THIS STAR OF ENGLAND
Man of the Renaissance
by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn
WHEN IN MAY 1583, their first son was born and shortly afterwards died, the Earl and Countess of Oxford had been living together again for nearly a year arid a half. The death of this much-desired heir was a sad blow to both of them. They would not have been human if each had not felt for his or her separate reasons, that their marriage had been singularly crossed with misfortune. Anne, who must have centered her hopes for the constancy of her brilliant, temperamental husband upon the life of this son, heir to the Vere name, was crushed. The sad fact of the baby’s death was hard enough to bear; but now she was back where she was before, with no real hold upon her lord, and well she knew the difficulties implicit in their union. He was fastidious, emotionally intense, idealistic: he dramatized or intellectualized everything touching his life in a way she was powerless to comprehend, while he so haughtily resented what he considered her subservience to her father and was so acutely aware of her deep rapport with him that ,he realized he would never entirely trust her. Thus, feeling unequal to coping with the situation alone, she had centered all her hopes for a finally stable domestic life upon this little son; and then misfortune had struck again.
(It is important to note that, in the very first play written after the death of his son, Oxford-Oberon asks Elizabeth-Titania to give him the “little changeling boy” for his own. Although by now the Fair Youth was ten years old, the Earl had never before, so far as we can tell, made this request: he certainly had not recorded it in the plays.)
Since we cannot know with any certainty whether Anne had been entirely guiltless of the former charge against her—she herself having said to Dr. Masters, before the birth of her first child, “I stand in doubt whether he [her husband] pass upon me and it or not”—we cannot of course judge if her state of mind were one of baffled innocence or of furtive remorse. That Lord Oxford himself never positively knew he seems to assert in Much Ado About Nothing (IV.1.234- 5); for he himself was indeed later to
wish he had not so accused her,
No, though he thought his accusation true.
When he wrote the love-story section of Troilus and Cressida, he felt that she was tricky, capable of being false: when he wrote Hamlet, which is closely related to Troilus, he knew only that he could never feel single-minded about her, could never absolutely depend upon her where her father was concerned. And this uncertainty turned the knife, and turned it again, in the old, the terrible wound suggested by the riddle in Pericles, the mystery of which can now surely never be solved.
It is impossible not to believe, from what the records show of their behavior over a period of nearly a hundred years, that the Cecil men, were lacking emotional depth. Burghley could be genial, a jovial host when occasion offered, but au fond he was cold, cruel, and crafty. Oxford depicts him thus more than once. Robert Cecil, the hunchback, betrayed his lifelong friend, Ralegh, for his own gains: his actions were thoroughly Machiavellian and reprehensible. We know very little of Thomas except that Oxford was apparently fond of him; he may have been more like his mother, William Cecil’s first wife. Less is recorded of Lady Cecil, but she seems to have been dominating, and her son-in-law disliked her, accused her of wishing him dead. We cannot suppose Anne, coming of such a family, to have matched her husband in warmth and passion: not many young women could have. She would appear chiefly to have aroused a sense of pathos—”the sweet little Countess of Oxford”—even in Lord Oxford himself. Yet her sweetness was not altogether genuine, for she had a shrewish streak.
Anne wrote Four Epytaphes upon her deceased infant, distinguished more by heartfelt grief and classical allusion than for literary style. From these we shall quote only briefly; one being much like the others.
In dole full wayes I spend the wealth of my time:
With my sonne, my Gold, my Nightingale, and Rose
Is gone; for ’twas in him and no other where.
And well though mine eies roll down like fountaines here,
The stone will not speake that doth it inclose.
And Destins, and Gods, you might rather have tanne
My twenty yeares, then the two daies of my sonne.
Idall, for Adon, ne’er shed so many teares:
Nor Thet’ for Pelid: nor Phoebus, for Hyacinthus
Nor for Atis, the mother of Prophetesses:
As for the death of Bulbecke, the Gods have cares. . . .(1)
Anne was actually twenty-seven, not twenty years old, at this time. She seems a piteous creature, as Ophelia was piteous. The husband to whom she had been married for twelve years was a man quite beyond her powers either to cope with or, as we have said, to comprehend.
And he, on his part, for all his acute perception, his sensitive intuition; and supreme articulateness, was baffled and frustrated too. He had loved her, in a way—there can be no doubt of it. She bore his name, and that meant a great deal to him. He continued to love her— in a way; but she was Burghley’s daughter, Burghley’s minion, perhaps at times accomplice, and he could, therefore, never freely give himself to her, as such an ardent nature as his yearned to do. But this great poet could give himself, as indeed he could live, and was one day to find that he could die, on no basis save that of truth. It is for this reason that he told his story in plays, poems, and the Sonnets with complete honesty. Only the truth would serve as the final word about a Vere. And to that truth he gave all he had and all he was.
It was for this same reason that he made Troilus stand for truth— Troi-true —in one of the most personal and candid of all the revelations he ever wove into his work. Seldom has he described himself more openly than in the words of Troilus (IV.4.100-7):
Cressida. My lord, will you be true?
Troilus. Who, I? alas, it is my vice, my fault;
While others fish with craft for great opinion
I with great truth, catch mere simplicity;
While some with cunning gild their copper crowns,
With truth and Plainness I do wear mine bare.
Fear not my truth; the moral of my wit
Is plain and true; there’s all the reach of it.
To “fish with craft for great opinion” was exactly Burghley’s procedure—it could not be more accurately expressed—and how successful he was in it the virtual obliteration of Lord Oxford from the chronicle of the period has demonstrated. Pandarus fishes; Polonius is “a fish-monger”; and Gonzalo-Burghley is accused by Antonio of fishing. Burghley’s grandfather, an alderman of Stamford, (2) had worn a seal ring presumably made of copper; his canny grandson was able “with cunning” to “gild” the “copper,” or coppers, of his inheritance, which was meager, to make “crowns.”
Oxford, for his part, tells the plain “truth” with “simplicity.” This is a practice the world does not easily fall in with: it seems to feel more comfortable with the Philistine’s pretensions. The moral of his wit, “all the reach of it,” was in being “plain and true.” You have only to attend, and you will receive his vision of the truth and his own true story. This is what he meant.
The baby’s death occurred in May. Oxford’s peace was made with the Queen in June. Then in July Sussex died—the man who had been as a father to him. The Earl well knew that in this steadfast older man , he had lost his best friend. And he had learned the value of a true friend.
Although very little documentary evidence is available concerning Oxford’s relationship with Leicester, there are several hints of enmity besides the quarrel Nashe had spoken of, after the Sidney-Oxford tennis-court incident. It would no doubt be putting the case too temperately to say that there was no love lost. Oxford himself seems to have believed that Leicester was restrained from murdering him only through the Queen’s fondness for him and his popularity with his countrymen.
For one thing, Leicester and Hatton, both Puritans, were intimate, worked together against the French match when it suited them, as it usually did, or accepted magnificent gifts and bribes for some temporary boon (as Leicester did also from Spain); and this fact alone would have aroused the younger man’s contempt. Leicester was inordinately vain, and he was generally believed, in spite of the legal verdict obtained in his favor, not only to have murdered his wife, Amy Robsart, but later to have poisoned Throgmorton also, when the latter gave evidence of knowing the truth.
At the time of Amy Robsart’s death, Bishop de Quadra had written Philip, “There is not a person without some scandalous tale to tell about the matter, and one of the Queen’s gentlemen of the chamber is in prison for blabbing.” (3) This was in the early sixties, when Robert Dudley—not yet an Earl—was at the height of favor and of power over Elizabeth.
“The fellow,” Quadra had written in 1560, “is ruining the country with his vanity,” and proceeded to describe the anxiety of Cecil, who, as Hume puts it,
took the Bishop aside and complained bitterly of Dudley, who he said was trying to turn him out of his place; and then after exacting many pledges of secrecy, said that the Queen was conducting herself in such a way that he, Cecil, thought of retiring, as he clearly foresaw the ruin of the realm through the Queen’s intimacy with Dudley, whom she meant to marry. He begged the Bishop to remonstrate with the Queen, and ended by saying that Dudley was thinking of killing his wife, “who was said to be ill although she was quite wel1.” “The next day,” writes the Bishop, “as she was returning from hunting, the Queen told me that Robert’s wife was dead, or nearly so, and asked me to say nothing about it. Certainly this business is most shameful and scandalous; and withal I am not sure whether she will marry the man at once or at all, as I do not think she has her mind sufficiently fixed. Cecil says she wishes to do as her father did.” In a postscript of the same letter the writer gives the news of poor Amy Robsart’s death. “She broke her neck—she must have fallen down a staircase, said the Queen.” (4)
It is of especial interest for our story that four years later William Cecil was writing the following letter to Christopher Mundt, Elizabeth’s trusted political agent in Germany, in reference to her proposed marriage to the Archduke Charles:
I . . . can write nothing more certain that what I myself perceive, that she would rather marry some foreign Prince than a native one. . . . Nevertheless I cannot deny that that noble of our own concerning whom there is no inconsiderable expectation amongst us, Lord Robert forsooth, is worthy of such honour that he may deservedly be the husband of the Queen; but this is his sole impediment that by birth he is the Queen’s subject, and only for that reason alone does he seem to the Queen as not worthy to be her husband. Yet on account of his virtues, on account of his eminent endowments of mind and body he is so dear to the Queen by reason of his merits that she could not love a brother more. And from this, they who do not know the Queen as she really is are wont to conclude too hastily that he will be her husband. But I see and understand that she takes pleasure in him on account of his most excellent and rare qualities, and that there is nothing more in their relations than that which is consistent with virtue, and most foreign to the baser sort of love. And this I write to you in good faith so that you may understand from me what the truth is; and this I wish you to believe and to assert boldly amongst all when occasions demand it. Farewell, 8 Sept., 1564.
Your most loving,
G. [for Guglielmo] CECILIUS
To this wily and purposeful letter there is a very significant post script:
. . . I beg you to send me back this letter safely, and so do me a favour. (5)
Here we catch the redoubtable Burghley—then still Sir William Cecil—at his work of shaping the record. He tips Mundt off: This is to be our story, our position. He wishes this masterpiece returned to him, so that it can be put on file as his authoritative verdict; and thus it has been meekly accepted, like all the notes and statements he left for Camden to record in history. Now, no one knew better than Cecil did that Leicester (whom he thoroughly disliked and mistrusted) had been for some years the Queen’s lover and that, had there been no scandal attached to Amy Robsart’s death, she would have married him forthwith. In fact, he was so sure of it that he was tempted to retire in 1560. No one knew better than Cecil that in 1561 Elizabeth was reported to have had a child by Leicester. (See Appendix, Note 3.) It was the talk of the country: private individuals were prosecuted for repeating the story.
We quote a few of the records:
After our most hartie commendacions, you. shall receyve herein enclosed thexamynacions of certain persones of this Shire of Essex, towchinge wordes spoken and sprede abrode here against the Quenes Majestie. . . . And although by specyall statute lawe made in that part we mought procede both to thenquyre and also to the tryall of suche malefactors, yet forasmuche as we understodde of the commynge downe this waye of the Lorde Keaper of the broade Seale, and specyallye for that the wordes moche touched her Majesties honor, whiche wordes we thought not mette to be devulged amongst the comen people no further to procede untill we had eyther spoken with his lordeship therein or geven advertysement thereof to her Majesties most honorable councell. . . . And yet yf yt shall seeme to their honors and yow that tryall shalbe herein hadd . . . we will be redye with dylygence to see the same accomplysshed and donne accordinglye. And so . . . we commytte yow to God, ffrom Lyes this XIIIth of this August 1560.
XVIImo die Julii an no secundo Regine nostre Elizabeth.
Essex.- The saying of Anne Dowe of Burndwood wydew of thage of threscore and eight yeres examyned before Thomas Myldmay esquyre one of the quenes Majesties Justices of the peace within the sayd Countie as followeth
ffyrst she sayeth that abowte fyve weykes last past she was att Rocheford, and. . . in the howse of one dwelling uppon Rocheford grene beyond the parsonage the wyffe of the saide howse sayed openly in the presence of this examynat and others there being that Dudley hadd given the quene a new petycote which cost twentie nobles. . . . Item she sayeth furder that within three dayes then next after she went out of the sayd towne, and in a Bromfelde within the same paryshe she mett with one Mr Coke ryding uppon a horse. And at their meeting to gether the sayd Mr Coke asked her and sayd, what newes mother Dow, and she sayd that she new no other newes but that she sayd a woman told her that Dudley hadd geven the quene a new petycote thatt cost twente nobles. And the sayd Coke sayd to the sayd examynat, thynkes thow that it was a petiecote no no he gave her a chyIde I warrant the. And the sayd Coke havyng a botell of wyne att his sadle bowe gave her drynke of the sayd bottell and so they departed. . .
John Kyng of Danbye aforesayd examyned sayth that the syxtene daye of July aforesayd about eight of the clock in the fore none of the same daye one mother Dowe of Brentwood came unto his shopp when he was sytting att his worke, and sayd there was thinges now adayes that she might say nothing of. Why so quod this examynate. Mary sayth she, there is one now they call hym Dudley that beareth more Rome then ever dyd his father, ffor sayd the sayd mother Dow we hadd a quene whose name was Elizabeth, soo we have styll quod this examynat as I trust, then she sayd that Dudley and the quene hadd played by legerdemayne to gether, that is not so sayd this examynat, is quod she for he hathe geven her a chyld, why quod this examynat she hathe no chylde yett, no sayd Mother Dow if she have nott he hath putt one to makyng, and that greter fooles then he or she dyd talke of that matter. And thereuppon he badd her hold her pece for althowgh she was dronke as he then thowght she was, she woold repent her wordes hereafter and so he left her.
per THO. MILDMAY
Thexamynacon of John Whyte, barbor, taken by the Mayor of Totnes and his brotherun, the 27th of Februarie Ao 1560, &C. [1561, New Style.]
The said John Whyte saith that the daie and yeare aforesaid being in the howse of one John Leche in Totnes, and then and there being in compagnie in the same howse one John Saiger, shoemaker, the said John Leche and one Robert Hendley, servant of the said Leche, the said Whight reported and said that Thomas Burley, knowen by the name of the drunken Burley, hadde said to hym in his own howse that the Lord Robert Dudley dyd swyve the Queene. . . . (Endorsed by Cecil, “Drunken burghley of Totness, Februar, 1560.”)-Hat. Cal. Pt. I, p. 277, see. 821, Feb. 1561, N.S. (6)
In 1561, the Queen was said to have been bloated, like one who had dropsy. And in that same year Lady Willoughby stated that Elizabeth looked like a woman not long out of child-bed. De Quadra wrote Philip, on September 13, 1561:
. . . the Queen (according to what I hear) is becoming dropsical, and has already begun to swell extraordinarily. I have been advised of this from three different sources and by a person who has had the opportunity of being an eyewitness. To all appearances she is failing, and is extremely thin and the colour of a corpse. (7)
(He may have been combining two rumors, first that she was swollen, later thin.)
And the following statement was made in the Examination of Robt. Garrerd, his wife, and Mannell, her servant, January 18, 1563, referring to August 1561:
Was told by Lady Willoughby. . . that while Her Majesty was at Ipswich, she looked like one lately come out of child-bed. . . . Heard Lady Willoughby say that Her Majesty looked very pale,—like a woman out of child-bed. (8)
There was considerable anxiety felt about the Queen’s so-called dropsical condition. However, Elizabeth seems to have recovered completely, for we never find it mentioned again. In a letter of November 30, 1560, to Throgmorton from R. J. Jones, his secretary, whom he had sent to England to tell the Queen of the rumor, in France, that she would marry “her Master of the Horse,” Jones writes:
The Queen’s Majesty looketh not so hearty and well as she did, by a great deal; and surely the matter of my Lord Robert doth much perplex her, and is never like to take place.
The historian Mumby records William Cecil’s pleas to the Queen to give England an heir (Cecil wrote her, in 1560, of “my continual prayer that God would direct your heart to procure a father for your children, and so shall the children of all your realm bless your seed”); Mumby records Throckmorton’s embarrassment in Paris at the “sneers of his brother diplomats on the subject of his Sovereign’s honour,” and his concern when the Spanish Ambassador had asked if “the Queen’s Majesty was not secretly married to the Lord Robert: ‘The bruits of her doings,’ said, he ‘be very strange in all Courts and countries’ “; he speaks of “repeated reports,” by 1560, “that the Queen had already had children by Dudley”; yet he follows the majority of historians in interpreting the women’s gossip which said that Elizabeth was “not as other women” to mean that she could not have children, whereas it may have referred merely to a certain systemic irregularity known to the malicious Countess of Shrewsbury and others, who interpreted it as they pleased.
All this was before the Earl of Oxford came to London in 1562. The Queen was reputed to have had a daughter by Leicester in 1564. Many documents show her to have been infatuated with him during the first half of the decade and still inclined to marry him during part of the latter half. We find it recorded that, in 1564, “Elizabeth had been ill with a feverish cold, and was unable to see the Ambassador [de Silva] since Christmas Eve. Leicester told him that her illness had made her very thin.” (3)
Very little is known about this report of the daughter, outside certain Catholic documents belonging to a subsequent period, although similar examinations of gossipers to those of 1560-61 are cited for the year 1563. We quote one for certain interesting information it contains:
(Justice Weston and Sgtpeace Harpur, to ye Lords of ye Queens privy Councel, from ye Assizes -B.M., Har1. 6990. fo1.49.
b. The Declaracon of Barthelmewe Auger, bayle of husbandry, and serjennte to Mr. Berwike before John Ennerley and John Berwike in the Countie of Wiltshire Esquiers the xixth of June in the fyfte yere of the Raign of our most dreade soverign Ladye Elyzabeth. . . . [i.e., 1563.]
The sayd Barthelmewe sayethe that vpon thursdaye the xvii” of this moneth he was at the Devyzes market about his mn busynes, and theare dyd sett his horses at one Robte Brookes howse, wheare he dothe com- only vse to haste, and abought three of the clocke in the afternone of the same daye the sayd Robte Broke declared, and sayed to hym this wordes following in the psence of Peter Stronnge of maningford bruece and others to hym onknowen (viz) what newes doe you heare/he answered/ what newes sholde wee heare/ he sayd agayne/ doth yo Mr heare no newes from London. he answered and sayd no/ what newes sholde he heare/. whearuppon he sayd, saye nothinge, it ys sayd my lorde Robte ys fled owte of the realme/ he answered why so? Then sayd Robte Brooke, saye nothinge/ hit ys tolde me that he hathe gotten the quene with childe, and therefore he ys fled/ and so ended, no wordes, saye nothinge/ And farther the sayd Robte Brooke sayd, yf yor mr dyd knowe yt, he wolde make another maner of sturre/ and so they pted
JOHN BERWYKE (10)
Some years later the Bishop of Padua, Papal Nuncio in (Madrid) Spain, addressed the following letter to the Cardinal of Como:
I am assured that he [the English Ambassador at Madrid] has let it be know that the pretended Queen [Elizabeth] has a daughter thirteen years of age, and that she would bestow her in marriage on some one acceptable to his Catholic Majesty. I have heard talk of this daughter, but the English here say they know nought of such a matter.
On January 29, 1576, a reply came from the Vatican:
Were it true that the pretended Queen had a daughter, his Holiness deems that it would enable his Majesty [Philip of Spain] to dispense with war, which of its own nature is so hazardous, and think of some accord by way of a marriage, which in the end might bring the realm back to the Catholic faith-Ptolemy Galli, Card. of Como. to Ormanetto, Bish. of Padua, Nuncio in Spain.(11)
We give the above correspondence for what it may be worth. Chamberlin believes that this story of a daughter might have been a political device on the part of Elizabeth to stave off war. Although Mr. Chamberlin performs amazing mental contortions to bolster his idealistic theory of Elizabeth’s virginity, he may conceivably be right in this case. Still, it is difficult to credit the selfish and arrogant Tudor Queen, who flaunted her virginity like a banner for the world and posterity to goggle at, with such a selfless and noble act of inconsistency, especially when war with Spain was not dangerously imminent in 1576. There were, however, many rumors concerning a daughter born some three years after the son. And there was a book secretly published in England called The Book of Babies, which it was said to be treasonable to own. Of this we shall speak later.
That much gossip was rife about the Queen and her court is indicated by the numerous examinations before magistrates of citizens who were known to have taken part in it. There is an astonishingly frank statement recorded, apropos of Norfolk’s execution in 1572, in which the witness accuses a man he had met of vilifying the Queen for cutting off “so noble a man as he” (the Duke of Norfolk), because she “desyreth nothing but to fede her owne lewd Fantasye,” and give place to “suche as weare for her Tourne, meaning Daunsers, and meaning you, my Lord of Lecester, and one Mr. Hatten, whom he sayd had more Recourse unto her Majestie in her Pryvye Chamber, than Reason would suffre, yf she weare so vertuouse and well-inclined, as some naysayeth her.” (12)
It can easily be seen that a young idealist such as the Earl of Oxford had been—and idealist he remained, although deeply disillusioned—would have stood out as a rara avis among the plumed birds of the court. When, after he had yielded to Elizabeth’s blandishments and had his “maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,” she had callously returned to Hatton, the young poet had characteristically vented his outraged pride and anger in verse. One poem signed Spraeta tamen vivunt, in the collection, A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, is candidly entitled:
The lover being disdainfully abjected by a dame of high calling who had chosen (in his place) a playe fellowe of baser condicion: doth therefore determine to step a side, and before his departure giveth hir this farewell in verse:
The poem begins:
Thy byrth, thy beautie, nor thy brave attyre,
(Disdainfull Dame, which doest me double wrong)
Thy high estate which sets thy hart on fire,
Or new found choyce, which cannot serve thee long,
Shall make me dread, with pen for to rehearse,
Thy skittish deeds, in this my parting verse.
After berating her for her betrayal of himself, he continues, paying his respects to his despised rival, who is in this case certainly Hatton:
For thou hast caught a proper paragon,
A theefe, a coward, and a Peacock foole:
An Asse, a mylksop, and a minion,
Which hath none oyle, thy furious flames to coole,
Such one he is, a pheare for thee most fit,
A wandring guest, to please thy wavering wit.
In Woman’s Changeableness, one of the early poems signed with his own name, he again bewails Elizabeth’s fickleness, though this time in more general terms:
To mark the choice they make, and how they change,
How oft from Phoebus do they fly to Pan.
This was, of course, himself and Leicester, the “satyr,” again. Oxford indubitably had abundant cause to dislike, to say nothing of mistrust, and even to detest, both these older men.
It was during Lord Oxford’s banishment from court that Leicester had made his second attempt to have Simier assassinated, because of Elizabeth’s infatuation for her “ape.” And at this time, too, there had been several serious altercations between Leicester and Sussex, one of which is reported to have led “almost to fisticuffs.” Although Sussex died of the consumption which had so grievously wasted him, his devoted and passionate advocate, Oxford, may well have believed that the worry and trouble Leicester had caused him had hastened his death,’ if, indeed, through his bitterness and his melancholy, he did not suspect Leicester of actually bringing it about. In any event, Sussex’s last words were a warning against his old enemy. “I am now passing into another world,” he said, “and I now leave you to your fortunes, and to the Queen’s grace and goodness; but beware of the Gypsy [meaning Leicester], for he will be too hard for you all, you know not the beast so well as I do.” (13)
With the passing of Thomas Radcliffe, Third Earl of Sussex, the greatest Catholic in Elizabeth’s Council was gone, and the Protestant influence was accordingly strengthened. The Queen had never had a more devoted servant than Sussex had been. At times, even toward the end of his life, she had treated him abominably, but he bore all with patience and never flagged in his loyalty and affection for his sovereign.
Instructed by Mrs. Clark’s research, which convinced her that the earliest version of Hamlet was performed on January 3, 1585, and that this is undoubtedly the play which has been referred to as the “lost” Hamlet—or Ur-Hamlet—we are of the opinion that Lord Oxford set to work upon this great tragedy shortly after the death of Sussex and when his return to court, terminating so long an absence, had enabled him not only to read the correspondence pertaining to his reinstatement between Burghley and Hatton, Burghley and Leicester, Ralegh, etc., but also to view the life there with a clearer perspective. Moreover, at this same time, Oxford’s brother-in-law, Lord Willoughby, had been sent on a mission to Elsinore, returning the following September with a graphic description of the “cannon-healths” and other festivities which had marked his sojourn in the medieval Danish castle.
But before the early form of Hamlet appeared, a version of Troilus and Cressida seems to have been been produced, following directly upon the 1584 performance of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream. .
According to the Feuillerat Documents, “The history of Agamemnon and Ulisses [was] presented and enacted before her maiestie by the Earl of Oxenford his boyes on St. Johns daie at night at Greenwich.” And among the warrants for payments further information is found concerning its production the following year:
£6, 13S 3d. was paid, on a warrant dated at Greenwich, April 7th, 1585, for a play “on St. John the Evangelistes day last past at nighte” by the Children of the Earl of,.Oxford (Henry Evans.) (14)
Lord Oxford was not only giving all his time now to the writing and staging of dramas, he was spending enormous sums of money which he could ill afford. Ward quotes old documents as well as modern studies in an interesting account of the general situation with regard to the production of plays at court at this period.(15)
Because of the Queen’s delight in plays and masques, the status of the actors had, as we have said, been improved. Of course, nothing is recorded of any possible influence her premier Earl may have had in this regard, but one can hardly avoid the belief that he was instrumental in the bettering of conditions: Elizabeth seldom took radical steps without being prodded. Stowe’s Annals records that
Comedians and stage players of former times were very poor and ignorant, in respect of these at this time, but being now grown very skilful and exquisite actors for all matters, they were entertained into the service of diverse great Lords, out of which companies there were twelve of the best chosen, and at the request of Sir Francis Walsingham, they were sworn to the Queen’s servants, and were allowed wages and liveries as Grooms of the Chamber; and until this year 1583 the Queen had no players.
This was the year that Lord Oxford returned to court.
Ward records, however, that while the cost of the Office of the Revels had amounted to £1500 in 1573, it was little more than £300 in 1576; and this, although there had been a greatly “heightened splendour in the entertainments,” It is his opinion that this cost had come to be borne increasingly by the noblemen who were patrons. He disagrees with Sir Sidney Lee’s notion that this patronage was “only nominal”—literally so, his name being all the noble patron supplied, There are so many instances of Lee’s garbling, and even falsifying, evidence to suit his case that we should have no hesitation in preferring Ward’s verdict in the matter, even if it were less amply substantiated than it is. And Ward states that but for the financial support of the patron, who was paymaster as well, “the company would have been quite unable to carry on.”
In brief [he continues], it was the demand at Court for theatrical en- tertainment that brought the companies into existence, and so it was naturally the courtiers themselves who had to foot the bill for their maintenance by retaining them in their services. (16)
That this was the case with the Earl of Oxford is attested by the fact that he was spending money lavishly, although living in a modest style for a man of his position. (It has been seen that, in 1583, he was accompanied by only four pages, and of these one was “a kind of tumbling-boy.”) Yet during the years 1583 and ’84 he was in such desperate straits that he was obliged to sell land at a ruinous rate. We have noted elsewhere that, of the fifty-six separate sales he found it necessary to make after he attained his majority, thirty-two were negotiated between 1580 and 1585. It is evident from several letters of his which survive that Elizabeth had led him to expect he would be reimbursed; but just now he was like Hamlet:
I eat the air, promise-crammed; you cannot feed capons so (III.2.94.)
(Christopher Hatton would not have been the only one to wince at this! )
It was at this very time that Elizabeth was showering Ralegh with sinecures and emoluments. He was living sumptuously and dressing with magnificence, wearing rich jewels in his shoes, and so on. Great properties which the Queen had procured for him brought in vast revenues. After the defeat of Desmond in Ireland, Ralegh received “three signories and a half, of 12,000 acres each, of fine, fertile, well-wooded land.” In 1585, he was made Lord Warden of the Stanneries; then after the execution of Babington, in the plot which bore his name, the Queen granted him nearly all of Babington’s extensive lands and properties. And this, although the beneficiary’s position in the matter of the conspiracy had been so open to question that Babington himself had (according to Hume) “founded all his hope of pardon upon Ralegh’s action in his favour.”
All this lavishing of properties and riches upon a new man at court —to say nothing of the man’s strange callousness regarding the conspiracy—must have been in the last degree bitter to Oxford, who had been persecuted in the face of his loyalty. The noblemen of ancient families considered the handsome adventurer a rapacious upstart; Elizabeth herself is on record as having said he had a “bold face.” It is interesting that Oxford should have written at this time about the theft of Helen from her own people by Paris, showing that Troilus has to give up Cressida and Troy itself be destroyed. in order that the enamoured couple may protract their love-affair. For Elizabeth is Helen, and she is partly Cressida, while Troi, and therefore Troy too (Troilus was originally spelled Troylus), are intended to stand for truth.
Money was, to the Earl of Oxford, merely a means for achieving important ends, and it had always irked him to be forced to sue for it. The Queen was accepting from him a greater sacrifice than she had a right to exact, especially now when she had diverted her highest favors to another man. It had been bad enough for her to make such large demands upon him when he stood first in her affections, but now it was a crass imposition. However, the truth was that, aside from his pride and sense of justice, Lord Oxford was so passionately engrossed in the work he was doing that every practical consideration which obtruded was tedious and vexatious. Only now and then he seems to have faced the fact of his financial impoverishment, and been, temporarily, appalled. Burghley was chronically appalled. “He will not leave a farthing of land,” the Lord Treasurer was subsequently to write. Yet, for all his wisdom and astuteness in such matters, Burghley seems to have been of no help to Oxford at all; he only waxed in worldly estates, continuing with cunning to gild his “copper crowns,” while his son-in-law waned.
In 1584, Lord Oxford was put to another expense which must have drained his resources still further. He took part in a great tournament, the third of his career, in which he won the prize, as he had done in the two others. In may be that Elizabeth wished to advertise the fact that he was in high favor once more. In any case, he acquitted himself with distinction and received his prize at Gloriana’s hands.
However, the Queen, after two more years of procrastination, was to bring herself to the point of providing funds for the Earl’s activities in making the Elizabethan theatre what it came to be. It is inspiring to reflect that this genius not only wrote the greatest plays but also succeeded through heroic effort and sacrifice in elevating, if not virtually creating, the vehicle by which they were presented to the public.
When Stowe writes of the “stage-players of former times very poor and ignorant. . . being now [in 1583] grown very skilful and exquisite actors in all matters,” and when we see Hamlet, in a drama begun during that same year, instructing his players in the art of speech and performance, we should be dull indeed if we did not realize what cultivated courtier was largely responsible for the striking improvement.
By 1586 Elizabeth had recognized the fact that Oxford had spent nearly all his substance and that, if her people were to be educated by means of chronicle plays and stirred by vivid and symbolic abstracts of the time, she would have to put out a little money of her own. By then this hard bargainer was at last willing to pay a price to have her subjects educated in their own history with a feeling of patriotism inculcated in them; for a showdown with Spain was impending, and every man and woman must be imbued with a sense of national unity and a rousing desire for national survival.
In 1584, William the Silent was assassinated, and Elizabeth had a serious shock, for if the Dutch defense collapsed, England would have to face Spain’s assault unaided. On March 15 of this year, Sturmius, who had been for a long time the Queen’s Agent “in partibus Germaniae,” wrote advising her urgently to send “some faithful and zealous personage such as the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Leicester, or Philip Sidney” to take charge of an expedition into the Netherlands. But, as usual, Elizabeth temporized and postponed, and nothing was done for more than a year. (17) Oxford would undoubtedly have been only too happy to receive the appointment; but he did not receive it, and by now he must have become reconciled to foregoing the much-coveted martial career for one in which, despite the stigma and necessity for secrecy attached to it, his genius was fulfilled.
In Troilus and Cressida he visualizes himself as the soldier he had hoped to be. It is one of the most intrinsically personal of the plays and, together with Pericles, which was also dangerously personal, and the profoundly intimate Sonnets, was published only in 1609. Someone took the risk at that time of giving these three revealing works to the world.
Chamberlin took this letter as proof of Elizabeth’s chastity! Eighteen years later, however, in Elizabeth and Lycester, he declared (p. 73), “It is time for us to know the real William Cecil.” One cannot help being struck with the fact that, although Chamberlin quotes other passages from Osborne’s Memoirs, he omits the following: “. . . yet it may be true that the ladies of her Bedchamber denied to her body the ceremony of searching and embalming due to dead Monarchs” (p. 384)
13 For all we know, these words may have been spoken to Oxford himself. They are recorded by Naunton. in his Fragmenta Regalia; and Naunton, whose daughter married a grandson of Oxford’s, seems to have been too pro-Cecil to have been a friend to the Earl.