There’s a lot about the situation brewing in Washington D.C. right now that’s similar to the one in which Oxford found himself in 1580. As detailed by biographers Conyers Read (1925) and Robert Hutchinson (2006), Secretary of State Walsingham was in the midst of an ongoing effort to locate the source of rumors that either the French or the Spanish or both were planning an invasion of England. Such an attack by the Catholic mainland had been staved off for decades by the Queen’s marriageability. So long as the great Continental powers had hopes of marrying their way onto the English throne the nation was relatively safe from attack. But by the 1580s, with Elizabeth approaching her fifties, marriage was no longer a viable option.
According to Hutchinson, neither the Queen nor her Lord Treasurer were showing enough of an interest in what Walsingham feared was a looming disaster. Eager for peace, unwilling to face the prospect of planning for an expensive confrontation with Spain, Walsingham was forced to fund out of his own pocket the intelligence gathering he needed since neither Elizabeth nor Burghley were doing anything to help him track the sources of what would come to be known as “the Great Treason.”
Spymasters Walsingham and Comey
Who can deny that this sounds similar to what’s going on right now in Washington, or that efforts by members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to get to the truth about Russia’s efforts to control our 2016 presidential election, locating who on the White House staff were colluding with the Russians, plus FBI Director Comey’s request for more funding to help with the investigation, doesn’t resonate with Walsingham’s efforts to get funding for his investigation? That the Russian tyrant is doing this by hacking into emails and Twitter may differ from building a great Armada of warships, but only in method, for there’s no difference in purpose, the Continental Princes’ to take over Whitehall, Russia’s to take over the White House.
Oxford, having allied himself with his Catholic cousins, Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundell, found himself in a painful quandary. For several years he had been deeply involved with another of Howard’s cousins, one of the Queen’s maids of honor. Weary of Court life and its restrictions, angry at Elizabeth for not giving him anything more important to do than create entertainments, in love with Mistress Vavasor, eager to share his life with her and escape his stifling ties to the Cecils, he was probably considering taking his cousin Henry Howard’s suggestion that the two of them elope to the Continent, something that Howard promised would be supported by Philip II, who was willing to pay handsomely for any English nobles that Howard could enroll in what Oxford was beginning to see was more than just the chatter of a small group of embittered outsiders.
Despite what historians have to say about this, it’s clear from Shakespeare’s works that his apparent interest in Catholicism had nothing to do with his own religious inclinations. Raised by Sir Thomas Smith, a sternly idealistic Protestant humanist, doubtless he was curious about the culture that his tutor and his guardian were so determined to stamp out, the culture that, throughout the centuries, had produced the most beautiful works of art and literature, works that he admired and that Calvinists like the Cecils seemed to detest. For this reason, plus his urge to succor those who, like himself, were inclined to fall afoul of authority, he had made friends with his declassé Catholic cousins, who, despite their bad reputations, got access through him to the inner circles of the Court community.
At some point it must have become clear to him that what his cousins were proposing smacked of treason. Behind the enrolling of disaffected noblemen like himself lay what he must have begun to grasp was a conspiracy of some dimension, one that threatened the Queen, who, however angry he was, he did not want to see harmed or replaced by some Spanish grandee. Worse, if the truth about the conspiracy came out, he himself would be seen as guilty of treason, which, for that matter, may have been more like when than if. To make things even more troubling, his lover was pregnant. What was he to do?
During the weeks leading up to the winter holiday during which the plays he’d written for the Court would be performed, either he approached Walsingham, or more likely, Walsingham, suspicious of Oxford’s erratic behavior and guessing that something was afoot between him and his Catholic cousins, made him aware of the desperate necessity to discover who in England was acting as an agent for the Spanish. Historians, ignorant of Oxford’s relationship with Smith and of Smith’s relationship with Walsingham, miss the likelihood that Walsingham and Oxford were close. (Howard acknowledged this in his libels.)
Aware of the danger he was in, Oxford decided to cooperate with Walsingham, who, aware of the Queen’s feelings for Oxford, saw this as an opportunity to alert her to the dangers that he, alone, had so far been powerless to awaken. Thus Oxford’s decision to “tell all” and throw himself on her mercy before the entire Court as they gathered in the Presence chamber at the outset of the Christmas holidays seems more like a plan than a moment’s madness. While this public performance may seem bizarre for something that might normally be done in secret, that he chose a moment when the number of courtiers present was swelled for the winter holidays suggests that by so doing there could be no misinterpretations nor rumors, since everyone who might ordinarily be tempted to twist the truth to fit their own perspectives had no one to deceive since all were present to see and hear it for themselves. Flustered, in holiday mode and with no appetite for dealing with such grim matters as she welcomed her constituents to the year’s season of entertainment, the Queen had Oxford, Howard and Arundell confined. Oxford was released the following day, doubtless so he could attend to the Court’s entertainment, but his cousins remained under lock and key for months.
As today we await the outcome of the efforts by the House and Senate Intelligence committees to get the testimony of former FBI Director Comey regarding what he knows about who in the White House was colluding with the Russians, Comey’s decision to say nothing unless he can say it in public can’t help but remind us of Oxford’s (and most likely Walsingham’s) decision that his revelation be made to as large a segment of their community as was possible in those days without cameras, iphones, and television.
In the event, Oxford’s testimony appears to have hurt no one but himself, as it gave rise to the libels penned by Howard and Arundel that have ruined his reputation with historians every since, while at the time their accusations of treason continued to stick to him, inspiring his great studies of such matters in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. It would take Walsingham almost four years before he successfully tracked the conspiracy to a member of the Spanish ambassador’s household, who, threatened with the rack, spilled all he knew about the French and Spanish plans to attack England. But what it did accomplish at the time was that it awakened the Queen to the danger she was in. Finally, in July of 1582, Walsingham began getting the funding he needed, funding that continued to increase through the years leading up to the showdown with the Spanish Armada. By then the nation was sufficiently prepared, and with the help of some violent storms, England was saved, as hopefully will also be the case with our American democracy.
Eliminating trolls: Readers have alerted me to the damage done by anti-Oxfordian trolls which so far seems limited to changing links in my blogs and pages to one of their pages. For this reason I’ve decided to forgo including all but the most necessary links. If you find that a particular link takes you to some bizarre site, please let me know so I can fix it. Also, they’ve preempted the name politicworm for a group they’ve created on Facebook, so please be aware that I have nothing to do with that FB page except to provide the trolls with something to deride.
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