Why Burghley defended Oxford

Much has been made, by Alan Nelson and other Burghley appologists, of the seemingly kindly treatment by the Lord Treasurer of his reprehensible son-in-law.  I believe that William Cecil did love Edward de Vere, insofar as he was capable of loving anyone, at least at first, but there is a political side to this that must be acknowledged.  Nothing Cecil ever did, whether good or bad, was without political implications.

First, it seems most likely that Cecil was the major instrument in removing de Vere from wherever he was being cared for in 1554 to the household of Sir Thomas Smith.  Although Smith was a loyal constituent of the sixteenth Earl, the Smith family having been longtime residents of Saffron Walden in Essex, a short ride from the Oxford stronghold at Hedingham Castle, it was Cecil who was in a position to make the necessary arrangements, not his father the Earl, or his uncle Arthur Golding, nor Smith.  As his tutor at Cambridge, Cecil knew Smith well enough to know that he would make the perfect caretaker for the precious heir to the great Oxford earldom.  It was a firm belief of those reformers who instilled in Cecil the Reformation mantra that good government would occur only when young peers were raised as Protestants.

Smith was honest, honorable, sexually chaste (i.e., no pedophile), a dedicated Protestant, a great humanist scholar, and possibly the most highly regarded teacher of his time.  He had no legitimate child of his own, and, most important, was essentially out of work having lost his position as Secretary of State during Somerset’s great fall, then with the return of Catholicism under Queen Mary, his place as Provost of Eton.  Since Cecil was the only member of Edward’s reform government to remain (unofficially) in office following Mary’s accession, he was in a position to know when the boy had to be moved, for safety’s sake, before the anti-reform storm struck Essex early in 1555.

Cecil was also in a position to offer Smith a juicy quid pro quo in exchange for a year or two of taking care of the boy [I don’t imagine they had any idea the arrangement would continue for eight years]: Cecil happened to be in a position to arrange Smith’s second marriage to the widow of a former colleague at Court, a marriage that brought with it an excellent estate at the northern edge of the Forest of Waltham, which meant that Smith would be back in Essex, not far from his family in Saffron Walden, at an easy commuting distance from both Cambridge and London.  Further, there was probably the understanding that as soon as possible, Cecil would see to it that Smith got returned to a worthwhile position on the Privy Council.

It’s very likely that Cecil, and many others, were aware from the start that Mary’s health was dicey, and that it was unlikely that she would live for more than a few years, giving him time to lay the groundwork for her younger sister to take the throne, at which point de Vere would be safe and Smith could return to his old place on the Privy Council.  There’s no record of such a deal, but then there wouldn’t be.  Where evidence is lacking we must go by the nature of events, human nature and common sense.  We do know that once Elizabeth was on the throne and Cecil was Secretary of State––while Smith got nothing but a bone, JP for his district in Essex––he and Smith had a falling out that lasted two years.  We also know that as soon as the sixteenth earl was buried, Oxford went to London while Smith went to France as the English Ambassador.

Foreign ambassador was not what Smith had in mind, but at least it meant he had a foot back in the government door.  France brought mixed results for Smith.  Although his embassy was a failure (as were most Elizabethan embassies) he saw some buildings that left a strong impression on him, which he explored when he returned to renovating his new home in Essex.  He also had the opportunity to add important books to his library and to send some to Cecil and Walsingham.

Whether or not he had anything to do with it, the death of Earl John in 1562 enabled Cecil, by then Master of the Court of Wards, to bring young Oxford to London where he could oversee the finishing touches to his Protestant education, and, not least, to arrange for his marriage to his daughter Anne.  However Oxford attempted to keep his “lewd” poems to himself, Cecil, the premiere spymaster, was probably well aware of his writing, but thought little of it so long as the boy kept it to himself.  It’s interesting that two of the works of imaginative literature that issued from that community in 1565, Golding’s translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses and Painter’s translations of the French and Italian tales in the Pallace of Pleasure, were dedicated to the Earl of Leicester.  Only scholarly works and sober works of Reformation dogma were ever dedicated to Cecil.

Cecil must have been pleased that Oxford turned out to be so popular at Court, and that his talent gave him access to the Court Stage.  With the advent of the Earl of Sussex as Lord Chamberlain in 1572, Cecil, now Burghley, saw the political advantage to his own interests when Sussex, under pressure to take control of Court entertainment away from his hated rival, the Earl of Leicester, opened the door to Oxford’s control of the Court Stage, as Sussex worked to remove it from Leicester’s control.  He may even have been party to the decision to let Oxford have a year in Italy to learn how to produce public theater from Francesco Andreini and theater building from Andrea Palladio.

Following Oxford’s return, Privy Council members Burghley and Leicester would have to know of plans being made by fellow Countil members Sussex, Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard to create a public theater where the Court could control the kind of plays produced.  That Oxford took the moment of his return to break with the Cecils was unfortunate for Burghley, but while his heart remained bitter, politics demanded that he do everything he could to mend the breach, partly for his daughter’s sake, but also to have some say in the process as plans continued to create a channel between the Court Stage and the public.  Burghley pretty much had total control of the Press, which he had helped to create.  He wasn’t about to hand over control of the Stage to either Leicester or Sussex.

The first open breach between Burghley and his former ward came with Oxford’s banishment from Court in 1581 for impregnating the Queen’s maid of honor, Ann Vavasor.  Perhaps more disturbing than the insult to Burghley’s daughter, Oxford’s wife, were the plays that he was writing for the adult actors to perform at the little Blackfriars school stage, including an early version of Hamlet in which, as he heard from his sister-in-law, who lived near the theater, he himself was being parodied as Corambis (later Polonius) and that Oxford had dared to draw parallels between the recent death of Sussex and the infamous murder some years earlier of the Italian Duke of Urbino.  But again, political necessity overrode all else.  For the sake of Court solidarity as well as his family, Burghley had to do whatever he could to get Oxford back in the fold.  The Queen looked to him to keep his family in line.   He simply had no other choice.  Later he whined in one of his memos to posterity, “No enemy I have can envy me this match.”

Relief came with Walsingham’s plan to create a Crown company.  Oxford would return to the Court with a real and important task, to provide the new Crown company with plays that would promote understanding of England’s present danger by comparing the present stand-off with Spain to other times in history.  This allowed Walsingham to create a propaganda office made up of the crew of secretaries and musicians that hung out at Oxford’s manor, Fisher’s Folly, located just outside Bishopsgate, a few steps from his own residence, the Papey, just inside the gate.  With Oxford’s own credit stretched to the breaking point, Walsingham provided the funds to hire more secretaries, among them young Francis Bacon and even younger Christopher Marlowe.

These together with George Peele, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson, and Thomas Lodge (the so-called University Wits), provided plays for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen and her visitors while Oxford concentrated on writing for the Queen’s Men and other adult companies.  This is when The Famous Victories, The True Tragedies and The Contention plays were written that would be revised in the nineties as the Lancastrian history cycle (Richard II to Richard III), for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the second royal acting company.  Eventually Walsingham was able to persuade the Queen to pick up at least part of the tab by giving Oxford an annuity at the same time that she provided the Secretary with the money he needed to protect England from Spain.

Although Oxford agreed to the Queen’s demand that his return to Court depended on his return to his wife, it’s unlikely that he ever again shared any real home life with Anne.  He must have set up a situation where it could appear that they were a family once again, providing the Cecils with three more girls and a boy who died shortly after birth, while he continued to spend most of his time at Fisher’s Folly or one of the theaters.  Unable to tolerate the interference with his life that was simply part of Burghley nature, Oxford’s remorse over what this did to Anne, and to his daughters, is reflected in the plot or sub-plot of at least six plays, from Pericles to Othello.

Several events in the late 1580s to early ’90s caused the final rupture between Milord and the Cecils.  The first was the 1587 break between Christopher Marlowe and the Crown, when Marlowe and Edward Alleyn brought the anti-establishment play Tamburlaine to Henslowe’s Rose Theater on Bankside, where its popularity posed a threat to the social calm at a time of increasing political unrest.  As co-creators of the London Stage, both Walsingham and Oxford were doubtless blamed by Burghley and Whitgift for this breach of contract by two of their players.

The second was the death of Walsingham in 1590, and the immediate takeover of his office and his papers by Robert Cecil, who, with the help of his father, set to work immediately to put a stop to the escapades of the Fisher’s Folly crew.  Shortly after Anne’s death in 1588 Burghley had moved to end Oxford’s ability to get credit, forcing him to sell Fisher’s Folly in 1589, and Vere House at London Stone a year later (ironically to one of the major enemies of the London Stage).  University Wits Robert Greene and Thomas Watson were the first to go, “dying” on the same day in 1592.  Marlowe and John Penry, scapegoat for the crew that produced the antiestablishment Mar-prelate pamphlets, were eliminated within 24 hours of each other early in 1593.  The patron of the company that produced Tamburlaine, Lord Strange, was murdered the following year, just as the majority of his company was being reorganized into what would soon be the new Crown company.

If Burghley had any sentiment left for the golden-haired lad whose fate he had engineered almost from birth, it was gone.  Suffering from overwork, gout, and self-pity, he saw only the ungrateful son-in-law, who had fathered a fine bastard but failed to give him the heir he felt he deserved, and who had somehow managed it so that there was nothing left of the great Oxford earldom to pass along to his grandchildren.  If the final version of Hamlet reveals the truth about Anne Cecil’s final hours, Burghley’s bitterness is understandable.  As for Oxford, forced to work in silence and secrecy, his identity and true meaning masked by pun-names and ambiguous wording, the poet yet had one great weapon, the truth, and his actors.

It was when Cecil attacked the Company that the break flared into open warfare.  Too many people cared about the Stage to let Robert Cecil destroy it.  Lord Hunsdon, by then Lord Chamberlain of the Household, together with his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, stepped forward to save it, but when Cecil, finally having acquired the power of the Secretary of State, shut down their new theater in advance of the Parliament of 1597, leaving them with no stage of their own, with the following deaths in rapid succession of both manager Burbage and patron Hunsdon, the company itself, and its playbook were on the ropes.  Out came the spear (his pen), up went the curtain, out came Richard Burbage, dressed like Cecil, his back hunched over, his imitation spot on; out came the first edition of the play for those who missed the performance; and Cecil’s reputation was done for.  He still had his power, but without a good name he was helpless to accomplish anything important.

Halted in his villanous progress by the 1597 production and publication of Richard III, with its obvious portrayal of himself as the evil Lancastrian King, having chased Oxford into hiding in the Forest, he did whatever he could to erase any connection between his brother-in-law and the London Stage.  Having achieved the ultimate in political power, though he survived him by only three or four years, that was enough time to burn almost everything that connected Oxford directly to the world of English literature, and everything that connected himself and his family to any of the characters in Oxford’s plays.  Oxford had destroyed his good name, but he got the last laugh, destroying any connection between his hated brother-in-law and the English Literary Renaissance.

10 thoughts on “Why Burghley defended Oxford

  1. I think you are, as usual, on the right track here, more or less. One risks indulging in too much speculation, but how else (for now) are we to understand this amazing and complex set of relationships and events. To this portrait I would add my own tiny bit of speculation that de Vere, in his youth and early adulthood, was a very charismatic figure, a Tom Cruz or Brad Pitt type who mesmerized everyone when he walked into room. Add to that his extraordinary intelligence. Hence what I think is partly a self-reference in the sonnets (the observed of all observers) and his Hal-like self indulgences. Unfortunately (or fortunately) he was moving in a cut-throat political arena with Machiavellian types like William Cecil and too many sociopathic competitors for Elizabeth’s affection. And of course there was Elizabeth. What a constellation!

  2. One of the main arguments for Oxford’s use of the pseudonym “Shakespeare” has been that he had to hide the obvious political references in the plays, the main one usually cited as being the satire of Burghley in the character of Polonius in Hamlet. If, as you say, Burghley was already aware of this (and it was widely known) but was constrained to take any action, doesn’t that remove one of the main reasons for the necessity of a pseudonym?

  3. As before, your scenario explains plausibly how Burghley moved c. 1589-90 to begin dismantling Oxford’s kingdom of dreams. As when a “Shake-speare” play, supposedly in five acts, turns out to have a sort of bivalve construction, rise and fall, how quickly comes the nemesis (Burghley and young Robert) with vorpal sword to cut down the Earl snicker-snack, close to the high point of his very success. Occasioned by his ally Walsingham’s death, of course…

  4. I’ve always wondered how do Stratfordians explain how a commoner like Will Shakspere from Stratford got away with portraying Robert Cecil the way he was portrayed (and readily identified from that portrayal) as Richard III? How would he have escaped being eliminated when so many others who seemed to have done far less were so quickly dispatched. I find it amazing that Edward de Vere escaped being killed but then there are various reasons that could explain how that could (and obviously did) happen. But I just can’t see how a commoner would have escaped turning up dead if they really thought he was the author of the play (Richard III) that held the powerful Robert Cecil up for such public ridicule. [Just want to thank you for updating so regularly–it is much appreciated.]

  5. They deal with it like they deal with all the other anomalies, by ignoring it. First of all, they don’t really care who wrote the plays. Second, they’d be embarrassed. And no one wants that, particularly if it means embarrassing one’s entire community.

    This is truly the key to the entire question. Shakespeare was the company playwright for the Royal Acting Company for all of its 30-year history. From the beginning until well after his own death (whenever that was), his plays remained the mainstay of their repertory. Why did he never get into trouble with the authorities? Lyly was fired and never given another job. Marlowe was executed, Jonson was imprisoned, branded on the thumb, and brought at least twice before the Star Chamber. Chapman and Daniel both got in trouble. But not Shakespeare. Even when his play was involved in the Essex rebellion, it was the actors who had to answer for it.

    One other playwright from the time shows equal immunity from the kind of disaster that threatened his fellows: Tom Nashe. Why did he escape when Jonson, Spencer and Shaw were jailed after the Isle of Dogs? Why when all the other Wits dispersed after Marlowe’s execution, did he feel safe enough to continue to write? Because he belongs in the same category with Shakespeare; he too was a courtier who used someone else’s identity to publish, and who was too closely related to the authorities in question to fear them.

  6. Stephanie, your road trip looks mostly correct about Lord B but did you sift through the estate transactions among Lord B’s papers? Any estate purchase involving Oxford explains each Lord B motive to dower his heirs forever. He just wanted it all for his family like all other leaf-cutters serving QE1. Wards of state provided endless cherries, viz., their digressions were plucked by Lord B. GK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s