What are the certain connections between Fisher’s Folly and the University Wits? – B.K. McDonald

Hughes:  There’s a problem with the word certain.  For the Stratfordians, nothing is certain but the paper trail left by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their patrons, however bizarre.  For Authorship scholars, considering the strange absence of so many records, it can only be what’s most likely.  What is certain is that there’s next to nothing that’s certain about the “University Wits,” a name given to them by modern historiographers, not by themselves or their readers.

What we know or think we know comes mostly from their own published works.  Posited as a group by literary historians based mainly on the fact that some mention others in their dedications and that they “flourished” during roughly the same period, there’s little else that would make this a certainty.  Who actually belongs in this group and who doesn’t is certainly not certain.  The Wikipedia (stub) gives us eight names: Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Thomas Middleton, John Lyly, and Thomas Kyd, leaving out Thomas Watson, who certainly should be included while Middleton was definitely too late.  Every list is different.

David Horne, biographer of George Peele, offers the most evidence, namely that this group dedicated works to each other and that most were students at Thavies Inn in Holborne (where lawyers’ clerks were trained) and whose studies at Oxford had coincided or overlapped before coming to London.

Certain of them are grouped together by other writers: for example, Nashe links Roydon, Acheley, and Peele; and selections by Peele, Watson, and Roydon appear in RS’s Inner Temple compilation, the Phoenix Nest (1593).  Finally, there is additional evidence to show that Thomas Acheley, who has less in common with the others by virtue of a lack of evidence that he studied at Oxford, or the Inns, was a personal friend of Peele’s. (Horne 70)

Based on the thesis that Oxford was a central figure in the creation of the commercial stage and press through both his patronage and his own writing, something that isn’t obvious because secrecy was a political necessity––plus the fact that we’re talking about a community so small that everyone involved would fit into a smalltown VFW club room––Ockham’s razor in hand, I have merely simplified both literary and mainstream history by conflating a set of facts from one with a set of facts from the other.

In reconstructing a history for the 1580s, I’ve taken from political history the facts that 1) Oxford’s manor Fisher’s Folly was in the theater district; 2) that he surrounded himself with secretaries and “lewd friends”; 3) that from 1581-83 he was out of a job; 4) that Francis Bacon, second only to Shakespeare in terms of genius, was also jobless throughout the entire 1580s; 5) that the Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, lived a hop and a skip from Oxford’s Folly, that 6) when the Lord Chamberlain Sussex died, leaving the Court Stage without a director; 7) Walsingham created the Crown company the Queen’s Men; and that 8) this company and the Children of the Chapell, located at Blackfriars, were both in need of scripts, more than Oxford alone could provide.

From literary history I’ve taken the fact that  1) both Watson and Nashe lavishly praised Walsingham as a Maecenas (patron); 2) that plays by Robert Greene and early versions of Shakespeare’s history plays were written for the Queen’s Men; 3) that pamphleteers Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe gave the English periodical press its first material; and 4) that while it’s obvious that Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Lodge, and George Peele were real writers, biographies of Greene and Nashe are made of the same gossamer stuff as is William Shakespeare the poet’s; 5) that during the early 1580s the teenaged Edward Alleyn, later superstar of Marlowe’s hit Tamburlaine, lived next door to Fisher’s Folly; and 6) that John Lyly never published another word after Paul’s Boys was disbanded in 1590.

Conflating these and other facts, I propose that during the 1580s: 1) Oxford was Greene and his “cousin” Bacon was Nashe; 2) the University Wits were the “lewd friends” that Oxford collected at Fisher’s Folly; 3) Oxford and the Wits were funded by Sir Francis Walsingham as part of his effort to establish England as a nation as opposed to a parish of Rome; 4) Christopher Marlowe was brought to London from Cambridge in the mid-80s, probably by Walsingham, for Oxford to train as a writer of plays for the Queen’s Men; 5) Oxford trained Edward Alleyn to act in plays he was writing for the Burbages;  6) in Groatsworth he castigates Alleyn (“Shake-scene”) for editing his plays and warns Marlowe (the “famous gracer of tragedians”) for the politically dangerous tone of Tamburlaine; and 7) that the Lyly plays were written by Bacon.

Finally, that all this activity came to a crashing halt in 1590 with the death of Walsingham should be evidence of his importance to the literary history of this period.  This is only the very tip of the iceberg of the true story, but I have no doubt that we’re going to find considerably more evidence once we know what to look for.

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