Copyright 1956 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), Spring 1956.
Oxfordians have always claimed Sonnet 125 as one of the most important single pieces of evidence in the whole structure of their case. Its significance was first pointed out by J. Thomas Looney himself, who said, with characteristic caution, in Shakespeare Identified:
‘As Lord Great Chamberlain he [Oxford] officiated near the person of James I at his coronation, just as, doubtless, when a boy, he had witnessed his father officiating at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Although his officiating at Elizabeth’s funeral is not mentioned so explicitly as the part he took at the coronation of James, it is natural to assume that he would be there. It is just possible that this ceremony is directly referred to in sonnet 125:
“Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
“Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
* * * * *
No, le me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation poor but free.”
If this can be shown to have any direct connection with the functions of Lord Great Chamberlain, it will be a very valuable direct proof of our thesis. The particular sonnet from which we have quoted comes at the extreme end of the series to which it belongs; and as we are assured that the whole series was brought to a close shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth, sonnet 125 must have been written about the time of that event. It is difficult to imagine in what impressive ceremony William Shakespere of Stratford could have participated about the same time, necessitating his bearing the canopy and laying great bases for eternity.’
Oxfordian opinion as to the precise occasion of the sonnet has since been divided between the funeral of Elizabeth, the coronation of James I and the thanksgiving procession to St. Paul’s after the defeat of the Armada. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Edward de Vere, Canon G. H. Rendall gives a masterly analysis of the whole sonnet with reference to the coronation, and says:
‘”Obsequious” (from association with obsequies) is used often of the mourner, but here of the worshipper approaching the object of his devotion with the “poor but free oblation” that lies at his command, that of sincere and worshipful affection, The unexpected “‘not mixed with seconds”, applied to the sacrificial cake of pure wheaten flour, suggests some literary or ritual reference more direct than commentators have yet unearthed.’
Since the publication of Canon Rendall’s book in 1930, we have witnessed two coronations, the second of which was not only heard but seen all over the world. Never in history has so much been said and written about the coronation ceremony, but still the ‘ritual reference’ has not been unearthed. Could it have anything to do with the duties of the Lord Great Chamberlain at the service itself?
As all researchers know, the most exciting discoveries often seem to come by chance, and this question was certainly not in the forefront of my mind when, in re-reading E. K. Chambers’ Elizabethan Stage, Vol. I, Chapter 2 (The Royal House hold), I came across the following passage:
‘Presumably the magister camerarius became the hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain, whose coronation services, which are connected with the charge of the King’s bedchamber, the handing of a basin and towel at the banquet, and the preparation of the royal oblations, afford a sufficient indication of the duties of the court office.’
The preparation of the royal oblations! The rest was familiar enough, but this vital piece of information had somehow been passed over in all the Oxfordian books I had read. Attention had been focussed upon the functions of the Lord Great Chamberlain before and after the service, but the important part he had to play within the Abbey had not received due consideration. Vague memories of the coronation of Elizabeth II floated to the surface of my mind and fused with Shakespeare’s sonnet.
I began a feverish hunt through all the coronation literature I could lay hands on, and I found that the royal oblations consisted of bread and wine, an ingot of gold of a pound’s weight and—latterly, but not at the time of James I—a pall or altar cloth, and it was the duty of the Lord Great Chamberlain to pass these things to his sovereign as required. An ingot of gold of a pound weight, even if it ‘knew no art’, could hardly be called a poor offering, but the bread—the sacrificial cake ‘not mixed with seconds’—here, indeed, was a ritual reference directly concerned with the coronation duties of the Lord Great Chamberlain. The question arises: Was the allusion merely a topical metaphor introduced into a sonnet addressed to the Fair Youth, or was this particular sonnet which, as Looney says, comes at the end of the series, addressed to the King himself? I have come to believe that it was, and that it constituted a refusal to bear the canopy. And here, I must reluctantly take sides with the Stratfordians on a point of grammar. Miss Amphlett (Who Was Shakespeare? p. 166) and other Oxfordians maintain that ‘I bore the canopy’ is a statement of fact in the past tense but, in doing so, they overlook the significant words were (not was) at the beginning of this first line of the sonnet and or (not and) at the beginning of the third line.
‘Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy’
means in modem English prose:
Would it be anything to me if I bore the canopy? The word if is omitted, perhaps for metrical reasons, perhaps in accordance with the usage of the time, but it is doubly implied. (See Fowler: Modern English Usage-Subjunctives). Let us concede to the orthodox that the phrase is a hypothetical question: we can well afford to do so. It would, at all events, have been an absurd question for William of Stratford to ask.
And now let us examine the four lines omitted from Looney’s quotation:
‘Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet foregoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers in their gazing spent?’
Here, Canon Rendall’s commentary is most helpful. ‘Thrivers’, he explains, are investors, and ‘Dwellers on form and favour’ plays on the double sense of ‘those who make much of’ and ‘those who build on’ as firm tenure and habitation, speculating upon the advancements, profits and promotion of which Court life disposed.” But the allusion is perhaps more literal than Canon Rendall guessed, for, to quote Mr. Lawrence E. Tanner, Keeper of the Muniments and Library of Westminster Abbey (History of the Coronation, p. 44):
‘In medieval times the tenure of a Manor by virtue of rendering some personal service to the King was not uncommon. Such tenures, by Grand Serjeanty as it was called, were abolished in the 17th centuny, but the actual service continues to be rendered in two notable instances at a Coronation. It is by virtue of holding the Manor of Scrivelsby that the head of the Dymoke family claims to bethe King’s Champion, and is now allowed to carry one of the two Standards in the procession within the Abbey. In the sane way it is the privilege of the ford of the Manor of Worksop to provide a glove for the Sovereign’s right hand and to support the Sovereign’s right arm “as occasion may require.” . . . Even more ancient is the claim of the Barons of the Cinque Ports to carry the Canopy over the Sovereign at a Coronation.’
To bear the Canopy was, then, no part of the coronation duties of the Lord Great Chamberlain. Moreover, that office, as Mr. J. Shera Atkinson observed in an article published in the News-Letter of September 1952, ‘though treated as descending ‘like landed property . . . was not attached to the ownership of Castle Hedingham or any other property.’ The Lord Great Chamberlain was no dweller on form (ceremony) and favour—an expression which exactly describes the reciprocal arrangement of Grand Serjeanty.
The Earl of Oxford did, however, claim the right to play his unique hereditary role on the day of the Coronation, and was awarded the customary fees (B. M. Ward: The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, p. 346). But there is no mention of fees for the services performed in the Abbey itself—
‘No. Let me be obsequious in thy, heart.
And take thou my oblation, poor but free.
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render only me for thee.’
The sonnet ends on a totally unexpected note:
‘Hence, thou suborn’d Informer, a true soul
When most impeach’d stands least in thy control’
This is clearly a rhetorical aside aimed at a third party, not the recipient of the sonnet, but its precise meaning has eluded the commentators. It is, on the face of it, a confident, almost triumphant repudiation of a charge of treason, appropriate enough if the sonnet is addressed to the King, but still requiring some explanation, for the reference is obviously private and personal. Who was the suborned informer? No answer is to be found in the life of William Shakespere, but it seems that ‘information’ was given against the Earl of Oxford by the Earl of Lincoln in 1603. (See William Kittle: Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford and Shakespeare p. 160 and H. Amphlett: Who Was Shakespeare? p. 150). The story has come down to us in a letter, dated October 10th, 1603, from Sir John Peyton, Lieutenant of the Tower, to ‘Lord Cycell’ and the Privy Council. The gist of the matter was that, shortly before the death of Queen Elizabeth, a great nobleman of Hackney (identifiable as the Earl of Oxford) had invited the Earl of Lincoln to dinner and, in private conversation afterwards, had broached the subject of the succession, naming Lord Hastings, a great-nephew of the Earl of Lincoln, and suggesting that ‘there should be meanes used to convaye him over into France, where he should fynde friends that wolde make him a partye, of the which there was a precedent in former times.’
Both Miss Amphlett and Mr. Kittle seem to accept, almost without question, what Sir John Peyton said the Earl of Lincoln said about the Earl of Oxford, but does the story ring true? Who, in the first place, had more interest in Lord Hastings’ succession to the throne—the Earl of Oxford, who at the age of twelve had been nearly betrothed to one of his aunts, or the Earl of Lincoln, who was, in fact, his great-uncle by marriage? In any case, we have only to look into the record of the Earl of Lincoln to see that his word was not to be trusted.
Kittle cites as his prior historical source, a book called Godes Peace and the Queenes, Vicissitudes of a House 1539-1615, by Norreys Jephson O’Conor (1934,) in which Lincoln is described as almost insane, O’Conor holds no brief for Oxford but, after recounting some of Lincoln’s previous escapades, he writes:
‘For the remainder of the Queen’s reign the Earl was quiet, but, with the accession of King James, Lord Lincoln again brought himself into notice. His claim to bear the ball and cross, and to be carver, at the King’s coronation, in July 1603, was rejected for lack of evidence, which seems typical. Since the Earl had grown increasingly suspicious of plots against him, to increase his self-importance there remained only an excuse to warn the sovereign of a plot against himself. For this the Earl soon found opportunity, and, on September 21st, 1603, he sent information (apparently to the Privy Council) that, “Whylst her majestie lyved the French ambassador made meanes by dyvers to hyre my house at Chelsey'”.
Lincoln then proceeded to give evidence against a certain Mr. Trudgion, adding:
‘And those speeches of the Erles of Ox[ford] that yf any were sent into France (how small soever his tytle were) . . . made me feare, and thynk that thes men myght doo the kyng good servyce in bewraying their knowledg, which I thought my dyeuty to ympart, yf I had any possible meanes to enforme hys maiestie. But so it pleasyd god that, withyn few days after, afore any advertysement culd be sent, I saw hys quyet entry and yet nevertheles went to the toure [Tower] afore her maiesties death, told Sir J. peyton thereof . . . I told Sir hew harrys thereof, and Ser gent harrys and others, besyde my letters to hys maiestie’.
But neither Sir John Peyton, nor anyone else, seems to have taken much notice of the Earl of Lincoln and, in spite of all this talebearing, the Earl of Oxford stood high in the new King’s favour. He was in a position to say with contempt
‘Hence, thou suborn’d Informer, a true soul
When most impeachd stands least in thy control’
Letter to the Editor [The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), Spring 1957.]
Since my whole interpretation of Sonnet 125, in my article published in the News-Letter last Spring, depends upon a point of grammar, I must do my best, even at the risk of tediousness and pedantry, to reply to Mr. Atkinson’s arguments in his letter, published in the Autumn number.
I gave my authority as Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Subjunctives), and the book is available at any reference library. It may be objected that Shakespeare was not ‘modern’ and, in any case, was no stickler for grammar, but then, the subjunctive is a dying form and would come much more naturally to him than to us. To save space, I will take Fowler’s article on subjunctives as read. From it I infer that, in the sentence under discussion:
‘Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy’—Were (sing.) is ‘a recognizable subjective, and applicable not to past facts, but present or future non-facts’, and that bore is, therefore, also in the subjunctive, though indistinguishable in form from the past indicative. Fowler gives would be as the modem equivalent of were, though the terms are not always interchangeable. I paraphrased the line as:
‘Would it be anything to me if I bore the canopy’ i.e., on some future, though probably not far distant, occasion, and unfortunately added that the if had been omitted. Mr. Atkinson is probably quite right in saying that the only word which ‘can legitimately be inserted’ in the original sentence ‘is not “‘if”, but “‘that”‘:
‘Were’t aught to me that I bore the canopy.’ But the meaning is the same. As it happens, that is almost a component part of the Present and Imperfect Subjunctive—best known to us from the French Verb Books. The phrase ‘that I bore’ is a variant form of ‘that I might (or should) bear.’ Another way of saying the same thing were (would be) to substitute the infinitive:
‘Were’t aught to me to bear the canopy’. Were is not the equivalent of either was or is. Custom has now sanctioned the use of was in many cases where were would be, strictly speaking, more correct, but the process cannot (legitimately) be reversed. However, we must not assume Shakespeare’s infallibility as a grammarian, so let us take a few examples from his own ‘usage’—others can be found in the Shakespeare Concordance:
By heaven, me thinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon.
1 Henry IV, I. iii. 201.
O gentlemen, the time of life is short!
To spend that shortness basely were too long.
1 Henry IV, V. ii. 82
‘Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.
Hamlet, V. i. 200.
If it were done, when ’tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly.
Macbeth, I. vii. 1.
It is my lady; O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were.
Romeo and Juliet, II. i. 53.
Oh absence what a torment wouldst thou prove
Were it not [that] thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love.
In none of these examples does the word were apply to past facts and neither, in the last two, do the words knew and gave—though gave embraces past, present and future. The famous passage from Macbeth reads almost like an exercise in the subjunctive. Shakespeare was obviously trying to get in as many weres as he could, but he might have ended, quite correctly (then as now) with: ’twere well we did it quickly’—yet the murder was still ‘fantastical.’
I entirely agree with Mr. Atkinson that if the bearing of the canopy was hypothetical, the laying of great bases for eternity must have been so too, but I do not agree that this makes nonsense of the words that follow: ‘that proves more short than waste or ruining.’ Whatever Shakespeare may have meant by ‘great bases for eternity,’ I feel sure he did not mean ‘that eternity promised’ to the recipient of the sonnets, but the kind of eternity represented by marble and the gilded monuments of princes in Sonnet 55, which meant naught to him. He was making a paradoxical generalization and there is no need to assume that the particular ‘great bases.’—whatever they may have been—had already been laid.
That the opening sentence is in the subjunctive and does not refer to the past is confirmed by the fact that, after a parenthesis of four lines, the writer answers his own question with an emphatic ‘No.’ and then slips into the Imperative, which invariably refers neither to past nor present, but to a more or less immediate future:
‘No. Let me be obsequious in thy heart
And take thou my oblation poor but free.’
It seems that the outward obsequiousness of bearing the canopy would somehow contaminate the oblation and put him in the same category as the ‘dwellers on form and favour.’
We know that Lord Oxford did not bear the canopy in the procession from Westminster Hall, to the Abbey on the day of the coronation, for it was borne, in accordance with tradition, by the ‘barons’ of the Cinque Ports; and, as it turned out, he could not have borne it in the customary procession from the Tower to Westminster on the preceding day, for that procession was postponed at the last minute owing to the plague—but he may have been asked to do so.