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Shakespeare’s Folks

(Reprinted from SOBRAN’S, March 2000, p. 6;
material cut from the original is in green)

A week before his death in 1547, Henry VIII — obese, syphilitic, demented — groggily approved an order for the execution of Henry Howard, the young Earl of Surrey. Henry was too bloated to walk, or even wield a pen, so he used a stamp that had been provided for the purpose.

Surrey was a victim of the tangled court intrigues of Henry’s reign. Not yet 30, he had been a favorite of the king. But he had a wild streak and a hot temper and had once been jailed for breaking church windows and pelting prostitutes with stones in the streets of London. Henry forgave such pranks, shaking his head affectionately at “the most foolish proud boy that is in England.”

But in late 1546 Surrey’s enemies accused him of claiming a right to the throne by virtue of his Plantagenet blood and plotting with his father, the Duke of Norfolk, to supplant Henry. Since it was a crime even to speculate about Henry’s death, he was charged with high treason and, on January 19, 1547, beheaded. His father was spared. It’s hard to judge the truth of the charges.

Surrey is now best remembered as a poet. With his friend Sir Thomas Wyatt, he introduced the Petrarchan love sonnet to England and originated the “Shakespearean” sonnet form. He also created English blank verse in his translation of two books of the Aeneid. His influence on Shakespeare is acknowledged.

Surrey also had a nephew by marriage, whom he didn’t live to see: Edward de Vere, later 17th Earl of Oxford, author of the Shakespeare works, was born in 1550. Oxford grew up venerating Surrey’s memory and aspiring to emulate him as a poet; a thousand Petrarchan sonnets ascribed to others were actually Oxford’s, as I will argue in a future book.

I have just found a new piece of evidence that Oxford was “Shakespeare.” Scholars now widely agree that the play Sir Thomas More, is at least partly Shakespearean. It exists only in a single manuscript, which was discovered in the nineteenth century; it was never printed in its own time and may have been banned, since it favorably portrays a Catholic martyr beheaded by the father of Elizabeth I.

What is interesting is that Surrey is a character in the play. Since the real Surrey was still in his teens when More was executed in 1535, the author has taken a remarkable liberty with the historical facts to include him in the story; Surrey speaks the final lines of the play. Clearly Oxford was going out of his way to honor his uncle.

Orthodox Shakespeare scholars, naturally, have failed to notice Surrey’s anachronistic presence in Sir Thomas More, its significance is lost on them, since they assume the wrong author and are unaware of Oxford’s relation to Surrey.

It’s fascinating that the greatest English poet should have been so close to such important events and personalities in English history. But there is more.

[Breaker quote: The Earl of 
Oxford and English history]After his father’s death in 1562, Oxford was raised at the court of Elizabeth I as a ward of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, whose daughter Ann Cecil he married in 1571. He was a favorite of the queen in his youth and was rumored to have had a flirtation with her shortly after his marriage; his mother-in-law was infuriated, but Burghley tried to ignore it. I am convinced that the sonnet cycle printed as Emaricdulfe in 1595 was originally addressed to Elizabeth.

Burghley, lord treasurer and spymaster, was the most powerful man in Elizabethan England and a crucial figure in English history. Hilaire Belloc gives him the dubious credit of crushing the Catholic Church in England, not out of any religious passion, but because he belonged to the class that had enriched itself during the looting of Church properties under Henry VIII. According to Belloc, Burghley — and his son Robert Cecil after him — wanted to make sure England never returned to the Catholic fold. They successfully worked to make England a power independent of Europe; and in Belloc’s view the Reformation would have died out if England had resumed Catholicism.

Belloc credits Burghley with “a very great political genius” but “a despicable character — mean, sly, avaricious, and thoroughly false.” He was “one of the greatest and certainly one of the vilest of men that ever lived.”

England remained largely Catholic during Elizabeth’s reign, but attachment to the old religion waned and all but flickered out after the shock of the Jesuit-driven Gunpowder Plot in 1605. (One of those who turned Protestant at about that time, incidentally, was John Milton, father of England’s great Puritan poet.)

Oxford’s attitude toward all this is hard to judge. He had Catholic sympathies, drawn from both his family and his Italian journey of 1575–76, but they seem to have waned; his works reflect a broadly Catholic outlook, certainly not a Protestant one, but this is also consistent with attachment to the Church of England, or with no particular religious zeal. He was often at odds with Burghley, but apparently for personal reasons that had nothing to do with religion; Polonius in Hamlet is clearly modeled on Burghley, even to the detail of sending a spy to Paris to report on his wastrel son’s misconduct.

But Oxford seems not to have realized that his father-in-law would loom large in history, any more than Burghley realized that his son-in-law would be an immortal poet.
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