Court and the public theaters. That Mary, who had great wealth of her own, was one of his patrons during that period seems too likely not to suggest, though of course there’s no proof. She is the most likely model for Rosalynde and the other female characters of his early pastorals like Cymbeline and As You Like It, plays first written before his year in Italy.

Ann Vavasor

Oxford probably met Ann Vavasor shortly after his return from Italy in 1576. If she was not already at Court by then she came soon after. Having broken off with his in-laws and his wife, living a bachelor’s life at Fisher’s Folly, Ann was a member of the Catholic Howard circle at Court, which included the two who would turn out to be his worst enemies, his cousins Henry Howard and Charles Arundel. While we can be certain that she was attractive (there’s a poem that we’re told was written to her by Sir Walter Raleigh, advising her to beware of the men at Court), it was probably her intelligence and wit that captured his heart. 

Their affair was frought with danger, for such relationships were forbidden at Elizabeth’s Court, and Oxford was among those the Queen liked to pretend were languishing with desire for her virginal self. Having lived a life of sexual freedom in Italy, heavy sighs and meaningful glances were no longer sufficient for our hero. Long story short, Ann got pregnant, and while they must have had plans for her to leave Court on some excuse in time to have the baby in private, the rascal came too soon, Ann went into labor in the Queen’s quarters, which threw her Majesty into a jealous rage. Oxford was nabbed during a most unheroic attempt to escape to the Continent, and after two months in the Tower, was put under house arrest and banished from Court. 

The Queen disposed of Ann by commiting her to the care of her old “Champion,” Sir Henry Lee, who ran the tilts where the knights at Court clashed in medieval finery, and who, perhaps like many at Court, was smitten with Ann. It’s unclear what she was up to during her years with Lee. Like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, she was a woman with a will of her own, but it appears that her “champion” adored her, and she did bear him a son that everyone accepted as legitimate, so it may be that they married, but if so in the sort of private ceremony that doesn’t reach the record. 

That she had nothing more to do with Oxford is simply not to be believed. Clearly he helped give their son a decent life, an education, and a place in the world. That they never saw each other again is an absurdity of Protestant historians who are forced to go by whatever little they can find in the record. She had given Oxford a son, the only one he would ever have, and one he could be proud of. Of course they saw each other again, most likely regularly for as long as they lived.

We know that Ann herself was a poet of no mean ability as we can see from the poem she wrote after their banishment and separation to let him know that she still loved him. Some have attributed it to Oxford, but it’s not at all in his style, and it rings with the truth of how life was for the women at Elizabeth’s Court, something it’s clear he did not fully understand at that time, still seeing them as free to fly where they list. But Ann knew different:

Thou seest we live amongst the lynx’s eyes,

That pries and spies each privy thought of mind;

Thou knowest right well what sorrows may arise

If once they chance my settled looks to find. . . .     

And let me seem, although I be not coy,

To cloak my sad conceits with smiling cheer;

Let not my gestures show wherein I joy,

Nor by my looks let not my love appear.

We silly [helpless] dames, that false suspect do fear,

And live within the mouth of envy’s lake,

Must in our hearts a secret meaning bear,

Far from the show that outwardly we make. . . .

So where I like, I list not vaunt my love;

Where I desire, there must I feign debate.

One hath my hand, another hath my glove,

But he my heart whom most I seem to hate.

Thus farewell, friend: I will continue strange;

Thou shalt not hear by word or writing aught,

Let it suffice, my vow shall never change;

As for the rest, I leave it to thy thought.


Found in a notebook kept by the daughter of the family who occupied Fisher’s Folly after Oxford was forced to give it up, it would have been well known by those who had access to the poetry shared then by members of the Court community. In fact it may have been the stimulus he needed to return to Romeo and Juliet and write what would become the most popular of all his plays. 

Always paranoid about those “haggard hawks that fly from man to man,” Oxford may at first have seen her passive reaction to their separation as a betrayal. Angry and bitter towards the Court that, following the Queen, turned on him as her seducer, it was during his banishment that he began writing for the Inns of Court and Parliament, plays about betrayal like Timon of Athens and Julius Caesar.

Burning with wounded pride over the apparent ease with which she accepted her prescribed punishment, this must have been when he wrote Troilus and Cressida, boldly producing it at Burbage’s public theater, just up the road from Fisher’s Folly. When her response came to him through the poetry underground, the relief was overpowering. She still loved him! Driven to banish the impression created by Cressida, he poured into Romeo and Juliet his love and longing, and his fury at the Queen. 

Still locked away at Fisher’s Folly, out of touch with the resources in the City where he was in danger of being assaulted by her relatives, he talked the 16-year- old youth who served him and his pals at the local tavern, one Edward Alleyn, into playing Romeo, and as Juliet, the 14-year-old son of the manager of his big public theater, Richard Burbage, boldly putting it on at Burbage’s public stage just up the road from Fisher’s Folly, not forgetting to include the street fights he was suffering, convincingly performed by actors trained at the fencing academy located beneath the little Blackfriars school stage. 

While Secretary of State Walsingham would see to it that the Queen was reconciled to Oxford (he needed him to write for his new touring company, the Queen’s Men) while she must have felt the lack during two winters without his plays. Despite his return, their relationship would never be the same. What the Queen craved were comedies like Love’s Labours Lost or The Comedy of Errors, but his years of banishment had destroyed the urge to amuse the Court. Once back at Court he turned his energies to writing plays based on events in English history, plays meant to rouse the patriotic instincts of the towns along the coast where Walsingham knew the Spanish were planning to strike.

Emilia Bassano

Anne Cecil died shortly before the Spanish struck in 1588, and with her death also died her father’s plans that Oxford provide him and his decendants with a title in the upper peerage. Disgusted and angry at his former ward and son-in-law for his creation of that public forum, the London Stage, and the points of view it promoted, as Lord Treasurer he had the power to destroy Oxford’s credit. Without credit, Oxford was unable to continue to fund the London Stage. The Queen too was angry with him for no longer providing her with the romantic comedies she craved, and her own plight just then was probably all she could deal with. 

Forced to sell Fisher’s Folly in 1589, England’s premiere Earl ended up in a hostelry long used by important men down on their luck. Located near Blackfriars (and the Mermaid Tavern) in one of the less reputable neighborhoods of London, he entertained himself by writing sonnets to and about various members of his Court and literary coteries, among them the young Earl of Southampton, who  was proving to be a patron, and beautiful Emilia, the mistress of his patron Henry Hunsdon (the bit in Hunsdon’s Wikipedia bio about the Queen offering him an earldom on his deathbed happened to Sir Henry Sidney, not Hunsdon.) When Elizabeth finally saved him by arranging a marriage to one of her wealthier Ladies in waiting, Oxford went from Mme. Penne’s to the comforts of King’s Place in Hackney where the daily writing of sonnets fell by the wayside as he began working on plays for Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, who just then was contriving a plan, in partnership with his son-in-law Charles Howard, to restructure the threatened London Stage.   

As Hunsdon’s plans for his new company continued to develop, with Oxford committed to writing new plays and revising old ones, he and Emilia were frequently in each other’s company during the period when he was living at Mme. Penne’s, where she met Oxford’s patron and friend the young Earl of Southampton. Thus was formed the triangle documented in several of the Sonnets.

I believe this was the moment when Oxford finally began to see things from a woman’s point of view, something that would enrich his work from then on. Not only did he write the Sonnets during this time at Mme. Penne’s––the Boar’s Head Tavern of the Henry IV plays––he turned his memories of Marlowe, Kyd and Peele, all three dead by then, into Bardolf, Nym and Pistol. Mme. Penne became Mistress Quickly, and while Falstaff began as his enemy, Brooke Cobham, little by little, probably because it was the comedian Will Kempe who was playing Falstaff, and he found himself giving him the best lines, Falstaff gradually became a parody of himself.

Attracted to his patron’s beautiful, educated, talented mistress, then in her early twenties, they ended up in bed, where after making love they fought bitterly about their respective roles in each others lives. The hopelessness of their situation, her needing a rich husband, and him a rich wife, meant there was no future for them together. In addition there was the shame attached to betraying the patron on whom both were depending just then. Hunsdon, by then in his sixties, was of course married with dozens of grown children, so it’s hard to tell how he felt about it. Concerned that the Stage be secured in time for the next meeting of Parliament, perhaps he saw it as simply a part of having to deal with theater folk.

Towards the end of this period, both Oxford and Emilia had sons, both named Henry. This forced Hunsdon to get Emilia married, sadly for her, just to another musician, ending her hopes of a richer and more respectable alliance, while Oxford’s only option was to write a few anguished sonnets about her seduction of Southampton, which, however painful, did have the result of showing the youth how to make love to a woman, something that may have been a problem for him, considering how he had been raised, first by his crazy father, then by Burghley, for whom sexual attractions were to be avoided unless they could be put to some political use. 

Emilia was not only a musician, like most of Oxford’s lovers she too was a poet. Her book of polished poems, Salve Deus Rex Judeorum, reflecting standard Christian attitudes, was published within two years of Shake-speare’s Sonnets. According to A.L. Rowse,  the first to identify her as the Dark Lady, she wrote the book largely to confront her image as a sex symbol as portrayed by Shakespeare. Tagged the “Dark Lady” by historians, his descriptions of her coloring conform to her Italian paternity. That he calls her “unjust” is how he must have seen her feminism, which she reveals most cogently in the introduction to her book, in which she demands respect for women as capable of far more than simply pleasing men. While 19th-century Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley) is honored by historians as the first English woman to publish a tract on women’s rights, that honor must go instead to Emilia Bassano, or rather to Amelia Lanier, the name preferred by the literary. 

The name Emilia appears several times in Shakespeare, most notably as Desdemona’s defender in Othello. Having come into Oxford’s life shortly after the death of Anne Cecil (by suicide, if Hamlet is any indication), she must have seen his poor wife’s impossible situation from her own point of view, one that Oxford might well have felt was “unjust”––nor was she, as her book’s introduction reveals, one to keep her opinions to herself.

There you have it: Orlando’s Rosalynde was Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton; Benedick’s Beatrice was Ann Vavasor, mother of his only son; and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets was Emilia Bassano. As for Elizabeth, he showed his love for her by touching her heart and making her laugh with his stories, a love that has given the world as much pleasure as it ever gave Her Majesty.

 For those who find this subject worth pursuing, the most fertile field for investigation would be the play Two Noble Kinsmen, where the character Emilia is closely allied to the characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dreame (most interestingly to Hippolyta, i.e. Mary Browne) and to Palamon and Arcite, the (lost) play produced for the commencement at Oxford University in 1566 during which Oxford and Rutland and others were awarded Master’s degrees. Attributed at the time to the “Master Edwards” who was Oxford’s cover during his early years at Court, it plays an important part in the story of the dramatic evolution of Shakespeare, and how closely it corresponds to Oxford’s life story. For more about that, as Ann Vavasor put it, we’ll “leave it to thy thought.”  

Blog on, blog on, O state of play

Although politicworm is not what it once was, having been thrown into disarray a year ago (or was it two?) by the shifting of priorities within wordpress.com, which for years has allowed me to reach my faithful readers without it costing me or them anything, it seems the blog continues to survive, however changed in appearance and accessibility.  Although nothing on the Internet stays the same, it also appears that nothing ever goes away. It’s all still out there, somewhere.

So although the blog, or site as we’re now calling them (blog is an awful word) doesn’t look like it used to, with three columns, everything organized so posts and pages could be easily located, it seems it’s all still there, hundreds of posts, comments, and pages of information going back to its beginnings in 2009, ten years of information, commentary and opinion. So now that the Search Field is visible,  if you’re curious about a particular subject, you can type in a keyword––such as Francis Bacon, Robert Greene, or Dark Lady, and you’ll see a list of pages or posts that touch on that subject.

Perhaps just now when so many are being forced into home-bound isolation, my blog might provide another means of escape for those curious about the Authorship Question or involved in researching it. If some question strikes you that you can’t find addressed through the search field, please feel free to ask me at stephanie@politicworm.com . Since I’m as isolated right now as everyone else, I’ll be more than happy to respond.

“The readiness is all.”