The Scene: London
Several months later, October 19, 1584
“By indirections find directions out.”
When his mother casually revealed that her family was distantly related to the Earls of Oxford, William stared at her in disbelief.
She’d never spoken of it before, and never had cause to mention it, but his incessant chattering about the players must have raised the association in her mind. William was thrilled to discover that his Arden family tree bore a fruitful connection to Elizabeth Trussel, wife of the 15th Earl of Oxford, and thus Lord Oxford’s grandmother. Certainly, that would improve his chances of having his apology accepted in light of the frightening turn of events inside the tent. All he had to do now was declare his kinship, impress His Lordship with his unrivaled talent and his fortune would be insured, thanks to the unbounded blessing his mother had bestowed on him with a few casual words.
William wrote a letter to his old schoolmate, Richard Field. Originally apprenticed to the London printer George Bishop, Richard now worked for Thomas Vautrollier, one of the city’s finest publishers. His life had vastly improved since leaving Stratford, and William hoped some of that success would rub off on him. The next day he said a hasty farewell to his wife Anne and promised to return home as soon as possible. He rode to London in the hope of finding a job in Vautrollier’s shop at the sign of the white greyhound near St. Paul’s.
Clad in a former employer’s doublet, Shaxper walked down cobblestone streets until he found the proprietor’s shingle. He smiled, pushed open the weathered door and stepped inside. The bell above jingled a courteous welcome.
The shop was filled with morning sunlight. In one corner, pens, paper and parchment were wrapped and ready for sale and the smell of ink permeated the room. Books published by Vautrollier lined some tall shelves along one wall and a few scattered benches encouraged customers to sit and browse. Only the wealthy had the time and money to afford such luxuries. While he envisioned a glowing future for himself, at present William only had enough money to pay for his lodgings, unless Richard felt inclined to be generous.
He wandered to the back of the shop and peeked through the doorway. At the printing press he saw Richard receiving some instructions from a man, apparently his employer.
“There are too many errors on the last few pages, Richard,” he said. “You must always insist on perfection from the compositors. Each man must be accountable for his work. If we fail to be accurate, we must do the job again and that becomes far too costly. Comprenez-vous?”
“Yes, Monsieur Vautrollier, I understand.”
William heard the floorboards creak behind him. He turned to see a petite, businesslike woman offering him a welcoming smile.
“Good day, sir. May I help you find a particular book today?”
“N-no, I-I’m not here to buy a book,” he stammered. “My name is William Shaxper and I’ve come to see my friend, Richard Field.”
“Ah yes, Richard told us all about you,” she said. “Your friend is a very hard worker.”
“He always worked hard, especially in school. But as for myself, I cannot say the same.”
“I’m sure you’re being modest, sir. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Jacqueline Vautrollier, proprietor of this shop.”
“You own this shop?”
“My husband and I are partners in marriage and in business. Why do you look so surprised?” she laughed. “I’m sure there are marriages in Stratford.”
“Yes, but no publishing partnerships. Most of Stratford’s women are housewives.”
“Most of London’s female publishers are widows, which is a fate we all hope to avoid since we are married to our work. Oh, but it’s time for Monsieur’s medicine. Richard!” she called. “Your friend from Stratford is here. Come and visit while Monsieur and I take our herbs.”
When the couple had gone, the two sworn brothers from the country school in Stratford greeted each other with friendly fisticuffs.
“Why, Willy Nilly!” Richard shouted. “I can’t believe you’re finally here!”
“I haven’t heard that nickname in years, Dickie.”
“But look at you. Where in God’s name did you get that doublet?”
“I stole it from a corpse.”
“God’s blood, you didn’t!”
“Well, that’s partly true. Mister Houghton left it to me in his will.”
“Alexander Houghton of Lea Hall, the man who hired us to sing?”
“The same. He stipulated that I make good use of it. Well, what do you think? Have I followed his wishes?”
“He certainly left you well suited,” Richard quipped. “Remember that secret maze of tunnels under his house and how we celebrated Mass underground? We were so young and foolhardy, toying with the authorities who would have arrested us in the middle of our prayers.”
“How true,” William sighed. “It seems like another lifetime. But since then, I’ve made some exciting new plans.”
“I know. I’ve been fascinated by your letters. Why the sudden change in your career? Will you be moving Anne and the family to London?”
“Not exactly. I’ll explain everything in a moment. But I can see you’ve been secretive, too. Your letters rambled on about your success, but you never mentioned anything about the beautiful Jacqueline Vautrollier.”
“She’s a good wife. She takes excellent care of my master. He hasn’t been well lately, but his condition is improving.”
“It sounded serious in your letters. Maybe you’ll get lucky and he’ll die and you can take over the shop.”
“Quiet, Willy, she’ll hear you. Show some respect. She’s my master’s wife, for God’s sake.”
“She told me herself that she’s married to the printing business. You may not have noticed, but I saw the way she smiled at you.”
“She’s grateful, that’s all,” Richard replied. “She has depended on me to run the shop during Monsieur’s illness. They have been very good to me over the years.”
“But you never know. It may only be a matter of time before you’re left to comfort the grieving widow – and this is a very profitable business.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, still the same vulgar mind,” Richard said, shaking his head.
“What you call ‘vulgar’ I call practical. Money is everything, especially when you don’t have it. Or have you forgotten our impecunious childhoods?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything.”
“Good. Then you’ve spoken to Vautrollier about a job for me.”
“Not in those exact words, but I have spoken about you . . .”
“Well, does he have a position for me or not?”
Richard rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at the floor. “The proper time to ask him hasn’t presented itself yet.”
“The proper time? I told you, Dickie, I’m moving to London and I need to find work.”
“I’m well aware of that. Your letters suggest that you think this shop will give you access to the Earl of Oxford. Even if you do manage to get his attention, you’re too unpolished to be employed by such a man, unless you want a job holding horses outside his playhouse.”
“All I asked was that you help me.”
“I don’t think Monsieur Vautrollier’s shop is the right place for you.”
“You don’t think –”
“You give the appearance of an upstart crow: plenty of squawk and no song.”
William felt the deadly sting of Richard’s words.
“I thought we were friends, Dickie. Thanks for nothing.”
He turned to go. Richard grabbed his arm.
“Listen, Willy, even if you go now, you won’t get far with that attitude. “Take a look at yourself in the mirror over there and tell me what you see.”
“I see a prosperous gentleman in a silk doublet,” he replied.
“Nonsense. You’re a straw man in a stuffed shirt. If you want to succeed among London’s nobility, you must walk, talk and act with a measure of dignity. You must educate yourself in all aspects of their society or no one will ever respect you.”
“What’s wrong with the way I talk?”
“You talk like a country bumpkin. And you’re about as tactful as that dunghill your father shoveled too close to the neighbors.”
“Oh, that,” William said. “That’s why I came here, Dickie, for you to tell me these things and give me your best advice. You’ve always known the right thing to do, even when we were children. It was like magic.”
“I’m not a magician, and I haven’t got the power to turn a horse’s ass into a golden fleece.”
“Listen, I need your help, that’s all. I can’t afford to starve to death while I’m unfolding my plans with Lord Oxford. At least introduce me to Vautrollier. I promise I won’t make any lewd remarks about his wife.”
“I don’t know if I can trust you . . . ”
“Richard, where are your manners? Aren’t you going to present your boyhood friend to me?”
Leaning on a walking stick, Monsieur Vautrollier made his way into the room. Caught off guard, Richard quickly fetched him a chair and made the introductions.
“What a delightful shop you have, Monsieur,” William Shaxper said, in a suddenly cultivated tone that startled Richard. “I see you have books by Lord Burghley and Arthur Golding on your shelves. And that volume of Ovid is a masterpiece.”
“Merci,” Vautrollier said. “I’m proud to say we published them all. I’ve always tried to impress on Richard that printing is an art, and I believe he has come to espouse the idea – oh, I almost forgot, speaking of spouses, Jacqueline needs your help at the press. Go and attend to things, Richard, while I take your friend on a tour of our shop.”
“I will, Monsieur, but are you certain? Perhaps you should rest.”
“How can I rest when there is so much to be done?” Vautrollier coughed. “I will show your friend around the shop and prove that I still have ink pulsing through my veins. Go, go, allez, allez. Jacqueline needs you. Run along and be useful.”
William winked at Richard as he left the room.
“With these delightful books to your credit, Monsieur,” he said, in his most charming voice, “I wonder if you’ve ever met the Earl of Oxford. He’s kin to the very authors you display here.”
“Mais oui. In fact, the Earl of Oxford is my best customer. He comes into the shop often. There are so many stories I could tell you about our friendship over the years.”
“Oh, please, Monsieur, tell me one. I would so like to hear it.”
William saw that flattery would sway the Frenchman to his desires.
“Vraiment? Truly?” Vautrollier’s eyes glowed as he summoned the memory. “It was the most astonishing day I’ve ever had in this shop. The Earl of Oxford rushed in, having heard that I’d acquired a rare Italian manuscript. He had just completed his official duties as Lord Great Chamberlain at some royal ceremony – but I don’t recall which one – and he sat in his finery at this very table, browsing through the manuscript as if he had no greater demands on his time. The Queen’s men came to collect the Sword of State, which he had set down here as if it were a mere trifle. They couldn’t pry him away from the folio, not even to attend to the Queen. He said he preferred the company of books and paid me to keep the shop open after hours. He was more than generous in doing so, I must say.”
William ran his hands along the table as if it had magical powers to bestow.
“Lord Oxford is famous for his literary work. He is the glass of fashion, a champion of the tilt-yard, a true celebrity . . . and a celebrity customer is good for business,” Vautrollier concluded.
“But he openly supports the playhouses,” William whispered.
“Yes. I myself have warned him that there is no dignity in it, and I pray that his passion for the theater will not be the cause of his undoing. At the same time, he is an illustrious man, a scholar and a poet who has translated books into various languages. He supports a number of other literary men in the publication of their work. For example, if you read Latin, you might enjoy Bartholomew Clerke’s translation of The Courtier with its superb preface by the Earl of Oxford. No nobleman has ever written a tribute like it. The book instructs young men on the proper etiquette at the royal court.”
“Then I’m sure it will instruct me, too,” Will said, vowing to study it. “Most of all, I enjoy reading about England’s history.”
“Then you’ll want to read Hall’s Chronicles. It’s on the second shelf to the right.”
“I’m very familiar with Hall’s Chronicles, having read it at the home of a former employer.”
“It’s wonderful to see a young man interested in improving his mind. When do you find the time to read, having to work every day?”
“I haven’t worked in a while. I’ve just arrived in London and haven’t had time to seek employment yet.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“My father taught me the business of tanning leather,” he said, resorting to his practiced speech. “I was a glove maker and grain dealer in Stratford, and used to copy out legal documents for my father when he was alderman. I sang tenor for a former employer in Lancashire. I have a fine secretarial hand, or so I am told. I hope these skills will help me find work in London rather quickly.”
“I wonder why Richard said nothing about this,” Vautrollier mused. “He knows I need to hire men who can read, and they’re scarce in London.”
“Are you hiring, Monsieur?” Will asked, trying to conceal his excitement. “I would work my hands raw for you if I could be surrounded by these masterpieces.”
“I need a man with a sense of accuracy. The tasks of a compositor require strict attention to detail.”
“I’ve had experience copying out legal documents,” Will said, “and as a tanner I can dress your books in the most excellent covers.”
“Perhaps Richard has underestimated the skills of his boyhood friend.”
William decided to let the remark pass.
“Let me assure you that if you hire me, Monsieur, you’ll never be disappointed. I am an ardent bibliophile and would undertake my tasks here with great care and precision.”
“You speak well and make an excellent impression,” the printer concluded. “I believe you would be a credit to my shop, helping customers and serving as needed. You can start tomorrow, if you wish.”
“Thank you, Monsieur. That will give me the rest of the day to find a place to live.”
“Of course, you have no home in London yet. I can offer you an attic room, if you’d like. It’s small, but it will serve a single unmarried man. You have no family, n’est-ce pas?”
“None,” Will replied, picturing his awkward wife and unwanted children back in Stratford. “How kind of you,” he continued, “to offer me a home under your own roof. I am humbled by your kindness, Monsieur, and am honored to be working for London’s most respected publisher.”
Richard returned to find his employer and boyhood friend agreeing to terms.
William went to work as a compositor, setting type before it went to press. He spent his leisure time studying the inventory of books that belonged to his masters. Soon, thanks to his skillful diplomacy with the customers, business was brisk. Vautrollier was delighted that his new hire shared his goals for the shop.
But William Shaxper also had goals of his own. He studied The Courtier and took copious notes on the etiquette Richard had found lacking in him. He read about the virtues of the Italian Renaissance. He practiced bowing in the mirror, hoping that eventually he would develop the grace he needed to win his way into Lord Oxford’s employ. Richard laughed and said he looked pretentious.
During his off-hours, he pored over Euphues and His England, written by John Lyly and dedicated to Lord Oxford. In it he found a guiding principle: Be humble to thy superiors, gentle to thy equals, favorable to thy inferiors, envy not thy betters, jostle not thy fellows, and oppress not the poor. Thinking about those words, he could understand for the first time some of Richard’s criticism of him.
William continued to harvest information from the books in Vautrollier’s shop. After a great deal of research, he could diagram the de Vere ancestral history from memory. He began with the marriage of William the Conqueror to the sister of Alberic de Vere, whose grandson became the first Earl of Oxford. The Second Earl built Hedingham Castle in Essex, and the Third Earl was one of the rebellious barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Family fortunes ebbed and flowed throughout British history, as various Earls of Oxford fought in the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt and Bosworth. At the height of their power, de Vere family landholdings sprawled across ten counties.
King Richard II had named the Ninth Earl of Oxford Duke of Ireland. It was sadly ironic that this same earl had survived a daring dive on horseback into the Thames to escape an enemy, only to be gored to death by a wild boar on the grounds of his own estate.
The Thirteenth Earl had helped Henry Tudor become King Henry VII. The ungrateful king later fined his benefactor for having too many followers, and the family fortunes sharply declined once again. Orphaned at an early age, the Fourteenth Earl served King Henry VIII; but when he died young and childless, the title passed to his uncle’s family. His cousin John de Vere became the Fifteenth Earl of Oxford and was given the honor of carrying the crown at Anne Boleyn’s coronation. He married Elizabeth Trussel, Shaxper’s shadowy kinswoman from the Arden family. Their son, also named John, became the Sixteenth Earl. His only son was Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford: courtier, poet, scholar and theatrical impresario, as well as William Shaxper’s newly discovered kinsman.
Of all the books Vautrollier recommended, William found Cardanus’ Comforte the most compelling. Its translator, Thomas Bedingfield, had written a self-effacing letter to the Earl in the book, thanking him for his support. William nearly fell off his chair when he read Lord Oxford’s response, declaring that he had sponsored publication as an “eternal monument” to Bedingfield. This was unheard of, endowing a literary monument to a man of modest means simply because he had translated an antique book into English.
By now, William concluded that Lord Oxford liked rewarding his friends. Literary immortality was only one of the generous gifts he could bestow upon his followers. William’s heart pounded as he read the concluding lines of Lord Oxford’s dedication:
For when all things else forsake us, Virtue will ever abide with us; and when our bodies fall into the bowels of the earth, it shall mount with our minds into the highest Heavens. – E. Oxenforde
William shivered at the prospect of his own immortality. Surely Lord Oxford, so eager to give everlasting fame to Bedingfield, might also give some to him. When he became Lord Oxford’s most obedient and trusted servant, William knew that there would be no limit to the rewards of fame and fortune that would come his way.
Turning to other books, he skimmed over the dedications to Lord Oxford in Calvin’s Version of the Psalms of David by Arthur Golding, and John Brooke’s The Staff of Christian Faith. Both praised the Earl of Oxford’s scholarly achievements, but Golding’s words reflected the concern of an uncle hoping to discourage his nephew’s mischievous leanings. William wondered if Golding had been privy to his nephew’s theatrical inclinations. These would have seemed blasphemous to a rigid Puritan like Golding, if he’d ever suspected that his nephew had not only written The Famous Victories, but also had the unmitigated gall to disguise himself and act in it.
After a few months, London’s fickle weather took its toll on Vautrollier’s health. When his physician suggested that certain flower remedies might prove helpful, Jacqueline bundled up her husband and asked Richard to accompany them to France. In their absence, William managed the shop.
When they returned home, it became clear that “business as usual” was a thing of the past. Jacqueline and Richard discussed the accounts and concluded that the shop would temporarily close to save money needed to pay the doctor’s fee. No new work was taken in and William and three others were dismissed.
Far from upset, William viewed his dismissal as fortuitous. After sending money home to his wife, he had set aside enough for himself to live for a while. The time had come for him to speak with members of Lord Oxford’s inner circle, those who knew best the private side of the public man.
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