The London Estate of
William Cecil, Lord Burghley
June 17, 1586
“Thou art a robber, a law-breaker, a villain!”
William Cecil’s shrewd insight sent him streaking like a prescient comet across England’s political firmament. Once a descendant of common innkeepers, his elevation to the title Lord Burghley bestowed on him the rewards of sitting at the Queen’s right hand.
His meticulously well-barbed beard lent him a saintly appearance, while his Machiavellian instinct for switching allegiances allowed him, like an actor, to play many parts. As a young man inflamed by a restless passion for advancement, he abandoned his working-class roots and pushed his way into the halls of power by making himself useful to an assortment of noblemen.
From the beginning, Cecil chose his friends well. He insinuated himself among them at the right time, and by studying their ways, recognized their ambitions. As the Queen’s chief advisor, he wisely made it his primary imperative to protect England’s royal succession from the vast number of claims made by the spawn of their politically incestuous marriages.
Early in his career, he had supported the boy-king Edward, who had inherited the throne at the death of his father, King Henry VIII. When the youth died (some said, suspiciously, by poison), Cecil avoided any connection with the ill-fated choice of Lady Jane Grey as royal successor, despite serving as her father-in-law’s secretary. When the Third Act of Succession determined that Henry’s children would rule, Cecil quickly allied himself with Henry’s Catholic daughter Mary, wife of Philip II of Spain. Later, even as Mary lay dying from a cancer that she had falsely hoped was a pregnancy, Cecil jockeyed into power by supporting Elizabeth Tudor, Henry’s second daughter, securing her Protestant reign as England’s Virgin Queen.
Cecil’s chameleon-like diplomatic skills afforded him a number of opportunities. He was also proud to have been appointed Keeper of the Royal Wards, a lucrative position that granted him guardianship over England’s orphaned young noblemen. One of his wards eventually became his son-in-law, and because of that, Cecil was granted the title of Lord Burghley. His fortuitous elevation had been an absolute necessity, required for his daughter’s marriage to the high-ranking 17th Earl of Oxford. Clever maneuvering on Cecil’s part had invalidated the 1562 match contracted between the boy’s deceased father and The Earl of Huntingdon, who had promised his sister Mary to the youth in marriage.
Cecil had managed it by reminding the Queen that Oxford’s ancient Plantagenet, Lancaster and York lineages threatened her Tudor regime. Any children born from such a powerful union could easily challenge the three generation-old Tudor claim, especially when the Pope had proclaimed Elizabeth Tudor, the spawn of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII, as a bastard.
Horrified by Cecil’s solemn warning, Her Majesty immediately nullified the match and nine years later proffered a marriage between Burghley’s 15 year-old daughter and the 21 year-old Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. What a scoundrel Oxford had been – railing that he and his titles had been bartered away like the spoils of war! Burghley was astonished when Oxford fled to France to avoid the wedding, insisting that he would marry no one but the Queen, leaving Anne in tears at the altar. As a father, he smirked at the memory of his son-in-law being brought back to England in chains and forced to marry as Her Majesty commanded.
Despite this public embarrassment, Burghley had never imagined such an illustrious match for his daughter. He had often written about the hazards of marrying young girls off too early; but he took the current when it served, even though it meant that the Queen and Oxford could continue their impetuous love affair without Anne’s knowing – a sop to Cerberus meant to assuage some of Oxford’s fury. It was not without a peculiar sense of revenge that Burghley saw to it that Anne married Oxford at the same ceremony in which Huntingdon’s sister was given to the Earl of Somerset. Thus the misbegotten match long ago conceived by Oxford’s dead father had been cunningly aborted.
At daily prayers, Burghley assured both himself and God that he always acted with a father’s best interests at heart. After all, a cowardly father never would have read his son-in-law’s Last Will and Testament before Oxford’s fateful trip to Italy. A powerless father never would have known that his son-in-law had bequeathed his estates – if he died without a son – leaving nothing to his wife, Anne, but only to his cousin, Horatio. A spineless father never would have intervened as he had done, especially with travel so fraught with danger and his daughter so ill and bereft at home. Back then, he had shuddered to think that Oxford, so experienced in creating theatrical illusions, might stage his own disappearance, remain in Italy, and enjoy the unabridged life of a libertine.
Burghley had recently concluded that the only way to control his obstreperous son-in-law was to control the young man’s money. Days ago, he had sued in the Court of Wards to receive unpaid marriage fees and declare Oxford mentally incompetent to handle his own finances.
Sitting back to enjoy his customary glass of port, Burghley heard his son-in-law rampaging towards his library. A moment later, Oxford burst into the room.
“Infinite liar! Flesh-mongering swindler! What do you mean by humiliating me?”
“Good evening, my son,” Burghley said calmly. “What’s the matter?”
“Don’t call me ‘son’! I’d sooner have piss in my veins than an ounce of your despicable blood. You know very well what I’m talking about – you, suing in the Court of Wards to declare me incompetent. It’s a diabolical lie, swearing an oath that I cannot manage my own income. Why, you’re the very person who picked my pockets from the moment I entered your household. But I warn you, sir, don’t cross swords with me. I’m not your cherubic little ward anymore.”
“I’d hardly call you cherubic, Edward, not when you destroy an otherwise peaceable evening.”
“You treacherous old serpent, how dare you spout your venom in my ears? I’m thirty six years old and you have no right to keep my inheritance from me. You’re not my guardian anymore.”
“You brought this action on yourself,” Burghley said icily. “For fifteen years I’ve waited for you to pay the marriage fees for my daughter Anne and I’ve received nothing for the privilege.”
“Do you expect me to pay for the privilege of being cuckolded?” Oxford roared.
“This isn’t about my daughter or your wild accusations against her. It’s about you being a spendthrift. How can I help you when you persist in selling off your estates just to present some silly plays for the Queen? It’s absurd. You’ll lose everything if I don’t put a stop to it.”
“The Queen adores my plays. She prizes them above everything.”
“Do you think she prizes you above the other courtiers because of your scribbling? Not a whit! You’ve fallen out of favor with Her Majesty. I’ve tried to help you find your way back into her good graces, but you won’t take my advice.”
“Your advice is cow dung, and you can wipe your ass with your legal papers,” Oxford sneered. “But fear not, old man, I have some other papers to rub your nose in.”
“What papers?” Lord Burghley asked, his face twitching as he leaned forward.
“I’ve written another play,” Oxford grinned, removing the pages from his doublet. “It’s based on a book my brother-in-law brought me when he returned from Denmark. I’ve made some alterations to it for dramatic purposes. Listen.”
“I most certainly will not,” Burghley said, rising from his chair.
“Then perhaps you’d prefer to see it. Shall I stage it at a public playhouse or present it privately before the Queen?”
Burghley reached for the papers. Oxford snatched them away.
“On second thought, don’t read it. That would only spoil the surprise.”
“God’s blood, what surprise? Edward, what have you done?”
“What I’ve left undone is more to the point,” Oxford said, as he shuffled the papers. “Let me see. We’re into the second act, right before the entrance of the players at Elsinore when Hamlet says –”
“No, that’s not the line. Let me prompt you and reveal the characters with my voice. Hamlet speaks first and says, ‘Oh Jephthah, Judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!’ And then in the creaking voice of an old man, you say, ‘What a treasure had he, my lord?’ and Hamlet says, ‘Why, one fair daughter and no more, the which he loved passing well. Am I not in the right, old Jephthah?’ Then you say, ‘If you call me Jephthah, my Lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.’ Then Hamlet says, ‘Nay, that follows not,’ and you say, ‘What follows then, my Lord?’ and Hamlet says, ‘Why, as by lot God wot. And then you know, it came to pass, as most like it was.’ You’re familiar with the old song from church, so you know how it goes.”
“Are you implying that my daughter’s ravings are true?”
“Bravo, Lord Fishmonger, I can see that my words have hit their mark. You didn’t think I’d ever learn about it, did you?” Oxford whispered, “but even a madwoman can speak the truth.”
“Edward, you’re wrong to take Anne’s delusions to heart,” Burghley said, as he steadied himself by placing both hands on the table. “The doctors say her ravings are caused by unhealthy humors. And as far as your income is concerned, my control over it has been an act of kindness. You simply cannot go on squandering your money on plays and players.”
“But it’s my money and I can spend it as I please!”
“Not if the Court of Wards determines otherwise.”
“You preside over that court, you sanctimonious embezzler – you, who are unfit to live even on the molten outskirts of Hell! I’ll teach you to toy with me! Consider this an act of kindness!”
Oxford plunged his dagger into the table between the middle and index fingers of Burghley’s right hand. The old man flinched and nearly fainted. Seconds later, he opened his eyes and found that the blade had missed him by a hair’s breadth.
The Earl of Oxford was gone.
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