While most of Shakespeare’s devious villains fit what we know of Oxford’s cousin, Henry Howard, with whom he had been close (too close) when he was in his twenties, the ambitious and ruthless Richard III is based on his brother-in-law Robert Cecil. Cecil’s openly Machiavellian tactics during James’s reign, most notably his betrayal of a former friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, and his own brother-in-law, Henry Brooke Ld Cobham, both of whom he destroyed in what are known as the Main and Bye plots, matches not only the nature but the physical description of Shakespeare’s evil king. No Oxfordian whim, this is the the opinion of a number of orthodox literary historians, including David Bevington and Andrew Gurr (Aune 26).
That our view today of the historical Richard is shaped almost entirely by Shakespeare’s portrait is obvious when you google Richard III and get a dozen articles about the fictional character to one about the real man, who, according to modern historians, had none of the deformities given him by 16th-century Lancastrian historians. Most notably among these was Sir Thomas More, whose damning portrayal assured the Tudors that their supplanting of the last of the Plantagenet kings was rather the elimination of a pathological criminal.
Oxford and Richard
That Shakespeare chose to follow More’s view is explained by Oxford’s family history, Richard having punished his forbears for their adherence to Henry VI by executing the 12th Earl and his oldest son, taking their lands, and leaving their mother impoverished. Since there’s little reference to the king’s supposed deformities in the first version of the play, The True Tragedy of Richard III, too early to refer to Robert Cecil, still only a child , it’s clear that it wasn’t until the ’90s rewrite that the emphasis on Richard’s deformities was added.
The case for True Tragedy as an early version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, written by Oxford in his early teens, has been made by historian Ramon Jiménez, who shows in voluminous detail how closely Shakespeare’s play follows it, how closely it connects with Oxford in its use of particular words and phrases, and how neatly it fits into the period in the mid-to-late 1560s when Oxford lived at Cecil House.
That Shakespeare’s version, with its focus on Richard’s deformities, was Oxford’s way of striking back at Cecil and his father for the former’s attack on the writing community in 1593 and the latter’s withdrawal of his financial support, fits the events of the early ’90s too well to dismiss for lack of hard evidence, evidence that, whatever it may have been originally, would obviously not have made it past the Cecils.
In the play as we know it, there’s no escaping the parallels between Shakespeare’s descriptions of Richard and contemporary comments on Cecil, whose physical deformity and rapid rise at Court invited comparison with More’s description of Richard. As M.G. Aune puts it (2006):
Richard’s crooked back indicates a moral crookedness, his withered arm the perversion of his actions. The toad metaphors suggest . . . a lower, toxic form of life. The moral deformity that the crooked back symbolized in Cecil and Richard was ruthless ambition. That ambition drove Richard to murder and betrayal and it brought wealth and power, as well as opprobrium and animosity, to Robert Cecil . . . . (26-7)
Hotine and Croft (1991) show how closely dates of publication and performance connect the play with events involving Cecil and the many verse libels directed against him, both during during his years of power and most ferociously following his death. As Aune reports:
Hotine sees Cecil’s ambitions and his regular promotions as connected to, if not a cause of, the printings of the first five of the eight Richard III quartos: 1597, 1598, 1602, 1605, and 1612. The conjectural performance history of the play strengthens these correlations: 1593, 1594, 1596, 1599, 1606, 1607, 1608 and 1612 (Foste qtd. in Davison 16). In 1591, at the age of twenty-eight, Cecil was knighted and made a member of the Privy Council. The anonymous, pro-Tudor play True Tragedie of Richard III and Shakespeare’s Richard III may both have been performed that same year (Wood 29; Hammond 61). In 1596, while Essex was away with the Cadiz expedition, Elizabeth promoted Cecil over him to Secretary of State. The first quarto appeared the next year, followed by the second quarto in 1598. (27)
In the tight little communities that were the Court and the City, there is not the slightest possibility that Cecil could have been unaware of these repeated publications and, one must suppose, the productions that stimulated sales of their versions in print. Gurr notes that in May 1601, while Worcester’s Men, just combined with Oxford’s Men, were playing at The Curtain in Shoreditch, Privy Council minutes addressed to the justices of Middlesex responded to a complaint
that certain players that use to recite their plays at the Curtain in Moorfields do represent upon their stage in their interludes the persons of some gentlemen of good desert and quality that are yet alive under obscure manners but yet in such sort as all the hearers may take notice both of the matter and the persons that are meant thereby. (Gurr Companies 320)
Not that this necessarily refers to Richard III and Robert Cecil, though the date is certainly suggestive.
Why then did Cecil not act to stop the play and the publication of further editions? During the Essex trial the Crown questioned one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men about their reasons for performing Richard II for Essex’s followers the day before the rebellion, while the Queen in private also pressed William Lambarde on the subject. What prevented Cecil, Secretary of State and chief witness for the prosecution at the Essex trial, from doing the same for himself? And if Oxford was the author, why did he continue to produce these plays and publications during the period when, as we see from his letters, he was pressing Cecil to promote him for Court appointments and monopolies?
First, it was never Cecil’s way to act openly, but always to gather information and make plans until the moment was right to take action, which, if possible, would seem to come from somewhere other than himself (his father called it “acting at a distance”). Second, to act at all openly would only make public what was probably contained within the Court community, where those in the know also knew how to keep silent.
As for “Shakespeare,” trapped in his anonymity and without Hunsdon to act as a buffer, Oxford may simply have lost the power to prevent the Company from doing what they felt they must with his plays. Perhaps he thought it easiest just to ignore the ridiculous idea that he might be involved in the Richard III plays. Yet surely there were other powerful Court figures besides Oxford who did promote these productions, for, with Ld Strange’s and Marlowe’s fate in mind, the actors on their own would certainly never have dared to take such liberties with someone so powerful as Robert Cecil was becoming.
Then who was responsible?
Because the historians of the period have (so far) paid insufficient attention to the activities and motivations of the Privy Council patrons of the early acting companies, we are forced to do some guessing. When it came to Court politics, and to understanding what plays the Lord Chamberlain’s Men should or should not perform for the Court and/or the public, the actors would have had to take their cues from their patron, or patrons, on the Privy Council. Mere tradesmen, James Burbage and his sons and their business manager, John Hemmings, were hardly in a position to deal with the kind of behind the scenes politics that only a Queen’s councilor would be privy to.
Ld Hunsdon, long time Privy Councilor and theater patron, had secured their position as Crown company in 1594, but that only put them in an even more sensitive position following his death, for without his guidance, they could easily find themselves in the kind of trouble that forced Paul’s Boys to disband in 1590, or, more recently, had broken up the Lord Strange’s Men and gotten both their playwright and their patron assassinated. Of this they were of course very aware, for the entire inner circle of the Company, all but the Burbages, had been members of that same unfortunate company when Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on their heads. Hunsdon’s death, only two years after the inauguration of the Company, must have been a bitter blow, for without him to run interference for them, the residents of Blackfriars were making it impossible to use the Parliament Chamber that the Burbages had spent hundreds of pounds renovating as their winter venue.
Who then was the patron that took Hunsdon’s place as primary patron of the Company, as he had taken Walsingham’s place three years earlier? And where was the seemingly popular Richard III being shown? Surely not to the public at Burbage’s theater in Norton Folgate, but if not there, then where? At the Curtain perhaps? Wherever it was being performed, isn’t it likely that Shakespeare’s attack on the Cecils must have been one if not THE reason why the Privy Council continued to refuse to allow Burbage to open his theater at Blackfriars, and thus make it possible to show such politically charged plays to the influential West End audience?
Keeping in mind that although protocol required that the patron of a Crown company be, like Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household, sometimes the real patron was a different official, as was the case in the 1560s and early ’70s when it wasn’t William Howard, Elizabeth’s first Lord Chamberlain, but her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, Master of the Horse, whose name was attached to the company that entertained the Court. Nor was it Sir Christopher Hatton, her Lord Chamberlain in the 1580s, who organized the Queen’s Men and continued to act as their patron for a decade, but the Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham.
Following Hunsdon’s death in July 1596, the Queen had appointed William Brooke, Ld Cobham, as Lord Chamberlain. The politics of this seems clear. Like Hunsdon, Brooke lived next to the theater Burbage was planning at Blackfriars. Also, and perhaps more importantly, he was also a longtime friend and ally of William Cecil, while his daughter Elizabeth was Robert Cecil’s wife. It looks very like the Queen was doing what she often did, rotating an office among interest groups so that no one faction would begin to feel secure enough to challenge her authority. Too old, perhaps, to get embroiled in factional disputes, it seems Brooke refused to act as the LCMen’s patron. He died the following March.
Elizabeth then gave the office to Ld Hunsdon’s son and heir, George Carey, who was at least the nominal patron of the Company for the rest of Elizabeth’s reign, the appointment automatically making him a member of the Privy Council. Like his father, George Carey was also a long time resident of Blackfriars, having owned for many years the apartment just beneath the Parliament Chamber that his father and Burbage had been planning to turn into a private theater. That Carey signed the petition that prevented Burbage from using the Chamber for the company of which he was now the patron has been an ongoing problem for theater historians. One can understand why he might not want a theater going full blast over his head when he was in London (his permanent home was on the Isle of Wight). On the other hand, there are politics to be considered.
The Careys were an influential family, both at Court and in the nether world of Court entertainment. George and his wife, Elizabeth Spencer, were patrons of Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe (i.e., Francis Bacon). Lord Strange, murdered patron of Christopher Marlowe’s company, had been married to Alice Spencer, his wife’s sister. His father, Ld Hunsdon, the Queen’s cousin, had been one of her most trusted officials at Court. In 1603, George’s younger brother, Robert Carey, was entrusted by someone at Court (George perhaps?) to bring the news of the Queen’s death to King James of Scotland, thus bypassing official sanction, i.e., Cecil. Later Robert and his wife would be entrusted by James with raising and educating Prince Charles, later Charles I.
So who was really in control of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men during the early Shakespeare period? It’s hard to tell because alliances were continually shifting. George Carey was officially their patron during the period when they were publishing and, one would assume, also performing Richard III, an obvious thrust at the Cecil faction. Yet George’s conduct on the Privy Council has left historians believing that he was more allied to the Cecils. Was this a pose to cover his true alignment with the Essex faction, for the earl and the Careys were cousins; as the Essex tragedy gathered momentum, George would serve as the doomed earl’s treasurer during the Irish debacle. Or was George Carey in his role as Lord Chamberlain, torn, as were so many, trusting neither side but simply reacting from day to day as events unfolded?
There was a war going on at Court in the 1590s, a civil war that was tearing the Court community into two factions, one following the Cecils, the other following the Earl of Essex, and even though many did not care to have to join either side, most were forced into it by the ongoing struggle for privilege and influence. That George Carey was one such should not be surprising.
What is surprising is that neither he nor Shakespeare, nor any of the actors, got into trouble for plays that poked fun or worse at the Cecils and the Cobhams. This suggests that the only individual powerful enough to protect the Company was Carey’s cousin, the Earl of Essex; that it was, in fact, Essex who was the real patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as he was so much else at that time, but who, though powerful enough to protect them from Cecil’s wrath, was not quite powerful enough to make it possible for them to use the Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars.
Among the plays produced at this time that would have upset the Cecils was the updated version of Hamlet––first published in 1600, so undoubtedly performed in the late 90s––in which Burghley is satirized as Polonius, his daughter Anne (Oxford’s wife) as the tragic Ophelia, and Robert as her brother Laertes, who plots against Hamlet and who becomes the instrument for his assassination. (We have no way of knowing what might have been different about the plot of the original so-called Ur-Hamlet of the early ’80s, but we can certainly guess ).
Nor could they have been pleased by the Henry IV plays in which Shakespeare’s brilliant clown Sir John Falstaff first appears. Originally named Sir John Oldcastle, the character was, among other things, a swipe at the Brooke/Cobham family, long time friends and supporters of the Cecils; Anne Brooke was Robert Cecil’s wife. Cecil had so few real friends that the loss of his wife in 1597 would have left him raw and bleeding, so it’s unlikely the play was performed for the Court any later than 1597, the year both she and her father died, leaving Cecil with only her brother Henry to rely on. That apparently Henry Brooke failed in this seems likely considering how Cecil, no sooner confirmed in power in 1603, immediately ran his brother-in-law aground and got him executed.
With Oxford and Cecil there’s no hard evidence of the kind of bad feeling that’s so obvious with Oxford and Howard. Cecil was never one to reveal his feelings openly, and the letters letters written to him by Oxford during this period generally maintain a friendly but businesslike tone. Nevertheless, given what we know about each of them and about their long family connection, it’s not hard to read between the lines. Oxford’s continual assurance of his good will and reminders of their family bonds sound more conciliatory than genuine.
Despite the fact that these letters come from the Cecil repository––meaning that Robert had every opportunity to burn anything that might show him, or his father, in a bad light––we might still question whether any harsh words ever passed between them, either on paper or in person. The likelihood is that this was a communication of events, with Oxford producing plays like Hamlet and Richard III, and Robert creating “black ops” like the assassinations of Marlowe and Ld Strange, all while continuing to exchange smooth pleasantries. This was hardball politics at its hardest.
That Oxford was the more sincere seems evident in his letter of April 27, 1603, in which he mourns the passing of Queen Elizabeth. Reaching out to communicate his feelings about the woman who had played such a large role in both their lives, whomever else he may have written to about it, Robert’s is the only letter that survives. Truly heartfelt, it suggests that he may once have felt quite differently about the little boy who struggled to walk on fragile legs so many years ago at Cecil House.
It couldn’t have been long before Oxford realized just what he was dealing with. Not only had this dangerous adversary revealed himself by striking out at his former friends Raleigh and Cobham as soon as Elizabeth died, he was now working hand in glove with Oxford’s worst enemy, Henry Howard, the two having been given virtual control of the government by King James, who preferred hunting to governing. Considering the success of the sting that brought Marlowe down (it has had the historians bamboozled to this very day), we can see both men as cagey survivors and excellent plotters.
Charles Nicholl likes to portray Cecil’s stings as theater––though without admitting, or allowing himself to see, who created them. As Hammer shows, Nicholl’s suggestion that it was Essex who had Marlowe killed shows a lack of understanding of the relationships at Court. Essex was tied to Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, by his relationship to the Lord Chamberlain, his cousin George Carey. Essex was a man of taste and some literary talent. His attitude towards Marlowe’s work and his fate would have been similar to the chagrin he felt about the publication of Hayward’s Henry IV (Hammer xx).
The last thing in the world that Essex would have wanted in the 1590s would have a play in which a provincial shepherd (shepherd was slang among the literati for poet) with a genius for military action had once overthrown a mighty Middle Eastern emperor with his brilliant military tactics and, not only was not brought to trial, but lived to enjoy the rewards of his actions, dying peacefully of old age in a popular sequel. On the other hand, despite concerns over how the envious might read it, Essex could not have helped feeling inspired, perhaps less by the play itself than by the response from the London audience. Much as Lord Byron was said to have filled the role of the suffering romantic as conjured up earlier by Goethe, Essex was the dream of those who had been inspired by Marlowe.
It was this that forced Cecil to get rid of Marlowe. Oxford had warned him, but Marlowe was not about to stop. Riding the crest of a wave of emotional excitement that had grabbed him when, as a scholarship undergraduate, the son of a poor shoemaker, he found himself the focus of attention at Fisher’s Folly, while England’s premiere earl taught him how to write for the Stage. The portrait that Marlowe had painted of himself at this time and that he gave to his former college Corpus Christi, bears the legend in Latin, all too apt: “that which nurtures me destroys me.”
The excitement that Tamburlaine caused among the apprentices who lived and worked in London was what destroyed Marlowe. Cecil’s sting was meant to stop something, Marlowe’s tongue, but once the Lord Chamberlain’s Men went public with Richard III, it was impossible to stop, even to this day, though the underlying message has been lost.
Oxford’s letters to Cecil are business letters, of the kind that all courtiers were continually writing to everyone they could in efforts to maintain or improve their positions at Court. At least twice, however, he feels it necessary to defend himself against what he calls “fables,” his word for certain rumors that he has done or said something damaging about Cecil, exactly what he doesn’t say. They could be anything––including the authorship of Hamlet and Richard III. The Cecils knew of course that Oxford was involved in producing plays and other forms of entertainment for the Court and London theaters, but its unlikely that they knew exactly which plays were his and which were not. They might have been suspicious, but suspicion isn’t certainty. And as long as nothing was admitted openly, the actors could always plead ignorance.
As Aune notes, the first quarto of Richard III appeared in 1597, one of the first plays to appear in print under the name Shakespeare. Since the second appeared almost immediately in 1598, the first edition may have sold out. A third came out in 1602 following Devereux’s execution, when his supporters were most furious with Cecil (and also while Oxford was striving, and failing, to acquire the Danvers estate). A fourth was published in 1605, about the time Cecil got promoted to Earl of Salisbury.
Seven years passed, during which Cecil was at the peak of his power. Then, as Aune notes, referrencing letters from John Chamberlain and John Donne:
Cecil’s death in 1612 coincided with a revival of Richard III and the printing of the fifth quarto—the first in seven years. If there had been any doubt that Cecil was associated with Richard in the public eye, the flurry of libels that appeared after his death put it to rest. . . . .
Though Hotine’s correlations between the staging and printing of Richard III and Cecil’s life by no means constitute proof, when combined with Croft’s evidence from the verse libels, they demonstrate that from the 1590s to his death, Robert Cecil was connected with Richard in the public’s imagination. . . . The censure would have suggested that since Cecil was similar to Richard, he would become as destructive as Richard if not curbed. An element of social critique may also be present here, recalling not only Richard’s tyranny as a king but also the corrupt system that allowed him to displace a legitimate king. It was a similar situation with Cecil, who manipulated a system that rewarded cunning rather than noble virtue. (29-30)
Sympathy for the Devil
Cecil was born June 1, 1563, the first full year that Oxford spent with the Cecil family in London. This was probably the first time he had observed a woman endure not only pregnancy and childbirth, but the anxiety that Mildred Cecil, and her family, must have felt having lost so many babies. In 16th-century England, a wife’s first duty was to provide her husband with a son. Mildred finally managed it, but just barely.
Born with the malformed spine and tiny legs that, to modern readers suggests scoliosis, it was not expected that Robert would live. His persistence in clinging to life with so little encouragement suggests a will to overcome great odds. No doubt his mother loved her only son, but considering Burghley’s scorn for his other son, Thomas (by his first wife), whose only crime was juvenile rebellion, we can assume that the ambitious Queen’s Secretary and Lord Treasurer, so determined to found a great family, found it just as difficult to love the little boy whose deformity damaged his own image, for many in those days still believed the ancient shibboleth that the father of such a son was being punished for some sin or moral defect of his own. Indeed, it was probably not until he had need of him in the 1590s that Burghley began to realize Robert’s value. Even then it’s unlikely he got much praise. To say that Lord Burghley was chary of giving praise or credit is an understatement of truly vast proportions. He may have, but it shows nowhere in the record. (Oddly his one recorded gesture of affection was for another man’s son, Philip Sidney.)
Most children will inherit or adopt personality traits from one or both parents, whether good or bad. Unfortunately with Robert, even his father’s good traits, his intelligence and ability to plan ahead, were ultimately used to revenge himself on men whom he knew or suspected had looked on him with scorn. This may be because he failed to inherit the one good trait that may have saved his father from perdition, a genuine belief in the greater principles of the Reformation.
Lifelong suffering from constant comparison with the long-legged masculine beauties with which Elizabeth surrounded herself at Court, Robert was doubly cursed by the superstitions of his day, one of which saw physical deformity as a reflection of a deeper moral defect. As his cousin, Francis Bacon, would write:
Deformed persons are commonly even with nature; for as nature hath done ill by them, so do they by nature; being for the most part (as the Scripture saith) void of natural affection; and so they have their revenge of nature. Certainly there is a consent, between the body and the mind; and where nature erreth in the one, she ventureth in the other. . . . Therefore it is good to consider of deformity not as a sign, which is more deceivable, but as a cause which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue and deliver himself from scorn. Therefore all deformed persons, are extreme bold. First, as in their own defence, as being exposed to scorn, but in process of time, by a general habit. Also it stirreth in them industry, and especially of this kind, to watch and observe the weakness of others, that they may have somewhat to repay.
That Bacon was thinking of his cousin when he wrote this has been almost universally accepted by readers since it was published shortly after Robert’s death. Harsh as it seems, Bacon was forward thinking (as usual) when he sees his cousin’s deformity less as a “sign” or evidence of an inherent moral defect than as the cause of that defect, bred of shame and cruel ill treatment from earliest childhood, something Bacon would have been observing in Robert since their early years as close contemporaries, first cousins, and neighbors.
Think then, considering how Robert Cecil treated two other handsome, arrogant, charismatic courtiers, Essex and Raleigh, what his true feelings would have been towards Oxford, who, as his father’s ward and then son-in-law, though not so tall as either Essex or Raleigh, was certainly taller than Robert, and who may have seemed to him to take the place in his father’s heart that by rights would have been his had he been more attractive. Oxford’s good looks, his wit and talent, his almost imperial social position, were, more likely than not, bane to Robert’s soul from the very start.
And over time, as the sorrows of the two beings whose love he never had reason to question, his mother and his sister Anne, the one hating Oxford, the other so badly hurt by him, added to his own bitter feelings, his desire for revenge must have been compounded when both died within a few months of each other in 1588- ’89. It was then that the desire for revenge, fed on decades of bitter envy, must have taken hold just as Walsingham’s death opened the door to the path of retaliation, of which the first move was to get rid of Marlowe and put a stop to future productions of his work. In this he was backed by his father, also bitter and angry at Oxford over the way he’d treated his daughter, called in his debts to the Court of Wards.
Since this affected Oxford’s patrons, some of whom had backed these loans and were now liable themselves, this increased the polarization at Court between what we might call the liberal aristocracy, those who backed the arts and had Catholic friends, and the conservatives, those who saw the Devil in both of these. Angry, spooked, Oxford lashed out with the weapon he knew best, his pen. He revised his old play of the The True Tragedy of Richard the Third, depicting Richard in such a way that no member of the West End audience would fail to get the connection.
How can this not be the reason, or the main reason, why the Privy Council would not allow Burbage to use the Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars as the winter theater meant to entertain the West End. If any reader is still in doubt as to why the King’s Men, formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had to hide the identity of their author during the 12 years from Essex’s fall to Cecil’s death, let them read the story of Robert Cecil’s rise to power c.1601-1612, and what he did to the men he hated, not because they stood in his way––after all, by 1604 he had come just about as far as it was possible to go––but because they had wounded his pride.
Had Cecil never attacked the writing community; had Marlowe, Kyd and Ld Strange remained alive, Oxford would probably not have bothered himself about Cecil. Think of Hamlet’s reaction after Laertes has attacked him at Ophelia’s grave: “Hear you, sir, what is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever . . . .” Later, before the fixed fencing match, he apologizes to Laertes for having ranked on him earlier, “Sir, in this audience, let my disclaiming from a purposed evil free me so far in your most generous thoughts, that I have shot mine arrow o’er the house, and hurt my brother.” Laertes accepts Hamlet’s public apology––he can hardly do otherwise––but Cecil-like, he goes ahead and stabs him anyway.
All of which suggests why Oxford might have persuaded James to let him spend his final days under the King’s protection in the Liberty of Havering, where Cecil, by then the Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State, and Howard, by then Earl of Northampton, Privy Councillor, Lord Warden of the Cinq ports, Lord Privy Seal, High Steward of Oxford University, and Chancellor of Cambridge University, could not get at him without seriously aggravating the King. It also gives a solid reason why on June 24, 1604, the day Oxford was supposed to have died, Cecil had Shakespeare’s Fair Youth, the Earl of Southampton, arrested and detained on a bogus charge of treason so that his agents could go through his papers.
There can be no doubt that Oxford, if in fact he was Shakespeare, would have been afraid that Robert Cecil was after his papers. As we know, and he may have been aware, the Cecils ended up with everyone’s papers. Leicester’s papers disappeared after his death, perhaps taken by Walsingham, the Secretary of State. When Walsingham died and the Cecils took over his office, his papers too disappeared. The Cecils decided what of Leicester’s, Walsingham’s, and their own papers, and who knows whose others, would survive to document the history of the time.
If Oxford was the true author of Richard III, which, as Aune and Hotine have shown, was widely believed to portray a caricature of Robert Cecil, then Oxford had good reason to fear the same fate for his manuscripts. That he arranged his own death scene in large part to trap his cousin into showing his hand by, once again, attempting to locate and take someone’s papers under the guise of attempted treason, remains the best explanation for the otherwise inexplicable arrest of Southampton the night that Oxford supposedly died.
With Cecil in control of his and his father’s stash of papers, little is left but suggestive hints like these, found “at a distance,” to use Burghley’s phrase once more. Among them is the following comment by the Earl of Pembroke in a letter written in October 1604 to the Earl of Shrewsbury, quoted by Margaret Hannay in her biography of Mary Sidney:
. . . my brother [Philip Herbert] on Friday last was privately contracted to my Lady Susan [Oxford’s daughter] without the knowledge of any of his or her friends; on Saturday he acquainted her uncle [Robert Cecil] with it and he me. My lord of Cranbourne [Cecil] seemed to be much troubled at it at the first but yesterday the king taking the whole matter on himself made peace of all sides. (190; emphasis added)
Why should Cecil be “troubled” by his niece making such an advantageous marriage if not because this it would bring them, and the Earl of Oxford, playwright for the now secure King’s Men, into an alliance dangerous in some way to himself? Why else would he not wish to see an alliance so beneficial to the niece for whom he was by then chiefly responsible? Mainstream history, which sees Oxford as dead by then, provides no answer.