Chapter 24

“William Shakes-speare”
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn

Chapter Twenty-Four


Belarius.                                        This story
The world may read in me; my body’s mark’d
With Roman swords, and my report was once
First with the best of note; Cymbeline lov’d me,
And when a soldier was the theme, my name
Was not far off; then was I as a tree
Whose boughs did bend with fruit, but, in one night,
A storm or robbery, call it what you will,
Shook down my mellow hangings, nay, my leaves,
And left me bare to weather.
Guiderius.                                   Uncertain favour!
Belarius. My fault being nothing,—as I have told you oft,—
But that two villains, whose false oaths prevail’d
Before my perfect honour, swore to Cymbeline
I was confederate with the Romans; so
Follow’d my banishment. (Cym.: III.3.55-69.

THIS, IN THE POET’S OWN WORDS, is the gist of the story of December 1580. The metaphor covers a literal truth, the “two villains” being his “Roman” Catholic cousin, Henry Howard, and his friend, Charles Arundel, whose “false oaths,” that he was their “confederate,” sworn in an extremity of vengeful fear, though soon categorically disproved, constitute part of the evil that has lived after him. All the false witness borne against Lord Oxford by these convicted traitors has been preserved in State papers, while so much that has testified to his virtue, his “perfect honour,” his greatness—including, incidentally, what must have been an eloquent defense in this case-has been meticulously destroyed. And the gullible world-Hamlet’s “evermore unknowing world”—has allowed the matter to stand unquestioned. Encyclopedias continue to record the false testimony, curtly parroting established evil. And the terrible irony is that, above all else in life, Edward de Vere valued and strove to protect his good name.

                . . . the art O’ the court,
As hard to leave as keep, whose top to climb
Is certain falling, or so slippery that
The fear’s as bad as falling; the toil of war,
A pain that only seems to seek out danger
l’ the name of fame and honour; which dies i’ the search,
And hath as oft a slanderous epitaph
As record of fair act. (Cym.: III.3.46-53.)

With his superior intelligence, his amazing perspicacity, he came, as he grew older, wiser, sadder, to apprehend the kind of treatment he would receive in the record, and so he set himself to counteract his “slanderous epitaph” by telling his story. This he ingeniously did, as we have begun to demonstrate, throughout the plays, reworking them partly for that purpose, and partly to make them great literature, during the last decade of his life. He revealed the truth more openly and more simply in the Sonnets.

As Coleridge saw, with the perception which is an attribute of only the most distinguished critics, this supreme artist was far less concerned with plot than with character. Actually he used plot merely as a canvas upon which his colorful figures might symbolically portray the persons and events of the time. From his beloved “old tales” he took those which were best suited to his design. Even Coleridge, though he had penetrating gleams, did not pierce the dark curtain which has so successfully masked the dramatist’s passionate purpose from those who would have given him sympathy as well as even greater honor. Not understanding the point of view from which he wrote, taking small account of his cultural background and the psychology of that era, regarding the heartfelt poems and plays as impersonal, something written as it were in a vacuum—”objectively,” it has been said by a present-day commentator—posterity has been handicapped in its interpretation and its full response.

There are pervasive minor strains of bitterness and profound disillusionment throughout Lord Oxford’s work, but always he rallies; or at least he did until the year 1601. He knew his own worth. He did not, however, take himself too seriously, for earlier than most men he learned what the world was and realized that the fundamentals of human nature will be for ever as they have ever been. How could you blame others when you yourself had committed unworthy acts?

Speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice.

This was all he asked. But he was right in suspecting that he would not receive even so much. The integrity of his spirit, the nobility of his mind, shine through the clouds of his strange destiny with a radiance that even today, after nearly four hundred years, illuminates our understanding and enhances the meaning of our own lives.

The “storm” broke on Christmas Eve, 1580.

The first report of what happened is contained in a letter written on Christmas Day to Philip II of Spain by his Ambassador in England, Bernardino de Mendoza, which begins:

Milord Henry Howard, brother of the Duke of Norfolk, has for some years—as I know through some priests—been very Catholic. . . . He desired that the [French] match should take place, believing, like many other Catholics, that by this means they would be allowed to exercise their religion in freedom.

On hearing that the Earl of Oxford had accused him, together with Charles [Arundel and Francis] Southwell of being reconciled to Rome, they did not dare to trust themselves to the French Ambassador; but coming to my house at midnight, though I had never spoken to them, they told me the danger in which they found themselves of losing their lives, unless I would hide them. . . . Milord Henry, in gratitude. . . has informed and continues to inform me of everything he hears. . . . To touch the greatness of the affection with which he occupies himself in the service of Your Majesty is impossible.

The charge Oxford had brought against these “two villains” before the Queen was more serious than they had indicated to the Spanish Ambassador when they sought refuge with him at the Embassy. It would have been no news to the Queen that these men were “reconciled to Rome”: they had always been Catholics; there would have been no point, and certainly no scandal, in Oxford’s calling her attention to this fact.

The French Ambassador, reporting more fully to his King on January 11,1581, said that Howard, Arundel, and Southwell,

having been questioned regarding the accusations brought against them by the Earl of Oxford, namely that they conspired against the state. . . were able to clear themselves very satisfactorily.

This, then, was the accusation: conspiracy, not their form of faith. The French Ambassador, Castelnau de la Mauvissière, explained the situation as follows to his King:

A few days before Christmas, the Earl of Oxford (who about four and a half years ago on his return from Italy made professions of the Catholic faith together with some of his relatives among the nobility and his best friends. . .) accused his former friends to the Queen of England your good sister.

This letter, preserved in the archives of the Catholic Record Society, contains the only direct statement that Oxford had, soon after returning from Italy or at any other time, made a profession of the Catholic faith. If he had done so, he would never have allowed it to affect his loyalty to his country. Impressed by the beauty of the ritual at Rome, where he had undoubtedly been present during a great religious festival, the Jubilee of 1575, he may have felt more responsive than before to the aesthetic appeal of Catholicism. Moreover, harassed by suspicions regarding the behavior of his wife and Lord Burghley, hurt and incensed against his friend Gascoigne, who had not only appropriated his poems but been honored for doing so, and perhaps also against the Queen for bestowing the honor, he may have sought the comfort offered by the more intimate and soothing forms of the older religion. (Timon of Athens testifies to his profound depression at that time.) However, there is no other record that he did so—his name does not appear on the Vatican list of English noblemen who were Catholics—and since several statements are made in Castelnau’s letter which are flagrant falsehoods, there can be no assurance that he spoke truly in this. Oxford was certainly not antagonistic to the Catholics; and he had come to favor the Alençon-match program, though he patently had no admiration for the Duke himself, who, he dearly implied, smelled. Although he strongly disliked the Queen’s behavior with Simier and expressed his stern disapproval in 2 Henry VI, while jesting about their love-affairs in Twelfth Night, several of his plays were, in fact, quite in line with Elizabeth’s policy of romanticizing the affair.

The French Ambassador continued with the assertion that the Earl had

craved forgiveness for what he had done, saying that he now recognized that he had done wrong. He then proceeded to accuse his best friends who had supported him in his recent quarrels [sic] of having conspired against the state by having made a profession of the Catholic faith, and he endeavored to do them all the harm he could. The Queen your good sister was very much upset about it, for she was very fond of most of those accused by the Earl; among whom were Lord Henry Howard, a brother of the late Duke of Norfolk, and Charles Arundel, who is very devoted to your Majesty and to Monseigneur your brother, both of them being strong advocates of the marriage. . . .

It was to her great regret, as the Queen herself told me, that she was obliged to place them under restraint in the custody of some of her Councillors: Lord Henry Howard under the charge of Sir Christopher Hatton, Captain of the Guard; and Francis Southwell under the charge of Sir Francis Walsingham.

Having been questioned regarding the accusation preferred against them by the Earl of Oxford, namely that they had conspired against the State, they were able to clear themselves very satisfactorily; and as concerns Catholicism, they are known to be well-affected to it, as indeed is the case with most of the nobility in this kingdom. The Queen knew this perfectly well; and Lord Henry Howard, Arundel, and Southwell, although Catholics at heart, are nevertheless much esteemed and favoured by her, seeing that both they and their friends have always been in favour of the marriage and of the French alliance. The Earl of Oxford thus found himself alone in his evidence and accusations. He has lost credit and honour, and has been abandoned by all his friends and by the ladies of the Court. . . .

If this were true, it must mean that the Queen had refused to take his word for the conspiracy, or at any rate to take it seriously enough to act with prompt decision. Such a case would seem to be indicated by the lines,

          . . . . whose false oaths prevail’d
Before my perfect honour,

and by the fact that she took only half measures, procrastinating as was her wont in the face of what the Earl knew to be an extremity of danger to the state and to herself as sovereign.

The letter concludes:

Nevertheless up to the present the Queen has been endeavoring to find out all she can about the matter. She has told me recently that they were madmen, but that there were certainly plots being hatched, with their roots abroad; and that she very much regretted to find her own subjects implicated in them. . . . She added that she would close her eyes to it as far as possible in view of their attitude towards the marriage. . . .

All this is quite transparent to us of course, though it is impossible to guess to what extent Castelnau himself was taken in. If Elizabeth were closing her eyes to the situation, we may be sure Burghley was missing nothing. It is worth noting that 3 Henry VI appeared at approximately this time and that Oxford may have used this play as a medium for informing the Queen of the conspiracy. It could have been the one recorded as “The storie of—” which was presented at court December 29, 1580. But whether she saw the play privately at court or elsewhere, or whether she only had an account of it from someone who had seen it, she would have been quick to apprehend the warning it expressed. Elizabeth and her leading dramatist spoke the same language: for the most part, they had the same general background and interests, as well as the same patriotic ideals and aims.

(In view of the evidence that the Earl of Oxford shared Castiglione’s high conception of the attributes essential to the perfect courtier and endeavored to realize these in his own person, it is extremely interesting to read that author’s remarks in the Fourth Book regarding the courtier’s duty to keep his Prince informed concerning flatterers and traducers. We quote an excerpt:

The ende therefore of a perfect Courtier I believe is to purchase him, by the meane of the qualities [described], in such wise the good will and favour of the Prince he is in service withall, that he may breake his minde to him, and alwaies enforme him frankly of the truth of every matter meete for him to understand, without fear or peril to displease him. And when he knoweth his minde is bent to commit any thing unseemly for him, to be bold to stand with him in it . . . to disswade him from every ill purpose, and to set him in the way of vertue . . . that his Prince shall not bee deceived nor lead with flatterers, railers, and lyers, but shall know both the good and the bad.

Lord Oxford used his plays as a medium to serve his sovereign. Elizabeth comprehended and applauded his purpose-one might say his mission—for there was a deep bond between. them, and she well knew that she had in this poet an almost ideal courtier. However, unlike him, she was not steadfast: she was faithless and undependable, as she was to show herself upon this occasion.)

Although the Queen was, of course, temperamentally unlike the modest, self-abnegating Henry VI, her policy was no less vacillating than his. Animated by different motives, they both hated war, both put their faith in arbitration—Henry because he believed in the power of fair-minded reason, Elizabeth because she believed in the power of guile.

Green said of her that “Her nature was essentially practical and of the present”; her policy was one “of detail. . . of a limited, practical, tentative quality,” suited to her ingenuity and adaptability. “Ignoble, inexpressibly wearisome as the Queen’s diplomacy seems to us now. . . it succeeded in its main end” and was of a type “best suited to the England of her day, to its small resources and the transitional character of its religious and political beliefs,” as well as to her “peculiar powers.” Her “shameless mendacity” was “simply an intellectual means of meeting a difficulty.” Moreover, “she was indifferent to abuse. Her good humour was never ruffled by the charges of wantonness and cruelty with which Jesuits filled every court of Europe. She was insensible to fear. . . . Even when the Catholic plots broke out in her very household she would listen to no proposals for the removal of Catholics from the court.” (1)

Elizabeth would have received Oxford’s new chronicle play as a warning that even at this moment Mary Stuart’s supporters were conspiring to put her whom they held to be the rightful Queen upon the throne; for the Catholics, not recognizing Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, considered Elizabeth a bastard and Mary of Scotland the true sovereign. However, at one time they had taken the position that all they wished was to have Elizabeth declare Mary her heir: and so says York to Henry (I.1.172-3):

Confirm the crown to me and to mine heirs,
And thou shalt reign in quiet while thou livest.

How ineffectual this temporizing was, promptly came to light in the play, as it would, the author implied, appear in fact, were Elizabeth to yield thus much.

Because of her prolonged dilly-dallying with Alençon and her flagrant flirtation with Simier, the Queen had for the first time, as we have said, lost ground in her subjects’ enthusiastic devotion. The Puritans were sourly disapproving; the people as a whole disliked and mistrusted the French. Meanwhile “the Papists were bringing into England numbers of seminary priests, specially trained for the propaganda to which they devoted their lives, and the great Catholic party in England, having recovered somewhat from the blow of the Norfolk conspiracy, were once more holding up their heads.” (2)

It was certainly not because of anyone’s “profession of the Catholic faith” that Oxford had gone to the Queen, whether directly or through the play, or both; that was too well-known already. It would have been deeply repugnant to a man of his chivalric code to betray his friends: he had striven doggedly and until the very end to prevent the execution of the Duke of Norfolk, Henry Howard’s brother. No; we may be sure that he had found brewing a serious danger to the State and to the Queen’s safety. But he received small thanks for his pains. It had apparently not occurred to him that he would be balked by lies on all sides, and still less that Elizabeth would not spontaneously accept his allegations.

We return to the French Ambassador’s letter:

The Earl of Oxford, finding himself alone and unsupported, threw himself on his knees several times before the Queen, and begged her to hear from my lips whether it was not true that I knew of a Jesuit who had celebrated the Mass about four years ago at which they were all reconciled to the Roman Church. The Queen earnestly begged me to tell her the facts not so much to injure them in any way, but to satisfy her as to the truth. . . .

I denied all knowledge of the business; saying that I not only knew nothing about it, but that I had never even heard it talked about.

On hearing this the Earl of Oxford once again threw himself on his knees before her, and implored her to urge me to tell the truth. At the same time he begged me to do him the favour to recall a circumstance which touched him very closely. He reminded me that he had sent me a message begging me to assist the said Jesuit to return in safety to France and Italy, and that when I had done so he gave me his thanks. I replied clearly and unequivocally to the Queen that I had no recollection whatever of this incident. The effect of my reply was that the Earl was fairly put to confusion in the presence of his Mistress.

So he thought. Castelnau’s enmity becomes more and more obvious. He was trying to payoff Oxford for some of the allusions in the plays. By now he must have seen, or heard about, 2 Henry VI. But Elizabeth, no matter what her calculated response, would have known, as well as Oxford—as well as Castelnau did himself-that he was lying; she would have considered his lie merely a gambit. However, Lord Oxford, with his different attitude towards truth, which was the very bedrock of his faith, would have loathed it. His passionate plea spurned, his revulsion must have been violent and acute.

Since the plot in which Howard and Arundel were implicated was with the Spanish, and not the French, having for its object, according to subsequent reports, “the massacre of the Protestants, beginning with the Queen,” Oxford had just grounds for supposing that the French Ambassador, whose cause he had been aiding by supporting the French alliance, until now that he realized the dangers involved, would tell the Queen what he knew. How shocked he must have been at Castelnau’s duplicity, augmented by Elizabeth’s ambiguous attitude, is easily imagined.

I bade him speak no more [writes the Ambassador, strutting a little behind the tempestuous Earl’s back]. He is evidently trying to sicken those who were earnest on the side of the match. Perhaps he is jealous of the others, or is of the Spanish faction. (3)

Castelnau had his own reasons for coloring the picture as he did. Several occur to us: (1) his vanity may have been piqued by the allusions in Love’s Labour’s Lost; (2) he may have been angered by the jests aimed at Simier’s cipher love-letters in Twelfth Night, for though he was intensely jealous of Simier, yet being French, he would make common cause with him against English ridicule; (3) he may have wished to show his sovereign his own steadfast superiority to Simier; (4) he may have had some other personal motive, since men are often moved by small spites when large issues are at stake; (5) he may have seen 2 Henry VI, which is based on the events of 1579, and known Oxford was the author. If this last were the case, his spite can be well understood. In any event, he gave a sensitive and discerning young dramatist a pat lesson in villainy.

As the power of Spain grew under the rule of “the lonely figure in the Escorial,” and as Philip’s willingness to aid in placing a Catholic monarch on the throne of England became a positive policy, many English Catholics grew more inclined to support him. Oxford, as a close friend and first cousin of Henry Howard, had begun to perceive indications of this trend. When he had become convinced of the existence of treasonable designs, he had no alternative as a patriotic and loyal subject but to disclose his knowledge to the Queen. It was, significantly, to the Spanish Ambassador that Howard and Arundel had fled as soon as they learned of Oxford’s disclosures.

We might do well to note here Ward’s statement that it has been established with some certainty that Charles Arundel was the editor of the scurrilous and slanderous document, Leicester’s Commonwealth, published in 1584, with the assistance of other exiled followers of Mary Stuart, and it is known that, upon his death in Madrid three years later, the expenses of his elaborate funeral were paid by King Philip of Spain.

Naturally Lord Henry Howard retaliated upon his accuser and put up a vigorous fight to save himself from a traitor’s death such as his brother had suffered less than ten years earlier. He prepared a long list of serious charges against Oxford, among them an attempt to murder Howard, Arundel, and Southwell, Leicester, Walsingham, Sidney, Ralegh, and Sir Henry Knyvet, treasonable correspondence with the Spanish Ambassador, and “notable dishonesty of life” of a criminal nature. These indictments were utterly baseless, as the whole court knew; but they served to play into the hands of Oxford’s enemies, signally Sir Christopher Hatton, now Vice-Chamberlain, in whose custody Howard had been placed by the Queen—it may well have been at Hatton’s suggestion. The documents contra Oxford have been, as we have said, well preserved.

To such desperate lengths did the conspirators go in their zeal to blacken the Earl’s name that they included in a long list of minor charges absurdities like the following statements attributed to him:

That the Catholics were great Ave Maria coxcombs that they would not rebel against the Queen;

My Lord of Norfolk worthy to lose his head for not following his (Oxford’s) counsel at Litchfield to take arms;

Railing at Francis Southwell for commending the Queen’s singing one night at Hampton Court, and protesting by the blood of God that she had the worst voice and did everything with the worst grace that ever woman did and that he was never nonplussed but when he came to speak of her; (4)

Daily railing at the Queen, and falling out with Charles Arundel, Francis Southwell, and myself [Lord Henry Howard] in defence of her.

Howard must have consulted his fellow-plotters as to whether they would back him up in these statements, for opposite the last two charges one of them had written: “Audibi, sed in poculis.” (I heard him say it, but when intoxicated.)

If this file had come to the Queen’s eyes, she would have been far more indignant than she would have been at the Earl’s profession of the Catholic faith, had he made one; for Elizabeth had often said that in religion she was herself a Catholic. It would have fed the flame of her fury against Oxford which was soon to be ignited and within a few months was to blaze to high heaven. Since Hatton had become so influential, he would not have missed an opportunity to score off Oxford, and he would have been only too glad to repeat to his mistress anything derogatory he could pick up from the man placed in his care; however, Elizabeth at least “declined to allow the random accusations of Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundel to be made the basis of a legal process.” (5)

That Oxford was angered but not unduly upset by these irresponsible allegations is suggested in the scenes between the disguised Duke and Lucio in Measure for Measure, where the latter engages in just such flippant vilifications of the Duke, not dreaming that he is talking to the man himself.

The Duke ends by saying (IV.3.167):

Well, you’ll answer this one day.

Which Oxford knew would be the case with Howard and the others, if he lived to write about it.

On January 22, 1581, not quite a month after Lord Oxford had accused the conspirators, a tournament was fought to celebrate the accession of Philip Howard, Henry Howard’s nephew, to the earldom of Arundel. (6) He was the challenger, but the defendant, who was Lord Oxford, won the prize. It was an occasion of surpassing magnificence: Oxford was the Knight of the Tree of the Sun. An old manuscript gives the following description:

By the Tilt stood a stately tent of Orange tawny Taffeta, curiously embroydered with Silver and pendants on the Pinnacles very sightly to behold. From forth this Tent came the noble Earl of Oxen ford in rich gilt Armour, and sat down under a great high Bay-tree, the whole stock, branches, and leaves whereof, were all gilded over, that nothing but Gold could be discerned. By the Tree stood twelve tilting staves, all which likewise were gilded clean over. After a solemn sound of most sweet Musique, he mounted on his Courser, verie richly caparisoned, when his page ascending the stairs where her Highness stood in the window, delivered to her by speech this Oration following, etc. (7)

From this it would appear that the Earl of Oxford had certainly not fallen into disgrace through the charges which had been hurled against him. On the contrary, he appeared in public resplendent and triumphant, while Henry Howard and Charles Arundel were being held in custody. So that Castelnau’s statement that he had “lost credit and honour” and “been abandoned by his friends and the ladies of the Court” was a barefaced lie. The tournament had taken place eleven days after the letter was written.

Among the charges brought against Oxford was one, however, which, while not recorded in the State Papers Domestic, proved to be the fundamental cause of his undoing. The Queen well knew he was incapable of treason, but she was incensed beyond all rational measure when she was informed that he had been having an affair with one of her Maids of Honour, Anne Vavasor, the witty “dark Rosaline” of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the enamored maiden of the Echo poem. Elizabeth was in this acting true to form. She had put Leicester under lock and key when Simier had apprised her of his marriage; she had deliberately broken up less important matches, and she would continue to the end to punish other favorites for love-affairs or matrimony. She was now to come down like a wild blast of nature upon her Turk, whom she had for so long considered her special property, having even arranged his marriage to a young creature who would offer no serious competition and would not dare assert her claims against her royal rival’s.

It is not definitely known when the truth was disclosed. As in the case of Leicester, many persons at court must have been aware of it and not dared brave the Queen’s anger nor the Earl’s enmity by imparting it to her. But when she did learn of the affair, it was undoubtedly through Howard or Arundel. Perhaps Howard whispered it to Hatton. He was the man, bitter enemy as he was to Burghley, who had sent his Iago to Paris to make vile insinuations to the Earl against his wife, accusing her of adultery and taunting him with being a cuckold. Now Howard and Arundel had set themselves to ruin Oxford with the Queen. They were shrewd and desperate men. They knew Elizabeth, and they knew Achilles’s vulnerable spot. In Arundel’s written statement against Oxford, he alleged that the Earl had said to him, ” ‘Charles, I have ever loved you, and as you have already given me your word to my mistress, so now I crave it myself’ . . . after long speeches between him and my cousin Vavasor who was the means of our meeting.” Arundel had given his word to Anne Vavasor that he would not betray her and her lover to the Queen. This was how he had kept it!

The assumption on the part of two or three students that Lord Oxford was committed to the Tower as a result of his revelations of the conspiracy seems to us entirely unfounded. He was sent to the Tower at some time in 1581, probably in April, and released on June 8 of that same year. But Howard and Arundel were placed in custody in December 1580, at which time the Earl certainly went free. Elizabeth would hardly have put him in the Tower just then, even “as a disciplinary measure,” as someone has suggested, and left the real culprits outside. We have said that there could never have been any suspicion of his disloyalty in the Queen’s mind. No; it was au fond the Vavasor affair for which she punished him and for which it would seem that she never entirely forgave him. She must have cared greatly for her “chiefest courtier” to have recoiled upon him as she did. But this was her way; it appeased her vanity to humiliate her great men.

In a letter dated March 23, 1581, Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the Secret Service, wrote the Earl of Huntington:

On Tuesday at night Anne Vavysor was brought to bed of a son in the maiden’s chamber. The E. of Oxford is vowed to be the father, who hath withdrawn himself with intent, as it is thought, to pass the seas. The ports are laid for him and therefore if he have any such determination it is not likely that he will escape. The gentlewoman the selfsame night she was delivered was conveyed out of the house and the next day committed to the Tower. Others that have been found in any ways party to the cause have also been committed. Her Majesty is greatly grieved with the accident, and therefore I hope there will be some order taken as the like inconvenience will be avoided.

Whether the Earl had intended “to pass the seas” at this time, as he had so impetuously done in 1574 under equally strong emotional pressure, is not known. But there is no record that he did so and no proof that he had wished to. (It is not, therefore, upon this occasion, as has been suggested, but upon the former one, that Sonnet 109 was written.) .

This then was “the storm or robbery, call it what you will,” that left him “bare to weather.” Elizabeth knew that, in exposing the treachery of the conspirators, Oxford had done her an immeasurable service. As Ward puts it,

For twenty-three years she had striven to win their [her Catholic subjects’] loyalty by lenience and tolerance. But Lord Oxford had opened her eyes.

He had indeed warned her of this very thing in 3 Henry VI (II.6.21-2):

For what doth cherish weeds but gentle air?
And what makes robbers bold but too much lenity?

This in connection with the “storm or robbery” in the Cymbeline passage is striking. And he added (3 H. VI: IV.4.30):

For trust not him that hath once broken faith.

He himself who had never broken faith with her, nor ever would, no matter how sorely provoked, could freely sound this warning. The Howards had done so before, they did so now, and they would again.

Ward’s statement proceeds:

From this time forward Jesuits who ventured into England were remorselessly hunted down, persecuted, and executed; and the law imposing fines on Catholics for non-attendance at Protestant services, which had remained a dead-letter since it received the royal assent at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, was resuscitated and put into rigorous execution. . . . This change of policy is frequently attributed to the well-known mission to England of the Jesuits, Campion and Parsons. But they landed in England as far back as April 1580; and it was not until after Lord Oxford’s disclosures in December and the proclamation in January that Campion was apprehended and sentenced to death. These dates make it clear that it must have been Lord Oxford’s dramatic interview that induced the Queen to take her first step against her Catholic subjects-a step that Burghley, Walsingham, and the House of Commons had vainly urged upon her over and over again in the past. (8)

The reference to the House of Commons is especially noteworthy when one remembers the commotion caused in 2 Henry VI (III.2.242) and Salisbury’s speech:

Sirs, stand apart; the king shall know your mind.
Dread lord, the commons send you word by me
Unless false Suffolk straight be put to death, etc.,

Suffolk standing for Simier and this concerning the Protestants’ attitude toward the French-Catholic alliance. The uprising of the people in that play represented the public discontent with the Queen’s laxity toward the Catholics in general and Simier in particular.

It was a bold and dangerous thing for even the Queen’s prime favorite to do, to write a play in which the people rose in defiance of authority. There can be no doubt that Oxford had warned Elizabeth of the trouble she might cause by her irresponsible behavior with Simier; and now he put his warning in the strongest possible terms. He had written teasingly about it in Twelfth Night, but he felt it was a serious business, from both a personal standpoint and a political one. And he had evidently reached the stage where he was apprehensive as well as disgusted. Leicester had already made one attempt to have Simier assassinated, by a member of the Queen’s guard; he and Fervaques tried again after this, hiring cut-throats to attack Simier on the London ‘Change, though for the second time he escaped. Elizabeth was enraged. “Calling Leicester to her,” as Hume says, “she called him a murderous poltroon who was only fit for the gallows and warned him and Alençon’s courtiers that if anything happened to her ‘ape’ in England, they should suffer for it.” (9) She must have been infuriated almost beyond endurance with Oxford when she saw, or heard about, the play he had written. It is a striking fact that the word “poltroon(s)” which is used only once in the dramas occurs in 3 Henry VI (I.1.62) shortly before, or shortly after, the Queen had used it.

Elizabeth well knew that he had been instrumental in saving her life. But that went for nothing when, already seething with indignation against him, she heard of his love-affair with Anne Vavasor. So bitter and vindictive was her attitude that she was willing to allow the world to believe he, too, had been tainted with treason, since she could not allow the world to know how deeply the Virgin Queen had been involved in a young nobleman’s love or how he had repudiated her, nor could she have it known that her Lord Great Chamberlain had written such a play as 2 Henry VI. At this time Elizabeth was turning forty-eight, Oxford was not yet thirty-one.

Clever as she was and cruel in the lengths to which she was willing to go to punish her recreant lover while maintaining the pretty legend of her chastity, this “imperial votaress” did not deceive the man who knew her best. She may have put her repudiation partly upon the ground of the dangerous license he had taken in writing 2 Henry VI; but he would have known that, had she believed herself first in his affections, she could have been persuaded that the situation justified the diagnosis. No, he knew it was jealousy that had really animated her in treating him as she did; and it was not long before he was to tell her in transcendently beautiful poetry what had happened. A measure of the depth and power of the poet’s emotion may be gauged by the recklessness with which he made the revelation:

Romeo. He jests at scars that never felt a wound.
But soft! what light through yonder window breaks.?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off. (R. and J.: II.2.1-9.)


Juliet. O! swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable. (II.2.109-11.)

The boldness of outraged pride and loyalty could hardly go farther than this. There is no record of when the Queen first heard these lines. But at a future date the poet, in calmer vein, was to make her smile with him about his bitter outburst.

No sophisticated contemporary could have failed to understand at once what Romeo meant, or who he was, or who his young mistress, Elizabeth always the moon—Sylvia, Diana, Cynthia, the moon-goddess—was abnormally jealous of her younger maids; incidentally, the Tudor “livery” was “green,” and this rounded out the analogy.

The only basis for a supposition that Oxford was arrested twice is an item in a Fugger News Letter, dated April 29, 1581:

London. The Earl of Oxford also arrested [i.e., with Howard and Arundel] but soon set at liberty, is again in the Tower for forgetting himself with one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour, who is in the Tower likewise.

Oxford was not arrested with Howard and Arundel: Southwell was. And this is probably the cause of the error. As a matter of fact, Arundel complained in a letter to Hatton that Oxford had not been arrested.

The Fugger News Letters contained items of international news—often no more than gossip, similar to some of the press dispatches in our papers today—gathered by the Fugger couriers who, first as postmen, later as correspondents, reported whatever they could glean of public interest. That they were mistaken about the Earl’s incarceration with the conspirators is attested in a statement about it signed by the Privy Council under date of June 9, 1581, which reads:

. . . his Lordship was not committed thither upon any cause of treason or any criminal cause. (10)

Lord Oxford’s biographer, B. M. Ward, made a thorough search among the lists of prisoners “whose names are recorded in the bills for their keep and custody and rendered quarterly to the Privy Council,” and found—though the record for this whole period is complete—no mention of the Earl’s name for the two quarters beginning December 23, 1580 and ending June 24, 1581.

It is therefore obvious [he asserts] that the Earl of Oxford cannot have had any meals in the Tower during his imprisonment. As the charges, which were absolutely baseless, brought against him by his former friends included an alleged attempt to murder them all three; such “dangerous practices” as the attempted murder of Leicester, Walsingham, Sidney, Ralegh, and Sir Henry Knyvet; treasonable correspondence with the Spanish Ambassador, as well as with the English fugitives at Rome; and lastly, “notable dishonesty of life” of a criminal nature, it is clear that his confinement must have referred to some other cause, since it is ob. vious that if he had been found guilty of any of these charges he would have spent months, and perhaps years, in the gloomy fortress. (11)

However, the statement by the Privy Council, duly signed, is sufficient proof of there having been no treason or other criminal cause of the Earl’s imprisonment. It need hardly be said that the injured nobleman would forthwith dramatize the whole affair, giving the true version of what had happened—that he would not rest till “wit” had “wrought his will on injury.” In this case the “device” would be called Measure for Measure, which was straightforward enough, to be sure.

Although there is no record of a current performance of the plays now called Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, they belong by definite internal evidence to this crucial period. Neither Burghley nor Hatton would have failed to advise the Queen that her dramatist had exceeded all bounds of caution in bringing such matters to the stage. But both would have been secretly thankful that the irrepressible Earl had been able to awaken the Queen to a realization of imminent danger, as they themselves and others had tried for a long time but without avail to do.


1. A Short History of the English People; p. 738.

2. Hume: The Gr. Ld. B.; p. 335.

3. Ward; p. 209; cit. Catholic Record Society, vol. XXI, pp. 29, 30.

4. This paragraph is strikingly reminiscent of Sir Toby’s goings-on, culminating with his remark, “my lady’s a Cataian.” It would have been characteristic of the sportive Oxford to have added that passage to the play after the charge made against him. These accusations quoted by Ward; pp. 212-13.

5. Ward; p. 213.

6. Not to be confused with Charles Arundel, who had no title.

7. Facsimile in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library, Eng. Literature, 1475-1700. It is highly significant that the account in Nichols’ Progresses omits mention of Oxford.

8. P. 214.

9. Courtships of Q. Eliz.; p. 278.

10. Ward; cit. Acts of the Privy Council, New Series, XIII. 74.

11. P. 212.

Contents | Chapter Twenty-Five