The Remarkable Letter of Dr. Masters to Lord Burghley about Anne Cecil’s Pregnancy – Part 1

One of the most remarkable items of surviving correspondence related to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford is a letter from court physician Dr. Richard Masters to William Cecil, Lord Treasurer Burghley on the night of March 7, 1575, about Oxford’s wife Anne Cecil. The earl himself had left England the month before and was now at the French royal court in Paris, being introduced to the recently crowned King Henry III.

William Cecil Lord Burghley 1520 - 1598

William Cecil
Lord Burghley
1520 – 1598

Dr. Masters reported to Lord Burghley about his audience that morning with Queen Elizabeth in the Presence Chamber at Richmond Palace.  Her Majesty was seated alone on cushions, listening to the doctor explain how he had met that morning with Cecil, who was still a bit under the weather physically and “desired me to say thus much to Your Highness – ”

Elizabeth understood that Burghley, too afraid to come in person, had sent Dr. Masters as the messenger who might have his head lopped off.  The physician told her:  “Seeing it had pleased Your Majesty often times to inquire tenderly after my Lady of Oxford’s health, it has now fallen out so (God be thanked) that she is with child, evidently; and albeit it were but an indifferent thing for Her Majesty to hear of, yet it was more than indifferent for your Lordship to signify the same unto her.”

This was big news. Anne, daughter of Burghley and wife of Oxford, was pregnant for the first time since her marriage to de Vere in December 1571.  Very possibly she was carrying his son, the all-important heir to his earldom. Elizabeth, the physician reported to the Lord Treasurer, reacted spontaneously in apparent shock: “Here-withal she arose, or rather sprang up from the cushions, and said these words: ‘Indeed it is a matter that concerneth my Lord’s [Burghley’s] joy chiefly, yet I protest to God that next to them that have interest in it, there is nobody can be more joyous of it than I am.’”

Well, okay, but Her Majesty might be protesting too much.  She appears to be not only acting, but overacting.

“Then I went forth and told her that your Lordship [Burghley] had a pretty likelihood of it upon your coming from Court after Shrovetide [Sunday, February 13, nearly a month earlier], but you concealed it, Ne si adversum evaderet Audires parturient montes; and that now, because your Lordship did fear the concealing of it any longer, doubting lest the matter might otherwise come to the Court, your Lordship thought it good and a piece of duty to have it imparted unto Her Majesty rather by yourself than by any other.”

Clearly this was the most immediate reason Burghley had sent Dr. Masters in his place – to admit to the Queen that he, Burghley, had “concealed” this news from Elizabeth, thereby letting the court physician take the initial blast of heat.  But why, in the first place, had the Lord Treasurer kept his daughter’s pregnancy a secret?  Why would he want to conceal it from the Queen? Burghley worried that Her Majesty would hear the news at court from someone else, which would ignite her fury at him; by now he had no choice but to tell her – or, that is, to have Dr. Masters serve as messenger.

Elizabeth I of England 1533 - 1603

Elizabeth I of England
1533 – 1603

His report continued: “And here again she bade me make her thanks with those words, reported as before, by comparing your Lordship’s joy and interest to hers. After this, I had leisure to show her of my Lady’s [Anne’s] double reckoning, viz., a retention et a consortio Comitis [recalling or calcultating both when her periods had stopped and when she had “consorted” with her husband], and that my Lady being here [Richmond] at Shrovetide had dealt with me to prepare some medicines ad menses promotions [to cause her periods to resume; that is, to produce a miscarriage or, in effect, an abortion], but I counseled her to stay a while – “

Whoa!  Is this why Burghley had concealed the news from Queen Elizabeth?  Without saying so, Dr. Masters had just slipped in some astonishing information.  Oxford’s wife had come to him asking help to abort her pregnancy!  She had sought his help in secretly terminating the life of the premier earl’s first child and, quite possibly, his son and heir!

Anne’s severely negative reaction to her pregnancy must indicate some earth-shaking circumstance. After all, she was pleading for help with an act that ultimately could have meant the end of the Oxford’s earldom. And surely she knew how it would affect her father, Burghley, who had arranged this marriage so the ancient Vere line could be linked to his own family and descendants.

On the one hand, Anne must have been experiencing tremendously frightening physical pain, which could account for everything — except that now she had also become mentally and emotionally distraught, for entirely different reasons:

“Her Majesty asked me how the young Lady did bear the matter,” Dr. Masters continued in his letter to Burghley. “I answered that she kept it secret four or five days from all persons and that her face was much fallen and thin with little color, and that when she was comforted and counseled to be gladsome and to rejoice, she would cry: ‘Alas, alas, how should I rejoice, seeing he that should rejoice with me is not here?  And to say truth, I stand in doubt whether he [Oxford] pass upon me and it [the child] or not.’ And bemoaning her case would lament that after so long sickness of body, she should enter a new grief and sorrow of mind.”

Anne was “in doubt whether he pass upon me and it or not” — indicating, it would seem, that she feared Oxford would not believe he was the father. In the next year he would come to seriously doubt his paternity and separate from the marriage for five years. As a matter of fact, reports that his wife had played a “bed trick” upon him will be reported by Francis Osborne in 1658 and Thomas Wright in 1836; and four “Shakespeare” plays (All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline and The Two Noble Kinsmen) will include the same trickery by which, without the man’s knowledge, one woman is substituted for another.

The very fact this letter from Dr. Masters managed to survive at all is surprising; it offers a rare glimpse into some very private moments and encounters at the highest level, such as:

“At this Her Majesty showed great compassion, as your Lordship shall hear hereafter, and repeated my Lord of Oxford’s answer to me, which he made openly in the Presence Chamber to Her Majesty [that is, Elizabeth related to the doctor what Oxford had told her publicly], viz., that ‘if she were with child, it was not his.’ “

It may be that Oxford said this to the Queen because he knew she would not allow him to leave England while his wife was pregnant; or, perhaps, he was making such a statement for other reasons.  (Was he intending, while on the Continent, to seek an annulment of his still-childless marriage?)

Dr. Masters told Elizabeth that de Vere’s statement was “the common answer of lusty courtiers everywhere so to say.”  He also informed the Queen that other physicians had been primarily worried about Anne’s own health, preferring to stabilize her condition before tending to the fetus, but he was certain that by now both mother and child were safe.

When Elizabeth learned that Oxford’s enemy the Earl of Leicester was in the next chamber, she called him in and related the whole conversation up to this point. Then Dr. Masters spoke up again, explaining to her“that though your Lordship [Burghley] had concealed it yet a while from her, yet you left it to her [Anne’s] discretion either to reveal it or to keep it close. And here an end was made, taking advantage of my last words, that she would be with you for concealing it so long from her.”

This news must have alarmed Burghley.  Her Majesty would be “with you” — yes, she would speak to the Lord Treasurer face-to face and reprimand him for “concealing it so long from her.” It seems he was in for one of those famous tongue-lashings from Elizabeth Tudor.

But now for the final royal histrionics, swinging back and forth between joy and anger: “And severally she showed herself unfeignedly to rejoice, and in great offence with my Lord of Oxford, repeating the same to my Lord of Leicester after he came to her.”

The final word from a shaken Dr. Masters was his strong, even urgent advice to Burghley that he should be prepared to counter any suspicions by Oxford that the child might not be his: “Thus much rather to show my good will than otherwise, desiring your Lordship that there may a note be taken from the day of the first quickening [to determine the date of conception], for thereof somewhat may be known noteworthy.” So it was already feared that de Vere would erupt with questions.

The child, Elizabeth Vere, was reportedly born on July 2, 1575, not quite four months later — or nine months after Oxford and Anne had been lodged in adjacent rooms during a stay at Hampton Court Palace.

After storming home in April 1576, he commanded Burghley to prevent his daughter from being present at the royal court whenever he was there. The separation lasted until some time in late 1581 or early the following year. How much does the remarkable letter of Dr. Masters shed light on Edward de Vere’s subsequent behavior toward his wife and child? Or on any other aspect of the Oxford-Shakespeare story?

Comments and/or questions are welcome!

////

One transcript of the letter (with brief introductory matter) is to be found at The Oxford Authorship Site of independent researcher Nina Green.  Here is a full version, with my own breaks inserted for easier reading:

“After my duty it may please your Lordship to understand that having her Majesty this Monday morning in the Chamber at the Gallery end, next to the Green, sitting alone, I said that the confidence in my messages made me presume to come to her in that place, for being at London with my wife that had been sick, I heard say that my Lord Treasurer had left word at my house that I should not return unto the Court until I had spoken with him; whereupon fearing lest he had been sick upon his purgation taken that Friday, I went unto him and found him mickle [much] well, saving for his cough and often sneezing, and understanding of my speedy return to the Court, he desired me to say thus much to Your Highness, that –

“’Seeing it had pleased Your Majesty often times to inquire tenderly after my Lady of Oxford’s health, it has now fallen out so (God be thanked) that she is with child, evidently; and albeit it were but an indifferent thing for Her Majesty to hear of, yet it was more than indifferent for your Lordship to signify the same unto her.’

“Here-withal she arose, or rather sprang up from the cushions, and said these words:

“’Indeed it is a matter that concerneth my Lord’s [Burghley’s] joy chiefly, yet I protest to God that next to them that have interest in it, there is nobody can be more joyous of it than I am.’

“Then I went forth and told her that your Lordship had a pretty likelihood of it upon your coming from Court after Shrovetide, but you concealed it, Ne si adversum evaderet Audires parturient montes; and that now, because your Lordship did fear the concealing of it any longer, doubting lest the matter might otherwise come to the Court, your Lordship thought it good and a piece of duty to have it imparted unto Her Majesty rather by yourself than by any other –

“And here again she bade me make her thanks with those words, reported as before, by comparing your Lordship’s joy and interest to hers.

“After this, I had leisure to show her of my Lady’s [Anne’s] double reckoning, viz., a retention et a consortio Comitis, and that my Lady being here at Shrovetide had dealt with me to prepare some medicines ad menses promotions, but I counseled her to stay a while –

“Her Majesty asked me how the young Lady did bear the matter.

“I answered that she kept it secret four or five days from all persons and that her face was much fallen and thin with little color, and that when she was comforted and counseled to be gladsome and to rejoice, she would cry, ‘Alas, alas, how should I rejoice, seeing he that should rejoice with me is not here?  And to say truth, I stand in doubt whether he pass upon me and it or not.’ And bemoaning her case would lament that after so long sickness of body, she should enter a new grief and sorrow of mind.

“At this Her Majesty showed great compassion, as your Lordship shall hear hereafter, and repeated my Lord of Oxford’s answer to me, which he made openly in the Presence Chamber to Her Majesty, viz., that if she were with child, it was not his. I answered that it was the common answer of lusty courtiers everywhere so to say.

“I told her also that she ought to think the case to be hard, when that she was let blood and purged, the physicians having greater regard to the stock than to the branch, but I trusted now they were both in safety.

“Then she asking, and being answered of me, who was in the next chamber, she calleth my Lord of Leicester and telleth him all. And here I told her that though your Lordship had concealed it yet a while from her, yet you left it to her discretion either to reveal it or to keep it close. And here an end was made, taking advantage of my last words, that she would be with you for concealing it so long from her; and severally she showed herself unfeignedly to rejoice, and in great offence with my Lord of Oxford, repeating the same to my Lord of Leicester after he came to her.

“Thus much rather to show my good will than otherwise, desiring your Lordship that there may a note be taken from the day of the first quickening, for thereof somewhat may be known noteworthy.

“From Richmond the 7th of March, 1575

“By your Lordship’s most bounden

“Richard Masters”

 

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The Queen had reason to be both delighted and fearful. The birth would mean a first grandchild (unacknowledged) for her, but might also cause her volatile son to explode.

    • Thanks, Mike. Does sound like a mother’s joy and fear, come to think of it.

  2. Agreed, Mike.


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