One of the moments in Oxford’s life that has remained a bone of contention is his death. According to the public record, he died on June 24th, 1604, having just turned 54. But like so many things in his life, this scenario is dubious at best. Although I had suspicions from the first, primarily due to the mythical significance of June 24th, it was the 2004 article by authorship scholar Christopher Paul: “A Monument without a Tomb: The Mystery of Oxford’s Death,” (published in The Oxfordian), that led to the following scenario. (Though he provides many of the facts that support it, Paul does not advocate for this scenario.)
In my view, what is far more likely is that Oxford did not die in 1604, that he continued to live in seclusion for another four or five years. As an earl, there is no way he could have escaped the pressures of his social position in any other way. His forbears were able to end their worldly affairs and retire to a monastery when they felt that their lives were drawing to a close, as did the first Earl of Oxford. Thus, for the centuries that Catholicism was the national religion, peers had the means by which they could be free to spend their final days in peaceful prayer and preparation for the afterlife, having passed on their possessions and titles to those they wished to have them, an option that ceased with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s. (And obviously an issue that concerned Shakespeare, as witness King Lear.)
Measure for Measure
It’s a matter of record that Measure for Measure was performed at Court on December 26, 1604, six months (almost to the day) after Oxford’s supposed death. The performance took place on the night before the marriage of his daughter Susan to the Earl of Montgomery. The lead in that play is the mature Duke Vincentio, “the old fantastical duke of dark corners” as Lucio calls him, who disappears into a monastery early in the play, leaving his estate in the hands of lesser folk who wonder at one point if he might be dead.
If Oxford meant this to be understood by his Court audience as a reference to his situation at the time, was he merely fantasizing that he actually had the kind of power he assigns to the Duke? Could it be that at that time in history, with the Stage as his platform and the entire population of the city, plus visitors and every three years 500 parliamentarians, as his audience, that he did have that kind of power? Could such a powerful constituency have been so utterly silent? Consider the total silence of the powerful members of three other sizable communities at that time: the Catholics, the Freemasons, and the homosexual underground.
Oxford was the highest ranking peer in his time. At a time when the tradition was that an earl of his rank would be given a lavish and very public funeral, Oxford had no funeral at all. Surely here’s another one of those Oxfordian dogs that didn’t bark in the night. We can be certain about this as we have descriptions of the funerals of others like Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham. His own wishes would have had nothing to do with the matter, nor or whether he was Shakespeare, nor even to the issue of cost, it was due purely to the position he held in society simply by virtue of his name and title. Were he actually dead, someone would have seen to it that a respectable funeral took place, most notably his in-laws, the Trenthams, not to mention the King, who was on a royal spending spree, and whose favorite at the time, the young Philip Herbert (brother of the third Earl of Pembroke whose domain was all of southwestern England) would soon be marrying Oxford’s daughter Susan.
No certain burial place
There are different scenarios for Oxford’s burial site, depending on what authority you choose to follow, but the upshot is that there is no absolutely certain place where his body resides or ever resided, either temporarily or permanently. The only possible reason for this lack of information is that his burial site, or more likely, sites, could not be made an issue because at the time that the records were being made regarding his demise, he was still alive, thus there was no body to bury. When he did finally die some four or five years later, since he was supposed to have been already dead for some time, it was necessary that his passing and subsequent burial be kept as private as possible.
Although we do not know when or where he was buried, nor did most of his contemporaries, who would have known would surely have been those members of his family with whom he had maintained relations over the years. One such would have been the Goldings, his mother’s family, while the most likely place for a peer of his stature to be buried would have been Westminster Abbey.
Percival Golding was Oxford’s cousin, the son of his uncle Arthur Golding, to whom was attributed the authorship of Shakespeare’s favorite source, the translation into English verse of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In a formal statement written in 1619, Percival Golding states flatly that Oxford was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The death of the summer lord
Right from the beginning it struck me as a little too coincidental that Oxford was buried on St. John’s Day, the classic moment for the death of the summer lord, whose sacrificial death marks the end of the rising half of the festival year, a bit of folk history he would have known from the same ancient Greek sources that gave Sir James Frazer the material for his masterwork, The Golden Bough.
If Oxford was Shakespeare, his death would surely have been immensely meaningful to those patrons and audiences who made the King’s Men one of the most lucrative businesses of the early 17th century. To 17th-century Londoners, Shakespeare’s death should have meant what the deaths of impresarios like Leonard Bernstein, Oscar Hammerstein, or George Gershwin meant to 20th-century New Yorkers. That there was no fanfare over William’s death says more than anything can about his actual relationship to the works that bore his name. Bringing this within range of many other pieces of the Shakespeare and Oxford puzzles, it seems worth suggesting that Oxford was using what means were at his disposal to get the time he needed to put a final polish on those plays he considered his legacy, his “alms for oblivion,” and in a place where the Cecils could not get at him.
The great reckoning with Robert Cecil
Oxford’s behavior during the 1590s suggests that this retreat to the Forest was the final maneuver in his life-long battle with the power-hungry Cecils, to whom Fate had bound him by ties of blood; a fight for the freedom to do what he believed was his right as one greater than they, in rank, in wisdom, in humanity, in inherited office (Lord Great Chamberlain), and not least, in sheer will. He had to fulfill his sacred calling, which was to tell the truth as he saw it. He says as much through Jaques when he asks Duke Senior (King James) to “invest me in my motley . . . and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world . . . ,” meaning, no doubt, the Court, which was corrupt and becoming more so every day.
With Walsingham’s death in 1590, the Cecils had taken (rather retaken) control of the office of Secretary of State: William the paperwork , Robert the legwork. The attack on the London Stage began immediately; Lyly was fired, Paul’s Boys and the Queen’s Men were dissolved, Marlowe was assassinated (or more likely, transported), Marlowe’s patron Lord Strange was murdered.
In 1594 Sussex’s two vice-chamberlains stepped forward to rescue the Stage from the chaos into which it had been thrown by these events. Reorganizing the actors into two companies with themselves as patrons, no doubt also with strict rules regarding what they were allowed to perform, Lord Hunsdon and his son-in-law Lord Admiral Charles Howard, created the system that would be followed for the next three decades.
On January 26, 1595, William Stanley having inherited the title from his now dead older brother, Lord Strange (by then fifth earl of Derby), marries Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth Vere, thus acquiring for the Cecils a close family tie to the earldom of Derby and, through her son, the royal blood of the Derby earls, something they were frustrated of in their alliance with Oxford, who had produced no heir, and who, apart from his impressive lineage, had no claim on the throne (which, considering what happened to Lord Strange, was just as well for Milord).
Following his daughter’s marriage to Derby, it seems that Oxford did what he could to retire from Court, as is suggested by Roland White’s note later that year to Robert Sidney, governor of Flushing, which states: “some say the Earl of Oxford is dead.” Two years earlier Oxford had returned to pressing the Queen regarding her promise to give him the stewardship of Waltham Forest, a perquisite that had always been within the purview of his ancestors and that he felt was his by right. For whatever reason, she continued to fob him off with one excuse after another. Perhaps she was afraid that he would disappear into the woods like Orlando, Timon, or all the principals in As You Like It.
In June of 1596 Essex takes off for Cadiz, foolishly leaving the door open for Robert Cecil to get cozy enough with Elizabeth that she finally appoints him Secretary of State, thus giving him and his father powers equal to, or perhaps even greater than, her own. This power was increased two weeks later with the death of the senior member of the Privy Council, Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon, patron of Shakespeare’s company. It was hugely increased again a week after that when the Queen appointed Cecil’s father-in-law to fill Hunsdon’s place. Thus by mid-August of 1596, Essex arrived home to find that the Cecils now held the top three governmental posts in the nation.
They used their now almost total power that November by seeing to it that the great new theater Burbage had built in the Blackfriars district was closed by edict of the Privy Council. Perhaps they used it again when halfway through the winter theater season that year, James Burbage died, leaving his sons (and their playwright) with no theater with which to entertain the Parliament the following autumn. They used it again that June to close all the theaters over the Isle of Dogs scandal, sending the actors on the road. That the Company fought back by producing for the Parliament a version of Richard III in which Richard Burbage achieved fame by portraying the evil king––probably in the costume and attitudes of the recently appointed Secretary of State––is as close to historic fact as its possible to get.
It was during this showdown that the reading audience was introduced for the first time to the previously totally unknown William Shakespeare as the author of the most popular plays in London. The following Christmas the Company tore down the old Shoreditch stage and rebuilt it on Bankside as The Globe, but by then Cecil was too busy with his showdown with Essex to bother with Oxford or the Stage. With his reputation permanently damaged by the play and by its publication in two editions, one right after the other, in which lines were added that could only point to him, Cecil could do little but maintain a holding pattern until Essex, at the end of his emotional tether, destroyed himself, taking with him a large portion of the younger courtiers who would otherwise have provided a counterweight to his subsequent grab for more and more power.
Oxford and his papers are saved
Following the Queen’s death in 1603, Oxford found King James a kinder sovereign than he probably had reason to expect. Most likely persuaded by the Pembroke brothers, James gave him the stewardship of the Forest, perhaps in exchange for his agreement to continue to write for the Court. In any case, while supposedly dead he had nine plays ready for the marriage of his daughter to the younger Pembroke the following Christmas. Safely tucked away in a modest dwelling near the ancient Havering Palace, favorite residence of Edward the Confessor, he lived as he pleased, protected from Cecil, who had no jurisdiction in the Forest, an idyll he portrays in As You Like It, one of the plays he revised during this period, in which he left a number of clues to the events of his life.
When did he die? Events suggest 1609. In a website titled 1609, the late great authorship scholar Robert Brazil details a number of events and publications that, although none can be relied upon as hard evidence, suggest this was when the great impresario finally moved on to that better world that so many of his characters mention in passing. Brazil, never one to move too far from hard evidence, would never state, so far as I know, the reason for choosing 1609 to highlight in this manner. Perhaps he left it for the rest of us to consider.
In my view, this was when the movement to get Oxford’s works published as a collection first began, a project that would take another decade and a half, and (I believe) was also the beginning of the movement to get him buried in Westminster Abbey, where (I believe) he lies today beneath the huge screen, created in 1741 to honor Shakespeare, that divides Poet’s Corner in half.
So what if anything actually happened on June 24, 1604? Only one thing we know for sure, which is that Robert Cecil, by then Viscount Cranborne, had the Earl of Southampton arrested on the trumped-up charge that he was suspected of plotting against the King (the excuse for all Cecil’s attacks on his personal enemies), so he could have his papers examined. Southampton was released with no explanation for the arrest either then or later (by historians). Obviously Cecil didn’t find what he was looking for. As for what might have occurred on the day in question, June 24, 1604, or more likely the night before, Midsummer’s Eve, we can only dream.