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Are British scholars erasing two heroic earls from Jacobean history to protect the Shakespeare industry?

A case study in how history is written

by Peter W. Dickson (© 1999, all rights reserved)

This article was first published in the Spring 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

Although most Oxfordians have been slow to recognize the implications of the Oxford-Southampton imprisonments in 1621-22 for the First Folio project and the Shakespeare authorship debate, British historians seem well aware and quite nervous about those facts which they ironically brought to light not long before Charlton Ogburn’s work, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984).

Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the revival of the Oxfordian challenge in the 1980s has caused these British historians to make a deliberate effort in the 1990s to obscure these basic facts, and even to sanitize their more recent works to avoid any collateral damage to the Shakespeare industry. (See the Appendix: So many biographies, so few Henries for a complete list of biographies on James I published since 1988 and how they treat the early 1620s and the Spanish Marriage Crisis.)

The two British historians most suspect in this regard are S.J. Houston and Roger Lockyer, who made major contributions in rediscovering the vendetta between the Oxford-Southampton-led Patriot coalition against the proposed Spanish marriage policy (i.e. a marriage between England’s Prince Charles and a sister of the Spanish King) and the policy’s chief promoters: King James, his homosexual lover (Buckingham) and the notorious Spanish Ambassador Count Gondomar.

Houston and Lockyer are major figures within Revisionist School of historiography which since the 1970s has sought to reevaluate the reign of King James with the benefit of more in depth archival research. Prior to Houston’s biography of James (1973) and Lockyer’s on Buckingham (1981), one had to look much harder to find data about the pivotal roles which the two Earls played in the Spanish Marriage crisis.

Although James and the Stuarts were never popular with the so-called Whig school of British history which focused intensely on the rise of parliament, this mainstream tradition never made much effort to unearth the rich history surrounding the Patriot Coalition’s struggle to resist the King’s plan for a dynastic union with Spain. The Whig historians probably saw little need to tell this story in detail because the marriage negotiations collapsed in 1623; and because Oxford and Southampton died soon thereafter on the battlefield in the Lowlands.

So Henry de Vere and Southampton slipped through the cracks and it was not until about 1970 when under the leadership of Conrad Russell, British historians began to reconstruct in more detail the court politics, especially the struggle of the Herbert-de Vere-Southampton faction against the King and Buckingham.

“The Two Most Noble Henries”

From Catalogue raisonné...  London : Philip Allan & Co, 1927

From Catalogue raisonné… London : Philip Allan & Co, 1927

This rarely-seen engraving by Thomas Jenner (left) was part of a set of three engravings depicting six heroes of the Protestant Cause in the 1620s. It helps to bring into sharper focus the significant roles the 3rd Earl of Southampton (right) and the 18th Earl of Oxford (left) played in English history during the 1620’s.

Arthur Wilson, on pages 161-162 of his history book entitled The History of Great Britain being the Life and Reign of James the First (London, 1653), lists the leaders of the Patriot Coalition following the successful impeachment of Sir Francis Bacon in May 1621. Wilson lists the six principal aristocratic leaders in the following order: Oxford, Southampton, Essex, Warwick, Lord Say, and Lord Spencer. Then Wilson makes the following memorable observation:

There were many other noble Patriots concerned to entrigue with these, which like Jewels should he preserved and kept in the Cabinet of everyman’s memorie, being ornaments for Posterity to put on; but their characters would make the line too long, and the Bracelet too big to adorne this story.

The caption in the upper left (partly cut off) reads: “Right honourable Lords / two most noble Henries / revived the Earles of / Oxford and Southampton.” The key word in this caption is, of course, “revived,” a reference which most likely refers to the fact that both earls were dead by 1625.

To appreciate the post-Ogburn sanitization in the 1990s, we should consider the following. In the 1973 edition of his James biography, Houston devotes two passages to the initial round of imprisonments of the Patriot leaders in the spring of 1621. They are as follows:

The effect of these attempts to meet the wishes of parliament was spoilt when the Earl of Southampton and Sir Edwin Sandys were arrested for meeting secretly to discuss parliamentary business. Lord Oxford was detained for criticizing the King’s plan for a Spanish marriage. These men were soon released, but at a time when the government wanted a generous supply, the arrests made the Commons very sensitive about its privileges. (page 81)

This and the arrest of Southampton and Oxford during the summer recess underscored the seriousness of the King’s statement. (page 85)

Houston makes no mention of the second, more ominous imprisonment of Oxford in the Tower from April 1622 to December 1623 or the reconciliation between Southampton and Buckingham which led to his release. In the early 1970s, more archival research was necessary to illuminate this end-game in the vendetta just before the First Folio hit the London bookstores.

Yet, once Houston had the benefit of such research as reflected in the American Professor Thomas Cogswell’s work, The Blessed Revolution (1989), this British historian chose to remove any previous references to the 18th Earl of Oxford (Henry de Vere) from his second edition of his James biography in 1995. In the revised passage, Oxford simply disappears:

The good effect of these efforts to meet the wishes of parliament was spoilt when the Earl of Southampton was arrested for being party to a practice to hinder the King’s ends at the next meeting. He had promoted an attack on Buckingham, working closely with the Commons in the proceedings against monopolists and the Lord Chancellor (Bacon). Both the Earl and Sir Edwin Sandys, who was also arrested, favored a more anti-Spanish foreign policy and were rumored to have been “active to cross the general proceedings and to asperse and infame the present government.” Both men were soon released, but the arrests cast a shadow across the second session and made the Commons sensitive about their privileges. (pages 80-81)

Nevertheless, a few pages later Houston betrays his new knowledge of Cogswell’s research with the following one sentence insertion:

The Earls of Southampton and Oxford, who had been so militantly anti-Spanish in the previous parliament, were restored to favor, as was William Fiennes, Lord of Say and Sele, who had offended James by resisting the benevolence in 1622. (page 90)

However, Houston in his 1995 edition never gives the reader any sense that Oxford had been imprisoned twice, the second time for twenty months in the Tower.

Lockyer’s sanitization of both Oxford and Southampton is harder to detect because it is so total. In his landmark biography, Buckingham (1981), he devotes many passages to describing in rich detail the Buckingham versus Oxford-Southampton rivalry and devotes one long passage to describing how King James regarded Oxford as a grave threat to the Crown:

When the Earl of Oxford was imprisoned in the spring of 1622–allegedly for saying, in a drunken moment that he wished the King were dead–it was widely believed that his real offense was crossing the favorite. It was in his house that Elizabeth Norris [Ed. note: Oxford’s niece] had taken refuge after escaping the attention of Kit Villiers [Ed. note: Buckingham’s brother!], and Oxford refused to hand her over. Worse than this, he was also reported to have told Buckingham that he “hoped there would come a time when justice should be free and would not pass through his hands only.” The imprisonment of Oxford suggested that the King regarded opposition to his favorite as opposition to himself. (page 121)

Yet, when Longman’s commissioned Lockyer to prepare a biography for its series called Profiles in Power in 1998, Lockyer never once mentions either Oxford or Southampton. The book’s index shows only one citation under Southampton, and that’s for the Port of Southampton! That’s it.

Lockyer (an Emeritus Reader at the University of London) might respond that his James biography was only permitted a little more than 200 pages, and therefore he had to be selective. But this lacks credibility given his exhaustive, detailed discussion of how the King and Buckingham regarded the two Earls as their primary enemies during the Spanish Marriage crisis in his earlier work from 1981.

Furthermore, any awareness of the revival of the Shakespeare authorship dispute in the late 1980s would have made Lockyer quite sensitive to the close timing between the imprisonment of the two Earls and the First Folio project. Certainly, unlike many political historians, Lockyer has shown an interest in literature because he collaborated in 1989 to produce an anthology of original source material entitled Shake-speare’s World, Background Readings in the English Renaissance.

Lockyer and Houston are not alone in their sudden aversion to any extensive discussion of these two Earls, especially Oxford, and their challenge to King James. Nine other biographies of James have appeared since 1988 (see the table below), and while all mention the Spanish marriage crisis, none make any mention whatsoever of the roles of Oxford-Southampton in this powerful political drama.

It seems reasonable to conclude that following the revival of the Oxfordian claim in the Shakespeare dispute in late 1984, British historians became quite sensitive to any discussion of the imprisonments of these two Earls in the same time frame when the First Folio project got underway. The sudden shift in attitude concerning the two Earls gives strong reason to believe that there is in effect a de facto policy of self-censorship to make it more difficult for others to sense the possible negative implications for the Stratfordian position in the ongoing Shakespeare authorship dispute.

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Appendix: So many biographies, so few Henries

There have been eleven biographies of King James I since 1988 (with all but Dwyer’s published in England), ten of which come after Thomas Cogswell’s The Blessed Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1989). The table below lists these 11 biographies and notes how they have covered the Marriage Crisis years of the early 1620s and whether they mention the roles of the 3rd Earl of Southampton and/or the 18th Earl of Oxford in their discussion of the 1620s.

Author Year Mention Spanish Marriage Crisis? Mention the Two Earls?
Frank Dwyer 1988 Yes Nothing
Maurice Lee 1990 Not Much Nothing
Chris. Darston 1993 Draws on Cogswell Nothing
Antonia Fraser 1994 More than 1st Edition Nothing
S.J. Houston 1995 Draws on Cogswell Sanitized
Stephen Coston 1996 Yes Nothing
W.B. Patterson 1997 Yes (Great detail) Nothing
Curtis Perry 1997 Yes Nothing
Lori Ferrell 1998 Barely mentions Nothing
Irene Carrier 1998 Yes Nothing
Roger Lockyer 1998 Yes Nothing

Previous to 1988, there has been no other period in which so many biographies or histories have been published concerning King James since the first appeared in the 1650s during Cromwell’s rule. The landmark work in this century appeared in 1956 when David Willson published a biography which did not have the advantage of the surge in archival research that came only in the 1970s. His book is quite dated and his brief treatment of the Spanish marriage crisis is rambling and unfocused, and ignores Oxford and Southampton.

The same was true of the next eight works until Houston’s James I(1973) gave rich detail on the early 1620s, including the first imprisonment of Oxford and Southampton in June 1621. Between Houston’s work and Dwyer’s in 1988, there were only a few noteworthy books: Otto Scott’s biography in 1976, which mentions the imprisonment of Southampton but not those of Oxford, Roger Lockyer’s great biography Buckingham (1981) which gives rich detail on just about everything, and G.V.P Akrigg’s compilation of the letters of King James where one can find one crucial letter relating to the long second imprisonment of Oxford.

The two-fold bottom line in all this appears to be:

1. Despite a flood of King James biographies beginning in 1988, British historians have selectively ignored Thomas Cogswell’s highly-regarded The Blessed Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1989), a history of the Patriot Coalition’s struggle against King James during the dramatic finale to his reign in the early 1620s.

2. This shunning of Cogswell’s work–an in-depth study giving valuable details on the two Earls (Oxford and Southampton) as beleaguered leaders of the Patriot Coalition against King James in the early 1620s–can only be a deliberate action.

Houston, in the process of sanitizing his second edition (1995), betrays his close reading of Cogswell’s landmark work in other respects, as do Carrier, Patterson and others. Despite his own close attention to the two Earls in his 1981 work, Lockyer totally ignores them in 1998.

These sudden oversights can not all be accidents or coincidences. Some must be deliberate, and probably influenced by the post-1984 revival of the Oxfordian claim in the Shakespeare authorship debate.

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