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!

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