More Brabbles and Frays
Copyright 1968 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Autumn 1968.
THIS time last year (Review No. 18), I gave an account, with some new documentary evidence, of the affray between the servants of the Earl of Oxford on the one side, and Mr. Thomas Knyvet and his servants on the other, which took place at the Blackfriars on Monday, 18th June 1582. This appears to have been the second in a series of incidents, beginning with a so-called duel between Oxford and Knyvet in (or very shortly before) March 1582.
The “brabbles and frays,” as Burghley called them, went on intermittently for about a year and several versions of the story are current, which differ considerably in detail. Historians almost unanimously lay the blame upon Oxford, but little is known of the facts and it seems that no-one has referred to the documents for about fifty years—except in the sense that one refers to a document simply by copying a reference number from someone else’s footnote. Yet Oxford’s reputation for exceptional violence in an age of violence stems almost entirely from this episode and, in our own time, this reputation for violence seems to be inseparable from any mention of his name, unless in “Oxfordian” books. A re-examination of the evidence is, therefore, overdue, if only in the interest of historical truth and justice. As an Oxfordian, myself, I can make no claim to impartiality and so I have chosen to let the documents speak for themselves as far as possible.
On 22nd June, 1582, only four days after the affray at the Blackfriars, there was another incident, apparently in Fleet Street. At all events, the two eye-witnesses whose testimony is recorded, Daniel Bothame, Surgeon, and William Crouche, Mercer, were both of Fleet Street. They both tell the same story, though naturally some details are given by one and omitted by the other. To avoid unnecessary repetition I give a conflated account:
“Upon Friday last, in the afternoon,” they saw one called Gastrell and “maned”‘ (named?) to be my Lord of Oxford’s man draw his sword upon 3 or 4 of Mr. Knyvet’s men. And one of Mr. Knyvet’s men said twice or thrice: “Put up thy sword Gastrell, we will not deal with thee here, there is no place here,” and xxxred the street to bear witness. Gastrell replied and said he would fight with them, and one Harvey, my Lord of Oxford’s man, would have parted the fray and willed Gastrell to put up his sword, which he did accordingly. And then one of Mr. Knyvet’s men said: “Gastrell, another time use thy discretion.” Whereupon Gastrell drew again and ran upon one of Mr. Knyvet’s men furiously; and they struck 5 or 6 blows, and Mr. Knyvet’s man hurt Gastrell. The rest of Mr. Knyvet’s men had their swords drawn but struck not at all. Harvey, my Lord of Oxford’s man, with his sword drawn, would have parted the fray and (according to Bothame) was hurt by chance, by Gastrell, for he did not see any of Mr. Knyvet’s men strike at him, or he at any of them.” [S.P. 12, 154.]
There are two marginal notes in a different hand, Harvey would have parted the fray and Harvey willed Gastrell to put up his sword, and that is all; apart from the dates of the Examinations, the first of which was taken on the same day as the Examinations of several persons touching the affray at the Blackfriars, dealt with in my previous article. The two documents are bound consecutively and this seems to have caused confusion, for the two frays have evidently been treated as one, in spite of the difference of place-names and the testimony of witnesses to the fact that the one at the Blackfriars took place on Monday, and the one in Fleet Street on Friday, last. To make matters worse, by an extraordinary misinterpretation of part of the evidence, the whole composite incident (as derived from these documents) has been transported to Lambeth Marsh! It is well-known to scholars from another source that there was an affray at the Blackfriars, but so far as I have been able to discover, there is no valid evidence whatsoever of an affray between Oxford and Knyvet, or their servants, in Lambeth Marsh. The affray in Fleet Street, on the other hand, has been left out of the reckoning. The part played by Harvey here may be of special interest to students of the Elizabethan literary world, for though no Christian name is given, this was in all probability Spenser’s and Sidney’s friend and Nashe’s enemy, the eccentric Cambridge don, Gabriel Harvey; who is known to have been a protégé of the Earl of Oxford at about this time. There is no evidence that either Oxford or Knyvet was present on this occasion
In July Knyvet, himself, killed one of Oxford’s men. In this case no legal record has come to light and all the evidence we possess is derived from the “Letter Book” of Sir Christopher Hatton. [The letters are printed by Sir Harry Nicolas in his Life of Sir Christopher Hatton.] The Coroner’s jury returned a verdict of se defendendo, which entitled Knyvet to a pardon, but certain legal formalities were necessary and it was vacation time. Anyway, for reasons which are not altogether clear, Knyvet appealed to Lord Chancellor Bromley to have his cause tried by a Special Commission. Bromley asked Knyvet who had given him that advice, and Knyvet said it was the Recorder of London. Bromley then told Knyvet to send Mr. Recorder to confer with him, but Knyvet, who was not a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber for nothing, went straight to the Queen. The result was a well-known letter, addressed to Bromley by Sir Christopher Hatton, then Vice-Charnberlain:
“My very good Lord, Mr. Knyvet hath informed her Majesty of his desire to have his cause of se defendendo determined by a privy session in this vacation time. It seemeth he hath found your Lordship not to like of that manner of proceeding, in which respect your Lordship hath refused to grant forth the commission. Her Majesty, in that she thinketh Mr. Knyvet’s request to stand in ordinary course, marvelleth not a little that your Lordship should deny her servant the same that is usual, and that every other subject may ask. It hath pleased her, therefore, to command me to signify unto you that she looked for justice with favour at your hands, towards this gentleman. ‘You know,’ saith she, ‘who he is and where he serveth, and therefore, in a cause so little important as this, you might have restrained the malice of his enemies well enough.’ Haply she thinketh, they would have his trial at Newgate amongst common thieves, or in the Bench in like sort, of purpose to make him suffer as much public reproach as they could lay on him. In this, without defrauding the law, her Majesty supposeth, and is persuaded, he might be better dealt withal, and find ordinary favour, without offence to any. It may therefore please your good Lordship to return by your letters the cause that moved you to stay the commission, and what way you can best devise for the gentleman, to her Majesty’s better satisfaction . . . My good Lord it is very necessary you take care to please the Queen in this case, for in truth, she taketh it unkindly at your hands that she should be strained to meddle or be seen in the matter.”
After that, Hatton adds what is surely a personal postscript dissociating himself from the main contents of the letter:
“At our meeting I will tell you more of her Highness’ conceit; and so God bless you for ever, and command my service, for it is due to your Lordship. Haste, this 27th of July, 1582. Your Lordship’s most bound friend, Chr. Hatton.”
An explanatory marginal note, added by Hatton’s secretary, who transcribed all the letters in the collection, informs us that “Mr. Knyvet had slain a man of the Earl of Oxford in fight.”
In a masterly, but very long letter, written the next day, Bromley not only retained his own dignity and integrity, but managed to explain the legal position to the apparent satisfaction of both Knyvet and the Queen. He utterly denied that the request was usual, and as for the granting of it:
“I never knew, nor I never heard, that any party supposed to be an offender might of ordinary course have a special commission at his own proper suit; neither is it reason it should be so, for that were to open a gap to let offenders pass through without due punishment . . .”
On the other hand:
“If Mr. Knyvet were loath to be brought in public to plead his pardon, which he may have of course … that small matter I could have devised easily without a special commission.”
And so this storm in a tea-cup blew over. The correspondence reveals a great deal about the personalities involved and, in particular, the far from impartial attitude of the Queen, but very little about the facts of the case.
In February 1583, yet another of Oxford’s men was killed, presumably by one of the Knyvet faction, though this time all the evidence we possess is the entry in the parish Register of St. Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, of the burial of Robert Brenings—”ye L. Oxford’s man, slayne 21 Febr.”
In March, or perhaps earlier, Gastrell killed one of Knyvet’s men, known as Long Tom, and this seems to have been the first blood drawn by Oxford’s side (apart from Knyvet’s possible wounds at the Blackfriars) since the original “duel,” when Knyvet and Oxford were both wounded and the first of Oxford’s men was killed. The casualties on Oxford’s side, not counting his own wound, were by now three dead and two wounded—including Harvey, who was said to have been hurt accidentally by Gastrell. On the whole, then, Knyvet’s men were either more aggressive, more skilful, or more fortunate, but this time “Oxford’s man,” Gastrell, was the slayer.
On 12th March Oxford’s father-in-law, Lord Burghley, wrote a long letter to Hatton. It has often been reprinted, in part, by Oxfordians, but historians in general, including Burghley’s biographers, either ignore it altogether, or dismiss it without adequate quotation, as special pleading on Burghley’s part for his prodigal son-in-law, who had recently returned to the fold after a long separation from his wife. But when every allowance is made for Burghley’s supposed prejudice (in Oxford’s favour for once) the letter remains an important part of the evidence. Unfortunately cutting is inevitable, but the greater part of it is printed below and I have not consciously cut anything that affects the issue either way.
“Good Mr. Vice-Chamberlain, my lack of health and strength serveth me not to write as much as I have cause; but yet many urgent necessities constrain me to write somewhat for ease of my mind, which I pray you to interpret after your friendly manner.
I perceived yesterday by my Lord of Leicester that you had very friendly delivered speeches to her Majesty tending to bring some good end to these troublesome matters betwixt my Lord of Oxford and Mr. Thomas Knyvet; for which doings I do heartily thank you, and beseech you to continue your former good meaning, though the event expected and desired hath not followed. And now perceiving by my Lord of Leicester some increase of her Majesty’s offence towards my Lord of Oxford, and finding by Mr. Thomas Knyvet that he only being called and demanded of her Majesty what he would say therein, he did, as served his turn, declare to her Majesty that his men were evil used by my Lord of Oxford’s men, and namely that one of his men was killed by a man of my Lord of Oxford’s, and no redress had. I cannot but think that her Majesty had just occasion given by such information to be offended towards my Lord of Oxford or his men; and did therefore, like a Prince of justice and God’s minister, command the matter to be examined, which was done yesterday at great length by my Lord of Leicester to his trouble and my grief. And I doubt not that my Lord of Leicester will honourably declare to her Majesty how my Lord of Oxford resteth untouched, or at least unblotted, in any kind of matter objected by Master Knyvet, whom we heard at great length, and his men also. But because Mr. Knyvet’s man, called Long Tom, that once served and was maintained by my Lord of Oxford, a bad fellow to serve any honest man, came to his death, I am so bold to send you the inquisition before the Coroner of London, with the verdict of the jury and the depositions of the occular witnesses; [Unfortunately the enclosure has not been preserved.] by all of which, and by a new acquital at Newgate, Gastrell, the party named my Lord of Oxford’s man, and yet was not then his man, nor yet is, though Mr. Knyvet report him so to be, was and standeth acquitted of the death of the said Long Thomas; so as where her Majesty had just cause to conceive somewhat hardly of my Lord of Oxford, I doubt not but when her Majesty shall be informed by my Lord of Leicester of the truth which he hath seen and not disproved, her Majesty will diminish her offensive opinion. And I trust also, after you have read these writings, which I will on my credit avow to be true, you will be of the same mind, and, as opportunity may serve, will also move her Majesty in this case to think otherwise hereof than the informer meant to induce her to think. As for the rest of these brabbles and frays, my Lord of Leicester can also declare upon what small occasions of repute and light carriages of tales, whereof my Lord of Oxford is nowise touched, these brabbles are risen. And for the quarrel of one Roper, of the Guards, against Gastrell that he complained of him; whereas in truth yourself knoweth it was my Lord of Oxford that did complain to you of Roper and of one Hall, so as Roper was therein too busy. And hereupon he wrote a long epistle to Gastrell to challenge him to fight, and so also Costock made the like challenge, whereby appeareth that these frays grow by challenges made to my Lord of Oxford’s men: and yet it must be informed that my Lord of Oxford’s men do offer these frays. Good Mr. Vice-Chamberlain, these things are hardly carried, and these advantages are easily gotten where some may say what they will against my Lord of Oxford, and have presence to utter their humours, and my Lord of Oxford is neither heard nor hath presence either to complain or defend himself. And so long as he shall be subject to the disgrace of her Majesty (from which God deliver him) I see it apparently that, innocent soever he shall be, the advantages will fall out with his adversaries; and so, I hear, they do prognostigate …
But I submit all these things to God’s will, who knoweth best why it pleaseth Him to afflict my Lord of Oxford in this sort, who hath, I confess, forgotten his duty to God, and yet I hope he may be made a good servant to her Majesty, if it please her of her clemency to remit her displeasure; for his fall in her court, which is now twice yeared, and he punished as far or farther than any like crime hath been, first by her Majesty, and then by the drab’s friend in revenge to the peril of his life … When our son-in-law was in prosperity, he was cause of our adversity by his unkind usage of us and ours; and now that he is ruined and in adversity, we only are partakers thereof, and by no means, no, not by bitter tears of my wife, can obtain a spark of favour for him, that hath satisfied his offence with punishment, and seeketh mercy by submission; but contrariwise, whilst we seek favour, all crosses are laid against him and by untruths sought to be kept in disgrace …
When I began to write, I neither meant nor thought I could have scribbled thus much; but the matter hath ministered me the cause, for I take no pleasure therein.”
It would be absurd to maintain that Oxford and his men were entirely blameless—they were human, after all—but the still repeated charge against Oxford of extreme, unprovoked violence was not, and is not proven. Thomas Knyvet should perhaps be numbered among the Queen’s minor favourites and the reason is not far to seek. For those who are familiar with the story it is quite clear what, in Burghley’s opinion, Oxford’s offence was. He had “forgotten his duty to God” by his secret conversion (for a time) to the Church of Rome, and the “drab” was the Queen’s sometime maid of honour, Knyvet’s niece, Anne Vavasour; mother of Oxford’s illegitimate son, who was now two years old.
Burghley’s plea failed once more, but shortly after this Oxford’s wife gave birth to her only son, who did not live long, and it may have been this domestic tragedy which, in the end, softened the Queen’s heart. The child was buried on 9th May, 1583, and on 1st June, “after some bitter words and speeches,” the father was forgiven and allowed to return to court. There were no more frays, though as late as January 1585, Oxford received a challenge from a certain Thomas Vavasour, presumably Anne’s brother, which he seems to have ignored. [B. M. Ward, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, p. 229.]