Lord Oxford As Supervising Patron of
Shakespeare’s Theatrical Company
Copyright 1944 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, July 1944.
The arguments advanced in this article are largely based upon new and heretofore unutilized documentation of the Shakespearean Age. Their significance will be immediately grasped by everyone familiar with the main lines of testimony which identify Edward de Vere, the Poet-Playwright Earl of Oxford, as the long-sought creative personality behind the Shakespeare mystery. Mr. Barrell approaches his problem from the scientific angle. He emphasizes factual logic above standardized assumption. His documentation, showing Lord Oxford as the one permanent “Lord Chamberlain” of his era and familiarly referred to by his contemporaries under this provocative two-word designation, is authentic and undeniable. It will startle and perhaps chagrin many Stratfordian authorities who have previously either ignored or sought to misrepresent the great body of Oxford-Shakespeare evidence. Others will find it a fascinating example of careful research and realistic deduction. The Editors.
All biographers of William Shakespeare agree that during the heyday of his career the Bard was the creative mainspring of the acting company known as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” Most of the early quartos of the individual plays—although pirated versions, printed without the authority of an author’s name—bear upon their title-pages a variation of this statement from the 1597 edition of The Tragedie of King Richard the second:
“As it hath beene publikely acted by the right Honourable the Lorde Chamberlaine his Seruants.”
Sir Sidney Lee, Shakespeare’s best-known modern biographer, says:
“When in 1594 (Lord Strange’s) company (then renamed the Earl of Derby’s Men) was merged in the far-famed Lord Chamberlain’s company, Shakespeare is proclaimed by contemporary official documents to have been one of its foremost members. In December of that year he joined its two leaders, Richard Burbage the tragedian and William Kempe the comedian, in two performances at Court. He was prominent in the counsels of the Lord Chamberlain’s servants through 1598 and was recognized as one of its chieftains in 1603. Similarly, under this company’s auspices, almost all of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays were presented to the public.”
These statements, covering of course the presumed activities of the Stratford native, are nothing if not positive. And when we turn to the index of Lee’s Life of Shakespeare (1917 edition) and find that the Lord Chamberlain’s Company of the orthodox Shakespearean Age is listed under “Hunsdon, first and second Lords,” everything seems simple and understandable.
We are to take it that the author of Hamlet and the other masterpieces had at the most three theatrical patrons during the decade of his greatest stage production, 1593 to 1603, or up to the time that the Lord Chamberlain’s Company passed under the personal patronage of King James I.
Lee and his followers tell us that Shakespeare’s Elizabethan stage patrons, were (1st) Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange and Fifth Earl of Derby, who died April 16, 1594; (2nd) Henry Carey, First Lord Hunsdon, who died July 23, 1596; and (3rd) George Carey, Second Lord Hunsdon, who died September 9, 1603. Ferdinando Stanley held no office of Chamberlain in the Tudor government. But Henry Carey was Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household from June 1583, until his death in the summer of 1596, while his eldest son George filled the same office from April 1597, until December 1602, when his duties were taken over by Lord Thomas Howard, later Earl of Suffolk.
In other words, as Sir Sidney Lee states it, the actors who presented Shakespeare’s plays from 1594 to 1603, carried on their work under the protection and patronage of Henry and George Carey, Barons Hunsdon, who were Lords Chamberlain of the Royal Household. We are also assured by Stratfordian writers generally that members of “Shakespeare’s Company” looked to these two patrons for considerable monetary support in working up their productions and bridging periods of enforced idleness, while also receiving their official backing in encounters with puritanical governmental authorities.
It all seems very simple, indeed. In fact, like most of the accepted Shakespearean assumptions, Lee’s explanation of the Bard’s association with the Lord Chamberlain’s Company is weakened by oversimplification. Final conclusions have been drawn from evidence too conflicting to debar reasonable doubt. Moreover, a considerable body of negative evidence has been turned up in recent years which argues that this same group evidently owed less in the way of patronage and official backing to the two Lords Hunsdon than has been so generally assumed; while other documentation now comes to light which shows beyond all doubt that the abbreviated term of “Lord Chamberlain” was frequently applied during Elizabeth’s reign to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain of England, as well as to the various Lords Chamberlain of the Royal Household.
Such facts have not previously been taken into consideration, so far as I can find out, by any writer on Shakespearean stage affairs. But they seem to me of the utmost importance—something in the nature of a documentary bombshell which may blast apart the whole structure of assumptions regarding the real identity of the Lord Chamberlain of Shakespearean fame. It will at least be obvious in the sequel that he was not always one or the other of the Hunsdons, as Lee and his followers so confidently state.
For right at the beginning of this investigation it can be shown that the accepted commentators are misleading when they make it appear that Henry and George Carey monopolized the office and activities of Lords Chamberlain of the Household during the first (orthodox) decade of Shakespearean production. The fact is that the actual duties of that post were carried out by at least six different persons from 1593 until George Carey relinquished the office because of invalidism in the winter of 1602.
Let us see who these men were. First, we have Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, said to have been born in the year 1524, a natural son of Henry VIII by Mary, elder sister of Anne Boleyn. Certain references show that Hunsdon was made Lord Chamberlain of the Household in June 1583, although Lord Charles Howard of Effingham, later Lord Admiral, actually administered the office during 1584 and 85. The author of the brief life of Henry Carey in the Dictionary of National Biography tells also of Hunsdon’s appointment to the important military command of Warden of the East Marches Towards Scotland and Governor of Berwick in 1568, responsibilities which he shouldered until his death in 1596. The writer goes on to mention the fact that “Hunsdon’s . . . office, in the north did not allow him to reside regularly at Court.” In fact, the Queen once threatened “to set him by his feet” (in the stocks) if he appeared too frequently in her presence instead of concentrating on his military duties. This being the case, plus the fact that Hunsdon was a man well up in years in the 1590’s, of uncertain health and temper, as contemporary references testify, it becomes plain why the Court duties of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household were so largely carried out by the Vice-Chamberlains, (first) Sir Christopher Hatton and (second) Sir Thomas Heneage, during Hunsdon’s long absences in the north, and especially during the last years of the old soldier’s life at the very time that Hunsdon is so positively stated to have reorganized and revitalized a group of mummers who had lost their erstwhile patron.
Thus, when the facts of Lord Hunsdon’s life are set beside the Shakespearean assumptions, significant discrepancies become apparent.
Hunsdon had unquestionably lent his patronage to certain groups of players from the 1560’s onward, but in the records where the activities of these players are to be traced, it can be shown that they are frequently referred to as “Lord Hunsdon’s Servants.” This being the case, it can be logically argued that accepted historians of the Shakespearean stage have gone too far in claiming that Hunsdon’s Men were always the same groups that are coevally mentioned as “Lord Chamberlain’s Players.” The existence of more than one nationally known “Lord Chamberlain” throughout this era brings the whole matter into serious question. It may very be that Hunsdon, the veteran “sword and buckler” man had, indeed, nothing more than a nominal interest in the fortunes of the new “Lord Chamberlain’s Servants”‘ who suddenly preempted the place of royal entertainers in 1594 once filled by the “Queen’s Men.”
A personality of great artistic genius and unquestioned social and governmental authority was behind the organization of this acting group. But it does not smack of the rough and ready, gouty and bitter-tongued Hunsdon any more than it does of the former butcher’s apprentice of Stratford-on-Avon.
Sir Thomas Heneage (c. 1532-1595) who was appointed Vice-Chamberlain of the Household in 1589 and fulfilled so many of Hunsdon’s duties, also served as Treasurer of the Chamber and was authorized to pay the acting companies that appeared at Court. He was a man of cosmopolitan education and training and a great favorite of the Queen. On May 2, 1594, he took as his second wife Mary Browne Wriothesley, the widowed Countess of Southampton and mother of the Third Earl of Southampton, “Shakespeare’s patron.” But upon his death in October 1595, it was found that Heneage’s accounts were over three years in arrears. This would indicate that Sir Thomas had been sadly overworked. In any event, many of the players who had appeared at Court, including the “far-famed” Lord Chamberlain’s Servants, seem to have gone unpaid for many months, together with a number of the Royal Household attendants. When Elizabeth learned of this, she wrote a sharp letter to Heneage’s widow and executrix, the Countess of Southampton. Mrs. C. C. Stopes, who discovered these facts, reproduces the Queen’s letter in Shakespeare’s Industry (p. 222) as follows:
“At the decease of your late husband, Sir Thomas Heneage, he had 1314 pounds, 15 shillings and 4 pence in hand as Treasurer of the Chamber . . . you, as Executrix have paid up 401 pounds, 6 shillings and 10 pence, and 394 pounds, 9 shillings and 11 pence to the guard and others. . . . We require immediate payment of the balance, 528 pounds, 18 shillings and 7 pence to the Treasury of the Chamber, on which you shall receive acquittance for the whole sum. . . .”
Thus it comes about that the Declared Accounts of the Treasury of the Chamber (Pipe Office Poll 542) from September 29, 1592 to December 16, 1595 are made up of bills rendered in the handwriting of Mary Countess of Southampton. And it is of especial interest to students of the Shakespeare problem to note that one of these vouchers, filled out by the Countess of Southampton in settling her husband’s affairs (some time after October 1595) contains the first land (and only) reference to “Willm Shakespeare” as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company extant in Elizabethan Court records. This is the “contemporary official document” mentioned by Lee. In slightly modernized type it reads:
“1594, Dec. 26.28. To Willm Kempe Willm Shakespeare & Richarde Burbage servants to the Lord Chambleyne upon the councelles (Privy Council’s) warrant dated at Whitehall XV Martii (March) 1594 (really 1595 in modern reckoning) for two severall comedies or Enterludes shewed before her Matie in Xmas tyme last past viz upon St Stephens daye & Innocentes day Xiii 1. vi s. viii d. and by waye of her ma’tes Rewarde vi 1. xiii s. iiii d.
In view of the circumstances under which this voucher was written, its meticulous detail and the fact that three payees are specified as receivers of the overdue payment, it is reasonable to believe that the directing head of the Lord Chamberlain’s Players had been one of those who had personally protested to the Queen over the delay his men had experienced in receiving their dues from the Treasurer of the Chamber. The Countess of Southampton would be one of the few persons in England most likely to know that the professional mask of the ranking Lord Chamberlain of the realm was “William Shakespeare.” Hence her careful inclusion of this name in her ante-dated voucher to notify all interested parties that the account had been settled.
Following the death of Sir Thomas Heneage in the autumn of 1595, no Vice-Chamberlain was appointed, despite Hunsdon’s advanced age and poor physical condition, until 1601, when Sir John Stanhope took over the office.
Meanwhile, Henry Carey was buried in Westminster Abbey at the Queen’s expense in the summer of 1596, having been incapacitated for many months prior to his death. Contrary to orthodox intimations, Hunsdon’s son George did not immediately succeed him as Lord Chamberlain of the Household.
Instead, Elizabeth appointed an aged Court politician. This was William Brooke, Seventh Lord Cobham, who dated from the reign of Henry VIII and had for years filled the lucrative billet of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. The supposition is that the Queen selected Cobham as her Household Chamberlain to spite Essex, who was Cobham’s bitter enemy, and incidentally to please Sir Robert Cecil, who had married the new Lord Chamberlain’s daughter.
Cobham appears in the chronicles as a choleric and domineering baron of the old school—with Puritan political affiliations. He was a descendant through the female line of the First Lord Cobham, better known to history as Sir John Oldcastle, the companion of Prince Hal. Although early in the reign of Elizabeth, William Brooke had for a short period patronized certain unidentified players, there are many indications that he had no liking for the acting profession. It seems quite definite indeed that he had a particular bone to pick with the group known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants because they had unmercifully lampooned his maternal ancestor in the Shakespearean creation of the super-rascally Sir John Oldcastle (Falstaff). And it was either William Brooke or his son Henry who about this time succeeded in having the name of this immortal exponent of sinful folly changed in the plays of Henry IV, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor from the original designation of Oldcastle to Falstaff. There is some amusing evidence in a letter written by the young Countess of Southampton to her husband while he was serving with Essex in Ireland in 1599, that the Oldcastle-Falstaff lampoon was still applied to Henry Brooke at that time. Be that as it may, a Lord Chamberlain less sympathetic to the growth of revolutionary theatrical genius than the Seventh Lord Cobham would have been hard to find.
Yet Cobham served as presumable director of Court entertainment from August 1596, until the end of March 1597, when he died. And during his tenure of office, “Shakespeare’s Company” (specifically listed in the books of the Treasurer of the Chamber as “servaunts to the Lord Chambleyne”) appeared at Court no less than six times between December 26, 1596 and February 1597. Extant records do not give the titles of the plays shown by this group during Cobham’s administration as Lord Chamberlain of the Household. But such widely accepted authorities as Malone and Chalmers between them date the first productions of all four of the comedies in which Oldcastle-Falstaff figures to the years 1596 and 97; Such guesses are, of course, wide of the mark when applied to the works of an alleged untrained young “natural genius” from the provinces, bent upon steering a successful career among the pitfalls of Tudor officialdom. All circumstances considered, it is quite impossible to assume—as the Court records indicate—that Cobham took over the former Derby-Hunsdon Men intact, including the irreverent “William Shakespeare” and his objectionable Oldcastle libel, giving them his blessing and a patent to conduct business as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Servants.” Such a supposition is denied by what we read of Cobham at this period of his career. Documents in the State Papers Domestic picture him as an arrogant and contentious curmudgeon, patently more interested in strengthening his own pretenses and prerogatives than in tenderly shepherding the fortunes of play actors and dramatists. Moreover, Cobham, like the elder Hunsdon, was a sick man for some time before his death in March 1597.
All of these puzzling and conflicting facts point up a significant anomaly that no previous investigator appears to have noted; viz., that the Lord Chamberlain’s Company was strongly organized, intelligently patronized and became firmly entrenched in public favor during the very period when the office of Lord Chamberlain of the Household was subject to many vicissitudes of decay, death, financial laxity and political maneuvering.
George Carey, Second Lord Hunsdon (1547-1603) who followed Cobham as Lord Chamberlain of the Household in April 1597, was a man of considerably more culture and cut a more graceful figure as a professional courtier than his forthright, swashbuckling father. But that he took a personal hand in furthering the fortunes of any of the men whose names are so frequently mentioned as members of the Lord Chamberlain Players cannot be corroborated by his own documentation. Thomas Nash, the dramatist and comic commentator, lived for a time in George Carey’s household between 1593 and 1595, but Nash is not generally considered an orthodox associate of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Neither has anyone so far been able to identify the “‘Richard Hoope,” “Wm Blackwage” or “Rafe Ray,” each of whom is described in Philip Henslowe’s famous Diary as “my lorde chamberlenes man,” as a retainer of George Carey, Baron Hunsdon, or as a known employee of the office of the Chamberlain of the Household. Any one or all of these persons could seemingly just as well have been servants of Edward de Vere, the playwriting Lord Chamberlain of England.
In attributing the organization and. highly successful direction of the affairs of the Lord Chamberlain’s Players to the Careys, far too much has been taken for granted. Writers such as Sir Sidney Lee are able to have a whole series of important assumptions accepted primarily because so much of the basic contemporary documentation upon which an alternate opinion might be founded is either missing—or has been studiously ignored. All of the books and practically all of the incidental records relating to the offices of the Master of the Revels, the Lord Chamberlain of the Household and the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, covering the last decade of Elizabeth and the first years of James I—in other words, the Shakespearean Age—no longer exist. Incumbents of all three of these offices could have exercised authority over the selection, writing, stage presentation or publication of plays. They not only could—it is very apparent that at various times all three did. But just where the jurisdiction of any one of these three officials ended and another’s began has not been positively established. Their records are gone. Whether they were deliberately or accidentally destroyed seems impossible to determine today. In any event, and without stressing the importance of the Master of the Revels here, for it appears certain that he reported to one of the Lords Chamberlain, we are on firmer ground when we attribute the marked success of “Shakespeare’s Company” to the personal protection of a known poet and Playwright of exceptional ability such as Edward de Vere, the Lord Chamberlain of England, than to the Careys, Heneage, Cobham or any of the other men who carried out the duties of Chamberlain of the Household during the final decade of Elizabeth.
The Second Lord Hunsdon had hardly succeeded to the title before an event occurred which bears out our argument that he was not the “all-powerful” patron of the theatre that has been assumed.
In 1596, when James Burbage purchased property in the Blackfriars district for the purpose of re-establishing the little theatre that had once flourished there under the ownership or management of Henry Evans, John Lyly and the Earl of Oxford, determined though unsuccessful efforts were made to prevent Burbage from accomplishing his purpose. Some time in November 1596, a formal petition was addressed to the Privy Council by residents of Blackfriars, protesting against Burbage’s activities. The second name appearing among the signers of this document is that of “G. Hunsdon,” i.e., George Carey, Lord Hunsdon.
Chambers in his Elizabethan Stage (Vol. IV, p. 319) says:
“. . . it is odd to find Lord Hunsdon a signatory, since one would have supposed that he could influence James Burbage through his son Richard, who was one of Hunsdon’s players.”
It is indeed odd. And odder still to find the Blackfriars Theatre—built despite the protests of Hunsdon—becoming the sole property of Richard Burbage in 1597. It would certainly seem that this star performer of the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants stood in very little awe of the expressed wishes of his alleged “all-powerful” patron. Such negative evidence indicates that Burbage took orders from an entirely different Lord Chamberlain—perhaps the one who had some years previously backed the comedies written by John Lyly and himself in the oiginal Blackfriars playhouse.
Like his father before him, the Second Lord Hunsdon was a victim of chronic ill health during his latter years. In the MSS. of the Lord de L’Isle and Dudley, under date of March 15, 1600, appears the transcription of a letter from Rowland Whyte to Sir Robert Sidney which states:
“My Lord Chamberlain (Hunsdon) is sick at Drayton. . . . If My Lord Chamberlain should die, it is like a Vice-Chamberlain will be made first. I will put your friends in mind of you.”
This is one of the first of a whole series of contemporary references written by Whyte, Sir William Browne, Sir Robert Cecil and Hunsdon himself, all stressing the physical break-up and incapacity of George Carey to administer the office of Lord Chamberlain of the Household.
Whyte writes to Sidney on September 26. 1600:
“The Lord Chamberlain is not able to take the pains which belong to his place, which surely will draw to making a Vice-Chamberlain.”
It has always been confidently stated that the selection of theatrical entertainment for the drama-loving Elizabeth was one of the particular duties of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household. Yet here we find the Second Hunsdon a self-admitted invalid during the years of 1600, 1601 and 1602 when stage entertainment is at peak production at Court to divert the Queen’s mind from the Essex conspiracy and its tragic aftermath—while the Servants of the Lord Chamberlain play the most prominent part in these dramatic festivals. Surely, this particular company had a dynamic directive continuity that bears no apparent relationship to the personal interest or well being of its (assumed) official patron at any given period of its career. When the Earl of Pembroke goes into a decline, his players decline with him—into obscurity. When Essex is out of sorts or out of the country, his proteges suffer and sing small. But as soon as one of the Lords Chamberlain of the Household takes to his death-bed, the players who are supposed to look to his advice and bounty seem to take on a new lease of life. In this respect, the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants differ from all other acting companies of the period.
Finally, in 1601, when Elizabeth becomes convinced that Lord Hunsdon is permanently incapacitated, she appoints Sir John Stanhope Vice-Chamberlain. Stanhope, incidentally, is related to Elizabeth Trentham, Lord Oxford’s wife, by marriage. He fulfills Hunsdon’s Court responsibilities until Lord Thomas Howard takes over the more important ones in December 1602, a few months before the great Queen’s death.
It should be abundantly apparent from the record here briefly given of the high mortality of Lords Chamberlain of the Household during the so-called heyday of Shakespearean stage enterprise, that the name under which the Bard’s fellows carried on their operations is not subject to the narrow interpretation it has been accorded. Sometimes this historic galaxy may have—and evidently did—secure Court favor and take orders from the two Lords Hunsdon, from Sir Thomas Heneage, from Lord Cobham, from Sir John Stanhope and finally from Lord Thomas Howard. But such a multiplicity of masters is not conducive to harmony and progress in any line of creative endeavor. And the high artistic aims set and achieved by these men connotes a leader of vast experience, keen and constant sympathy, together with unquestionable authority to push their interests at all time—even to the extent of securing for them the personal patronage of the new monarch.
Logic and commonsense indicates, therefore, that behind all of these passing and acting Lords Chamberlain of the Household loomed the potent figure of Edward de Vere, the one permanent Lord Chamberlain of the realm. He above all the personages mentioned above, can be fully documented as best fitted by temperament, experience and publicly noted dramatic ability and associations to initiate, nurture and coordinate stage entertainment on the grand scale.
From earliest manhood Oxford is referred to by Court correspondents and other contemporaries as Elizabeth’s favorite wit and entertainer, as one capable of devising and enacting shows, interludes and spectacles in which the Queen “took great pleasure”—just as Ben Jonson tells us the plays of Shakespeare “did take Eliza and our James.”
The records of performances given by Lord Oxford’s various groups of players—both children and adults—fill many pages in the chronicles of Elizabethan stage affairs from the 1570’s onward. The Earl’s patronage of and personal interest in the doings of such well-known figures in dramatic history as Thomas Churchyard, John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Robert Greene and Thomas Nash has been mentioned again and again. Sometimes these associations are brought up to Oxford’s discredit, as when Lord Burghley writes under date of May 13, 1587 to Sir Francis Walsingham that the Earl’s “lewd friends . . . still rule him by flatteries.” (1) Or when Sir Sidney Lee comes to the curiously unenlightened conclusion that Oxford is to be censured because he appears to have “squandered some part of his fortune upon men of letters whose bohemian mode of life attracted him.” And finally we find Sir George Buc, poet, historian and the Deputy Master of the Revels who licensed several of the Shakespeare plays for stage production and publication, lamenting Lord Oxford’s “waste” of his earldom, while paying high tribute to him as a “magnificent and a very learned and religious man,” Buc himself “having had the honour of his familiar acquaintance.” (2)
Comments of this kind—together with similar references too extensive to include here—show that Oxford had a lifelong- preoccupation with literary and dramatic art and cultivated relationships with men of the pen and the stage. No other noblemen of the day displays the same all-out, extravagant generosity to creative workers that he does—even to the extent of helping them revise and improve their writings, as Thomas Watson and Anthony Munday both bear witness. So marked is Oxford’s predilection for the creative arts that we may well agree with Lee’s harsh comments insofar as to admit that this personal characteristic was one cause of Oxford’s virtual bankruptcy in 1586, when he was obliged to accept a pension from the Crown. All of these circumstances will be seen to have direct Shakespearean connotations, as, for instance, when the Bard declares in Sonnet 64:
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate.
But the most telling parallel between Oxford as a theatrical patron and the type of generously cooperative organization which made “Shakespeare’s Company”—the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants—the best-sustained and most prosperous association of its era is to be found in Prof. Ashley H. Thorndike’s book, Shakespeare’s Theatre (p. 260, et seq.) written some years before Lord Oxford’s real personality was disclosed by Mr. Looney. Thorndike remarks:
“In the Shakespeare-Burbage organization, the leading actors were both ‘housekeepers’ or sharers in the playhouse, and ‘shareholders’ in the profits of the company. . . . A share in a good company represented a considerable investment in costumes and plays. Lean years put the company in debt, but the fat years brought large dividends, and the actor who stuck to one company prospered. Shakespeare’s company, the most prosperous of all, kept its organization intact from 1594 to 1642. Some actors who had played with Shakespeare were still acting for the same company when the revolution stopped their profits and called them to the service of the King.
“. . . we have little information as to the conditions of patronage in Elizabeth’s reign. The patrons of the companies occasionally appear as their protectors in, disputes with the mayor or magistrate, or even in the discussions of the Privy Council. The protection and prestige afforded by a great nobleman like the Earl of Leicester or by such an official as the Lord Chamberlain, were of course of the greatest value to the fortunate companies. In other cases the use of the nobleman’s license must have been about the beginning and end of his relations with the actor, although it would not be surprising in view of Elizabethan conditions if this use of his name brought to the nobleman an honorarium from the company. The most striking case of personal relations between a patron and his company is that of the Earl of Oxford, who leased the first Blackfriars theatre for his company of boys, and then turned the lease over to John Lyly the dramatist.” (My italics.)
All of Prof. Thorndike’s comments are worthy of careful consideration in solving the mystery of the permanent directive patron of “Shakespeare’s Company.”
Did this man himself own a share in his “cry of players,” as Hamlet suggests to Horatio may be his own destiny? It does not appear at all likely that either of the Lords Hunsdon did. But knowing the precarious state of Oxford’s finances during the seventeen years of his life between 1586 and 1603, the different “shifts” he employed from time to time to come by ready money, it is easy enough to see him in such a role. At the same time, he would naturally adopt a stage name and a living mask to cover such a socially dubious connection from public notice. Moreover, by securing for his group the official but purely nominal “Patronage” of the current Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, while he himself remained the permanent Lord Chamberlain of England, any professional work in which he saw fit to engage, as dramatist, actor, production supervisor—and incidental sharer in the profits of the enterprise—would be quite as effectually screened from public identification as have been the similar doings of many present day “sleeping partners” who have operated behind ambiguously named holding companies and dummy boards of directors.
One of the significant examples of contemporary evidence that first encouraged me to look into this matter of a probable connection between the operations of “Shakespeare’s Company” and the theatrical activities of the temperamentally Shakespearean Lord Great Chamberlain of England, appears on the title-page of an anonymous play. The Weakest Goeth To the Wall. This Elizabethan drama is doubtfully attributed to John Webster by William Hazlitt, editor of Webster’s collected works, though it seems to me to be written more in the style of Lord Oxford’s protege and stage-manager, Anthony Munday, especially by virtue of its well-constructed plot. (3)
In the earliest extant edition (of 1618) the title is followed by these words:
“As it hath been sundry times plaid by the right-honourable Earle of Oxenford, Lord Great Chamberlaine of England his seruants.”
Hazlitt is struck by the coincidental possibilities of this statement and quotes an earlier editor of Elizabethan literature in remarking:
“If for ‘Lord Great Chamberlain of England’ we could read ‘Lord High Chamberlain of Her Majesty,’ this being the company to which Shakespeare belonged, and which, subsequently to the accession of James I, changed its style, by patent, to that of the King’s servants, or players, The Weakest Goeth To the Wall would then have had the advantage of being represented by the same actors as had been engaged in performing the works of our great dramatist.”
If so keen and unfettered a critic as Hazlitt was willing to speculate thus far, nearly a hundred years ago, and long before the Oxford-Shakespeare documentation had been assembled, he would be even more intrigued today, could he read the transcripts now to be presented, for the first time in this case, showing as they do, beyond any possibility of question that the playwriting and play-producing Lord Great Chamberlain of England was referred to by his contemporaries in exactly the same shortened phraseology that is applied to the (assumed) official patrons of “Shakespeare’s Company.”
One of these appears as follows in the Calendar of Proceedings in Chancery in the Reign of Elizabeth (Vol. 1, p. 185):
“Plaintiff Daniel Cage: defendant, Thomas Hamond. Object Of suit, claim by lease, Manor of Much Hormeade, the inheritance of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxenford, lord charnberleyn.”
I have also found that the correspondence of Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil, calendared in the MSS. of the Marquess of Salisbury contain several references to the “Lord Chamberlain” which show by internal evidence, plus known situations in which Oxford figured, as well as provable affiliations of the writers, that the Poet Earl is meant, rather than one of the Hunsdons, Cobharn or Lord Thomas Howard. All of these documents must some day be more carefully analyzed. For the present I will reproduce the most striking and conclusive of them, a letter which bears date of “1 July, 1603.”‘ It is unsigned, but is endorsed, “Mrs. Hicks to my lord.” Mrs. Hicks appears to have been the wife of Michael Hicks who was private secretary to Lord Burghley, later serving Burghley’s son, Sir Robert Cecil, in the same capacity. Cecil had become “My Lord Cranborne” when this letter was written. Mrs. Hicks was then acting as a sort of governess to, and providing living quarters for, Lord Oxford’s youngest daughter, the Lady Susan Vere. The “Mr. Haughton” and “Mr. Percival” mentioned in the letter were evidently two of Cecil’s stewards, while “Mr. Billett” was Thomas Bellott, who had long been the late Lord Treasurer’s confidential servant and had much to do with Oxford’s tangled properties and family affairs during Lord Burghley’s lifetime. This letter has such an important bearing upon the identification of the Earl of Oxford as the real Shakespearean “Lord Chamberlain” that it must be given in full, as it appears in the Salisbury MSS. (Vol. 15, p. 164)
I would have been glad to have heard from my Lord Chamberlain for the main sum, because I have occasion to use it for a payment shortly. You told me at my last being with you at the Court you would speak with him. In the meantime, may it please you to give order to Mr. Haughton or Mr. Percival to discharge the consideration. Mr. Billett desired me to speak with my Lord Chamberlain touching the money due to my lady Susan, which is for half a year the second of last month. Having no other assurance for the main sum but an assignment from those in whose name the manor of Hadnam (Castle Hedingham, Oxford’s birthplace in Essex) passed, he (Mr. Billett) saith that he ought to have the letters patents of the grant from the Queen made over to him; without the which the rest is no assurance. As I shall hear from you herein so I will return him answer. My apricots begin somewhat to draw to ripening colour. As soon as they be worth the sending they shall be sent you.—1 July, 1603.
Here at last in this letter and in the Court of Chancery reference we have two of the key exhibits that I think any fair-minded person will recognize as providing ample warrant for the claims that have been made regarding the Earl of Oxford’s connection with “Shakespeare’s Company” of players. Under the ambiguous title of “Lord Chamberlain” he can be discerned just as clearly as his features and insignia can now be detected beneath the over-painted surfaces of the ancient “portraits of Shakespeare.”
1. In the play of 2 Henry IV, II, 2, 57, Pointz reminds Prince Hal that he has lost reputation “because you have been so lewd, and so much engraffed to Falstaff.”
2. See chapter on Sir George Buc by Mark Eccles in Sisson’s Thomas Lodge and Other Elizabethans.
3. In listing Anthony Munday among the foremost dramatists of the Shakespearean Age, Francis Meres describes him as “our best plotter.”