As might be expected of one born to live at a royal Court, by the time Oxford reached his thirties he had acquired a fair number of enemies. To his right there were the fellow descendants of the ancient Norman nobility, many of them determined Catholics, bitter about their lost status; to his left were the newly empowered Protestant evangelicals, bent on purifying the world of Sin, which to them meant the strictest possible oversight of sinful pleasures like making and watching plays. Not least were those members of his Court community he was wont to target for public humiliation because they had roused his wrath––recall the 1593 squib from Pierce’s Supererogation (supposedly by Gabriel Harvey):
all you that tender the preservation of your good names were best to please Pap-hatchet and fee Euphues betimes for fear lest he [Euphues] be moved, or some one of his apes hired, to make a play of you, and then is your credit quite undone forever and ever, such is the public reputation of their plays. . . . Better anger an hundred other, than two such, that have the stage at commandment, and can furnish out vices and devils at their pleasure.
Oxford and his “apes” were more than a match for these, but there were three who, over time, did him significant and lasting damage. In his youth there was the Queen’s “favorite” Robert Dudley, soon to be known as the Earl of Leicester. Later came the deadly duo, his cousin Lord Henry Howard and his brother-in-law Sir Robert Cecil, known later (under King James) as the Earls of Northampton and Salisbury. While Dudley stood in his way early on, it was the latter two whose hatred succeeded in killing, not the playwright himself, but his “good name.”
Hamlet, dying, begs his friend: “O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!” Why is it that those things that “stood thus unknown” have remained unknown for four long centuries? How much longer will this continue before History begins accepting the truth?
The Earl of Leicester
When Oxford first came to Court sometime in the late 1560s he found himself at odds with Robert Dudley, the Queen’s official lover. Almost the same age as Elizabeth, born like her into the highest circles within the small tightly-knit community that was the Court of Henry VIII, both survivors of three deadly regimes, Robert and Elizabeth would probably have met more than once during childhood, and would certainly have heard of each other from their earliest years.
It’s clear that she wanted him near her, since she brought him to Court within days of her coronation. Drawn to him emotionally and doubtless physically as well, she knew that she could always depend upon him because, as Fate and the rules of Blood Dynasties had it, in the wild scramble for power that followed the deaths of her father, then her brother, then her sister, it was Henry’s youngest daughter, not one of Northumberland’s sons, who ended up with all the power. By then, as the son of a convicted traitor, Robert Dudley would be totally reliant on her for his place at Court for the rest of his life.
It so fell out that when, two years into her reign, the death of the 16th Earl of Oxford left his twelve-year-old heir to her to manage through the arcane Crown-funding method known as Wardship, the thrifty Queen used her prerogative to support the landless Dudley by giving him the use of the income from the Oxford estates until the Oxford heir came of age. There was nothing unusual about this; several previous earls of Oxford had begun as underage royal wards, their inherited estates similarly farmed out by the monarch to some needy supporter.
Various authorship scholars have examined how Leicester handled Oxford’s lands during this period (most notably Daphne Pearson and Nina Green) and while it’s clear that on at least one occasion Dudley played the bully with the old Earl’s widow, Oxford’s mother, the idea that it was his abuse of Oxford’s lands that set our playwright on the road to bankruptcy does not accord with the facts (consider how Oxford’s mother begged Cecil to appoint someone to take over the handling of the estate since it was simply too much for her (Nelson Monstrous xx), nor does the background history support the theory that Leicester was in any way driven by his hatred for Oxford. (Nor does it support the bizarre notion that he had the 16th Earl murdered just so he could have the use of his lands for a few short years!)
Looking back in history, it’s clear that the Oxford earldom was in trouble long before Elizabeth took the throne, as it had been at least since the great 13th Earl died in 1462. Because that magnate left no heir “of his body,” the title passed to a nephew, a “wastrel” who, having succeeded to the title at age four, spent his short life restoring a Saxon ruin known as Castle Camps. What was left of the family estates then passed to his uncle, another Earl John, whose life under Henry VIII was more concerned with keeping his head on his shoulders than protecting his heritage, as Bluff Harry grabbed for himself, or one of his toadies, such ancient prerogatives of the Oxford earldom as the office of the Lord Great Chamberlain and Keeper of the Forest of Waltham.
With Oxford’s father, whose bizarre love life may reflect to some extent the deplorable example of his monarch, what was left of the earldom by the time Bluff Harry died came under immediate attack by his successor, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, uncle of Henry’s heir, the nine-year-old Edward VI. Although Somerset’s attempt to wrest from Earl John––not just a few estates here and there but his entire earldom––ended with his own destruction by his rival the Duke of Northumberland, Robert Dudley’s father, by the time Northumberland himself was executed by Queen Mary and her husband, the soon-to-be King of Spain, it seems that the management of the Oxford estates was already in the hands of local stewards (where it would remain when Oxford chose to spend his life in London).
Nevertheless, by the time the officially Protestant Elizabeth came to the throne, the Oxford earldom, if bled almost dry by feckless earls and greedy monarchs, was still one of the largest, most intrinsically valuable, and most politically important of the ancient English domains. Across the southern end of its western border lay the suburbs of London, while to the east, hundreds of miles of coastland faced those areas on the Continent where the Protestant Reformation was beginning to gain ground both militarily and politically. Any family the seventeenth Earl would marry into would be getting a real plum.
Leicester as Elizabeth’s top military advisor
As his most recent biographer, Simon Adams (2002) proves to the fair-minded, Leicester was far more to Elizabeth, and to the nation, than just the Queen’s number one boyfriend. Though his only official office was Master of the Horse (Cavalry), from the start and until his death in 1588, he was in fact her chief military advisor, responsible for working with those Protestant forces on the Continent gathering to fight the political might of Catholic Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Towards the end of her brother Edward’s reign, during the 1557 siege of San Quentin in Northern France, the youthful Dudley had became acquainted with some of the more important future leaders in the struggle for control of the region, possibly even with the Prince of Orange himself, which in her eyes, and his also, was enough to qualify him as England’s military leader.
Elizabeth was always inclined to give with one hand and take with the other. While she looked to Dudley as her chief military advisor, she also refused to let him engage personally in any of the battles on the Continent. Her refusal to allow him to travel is often attributed to her love, and although that may have had something to do with it at first, the more lasting reason was an ingrained lack of trust in the ability of men to act wisely if left on their own for too long. When in 1585, following the assassination of the Prince of Orange, the leaderless protestant armies begged Leicester to assume command in person, she agreed, but then soon became hysterical with rage when it seemed to her he was being offered, and was all too willing to accept, far too much power for someone who was supposed to answer to her alone.
While this attitude was most obvious with Leicester, at one time or another, many others (most notably Essex) caused her intense anguish during periods when she could only write them letters that took days to reach them, and many more before she could expect a response. There was very little romance involved, for this anquish was purely political. Elizabeth was wont to change her mind frequently as new and different aspects to whatever was at stake crossed her mind (or were raised by those who remained around her). Because this made it almost impossible for her agents abroad to achieve either military or diplomatic results, few of her ambassadors took off for foreign Courts with any enthusiasm. Though highly educated, the Queen was ignorant of other places and peoples since she never had any opportunity or reason to set foot outside of England. (The same can be said of Burghley; except for a few weeks in Edinburgh in 1560, he had no personal experience of foreign lands or customs.)
So what seems most likely is that during the nine years that Leicester benefitted by the income from the Oxford estates, based on how he would deal later with the many estates permanently granted him by the Queen, because she never allowed him to leave London, he simply left them to continue under local management, and while doubtless glad of the income, it may be that regarding his use of the Oxford estates, he was more interested in the authority this gave him over the English coast to build on his connections with the protestant armies across the Channel than spending time or effort on them.
Certainly Leicester felt no love for the teenaged Earl of Oxford, and some of his dislike may have derived from the fact that Oxford’s inheritance had survived while his own was lost to his father’s ambition, but what is far more evident was his undeniable anxiety over the Queen’s affections. While his own education remains unknown and, despite his record as a great receiver of dedications, he seems never to have shown much interest in their contents, the highly-educated Oxford was actively helping the Queen create a high-minded Court style that she hoped would act as a shining example to the Courts of Europe, and quash their opinion of herself as the Great Whore of Babylon.
Handsome, sexy, talented in ways that contributed to the Queen’s reputation as the nation’s premiere hostess, that in his early years Oxford was repressed by Leicester’s resentment is evident, as is the fact that, despite Leicester, the Queen was so taken with him that he was regarded for a time as her favorite, for, until his fall from favor in 1581 she showed the same disinclination to allow him out of her sight that had kept Leicester glued to her side. On May 11, 1573, Oxford’s friend, young Gilbert Talbot, wrote to his father the Earl of Shrewsbury::
My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and valiantness than any other. I think Sussex doth back him all that he can; if it were not for his fickle head, he would pass any of them shortly. My Lady Burghley unwisely has declared herself, as it were, jealous, which is come to the Queen’s ear, whereat she has been not a little offended with her, but now she is reconciled again.
Rivalry over control of the Stage
Leicester’s jealousy was not only for the Queen’s personal affections, he must also have been unhappy by how the young Earl was taking over as her Court Impresario. Until Sussex came on board in 1571 as Lord Chamberlain of the Household, which among a number of other things, put him in charge of the Court’s entertainments, it had been Leicester to whom she turned for her holiday pleasures. These would have been of the more traditional sort, masquing, banqueting, dancing, and attending musical soirees interspersed with “interludes.” These were brief comedy routines similar to the comedy acts of vaudeville, often performed by the boy choristers from the Cathedral under the direction of Master Sebastian Westcott. Occasionally there would be a full length play of the sort exemplified by Gorbudoc, often enacted by the students from the legal college that Leicester treated as his personal social club, the Inner Temple.
It may be that as Leicester scrambled to provide entertainments that would please her hyper-critical Majesty, he found a capable assistant in one James Burbage. A woodworker by trade, and thus equipped to provide things like stage sets and scaffolding, Burbage may also, due to his membership in the Grocer’s Guild (that Leicester may have arranged for him), have begun his long Stage career by assisting his master with preparations for holiday banquets, which evolved into arranging for their entertainment by the various acting companies then available. Then, with the so-called Vagabond Act of 1572, that required all actors to be licenced as members of a company responsible to a Court patron, preferably a Lord, preferably one on the Privy Council, Leicester became the official patron of Burbage’s team, thenceforth known as Leicester’s Men.
That this was in fact the same team that Burbage would take with him to the Theatre, the public stage that he would help to create in 1576, can be missed by ordinary historians, largely because it’s always recorded in the Revels account as Leicester’s Men. Whether Burbage himself was an actor or simply a gifted producer, it’s likely that it wasn’t long after Oxford’s arrival in London that the energetic craftsman and the Queen’s wunderkind formed the alliance that some fifteen years later would give birth to the London Stage.
Another thing that’s been effaced by the Elizabethan method of record keeping is the fact That Oxford was not only writing the best plays produced at Court during this period, he was also the true patron of a team of his own. Run by the Dutton brothers, it appears in the Court records from 1573 to 1580 as a series of companies under the official patronage of three different patrons, first Sir Robert Lane, then Baron Clinton, then the Earl of Lincoln (Clinton became Earl of Lincoln in 1572), then the Earl of Warwick (Leicester’s older brother), and finally, in 1580, under the Earl of Oxford. (While the record doesn’t make clear that this was not three separate companies, but the same one under different patrons, most recent scholars agree.)
That Oxford hid not only his authorship of plays performed by the various children’s companies, then, under Sussex, also of plays by adult companies, he also hid the fact that one of the top adult companies of the 1570s was functioning under his direction, through their payee, Lawrence Dutton. The only possible reason for waiting until 1580 until they began performing as Oxford’s Men, rather than as they had been doing since 1571, as Clinton’s Men or, while Oxford was away in 1575, as Warwick’s Men, was the enmity of Leicester, something that becomes evident with the fight that occurred at Burbages’ Theatre when the company finally began performing under Oxford’s name.
As described by Alan Nelson (239-41), their first performance as Oxford’s Men created a record of the battle between the actors and certain “gentlemen of the Inns of Court.” While the actors were blamed, and lead actor Lawrence Dutton and another actor were briefly jailed, the aggressors were clearly the “gentlemen,” who also penned a long, nasty poem against the actors (provided in full by Nelson) for having “deserted” their previous patron, the Earl of Warwick. While the particular Inn is never named, that it was the Inner Temple is evident from the fact that Warwick was Leicester’s brother, both members of the Inner Temple. It seems that somehow the company had switched to Warwick during the year that Oxford was in Italy. (Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, was a sickly man, generally acting as support to his younger brother.)
While much has been made of the competition between Leicester and the Earl of Sussex, appointed by Elizbeth in 1571 to be her Lord Chamberlain, as their exchanged letters show (Dudley Digges: The Compleat Ambassador), while in fierce disagreement over the Queen’s possible marriage to a foreign prince, most of the time they worked well enough together with the rest of Elizabeth’s advisory team. This consisted chiefly of Burghley, Walsingham, and Sir Thomas Smith, who strove to provide the Queen with a single agreed-upon strategy, thereby avoiding the weeks and months of delay caused by her tendency to vacillate.
While Oxfordians are inclined to believe the worst about Leicester, it’s important to keep in mind the most likely source of his bad reputation. Leicester’s true adversary at Elizbeth’s Court was never Sussex, it was always, from first to last, William Cecil Lord Burghley, and since right from the start Leicester was Burghley’s chief competitor for the Queen’s attention, it’s to Cecil that we should look when contemplating the truth of the rumors that have given Leicester his bad reputation. It was Burghley who, as Secretary of State, had control of the record, and so could slant history to benefit himself and damage his adversaries. However Tudor historians may choose to trust these rumors, as Adams shows, if the Earl of Leicester was no better than his rivals, he was certainly no worse.
Burghley also had something that no one else had, the team of agents he’d assembled to smell out and quell plots against the Crown, such as the Ridolfi plot in 1571 or the Babington plot of 1586. When seeking the truth behind mysteries like the 1560 death of Leicester’s wife, Amy Robsart, a tragedy that occurred just when it seemed to everyone at Court that Elizabeth was so desperately in love with Dudley that she was sure to be looking for a way that they could marry, it’s well to ask, Cui bono? (Who benefits?) since it was certainly not Leicester, but Burghley who benefitted from the poor creature’s broken neck.
Due to Elizabeth’s obsession with Dudley, she had been giving Cecil the cold shoulder, which, had it continued, would have meant his destruction at the hands of his political enemies. With the disastrous death of her lover’s wife, Elizatbeth found herself accused, both at home and abroad, with having conspired in Amy Robsart’s murder. Forced to arrest Dudley on suspicion, both had no choice but to appeal to Cecil, thus returning him to his place as England’s number one minister of State. Leicester, who, though formally acquitted, would remain forever tainted with the suspicion (for which Cecil was so obviously responsible) and without any real hope of ever marrying the frightened Queen.
Although Leicester managed to deal sufficiently equably with his fellow advisors, his attitude towards Oxford never changed. Doubtless regarding him as Burghley’s patsy, following Oxford’s marriage to Anne Cecil, it seems he dismissed him as an annoyance during the buildup to the Armada. Yet despite his negative attitude toward’s Oxford, Leicester was never so deadly an enemy as were those who came later.
Lord Henry Howard
As was true of most of the descendants of the old nobility that lent the gravitas of tradition to Elizabeth’s Court, Oxford was tied to his many Catholic cousins by centuries of aristocratic cross-breeding. Raised as a Protestant himself, first by one of the primary founders of the Church of England, Sir Thomas Smith, then by William Cecil, whose political energies were focused from the start on mking it certain that England remained Europe’s leading Protestant nation, it seems that, once into his twenties, with no one to say him nay, Oxford began to include within his intimate circle some of those Catholic cousins whose continued adherence to the Church of Rome had cut them off from any hope of advancement. Howard, Oxford’s elder by ten years, was just such an angry, bitter Catholic. The second son of the poet Earl of Surrey, descendant of the once powerful Dukes of Norfolk, he was also Oxford’s first cousin since Henry Howard’s mother, Lady Frances Vere, was Oxford’s father’s sister.
A similar education was another draw. Howard was the only member of the higher nobility much of whose life was spent at the University (Trinity Hall Cambridge). According to his DNB biography, from 1569 on, his “treatises form perhaps the most remarkable body of writings completed by any early Stuart politician with the exception of Sir Francis Bacon.” In language as “Byzantine” as his politics, Howard responded to the shifts in the political wind with tracts adorned, as his biographer put it,”with the elaborate apparatus of Renaissance scholarship.” Much as Oxford used the Stage as a means of acquiring power, Howard labored to rise by bombarding persons of authority with lenghy letters and tracts.
“The evil that men do lives after them”
There was, however, another side to Howard, a wicked side, one that Oxford would come to know to his enduring sorrow. Reputed as having engineered, or at least promoted the 1571 plot to get his older brother, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, married to the Catholic Queen of Scots (by this means returning his nation to Roman rule), Henry Howard was seen by many as having lured England’s only Duke into committing treason. Another man might have felt remorse keenly enough to have avoided more conspiracies, but not Howard. Years later, having achieved considerable power under King James, his own death barely saved him from having to answer to his culpability in the matter of the murder of the Lord Chamberlain’s servant, Sir Thomas Overbury, the scandal that over a period of some four years took down the entire upper echelon of King James’s Privy Council.
While Oxford was in Italy, Howard, it seems, had managed to install himself within the Cecil household where, posing as Oxford’s personal friend, he could claim to be privy to his travel plans. According to the ugly rumor that would meet Oxford shortly before he returned, Burghley, panicked at having lost sight of his ticket into the peerage during the summer Oxford spent touring the Mediterranean, fearful of his death at the hands of Turkish pirates, had impregnated his own daughter. The clear impossibility of this (as proven by the dates and Oxford’s letters) was not enough to deter Milord from revenging himself on the entire Cecil family), less for Anne’s highly improbable infidelity than for his own desperate need to free himself from Cecil’s suffocating oversight.
According to Elizabeth Jenkins, author of Elizabeth the Great, Oxford “had, it seemed, once told his cousin Lord Henry Howard that if his wife were pregant it would be by some other man,” adding: “Howard hated Burghley as a supplanter of the old nobility, and when the Countess of Oxford was known to be with child, he began to repeat what her husband had said to him”––or more likely, what Howard wanted the Court to believe that Oxford had said to him, Oxford then being too far away to set the record straight. After describing briefly how Anne’s pregnancy became known while Oxford was in Italy, Jenkins adds, “The general knowlege of her pregnancy, combined with the tattle of Lord Henry Howard, meant that Oxford was now talked of as a cuckold” (192). While Jenkins held no brief for Oxford, describing him as having a “bitter and preposterous” temperament, she can be depended upon for having read far more about Elizabeth’s Court than any of her readers.
Furious, less with Anne than with Burghley for allowing the rumor to become “the fable of the world,” as he put it in his 1576 letter to his father-in-law, Oxford, ensconsed in his own haven at Fisher’s Folly, shook off all impediments to his time: wife, baby, in-laws, creditors, and those servants like Anthony Munday that, having come from Burghley, he now saw as spies. With two public theaters soon to open their doors in Shoreditch and Blackfriars, he had plays to write.
How long it took Oxford to realize who it was that had planted the wicked rumor is, of course, impossible to know, but because both Howard’s nature and his reasons for destroying Oxford’s relationship with his in-laws corresponds so perfectly with what Iago does to Othello, it’s hard to deny that, resenting Burghley and others who were blaming his mistreatment of Anne for her death, Oxford eased his soul, as was his lifelong habit, by basing one of his greatest tragedies on the breakup of his marriage, thus providing those who have “ears to hear” with the true motive for what has been described by critics as Iago’s “motiveless malignity.”
There may also be something of Howard in Shakespeare’s depiction of Lady Macbeth as the malicious underling who stirs her morally weaker but politically advantaged relation to commit the felony that will raise her own status. This is much too similar to the way, and for the same reasons, that Howard was believed to have brought about his brother’s ruin, not to have been on Oxford’s mind when he revised the play, first written during his teenaged years when the Queen of Scots behavior was one of the chief issues that Burghley had to deal with during the period that Oxford lived with him at Cecil House. That Howard was seen as a homosexual (according to historians) would have contributed to his portrayal as a female villain, since ambitious women were seen as more likely than men to rely on such underhanded methods to achieve their goals. (Surely two of the three witches are based on Bess of Hardwick and the Countess of Lennox, both thought to have an interest in getting the Queen of Scots on the English throne.)
Destruction by libel
But none of this comes close to the deadly effects of Howard’s revenge. While we can’t know just when Oxford realized who must have created the rumor that destroyed his marriage, we can guess that it would have been sometime before December 1580, when, doubtless spurred by Walsingham, he blew the whistle on Howard and his cohort Charles Arundel for attempting to enroll him in their plot to overthrow the Crown.
As the greater Court community gathered in the Queen’s Presence Chamber in December 1580 in anticipation of the coming Yuletide festivities, Oxford went down on his knee to “confess” to having attended Mass with Howard and Arundel. Bent on enjoying her annual moment of pleasure, the Queen put all three under house arrest so that she could continue to enjoy greeting those members of the Court community whom she rarely saw the rest of the year. While she had Oxford released almost immediately (if he was, as we believe, already her Court Impresario, she would have needed him for the entertainments that were about to follow), she left the two plotters under house arrest with Christopher Hatton, with instructions to Thomas Norton, her enforcer, to grill them as to the truth of Oxford’s accusations.
Meanwhile, Howard and Arundel––who rather stupidly were being housed together––created the series of counter charges, known to history as the Howard-Arundel libels, that have ever since have been the source of Oxford’s blackened reputation. Written by men facing execution for treason, they accused their former patron of everything they could think of, drunkeness, atheism, murder, disrespecting Her Majesty, but most horribly effective as it would eventually turn out, having sex with his pages, something that requires a fuller explanation than there is room for here.
While it’s evident that Elizabeth, who must already have had a poor opinion of the two miscreants, refused to take their charges seriously, such was not the case with the 20th-century historians who were beginning to look more closely at Oxford following Looney’s publication of his Shakespeare credentials. That these libels are the source of the perjoratives invariably added from then on to even the most passing reference to the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is the only thing that makes sense, since there’s nothing else in the record that can support this universal disdain.
Though the libels remained unpublished until 2002, when the American English Professor Alan Nelson published his negative biography of Oxford, that they were the true source for his bad reputation with 20th-century historians is the only possible cause for their unusually rude treatment of this previously little-known Tudor figure. Located in the Lansdowne and Cotton collections, where they had been preserved for centuries, they constituted a ticking time bomb that would explode following Oxford’s promotion as Shakespeare just as England was experiencing the epidemic of homophobia that destroyed Oscar Wilde and so many others.
Saving the worst for last
This has been a fair bit of history to cover in a single essay, so we’ll leave for another the third and final enemy, the one that sealed our hero’s fate, consigning him to what, if we fail to save him, may turn out to be eternal perdition.