The Gad’s Hill Robbery: An Episode with Oxford’s Men in 1573 Shows Up in “Henry the Fourth Part One” — No. 85 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere was the Great Author

On May 11, 1573, young Gilbert Talbot wrote to his father (the Earl of Shrewsbury) from the Elizabethan royal court that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, twenty-three, had “lately grown into great credit, for the Queen’s Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and his valiantness than any other,” adding, “If it were not for his fickle head he would pass any of them shortly.”

By “fickle” he meant that Oxford was unpredictable, changeable, volatile, inconstant, unreliable, all of which was “probably the symptom of high spirits bursting the seams of restraint,” as Charlton Ogburn Jr. suggested. Edward de Vere was much like Biron, the “merry madcap lord” of Love’s Labour’s Lost, of whom Maria says: “Not a word with him but a jest.” And another comparison would be with the young Henry V (1387-1422), back in his riotous days as Prince Hal.

Gad's Hill, where Falstaff, Prince Hal and their pals attack and rob some travelers

Gad’s Hill, where Falstaff, Prince Hal and their pals attack and rob some travelers

Nine or ten days after Talbot wrote his letter about him, on May 20-21, 1573, three of Oxford’s servants helped him carry out an elaborate prank involving the robbery of two of the earl’s former employees. After lying in wait for them at Gad’s Hill, by the highway between Rochester and Gravesend, they jumped out of hiding – apparently led by Oxford himself, since the two men later described his “raging demeanor” as he led the mock assault like a wild man. The two men were traveling on state business for Oxford’s father-in-law William Cecil, Lord Treasurer Burghley, carrying money that would have been intended for the Exchequer.

In 1580, when John Stow produced the first edition of his Chronicles of England, he reported that more than a century ago Prince Hal “would wait in disguised array for his own receivers, and distress them of their money: and sometimes at such enterprises both he and his company were surely beaten: and when his receivers made to him their complaints, how they were robbed in their coming unto him, he would give them discharge of so much money as they had lost, and besides that, they should not depart from him without great rewards for their trouble and vexation.”

While growing up as a young lord who would take his place one day as England’s premier earl, Oxford may have heard this tale of the young heir-apparent quite often, given that many stories of the monarchs were handed down by his ancestors. Was he trying to imitate Prince Hal’s particular idea of a fun time? Did he manage to return the money with “great rewards” as the prince had done?

William Cecil  Lord Treasurer Burghley 1520-1598

William Cecil
Lord Treasurer Burghley
1520-1598

During the 1580s the Queen’s Men performed The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous stage work whose first version or versions may have been written much earlier. In this spirited and often raucously comical play, a forerunner of Shakespeare’s royal histories, Prince Hal and his friends carry out the same elaborate prank in the same exact place: the highway near Gad’s Hill between Rochester and Gravesend, and the money is also intended for the Exchequer.

Also in Famous Victories the Clerk at the Court of the King’s Bench says the robbery took place on “the 20th day of May last past, in the fourteenth year of the reign of our sovereign lord King Henry the Fourth” – in the same month and perhaps on the exact same day as Oxford’s caper.

Given that no such particular escapade by Prince Hal (much less one at Gad’s Hill) appears in any of the historical sources, and that Oxford was reported in the 1580’s as “best for comedy” (although all his comedies are “lost”), isn’t it logical to suggest that he himself wrote that anonymous play?

(If such was the case, it would explain how and why Famous Victories indicates that the robbery took place in the month of May in the fourteenth year in the reign of Hal’s father Henry the Fourth when, in fact, there was no May in that regnal year. The king had died in March, two months short of May. But if Oxford wrote the play it means he deliberately erred, that is, he actually wanted to link it to his own caper in May 1573. At the time, young Oxford probably figured that only members of the court would realize his authorship of Famous Victories; later, however, revising the play into 1 Henry IV as by “Shakespeare,” he would have protected his identity by eliminating any date — and, to be sure, any mention of the date is gone.)

[Furthermore, Alexander Waugh points out that by placing the caper “outside” the reign of that English monarch, Oxford very likely would be indicating even more strongly, to those in the know, that he was referring to his own caper in Elizabeth’s reign.]

The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth serves as a veritable template for the Shakespearean trilogy of Henry the Fourth Part One, Henry the Fourth Part Two and Henry the Fifth. “Without any doubt whatever a very intimate connection of some kind exists between Shakespeare’s three plays and this old text,” wrote John Dover Wilson, “though what the connection is has never been established.”

Falstaff and Prince Hal

Falstaff and Prince Hal

“Shakespeare” basically lifted the Gad’s Hill episode in Famous Victories for one of the most beloved and memorable scenes of Henry the Fourth Part One. In act two, scene two, Falstaff and three of Prince Hal’s other companions from the Boar’s-Head Tavern hold up and rob some travelers bearing “money of the king’s … on the way to the king’s Exchequer,” on the highway near Gad’s Hill between Rochester and Gravesend – just as in Famous Victories, performed in the 1580s, and just as in the real-life episode involving Oxford and his men in 1573.

The two former associates of Oxford who were robbed, William Faunt and John Wotton, later submitted a complaint to Lord Burghley endorsed “May 1573 from Gravesend.” After referring to the earl’s “raging demeanor” toward them, they recall “riding peacefully by the highway from Gravesend to Rochester” when “three calivers charged with bullets discharged at us by three of my Lord of Oxford’s men … who lay privily in a ditch awaiting our coming with full intent to murder us; yet (notwithstanding they all discharging upon us so near that my saddle having the girths broken fell with myself from the horse and a bullet within half a foot of me) it pleased God to deliver us from that determined mischief; whereupon they mounted on horseback and fled towards London with all possible speed.”

Comments Ogburn Jr. in The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984):

“We can imagine the elation of the Stratfordians if they were able to come up with as dramatic a correlation between Shakspere’s life and one of the plays as proof of his authorship.”

Yes … We can imagine!

The Prince Tudor Aspect of “Famous Victories”: Part Two of Reason No. 60 to Believe Oxford = “Shakespeare”

Another aspect of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth is the way it fits into the Southampton Prince Tudor (PT) theory that Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton was the natural son of Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford and Elizabeth I of England.  In the view of this theory from here, Southampton would have been born in May or June 1574.

"The Case for Shakespeare's Authorship of 'The Famous Victories' by S.M. Pitcher, 1961

“The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship of ‘The Famous Victories'” by Pitcher, 1961

And in that context, if in fact Famous Victories was presented before the Queen during the Christmas season of 1574, some major aspects of the play are both explained and transformed.

This context immediately explains the prominence in Famous Victories of the Eleventh Earl of Oxford (1385-1487), while it also explains the constant and repetitive and even obsessive references to Hal, the future King Henry V of England, as “the young prince.”

The Prince Tudor theory holds that almost immediately after Elizabeth gave birth to a son in May or June 1574, she had him hidden away (eventually to be raised in the Southampton household):

Even so my Sunne one early morn did shine

With all triumphant splendor on my brow,

But out alack, he was but one hour mine,

The region cloud hath masked him from me now.  (Sonnet 33)

And what if Oxford wrote the play to remind Elizabeth that she had a royal child, an heir of her blood to succeed her, and to warn her not to abandon this unacknowledged young prince?  What if he wanted to lessen her fears, while reminding her that very possibly her son would grow into a great monarch like Henry the Fifth?  If so, he might well have created Famous Victories for the Queen in 1574, when he was twenty-four.

Kenneth Branaugh as Henry the Fifth

Kenneth Branaugh as Henry the Fifth

The play (printed first in 1598 but written decades earlier) presents King Henry IV as the sitting monarch, with whom Queen Elizabeth would identify.  Also she would view the king’s son, Prince Hal, as her own son, the future third Earl of Southampton.  And, of course, she would see the Earl of Oxford as Edward de Vere himself.

Oxford: If it please your Grace, here is my lord your son that cometh to speak with you.  He saith he must, and will, speak with you.

King: Who?  My son Harry?

Oxford: Ay, if it please your Majesty…

Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, knowing of Elizabeth’s fear that any natural heir would pose a threat to her, depicts Prince Hal coming upon the King with a dagger in his hand, intending to kill him.  When the King sees this, he is overcome with fear and grief:

King: Come, my son; come on, in God’s name!  I know wherefore thy coming is.  Oh, my son, my son!  What cause hath ever been that thou shouldst forsake me … Oh, my son, thou knowest that these doings will end thy father’s days … I tell thee, my son, that there is never a needle in thy cloak but it is a prick to my heart, and never an eyelet-hole but it is a hole to my soul; and wherefore thou bringest that dagger in thy hand I know not, but by conjecture.

But then young Prince Hal undergoes an instant turnaround:

Prince: [Aside] My conscience accuseth me.  [To the King] Most sovereign lord, and well-beloved father, to answer first to the last point, that is, whereas you conjecture that this hand and this dagger shall be armed against your life, no!  Know, my beloved father, far be the thoughts of your son – “son,” said I?  An unworthy son for so good a father! But far be the thoughts of any such pretended mischief.  And I most humbly render it [Giving him the dagger, kneeling] to your Majesty’s hand.  And live, my lord and sovereign, for ever! … “

This speech goes on and on in the same vein, with the Prince begging over and over for the King’s mercy and pardon, while pledging his loyalty even above his life.  If this is indeed intended for Elizabeth, we can imagine her now leaning forward to hear the King’s response, which is what Oxford hopes would be her response as well:

King: Stand up, my son; and do not think thy father but at the request of thee, my son, I will pardon thee.  And God bless thee, and make thee his servant.

Prince: Thanks, good my lord.  And no doubt but this day, even this day, I am born new again.

Oxford has symbolically presented the Queen’s own son on the stage, making him “born new again” as if replaying the birth of Elizabeth’s own son several months earlier.

But when the King falls asleep, Prince Hal believes that he’s dead; and assuming that he is now the new monarch, he removes the crown from his father’s head and exits.  Here, right on the stage in front of her, is Queen Elizabeth’s worst nightmare!  And when the King wakes up and feels his head, he blurts out, “The crown taken away!  Good my Lord of Oxford, go see who hath done this deed!”

In other words, Edward de Vere is telling Elizabeth that he’s the one upon whom she can rely, to make sure the crown is not taken from her (by their son) before she dies.  And sure enough, Lord Oxford returns with Hal, saying, “Here, if it please your Grace, is my lord the young Prince with the crown.”

If the Queen had given birth to Oxford’s own son, her argument would have been precisely that she should never acknowledge him, because he would try to take her crown before she died – perhaps while she was old and dying.  And if she had made that argument to Oxford, well, then, here was his answer in return, in Famous Victories – “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you!”

An extraordinary aspect of this play is that the King, representing Elizabeth, actually goes on to hand over the crown to the young Prince:  “But come near, my son, and let me put thee in possession whilst I live, that none deprive thee of it after my death.”  And the Prince, taking the crown, replies:  “Well may I take it at your Majesty’s hands – but it shall never touch my head so long as you live.” 

In this way Oxford has used the stage hoping to “catch the conscience” of the Queen, even to the point of showing that she could acknowledge their own son without fear.  And the monarch of the play tells the Earl of Oxford that “my son will be as warlike and victorious a prince as ever reigned in England.”

And indeed the Queen will now watch the youthful Prince Hal growing into the mature King Henry the Fifth who leads his English nation to glory.

When it comes time for Oxford to expand Famous Victories into 1 & 2 Henry IV and Henry V as by Shakespeare, he will no longer represent himself in the character of his ancestor the eleventh Earl of Oxford (who disappears completely).  Instead, Oxford will create the full fictional character of Sir John Falstaff to represent himself on stage, so that it’s Falstaff [Oxford] who becomes the “father” of Hal [Southampton]; and in 1 Henry IV they play-act by reversing the father-son roles:

PRINCE   Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for me, and   I’ll play my father.
FALSTAFF   Depose me? If thou dost it half so gravely, so majestically,   both in word and matter, hang me up by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or a   poulter’s hare.
PRINCE   Well, here I am set.
FALSTAFF   And here I stand: judge, my masters.
PRINCE   Now, Harry, whence come you?
FALSTAFF   My noble lord, from Eastcheap.
PRINCE   The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.
FALSTAFF   ‘Sblood, my lord, they are false…
PRINCE   Swearest thou, ungracious boy? Henceforth ne’er look on   me.

The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth is transformed when viewed as Oxford’s allegorical plea to Queen Elizabeth to recognize their son so she will have an heir of her blood to succeed her.  If such was the case, it would be difficult to find any greater personal motivation to write not only the early play but, later, the Henry IV and Henry V trilogy as well.

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