Throughout the process of researching this period in English history, again and again I will run into what seems to be an interrupted narrative, the interruption occurring just when and where there ought to be relevant material. Anyone wishing to write about Oxford who attempts to review the record will have the same experience: just as the trail begins to get hot the source will vanish, sometimes to pick up again once the period in question is over, sometimes never. Sooner or later one can’t help but feel that this is no accident. Accidents are random; when disappearances like these begin to exhibit patterns it becomes less likely that they happened by accident.
In an early chapter of Charlton Ogburn’s biography of Oxford he quotes Charlotte Stopes: “The volumes of the Lord Chamberlain’s Warrants, which “supply much information concerning plays and players, [are] unfortunately missing for the most important years of Shakespeare history.” He then quotes Charles Wisner Barrell that the official books of Edmund Tilney and George Buc, “Masters of the Revels under Elizabeth and James respectively, together with all office records of the Lord Chamberlain who supervised the Masters of the Revels . . . have hopelessly vanished” (121-22). C.W. Wallace, complaining of the lack of information in the Audit Office relating to payments made for plays, notes, “Perhaps if we had the Books of Queen’s Payments we should find the records as in previous reigns. But no such account books of Elizabeth prior to 1581 seem to be extant” (107-8). Were there no accounts kept before 1581, or did someone get rid of them? 1581 was the year Oxford was banished from Court and his work with the boys companies was taken over by Lyly and Evans.
Among the paper trails that mysteriously vanish is one followed by David H. Horne while writing his Life and Minor Works of George Peele (1912/1952). Purported author of several plays from the early days of the First Blackfriars Theater, we still have no solid evidence that connects Peele to Oxford (such as we have for Anthony Munday and John Lyly). On page 42, where Horne discusses the “continuous tradition of amateur acting at Christ Church” College at Oxford, a tradition that begins with the production of Palamon and Arcite during the 1566 commencement where Oxford and Rutland got their Masters degrees. Details about this “tradition” are lacking since “unfortunately the Disbursement Books, from which comes most of our knowledge of the plays, are missing for the greater part of the period of Peele’s residence,” to which he adds in a footnote, “These are the first of many records which have hiatuses at the exact places where they might be expected to yield information about Peele.”
Missing Privy Council minutes
In the first paragraph of Appendix D, titled “Documents of Control” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol IV, page 259), E.K. Chambers comments that “It must be borne in mind that orders relating to plays are probably missing (from the Privy Council register) owing to lacunae,” Latin for “missing portions of a book or manuscript.” The lacunae in question consist of eight periods, listed in Chambers by their dates and without further comment, where the minutes of the Privy Council, kept by its clerks, have disappeared. Since several of these missing sections, in particular from #3 on, refer to periods when it’s so likely that the Court Stage, and/or the Stage in general, would have been discussed by the Privy Council, that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that what was removed from the record involved the Stage.
1: May 1559––May 1562: This two-year period took place at the beginning of the reign when there was very little effort expended on holiday entertainment. Coming at the beginning of the Queen’s reign, its loss is most likely due to some early problems with record keeping. Three months later comes a second hiatus . . . .
2: Sept. 1562––Nov. 1564: This was the two-year period when plays began replacing masques at Court. It begins with Oxford’s arrival at Cecil House, continues through the period when Richard Edwards took over the Children of the Chapel and Paul’s Boys became popular; through the winter holiday of 1563-’64 at Windsor where the Court was entertained by the Children of the Windsor Chapel under Richard Farrant, later Master at the Blackfriars School. It covers the Cambridge Commencement exercises when Damon and Pythias was performed for the university and the Court, and Oxford and Rutland were given Masters degrees.
3: Dec. 1565––Oct. 1566: This 10-month hiatus in the minutes covers the period when Paul’s Boys, performing three plays over the Christmas holidays, first rose to the level they would maintain for the next 30 years. On New Year’s Day, Sapientia Solomonis (“The Wisdom of Solomon”) was performed for the Privy Council by students at the Westminster School (during which a velvet sword scabbard belonging to the Earl of Rutland was broken). On February 19, when Oxford was 15, Lord Montague produced a masque at his City mansion in Southwark for the wedding of his 13-year-old daughter Mary Browne to the young Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s Juliet was 13; his Romeo was 15). That June, Oxford and Rutland got Masters degrees at Oxford University where Palamon and Arcite was performed for commencement.
4: May 1567––May 1570: During this three-year hiatus in the Privy Council minutes, a Court scribe recorded the titles of eight plays performed over the Christmas holiday of 1567-’68 that touch the history of Shakespeare’s works including the King of Scots, Wit and Will, and Orestes. In addition to the plays performed by three Children’s companies, adult companies joined the roster. For the Christmases of 1568-’69 and 1569-’70: Rich’s Men, Paul’s Boys and the Chapel boys performed one play each.
6: July 1572––Feb. 1573: It was during this six-month hiatus in the minutes that Sussex took control of the Court Stage away from Leicester, opening the door for more plays by Oxford. That Christmas saw Oxford’s man Lawrence Dutton act as payee for Lane’s Men, the first of a series of holidays in which Dutton was payee for two more companies.
7: June 1582––Feb. 1586: This three-and-a-half-year hiatus includes some of the more significant events in Stage history: the latter half of Oxford’s period of banishment during which we believe he produced the first versions of serious plays like Hamlet, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet for his Inns of Court audience, possibly on the Blackfriars School stage. The spring of 1583 saw his return to Court, the death of Sussex, the creation of the Queen’s Men by Walsingham, and the productions of Campaspe and Sapho and Phao, later attributed to his secretary John Lyly, performed by Oxford’s Boys. Over the Christmas of 1584-’85 Oxford’s Boys performed Agamemnon and Ulysses, possibly an early version of Troilus and Cressida.
8: Aug. 1593––Oct. 1595: There is no way that the creation of the theater duopoly by two of its members during this period escaped comment in the Privy Council minutes. This is the period that saw Cecil’s takeover of Walsingham’s duties; the Marlowe sting: the Dutch Church libel, the torture of Thomas Kyd, the hanging of John Penry (May 29 1593), and the assassination (or transportation) of Marlowe (May 30 1593). It saw the registration in May through June 1594 of the first batch of plays later attributed to Shakespeare; the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men by Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral’s Men by Charles Howard; the wedding of Elizabeth Vere to the Earl of Derby in January 1595; and the Masque at Gray’s Inn produced by Francis Bacon for Christmas 1594-’95 which included a production of Comedy of Errors.
After July 1596, when Cecil became Principal Secretary and thus had control over what got written into the Privy Council minutes, there are no more large sections missing, except for the eight months from April 1599––Jan. 1600, during which the Burbages were given permission to rent their shuttered Blackfriars Theater to a new commercial Children’s company. It may be that there was no way that Cecil could prevent the discussion that produced this change of policy from being entered into the minutes.
Jan. 1602––May 1613: According to the National Archives, where these Registers are now located, this substantial loss, essentially covering the entire period that Cecil was Secretary under James until after his death in 1612, was due to a fire in 1619.
Missing collections of private papers
Among the documents that would surely shine a brighter light on the Elizabethan era are the private papers of some of the leading characters in our story, three in particular: the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Earl of Essex, all functioning as adversaries of the Cecils. Leicester’s papers, long thought lost, it now seems were widely dispersed after his death and have recently been catalogued. Following Essex’s execution, his papers were appropriated by Secretary of State Robert Cecil, remaining ever since within the Hatfield House collection. It’s surprising that, in that time of avid playgoing by Essex’s associates, there should be such a total lack of evidence of his interest in, or patronage of, the London Stage.
As for Walsingham, all that remains of his papers are the letters that relate to his official duties as Ambassador to France and Secretary of State. According to the author of his ODNB bio, their fate after his death was “complicated.” According to his brother-in-law Robert Beale, writing about 1592, “all his papers and books both public and private were seized on and carried away” (Read, Walsingham, 1.431). Other evidence shows them kept as a collection, though whether they remained as such, or were taken into the Cecil papers later in the 1590s, is less clear. Only a few of the books survive, but the correspondence now forms a large part of the Elizabethan state papers. In the process all private material was weeded out and has disappeared with the exception of two semi-official diaries or ledgerbooks, one covering the years 1570 to 1583 (Martin, ‘Journal of Sir Francis Walsingham’), and the other 1583 to 1584 (BL, Harley MS 6035). Thus Walsingham’s official career can be reconstructed in some detail, but his private life, including his patronage of the University Wits, remains largely a blank.
The Salisbury Manuscripts
In Peter Moore’s The Lame Storyteller (2009), Moore includes items he culled from 19 of the 20 volumes of Cecil family papers known as the Salisbury Manuscripts to which he had access at the University of Maryland library. Among the many mentions of Oxford over the years, Moore notes “the total disappearance of Oxford between 2 June 1590 and 9 March 1595 . . . until we reach the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to William Stanley . . . in January 1596” (251). This of course was the period when Oxford, having been forced by Burghley to sell Fisher’s Folly, wrote the bulk of his sonnets to Southampton, when Cecil began waging war on the London Stage, when Marlowe was assassinated, Robert Greene “vouchsafed” to die, and Lord Hunsdon initiated the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
However we may locate and publish a competitive monolith of anomalies, absurdities and lacunae to compete with the vast Shakespeare records as they have accrued over the centuries, it should be clear by now that we’re never going to find that piece of conclusive evidence that could put a permanent end to the Stratford hoax for the simple reason that some person, or persons, from Shakespeare’s own time, devoted a great deal of effort to removing any and all “smoking guns.” Given the power he acquired during his years as Secretary of State, that this was Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, motivated by his hatred of the Stage for its power over the minds and hearts of the public, its rough treatment of himself and his hatred of its creator for its treatment of his father and his sister, while difficult to prove, can hardly be dismissed for lack of the very evidence that Cecil was so perfectly positioned and so highly motivated to remove.