The Wounded Name
Copyright 1954 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), September 1954.
At Christmas, 1580, Lord Oxford denounced as traitors his cousin, Lord Henry Howard and his sometime friends, Charles Arundel and Francis Southwell. He confessed to the Queen that he had been reconciled, with them, to the Church of Rome some four or five years earlier, but—according to the report of the French Ambassador—”he craved forgiveness for what he had done, saying that he now recognised that he had done wrong”.
It is inevitable that we should each judge his action to some extent, according to our own religious convictions—or lack of them; but apart from this, when a man changes his religion more than once his motives are apt to be called in question, especially if he happens to change to the dominant side at a time of religious persecution, and those who inform against their friends are liable to be held in contempt by all. Let us face the fact that this is what Oxford did in December 1580. It is therefore very important to try to understand the circumstances in which he found himself. Then, and then only, we shall be in a position to answer the question: “Would Shakespeare, in the same circumstances, have behaved in the same way?”
The word reconciled is used here in a technical sense and does not imply that Oxford had been a Catholic before. He must have become one shortly after his return from Italy in 1576. His re-conversion to Protestantism took place just before the more rigorous enforcement of the laws against the Catholics. The first Jesuit missionaries, led by Parsons and Campion, had arrived in England six months earlier and were still at large, travelling in disguise from one Catholic household to another. They were under instructions from the Pope not to “entangle themselves in matters of state . . . except perhaps in the company of those who have been tried a long while; and even then not without serious cause,”—a proviso which, as the Catholic historian, Theodore Maynard, admits was “capable of a sinister interpretation”. These instructions came to the notice of those in authority, who certainly put a sinister interpretation upon them, and matters were made worse by the fact that the arrival of the Jesuits in England was followed, two or three months later, by the arrival in Ireland of armed forces sent by the Pope to the aid of Elizabeth’s rebel subjects. The Queen had been excommunicated by a Bull of Pope Pius V as long ago as 1570, but up to now nothing had been done to put the Bull into effect and the position of English Catholics was somewhat ambiguous until, again in 1580, Pope Gregory XIII tried to clarify the situation by explaining that his predecessor’s Bull “should in no way bind the Catholics, as things then stood, but only in the future when the public execution of the Bull could be made.” A terrible choice was thus forced upon the English Catholics. Some, no doubt, thought compromise still possible and deferred the moment of decision, but the more realistic among them soon came to the conclusion that they could no longer remain, at the same time, good Catholics and loyal subjects of Queen Elizabeth. It was as if, before the last war, the Pope had made a pronouncement implying that English Catholics must be prepared to open their arms to German and Italian invaders, if and when they came. Faced with this dilemma, Howard, Arundel and Southwell chose one course, and Oxford chose the other. Being a Catholic, he may even have been sounded as a potential conspirator, at all events, his suspicions were aroused. What was he to do? He might, of course, have remained a silent onlooker, but he could not have remained neutral: silence itself would be a kind of action.
As a result of his accusations, Howard, Arundel and Southwell were arrested and eventually sent to the Tower. Oxford, too, spent a short time in the Tower in the spring of 1581, but this was a result of his love affair with Anne Vavasour, one of the Queen’s maids of honour; we have it on the authority of the Privy Council, in a letter to Sir William Gorges of June 9th, 1581, that he was “not committed thither upon any cause of treason or any criminal cause”. He drew up a list of questions to be put to Howard and Arundel which, together with their replies, is preserved at the Record Office, and from these it is clear that he suspected them of being involved in an international conspiracy against the Queen to be backed by armed invasion. If, apart from these papers, there is no definite evidence of the existence of such a conspiracy at this date, it may be because he exposed it in time. But rumours there certainly were and, as a matter of fact, one important piece of corroborative evidence is extant though, as far as I know, it has never been connected with the Howard-Arundel affair. In a letter dated December 12th,1580, the Cardinal Secretary of State [TolomeoGalli, Cardinal of Como] wrote to the Papal Nuncio at Madrid [Philip Sega, Bishop of Piacenza]:
“Since that guilty woman of England usurps two such noble kingdoms of Christendom and is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith, and the loss of so many millions of souls, there is no doubt that whoever sends her out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin, but gains merit, especially having regard to the sentence pronounced against her by Pope Pius V of holy memory. And so, if those English nobles decide actually to undertake so glorious a work, your Lordship can assure them that they do not commit any sin.”
The identity of the English nobles has never been discovered, but the coincidence of date is significant.
In fear for their lives, Howard and Arundel drafted counter-charges which were calculated to blacken Oxford’s name and discredit him as a witness and these have left their mark upon his reputation to this day. Many of the documents concerned are reported at considerable length in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, but one (S.P.D. Eliz. Vol. 151. Article 57), which might have served to show up the rest for the libels that they are, is given only in the following brief summary:
“Articles by Lord Henry Howard against the Earl of Oxford, his Atheism; his dangerous practices; attempts to murder Leicester in his way to Wanstead, and Philip Sidney in his bed; his unnatural crimes, etc. With an addition probably by Francis Southwell.”
Anyone who takes the trouble to look up this document at the Record Office will find, after the list of charges, the following postscript by Lord Henry Howard:
“Add to this what particulars soever you have declared of him, and they shall be certified. Here is nothing in this paper but may be avowed without danger, as hath been determined.” (Italics mine.)
The addition by Francis Southwell is unfinished—possibly he was interrupted while writing it. There are no fresh charges against Oxford, Southwell is chiefly concerned to explain and justify to Howard some of his own answers under cross-examination. He then writes: “I hear by you Mr. Charles [Arundel] is my dear friend. In faith my Lord, it is not best. For if the Earl could get one man to aver anything, we were utterly overthrown.”
This paper was obviously not intended for the authorities, but must have been passed surreptitiously from one prisoner to another. The charges against Oxford re-appear elsewhere, with certain additions and variations, in the hand of Charles Arundel, and Howard’s postscript together with Southwell’s addition are surely decisive evidence of collusion in bearing false witness.
Oxford seems to have been unable to prove his case against Howard and Arundel, who were eventually released. Later, when the Throckmorton plot was discovered in 1583, Howard was imprisoned once more and Arundel fled to France. How far their “back-wounding calumny” damaged Oxford’s reputation at the time we do not know, but we can imagine the effect it would have had upon the mind of Shakespeare. Or, perhaps we have no need to imagine it!
As for Shakespeare’s religion, that is still a matter of dispute. He has been claimed by Catholics and Protestants alike, and may well have been both at one time or another. Of one thing, however, we can be certain: he loved mercy—” an attribute of God himself”—and must have been appalled at the intolerance of the age in which he lived.