Rare Military Volume Sponsored by Lord Oxford
Issued By “Shakespeare’s” First Publisher
John Harrison the Elder Provides Significant Link
Between The Defence of Militarie Profession
And First Quartos of the Bard’s Poems
Copyright 1945 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, April 1945.
Shakespeare’s knowledge of military technique, usage and terminology—like his knowledge of other highly specialized subjects, such as Court politics and precedence, the psychology of the Tudor aristocracy, civil and ecclesiastical law, music and horsemanship—is both extensive and accurate.
The author of Othello and the great historical plays beginning with King John and ending, say, with 3 Henry VI, expresses the courtier-soldier’s point of view too clearly and naturally and displays far too familiar a grasp of military methods, objectives and colloquialisms not to have acquired this knowledge through serious study—plus firsthand experience—of the arts of war. No such study and experience can be documented in the career of the Stratford native. The effort has frequently been made by his biographers, ending always in a dead-end of conjecture, exactly where all such efforts to account for the elusive William’s presumably vast knowledge of so many cultural and technical specialties always end.
But the case is entirely different when we examine the claims for the poet-playwright Earl of Oxford as the real-life “Gentle Master William.” In every outstanding instance of specialized knowledge credited to the author of the plays, Oxford’s personal familiarity with the subject can be categorically documented. This is particularly true in respect to “Shakespeare’s” fund of military information. A volume of respectable proportions could be compiled on the theme. That it has not been done seems odd, inasmuch as all soldier-scholars of the English-speaking world should find much therein to interest them. Some valuable commentaries on the subject exist, however, and the best of these are being compiled for future presentation in the QUARTERLY. The striking manner in which the Shakespearean selection and handling of military activities and personalities parallels the personal experiences, known associations and sympathies of the playwright Earl of Oxford should jolt the complacency of any Stratfordian who studies the evidence. None will be able to impeach its relevance and competence, however.
Detailed mention of Oxford’s early training in military exercises, his remarkable prowess as a handler of the spear and other weapons in the lists, his personal participation in the military campaign of 1569-70 against the rebel Earls of the North, his brief experience as an acting General of Cavalry in the Lowlands in 1586, and his determined effort to take active part in the running sea-battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588, are all to be found in Capt. B. M. Ward’s biography of the Earl and need not detain us here. Neither is it necessary to reiterate the facts given in previous issues of this publication, which prove that Lord Oxford numbered among his personal followers and intimate associates such men of tested and approved military metal as “the brave Lord Willoughby,” Captain Sir Roger Williams (“Shakespeare’s” own Fluellen), Captain Maurice Denis of Lowlands fame, Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, K. G., his cousins, Sir Francis and Lord Horatio Vere and, finally, his illegitimate son. Lieut.-Col. Sir Edward Vere, one of the most admired heroes of the Dutch struggle for independence.
All of these known circumstances help us in recreating the poet Earl’s background and character. They also should indicate some of the reasons for his final selection of the militant pen-name of “William Shakespeare” under which to dispense the “rare devices of poetry,” the notable comedies and those “deep draughts of the Muses”—otherwise unaccounted for in English literature—with which the literary nobleman is credited by the foremost critics of his own day.
What is not so well known to even the closest students of Lord Oxford’s mysterious career is the fact that a book of moralized military commentary, compiled by an Elizabethan soldier, was dedicated to the Earl in 1578, the same year in which Dr. Gabriel Harvey publicly described Oxford as a great scholar and voluminous writer of “English measures” whose countenance “shakes a spear.”
Undoubtedly this book has been previously overlooked by Mr. Looney, Capt. Ward and other Oxfordian writers, chiefly because of its rarity. The Folger Shakespeare Library at Washington appears to own the only copy now catalogued in this part of the world. It is entitled:
The Defence of Militarie profession, Wherein is eloquently shewed the due commendation of Martiall prowess, and plainly prooved how necessary the exercise of Armes is for this our age.
Imprinted at London by Henry Middleton, for John Harison, 1579.
The author’s name, as signed to the dedication, is “Geffrey Gates.” Although he expresses himself as a man of considerable military experience, little appears to be known of Gates beyond what he discloses of himself in his book. He was probably the grandson of Sir Geoffrey Gates of Essex and the son of Sir John Gates, an adherent of the Northumberland faction, who was beheaded August 22, 1553, for his implication in the effort to establish Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England in place of Mary Tudor. The Gates family of Essex had intermarried with the Clopton family of Essex and Warwickshire and was also allied to the Vavasor family of Copmanthorpe, Yorkshire, to which Anne Vavasor, Lord Oxford’s mistress (the “Dark Lady of the Sonnets”) belonged. Although of royal descent, the Gates family had been ruined by its political affiliations, and Geoffrey Gates, author of The Defence of Military Profession, states in his dedication of the book to Oxford that he is “an unlettered man” who has been too actively engaged to acquire literary polish and has been obliged “to take unto me a notarie to sett down in writing this drift in the defence and praise of warlike prowesse.” Very likely Lord Oxford himself—as was his habit with aspiring authors—helped Gates in laying out his book and seeing it through the press.
The dedication begins:
“To the Right honorable, Edward de Vere, Earle of Oxenford, viscount Bulbecke, Lord of Escales and Baldesmere, and Lord Great Chamberlaine of England.”
Then follows a long dissertation on experience as the great teacher in military and other affairs, ending on this personal note:
“And finally, the experience of the high-nobleness & honour of you, my singuler good Lord, doth embolden me (in the love of a faithful hart, to your renowned vertues) most humbly to commend this little work to your honorable protection, that under the shielde of your noble favour and judgment, it may stande in grace before our nation, to some good effect. God graunt it. To whom be praise, & to your good Lordshippe, abundance of heavenly graces, and fatherly blessings, even to everla
Your honours most humble
sting life. Amen. London, 23 Decemb. 1578.
Henry Middleton, the printer of The Defence of Military Profession, was a competent craftsman, as the letter-press of this nearly four hundred year old blackletter quarto testifies. He had also printed some of the translations of Arthur Golding, including The Psalms of David and Others, which Golding dedicated to his nephew, the young Earl of Oxford, in 1571. Henry Middleton must have been favorably known to Gates’ patron in 1578 for this reason. We can take it for granted that the Earl who—in Sir Sidney Lee’s obtuse phrase—”squandered some portion of his patrimony on men of letters”—paid the cost of putting the earnest drillmaster’s military reflections into type.
But one of the significant Shakespearean connotations worthy of note in this connection is the name of the actual publisher or distributor of The Defence of Militarie Profession. This is John Harrison. The copyright entry in the Stationers’ Register under date of 3rd December, 1578, reads:
Master Harrison, Upper Warden (“John Harrison the Elder” in Arber’s editorial note): Received of him for his license to print The Defence of militarie profession, under the hands of the wardens, vi d. (six pence).
John Harrison the Elder, who served three terms each as Warden and Master of the Stationers’ Company, is a man of unusual importance in Shakespearean bibliography. For, as it happens, he is the same bookseller from whose shop “At the signe of the White Greyhound in Paules Churchyard” the first two volumes that publicly displayed the great name of “William Shakespeare” were issued.
Venus and Adonis appeared in type in the late spring of 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in the early summer of 1594. Both were “printed by Richard Field, for John Harrison.”
Much has been made of the fact that Richard Field, the printer, was a native of Stratford-on-Avon. But he, too, can be brought into the Earl of Oxford’s literary orbit because he started life as an apprentice in the shop of the famous Anglo-French printer, Thomas Vautrollier, who printed three of Arthur Golding’s books. After Vautrollier’s death, Field inherited his employer’s business by marrying, his widow and heiress.
There can be no doubt, however, that John Harrison the Elder was the actual publisher of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece and the man chiefly responsible for the successful launching of these two epoch-making volumes.
Thus, while the Shakespearean connotations of the Poet Earl of Oxford’s personal association with military men and his familiarity with their philosophy, as expressed by Geoffrey Gates, open an inviting new avenue of research in the authorship mystery, the name of the publisher concerned in serving the interests of Lord Oxford and his protégé in 1579 provides an equally arresting link between the same literary nobleman and the first two works bearing the cognomen of “William Shakespeare.” It is further interesting to note that Venus and Adonis and Lucrece are generally believed by Shakespearean bibliographical authorities to be the only volumes bearing this name, the publication of which were personally approved by “Shakespeare.” Both Field—Vautrollier’s successor—and John Harrison the Elder bore honorable names in publishing circles. Neither appears to have engaged in “the frauds and stealths” of the pirates who stole and printed so many early mangled versions of the Bard’s plays.
That John Harrison is particular proves a direct connection in the practical matter of publication between the Earl of Oxford’s endowed military treatise of 1579 and the first works issued under “Gentle Master William’s” new pen-name in 1593-94 marks another advance in Oxford-Shakespeare research.
Where coincidences cluster, factual evidence takes firm root.