The 1580s: raw beginnings

1576: April: Oxford returns from Italy, breaks up with the Cecils and moves to Bishopsgate.  Soon after, his tutor departs Court for his home at Hill Hall, ill with a fatal tumor of the throat.  Within weeks of Oxford’s return, plans to build Burbage’s big outdoor Theatre on Bishopsgate move quickly enough that it’s ready for the summer season, while by September, plans to create an indoor theater for the Inns of Court audience develop in time to have entertainments ready for the winter holiday at Court.  September: 15-year-old Francis Bacon and his older brother Anthony leave for Paris to learn statecraft from the English Ambassador.

1577: August:  after nine months of acute suffering, Sir Thomas Smith dies at Hill Hall.

1578: August: during the Queen’s progress, Gabriel Harvey makes an ass of himself at Audley End before the entire Court community.  Oxford is embarrassed because he’s linked to Harvey through their educations, both derived from Sir Thomas Smith, who had tutored both boys (separately, at different stages.)

1579: January: Oxford roasts Ld Strange and Alice Spencer at or before their wedding with an early version of Taming of the Shrew.  March: Francis Bacon returns from Paris, alone, connects with Oxford, writes Shepherd’s Calender–– dedicated to Philip Sidney with many compliments for Gabriel Harvey, his friend from Cambridge days.  Summer: French envoy Simier blows the whistle on Leicester, revealing to the Queen Leicester’s marriage to Lettice Knollys, which makes her son, the young Earl of Essex, his heir, replacing Sidney, and so causing him to lose status with the Court community.  Fall:  Leicester, in the dog house with the Queen, asks Sidney to write an official letter protesting her plans to marry the Duc d’Alencon, thus getting his former heir into serious trouble with Elizabeth.  Oxford, at the peak of his Court career and if not Elizabeth’s favorite, as close as it comes, is skating on thin ice, as he’s having an affair with one of her Maids of Honor and dallying with treasonable notions with her Catholic cousins, the Howards.

1580: January 15: first record of Ld Strange as a patron of Court entertainment.  April: Sidney, wounded by the Queen, flees to Wilton where his sister’s encouragement helps him break through his writer’s block.  He writes his Apologie for Poetry (in response to Gosson), and begins the Arcadia which he dedicates to her, and the sonnet cycle to Stella that will make him famous (probably also about Mary, though later identified as Penelope Devereux, sister to the young Earl of Essex).  Meanwhile, 13-year-old Essex, in preparation for his advent at Court, is living off and on at Cecil House, largely under the care of Oxford’s wife, Ann Cecil, developing relationships with her brother, 17-year-old Robert Cecil, and Oxford’s little daughters.  Autumn: Sidney returns to Court eager to show his circle the poems that prove his writing skill and (not least) his manhood.  December: When Oxford realizes that their cousin, Ld Henry Howard, is in deep in a plot to take over the throne, Oxford reveals it to the Queen in her presence chamber in front of leading members of the Court.  Howard and others are arrested and fight back with written statements accusing Oxford of all sorts of crimes.  At some point: Bacon realizes that the friend of his teen years, Harvey, is a fool and a nuisance and sets about to get rid of him by publishing some of their letters to each other,  thus getting his old friend into serious trouble with the University and the Privy Council.

1581January: Oxford triumphs at the tilts.  March: when his lover gives birth in the Queen’s chamber, he attempts to flee the country and gets sent to the Tower for two months, followed by house arrest at Fisher’s Folly for several more.  Harrassed by Vavasor’s male relatives every time he steps into the City, he begins writing serious dramas for the adult actors to perform for the legal community in Westminster (among them Romeo and Juliet). December:  Raleigh arrives at Court after serving in Ireland, moves into Oxford’s place as Queen’s favorite, but remains friends with Oxford and Bacon.

1582:  As Lord Chamberlain Sussex begins to fail, Sir Francis Walsingham (Secretary of State since 1573) takes his place as Privy Council patron of the Court Stage.  Walsingham creates a touring company made up of the best actors from the top three companies (a move usually attributed to the Master of the Revels, but without backing from the leading Privy Councillor, Tilney hadn’t the power).  Walsingham helps fund Oxford’s team at Fisher’s Folly: secretaries Anthony Munday and John Lyly, and apprentice writers George Peele and Thomas Lodge, and musicians, the Bassano brothers, their purpose to provide appropriate entertainments for Court events and the Queen’s Men.  Angry at Elizabeth, Oxford writes and produces the first versions of Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar for the Inns of Court audience.  Now that Oxford is free to write for the adult actors, Bacon, now 21, is enrolled to provide the children with the kind of light plays that the Queen prefers.

1583: May: Oxford is admitted back at Court, partly with Raleigh’s help, but most likely because Walsingham urges the Queen that his talents are needed for his anti-Spanish propaganda campaign.  June: Oxford’s mentor, the Earl of Sussex, dies, and Walsingham quietly takes over the Court Stage.  Under the name of his friend from Oxford, George Petti, then  Robert Greene, Oxford begins publishing tales written originally to entertain the Elizabeth and her ladies.  Perhaps to fill that void as well, Bacon creates an ongoing saga of knights and ladies that gets published years later as The Faerie Queene.  Sidney marries Walsingham’s daughter and quits writing “toys,” i.e., poetry and tales (Kimbrough xviii).

1584: September: 20-year-old Marlowe is brought to London from Cambridge University, probably by Walsingham, to begin training with Oxford and the others at Fisher’s Folly as a playwright for the Court and the Queen’s Men. (These absences have been attributed to working for Walsingham as a spy, for which there is no evidence whatsoever.)  Oxford produces the first version of Hamlet for the Inns of Court audience.

1585:  February: Marlowe returns to Cambridge.  July: Antwerp falls to the Spanish.  August: Leicester is appointed General of the Lowlands armies, and Sidney, Essex, and a number of other young noblemen and gentlemen prepare to join the forces already in the Lowlands to combat the Spanish.  October: Oxford gets a command, but returns two weeks later.  November/December: Marlowe returns to London for the start of the winter theater season.  Leicester and Sidney leave for Holland.

1586:  Late September: Marlowe returns to Cambridge (records are missing for the early half of the year).  October: Sidney is mortally wounded at the battle of Zutphen and bequeaths his sword to the 19-year-old Earl of Essex, while Mary Queen of Scots goes on trial before the peers of England (including Oxford).  It takes only two days to convict her.  Early December: Marlowe returns to London for the start of the winter theater season.

1587:  End of January: Marlowe returns to Cambridge.  February 8, Mary is beheaded at Fotheringhay castle.  February 16, Sidney’s elaborate funeral takes the nation’s mind off the brutal execution of the Scottish Queen.  March:  Marlowe leaves Cambridge for good.  April:  Oxford’s friend from Cecil House days, Edward Manners, Earl of Rutland, dies a few days before he’s to take office as Lord Chancellor, the first in a long run of back luck headed Oxford’s way.  Summer:  Marlowe and Edward Alleyn leave Burbage to produce Tamburlaine at Henslowe’s Rose theater, turning Alleyn into England’s first superstar and Marlowe into a target for the right wing.  September: Oxford’s youngest daughter dies, probably of influenza.  Essex, now 20, begins his rise at Court.

1588June: Oxford’s wife dies.  August: the long-awaited attack by the great Armada ends in ignominious defeat for Spain.  Walsingham, too ill to rejoice, begins his decline.  Midsummer: Martin Mar-Prelate publishes the first of his scurrilous anti-Church tracts.  September: death of Leicester (worn to the nubs by his military duties?); his step-son Essex inherits his farm of sweet wines, a major step on his road to power.  December: Oxford’s creditors force him to sell Fisher’s Folly and let go of his staff.  Henslowe produces Marlowe’s Tamburlaine part II.

1589: April: Essex sneaks off to join Drake’s English Armada, angering the Queen but increasing his popularity with the English public, and creating a pattern that will repeat several times in years to come.  Oxford (as Robert Greene) publishes Menaphon in which he introduces the pamphlet audience to Bacon’s new persona, Tom Nashe, created to appeal to the public reading audience, as opposed to Spenser, created to appeal to the Court.  Both Oxford and Bacon join forces with Archbishop Whitgift, Bacon’s former Master at Trinity College, to attack Marprelate, Bacon writing Pappe with a Hatchet (later attributed to Nashe) and Oxford the Pasquil epistles (attributed to Lyly).  Mildred Burghley follows her daughter and her granddaughter into the Valley of the Shadow. Henslowe produces Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.


The 1580s was the decade when the Media, the commercial Stage and the commercial Press, were born, both (as it turns out) largely Oxford’s doing.  It was the era of euphuism, the first (recorded) self-conscious style in English literature, also primarily Oxford’s doing (Bacon’s Faerie Queene was another, but wasn’t published until 1590).  It was the era of Marlowe’s training, of the first real Crown company, the showdown with Spain, the arrival of Essex at Court, and the deaths of Oxford’s first real patron, the Earl of Sussex, of his wife, Ann Cecil, his baby son and daughter, his mother-in-law, his best friend the Earl of Rutland, and his earliest enemy and Court rival, the Earl of Leicester.  It was also the year that, will he nill he, he became a professional.  He had yearned to be a great military leader like his ancestor, the 13th Earl, but instead, Fate, and the Queen, forced him to create them on paper instead.

At some point I’ll have a similar synopsis of the 1590s, the decade when the young stage and press would mature to the point that others than wealthy courtiers could actually earn their livings by writing for them.  It was also the period when the fun-loving Earl of Oxford was given “a cooling card,” as he liked to say.   Forced to reach deep into his soul for solace, relief would arrive in the form of a new voice, the one he’d been searching for his entire life, a voice that would last, not only past his own death, but for centuries to come.

Did he care that his name could never be attached to his great achievement?  Probably, but the quid pro quo meant that if he wanted to write he simply had no choice.  He was born into an extremely repressive culture just reaching the acme of its puritanical thrust towards a rather chilly heaven, and his great mission became to lighten hearts at holiday time.  Like some other great artists in history, he was up against an almost insurmountable barrier to intellectual freedom, so he used his rank and his credit to live up to the honorary title bestowed on him by Fate, of Lord Great Chamberlain.

In the 1580s, Oxford, in his thirties, had angered some very dangerous people.  In the coming decade he will feel keenly the edge of their wrath.

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