Tag Archives: Sir Thomas Smith

Was John Shakspere a dissident nonconformist?

In a book titled Shakespeare, Puritan and Recusant, published in 1897, author Thomas Carter makes a convincing argument that the apparent troubles brought on the Shakspere family beginning around 1576 were due neither to Catholicism nor debt, but to John Shakspere’s adherence to the radical Protestant line.  In other words, John Shakspere was what in the 1590s would be described as nonconformist or dissident.  In other words, he was the opposite of what we’ve been told.  Although this may leave a few problems unresolved, it makes a lot more sense than the Catholic theory.

Certain that Shakspere’s son was the great playwright, Carter also believes that John must have been literate, and even holds that certain fees paid him were to send him to London to observe a session of Parliament.  We needn’t go this far; greater certainty would lie with evidence from other towns of the literacy of men like Shakspere Sr. during this period of rapid change in levels of literacy.  The most likely may be the middle view, that the glover’s mark he used as a signature was an artisan’s tradition, not a symptom of illiteracy, so that Shakspere Sr. could read enough to manage his affairs, something according to Carter he did well enough throughout.  As for John’s son William, it’s evident that, whether or not he could read at any level, he was unable to write his own signature with ease, which would seem to put him out of the running as the author of Hamlet.

From the beginning, John Shakspere’s career path followed that of the rise of Protestantism and fell with the rise of government anti-Puritanism.  He came to Stratford in 1551, possibly on a wave of Protestantism when John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, Warwickshire’s Protestant overlord, came to supreme national power.  Dudley lost it when the Catholics came back in in 1553, but then in 1558, with the pendulum of power swinging back to the reformers, came Shakspere Sr.’s first steps up in Stratford town government.  His lifelong friend Adrian Quiney was the town’s first Bailiff under Elizabeth, while in 1564 “Chamberlains” Shakspere and friend Robert Wheler were paid to rid the town chapel of its Catholic symbols, the cross, the rood screen, and the images and pictures of the saints (69).

For twenty years John Shakespeare and his friends continued to serve in one capacity or another as leaders in the Stratford Council until the mid ’70s when it appears he lost interest in civic service, either from debt or recusancy.  Although his recusancy is a matter of record, Carter shows that Shakspere was neither bankrupt nor was he even in serious debt.  The land transaction that scholars have interpreted as a sale by a desperate bankrupt were, as Carter explains, standard moves made by recusants to shift ownership of land to a friend or family member to avoid having their property confiscated should they be condemned by the Ecclesiastical High Commission (94-106).

The word recusant is usually taken to mean Catholics who refused to conform, but in fact it simply means one who abstains from attending church out of protest.  It’s true that the majority of recusants were Catholic, but right from the start it was clear that for the Queen and many others, the complaint was less with the Catholic service than it was with Catholic politics.  As for religion, once the Armada was defeated and the Crown was no longer so worried about Spain, Elizabeth’s attention turned to the English dissidents who, if anything, were even more offensive to her personally in their demands, whether for a reformed Church or the freedom to worship as they pleased.

Having been made the Head of the Church by the actions of her father, Elizabeth took seriously the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament shortly after her coronation that demanded allegiance to the (once again) reformed Service and Book of Common Prayer.  Seeing the empty churches as a personal affront, she put her “little black husband” Archbishop Whitgift in charge of forcing them back to church and the machinery of repression under the High Commission swung around toward the dissidents.  Thus was the Church of England born.  Shorn by the Star Chamber of opposition at both ends of the religious spectrum, it settled into what the proto-Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, etc., saw as a Catholic service in every respect but that Latin was replaced by English and the clergy were allowed to marry.

Carter sees this wave of repression, sparked by the uproar caused by the Queen’s threat to marry the Catholic French prince and her brutal treatment of John Stubbes for writing against it, as sweeping through Stratford in 1579, bringing strict reprisals from Westminster and forcing Shakspere Sr. and his reformist friends to retreat from the kind of involvement in civic affairs that could lead to serious trouble for them and their families.  As the records show, John was willing (and apparently able) to pay a heavy fine for not taking Episcopalian communion (118).  That John Shakspere retired from public life for twenty years, not because he was a Catholic, but because he was a dissident, makes a good deal of sense in almost every respect.

One issue that it doesn’t resolve is the matter of the Catholic handbook found by roofers in the eaves of the Henley Street house in 1757 (Schoenbaum 41).   This has been taken as evidence that John was a devout Catholic who hid the book out of concern that it might be found by some delegation of church commissioners.  Surely we can let go of this one.  It doesn’t affect the authorship thesis in any direct way.  Anyone could have hidden the book, such as an apprentice with rooms in the attic, concerned that his Master find him with such a dangerous item.  Another issue is the reason why William’s daughter Susannah was listed in 1606 by an ecclesiastical commission as a recusant (234-5) which Schoenbaum attributes to her being “popishly affected,” though it can just as easily be interpreted as an attempt to keep track of persons who failed to show up for communion so that they could be fined.

It does resolve other things.  There’s the problem of why John Shakspere’s neighbor, tanner Henry Field, clearly a staunch Protestant (having placed his son as an apprentice with the Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier), would name a devout Catholic in his will to act as his executor.  When seen as fellow Protestants, Shakspere and Field’s relationship makes better sense (even if John did take Henry to court once over a debt).

But the best proof comes from the plays, where advocates of a Catholic Shakespeare have a hard row to hoe.  Some of Shakespeare’s many Biblical references could have come from any Bible, but the prevalence of quotations, some almost word for word, from the 1560 Geneva Bible far outnumber them.  The very fact that there are so many Biblical quotes in Shakespeare while the Inquisition taught that it was a sin for a layman, not just to read the Bible, any bible, but even to own one, should be enough to quash the Catholic Shakespeare theory.  (The ability of theorists to cling to a notion, no matter how utterly it’s been proven false, never ceases to amaze.)

This prevalance in Shakespeare of quotations from the Puritan Bible, as Carter calls it, helps him with his Puritan Shakespeare theory, but not nearly so much as it helps Oxfordians with ours, for the Earl of Oxford spent the first eight years of his school career being tutored by one of England’s leading reform theologians, one who helped to create the also frequently quoted Book of Common Prayer, while the very Geneva Bible that Oxford purchased when he was nineteen, when presumably he was off on his own and no longer reliant on the books in his guardian’s library, is still to be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Why I didn’t review Shapiro

I didn’t review Shapiro because I didn’t read his book.

I used to pay attention to Stratfordians.  I’d argue with them, pointing out the holes in their logic, pointing to the facts, the “smoking guns,” that require a courtier, a more sensible dating scheme, an explanation for the gaping anomalies in the Stratford biography.  When they ridiculed the Shakespeare authorship question I got serious.  When they purposely misinterpreted facts I got angry.  When they refused to listen I got sad.

Round and round I went on SHAKSPER with the postdocs and pseudo-scholars as they tirelessly repeated the mantras instilled in them by their professors.  When finally they began beating the drum for the notion that great fiction doesn’t have to arise from personal experience, I should have realized that it was an exercise in futility, but I soldiered on, thinking that there might be lurkers whose minds were less closed to reality.  If so I never saw any hint of it.

Then of course there was HLAS, created in part by Oxfordians Bill Boyle and Marty Hyatt as a forum for an open online discussion, which soon turned into a verbal Fight Club, with the Shakespeare authorship question nothing more than a focal point for the verbal art of ad hominem vilification.  If HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare) is still in operation I’d be very much surprised to hear that it’s changed.  Fighting is always so much more exciting than reasoning.

When they said Oxford’s poetry was terrible I demonstrated how different it was even then from the morose tone of the poetry being written at the time and known to literary historians as “the drab era.”  If any of them had ever bothered to read this stuff, to actually compare Oxford’s poetry with Turberville or Churchyard, they never uttered a peep.

When they brushed off Oxford as dying before The Tempest was written I pointed to the obvious factors that link that play to the 1595 marriage of his daughter to the Earl of Derby (since then Stritmatter and Kositsky have shown even earlier origins); to the fact that back in the 1570s it was his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, whose plan for colonizing Ireland is considered by historians today to be the starting point for all subsequent plans to colonize America (Quinn 103, Armitage xx), including Jamestown, where the ship was headed that was wrecked in Bermuda, the supposed source of the 1611 Strachey letter; to the fact that Smith’s family were close friends with the Stracheys in their hometown of Saffron Walden, Essex (it was their grandson who wrote the famous letter); and so on.  It hasn’t changed a thing.  We continue to hear, ad infinitum, how The Tempest and any number of other plays (never enumerated) were written too late to be by Oxford.

When they claim that knowing nothing about Shakespeare is perfectly understandable––since so little is known about writers like Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, or John Webster, why should we know any more about Shakespeare than we do about them?––I never dared to explain how Greene was early Shakespeare,  Nashe was early Francis Bacon, and Webster Mary Sidney.  I may be willing to stick my chin out now and then, but I’m not insane.

How they love to ridicule the fact that there are so many candidates.  Francis Bacon?  No way.  Christopher Marlowe?  Un-uh.  Mary Sidney?  C’est ridicule!  Yet the historic picture based on the fact that there is no evidence that these writers even knew each other never raises a single eyebrow.  Do they actually know any great writers personally?  Have they ever researched the lives of other great writers in the kind of depth that would cause them to wonder why this group was so different?  No, because to a left-brainer, the only reality is the one written down on paper.  To admit that there might be something else is to open a can of really evil, dangerous right-brain worms.  Run away!  Run away!

Their favorite tactic of course is to call us “snobs” for thinking that only an earl could have had the kind of education revealed by Shakespeare’s works.  There’s really no rejoinder to the stupidity of this, except to point out that if in fact William of Stratford had had such an education, we’d surely know about it, just as we know about the educations of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, neither one of them earls or even close.

The major problem, as I have come to realize, is that students of literature never attempt to relate what they know of the history of the period (not so much nowadays it would appear) to its literature, its writers,  their publishers and printers, nor do they think to relate the mysteries of an earlier period with similar situations closer to us in time.  This disconnect begins in school where, in history class, sound-bytes on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation, the Inquisition, the burning of witches (i.e. women) in France and heretics (i.e. scientists) in Italy and Spain, are forgotten the day after the quiz, while in English class they learn that Shakespeare was “above” writing about current events or using his life as a background to his works.  Two little boxes, side by side on a mental shelf, one labelled History, one Literature––never the twain to meet.

I used to think this was more or less purposeful, that “none are so blind as those who will not see,” but now I think it’s not so much that they won’t see than that they simply can’t.  Raised from childhood on multiple choice questions and term papers that rarely require anything more than regurgitating a teacher’s favorite ideas, most academics become so immersed in a left brain approach to everything they deal with that by the time they write their dissertations and their introductions to new editions of Shakespeare, their right brains have pretty much dried up and blown away.  This is bad news for the culture at large, as nature clearly intended the left brain to function as the servant to the right brain.  It’s a killer for those questions that require cross-disciplinary thinking.  It’s interesting that current studies suggest that animals use their left brains mostly for locating food, their right brains for warning of the approach of predators.  Substitute tenured professorships for food and the Beatles’s apple bonkers for predators, and you have a nice little metaphor for our present predicament.

Luckily, now that we have google and the internet, we can simply ignore them.  Already Shapiro’s book is fading from view.  Google alerts hasn’t turned up a new review in a couple of weeks.  No biggie, for the left-brainers will have a new one out in no time, written by and for the academics and their admirers, as they continue to reassure themselves that the Shakespeare authorship question is only for the lunatic fringe.

I respect the efforts of the Oxfordians who continue to take them on.  More power to them, though I doubt that it will make a dent in their thinking or in the thinking of those who lay out good money for their books.  The French Impressionists did not take the art world by storm by meeting the Royal academicians on their own turf.  No revolution, whether bloody or merely intellectual, ever began by playing footsie with the establishment, and the revolution we call the English Literary Renaissance was both intellectual and bloody.  And a hell of a lot more interesting than either the Stratford story or the hyperbole of its proponents.

Evidence for Oxford’s childhood with Smith

Sometimes a single fact can become the key to an entire period in history.  Oxford’s childhood with Sir Thomas Smith is that sort of key, not just to complete our picture of Oxford’s life, but to complete the picture of Oxford as Shakespeare, and beyond that, of Shakespeare as central to the history of England during what may well have been the most crucial period in her history and absolutely the most crucial period in her literary history and the history of the London Stage.

By establishing Smith as Oxford’s surrogate father, the Aristotle to his Alexander, the Plato to his Aristotle, the Leopold Mozart to his Amadeus, we have the riches of Smith’s library where dozens of titles provide the sources for some of Shakespeare’s most valued works.  We have, through Smith, the source of Shakespeare’s legal and distilling metaphors, his ascetic attitude towards food, his lack of religious bias, his Platonic philosophy.  Through his years at Ankerwycke we have the source of his river, gardening, and hawking metaphors (as noted by Caroline Spurgeon), his sympathy for animals, the forest’s deer, the meadow’s rabbits and birds, the garden’s caterpillars and snails.  In Smith, we have four of Shakespeare’s most vital characters, Holofernes from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Thomas of Woodstock from Richard II Part One, Gonzalo from The Tempest, and, greatest of all, Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet.

We also have a number of smaller though tighter connections, such as the metaphor of a haggard hawk for a wayward woman, something Smith touches on twice in the few quotes provided by his biographers, or, in the advice Polonius gives Laertes, the advice to noblemen written by Smith during the period that Edward was living with him (Strype 53-5).  With all of this securely in place, ipso facto: Oxford was Shakespeare––evidence that comes later is simply icing on the cake.  And with Oxford confirmed as Shakespeare we can also complete our puzzle of the entire period, of all of the missing literary history, and even much of the mainstream history, for Shakespeare and his works are as central to the history of the Elizabethan era as is Elizabeth herself, or Burghley, Bacon, Raleigh, or Drake.  Thus while Smith is the biggest missing piece of the Shakespeare puzzle, Oxford is the biggest missing piece of the Elizabethan Court puzzle.

This is what makes it crucial that we ground our view of Oxford’s childhood with Smith in provable facts.  It was largely my purpose when, driven by an offhand remark by Mary Dewar in her biography of Smith, I spent six weeks in England in 2004 (funded by a fellowship raised by Dr. Daniel Wright of Concordia University) to see three of Smith’s notebooks for myself.  These, two in the library at Queens’ College Cambridge and one in the archives at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, seemed at first to offer nothing.  I didn’t realize until later that one did in fact hold one of the clues that I was seeking.  Not all clues are of equal weight, but as it happens, this one’s a pip.

In each of the two notebooks at Queens’ College are inventories, the same except in minor wording, one written in 1561, one in 1569, in which he notes the 20 rooms at Ankerwycke, listing the contents of each.  In the first, #49, a room on the upper floor between his father’s room and the maid’s chamber is labeled “In my L. Chambre.”  In the 1569 inventory in notebook #83, page 123, a similar list is headed with the words: “In my Lorde’s Chambre.”

1561 inventory of Ankerwycke rooms, “In my L’s Chambre”

By “My Lorde” Smith must have meant de Vere, who, born “Viscount Bulbeck,” was considered a “lord” from birth.  Smith was punctilious about terminology, particularly where social distinctions were concerned, so he would never have made a mistake by called somebody a lord who was not, in fact, a lord.  Strype “supposes” that by “my Lorde” Smith meant the Duke of Somerset (170), but that’s impossible since Ankerwycke wasn’t finished until 1553, by which time Somerset was dead, nor would someone as self-righteous as Smith have wished to memorialize a master with whom he had had such profound differences.  It could not be Cecil, since from 1550 until Elizabeth’s accession Cecil kept his own household at The Parsonage at Wimbledon not far from Ankerwycke, nor did Cecil become a lord until 1571, long after Smith had drawn up these inventories.  Other than these, there is simply no lord other than de Vere who could possibly have had his own room in Smith’s home.

When we add this evidence to the phrase “brought up in my house” from the 1576 letter to Cecil, we should have enough to place Oxford with Smith for the better part of eight years, and in so doing, add to his story the riches of experience he gained as a child in a traditional country manor with all that that implies, as I’ve detailed in a number of blogs, pages, lectures, and articles.  Among many other puzzle fits, this scenario provides a reason for de Vere’s placement at Queens’ College for five months in his ninth year, Queens’ being Smith’s alma mater, and Smith needing that time to assist Cecil with preparations for Elizabeth’s accession, a hard fact for which we have more than enough evidence.

De Vere was still with Smith when the first list was written.  As for the 1569 inventory, although Oxford was no longer a member of Smith’s household, that Smith would continue to use his name for the room is seen by how he continued to call the room next to de Vere’s “my father’s chambre,” although Smith’s father died the summer of 1557.

By examining an actual document, its visual appearance can add to what its text and authorship have to tell us.  For instance, in the letter in which Smith finally turns to the issue of Oxford’s treatment of Burghley upon his return from Italy, that Smith was more emotional at the end than he was anywhere else in the letter is obvious from the condition of the paper at this point.  The pen was pressed so hard on the paper that the ink is darker here and the stroke thicker than anywhere else in the letter, so hard that the acid in the ink had eaten away the paper at that spot to a degree that it threatened to render a few of the words unintelligible.  I showed it to the librarian in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, suggesting they do something to preserve it before it crumbles completely.

More nine-inch nails in the Stratford coffin

Much of the overwhelming evidence for Oxford as Shakespeare can be found in the eight years he spent with his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, from age 4 to 12.  Not only did Smith own most of the important works that scholars tell us were Shakespeare’s sources, but his personal interests, the passions that drove him, appear in Shakespeare in depth, astonishing knowledge for a poet and playwright, whatever his class, knowledge he throws about with abandon in allusions, similes and metaphors.  This is an approach to a subject that can only be taken by one who’s been steeped in a subject from earliest days so that it permeates all his thinking.

Smith’s interests form the major part of Shakespeare’s arsenal of metaphors, but there are five areas in particular that are worth noting, because they’ve often been singled out for comment by scholars.

Entire books have been written in efforts to prove that in two of these subjects: the Law and Medicine, Shakespeare was so deeply versed that he must have been a professional!  The same thing would be true of astrology cum astronomy (the two were the same back then), it being as much of a profession then as the first two, for he reveals his knowledge of this arcane science through metaphors and the use of esoteric terminology just as he does with law and medicine.  Smith had been named by Henry VIII the first Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge when he was still in his twenties, and was a dedicated practitioner of Paracelsian medicine his entire life.  He was sufficiently schooled in astrology to draw up horoscopes, something that required a fair amount of mathematics then, plus all the necessary ephemerides, which he also had.

As for gardening and horticulture, these Oxford would certainly have learned from eight years of living with Smith, whose enthusiasm for gardening is revealed in his letters and also in the fact that wherever he lived (at Ankerwycke and Hill Hall), or taught (at Eton and Queens’ College), he planted gardens.  As Caroline Spurgeon shows in her book Shakespeare’s Imagery, the author had the kind of knowledge of gardening that could only have been acquired through living with it for years.  (I’ll make a page on the gardening connections soon.)  And the same is true of hawking, in fact, in one of his treatises Smith himself uses Shakespeare’s favorite hawking metaphor, comparing a haggard, or badly trained hawk, to a wayward woman.

If still thirsty for more information on the Smith-Oxford-Shakespeare connection, check out the page on how Shakespeare immortalized Smith in his plays.

And so we hammer on.  How many nails is it going to take?