A society of secrets

Think upon every word that you will speak before you utter it, and remember how nature hath ramparted up, as it were, the tongue with teeth, lips, yea, and hair without the lips, and all betokening reins or bridles for the loose use of that member.
—————  Sir Henry Sidney in a letter to his 11-year-old son, Philip.

In his Selected Poems of . . .  the Earl of Surrey, Dennis Keene refers to “the Stalinist atmosphere of the English Court” in the latter years of the reign of Henry VIII, an atmosphere that was not much better in the reigns of his children, Edward and Mary.  A great deal of the excitement and glamour of Elizabeth’s Court came from the relief felt by all when the nation realized that a semblance of reason had dawned and the reactionary horrors appeared to be at an end.  But the difference was only one of degree.  The tensions that created the paranoid atmosphere of her father’s and siblings’ reigns did not miraculously vanish with Elizabeth.  Despite her ability to maintain her image as a fair and just queen surrounded by a Court that sparkled with gaiety and glamour; beneath the veneer of Faeryland, of Camelot, of Joyeuse Garde, Valhalla, Illyria or Elysium, the world of the rack and thumbscrew  was never far from the surface.  Historians shrink from describing the infernal machines that were routinely used to extract secrets from suspects, who must endure them with none of the legal protections we take for granted.

People were good at keeping secrets.  They had to be.  Parents constantly strove to impress upon their children the need to be circumspect.  The World War I slogan, “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” would have been well understood, for indeed, the citizens of the Tudor state were just a small step from being at war with each other, over issues of economics, of social propriety and morals, but chiefly over religious issues, issues that were inching ever closer towards demands for political freedom, demands feared and dreaded by authority.

Wisely Elizabeth declared publicly that she wished “no windows into men’s souls,” but there were others she trusted to keep a very close watch indeed on what was going on behind the closed windows of any number of souls.  What else could be the meaning of the nicknames she gave her courtiers, Leicester, her “Eyes,” and Hatton, her “Lids.”  In this context we can also consider the eyes, ears and mouths that decorate the Queen’s gown in the Rainbow portrait.  Although Frances Yates relates them to Elizabeth’s fame, they could as easily be seen as symbols of her divine awareness; a warning of the impossibility of putting anything over on the Queen.  In 16th-century England, secrecy reigned, not only at Court, but on every level beneath it.

Trade secrets

In our modern world, trade secrets in paperback are available by the carload from the how-to shelves of every bookstore, so that the secrecy surrounding 16th-century trades and crafts must seem very strange.  Back in the days before complex machinery and electronics, it took an apprentice anywhere from seven to fifteen years to acquire enough knowledge about a craft to go to work on his own, and every morsel of that knowledge was considered a secret.  Learning a craft was said to be learning its “mystery”; in fact the words “craft” and “mystery” were interchangable.  To call someone crafty today means less that they are skilled than that they are secretive.

The process whereby a Master was admitted into a Guild was termed the “Induction into the Mystery.”  The process involved rites as arcane as those for joining a Masonic Lodge or a Greek Fraternity.  In fact, the external arm of the Masons or Masonic Lodges of today first began as a medieval craft guild of stonemasons, so the rites that seem so bizarre today were simply the way things were done in all craft guilds then.  The apprentice was enjoined to silence about his master’s secrets.  To break this vow of silence was to invite loss of apprenticeship, as well as the loss of future membership in the Guild and all that went with it including citizenship and the right to hold public office.

The atmosphere of secrecy that surrounded the craft guilds and everything else was a legacy of the Middle Ages, when secrecy abounded to such a degree that even now we often refer to the early part of this period as The Dark Ages.  This was a time when the light of learning that had illuminated the lives of the ancient cultures was reduced to the flicker of a candle behind the walls of a monastery; a time when people kept secrets so well that to this day there is much that we don’t know about the period.

Secrets today

We think of ourselves now as an “open society”, and while certainly we are more open than they were then, secrets continue to abound.  Think of the secrecy surrounding such things as corporate mergers and takeovers, or the patenting of some device that will revolutionize an industry.  Think of the deadly repercussions of selling classified information to a foreign power.  Consider how valuable to J. Edgar Hoover was his knowledge of personal secrets of high elected officials, and what part knowing them played in enabling him to retain his appointment as Director of the FBI through five successive administrations.  Consider as well the terrible effect Hoover’s own personal secret had on the history of our country, how knowing it and having pictures to prove it enabled the criminal Mafia to take root and flourish without interference from the very agency charged with bringing them to justice.  In a society such as 16th-century England where all high level offices were appointed or inherited and thus were not open to the natural cleansing of the electoral process, such deadly secrets would be multiplied and compounded,  handed down from one generation to the next, as would the pressure both to keep one’s own secrets and to discover those of others.

On the social level, in a society where aristocratic marriages were hedged by countless official and cultural proscriptions, people often married in secret to escape them; a situation found at the heart of the plots of numerous romantic stories.  And since most if not all marriages where any property or rank was involved were in reality business arrangements, secret sexual alliances were almost inevitable.  Thus it happened that children would be conceived and borne in secret, and raised by others than their parents, or by a parent who claimed they were adopted.  Where this secret process was a custom, suspicion of one’s parentage and the parentage of social leaders was inevitable.

Sexual secrets, plentiful in any institution, were the more abundant at Elizabeth’s Court.  The early sexual traumas that left her frightened of sex and pregnancy,  drove her to deny the value of marriage, taking seriously the monarch’s right to choose her courtier’s mates for them, and going ballistic when they chose their own sex partners.  Oxford’s failure to keep secret his relationship with Ann Vavasor led not only to two years of banishment from Court but was the beginning of a series of other deprivations as well.  Nor was he unusual, for similar repercussions followed every such misstep by any courtier unfortunate enough to have his private life revealed to the Queen’s hostile eyes.

Historians of the period who rely on letters for information about the period, must deal with the fact that letters–– even social letters exchanged by close friends and family members––were frequently written in code.  These run the gamut from using code names to hide identities to out-and-out cryptograms that require a key to decipher.  Even where there is no discernable code, letters often sound like that end of a telephone conversation carried within earshot of someone the telephoner wishes to keep in the dark as to its subject.  A number of letters remain with “burn this” written at the bottom, a command that, luckily for historians, was not always honored by the recipient.  It is evident that one person and one person alone was intended to understand the full import of such a letter, no matter who else got their hands on it.  This makes it tough for a modern historian to piece an event together, when any letters involved deal with it in only the most general or ambiguous terms.  As the biographer of the Earl of Essex tells us,

. . . exploring Essex’s intelligence gathering activities is a frustrating exercise.  Ciphers and obscure language are a frequent (and intentional) barrier to undestanding, . . .  while many of the most important matters relating to intelligence were probably conducted only by word of mouth and have left no trace on paper.  For reasons of security, government accounts also often disguised or concealed payments and other rewards to agents.  Essex may have used a similar strategy in his own financial records.  In a budget paper drawn up about 1593, his steward simply stated that “intelligence is a matter of secret and therefore I can make no estimate, but leave it.” (Hammer 152).

Impresas, mottos, posies and symbols

Secrecy, necessary in a closed society for security and self-protection, had its pleasures as well as anxieties.  Where the written word can cost one’s life or liberty, where, surrounded by people, the spoken word is next to impossible, facial expressions and body language acquire tremendous weight.  At Court where many had little to do but get dressed up and hang around, the atmosphere hummed with intrigue.  Where the possibilities of hidden meaning lurked within every intercepted glance, every conversation hushed, every unexplained blush or silence; riddles, anagrams and guessing games, so popular throughout the Courts of Europe, gained added importance, as was added to their ancient means of transmitting information in images for a non-literate culture was their use as a vehicle for secret communication.

Impresas were images essentially heraldic in nature, carved in stone, engraved on jewelry, embroidered on fabric or painted on portraits, signs, or the sides of coaches; they were visual devices meant to convey a particular meaning to a viewer in the know, a combination often of several images, sometimes including a motto, usually in Latin, though occasionally (and more secretively) in Greek.  To be in the know, to uncover such meanings, was essential to maintaining social power and protecting oneself.  As a modern historian of the period puts it, “allegorical lock picking was a courtly pastime amounting to a disease” (Bevington 9).

The portraits of Elizabeth’s time were filled with such devices to an extent that artistry was seriously compromised.  A truthful or attractive rendition of the subject was less important than the meanings encrypted in the objects that surrounded him or her.   The Ermine Portrait, the Sieve Portrait, and the Rainbow Portrait, three of the most important paintings of the Queen, are each identified, not by the name of the painter, not by the date, not by her gown, but by the chief symbolic object in a painting crammed with symbols.  The Queen seems to peer out from within a mass of symbols, a prisoner of her own importance.

Nicholas Hilliard, for years Elizabeth’s Court painter and creator of her official image, filled his miniatures with such devices.  Hands issuing from clouds, a background in flames, a bouquet of certain flowers, spelled out a meaning to the Elizabethans that often remains beyond us, and was perhaps beyond all but a few even when it was painted.  Heads are surrounded by cryptic phrases in Latin whose meaning still defies interpretation, less because of our present day ignorance than because they were devised on purpose to defy interpretation.  Published poems by members of aristocratic literary circles were signed, not with real names, but with “posies,” Latin phrases that identified the author to the limited circle who knew the code.  Part of the pleasure that the Queen took in her court theatricals as well as the poetry written for her came from figuring out the hidden meanings, as is evident from a number of contemporary quotes.

Where there are secrets on one side there is always intense curiosity on the other.  There are always secrets buried in the hearts of families; and where a family rules the nation, secrets are powerful and so will be the desire to find them out and rumors where they can only be guessed.  There will be an obsession with “truth” on the one hand, and with presenting a front and maintaining silence on the other, and those who are in a position to find out hidden truths can wield tremendous power.  Still true today, now much more powerful were these pressures then when a dark truth revealed could mean loss of everything, including life.

Great and many must have been the secrets that the Queen kept from her people, even, indeed especially, from those closest to her, and many and great must have been the secrets that they kept from her, secrets that in today’s world would be revealed in hours by the media that did not yet exist in Elizabeth’s time.  Evidence abounds of the Court community, whatever their personal feelings about someone like Leicester, Raleigh or Essex, kept what must have been common knowledge of their sexual activities from the Queen, in Essex’s case, for years.  What happened when she found out we can see in her explosive response whenever they were revealed.  We can only guess what changes at Court can be traced to her finding out things that remained, and still remain, hidden from common view.

The Elizabethan theater, as it developed, did so very much in the spirit of this atmosphere of code words, double meanings and disguised identities.  The masque, a form of Court drama that combined a lot of dance, spectacle and music with a slender plot, developed out of the ancient mumming ritual known as “disguising.”  In the Masque, the performers, all courtiers well known to each other, wore costumes and face coverings which were intended to hide their identities from each other.  Court figures of renown routinely wore them when appearing in groups in public.  Known as vizards to the Elizabethans, the face coverings used during the Masque give us our present day word mask.

In the theater, an actor’s true identity, his age, his rank, even his sex, can easily be disguised with costume, face paint, wig, posture and tone of voice.  Both men and women of rank wore masks, or vizards, to the public theater, or came disguised as persons of low degree, while women could dress as men.  In the plays themselves, much of the excitement was derived from situations where the identity of a character was successfully hidden from even their siblings or mates by a simple change of clothes, an absurdity gladly swallowed whole by audiences for whom such devices  offered endless romantic possibilities.

Favorite plays at Court were those that were rich with inside jokes, with secrets and disguises, with plots, sub-plots and counterplots, and with layers of symbolism and allegory, some of it relating to current personalities and issues, and some to the myths and medieval romances that were the chief intellectual sustenance of the Renaissance aristocracy.  A Spanish ambassador once wrote to Philip II about a comedy performed at Elizabeth’s Court: “I should not have understood much of it if the Queen had not interpreted as she said she would do,” which was not because he didn’t understand English well enough. Ambassadors were chosen for their facility in the language of the nations to which they were sent.

Secrecy in commercial publishing

We may think of publishing things as the very opposite of keeping them secret, that is, publishing makes things known to a wide audience that would otherwise be known to only a few.  But with the potential for broadcasting information and ideas quickly throughout a community also came the means for hiding the identity of the writer, the publisher, and even the printer, for printers used the same fonts, so without handwriting or any ideosyncratic mark to identify the authors, people could write anonymously in a way that would have been totally impossible earlier.  Those with a political point to make or a personal axe to grind could disguise themselves, either as persons who did not exist, or as someone other than themselves (as we can clearly see occured with the publication of the Martin Mar-prelate pamphlets).

This gave rise to anonymous publishing on a scale that had never been seen before, both to deadly serious propagandizing on the one hand, and to satires and sheer foolery––a new form of mumming and disguising––on the other.  It also caused a great deal of secrecy and shape-shifting to surround the activities of publishers, printers and writers, no matter what their purposes were in publishing, and conversely, to stringent efforts on the part of authority to control what got published and to discover whatever  was being hidden.

With the rise of publishing came the call for published histories.  When dealing with the past, historians mostly used what materials they had at hand, though the point of view might alter the interpretation, as we still see with Catholic histories of the period.  But when it came to creating histories that touched closely on their present, the tradition of keeping secrets had a serious effect on what authorities like the Cecils who had means to control publishing allowed to issue from the press.

The easiest way of all to alter a paper trail, of course, is simply to destroy it, in which case, even if it is possible to reconstuct the truth somehow, it is not possible to point the finger at any one individual, especially after time has elapsed   Thus the historian is at the mercy to a great extent of the contemporary individuals who had control over the records.  In general, of course, persons appointed to high office were privy to account books and the flow of important, and often secret, correspondance, but others undoubtedly had the opportunity to get their hands on the records as well.

To deny that, in a society filled with secrets, there would have been motivations to destroy or alter the records is naive, yet historians rarely take this into account.  Trained to respect documents and records, to document clearly and accurately themselves, and protected to a great extent from the lawless world outside their ivy walls, they may not have their eyes sufficiently open to the likelihood that the records they study could have been subject to alteration or falsification.  In general they accept the record as they find it, ignoring anomalies or relegating them to footnotes.

Historians like John Stowe were careful to steer clear of anything controversial, while William Camden was certainly influenced by his patron, William Cecil, in creating the image of Elizabethan England that Cecil chose to have perpetuated.  From very early in Elizabeth’s reign, the Cecils, first father, then son, exerted an iron control over what got published and what got saved for future historians.  The fact that all of Walsingham’s personal papers disappeared immediately after his death has been attributed to Robert Cecil, who followed him in office.  That most of Leicester’s personal papers also disappeared following his death, again suggests interference by his longtime rival for Court power, William Cecil.  Why so much paper from the Cecils and so little from their colleagues?  This should certainly color our view of what they may or may not have saved regarding their troublesome son and brother-in-law, Edward de Vere and his troublesome media ventures.

Given the Elizabethan penchant for secrecy, and considering the terrible consequences of discovery of certain kinds of secrets, it seems like a proper approach to take a more questioning stance towards the official records of the time as we find them than the historians have generally done.  We should examine anomalies more closely, and be willing to ask ourselves, could someone have done some purposeful hiding or confusing here, and if so, why?  Back when families ruled England, the answer so often is: because family secrets were involved.

Why did the author hide his identity?  And why did his colleagues continue to hide it after his death?  At the most basic level, for two main reasons: trade secrets and family secrets, a potent combination.

This is a revised version of an essay by the same title published by the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 34.1 Spring 1998: 1, 6-8, 23.

3 thoughts on “A society of secrets

  1. Loosely related to the above:

    I don’t know if I have come across an explanation for why the Oxford Hilliard is ascribed to Oxford. If the date is 1588 and the age is 30, shouldn’t the sitter be someone who was born around 1558?

  2. Clearly something is wrong: either the date is wrong, the age is wrong, or it isn’t Oxford. One thing to keep in mind with Hilliard is that delightful as his miniatures are, and skillful as he was with images an inch long and a half an inch wide (he painted with a brush with just one bristle), he was not particularly good with likenesses. If we compare the many miniatures he did of the Queen, or the one of Raleigh, with their other portraits, we see that he tended to give the sitter more of a pie face with a much smaller nose.

    Which of these things is the thing that’s wrong? If we keep in mind that the sitter may have had a thinner face, a more prominent chin, and a longer nose than Hilliard has given him, he could be Oxford, but most likely at 30, not 38. Going by the youthful face and knowing that he was entering his period of greatest stress in 1588, my guess is that the date reflects the date when it was painted, and that this is a copy of a miniature painted in 1580.

    Hilliard would have made his living from making copies of original portraits of important people. At thirty, Oxford was enjoying the peak of his period of greatest popularity at Court. He was renovating Fisher’s Folly and spending lavishly, so this would have been a likely moment to have such a miniature painted (for Ann Vavasor?) with copies made of it as gifts for other friends. In later years, someone may have requested a miniature, and this is all Hilliard had. The date and age are conventions. Whether or not painters ever used the actual age for the one and the date painted for the other I don’t know. I’ve never heard of it. But at least it’s an explanation.

    The testimony that it’s Oxford is strong because his name is on the ribbon that’s part of the gold frame. It’s been in the possession of the Duke of Bucchleuch (pron. Buckley) for some time, along with a number of other important portraits. Apparently the Duke knows nothing about its provenance.

    At some point I’m going to put up some images of Oxford, or that have been claimed to be of him, and one that’s not yet been claimed, and a discussion of what’s likely and what isn’t.

  3. An interesting article – a minor quibble: Bucchleuch is pronounced Buckloo, not Buckley, at least in Scotland.

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