Cecil discovered the poems by accident among the late Queen’s personal effects. Her most intimate trophies were a cache of romantic sonnets written by the Earl of Oxford, collected over an astonishing period of forty years.
He lingered over the verses like a voyeur at a keyhole and was amazed to learn that their stormy liaison had spanned the course of his sister’s marriage. When Cecil realized that his father had turned a blind eye to the affair and had even encouraged it, he felt the depths of Anne’s sorrow mingling with his own.
Cecil also found a curious stack of personal letters concerning young Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, covering everything from his education as a royal ward to his marriage prospects. He read with keen interest. He had always argued for Southampton’s execution because of his role in the Essex Rebellion, but the late Queen had refused to listen. He couldn’t understand why she spared a man who meant nothing to her while beheading her young paramour Essex. After the Queen’s death, Southampton had been reprieved, and he had joined the assortment of male lovers that inhabited King James’ bedchamber. He was usually given the honor of escorting Queen Anne at various official occasions. To Cecil, the fact that Southampton had escaped execution seemed nothing short of miraculous luck.
On the bottom of the stack, Cecil found a dog-eared unsigned letter. The handwriting looked familiar, but he couldn’t quite place whose it was. Still, the message drew him to his feet.
Blame me not, for it is with the boundless measure of my ardor that I swear to you this day, that if any infliction, mischief, danger or death befall me, the news of our sanctified secret marriage and our changeling child will be revealed to the world; that all may know him for your successor in this Majesty and know that you have forsworn our sacred and legal union without regard for the feelings of our son. Thus I do secure myself in the comfort and safety, to which, in the ameliorate times of our contentment you most lovingly and earnestly succored for me.
His heart beat wildly at this scandalous threat. If it was true, somewhere in England lurked the Queen’s living heir, the man with the closest claim to the throne, and most likely he would be amassing an army to overthrow James’ weaker claim. And if the new King fell, king-maker Cecil would fall with him.
Cecil needed an immediate answer. His father had always found answers in random quotations from the Bible, and from across the room, the Queen’s gilded volume of the Holy Scriptures seemed to beckon him.
Cecil stood in front of it and placed his hands on the cover. He closed his eyes and reverently posed his question to the oracle of God. Slowly he opened the tome, and the pages readily parted. Tucked beside Nathan’s parable about King David’s theft of the poor man’s beloved lamb was the Last Will and Testament of the Earl of Oxford, written in his unmistakable hand.
Cecil shoved the document aside as meaningless. Again he closed the Bible and anxiously rephrased his query. Three more times, God mocked his burgeoning fear by showing him irrelevant phrases. He nervously glanced around the room and his eyes distractedly fell on the will lying beside his clenched fist. In a flash of insight, he recognized the handwriting and saw that it matched the unsigned letter. Unfolding Lord Oxford’s will, Cecil perused it quickly and a familiar name caught his attention.
He felt faint when he read that Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, was Oxford’s son delivered of Elizabeth Tudor, the late Queen, and was stunned to learn that they had entered into a secret marriage for the purpose of breeding a legitimate royal heir.
Cecil instantly felt his father’s calculating mind in that scheme. For a moment, he also wondered if the efficacious old man could engineer events from the grave. Lord Burghley had never imagined that his son Robert might one day secure the throne for James. Thus, thirty years earlier, he had contrived to breed a successor while preserving the Queen’s virgin image. No wonder she had refused every suitor with the excuse that she was married to England! The immorality of the scheme outlined in the seditious document showed a clear belief that the end justified the means, another of his father’s guiding principles.
The idea of Southampton ruling England made Cecil sick to his stomach. Oxford and his unholy spawn were dangerous threats to his plans. One could indeed smile and smile and be a villain. Suppose they smiled like crocodiles while planning to kill King James, and staged a revolution like those in Shake-speare’s plays where audiences could see that bloody battles over the crown were standard practice in England’s history. If Oxford used the playhouses to spread his message and promote his son’s claim, he could easily sway public opinion and urge the commoners to fight for his cause, just as he had urged them to rally and fight against Spain.
Southampton had tried to use Richard II for that same purpose during the Essex Rebellion, hoping to arouse the commoners with that evil play and its treasonous Deposition Scene.
Sir Robert Cecil had to find Oxford’s own copy of his Last Will and Testament immediately or face the terrible consequences of governmental insurrection. Knowing Oxford as well as he did, he realized he would have to take it by force.
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