THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
ANNE VAVASOR, daughter of Henry Vavasor of York, was a cousin of the Howards. Her mother was Margaret Knyvet, sister of Thomas Knyvet, who was head of the Wiltshire branch of the family. A Gentleman of the Chamber, he was appointed Keeper of Westminster Palace in January 1582, and was knighted sometime before 1601.
Spenser, who seems to have loved Anne at one period, described her in The Shepheardes Calendar under the name of Rosalind, as “a gentlewoman of no meane house,” who came from the “north parts.” He, Colin Clout, had evidently become disillusioned by the time he reached the August eclogue, where he wrote:
But tell me, shepherds, should it not yshend
Your roundels fresh to heare a do ole full verse
Of Rosalind, (who knows not Rosalind?)
That Colin made, ylke I you rehearse.
When, early in 1582, Knyvet challenged Oxford to a duel, it is not surprising that the Queen, still vindictive against the Earl, took Knyvet’s part. No longer did she make the excuse that an Earl must not fight a Gentleman: the compulsions of her vanity took precedence over all rules and conventions.
On March 17, 1582, Nicholas Fant wrote Anthony Bacon:
In England of late, there hath been a fray between my Lord of Oxford and Master Thomas Knyvet of the Privy Chamber, who are both hurt, but my Lord of Oxford more dangerously. You know Master Knyvet is not. meanly beloved in Court, and therefore he is not likely to speed ill whatsoever the quarrel be. (1)
The Earl of Oxford was still in disgrace. Heretofore, no one had been less “meanly beloved in Court” than he. The Queen had allowed him unprecedented liberties. But now the story was different. At last Hatton had the opportunity he had long sought of doing him harm; and he made use of it by exerting himself strenuously in Knyvet’s behalf. It would be interesting to know if it were Hatton who got him appointed Keeper of Westminster Palace; it may, of course, have been Leicester.
An entry in the diary of the Rev. Richard Madox dated March 3, gives further details:
My Lord of Oxford fought with Master Knyvet about the quarrel of Bessie Bavisar, and was hurt, which grieved the Lord Treasurer so much the more for that the Earl hath company with his wife since Christmas. But through this mishap, and through the pains he took at the marriage of another daughter to my Lord Wentworth on Shroveday, my Lord Treasurer was sick. (2)
Oxford was permanently injured in the duel. This for a man who had been “From head to foot in form rare and most absolute” was a very special humiliation. His enemies were quick to apply the epithet “deformed,” which had a glancing reference to his presentment as Proteus in The Two Gentlemen, named from the Proteus Ambiguus of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the character who assumed different forms and thus could be called deformed (according to the Elizabethan fashion, that is, of manipulating words). This word was now added to the “traveller,” or “travailler,” the “Italian ate Englishman,” the “fantastic” or the “melancholy” nobleman, etc., to denote the anonymous poet: and by himself, in his candid, nonchalant way, as well as by others.
Out of this unfortunate quarrel there arose a feud between Oxford’s and Knyvet’s retainers which lasted for at least a year. Little suspecting how actual was the analogy, Feuillerat, in his John Lyly, wrote:
As in other times at Verona, the streets of London were filled with the clamorous quarrels of these new Montagues and Capulets.
Magistrate William Fleetwood made an entry in his Diary dated January 19, 1582:
I think the inhabitants will cry out if Knyveton and Light be not bound to their good behaviour. . . . I see no grace in them. . . . This levenson is a dangerous Ruffen; he hath misused my lo. of Oxenford with words of indignitie.(3)
The whole affair, involved as it was with the breach between Lord Oxford and his former intimates, the Howards and Arundel, became complicated with rumors and false reports. There exists a long “declaration” written by the Earl of Arundel’s—Philip Howard’s—private secretary, Roger Townsend, “touching the bruit given out that the Earl of Oxford should have attempted somewhat against .Master Thomas Knyvet.” (4)
From this confused and confusing document, which refers to others no longer extant, Ward was able to elucidate the fact that Knyvet and Townsend were dining with Lord Arundel at Arundel House when word was brought that the Earl of Oxford and Lord Willoughby were planning to lie in wait for Knyvet and attack him. Townsend went around to Willoughby House, where he found Oxford and Willoughby, having supped together, walking in the garden. After an interview with them, Townsend asserts that “truly I did think in my conscience there was nothing intent, for there was none in company prepared [i.e., armed] to any purpose.”
In spite of reports to the contrary, Ward definitely states that “the duel took place before March yd, while the ‘declaration’ is dated June 18th.”
For a full year after the duel was fought the feud between the contestants’ retainers continued, as we have said, breaking out afresh in February 1583, when one of Oxford’s men was killed. The Parish Registers of St. Botolph’s record of his burial:
Robert Brenings, ye L. of Oxford’s man, slayne 2I Febr.
Again, Lord Burghley wrote to enlist the assistance of Sir Christopher Hatton. But meanwhile Hatton must have been doing all he could against Oxford in this very matter, while encouraging the Queen by every means at his command to take Knyvet’s side. One of the few insoluble mysteries in this story is, we repeat, Burghley’s habit of continually appealing to Oxford’s confirmed enemy to press for his reinstatement with the Queen and for other favors too. Why should he have persisted as he did? There is something very unsavory about it all.
On July 27, 1582, more than four months after the duel, Hatton wrote to the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Bromley:
Mr. Knyvet hath informed Her Majesty of his desire to have his cause of se defendendo determined by a privy session in this vacation-time.
It seemeth he hath found your Lordship not to like of that manner of proceeding, in which respect your Lordship hath refused to grant forth the Commission.
Her Majesty marvelleth not a little that your Lordship should deny her servant the same that is usual. It hath pleased her, therefore, to command me to signify unto you that she looked for justice, with favour at your hands, toward this gentleman.
You know saith she who he is, and where he serveth.
My good Lord, it is very necessary to please the Queen in this case, for, in truth, she taketh it unkindly at your hands that she should be strained to meddle and be seen in this matter. [In other words, this.must be between you and me: she prefers to maintain the fiction of aloofness.]
On the following day Lord Chancellor Bromley replied in such a manner as to suggest that he may have been calling Hatton’s bluff; for such it undoubtedly was. The Vice-Chamberlain was taking an underhand means further to embarrass his rival:
True it is [he wrote] that I misliked of this suit; but, that I did expressly refuse to grant the commission, that is not so. I never knew, nor I never heard, that any party supposed to be an offender might of ordinary course have a special commission at his proper suit. Neither is it reason it should be so; for that were to open a gap to let offenders pass through without punishment.
For this commission, being secretly awarded, haply to commissioners not indifferent, may sit. . . without the notice or the knowledge of the adverse party, without which it is impossible to produce the proofs against the offender.
I have not known of any such commission granted, neither did I think it fit to be granted, until I were further satisfied by the counsel, or were otherwise commanded.
Upon receipt of this firm statement, Hatton, after taking a few days to compose himself, withdrew with a sanctimonious flourish.
Your letters are in all respects so acceptable [he replied, on August 2],
and amply satisfying her expectations, as it pleased her very graciously
to commend them..
When I showed Her Majesty your letters, she commanded me to make Mr. Knyvet privy to them, who finding them written with all honourable care and declaration of the due course of justice, resteth likewise exceedingly well satisfied in all respects. (5)
He had gone as far as he dared. It is a question whether Elizabeth ever knew that he had made such an irregular request of the Lord Chancellor.
However this may be, Burghley appealed to Hatton once more, in March 1583, on behalf of his son-in-law. And his very first sentence shows what seems to be an almost doddering ineptitude:
Good Master Vice Chamberlain. . . . I perceive yesterday, by my Lord of Leicester, that you had very friendly delivered speeches to Her Majesty tending to bring some good end to these troublesome matters betwixt my Lord of Oxford and Master Knyvet. . . . And now perceiving by my Lord of Leicester some increase of Her Majesty’s offence towards my Lord of Oxford. . . .
Thus the immediate result of Hatton’s “speeches” was a worsening of Oxford’s case: “some increase of Her Majesty’s offence” towards him. Yet even then it seems not to have occurred to Burghley what Hatton was up to and why he was the last person from whom to expect any aid in relieving Oxford’s situation. Moreover, Burghley must have known that nothing would better have suited Leicester’s book than Oxford’s remaining in the Queen’s bad graces. The Lord Treasurer’s deviousness is, we are frank to say, quite too much for our simple comprehension. Perhaps he merely wished to have his efforts show in the record.
Leicester and Hatton had more than one bond to unite them in their machinations. They both belonged to the Puritan party and stood together in fixed opposition to the Alençon match. Politics makes strange affinities; and they were both essentially politicians, incapable of the flights of imagination and gay humor which so fascinated the Queen in her Turk. These three men had indubitably been the Queen’s lovers; and now a queer sympathy drew the older, stolider two to work together against the more volatile, dashing, unaccountable third. The puckish antics of the brilliant young Earl, the liberties he was allowed, the darts he shot hither and yon, respecting no one, lightly mocking all, penetrating pomposities and deceits, and then, suddenly serious, aimed at vaulting ambition and incipient treachery—this was an exasperating unknown quantity at court of which both these practical egoists wished for ever to be rid. For the sake of so valid a purpose they were willing to ignore tangential amorous rivalries, in the hope that by working together they might succeed better than they had so far ,been able to do through their individual designs. Shrewd enough to estimate the potential value of the Queen’s injured vanity, they took advantage of their God-given opportunity. Small wonder that Lord Oxford continued so long in disfavor, Burghley’s pious protestations notwithstanding.
An illuminating item occurs in a letter written in a different connection, by one William Herle to Walsingham in May 1582, the importance of which cannot be overestimated in this case. Aware of the devoted friendship existing for many years between Sussex and Oxford, one had been perplexed to find no evidence of any exertions on the older man’s part in his young friend’s behalf. Oxford had come to regard Sussex almost as a father, and he would certainly have counted on his aid in a time of great trouble. There can be no question that he did receive as much’ aid as Sussex was able to give, though the records are suspiciously silent on this point.
We find the following, however, in Herle’s letter:
Du Vray showed me that a great quarrel had been between the Earls of Sussex and Leicester and that manslaughter might have followed between their partakers, but both Earls were committed by the Queen to their Houses. (6)
The obvious conclusion is that Sussex, in endeavoring to intercede for Oxford, had found himself hopelessly thwarted by his old enemy, Leicester. This would have brought their chronic antagonism to such a pitch that a fight to the death would have resulted if the Queen had not intervened.
It would probably be impossible to exaggerate the effect of this incident upon the mind of Oxford, who would characteristically have learned all about it and taken the outrage deeply to heart.
After this digression, we return to Burghley’s letter to Hatton, of March 1583:
. . . and finding by Master Thomas Knyvet that he only being called and demanded of Her Majesty what he would say herein, he did, as served his turn, declare to Her Majesty that his men were evil used by Lord Oxford’s men, and no redress had. I cannot but think Her Majesty had just occasion given by such an information to be offended towards my Lord of Oxford or his men; and did therefore, like a Prince of justice and God’s minister, command the matter to be examined, which was done yesterday by my Lord of Leicester to his trouble and my grief.
What could be clearer? Knyvet “only being called” to give his version to Her Majesty, and then Leicester appointed to examine the matter! If ever the dice were loaded, surely they were in this game being played against the banished defendant.
And I doubt not [Burghley doubts not!] but my Lord of Leicester will honourably declare to Her Majesty how my Lord of Oxford resteth untouched, or at least unblotted, in any kind of matter objected by Master Knyvet, whom we heard at great length, and his men also. . . so as, where Her Majesty had just cause to conceive somewhat hardly of my Lord of Oxford, I doubt not but when Her Majesty shall be informed by my Lord of Leicester of the truth, Her Majesty will diminish her offensive opinion.
It is not unnatural to suppose that since Her Majesty did not “diminish her offensive opinion” against Lord Oxford, she may not so artlessly have been “informed by my Lord of Leicester of the truth.”
. . . and I trust also, after you shall have read these writings, which on my credit I will avouch to be true, you will be of the same mind, and, as opportunity may serve, will also move Her Majesty in this case to think otherwise than the informer meant to induce her to think. As to the rest of the brabbles and frays, my Lord of Leicester can also declare upon what small occasions of repute and light carriage of tales, where my Lord of Oxford is nowise touched, these brabbles are risen. . . .
Burghley’s verbosity, like that of Polonius, knew no limits. To a sprightly mind it was infinitely tedious.
It appeareth that these frays grow by challenge made to my Lord of Oxford’s men; and yet it must be informed that my Lord of Oxford’s men do offer these frays.
Good Master Vice Chamberlain, these things are hardly carried, and these advantages are easily gotten where some may say what they will against my Lord of Oxford, and have presence to utter their humours, and my Lord of Oxford is neither heard nor hath presence either to complain or to defend himself. And so long as he shall be subject to the disgrace of Her Majesty (from which God deliver him) I see it apparently that, [how] innocent soever he shall be, the advantages will fall out with his adversaries; and so, I hear they do prognosticate.
It would not have been Burghley had he not injected a pious note:
But I submit all these things to God’s will, who knoweth best why it pleaseth him to afflict my Lord of Oxford in this sort, who hath, I confess, forgotten his duty to God….
Like many another of his type, Burghley no doubt believed that himself and God saw eye to eye, and that Oxford’s offenses against him had ipso facto been against God.
. . . and yet I hope he may be made a good servant to Her Majesty, if it pleases her of her clemency to remit her displeasure; for his fall in her Court, which is now twice-yeared, and he punished as far or farther than any like crime hath been, first by Her Majesty and then by the drab’s friend in revenge to the peril of his life.
Here we have a clear statement of the “crime” for which Oxford was punished.
There is one other paragraph in this almost interminable communication which we shall quote presently. Hatton, under date of March 19, reported to Burghley in a letter which could have meant anything one wishes to make of it:
My Lord of Oxford’s cause standeth in slow course of proceeding to his satisfaction; but yet for own part, I have some better hope than heretofore, wherein as a preservative you must all use patience for a while. His Lordship wrote me a very wise letter in this case of his the report whereof Her Majesty took in reasonably good gracious part.
Her Majesty did not see the letter, she only had “the report thereof,” nor is posterity allowed to see it: it was no doubt far too “wise” for Hatton to wish it preserved. At times it looks as though everybody concerned in the Earl of Oxford’s life conspired to expunge him from the record for eternity. They have had abundant co-operation!
Elizabeth’s absolute refusal to see Lord Oxford or to hear his side of the story, while continuing to make herself accessible to his enemies, is an indication of the depth and spitefulness of her resentment against him. Henry VIII’s daughter had inherited some of her father’s cruelty along with his exceptional ability. The follqwing passage from the Scandal Letter has the ring of truth:
. . . saying that she would not for anything in the world be in your service. . . she would be afraid that when you were angry you would do to her as you did to her cousin Shedmur whose finger you had broken making those of the Court believe that it was a candlestick which had fallen on it and that to another who was serving you at table you had given a violent blow on the hand with a knife. . . .(7)
Burghley’s remark that the Earl had been “punished as far or farther than any like crime had been” refers to Elizabeth’s treatment of all favorites who committed the crime of dalliance with any other woman than herself. But Oxford had risked his life and his peace of mind in exposing the recent plots against the state and against her person; and it seems incredibly mean of Elizabeth to have served him thus. Her behavior at this time not only shocked him profoundly, it produced a disillusionment which darkened his life. He had really loved the Queen, first with the reverence of the feudal knight for his anointed sovereign, then as her protege and high favorite, later as her lover, and finally, as age set its indelible stigma upon her vivid looks and spontaneity, somewhat as her son. It was a bitter thing to a sensitive man who had spent his youth in the intimate and exacting service of an arrogant though indulgent mistress, who had for twenty years basked in the glittering light of her favor, where he had, as Greville said, stood “superlative,” to find her not only willing to disgrace him but also to bestow all her smiles upon those who defamed him and exploited his ruin. All this must be borne in mind, in order that some of his subsequent work may be understood. It seems not unlikely that he was working on Venus and Adonis at about this time; and he was certainly thinking about Hamlet.
To do the Queen as much justice as possible, one must realize that she was being artfully cajoled and influenced all this while to the Earl’s disadvantage by men who knew how to play upon her vanity and would have liked nothing better than to silence him for ever. Of course, she knew better than to fall in with such maneuverings, but there is no telling how many lies and false reports were served up to her. In winding up his long letter quoted above, Burghley refers to one of these tales—that Lord Oxford had an entourage of “fifteen or sixteen pages in livery going before him in Cheapside.” This he denies, asserting that the Earl maintained only four. “Indeed I would he had less than he hath,” remarks the injured father-in-law, adding that there never were, “at any time, but four.”
One of them waiteth upon his wife my daughter, another is in my house upon his daughter Bess, a third is a kind of tumbling-boy, and the fourth is the son of a brother of Sir John Cutts. . . . When our son-in-law was in prosperity he was the cause of our adversity by his unkind usage of us and ours; and now that he is ruined and in adversity we are only made partakers thereof, and by no means, no, not by bitter tears of my wife, can obtain a spark of favour for him, that hath satisfied his offence with punishment, and seeketh mercy by submission; but contrariwise whilst we seek for favour all crosses are laid against him, and by untruths sought to be kept in disgrace.
The chances are all that we should not have been vouchsafed even so much of Oxford’s side of the question, had not Burghley been able to show himself an aggrieved party.
This gives the first authoritative information that Lord Oxford had returned to his wife. Incidentally, we see that he kept a tumbling.boy, as a man would who maintained a company of actors. As for Burghley’s complaint that it was the Earl’s “unkind usage” which had caused his family “adversity”—all this is as may be. But it is at least pertinent to compare Lord Oxford’s situation in 1583 with that in 1562, when he arrived at the head of a procession of seven’score horses to take up his residence at Cecil House. Now his retinue consisted of four pages. Burghley, however, had waxed richer and more powerful. He maintained eighty servants at Theobalds alone.
Lord Burghley was the Queen’s first minister. Why did he not go directly to her to plead for Oxford? Why, instead, did he appeal to the very men who wished only to harm him? Burghley would have known all about Sussex’s fight with Leicester and would have been in no doubt about the cause. Did he believe degradation would humble Oxford and make him a more tractable son-in-law? Speculation on this subject is as unpleasant as it is unprofitable. Who can follow the devious methods of this arch-opportunist?
There is a record in the Parish Register of the Church at Castle Hedingham which reads:
1583. May 9th. The Earl of Oxenford’s first son.
A world of pathos, especially for the young Countess, lies behind these matter-of-fact words.
Evidence is provided by the registration in the church at Hedingham which completely refutes the slander that has persisted for hundreds of years. It has been abetted by the unfounded testimony of careless historians who have taken it one from another, irresponsibly recording it against the already unjustly “wounded name.” Glibly they have repeated the allegation that, after Burghley’s refusal to assist him in saving the life of the Duke of Norfolk (even this is untrue: Burghley did assist), Lord Oxford
swore that he would ruin his estate at Hedingham, because it was the jointure of his first wife Anne, Lord Burghley’s daughter. According to this insane resolution, he not only forsook his Lady’s bed, but sold and wasted the best part of his inheritance; he began to deface the Castle, pulled down the outhouses, destroyed all the pales of the three parts, wasted the standing timber and pulled down the walls that enclosed the Castle. (9)
Malice has a long tongue. There is not a valid phrase in this story, as may be seen from the fact that the Earl and his wife were living there when his “first son” was born, eleven years after the execution of the Duke of Norfolk. No doubt they wished the heir to the Veres to be born in the ancestral home.
Recalling the eager hope the young husband had expressed seven years earlier, in a letter from Europe, that his first child might be a boy, one may imagine his grief now, when everything else seemed to be against him, at the loss of his son.
Even the Queen must have been moved, for soon afterward she allowed herself to be persuaded to receive her recalcitrant courtier. It seems that Burghley had finally appealed to Walter Ralegh; for three days after Oxford’s son’s death, this new favorite, who had appeared at court during the first year of Lord Oxford’s eclipse, wrote the Lord Treasurer as follows:
. . . ministering some occasion touching the Earl of Oxford I told Her Majesty how grievously your Lordship received her late discomfortable answer. Her Majesty, as your Lordship had written—I know not by whom lately and strangely persuaded—purposed to have a new repartition between the Lord Howard, Arundel, and others, and the Earl; and said it was a matter not so lightly to be passed over.
Ralegh was not the man to be taken in by such evasion.
I answered that being assured Her Majesty would never permit anything to be prosecuted to the Earl’s danger—if any such possibility were—and that therefore it were to small purpose, after so long absence and so many disgraces, to call his honour and name again in question, whereby he might appear less fit either for her presence or favour.
In conclusion Her Majesty confessed that she meant it only thereby to give the Earl warning. . . . And the more to witness how desirous I am of your Lordship’s favour and good opinion, I am content, for your sake to lay the serpent before the fire as much as in me lieth; that, having recovered strength, myself may be most in danger of his poison and sting.
This letter give us a great deal of valuable information. First, it seems likely that the Queen had been angered by Oxford’s historical plays, 2 and 3 Henry VI and two others which had followed, in which he had been so bold as to dramatize the ineptitude and consequent deposition of certain English monarchs—she is on record as having later bitterly resented his Richard II—and that it was chiefly about this she meant to give him “a warning”: his temerity in writing plays which had been designed to warn her. Elizabeth was imperious, but the Earl of Oxford was courageous in his patriotism and love of truth. He was compelled to bow to her will, but he was never cowed. He complained in Sonnet 66 about “Art made tongue-tied by Authority”; but in the end, he succeeded in telling everything.
Secondly, Ralegh says outright that it is for Burghley’s sake, for Burghley’s “favour and good opinion,” that he has been willing to intercede. Oxford, when he came to see the letter, would not have failed scornfully to note this.
Thirdly, Ralegh’s queer figure about laying “the serpent before the fire,” gives added evidence that Meritum petere, grave, signed to some of the poems in A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, was Lord Oxford’s posy, and that both he and Burghley knew it. Gascoigne might claim the lot of them, but those signed Meritum petere, grave were Oxford’s, as well as most of the others in the collection were, though appearing over several different posies. However, Ralegh was alluding to one now admitted to be the Earl’s. In quoting part of it, we should like to call attention to the familiar reference to the poet’s beloved “old tales.”
To a gentlewoman who blamed him for writing his friendly advice in verse unto another lover of hirs.
Amongst old written tales, this one I beare in minde,
A simple soul much like myselfe, did once a serpent finde,
Which (almost dead for colde) lay moyling in the myre,
When he for pittie toke it up and brought it to the fyre.
No sooner was the Snake, cured of hir grief,
But straight she sought to hurt the man, that lent hir such relief.
Such Serpent seemeth thou, such simple soule am I,
That for the weight of my good will, am blamed without cause why.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I must and will endure, thy spite without repent,
The blame is mine, the triumph thine, and I am well content.
Meritum petere, graue.
Since most of Lord Oxford’s youthful verse was addressed to Queen Elizabeth (a fact which identifies many unsigned poems in contemporary anthologies), this may have been too, especially as he says he “must and will endure” her spite. There was no other recourse in the case of Elizabeth’s displeasure.
As it turned out, Ralegh had nothing very serious to fear from the serpent’s sting, although Oxford did put him into Hamlet in a composite presentment of the politic intermediary, and later more pleasantly and recognizably into The Winter’s Tale. In Hamlet, conceived at this time out of corroding disillusionment, the whole corrupt court was flayed.
The Queen’s “warning” had been extremely drastic. But she dealt thus with all her favorites—with the exception of the masochistic Christopher Hatton, who seems never to have had extra-curricular love-affairs to make her jealous; although she used great severity with him too under a different provocation shortly before his death. Elizabeth was an absolute monarch: a circumstance she did not allow any of her subjects to forget. Upon occasion she bullied Parliament and even insulted the cautious and plausible Burghley.
The reconciliation took place on June 1, a little more than two years after Oxford’s committal to the Tower for the affair with Anne Vavasor.
On June 2, Roger Manners wrote to the Earl of Rutland:
Her Majesty came yesterday to Greenwich from the Lord Treasurer’s. . . . The day she came away, which was yesterday, The Earl of Oxford came into her presence, and after some bitter words and speeches, in the end all sins are forgiven, and he may repair to the Court at his pleasure. Master Ralegh was a great mean herein, whereat Pondus is angry that he could not do so much. (10)
“Pondus,” who was Burghley, could have done more and done it sooner, had he not dealt with ill-willers (Malvolii). Nothing could be clearer than that they, Hatton and Leicester, had ruthlessly prolonged the period of Oxford’s disgrace, or that Pondus had, to Oxford’s disgust, been too complaisant with them.
It is to be hoped that when the haughty Elizabeth Tudor saw the man who had long been the star of her court advancing gravely toward her with a painful limp, his fine eyes shadowed by sorrow, his face ravaged by the remorse and grief he had endured in his domestic life no less than through the humiliation caused by her, the Queen, whom of all his friends he had most trusted—it is to be hoped that Elizabeth felt contrition for her vindictive persecution.
How gratifying it would be to know what passed between these two, who could look straight into each other’s eyes with intimacy and perfect understanding. That there were “bitter words and speeches” may be well believed. (Someone must have been listening behind the arras! Pondus perhaps?) He was capable of “speaking daggers” to her. Here were two proud and passionate natures, two eloquent tongues, a man and woman both subtle and highly articulate. It would have been a wondrous thing to hear what they said to each other, the outraged great poet and the great outrageous Queen.
Elizabeth would not have lost her Turk for the world. She not only loved him, probably as much as she was capable of loving anyone, she had high and potent uses which he alone could serve.
No doubt they both wept. It almost goes without saying that Oxford did. And from what he says in Sonnet 34, which may well have written in a mood of reflection after this very reconciliation—it is so thoroughly apropos—Elizabeth did too.
Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.
Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all misdeeds.
This is a poem not lightly composed. It was inspired by an experience of shock and betrayal. That the Earl was reminding the Queen of his youth spent in her service, his complete trustfulness in her good will, is clear from the imagery he uses. And in striking explanation of this we quote from Gascoigne’s dedication to the Complaynt of Philomene, April 1575:
. . . twelve or thirteen years past, I had begun an elegy or sorrowful song, called the Complaynt of Philomene, the which I began to devise riding by highway between Chelmsford and London; and being overtaken with a sudden dash of rain, I changed my copy, and struck over into the De Profundis.
The editor, “G. T.,” who, if not Oxford himself, acted for Oxford in the first publication of A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, repeats this story in his introduction to Master Gascoigne’s De Profundis. (11)
Captain Ward, in this 1926 edition of A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, states that this was indubitably the journey upon which Gascoigne had accompanied the twelve-year-old Earl of Oxford when he left Castle Hedingham for London after his father’s death, to become a Royal Ward. It had,been just twelve and a half years since this journey was made—Gascoigne says “twelve or thirteen years past”—and Chelmsford is situated on the route between Hedingham and London. Oxford had evidently returned to his anthology to re-read his poem about laying the serpent before the fire and been reminded of the “sudden dash of rain.” He even uses the word “o’ertake,” as Gascoigne did.
A further striking point is that he had only recently re-written Titus Andronicus, which is based upon the story of Procne and Philomel, about which Gascoigne had begun “an elegy or a sorrowful song.” He may, indeed, while writing this play, have been struck with the symbolical significance of the first “storm” he had encountered long ago, in Gascoigne’s company, upon his journey to the court of his Royal Mistress, when she had promised “such a beauteous day.”
Only because of the fact that even when she was most capricious, most impious, most unjust, Elizabeth’s subjects regarded her with a kind of mystic reverence, were the Queen’s tears able to “ransom” her “misdeeds” against the man who had given her all his loyalty. But reconciliation does not necessarily imply restitution. Something had snapped in the relationship between the Earl and his Mistress, this demanding woman who had so notoriously usurped his wife’s place that Mary Stuart had written the Queen a second time about the report “that even the count of Oxfort dared not reconcile himself with his wife for fear of losing your favour which he hoped to receive by becoming your lover.” (12)
But there was a great deal more to it than that!
Oxford’s nature was too sensitive, his trust had been too great, his hurt too deep, for him ever really to recover his spontaneous devotion and faith. However, he was not, we hasten to add, playing the martyr; far from it. He had only lately written Romeo and Juliet and half a dozen other outspoken plays; he certainly had Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in hand, and Hamlet would soon be begun. He might be saddened, but he was unregenerate. That is, if to continue to tell the unvarnished truth be so regarded.
In this matter of Edward de Vere and truth we have a creative force which made its own laws, which was not only superhuman but inhuman too. For, when he was under the spell of his daimon, he respected no one: not the Queen, not her powerful ministers and minions, not, above all, himself. He was goaded—dedicated is a word not strong enough—to portray his world in the symbolic language of a seer, through the medium of his genius, his marvellous grace, and his passionate heart. One can no more judge him than one can judge a sunset or a thunderstorm. Like these, he expressed his being because he was made to do so. It is one of humanity’s positive blessings in a hostile and incomprehensible universe that this man lived and wielded the rapier of his wit, whether in sheer exuberance of spirit or “to give despite his due.”
During the long period of his banishment the Earl of Oxford was extraordinarily prolific. For one thing, freedom from court-routine enabled him to throw himself more fully into his work. We must now recapitulate, in order to examine the plays he turned out before making his peace with the Queen, for many others appeared before he began writing Hamlet at some time in 1583, after their dramatic interview. Although this interlude has been called his “gloomy period,” the Earl’s temperament was too robust for his attitude to have been one of unalleviated gloom. His spirits rose sporadically—he really enjoyed his freedom; but he had been deeply hurt, and his natural gaiety of heart had yielded in an appreciable degree to the poet’s reflective melancholy.
9. Ward; p. 387; quot. Thomas Wright: The History and Topography of the County of Essex, 1836. Wright either took this from an “unauthenticated anecdote” related in a footnote in Nichols’ Progresses, or from Camden, who, Steevens says, recorded it. If so, Burghley provided the story.