THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
LORD BURGHLEY seems to have had to take the cure at Buxton in the summer of this year, for Leicester, who preceded him there, wrote him, in June 1577, that he and his brother were benefiting from the water.
I think it would be good for your Lordship [he wrote], but not if you do as we hear your Lordship did last time: taking great journeys abroad ten or twelve miles a day, and using liberal diet with company dinners and suppers. We take another way, dining two or three together, having but one dish of meat at most ….(1)
The Lord Treasurer was an inveterate gourmand. He and Leicester were apparently on good terms just now, probably drawn together in a common wariness against the enfant terrible of the court.
An event of considerable importance, from the standpoint of the use Oxford made of certain of its features in two of his comedies, took place in July of this year. His sister Mary became engaged to Peregrine Bertie, afterwards Lord Willoughby, celebrated in the ballad of The Brave Lord Willoughby. Someone said he was indeed brave to marry Lady Mary Vere.
The fifteenth day of July,
With glistening spear and shield,
A famous fight in Flanders
Was foughten in the field;
The most courageous officers
Were English captains three;
But the bravest man in battel
Was brave Lord Willoughby.
Sir Robert Naunton wrote of him, in Fragmenta Regalia, that he was one of the Queen’s best swordsmen and that he could have advanced himself more in the Queen’s grace had he not “slighted the Court”; however, it seems that Bertie scorned to become one of the reptilia, “and could not brook the obsequiousness and assiduity of the Court.”
The doughty Peregrine was the son of the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk who, as a souvenir of their enforced peregrinations on the Continent to escape the persecutions of Mary Tudor, had, like true Elizabethans, given him this descriptive name. [N.B.: He was actually the son of the Duchess and her second husband, Richard Bertie, who was not a Duke.]
After her husband’s death, Lady Suffolk had married Richard Bertie, a zealous Protestant, and although she was still called by her title, her son had taken the surname, Bertie; it was not long after his marriage that he became Lord Willoughby de Eresby.
Both Lady Suffolk and the Earl of Oxford opposed the match between Peregrine and Lady Mary. At this time Oxford was allied with his Catholic cousins against Burghley, and as was to be expected, the Protestant Lady Suffolk was staunchly ranged upon Burghley’s side. In the matter of the marriage, there was something to be said for her objections, for Lady Mary Vere was famous for her fluent and caustic speech. On July 2, the Duchess wrote Burghley:
It is very true that my wise son has gone very far with my Lady Mary Vere, I fear too far to turn. I must say to you in counsel what I have said to her plainly, that I had rather he had matched in any other place; and I told her the causes. Her friends [have] made small account of me; her brother did what in him lay to deface my husband and son; besides our religions agree not, and I cannot tell what more. If she should prove like her brother, if an empire follows her I should be sorry to match so. She said that she could not rule her brother’s tongue, nor help the rest of his faults, but for herself she trusted so to use her as I should have no cause to mislike her. And seeing that it was so far forth between my son and her, she desired my good will and asked no more. “That is a seemly thing,” quoth I, “for you to live on.” . . . She told me how Lord Sussex and Master Hatton had promised to speak for her to the Queen, and that I would [should?] require you to do the like. I told her her brother used you and your daughter so evil that I could not require you to deal in it. Well, if I would write, she knew you would do it for my sake; and since there is no undoing it, she trusted I would, for my son’s sake, help now.
The Duchess seems to have been the most feminine and artful of creatures. (She is like Paulina and Lady Faulconbridge as well.) She knew how to get round Burghley, as she was soon to attempt to win over his recalcitrant son-in-law. Explaining that the Queen had found fault with her for keeping her son away from court, she proceeded:
But God knows I did it not so but for fear of this marriage and quarrels. Within this fortnight there was one spoke to me for one Mistress Gaymege, an heir to a thousand marks land, which had been a meeter match for my son.
The good lady was becoming somewhat transparent, but she was genuinely distressed. Two weeks later she was appealing to Burghley again. This time it was her husband’s opposition which concerned her.
… if my Lord of Oxford’s wilfulness come to my husband’s ears I believe he would make his son but small marriage [she writes].
She did not know whether to “stay for Her Majesty’s good will,” when her husband’s was “so far off from it.”
… And yet I think if Her Majesty could be won to like it, I am sure my husband would be the easier won to it, if my Lord of Oxford’s great uncourteousness do not too much trouble him.
Already it can be seen that Burghley’s version of Oxford’s behavior is meeting acceptance in certain quarters. And this letter was carefully preserved among the Cecil documents.
The plans went forward, it seems, though the combined opposition persisted. Thomas Screven so informed the Earl of Rutland in a letter dated November 11:
The marriage of the Lady Mary Vere is deferred until after Christmas, for as yet neither has Her Majesty given licence, nor has the Earl of Oxford wholly assented thereto. (2)
Peregrine Bertie was very much in love, however, and declared himself determined to ignore the threats of his fiancée’s brother, signing himself in an ardent letter to her, “yours more than his own and so till death.” But Lady Suffolk’s fears seem to have been realized, though the other way round, for before a year was out, in September 1578, Sir Thomas Cecil was remarking in a letter to his father that an unkindness” had developed and prophesied that the Lady Mary will be beaten with that rod which heretofore she prepared for others.” (3)
Exactly four months after this The Taming of the Shrew was presented at court, the original title having been A Morall of the Marryage of Mynde and Measure, recorded in the Feuillerat Documents as “shewen at Richmond on the sondaie next after Newe yeares daie enacted by the Children of Pawles.” The name Oxford gave the husband, Petruchio, was taken from Ariosto’s Supposes, performed at Gray’s Inn while he was there, while the shrew’s name was that of his other sister, or rather, half-sister, Katherine, who had accused him of being a bastard. (Another little touch of revenge in a “device.”) Katherine also happened to be Lady Suffolk’s name: a fact which the mischievous Earl would not have overlooked.
It is likely that the first year was the most difficult and that the brave Bertie succeeded in taming the termagant. In any case, he and his brother-in-law became fast friends. Lady Suffolk and her husband undoubtedly found that the Earl of Oxford was not so black as he had been painted—though no record of this is preserved in the Hatfield Manuscripts of course.
Just two weeks before the wedding, in December 1577, Lady Suffolk decided to interest herself in bringing the Earl and his young Countess together again. No doubt she had a feminine desire, in respect to the family with which she was now to be connected, to have domestic affairs regularized; no doubt she was romantic too, and clever at managing people. Unfortunately, the record of her little enterprise is not complete and the outcome is unknown, but since her stratagem was later dramatized by its chief participant, the story must be told. The Duchess of Suffolk seems to have been indeed, like Paulina of The Winter’s Tale, an “audacious lady,” a type of high-handed dowager still extant today.
In a letter to Burghley she retails a conversation she had had with one Harry Cook who spoke of Lord Oxford and the baby, Elizabeth Vere, observing “that he thought my Lord would very gladly see the child if he could devise how to see her and not go to her.” To the suggestion that Lady Burghley might be willing to send the child to see its father, Cook objected that “my Lord would not be known of it that he so much desired to see it.” But these were “a young man’s words,” and Lady Suffolk paid slight attention to them.
On Thursday [the letter continues] I went to see my Lady Mary Vere. After other talks she asked me what I would say to it if my Lord her brother would take his wife again. “Truly,” quoth I, “nothing could comfort me more, for now I wish to your brother as much good as to my own son.” “Indeed,” quoth she, “he would very fain see the child, and is loth to send for her.” “Then,” quoth I, “an you will keep my counsel we will have some sport with him. I will see if I can get the child hither to me, when you shall come hither; and whilst my Lord your brother is with you I will bring the child as though it were some other child of my friend’s, and we will see how nature works in him to like it, and tell him it is his own after.” . . . I mean not to delay in it otherwise than it shall seem good to your Lordship…. If it be clear about your house here in London I think it may so please you it were good that both my Lady of Oxford and the child were there, and so the child might be quickly brought hither at my Lord’s being there [that is, in Lady Suffolk’s house]. I would wish speed that he might be taken in his good mood. [Compare this with the remarks concerning Antipholus’s speech—Com. of Er.: II.2.26-33—Chapter 10.] I thank God I am at this present in his good favour…. I hear he is about to buy a house in Watling Street, and not to continue a Courtier as he hath done; but I pray you keep all these things secret or else you may undo those that do take pains to bring it to a pass if my Lord’s counsel should be betrayed before he list himself. And above all others my credit should be lost with him if he should know I dealt in anything without his consent. . . . [And so, committing Burghley to God, she signs herself] From Willoughby House this 15th of December,
Your Lordship’s very assured friend,
Of course it was to a person’s distinct advantage to be able to do a favor to the most powerful man in England, as Burghley indubitably was. Whether or not the little scheme of presenting to Lord Oxford his infant daughter was successful, it did not bring about the desired reunion with his wife. Two entries in the Uncalendared accounts at Hatfield, one dated 1576 and the other January 1577—both it will be noted long before this incident occurred—stating that “My Lord and my Lady of Oxford and 28 persons came from London [to Theobalds]” must surely belong to the year 1573, since all other evidence points to their having been separated during this time and for several years more.
In December 1576, Burghley had written a letter to Oxford endeavoring to move him to pity for his wife, and requesting a meeting to talk things over:
My Lord, My silence and forbearing of speech to your Lordship (now a good time) in a cause of that weight to me as concerneth so nearly my dearest beloved daughter, your Lordship’s wife, hath hitherto proceeded, partly in hope that after some space of months some change to the better might follow, partly to avoid the offending of you in whom I have seen some change from your old wonted countenance.
With his customary circumlocution, he points out that he has been “a long and well-deserving friend towards you,” and he adds that “your loving, faithful and dutiful wife hath suffered the lack of your love, conversation and company: though in several respects desired, yea, in some sort due by several deserts to us.” He speaks
specially for my daughter, whose grief is the greater and shall always be inasmuch as her love is most fervent and addicted to you, and because she cannot, or may not, without offence be suffered to come to your presence, as she desireth, to offer the sacrifice of her heart; nor can I find opportunity in open places, where we sometimes meet, to reveal my griefs both for myself but especially to relieve them for my daughter…
He requests his son-in-law to
give me answer by this bearer as it shall please you by speech or writing, having made nobody privy with this my letter.
Your Lordship’s truly affected,
W. BURG (5)
We have italicized the Lord Treasurer’s repetition of “my daughter,” since Oxford was to make dramatic use of it in a representation of “W. Burg,” which will outlive even that gentleman’s carefully edited records. The Earl’s reply to the letter has not been preserved, but only Burghley’s side, as usual.
The “28 persons” who are said in the misdated record quoted above to have accompanied Lord and Lady Oxford to Theobalds, would have included—in the opinion of Ward and others—Oxford’s company of actors who were brought along to perform in plays and masques.
From Lady Suffolk’s gossip, it appears that the Earl was at least making an attempt definitely to leave the court; he was chafing against the waste of time and spirit imposed by the ceremonious routine, the jealousies, and no doubt the insatiable demands of the Queen. The expense was considerable too, and he was hard pressed for money. It was to this situation he referred in Sonnet 66: “And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity.” But Elizabeth must have persuaded him to remain, for, in July 1578, he accompanied her on one of her most magnificent progresses. And during that same month she offered him a practical inducement in the form of a grant for certain unspecified services.
Since even to her most cherished favorites Elizabeth never made a gift which had not been earned, often many times in excess of the reward, it is obvious that the beneficiary had well merited this one.
The grant was couched in these terms:
The Queen to all to whom these present letters may come, Greeting. Know you that We, as well in consideration of the good, true, and faithful service done and given to Us before this time by Our most dear cousin, Edward Earl of Oxford, Great Chamberlain of England, as for divers other causes and considerations moving Us; by Our special grace, and out of Our certain knowledge and mere motion, We gave and granted, and by these presents before Us, Our heirs, and successors do give and grant to the above Edward Earl of Oxford, all that Our Lordship or Manor of Rysing. . . .(6)
Oxford had never held any official appointment at court; his title of Lord Great Chamberlain, together with his office of the Ewry, was in hereditary, entitling him to a place in the House of Lords and in royal processions, as well as in coronation ceremonies. Elizabeth was, therefore, in making such a grant, recognizing some signal service on his part: “good, true, and faithful service,” as she put it. Those courtiers who received lavish grants of land from the Queen—Leicester, Hatton, Raleigh, Essex—all held responsible posts. Official gifts of this type could not be an expression of personal predilection, as Ward rightly points out, but were made for the purpose of enabling a representative of the government to defray the expenses of his post. For example, Walsingham, as well as other ministers who devoted their lives faithfully to Elizabeth, became impoverished in her service. Indeed, when Oxford had been in Paris, Ambassador Valentine Dale had requested him to appeal to the Lord Treasurer for an increased stipend, since the demands made upon him far exceeded his means. It speaks strikingly for Burghley’s providence (to use a mild and courteous term) that he was enriched beyond all others, that he was elevated to the nobility and founded a great family, creating a legend about himself which, like a halo, still sheds light upon his name.
As Ward observes, it can be taken as certain that this grant was no sinecure: Oxford had worked for it and would continue to do so. The Queen knew his value to the state and meant to avail herself of it. She proved herself in this instance, as in many others of public import, to be endowed with the intuition and foresight of a born ruler.
It is particularly significant that the “service” is not specified; more, it is really conclusive evidence. Even Elizabeth could not with impunity have announced to the world that her Lord Great Chamberlain was the author of court-plays, particularly one like Titus Andronicus, or like Pericles, which had a character evocative of the Queen Mother of France, or like Cymbeline, soon to follow, with Catherine de’ Medici again represented as a wicked queen, one who dealt in poisons and magic potions. As time went on and the plays became more pregnant with political allusion, secrecy would be imperative. Burghley himself would not for anything have had it known to the public who had written the plays in which he was so devastatingly portrayed.
The Manor of Rysing, together with “as much more of those lands in fee farm as shall make up the [annual] sum Of £250” ($10,000 in our currency today) was a handsome gift. Oxford was doing important work. Unfortunately, this property had belonged to the Duke of Norfolk, having been confiscated by the Crown when he was executed; so that there had been some hard feeling on the part of Philip Howard, his son, and Henry Howard, his brother, when Oxford had sued for it, but this was only the beginning of their joint disturbances.
The progress to Cambridge, in July 1578, was a pageant of unparalleled splendor. As the great procession moved through the streets of London on that bright midsummer day, the people turned out in hordes to applaud and cheer. Green willow-arches had been set up as avenues for the prancing horses caparisoned in rich velvet, bearing upon their backs the gorgeously dressed courtiers and maids of honor. Tapestries and rich stuffs, depending from windows, wimpled lightly in the breeze. Tableaux and allegorical devices were staged along the route. Drums rumbled and throbbed, trumpets blared, church-bells pealed in a wild cacophony. The people, who always grow sentimental when a beloved monarch unbends, threw kisses, curtseyed, and waved their caps in the air.
There were cries of enthusiastic greeting to the premier Earl, who rode his high-stepping, arch-necked gelding beside the royal coach; for, as Mendoza informed the King of Spain at that time, Lord Oxford was “a gallant lad, one who has a great following in the country.” Like the Prince of Denmark, he was “lov’d of the distracted multitude:” this a realistic description, by the way, of the throngs which cheered Elizabeth and her court on progress.
At every village along the route the population turned out to applaud or to gape in awe at the dazzling pageant. Sextons hurried to church-towers to ring, the bells; horns were blown; boys whistled piercingly; old women pushed forward to bob and curtsy to Good Queen Bess. Now and then a petition was thrust forth in a grimy hand, and Elizabeth would read it on the spot, promising to see what could be done. Bohun says, “She was never angry with the most unseasonable or uncourtly approach; she was never offended with the most impudent or importunate petitioner.” (7) Showing herself sympathetically to her people, meeting them with a charming condescension, the Queen received on these progresses a continual affirmation of loyalty and maintained a wholesome personal contact with her adoring subjects.
Stops were made on the way for feasting, hunting, and for the performance of masques and plays. Small wonder that the Queen demanded the presence of her chief dramatist; he would have supervised and participated in the entertainment here as he had done at Warwick six years ago: he was more experienced now. This was from first to last a gala occasion of the highest order. After visiting Cambridge, the progress was to take in Norwich and the East Country.
The Earl of Oxford was in fine fettle. Brilliant, handsome, “superlative in the prince’s favour,” stimulated by success and admiration, he was feeling as mettlesome as the pure-blooded animal upon whose back he sat with such grace and ease. But inevitably, in such cases, il faut chercher la femme.
She was not far to seek. There was a Maid of Honour in the Queen’s train, not beautiful but distinguished, possessed of that quality irresistible to men which is called by different names in different eras, the eternal siren. Her name was Anne Vavasor. The inevitable happened. All the ingredients were present, and the trouble was brewed. It appears that la Vavasor had been attracted first, if we are to judge by the evidence that has survived, and that she and Oxford had already known each other for some time; but in any case, they were both soon caught in an amorous entanglement which was to precipitate recurrent crises in their lives and to torment the poet for many years.
It is unlikely that even he, with his uncanny percipience, could have dreamed, as he rode through the green countryside in the midst of this gay and resplendent company, laughing, chaffing, improvising witty verses, singing snatches of song or putting their horses through tricky paces, that he was at the peak of his fortune and that—like the sun, when “from highmost pitch . . . he reeleth from the day”—he would soon begin the downward journey. At this intense moment he had everything good that life could offer: he was favored of the gods as well as of his sovereign, his endowments were vast. But—as an earlier poet had truly said—”nothing vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse.” The Greeks knew about the jealousy of the gods, and Edward de Vere was destined to prove the wisdom of their pronouncement.
However, for the time being, all was happy and fair-seeming. The riders were accustomed to the “foule, long, and cumbersome” roads, which yeomen had made haste to repair in the worst places by filling the holes and ravines with bundles of fagots or rushes for the royal coach to pass over. After a day’s journey they still had energy left for dancing in the evening at the home of whatever nobleman welcomed and feasted them.
We have spoken of the Queen’s fondness for the pavan, the dance which Beatrice, in Much Ado, was to contrast with livelier ones to illustrate “wooing, wedding, and repenting.” Anne Vavasor might have made just such a comment, for she was said to have a sprightly wit.
Sir Christopher Hatton, who had recently been knighted and was now Vice Chamberlain of the Household, would have danced his graceful best, making every effort to outdo his rival. The Earl of Leicester and his nephew, young Philip Sidney, would have acquitted themselves with their habitual courtly ease. The Queen was surrounded by her favorites. She had reached the age of forty-five, but she still took greedy delight, and ever would, in flirtation and flattery, demanding first place in the hearts of her courtiers, as well as of her maids. She kept an imperious eye upon them all and was morbidly opposed to the development of a romantic attachment among them, flying into a rage when an elopement or a clandestine affair occurred, often going to extreme lengths to punish the culprits.
At this very time, although she had not yet discovered it, Leicester had either been or was soon to be secretly married to Lettice Knollys, one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour, and he must have felt he was walking on hot embers. Having finally given up all hope of wedding Elizabeth, he had taken the desperate step of committing himself to another woman and was now stoically awaiting the consequences of discovery. When she did learn about the match, the Queen was with difficulty restrained by some of her counsellors from putting Lord Robert in the Tower. She did banish him from court for some time and, to the end of her life, treated his wife shamefully.
The Earl of Oxford may even at this moment have been composing with mischievous glee the punning passage on the “sore L which he was to incorporate in a play soon to be presented before Her Majesty:
. . . put L to sore, then sorel jumps from thicket;
Or pricket, sore, or else sorel; the people fall a-hooting
If sore be sore, then L to sore makes fifty sores one sorel.
Of one sore I a hundred make, by adding but one more L.
Holinshed says that the city of Leicester, from which Dudley’s title was taken, “standeth upon the river Sore” (now spelled Soar). There were too many possibilities here for a self-respecting Elizabethan to resist. L, the initial of Leicester’s name, is also fifty in Roman numerals. L, combined with sore, gives sorel. A sorel is a three-year-old buck; a pricket is a second-year buck; both are terms for deer, which invariably provided a pun for dear. Leicester was a “sore L” because he had lost all hope of marrying the Queen, whose “dear” he had been for a long while, and also because he was particularly vulnerable, or sensitive, just now on this subject.
Elizabeth herself made a similar pun at one time—whether before or after this occasion we cannot say—with regard to a man named Noel, who was always in debt:
The word of denial and letter of fifty
Is that gentleman’s name who will never be thrifty. (8)
But again we are anticipating.
1. Hume: The Gr. Ld. B.; pp. 311-12.
2. Both letters above from Ward; pp. 152-3; cit. Hatfield MSS. (Cal. II.156); Cal. Rutland MSS. I.115.
3. Op. Cit.
4. Ward; pp. 155-6; cit. Lansdowne NISS., 25.07.
5. Ward; p. 148; cit. Lansdowne MSS., 238.129.
6. Ward; p. 149; cit. Patent Roll 1165. m. 43.20 Eliz. (Latin.)
7. Character of Q. Eliz.
8.. Chamberlin: The Sayings of Q. Eliz.; p. 38.