The history of the Elizabethan era has numerous lapses in the record created by any number of causes. After all, it was a long time ago and records were not kept so carefully as they are today. Certainly not all of these lapses are intentional nor were all of them caused by one or two individuals for personal reasons. However, when following the paper trails that lead to Oxford’s activities from the 1580s on, to the University Wits, and to the creation of the London Stage and Press, it seems to happen with rather considerable regularity that the trail will vanish just at the point in time where one would expect to find information, then reappear once that point is past.
I am not the first to notice this. Charlton Ogburn, author of the 1984 Mysterious William Shakespeare, which contains one of the first in-depth biographies of Oxford, must have read hundreds of documents in preparation, wrote in his Introduction:
One particularly curious circumstance may be cited here in justification of the quest for the man who was Shakespeare in which I hope to interest the reader: that is the wholesale, evidently selective disappearance, hardly to be explained as accidental, of records that might be expected to throw light on the object of the quest. It is this circumstance that from the beginning has baffled and frustrated investigation––and given rise to the the Shakespeare Problem.
When we see a similar pattern in the personal papers left by those men in high office who were rivals to or enemies of the Cecils, and further when we see how their offices gave the Cecils access to the records in such a way that anything they chose to do would not be questioned by their subalterns, then it’s hard not to conclude that on more than one occasion, and for more than one reason, they doctored the record to suit their personal needs. With the realization that it was the publication and performance of a play that contributed so greatly to the turning of opinion, both public and private, against Robert Cecil in 1597, it seems more and more likely that the loss of anything in the record that might connect the University Wits with his family, Fisher’s Folly with the birth of the London stage and the periodical press, or himself, his father, his mother and his sister with characters like Richard III, Polonius, Volumnia or Ophelia was something more than mere happenstance.
Missing papers of rivals and enemies of the Cecils:
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was William Cecil’s primary rival for power during the first half of Elizabeth’s reign. While Cecil was largely responsible for putting Elizbeth on the throne, Elizabeth’s friendship and romantic feelings for Dudley caused her to raise him from the nebulous position as second son of a convicted traitor to a level of prestige equal to that of Cecil’s as Secretary of State, larding him with offices, titles, and sources of income.
However fond the Queen may have been of Dudley as a man, this was also a clever political move as it placed these two very different personalities in a rivalry that meant they would never band together against her (though on occasion they did act together when both were convinced she was in the wrong). Although she called Cecil her “Spirit,” she was too worldly wise to be confused about the fact that what he would do to get and maintain power had very little of the spirit about it. Her nickname for Leicester, her “Eyes,” signified his true office, to keep watch on Cecil and anyone else who might need observing.
With both so dependent on her favor that neither could break away without bringing ruin on himself, Elizabeth managed to maintain a nice balance of power for a good thirty years. Both men were politicians to their bones having both been raised at Court: Cecil because his father was the King’s valet; and Dudley because his father was a leading Privy Councillor for the first two years of King Edward’s reign, then king in all but title for the final three. Both were players in a sometimes bloody chess game, one that would be inherited by their successors, Robert Cecil from his father and the Earl of Essex from his stepfather (possibly his real father [ODNB]) the Earl of Leicester.
That no one has yet written the kind of definitive biography of Leicester that we have of Burghley is due to the loss of his private papers following his death. (History says they were dispersed so widely that it’s never been possible to research him thoroughly enough.) So, with nothing to refute the rumors and libels that he was a poisoner, a lecherous beast, that he murdered his wife so he could marry the Queen, that he murdered the first Earl of Essex so he could marry his widow, etcetera, etcetera––as with so many Cecil rivals, it’s the rumors that have prevailed. What letters remain reveal a man of decent, if not stellar, Court fellowship and insight into foreign and domestic affairs. Few powerful men in those days could be considered “good” by today’s standards. Life was cheap and power could not be acquired by gentlemanly methods. Was Leicester any worse than anyone else? Absent his papers, we’ll never know.
By the 1590s, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Robert Cecil had inherited the rivalry between Leicester, Essex’s stepfather, and Lord Burghley, Cecil’s father. By the 1590s, the Queen’s lack of a successor had diminished her authority to the extent that she was no longer able to maintain control, resulting in a deadly polarization between Devereux and Robert Cecil that led to the former’s destruction and the latter’s metamorphosis into a dreaded fiend, hated by all but the handful who depended on his support. Today the Essex papers remain part of the Cecil family’s permanent collection at Hatfield House!
Sir Francis Walsingham began as the protégé of Lord Burghley. Following a tour of duty as Ambassador to France and then a stint as second secretary of State under Sir Thomas Smith, Burghley encouraged the Queen to promote him to Secretary when Smith died in 1577. As we’ve argued elsewhere, it was with Walsingham’s patronage that Oxford and his crew at Fisher’s Folly worked with Burbage and his actors to create the first two successful commercial theaters in London.
As has been noted by their biographer, Conyers Read, and others, although Walsingham and Burghley worked closely together at first, as Walsingham achieved more power, their detente began to show strain. By 1590, when Walsingham died, a rift had developed that’s fairly obvious to anyone who chooses to see it. In any case, as Robert Cecil took over Walsingham’s offices he acquired access to his predecessor’s papers, which then vanished. Some historians blame this on Walsingham himself, the “secretive” spymaster that’s been his sub-title ever since. What was it that caused the rift with the Cecils? Why did first Sidney, then Essex marry Walsingham’s daughter, who brought nothing to the marriage in the way of rank or money? Why did Essex then marry her when Sidney died? Why did Richard Tarleton, lead actor of the Queen’s Men, beg Walsingham to protect his son when he knew he was dying? Where’s the hard evidence (beyond what common sense requires) that it was Walsingham who was the moving force behind the creation of the Queen’s Men and the function of the “University Wits” at Fisher’s Folly? Absent his papers, we’ll never know.
Missing documents relating to the birth of the London Stage:
The University Wits, as historians have dubbed them, have left a very blurred and confusing paper trail with little to actually connect them outside of their published references to each other. (Once something has been published in enough quantity, it’s hard for anyone, however powerful, to get rid of it completely.) Unlike the Scriblerus Club of Alexander Pope and Jonathon Swift’s time, they had no name for themselves that has survived. History can’t locate them to a particular place in London. Two of those most often named, Anthony Munday and John Lyly, are undeniably connected to Oxford as both were his secretaries during the Fisher’s Folly decade.
George Peele is often considered a member of the Wits. He is thought to be the author of The Arraignment of Paris, one of the three plays that are all that remain of the many produced at the first Blackfriars theater to which both Oxford and John Lyly held leases during the period in question. In his biography of Peele (1912), David Horne quotes Frederick Boas:
During the interval between [the 1566 commencement and that of 1592] there was a ‘continuous tradition of amateur acting at Christ Church’ although unfortunately the Disbursement Books, from which comes most of our knowledge of the plays, are missing for the greater part of the period of Peele’s residence” 1572-76. . . . These are the first of many records which have hiatuses at the exact places where they might be expected to yield information about Peele. (42, 42 fn 52)
Christopher Marlowe is occasionally included as a Wit. Certainly his association with the stage occured during the period when the Wits flourished, and Stephen Gosson proclaimed against the proliferation of plays at the first Blackfriars theater, and he is mentioned by Nashe in several places. Marlowe’s biographer, David Rigg, has provided the dates when Marlowe was missing from Cambridge and when he returned, though strangely the records for his final year, 1586-87, are missing. What word or phrase sribbled by the butterer or other official in charge of the records for that year included some word or phrase that could have connected Marlowe to Oxford, Fisher’s Folly, or explained the mysterious “service” that so many historians have blindly followed in pronouncing Marlowe a spy for Walsingham?
That there is so little in any record that leaves us with information about the Master of the Revels during the period in question, Sir Edmund Tilney or of his successor, Sir George Buc, raises the same issues. Here’s where connections might be expected to reveal something about the process of producing plays for her Majesty’s solace. Yet, despite the existence of records in other Court offices during that period, it would appear that neither Tilney nor Buc kept any records at all. According to Wikipedia, “unfortunately for posterity’s knowledge of English Renaissance theatre, neither Tilney nor Buck kept the kind of detailed records that would be kept by their successor, Sir Henry Herbert.” Herbert, of course, was the appointee of William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. But until 1612, when Robert Cecil died, he and his father before him would have had access to any records kept by Tilney and Buc. Pembroke did not become Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household and overseer of the Court and London Stage (and later dedicatee and publisher of Shakespeare’s First Folio) until 1615, three years after Cecil’s death.
The Minutes of the Privy Council
One would think that, with two or three of Elizabeth’s leading councillors also patrons of London theater companies, there would be considerable material for theater historians in the minutes of the Privy Council. As E.K. Chambers shows, the subject of the theaters appears in the minutes, though chiefly with regard to when and how to suppress them. If there was any discussion surrounding the formation of companies, or the involvement of persons of standing at Court, it didn’t make it into the minutes. My guess is that since the Queen was privy to the minutes, the councillors all thought it best to where the stage was concerned to let sleeping dogs lie.
These records of the Privy Council were kept religously over many years, so a hiatus cannot be due to lackadaisical record keeping, while destruction by fire or flood would itself be part of the record. With this in mind, it’s interesting that for a period of over two years, from August 27, 1593 to October 1, 1595, according to Andrew Gurr, the minutes of the Privy Council are missing (Peculiar Letter 55), leaving half of 1593, all of 1594, and half of 1595 in the dark. This period covers the months following Marlowe’s assassination, through the registration with the Stationers of a dozen (anonymous) plays of the 1580s, the murder of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange (by then the 5th Earl of Derby), the formation of the second Royal company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from what was left of Stanley’s company and the marriage of Cecil’s niece (Oxford’s daughter) to Stanley’s brother, now the 6th Earl of Derby. It’s hard to believe that none of these events were matters for discussion on the Privy Council. Certainly Cecil, who was on the Council from 1591, and was it’s dominant member from 1596 on, was among the very few in a position to eliminate a particular subject thread by destroying an entire two-year section.
Missing information about Oxford’s death:
As Chris Paul has demonstrated in his 2006 article for The Oxfordian, among the many anomalies in the records pertaining to Oxford’s death is the peculiar break in the long and constant letter exchange between John Chamberlain and his friend Sir Dudley Carleton, then Ambassador to Venice. As Paul explains: “Throughout their long association, Chamberlain and Carleton would discuss––in numerous letters to each other as well as to others––the affairs of various Veres, including the deaths of the Countess of Oxford in 1613 and the eighteenth Earl in 1625”––yet during the period that Chamberlain would almost certainly have mentioned Oxford’s death to Carleton, not only do neither of them say anything about it, but in fact for this period there are no letters at all.
The last one before the break, from Carleton, is dated January 15, 1604. The next one, also from Carleton, is dated August 10. Thus it would seem that, breaking their habit of writing to each other on a weekly basis, for six months, from January to October, and with no explanation as to why, neither one wrote a single letter to the other. Normally between those dates it would have been of interest to both men that the King gave Oxford the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, that he died on June 24th, that there was talk of his daughter marrying the Earl of Montgomery, that Robert Cecil was not in favor of the marriage but that the King wished it so it would probably happen, the kind of insider Court gossip that was the constant theme of Chamberlain’s letters.
Once again, an unusual break occurs just where it would normally involve something about the stage, the pamphlet press, or the 17th Earl of Oxford. In this case, the exclusion could not have been done by Robert Cecil, for the Carleton-Chamberlain correspondence continued until shortly before Chamberlain’s death in 1628. It’s unlikely that the letters of the two men would have been combined until at least Carleton’s return to England in 1625, at which point he was appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household (under Charles I) and thus became privy to information about the Court stage and its secrets that neither he nor Chamberlain could have known of earlier. Perhaps it was he, or he and the former Lord Chamberlain, Pembroke’s brother, the Earl of Montgomery (and second dedicatee to the First Folio) who together decided that it was necessary that this series of letters be eliminated.
The truth about the destruction of the tombs at Earl’s Colne:
For Earls Colne, the lack of the burial register entries for the years 1590-1610, and of the original court rolls for Colne Priory manor for much of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is unfortunate. Like many other Essex parishes, the probate inventories have also disappeared.
Hopefully someday some of these questions will find answers.