William Cecil Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth and Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford — Paving the way for “Shakespeare”

“[William] Cecil’s role in establishing the office of propaganda [during wartime in the 1580s], and placing his son-in-law [Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford] over it, has been sadly neglected by historians.”

William Cecil  Lord Burghley 1520 - 1598

William Cecil
Lord Burghley
1520 – 1598

So begins a lengthy footnote by Ruth Lloyd Miller in her volume entitled Oxfordian Vistas (1975), continuing:

“Yet it would be entirely out of character for Cecil, whose ‘hand is seen’ in everything, everywhere, during Elizabeth’s reign, not to have had his hands on the reins of public opinion. It would be entirely in accord with what is known of Cecilian ratiocination for Cecil to feign disapproval of stage plays, ‘lewd’ actors, and dramatists while, behind the scenes, manipulating them for political purposes.

“The vitae of virtually every Elizabethan writer in the Dictionary of National Biography shows Cecil lurking in their shadows. Lyly and Munday, the mainstays of Oxford’s dramatic staff, were both placed on that staff by Cecil. Lyly acknowledges Cecil ‘as a father.’ Munday was rendering service to the Cecil-[Francis] Walsingham camp as a spy, infiltrating the Roman school, before he entered Oxford’s service.

“Very early in the Anglo-Spanish struggle, before Cecil and Elizabeth finally threw the gauntlet in 1585 at the feet of [King] Philip, the Spanish ambassador, Feria, protested against comedies in London which made mock of his royal master. (The play Philip II, mentioned by Chambers in The Elizabethan Stage, may date to this period.)

Queen Elizabeth  1533 - 1603

Queen Elizabeth
1533 – 1603

“Feria said Cecil had supplied the authors of them with their themes, and that Elizabeth had practically admitted Cecil was the guilty man. (Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, found in Hawarde, Comera Stellata – R 1237, 48.)

“It is not without significance that the earliest English political dramatist, John Bale, ‘appears in the service of [John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford], for whom he wrote a series of plays, intended for use as [Protestant] Reformation propaganda.’ (Jesse W. Harris, John Bale, University of Illinois Press, 1940, p. 24.) Bale’s plays were performed almost exclusively in promotion of the ‘New Learning’ by the companies of John de Vere and Thomas Cromwell.

“Harris comments, as does R. Wallerstein (King John in Fact and Fiction), that Bale’s influence is reflected in Shakespeare’s plays. They see, as do other commentators, Bale’s [version of King John] as the primary source for Shakespeare’s King John – but cannot account for how Shakesepare had access to Bale’s unpublished manuscript. The Shakespeare and Bale eras were too widely separated in time for the Bale drama to have survived by way of an actor’s memory version.

“It is no mystery at all, however, when Cecil, Oxford, and Shakespeare are brought together. In August 1561, the Earl of Oxford’s players performed Bale’s King John for the Queen at Ipswich … Elizabeth spent a week that same August at Castle Hedingham, where she was again entertained by Earl John’s players, performing other plays of Bale, if not a second performance of King John.

Castle Hedingham

Castle Hedingham

“During the time of Elizabeth’s visit to Hedingham, Edward, Lord Bolebeck, heir of the family of Vere, was at the impressionable age of eleven. A year later, on Earl John’s death, when Cecil gathered the twelve year old Earl Edward into the fold of wardship, he also took possession of all the young noble’s assets. Cecil, who had standing orders for his agents on the continent to supply him with copies of books and publications of interest, would not have failed to appreciate the Earl of Oxford’s collection of Bale’s dramatic works, and move them to safekeeping to Cecil House on the Strand.

“Even before Bale’s death, at an advanced age, in 1563, Archbishop Matthew Parker and Cecil were aware of the value of Bale’s work, and were involved in efforts to retrieve Bale’s manuscripts from various sources. (B.M. Lansdowne Ms. Pt. I, no. 6, Art. 81.) Undoubtedly ‘Shakespeare’ saw Bale’s manuscript plays, and undoubtedly he saw them through the eyes of Edward de Vere, who owned many of them, in the Library at Cecil House.”

This footnote, which runs along the bottom of pp. 469 to 481 of Miller’s volume, is an important reminder that, from the outset, William Cecil Lord Burghley was intimately involved in the use of plays for political propaganda, and that the close working relationship of Elizabeth, Cecil and Edward de Vere provided the fertile ground from which the phenomenon of “Shakespeare” was to eventually grow.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting historical insight, thanks Hank.

  2. Thanks, Hank — this is an important observation, long overlooked. I’m glad you brought it to our attention for it makes sense of lines in Hamlet which I’ve long felt were at odds with the standard assumption that Cecil abhorred the theatre and was constitutionally against Oxford’s preoccupation with it:

    My lord, you played once i’ the university, you say?
    LORD POLONIUS That did I, my lord; and was accounted a good actor.
    HAMLET What did you enact?
    LORD POLONIUS I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i’ the
    Capitol; Brutus killed me.
    HAMLET It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf

    Why would Oxford portray Polonius/Cecil as being quite vain about being “accounted a good actor” … and then even brag about the lead part he played?

    In light of Ruth Lloyd Miller’s penetrating observations this strange anomaly makes far greater sense. But, typical of our great writer, he seems to be using these few lines to make a far deeper point:

    Hamlet/Oxford gets a dig in at the last with “calf” (which David and Ben Crystal have as meaning “fool, dolt, idiot”). Maybe so.
    But it’s also a Young Bull… an apt description of the historical Caesar in his extreme youth (let’s say when he was around fifteen and in the midst of a passionate affair with Brutus’ mother, Servilia?). From Plutarch’s Lives (which we well know Oxford owned and plumbed the depths of repeatedly) the fifth paragraph of Life of Brutus contains a famous anecdote that seems to hint, intriguingly, at an issue Oxford may be subtly alluding to:

    “And this he is believed to have done out of a tenderness to Servilia, the mother of Brutus; for Caesar had, it seems, in his youth been very intimate with her, and she passionately in love with him; and, considering that Brutus was born about that time in which their loves were at the highest, Caesar had a belief that he was his own child.”

    If we read Caesar as Polonius/Cecil — killed by Brutus/Oxford (his own, or at least adopted, son — “a brute part of him” ) — in the Capitol/Elizabeth’s Court — centre of power in Rome/England — then we have a typically veiled hint of Oxford’s determination to save the Commonwealth from destruction from within — from the ever-growing tyrannical power of Cecil/Caesar.

    “If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
    Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
    was no less than his. If then that friend demand
    why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
    –Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
    Rome more.”

    • Many thanks for this one, Alan — a real keeper! Important insights and well put. Was Oxford always writing for the Queen as his main audience? Perhaps so…

      • As long as the Queen was alive. For about 15 years after her death he wrote for posterity.

      • Months..

  3. 🙂 No, I know what I say. Years.

  4. Hi Hank– Your website looks gorgeous! Just a note to say I’m rewriting an old “Shakespeare ” play I wrote, into a movie for a contest. MERRY CHRISTMAS! sTEPHANIE

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