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Oxford as “The Knight of the Tree of the Sunne”

Shaking the Spear at Court

by Dr. Daniel L. Wright

This article was first published in the Summer 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


When the Renaissance gave birth to dramatic art in Europe, its nativity was at the court. Royal patronage of the theatrical arts enabled the Golden Age of Spanish Theatre by nurturing the dramatic genius of such court playwrights as Alarcn, Caldern, Rojas Zorilla, and August? Moreto. The royal house of Portugal financed the productions of such showmen as Gil Vicente, and the French court of the Valois king, Charles IX, was host to the work of court poet Pierre de Ronsard, as well as those court writers dedicated to the reformation and refinement of French language and literature who collectively were known as the Pl?de, and among whom were such figures as Etienne Jodelle and Jean de la Taille. Ludovico Ariosto orchestrated the Italian Renaissance in the theatrical arts from the court of Ferrara, and in England, a succession of Tudor monarchs encouraged, supported, and financed the writing of plays and the production of court entertainments long before the emergence of public theatres.

In England, we have vast evidence of the prominence and activity of various court impresarios during the era of the Tudor regime. Thomas Heywood–poet, playwright, balladeer and patron of players–was especially influential in developing the dramatic arts at court during the reign of Henry VIII. Scholars regard him as instrumental in effecting the dramatic bridge between the comic interlude and mature English comedy. We have court records of Heywood being paid for performing these interludes by Henry VIII, and George Puttenham testifies that Heywood continued to prosper in his services as a maker of plays and other court entertainments during the reign of Edward VI, stating that Heywood “was well benefited by the king” and was much acclaimed for “the myrth and quicknesse of his conceits.” Heywood’s fortunes grew even greater during the reign of Mary I; his intimacy with the Queen was such, indeed, that according to legend, he entertained and cheered her even on her deathbed. Mary also patronized the talents of Nicholas Udall and Thomas Sackville–Udall as the principal in charge of court entertainments during Mary’s brief reign, Sackville as Master of Ceremonies at important court functions.

On her accession to the Throne in 1558, Elizabeth I appointed William Hunnis a gentleman of the Chapel Royal, in which capacity he succeeded Heywood as one of the leading impresari of the court; according to all accounts, many of his entertainments, if not extraordinary in their artfulness, yet were capable of manifesting sufficient excellence to be celebrated by his contemporaries; indeed, George Gascoigne includes several examples of Hunnis’s work in his 1577 publication of the Princely Pleasures at Kenilworth.

Richard Edwards, another court impresario of the Tudors, was appointed a gentleman of the Chapel Royal by Queen Elizabeth I in 1565. Unhappily, his tenure as a playmaker for the Queen did not last long (he died but two years later in 1567), and yet– brief as Edwards’ time of service to Her Majesty was, we know of glowing praise accorded his dramaturgical work for the court and even possess a transcript of some of the conversation that passed between him and the Queen after he much affected her with a brilliant staging of the play Palamon and Arcite in Oxford, at Christ Church Hall, a performance which we may be sure the teenage Edward de Vere attended.

Indeed, throughout her reign, but especially during her early years as Queen, we have abundant evidence of Elizabeth’s reliance on many men of the theatre for her court drama, among them Richard Ferrant, Sebastian Westcott, Richard Mulcaster, Thomas Giles, and Richard Bower. None of these men, however, produced a great quantity of dramatic work, especially work that proved to be impressive or memorable; many of them, indeed, were noted at least as much for their musical talents as their dramaturgy. Their influence, in short, was inconsiderable. Indeed, as Allardyce Nicoll attests, “the first twenty-five years of the Queen’s reign did not provide much of peculiar excellence. The surge of poetry . . . which we associate with her was not truly prophesied until the eighties ….”

Who, therefore, we must ask, was the English court impresario or were the team of court impresari in the 1580s and 1590s who so staggered those noblemen of Europe who came to entreat the Queen or pay Elizabeth homage? Visitors and ambassadors to the court of Elizabeth wrote voluminously of their astonishment at the vigor of English court life, its high culture and abundant, refined entertainments. Indeed, as Felix Schelling attests, during the heyday of Elizabeth’s reign, plays were all the fashion “and it was the court that set the example.” In fact, as Schelling reminds us,

[t]he number of recorded performances at court [in the late sixteenth century] is upwards of two hundred, and it is probable that no week in any year elapsed without at least one afternoon or evening devoted to this form of amusement. Indeed, no meeting of princes, reception of ambassadors, entertainment, or ceremonial was complete without a play ….”

Well, who was writing and directing these plays that made the Elizabethan court the talk of Europe? Heywood was gone, Edwards was dead, Gascoigne had died in 1577. Lyly–Lord Oxford’s secretary–was surely part of the mix, but how much of this floribundant art of the Elizabethan court was his creation? Who else was there? George Peele (for a while), Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, Lord Strange. This was the coterie of dramatic talent that shook the foundations of dramatic art in Renaissance Europe at the court of Elizabeth? I don’t think so.

Where, moreover, we must ask, in the midst of this artistic revolution at the English court, was Shakespeare? At the height of the English Renaissance, at the zenith of Britain’s most glorious achievements in art, that mystical and unfathomable Genius of Geniuses, the Playwright of Playwrights, the poor butcher’s apprentice-made-good, that incomparable master of classical literature, rhetoric, and unrivalled artist of the English language, acclaimed by the late A.L. Rowse the “best known, the most popular dramatist” of his day, William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon, is nowhere to be seen at Elizabeth’s court. He is never so much as even introduced to the Queen. But then, why would he have been? As orthodox Stratfordian Alfred Harbage concedes,

There is not a shred of proof that Shakespeare was ever intimate or socially familiar with anyone except members of his own class …. There is not a shred of proof that he ever received so much as a shilling from a lord . . . or even a free dinner in a lordly household. Unlike Jonson, Shakespeare never received a lucrative commission for an entertainment or masque at a noble or royal household. The legend that he received the preposterously large sum of 1000 [when Southampton was bankrupt!] first appeared in print a hundred years after his death.

Heywood sang to a dying Mary; Edwards chatted with Elizabeth, but Shakespeare, to the Queen and–even more notably–to all of his fellow dramatists of the day, was an unknown, an invisible man.

And yet, at this same time, these same dramatists and writers fill their cups fairly brim to overflowing in praise and adulation of Edward de Vere as a dramatist–a man for whom we haven’t a single play under his own name! Gabriel Harvey, William Webbe, and Angel Day hail him a master scholar, dramatist, and poet. Edmund Spenser, Henry Peacham, and Francis Meres salute his genius, acclaim him foremost among the artists of Elizabeth’s court, and laud his artistic achievements in the theatre. George Puttenham effuses, “I know very many gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a gentleman to seem learned . . . of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward Earl of Oxford.” Peacham, in his work, The Compleat Gentleman, chronicles all of the Elizabethan age’s notable playwrights, and he is so comprehensive in his catalogue of these dramatists as to include, among the greats, such minor talents as Paget and Buckhurst. He headlines this list, moreover, with Edward de Vere–a list, we must note, however, that never mentions Shakespeare.

Indeed, by the time of the monarchy’s overthrow in the mid-seventeenth century, no playwright gathers more literary dedications by men of letters than Edward de Vere– Ben Jonson excepted; Oxford wins more notice among his fellow writers than even Sir Walter Ralegh or Sir Philip Sidney. No one, not incidentally, at the same time, ever dedicates a thing to any writer named William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare, of course, is never mentioned by these writers, dramatists, and commentators who were his contemporaries because they knew him to be Edward de Vere, a pseudonymous author. We needn’t rely simply on their declarations of Oxford’s inimitable talent and achievements, however; attestation of Lord Oxford’s work as a courtier poet and dramatist are confirmed by a vivid account of Oxford’s participation in something so simple as an otherwise seemingly-inauspicious tournament at Whitehall in 1581, an account in Oxford’s biography that often is overlooked by most commentators for what it says about Oxford as a manager of theatre in favor of noting something of his considerable martial prowess.

Oxford was a potent adversary to confront in such tournaments. Oxford, however, was far more than a knightly gallant and a fearsome competitor within the lists. He was imbued with the spirit of Thespis as well as Mars, and his sensibilities as a poet, playwright, patron of players and creator of theatre were perhaps never so rapturously indulged, apart from the playhouse, as they were when he was amidst such regal company and on these occasions. This enthusiasm for studied exhibition by Oxford is attested, for example, in Alan Young’s Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments, wherein the author recounts, in abundant detail, the circumstances of Oxford’s participation in one of his last tournaments (prior to his imprisonment in the Tower), at Whitehall, on 22 January 1581. The circumstance of this contest, some Oxfordians may recall, was, of course, the Earl of Arundel’s “friendly” challenge to knightly gallants as one Callophisus, a Lover of Beauty, to which challenge responded, among others, Lord Windsor, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir William Drury, and Lord Oxford. What is particularly notable for our purposes here, however, is not that Oxford answered the challenge (when, after all, was he ever inclined to forego such an invitation?), but the manner in which he answered Arundel’s challenge.

Young tells us, for example, that all of the respondents to Arundel’s challenge at Whitehall styled themselves, rather unpretentiously (save one! [guess who?]), by such unimaginative nomenclature as the Red Knight, the White Knight, and the Blue Knight– but, according to Young, “the Earl of Oxford appeared in the Whitehall tiltyard as the Knight of the Tree of the Sun . . . and it appears that he concealed himself in his pavilion [a 'statlie Tent of Orenge tawny Taffata, curiously imbroydered with Siluer, & pendents on the Pinacles'] before any of the other participants arrived.” Moreover, in recounting the events that followed from records of the day, Young reports that, as the ceremonies commenced,

From forth this Tent came the noble Earle of Oxenford in rich gilt Armour, and sate down vnder a great high Bay-tree, the whole stocke, branches and leaues whereof, were all gilded ouer, that nothing but Gold could be discerned. [ . . . ] After a solemne sound of most sweet Musique, he mounted on his Courser, verie richly caparasoned, whe[n] his page ascending the staires where her Highnesse stood in the window, deliuered to her by speech [his] Oration ….

The speech (notably, the only one recorded for the day!) discloses Oxford’s purpose in appearing before the Queen in such lavish ostentation. Young’s report from the records of the day reveals to us that Oxford told Her Majesty and the august assembly before the Queen that he, a wandering knight, had met “an aged ‘Pilgrime or Hermit’ who showed him ‘a Tree so beautiful, that his eyes were daseled.”‘ Young continues:

As the speech unfolds, it becomes clear that this “Tree of the Sunne” represents Elizabeth. It is unique like the Phoenix, and it eclipses all other trees. In an allusion to Elizabeth’s virginity, we are told that “Vestas bird sitteth in the midst, whereat Cupid is euer drawing, but dares not shoot, being amazed at that princely and perfect Maiestie.” In the shade of the tree, the knight has found “such content, as nothing coulde bee more comfortable,” and has “made a sollemne vowe, to incorporate hys harte into that Tree, and ingraft hys thoughts vppon those vertues. Swearing, that as there is but one Sunne to shine ouer it, one roote to glue life vnto it, one toppe to maintaine Maiestie: so there should be but one Knight, eyther to lyue or die for the defence thereof. Where-vppon, tree swore himselfe onely to be the Knight of the Tree of the Sunne, whose life should end before his loyaltie.”

Young concludes his recital of the record of Oxford’s speech to the Queen by pointing out that ” [l]ack of any detailed account of the other defendants’ tiltyard speeches and pageants makes it impossible for us to know whether the fictions of the responses by [the others] were also developed with such imaginative fervour ….” However, given the relatively uninspired and indifferent appellations selected by Oxford’s counterparts in the lists for this festive entertainment, compounded by the failure of the chronicler of the event to note, even in summary, anything offered by the other participants in tribute to or in praise of the Queen, we might well be safe in assuming that they were not comparably distinguished.

Oxford’s stately pavilion, spirited oratory, and imaginative nomenclature were lustrous and rare contributions to the dignity of such an occasion, and their evocation of imaginative worlds of colour, fantasy, and high drama expresses the temperament of one intimately companioned to, fond of, and perhaps even practiced in the arts of the stage; indeed, of Oxford’s particular love of ostentatious show and high theatricality–singular qualities among his peers–Young attests,

It was rare for an individual to invest so much in a pavilion at Tudor and Stuart tournaments… [and while i]t is just possible that pavilions such as Oxford’s were a fairly common sight at Tudor and Jacobean tournaments, . . this idea is not supported either by the evidence of surviving descriptions or by the household accounts of even such lavish spenders as the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Rutland.

Here, at Whitehall, therefore, in addition to Oxford the “knight,” we see Oxford in the role of just that kind of person whom we would expect to find at court in charge of the Queen’s entertainments. Here is our missing impresario, the elusive courtier, conjuring one of those dramatic spectacles that made the Elizabethan court the talk of Europe. Here is the wordsmith, the allegorist, the allusive classicist, the maker of theatrical magic. Here is the spendthrift dramatist, ever ready to produce the most opulent of courtly feasts for eyes and ears that ever Elizabeth and her court were graced to see and hear. Here–here–we find our missing Shakespeare. Here we find Edward de Vere.

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