Chapter 5

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

Chapter Five


The first, second, and third of May 1571 was holden at Westminster, before the Queen’s Majesty, a solemn joust at the tilt, tourney, and barriers. The challengers were Edward Earl of Oxford, Charles Howard Sir Henry Lee, and Christopher Hatton, Esq., who all did very valiantly but the chief honour was given to the Earl of Oxford(1)

In part the procedure on these occasions were as follows:

The Challenger did commonly come to the east gate of the Lists…. Beholding the Challenger there, the Constable said: ‘For what cause art thou come hither thus armed? And what is thy name?’ Unto whom the Challenger answered thus: ‘My name is A.B. and I am hither come armed and mounted to perform my challenge against C.D., and acquit my pledges.’ . . . Then the Constable did open the visor of his headpiece to see his face, and thereby know that man to be he that makes the challenge….(2)

Among the rules laid down by John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, in the reign of Edward IV, are these:

First, whoso breaketh most spears, as they ought to be broken, shall have the prize.
Item, whoso hitteth three times in the height of the helm shall have the prize.
Item, whoso meeteth two times, cournall to cournall (i.e., parry and return), shall have the prize.
Item, whoso beareth a man down with the stroke of a spear, shall have the prize….

This triumph continued three days. The first at Tilt; the second at Tourney; the third at the Barriers. On every one of the Challengers Her Majesty bestowed a prize…. Oxford himself receiving a tablet of diamonds. (3)

(Complete familiarity with similar conventions of knighthood is displayed in King Richard II: I.1; in The Raigne of King Edward III: III.3; and in Edgar’s challenge to Edmund: King Lear: V.3.108 et seq.)

George Delves, one of the Defendants, wrote to the Earl of Rutland in June, 1571:

The Earl of Oxford’s livery was crimson velvet, very costly; he himself, and the furniture, was in some more colours, yet he was the Red Knight. . .. There is no man of life and agility in every respect in the Court but the Earl of Oxford.(4)

It was upon this occasion that Giles Fletcher wrote his tribute, in Latin verse, to the Earl of Oxford’s horsemanship:

But if at any time with fiery energy he should call up a mimicry of war, he controls his foaming steed with a light rein, and armed with a long spear rides to the encounter. Fearlessly he settles himself in the saddle, gracefully bending his body this way and that. Now he circles round; now with spurred heel he rouses his charger. The gallant animal with fiery energy collects himself, and flying quicker than the wind beats the ground with his hoofs, and again is pulled up short as the reins control him.

Bravo, valiant youth! ‘Tis thus that martial spirits pass through their apprenticeship in war . . . The country sees in them both a leader preeminent in war, and a skilful man-at-arms….(5)

This eulogy calls to mind many passages in Lord Oxford’s plays, some of which will be cited later. Such a horseman as Fletcher describes might one day write:

Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know:
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace. (Son. 51.)

And he, as the owner of “four geldings,” would also know how to describe the behavior of the horses in Venus and Adonis, stanzas 44-54. Moreover, the Queen’s gift of “a tablet of diamonds” could well be the subject of such a courtly sonnet as No. 122, especially if the recipient had been so rash as to give the Queen’s present away.

In the summer of this same year Lord Oxford became affianced to his guardian’s daughter, Anne Cecil. It was thought that this was a political match, since the Master of Wards had the authority to order matters of matrimonial alliance for his charges. But if we are to believe the bride’s father—and that is of course optional—the proposal in the present case came from the Earl himself. Here again, however, Cecil has told the story, and it is only his version which has survived in the documents. Strong evidence will be forthcoming that he set this down purely for the record and that the actual circumstances were quite different.

On August 15, 1571, he wrote the Earl of Rutland:

I think it doth seem strange to your Lordship to hear of a purposed determination in my Lord of Oxford to marry with my daughter; and so before his Lordship moved it to me I might have thought it, if any other had moved it to me himself. For at his own motion I could not well imagine what to think, considering I never meant to seek it nor hoped of it. And yet reason moved me to think well of my Lord, and to acknowledge myself greatly beholden to him, as indeed I do. Truly, my Lord, after I was acquainted of the former intention of a marriage with Master Philip Sidney, whom always I loved and esteemed, I was fully determined to have of myself moved no marriage for my daughter until she should have been near sixteen…. Now that the matter is determined betwixt my Lord of Oxford and me, I confess to your Lordship I do honour him so dearly from my heart as I do my own son, and in any case that may touch him for his honour and weal, I shall think him mine own interest therein. And surely, my Lord, by dealing with him I find that which I often heard of your Lordship, that there is much more in him of understanding than any stranger to him would think. And for my own part I find that whereof I take comfort in his wit and knowledge grown by good observation.(6)

Cecil was delighted, beyond doubt. Would that his benevolence might have lasted. But he would not have been human if it had. William Cecil was the last person on earth to be closely related to a man of such uncanny perception, such a high code of honor, and such devastating wit as the Earl of Oxford showed himself to be.

It was an almost unheard-of procedure for a member of the high nobility to marry a commoner. But Elizabeth set great store by Cecil, whose genius for espionage had undoubtedly saved her life in the Ridolfi plot, which was exposed in September of this very year, though of course known to Cecil for a long time before. Naturally, she wished to reward him. By creating William Cecil Lord Burghley, the Queen removed the only obvious obstacle to the Oxford match. However, she had no notion of relinquishing the attentions of her young favorite; and as things turned out, she kept a lien on him: perhaps she felt she had been sufficiently magnanimous in allowing Anne Cecil to become the Countess of Oxford. Elizabeth was a close trader: she never gave quite as much as she received.

Cecil, now Lord Burghley, was also made Lord Treasurer, thus achieving a promotion which would have assured his compliance with practically anything; he held the office for the remainder of his long life. Despite all his subsequent rancor, caused in part by the extravagance of his son-in-law, together with his condescension to the vulgarity of the theatre and familiar association with bohemian writers, Burghley profited enormously by the marriage, not only socially and officially but, as has been previously observed, materially too. He was destined, however, to endure much bafflement as the years passed, much indignity, humiliation, and harassment of mind. For although he had become

yokèd with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire,
Who, much enforced, shows a hasty spark,
And straight is cold again,

he was to feel the shock of scorching emotional crises such as his cold politic nature had never known before. The snob in Burghley preened himself upon his alliance with this great peer of the realm, but the calculating, hypocritical, verbose, pious opportunist was often to find himself at a loss. Treated at first with an affectionate cordiality and warmth which he had not altogether merited, then with an hauteur that spurned subterfuge, or a spontaneous sincerity which put him on his uneasy honor, and inevitably, unremittingly, with a penetrating insight which stripped him of his suave aplomb, he was to find himself all too often a prey to baffled resentment.

Geniuses seldom, if ever, make the best husbands or the most tractable sons. Burghley ought to have known this; and undoubtedly he did, for he was subtle, sophisticated, acute. It must have been that he believed the strain would not be too great nor the price too high for what he so eagerly coveted. When he found that both were considerable, he adopted the shrewd policy of reimbursing and reinstating himself from the treasury of the most gullible—in the latter case, public opinion, present and future. Of course even Burghley could not have foreseen what line the young Earl’s genius was to take; moreover, for all his discernment, he had clearly underestimated its scope. As it turned out, Oxford was no more able to refrain from pinioning the Lord Treasurer upon the rapier of his wit than “the Fox” was able to keep his hands in his own pockets or to mind his own business. Here was a psychological impasse on the grand scale, and its repercussions will be felt so long as English literature endures.

There is no record of why the 1569 negotiations for the marriage of Anne Cecil and Philip Sidney were dropped. It may have been because he was only fifteen and she twelve at the time and something better offered before they were old enough: Cecil may have been aiming higher; or there may have been a financial deadlock, as Ward suggests, complicated by Leicester’s enmity to Cecil. There could hardly have been a serious feeling of rivalry at this time between the two youths.

Anne’s marriage to the Earl of Oxford was set for September, three months before the bride would be fifteen. (She was as young as Juliet.) On July 28, Lord St. John had written the Earl of Rutland, who was in Paris:

The Earl of Oxford hath gotten him a wife—or at least a wife hath caught him; this is Mistress Anne Cecil; whereunto the Queen hath given her consent, and the which hath caused great weeping, wailing, and sorrowful cheer of those who had hoped to have that golden day. Thus you may see that whilst some triumph with olive branches, others follow the chariot with willow garlands.(7)

On September 21, Hugh Fitz-William wrote from London to the Countess of Shrewsbury:

They say the Queen will be at my Lord of Burghley’s house beside Waltham on Sunday next, where my Lord of Oxford shall marry Mistress Anne Cecil his daughter.(8)

But though the Queen and court, in progress at that time, arrived at Theobalds on the 22nd of September, the wedding was postponed. No record explaining the postponement has been preserved; it is not recorded in any surviving document whether the bridegroom was on hand or not. But the marriage did take place during the month that Anne had her fifteenth birthday. It was solemnized on December 19, at Westminster Abbey, in the presence of the Queen; and “in the afternoon a great feast was held at Cecil House.” (The significance of these points will appear later.)

A week afterwards de la Mothe Fenelon wrote to the King of France as follows:

Last Tuesday I had audience with the Queen, and on Wednesday she took me to dine with Lord Burghley, who was celebrating the marriage of his daughter with the Earl of Oxford.(9)

These nuptials caused no rejoicing at the Spanish court, for the political significance of an alliance between the most distinguished scion of the feudal aristocracy and the daughter of the Protestant leader was a blow to Philip. A letter from his Ambassador to Elizabeth’s court, Guerau de Spes (who was involved in the Ridolfi plot), brought the unwelcome information:

Lord Burghley is celebrating with great festivity at the palace the marriage of his daughter with the Earl of Oxford. The son of the Earl of Worcester is married also to the sister of the Earl of Huntingdon, which means taking two families away from the Catholics.(10)

Sharing Philip’s dismay were the members of the great Howard clan. The marriage of their cousin into the Cecil family was a source of pain and chagrin to them. Already indoctrinated with the dark and devious ways of conspiracy, they began considering how they might retrieve him for an ally. Thomas Howard, Fourth Duke of Norfolk, was still in the Tower under sentence of death, his arrest having taken place three months before the Oxford-Cecil wedding. Elizabeth continued to postpone the order for his execution—it may have been partly at Oxford’s behest, for he was making desperate efforts to save his cousin: there was a report that he had even attempted a rescue, in the hope of shipping Norfolk off to France. All this had encouraged the Howards to believe that Oxford was with them. And now came this staggering marriage, Burghley’s coup.

Ward states that in “a long rigmarole purporting to be an indiscreet statement made by Lord Oxford” over a period of years, compiled by two men who became his dangerous enemies, in an effort to incense the Queen against him, he is accused of

Railing at my Lord of Norfolk for his coming at the Queen’s commandment, contrary to his [Oxford’s] counsel, as he said in a letter he wrote.

Continual railing on the Duke for coming when he was sent for.

My Lord of Norfolk worthy to lose his head for not following his counsel at Litchfield to take arms.(11)

Oxford must have prevailed, at least to some extent, with Burghley, for he informed the Queen “that there was no law in England by which the Duke of Norfolk could be executed for intriguing to marry Mary Queen of Scots.” Whereupon Elizabeth, her patience snapping, turned upon him. “Get out!” she cried. “What the laws cannot do to his head my authority will do.”

One of the malicious reports which have so unjustly calumniated Oxford’s “good name” stems from this matter of his cousin’s attainder. It seems important to trace it to its source, which is evidently a letter from John Lee, an agent of Burghley’s, written to his employer from Antwerp on March 18, 1572:

The Papists in the Low Countries hope some attempt shortly against the Queen, for they hear that the French King has manned twenty ships of war, and that the Duke of Alva has been sent into Germany…. They be fully persuaded that the Queen dare not proceed further [in the matter of the execution], and also affirm that the Duke has secret friends and those of the best, and such as may do very much with the Queen; and that the Earl of Oxford (who has been a humble suitor for him) has conceived some great displeasure against you for the same, whereupon he hath, as they say here, put away from him the Countess his wife.

For some incomprehensible reason, Dugdale in his Baronage “elaborated this story by saying that the Earl, in order to revenge himself on his father-in-law, dissipated his heritage by selling it at ludicrously low prices, thus ruining himself and his wife. That this idea is pure invention can be seen [from the fact that] . . . out of 56 sales [of estates] only two occurred before 1576.” (12) The story is also amply disproved by the tone of several letters which Lord Oxford wrote to his father-in-law immediately preceding and following Norfolk’s execution; these we shall presently quote.

The Queen of England, after thirteen years of peace, was menaced in many quarters by forces directed towards her destruction. The combination of the Pope and Philip, King of Spain (and subsequently of Portugal), the greatest power in the world, with the fanatical Catholic feudal lords of England, constituted a formidable danger to the ruler of a country weakened and sundered by a hundred years of civil strife, such as England was at that time.

Involved in all this and made pressing by the difficult conditions was the question of an alliance between England and France through the proposed marriage of Elizabeth to Alençon, duc d’Anjou. Previous efforts to marry her to the French King had come to nothing, as had Philip’s offer of his hand upon the death of his wife, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s half-sister and predecessor on the throne; projects had likewise failed for her marriage to Archduke Charles in 1568 and before that to Prince Eric of Sweden in 1559.

Lord Oxford’s marriage seems to have had slight effect upon his life and activities. He still spent the greater part of his time at court, it would seem by royal command, and in close association with the Queen. He continued to receive dedications of scholarly works, and in between the graceful acceptances and prefaces written in response to these, he turned out court-poems which, while bearing the stamp of youth, nevertheless foreshadowed, now in some trick of style or lyric quality, now in a characteristic reaction, some subtlety of perception, or wounded sensibility, the great work he was to do in later years; incidentally, they had one feature common to everything he wrote: they were singularly outspoken, candidly revealing.

People at court were already beginning to comment openly upon Elizabeth’s marked attentions to the young Earl. In May 1572, Gilbert Talbot wrote to his father, the Earl of Shrewsbury:

My Lord of Oxford is lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing than any other. I think Sussex doth back him all that he can. If it were not for his fickle head he would pass any of them shortly. My Lady Burghley unwisely hath declared herself, as it were, jealous, which is come to the Queen’s ear; whereat she hath been not a little offended with her, but now she is reconciled again. At all these love matters my Lord Treasurer winketh, and will not meddle in any way.(13)

Although his presence at court was apparently obligatory, Lord Oxford resided when he could at Wivenhoe with his wife, and also for a time at Castle Hedingham. She was in far more than years younger than her husband, who was exceptionally mature for his age in both experience and understanding. While there may have been no passionate attachment, there was certainly tenderness on his part towards her: otherwise he could not have written her father with the affectionate solicitude his letters of 1572 showed.

In one, dated September of that year, which expresses his shock and horror at the news of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day—a matter which will be taken up more fully later—he urged Burghley to be doubly careful of his own safety, as being “a singular hope and pillar whereto religion hath to lean,” just as the murdered Coligny, he undoubtedly meant, had been a bulwark for the Huguenots against the Papists in France. The letter continues:

And blame me not, though I am bolder with your Lordship than my custom is, for I am one that count myself a follower of yours now in all fortunes; and what shall hap to you I count it hap to myself; at least I will make myself a voluntary partaker of it. Thus, my Lord, I humbly desire your Lordship to pardon my youth, but to take in good part my zeal and affection towards you, as one on whom I have builded my foundation either to stand or fall. And, good my Lord, think not I do this presumptuously as to advise you . . . but to admonish you, as one with whom I would spend my blood and life, so much you have made me yours. And I do protest there is nothing more desired of me than so to be taken and accounted of you. Thus with my hearty commendations and your daughter’s we leave you to the custody of Almighty God.

Your Lordship’s affectionate son-in-law,
Entire letter

This letter evinces a wholeheartedness and warmth all the more striking in that it is the expression of a young man of innate dignity and reserve. That it was written a few months after the Duke of Norfolk’s execution is clear enough evidence that the young Earl had not been antagonized by Burghley’s failure to save his cousin. In a later communication but belonging to that same month, he says, “My Lord, I received your letters when I rather looked to have seen yourself than to have heard from you.” While realizing that his father-in-law is “otherwise affaired with the business of the Commonwealth,” yet he feels he should “repose you among your own,” and “we do hope after this . . . you will begin to have some respect for your own health, and take a pleasure to dwell where you have taken pains to build.”

He requests Burghley to help him to obtain military service. “If there were any service to be done abroad, I had rather serve there than at home, where yet some honour is to be got. If there be any setting forth to sea, to which service I bear most affection, I shall desire your Lordship to give and get me that favour and credit that I might make one,” or “if there be no such intention then I shall be most willing to be employed on the sea coasts to be in readiness with my countrymen against invasion….” This letter is signed, “from London this 22nd of September, by your Lordship’s to command, Edward Oxenford.” (15) Entire letter.

The young husband was in a very difficult position. The Queen demanded his presence, and naturally he was flattered. He was ambitious too; and most men would have made any sacrifice to be Elizabeth’s favorite. Yet he was not unmindful of his wife and had an honorable desire to do his duty by her, while either wishing to be with her or trying to believe that he did. A youthful poem signed by Oxford’s “posy” and included in the first anthology of Elizabethan poems ever published clearly belongs to this period, 1572 (16):

Content thyself with patience perforce,
And quench not love with droppes of dark mistrust:
Let absence have no power to divorce
Thy faithful friend who meaneth to be just.(17)
Beare but a while thy constance to declare,
For when I come on ynch shall break no square.

I must confesse that promise did me bind,
For to have seen thy seemly selfe ere now:
And if thou knewst what greeves did galde my mynde,
Bycause I could not keepe that faithful! vowe:
My just excuse, I can my selfe assure
With little payne thy pardon might procure.

But call to mind how long Ulisses was,
In lingring absence from his loving make:
And how she deigned then her daies to passe,
In solitary silence for his sake.
Be thou a true Penelope to me,
And thou shalt soone shine owne Ulisses see.

What sayd I? soone? yea soone I say againe,
I will come soone and sooner if I may:
Believe me now it is a pinching payee,
To think of love when lovers are away,
Such thoughts I have, and when I think on thee,
My thoughts are there, whereas my bones would bee.

The longing lust which Priames son of Troy,
Had for to see his Cressyde come again:
Could not exceed the depth of mine annoye,
Nor seeme to passe the patterns of my payne.
I fryze in hope, I thaw in hot desire,
Farre from the flame, and yet I burn like fire.

Wherefore deare friend, think on the pleasures past,
And let my teares, for both our paynes suffise:
The lingering joyes, when as they come at last,
Are bet than those, which passe in posting wise.
And I my selfe, to prove this tale is true,
In hast, post hast, thy comfort will renew.

Meritum petere, grave.(18)

How unwillingly he was being detained cannot be known, but he was certainly being detained.

One more letter to Burghley, written in October 1572, reveals his genuine desire for a bond of trust and affection between his father-in-law and himself, while recognizing that heretofore all has not been fair weather. In the light that subsequent events shed upon this period, it seems likely that Burghley no less than his wife objected to Oxford’s close relationship with the Queen, censuring him in private for remaining away from Anne, contrary to the gossip that “my Lord Treasurer winketh and will not meddle in any way.” It was altogether uncharacteristic of Burghley not to meddle. And he had obviously been displeased about something.

It is impossible to read these letters from a proud and temperamental young courtier without being struck by his generosity of heart and nobility of mind.

My Lord, Your Lordship’s last letters which be the first I have received of your Lordship’s good opinion conceived towards me, which God grant so long to continue as I would be both desirous and diligent to seek the same, have not a little, after so many storms passed of your heavy grace towards me, lightened and disburdened my heavy mind. And sith I have been so little beholde to sinister reports, I hope now, with your Lordship in different judgment, to be more plausible to you than heretofore; through my careful deeds to please you, which hardly, either through my youth, or rather my misfortune, hitherto I have done. But yet lest those, I cannot tell how to term them but backfriends to me, shall take place again to undo your Lordship’s beginnings of well-meaning of me, I shall most earnestly desire your Lordship to forbear to believe too fast…. Thus therefore hoping the best in your Lordship and fearing the worst in myself, I take my leave…. Written this 31st day of October by your loving son-in-law from Wivenhoe,

Entire letter.

The young Earl’s metaphor about “storms passed” is to be noted; it was to be a favorite one with him throughout his career. We have no positive information as to the cause of Burghley’s “heavy grace” toward him. But he was forthright and honest in his attitude and his desire to do his part. Someone was already trying to make trouble between him and the Lord Treasurer. As in the case of all who are highly favored, there was to be no dearth of “backfriends” to malign him. This was only the beginning. Certain interested parties were playing for high stakes, and they would stick at nothing.

Later circumstances indicate that the Earl of Oxford had already begun writing masques and “enterludes,” two or perhaps three or even four of which he was to develop recognizably into plays recorded as performed at court during the late 1570’s and early 1580’s. The Queen would have encouraged him in this, but Burghley would have looked askance, if not with emphatic disapproval, upon such activities. Indeed they may well have been one of the prime causes of his Lordship’s “heavy grace.”


1. Ward; p. 56; cit. Stowe’s Annals; p. 669.

2. Sir William Segar, Garter King at Arms: Honour Military and Civil.

3. Ward; pp. 59-60; cit. Harleian MSS., 6064; and Segar: The Book of Honour, 1590; p. 94.

4. Ibid cit. Cal. Rutland MSS. (Henceforth italics will be ours unless otherwise specified, for the purpose of emphasizing important points.)

5. Eclogue, In nuptias clarissimi D. Edouardi Vere. (Tr. by Ward; p. 60.) Hatfield MSS. (Cal. XIII.109.)

6. Ward; p. 62; cit. Cal. Rutland MSS., Aug. 15, 1571.

7. Ward; p. 61; cit. Cal. Rutland MSS., July 28, 1571.

8. Op. cit.; p. 63. Cal. Rutland MSS., Aug. 15, 1571.

9. Ward; p. 63; cit. Correspondence de Bertrand de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon; vol. IV, p. 315.

10. Ward; p. 68; cit. Cal. S. P. Spanish (1568-79), 358.

11. Ward; p. 67; cit. S.P.Dom. Eliz., 95, 92; and 151. 46-9.

12. Ward; p. 68; cit. S.P.Dom. Add., 22.23 for letter. And note 3.

13. Illustrations of British History: Lodge, 1791; vol. II, p. 100.

14. Harleian MSS., 6991.5.

15. Lansdowne MSS., 14.84.

16. A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres. see Chap. Six. Tottell’s Miscellany had been published in 1557. The Court of Venus, published in 1559, could not be called Elizabethan.

17.The Elizabethans used the word friend in a very intimate sense. A man would speak of another man as his lover, quite casually, but friend stood for a deeper relationship. This applies notably in the sonnets.

18.Original italics. Note the words “patience perforce,” stanza 1, line 1, and “pinching payne,” st. 4, I. 3; for he will use these again together. Two poems relative to Anne’s discontent at this time are quoted in Appendix, Note 4, (2) a and b.

19. Landsowne MSS., 14.85.

Contents | Chapter Six