Category Archives: Queen Elizabeth

Why Queen Elizabeth remained a virgin

In studying the Elizabethan period a few things have come clear that were not before, among them the peculiar nature of the Reformation focus on Sin, or to be more precise, on sins related to sex. In fact, in Reformation tracts the word sin alone may be taken as a synonym for sex, for none of the other cardinal sins. Greed, for example, which expanded exponentially at that time, while labelled sinful, while deplored by writers of government policy and lashed from the pulpit, was not, as was sex, the inevitable route to the fiery furnace. And not just illicit sex, but all sex. According to Calvin, any pleasure from sex, even between husband and wife, was considered Lust, making those who found pleasure in it, even in just thinking about it, ripe for damnation.

This is truly bizarre. How on earth did these reformers expect to persuade humans that desire, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” is something that humans, or any earthly creatures, can do without? Not only is sexual climax one of the greatest (and easiest) pleasures offered by nature––one that, because it alone brings life into existence, should be considered sacred, and was considered sacred from the Stone Age well into the medieval period––how did the religious reformers of the 16th century manage to persuade so many that it was something to be feared and hated?

More to the point, what led them to this bizarre, even dangerous, position––dangerous considering that without sex, or more particularly, without desire, there would eventually be no more Protestants? The Catholic Church was less enthusiastic about sex than its pagan forbears, but did agree that procreation at least was sacred, though only when it took place within the bonds of holy matrimony. Perhaps because the Church understood that “no sex meant no little Catholics,” what it regarded as sin were chiefly sexual practices that prevent procreation: masturbation, homosexuality, coitus interruptus, and most forms of birth control.

Though it reached its peak during the Reformation, the seeds of this anti-sex campaign had been sown long before by the Hebrew bible in which Adam and Eve “fall” into sin when, having eaten the apple, they realize that they have genitals and then figure out what to do with them. Throughout the centuries dominated by the Church, unmarried men and women were segregated into communities of monks and nuns. This did not prevent desire, but at least it made consummation more difficult. The Church was also largely willing to care for the unwanted children that were the result of illicit sex, bringing them up in convents as loyal servants of the Faith. But once Luther and Calvin got hold of the Church, all forgiveness was impossible; even infants who died shortly after birth went straight to hell unless they had been baptized first. As Calvin put it (1536)––

Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). And that is properly what Paul often calls sin. The works that come forth from it–such as adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousings–he accordingly calls “fruits of sin” (Gal 5:19-21).

Apparently murder was less distressing to Calvin’s God than either theft or sex.

Nor was the Reformation the source of this pan-European anti-sex campaign, for at about the same time that the Reformation took up the fight, the Catholic Inquisition, instituted to weed out religious heresy, erupted in an hysterical pogrom directed against women, burning them at the stake as often for witchcraft or “misleading their children” as for practising pagan or Jewish rituals. “Over the 160 years from 1500 to 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed.  About 80% of those killed were women.  Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany to about 10,000 in France [and] 1,000 in England . . . .”

Why women? The only plausible answer is that because they arouse desire in men they were seen as tempting them to engage in sinful acts and thus leading them to damnation. We may see this as a perverse belief system and something that our culture has (largely) outgrown, but just because we don’t follow this line of thinking today, doesn’t mean we can ignore its long terms effects.

That back around the dawn of history the Patriarchy managed to eliminate women from the hierarchy of all the modern religions, and gradually from all positions of authority, can be attributed to simple male animal territoriality. However sweet and reasonable they can be as individuals, as a group men are competitive beasts, so relegating women to the kitchen and laundry was a simple matter of eliminating one big chunk of the competition. What happened in the 16th century was different. This was hacking at the roots of the tree of life while rendering desolate millions of addle-headed believers. (Those interested in the realities of this terrible belief system, still very much alive and functioning today in evangelical churches throughout the mid-west, will get an insight by viewing videos of current evangelical preaching on You Tube.)

The question is not just why did Luther and Calvin believe such terrible things, it’s even more perplexing why on earth so many people accepted them. However radical, the answer is simple enough: one word: syphilis.

Disease a factor in history

Understanding the diseases rampant at a particular time is necessary if we’re to see it clearly, particularly when certain aspects remain hidden as is true with the authorship question. The diseases rampant in 16th century England were, in no particular order: the bubonic plague, the ague (malaria), the small pox (smallpox), and the great pox (syphilis). Though there were certainly others, these seem to have had the most consistent influence on the culture, though, the plague excepted, their effect on history is generally ignored.

Although the plague was no less terrible than when it first struck Europe in the 14th century, by Elizabethan times it hardly affected the lives of those prepared to avoid it, for its habit, if not its cause, was understood so well that those who could would simply pack up and head for the country, where they would remain until it died out.

It tended to strike every ten years or so, first appearing with warm weather in the funky areas around the docks where ships brought it from abroad (exactly how was still a mystery), and from whence it spread, again by unknown means, to the poorest and most crowded areas of the city. It was most virulent in the heat of mid-to-late summer, dying away with the coming of cold weather. Plague years were sometimes preceded by an outbreak in the summer of the preceding year, to return more destructively the following year, after which it died out. Or it could return the year following a particularly harsh outbreak for a lesser outbreak.

Property was particularly vulnerable during a plague year since it was difficult to adequately protect unguarded manors. It was hard to get workers to dig graves and otherwise help get rid of the bodies, so the air stank of rotting corpses, which was blamed for spreading the contagion. Bodies buried in churchyards were put into common graves as soon as they came in each day, five or six at a time, covered with a sprinkling of lime and dirt to prevent contagion. The Court spent the worst part of plague years holed up at Windsor Palace.

Malaria

The English were also used to malaria, as is seen by how often their letters mention the ague. It’s worth suggesting that only those who lived far from wetlands, sluggish streams or stagnant ponds were entirely free from the periodic attacks of joint pain, chills and fever, which as yet had no cure. Once bitten by the anopheles mosquito, rife in England at that time, he or she would be subject to attacks off and on for the rest of their lives. A severe attack could mean death to a child or someone already ailing from another disease.

Smallpox

This highly contagious disease was also well known to the English of the 16th century. It occured sometimes occasionally and sometimes in epidemics, always by direct or airborne infection through contact within 6 feet or so of someone who was sick. The progress was rapid, over a period of three days or so, and and often fatal. Pox, an alternate spelling of pocks, identifies a disease most notable for a rash or pimples, which, with smallpox, covered the face and other parts of the body, often leaving them disfigured, “pockmarked,” for life. The Queen had a bout with smallpox in 1562 which caused her ministers to fear for her life, but she recovered, apparently without scars. The one who did get scarred was her faithful lady-in-waiting, Lady Mary Sidney, mother of Philip and Mary, who was infected while attending her mistress. It’s said that her face was so badly scarred that she never again appeared in public without a veil over her face.

Syphilis

While these were all familiar to the English and had been for centuries, a new and virulent strain of what later came to be called syphilis appeared in Naples in 1495, from whence it spread fairly rapidly throughout western Europe. Concentrated in the port towns where sailors from Italy and the Far and Middle East indiscriminently exchanged bodily fluids with English prostitutes (first noted in England in 1497) who then spread it to clients who took it to their wives and mistresses throughout the nation. By this means, within a generation it had arrived at the doors and the beds of the great as well as the humble.

Unlike smallpox or the plague, which struck suddenly, death occuring within days, syphilis was slow; slow to appear; slow to develop. Understanding of its deadly nature must also have been slow. Even today arguments continue regarding its symptoms, which are often hard to diagnose. Where smallpox appears openly on the face and hands, the great pox first appeared in those areas most hidden from view, on the genitals. Following an early outbreak, these lesions would appear to heal, so the patient would consider himself or herself cured of one of the lesser STDs, and so continue to have sex, not realizing what they were doing to their partners, or what it could do to their families, since a man could infect his wife, who would then bear children with the inherited version of the disease.

Due to its varying symptomology, the Pox, as it was most commonly termed, could well have masqueraded for years as one of several other venereal diseases for which there were folk remedies, so its devastating nature would have become apparent only gradually over time. For while smallpox and the plague come fairly quickly to a crisis after which the patient is either dead or gets well, the bacilli that cause syphilis continue to spread deep within the cells of various parts of the body where they proliferate, gradually over the years bringing about the more obvious symptoms, the stinking, suppurating sores that won’t heal, or the deterioration of the bones of the face, most notably the nose. The only cure that was at all effective, ingesting mercury, was almost as devastating as the disease.

Because the symptoms could vary so widely depending on what organs had been compromised, because the disease could appear to have healed, going dormant sometimes for years, and because the effect it had on childbirth (the miscarriages, the stillbirths, the sickly infants, the children who only got sick later in life) were slow to be understood, it would have taken time for the pox to have shown itself in all its horror to the religious leaders who could only explain it in terms of original sin, that sex itself was the curse, God’s punishment on Adam and Eve for aspiring to forbidden knowledge. It also explains why their congregations, shocked and terrified, were so willing to follow Calvin and his fellow reformers down the path of stringent self-denial.

It was also why Queen Elizabeth had not only a dislike of sex, but genuine horror, fearing as she certainly must have what was the true cause of her father’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s terrible illnesses and what the results might be should she become pregnant. Much as the English historians continue to deny it, seeking ever more arcane explanations for Henry’s insane behavior towards the end of his life, no one who researches the matter can fail to agree that the disgusting nature of his illness, the troubles all his wives had conceiving and if they conceived, giving birth to healthy infants, were all due to the disease that all the Court either knew for a fact or guessed, was due to syphilis contracted during one of the many sexual peccadilloes with which he entertained himself in his youth. And even as the delicate sensibilities of the historians continue to prevail, there can be no argument that most of the Court under Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth would have believed the cause of the king’s insanity and his wives failures to produce a healthy heir to have been syphilis. This then, was the true cause why Elizabeth not only never married, but also why, despite her obvious delight in surrounding herself with handsome men, she would never have allowed herself to have sex (that is exchange bodily fluids) with any of them, taking refuge in the Greek myths of virginal goddesses like Diana and Phoebe.

This is the primary reason why sex was forbidden at Elizabeth’s Court; why the word “filthy” was inevitably used whenever reformers referred to sex; why books of sexy stories like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure were condemned as dangerous filth by Reformation pedagogues like Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s tutor; and why those who transgressed her anti-sex edicts were punished so severely. This is also largely why the men (and women) who translated these works and had them published invariably hid their identities and why printers and publishers used ambiguous language on the title pages and in the front material of these and , so that the reform censors would pass them without reading further.

It also explains how the sexuality of young, vital Court poets, repressed by the dangers of yielding to impulse and intensified by the frustration of repression, burst forth in long sequences of sexually-charged poetry, long narrative poems about love and sex like Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and why during the decade of sonnet cycles addressed to cold disdainful dames, some, like Astrophil and Stella and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, exceeded 100 verses! Repressed by the sex hatred of the reformers and the fears of the Queen, desires that could not be allowed expression in any other way found release in reams of verse, some of it glorious––the lotus flowering from the heap of dung that was the terror inspired by this horrible disease.

Shakespeare and Christmas

One of the minor tragedies that stems from the loss of Shake-speare’s true identity is the loss of his contribution to Christmas and other modern year-end traditions. What would this time be without the Stage? Without the Stage we would do without The Nutcracker, La Boheme, and Die Fledermaus; without the The Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street. Greatest of all would be the loss of holiday plays at schools that bring kids, parents and teachers together once a year as members of a community. Who among us is aware that it was “Shake-speare” who created the Stage that spread from England to Northern Europe, or that he created it first as a Christmas entertainment? For, were the truth to be told, or perhaps told in such a way that the world could hear it, he would be seen in his eternal role as the very king of Christmas, its Oberon, its Hobby Horse, Green Man, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Unreason, King of the Bean.

For little Edward de Vere, isolated from his patrician family and probably also from any meaningful relationship with other boys his own age, there was one time in the year when the official dole of porridge and Latin aphorisms by his penurious tutor was interrupted in joyous fashion. This would have been the annual celebration of Christmas at Windsor Castle, just up the river from Smith’s Ankerwycke, an event that not even the most stiff-necked Protestant ex-cabinet minister would have dared to ignore.

We can be certain that what Mary Tudor provided for her Court community, including their children, was as extravagant and exciting as she could make it. Recalling the happy days of her own childhood at the Court of young Henry VIII, as Queen she now had the power to recreate the kind of extravaganzas provided by her father in the full flush of his pleasure-loving youth.  Thrilling to the little five, six, and seven-year-old would have been the music that played throughout the day (Smith had no ear for music), the great candlabras so extravagant with candlelight that the descent of night at 50 degrees north latitude, sometime in the late afternoon, was postponed until well after midnight.

Enraptured by the music, the elaborate feasting, the dancing, the perfumes, the clowns and puppet shows, and not least, some precious moments with the parents that he never saw at any other time, to fall asleep  surrounded by a dozen or more other happy children, was a pleasure, once experienced, eagerly anticipated for the rest of the year. What a blow it must have been then, when suddenly, probably without warning, he found himself sent away the winter of his ninth year to spend the holidays alone in a cold and unfamiliar room at Queens’ College with none but strangers to attend him while Smith was off in London trying (and failing) to get chosen for a post on the new Queen’s privy council.

Following their return to Hill Hall in April of 1559, it’s questionable whether there were any more trips to Court for the holidays. It would have been a long haul over icey roads from northern Essex to Whitehall in London, which is where it seems the new Queen preferred to keep Christmas. Since the ancient traditions were frowned upon as either too Catholic or too pagan by the reformers who had put her in office, Smith, no longer an inside member of the Court community, would more likely have kept the holiday at his new home in northern Essex in the subdued fashion that as Justice of the Peace and enforcer of the Protestant Service that he had helped to create, was now not only his duty but was always his personal preference.  Small wonder then that once Oxford got his bearings in London at twelve, the budding genius would seek ways to bring the joy he had felt as a child to a household and a Court where Calvinism cast its cold, unforgiving shadow over every form of ancient merry-making.

Enter Paul’s Boys

Though the Queen herself was not averse to having fun, she was definitely averse to spending money on anything she didn’t have to. From the start she found other means of entertaining her community than through the lavish expenditures of her father and sister on pageant wagons and expensively costumed masques. Court payment records reveal the increasing involvment of the Children’s Companies in the Royal Christmas, primarily through the boys whose high-pitched voices provided the soprano parts for the choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a choir she knew well from services at the Cathedral during her years as a princess.

Under the expert direction of choirmaster Sebastian Westcott, the boys, whose duties under Queen Mary had been primarily devotional, found approval by including witty dialogues, known as interludes, written for them presumably by Westcott, though we can’t be certain. Soon it appears that interludes began expanding into full length plays. Although the few titles recorded give rare clues as to their content, what hints there are suggest an author with a strong interest in history, classical literature, and a hunger for love.

While theater historians choose to read into this that such interests were common at Court at that time, we know of one who, though young, plus an unusual gift for poetry had been given a profound education in these very themes. With the holiday season of 1567-68, just before Oxford turned eighteen, the scribe whose job it was to keep a record of the Queen’s entertainments happened to include some of the titles, two of which suggest our author: Orestes (or Horestes), which is, as it happens, still extant and, as Sears and Caruana detail (1989), written in the same style as his early poems, and The King of Scots, which, though no longer extant, could very well be an early version of Macbeth, since the subject of Scotland was uppermost at the English Court at that time, Darnley’s murder still fresh in everyone’s mind.

At some point in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, plays written for Paul’s Boys to perform during the winter holidays at Court began migrating to the public, enacted by the boys within the same structure where they lived within the cathedral complex, part of which it seems had been recently converted into a stage. Though apparently open to the elements at the rear, it seems the stage and part or all of the audience were protected from the weather by the overhanging cathedral cloister. Westcott made a good living in his position within the Church, so altogether the boys were probably well treated. They were also privy to one of the finest grammar school eductions of the time, the Paul’s grammar school. It was in this way that the public first began getting access to plays that were being performed at Court during the Christmas holidays. 

The Children of the Queen’s Chapel

Starved for years-end entertainment by the Reformation, the response from the public was such that highly-placed couriers began to consider creating a venue for a Crown-based company, one located as close to Westminster and Whitehall as possible. Immediately following Oxford’s return from Italy, such a venue was created under the guise of a rehearsal hall for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, brought closer to the posh West End by creating space for them in the old Revels complex in the Liberty of Blackfriars, just within the City Wall.

The first years at Blackfriars (1577-1580) went easily enough, or at least, so far as the record reports.  But shortly before Oxford was banished from Court, troubles arose, money got so tight that Master Farrant was forced to rent part of the space, something his lease forbade without the landlord’s permission, which gave said landlord the reason he’d been looking for to get the children, or their theatrical enterprise at least, ousted from the premises. Farrant then complicated the situation further by dying just before the winter holiday season in 1580. In the confusion that followed, Oxford’s name appears again in the record, as the lease to the Blackfriars Theater passed briefly into his hands, ending finally with Lord Hunsdon, who, a decade later, will establish Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

More clues to Oxford’s involvement are to be found in the record of payments and the Court calendar where titles were recorded. In 1576-77, the first winter season following his return from Italy, titles like Error, short for Comedy of Errors, or Titus and Gissipus, a possible scribal mistake for Titus Andronicus, were both performed by Paul’s Boys. That season the Lord Admiral’s Men performed The Solitary Knight, possibly Timon of Athens, while Sussex’s Men performed The Cynocephali (The Dogfaced Men), a story that would resurface decades later as one of the tales with which Othello woos Desdemona.

Oxford’s involvement with the Court Stage is also suggested by the appearance of his name in the records as patron of a boys company for the holiday season of 1582-83, the year it was suffering from the loss of Westcott, who had died the previous April. It seems that the scribe, needing a name for the children’s company that was now without its master, reverted to the patron that he knew, probably at first hand, as most involved in producing entertainments for the Court. Since Oxford was not around that year, exiled by his seduction of Ann Vavasor, this appearance of his name suggests that had he been present he would have seen to it that the scribe used a different name.  In 1584-85 a company the scribe calls “Oxford’s Boys” performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, a title that strongly suggests an early version of Troilus and Cressida.

These are just a few of the hints that Oxford was providing plays for both the boy companies and the adult companies from late in the 1560s through the middle of the 1580s.

Who were Oxford’s Men and Oxford’s Boys?

It may be that by the 1590s Oxford’s name had become a resource that did not necessarily have anything to do with whether or not that company performed his plays. The name and the plays had become separate commodities. The plays that belonged to the Lord Chamberlain/King’s Men, plays written for the Court, could not be published under his name, leaving the name itself free to be used by one or more companies that required a patron (though no more than one at a time). Thus it’s possible that some of the older boys who lost their positions as actors when Paul’s Boys lost its place at Court in 1590, may have formed a company of their own that performed at the Boars Head Theater along with Worcester’s Men, officially joining that company in 1602.

These boys were trained actors by the time they lost their soprano voices, so it makes sense that they would have found a way to remain with the profession to which they had been trained if they possibly could. We know of a few that migrated to the adult companies, and at least one who became a playwright. So it’s conceivable that some, like today’s rock bands, set forth in groups of four to six on their own. To stay out of trouble, such a group would need a patron’s name. That Oxford, who showed his concern for such boys in Hamlet’s defense of “the little eyeases,” was willing to lend his name to one such group, makes sense:

Who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality [acting] no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players––as it is most like, if their means are no better––their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Evidence that Oxford was the primary founder of the London Stage comes from the fact that it was within weeks of his return from Italy in the Spring of 1576 that Burbage’s great Theatre went up in Shoreditch, and while that was busy entertaining the public throughout the summer, plans were in progress to provide the Court with a training ground for the boys of the Queen’s Chapel to rehearse the plays they would be providing for Her Majesty’s “solace” that holiday season by, not just the Children of the Queen’s Chapel but by a company combined of both Chapels, Greenwich and Windsor. This was the season when titles appear in the record of Court performances that suggest his authorship, titles like Error, Titus and Gissipus, The Solitary Knight, and The Cynocephali.

It was Lawrence Stone, author of The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1964), first to cast Oxford as the aristocratic whipping boy for the Marxist-Socialist English historians of the mid-20th century. While making himself foolish with his theories regarding the imaginary decline of the English aristocracy during Elizabeth and James’s reign, one of Stone’s more obvious gaffes is his explanation for the influx of wealthy English into London for the winter holidays as stemming from their desire to buy luxury items and ride around in coaches, when so obviously it was then, as it still is today, the existence of the just-created London Stage that brought them to London to see the plays that before the London theaters were built, would have been enjoyed only by the lucky few who were able to see them at Court.

The smoking canon

We hear all the time from both sides that we have no firm proof of Oxford’s hand in Shakespeare’s plays, no “smoking guns.”  The fact is that we have dozens, scores, hundreds of perfectly acceptable facts, the kind that in a less controversial inquiry would never be questioned.  Some are more obvious than others, but when they’re all connected they provide a perfectly understandable picture of Oxford’s creation, not only of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, but of the London Stage and the English periodical press that bore them.   The problem is not finding answers, we have the answers, it’s getting the media to pay attention.  Hey, this guy created you!  Aren’t you curious?

Lacking direct evidence, we turn, as does every historian working earlier than printing, with proximity, timing, identification, anomalous absence or a combination of these.  Here are a few of our “smoking guns”:

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s metaphors reflect all the special interests of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, with whom he lived and studied from age four to twelve.  The Law, Greek and Latin literature, English history, horticulture, distilling, medicine, astrology/astronomy, falconry, have all been noted by scholars as areas in which Shakespeare showed an unusual level of knowledge.

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s primary sources reflect titles in Oxford’s tutor’s library list.  Even some of the more arcane sources are to be found there.

Proximity and identification: Half of Shakespeare’s plays take place in the towns in Italy that Oxford visited in 1575, a personal experience reflected in the numerous references to things that only someone who had been to those towns at that time could possibly have known.  (Oxfordian scholars have provided all the evidence for this that anyone could ever require; hopefully some day some of it will be available in hardback).

Proximity and timing: The London commercial Stage, the venue in which Shakespeare’s genius took form, was created within months of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576. It came to life in two locations, the small private indoor theater for the wealthy in the Liberty of Blackfriars, which Oxford must have known from his documented involvement in Court entertainments in the 1560s and early ’70s; and at Burbage’s big public theater, located on land still largely controlled by his companion from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland.

Proximity and timing: The innovative round wooden theater built by Burbage in Norton Folgate in 1576 was based on a design by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (as shown by mainstream scholar Frances Yates).  During Oxford’s childhood with Smith he was privy to a Latin edition of this ancient work that he could easily have researched again on his return from Italy.  In a visit to Siena he may even have seen such a round wooden theater in action, built by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio as a dry run for his great marble indoor Teatro Olimpico, built a few years later on the same Vitruvian principles of sound amplification.  The Italians were immersed at the time in creating the most beautifully resonant wooden stringed instruments ever made.

Identification: Shakespeare’s plays reflect events in Oxford’s life, most notably seven that focus on a situation that reflects the breakup with his wife that took place on his return from Italy in 1576.  Pericles, Cymbeline, All’s Well, Much Ado, A Winter’s Tale, and Othello, all involve a villain who breaks up a marriage or engagement by suggesting to a highly suggestible man that his wife has been unfaithful.  There’s even a hint of this scenario in Measure for Measure (Angelo’s cruelty towards Mariana) and in Hamlet (his otherwise mysterious harassment of Ophelia).  In Oxford’s life this villain was his cousin, Ld Henry Howard.

Identification and anomalous absence: Several early history plays that are commonly regarded as sources for Shakespeare’s history plays, feature Oxford’s antecedents in speaking roles: The True Tragedy of Richard the Second features the 9th Earl, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth features the 11th, and The True Tragedy of Richard the Third features the 13th; all of them playing, to a greater or lesser extent, the roles they actually played in history. While rewriting these plays in the 1590s As Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III, the author kept the characters based on the ancestors of other well-born patrons of the London Stage like the Stanleys (Ld Strange’s Men, Derby’s Men), the Pembrokes (Pembroke’s Men), and Howards (Ld Admiral’s Men).  He eliminated all the speaking roles for the ancestors of only one of these patrons, the Earl of Oxford.

Proximity: After returning from Italy in 1576, Oxford left his former residences in the West End and Central London, moving north and east to Bishopsgate where he renovated a manor walking distance from all four of the commercial theaters then in operation in London, to the south, the two City theater inns, the Bull and the Cross Keyes, to the north in Norton Folgate, Burbage’s big outdoor Theatre and the smaller Curtain.

Proximity and timing: By 1580, when Oxford set up housekeeping at Fisher’s Folly in the theater district of Shoreditch, he happened to be located one door from where 14-year-old Edward Alleyn lived and worked at his parent’s Inn, the Pye (later known as the Dolphin).  Later, as the lead in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Alleyn would become the first superstar of the London Stage.

Proximity, timing, and identification: In the 1580s, during his early years at Fisher’s Folly, Oxford’s secretaries included the authors of poetry, plays and novellas Anthony Munday (author of Zelauto, dedicated to Oxford), John Lyly (author of plays for Paul’s Boys), Thomas Watson (author of Hekatompathia, A Passionate Century of Love), and George Peele (author of The Arraignment of Paris) all known by historians as members of what they term the “University Wits.”  Other members of this group can be connected to the Fisher’s Folly group though less obviously, among them Thomas Lodge (author of Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It), Robert Greene (author of Pandosto, the source for The Winter’s Tale), Thomas Kyd (whose Spanish Tragedy has a close relation to Hamlet) and Christopher Marlowe, whose plays contain a number of shared tropes with Shakespeare.

Proximity and identification: All the other candidates for Shakespeare that one hears bruited about were individuals closely connected to Oxford in some way.  Francis Bacon was his cousin and his neighbor during his teen years; the Earl of Derby was his son-in-law; Mary Sidney was his youngest daughter’s mother-in-law; Emilia Bassano was his neighbor in her childhood and was raised and educated by his sister-in-law.  With Oxford as Shakespeare, all of these, most notably including Marlowe, can be even more closely connected.

Identification: The one identification that most mainstream scholars is that Ld Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, was the model for Polonius in Hamlet. They fail to mention that he was also Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, which suggests that his daughter, Oxford’s wife, was the model for Ophelia, that Queen Elizabeth was the model for Gertrude, and the Earl of Leicester was the model for the murderous Claudius.  Would you eager that everyone know that you had written something accusing one of the most powerful men in England of murdering a rival, or the Queen of complicity?  And these are only one example of other identifications of important Court figures that can easily be made if Oxford is seen as the author.

Timing and identification: The first seventeen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are known as the “marriage sonnets” because they urge the “Fair Youth” to marry.  That the Fair Youth was the young Earl of Southampton has been agreed upon by enough scholars to accept it as fact.  These seventeen sonnets have been dated (by scholars unknown to each other) to the early 1590s at a time when the teenaged Southampton was being pressured by his guardian, Ld Burghley, to marry Oxford’s daughter.

Identification: Emilia Bassano, whose profile perfectly fits that of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, grew up near Fisher’s Folly.  In her teens she lived with and was educated by the Countess of Kent, Oxford’s sister-in-law.  In her late teens and early twenties she was the mistress of Ld Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who founded The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company that grew rich on Shakespeare’s plays.  That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could also be seen as the company of the Lord Great Chamberlain is the kind of double meaning that Shakespeare was so fond of.  There are a number of contemporary documents in which the Lord Great Chamberlain is referred to simply as “the Lord Chamberlain.

All the world of London knew Oxford as the Lord Great Chamberlain, a title he was born to, one that represented 17 generations of support for the English Crown.  They knew he’d been the Queen’s ward, that he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, that he’d had the temerity to break off with his wife, Burghley’s daughter, and that he’d gotten one of the Queen’s maids of honor with child for which he’d been banished from the Court for three years.  All of London knew this about him.  So let’s consider how the Queen, Burghley, and the many other Court figures he portrayed, many in a less than kindly light, some as out and out villains, might have felt about all of London knowing that it was the Lord Great Chamberlain himself who, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra put it, had thus “boyed” them on stage for all the world to hiss or laugh at.

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

The Fight for the Court Stage

The Court Stage fell under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  A sort of super-butler in charge of everything “above stairs,” he was important enough to be guaranteed a seat on the Privy Council.  Elizabeth’s  first Lord Chamberlain, Lord Admiral William Howard of Effingham, an inheritance from her sister’s reign, was not only kept on but was given several lucrative posts by the grateful Queen: a close relative, he had been her staunchest protector on Mary’s Privy Council.  Later, his oldest son, Charles Howard, would play an even more significant role at Elizabeth’s Court as Lord Admiral, Privy Councillor, and patron of the company that made Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn superstars.

It was the Lord Chamberlain’s job to decide what kind of entertainment to provide for each event, great and small, daily or for grand occasions, and to make sure that they went off smoothly.  If properly used it could be a powerful political tool since it was the nearest equivalent to a Royal Public Relations office.  Such may not have been to Howard’s taste, however, for from her coronation, Elizabeth had allowed her favorite, Lord John Dudley, to have charge of it.

How much Dudley was actually involved with the entertainers, most of whom were also inherited from previous reigns, remains to be seen.  He was probably much more involved with the military aspects of his duties as Master of the Horse.  We can guage what kind of entertainments he favored while he was in charge by the bash he threw at Kennilworth in 1575 (the summer that Oxford was away in Italy)––lots of old-fashioned masking with skits where actors pretending to be spirits came out of the woods to sing or recite long dull poems to the Queen filled with lavish comparisons to goddesses along with the not so subtle suggestion that she ought to marry Leicester.

Oxford’s earliest contributions to Court entertainment most likely consisted of musical numbers and interludes, brief comic turns that led one song or dance to the next for the various children’s companies to perform on holidays.  These, the Children of the Windsor Chapel, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, and Paul’s Boys, were the Queen’s favorite performers.  Each little troop consisted of eight to twelve boys whose chief job during Catholic times had been to sing the Royal Mass, but who were also taught by their masters to dance and enact “dumb shows” (pantomimes) and comic “interludes” for special occasions.  Both the London prep schools performed plays as well, sometimes for the Court.

Enter the Earl of Sussex

But Leicester’s (Dudley’s) control of the Court Stage was threatened when the Earl of Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain.  History ignores this, as it ignores most of Stage history, but we can be certain that Sussex was determined to return jurisdiction over the Court Stage to his office, that of Lord Chamberlain, where it belonged by long tradition.  Leicester and Sussex had hated each other for years, and neither was going to let the other have any more power than he could help.  As noted by McMillin and Maclean: “What happened to Leicester’s Men after 1574, when they would seem to have had the future in their hands, is one of the mysteries of theater history.  Leicester’s Men lost their dominance at Court during the middle 1570s. . . .” (15).  I hope to take a close look at some point at the probable scenario behind this mystery.

In any case, to facilitate his effort to resume the office that was his by tradition, I believe that Sussex invited Oxford, well known to him from the 1569 war with the border earls, to expand his contributions to Court entertainment to include full scale plays and probably also concerts, dances, and poetry readings.  As a result, 1573-79 was certainly Oxford’s heyday at Court.  By 1579 he would have been writing for both the boys and for the adult actors who in five years would be heading the Queen’s Men.  They were termed Leicester’s Men in the record books, but in reality at this early time they were simply the actors who provided most of the adult entertainment at Court.

Literary historians have been limited by their adherence to the names of acting companies, derived from their patrons.  To see the reality it’s necessary, whenever possible, to look past the names to the individual actors, particularly the lead actors, their patrons, and the always changing circumstances.  The continual focus on the company names by historians has caused no end of confusion.  History is made by individuals, not names.

Enter Walsingham

In 1581, shortly after the winter holiday season, the Queen banished Oxford from her “Presence” for getting her Maid of Honor pregnant and (not least) attempting to escape to Spain.  This left no one to write the witty holiday plays that she had come to expect.  The various children’s companies, some from local schools, filled in that December with old plays and material by their masters––Gurr calls it “the quiet season of 1581-82” (Companies 175)––but everyone involved in Court entertainment knew something had to be done to improve the situation before the next holiday season rolled around.  Since that was about the time that Sussex began to fail, Walsingham, the Queen’s Principal Secretary, may have already have begun to consider a solution.

Walsingham was living at that time at The Papey, a manor just inside the Bishopsgate Wall and just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly on the other side of the City Wall.  Plans to create a Crown company, the Queen’s Men, came to light early in 1583, but, like most things, they would have originated earlier, possibly from conversations between  Oxford and Walsingham at The Papey, at Fisher’s Folly, or even at The Pye, the inn that lay between the two houses.

This was the period when Walsingham was beginning to get special funding for the anti-papist campaign he and Burghley were urging on the Queen and Parliament.  New funds would have enabled him to privide Oxford with money to hire secretaries and apprentices.  This would explain why these writers, later known to literary history as “the University Wits,” dedicated their works to Francis Walsingham, calling him their Maecenas, a traditional term for a patron.  From the Wits at the Folly Walsingham hoped would come plays both for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen, and for the Queen’s Men to take on the road as a public relations maneuver, winning hearts and minds in advance of the attack from Catholic Spain that he knew was coming (McMillin).

With fears of the newborn commercial theaters rising among Church and City officials, with the excitement surging through the acting community from the power this was giving them, Walsingham may have feared that he was about to ride the whirlwind.  A nervous man, in constant pain from an ulcer or other painful condition, his need to keep everything as hidden as possible has also hidden the courage with which, much like Churchill three centuries later, he faced one of England’s most crucial showdowns with Continental power.

Why was it so hard to protect the newborn commercial stage?  Why such need for secrecy?  Read on.

QUESTION: Royal changeling, yes or no?

QUESTION:  Joe Eldredge of Martha’s Vineyard asks: “In developing your flow of facts and events of Oxford’s last years, how have you dealt with the tempting possibility of Southampton (3rd) as a royal “changeling”?  Is it: 1) of interest?;  2) a challenge to be dealt with?  3) Significant and/or necessary to explain much of the identity aspects of authorship?  4) at the very least a delightful threat to the names of two of our eastern states?   Time: Thursday June 25, 2009 at 12:01 am

Thanks for asking, Joe.  To #1, yes, if only because I began researching the authorship question in Boston in the 1990s where the Prince Tudor theory reigned supreme: #2, yes, it was “a challenge to be met,” along with many other theories, blanks and anomalies; #3, no, I never found it significant or necessary to explain the identity aspects of authorship, most of which, in my view, originated from Oxford’s need for privacy and later by the business policies of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. I’m not sure what you mean by #4.

The “royal changeling” (or “Prince Tudor,” or “Royal Bastard”) scenario, that has Elizabeth giving birth to the illegitimate child of Oxford (or Seymour, or Leicester), was not particularly “tempting” to me at the start because my personal experience as a woman functioning in a man’s arena made it seem unlikely, from the little that I knew about Elizabeth, that a woman in her position would have dared to develop a sexual relationship with any of her courtiers.

Working in Manhattan in my younger years with a team of other young designers, photographers, studio managers and salesmen, all men, some attractive, to have gotten sexually involved with one of them would have meant a permanent loss of place as a member of a creative and competitive team.   Had I become “his” to one of them, the rest would no longer regard me as a colleague.   The team spirit would be disrupted, and this would be blamed on me, not on him, so while he ( as one of “the guys”) would remain part of the team, I would lose my independent standing.  Even a little flirting with an outside salesman caused ripples.  Women I’ve talked to about this with a similar work experience, have verified this view.  If you let it happen, suddenly it’s all about your sex, not your ability.  So the question I sought to answer was, could Elizabeth’s situation have been different in some way from my own?

Years of research have left me where I began.  Everything in her history, and the history of the period, reveals the Queen quite clearly as, in private, a rather sad figure whose normal female “urge to merge” had been disrupted in such brutally traumatic ways that there can be no possibility, tightly wound and neurasthenic as she was, that she could ever have overcome her fears, even had her position or her community allowed her to, which they did not.  It’s amazing to me that, in the face of so much evidence, theories that set her up as some sort of Messalina continue to thrive.

To cut to the chase

By the time Oxford showed up, Elizabeth was the survivor of at least three traumas that left her incapable of a normal sexual response: her mother’s execution, her “first love” experience with Thomas Seymour that ended in his execution, and her attraction to Robert Dudley that ended with their highly publicized implication in the murder of his wife.  These experiences, compounded, rendered her incapable of enjoying any aspect of sex but the preliminaries, which  explains her continual indulgence in florid but unconsumated public flirtations and her obsession with preventing sex from taking place, not only for herself but for any courtier whose life she had any control over––and when they went ahead and did it anyway, reacting with hysterical cruelty.

The fact is that Queen Elizabeth simply could not have had a child, not because of a “membrana” as Ben Jonson put it, but because she could not and would not have allowed a man to “have her.”  Hitchcock’s Marnie is a good example of a woman whose behavior can be traced to a similar trauma.  Only for Elizabeth there could have be no Sean Connery to heal her with patient understanding.  Elizabeth’s position wouldn’t allow it, nor would the Reformation of which she was the leading female example.

Although Elizabeth didn’t murder her mother’s lover (as did Marnie), she would have felt guilt for her mother’s fate in that had she been born a boy her mother would not have been condemned as a whore and executed, and for Seymour’s, in that, however innocently, she was to some degree the bait that tempted him to perdition.  Where irrational self-blame is in control, innocense is no defense.

Thus any scenario that relies on Queen Elizabeth giving birth to one or more notable artists, scientists, or political figures are simply outside the realm of possibility, however “tempting.”  That other factors compounded her problem, such as the devastating political ramifications of becoming pregnant, or even of marrying, her lack of any family support, the utter lack of privacy at Court, the fact that every other queen she knew of (but Marie de Medici) was done in by her sexuality, her probable fear that she inherited syphilis from her father, all add to a psychology too racked with guilt and fear to ever allow herself to be backed into a situation where she might have to yield herself sexually.

Elizabeth was a survivor, a person who found ways to make lemonade out of the lemons she was handed by life, so, with the help of her portrait artists and poets she turned her incapacity into a selling point.  Privately, however, it made her crazy with frustration.  This is obvious from her more fact-oriented biographies.  Based on the kind of documentary evidence that’s available only to a biographer, in every incident, in every character trait, Queen Elizabeth demonstrates the kind of hysterical emotional rigidity that, back in the 1950s, Kinsey diagnosed as frigidity caused by a stringent moral code that sees sex as sinful and dirty.

Although this kind of moralistic attitude towards sex has not been completely dispelled from our culture today, it has been diminished (largely due to the efforts of Freud’s protégé, Wilhelm Reich, who paid dearly for his pioneering stand).  Most intelligent people today see a certain amount of sex as healthy, but this was hardly the case in Elizabeth’s time, or indeed for centuries until the 1960s when the pill freed unmarried women from the threat of pregnancy.  During the Middle Ages, when a large percentage of the population, both male and female, more or less voluntarily signed on for a lifetime of abstinence as nuns, monks, priests, or friars, nobody regarded such a life as unhealthy.  In later centuries, unmarried men and women were expected to remain celibate, and many  did, particularly women.

In a way it’s unfair to one of England’s greatest leaders to refuse to see her as she truly was, a woman in a man’s world, wrestling heroically, if not always kindly or logically, with one excruciating dilemma after another.  That one of those dilemmas was the unrelenting pressure from her councillors, her parliament, and her people to marry and give birth to an heir to the throne hardly fits with the notion that she would risk everything by having unprotected sex with one of her ambitious courtiers.  That she stayed the course for 40 years, maintaining the kind of stability that gave England time to build the strength among the nations of the West, was, if you look objectively at the background to her reign, largely due to her success in remaining single.

As for Oxford

Theories based on Oxford’s having sex with Elizabeth are unfair to him as well. If Oxford was Shakespeare he was one of the most romantic souls who ever lived.  As a teenager, raised in isolation from children his own age, the impulse that gave rise to stories like Romeus and Juliet was a romantic yearning for intimacy with a beautiful girl his own age.  True love was what he wanted, from one for whom he was the one and only, not from a tough-minded dominatrix, 17 years his senior.

As contemporary evidence makes clear, Elizabeth was attracted to Oxford in his youth.  She was intelligent and liked to laugh.  He was a witty fellow, and witty fellows like to make others laugh.  They both liked to dance.  But that they ever did any more than dance and exchange witty ripostes is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Oxford had a rather distant relationship with his own mother, due to the policies of the time which placed young peers out of the parental home shortly after birth, and it’s unlikely, given the background of his life with Sir Thomas Smith, that Smith’s wife saw him as anything but a rival for her husband’s attention.  In other words, he was lacking a mother figure in his life.

Elizabeth was just old enough to be his mother (they were 17 years apart in age).  She exerted the kind of control over his every move that only a wealthy and powerful mother could have exerted over someone of his rank and status.  In every respect, Elizabeth filled the role of mother towards him.  But only in an external sense because Elizabeth was not motherly towards Oxford at all.

In fact, she was cruel to him, not allowing him the use of his own estates, using the power given her by the Court of Wards to allow her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, to use them to his advantage during the 9 years that Oxford was an underage ward of the Court.  Oxford would have known that Leicester was unkind towards his mother during this time, while she was  continuing to live in one of the Oxford estates after the death of his father.  Oxford would have hated both Leicester and Elizabeth for that, and for any number of other things.

If it’s unthinkable that Elizabeth would have had sex with any of her courtiers, it is even less thinkable that the romantic young Oxford would have had the slightest desire to have sex with her.   To have a sexual relationship with someone who has such power over every aspect of one’s life suggests passivity, even masochism.  Nothing in Oxford’s history suggests such traits.  Everything indicates the opposite.

We know that in his teens and early twenties he was writing romantic poetry to girls and women at Elizabeth’s Court.  I think it very likely that some of it was written to please the Queen herself, because he knew, as did everyone at Court, how she yearned to believe that she was surrounded by adoring suitors.  But that it ever went any  further than some contrived Petrarchan verses is to make bread out of air.

Those who wish to draw parallels between Venus and Adonis and the relationship between Oxford and the Queen should take a closer look at the plot.  Venus lusts after Adonis, but he turns away, not because he’s repelled by her, but because as he explains, he’s not ready yet. Like so much of what Oxford wrote, the poem carried a message to his friends and patrons, who may have wondered about their early relationship, just as some do today: “the Queen was hot, but I was not.”  And as he was so adept at doing, there was a message in it for Elizabeth too: “You were hot, but I was too young,” a message that, from a man in his early 40s to a woman who was turning 60, would have been a much appreciated compliment.

Point being: nothing happened! Which is really what Elizabeth wanted all along, of course.  All she ever wanted, all she was capable of wanting, at least by the time Oxford got to Court, was to be desired, not just by him, but by everyone.  Desired by everyone, touched by no one, like the Moon.

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For a profile of Elizabeth, read Queen Elizabeth.
For details on the causes of Elizabeth’s fears, read This Queen hates marriage.
For more on Elizabeth’s sexuality, read The Marriage Card.
For more on Elizabeth’s pose as the Great Goddess, read The Politics of Frustration.
Please read these before commenting.