Who was Falstaff?

As we go through Oxford’s life, matching the stages from youth to old age with Shakespeare’s protagonists, from Romeo to Hal to Hamlet to Feste to Lear, Falstaff stands out, not only as his most popular comic character, possibly even rivalling Hamlet for overall popularity, but also as the least like Oxford himself. Falstaff fails to resemble Oxford for the very good reason that unlike protagonists Romeo, Mark Antony, Hamlet or Lear, there was nothing of Oxford in Falstaff, who was based on someone totally unlike himself, someone who had died not long before he reincarnated him on the stage as a comical figure. That someone was the notable “Peck’s bad boy” of Elizabeth’s Court, Sir John Perrot.

Few know his name today (erased by the same invisible hands that have disconnected Oxford from the history of the Stage), but that would not have been the case in the late sixteenth century, when Perott’s popularity with the Queen, his valor and his misdeeds were the stuff of gossip and rumor in Court circles and throughout the nation at large. (His Wikipedia bio is a product of the same Academy that adheres to the Stratford version of Shakespeare’s identity, so it portrays him in the same dark light as it does the Earl of Oxford.)

According to Roger Turvey, who has written about Perrot at length, his influential Welsh stepfather had “secured him a place in the house of William Paulet, Lord St John, later first Marquess of Winchester . . . . Here, in the company of Henry Neville, sixth Lord Bergavenny, and John de Vere, sixteenth earl of Oxford, Perrot completed his formal education.” So says his biographer, although a later anecdote associates this with a moment in 1546 when these three were with Winchester because all three had been placed there under house arrest, the 16th Earl doubtless due to his first wife’s complaints of mistreatment. In this version of the story, Perrot and Neville brawled so violently that “they reportedly broke glasses about one another ears so that blood besprinkled . . . the chamber,” which doesn’t sound much like they were there to get an education, and in fact, by then, Perrot, having been educated in his childhood and teens by Welsh scholars, was already “fluent, on his own admission and by the reports of contemporaries, in French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin.”

 Later adventures put him in France, in an escapade during which, while out hunting, he saved the life of Henri II in an encounter with a wounded boar, a story that sounds a lot like one attributed elsewhere to the 16th Earl, who may have been present at the time (perhaps there were two dangerous boars). Repeatedly rescued from incarceration for debt by his relatives and the King during the reign of Edward VI, he managed to survive at Mary’s Court, doubtless on his charm, since his recorded response to orders to hunt down protestants in Wales was to harbor them in his own home. Seemingly undetered by the spells of house arrest or jail that followed such escapades, Perrot soon learned how to outsmart would-be oppressors through legal tactics. As Turvey puts it: “Never shy of resorting to law to browbeat his enemies into submission, Perrot is said by [a] contemporary . . . to have ruined a number of gentlemen in the process of prosecuting, and being prosecuted, by them.”

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth Sir John’s opportunities for acquiring fame and fortune increased exponentially. Obviously delighted with this intelligent, highly educated hunk of unabashed Welsh derring-do, (he was reputed to be her half-brother since it seems he resembled Henry VIII, a scandal Turvey denies) Elizabeth “showered him with grants of land and advowsons in southwest Wales and elsewhere in England.” Seeking a use for his belligerent nature, she sent him to Ireland, where Turvey claims he continued the “reign of terror” initiated  by his predecessor, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the space of two years, having “dispatched to the gallows over 800 rebels.” Based on how Perrot allowed protestants to escape during Mary’s reign, his acknowledged laxity in obeying orders from afar, and his later popularity with the Irish, these numbers may have been inflated. “800” would have had a comforting sound to an anxious Queen on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Weary of Ireland and its problems, aggravated by lack of support from the Privy Council, when they refused him permission to return to England, he came back anyway, which caused his enemies to expect that the Queen would “issue a severe and public reprimand”––but none came; instead she allowed him to return to Wales, where he continued to build his power base and send his supporters to parliament. Recurring troubles in Ireland caused her to send him back in 1584, and although in the following four years he was unable to create the reforms he’d promised, when he handed the governorship over to a Burghley appointee, in 1588, “the latter was compelled to admit that he left the country in a state of peace.”

In February 1589 the Queen confirmed his appointment to the Privy Council. According to Turvey, “This proved to be the high point of his career for, unbeknown to him, the foundations of his position and influence at court were soon to be undermined.” Perhaps putting Perrot on the Privy Council can be seen as a last ditch attempt by the Queen to maintain the balance of power that had always been her guiding principle; in any case it proves to have been Perrot’s death knell. It seems the obvious regard in which Perrot was still held by the Irish upset Lord Burghley, who, having returned to total power with the death of Walsingham in 1590, was hardly one to appreciate someone so unlike himself. As Turvey relates, with Walsingham’s death, “Perrot was placed under house arrest at Burghley’s Strand residence,” so that charges of treason lodged against him by the new Burghley appointed Governor of Ireland could be “investigated.” Formally charged with treason in December––the only crime that someone of his status could be charged––Perrot was sent to the Tower the following March, where he remained for a year before he was finally brought to trial.

Among the charges against Sir John were rude comments he had made about Elizabeth, among them: “Stick not so much upon Her Majesty’s letter, she may command what she will, but we will do what we list,” and “God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.” According to Turvey, he “did not deny that he might have spoken the words attributed to him. but he resented the interpretation placed upon them.”  As Turvey puts it, 

Even towards the end Perrot never believed that he would be found guilty, much less executed. He took comfort from the fact that the queen had stayed judgement against him on six occasions. However, unbeknown to him the architect of his downfall was no less a man than Burghley who, before and throughout the trial, presented himself in public as a friend and ally but in secret wrought his destruction. . . ; to his utter astonishment, Perrot was found guilty and condemned to death on 26 June 1592. 

Perrot died in prison that November and was buried shortly after within the Tower. He died before sentence could be carried out or, as seems likely in view of Elizabeth’s favourable treatment of his family later, and her lifelong concern for his welfare, before she could issue the pardon he was so certain would save him. The cause of his death was not reported. Turvey holds that Perrot was poisoned by “his enemies,” who, foreseeing that the Queen would eventually pardon him, feared what would happen to them should he be returned to the Privy Council. 

How is it that such a character could have been totally erased from a history in which he so obviously played a major role? Perhaps for the same reason that Oxford’s history as a theatrical impresario has been erased. 

Perrot as Sir Toby Belch

Much as Oxford first put Sir Thomas Smith on the stage in Thomas of Woodstock, then as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, and finally as old Gonzago in The Tempest, surely he did the same for John Perrot. First in Twelfth Night, while he was still very much alive, he appears as Sir Toby Belch, who shows so many of Perrot’s characteristics, one of which is how much he detests Malvolio, Oxford’s version of Christopher Hatton. One of the few thing we know about Perrot is how he detested Hatton, of whom it is said he famously jested that he had danced his way into the Queen’s favor in a Galliard. 

In need of a role that would tempt Will Kempe to join the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, then in the planning stages, Oxford created Falstaff for a Court still feeling Perrot’s absence. That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men called him John Oldcastle at first, was because at that time they were in need of some means whereby to humiliate William Brooke Lord Cobham, the Cecil flunky that the Queen had named their Lord Chamberlain following the death of Lord Hunsdon. As for Falstaff’s corpulence, while we have nothing to tell us whether Sir John, once so active, put on weight during these long final periods of incarceration, that he suffered from kidney stones suggests that, denied the life of action he was used to, an appetite for food got the better of him, in the way that his other appetites had done. (The illustration provided by the Wikipedia bio must be disregarded. It was done in a later century by someone who had never seen him.)

In any case, at some point either before or after Cobham’s death in March 1597, it reverted to Falstaff, which, however associated with the historic soldier Sir John Fastolfe, provided a perfect counterpoint to the authorial name as published a few years earlier in Venus and Adonis and first put on a published play in 1598. While today’s academics ponder things like feminine endings, the poets in Oxford’s audience would not have missed the significance of Fall-staff as counterpoint to Shake-spear,

3 thoughts on “Who was Falstaff?

  1. As usual – absolutely riveting – thank you for these vital works! I was pondering that Oxford’s choice of the name Falstaff was more to suggest ‘False-Staff – being a way of playing, in full sight, with the fact that ‘Shake-speare’ was also a false staff – his pseudonym?

    1. Thanks for the compliment!

      There is almost no indication anywhere in Shakespeare that the author is aware of any controversy over his identity. Apart from a single incident, which could relate to someone else, and probably does, the authorship issue does not appear, nor could it. He and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had to stick to their story, they could never admit that it was a coverup, and certainly not in a play. Oxford was in trouble when he created Falstaff, so for his poet friends and inner circle, it would have meant that his staff, the white wand of the Lord Great Chamberlain, had fallen. It could also mean that his staff, his crew at Fisher’s Folly, had fallen from him.

      1. Dear Stephanie, thanks so much for your compendious – and arresting answer – thought-provoking and a real privilege to read. It hadn’t occurred to me that the cover-up was completely successful in his time but of course, it’s easy to see, that, beyond the court, it could be pretty easily maintained. I never really thought to enquire about who Falstaff might be based on – (absurd), but you have, of course, shone massive and unequivocal light on it – exciting!

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