Throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods in European history, the structure of society was built on patronage. Everyone was expected to act as patron to worthy individuals below them on the socio-economic scale and equally, no one was high enough on that scale, except theoretically the monarch, never to require patronage themselves. The very words court and courtier, suit and suitor, derive from this reality. Court was where one went to court patronage, where suits were brought to courtiers who were in a position to assist. Peers and high Court officials were expected to function as patrons. Like Timon, Oxford played the part of a patron for years until his funds gave out. But he also relied on a series of patrons, without whom there never would have been a Shakespeare.
Edward Manners, third Earl of Rutland
The first patron was probably his friend Edward Manners, third Earl of Rutland. The form his patronage took was probably encouragement that the teenager should continue to write as he pleased, not in some style dictated by the Cecil coterie. However, it seems very likely that Rutland was also involved to some extent in the building of the stage that housed Oxford’s earliest works for the public, Burbage’s Theatre in Norton Folgate. Although the landlord was Giles Allen, the land on which the theater was built was until the Dissolution of the Monasteries the property of the Earls of Rutland. It was in the priory that previously occupied the site that Oxford’s father married his first wife at the same time that Rutland’s father married Rutland’s mother.
That Rutland continued to maintain a London manor a stone’s throw from the theater, that he had rights to the water, would have required at the very least his permission to build something so disruptive to the peace and quiet of the neighborhood as a public theater that held somewhere between two and three thousand at a sitting and that ran pretty much on a daily basis from 2 to 5 pm every day. Trouble between Allen and the Rutlands would not occur until after the third Earl was dead, when the young 5th Earl, who by then owned the manor and very likely was unaware of its history, was away on his grand tour of the continent.
Thomas Radcliff, third Earl of Sussex
Before the Earl of Sussex was brought permanently to Court in 1571-2 as the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain of the Household, Oxford’s contributions to Court entertainment are mostly conjectural; after that there is sufficient evidence to suggest his involvment. The reasons for this are clear. Until Sussex entered the picture, Court entertainment was mostly handled by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whose tastes were for the old tried and true masques and may games. Although Dudley’s official title was Master of the Horse, the current Lord Chamberlain was a relict of Mary’s reign who played little part in Court life until he was replaced by Sussex in 1571-2. Oxford’s hated enemy, Dudley was the one to whom the Queen had given the use of his estates during his nine years of wardship, during which he behaved like the boor he was, riding roughshod over Oxford’s mother’s needs and rights as the sixteenth earl’s surviving widow. During this period, Dudley, aka the Earl of Leicester, was also Oxford’s rival for the Queen’s romantic affections.
With the arrival of Sussex, a member of Oxford’s class with whom he had bonded during the war with the border earls, Oxford had for the first time a genuine patron at Court, one who admired his talents. Sussex hated Leicester, and although there’s no hard evidence, the Revels records suggest that he was determined to take control of the Court Stage away from Leicester, since by long tradition, it had always been within the Lord Chamberlain’s office.
Sussex was invested in creating an alliance between France and England by getting Elizabeth married to one of the French princes, something that Leicester, who wanted to marry her himself, was against. Knowing that French envoys would be coming to England to discuss the match, Sussex was determined that her Court be every bit as sophisticated as anything the French were used to. Most of the evidence of Oxford’s takeover of the Court Stage is hidden behind play titles for which there are no scripts, but at least one has lasted to the present. Love’s Labour’s Lost is filled with references to the envoys Simier and de la Motte, and to the top three French courtiers of the period, Biron, du Longaville, and du Mayne. Sussex protected the office from interference during times when he wasn’t present himself by naming two of his relatives as vice Chamberlains, both of whom would play leading roles in the 1590s as patrons of the top acting companies, Lord Henry Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Charles Howard.
Sussex remained in office for a decade, during which Court holiday entertainments turned from masques to plays, mostly performed by the one of another of the various companies of boy choristers from the palace chapels and local grammar schools, most often by the boys from Paul’s Cathedral. It was while he was operating under Sussex’s aegis that Oxford finally got permission to travel to France and Italy, where he saw European theater in its most advanced form. Returning to England in 1576, the first two commercially successful purpose-built theaters in England arose, one the great public stage in Shoreditch built by James Burbage, the other the little private stage at the school for choristers in the old Revels office at Blackfriars.
Sir Francis Walsingham
Sadly for Oxford, Sussex’s decline and death in the early 1580s corresponded with his first great personal catastrophe, the birth of an illegitimate son to one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor in the Queen’s own bedchamber. Captured trying to escape to the Continent, he spent several weeks in one of the barren chambers of the Tower set aside for the accommodation of incarcerated peers, where no doubt he sat upon the cold hard ground and told himself sad stories of the deaths of kings. Released to house arrest, freed from the necessity to provide the little eyeasses with comedies, he began writing for the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, most likely early versions of Richard II, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus, in which he dealt with issues of treason and betrayal of the sort that were personal issues as well as logical concerns of the parliamentarians and lawyers who made up the West End audience.
These were probably performed by Burbage’s adult actors on the little school stage at Blackfriars, just past the City wall from the West End. It was probably more the kind of plays that were being performed at the Blackfriars school that caused the controversy that drove the landlord to bring suit to have the school theater shut down just months before the policially sensitive opening of Elizabeth’s fifth parliament in November 1584. That one of the complaining neighbors to the little stage was Elizabeth Russell, William Cecil Lord Burghley’s sister-in-law, is a fact not to be ignored, particularly if, as seems most likely, one of the plays performed there at that time was an early version of Hamlet.
The death of Sir Thomas Smith, Secretary of State, in 1577 had opened the door for Smith’s friend and second secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, to move up to the high and powerful post of Secretary of State. With evidence that Catholic Spain was preparing an attack on Protestant England, Walsingham increased the spy network inherited from Burghley, adding operatives whose job it was to help net domestic conspirators plotting to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots, and creating a Crown company of adult actors to perform patriotic plays in coastal areas where commitment to the nation might be jeopardized by religious ties to the Old Faith. With Oxford and his “lewd friends” living just around the corner from his own residence at the Papey, I believe that Walsingham enrolled Oxford and his friends to create the kind of plays for the Queen’s Men that would rouse their patriotic sentiments, among them The Famous Victories of Henry V, King John, and Edmund Ironside.
No sooner had the English beat the Armada than trouble arose within the writing establishment as Marlowe and Alleyn escaped from the oversight of the team at Fisher’s Folly to produce Tamburlaine at the new stage across the river, Henslowe’s Rose Theater. Despite the inability of academics, for whom politics never had anything to do with the Stage, to grasp the implications of this for the Crown, the enthusiasm of the working class public for this play showed the Cecils that neither Oxford nor Walsingham were capable of reining in Marlowe or his team at the Rose. That this happened at the same time that the satirist who called himself Martin Mar-prelate found a way to attack the bishops through the pamphlet publishing establishment created by Oxford in his persona as Robert Greene, added fuel to the fire of their wrath.
With the death of Walsingham in 1590, the door was opened to Robert Cecil to take over Walsingham’s team of operatives, which he put to use trapping and then eliminating the dangerous playwright, his patron Lord Strange, and the printer who made the Mar-prelate tracts available to the public. As the Cecils continued to press the Queen to make Robert the next Secretary of State, those concerned about a Cecilian hegemony began to consider what measures might be used to prevent such a coup. Most of the younger courtiers aligned themselves with the Earl of Essex, but Essex was too unstable to be reliable. The Cecils having stripped Oxford of what credit remained to him, Sussex’s former vice-Chamberlains took action.
Henry Carey Baron Hunsdon
The son of Mary Boleyn, some say by Henry VIII, Hunsdon had a family relationship with the Queen that nothing but death could take from him. Given the post of Lord Chamberlain two years after Sussex’s death, he began, in partnership with Walsingham, to exert his role as overseer of Court entertainment. Perhaps partly to that end, he had begun in or before the early 1580s to invest in properties in Blackfriars, buying and leasing as many houses and apartments as were available surrounding the little school stage and the great Parliament Chamber, probably already seen as a future site for a great theater. Thus it was when the school was faced with closure in 1584 that Hunsdon ended up with the lease. History claims that the school was shut down in April 1584 as per a court ruling, but since Hunsdon continued to hold the lease until 1590, and nothing else is recorded as having taken its place, it seems likely that the stage continued until then, quietly perhaps and without the boys, as their best means to entertain and influence the community of lawyers and parliamentarians that lay just to the west, beyond the City wall.
As the showdown with the Cecils began gaining momentum following the deaths of Marlowe, Lord Strange, Walsingham, and Tarleton, Hunsdon and his son-in-law, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, stepped forward to reorganize the disrupted theater community into two major acting companies: one, under Hunsdon, to be known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the other, under Howard, the Lord Admiral’s Men. The LCMen got most of Shakespeare’s scripts and Burbage’s Shoreditch theater, The LAMen got Edward Alleyn, the scripts that Alleyn had made popular, and Henslowe’s Rose Theater. Thus was Oxford rescued from the brink of obscurity, his role now to revise his early plays in a more modern style that fit the times and the new company.
Although it’s clear that William of Stratford was taken on by the end of the holiday season in 1595, because it took the Company two years before they began using his name on the published plays, it may be that this was not a ploy that the Lord Chamberlain was willing to use. That it wasn’t until after Hunsdon’s death, two weeks after Robert Cecil finally got the post of Secretary of State with all the power that that bestowed, that the Company went ahead and put the Shakespeare name on two plays, Richard II and Richard III, both of them published anonymously just months earlier.
With both Burbage and Hunsdon dead, who then held the reins of the Company if not Oxford himself? Suspicious that the deaths of their manager, Burbage, and their patron, Hunsdon, were attributable to the same cause as the deaths of Marlowe and Lord Strange, the actors followed their playwright and onetime patron in performing his Richard III for the MPs gathered in London for the Queen’s ninth Parliament. This version of Richard III had been revised in such a way that there was no mistaking the comparison between the wicked Plantagenet and “Roberto Diablo,” the recently appointed Secretary of State. In fact, it was as Richard III that Richard Burbage first established himself as a great actor.
With the published play available to take home to share with their constituents, Robert Cecil, though he continued to gather power under King James, was done for as far as his reputation went. Try as he might to cleanse the documents in his father’s collection of everything that could damage hs credit with history, and appropriate those he could in the years he had left, he could never erase everything. The record remains and it is damning.
Hunsdon’s son, George Carey, acquired the office of Lord Chamberlain in 1597, but it remains to be seen whether or not he was of any help to Oxford and the Company. Caught like everyone at Court in the maelstrom that destroyed Essex, it will take some intensive scholarship in the English archives to determine exactly what role the second Lord Hunsdon played, if any, in the fortunes of Shakespeare’s Company.
Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton
With the general agreement among scholars, finally, that the Fair Youth of the Sonnets was the young Earl of Southampton, plus the clear record that Lord Burghley, Southampton’s guardian, was at his usual game of forcing a noble ward to marry one of his kin, this time Oxford’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere, we have what in ordinary circumstances would be clear evidence that Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the first seventeen of which were devoted to persuading the Fair Youth to marry. (Only academics the most blind to history could possibly see evidence like this in any other light.)
That Southampton functioned for a time as Oxford’s patron seems clear from the nature of the dedications to him in the first two of Milord’s works to be published under the name William Shakespeare, both couched in terms that allow no other interpretation. That Oxford was at his lowest point when Venus and Adonis and Lucrece were published suggests that it was Southampton who saw him through this rough patch before the Queen arranged his marriage to the heiress Elizabeth Trentham, and Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon saw to it that he got recompensed in some way for revising his playbook for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The passionate terms expressed in the Sonnets and in the dedications to the two poems is easily understood as the gratitude of a man who has never before had to ask someone else for help.
Whether or not Burghley actually fined Southampton £5000 for refusing to marry his granddaughter, that history favors the possibility suggests the truth of Burghley’s wrath. For the young Southampton, his hatred for Burghley, true of all his wards, made connecting with Essex far more attractive than anything Oxford could offer, but that doesn’t mean that he cast him off. Surely they had bonded in a way that must have lasted for years, as Shakespeare describes in his sonnets to Southampton, despite the dismissive tone of the final “goodbye” sonnet.
William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke
The Earl of Pembroke, was Oxford’s last and in many ways his most devoted patron. Son of Mary Sidney, sister of Oxford’s youthful rival, Sir Philip Sidney, Pembroke must have found his future calling as the major patron of the Court Stage under King James in his early teens when his mother was spending time in London getting her brother’s poetry published. That she was also deeply involved in the London Stage at that time seems clear from the history of the acting company known as Pembroke’s Men (I won’t link this to the Wikipedia article since it calls the company “The Earl of Pembroke’s Men,” a name that was never used in the literature of the time).
Young Pembroke would not be the first youth to fall in love with the theater by observing it from backstage. Present during the dicey period that saw the killing or transportation of Marlowe, the breakup of the companies, their struggles to keep going in the face of the Cecilian pogrom, getting to know Richard Burbage as he moved from juvenile to leading roles, Mary’s son must have vowed that when he came of age he would use his status as a peer to protect the actors and keep the London Stage safe from destruction by its enemies.
With the accession of King James, Pembroke benefitted from James’s fondness for young men, if not directly then through his younger brother, whom the King took in as one of his favoured gentlemen of the bedchamber. It must have been through their intervention that Oxford was finally awarded the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, for which he’d been petitioning Elizabeth since the early 1590s. If I’m correct, and Oxford sought this as a refuge from the hatred of his brother-in-law, now the Secretary of State, Pembroke was repaid by the masterpieces that arose from these final years when, finally safe in the Forest, he polished his favorites to the perfection we know today.
During the first years under James his interest in the stage, and his mother’s were utilized by Queen Anne, who loved plays and entertainment. Offered other court offices by James, he turned them down, holding out for the only one he cared about, Lord Chamberlain of the Household. Finally, with the gruesome downfall of the inept Jamie Carr, Pembroke got the post he’d been after from the start. With Cecil dead, the Company was finally free to use the great theater that Burbage and Hunsdon had created so long ago from the Parliament Chamber at Blackfriars. Finally, for the decades until the Civil War closed all the theaters, Shakespeare’s plays could finally be seen, as they were meant to be seen, on its magnificent stage.
Beginning shortly after Oxford’s death in 1609, Pembroke, his mother, and the Company’s managers began plans to publish the great poet’s works. It took a decade and a half to work through all the problems connected with such a sensitive project. Utilizing Mary and Bacon as editors, the date kept being pushed off by one thing or another. In 1623, the threat that both Pembroke and his brother, the Earl of Montgomery (husband to Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter), might lose their posts at Court due to the machinations of the Duke of Buckingham pushed them to publish, leaving some issues unresolved.
Following the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham in 1628, Pembroke took the less strenuous post of Lord Steward, passing on the post of Lord Chamberlain to his brother Montgomery, who held it until the Civil War shut down all the theaters. From then on the fate of the plays fell into the hands of lesser artists and patrons, where they remained until poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke the readers and audiences of the 19th century to the quality that until then had been lost in the bowdlerized versions of the 17th and 18th centuries that were still being produced on the stage.