The year following Oxford’s advent at Cecil House was filled with events. A war was brewing with France and some of his new friends were wondering with excitement and dread if and when they would be called to serve. With relations with France so strained, Cecil, as the Queen’s Principal Secretary, found it necessary to keep a watch on the home of Mauvissiere, the French ambassador, just up the road. It seems he enrolled the Cobham brothers to lay in wait along the road to Dover for the courier that was bringing news from the Spanish Court whereupon they took his papers from him by force, an incident that caused a scandal. But Cecil was adamant. Based on what his spies were telling him about the Ambassador’s household, he was only doing what he had to do.
In February, Cecil’s son Thomas, now twenty, returned from Paris where he was supposed to be finishing his education, but where instead he had been sowing wild oats, all the more recklessly no doubt because he was free from his stern taskmaster father for the first time in his life. But it was not for this that Cecil brought him home, but because an infant son had just died, and he felt it necessary to keep his one remaining son where he was safe. His wife having experienced several miscarriages already, Cecil could not be certain that he would get another. Soon, however, Mildred Cecil was pregnant again, so the second half of the year was spent anxiously awaiting the birth. Born in November, despite his frailty and his sadly twisted spine (probably scoliosis), little Robert Cecil managed to survive.
During the early months of 1563, Cecil was frantically busy, both with relations with France and with planning for Elizabeth’s second Parliament, writing bills, planning procedures, and arranging for as many of his supporters as possible to attend as MPs. Cecil House was filled with Parliamentarians in from the provinces. Thomas was sent to represent Cecil’s hometown of Stamford in Lincolnshire. Though Oxford attended the formal opening of the House of Lords, he was still too young to take any real part.
May saw the loss of a ship carrying several of Oxford’s new friends over to Newhaven to fight the French, among them the young poet Arthur Brooke. Sadly, Brooke and most of his shipmates died when the ship was wrecked in a storm just outside the port. June saw the return of the plague, this time severe, killing 80,000 Londoners, before it faded with cooler fall weather. Oxford and probably some of his new friends were sent to live and study in the country, probably near Windsor Castle.
That winter came another important event in Oxford’s young life. Edward Manners, the young Earl of Rutland, having just lost his father, was now, like Oxford, a ward of the Crown, and so was sent to live with Cecil who would see to the completion of his education. A letter from Cecil to the Countess of Rutland establishes his move to join Cecil as taking place in January 1564 where he was to meet Oxford at Hitcham near Burnham. This was only a mile or two from Windsor whence the Court had removed to escape the plague. (Click on map: Hitchim in upper left hand corner, Windsor Castle in lower right.)
A year older than Oxford, Rutland’s and Oxford’s fathers had been friends, Rutland’s mother having married his father at the same ceremony in which Oxford’s father married her sister, both daughters of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. The ceremony took place at a Rutland property, the Priory of Holywell, located in Norton Folgate, just north of the City. In later years this property would be used for the building of the first two fully functioning yearround theaters in London, Burbages Theatre and the Curtain.
For the first time in his life, the brotherless Oxford, now thirteen, had a companion of his own age and, what may have been more important in some ways, his own rank. Here, finally, was someone he could confide in, someone with whom he could (eventually) be completely at ease. Thrown together by fate to share their teen years in the busy and turbulent world of Cecil House, forced to find their way under the pressure of Master Secretary’s control, there can be no doubt that this was one of the most important relationships of Oxford’s life and probably of Rutland’s also. (Imagine being the close friend of the boy who grew up to be Shakespeare.)
Teenagers form bonds with each other more easily than at any other time of life, the kind that can last a lifetime. Both orphans (as wards of the Crown, in losing their fathers they also lost what close daily ties they may have had with their mothers and siblings), both inheritors of a culture that was very different from the one in which they were being raised, each had need of someone to trust. They bore the same first name, they were a year apart in age, they were nicely balanced in temperament, Rutland having the steady, grounded nature that was beneficial for the easily distressed Oxford. For the next two years at least and possibly longer they were frequently if not continually in each other’s company, studying, learning dances, playing chess, playing tennis, practising riding at the tilt, and teasing Nanikin, Cecil’s little daughter.
Romance in the air
With his son Thomas back from abroad and turning 21, Cecil felt it was high time he was married. Girls were discussed. Love poetry was written. Weddings were in the air. Considering how much Cecil enjoyed matchmaking, we may question how much Thomas had to do with choosing his own bride, Dorothy Neville (a member of the same family as Rutland’s mother and the mother of Oxford’s older half-sister), but whether or not Tom had any choice in the matter, the record shows that following their marriage in 1564, he and his wife managed to “live ever after,” raising 13 children in the process.
In 1563 also began the eventful romance between a leading member of the Cecil House coterie, Barnabe Googe, and his beloved, one Mary Darrell of Kent, for love of whom Googe produced quantities of verse, not all of it terrible. Due to her father’s insistance that she marry another (wealthier) man, Googe got both Cecil and Parker involved. This double-barrelled threat from the London authorities won the day; Darrell Sr. finally blessed their union; and in 1564, they too were married. This exciting romance replete with songs and poetry must have impressed the two young peers no end.
During 1564 the good Archbishop was forced come to Oxford’s legal rescue. His half-sister, Katherine, and her husband Lord Edward Windsor, had gone to Court in an attempt to take away his earldom. Their argument––that Oxford’s parents’ marriage was invalid because Earl John was still married to his first wife at the time––if accepted, would mean that legally the title and estates belonged to his father’s “legitimate child,” Katherine Windsor. Worse, it meant that Oxford was illegitimate.
One can imagine how this made the 14-year-old feel. Just when he was beginning to think about how he might appear in the eyes of the other boys and girls in the Court community, he was labelled a bastard by a member of his own family! Not for the last time he poured his anguish into verse. In any case, since the decision was in the hands of Archbishop Parker, Cecil’s colleague and friend, whatever the truth of the matter, there was no way the judge was going to allow hurt to come to Cecil or his ward.
In 1565, when Oxford was 15 and Rutland 16, two major Court weddings took place in which both boys were involved. They were certainly involved in the marriage of Anne Russell to Leicester’s brother, the Earl of Warwick, where they acted as pages. The other wedding was the marriage of the beautiful Mary Browne, the 13-year-old daughter of Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague, to the 21-year-old Henry Wriothesley, soon to be second Earl of Southampton. Although both families were Catholics, that the Queen was present is a matter of Court record, so it’s likely that Cecil’s wards were also present, at least at the reception at the Montague’s City mansion, across the river near the base of London Bridge.
The boys were involved to some extent in Court productions of plays by the students at the Westminster grammar school, located a short distance from Cecil House in the complex of buildings surrounding the Court and the old Abbey. We know this because the school has a record from 1565 of payment for the repair of a velvet sword scabbard borrowed from the Earl of Rutland for one of their plays (Holmes 71). Where their studies may have taken them is still part of the puzzle, though we do have some clues.