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.”  

4 thoughts on “Oxford’s lady loves

    1. Thanks, Bob. It’s based on the history of the period, so it’s only daring to those who haven’t given sufficient time to the history of the period. If you start with Henry VIII and go through to Charles I, you’ll end up where I did. That is, if you start with the idea that you really know nothing except what you read in the plays. If you start with the intention of proving a particular notion, then you’ll never get past square one.

  1. The truth about Oxford is such a great story, just as good as any of his plots, and just as exciting as any of the whodunnits on TV because it’s so huge, so important to understanding the history of the period. As it is now, he seems to have had no effect at all on history, when the opposite is true. He created the modern Media! He created the language we speak today! He moved history a giant step closer to ideas like freedom of speech and human rights! What could be more important than this? But all I can do is make the claim. The little I’ve been able to put forth is so small in comparison of what remains, I can only hope that someone younger, braver, with more support, will pick up where I’ll be forced to leave off.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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