Oh, the wonders of modern technology! My lecture at the SOF Conference in October was one of those filmed by the conference team and put online on youtube. If you’re interested in hearing me speak what I posted in text a few days ago, check it out when you get a free half hour. Those given by other authorship scholars are also available. Maybe this is how we’ll find our way past the barriers created by the Academy to reach an open-minded community of Shakespeare lovers.
The following is the substance of the lecture I gave recently at the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Conference in Hartford CT.
It’s so obvious that a man from William of Stratford’s background, that of an uneducated 16th-century wool dealer’s son from a town three days ride by horseback from England’s only theatrical city, simply COULD NOT have written the works of Shakespeare. So why does the Academy lie about that? Why have they continued to lie for centuries?
One thing is certain, to attack the English Department for its stupidity has been a waste of time. It arrived too late in the Shakespeare game to do anything but keep on turning in tight little circles around the kind of issues that are all their peculiar brand of philology will allow. No, our problem is with the History Department. Until we understand that, and the unseen immensity of the question of his identity, we will never get anywhere.
Because while the English Departments care nothing about Oxford, or William, or any possible author, the History Department does care about him, because it hates him. It has hated the Earl of Oxford for centuries. It sees him as a pampered brat who did nothing but waste his family inheritance and insult that kindly old gentleman, Lord Burghley. Alan Nelson is only the most recent in a long stream of historians who’ve been egregiously slamming Oxford for centuries. Forty years before Nelson, sociologist Laurence Stone labelled Burghley’s wards “an antipathetic group of superfluous parasites” with Oxford “the greatest wastrel of them all.”
Part of this is the Earl’s own fault. Following his return from Italy in 1576, he effectively disappears from history. Focussed on building theaters and giving actors work, he did what he could to stay out of sight of the Reformation puritans and evangelicals whose passionate belief that making and watching plays was a slippery slope leading to eternal damnation. Though his name pops up now and then in the Revels records and Court Calendar, these seem almost accidental, as if by a new clerk who didn’t yet know that the actors preferred to keep his involvement a secret.
None of this, however, goes anywhere near explaining why every biographer, journalist or novelist who has ever had cause to mention Oxford’s name in passing has paired it with some nasty pejorative, such as: “the obnoxious Earl of Oxford”; the “violent” Earl of Oxford; the “dissolute,” “feckless,” “atheistic,” “profligate,” “arrogant,” “supercilious,” “spoiled,” “pathologically selfish,” “ill-tempered,” “disagreeable” Earl of Oxford. To the early Stage historian C.W. Wallace he was a “swaggerer, roisterer, brawler.” To Burghley’s biographer Conyers Read, he was “a cad,” “a renegade,” “an unwhipped cub.” To literary historian A.L. Rowse he was “the insufferable, light-headed Earl of Oxford.” To Alan Nelson he was, and doubtless still is: “notorious . . . insolent . . . sinister . . . a mongrel,”––this last because his mother wasn’t a thoroughbred aristocrat! And they call us snobs!
Some of this mistreatment began in his own lifetime. We know this from the Sonnets,where he speaks of himself as ‘ïn disgrace with ‘fortune and men’s eyes,” and because in the version of Hamletpublished while he was still alive, the dying protagonist begs his friend, “O good Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me . . . .” What things unknown?
As all are aware who have delved into what E.K. Chambers calls “the Shakespeare Problem,” there are entire periods, whole sequences of events, that are missing from history. One of these is the truth about Shakespeare’s identity. Another is a satisfying account of the creation of the London Stage. With both of these it’s is as if a film about the moon landing were to go from the planning stage to the return from space with nothing to show what took place in between. In the great 4-volume compendium E.K. Chambers published in 1923, The Elizabethan Stage, his only acknowledgement of these chunks of missing data is the arcane Latin term, lacunae.
On a subject that calls for a book length treatment, all we have time for today is a close look at one important moment, and even for that, just the briefest of outlines.
We’ll begin in the spring of 1590 with the death of the then Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham. History’s claim––that Walsingham had no interest in the Stage––is another flat out lie, one of the many that we encounter when seeking the truth about the creation of the London Stage. As you find when you look further than statements in things like the DNB, Walsingham had actively fostered the Stage throughout the 1580s. Why then, as soon as he was gone, did it begin to suffer the setbacks that came close to destroying it? The only possible answer is the return by Lord Burghley to running Walsingham’s office, the office that Burghley himself had created during the Queen’s first decade, and that he brought in with him his son Robert to help with those aspects of the job that his increasing age made difficult. Among these it seems was Robert’s all-out attempt to control, even to destroy, the London Stage, Oxford’s great accomplishment.
According to the Revels Account for the winters of 1590 through 1593, the three companies that had entertained the Court every winter for the decade that Walsingham was in charge, Paul’s Boys, the Lord Admiral’s Men, and the Queen’s Men, were dropped, one by one, from the roster. With their loss of the government’s support, some of these companies were forced to break, and their actors to take off to the Continent in hopes of finding work there.
When Burghley’s attempt to get the popular playwright Christopher Marlowe incarcerated on a trumped up charge of counterfeiting failed in 1592, his brutal murder by government agents the following year was blamed on Marlowe himself. To make certain that no one would bother to investigate his murder, a team of disinformation operatives were put to work creating documents that defamed his character, a defamation that has lasted to this day.
The following year came the murder of Marlowe’s patron, Ferdinando Lord Strange, recently raised to 5th Earl of Derby. In 1595 came the marriage of Ferdinando’s younger brother William, now the 6th Earl of Derby, to, of all women, Oxford’s daughter. With Ferdinando out of the way, the marriage, arrranged by Burghley, gave the Cecils the entry into the upper peerage that was denied them when Oxford failed to provide them with an heir.
This brings us to 1596, the year the Queen finally gave in and appointed Robert Secretary of State. Two weeks after Cecil’s appointment, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, creator of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that was meant to replace the companies disbanded by the Cecils, died unexpectedly following a healthy dinner.
Two weeks after Hunsdon’ death, his office as Lord Chamberlain was given to Cecil’s father-in-law, Burghley’s main supporter William Brooke Lord Cobham, which put Brooke on the Privy Council, thus giving control of the Council to the Cecils. By October, the Council had been persuaded by Elizabeth Russell––Robert’s Aunt, Burghley’s sister-in-law––to prevent the Burbages from opening their elegant new theater in what she regarded as her personal bailiwick, the Liberty of Blackfriars. The following February, James Burbage, builder of the first public stage in London and father of the team that led the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was also dead.
When Cecil , now the most powerful man in England, was informed the following May that he was the butt of a play being performed at a new theater by a company made up of actors from those he had forced to disband, he ordered all the theaters in London closed for the rest of the summer. He would have to allow them to reopen in October because that’s when upwards of 500 parliamentarians from all over England would pour into Westminster for the Queen’s Ninth Parliament, hungry for the kind of entertainment that they could find only in the nation’s capitol. Cecil could not afford to displease these important constituents by keeping the theaters shuttered, so they reopened in October. That is, all but two, one of them the Burbages 20-year-old public stage. It remained closed––permanently.
With no theater in which to perform, no Court patron to protect them, their manager dead, their livelihoods at stake, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men turned to the one thing they had left, their playwright. Faced with the destruction of the industry he had created and with the loss of contact with what by then must have become an immense public audience, Oxford called once more on his “Muse of Fire.” Revising his old True Tragedy of Richard the Third into the brutal and humorless play we know today as Richard the Third, the Company, with the help of someone close to the press community, launched their attack. With no theater available, they must have arranged to perform it nearby in the hall of one of London’s great manors.
The Court was used to Robert Cecil’s tiny body and his deformity, his spindly little legs, hunched back and crooked neck. Born with a serious form of the scoliosis that touched so many members of his mother’s family, Robert had borne the slings and arrows of his cruel misfortune, the dismissive attitude of the tall men and beautiful women who winked at each other over his head in a Court ruled by a Queen who surrounded herself with tall, handsome, long-legged men. But the parliamentarians from the north and west of England may never have seen him in person until he stood before them in Parliament as the Queen’s new representative.
And so, as the footlights were lit, and the young Richard Burbage, hunched over and garbed all in black, entered the darkened room, the audience of MPs and Court regulars gasped to see the image of their new Secretary of State. With Burbage mimicking Cecil’s lurching gait, speaking in accents modelled on the voice they had been hearing every day in Parliament, they listened with astonished horror as he mouthed the opening lines:
“I that am rudely stamp’d, . . . Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up,”––a description written by one who had been present during his mother’s pregnancy, who had seen the anxiety with which his family anticipated his birth (his mother had a history of miscarriages), who had seen his struggles to breathe and walk. Thus did Oxford lash out at his adversary and Richard Burbage launch his career as one of the most famous actors of his time, in the role for which he would forever be best known.
As the parliamentarians watched in stunned silence while the evil king proceded to destroy one after another of his rivals, the question must have struck many: Who could have written this devastating slander? Who was daring enough to risk Cecil’s wrath? Later, as Parliament finished its business and the MPs returned to their home territories, the scandal would have spread like wildfire throughout the nation––but only whispered, behind closed doors, for no one who had seen the play would have dared to speak openly. No one would have dared to put anything on paper. Despite the lack of incontrovertible evidence, that this is what happened is the only possible explanation for what followed.
Before the arrival of the MPs in October, someone had seen to it that this revision of The True Tragedy was made available to them in inexpensive quarto. However prepared by this, what the audience would not have been prepared for was the comparison of their new Secretary of State with the evil King. There is nothing in the published version to suggest it. Only those who had seen the play would make the connection. And with no record of the performance but hearsay, how could anyone prove that the comparison with Cecil was intentional, or anything but the viewer’s naughty imagination? Best to keep silent, at least until they got home.
That the play created a firestorm of scandalized commentary at Court and in London may never have reached the record, but it is suggested by the fact that a second edition of the play was published at some point not long after the Christmas break, one with exactly the same text as the first except that the phrase “by William Shake-speare” had been added to the title page. Thus was the name Shakespeare launched to an eternity of fame and misidentification.
That life at Court appears to have continued as though undisturbed, suggests that Elizabeth got involved. Normally she left all matters relating to her Court entertainment to her Lord Chamberlain, doubtless so that her reputation not be tarnished with the evangelicals, but the subsequent smoothing over of what must have been a great if whispered scandal could only have been done by the Queen herself. In any case, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Lord Admiral’s Men continued to entertain over the winter holidays, and as Robert Cecil continued beside her as her main advisor, it must have seemed to most that he had survived the blow aimed at him by his brother-in-law.
There was, however, one who would continue to feel it and that most painfully, namely Cecil himself. Having proven himself a Master of the Dark Arts by the success of the sting with which he destroyed Marlowe and his reputation, Cecil’s campaign to destroy the London Stage and its creator was to have been the ultimate demonstration to his enemies that he was proof against all efforts to damage him. That in the final showdown over the Stage Oxford had beaten him, and that the world, or that part of it that mattered, knew it, left Master Secretary Cecil with a great thirst for revenge.
Having learned from his father how He who owns the Record owns History, once Cecil reached the level of power under James that gave him access to every record in the nation, can we doubt that he took advantage of it? Can we imagine that having the power to eliminate everything about the London Stage, along with everything that connected it to his hated brother-in-law, can we think for one minute that he failed to use it? Having no other weapon with which to wound him, with his subsequent history of dirty tricks and political conniving under King James, can we doubt that he did so?
What other explanation can there be for E.K. Chambers’s lacunae, the great gaps that appear in the record where there ought to be something about the Stage? The only persons in a position to do that were the Cecils, who, except for the decade and a half that Walsingham held the office of Secretary, had control of it for half a century. What other explanation can there be for the barrage of pejoratives that has attended any mention of the Earl of Oxford from that day to this? Who else could have seen to it that nothing good about him remained in the record, while things like the Howard-Arundel libels remained?
Hatfield House, home to the Cecils and their descendants ever since Robert acquired the property from King James, has also been the permanent home of the archives from the Tudor period as collected by the Cecils over the half century that they controlled the record. For 400 years, scholars requiring access to original documents from the Tudor and Jacobean period have had to apply for permission to study these in the library at Hatfield House, under the watchful eyes of their librarians.
As other household archives ended up in the British Museum or the Public Record Office, those gathered by Burghley and his son remained under their family’s control at Hatfield House. Only since 2003 has the creation of the National Archives and the growth of the Internet has made it possible for those of us without the support of a university to research these records without the authorization of the Cecil family.
Long after the original Cecils were gone, generations of Robert’s descendants have served on boards and committees whose goal has been to oversee the creation of a morally acceptible English History. Can we doubt that these have been partly driven as a means of protecting the good name of Salisbury, correcting anything that might threaten to damage it with an ugly truth?
In his 1973 memoire about his family, Lord David Cecil repeats the version of Oxford that the Cecils have been telling each other and the nation ever since. It’s all there, including the accusations of pedophilia, which means that generations of Cecils, and those following the paper trails they left to History have all had access to the Howard-Arundel libels long before Alan Nelson published them in 2000. There is a nasty quality to these off-hand slurs that reflects the tone of the terms used to defame gay men by inference during the 19th-century when England writhed in the grip of its epidemic of homophobia, a story that has barely reached beyond what it did to Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde. How it contributed to the damage done Oxford’s reputation is a chapter that needs to be told.
It was also during the 19th century that William Cecil’s lifetime goal, the raising of a humble family to the peak of power, was finally and gloriously achieved when the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, another Robert Cecil, rose to become Queen Victoria’s longest ruling Prime Minister and the major power behind the phenomenon known as the British Empire. The grand irony here is that while this Cecil’s economic and political might spread the English language and its literature around the world, it took with it the works of Shakespeare, including of course, his Richard the Third, an irony that Oxford would surely have appreciated, had he been around to see it.
Those of you who live close enough to Hartford Connecticut may be interested in the fact that the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship will hold their annual conference there the weekend of October 17-20, where a number of prominent Oxfordians will speak on a variety of subjects related to the subject of our interest. I’ll be speaking Friday the 18th at 11:15 am. If any of you can come, I’d love it if you’d say hello.
Still working to get the BOOK/S published. Once that’s done I’ll get back to blogging.
Many thanks for your continuing interest.
I’m at a turning point with this blog, and am not quite sure where to go with it. I started it in 2008, so it’s acquired an awful lot of material over the years, but the theme I used is no longer supported by WordPress, and since I’m finding it impossible to get the kind of support they used to provide (it seems that WordPress, like so many other great things offered by the Internet, has become almost totally focussed on money-oriented sites), I’m going to have to do it all over again with another theme, risk transferring it to another theme (I’m no whiz at this stuff), or let it go entirely. Recently I tried to add a widget which screwed up the home page, turning three columns into two, and all efforts to get help on fixing it have failed.
Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the future as I remain in a quandary. So I’m letting my readers, my very dear readers, know what’s going on, or rather, what isn’t going on, in case we all wake up one day and politicworm is gone. If there’s anything here that you’d want to save, perhaps now would be the time. Most concerning to me is that I don’t know who most of you are, so if the site does go down, I don’t know how to reach you when the book is ready, or I’ve managed to create another site (though I’ll do what I can to keep the name politicworm).
Right now I’m putting what time and energy I have into the book, so I haven’t had the kind of time I used to have to create these essays. And if I was ever good at “multi-tasking,” those days are gone forever. I’m not quite to the point of nodding as I knit by the fire (meaning the TV), but I’m getting there.
I’m so grateful to you all. I wish there was a quick and easy and cheap way to get the truth about Shakespeare out to the world, but I do think we’re getting there. 400 years is an awfully long time to wait.
Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury
To connect too closely great fortune with great genius creates one of
those powerful but unhappy alliances where the one party must
necessarily act contrary to the interests of the other. Isaac D’Israeli
In one way or another, the Cecil family has dominated English history ever since William Cecil engineered the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. Among the least understood of the powers he acquired and then bequeathed to his family, has been their almost total control of the history of the Tudor period as based on records collected and maintained by William and his son Robert during the half century that one or the other held the office of Secretary of State, the most powerful office at that time next to the monarch.
That Cecil was a “commoner,” a man who began without wealth or rank, is not in itself surprising, for in the long history of the English Crown, such men, through luck and their own talents, have frequently risen to a similar level of power, though few have had the forty years that Cecil had with Elizabeth. But Cecil had other advantages from the beginning. The first of his family to acquire a university education, the six years he spent at Cambridge (plus his time at Gray’s Inn) brought him the kind of connections that he relied on during his rise to the top. Even more useful may have been the fact that his father, Richard Cecil, whose long life as personal body servant to both Henry VII and Henry VIII, gave William access to many things about Court life that few others knew.
The story of the Cecils’ control of the record begins in 1547 when William, then in his late twenties, first came to Court during the brief but turbulent reign of Edward VI, when Henry’s successors, together with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, first established the Protestant Church of England. For the first half of the “boy king’s” six-year reign the nation was ruled by his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset; for the last half by Somerset’s rival, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (father of Queen Elizabeth’s “favorite”).
Cecil first came to Court in June of 1547, six months after the death of Henry VIII. Brought either by Somerset, under whom he may have participated in Henry’s campaign against the Scots (1544), or by Sir Thomas Smith, whose student he had been at Cambridge, and whose assistant he became under Edward VI. Smith (whose role under Somerset has been erased by 20th-century Tudor historians), had himself been brought to Court by Somerset within a few days of the old King’s death (according to Smith’s diary, as quoted in 1964 by Mary Dewar).
Smith’s duties under Somerset were varied; formally introduced as Secretary to Somerset himself, then as Secretary to the King, it seems his unrecorded mandate was to assist Somerset and Archbishop Cranmer in establishing Protestantism as the law of the land. While Cecil was doubtless born with gifts of organization and administration, he could not help but have learned a great deal during his time as assistant to Smith, whose administrative talents show by his roles as Vice President of Queen’s College, Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, and Provost of Eton.
Cecil replaces Smith
On October 10, 1549, Somerset was ousted by the council he was supposed to be advising in a coup led by Northumberland. Both Smith and Cecil ended up in the Tower along with Somerset, and while both were released the following March, six months later, Cecil was installed by Northumberland in what under Somerset had been Smith’s office as Secretary to the King. Smith, who throughout Somerset’s moment of power had been too obviously the instrument of his unrecorded actions, was exiled to Windsor where he cooled his heels as Provost of Eton College. Five years later, (according to Dewar) he would be given, probably by Cecil, who, with the accession of Mary, had taken on himself the silent role of organizer and protector of vulnerable Protestants, the task of tutoring and protecting the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom.
In 1553, when the Boy King died and his sister Mary and her husband, Philip of Spain, launched their campaign to eradicate Protestantism by hanging and burning as many of the Protestant leadership as they could get their hands on, Cecil managed to escape harm once again. Having wisely refrained from the sort of passionate declarations of faith that caused Mary’s Catholic henchmen to burn to death both Smith’s colleague John Cheke and the great Archbishop Cranmer, Cecil kept up with developments at Court through his father’s contacts as he built a relationship with the Princess Elizabeth, biding his time until Mary’s death opened har way to the throne and his to a power he could not have dreamed of during the dangerous years under Edward and Mary.
Raised by Elizabeth to the all-powerful office of Secretary of State, Cecil would eventually bring Sir Thomas Smith back to Court, but not until 1572 when he himself moved on to the office of Lord Treasurer, when he replaced himself with Smith as Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary. He might have brought him back sooner , were it not for two things: the need to establish his own authority over that of his strong-minded former master, and the Queen’s prejudice against Smith, who had been among those employed by the Protector to interrogate her and her staff during the months when she was in danger of being convicted of treason for possibly encouraging the advances of Somerset’s brother. (Smith was notoriously tactless.)
Cecil as record-keeper
As Lord Burghley, Cecil is famous for his dedication to making and keeping records. Warned perhaps by the repercussions that followed Somerset’s bizarre failure to keep any sort of regular account, the chief complaint that caused his fellow councillors to oust him, Burghley seems to have kept every letter ever sent him, in addition making copies of the letters he himself sent to others. By making and keeping memoranda for his own use, by supporting historians like William Camden whose interpretations he was in a position to see published, and by appropriating the private papers of recently deceased colleagues and rivals like the Earl of Leicester and Sir Francis Walsingham, William Cecil Lord Burghley almost single-handedly created the paper trail that historians of the Tudor period have been following ever since. As his biographer Conyers Read states:
The mere bulk of his correspondence coming in and going out was enormous. And much of it he wrote himself. In the Lansdowne MSS. at the British Library there are over one hundred folio volumes of his papers. At Hatfield House there are over two hundred folio volumes. And it would be difficult to estimate the number of state papers in the Public Record Office which show evidence of his handling. For this volume alone [Master Secretary] they would reach into the scores of thousands.
But did Cecil really keep everything? Of course not! By keeping this and discarding that, he left the world an image of the Court, and of himself and his family, as he wished them to be remembered in History. To think that he had the power to create history in this way and that he was so saintly that he never used it is to be foolishly naive. There is too much evidence that he used it very effectively when he found it necessary. Cecil was not violent by nature, he was cool-headed and calculating, but for men who wish to remain at the upper levels of power, that violence can be necessary on occasion, if done so carefully that their involvement escapes public notice, is something that historians should keep in mind.
Unfortunately for the truth, and for Hamlet’s creator, while Burghley’s son inherited his father’s instinct for politics, it came with a poisonous hatred for certain of his fellow courtiers bred of the disdain he had lived with since birth (from everyone but his mother and his sister), for his twisted back and his awkward little legs. At a Court in love with tell men with long legs and a bonny face, Robert Cecil made up for his lack of physical appeal with the intelligence of the demeaned and abused.
Until Burghley’s death in 1598, Robert was dedicated to winning his father’s and the Queen’s respect, but with Secretary Walsingham’s death in 1590, he moved rapidly to make himself indispensable, so that finally, by 1596, when his father was beginning to fail, the Queen had no choice but to accept the fact that no one but the son of her first and greatest supporter was capable of wielding the powers of Secretary of State. For the final decade of her life, Elizabeth knew the Cecils were out to take total control of the government, but this time there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Her famous ability to create a balance of powers had come to an end.
Cecil’s power under James
For the decade he held supreme power as King James’s Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, dubbed Earl of Salisbury by the King, used it to destroy the things (and the men) he hated, among them the great theater created by the Burbages in 1596 that he had convinced the Queen must remain shuttered. His powers as Secretary of State not only gave him the right to examine the official records, he was such a threatening figure by then that no one would have dared to refuse to give him, or one of his agents, access to their own collections. And while his father had protected Oxford until Anne’s death put an end to the old man’s wavering tolerance, Robert never felt anything but hatred for his witty, handsome, much-loved and admired brother-in-law.
If he couldn’t kill him outright, he could kill his reputation. Oxford, his identity as Shakespeare hidden from the world, had no recourse but to plea through the mouth of an actor, that “things standing thus unknown,” having left him with “a wounded name,” hoped that his friends and relatives, his cousin Sir Horatio Vere for one, would speak in his favor. Some did, but the world has not been interested.
To me it seems obvious that this is the reason why so many paper trails from that period disappear just where one would expect to see some mention of the truth, in particular the otherwise inexplicable absence of Privy Council minutes relating to policy discussions around the phenomenal rise of the London Stage as a powerful new industry and the “Fourth Estate” of government. Someone had to have done this, and only Robert Cecil had the power, the opportunity, and the personal reasons.
The Cecils and the enduring record
While the official record remained in the paperhouse for the use of subsequent Secretaries of State, Hatfield House, bequeathed to William Cecil by Queen Elizabeth, has continued to hold almost everything from the period dominated by the first Robert, where, from 1612, when he died, until 2003, when England established their National Archives, these documents were kept in the Hatfield House library, the Cecils’ family home. Thus for 400 years, every historian seeking to research the Tudor period has had no choice but to review these under the watchful eye of their family archivist.
The descendants of Robert Cecil have had no reason to tamper with what records their powerful ancestors left them. Robert Cecil’s immediate successor, his son, the 2nd Earl of Salisbury, did little more than maintain what was bequeathed him of the vast sources of wealth his father had acquired under James. Having fallen into some disrepute toward the end of the seventeenth century, the Cecil family began to rise again in the eighteenth with the 7th Earl, who, as a High Tory (i.e., right wing arch conservative) was rewarded for his loyalty to George III with a Marquessate. His son, the 2nd Marquess, another stalwart defender of the privileged classes, rose to national office as Lord Privy Seal. Finally it was with the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, that Burghley’s dream of a powerful and illustrious family was realized to the fullest possible extent.
Credited as the major figure behind England’s rise to world dominance under Queen Victoria, this Robert oversaw “the largest empire in history and, for over a century, the foremost global power.” According to Wikipedia: “By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 sq km (13,700,000 sq miles), 24% of the Earth’s total land area.” He was also Chancellor of Oxford University for over thirty years.
With centuries of intermarriage with other aristocratic and/or wealthy families, many productive of numerous offspring, this meant that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of relatives that this Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was able to provide with comfortable offices, thus the common pleasantry when someone’s had a bit of luck: “Bob’s yer uncle.” (It’s also interesting that a “bob” is a slang term for whatever happens to be the lowest bit of pocket money at the time.)
This does not mean that these later Cecils necessarily tampered with the record. There was no need, for their 17th-century ancestor had already taken care to eliminate anything that might cast a shadow on their later history (as they most obviously failed to do for their former in-law, the Earl of Oxford, having left the Howard-Arundel libels where they would be available to damage his reputation with future historians.
What this means is that the Cecil family wielded such authority from then on, and consequently were viewed with such respect, that no historian has ever dared to raise, at least not publicly, the truth about their despicable founder. But the nineteenth century, that brought the Cecil family to the peak of power, also brought (in the wake of Karl Marx) a way of viewing the past known as Sociology. Largely due to the sort of personal interpretations to which historians have been all too inclined, sociologists base their conclusions on factors like trends as revealed by statistics.
In 1973, the sociologist Lawrence Stone published Family and Fortune: Studies in Aristocratic Finance in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, in which he devotes the first half to the Cecils, and most of that to the original Robert’s greed. The entire first chapter: “Acquisitions, 1590-1612,” is an account of his rapacity under James, his bribes, grafts, gratuities, investments in privateering, sales of pirated cargoes of African slaves, sugar, and cotton (8); Spanish “pensions,” and payoffs through the Court of Wards and customs farming with which he continued to fill his pockets until 1609 when the King further increased his opportunities by naming him Lord High Treasurer. This enabled him to invest heavily in Westminster where he ended by getting into his pockets just about everything there was to own.
However, despite his riches, Lord Salisbury, it seems, died heavily in debt:
It was not until several years after [his] death in 1612 that the sales to clear off the debt were completed and it becomes possible to see the permanent pattern of the estate which remained. By 1617, when most of the sales were over, the second Earl enjoyed a gross income from land of between £7200 and £7500 a year. With prudent management . . . this was enough to carry the Cecils comfortably through to the late twentieth century as one of England’s greatest landed familiies. In fourteen frantic years of manic activity . . . Robert Cecil Earl of Salisbury had created something that was destined to last, and to influence English history, for centuries to come. (Stone 49)
Perhaps feeling compelled to frame this disturbing account as a moral tale, Stone ends his long section on the Cecils’ finances with a painful account of Robert’s death (51-55). He details his decline from 1610 on through records left by his doctors of Salisbury’s illnesses and medications and the elaborate lengths to which his servants went to ease his pains. It was widely believed that he died from syphilis, and although his doctor denied it, it’s hard to read his list of symptoms without accepting it as a possibility (51-52); there are certainly sufficiently plentiful accounts of his “lechery.”
Towards the end, Lord Salisbury, it seems, was overcome with “spiritual fears”:
The long and wasting sickness had given him time to look back over his career, and what he saw was not encouraging. Anxiously he sought reassurance from his chaplain, Dr. Bowles, that however terrible had been his sins in the past, his faith in God and his sincere if tardy repentance could redeem them. [Bowles tried, but failed to comfort him] so full was he of the enormity of his past offences. What particularly preyed on his mind we do not know . . . . (54)
Along with these titles and properties it seems that this first Robert also bequeathed to his descendants the Calvinistic sense of Sin that according to one of their more recent ancestors, has cast a shadow over most of their lives. In 1973, the same year that Stone published his damning account of the first Robert, Lord David Cecil, grandson of the great and powerful 3rd Marquess, published a memoire of his family in which he described his grandfather’s “basic isolation of spirit.” Apparently the great Prime Minister was “liable to fits of inexplicable depression,” a trait that seems to have been passed down through the family. Lord David’s own father, whose “prevailing mood” according to his son, was “melancholy, darkening to occasional fits of black depression, which sometimes lasted for weeks on end and which, one gathered from various hints, were associated with a sense of his own sinfulness.” Lord David also comments on his famous grandfather’s high-church religiosity and the bouts of “black” depression that, early in life, caused his family to send him abroad in hopes that life outside Britain might cheer him up. Alas, it seems that even the inestimable riches he managed to squeeze from India and Africa failed to raise this inherited gloom.
In truth the Cecils have much to answer for, not just the sins of their ancestors, but also the lies with which they have defended their personal ivory tower ever since, lies perpetuated in 1973 by Lord David Cecil. Among these is the lie that the Duke of Somerset had appointed William Cecil to act as his personal Master of Requests when Smith’s diary shows that it was Smith who was given that job months before Cecil came to Court. He fibs again a few sentences later with “Somerset showed his sense of William’s value by making him his personal secretary” (Hatfield 62); technically, both Smith and later Cecil were Secretary to the King, not to Somerset. In any case, as the dates recorded in Smith’s diaries as reported by Dewar, clearly show, it was Smith who came first to Somerset’s Court, not Cecil, and Smith who began under Somerset, not Cecil, who first functioned as Secretary of State under Northumberland. Dates do not lie, nor do men lie to their own diaries.
“A touch of romantic fantasy”
It seems that David Cecil’s understanding of history is what he was told over brandy and cigars after dinner around the family table. No doubt his many uncles and aunts were also unaware that there ever was a Secretary of State named Sir Thomas Smith. Nor does he spare Robert’s other victim, his brother-in-law, the Earl of Oxford:
[Burghley] was especially fond of his “Tannakin, as he tenderly called his daughter Anne. In 1571, when she was only sixteen, Edward, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, applied for her hand.. . . On the face of it it was a splendid match: Oxford was a dazzling figure, high-born, wealthy, beautiful, with a considerable gift for writing poetry and a touch of romantic fantasy. To crown all, he was a special favourite of Queen Elizabeth. All the same Burghley seemed to have had doubts about the marriage, and so even more had Lady Burghley. Oxford was not a type to appeal to a severe puritan. However, advantages in the end outweighed doubts . . . and in December 1571 the wedding was solemnized with glittering pomp in Westminster Abbey. (84)
Lord David fails to mention that, as the Queen’s ward, Oxford’s marriage (and by extension, his assets) were by necessity (if not by law) in the hands of her Secretary of State, William Cecil, or that she gave him his title, Baron Burghley, so that his daughter would be legally qualified to marry a peer. As for the “advantages” that “outweighed” Burghley’s “doubts,” Lord David fails to specify that the marriage would accomplish what he himself had defined as Burghley’s number two goal, a high and permanent place within the English peerage. Alas:
Lord Oxford turned out a more unsatisfactory husband than even Lady Burghley could have feared: unreliable, uncontrolled, ill-tempered and wildly extravagant. He . . . began to spend much of his time away from his wife by travelling in Italy.
So why did the affectionate father allow his beloved Tannakin to marry such a terrible man, one he certainly knew well enough, having raised him from the age of twelve? In fact Oxford had been married to Anne for four years before Burghley and the Queen would allow him out of their sight long enough to spend one year away from Court.
The lies continue:
In 1575 [Burghley] got a letter from Italy stating that Lord Oxford had become a drunkard, a homosexual, and a declared atheist. This report was accompanied by detailed accounts of his unseemly amours with his kitchen boys and of his blasphemous jokes about the Holy Trinity. . .
Since there is no such account, this bit of slander must be based on the Howard/Arundel libels that the Academy would keep to itself until 2002 when Nelson finally got them published. Lord David continues with the family’s after-dinner stories, in which Burghley
summoned Lord Oxford back to England and gave him a scolding. Oxford countered by sending his wife back to her family and accusing her . . . of being unfaithful to him while he was abroad. The couple spent the following Christmas with the Burghleys. (84)
Despite his virulent anti-Oxford bias, Nelson is more respectful of the record than Lord David. He provides the letter in which it is Oxford who “scolds” Burghley for not quashing the ugly rumors about Anne (146). So far as we, or anyone, knows, Oxford did not spend that Christmas with the Cecils, nor any other Christmas until, following his two-year banishment for impregnating Ann Vavasor, Elizabeth insisted he reconcile with the Cecils before he be allowed to return to Court.
The Cecils’ control of history
While Secretary under Elizabeth, William Cecil took control over the publishing industry, apparently never relinquishing it even during the decade that Walsingham was Secretary of State. He brought over Huguenot printers from the Continent to publish works he considered necessary for the establishment of the Protestant Reformation. In his choices he he appears to have been led by the opinions of his father-in-law, Sir Anthony Cooke, whose radical evangelism was spread to the nation through the wide circles of influence that included his daughters and their their husbands. It was as much by publishing such works that Burghley eradicated Catholicism as by getting laws passed that made attending Mass a crime.
For centuries, historians researching the Tudor period have had to apply to the librarian at Hatfield House to view the documents pertaining to their studies. We see this in the gratitude to one Marquess or another fulsomely acknowledged in their prefaces and lists of acknowledgements. That this sense of the Cecils’ entitlements could have influenced their published accounts requires no more than a fair measure of ordinary common sense.
In 1869 the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts was established to survey and report on privately owned and privately held archival records of general historical interest. Its brief had been “to make inquiry as to the places in which such Manuscripts and Papers were deposited,” and to report on their contents. The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was among the first of the authorities to be appointed to the Commission.
Following his father’s death in 1868 this Robert had entered the House of Lords and was almost immediately appointed Chancellor of Oxford University, the same year the Commission was formed. When the Cecils’ grip on the House of Lords was weakened in 1999 after the Labour Party under Tony Blair managed to eliminate automatic lifetime memberships for peers who did nothing for their nation but get born, the present Marquess, another Robert, managed to manipulate Blair into allowing himself and several other of his fellow peers a little more time in the nation’s catbird seat.
It was not until the mid-1990s, when the Internet spread beyond the universities, that scholars were freed from having to travel to Hatfield House or any of the repositories of family archives where so much of the material now in the Public Record Office and the British Library was still located. Google appeared in 1998, and with it paths to historical research were formed for the use of anyone who owned a computer. Wikipedia was born in 2001. In 2003 The National Archives was created when the Public Record Office combined with the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and the process began of making such material available online.
The opportunity now lies before us, to find and tell the truth about Oxford’s “wounded name,” truths that until now have been locked within the archives controlled by the very individuals with the most reason to keep them hidden. Because the truth is always more interesting than the lies that are created to hide it, and because there is drama and adventure to be found in revealing it, hopefully students will become interested again in majoring in English Literature and History, and it may be that the Humanities will return to take their former place as the heart and soul of the university experience.
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.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century when prestigious members of the English law community pitched in that the Authorship fight got really nasty and the Stratford defenders began circling the wagons. It was no big deal when lady authors and American poets questioned Shakespeare’s identity, but a Dean of the Arches (the judge who presides in the ecclesiastical court of the Archbishop of Canterbury) was another matter. Questions about William’s literacy, why there was no record of him as an actor before he was signed on by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, why he couldn’t seem to sign his own name with any confidence, might be brushed aside, but the legal arguments were tough for men of laws and logic to ignore.
How could someone of William’s background, son of a wool dealer with no known education or evidence of legal training, know so much about what it had cost them a great deal of money and years of time? Pamphlets by poets and polemicists might pass without notice, but legal stuff leaves paper trails, the kind that don’t get recycled as jar covers or toilet paper. In itself The Law is a form of history, one that contains a record of what a people have seen as right or wrong going back hundreds of years. The history of a nation’s laws is a history of its social progress. Its legal papers are as precious as money; kept safe for reference, they can be lost only through fire or flood. And what makes a particular document legal? Signatures. Had William of Stratford ever worked as a legal clerk he would have signed documents that would still be in existence. In over 200 years of seeking, such a document has never been found. Ergo, to wit: William of Stratford was never a law clerk.
How then did Shakespeare get a legal education of the sort revealed, not only in scenes that accurately represent legal proceedings as happens in a number of his plays, but also in his accurate use of terms, some of them fairly arcane? The only possible answer is that the author could not be, and so was not, “our fellow” William of Stratford. By the turn of the twentieth century, this fact so alarmed the newly instituted university English Departments that they formed a defense team with the History Departments, and together they set about to refute the questioners. Finding themselves incapable of raising a defense on the level of the legal questioners, when logic proved to be all on the other side, they met it with stonewalling, as they continue to do today.
The lawyers who took on the 19th century Shakespeare establishment were no outsiders or ambulance chasers, no radicals out to cause trouble. Lord Penzance, aka Lord Campbell (Chief justice of the Queen’s Bench and eminent legal historian) or Sir George Greenwood, MP, were advocates of the highest sort, one a conservative peer of the realm, the other a respected liberal knight known known for his passionate and eloquent promotion of animal rights and freedom for India.
The sixteenth century in English law is particularly interesting to legal historians because it represents a watershed in the change from centuries-old feudal methods to the modern system that exists today. The changes during this period were immense, as the nation struggled to switch from feudal Canon (Catholic) Law to something else, a change in which both men who had the heir to the Oxford earldom in their hands during his nonage, Sir Thomas Smith and Lord Burghley, Captain and First Lieutenant in the change of course for the English Ship of State we call the Protestant Reformation.
Sir Thomas Smith and the evolution of English Law
When Henry VIII cut ties with Rome in 1533, Canon (ecclesiastical) Law could no longer be taught at the universities. The obvious choice to replace it was Civil Law, also known as Roman Law, the legal system created by the Emperor Justinian (482-565 AD), that was spread throughout Europe during the Church’s centuries of domination. To this end, the King established the first Regius (King’s) Chair in Civil Law, and chose the rising star at Cambridge University, the 27-year-old Thomas Smith, as its first occupant.
Thus compelled by Royal imperative, the University packed the youthful Smith off to the University of Padua, Europe’s top law school, where he spent a year and a half boning up on Roman law and acquiring the books he would need to teach it. Smith was a polymath, a student of everything, and a fast learner. From then on his primary areas of expertise were Civil Law, Roman History, and the Greek classics, of which he was considered a brilliant teacher, the “flower of the university,” as one colleague put it.
Enter the Duke of Somerset
Following the King’s death in 1547, the nation was ruled for the next two years by his son’s uncle, Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset, a militant Protestant who, in partnership with Henry’s Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, set about to make Protestantism the law of the land. One of “Protector” Somerset’s first moves was to bring the Cambridge star to Court, to act primarily in a legal capacity, first as his Master of Requests, then as his Principal Secretary, then as Principal Secretary to the King (Edward VI). As Mary Dewar shows by the responsibilities given him upon his arrival, it was Smith’s legal training that brought him to Court (26-7), and since this necessarily required a good deal of policy creation and discussion in Parliament, his reputation as writer and orator was also an attraction.
Several of Smith’s Cambridge colleagues had already been brought to Somerset’s Court, but Smith was certainly considered at that time to be their leader. For the next two years, it was into his hands that Somerset and Archbishop Cranmer put much of the work of bringing the ancient English religious and legal systems into line with Protestant Reformation demands. How much of the writing that created these new laws was Smith’s is still not clear. What is a matter of record, however, is that it was he who got the necessary legislation past both the still mostly Catholic bishops and a fractured Parliament, and in a matter of months, a significant feat at any time, a huge feat at that time of bitter religious controversy.
Why is this not a matter of common knowledge? The Academy, particularly the History Department, has striven ever since the newborn English Department took control of the Shakespeare story, to erase Smith from the record, and not only Smith, but both of his biographers as well. (A closer look at this flagrant abuse of the historians’ mandate to stick to the truth requires a separate essay.)
Smith is deprived
Then, suddenly, two years after arriving at Court, Smith found himself out of a job when Somerset was ousted by the other members of the “advisory board” in whose hands Henry VIII had left the care and education of his son. It seems that Somerset had not been paying sufficient attention to the deadly ambitions of John Dudley, formerly Earl of Warwick, now Duke of Northumberland (father of the youth who would become Queen Elizabeth’s favorite), or to the restive spirits of the other members of the Council.
Smith would spend the next thirteen years out of office. For eight of those years, 1554-1562, his only official duty was to act as Provost of Eton College, something that gave him plenty of time to devote to the raising and tutoring of the heir to the Oxford earldom, a duty that wouldn’t end until 1562 when the death of the 16th Earl released the twelve-year-old into the custody of the Crown, which left Smith free to be sent to France as Ambassador to the Court of Marie de Medici, a move for which the present ambassador, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, had been pressuring Secretary of State William Cecil for some time, Smith being the leading authority on what was known then as the Elizabethan Settlement, another clue to his role as one of the founders of the English Reformation as he’s portrayed in John Strype’s 1698 biography.
Smith had all the most important law books in his library. To his dying day he continued to speak and write about techniques for teaching the law, grumbling at what he perceived was the lax attitude of current studies (Dewar 188). Smith was the author of several tracts that have since become essential to our understanding of Elizabethan government and society, among them his Discourse of the Commonweal and Memorandum for the Coinage. His de Republica Anglorum is, as Dewar describes it, “a constitutional classic” (4).
Teaching was second nature to Smith. It would have been impossible for him to have had de Vere under his care for eight years and NOT to have taught him as much as he could about a subject so dear to his heart and so important to one who would someday have legal duties to perform and properties to maintain and defend.
Shakespeare and the Law
Of all those things that Shakespeare shows such surprising knowledge, the most surprising is his knowledge of the Law. He demonstrates his grasp of legal matters again and again in scenes in his plays in which Law is involved, such as the trials in Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, or in the opening scene of Henry V where he puts his spin on one of the burning questions of his day: whether women were legally allowed to rule, or in Hamlet where the gravediggers make jokes about the famous case in English jurisprudence known as Hales vs. Petit.
But another and possibly even more perplexing problem (for the orthodox) than how the author obtained his knowledge is the manner in which he used it. Then as now, legal training was expensive and time-consuming. First came law school, then passing the bar, then years of experience in the courtroom, all this before he could be relied upon for the kind of knowledge that Shakespeare throws about with nonchalance, legal terms and principles one of his favorite sources for metaphors, particularly for love and love relationships. His Sonnets are filled with legal tropes.
The earliest Shakespearean scholars readily admitted Shakespeare’s mastery of legal matters, among them Edmund Malone, George Steevens, and Churton Collins, who noted his “minute and undeviating accuracy in a subject where no layman who has indulged in such copious and ostentatious display of legal technicalities has ever yet succeeded in keeping himself from tripping.” More recently however, Shakespeare orthodoxy, battered by demands for answers to questions of authorship and helpless to demonstrate evidence of any legal training, have simply resorted to a flat denial of what the lawyers and early scholars found obvious; a stance that reduces the argument to the level of schoolyard name-calling. What’s the old saw? If the evidence supports your case, stick to the facts; if it supports the opposition, pound the table.
Did Shakespeare set legal precedent in The Merchant of Venice?
Some years ago I happened on a book written first as a paper by a young law student at Princeton, Mark Edwin Andrews. In “Law vs. Equity in The Merchant of Venice,” Andrews holds that Shakespeare produced the play in 1597 as a commentary on an argument in jurisprudence, just reaching its apogee, over which court had primacy, courts of Common Law or courts of Equity. This argument pitted the two highest jurists of the land on either side, Attorney General Edward Coke, soon to become Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, who held that Common Law should hold precedence, and Lord Keeper Ellesmere, soon to become Lord Chancellor, who held for Equity, administered by the Court of Chancery.
This argument had originated centuries earlier with the establishment under Edward III of the Court of Chancery, administered by the Lord Chancellor, as a means of providing recourse for persons who felt their human rights had been violated by a common law ruling. Common Law, based chiefly on property rights, took little no notice of human situations. The two courts grew side by side throughout the centuries until in the late 16th and early 17th century a showdown came about, due largely to the competitive nature of the men on either side of the question.
Andrews holds that in the trial of Antonio, Portia begins by adhering closely to the rules of Common Law, granting Shylock his pound of flesh as though it were simply property to be handed over to the one with the best case, without consideration of the mortal harm its loss would cause the loser. Then, in the famous switcheroo, she evokes the principles of Equity: since following Common Law in this case will cause Antonio harm––death to be precise––Equity must be considered, and so Shylock will lose because it is clear that his sole purpose all along has been to cause Antonio harm. After all, of what practical use to anyone is a pound of human flesh?
Andrews points out that the showdown probably began in 1597 when Lord Keeper Ellesmere called Parliament into session, announcing in his opening speech his intention to revamp the legal system. Andrews suggests that it was for the lawyers and parliamentarians that gathered in the autumn of 1597 for this meeting of Parliament that Shakespeare produced his Merchant of Venice.
It has been our belief for some time that Shakespeare’s primary audience, the one for whom he wrote his most erudite and penetrating works, were the “gentlemen” of the Inns of Court, located in Westminster, now London’s West End. Although his lighter plays were written for Court holidays and weddings, serious plays like Hamlet, Othello, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Merchant of Venice were aimed at this highly-educated, primarily masculine audience. These Westminster lawyers, trained in history, rhetoric and logic, could appreciate the full power of his thinking. To them he could speak his most profound thoughts without fear of confusing or offending; and it was for them, of course, that he could indulge himself in the most laughable legal puns and metaphors. If we wish to determine which plays were written originally for this audience, I believe we’ll discover this easily by locating those that contain the most legal imagery.
The most likely theater for this audience was the First Blackfriars Theater located just inside the City Wall on the river, a short walk from the legal district of the Inns of Court, which lay a stone’s throw to the west on the far side of the City Wall. Not until well into the 17th century would there be another theater this close to the West End. Once we can delve more deeply into the history of Blackfriars I believe that we will find that, despite its official closure in 1584, Oxford continued to use it possibly beginning as early as 1570 and continuing off and on (more discreetly after 1584) until 1590.
Oxford, Smith, and the Law
Living with Smith for the better part of eight years, there can be no doubt that, along with language arts, Greek philosophy, history, horticulture, astrology, medicine, hunting and hawking, de Vere was imbued with the basic principles of Law, both English and Continental. Steeped in the ancient beliefs of Plato and Aristotle that the only way to achieve good government was to train the aristocracy in youth, he would have been diligent in his duty even had he not been the enthusiastic teacher that he was reputed to be. And even the most sluggish of students could hardly help but learn in such a circumstance, and we know from contemporary comment that de Vere was regarded as an eager scholar. The handful of comments we have about Oxford by his contemporaries mention more than once his interest in subjects relating to good government.
That Oxford failed to use his legal knowledge to maintain and increase his inherited property does not mean he didn’t use it at all. Never given the opportunity to use his knowledge of the Law, history, and government theory in some aboveboard service of his country, he used it to capture the hearts and inform the minds of the English legal establishment by comparing it to a thousand homely and deeply understood human situations, many of them illustrated by well-known historical events. This sufficiently explains, to my mind at least, why we find Shakespeare comparing a kiss to a contract sealed by lovers’ lips, among numerous other comparisons that might seem ridiculously arcane and far-fetched if we weren’t so lost in admiration of his language.
I see from my page of stats that many of my readers have been reading my essay on Oxford and Astrology, so I thought it might be of interest to dig into his chart. A basic natal chart consists of three things, location in space re longitude and latitude, location in time re month and year, and the time of day. With Oxford we can be certain about the first two, but, as is often the case, there’s no nothing on what time of day he was born, so if it’s to be useful, such a chart must be “rectified.” There are many techniques for this; mine may be rather unusual, but it seems to have worked, as it fits him to a T.
We also know from many hints throughout the plays that Oxford took Astrology seriously. When stopped on the road leading to Dover, having learned that his mistress had just given birth to his son in one of the Queen’s chambers, dreading what he knew would be jail time at least and probably much worse, as Alan Nelson reports (Monstrous Adversary, 268), his rather lame excuse for running away was that he could see from his “nativity,” that trouble was coming his way. It would seem the “nativity” was accurate, since the unfortunate appearance of the infant ended his father’s golden years at Court.
Oxford was living at a time when the ancient interest in the stars had begun to shift from Astrology to Astronomy. A growing suspicion that Astrology might be nothing but pagan superstition, plus a rising evangelical prejudice against anything that didn’t confirm the Christian Bible, the West was beginning to question the validity of Astrology, which doesn’t mean that a great many scientific-minded individuals were not ready to reject it. That Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, was fascinated with it is clear from what his biographers tell us, and from the fact that he owned the kind of professional books of star locations known as ephemerides, needed for casting horoscopes, goes far to explain the almost professional depth of the astrological knowledge revealed in Shakespeare.
But Oxford’s chart would not have been the one we have today, since it would not have included the outer planets, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Because what was known at that time was still limited to the seven that could be seen by the naked eye, for astronomers over the centuries up to the sixteenth, knowledge of the planets ended with Saturn, source of the many references to the “seven turning lights,” the so-called “Seventh Seal,” The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence, or lines like these from The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam (trans. Edward Fitzgerald):
Up from Earth’s centre, through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate;
And many a Knot unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Master-knot of Human Fate.
It was, of course, the philosophical attempt to “unravel” that “Master-knot” that led men like Khayam, Smith, and Shakespeare to study Astrology. Known to its followers as “the Mother of all Sciences,” Astrology stands at the center of all systems, which, following the European Renaissance, branched out during the Early Modern period into separate sciences: mathematics, astronomy, music, chemistry, pharmacology, animal behavior, history/myth, etcetera.
As the central pillar of the Wisdom Tradition, it came to England originally from the Middle East with the return of the Crusaders, from the lands around the Mediterranean whose languages shared a common basis in Latin, and many also in Greek. The earliest record of the Tradition in the West begins with Pythagoras, then to Socrates via Plato, then to the Renaissance and the Florentine neoplatonist, Marsilio Ficino, who, born into Catholicism, was forced to wrestle with the knotty problem of reconciling Plato with St. Augustine. But I digress.
Oxford must have felt rather badly about his horoscope, for it’s these three as yet undiscovered planets, particularly Neptune and Uranus, that reveal the dynamic power of the moment when he ventured into the world plane. Without these, it seemed that all his planets but Venus were located below the horizon, with Venus only a few degrees above it in the 7th house, signifying a life lived outside public notice, ineffective in the wider world of public events, a life buried in local concerns, which, interestingly, is where he’s been located ever since by History, and where the public must have seen him, or rather not seen him, over a lifetime spent hiding his connection to the London Stage. Perhaps it’s this, contrasted with the driving force of his mission to educate and empower his audiences, that made him question the truth of Astrology through things like the fate of Brutus or its dismissal by a villain like Edmund in King Lear.
With Uranus located at the highest point in his chart, the Midheaven, increased in power by its conjunction to the Moon’s North Node, rather than remain forever unknown to a wider world, Oxford not only qualifies as a potential genius, but one whose posthumous reputation must eventually be spread to all levels of renown (the 10th house rules the posthumous reputation). While Uranus has only one strong aspect, a trine to Jupiter, because the latter is in the 6th house within four degrees of the cusp of the 7th, the house of partnerships, it signifies support from powerful patrons that, throughout his life, proved essential to the Bard’s protection and survival.
That all the rest of his planets are tightly contained within a trine from Venus to Saturn suggests one whose life, for the most part, was closely contained within a tight circle of friends and interests. That his main interest is writing is suggested by the four planets in the 3rd house of communications, siblings, friends, and short trips; his one long trip, his year in Italy exploring the Mediterranean, indicated by the fact that only Uranus, in the 9th house of long distance travel and higher education, falls outside this tight little group.
That the bundle formed by the rest of his planets is led by Venus speaks to Love as the central theme of all his work, the force that carried him through the dark days (represented by their aspects to Saturn and Pluto in the third), and that his national audiences felt for him as the creator of their happiest moments, though most were unaware of his identity. His 3rd house, one of the biggest in his chart (due to England’s location so far from the equator, containing all of both Aquarius and Pisces) as the house of close friends and relations and personal communications, is the only one located on the left side of the chart, the side of personal strengths and energies, as opposed to the majority on the right side, reactions to outer forces.
With the addition of Neptune (not discovered until 1846) we learn a great deal about our man, for this most artistic and emotionally attuned to nature of all aspects is conjunct his Sun. The sign of one who is attracted to music, often to a career in music, it also suggests his attraction to the sea and to large bodies of water: the Thames, where he spent his childhood, and the Mediterranean, where he spent the most exciting and rewarding year of his life. Located in the 5th house of sexual relationships and creative efforts, it defines the nature of his works, the subtle weaving of meaning, feeling, sound and image that has set such a high bar for all English-speaking poets and playwrights ever since. Neptune conjunct the Sun often defines one who will sacrifice everything for his or her art, or one who has a hard time dealing with the more mundane aspects of life, things like earning a living and paying the mortgage. Such people tend to let others deal with such things, but they are usually so charming that this presents no serious problem.
Most interesting of all, however, may be the tight conjunction of his Moon with Mars in Pisces. With a fish as its glyph and the sea god Neptune as its ruler, the sign Pisces signifies how forms and structures tend to disappear in a world of perpetual change. Pisceans tend to prefer staying out of harm’s way, working behind the scenes, vanishing beneath the surface when trouble threatens. It is a good place for the Moon, but where the Moon is so closely tied to Mars, the planet of anger and violence, the emotions intensify to such a degree that they must be released. Thus, when driven by fury at the Queen and Burghley, rather than plotting with his Catholic cousins to overthrow the government, Oxford takes his revenge by writing Hamlet, Timon, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus.
There is a great deal more to be said about this chart as a means of understanding both Oxford and Shakespeare, but these are some of the most important points, in particular the hope offered by that powerful outlier, Uranus on the cusp of the tenth, that he will eventually be seen as, not just the author of the Shakespeare canon, but as the founder of today’s modern media, the all important Fourth Estate of a civilized government. It encourages us to keep at it. Our day will come, and so will his.
As a nightbird, I see some old films on TCM that I might not remember from younger days. This morning I got in on the end of Park Row, a tough look from 1952 at the battle for the truth that has been the story of the Media from its very beginnings. It follows a newspaper publisher who takes on a corrupt big city establishment, a story that, though fictional, is true of the larger issue, the role played by newspapermen and women in creating what history has termed the Fourth Estate of Government, the voice of the people. The Media and its fight for the truth has been the subject of a thousand films, a favorite since film itself joined the Media’s fight to present the truth to a public willing to pay attention. The People do not make the newspapers, but they read them, or they used to read them before television took over, and in a democracy they vote, or they used to vote, based on what they read in the newspapers. While the battle has shifted from the page to the screen, the Media’s fight to reveal the truth about corruption at the highest levels is still the same as it has been since the very beginning, bitter, violent, and dangerous.
But what and when was that beginning?
When did what we call the Media begin? If it’s possible to locate, on a timeline of historical events, the moment that we could claim as the birth of the modern Media, the moment when the means first arose by which the attention of an entire community could be commanded in a single shot, it would be that moment in the late spring of 1576 when the door first opened to the first and until then the only purpose-built public theater in England, possibly in all of northern Europe, the one built by James Burbage in a suburb of London, the one he named The Theatre.
Used by Shakespeare and other playwrights to influence, for the first time in history, not just the Court, not just the handful of citizens who could read, not just those with time to kill in taverns and in the aisles at St. Paul’s Cathedral listening for whispered gossip, but for anyone who could afford the price of a loaf of bread. From then on, from four to six pm in the afternoon every day of the week but Sunday, the Burbages were packing them in, for twenty years, sometimes as many as 2500 at a time, particularly if the show was something new, something popular, sometimes so popular that many were willing to pay to see it again. And although the “groundlings” were, as Hamlet opines, “capable of nothing but dumb shows and noise,” his author used this and subsequent stages to teach this uneducated audience the history of their nation, their kings and queens, their heroes and villains. He did this in a new form of English, rich in nuance and pleasing to the ear, which then––much as Radio English spread in the twentieth century––was spread to the far corners of the nation by actors on tour and visitors returning from the City.
By 1604, when the version of Hamlet was first published that would be closest to the one we know from 1623, the beloved Prince could state with confidence that plays were “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” In other words, his plays were what today we call the Media. Even while the left-brained university fools persist in misplacing them in time, once located where they belong, it soon becomes possible to show how each reflects the events and zeitgeist of a particular moment in Elizabethan history. Although plays like Hamlet, Love’s Labours Lost, and The Tempest were revised more than once over the career of the author, something that can confuse their origins, it’s generally not too difficult, working from the characters, the style, the syntax and the plot, to locate within a few years that moment when certain events first inspired the genius who created them.
And if, as we hope we have come as close to proving as is possible, given the absence of so much important evidence, he was also responsible for the building of the theaters that made it possible to awaken the public to these matters, we feel certain that we have also accurately traced the moment in time when the modern Media was born, the summer of 1576, following the arrival in England of the twenty-six-year old Earl of Oxford, back from his year of watching the Commedia dell’Arte in Venice, and examining their wooden stages.
Returning for the moment to the truth about Elizabeth’s sex life: grievous as it must have been for her as a woman to have her favorite, Robert Dudley, placed under house arrest following the death of his wife Amy Robsart, the scandal it caused was probably a blessing in disguise for her politically, as it saved her from the marriage that, given the Reformation nature of the Court, must necessarily have followed quickly had she slept with him. Had she done so, everyone at Court would have known it within minutes, and if somehow they missed it, or they couldn’t be sure, Dudley himself would certainly have found a way to let them know. At a Court where morality was a constant issue and no one had any privacy, for the unmarried queen to have slept with a courtier would have required an immediate wedding, if not to Dudley (who, lest we forget, was already married), then to some other candidate for her hand.
Once past that watershed, there was no possibility that Elizabeth, given her history, would ever again get so close to intercourse. Alfred Kinsey offers evidence from his exhaustive clinical studies and interviews with American women in the 1950s––an era not quite so repressive as Elizabeth’s, but far more so than it would become once The Pill launched the so-called sexual revolution of the “swinging sixties.” In the 1950s of Kinsey’s era:
At forty-five years of age there were still 15 percent of the devout Protestant females who had never experienced orgasm in their lives, but only 5 percent of the inactive [not devout] Protestants who belonged in that category. . . There seems to be no doubt that the moral restraints which lead a female to avoid sexual contacts before marriage, and to inhibit her responses when she does make contacts, may also affect her capacity to respond erotically later in her life. (516)
In Elizabeth’s case, her restraint had nothing to do with piety. Biographers Elizabeth Jenkins and Anne Somerset, after studying the heaps of documents that bear on the Elizabethan reign, bold hold that the Seymour affair caused permanent damage to her psycho-sexual development. Thomas Seymour’s overbold flirtation, followed by the horrors of his trial and execution, not to mention her own ordeal by the third degree to which she was subjected by Somerset, took place at that most sensitive moment in a girl’s development when, as Kinsey describes, her body had become that of a woman but her ability to respond sexually was still not fully formed. Of mature unmarried women with no experience of orgasm, Kinsey says:
Many of them were sexually responsive enough, but they were inhibited, chiefly by their moral training [as Protestants] and had not allowed themselves to respond to the point of orgasm. Many of them had been psychologically disturbed as a result of this blockage of their sexual responses. (526)
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”
As so many poets of the time would express during her reign, the springtime of life must be experienced before it passes by, or flowers die on the vine before pollination and fruition can take place. Kinsey makes what may be the most important point where our interest in Elizabeth is concerned:
All of these females . . . were limited in their understanding of the nature of sexual responses and orgasm, and many of them seemed unable to comprehend what sexual activity could mean to other persons. They disapproved of the sexual activities of females who had high rates of outlet [satisfaction] and they were particularly incapable of understanding the rates of response which we have reported for the males in the population. . . . When such frustrated or sexually unresponsive, unmarried females attempt to direct the behavior of other persons, they may do considerable damage. (our emphasis)
As many at Court would have agreed. Elizabeth’s biographer Anne Somerset describes her attitude towards her ladies-in-waiting:
Ideally Elizabeth would have preferred it if more of her female attendants had followed the example of ladies such as Blanche Parry and Mary Radcliffe and remained single. Not only did she resent the upheavals that her ladies’ marriages caused in her own domestic arangements . . . but she failed to see why they needed the fulfilment of family life any more than she did. She would “much exhort all her women to remain in virgin state as much as may be,” and even on those occasions when she pretended that she would not mind if they married and asked her ladies if they had anyone in mind, “the wise ones did well conceal their liking thereto, as knowing the Queen’s judgement in this matter.” (346-7)
Elizabeth’s ignorance when it came to the emotional realities of marriage and family life can be seen in her amazingly naive idea of 1563 that the problem of Mary Queen of Scots could be solved by persuading her to marry her own favorite, Dudley (not yet Earl of Leicester, a title she gave him so that he’d be legally able to marry one so high above him in rank). As explained by another biographer, since she couldn’t marry him herself, she would take care of him in this way, and her sister Queen as well. It’s rather sad.
Most significant is the intensity of her rage when some member of the Court was caught either having sex or marrying without her permission (348). It’s one thing to get cross with a couple who know they need her permission and don’t ask for it, or who endanger the Court’s reputation with careless behavior. It’s another to throw them in the Tower, using jailors to keep them separated, leaving them there to rot, for months, even years. Doubtless some of this was calculated to maintain control, but still, would a woman who herself had had, or was having, adult sexual relations for pleasure, carry these tantrums to the extremes that she did?
Not only did she hate to see her courtiers pair off, either sexually or as marriage partners, she was ice cold to normal family needs, refusing to allow ambassadors to return to their families after they’d been abroad for years, making decisions that separated couples and family members, and looking for any excuse to refuse the wives of her favorite male courtiers access to Court society. Her time was one that did not pay much attention to what we think of as family bonding, but Elizabeth took this to extremes. Neither sexual nor family needs were in her vocabulary.
Another symptom of her negativity towards marriage and family was her determination that Protestant clergymen remain unmarried. Obtaining the right to marry and have legitimate children was one of the leading reasons why many Catholic clergymen were willing to join the Protestant revolution. Had her reasons been political, she would surely have yielded on a point that was so obviously politically expedient. Why should she care whether or not these men married? But she was undetered, refusing to promote those who were married, while she favored both courtiers and clergymen who remained unmarried, giving them top spots in her government while sending the married men off to foreign embassies, which in many cases meant separating them from their wives and children.
Historians tell us that Elizabeth had many “favorites,” but we mustn’t assume that a favorite was a lover (the Elizabethans often use the word lover to mean a particularly close friend and the word friend to mean what we mean by lover). Accepting that Dudley played a signficantly different role in her life, Elizabeth’s other favorites were more like protégés, particularly as she got older––good to look at, fun to talk to, and above all, good dancers. The estates and lucrative monopolies she bestowed on them were less gestures of affection than bonds to keep them by her side and, not least, to keep them out of the marriage market. And God help them if they strayed!
What confuses historians is the fantasy of courtship that she required, not only from her favorites, but from almost any man in search of a post or a favor. Peculiar as it may seem to us today, this was largely a function of the times, a vestigial remain of the medieval tradition of Courtly Love, the unselfish devotion of a knight to a lady who outranks him. The billing and cooing that this required, much of it in the form of coy love notes, lavish gifts of jewelry and clothing, poems, and eloquent dedications. She hugely enjoyed her political courtships with Continental princes, in the case of her last, the Duc d’Alençon, dragging it out for over a decade (Somerset Ladies 72).
Throughout her career she was inclined to respond positively to the kind of tactics that most adults would regard as an invitation to intimacy, but with her this was no more than a charade indulged in purely for pleasure and, in the case of a genuine suitor, intended to keep him interested for as long as possible. The pleasure was all in the prologue, which was all there was and all there could ever be.
That Elizabeth greatly appreciated masculine beauty is reflected in the good looks of the men around her, Dudley, Oxford, Hatton, Raleigh, Sidney, Southampton and many others. These may have had other accomplishments to offer, but their looks were certainly important. At Elizabeth’s Court, masculine beauty far outshone the feminine, a situation that Elizabeth controlled by giving grief to any female who dared to dress more luxuriously than herself, and by requiring that her Maids of Honor all dress in white as backdrop to her own peacock array. While women were covered with fabric from head to toe, with great bulky sleeves and skirts, men’s bodies, though covered, were far more obvious, particularly their legs. During a period known to geologists as the “little ice age,” the legs of the younger men were covered only with tight hose, topped with snug little jackets, not much there to keep warm as they stood about in the cold rooms of the palace. No wonder there was so much dancing!
Marriage yes, sex no
Of course there have been queens who had lovers. Catherine the Great of Russia was one that we know about, Marguerite de Valois another, but their circumstances were very different from Elizabeth’s. Both had powerful family connections to rely on, while Elizabeth, with no close relations to any of the great pan-European ruling families and without brothers or uncles more powerful than herself, was in an extremely weak position from the start. Her father’s family saw her as an upstart, even a bastard, while her mother’s family, the Howards, most of them Catholics, were more inclined to plot against her than to support her.
In addition, both the Russian and French queens flourished at courts where promiscuity was open and rampant, a lifestyle that even had Elizabeth been so inclined, her evangelical ministers would never have tolerated. Raised from birth in households dependent on the Court, she knew all too well its capacity for rumor. She knew that if she ever had sex with Dudley, or Hatton, or Oxford, or Raleigh, or any of her so-called favorites, someone would know about it, and so intense was the scrutiny under which she functioned, so important was it to defy the rumors, both at home and abroad, of the notorious sexuality of this Protestant “Whore of Babylon” and the gazillion bastards she was supposed to have borne in secret, that as the major promoter of Protestantism abroad, even had she wished otherwise, she simply had no choice.
As social historian Lawrence Stone informs us, today’s concept of privacy was unknown to the Elizabethans (6). Elizabeth rarely slept alone; in fact, neither she nor any monarch ever did anything completely alone. For purposes of security there was always someone near enough to her to hear if there was any kind of trouble, or, if she wished to be by herself, someone close enough to keep an eye on her. Her retainers would have been acutely aware of any substantial amount of time spent alone with anyone but her oldest and hoariest ministers. In addition, the women who surrounded her were the wives, sisters, and daughters of the men who ran her Court and the nation. For their sakes as well as her own, she could not afford to do anything that would tempt them to reveal things that were damaging to her reputation or authority.
Beware the “monstrous regiment of women”
For Elizabeth, it was absolutely imperative that she retain the respect of her Privy Council. They need not love her; they need not even like her; but they had to respect her. If she lost their respect she would find herself isolated, a danger she could not risk. Had she been a male her sex life would have been of small concern to the Council. As a woman, one whose duty it was to marry and produce a legitimate heir to the throne, anything that threatened this scenario would have been a disaster, certainly for her and possibly for them as well.
Francis Osborne in his Memoirs (1658) quotes Henri IV of France as saying that there were three things that people thought false that he knew to be true: that contrary to opinion, the Prince of Orange was a great general, that he himself was a true Catholic, and that the Queen of England was a virgin (Chamberlin 194). Henri was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth’s last princely suitor, the Duc d’Alençon. Because he was a legal suitor, she was able to spend many hours alone with him, soon becoming very fond of this small, ugly, unthreatening man, many years younger than herself, so fond that she may well have fooled even herself, however briefly, as to her intentions to marry.
Family members don’t always get along, certainly Navarre and d’Alençon did not, but they are also inclined, at moments when they are together, to exchange the kind of information that they might not share with others. Navarre would have been interested in anything his brother had to tell him about the Queen whose friendship he so badly needed (while posing as a Protestant, he continually sent her envoys begging her for loans), particularly since he himself had once been considered as a candidate for her hand.
“God sent us our Elizabeth”
The Queen of England may have lacked support from the Establishment of European Royalty, but she more than made up for it by the support of her people. Absent the backing of a powerful family network like the Hapsburgs, the Valois or the Medici, her main source of support was the vast hordes of English commoners. During Mary’s reign, her popularity with the people was the major factor in her sister’s hatred. That she was “married to her people” was one of her favorite excuses for not marrying.
The feeling was mutual. To her people the queen would always be the golden-haired angel whose coronation ended the years of imprisonments, torture, burnings and exile. During the early days of her reign, a poem known as “The Register,” that listed the horrors of the burnings during Mary’s reign, ended each verse with the refrain: “After these were burned to death, we prayed for our Elizabeth.” The final verse that listed the last of the burnings, ended with the line: “And after these were burned to death, God sent us our Elizabeth.” Evidence of their love can be found in the many affectionate Mother Goose rhymes about Lizzie, Betty or Bess. Yet, although her people wanted her to be happy and to provide the nation with an heir (or two), at some level they were pleased by her virginity, for had she married, their vision of her would be forced to change, as happened to her sister following Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain. She knew from Mary Queen of Scots (and many other examples) that, should she give birth to the all-important heir, how their interest would shift immediately from herself to her son.
She was also aware that in a nation so bitterly divided over religion and regional interests, she would never be able to please all, or even half of her people through politics alone. Elizabeth’s purity was a story they bought into when they first came to know her as a child. They had watched as she bore with courage and dignity the cruelties perpetrated on her, first by her father, then by Protector Somerset, and finally by her sister. Despite all the rumors of sex with Seymour and the curse of bastardy, they continued to believe in her, and would continue, that is, so long as there was never any proof that she was otherwise.
The people were also her refuge from the tyranny of her Privy Council. If they wanted her to do something she didn’t want to do, whenever possible she would use her people’s love against them. To them she must remain their golden-haired princess, long after the real hair under the red wig had turned sparse and gray. By 1573 she had seen how even a queen from a powerful family like Mary Queen of Scots was treated by her once loyal people after she made the mistake of marrying a man they didn’t like. By not marrying, though it drove her ministers crazy, Elizabeth was able to keep that most valuable weapon in the political battles she had to fight over the years, the undying love of her people.
Playing the marriage card
As canny a politician as ever lived, Elizabeth hadn’t been in the top power seat for long before she realized that, when it came to the masculine arena of international politics, her sex did give her one great benefit. Where other royal females had to marry men chosen by their fathers and brothers, because she was (legally) free to choose for herself, she had something to offer that no male monarch could provide. While marriage to a male monarch could offer only an alliance, marriage to Elizabeth was seen by the princes of Europe as a potential means of adding England to their sphere of influence. This of course would have been a problem for England, but only if she actually married one of them.
The reality was that as long as she remained unmarried, what she did and said may have carried more weight than it would had she been a king. As a queen of marriageable age, one who had, not just an alliance, but conceivably a throne to offer, she wielded a kind of power at the royal courts of Europe that only an unmarried female monarch could. For a good many years it was chiefly this Royal Ace that kept Spain from attacking England and France from invading Scotland. It helped make Sweden and Russia willing to negotiate treaties and trade alliances, and kept them from forming similar alliances with her rivals.
Of course, time would eventually run out for her in this royal shell game, as of course she knew it would. Nevertheless, by careful negotiation, by enveloping herself in pearls and cloth of gold for the portraits that were all most of her people and all members of foreign courts would ever see of her, and by surrounding herself with an attractive entourage at a Court where envoys and ambassadors knew they could always find good entertainment, she managed to keep the game going for almost two decades, giving England time to build a navy, secure its borders, and consolidate most of the nation in a vigorous Protestant lifestyle. Largely as a result of this pretense at royal dalliance, when Spain finally attacked in 1588, England was ready.
The White Goddess
The 16th century in Europe is often referred to as the Age of Queens. With Mary Queen of Scots in Scotland, Elizabeth in England, and Marie de Medici in France, women appeared to rule much of Europe. As suggested by the opening scene in Henry V, this was as much a worry to the Renaissance Church as it had been to the war lords of the Middle Ages. But on a deeply emotional level, a much older if generally silent attitude towards a female in power deafened her rural constituents to the shrieks and howls of anti-feminists like John Knox and Pope Gregory.
It was ages since the patriarchal kingdoms and religions had supplanted the earliest religion, the one that worshipped the Great Mother, the central deity in the Stone Age rituals of tribal Europe. But behind the threats of an angry Reformation God, of Jehovah or Zeus or Mithras, behind her portrayals by the patriarchs as raging Juno, the furious Eumenides, or the Medusa whose face turned men to stone, the sense of a magical mother of men lingered deep in the hearts of ordinary people, particularly in rural areas where they were still dependent on the earth for survival, and where they continued, with May Day rituals like the maypole, to worship the Mary hidden in words like May Day (Mary’s Day), “merry-making,” and marriage.
In the British Isles the Goddess was known by many names, most recently the Virgin Mary and St. Brigid, but long before them by assorted Celtic and Frankish names. She dwells at the silent heart of the ancient mysteries, and of the legends of the Holy Grail sought by Parsifal and Galihad. As Diana, Cynthia, Astraea, or Phoebe, ancient goddesses of the moon and the hunt, the poets of the Renaissance resurrected her as Elizabeth in hundreds of paintings, poems, and plays while artists arrayed her in splendors that drew upon prehistoric racial memories. The modern English poet and mythologist, Robert Graves, based his great study of the role of British mythology in English literature, on a being he describes as
a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips as red as rowan berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag. Her names and titles are innumerable. In ghost stories she often figures as “the White Lady, “ and in ancient religions, from the British Isles to the Caucasus, as “the White Goddess.” I cannot think of any true poet from Homer onwards who has not independently recorded his experience of her. The test of a poet’s vision, one might say, is the accuracy of his portrayal of the White Goddess and of the island over which she rules. (24)
Now who does that sound like? (All but the blue eyes––Elizabeth’s were gray.) And no, Graves was not thinking of Elizabeth when he wrote it, but that it sounds so much like her helps to explain why she meant so much to her people, who, tapping into a shared if attavistic memory must have felt that they had known Her forever, and that, unlike Arthur, who remained in Avalon, She had returned to protect them. Elizabeth was all too human, but for a nation shaking with the tremors of great changes in a world view terrifyingly expanded by Copernicus, it was easy for the superstitious country folk who knew nothing of her personally to see in her something of the great goddesses of yore, something she knew instinctively that she would lose should she marry.
Thus Elizabeth, with the survival instincts that kept her reign intact for four decades, understood that by remaining unmarried she roused in the hearts of the country folk who were her most dedicated supporters, their subconscious devotion to the Ideal Feminine, the Great Goddess, lover and mother of mortal men, but not bound by them or to them. With the help of her poets, songwriters, and artists, she simply did an end run around Knox and Calvin, cheerfully acknowledging the artists who painted her and the poets who made her era one of the most famous in literary history.
Surrounded by her maids-of-honor and ladies-in-waiting, many of them unmarried (or seeming so), for poets and artists it was easy to portray her as Diana, goddess of the hunt, with her corps of virginal nymphs. Any reference to the Moon, beautiful but distant, was seen as a reference to Elizabeth. The myth of Actaeon, who made the mistake of coming upon Diana in the altogether, for which he was turned into a stag and hunted to death by his own dogs, sent the message: “look but don’t touch.”
As she left her marriageable years, portraits of her, loaded with goddess and imperial symbolism, were created and made available to those who wished to have copies made for themselves, thus spreading the goddess image throughout the nation. To keep the marriage card in play, to continue with the charade of being wooed by the great princes of Europe, was part and parcel of the Elizabethan mythology. Had she allowed one of these suits to end with a marriage would have meant a quick finish to the myth and all that went with it.
Evoking the Faerie Queene
Famed for its entertainment, for us today the image of Elizabeth’s Court comes closest to that of musical theater, with the queen as a regally attired diva surrounded by her corps of male dancers, her chorus of maidens all dressed alike. The ballet has preserved the styles of this era for all time, the males in tights and little jackets, the females all in white with great full skirts.
This was the show, but what about backstage? Most Renaissance courts were less than moral, some virtual sinks of sexual license, the almost inevitable result of an environment where scores of well-fed, attractive individuals have little to do but get dressed in the latest styles, drink to excess, gamble, gossip, plot, and urge suits to benefit themselves and their clients. Elizabeth’s Court was no different, that is, in everything but drunkeness and sexual license. In this it could not have been more unique.
The philandering of Church officials was one of England’s chief reasons for breaking with Rome and the Empire, one they used with effect in discussions with the other nations of Europe. With this and with the puritanical City fathers keeping watch, sobriety and morality were an absolute necessity. Elizabeth insisted upon it, her clergy preached it, and the most loyal members of her household were drawn from the strictest members of the Protestant establishment. Of course there were exceptions, we’re aware of some and no doubt there were many that escaped report, but when compared with the usual behavior of court societies, Elizabeth’s was marvelously well-behaved.
What an interesting dichotomy. Here was a Court where sexuality was forbidden, where the Queen saw to it that sex was as difficult as possible even for married couples, yet unlike the kind of gloomy, haunted environment that Philip II created at the Escorial in Spain, his strict piety forbidding any show of pleasure, for many years, Elizabeth’s Court was filled with music, dancing, and laughter. Flirtation was fine, just so long as it didn’t lead to anything more. The result was that the energy that otherwise would have gone ito private sexual assignations, went instead into the rituals of flirtation. Since nothing else could happen, the glances, sighs, love songs and poems that documented the sensations of lovemaking, expanded the rituals of flirtation to fill the time that, for less repressed environments, would have been devoted to sexual fulfilment. Such a climate also fosters efforts to discover romantic secrets, to intercept meaningful glances, to grasp through hints what at other courts was openly displayed, who was in love with whom, an atmosphere described in the poem Ann Vavasor wrote to Oxford when the Queen forced them to part:
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.
Content thyself that once I made an oath
To shield myself in shroud of honest shame;
And when thou list, make trial of my troth,
So that thou save the honor of my name. . . .
We silly 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. . . .
As all novelists are aware, the romantic passion that feeds on adversity, dies with security. There is no greater stimulus to desire than anticipation, no greater damper than satiety. Where a community of several hundred souls spend their days in an atmosphere of permanently unsatisfied excitement, like work to the workaholic, Desire becomes an end in itself. The repressive atmosphere at Elizabeth’s Court had a great deal to do with the upsurge of poetry that occurred during her reign, culminating in superb works of frustration such as Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Raleigh’s Cynthia, even Spenser’s Faerie Queene. These gorgeous fleurs du mal were products of the hothouse of sexual repression demanded from the pulpit and experienced by her courtiers. And so the background to the rich profusion of works that emerged from Elizabeth’s Court was nurtured by the frustration emanating from the Queen herself, as suggested in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Titania sighs in Act III, “The Moon methinks looks with a watery eye; and when she weeps, weeps every little flower, lamenting some enforced chastity.” As always in Shakespeare, “the Moon” is referring to Elizabeth.
With the advent of King James and the rampantly immoral atmosphere of his Court, the mood changed abruptly. With plays like Bartholomew Fair, Volpone, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, and Tis Pity She’s a Whore, playwrights sought to outdo each other with incest, violence, excruciating cruelty and bitterly sardonic wit. Disgusted, John Donne turned from writing the most lyrical love poetry of the late Elizabethan period to a stern piety, while Shakespeare wrote bitterly of sex in Measure for Measure and King Lear.
All things historical and psychological affirm this as the truth about Elizabeth’s sex life. As with every other aspect of the Authorship Question, let’s try to keep it in mind.