Confident now that he could succeed by forging a powerful connection with his illustrious (and somewhat infamous) cousin, William Shaxper set out for Lord Oxford’s ancestral home.
He marveled at Hedingham Castle’s ancient keep and its expansive view of the countryside, its narrow windows peering like watchman’s eyes at the village below. That same tower had protected the castle against King John’s siege of 1216 after he had been forced by the 3rd Earl of Oxford and twenty-four other powerful barons to sign a document granting them new rights and protections from royal abuses. The Magna Carta inspired a radical sense of freedom in the land, causing men of all social rank to consider rising above their stations. Success could be achieved if a man worked hard, planned well and, as William Shaxper knew, attached himself to the right patron.
He asked around the village for a man named Pinch, the former jester in the household of Lord Oxford’s father. Several townspeople pointed to The Vine & Fig, a venerable old inn staunchly planted below the castle; and ready to mark the end of their workday with a few drinks, they escorted him there. They told William all about the inn, and how it had come down to Meg Bucklesbury as an inheritance from her father. Pinch, they said, had also claimed the inheritance by marrying Meg and settling into his new career as a tavern keeper.
Shaxper thanked them for the information and found himself a table by the hearth. He ordered something to eat and watched Meg from a distance. Her eyes sparkled with mischief as she poured drinks for her customers and leveled soft jests at them. In the ebb and flow of the neighborly banter that criss-crossed the bar, Shaxper heard the country pleasantries he knew so well. He realized they were as abundant in Hedingham as they were in Stratford, but they were absent, he thought, from the hustle-bustle of city life.
As the afternoon wore on and business became less hectic, Shaxper invited Meg to join him at his table.
“Ah, at last a chance to rest these old bones,” she said, as she wiped her hands on her apron and arranged for one of the serving girls to take her place behind the bar. With a heavy sigh, Meg plunked herself onto the bench and brushed the hair from her eyes. “It’s been quite a day, as you can see,” she said, fanning herself with her hand.
“Is it always this busy in here?” Shaxper asked.
“Oh, aye. There’s seldom a moment’s peace. Mind you, we’ve been in business since Noah’s Flood, and I’ve always been given to believe that it was my father who stepped up to the Old Navigator as he left the Ark and offered him the first drink he’d had in 40 days and 40 nights. Well, sir, is our food to your liking? Is there anything else we can get for you?”
“Not much for strong drink, are you?” Meg laughed. “The Vine & Fig won’t be making much money on you, I’ll warrant; not with a child’s drink.”
“I-I know small beer is for children,” Shaxper stammered, “but I can quench my thirst as often as I like and never get drunk, and that should keep my money flowing into your till, shouldn’t it?”
“Upon my honor, sir, forgive me. My tongue is ofttimes quicker than my brain and I deserve your gentle rebuke. I meant you no offense,” Meg said.
“I am not offended, madam, but I have every reason to be sober and keep my wits about me.”
“As you wish, sir. But madam-me-not, for it makes me feel old. Call me Meg, as everyone else does. Is this your first time in Hedingham?”
“Yes. In fact, I’ve come all the way from London to see your husband, hoping he would teach me about the art of comedy. Is it true that he was the jester to Lord John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford?”
“Aye, Pinch was his household fool. People said he was the funniest man in England once . . . well, more than once, I’d say. He also led Lord John’s company of players. But that was long ago, back when Pinch claimed he had the best hire-and-salary in the world.”
“I would agree with him. I myself am looking for work in the London theaters.”
“Mark you, Pinch used to say it – you won’t hear such talk from him anymore.”
“It was the talk of the village that he was mightily abused by Lady Margery, Lord John’s widow. She dismissed the players after His Lordship’s death and Pinch was so despondent over her cruelty, he threw himself off the tower. A hay wagon broke his fall, and I stepped in to nurse his wounds. We’d known each other as children, you see, and that sort of love never dies. Pinch would not recommend serving as a player in a noble household to anyone. He would quickly disabuse you of the notion that it’s a marvelous life.”
“I’m not sure even a man of his talents could do that,” Shaxper said.
“Ah, but you do seem like a such a level-headed youth,” Meg said, reaching for his hand.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m reading your fortune,” she said, studying his palm. “I can see in an instant whether your true heart’s desire lies within your grasp, or whether you’re deceiving yourself . . . you see, the palm is called the table because your destiny has been set and all things rest upon it and – oh, yes. I see. It’s partly what you’ve said, but not exactly what I expected to see.”
“What do you see? Is it my death?”
“Yes,” she smiled, “but not yours alone, for we’ll all die someday, sooner or later. I do see that you have a heroic purpose ahead of you, receiving great fame and fortune for creating illusions. And from the looks of it, you’re not alone in that either.”
“Then the playhouses truly are in my future.”
“Indeed they are, but there’s a darker side – pretense, I’d say. Fame and Fortune are written on your palm, but I also see an old man burdened by a terrible secret.”
“What old man? Is it me?”
“That’s a mystery, too,” she said, as Shaxper gently slid his hand away from hers. “There’s only so much we poor mortals can see, but it would be a shame for you to condemn yourself to a player’s life when there’s no glory in it. That’s what Pinch would say.”
“But by reputation, he was funnier than Will Somers, King Henry VIII’s fool. Pinch must have found some glory in that fame.”
Shaxper raised a curious eyebrow.
“You see,” Meg continued, “no other jester in England at that time ever commanded a cry of players. Most noblemen were entertained by dolts or dwarfs that were mocked for their imbecilities and deformities, a practice that I find most cruel.”
“But noblemen also maintained musicians as their servants.”
“Aye, but they didn’t maintain resident companies of actors - men who were literate, able to understand and learn their lines. Lord John was different from other noblemen. His castle had a chapel and a theater in it. It was that very thing that captured his son’s attention.”
“By his son, you must mean Edward, Earl of Oxford, patron of the London theaters,” Shaxper said, delighted at this turn in the conversation.
“Aye, that’s him,” Meg nodded. “I remember when he was born, a little lordling-viscount with a whole string of titles to his name. He was a precocious child, and once terrified Pinch by dancing barefoot on the bulwark of the old tower with no regard for his safety. Pinch gave him scenes to translate from the comedies of Terence and Plautus, and soon the lad took parts in them. Edward was so well disguised, his parents never knew they were applauding their own son among the players. They wouldn’t have approved if they’d known, especially Lady Margery. Pinch took a big risk by indulging the boy.”
“Why would his mother care if her son took to the stage in private?”
“Because Edward was wild and impetuous, like a stallion that defies his paddock and bolts haphazardly to distant pastures. He refused to be tethered and constrained to give up writing and acting because of his noble rank.”
“I always thought a nobleman could do whatever he desired.”
“Not so,” Meg said, with confidence. “You and me, we can muck about in life all we want, and no one cares if we get dirty. But if we were titled nobility, our actions would be grist for the gossip mills. Edward always said that the plainest commoner enjoyed more freedom than he did, and he was twelve when he said it, and he was probably correct. But look, here comes Pinch now, and he can tell you the rest.”
Meg stood up and waved at the dissipated old curmudgeon in the doorway. Several rowdy customers greeted him, and Pinch scowled back with feigned annoyance. He shuffled towards the table and lightly kissed Meg on the cheek.
Shaxper could hardly believe that the wretched man had once been a popular jester.
“It’s about time you arrived, my love,” Meg chided. “I was beginning to think you’d left me.”
“Nonsense, sweeting, whither would I go? And who have we here? One of your many admirers, I suppose.”
“Pinch, this is Mister William Shaxper, come all the way from London to see you. He wants to be an actor.”
“Accept my condolences, sirrah,” Pinch sneered. “I’d rather express them to you now, instead of to the audience, later.”
“Say what you will, sir,” Shaxper chuckled, politely, “but my feet are set upon the stage.”
“Well, don’t set your heart upon it,” Pinch grumbled. “I did that once, and look at me.”
“Mister Shaxper sought you out so he can learn comedy from a master,” Meg said. “It’ll do both of you good to let him apprentice his ears to you for a while. I’ll go tend to our customers and have one of the girls fetch you some ale.” Before Pinch could object, Meg kissed him on the cheek and toddled towards the bar.
Now that he was alone with Shaxper, the fool’s suspicion was palpable.
“You can drop all that rubbish about learning comedy from a master,” Pinch growled, as he drank his ale. “That’s not the real reason you came to Hedingham, is it?”
“You’ve been asking a lot of questions in the village. I’ve got big ears, and it’s easy to catch my neighbors in the act of gossip. I’m sure they’ve told you that the Earl of Oxford and I haven’t spoken in years, not since his wedding to Lord Burghley’s daughter.”
“You knew him as boy –“
“Has Meg been gossiping, too? She should leave the past where it is, dead and buried.”
“I’m willing to pay you for what you know,” Shaxper said, sliding a few coins across the table.
“Oh, I see - planning a bit of mayhem against Lord Oxford, are you? Well, your money’s no good here. Edward and I may be estranged, but I wish him no harm. Surely Meg told you that.”
“She did . . . and she also said you encouraged his acting.”
“Until his debauched mother drove us apart and sent him to live under Lord Burghley’s strict governance. My heart has never mended over Edward’s tragic departure. It was nearly the death of me.”
Shaxper wondered if that had caused the jester’s suicide attempt. Instead, he said, “The young earl was lucky to have lived with such a brilliant and powerful man as Lord Burghley.”
“Is that what you think?” Pinch glared. “Well, you’re right - Lord Burghley has unlimited power. That self-aggrandizing opportunist shifted political alliances every time the wind changed. He supported each one of King Henry VIII’s children, whichever one looked to be the next monarch. First, he supported the boy King Edward VI, and then his Catholic sister Mary and finally, our Protestant Elizabeth. It didn’t matter, as long as the situation yielded him advancement.”
“I intend to rise from the common ranks as Burghley did,” Shaxper said.
“What, by becoming an actor? Ha! If you believe that, you’re more fool than I am.”
“Did she? Well, never mind what she says. The poor woman’s illiterate. She seems wise, but her seams unravel quickly.”
Pinch signaled for another ale. When it arrived, he took a long drink, set his tankard down and stared into it, his face a portrait of self-pity. Shaxper felt he could almost see his tongue loosening.
“Some people don’t recognize treachery when they see it,” the old jester said. “Lord John was a fool in that respect, and perhaps a greater fool than I ever was.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Lord John should have worn the cuckold’s horns from the moment he let Charles Tyrell into his household,” Pinch said, his memories unraveling. “He arrived one day like a Greek bearing gifts. The Queen required her gentleman pensioners to be handsome, and Tyrell was no exception. Lady Margery soon fell under his spell and the two became lovers while Lord John was at Court. But there was more to it than adultery, more to it than simply alienating the affections of a husband and his wife.”
Shaxper’s heart beat wildly.
“History is full of kings and noblemen who murder to usurp a fortune,” Pinch said. “And poison is that monstrously convenient plague that breaks out among the nobility from time to time. Surely you recognize the name Tyrell from our country’s history as belonging to two different cold-blooded assassins. I know for a fact that Lord John was in good health when he left to attend the Queen, but when he came home, he was dead within a week. As I see it, there was only one cause for such a rapid decline. Lord John had been poisoned.”
“Poisoned!” Shaxper gasped. “And you still believe it, after all these years?” He searched the jester’s face. “Yes, indeed. I can tell by your eyes that you do.”
“Edward believed it, too. Imagine the dark thoughts that crossed his mind when one month after his father’s funeral, his mother married the suspected assassin. The entire village was stunned when food from the funeral was served at the wedding feast. Edward was packed off to London, and Lady Margery dismissed the players, saying we had destroyed the dignity of her household – as if she ever had any dignity, making the beast with two backs with her husband’s murderer! My heart broke when she refused to let me accompany Edward to London. Perhaps our lives would have been different if I had gone, for Edward was a vulnerable orphan at 12 who suddenly became Earl of Oxford.”
“But as his guardian, it’s well known that Lord Burghley gave him a fine education.”
“Ah, Lord Burghley made that known. But when Lord John was alive, he also provided his son with the finest tutors in England. Edward was raised in the noble traditions of chivalry and honor. He was not yet five years-old when he rode to the home of Sir Thomas Smith to begin his studies. Did you know that three of his uncles were poets and literary men?”
“I know that one was Arthur Golding, who translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin into English,” Shaxper said.
“You’ve read it then?”
“Yes, enough to know there are no Christian virtues in it.”
“It’s not exactly the Calvinist text one would expect from a Puritan like Golding, is it?”
“That’s because Golding didn’t translate it – Edward did,” Pinch said, his inebriated voice dripping with pride. “It took Edward several years to translate fifteen volumes of Latin ribaldry into rhyming couplets of English hexameter, but he did it. Golding admired the quality and Edward wanted to publish it, but Lady Margery insisted that her half-brother, as uncle-tutor, put his name on it to protect the dignity of her household, or some such nonsense. I always thought it was a shame that Edward hadn’t been born a commoner. He would have been a brilliant jester, if men of rank weren’t required to be so serious. Some of ‘em would rather kill you than endure a well-deserved mocking.”
“You said his other uncles were also literary men. Who were they?”
“The Earl of Surrey refined the sonnet form and wrote poetry that was published ten years after his death. And Sheffield was a poet, although none of his work has survived, most likely because it was never published. Both of these men died before Edward was born, but their private papers had a great influence on him. He took his degrees at Cambridge and Gray’s Inn, did you know that? Edward is fluent in six languages.”
“Oh, that’s as many tongues as the Queen has.”
“What do you mean by that, sirrah?”
“In terms of language, of course,” Shaxper said. “What else could it mean?”
“I thought you had a double meaning,” Pinch said, in an intoxicated whisper. “Everything has a double meaning. Edward told me so himself the night before his wedding, when he was drunk and railed whirling words about his affair with the Queen, who had arranged his match with Burghley’s daughter so they could continue their torrid affair in the royal bedchamber. But as far as I know, their passions faded quickly. I lost touch with Edward after the wedding, but by all accounts his marriage to Burghley’s daughter was a disaster. Still, the old man profited by it. He arranged it that way.”
“I don’t believe it,” Shaxper said. “You’ve had too much to drink.”
“That’s your opinion, sirrah. Take what you think is the truth, or leave your doubt where it lies, I don’t care,” the jester said, his face darkening. “Revenge, aye - now there’s the root of an engaging drama. It wasn’t just Lord Burghley stealing the orphaned earl’s money and titles. Edward’s own half-sister sued to have him declared a bastard, saying that Lord John and Lady Margery were never married. Edward stood to lose everything: his titles, his income, his good name. I remember, he wrote about his grief. It seemed like the end of the world, but the Queen protected him and the suit was dismissed. And when Edward accidentally killed a man during a fencing match, the coroner ruled it self-defense. Someone always protects the Earl of Oxford. He’s fortunate that way, unlike the rest of us.”
“I see,” Shaxper said, making a mental note about the special treatment accorded men of rank and privilege. “I hope to join his acting company in London.”
“Well, let me give you fair warning, sirrah. The Earl of Oxford has no patience for frauds and flatterers. He has great contempt for dissemblers. Remember that, if you hope to stay on his good side.”
“I’ll do my best. Thank you for the warning.”
“I think you’ve gotten what you came for,” Pinch said, squinting at Shaxper. “But I’ll wager none of it was funny. Edward and I may be estranged, but that’s how it is and it doesn’t bother me, as long as you don’t do him any harm.”
“No harm intended,” Shaxper said, holding up both hands as if to block danger itself.
Pinch rose unsteadily, nodded a gruff goodnight and meandered towards the bar.
Shaxper briskly rubbed his palms together, wondering why the room had suddenly gone cold.
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