The day the music died

June 24 seems like a good moment to consider the day Oxford said goodbye to his life as a courtier back in 1604, the day history says he died.  But once again, the fantastical duke of dark corners has left us with very little to back it up.  True, there are any number of official documents that uphold this date, but as Chris Paul has explained in elaborate detail, there’s nothing from anyone else, no comments in personal letters from family members or people who knew him, none of the references to him use terms that one would think would be used in referring to a friend or family member who’s passed on, not for another three or four years.

It sounds crazy.  No wonder no one believes it.  But something happened on that day, and I don’t think it was Oxford’s death.  In a scene that could come from A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, I think it was a party, held in the heart of the Forest of Waltham in the center of his ancient family domain, or perhaps on the lawn of Havering att Bowre, with music by some of England’s best musicians, perhaps a play or recitations by the leading actors of the King’s Men.  Those who attended were the crème de la crème, not just socially, but artistically and intellectually, the soul of English humanism, the Pembrokes, the Sidneys, Oxford’s daughters and their husbands, fellow Freemasons, and the inhabitants of the forest, the woodsmen and their wives, glad to have Oxford as their overlord.  Even perhaps the Queen.  Even perhaps the King.  Late on the 24th, like Duke Vincenzio in Measure for Measure, or Lear on the moors, or Touchstone in the Forest, or his own ancestor, Aubrey de Vere, who ended his life in a monastery, he said goodbye, to them and to the world.  Shortly after they left he had it put about that he was dead.

I didn’t just conjure this up out of thin air.  As Paul relates, after begging, then obtaining, the stewardship of the Forest, while making legal preparations for some kind of exit, several interesting things occur with regard to the part of the Forest where from early 1604 on he was the head guy, among them the following:

On April 4, 1604, King James confirms the Charter of Havering-atte-Bower, including the provision that the tenants “shall have one fair every year at the village of Havering, the same to last three days, that is to say in the eve of the nativity of St. John the Baptist and two days then next and immediately following . . .” (ERO Q/AX 1/1/2) In view of the effort made to secure special rights to the citizens of the Liberty of Havering at this time, it is also interesting to note that, three months in advance, someone has also made an effort to get the King to put his stamp of approval on their traditional midsummer’s eve celebration.  Since June 24th would be the date of Oxford’s death (or his purported death), these matters assume an even greater interest. (19)

Why would Oxford do such a thing?  First and foremost, to get the privacy he needed to write.  Anyone who has ever devoted themselves to writing, whether for a living or as a hobby, knows that to produce anything worthwhile requires hours of unbroken concentration.  How was he to do that at the center of a busy household?  Pestered by suitors (seekers of favors), creditors, and probably also his ambitious wife, the days went by.  Aging, perhaps in pain, he was content only while he was writing.  But to get back into it he had to get into the zone, the mood, the state he’d been in when he first created what he was now intent on revising, get into what in his day they called “the vein.”  For that he needed an environment that stimulated his imagination.

This was why he fought so hard to get the stewardship of the Forest from Elizabeth, why he’d been fighting to get it for years.  In his view the Forest was his; it had belonged to his family since the reign of Edward II, then taken from his grandfather by Henry VIII, and never returned.  Then, miracle of miracles, with the advent of King James the young Earl of Pembroke and his brother stepped in to become his advocates, getting the king to patronize his acting company, and helping him to get the stewardship of the Forest.   And none too soon, for irony of ironies, at the same time that the King becomes his patron, he also puts Oxford’s two worst enemies into the nation’s top two positions of power at Court, each of them (separately) having wooed the King by letter for months before Elizabeth’s death. (Is that Karma, or what?)

To Oxford, wise to the ways of Court politics, it seemed inevitable that these two enemies, now working hand in hand, would seek reparations for his portrayal of them as Shakespeare’s worst villains.  He knew he hadn’t long to live himself, but he was damned if he was going to let them get their hands on his papers and destroy everything he’d worked to create.  That’s when it must have come to him.  Not only would he retire to the woods, he would die to the world.  Pembroke, the one courtier that neither Howard or Cecil could touch, would keep copies of his plays and his poems where they were safe, and publish them some day when the time was more ripe (when both these enemies were dead).

He’d die to the world, and of course he’d go out with a bang, with one last entertainment.  (Why else was that codicil added to the King’s warrant reaffirming the Midsummer festival at Havering?)  Prospero was burying his book.  Oberon was done with casting spells.  He might be dying, but he’d do it in his own way and on his own terms.  For these two deadly plotters he’d create a little plot of his own.  Guessing what they were up to, he’d have it put about on June 24th that he’d died.  Surely one or the other would make a move to get their hands on his papers.

Sure enough, the night of the 24th, Cecil pretended that he had intelligence that suggested that Southampton (the Fair Youth of the Sonnets) was plotting against King James.  Cecil had Southampton arrested and his papers examined.  Whatever they may have found, it didn’t cause Southampton and trouble.  Nor did it prevent Oxford from continuing to write and perfect his masterpieces for another three or four years until death finally claimed him.  It did, however, make it very clear to the Pembrokes and to the King’s Men that they were going to have to continue to keep the papers safe and the authorship of plays like Macbeth, Othello and Richard III a closely held secret.

8 thoughts on “The day the music died

  1. I’d keep this kind of stuff under wraps if I were you. Nobody with an ounce of discrimination would believe it.

  2. So how do you explain these anomalies? What’s your version? Remember, it has to account for all the facts. No fair using some and ignoring others.

    If we didn’t have records, who “with an ounce of discrimination” would believe how Percy Shelley or Lord Byron died?

  3. I think there are parallels between this website and some scientific controversies, namely Alfred Wegener’s drifting continents and (to pick on one person from a larger group) Percival Lowell’s canals on Mars. I believe that both men were ridiculed in their time, and both theories turned out to be correct to varying degrees.

    Wegener echoed what people had noticed since good world maps were drawn: that South America and Africa fit together unbelievably well. Wegener used what geological clues he could find and even proposed sea-floor spreading as a motor for the continents. No one could say why the sea floors would want to spread, and other details such as where did the excess material go on the outside of Pangea?

    Lowell was caught up in the Mars squiggly line extrapolation fad and along with others had the Mars Irrigation System mapped out to down to the pumping stations. When other science found no case for a decent atmosphere, the sightings ceased. Telescopes never got good enough to match the imagination of the astronomers. It turns out that Mars once had seas and channels. No pumping stations have yet been discovered.

    On this site, it is hard to know when a supposition is helping to lead to an area of fruitful archival research or when it is leaning so far out on a teetery (why is that word red-underlined?) ladder that it is dangerous to climb after it.

    It may be that both the Mars gazers and Wegener hastened the science that would directly or incidentally support their theories. Would plate tectonic theory and magnetic-reversal dating have been worked out within twenty years of Wegener’s death if he had not been so bold? Would Mars probes have been launched so soon without the over-zealous observations of the preceding century?

    I think a necessary approach to the Shakespeare mystery requires mashing a lot of puzzle pieces together. If subsequent history shows that too big a hammer was used on the pieces or too much touch-up paint, at least that means that someone was incensed enough to prove some of these points wrong.

    1. Exactly! I’m a radical, in the original sense of the word, which means “root” or origin. Cutting away the dead wood, the fantasizing, looking just at those chunks of information that seem to carry weight, organizing by dates and by my own ear, which I’ve learned to trust from years of reading poetry, and by the psychology and behavior of artists, which I understand at a deep level, being one myself and knowing many others, and by the psychology of actors, which I know from my mother and her friends, and which is not at all what non artists and non actors might think––I seek the truth.

      I don’t want to shock, but on the other hand, I’m not going to draw back from making what to me are obvious connections out of fear of shocking. I can’t give all the reasons why a particular scene from the scenario seems real enough to me to include in the scenario, giving too much information is as bad as not giving enough. But I’m always ready to answer questions.

      Meanwhile, hopefully readers will simply enjoy it as a story. I’m sick of “smoking guns” but I do like facts. Real facts. I guess you could say I collect as many of them as I an until I see that they can be assembled into a scenario that makes sense. That’s all I care about. That it makes sense. I’m not really trying to prove anything but that.

  4. I’ll bite. What evidence is there that there were storm troopers scouring the land for play manuscripts?

    I would love to know if there were certain printers and publishers that could be linked to Shakespeare, De Vere, or the relatives who presumably hoarded the manuscripts until the First Folio, but I think I would like a curly wisp of gun smoke before I envisioned a martial law lockdown where travelers got a pat down for play manuscripts.

    Were there any raids in Stratford?

    1. Let’s let go of the modern military image. It’s hard enough to get our heads into the life that people lived then. As for “patting down travellers,” you bet that happened. Couriers headed to or from the continent were frequently robbed on the Dover Road. That William Cecil had the Cobham brothers rob a courier of his papers in 1563 (if memory serves) at Gads Hill is a matter of record, an incident that found its way into Henry IV Part One.

      Consider the source of the records that are all we have to go by. Most of what we know about the government during that period comes from the Cecil archives at Hatfield House, hundreds of thousands of documents saved by two Cecil Secretaries of State over 50 years when either father or son were in control of what got saved and what didn’t. If it weren’t for the letters to and from the French and Spanish ambassadors that come from their archives, we’d have nothing but what the Cecils wanted us to have.

      How interesting that when Robert Cecil took over Francis Walsingham’s office, all Walsingham’s papers disappeared, while most of his team of secret agents (probably all of them, actually) became Cecil’s agents. Read Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning and see who you think was responsible for the sting that brought down Marlowe. If Cecil could falsify documents as was done to Marlowe, what would stop him from doing what it took to get rid of Oxford’s works? What other explanation is there for the raid on Southampton’s papers the night Oxford was supposed to have died?

      As for plays, your question suggests an excellent reason for why they were published. LIterary historians have pondered this for centuries. Why publish a play that the company intended to keep on performing? We know that piracy was a problem, some bit player swiping a play script after getting fired and selling it to a printer hungry for business (the printers took action at one point against the Stationers for not opening up their licensing policy). It could be that controversial plays were published sometimes to prevent their theft and destruction. What happened to The Isle of Dogs? Why is Marlowe’s last play, The Massacre at Paris, half as long as his other plays?

      Yes, there are particular printers associated with Shakespeare and some of the other writers, different ones at different stages in the growth of the London Stage, and who they were and what they published is a very interesting chapter in this story, even if seen only on the surface. It’s not something that I’ve gone into in detail, largely because another Oxfordian researcher has made it his particular field, and I’m hoping that someday he’ll publish a book on it.

  5. I read Chris Paul’s paper, though it was hard to follow all the machinations of the control of Essex forests, and I was disappointed that he did not attempt any conclusions or speculation as have you. I find the “maybes” fascinating.

    But one question: You suppose that Oxford faked his death, yet the letters of the Countess of Oxford do not refer to her husband as “late” until 1606, when there begin to appear some scattered references to his death. If he faked his death, why was his “death” so quiet in 1604?

    I almost wonder if he took his life in June 1604, but it was hidden by the family for the shame and for legal reasons, and he was buried secretly at Havering. Not until two years later, when it was clear that he had died previously, did church records (possibly amended) show the “June 24” date. Then the Countess and her son Earl of Oxford began to drop the veil around Edward’s death.

    What do you think of the possibly of suicide and his concern to make sure the Forests were inherited to his kin despite the law which said the property of suicides was forfeit?

  6. How, if Oxford pretended to be dead, could he have done it otherwise? (I don’t say he “faked his death,” because I don’t think that’s the right term. Having left instructions to certain persons he trusted to carry out the necessary legal functions, weary of his role as Earl and probably as Court writer, he simply became invisible (like Oberon) in a way that would be impossible today. He died to the world, as his ancestors would have been able to do by entering a monastery.

    Again we get our best information from the plays, in this case, Measure for Measure, which he wrote (or more likely rewrote) for his daughter’s wedding in December 1604, six months after he was supposed to have died (fact: it was produced at Court the night she married the Earl of Montgomery). In that we hear Duke Vincentio, disguised as a friar, discussing himself with Lucio (Act III Scene 2):

    LUCIO: What news, friar, of the duke?
    DUKE: I know none. Can you tell me of any?
    LUCIO: Some say he is with the Emperor of Russia; other some, he is in Rome: but where is he, think you?
    DUKE: I know not where; but wheresoever, I wish him well.
    LUCIO: It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state, and usurp the beggary he was never born to.

    No, I don’t think he committed suicide, at least, not right away. Apart from wishing to escape whatever sting Cecil was up to, I believe he did it primarily to take control of his life and the manner in which he left it, a right that we’re still fighting to get. We can be fairly certain he was suffering from some illness or disability, so facing death, if not immediately, then soon, he wanted to buy time to finish his writing in peace and quiet. He may also have wanted to have the power, if he found himself at some point incapable of writing or enjoying life, free to end it himself and not go through the misery of simply waiting for it to happen, but that he intended to do that immediately I very much doubt. Too much takes place after his supposed death, including the marriage of his daughter six months hence.

    When I’m wondering about Oxford’s behavior, one of the things I look to for ideas is Lord Byron’s biography. It was the amazing similarity between their lives that first drove me to researching Oxford, and nothing about Byron is so fascinating as his death, which he knew was coming, prepared for, and turned into a pitch for his audience, by then international in scope, to join the Greek fight for independence from Turkey, a pitch that worked.

    Great poets tend to be philosophers who think deeply about death. If possible, they do not simply allow it to overtake them, like most of the rest of us, but do their best to keep their hands on the wheels of their destinies for as long as they can.

    As Shakespeare puts it, “the end crowns all.”

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